The impact of the coronavirus pandemic was not felt in the 2019/20 Premier League title race. Liverpool were already close to mathematically sewing it up by the time the season was put on hold in March and duly got over the line shortly after ‘Project Restart’ began in June.
This season is already proving to be a different story. The prolonged 2019/20 campaign delayed the start of this one by a month, but with no change to the planned end date the whole season has to be played in eight months instead of the usual nine. All the competitions are still being played apace to make up for lost time, meaning midweeks – especially for teams in Europe – offer no respite.
Jurgen Klopp gambled in Liverpool’s Champions League clash with Ajax this week by withdrawing Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino simultaneously at the hour mark, citing the intensity of the game and presumably with an eye on upcoming fixtures.
These are concessions that many of the bigger clubs competing in Europe may soon have to make and only those with the deepest squads will be better able to cope.
In normal circumstances, Liverpool would have been fancied by many to successfully defend the title they waited so long for. Suddenly, the loss of Virgil van Dijk for potentially the rest of the season poses major concerns. Alisson is also currently sidelined through injury and it was those two alone, more than any of the front three, who kicked the Reds into title territory after 2018.
Van Dijk leads that Liverpool defence and it is clear those left to fend for themselves do not have confidence playing in front of Adrian instead of Alisson – Joe Gomez’s reaction during one particular moment against Ajax in the Champions League was telling indeed.
But Manchester City aren’t primed to take advantage. Although efforts have been made to refresh the squad, theirs remains an ageing team that continues to rely on the title winners of 2017/18 and 2018/19.
It brings those two, who were so far ahead of the rest over the past two seasons, back in line.
Ordinarily, Manchester United wouldn’t have been ready to compete just yet, mid re-build, nor would Arsenal. But now they could. Tottenham, meanwhile, suddenly look like contenders because they have assembled a team for now. Long-term, their squad won’t cut it without major work, but you wouldn’t put it beyond Jose Mourinho to take advantage of the unique circumstances.
This season won’t be about who can beat everyone else and amass 90 or 100 points. It will be about who adapts to the changing demands better than others and can find a degree of consistency.
We have already seen a few of the top sides completely crumble. Manchester United’s 6-1 defeat to Tottenham was not an isolated result, given that barely hours later Liverpool wound up shipping seven goals against Aston Villa. A week earlier, Manchester City lost 5-2 against Leicester.
The title race is arguably even open to those outside the usual ‘Big Six’, more so if they can make the most of playing less games in the congested schedule. Liverpool could be spent by Christmas playing twice a week every week, whereas Everton, for example, don’t have those European commitments.
The Toffees have started the season incredibly well, winning four from four until they went toe-to-toe with Liverpool in the Merseyside derby. Momentum and belief are huge factors in football at any level, as much as talent and ability in many cases, and it would only take a team like Everton to keep putting results together to put them firmly in the question.
Had it not been for Leicester doing just that in 2015/16, the whole notion of a team riding the wave of momentum all the way to the title would have been ridiculous and overly farfetched. But it has been done before...and that happened in normal circumstances.
The question is where to now draw the line for possible contenders.
Leicester had made a bright start to the season prior to losing their last two games and also have the Europa League on their schedule. But Aston Villa are the only team in England’s top four divisions with a 100% record still intact, the only Premier League side that have conceded fewer goals than games played, or that has a positive goal difference in double figures.
If they can keep it going, who knows what might happen? Who knows, in these most bizarre and unprecedented of times, will happen with any club over the next seven months? But finding out is going to be compelling viewing in a completely new way than we’ve become used to.
Source : 90min