The home straight: Questions for the Premier League’s top six

Date published: Friday 30th March 2018 8:45

Manchester City

When do they win it?
With 24 points to play for and a 16-point gap to second-placed Manchester United to cherish, it is a matter of time before Manchester City win their third Premier League title in seven seasons. Pep Guardiola’s side travel to Goodison Park to face Everton on Saturday, and if they can at least match United’s result at home to Swansea earlier in the day, they will have the opportunity to claim the crown in their next game. Sealing the title by beating United at the Etihad Stadium wouldn’t even be the best way City have done it, but it would be sweet nonetheless.

How many Premier League records can they break?
From their remaining eight games, City can still break or match the following records:

Most points – Chelsea, 2004/05, 95 (currently 81)
Most wins – Chelsea, 2017/18, 30 (currently 26)
Most home wins – Three times, 18 (currently 14)
Most away wins – Chelsea, 2004/05, 15 (currently 12)
Biggest title-winning margin – Manchester United, 1999/2000, 18 points (currently 16)
Most goals – Chelsea, 2009/10, 103 (currently 85)
Most away goals – Liverpool 2013/14, 48 (currently 34)
Best goal difference – Chelsea, 2009/10, 71 (currently 65)
Fewest home losses – 14 times, 0 (currently 0)
Fewest draws – Chelsea, 1997/97 and 2016/17, 3 (currently 2)
Earliest Premier League title win – Manchester United, 2000/01, April 14 (City face United on April 7)

Can they do it in Europe?
As easy as it has been for City to assume domestic dominance, many will insist it is replicated in Europe for this to be recognised as one of the great Premier League teams. As unfair as it seems, City would likely have been afforded more leeway in the Champions League had they not clinched the Premier League title in such emphatic fashion. But leading the table since mid-September means they have had six months to revise for their European tests, and exiting the competition before May is unthinkable for this group of players, particularly to a fellow English side. Matching their best-ever Champions League performance of reaching the semi-finals is a bare minimum.

 

Manchester United

Can they stall the procession?
When asked earlier this month whether the prospect of City sealing the title against United at the Etihad Stadium on April 7 was a motivation for him and his players, Guardiola stated that “it doesn’t matter”. One can imagine Jose Mourinho offering a similar answer if posed a similar question; you would doubt the veracity of that response too. “We will go for it this season. We are going to try to win the title,” the Portuguese said in August, adding that the competition for the Premier League title was “better than ever”. Handing your bitter rivals the trophy with a month to play hardly suggests as such. It would be a hollow victory, but United must at least try and delay their noisy neighbour’s party until they have been escorted off the premises.

Will any other player rise to Jose’s challenge?
The treatment of Luke Shaw
, and the subsequent backlash against it, has rather deflected from some of Mourinho’s recent comments. The left-back has undeniably taken the brunt of the Manchester United manager’s ire, but almost the entire squad was accused of a “lack of personality” and a “lack of desire” in the FA Cup victory over Brighton last weekend. Nemanja Matic, Romelu Lukaku and David de Gea have largely escaped censure; Mourinho will hope his particular dose of man-management will coax improved performances from others.

Can they keep the trophies coming?
Considering the last five managers to win the FA Cup are Roberto Mancini (sacked), Roberto di Matteo (sacked), Roberto Martinez (left after relegation), RobertoLouis van Gaal (sacked) and Arsene Wenger (somehow still not sacked), it would take a giant leap to suggest that lifting the trophy come May would significantly boost Mourinho’s standing at United. But it remains an important target for a club and a manager who take great pride in their respective trophy hauls. “We have set very high standards – winning three trophies in one season,” said the manager upon signing a new contract in January. “Those are the standards I expect my teams to aim for.” Going from sixth to second would be two steps forward, but going from two trophies to none would be two back.

 

Liverpool

Can Mohamed Salah make history?
As regular readers of Premier League winners and losers will know only too well, Mohamed Salah is on course to reach 35 Premier League goals this season at his current rate of scoring. That would be the highest-ever total in a single English top-flight season since 1966/67. He has already outscored 14 of the 22 top scorers in 38-game Premier League seasons, has already scored more league goals (28) than Wayne Rooney (27), Sergio Aguero (26), Ruud van Nistelrooy (25), Michael Owen (19) and Carlton Cole (10) managed in their best completed Premier League seasons, and is not slowing down any time soon. He needs seven goals in seven games to beat Alan Shearer and Andy Cole’s joint-record of 34 goals in a Premier League season, and Liverpool still have to face Bournemouth, Stoke and Brighton at home, as well as Crystal Palace, Everton and West Brom away.

Will Sadio Mane resist kicking Ederson in the face?
Or, to rephrase, can Liverpool prove that their September thrashing against City was the outlier, not the January victory? Each time Jurgen Klopp or one of his players have discussed their first of just four Premier League defeats this season, the words ‘red’ and ‘card’ have been pointedly used. The Reds were 1-0 down but trading blows with City before Mane’s sending-off at the Etihad Stadium six months ago; they succumbed to a 5-0 thrashing. The 4-3 win at the turn of the year suggests the Champions League quarter-final will be rather more closely contended.

Does Virgil van Dijk prove he is the difference?
The headline statistic is that Liverpool have kept six clean sheets in their last nine games. The accepted wisdom is that Virgil van Dijk has overseen that drastic improvement in fortunes. The truth is that while he has had an undoubted impact, two of those shut-outs were achieved with the partnership of Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip starting at the heart of the defence. But what is striking is that since Van Dijk joined, Liverpool have conceded just one goal from a set-piece – in the defeat to Swansea. A couple more months of assured defending will persuade us that those once-perennial concerns are finally over.

 

Tottenham

Can they cope without Harry Kane?
Since the 2014/15 season, Harry Kane has missed 13 Premier League games through injury. Tottenham have won five, drawn four, lost four, and scored as many goals as they have conceded (15) in that time. Spurs went unbeaten during the striker’s five-game injury absence in October 2016, peaking with the 2-0 home victory over Manchester City. But they scored just four goals in the other four games against Middlesbrough, West Brom, Bournemouth and Leicester. The north London side fared considerably better when Kane was sidelined with another ankle knock last April: Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Heung-min Son helped inspire victories over Southampton, Burnley and Swansea. Son, with seven goals in his last five games, has earned another opportunity to lead the line.

Will they end the wait for a trophy?
“People believe you win one trophy to give to the club a different status or put the club in a different level and that is not true. Win a trophy, it’s OK, to celebrate with the fans will be a great moment. This type of competition is about enjoying the process and about enjoying when you lift the trophy, but it’s not going to give a different level or status as winning the Premier League or the Champions League to put the club on a higher level.”

Mauricio Pochettino is right in that winning the FA Cup will not automatically elevate this group of players to, as he put it last week, “a higher level”. But the monkey on Tottenham’s back keeps threatening to leave even more banana skins in the vicinity, and the longer the club tries to ignore it, the heavier the burden becomes. The Premier League and Champions League are far greater, far more worthwhile targets, but beating Manchester United and Chelsea (or Southampton, bless them) to win a first trophy since 2008 would remove a giant question mark.

Is it Lucas Moura’s time?
Pochettino deserves great credit for using the FA Cup as an effective platform to integrate Lucas Moura into his Tottenham squad. The Brazilian has made two late substitute appearances in the league, but starts against Rochdale and Swansea have garnered one goal and three assists. Impressing against Premier League opposition – albeit on a different stage – at the weekend will surely have caught the manager’s eye. With Kane sidelined, could a reshuffle see the Brazilian introduced?

 

Chelsea

Should Antonio Conte trust Alvaro Morata?
The rollercoaster that has been Alvaro Morata’s Chelsea career climbed high with seven goals in his first seven games this season, but plunged at alarming speeds with five goals in his next 30 matches. Ending a 14-game drought against Leicester in the FA Cup offers light at the end of this particularly long tunnel for Morata, who has struggled with injuries, the death of a close friend earlier this year, and acclimatising to a new club, new country and new culture. Antonio Conte has also been at pains to point out that this is his first campaign as a regular for a Champions League club, and though he has started just five games in 2018, the numbers do add up. He has started 25 matches this campaign; the most he has ever started in a full season is 26 with Juventus in 2015/16.

Who establishes themselves alongside N’Golo Kante?
Since the start of 2018, Conte has used seven different central midfield partnerships in 18 games, ranging from Cesc Fabregas and Danny Drinkwater in a two to Fabregas and Drinkwater in a three with N’Golo Kante. Only two partnerships have been used more than twice: Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko (five times) and Kante and Fabregas (four times). Kante irrefutably solves the majority of the midfield jigsaw at Stamford Bridge, but even he needs a reliable wingman. Two months remain for the current candidates to stake their claim before an inevitable summer influx.

Can Chelsea do the unthinkable?
The gap to Tottenham is five points; the leap to Liverpool is seven with a game in hand. Chelsea still have to face both sides at home in their final eight games, and Burnley are their only other remaining opponent currently in the top half. Those under the impression that the race to finish in the top four has already been run are advised not to switch off just yet.

 

Arsenal

Time to give youth a Premier League chance?
Progress in the Europa League has been something of a catch-22 situation for Arsenal’s under-22 contingent. The competition was used by Arsene Wenger to give less experienced players a run in the first team, but advancement to the knock-out stages has subsequently limited those opportunities. Since the January transfer window closed, only three teenagers have featured; Eddie Nketiah and Joe Willock have both played 14 minutes, while Reiss Nelson has been handed just seven. Even Ainsley Maitland-Niles has started just three of a possible ten fixtures. “I am convinced as well, but it is very important for Arsenal to continue giving chances to young players we educate here,” Wenger said in December. Let’s see.

What happens with Alexandre Lacazette?
If Alexandre Lacazette was to try and glean positives from a knee injury that has kept him sidelined for six weeks, he could suggest it was well-timed. The Frenchman had scored just one goal in his last 13 games, missing two gilt-edged opportunities as a second-half substitute against Tottenham in his last match before surgery. He even lost his place as a starter to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. With his return planned for after the international break, the question will be as to where he fits in. Wenger has stumbled upon a successful formation that allows for only one striker, and even Danny Welbeck has risen to the challenge of leading the line in Lacazette’s absence. Yet he is still the club’s top scorer this season with nine goals, is still an expensive summer recruit the manager will be keen to see succeed, and now has more of a point to prove than ever.

When will Arsene do a Jose?
The question was raised as early as February 21, when Arsenal were eight points off the pace of the top four. “We have to focus on the Premier League,” Wenger said. “It is one of the priorities we have. Ideally we want to come back to the Champions League through the Premier League.” Now 13 points behind fourth place with just eight games to go, that view has surely changed. Much like domestic failings forced Mourinho’s hand last season, Arsenal’s league collapse should have Wenger rushing to place eggs in his Europa League basket. The Champions League back door is still open.

Matt Stead

 


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