Man City lead the way as we enter the second half of the season
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.
Points returns of champions in 38-game seasons
First 21 games, Last 17 games
United 1995/96 1.95 2.41
United 1996/97 1.81 2.18
Arsenal 1997/98 1.7 2.53
United 1998/99 1.81 2.41
United 99/2000 2.26 2.53
United 2000/01 2.24 1.94
Arsenal 2001/02 1.95 2.67
United 2002/03 1.81 2.65
Arsenal 2003/04 2.33 2.41
Chelsea 2004/05 2.48 2.53
Chelsea 2005/06 2.76 1.94
United 2006/07 2.52 2.12
United 2007/08 2.29 2.3
United 2008/09 2.24 2.53
Chelsea 2009/10 2.29 2.24
United 2010/11 2.14 2.06
City 2011/12 2.43 2.24
United 2012/13 2.48 2.18
City 2013/14 2.24 2.29
Chelsea 2014/15 2.33 2.24
Leicester 2015/16 2.05 2.34
Chelsea 2016/17 2.48 2.41
City 2017/18 2.81 2.41
City 2018/19 2.38 2.83
Liverpool 2019/20 2.91 2.24
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.
That is most notable with City right now. The Independent reported in November how sources maintained Guardiola and his staff had adjusted their physical conditioning programme for this season, to weather the taxing start, and ensure they are in the right form now. It sounds very Ferguson, and very 1990s. It looks very good right now, like they are in that classic run-in form.
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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