Liverpool made one of the easiest title runs in the history of the Premier League, clinching the 2019-20 title with seven of 38 matches remaining. They finished the season with 99 points in league play, second most ever after Manchester City, who finished 18 points behind the Reds in second place this season. The likes of Arsenal (eighth place, 43 points behind Liverpool), Tottenham (sixth place, 40 points back) and Leicester City (fifth place, 37 points back) have a lot of work to do to bridge any kind of gap.
Overall, does that level of dominance portend a run of titles for Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, or will the league race be a much more competitive affair next season? Probably the latter.
This week we will look at each of next season’s most likely Premier League contenders, their biggest strengths and weaknesses moving forward, and what they must do to rise to the top of the league. Today, we look at teams that either have more money than most (Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal) or spent a lot of time near the top of the table in 2019-20 (Leicester).
Good news: The Mourinho-Kane marriage should remain fruitful
Bad news: They’re spending a lot of money on a third-place ceiling
Biggest priority: Depth and a scorer
By the end of Mauricio Pochettino’s time as manager, Spurs were a team without an identity. Their offense was good, but not elite. They were a possession team of sorts — over 5 passes per possession, not a lot of verticality, etc. — and they gave up high-value scoring chances like a possession team sometimes does (ask Manchester City or Chelsea). Except their average possession rate was only about 52%, and opponents were starting more possessions in the attacking third than Spurs were. They were getting none of the benefit of either high possession or a counterattacking approach. They were in-betweeners, and that’s rarely a good thing — they were in 14th place when Jose Mourinho replaced Pochettino.
Few managers through the years have done a better job than Mourinho of deciding “this is how we’re going to win matches” and then setting off down that path. That identity might shift over time, and it probably won’t be aesthetically pleasing — also, he’ll lose interest in certain players (usually younger ones), and your return on investment in employing him tends to slip by Year 3 — but it still generates points.
Over 26 league matches, Mourinho’s Spurs showed solid improvement. Projected over a full season, their 1.73 points per match would produce a fourth- or fifth-place finish, though it would have potentially earned them third in 2019-20. Both the team offense and defense improved slightly, they gave the ball away less near their goal, they had more success in tight matches and, as is often the case with the counterattacking Mourinho, they possessed the ball less and booted more long passes.
When Mourinho had Harry Kane available, however, Spurs were downright good. In his first eight league matches (before Kane got hurt) and his last nine (after Kane returned), Spurs earned a combined 34 points (10 wins, four draws, three losses) and averaged nearly 2 goals per match. When both Kane and Son Heung-Min were injured in February and early March, they went six matches in all competitions without a win. But after the restart, with Kane, Son and midfielder Moussa Sissoko all healthy — not to mention Hugo Lloris, one of the few goalkeepers who can reliably exceed the average save percentage in a given season, who missed 17 league matches — Spurs were excellent. Kane scored seven goals, Spurs allowed just 0.8 goals per match, and only Manchester City and Manchester United earned more points.
In other words, Spurs were better than you probably thought down the stretch. But were they good enough? Does “if his stars remain healthy, he could finish third, and maybe even second with some breaks!” justify Mourinho’s exorbitant salary?
Spurs evidently have some offseason money to spend, and this season proved the importance of simply having quality options. Only four players played in more than 30 league matches, and Son, Kane and Sissoko all would have missed more time if not for the stoppage.
Mourinho sure could use another goal scorer, though. Despite the time they missed, Son and Kane still combined for more league goals under Mourinho (20) than everybody else on the roster (19). Lucas Moura was one of the only attackers who could stay on the pitch, but he offered only six goals and three assists after Mourinho’s hiring. Dele Alli logged six goals and four assists but missed a few matches. Kane’s odometer is only going to keep rising, so we’ll call this Priority No. 1.
Good news: Leicester have a genuine identity and overachieved this season
Bad news: Their identity required more talent and more upside
Biggest priority: A complement/foil for Jamie Vardy
When you don’t have the money of one of the Premier League’s superpowers, your primary hope for success is to craft a specific identity and lean as heavily as possible into it. For teams such as Sheffield United and Burnley, who finished in the top half of the table, that meant defensive pressure and a direct offense that searched for counterattacking opportunities without overcommitting numbers to attack. Newcastle United and West Ham United attempted similar approaches, with far more verticality and far less success.
Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City took a different approach: The Foxes attempted to combine the defensive pressure of a Burnley with a more possession-heavy attack. They had the fourth-highest possession rate in the league and ranked sixth in average passes per possession (5.4), second in passes per possession allowed (4.0), sixth in possessions started in the attacking third (7.0) and first in passes allowed per defensive action (9.6). Take out the league’s six richest clubs, and Leicester (!) were first in all of these categories.
For a while, it worked beautifully: Rodgers & Co. were second in the league in mid-January. But when you attempt to play a particularly high-intensity, high-work-rate style without the depth of the superpowers, you risk running out of gas, and after averaging 2.4 points per match through 16 matches, Leicester averaged only 1.1 from there. Their possession continued apace, but their defensive pressure withered, and they could never find a goal-scoring complement for Jamie Vardy. He finished with 23 league goals, but no one else had more than eight.
Leicester were never really as good as their early form and not quite as bad as their late form — they overachieved their xG differential by 0.9 goals per game through 16, then underachieved it by 0.3 over the last 22 — and they still had a chance at third place heading into the final matchday, but a 2-0 loss to Manchester United sent them to fifth.
The Foxes could have really used that Champions League money, as they head into this brief offseason facing a few conundrums. Vardy is now 33 years old, and Leicester need both a complement for him and an eventual replacement. They could find one in someone like Real Madrid‘s Luka Jovic or Brentford’s Said Benrahma, but that will take up basically the entire transfer budget.
Selling sought-after left back Ben Chilwell would allow them to add a few more pieces, but it would also take away one of their most high-upside players. And in the end, a lack of upside hurt them almost as much as a lack of depth. A high-quality possession-and-pressure game requires both.
Rodgers’ approach meant mostly fantastic results against lesser teams — a 9-0 win over Southampton in October, cumulative sweeps of 8-0 against Newcastle and 8-1 against Aston Villa — but in eight matches against the four teams that finished above them, they lost six times with two draws and got outscored 16-5. Worse, three of the goals came in draws against defensively challenged Chelsea; against Liverpool, City and United, they were outscored 13-2.
It’s hard to crack the top four if you can’t beat anyone in the top four, and that they almost pulled it off shows you the draws of Rodgers’ modern system. But where do you go from here? Can you pull off a better performance with the addition of one more scorer? Can you get even more defensively intense? Is fifth place the best Leicester can hope for?
Good news: No one is predicting a title in 2021 …
Bad news: … or 2022, or 2023
Biggest priority: Disruption
Mikel Arteta came up in Barcelona‘s system and spent the last five years of his playing career learning from Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger. His first coaching gig was a 3½-year stint as an assistant at Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. His résumé is pretty spectacular, though you didn’t see much of Wenger’s or Guardiola’s influence during Arteta’s early Arsenal tenure.
Arteta took over on Dec. 20, with the Gunners mired in 10th place, and under his guidance, their average goals, goals allowed and points per game all improved slightly. This improvement came with no possession advantages or disruption. Opponents’ average passes per possession went up, and Arsenal’s leakiness near its own goal barely improved. Only Norwich City gave opponents more possessions in the attacking third than the Gunners, before or after Arteta’s arrival, and he wasn’t able to counter that with an increase in defensive pressure of his own. The “improvement” was, in the end, part-mirage, as their xG differential actually sank from minus-0.17 per match to minus-0.37.
While this isn’t a total gut job, Arteta will need some time to build a team in his vision (whatever that is). The best thing he’s got going for him is that it’s impossible not to see that, and it’s not Guardiola that he’ll be emulating during this rebuild — it’s Klopp.
When Klopp took over at Anfield in October 2015, Liverpool were in ninth place, having averaged 1.5 points per match to that point. He improved them only slightly, to 1.6, through the rest of that season. (Arsenal’s averages this season? They were at 1.5 before Arteta’s hire, 1.6 after.) Liverpool did improve to 2.0 in 2016-17, a trajectory that might be a little too aggressive for the Gunners, but their general approach was what Arteta and Arsenal will now embark on: slowly unfurl your intended philosophy over time, while stockpiling players who will be in range of their athletic peak in about three years. Generally speaking, that means guys currently between about 21 and 25 years old.
Of the nine players who logged at least 1,000 league minutes for Arteta, only two currently fit within that range (on-loan midfielder Dani Ceballos and attacker Nicolas Pepe), and only one is younger (18-year-old left-back Bukayo Saka). Plenty of others saw rotation time — full-backs Hector Bellerin (25) and Ainsley Maitland-Niles (22), central defender Rob Holding (24), midfielders Lucas Torreira (24), Kieran Tierney (23) and Matteo Guendouzi (21), wingers Reiss Nelson (20) and Gabriel Martinelli (19), forwards Eddie Nketiah (21) and Joe Willock (20) — but Arteta obviously doesn’t quite know what he’s got yet.
Arsenal also won’t have a ton of money to spend right out of the gate. They’ve been linked to Atletico Madrid‘s 27-year-old Thomas Partey and Porto’s 28-year-old Danilo Pereira, which makes little sense considering either their age or likely asking prices. Another rumored target, Celtic‘s 22-year-old Odsonne Edouard, makes more sense agewise, but isn’t particularly disruptive. RB Leipzig‘s Dayot Upamecano would be a perfect addition, but if he’s available at all, Manchester City and other heavyweights will probably come after the defender, and with more money to spend.
It will be tricky to make any major roster improvements this offseason, but one astute move could be to sell high on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who scored 22 goals this season but also just turned 31. If Arsenal is contending in a few years, he probably won’t be a part of it, and his value will never be higher.