The world seemed to forget that the league doesn’t end in Christmas, or January, or March. It ends in May. Undefeated in 15, Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United have tackled the defeatists of the world and narrowed the gap from fourth (Arsenal) to just two points, and the gap from second (Tottenham Hotspur) to five, by February. While the position is hardly one to brag about in the grand scheme of the Premier League, and Chelsea has run away with the competition, perspective is needed to better understand the dilemma that faces English football this season.
The truth is, Jose Mourinho has done incredibly well amongst the adversity surrounding Manchester United- the Red Devils are yet to be eliminated from a cup, sit within a game of the top four, with United still to play four of the five teams above, and look a fantastic bet to win the Premier League and compete in the Champions League next year. While United is almost certainly not going to win the Premier League, there has been an incredible change of attitude at Old Trafford.
However, the margins are very small in England. As exemplified by Leicester’s easy work of the Champions League Group Stages, England is home to many teams good enough to play in the Champions League, but none good enough to be considered favourites to win overall. While United and Chelsea have done recent work to change that reality, neither have yet built the consistency to challenge Real Madrid, Barcelona, or Bayern Munich without a tactical masterclass in the form of Atletico Madrid.
The problem with having six clubs that belong in the Champions League, though, is that only four (maybe five) can actually participate in the competition on a yearly basis, which has damning financial implications. In that sense, Louis van Gaal’s dubbed “rat race” of qualifying for Europe’s elite competition is more of a bloodbath, and this year, the margins are lowest of all.
Tottenham, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool, and Manchester United could realistically finish in any order this season, which is why United fans are more ecstatic than they have been for years about a measly sixth position. Each side has their merits, but also their weaknesses, which could decide which teams are ultimately successful.
Tottenham is the best defensive side, but sometimes fails to score goals, and lacks the Ballon d’Or quality of Arsenal, Manchester City, and Manchester United going forward. In addition, they seem to endure poor stretches of form when European football comes back, and it will be interesting to see how Mauricio Pochettino treats Europa League as a result.
Manchester City possesses the ability to beat any team in Europe at their best, but they have obvious defensive errors and a catastrophe of a goalkeeping situation, along with the inconsistency that comes with an ageing squad.
Arsenal, arguably the most consistent team in the Premier League, has Alexis Sanchez, who would win Player of the Year if it was awarded today, but they capitulate every year and seem to be improving the least of the five as the year progresses.
Liverpool has obvious problems, with the least talented squad on paper, but their attacking capabilities, through the use of versatility and Jurgen Klopp’s system-building brilliance, have carried them to a promising position in the Premier League. They may also find comfort from the fact that they’re out of the cup competitions, as annoying as that seems for a Liverpool fan.
That leaves Manchester United, written off after a poor start but fighting their way through. Looking capable of going undefeated for the rest of the season, United’s task is now to ensure that more draws become wins. However, there’s as much of a guarantee of success in this Premier League as there is in the Europa League, and United strives for excellence, so the best form will need to come in sequence with success in other competitions.
However, for the first time in years, United will venture into this race feeling more confident than the other sides. Liverpool plays Tottenham next week, and United plays Watford, giving United the chance to reduce the margins of error even more. The rest of the world will keep mocking United, but they will end up in sixth if they aren’t careful- five points separate the Premier League’s five most prospering clubs, and no one can be written off just yet.