Belfast Telegraph

Miguel Delaney: City still have edge over Reds but bright new order starting to take shape

Divock Origi and Roberto Firmino of Liverpool celebrate after Grant Hanley of Norwich City scores an own goal
Divock Origi and Roberto Firmino of Liverpool celebrate after Grant Hanley of Norwich City scores an own goal

By Miguel Delaney

Within the Liverpool backroom staff, they've been wrestling with one main question as everything else ratchetted up before last night's Premier League opener against Norwich - and it wasn't whether they can make up those two points on Manchester City to finally win the title.

Jurgen Klopp and his staff know it's futile to worry about anyone else and that they can only concentrate on themselves. But that's the issue. The grand equation is whether they can even sustain last season's level.

Klopp fully trusts his team and how it works, of course, but the analytics department know so many different variables - from injuries to bounces to base luck - went their way last season. Many of the calculations, from various clubs, have City again winning by six points.

It reflects how the ever-evolving champions have set this brilliantly high baseline standard, in a way that just hasn't been seen before. It's not even that they've set new records but also a relentless pace that looks set to last.

They are conditioned to perform to such a level that the vast majority of teams - in any given match - can't compete. To beat them, Liverpool - or maybe Tottenham Hotspur - are going to have to smash a significant ceiling.

In a way, this is also the theme of the entire 2019-20 campaign, with clubs up and down the league looking to break free of their boxes.

There are at least four clubs - Everton, West Ham United, Leicester City and Wolves - who really fancy their chances of making their way into that top tier.

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Who honesty expected a transfer window like this when Josh Kroenke told Arsenal fans to 'be excited' back in mid-July? Club-record signing Nicolas Pepe provides the squad with some much needed incision, while Dani Ceballos looks exactly like the sort of player the much-maligned Denis Suárez was supposed to be. Kieran Tierney and David Luiz meanwhile strengthen the defence, undoubtedly the team's weakness last season.

That their proactive summer activity stands in such contrast to the tepidity of Manchester United and Chelsea fires much of this, with this 'belligerent four' hoping to prey on a particular vulnerability in both those ailing members of the big six.

Everton hope to blow their way in, with some of the most explosive business in the window. Leicester and West Ham hope to cut their way in, with some impressively forensic signings, and Wolves hope to lift their way in from that higher platform.

It was thereby a particularly good time for Spurs and Arsenal to become the busiest in the market, as both have made significant additions to their teams.

The only slight frustration with Tottenham comes with the lack of fulfilment from the Paolo Dybala pursuit. He would have been such a bonus in an otherwise good window, sure, but he also would have been the sort of signing that could have genuinely elevated them to a true title challenge.

He also would have been "a star", of the profile the Premier League is now missing a little after the sale of Eden Hazard. The majority remain at City and Liverpool, but this is also why it feels the majority of pressure is on United and Chelsea.

As it is, Spurs and Arsenal have surely made enough enhancements to avoid the drastic drop-off of last season, but the same cannot be said of the other two of the big six.

It isn't just about business, either. United have after all made good signings in defence, while Chelsea can't legally sign anyone.

That puts even more emphasis on the coaches, however, and that's where it gets even more interesting.

There is a strong argument that United and Chelsea - the two most successful clubs in the Premier League era - have the least proven managers in the division relative to their role, and maybe the least proven managers full-stop - as is the belief of a number of high-profile figures.

We'll start to know from their opening meeting at Old Trafford tomorrow, but it does remain somewhat surprising that clubs of such grandeur have respectively taken effective punts on a manager in whose only success was in a league then ranked 23rd in Europe, and another who has only had one season in the game.

It wasn't like Frank Lampard produced a young Jose Mourinho season either, or Ole Gunnar Solskjaer completely convinced over one half season in the Premier League.

There are, of course, various other factors explaining their appointments - not least the need to "reset" the clubs - but they still represent something of a departure from general best practices in the Premier League.

They were ultimately outlier appointments, in contrast to the integrated decisions at so many other stadiums.

That is best illustrated at the best clubs, since every move Liverpool and City make is now part of a wider plan but also applies further down.

It is the "holistic" approach the champions were actually mocked for saying they wanted to instil back in 2013, but is now a major reason why they are so far ahead. It has set a pace of its own.

Take Brighton and Hove Albion, who are quite instructive as to the wider patterns of the Premier League.

Their decision to sack Chris Hughton caused a lot of controversy, but there was a real rationale that also represents a worthwhile risk. The Brighton hierarchy greatly respect the former Republic international, but they felt his more constrained style of management would have always left them at best consolidating their place in the Premier League.

The aim would never have been anything more than survival.

So, the club have sought to grow by instilling an approach based on expansive football. This in itself points to a deeper trend in the Premier League, as so many boardrooms realise the need for an attractive outward identity in a competition that seems to often preclude internal mobility.

You might not be able to beat Manchester City but that is less important to the longer term and the lifeblood of supporters if you're actually entertaining, and at least offering hope in your play.

This is essentially why we're seeing more managers of the modern profile of Graham Potter and fewer of the more outdated profile of Sam Allardyce. That revolving door appears to have been jammed, if not quite stopped altogether.

It is why Roy Hodgson's Crystal Palace and - especially - Steve Bruce's Newcastle United might be under real threat this season.

The increasing complexion of the Premier League is highly technical football under managers like Norwich City's Daniel Farke and Southampton's Ralph Hassenhuttl.

Even allowing for some of the league's stardust blowing away, the general idea of play is now high enough it keeps the big show going.

It is just as pointed that Southampton recognised this and pre-empted a reset with the appointment of Hassenhuttl, who might well be the most underrated manager in the league.

They could be the real surprise, coming in under the radar while everyone is admiring Leicester.

Whether there are sufficient surprises to upend the supposedly fixed orders of the Premier League - something which is now its greatest problem as a competition - remains to be seen.

The feeling is that, no matter how much clubs like Chelsea and United drop off, they still have a critical mass of elevated quality to get the crucial points required.

Last season appeared to assert that. This season will fully test it, from bottom to top. It's the main question for 2019-20.

Belfast Telegraph


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