Premier League: Blip or disruption to top six hierarchy?

The downturn in form of the Premier League's three most recent successful sides has opened the door for some non traditional top-six sides to take advantage. Is this a dramatic change in the league's paradigm or just a blip in form? asks John Roycroft
Premier League: Blip or disruption to top six hierarchy?

Brighton's Danny Welbeck celebrates after scoring his side's third goal during the English Premier League soccer match against  Liverpool at the Falmer Stadium in Brighton. Picture: AP Photo/Frank Augstein

EVEN though February is nearly upon us, the Premier League only reaches the half way point this week, and few of us would have predicted when the season kicked-off, back in the warm climes of August, that the top six would have looked like this with half the season still to pay.

The great thing about sport is that once anyone thinks they have the it sussed, the whole thing is disrupted and you are forced to ask ‘what the hell is going on?’ There was an argument that Arsenal and Man United were a good call for dark horse challengers in the title race back in August. A decade plus of below par performances indicated that it had to happen some time. And there was the growing belief that the Saudi cash injection and subsequent boost to morale would stand to Newcastle. But most believed that it was another season or even two away from a serious challenge.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola reacts on the touchline during the Premier League match against Spurs at the Etihad Stadium, Manchester. 
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola reacts on the touchline during the Premier League match against Spurs at the Etihad Stadium, Manchester. 

Stumbles

Certainly few would have predicted the fall-off in form of England’s most recent Champions League winners, who have witnessed almost catastrophic collapses in form as the season has wound out. There are reasons for Chelsea and Liverpool’s struggles, not least injury and exhaustion excuses. But still, it’s not like every season does not throw up these barricades to hamper every football side’s bid for glory.

Even the invincible Manchester City, Thursday's fightback against Spurs withstanding, have shown feet of clay this season, losing three and drawing three matches already, nearly as much as their entire season-long setbacks last season. They are now struggling to hold on to second, not to mind mount a challenge on top spot, while also making an early exit from the League Cup.

But the sides that are really impressing towards the top of the table this time out has to be Brighton & Hove Albion, Brentford, and Fulham’s wonderous performances.

These minnows are pure Ted Lasso material, sides with almost comical resources, defying the odds and giving more than one ‘elite’ club a black eye or two against all the odds.

Brighton and Hove Albion manager Roberto De Zerbi applauds the fans after the Premier League match at the American Express Community Stadium, Brighton. Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
Brighton and Hove Albion manager Roberto De Zerbi applauds the fans after the Premier League match at the American Express Community Stadium, Brighton. Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

Minnows roar

As someone who regularly has written off Brighton in my pre-season previews, I am astonished at how confidently the Seagulls are performing this season, especially when you consider that they lost their talismanic manager Graham Potter to Chelsea earlier in the season. That they have survived and even improved must be attributed to the skill of Potter’s replacement in the shape of Roberto De Zerbi, whose reaction to their recent league 3-0 win over Liverpool may give an insight into why the club is enjoying such an exciting run since he took control at the helm. Pointing out that he stayed awake all night after the match watching replays from the game looking for ways to improve, saying, “This is why I maybe never fully enjoy my successes. I always think about improving. With Brighton, we must aim for perfection in football. Perfection is impossible. But we'll work hard to get as closest as possible.” The man he replaced has not enjoyed the same success at Chelsea and may be look wistfully at his days in Brighton now, as things continue to sour at Stamford Bridge.

Even as Chelsea, Liverpool, and even Man City, by their own high standards, struggle to maintain their winning ratio, it should be remembered that these three sides have won everything in the domestic and European game for the past decade. In that it has to be considered that injury, burnout, and a mid-season World Cup have all impacted the teams and that every few years a transition year occurs where the top sides are forced into rejuvenation and recuperation that allows the door open for the opportune side take advantage while the top sides rebuild.

Captain Wes Morgan and manager Claudio Ranieri of Leicester City lift the Premier League trophy back on May 7, 2016 in Leicester, Picture:  Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Captain Wes Morgan and manager Claudio Ranieri of Leicester City lift the Premier League trophy back on May 7, 2016 in Leicester, Picture:  Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Opportunity?

The last such clear and exaggerated example of this being Leicester City’s Premier League title win in 2015-16, where the Foxes took advantage of six or seven top sides coincidently taking the same season to rebuild their squads. Mid-table Leicester City and Claudio Ranieri saw and took their chance to step in for the title, while the top six stumbled over themselves to find elaborate ways to lose matches.

2022-23 has the same feel, if not so dramatic consequences to it.

Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag with Crystal Palace manager Patrick Vieira ahead of the Premier League match at Selhurst Park, London on Wednesday. Picture: Adam Davy/PA Wire
Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag with Crystal Palace manager Patrick Vieira ahead of the Premier League match at Selhurst Park, London on Wednesday. Picture: Adam Davy/PA Wire

Now Arsenal and Man United and even Newcastle cannot be described as small sides in the likes of Leicester. But they are making the most of the opportunity of stepping in where three of the usual top six sides are off their game.

It might be an early sign of a changing of the guard, but with the kind of money behind these sides and even more reported to be coming from the Gulf States, it is likely that this flux at the top of the table may be more a temporary aberration rather than a permanent disruption of the old guard.  But it is refreshing to witness for now.

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