With Manchester City running away with the league, the dynamic of the season for the Premier League’s biggest clubs has changed. Rather than focussing their efforts on the hectic upcoming festive schedule, should teams condition themselves to peak in February, ahead of crucial Champions League fixtures? By Jamie Braidwood
If you hadn’t been able to tell by what has emerged in the past 24 hours, Manchester City’s celebrations in the aftermath of their 2-1 win against United were a little more rambunctious than we’re used to.
It wasn’t just that Pep Guardiola’s side had won a Manchester Derby. It wasn’t just that they’d won away from home, and it wasn’t because it was so comfortable. It wasn’t even because it was their 14th Premier League win in a row – breaking the record for the longest winning streak in a single season. No, it was because their win effectively wrapped up the league. In December.
Manchester United, who, in second place, were already eight points behind City ahead of kick-off, knew they couldn’t afford to lose. They surely had to win, or at least stop City from winning, to maintain any hope of finishing ahead of them this season.
But that know seems unlikely, and with Chelsea losing and Arsenal and Liverpool drawing, it seems unlikely that anyone will catch up with City. Behind United, Chelsea lie 14 points behind City, Liverpool 16 and Arsenal 17. Spurs, who sit in sixth, 18 points behind the leaders City, are closer to the bottom than they are to the top.
This isn’t to say that this is any of their fault. Manchester City have simply been too good. 46 points from 16 games is the fastest ever start to a Premier League season and by winning away at Chelsea and United, they’ve already safely negotiated their two hardest games of the campaign.
Although City’s play, described as potentially the best the league has ever seen, has caught the eye, their start does put a bit of damper on the season – at least from a neutral’s point of view. In the era of the ‘Big Six’, the title race was expected to be much closer than this, and with at least a single competitor.
So where does the league season go from here? Interestingly, less than 24 hours after City’s win effectively killed off any competition, the Champions League draw took place, and with five English teams involved, there was plenty to look out for.
City, United and Liverpool all received favourable ties in Basel, Sevilla and Porto respectively. Amazingly, they all managed to dodge Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. Spurs, meanwhile, were not so lucky. They drew Juventus while Chelsea, the only English side to finish runner up, drew Barcelona.
In the context of this season, the draw makes for very interesting reading. If it is true to say that the Premier League season is over, and that Manchester City have already wrapped up the league in December, then the Champions League becomes even more significant.
Jurgen Klopp has already implemented a heavy rotation policy to try and keep his players fresh, so will we see Conte, Pochettino and Mourinho do the same? With the league already gone, is there any point in managers burning out their players over the hectic festive period, or will they rather condition them so they’re primed for when the Champions League returns in February?
Should they, in essence, give their players a mid-season winter break, like the ones afforded to players in Germany, Italy and Spain? It is often one of the reasons attributed to the Premier League’s poor showing in continental competitions, so maybe there is a case to manufacture one for themselves.
But there is a flaw to this plan. Teams such as Man United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs can’t just give up on their Premier League seasons. After all, they need to ensure that they finish in the Top 4 and book Champions League football for next season. Complex strategic and financial plans are built on such assumptions.
The only other way in is by winning the competition itself (or by winning the Europa League which, whisper it, might actually be Arsenal’s best chance of getting back into the Champions League, like it was for Manchester United last season).
So it is possible for a team such as, say, Chelsea, to mess up their season but still make it through. They’ve finished outside of the Top 4 but still qualified for the Champions League before, before, after all.
Let’s imagine Chelsea take it easy over Christmas. They rest up, give Alvaro Morata of month off to fully recover from his niggling hamstring injury and wrap Eden Hazard up in cotton wool too.
By February they’re outside of the Top 4, but just. Sure, they’ve lost a few more games than they thought they would but they’re Chelsea and they’ve got a lot of very good footballers, so they also scrape a few wins.
Crucially though, by the time Barcelona, a side who despite being top of La Liga, have flaws of their own, come to town, Chelsea are fresh and ready to go. Conte has had his side preparing for this tie for weeks, and you know what he’s like when he gets his teeth into a plan.
Chelsea are prepared and well-drilled. They take a narrow lead into the second-leg and just about cling on to it at the Nou Camp. Still though, they’re through. They got unfortunate in the last draw so let’s imagine they’re more fortunate in the next one.
They get Shakhtar Donetsk, the lowest ranked team left in the competition, and they do the same. They rest up and coast through some league games, admittedly losing a few and dropping a load of points, but by this point City are 26 points clear of anyone so who cares. Besides, they’re only just outside of the Top 4. They could claw it back if they really wanted to.
Conte’s side demolish Donetsk. Suddenly they’ve hit their stride and the Champions League has opened up. Remember, PSG knocked out Real Madrid and Ronaldo in the last round and now they’ve just knocked out Bayern Munich. An English tie beckons and there it is; Manchester United.
So where are we? Well, this is the blueprint of how any of the English teams can suddenly make it through to a winnable Champions League semi-final. The catch is that it’s just not possible to do it whilst trying to chase down Manchester City, who, by the way, eased up a bit and were able to lost a couple of games to still remain miles in front.
We’re at an interesting point of the season. Due to City’s dominance and due to not only the Champions League draw, but the nature of the competition, the dynamic of several seasons has suddenly switched.
Jurgen Klopp is currently showing the way forward. Sure, he’s being criticised for making too many changes before Liverpool’s 1-1 draw with Everton on Sunday, but this is a manager who is preparing his team for a Champions League run in February and March as well as ensuring that have they legs to just make it back into the Top 4 in May.
Look how strong Liverpool’s team was in their last Champions League group game. Mane, Salah, Coutinho and Firmino all started, something which hasn’t happened in the league for a number of weeks. Perhaps Klopp has been focusing on Europe for a while and Monday’s draw only strengthens that idea.
You’ve still got the FA and League Cups to consider (remember, Spurs and Liverpool could really do with winning some sort of trophy this season), but the truth is the Champions League has become the best opportunity for a number of clubs this season. The league is dead but the question remains, what will they do next?