Just four games into the 2016-17 campaign, and already the Premier League’s top seven are the sides almost everyone will have picked to end the season there. The order may change between now and May 21st, 2017, and a surprise upstart may yet appear, but after four rounds, the top of the table is looking an awful lot like what we’re likely get in eight months’ time. And on Friday, Liverpool and Chelsea, England’s top sides out of Europe this season, will look to set themselves up for a run at the title.
The influx of ever greater money into the Premier League has increased parity, making the competition tougher from top to bottom. Increasingly, success has to be found on the margins; no longer can three or four sides outspend the competition by a margin so great there’s no chance of an upset. Money still plays a key role, but more than ever there is a need to find other advantages. And being able to play just once a week while your competition at the top of the table is playing two and flying across the continent has in recent seasons become an advantage clubs have begun to exploit.
Leicester City are most recent and famous, the upstarts who beat 5000:1 odds to end up champions in 2015-16. In some ways, it was a feat exceptional by how mundane it was as it happened; as they plodded along from week to week. Solid coaching built a plan that suited the strengths of a talented but not exceptional side, and more than a bit of luck on the injury front meant manager Claudio Ranieri was able to run out an unchanged eleven most weeks. Already this season, knowing they’re set to play twice a week has impacted selection and performances have suffered.
Liverpool, too, have in recent seasons seen first-hand the advantage missing out on Europe can bring. In 2013-14, they came as close to the title as they ever have in the Premier League era, looked set to break a drought of more than two decades. In the end they fell short by two points and could only finish second, but as with Leicester’s victory last season, it was a challenge built on not playing as often—on having more time to rest, more time to coach, and on it all adding up to fewer injuries and sharper performances down the stretch.
There are similar results to be found moving down the table a little, too. In 2012-13, Everton finished on 63 points and didn’t qualify for Europe. The next season, Roberto Martinez’ first in charge, they managed 72. Most years, that return would have earned them a Champions League place. In 2013-14, it at least qualified them for the Europa League. But competing on multiple fronts in 2014-15, their league showing suffered and they earned just 47 points. Martinez, like Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool following their 2014 title challenge, never recovered and was sacked a year later.
For a side not used to the rigours of competing on multiple fronts, balancing playing in Europe with a domestic campaign can be a tricky proposition. For a side without any real title aspirations or fans baying for a return to the top four on the regular, perhaps, that isn’t a problem. For a side like Everton, following up one of their best seasons of the millennium with a season of special European trips and mid-table domestic toil might not have been a terrible thing—at least if Martinez had been able to recover the following season and again push for a place in Europe.
For a side like Liverpool, the idea of cycling into the top four once every five years, making it into the top six and the Europa League on one or two other occasions, and dropping out entirely and finishing a distinctly average mid-table side the rest of the time simply doesn’t appeal. It’s been the club’s reality since everything fell apart under owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett in 2009, their mismanagement catching up with results and performances and leading to infighting, protests, and an eventual sale. But it’s not a reality the club or its fans are willing to accept
And so for Liverpool, being out of Europe offers a clear opportunity—as it offered it to them in 2013-14 and as it offered it to Leicester City last season. And as it offered to Everton, too, though with their sights set just a little lower. Yet no matter what they can manage to make of it, be it a late run at the top four as other, overworked sides begin to strain and stumble, or a legitimate title challenge, the bigger question is perhaps whether they can this time around suitably equip themselves to deal with what comes afterwards.
Nothing less than a place in Europe will be acceptable to the club or its fans this year, and the hope is for rather more than just a place in Europe via the Europa League. With a victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Friday, they could even begin to truly set themselves up for that, potentially even passing their opponents on goal differential and ending the night in second after a tough start to the season that will have seen them play four of their opening five league games on the road against three league favourites in Arsenal, Tottenham, and Friday’s Blues.
Seasons aren’t made or lost in August and September, but the tone for what comes next can be set. On Friday, Liverpool can set the tone and begin to turn their lack of European football to their advantage just as they did in 2013-14. This time around, though, they aren’t the only big spending English side sat on the and outside looking to use a lack of European football to their advantage. Their opponents are, too. And unlike Liverpool, Chelsea still have a squad that on paper appears to be built for the rigours of two games a week.
That means that if the Blues can use the added rest between games, the added time to coach and train, to their advantage, they will be less likely to suffer the fate that Liverpool did the last time they pushed for the top, couldn’t cope with what came next, and dropped straight back out. They will be less likely to suffer the fate of Everton following their 72-point season. And they will be less likely to suffer the fate that Leicester City, currently in 16th and closer to relegation than a return to Europe next year, seem to be starting down the road to.
Yet if both sides can stay fit this season, that added depth isn’t of any particular benefit to Chelsea this season. It won’t be on Friday. Without Europe, and without major injury, what matters is the strongest eleven. And both sides have shown signs of having a best eleven that can compete with anyone; that can maybe even push for the title. Which means that Friday has the potential to be a classic; it has the potential, just maybe, to set up at least one of these sides to begin turn their lack of European football into a real blessing.