This is a unique and somewhat impossible time in the sports world and in the world as a whole. Due to the spread of the coronavirus, we have no idea if or when soccer and other sports will be able to resume their seasons, we don’t know if there will be fans in the stands when they do, we don’t know if or when transfer windows will open and, most importantly from a sports perspective, we don’t know just how painful the financial hit from this stoppage will be. It could be awfully bad, and it could drastically change the way personnel decisions are made.

– Coronavirus cancellations and reactions across sport
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We do, however, know how teams looked before the stoppages took place. So as we continue to search for diversions during this extended period of social distancing, let’s look at England’s six richest clubs — Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Tottenham Hotspur — and assess their strengths and weaknesses moving into the future. You know, for whenever there’s a future to actually move into.

Editor’s Note: There will be a second edition of this looking at the biggest clubs across Europe (Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich & Co.) next week.

Jump to: Tottenham | Arsenal | Man United | Chelsea | Man City | Liverpool


2019-20: eighth in the Premier League (1.41 points per match)

This season has been fascinating to watch and has unfolded in several distinct stages. First, a talented but stale roster underachieved for Mauricio Pochettino. Then, injury efforts waylaid any attempted recovery for new manager Jose Mourinho. Forward Harry Kane and midfielder Moussa Sissoko haven’t played since early January, with forward Son Heung-Min joining the duo on the injured list a few weeks later. The offense has had to come from the midfield, which is another way of saying it hasn’t come.

Spurs were blown out by Red Bull Leipzig in the Champions League round of 16, and although they trailed fifth-place Manchester United by only four points at the time of play stopping, it was beginning to feel like 40.

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Biggest concern: Mourinho and mileage
Theoretically, this team still looks good when its stars are healthy. Even after absorbing the Kane-Sissoko blow, he had figured out a solid counterattacking plan — albeit one far too reliant on one player (Son) — to keep Spurs playing reasonably well. (They were also, admittedly, a bit fortunate from an expected goals perspective in this span.)

Without Son, however, Spurs were neither a defend-and-counter squad nor a pressing-and-possession one. Obviously any team is going to be worse without its best players, but age curves or no, it’s hard to rely on players like Kane, Son and Sissoko to remain consistently healthy moving forward, and the lack of identity was still alarming. Mourinho was also potentially showing some of his old habits in trying to get players to play through injury and making temperamental lineup changes.

Moreover, Mourinho tends to prefer working with veterans, and while this roster perhaps isn’t as old as it seems, bringing in another couple of 30-and-over types would likely make it an even more injury-prone, squeeze-juice-from-a-rock lineup.


2019-20: ninth in the Premier League (1.43 points per match)

As with its North London rivals, 2019-20 was a bit of a lost season for Arsenal. With the Gunners a listless eighth in the Premier League and winless for over a month in all competitions, Unai Emery was fired on Nov. 29. Club great Freddie Ljungberg served as interim for a few weeks; then on Dec. 20, former Arsenal midfielder and Pep Guardiola assistant Mikel Arteta took over full time.

The team’s form improved. In 13 matches in all competitions this calendar year, Arsenal lost just once. Granted, the loss was costly — an upset defeat to Olympiakos in the Europa League round of 32 — but in league play, only Liverpool and Manchester City generated more points in this span. And Arsenal was playing at this level with a young core.

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Biggest concern: Do these attacking pieces actually mix?
After averaging at least 0.9 xG per 90 minutes every year from 2015-16 to 2017-18, Aubameyang’s average fell to 0.79 last season and 0.46 this year. Lacazette has been at 0.44 each of the past two years after four years over 0.5. They could be on the downward portion of their respective careers.

Meanwhile, Pepe is basically Trae Young in soccer form: he’s over the ball a lot and constantly aims for the one big pass or glorious long strike. Since Jan. 1, his average xG per shot is a ghastly 0.09, compared with 0.28 for Nketiah, 0.26 for Lacazette or 0.19 for Martinelli. He’s also taken more shots than anyone but Lacazette.

Arsenal has the fifth-highest possession rate in the league since Jan. 1 and has allowed the fewest league goals in that span (six), but it also has taken the fewest shots and is 15th in expected assists. The Gunners have a bit of a stagnation problem on offense, and for all the upside here, there’s still reason to wonder whether Arteta can build the attack he needs without a few personnel moves.


2019-20: fifth in the Premier League (1.55 points per match)

Manchester United’s 137th season can be divided into two sections: Before Bruno and After Bruno. The former was decent, if confusing; the latter was potentially great.

Before midfielder Bruno Fernandes arrived from Sporting CP in late January, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s squad was showing both upside and inconsistency. It beat Chelsea, Leicester and Manchester City and earned a solid draw against Liverpool; it also lost at Crystal Palace, West Ham United, Newcastle, AFC Bournemouth and Watford. The lineup was unstable due to injuries (namely, Paul Pogba’s) and inconsistency. The team had lost three of four matches in league play before Fernandes came to town.

After Bruno: six wins, three draws and zero losses in all competitions, with a goal differential of plus-20. United beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and Manchester City at home by 2-0 margins. It won its Europa League return leg against Club Brugge 5-0, then crushed LASK 5-0 in the first leg of the round of 16. It was playing the best soccer in the Premier League at the time of the stoppage. Fernandes was named the Premier League’s player of the month for February, dominating statistically — in nine matches: 24 chances, 20 key passes, 4 assists, 3 goals and 8 possessions won in the attacking third, not to mention the praise from coaches and teammates.


2019-20: fourth in the Premier League (1.66 points per match)

Building a true youth movement at a huge club is really difficult. You have to keep up with the Joneses, which means you have to toss a certain amount of money around, and you can’t fall too far down the table without a really good reason. Yet Chelsea got a chance to truly find out what it has in the youth department this year because there wasn’t much choice: the club was banned from the summer transfer window. It still acquired Christian Pulisic from Dortmund before the ban took effect, and it still solidified a loan-to-buy deal with Real Madrid for midfielder Mateo Kovacic, but compared with other clubs, that’s not much wheeling and dealing.

Instead, midfielder Mason Mount (previous loan spells at Vitesse and Derby County), forward Tammy Abraham (Bristol City, Swansea, Aston Villa), defenders Fikayo Tomori (Brighton, Hull City, Derby) and Andreas Christensen (Borussia Mönchengladbach twice) and fullback Reece James (Wigan) all got a run this season. To add to the youth movement vibe, the team also hired former Chelsea star Frank Lampard as manager despite his having just one year of coaching experience.

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Biggest concern: Defense
Although Chelsea has scored the fourth most goals in the league (51), it also has allowed 39, second most among the Big Six. (The carcass that used to be Spurs has allowed 40.)

Heavy-possession teams like the ones Lampard tries to field are going to leave themselves vulnerable to counterattacks in general — just ask Pep Guardiola — plus keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga has had an up-and-down season. Perhaps most importantly, Lampard never established a solid rotation in the back. While veteran fullback Cesar Azpilicueta has played the most minutes in league play, the center back and defensive midfield positions have been a revolving door: N’Golo Kante has been available only about half the season, center back Antonio Rudiger less than that. That has meant opportunity for players such as Tomori, Christensen and Kurt Zouma, but the defensive lineup hasn’t settled all year.

Maybe that will change with an offseason of recovery and analysis.


2019-20: second in the Premier League (2.04 points per match)

Whether you prefer goal differential, expected goals or good, old fashioned points, Manchester City fielded the two most dominant teams in the history of the Premier League in 2017-18 and 2018-19. Last year’s Liverpool team was the third most dominant in two of those three categories but couldn’t even claim a title because of City.

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Biggest concern: Uncertainty
City created more chances on average than it did in its title-winning years and allowed fewer chances. But it went from allowing 2.2 shots on goal to 3.2 and from 0.7 xG allowed to 1.1. The chances opponents got were cleaner and better than ever, particularly on counterattacks, and there’s no single clear explanation as to why. Center back Aymeric Laporte is City’s best defender when healthy and was barely healthy this year, and holding midfielder Fernandinho is getting up there in years (34). But he was old last year, too; do one or two players alone make a half-goal difference per match? Probably not.

Of course, there is obviously a larger degree of uncertainty on the table for City than explaining why the defense grew leaky. If City’s UEFA ban is upheld, or even if it is downgraded to just a one-year Champions League absence instead of two, that brings with it a number of questions: How much money does it stand to lose? Will it look to cut costs? Will a star player (or players) look to leave because he doesn’t want to miss the UCL? Will Pep? (OK, Pep probably won’t look to leave.) Moreover, City is approaching an age problem: Fernandinho and Silva will be 35, Nicolas Otamendi 33, Aguero 32, Kyle Walker, Ilkay Gundogan and Riyad Mahrez 30. That chunk of the squad is hard to address and refresh if you’ve suddenly got a much tighter budget.

Until we get the answers to these questions, it’s impossible to know what to make of next year’s Premier League race. If City’s budget remains high and its roster remains semi-healthy, then the absence of Europe could mean that it focuses solely on league success and romps to another title. But if an exodus occurs, the 2020-21 race could be the most wide-open in years. Especially if you think Liverpool is due some serious regression to the mean.


2019-20: first in the Premier League (2.83 points per match)

Despite the disappointment emanating from the last couple of weeks before the stoppage — Liverpool lost its unbeaten league record, its FA Cup bid and its Champions League bid in short succession — most of this season has played out like a dream. If the campaign reaches completion at some point, the Reds will win their first league title in 30 years, almost certainly setting a Premier League points record in the meantime. And social distancing or no, LFC fans will celebrate the hell out of that.

Alexander-Arnold aces target practice in his garden

Trent Alexander-Arnold finds a way to keep his crossing skills sharp while in home isolation.

To not only have an incredible collection of talent — Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane up front, Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum, Fabinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in midfield, Virgil van Dijk, Andrew Robertson, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez in defense, Alisson in goal — but to get just about the best possible versions of all of those players at once (all of them are 26-29 except TAA and Gomez)? Married to a playing style that maximizes most of their capabilities? That’s a miracle of roster management.

Biggest concern: Time and fortune
It’s also a miracle that Liverpool made it through most of this season with this lineup intact. The injury bug was kinder to Liverpool than most — that remains true even if you acknowledge the role Alisson’s injury played in the Champions League defeat — but it probably won’t be a second time around. Nor will the god of close games: Liverpool went from averaging 2.06 points in matches decided by 0-1 goals last year to an unsustainable 2.87. Plus, its expected goal differential (+1.12) wasn’t nearly as high as its actual GD (+1.55) — that 0.43-goal difference was the second most fortunate in the league behind Leicester City. That tends to regress, too.

Liverpool’s stat profile is that of a contender and potential champion, not an all-time record holder. That shouldn’t dampen the title party, if or when it takes place, but it will dampen the odds of a second party next year.

Meanwhile, part of mastering the age curve is continuing to master it. If Liverpool enjoys the exact same distribution of minutes moving forward, its percentage of minutes going to players 25-29 would drop from 75% to 60% next year, then 42% the year after. Wijnaldum and Henderson will turn 30 next season, Van Dijk and Firmino the season after that, etc. As players age out, new players will have to age in to keep this thing rolling, and Liverpool will have to make tough choices about players who have moved mountains for the team in recent years. That’s easier said than done.