With Chelsea top and Manchester City in joint second, there’s a familiar look to the Premier League table as the two sides prepare to meet at the Etihad today.
Indeed, to see champions Leicester City languishing in 14th place, a full 18 points off the pace, you could be forgiven for thinking the 2015/16 season was a dream in more ways than one.
For Sky Sports pundit and former Liverpool, Spurs and England midfielder Jamie Redknapp, the Foxes’ title triumph was a one-off to be savoured but, for all the romance of their unlikely achievement, he is not at all unhappy to see the big beasts back dominating the arena.
“I think the best thing that could have happened to the Premier League is Leicester winning it because it told you that anyone can win this league and it gave the underdogs that bit of belief,” he reflects.
But, of course, there’s a but… “I wouldn’t take anything away from what Leicester did but it was a perfect storm for them,” he continues.
“And you see what happens when you take one player out of that Leicester team – and N’golo Kante was probably the best player of 2016 for me. You saw the effect he had at Leicester, then he goes to Chelsea and now they’re top of the league. He’s been phenomenal.
“But I have to say I do like the fact normal service has been resumed this year. Okay there are worries about a team like Man United but don’t forget how quickly things can change. I signed for Liverpool the year they last won the League (1990). And if you said then that they wouldn’t win it again for 26, 27 years, they’d have put you in a strait-jacket.
“But this season we’ve got most of the big teams really in contention again: Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal – and I’d still put Tottenham in the equation. They’ve had a tough couple of weeks but going out of the Champions League might be the best thing that could happen to them.
“Yes, the whole thing was a debacle, including the fact they played at Wembley. But the really disappointing thing is that when I look back at Tottenham last year, they had three players they really couldn’t do without – (Toby) Alderweireld, (Harry) Kane and (Mousa) Dembele. Now I can’t think how many times, because of injury, they’ve been on the pitch together this year. Very few. But I think once they get those three back - that’s the spine of the team - Tottenham will have a big part to play. They can certainly get into the top four and, maybe, still get into the title race.
“Because it’s not that long ago, I watched them play Man City off the park at White Hart Lane. They’re still a very good side. And the only big worry for me is that Pochettino starts to get a bit disillusioned because he’s not being backed in the market - though it’s important that they have given Harry Kane a new contract.
The Sky Sports pundit acknowledges that there is no clear favourite among the title contenders, no one side that looks close to being unassailable, and for that reason he reckons external circumstances could make all the difference.
“There’s no way Chelsea could go on the run that they are and play the same players in the Premier League week in, week out, if they were in the Champions League,” he suggests.
“The advantage of not being in the Champions League is so big – look at Leicester and Tottenham last season. In fact, I think it shows you how well Arsenal did because they were in the Champions League and still came second.
“This season, looking at the main teams – City probably have the best squad but they need to do more. They’ve been flat-track bullies for 18 months. Last year, they picked up two points against the top eight. That’s not good enough. They’ve got to find a way of winning these games. This weekend they play Chelsea and Chelsea are a juggernaut at the moment. And this has been the first free week that Guardiola has had to figure out a plan to stop this Chelsea system that everyone’s having problems with. But if Man City are going to win the league they’ve got to win these kinds of games.”
If seeing Chelsea back in the title hunt is no great surprise, the fact that the hitherto erratic David Luiz has been central to their progress under Antonio Conte is.
“In a back four I’d still have doubts about him but in a back three it works for him,” says Redknapp. “I think the manager must have explained to him. I’ve spoken to John Terry about this and every single day at Chelsea they film training and they watch it the following day.
“Now, we’ve all heard about teams watching games back – but Conte watches the training back with the players. That’s still incredibly unusual although it’s starting to happen more and more now.
“He’s getting the players to buy into the system so that every player knows where they are when they haven’t got the ball. We played that system at Liverpool with a slight difference when we had two up whereas they play with a one and two wide. And that’s where they’re giving teams problems. With the two wing-backs, you can’t really find gaps in the pitch against them.
“The other thing with Luiz is that I’m pretty sure the manager has said to him, ‘look, just kick it out’. I’ve noticed that so much this year – when he’s in doubt, he just gets rid of it. It’s like he’s said to him, ‘I don’t want to see how clever a player you are – that’s what I want to see from Hazard, from Costa, from Pedro’.
“But, I have to be honest, he’s been a revelation in that system.”
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