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Is the Premier League Having an Existential Crisis?

With Manchester City already 15 points clear of the second-place team, their closest competitors — well, they’re not really that close, and they can’t handle being so far behind

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We already know who’s gonna win it all, but things just below the top of the Premier League table are getting a bit weird as some of the best managers in the world struggle to come to terms with the prospect of Manchester City’s continued dominance. What happens next? The guys from Ringer FC got together to discuss English football’s foreseeable future.

Ryan O’Hanlon: Two years ago, the idea that Arsenal was considering selling its biggest superstar to a British Champions League club during the January transfer window wouldn’t have even passed The Sun’s editorial sniff test. And yet, here we are — on the verge of Arsène Wenger shifting the last six months of Alexis Sánchez off to Manchester City for some £30 million. Meanwhile, Liverpool just lost its best player, Tottenham is seemingly on the verge of losing all of its best players, and José Mourinho and Antonio Conte are a couple of weeks away from a shirtless staring contest. With City currently 15 points ahead of second-place United, the league is over, and the other five clubs of the so-called Top Six just can’t deal. So, my question to you all is the same one that seems to be driving the rest of the league mad: What do you play for … when there’s nothing to play for?

Donnie Kwak: Well, the obvious answer is a Champions League place. That’s a lot to play for. Also, every team you mentioned has a fixture remaining with City, so ruining their bid for history is also something to play for.

From the Arsenal perspective, I’d push back a little on the idea that selling Alexis is some kind of shock. Perhaps it’s the fact that it’s in January that makes it surprising, given that he should’ve moved in the summer. Still, Arsène selling Robin van Persie to United in the summer of 2012 was much, much worse.

Chris Ryan: What’s interesting to me about this particular run-in is how many of these teams could be coming up on the end of a cycle. The “Wenger out” chants have died down, but if Arsenal sell Sánchez, lose Mesut Ozil on a free, and miss out on the Champions League, don’t be surprised if they start up again. Like Ryan said, Tottenham will have to fend off interest in Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli, most of their defenders, their keeper, and, perhaps most importantly, their manager, Mauricio Pochettino. If you’re Ed Woodward, would you rather give José Mourinho access to your checkbook, or CTC for a Poch-Kane double swoop? And then there’s Liverpool, who might have just traded Champions League qualification for around £140 million. City’s impact isn’t limited to this season; we could be feeling it for years to come.

Kwak: Arsenal and Tottenham are fringe European teams at this point, though. Chelsea and United have done the “destroy and rebuild” routine every other season now for a while now. Liverpool’s the most interesting team at the moment. They have a manager with a clear vision and who isn’t going anywhere for a while.

Micah Peters: Mo Salah is maybe the second- or third-best attacking player in the Prem depending on the week, and Naby Keïta is showing up to Merseyside in the summer, AND YOU JUST SPENT £75 MILLION ON A CENTER BACK. I’d say this Liverpool team is poised to at least inconvenience Pep’s City team. Which may very well be the best in England for the foreseeable forever. Speaking of Coutinho, Harry Kane was pretty impressed with how “professional” his Liverpool exit was. I wonder if Harry knows exactly how much money he’s not making at Tottenham.

Kwak: If anything, City’s excellence actually takes the heat off of everybody a little, doesn’t it?

Ryan: Tell that to José!

Kwak: Besides José.

Peters: It’s funny that you should mention heat and City and José together like that. Barney Ronay had a good column considering the enormity of the success of José’s most hated rival (Pep), which means that nothing José does now matters, creating a rather neat and tidy personal hell.

Kwak: Pep hasn’t won a trophy at City yet, mind you.

Peters: Well, that’s true. But the quadruple is a thing that legitimately could happen for him this season.

O’Hanlon: If he doesn’t win a trophy this year, it’ll be one of the greatest collapses in European soccer history, and if that happens, we’ll get to it when it does. But I really don’t think we can undersell the potential effect the continued dominance of this City team will have on the rest of the league. Take Tottenham. Like Micah alluded to, Kane just said that he’s happy to stay in North London … as long as they win trophies. And if the Premier League isn’t realistic — now, or three years from now — then are you hoping Spurs make a run to the Champions League final? I can’t imagine that an FA Cup victory — or even multiple FA Cup victories — would be strong enough glue to keep Daniel Levy’s House of Wage Suppression together for much longer. So, what — should everyone be building a team to try to win in Europe?

Kwak: I mean, are we still talking about Spurs? Spurs are Spurs. Did we really think they were going to be regular title contenders? It was never going to last. They are going to remain a feeder club — and let’s not forget, they have to pay for their new stadium, too. We saw what the “austerity era” did to Arsenal’s title “hopes.”

United and Chelsea have enough money that they should always at least be in the argument for the league. City will continue to be good, of course, but I don’t think they’ll be winning the league by this margin again next season.

Liverpool have two more losses than City; United have three more. It’s a huge point gap, sure, but City have had a lot of good fortune, too. All of those late winners. The missed PK two games ago. They’re not invincible.

O’Hanlon: If we’re gonna say that City have been fortunate — and they have been — then we need to say the same thing about United, who are essentially a more expensive version of Burnley, getting bombarded by shots and getting bailed out by their keeper. This isn’t Leicester or Monaco or even Chelsea last season; City are sustainably dominant. To take luck out of it: Their expected-goal differential is plus-40, and the next best is Liverpool at plus-25. And in case we’ve already forgotten, City are adding Sánchez, arguably the best Premier League player of the past half-decade, to that. Things are so screwy that José Mourinho is now giving his own club the ol’ dreaded vote of confidence.

Kwak: How would City cope with the extended loss of Kevin De Bruyne, though? Much in the same way United has coped without Paul Pogba, either via injury or suspension. Lot of dropped points there.

Ryan: One thing that’s really changed since I started following the game — so, about 12 years ago — is the extent to which the conversation around football is tied up in the business of football. We’ve had some pretty passionate arguments about the value of domestic cup competitions among the four of us, and I think we’re starting to see the impact of devaluing those cups. If “success” is valued only in a league title, top-four finish, or Champions League run, then there are going to be a lot of very unhappy fans and incredibly frustrated managers.

Kwak: Even still, those are at least three avenues to what could be deemed a successful season. In an American sports league it is basically win the championship or nothing. I, for one, am really hoping Arsenal win the Carabao Cup and/or Europa League.

Ryan: Spare a thought for Sparky tho.

Peters: These conversations are usually about what’s realistic and what isn’t. The Europa League and the Carabao Cup are the baskets that Arsenal has to shoot at. Tottenham and Liverpool just have to win anything. For Mourinho’s part, he was brought in to make United, well, better than the sixth-best Big Six team. Now that he’s done that, brought them back to second place and the knockout stages of the Champions League, and won the EFL Cup, there aren’t a whole lot of other meaningful steps forward aside from a title win or the CL. Neither of which seem super possible at present.

O’Hanlon: Maybe he’ll get a title belt of his own after he takes Conte 12 rounds?

Peters: Taking into account that his hair plugs weren’t off-limits, I’m honestly shocked that it took this long for José to go at Conte’s head about his 10-month suspension from Italian football for the 2010–11 match-fixing scandal at Siena. SHOCKED, I tell you.

Remember how he killed Paul Scholes — Paul Scholes — for picking apart the way he lined up against Southampton? 25 PERCENT!!!!!1ONE

Kwak: Also there may be certain segments of fans or media that devalue the cups, but I think to the managers and players they are still important. Like when Kane says, “I’ve always said: keep progressing, keep getting better, start winning trophies. That’s the aim, as long as the club keep doing that, then, yeah, I’m happy here,” he isn’t specifying a particular trophy.

O’Hanlon: And yet, Arsenal have won three of the past four FA Cups, and their two best players want out. I’m really not sure how much goodwill these trophies buy you. But maybe that changes, as City changes everyone’s expectations.

Kwak: Yeah. And as good as Kane may be, he has no pedigree compared with Ozil or Sánchez. He’s also English.

Peters: The best English player. Perhaps the best player in England. Whom the world’s biggest clubs have taken an interest in. Poch himself doesn’t sound all that confident about Kane staying put: “I look at what happened with Cristiano Ronaldo in Manchester, [Zinedine] Zidane in Juventus, [Luís] Figo in Barcelona. It’s a lot of examples that it’s so, so, so tough for everyone to keep your best player if your player in some moment turn the mind and say now, ‘I want to leave.’”

O’Hanlon: So, maybe we should just be happy that Kane is yet to be linked with City? Pep and Co. won’t have officially taken over the league — à la Bayern Munich — until they’re buying all of the best players in England.

Kwak: I mean, a lot of that depends on how much you buy into the Cult of Pep. Because if Pep left tomorrow, would City still retain its appeal to the world’s best? Bayern/Barça/Madrid can cycle through managers but are always top destinations. Before Pep, going to City was always about money, because who really wants to live in Manchester? (You go to United because of the club history.)

O’Hanlon: Well, we know that City has a plan for “global domination,” which of course extends beyond the managerial powers of one man. And I think we need to be careful about getting too caught up in the history and reputation of clubs: Younger players don’t have the same kinds of attachments we have, and now they grow up playing with PSG and City on FIFA. While, yes, Bayern, Madrid, and Barça have always had cultural cachet, they’ve always had money, too — as has Manchester United. Legacy gets you only so far — just look at AC Milan. But is that our answer for all of these clubs? Get your ducks in a row for a few years, sign a bunch of youngsters, and be ready to pounce once Pep takes over the Qatari national team?

Kwak: I just think we’re overreacting to six months of City dominance. Less than a year ago they were knocked out by MONACO in the Champions League.

Ryan: We’re underreacting to it.

Kwak: Premier League race is going to be much tighter next season.

O’Hanlon: I agree. City might have only a 10-point lead at the same time next year.

Peters: Six months isn’t a dynasty, but it’s definitely not a blip. And that Monaco team was so delectable that it was parted down and sold to the likes of PSG, Chelsea, and City themselves, lest we forget.

Also, I don’t know where this hopefulness is coming from .  Pep is there for the long haul, and half of their regular starters are under the age of 27.

Kwak: How are you so sure he’s there for the long haul? He seems like a four-season-max-and-new-challenge kind of guy. And history has proved that.

Peters: Four years means there’s at least two more of this. Also there’s not a bigger club he hasn’t managed, and City’s power brokers are so set on keeping him around to build his own legacy at the club that there’s not a conceivable thing he could want that he won’t get. What better, other situation is there for him after Manchester?

Kwak: United, Chelsea.

O’Hanlon: Then Real Madrid, then Inter Milan, and then Porto. He can put a bow on his career by winning a Champions League title at every club Mourinho’s coached for.

Kwak: The idea that Pep is going to have a Fergie/Wenger-like tenure in one place seems far-fetched.

Ryan: There will probably never be another Wenger or Fergie. But if Pep makes City into the Death Star, it won’t matter too much who the emperor is.