Although the English Premier League currently holds the (deserved) status as the best and most competitive top-to-bottom soccer league in the world, in truth the English league — throughout its 22-year modern history — has always been dominated by a select few teams.
Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool rise above the rest, with double-digit championships to their names. In recent years, foreign cash infusions have allowed Chelsea and Manchester City to rise into the top flight of the league. These five teams retained a status quo for several years, but this tiered system was given a shock after the retirement of Manager Sir Alex Ferguson at the end of Manchester United’s 2012-2013 title run. Now, a top-five spot is truly up for grabs for most EPL teams.
This season was supposed to be one of true parity, with as many as five true title contenders, and seven teams able to challenge for a Champions League place. While the latter part still holds true, the former has not come to pass. Chelsea are the clear leaders, Manchester City is the only power seemingly within striking distance and the former heavyweights are struggling to separate themselves from the mid-table underdogs they used to rip through.
Arsenal currently resides in fifth place, with Liverpool and Manchester United lagging further back in seventh and eighth, respectively. All three spent large sums of money on flashy offensive stars, ignoring the obvious frailties in their back lines. This contrasts quite starkly with Southampton, which bought players with squad balance in mind.
Arsenal’s woes can be somewhat excused given that they sit one spot out of fourth, and that they have dealt with a cataclysmic string of injuries to half of the starting unit, including the likes of Mesut Ozil, Mathieu Debuchy, Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta. Although circumstance has been unkind to the Gunners, the flaws exposed by such misfortune were hardly unforeseen. Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger splurged in each of the past two summers on prized luxury attacking La Liga stars Ozil and Alexis Sanchez.
While spending on offense, Wenger ignored the defense and overcrowded Arsenal’s offensive core. The Gunners allowed captain and defender Thomas Vermaelen to leave without a seasoned replacement and left the back line in the hands of the dependable but aging duo of Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker. Worse still, Arsenal failed to address its gaping hole at defensive midfield, ceding control of the middle of the pitch in its biggest games.
Contrast this with Chelsea, which brought in young prospect Kurt Zouma to learn from veteran John Terry, and purchased one of the best left backs in Europe to bring depth to its fullback rotation. Filipe Luís’ signing is a decision that has paid dividends in light of César Azpilicueta’s recent three-game suspension.
More crucially, Chelsea made central midfield a priority, bringing in former Arsenal great Cesc Fàbregas to pick apart defenses from afar in tandem with recent purchase Nemanja Matic, whose steely resolve in the holding role completely revitalized the Blues’ campaign last spring. Arsenal, meanwhile, passed on these types of players, including Fàbregas and defensive midfielder Alex Song, who is currently playing a pivotal role at West Ham and looking down at the Gunners from fourth place, specifically.
Manchester United’s defensive issues have been even more horrendous than Arsenal’s. In addition to lacking depth, the Red Devils also lack seasoned quality at any defensive position excluding goalkeeper David De Gea. The money spent on Radamel Falcao — for a team already featuring Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata and Robin Van Persie — surely would have been better spent on a center back like Mehdi Benatia to join new signing Marcos Rojo.
Though United seems to be an improving squad, given its recent draw with Chelsea, the gap between them is still very pronounced. Man United Manager Louis Van Gaal would do well to purchase an elite center back and full back during the January transfer window.
Liverpool’s fantastic second-place finish last season was taken as a sign of a return to form under the guidance of Brendan Rogers, but now it seems more likely that the brilliance of Luis Suárez was solely responsible for the Reds’ return to Champions League football.
In fairness, more can be garnered from the team once Daniel Sturridge returns to partner with the perpetually frustrating talent that is Mario Balotelli. Still, the horrid performance of the defense — which Dejan Lovren was supposed to shore up — would be a tough burden even for any offense. More troubling has been the poor form of Rogers himself, who has chosen not to own up to the team’s flaws, and instead uses Balotelli’s past troubled reputation to create an easy scapegoat for a team in shambles defensively.
Errors in squad building this summer might have already ended the title hunt. José Mourinho shaped his Chelsea engine to perfection, while other traditional powers treated their teams like FIFA squads, lavishing in luxury offensive stars with little thought to tactics, complimentary attributes and defense.
Manchester City remains a threat thanks to an already powerhouse squad, but Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool must all correct their imbalances in the January transfer window if they want to keep their place in the Champions League from upstarts such as Southampton, Swansea City and West Ham.
Darius Majd is a senior in the College. The Sporting Life appears every Tuesday.