“You can just see from his body language at the minute,” Gareth Barry tells The Independent. “He’s so relaxed on the sideline, which you don’t generally see from him. That, for me, is a sign he’s confident with the players out there.”
Familiarity, with top spot and top form, has evidently bred contentment. City’s recent surge is not all that’s familiar, though, in this season that had been so unpredictable. There’s also the title race that surge is influencing.
Up until recently, the effects of the Covid crisis had ensured this season had been hard to get a read on, which had led to predictions it will be the most volatile ever or perhaps the perfect set-up for something like Leicester City 2015/16. That’s how disorientating many early results were. There was a level of unpredictability that many in the modern game hadn’t seen before, but it wasn’t exactly unprecedented.
As the dust on that helter-skelter opening half to the season starts to settle, it actually looks a lot like a season from the mid to late 1990s. All the ingredients are there, right down to the fact the points gap from top to middle is at its narrowest since 1998/99 – 13 compared to 11. There has also been the chaotic first half, surprise results as well surprise leaders and, finally, perhaps, one or two good teams putting the foot – and the law – down for the run-in.
In the 1990s, of course, it was usually Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United doing that. His mantra at the time was that it was only the first half of the season where you could afford to make mistakes, so as to gear yourself up for the run-in. But mistakes were certainly made.
United’s 6-3 defeat by Southampton in November 1996/97 – which came in the middle of one of Ferguson’s worst runs as manager – was as shocking at the time as anything this season, and probably the equivalent of Liverpool’s 7-2 defeat to Aston Villa.
It’s also forgotten that United were in third at this exact point of the treble-winning 1998/99 season, and weren’t behind Arsenal. The teams ahead of them? Joint leaders Chelsea and Aston Villa. Barry was a debutant player in that Villa side.
“It was my first full season, you find yourself top of the league, and there was a feeling anything can happen.”
A similar feeling coursed through other sides who found themselves in the top four at this stage of previous seasons, like Ipswich Town and Sunderland in 2000/01 as well as Charlton Athletic 2003/04.
That last season, in the mid-2000s, does mark a line in the sand. Up until then, the reality of the Premier League – the competition’s great truth, imbued with so much gravitas – was that the title was won in the run after Christmas. That was the business end. That was what Ferguson always primed his teams for.
“It was a learning curve after Christmas,” Barry says. “The team’s form dropped – which is probably what we’re seeing from a lot of teams that have been up there this season. There was a different type of pressure. Expectation draws in on you. It was about consistency.”
It was Jose Mourinho’s arrival in 2004 – backed by Roman Abramovich’s billions – that transformed even the parameters of consistency. His Chelsea team started both of the Portuguese’s first seasons at full pelt, winning the first nine games of 2005/06, to ensure peaking after Christmas just wouldn’t take you high enough. Ferguson later admitted Mourinho made him change his strategy.
It naturally helped that United had the resources to compete. This was what Mourinho’s arrival also sign-posted. It was the application of greater resources, creating the initial ‘Big Four’ and the first financial gap in the Premier League big enough to start distorting the competition. The real consequence was not that the mentality changed, but that the capability changed. Financial disparity ensured better sides could assert their superiority much more consistently over the entire season. It wasn’t so much the fast start replacing the strong finish as teams being able to win more regularly until they just didn’t need to.
That can be seen in the points returns from previous champions from the first 21 games – the stage we are at now – and the rest of the run-in.
The line can be seen. Before 2004/05, the champions always ramped it up in the new year, and by quite a distance. Since then, they’ve only really done that when they’ve had a proper competitor in the title race.
The current situation has essentially caused a reversion to the 1990s. That’s what the upheaval of the 2020 break and its many connected factors have done. It may not be as far-reaching as the great shocks – and maybe sides like Everton or Villa competing for the title – some expected, but it is hugely significant given how the growth of that financial disparity had distorted the game further. You only had to look at Liverpool’s relentless winning run last season as the ultimate example. This season has been quite the contrast.
It has also caused clubs and managers to re-assess.
Other sides may yet readjust themselves, though. Liverpool, so affected by the schedule in the form of so many injuries early on, may yet see enough players come back for the run-in to make a difference. Solskjaer meanwhile has the guidance of Ferguson himself, having also tempered United’s playing strategy. Their more staggered press may be distinctively beneficial this season.
Chelsea, meanwhile, have one of the strongest and deepest squads in Europe, as if built for this situation.
There is still a possibility for an outsider to do something, too. You can’t rule anything out this season, and the return of European football may yet cause more upheaval.
It’s just that it right now feels like the top sides have familiarised themselves with the conditions, and it’s led to a familiar situation. It might yet mean we have a classic run-in race.
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