Arsène Wenger must be a genius if he can come up with a points total that will be necessary to win the title. Between 82 and 86 points, since you ask. Either that or he was having a little joke, which has been known to happen. “He must have more experience of the English league than I thought,” the Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola said, making his own little joke. “Because I have no idea how many points it will take.”
Leaving aside the matter of how Wenger expects a more competitive league to result in a higher points total than the 77 that meant Claudio Ranieri’s side claiming the title last season (they would finish the season with 81), the one thing that can be said with certainty about Leicester’s success is they were greatly helped by having no midweek distractions. No Europe to start with, out of the League Cup in October and a third round exit from the FA Cup. Several managers made the point that playing just one game a week was an advantage to Leicester, and while there may have been an element of sour grapes in defeat to that observation, that does not mean it cannot be true.
As a result Leicester find themselves in Europe this season, and whether deliberately or not, they seem to be concentrating their efforts on the Champions League. No one can blame them, they might never get another chance, and unless there is a sudden upturn in Premier League results they do not appear likely to repeat last season’s table-topping feat. Fair play to them though, by virtue of beating Crystal Palace at the weekend they were the only English team involved in European competition to return to the domestic programme with a victory, even if the Foxes remain in the bottom half of the table.
‘At the top end, it is becoming clearer than ever that Liverpool are in prime position to do what Leicester did last season and profit from being able to concentrate on the league. It would be insulting to describe Jürgen Klopp’s side as the new Leicester, given the histories of the two clubs, so let us just say they have a similar opportunity. Liverpool are currently joint top with City and Arsenal, the three clubs separated only by goal difference, and would have hit the heights and the headlines before now but for their inexplicable collapse at Burnley, and an inability to keep a clean sheet apart from when playing at home to Manchester United.
They are advancing in the League Cup, one of the competitions in which they reached a final last year, though as Klopp was able to name an entirely new team for the visit of Tottenham, fixture overload is unlikely to be a worry. Liverpool’s second-string side even includes a first-rate striker in Daniel Sturridge, the England international whose goals took his side into the EFL Cup last eight. And though the forward’s inability to hold down a first-team spot at present will always be a talking point around Anfield, the fact is he is far from the only player with a strong case for being promoted from the reserves.
Leicester succeeded last season with a small squad, relieved that no serious injuries knocked them off their stride. Liverpool have a much larger and stronger squad, and still only the domestic competitions to worry about. Klopp said at the start of the season that being out of Europe was the last thing a club of Liverpool’s stature wanted, though he did not deny it could be turned to their advantage. The feeling at the start of the season was Manchester United too could make a strong push for the league as long as they could find a way to limit the collateral damage Europa League football might inflict, though early indications are that they are failing on both those fronts, despite or perhaps even because of their lavish summer spending.
Klopp’s summer spending was not quite as lavish, though acquisitions such as Sadio Mané (£30m) and Georginio Wijnaldum (£25m) could hardly be described as frugal, but the point is the manager has the squad he wants and a way of playing that is already proving successful. If that already sounds like Leicester of last year, the key to what would be a first title in 27 years might be to emulate the Foxes and move out in front at the top of the table. The next couple of months appear to offer an opportunity. Between now and Christmas Liverpool are not scheduled to meet a top six team until they travel to Goodison on 19 December, by which time it is by no means certain Everton will still be in the top six.
Ronald Koeman’s side had no excuse for losing at Burnley at the weekend. They failed to create enough chances in a game they dominated and paid the price, but they could not point to tiredness as a contributing factor as they had no European involvement to disrupt a full week of preparation.
Manchester United, Tottenham and Arsenal, on the other hand, were – and after dropping points in the Premier League on their return, they could argue that they were handicapped by a greater workload than their opponents. In theory bigger clubs have bigger squads, and Champions League regulars can usually name two different sides of almost equal strength. In practice, however, rotation comes with complications of its own and the greater factor in the league match is normally the comparative freshness and readiness of an opponent such as Bournemouth, Chelsea or Middlesbrough, who will have had the whole week to work towards a single game. Chelsea are perhaps unused to being billed among the feisty minnows raring to go, yet as they took the lead against Manchester United with just 30 seconds on the clock it rather proves the point.
City also dropped league points at the weekend, though that is a different scenario again. Their opponents, Southampton, had also been in European action during the week, probably feeling quite good about themselves after occasionally outplaying Internazionale at San Siro but still returning home on the end of a 1-0 defeat. City had played a day earlier, but could not accept their humbling in Barcelona quite as philosophically, after having to chase around the Camp Nou with 10 men and ending up on the wrong end of a 4-0 scoreline. “That was tiring,” Guardiola admitted, quite reasonably, before making the point that not only do games in England come thick and fast – City at the moment are in the middle of a sequence of six matches in 18 days, two of which are against Barcelona – but Premier League encounters tend to be contested over the full 90 minutes with few opportunities for resting on a comfortable lead or taking a late breather.
For Liverpool, the biggest test of the rest of the year will be Manchester City at home on New Year’s Eve. Can their match against City on the last day of 2016 really be billed as a title showdown? It is Liverpool’s task in the coming weeks to make sure that it will be.