Catching Man City: How Chelsea, Liverpool, Man United & Co. can close the gapTheSportsWig Admin
Manchester City have a 10-point lead at the top of the Premier League and are comfortably on course to win a fourth title in five seasons. Pep Guardiola’s team, who face second-place Chelsea at the Etihad on Saturday, have become the most dominant side in English football since Manchester United won the title five times in six seasons under Sir Alex Ferguson between 1995-96 and 2000-01. This year, a combination of City’s depth of quality, and the challenges facing their rivals, suggest that they could match and surpass the winning run enjoyed by their neighbours at Old Trafford.
But while this season’s title race appears to be drawing to an inevitable conclusion, with City winning the Premier League once again to secure an eighth English championship overall, can one of their challengers close the gap sufficiently this summer to enable them to deny City the title next season?
Guardiola has built a formidable winning machine at the Etihad, but only four clubs — Huddersfield (1920s), Arsenal (1930s), Liverpool (1980s) and United (1990s and 2000s) — have won three successive league titles. So what do their so-called Big Six rivals need to do to challenge City and beat them to the title next season?
Biggest need: Proven quality where it matters
Over the past 10 years, Chelsea stand alone as City’s biggest rivals when it comes to silverware. Liverpool are the last team to deny City the title, in 2019-20, but Chelsea have won two Premier Leagues, two Champions Leagues, two Europa Leagues, two FA Cups and the EFL Cup over the past decade; only City have amassed more honours than the Stamford Bridge club. Despite the lack of continuity at Chelsea — Thomas Tuchel is their sixth permanent manager since 2012 — it is a club that is able to deliver sustained success, and their Champions League win last season came at City’s expense, with Kai Havertz scoring the only goal of the game to beat Guardiola’s team in the final.
If Tuchel remains in charge, Chelsea possess a coach with a winning pedigree and somebody who has a track record for beating Guardiola. But the former Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain coach needs to add depth and quality to his squad if Chelsea are to mount a sustained title challenge next season.
To catch City, Chelsea need to strengthen in three crucial areas: centre-back, central midfield and in attack. If Antonio Rudiger leaves as a free agent this summer, Chelsea will lose their best centre-half, meaning they’d need to sign two top defenders: one to replace Rudiger and another to eventually succeed the aging Thiago Silva. Keeping Rudiger would be like signing a world-class centre-half.
In midfield, Chelsea need greater variety and a player who can dominate the game. Opponents have worked out how to nullify the threat posed by Jorginho, and N’Golo Kante‘s contribution is now starting to wane. Up front, Chelsea have plenty of depth, but they still lack a reliable goalscorer at the highest level. Timo Werner has failed to deliver since arriving from RB Leipzig 18 months ago, and Romelu Lukaku, as he has done throughout his Premier League career, continues to fall short against the best teams.
Chelsea could move Werner and/or Lukaku to another club and sign a better striker, such as Robert Lewandowski, Harry Kane or Dusan Vlahovic. Doing that could be the difference between winning the league or missing out.
Chances of catching City (1=not likely, 10=guaranteed): 6 — Chelsea need a perfect summer in which they keep Rudiger and recruit world-class players in key areas. If they can land a striker like Erling Haaland or Harry Kane, they would have 9 out of 10.
Biggest need: Replacing, or supporting, Salah and Mane
In terms of their best starting XIs, there’s little to choose between Liverpool and Manchester City. For the past four seasons, the two teams have raised the bar with their consistency. Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool continue to be the side most likely to beat City over the course of 90 minutes, but they are also a team in need of evolution before their star players become too old as a group.
Resolving the future of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, whose contracts both expire in June 2023, is a huge issue Liverpool must address over the coming months. If they lose either player this summer, it will be a major blow to the club’s ambitions. Beyond keeping their best players, Liverpool also need to look to the future and find a way to support, and eventually replace, those players who have served them so well.
In midfield, Jordan Henderson and Thiago Alcantara are both in their 30s and beginning to miss an increasing number of games due to injury. At the back, Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez have yet to come close to their best form since suffering long-term knee injuries last season. Where City have a proven replacement for all of their players (with the possible exception of goalkeeper Ederson), Liverpool still have too great a drop between the quality of their first-choice and the back-up players behind them.
Resolving that will be crucial for Liverpool’s title hopes. Otherwise, they’ll be expecting too much of the likes of Salah, Mane, Van Dijk, Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold to avoid injury or loss of form for an entire season.
Chances of catching City (1=not likely, 10=guaranteed): 7 — This Liverpool team is still the best of the rest and, if the top players stay fit, can still pose a serious threat to City next season. But question marks remain over the depth.
Fabinho shows his skills from the spot for Liverpool against Shrewsbury.
Biggest need: Resolve the coaching uncertainty
Manchester United are in the worst position of the five teams hoping to challenge City because they’re the club shouldering the most unrealistic expectations. Chelsea and Liverpool both have the ability and potential to take City on next season, while Arsenal and Tottenham are in a building process with little pressure — either inside or outside the club — to win the title. But United’s history and pedigree means that they will always be expected to challenge, despite obvious shortcomings that continue to undermine the team.
Right now, United don’t have a permanent manager and the team is performing dismally under interim boss Ralf Rangnick. Paul Pogba is almost certain to leave in the summer, Cristiano Ronaldo‘s future is likely to depend on who United appoint as manager and leading players such as Harry Maguire, Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho are suffering worrying and prolonged form slumps.
United lack any kind of reliability or flair in midfield and they need upgrades in both full-back positions and up-front, where Ronaldo (36) and Edinson Cavani (34) cannot be expected to deliver consistently if they remain at the club beyond the summer. But maybe there is a silver lining to the ever-present clouds hovering above Old Trafford.
If — and it’s a big “if” — United make the right managerial appointment, then a top-class coach could very quickly put many of their under-performing players back on track and make the team look capable of winning again. United have a good squad, but it has been allowed to drift aimlessly without elite coaching for so long they currently look like a team of strangers.
With the right coach and some key signings — a world-class goal scorer this summer, as well as a commanding midfielder — they could be back in the race next season. After all, they can’t get much worse, can they?
Chances of catching City (1=not likely, 10=guaranteed): 4 — There are too many issues to address at Old Trafford for United to win the league next season. If they hire the right coach and recruit properly, they can start the path back to challenging again, but one step at a time.
Ahead of their Carabao Cup semifinal against Liverpool, Ale Moreno dismisses the idea that Arsenal can attract the best players to the club.
Biggest need: Consolidating on this year’s progress
Having failed to qualify for Europe last season, Arsenal reached their lowest ebb for a quarter of a century, and it’s been a tough road back for coach Mikel Arteta. But after a nightmare start to the season with three successive defeats, Arsenal have slowly found form and consistency and there are signs that Arteta has not only stabilised the club, but put it on an upwards trajectory once again. The rebuilding job is by no means done — the future of striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is still to be resolved, for one — but Arsenal are a contender to qualify for the Champions League again this season, and that is a definite sign of progress.
If the Gunners are able to secure a top-four finish, they’ll put themselves back in the market for the kind of players required to take the team to the next level and complement the youthful promise of homegrown stars including Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli. For example, qualifying for the Champions League could be enough to put Arsenal in pole position to sign Fiorentina forward Dusan Vlahovic, a player capable of scoring the goals to make them outsiders in the title race. But although an Arsenal title challenge seems unlikely at this stage, the right additions this summer could make a significant difference.
Next season feels too soon for Arsenal to compete for the title, but how they end this season will be a key indicator about future prospects. It doesn’t seem like they are close to winning the title, but a resurgent Arsenal could certainly have a say in the outcome of the race, something that hasn’t been the case for almost 20 years.
Chances of catching City (1=not likely, 10=guaranteed): 5 — Mikel Arteta appears to be over the hump of turning Arsenal around. They have a base to work from, but they are still too young to catch a team of City’s experience.
Biggest need: Keep Kane and Conte
Tottenham haven’t won the English title since 1961 and aside from running Leicester City close in 2015-16, they’ve rarely shown any sign of winning it again in the 61 years since their last success. Nobody tips Spurs to win the title because they simply don’t have the pedigree to suggest they can pull it off, but in Antonio Conte, they now have a coach who will demand every ounce of effort from his players and bosses in the boardroom to go as close as possible.
Obviously, having Conte on the touchline isn’t enough to transform Spurs from being perennial under-achievers to potential champions, but it at least gives them a chance.
Under Mauricio Pochettino, Spurs had the potential to win, but lacked the experience to do so. And by the time Jose Mourinho took charge, the former Chelsea and Manchester United coach had lost the winning touch that defined his earlier career. But Conte has the winning experience that Pochettino lacked and, unlike Mourinho, he can still point to recent success — he guided Inter Milan to last season’s Serie A title — as proof of being relevant in the modern game.
If Conte can persuade Kane to abandon thoughts of leaving the club and recruit quality players to support the England captain, Spurs could have a title challenge in them next season. They clearly need to improve quality in defence and in midfield, but up front, Kane and Son Heung-Min are proven goal scorers against the very best opposition.
Smart recruitment and Conte’s ability to make his players better by demanding more of them — as well as the Italian’s tactical prowess — will make Spurs better than they have been. Whether they can bridge the gap between falling short and challenging for the title is another matter, but if all the pieces fall into place, Spurs could at least be more competitive next season.
Chances of catching City (1=not likely, 10=guaranteed): 3 — Antonio Conte wants to be given the chance to rebuild and re-energise Tottenham. If he keeps Harry Kane, it will help, but Spurs won’t be winning the title next season.