After three years of the dominant Liverpool-Manchester City duopoly, the greatest hope for this season was more substantial competition.
With Chelsea strengthening in the summer, José Mourinho steering the Tottenham ship, and Manchester United rolling Bruno Fernandes up in bubble wrap, pundits and fans alike were hoping that this season could be the turning point.
So far, so good. At the time of writing, only seven points separate the top ten and, with games in hand to be played, the fight for top spot has certainly proven more compelling than Liverpool’s relentless march to the title last year.
Unfortunate injuries and some closing of the quality gap have played a part, but, as has been the theme of 2020, Covid-19 has acted as the ultimate wildcard this season. No fans in stadiums, a more hectic fixture list, a lack of summer break and the odd Covid-positive player missing games have all contributed to the greater regularity of ‘shock’ results and the overall shape of the table.
So, what’s the story so far? Has hope been restored?
There was plenty of drama in the first few gameweeks. Aston Villa’s 7-2 humbling of Liverpool set the tone that the Reds could be beaten, and it was in fact the blue side of Merseyside that was enjoying the early form.
Greater problems were forming in Manchester – slow starts saw City mid-table and United sitting precariously above the relegation zone, leading to the inevitable calls for Ole Gunnar Solskjær to get the sack.
Meanwhile, Tottenham were silencing early critics, with a sub-par opening week performance against Everton soon forgotten by a strong run of form culminating in a statement win against Manchester City. Harry Kane was proving that he could fit the Mourinho mould whilst everything Son Heung-Min touched turned to goals, increasing speculation that Tottenham would be the team to mount a title challenge against Liverpool.
Success was made all the sweeter by a poor string of results for their noisy neighbours – four wins and one draw in their opening twelve games condemned Arsenal to their worst start to a season since 1974, increasing pressure on Mikel Arteta to simply avoid relegation.
In South West London, Frank Lampard was delivering on a huge financial backing made in the summer, following Liverpool and Tottenham closely with an impressive unbeaten run that saw Chelsea sit 3rd. However, poor form since has seen the Blues drop dramatically down the table, placing Lampard next in the queue for the chopping board.
Such downward trends have also been exhibited by the other two frontrunners, tightening the current gap at the top of the table. If games in hand go as expected, three points could separate the top six at the seventeen-game mark.
Liverpool can point to horrible luck with injuries as one reason for their slow start. A long-term injury to Virgil Van Dijk, a knock for new signing Thiago Alcantara, and more woes for various other players have deprived the team of its solidity in defence and left the squad thin.
Other teams have also shown their quality to close the gap. Most notably, Leicester, Southampton, Everton and Aston Villa have proven they can compete with the established ‘Big Six’, owing to the breadth of quality managers and individual performers in the league.
Yet, more importantly, Covid-19 has had spill-over effects upon the Premier League.
One obvious implication has been the ban on fans in stadiums, which has coincided with a significant increase in away wins compared to previous seasons.
Disruption to last season has also had the added effect of significantly shortening pre-season, reducing both rest periods and time to allow summer transfers to slot in. This has manifested itself in the lack of early momentum for any team as each squad struggled with consistency in the opening games.
Issues have been further compounded by players testing positive for coronavirus, leading to missed games, which have left squads without key members. This has been particularly significant for players who have dealt with the longer-term effects of the virus, most notable being Kai Havertz. The Chelsea midfielder has struggled with fitness since recovering from Covid-19, leaving the Blues short of options in the middle of the park.
More recently, the tightening of the table in the last few gameweeks can be partly attributed to congestion in the fixture list due to coronavirus delaying the start of the season. After a patch of good form, Tottenham and Chelsea have shown tiredness and a lack of creativity as of late, culminating in poorer results in their last few games. Liverpool appear to be showing a similar trend with the rush of matches, dropping points which has closed the gap at the top.
Whilst the passing of the tight fixture list in the next few weeks may recover the fitness for these squads and see a return to form, record-high Covid-positive tests across the English football divisions will likely halt momentum for many teams, increasing the regularity of dropped points for the frontrunners in the near future.
One thing for certain is that this season has, so far, been anything but predictable. The next hope for neutrals can only be that this continues (if the Premier League does in fact continue in the coming weeks), marking the return of competition to English football.