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The Premier League and the Age of the Top Six

From Antonio Conte’s tactical masterclass to Liverpool’s dominance of their closest competitors to Arsenal missing out on the Champions League, there were plenty of surprises near the the top of the league. But the 2016–17 season confirmed what many had predicted: The new top six is here to stay.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Last season, everything we knew about the Premier League went up in smoke: A team that had nearly been relegated the season before won the title, Chelsea finished 10th, José Mourinho was fired less than a year after winning it all, and West Ham and Southampton challenged for the top four. Well, that was fun while it lasted. As predicted, the top four (Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, plus one) became a top-six mini-league. Despite playing out the last month on autopilot, sixth-place Manchester United still finished eight points ahead of seventh-place Everton. The biggest story of the 2016–17 Premier League season was the establishment of the six-team hierarchy, so here are six takeaways, courtesy of each member of England’s upper crust.

1. Chelsea: A Manager Did Decide the Premier League

We told you it would happen, and well, it did.

Granted, we also told you that Chelsea wouldn’t finish in the top four … and they’d basically won the league by December, finishing with 93 points and a Premier League–record 30 wins — 18 more than last season. The most obvious reason for the leap is Mr. Athformal, the Tony Pulis of Lecce, Antonio Conte.

After back-to-back defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal in September, Conte switched from the 4–2–3–1 the roster was built for to a thin-in-the-middle 3–4–3, and his team ripped off 13 straight wins. After the Arsenal game, Chelsea outpaced the rest of the league by 11 points. It’s not like this was an obvious tweak, though: It required Conte to give significant minutes to wingbacks Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso, neither of whom had ever been anything more than league-average contributors; it gave a central role to professional self-saboteur David Luiz; and it sacrificed numbers in the midfield.

What the change really did, though, was illuminate the talents of everyone in the starting XI. Luiz has always been one of the best passers in the world — regardless of position — and the new system gave him more time on the ball and more defensive support. Moses and Alonso looked like effective attackers thanks to all the space they had on the wing and solid defenders due to all the players behind them. The solid spine of the team, coupled with the presence of a wingback, let Eden Hazard drift across the field and melt down opposing defenses with the ball at his feet. Diego Costa finished his chances, as always, at an incredibly high rate. And in the one clear area of weakness — the midfield — N’Golo Kanté and Nemanja Matic covered enough ground to do the job of three men.

The underlying numbers suggest that Chelsea weren’t the clear best team — more like “one of the best” — and they didn’t have the top goal differential, but that’s missing something important about their season. With the efficient counterattackers and the solid central bulwark, the 3–4–3 was impossible to play against when Conte’s club took the lead. With the score tied, Chelsea had a way better goal differential than any other club. The differential was zero when they were behind, but with Conte’s system, they almost never were.

2. Tottenham: Never Stop Evolving

Despite the lowest payroll of the top six, Tottenham, through Daniel Levy’s wage-suppressing mind games, came into the season with what looked like the most settled (and possibly best) starting XI in the league. After a rough first season of shuffling across a back four, Eric Dier was the top holding midfielder in England in 2015–16. So, taking all of that into account, Mauricio Pochettino moved him to center back.

Like Conte, Pochettino transitioned his team into a back-three system, but unlike Conte, Pochettino was managing a team fresh off a title challenge. Rather than running it back and hoping for better results — Tottenham had the best expected-goal difference in the EPL last season, according to Paul Riley’s model — he dropped Dier next to center backs Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, and slid new signee Victor Wanyama into midfield with Mousa Dembélé.

The result: Tottenham were even better than last year. They led the league in shots, shots on target, shots-on-target differential, goals scored, and goals allowed. Their defensive pressure was as manic as ever and they still overwhelmed opposing defenses with a flurry of shots, but the shots they took found the frame more often than in 2015–16, and the defense gave up fewer chances. For the second year running, Harry Kane won the Golden Boot. (Although, he finished tied with Everton’s Romelu Lukaku in non-penalty goals.) Most notably, though, the formation change lessened the team’s reliance on Dembélé:

The Belgian is one of the most remarkable players in the world: Like a phantom in boxing gloves, he combines fluid dribbling with a thumping defensive output. Few players can replace that skill set, and Dembélé hasn’t started 30 league games since 2011–12, so Pochettino switched to a system that centralized his other skilled players and wouldn’t peter out without the 29-year-old.

If Tottenham had gotten more than two goals and four assists out of the €55 million they spent this summer on Vincent Janssen and Moussa Sissoko, they’d probably be lifting the Premier League trophy, though it must be said that Tottenham’s 86 points would’ve won the title in 11 previous seasons. But the biggest question for the future isn’t about who’s coming in; it’s about who, including Pochettino, is going to stay.

3. Manchester City: You Can’t Manage Messi If He’s Not on Your Team

This was Pep Guardiola’s worst season as a top-flight manager. Take it from him:

And yet, per expected goals, Manchester City were the best team in the Premier League. Depending on how much you want to give in to the gods of randomness, you could look at this City season and say nothing’s wrong with this team. If Kevin De Bruyne doesn’t do this …

… then maybe the whole campaign plays out differently. If City had finished their chances against the top teams in the league, they would’ve walked to the title. And of course, it’s a better sign of overall quality to be missing chances than not having them at all. City were my pick to win it all this year, and they would be next season, too.

Still, you hire Pep Guardiola to get you beyond randomness, to a level where even an unlucky number of unlucky bounces won’t be enough to scupper a title run. His first season with City wasn’t a failure by any means, but it showed the limitations of his methods.

Conte’s system likely doesn’t have as high of a ceiling as Guardiola’s, but it masked the inadequacies of the Chelsea players within it and won him a title. With a system that relies on interchange, complex positional discipline, and universally applicable skills, Pep is better at coaching the best players in the world than anyone else, but he inherited an aging and imperfect City squad ill suited to such a precision approach. (Expect a massive roster overhaul this summer.) Their attack was elite this season, and it controlled enough of each game to not allow many chances on the other end, but whenever an opponent did happen to get a shot, City gave up high-quality looks.

Watching Gael Clichy play as an inverted fullback in preseason was like looking into a kaleidoscope and seeing your creator, but come the Premier League, it didn’t work. He had divine talent at Bayern Munich, but Guardiola’s still looking for a God to bring to Manchester.

4. Liverpool: There Are 38 Games in a Season

Thanks for the moral superiority, guys.

As a fan, it was thrilling to watch Liverpool come good during essentially every big game this season, but the struggles against the rest of the league — 17 wins, five draws, six losses — nearly dropped them out of the Champions League places. For 45 minutes Sunday, it seemed like the Middlesbrough match would stick tight to that narrative — until Georginio Wijnaldum rewrote the final sentence.

On New Year’s Eve, Liverpool were in second, four points back of Chelsea. Come February 1 they were tied for fourth, 10 points behind the leaders. Despite a thin squad facing nine games in one month, they didn’t sign any reinforcements in January. Sadio Mane, the team’s best player, missed all of January playing in the African Cup of Nations tournament, a couple of key pieces picked up injuries, and Liverpool went 0–3–1 against Sunderland, Swansea City, Manchester United, and Chelsea. In the first game of February, they lost 2–0 to Hull.

The story arc of Liverpool’s season ends way higher than where it began: Back in August, every fan would’ve taken 76 points and a Champions League place. With their full team against the league’s elite, Liverpool got into full-gear more easily and often than anyone; Mane, Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho, and Adam Lallana are a coastal erosion, sped up to a 90-minute time-lapse. But over a 38-game season, the challenges vary, injuries pop up, and suspensions happen. There’s probably another level to this team; we’ll see if Jürgen Klopp and and the owners are willing to do what it takes to get there.

5. Arsenal: Life Comes at You Fast

Think of this as the reverse Tottenham.

Arsenal finished second last year with a midfield built around Santi Cazorla’s unique skill set. With his dribbling and passing, Cazorla is one of the best in the world at progressing the ball from midfield to attack and breaking through an opposing press. Despite spending €45 million to steal ball-possessing midfielder Granit Xhaka from Borussia Monchengladbach, the team remained reliant on Cazorla. And well, since the top levels of the sport are as physically demanding as ever and since Cazorla is 32, he hurt his ankle in October, never returned, and it all went to hell.

Arsenè Wenger’s insistence on keeping things how they were also ignored that the rest of the league had gotten better. Not much has really changed with the Gunners; they finished with four points more than they did in last year’s second-place run, but Tottenham, Chelsea, Liverpool, and City all rose up far enough to push them out of the Champions League for the first time in 20 seasons.

From a shots and expected-goals perspective, Arsenal were — by a good margin — the worst team in the top six, and arguably closer to seventh place Everton than the quintet of other challengers. A lights-out season from Alexis Sanchez — 24 goals on 124 shots, 10 assists — obscured many of the team’s fundamental issues that were clear from Game 1.

Heading into the offseason, Sanchez has one year left on his contract and looks like he’s 50–50 to leave this summer, while Wenger’s future with the club remains a mystery. (Rumors suggest that he’ll leave if they win the FA Cup next weekend and stay if they lose.) Whether it’s Wenger or someone now, he’ll have to figure out what to do with a team of mismatched parts, without too many obvious young building blocks. This is a new reality: It’s not just that Arsenal isn’t in the Champions League; they’re not best team in North London anymore.

6. Manchester United: Winning Is Better Than Not Losing

Congratulations to José Mourinho and Co. on the least impressive 25-game unbeaten run in Premier League history. From October 24 to May 6, United didn’t lose a game, falling from from six points back of first to 19. United lost as many games as Chelsea this season, but won four fewer than anyone else in the top six.

Despite the win-loss-tie voodoo and dropping a spot from ’15–16, the season was broadly an improvement for United. Last year the team took about as many shots per game as Sunderland; this year, they’re among the best in attacking outfits. By expected goals, they were good enough to make the top four and likely missed out because of some wayward finishing.

But those season-long numbers obscure some problems. Mourinho kept his hand on the emergency brake for the first quarter of the season, opting for the unpredictable battering ram that is Marouane Fellaini and benching Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who was one of the best attacking midfielders in the world in 2015–16. United played like a seventh-place team, and that’s where they were, nine games in.

The performances started to pick up right around the time Mourinho freed Mkhitaryan, but once Zlatan Ibrahimovic tore his ACL in April, the attack fell apart again. United relied on their defense, one of the best in the league, but going forward were overly reliant on Ibrahimovic, who is 35 and has played over 700 games in his career, and Paul Pogba, who’s a midfielder. Such a star-centric system seems prone to wild variation because it’s (1) dependent on individual consistency and players are human, and (2) those stars can get hurt.

Despite much of the British media doing complex mental gymnastics to explain why Paul Pogba is, in fact, not good, he’s really a star: In baseball, shortstops and center fielders are inherently more valuable than other players because they occupy premium defensive positions, and the same goes for a competent defensive midfielder like Pogba, who’s an elegant hurricane with the ball at his feet and can provide consistent attacking output from a position where it’s not expected. However, replacing Ibrahimovic (out until next January at the earliest, though would you wager against him?) who was among the league leaders in goals and expected goals won’t be easy.

United are once again one of the best teams in England. For the richest club in the world, though, that’s still not good enough.