It’s fair to say that the Barclays Premier League has seen one of the most unpredictable and pulsating seasons in its history over the past seven months. Whilst a lot has been made of Aston Villa’s poor form at the wrong end of the table, what everybody is focusing on right now is the fierce battle for the title. With ten games left for most sides, and realistically the top six sides all having a chance of winning top prize, we are all set for hopefully one of the best title races in BPL history. Obviously a lot can happen between now and Sunday 15th May, but the question on everybody’s lips is who will win the title?
So who are our candidates for top spot? Current leaders Leicester City are certainly the bookmaker’s favourite at the moment, but those bookies could be set to pay out big bucks if those who backed the Foxes at the start of the season are proven right. Spurs are a close second, in both the table and the odds, with Arsenal’s chances becoming ever slimmer by the day right now after three consecutive losses in all competitions. Manchesters City and United are always in with a chance every season, and this season’s second surprise package West Ham round off the top six, sitting only 11 points off top spot. Everybody has an opinion on who will win out of those six, but there a lot of contributing factors that need to align for any sort of success to follow in each team’s title chase. Let’s separate this to a team-by-team basis to decipher all those opinions and statistics we are bombarded with.
Firstly, let’s talk about Leicester. There are no superlatives left unused by those in the media to describe how unbelievable their season has been so far. Within the past 24 months, they have gone from Championship winners to bottom of the Premier League in December 2014 to true BPL title contenders. All this while keeping their squad nucleus of Kasper Schmeichel, Wes Morgan, Danny Drinkwater and Jamie Vardy, who have all played out of their skins this season. Their story of rags to riches in such a money-dominated league as the BPL is probably the most heroic and noteworthy in the nigh-on 24 year history of the competition. There is no doubt Claudio Ranieri has worked hard to reinvent Leicester’s purpose in the Premier League, revolutionising their tactics and inspiring fearlessness in his players. His counter-attacking 4-4-2 tactic has been a joy to watch this season, creating shockwaves by actually breaking up the dominance of the game-controlling 4-2-3-1 amongst the top clubs. Their game plan, quite simply, is perfectly built to win big games, but the problem is that they may come unstuck against similarly defensively-minded teams, like Norwich last Saturday.
Their form is certainly looking good at the moment, with only one loss in their last 10 games, against title rivals Arsenal. However, they have drawn four of those ten, when to be winners by mid-May they will have to start winning those games, start seizing the chances they have been prone to miss in the last few games. Another issue they may have is injuries/suspensions to key players, such as Riyad Mahrez or Robert Huth, as like we saw against West Brom on Wednesday, the injured N’Golo Kante could’ve won the game had he been involved.
Next we come to Tottenham Hotspur, the perennial bridesmaids in North London to Arsenal in the Premier League era, the consistent under-achievers possibly now realising their potential when those around them fail. Over the past few years, some fans have complained about the failure to replace star players such as Gareth Bale or Luca Modric, but few have had issues with the replacements of Hugo Lloris for Huerelho Gomes, Harry Kane for Roman Pavlyuchenko or Kyle Walker for Vedran Corluka. This steady development of young, often British youngsters and involvement of them into the first team can lay a lot of its credit with Mauricio Pochettino, who has worked wonders creating an attacking, fast-paced team. There is no doubt that Spurs have a hungry squad, with exciting talent such as Dele Alli, Joshua Onomah and Heung Son-Min, but there is a big question mark hanging over them; are they a title-winning squad? I know I may get hate for this (Tyler) but I personally don’t think they are. They are certainly a good team, but they don’t really have the experienced heads required, the previous title-winners that some like Manchester City do.
Harry Kane’s stuttering form will also be a concern for fans, as when any team’s number 9 is not firing, they aren’t going to pick up as many points as they need. Based on the fact that they don’t have a quality backup to Kane, I believe they need to get him in the goals soon or see their hopes fail at the last stage.
Move just over four miles down the road, and we come to our next stop; Arsenal. What to say that hasn’t already been said season on season before? Once again they have begun to falter after a promising first half of the season. It has become the footballing equivalent of Tim Henman’s Wimbledon fate; a cruel cliché, always top 4 finishers, never fulfilling their title-winning ambitions. Arsene Wenger has made a career out of it, never to better their golden days of the Invincibles. I for one have always admired how Wenger gets his teams to play; slick, precise passing slowly building up to well-worked goals. To have played so beautifully and to have recruited such talent such as Alexis Sanchez, Petr Cech and Olivier Giroud (who I rate very highly), yet not win the BPL would be criminal. Sadly Wenger does not seem to realise this, even defending his team’s second-half collapse against Swansea on Wednesday night, which must infuriate Arsenal fans. If he continues with this passive attitude, the club will never win the league under him, as they won’t have the hunger or ruthlessness required to dominate.
Arsenal’s ability to retreat into their shell, lose their belief and bottle it in big games is second to none in the BPL, their poor records against Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City over the past few years easily representing their mistakes. Personally, I think it honestly comes down to ability. Arsenal have international players, yes, but barring Sanchez or Cech, they don’t have world class players. Instead of building a squad, Wenger needs to learn to take a risk and splash the cash on individuals or risk being left behind. Don’t get me wrong, Wenger has been a great manager in BPL history, he just hasn’t become respected on the same level as Sir Alex Ferguson. It takes more than just great to win the title.
For our next contenders, we find Manchester City, wounded from consecutive league losses to Leicester, Spurs and Liverpool, waiting for a certain Pep Guardiola to arrive. From the outside, it appears the players might have packed up for the season and are arrogant enough to believe they are already guaranteed places under Guardiola. 10 points behind Leicester, I can see disbelief amongst Pellegrini’s camp, a lack of effort in such a vital period of the season. From what I saw of them against Liverpool on Match of the Day on Wednesday, City appeared ragged and lethargic, with their captain Vincent Kompany at least three yards off the pace, devoid of emotion. Even Pellegrini couldn’t be bothered to get out of his seat and shout some orders or encouragement to his team.
But there are some positives for City. They certainly have the talent required to win games at the tail end of a season, with world class talents such as Sergio Agüero, David Silva and Yaya Touré. These types of players have the ability to win games on their own, reflecting this in the club’s wage bill, the highest in the Premier League. They play exciting, gung-ho football which either works perfectly in bombarding teams, or ,as we have seen this season, can fail to live up to standards in big games. If City can comfortably win their seemingly simple next couple of games against Aston Villa and Norwich, they should have confidence to carry into the Manchester derby. That game could be the make or break moment of their season, defining their achievements.
Now we have to touch on a subject very close to me, as being a Manchester United fan, I should know about our current predicament. From the start of the season, I think most United fans would’ve predicted a solid top-4 finish, improving without pulling any trees up. It could be said we are still heading for that, but the season we have had has been a truly mystifying one, with a surprisingly strong summer, a wobbly autumn and a poor winter contributing to our current position. Since the turn of the year, we have been picking up and Louis van Gaal seems to be more accepting of differing opinions within the club, finally playing a more expressive game. Regular injuries to key players have hampered our cause, admittedly, but at certain points LvG has look like a doomed man, with a team that never seems to string good performances across the pitch together. From what I’ve seen of their play this season, too much focus on fixing our defence crippled our bland attack, however now that he has freed up our attack the defence look incredibly panicked.
If anything, Manchester United are, ironically enough, the underdogs of this title race, undoubtedly possessing the quality to win most of their remaining games, but lacking the consistency. We have a very tricky run-in including Man City, Spurs, West Ham and Everton as the picks of the bunch. Realistically, we have to win at least three of those vital games to even stand a chance of competing. If Rooney, Smalling, Schweinsteiger and Valencia can return with a bang, we could be in for a shock on the level of the ‘Miracle of Medinah’. I wouldn’t bet on it though.
Finally, we arrive at a ground that within a year will likely be a pile of rubble, Upton Park of West Ham. Personally, I think Slaven Bilic has been the managerial signing of the season in the Premier League, as he has completely transformed the style of play the players there are used to under the previous management, and prompted a radical change in the club’s ambitions. He was the perfect match for the club; a cult hero in his playing days there, a respected yet self-deprecating character who was on the same wavelength as both Davids Gold and Sullivan. With the massive leap from mid-table security to Continental football at the Olympic Stadium surely about to be realised, Bilic is treating fans to another golden age of football in the claret-and-blue territories of London. In many ways, Bilic and Ranieri have been on a very similar path this season, but the difference will be seen by May.
The Hammers’ form has been scintillating this season, mainly due to a squad clear-out during the summer, crucially swapping players like Kevin Nolan, Carlton Cole and Stewart Downing for Dimitri Payet, Angelo Ogbonna and Manuel Lanzini. These continentally-trained players suit Bilic’s free-flowing, powerful style of play far better, while his man-management skills are shown from the adaptations of Mark Noble, Michael Antonio and James Tomkins to the new tactics. This may not sustain a title push this season, though, as all of the clubs above West Ham are likely to pull away during the Hammers’ fixtures against Chelsea and Stoke, while consecutive games against Arsenal the Leicester will definitely be challenging.
From all of my thoughts, it is very hard to spot a clear winner from these teams. If there’s one thing I will go out on record saying, it’s that this will be the tightest fight for years, maybe even decided on the final day. By my predictions, I will say Leicester City will win the league, and to be boring I will say it will be by two points ahead of Spurs. Honestly, the most points any side can realistically achieve in their final 10 (or 11 for Man City) games is 21 points, due to the mixed results this season, where anyone can be anyone else. Looking at all the last 10 games for each side, I believe most will be tight, low score lines in which counter-attacking football will conquer for Leicester. The Foxes will prey on any lapses in concentration and make potentially match-winning breaks. Taking this into consideration, Kasper Schmeichel and Jamie Vardy will be the key elements of the side, one saving goals and the other scoring them, as quick end-to-end movement is their skill.
While Leicester’s sole focus is on the league, Spurs still have the Europa League to deal with and 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th are still in the FA Cup. This could be the deciding factor of the title race, managing objectives. I think Ranieri’s cool head and experience will prevail over the youthful shape-up of Spurs, who I believe will slip up in the big games. Arsenal will recover from their slump but fail to have a major say on the final day, Man City may relinquish fourth spot to rivals United, who I think could finally gain form, and West Ham will continue surprising, but not quite enough to crack the top four.
This is all in my theory, at least. I could be proved totally wrong. Leicester could crumble, Arsenal could majorly falter without Petr Cech and Man City could win all of their games, a lot of things are unpredictable. In fact, there is no need to predict it all. Just sit back, relax and take it all in. But what would we do on the days without football? Joking aside, the only thing I can say without doubt is that when it is all over, we will surely look back at the 2015/16 title race as one of the classics. It has been the feel good season (apart from for Villa fans), so let the good times roll. After all, it’s only football!
If you like, drop a comment below saying who you think will win the title and why!
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!