Liverpool and Manchester City have now made up the top two in successive seasons, amassing a huge combined total of 375 points over that period – for a stunning 93.75 points on average between them.
The gap in points between the second and third placed teams of recent seasons is also notable in its stature, with 15 points separating the Manchester clubs in 2019/20, and a massive 25 points dividing Liverpool from Chelsea in 2018/19. Puny by comparison, the total points gap between second and third was just 22 (for a meagre average difference of 3.67) across the six seasons prior to 2018/19.
Of course, nothing lasts forever, and after three straight seasons of witnessing the same teams finish inside the top six, 2019/20 saw Leicester City breach that sacred zone. In turn, many fans are led to question whether or not the growing gulf between the top two can be narrowed – or even overcome entirely – in 2020/21.
A ‘finite’ United and Chelsea surge inevitable
Exactly ten years ago, the scene was very different. Liverpool were in the throes of financial peril, and about to embark on their worst-ever start to a Premier League campaign. Though Manchester City were in much better shape, they were still wounded from being pipped to fourth place by Tottenham in 2009/10.
Back in 2010, Chelsea and Manchester United were the perpetual top two, having filled those spots in four of the five preceding seasons going back to 2005/06. They would do so yet again in 2010/11, before Manchester City’s famous maiden PL title win disrupted that ever-strengthening configuration.
Today, Chelsea and Manchester United share a common minimum goal for 2021, and that is merely to finish second under a regime led by inexperienced but passionate figures who wear the badge on their hearts.
Current evidence suggests that the gap will be narrower, though it will take a near-unthinkable swing in fortunes – relative to Liverpool and Man City – for either of United or Chelsea to overturn the current gulf outright.
Chelsea in excellent shape ahead of 2020/21
The debate as to which team is better-equipped to do that is set to be very divisive amongst pundits and fans alike, but with Chelsea still containing a significant number of title-winning players from 2017, the Blues arguably have an edge, despite being pipped to third place by United on goal difference in 2019/20.
After a rocky start to the season just gone, Chelsea – and Frank Lampard in particular – made the most of a bad situation. In turn, those who take a look at the latest Premier League outrights will see that the West Londoners are significantly closer to City in terms of their title chances than this time last year.
Stripped of the ability to sign new players, Lampard kept faith in the likes of Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham, proving the doubters wrong by developing a good counter-attacking system that played to their strengths. Christian Pulisic’s form was a particular highlight too, with his contributions helping the Blues win seven of their last ten league games.
The arrivals of Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech further fuel the belief that Chelsea are the likeliest candidate to disrupt the expected make up of the top two. Ziyech’s form for Ajax over the past several years would make even the great Johann Cruyff proud, while Werner smashed in a staggering 28 goals across 34 Bundesliga appearances last term. In addition to bagging three hat-tricks last term, he averaged exactly 2.0 goals per match across his 14 goalscoring league wins.
Fernandes a huge asset to United
United also won seven of their last ten league fixtures in the season just gone, and will go into 2020/21 unbeaten in 14 league outings altogether.
The burning issue of their away form also appears to have been solved, with five wins to-nil out of their last seven league awaydays – including four successive clean-sheet away wins to round off the season. Furthermore, United have taken full points (and averaged a winning margin of 2.16 goals) from the last eight away league games to see them score first.
That in itself is reminiscent of United’s very best squads under Sir Alex Ferguson, but ample credit in particular must also go to Bruno Fernandes. In addition to forcing host teams to defend with greater depth, and attack with more conservatism through his off-the-ball positioning, Fernandes has used his skill on the ball to free up the likes of Paul Pogba for greater midfield coverage, and buy Marcus Rashford more time to get into prime shooting positions.
Fitness permitting, United have few equals, if any, down the centre of the park. As such, Fernandes’ continued growth over the coming months will be a highlight at a club desperate for a return of former glories.
Fears for Leicester’s chances of a ‘second bite’
Having made it into the top six, Leicester City will be dark horses for a podium finish. They looked good for one before the enforced break, but fell away quickly. Leicester’s failure to qualify for the Champions League has made it all the more difficult for Brendan Rodgers to retain the key homegrown talents that gave Leicester hope of a second Champions League campaign in four years.
The likes of Ben Chilwell, Harvey Barnes and James Maddison will certainly be targeted by clubs that are still seen as ‘bigger’. In that regard, it would be fair to say that the two North London clubs have a shot at taking any of them, with their bases in the capital potentially being a bigger factor than many realise.
Vitally, from the perspective of any man in that homegrown trio, the North London clubs have resources, but also room to accommodate some new talent which would not merely be consigned to the bench every week.
Arsenal the strongest ‘peripheral’ contenders
Regardless of their respective transfer agendas, Tottenham and Arsenal themselves will go again, although their poor runs of away form at key flashpoints in 2019/20 provide a cause for concern. Finishing third in 2020/21 is a big ask for either club, let alone the task of finishing much closer to the second-placed team – assuming the top two will again be Liverpool and Man City.
While there is plenty still open to argument, Tottenham’s failure to qualify for the Champions League may be costly – especially in light of the club’s expenditure on a new stadium. The departure of Christian Eriksen to Inter was also a huge blow, and if the Dane can depart, then so too – theoretically – could crown jewels like Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Son Heung-Min.
If Jose Mourinho’s continuation of Mauricio Pochettino’s project is not the ‘busted flush’ it appears to be, then 2020/21 must be the season to prove it.
As for Arsenal, there is hope that a solid core of young players – amongst which is Bukayo Saka, the Gunners’ breakout star of 2019/20 – can revive the club’s fortunes. The situation surrounding Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang remains uncertain, but with the FA Cup hero reported to be ‘close’ to signing a new three-year deal at the Emirates Stadium (6 Aug), Arteta’s preparations for the new season are set to be made infinitely easier.