For most major European leagues, being dominated by a duopoly has become the established norm. One of Barcelona or Real Madrid has won La Liga in 14 of the last 15 seasons. One of Juventus or Inter have won Serie A in 13 of the last 14 seasons. One of Bayern Munich or Dortmund have won each of the last 10 Bundesliga titles.
In England, the duopoly effect has manifested slightly differently. Over the competition’s first two decades, Manchester United were a constant but Alex Ferguson was pitted against a variety of managers whose clubs took it in turns to temporarily chip away at the marble.
Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United came first, both powered by the financial might of local businessmen made good in Jack Walker and Sir John Hall, but new money was soon eclipsed by grand tradition and a groundbreaking foreign manager. Between 1997/98 and 2002/03, Arsenal and Manchester United occupied the top two positions in five out of six seasons.
Back came new money, this time on a previously unforeseen scale. Between 2005/06 and 2010/11, Manchester United and Chelsea occupied the top two positions before Manchester City’s spending made even Roman Abramovich balk. In 2011/12 and 2012/13, it was the two Manchester clubs who finished in the top two.
And then the Premier League duopolies suddenly ended. Ferguson left Manchester United, removing the thin veil placed over the Glazer family’s neglect, and no club was able to fill their position of authority. Simultaneously, the spike in broadcasting revenues made lavish spending a pursuit of the masses.
Over the last five years, the Premier League has seen five different combinations within its top two: Chelsea and Manchester City, Leicester City and Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham, Manchester City and Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool.
There has also been a relatively tight bunching at the top, even if we have not always witnessed a close title race. In 2012/13, second to fifth were separated by six points. In 2013/14, 17 points separated the champions and sixth. In 2015/15 first to eighth were separated by 21 points. In 2016/17, first to fifth were separated by 18.
This variety is now under serious threat. It was thoroughly enjoyable for the neutral to witness an absorbing, tight title race last season, but the theme of the season was two clubs being an embarrassing, humiliating distance in front of their peers. Liverpool finished only one point behind Manchester City, but 25 points ahead of third place.
Such a gap is not insurmountable for the chasing pack; Liverpool themselves are evidence of that. They finished 25 points behind a record-breaking Manchester City in 2017/18, and improved their own points total by 22. Chelsea proved themselves the masters of the art in 2016/17, improving their points total by a ludicrous 43 from the previous campaign.
And yet there already seems an air of defeatism among those tasked with minding the gap. Last season was only the second time in ten years that Liverpool have even finished in the top three of the Premier League, yet their improvement under Jurgen Klopp has been so pronounced that it has caused a widespread acceptance of a hastily arranged status quo.
Part of this is down to the rude health of the current top two. City’s relentlessness is built on Pep Guardiola’s inspirational man-management and coaching that makes the club so attractive to world-class young players and their spending power that makes signing them possible. Joao Cancelo and Rodri appear to be this summer’s top targets.
The evidence suggests that Liverpool will get stronger instead of regressing. Ten of their players started 20 or more league games last season, and none of them have yet turned 30. Klopp will look to improve in obvious areas (back-up left-back, another centre forward, another central defender), and Liverpool have rarely been a more attractive club for potential signings.
But signs of strength only represent half the picture, and those clubs who might have considered themselves title challengers pre-2018/19 now present as a ragtag group of the mismanaged and misfiring.
Manchester United insisted that 2019 was the summer of change, but so far their incoming business has been limited to a young winger with potential and their close season defined by players wanting to leave. There has been little sign of the off-field structural change that every supporter knows is necessary for the club’s potential to be even partly fulfilled.
At Chelsea, Frank Lampard’s appointment appears to be an attempt to maintain goodwill amongst supporters ahead of a potentially difficult period. Eden Hazard has gone, a transfer ban will be implemented at some point and Lampard is viewed is the man to bring through academy graduates in the absence of new signings. Rough translation: ‘Well we’re not catching Manchester City and Liverpool, so why not give this a go?’.
Arsenal are perennially locked in stagnation, haunted by structural inefficiencies and without the financial might to atone for them. The jury is still out on Unai Emery, but any replacement would be forced to perform increasingly unlikely tricks to make Arsenal anything other than top-four hopefuls.
And then there’s Tottenham, whose playing and coaching staff are forever absolved of severe criticism but who are hardly atoning for their transfer market inactivity of the last 12 months. This week brought a report in Spanish digital newspaper El Confidencial that Mauricio Pochettino had phoned Real Betis’ Giovani Lo Celso to insist that he wanted to sign him despite Tottenham making such a derisory bid for him. Daniel Levy’s strategy will come under scrutiny this summer.
It all comes together to produce persuasive evidence that we may be headed for the fourth duopoly of the Premier League era, and the first that won’t involve Manchester United. Time will tell if that hunch is proved correct, but there is no doubt the gap is widening. That is the challenge presented to the rest of the top six: after last season’s shambles, prove that you merit our faith.