As an Arsenal fan (and indeed club member), I had a harrowing Boxing Night as the then title favourites went to the South Coast and got demolished by a previously struggling Southampton side. Yet, somehow, no one was all that surprised. It has been that sort of season.
As it stands, surprise package Leicester City sits atop the Premier League, with Arsenal somehow still second and now favourites Manchester City third, followed by a group of teams from Tottenham Hotspur through Manchester United and even Liverpool still nominally in contention. Who knows, if champions Chelsea could still stick together a run of ten straight wins…?
So, who is going to win it?
What we have to do, first of all, is throw most statistics out of the window. After 18 games, this century, 38 points would seldom be enough to lead the way. Even averaging that many again, Leicester City would emerge with 80 points – in practice enough to win the title only twice in the past decade. In 2012, Manchester United accumulated 89 and did not win; in 2008, Arsenal managed 83 and came third.
So, all this stuff about “You can’t win the Premier League with more than six defeats” or “You can’t come back from 14 points behind” is probably irrelevant this season. For whatever reason, it is a more even league this year (at least, until now), and that means certain positions near the top (such as qualification for Europe) may be accomplished with relatively low totals by the standards of recent years.
So, statistics tell us nothing immediate, although I will return to this…
The history of league football in England (and parts of Wales) can be usefully split into three eras.
In the 47 seasons before World War II (27 of which occurred before World War I), there was a period of “mini-dynasties”. Aston Villa accumulated five of its seven titles by the end of the 19th century (to be specific, in the space of seven seasons from 1894), the best run until the 1980s. Teams like Preston North End, Everton, Sheffield Wednesday and Liverpool managed back-to-back titles, but did not particularly build on them; others, like Newcastle United and Sunderland, accumulated three or more wins over a period. Towards the end of the period, Huddersfield Town and Arsenal managed three in succession, but then drifted away again so it remained fully competitive. Manchester City won the title in 1937 but was relegated the following season, despite scoring more goals in total than champions Arsenal.
This is the sixtieth season post-War, and those sixty can usefully be split almost exactly in two. In the thirty seasons from 1947 until the rise of Liverpool as the dominant team from the mid-’70s, the league championship was entirely unpredictable. The best run was Wolverhampton Wanderers, who won three in six years (relatively tame by modern standards). We were, of course, tragically denied the talents of the ‘Busby Babes’ at Manchester United, who may have established some sort of dynasty from the 1950s, but other than that every year produced a surprise. Teams such as Chelsea and Ipswich Town (and, right at the end of the period, Nottingham Forest) came from nowhere to win their only football league championships; other established clubs, such as Everton in 1970 and particularly Arsenal in 1971, were still considered surprise champions in otherwise relatively barren spells. Clubs such as Burnley and Manchester City won just one title during this period; and Portsmouth won its only two back-to-back from 1949. What is most noticeable about the period is that even teams which were considered at the time to be “dominant” were in fact nothing like that in retrospect – the “dominant” Tottenham Hotspur side of the early ’60s won just one title; the “dominant” Leeds United team from the mid-’60s to mid-’70s won just two (whereas the supposedly not dominant Liverpool won three and Manchester United managed two plus a European Cup).
From the mid-’70s, however, the period of dynasties started – firstly Liverpool, then Manchester United. Purely by chance, the first eleven years of each dynasty mirrored each other absolutely – Liverpool won back-to-back in 1976 and 1977, again in 1979 and 1980, and then three-in-a-row from 1982-4 and then a single in 1986; Manchester United repeated this (1993 and 1994; 1996 and 1997; then from 1999-2001 and 2003). Liverpool took another couple of standalone titles at the end of its era (1988 and 1990), as did Manchester United (2011 and 2013), although Manchester United also added another three-in-a-row in between (2007-9). What is notable about both dynasties at the start is that there was no consistent challenger – Liverpool had Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa, Southampton and Watford all as runners-up or alternate champions in those first few years; Manchester United had Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, and Newcastle United. Then, in each case, a relatively consistent challenger emerged (to Liverpool, first Everton then Arsenal; to Manchester United first Arsenal then Chelsea).
The point of all this is that we seem to be exiting a “dynasty” but it is uncertain what will replace it. The assumption was that Chelsea and Manchester City would now battle for supremacy, but the former has disappeared towards the relegation zone and the latter is peculiarly inconsistent; nor, frankly, is either club really big enough to establish a true dynasty of its own (Liverpool and Manchester United were both already clubs of significant past success, standing and support base even before their dynasty periods).
However, not since 1978 has a club won its first title. So history is against Leicester City, which has in fact never won either a league championship or an FA Cup.
Form tells us very little if we base it solely on this season. What about past seasons, however?
In 2015, Chelsea ran away with it; but in 2014 it was Liverpool who emerged from the pack with ten straight wins, only to be pipped by Manchester City who finished with five. In 2013, Manchester United won all but five of its games for the first three quarters of the season. In 2012, Manchester City won six in a row at the end. My own team Arsenal won 10 in a row in 1998 (and actually also 1971) and no fewer than 13 in a row at the end in 2002. Chelsea frequently won 17 or even 18 of 19 home games during its title wins under Jose Mourinho. This happens elsewhere too – in recent years two unlikely champions of Germany, Stuttgart and particularly Wolfsburg, have become so by going on long winning runs to emerge from the pack right at the end.
In other words, the title will likely be won by a team going on an apparently unlikely (but actually relatively common) run of straight wins. Of course, if (as in 2014) two teams do this, it will remain exciting. If (as is more usual) only one does, however, we could end up with a surprisingly straightforward title win for someone.
So which teams are best equipped to do this?
Here, the bookies probably have it right – Manchester City, followed by Arsenal. The former knows what it takes and has won recent championships; the latter too is prone towards good runs (such as eight wins and two draws from ten at the end in 2013) – just usually from a position where it is already out of the race!
But it does mean no one should be ruled out. If Juergen Klopp works out how to use “Gegenpressing” against long-ball teams, it could be Liverpool, although he would need to be quick before they fall out of range.
I do think it is unlikely to be Manchester United (who seem set up not to lose, rather than to win), or Tottenham Hotspur (whose squad is on the small side), but I rule nothing out. It could well be Chelsea, although that will likely suffice only for European qualification.
So, who will win? I have no idea. But, in the end, it could be a lot more straightforward than it appears now. And it won’t be decided today…