To ensure March’s suspension of the Premier League hasn’t completely distorted our perception of reality, Daniel Storey sets out a ten-point agenda for the season’s belated climax.
Does the season get finished?
It is impossible not to be reassured by how effectively and efficiently the Bundesliga managed its return. The myriad negotiations between Premier League clubs, who understandably protected their own self-interests, slowed the return of English football, but the blueprint set by Germany also gave Premier League stakeholders greater confidence that the same could be replicated here.
And yet restarting the league is only one roadblock to overcome. The death rate and daily number of infections is far higher in England than in Germany, and the easing of lockdown restrictions threatens to cause a second spike that may hamper the country’s attempts to return to normal.
Football would struggle to avoid being affected by a second rise in infections. If the number of positive tests within the Premier League also spiked, the league risks being suspended again and it would be far more difficult to organise the second restart required in order to play out the season in full. Then the arguments over integrity really would begin to get heated.
Any more blips for Liverpool?
For so long it seemed as if Liverpool would become the earliest Premier League champions in the competition’s history, breaking the April 14 record set by Manchester United in 2001. Now they will become the latest champions of all.
But Jurgen Klopp will also be keen to steamroller their way to the title and wrap things up at the earliest possible opportunity. The problem with starting the season in extraordinarily successful fashion is that the only way is down. In their four games immediately before football was postponed, Liverpool tumbled out of the Champions League and FA Cup and finally lost their unbeaten Premier League record.
Klopp will be determined not to allow the gloss to be scratched off the most successful top-flight season in English football history. To do that, they must break Manchester City’s 100-point record set in 2018.
Can Solskjaer maintain United’s unbeaten streak?
No manager will have cursed the suspension of Premier League football quite like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. His tenure at Old Trafford has been defined by long runs of excellent and dispiriting form that seem to blow in and out like the wind, but United had built a strong top-four challenge after a dismal start. They were on a run of 11 unbeaten matches in four competitions.
Solskjaer will insist that crucial Champions League qualification is still eminently possible. United face Tottenham in their first game back, but then play six bottom-half clubs in their next seven league games before a final-day trip to Leicester that could easily be a de facto Champions League play-off.
But he needs to make good on preseason ambitions. Solskjaer continues to retain plenty of goodwill inside Old Trafford, but it would be hard to stomach a second consecutive finish outside the top four. Louis van Gaal was sacked for exactly that despite winning the FA Cup.
Will Sheffield United drop away?
It is a testament to the brilliant man management and innovative tactics of Chris Wilder that Sheffield United will recommence their season in the final Europa league qualifying position. The only two teams to beat the Blades in the league between December 5 and the suspension of the season were Liverpool and Manchester City.
But Wilder and Sheffield United now enter a crucial run of games. Nothing can take the shine of their extraordinary first campaign back in the Premier League, but after Aston Villa and Newcastle they play an unbroken run of seven matches against the teams that currently sit between third and tenth in the table. Sitting only four points ahead of Everton in 11th, it’s quite possible that Sheffield United slip back into the bottom half. But we’ve been wrong about them before...
Can Chelsea impress their new signings?
Chelsea have stolen a march on their rivals for next season. Aided by their lack of spending during their two-window transfer ban, Frank Lampard has already been able to sign Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner for transfer fees that may rise to €100m. Given the relative parsimony that the Covid-19 crisis may impose on other Premier League clubs, Chelsea are already set fair for next season.
But Lampard also knows the importance of their next nine games in that same context. Werner and Ziyech will both arrive from clubs who played Champions League football in 2019/20, and presumably did not move to Stamford Bridge to play second-tier European football.
Chelsea restart their season in fourth place and thus with Champions League qualification in their hands, but they were wobbling. Lampard’s side took 19 points from their 14 league games before the season was suspended, a run stretching back to early December. If they have been fortunate that their usual rivals for a top-four place have also stuttered, Lampard cannot rely on that good luck continuing. A significant improvement is needed.
Can Jose Mourinho change the mood?
Boy did Tottenham need this break. With Harry Kane and new signing Steven Bergwijn laid low by injury, Jose Mourinho was struggling to establish the positive siege mentality that he typically achieves before everything falls apart in an inadvertent wave of self-protection and bridge-burning.
The mood at Tottenham was toxic. Plenty of supporters understandably felt that Mourinho was the wrong person to follow Mauricio Pochettino, and a section of Mourinho’s supporters will already have been dissuaded by his start as manager. In their six games before lockdown, the only time Tottenham avoided defeat was the 1-1 draw against Burnley during which Dele Alli’s penalty was their only shot on target.
Mourinho will have welcomed the break to allow Kane to work on his fitness, but more important still is that he has managed to change the mood within his squad and motivated Tottenham’s players to make a late, unexpected push for the top four. Lose at home to his former club in his first game back, and Mourinho’s problems will come rushing back to the fore.
Will Mikel Arteta blend positivity with results?
Every Arsenal supporter knew that this would take time and patience. Arsene Wenger had overseen a long-term decline that Unai Emery had proven himself incapable of addressing. Asking a novice manager to put up pretty wallpaper over the cracks while simultaneously addressing the systemic structural issues that caused them was a mightily optimistic expectation.
There have been signs of positivity. Arteta’s Arsenal have been guilty of drawing too many matches -Bournemouth, Crystal Palace, Burnley) but they are at least unbeaten in eight league games and Arteta has earned further goodwill with the faith shown in the club’s academy graduates. If any manager has benefitted from the time afforded to reassess his squad and create a strategy for further improvement, it is him. But does this all come crashing down with heavy defeat against Manchester City next Wednesday night?
What now happens at Newcastle United?
There is something strangely reassuring in Newcastle United’s season restarting under a cloud of uncertainty, a split fanbase and Mike Ashley somehow still at the helm. The Saudi takeover is nothing to celebrate, but the potential, overdue departure of Ashley would at least cause jubilation in a city that has been left out in the rain to rust by the miserable negligence of their current owner.
But still he remains. With Newcastle’s takeover saga rumbling on, Steve Bruce must take charge of a team without being certain of his own future and with each of his players unsure whether they will feature in the plans of new owners. If their eight-point gap to the bottom three makes relegation a distant threat, Bruce has little choice to plug away and hope to impress any potential new hierarchy. In those circumstances, perhaps playing in an empty stadium is actually preferable to the alternative.
Can Bournemouth continue their PL dream?
This has been a wretched season for Bournemouth, one that threatens to mark the end of Bournemouth’s time in the sun and accelerate the departure of the most successful manager in the club’s history. Bournemouth have scored just 29 goals and created only 175 chances from open play; they rank 19th in the league for the latter. For a team that has prided itself on attacking football and has always struggled to avoid conceding goals, that is a recipe for relegation. But Bournemouth do still have a chance.
They are level on points with the two teams directly above the relegation zone, and are still to play Newcastle, Crystal Palace and Southampton at home. It’s the four remaining games against clubs in the top eight that worry supporters most; Howe must find a way to pick up points there.
Another West Ham farewell for Moyes?
The West Ham circus continues to emit its bawdy fairground songs. David Moyes left West Ham in May 2018 after the club decided it must head in a different direction, but by December 2019 he was back in his post and making promises to lead West Ham into a brighter future. Unfortunately, it’s the present that provides most cause for concern.
Despite spending more than €120m on transfer fees alone this season, West Ham are currently picking up points under Moyes at a rate of one per game. They are only outside the bottom three on goal difference, and play Wolves, Chelsea and Tottenham in their first three matches after the restart.
Even if relegation is avoided, is this really the bright future that West Ham supporters - and board - wanted? Or will Moyes be asked to clear his desk for the second time in three seasons?