Here’s something obvious which nevertheless feels hard to believe: Chelsea are still the world champions of club football.
It seems much longer than a year ago that Thomas Tuchel and Roman Abramovich were posing with the World Club Championship trophy at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi. In reality it’s hardly been 11 months. Nine days after that final Russia invaded Ukraine, setting off the chain of events that transformed so much about the world, including that small blue corner of it which is now owned by Todd Boehly.
In hindsight, 2022 saw more significant changes at the top of the Premier League than any since 2013, when Alex Ferguson stepped down at Manchester United, and United’s 20-year rule gave way to a decade dominated by Manchester City.
For the last five seasons City and Liverpool have been the best Premier League teams, with Chelsea the next-most-likely side to win a major trophy, and Spurs arguably the fourth most-competitive, while Arsenal and Manchester United flailed.
That was the established order of things as recently as last May, as City and Liverpool again raced to more than 90 points in the league, while Arsenal went into the North London derby hoping to take another step towards Champions League participation by avoiding defeat against Spurs. They were thrashed 3-0, as Harry Kane and Son Heung-min put on a finishing clinic for Arsenal’s callow attackers, Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Martin Ødegaard. The only consolation was that at least United, far back in sixth place, had no chance of catching them.
Eight months later Saka, Martinelli and Ødegaard are the outstanding Premier League players in their positions and poor Son can’t kick snow off a rope. Arsenal are running away at the top of the Premier League, while the pursuing team with most momentum is Manchester United, who have won 12 of their last 13 matches in all competitions – a feat they last achieved in the autumn of 2012, when the newly-signed Robin van Persie was blasting them towards Ferguson’s last league title.
The question that will decide the rest of the season is whether City might be struggling with some of the same problems as Liverpool, disguised until now by the exceptional goalscoring of Erling Haaland
Chelsea are in chaos, while Liverpool have totally collapsed. A burnt-out team, exhausted by years of relentless chasing, fed up listening to the same old stuff from a manager who has started to give the impression he might be getting fed up listening to himself, neglecting to sign obviously-needed reinforcements, reliant on old men and young boys ... When you list off all the problems, the crash that has engulfed their season at this point feels inevitable.
But it wasn’t always so: at the start of the season you could get odds of 10/1 on Liverpool failing to finish in the Premier League’s top four this season. Inevitability is strictly a feature of hindsight.
[ Jürgen Klopp: ‘I can’t remember a worse game - and I mean all, not only Liverpool’ ]
Back then you could also have backed Arsenal to win the Premier League at odds as high as 66/1. That this now seems so crazy is testament to what Mikel Arteta and his players have achieved in a short space of time. After 18 matches they have more points than any Arsenal side has ever had at this stage of a league campaign.
Yet it was only this weekend, as City lost their derby and Arsenal won theirs to go eight points clear, that Arsenal finally became the favourites to win the title this season. The reason is that if any team is capable of winning 18 or 19 of the 20 games they have left to overhaul them, it’s surely Guardiola’s City.
The question that will decide the rest of the season is whether City might be struggling with some of the same problems as Liverpool, disguised until now by the exceptional goalscoring of Erling Haaland.
Klopp, last week, trying to explain why his team has disappeared: “Could anybody know how the last season of 63 games could influence this season? I don’t think anybody could know. It must have. We can say that now.”
If there’s anything to that, then City, whose season was just five games shorter, might also have a reckoning on the way. Their European campaign ended, like Liverpool’s, in defeat to Real Madrid, though the manner of City’s defeat – that astonishing, inexplicable late collapse in Madrid when everything was under control – was even more disappointing. Since then City players played more minutes in the World Cup than those of any other Premier League club.
[ Marcus Rashford scores derby winner as Manchester United hit back to beat City ]
One of those players was Ilkay Gundogan, who last week, after City lost to Southampton in the Carabao Cup quarters, found himself saying the same sort of things about his City team-mates that he was saying about his Germany team-mates in Qatar: “Maybe we’ve won games, but I feel like something was a little bit missing, something’s off ... at the moment it feels like there’s a special recipe missing in the team – performances, the desire and hunger is maybe not as it was in recent years.”
Analysis of City’s relatively mediocre performances in recent weeks has often focused on Haaland and his lack of involvement in the games. This seems unfair to a player who has scored at a record rate. City knew before he ever kicked a ball for them that Haaland was not like any previous striker of the Guardiola era. It would be stupid to sign a goal machine and then complain that he doesn’t get on the ball enough.
Still, there were two notable things about Haaland’s display at Manchester United. First, he often dropped back into his own half to get on the ball. Second, when he did make forward runs his team-mates didn’t seem eager to play the sort of quick forward passes he thrives on. We know Guardiola doesn’t like the passing to be too direct – he thinks it turns the game into end-to-end chaos. “And so what?” Haaland might wonder.
Maybe City can find a quick solution to this tension, but right now they are playing like a team that is not quite sure of itself. The notion that they are currently capable of putting together another of their famous 15-match winning runs feels like it might belong back in 2022, with a lot of other ancient history.