Arsenal’s regulation victory over Crystal Palace may be notable as the scene for Olivier Giroud’s sensational opening goal, but when the sense of amazement has subsided, Arsene Wenger and supporters will reflect on a home win that keeps Arsenal in the top three, and just about in touch with leaders Chelsea.
The cliche is that a Premier League title race is a marathon rather than a sprint, but 2016/17 is turning that on its head. This season, the best teams in the league are being forced to last marathon distance at a sprinter’s pace.
In any other season, Tottenham’s two league defeats by January would be exceptional. So too would Manchester United’s ten league games without defeat, Liverpool’s one defeat in 17 league games, Manchester City’s six straight wins to open a season and Arsenal’s six straight wins after that. Yet Antonio Conte’s achievements at Chelsea have changed the rules. Only one team in Premier League history have matched this run.
Spurred on by the mistakes of last season, when Leicester were allowed to saunter their way past the established elite and win the title by ten points, the Premier League’s richest clubs have each vowed never to be made to look so stupid again. Managers have been recruited, expensive players signed and squads fortified with even greater strength in depth. The initial broadcasting revenue rise allowed for the chasing pack to bridge the gap with higher transfer budgets than ever before, but it only took a season for the richest clubs to catch on.
Mezut Ozil ill? Bring in Olivier Giroud. Sergio Aguero suspended? A front four of Raheem Sterling, Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva and Nolito will have to do. Wayne Rooney injured? The manager has to pick a forward line from Anthony Martial, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Juan Mata, Marcus Rashford and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The direct result of that strengthening is a top six that has already cut the rest of the Premier League adrift by January. After Sunday’s matches, the current top six teams have played 85 matches against those in seventh and lower. The results of those matches are as follows: Won 64, Drawn 16, Lost 5.
Arsene Wenger, Jurgen Klopp and Jose Mourinho all express their dismay at the scheduling of festive fixtures (and have a point when you look at Chelsea’s gentle programme), but in general the schedule only favours the teams with the strongest squads and deepest reserves. Since Christmas alone those top six vs the rest scores read: 3-1, 4-1, 4-1, 1-0, 3-0, 3-0, 4-1, 4-2, 2-1, 2-0. Nine straight victories, with 30 goals scored and seven conceded.
This season is on course to break records for the points total required to lift the league title and make the top four. Last season, Leicester won the league by ten points with a total of 81. If this season continues on its current trajectory, 78 points would only be enough to get you fifth position. Bookmakers are offering odds of 7/1 on Chelsea beating their 2004/05 total of 95 points. Fourth place that season (Everton) managed only 61.
Comparisons with Europe’s other major leagues hammer home the contrast. Fifteen clubs in Europe’s top five leagues have taken points at a rate of over two per game. The Premier League can boast five of those 15.
While Mourinho’s critics may see missing out on the Champions League as a disaster and Tottenham supporters view fifth place as regression, the simple maths is that six into four doesn’t go. All six clubs may achieve higher points totals than last season. In Tottenham’s case, they could feasibly achieve their highest ever total in the Premier League era and yet be left with Europa League football as the prize. It’s hardly the cash jackpot, speedboat and round-the-world cruise.
That has an effect at the bottom of the table too; by current totals, 29 points would be enough to finish above Sunderland and survive. Burnley are demonstrating that a team can be hideously awful away from home and yet still be comfortable in mid-table. Again that doesn’t have to be taken as criticism, merely observation.
The positive spin is that every game against a non-top six side is must-win, with no wiggle room for underperformance. The media is often guilty of hyperbole in selling one league defeat as disaster, but in 2016/17 there is no melodrama. That is why Arsenal’s defeat at Everton and Manchester City’s at Leicester prompted such criticism. There is no comfort zone.
The negative spin is that an increasing proportion of Premier League matches have become predictable. Moments (such as Giroud’s) still hold the power to wow, but the results rarely do. The Premier League is both highly competitive, in that any one of six teams could feasibly finish in the top one or two places, and highly uncompetitive, in that seventh is closer both in points and quality to 16th than sixth.
Another result is that matches between top-six clubs become cagey and cautious, given what is at stake in this mini-league. Wenger was perhaps slightly too negative when he used the word “negative” ten times in describing this season, but there is truth in his words.
Smaller teams try not to lose and fail, bigger teams try not to lose against each other and one succeeds. The last seven games between top-six teams have produced only 15 goals. Liverpool’s 1-0 victory over Manchester City was an indication that this caginess is unlikely to drop as the margins for error decrease even further.
Leicester City’s Premier League victory was heralded as evidence that anything can happen in football; the response from the financially-bloated elite is to ensure that it can never happen again. Never before have we seen such consistency from multiple teams. Never before have so many clubs peaked at the same time. 2015/16 was heralded as a freak season; in a very different way, 2016/17 could be exceptional too.