The last international break of the season is behind us and now it’s a sprint to the finish line of the Premier League.
We know the title can only go to Manchester City or Liverpool but what about the rest of the issues? Does anyone actually deserve to finish fourth? How do Chelsea solve their Romelu Lukaku problem? And why did Frank Lampard mistake Dele Alli for a player useful in a relegation fight?
Here, London football expert MATT BARLOW and Deputy Chief Sports Writer IAN HERBERT talk it through, with Football Editor IAN LADYMAN asking the questions.
The last international break of the season is behind us and now it’s a sprint to the finish line of the Premier League
Why are Chelsea not title contenders?
Matt Barlow: Thomas Tuchel cites injuries, Covid, bad luck and fighting on five fronts. They are all valid but also it’s Tuchel’s first time through that congested winter that we all know and I think part of it must be his fault. People also thought Lukaku would be the missing piece and he hasn’t been. At times he has made them worse.
Ian Herbert: It’s the strikers. They don’t have them. Mason Mount is their top league scorer with eight and that says everything.
Is Matt right? Is a part of it Tuchel’s fault?
MB: It’s not very much blame, by the way. He has done very well on the whole and I think he will get it right.
IH: Lukaku is a much bigger issue. I saw him destroy Tyrone Mings in a game at Aston Villa but even then he was saying anti-Tuchel stuff. You can’t blame the manager for that, though Tuchel must have had a say in the signing…
Thomas Tuchel cites injuries, Covid, bad luck and fighting on five fronts as to reasons why Chelsea are not title contenders
Is that true Matt? Did Tuchel sign Lukaku?
MB: He wouldn’t have been the one to select him but when offered him, he would have said yes.
How do they solve the Lukaku problem?
IH: They won’t have an owner who can compete on the same financial level next season. They won’t have a fortune to throw at it.
MB: Agreed but the only thing you can say with Roman Abramovich gone is that Chelsea may become a more joined-up club. The teams who do well in their own sphere — City, Liverpool, West Ham, Brighton, Southampton, Brentford — have a culture that runs through from the manager to recruitment to the players.
They all think the same way and it’s all within the umbrella of a supportive ownership. Chelsea are where they are because they could sign brilliant players — some of them mistakes — because of Abramovich’s bottomless pit of money.
But they may come out of all this with a better structure where the coach dictates how they play and who they buy. If they are lucky that coach will be Tuchel.
People also thought Romelu Lukaku would be Chelsea’s missing piece and he hasn’t been
Could Chelsea lose Tuchel?
MB: I don’t think so. I think he has taken to Chelsea.
Can Arsenal finish fourth?
IH: Mikel Arteta has required time but they look like a collective again. They haven’t spent a fortune but have bought well and brought young players through. They deserve fourth at the moment unlike Manchester United, who are a shambles.
There is still a gap looking upwards, however, and the worry is that if Chelsea cannot compete next season who is going to challenge the Liverpool/City duopoly? It’s already very predictable.
MB: Arteta has broken the cycle of weakness and inferiority at Arsenal. Ian says they haven’t spent money but they have in getting rid of unwanted players. They have taken a massive financial hit on Mesut Ozil, Shkodran Mustafi, Sead Kolasinac, Sokratis, Matteo Guendouzi, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
They have invested a lot to allow Arteta to clear the decks of players who were not with him and bring in the type of personalities he wants.
They have a skinny squad and the next step is getting the right players in to bulk them up and turn them into an even better and more consistent team. But I think this has been a really good season for them. The focus now will be on a centre forward.
Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta has broken the cycle of weakness and inferiority at the club
Spurs. Team Conte or Team Levy?
IH: There are faults on both sides. Antonio Conte knew what he was getting into. He knew there wasn’t much money there. He knew exactly what the job looked like. He is a moaner. He won the league at Chelsea and spent the next season moaning.
Chairman Daniel Levy, for his part, has allowed the club to miss out on players like Luis Diaz. He tries to be too smart. There are flaws everywhere but I don’t think having a manager who is so erratic and combustible really helps. Jose Mourinho has already shown us that.
Matt, you saw Conte at Chelsea. What’s his end game?
MB: I think Tottenham can pass Arsenal, by the way. They have OK fixtures and Conte has found what he wants in terms of the shape of the team. The two signings from Juve, Dejan Kulusevski and Rodrigo Bentancur, have been central to that.
But Conte is a different animal inside and outside of transfer windows. Ian is right to compare him to Mourinho. He has that same abrasive nature. He is not here to build culture. He is here to win stuff as fast as possible and to do that he wants to put pressure on the board.
That is what he did at Chelsea. Toys go out of the pram. But he is a brilliant coach and I can see them finishing fourth.
Antonio Conte is a moaner. He won the league at Chelsea and spent the next season moaning
Could Harry Kane end up at United?
IH: Yes, particularly if Mauricio Pochettino arrives at Old Trafford. I can’t understand why Erik ten Hag is even in the debate in terms of the new United manager. That would be United sleepwalking into another period of frustration.
But if Pochettino comes in then Kane could follow him. Edinson Cavani is going, Marcus Rashford is adrift, Mason Greenwood is absent. They need someone.
Are United better than Spurs for Kane?
IH: It’s a good point. United won’t win the league any time soon. They are so far off and Ralf Rangnick has been a total disappointment. Rashford’s regression is a metaphor for Rangnick’s reign.
There has been no instruction or clarity or confidence from the coach. There is no excitement among United fans for Pochettino but I think he could begin to build something out of the car crash that is Old Trafford.
Man United could be a good fit for Harry Kane if Mauricio Pochettino arrives at Old Trafford
Why are United fans downbeat about Pochettino?
MB: What he did at Tottenham was brilliant. The reservation is whether he can do that with big personalities. It has clung to him ever since he booted Dani Osvaldo out of Southampton. He did the same at Spurs.
Out went Emmanuel Adebayor and Younes Kaboul, senior players with influence. It’s difficult to do that at United. To clear space to do what he wants may be hard. He hasn’t been a massive success at PSG, dealing with the big-heads, and it could be similar at United.
IH: There has to be a clearout at United as they are tanking. It requires a nuclear option similar to the one they took when they hired Sir Alex Ferguson in 1986.
MB: Well if they are actually prepared to do that then Pochettino’s holistic philosophy is perfect.
Would it be amazing for West Ham to finish top six?
IH: Yes. They have been close to combustion. I remember that game against Burnley in 2018 when fans were in revolt. There has been doom and gloom about the new stadium. But I was there when they beat Chelsea this season. Full house, great atmosphere, three points. David Moyes is arguably my manager of the season. He’s turned a team on its uppers into a real force.
MB: He has taken the football decisions back into the football realm again. He has stopped the owners meddling. We no longer see the ego signings.
IH: He has built a team in his own mould. It is reminiscent of his time at Everton. He has a reputation of not being great with money but it will be an interesting summer, especially if, as we think, Declan Rice is sold.
David Moyes has turned a West Ham team on its uppers into a real force this season
Can Everton go down? The fixtures are not kind…
IH: The really big one is against Burnley on Wednesday. They have really few winnable games after that. They have bought incredibly poorly. They needed a defensive midfielder and a right back and they brought in Dele Alli and Donny van de Beek.
I don’t believe Frank Lampard is a great communicator or tactician and they aren’t being set up for the teams they are facing. He never seems to send out the right team. He changes with the wind. The jeopardy for them is colossal.
MB: Their recruitment has been awful for a long time. What has happened to Alli is a case study of what happens when you are launched to the top and suddenly have everything but then lose a little desire and things go wrong.
I did expect Frank to inject positivity into the club. He did that well at Chelsea. But people at Chelsea who know Frank are surprised he hasn’t added more tactical acumen to his backroom staff.
IH: Lampard probably thought he could speak ‘star name to star name’ to Alli. Harry Redknapp was on the radio at the time saying he had told Lampard to sign him and that he was the player to turn Everton round.
This week he was saying he shouldn’t have signed him! The moment Alli turned up at training in his Rolls-Royce told us everything about a player who has lost touch with reality. Everton would have been better signing Steve Hitchen from Spurs to sort their transfer policy out.
Frank Lampard (left) probably thought he could speak ‘star name to star name’ to Dele Alli
I fancied Brighton but they have stalled…
IH: I like them but they need a goalscorer. They always seem to be missing the opportunities to finish teams off.
MB: They are a sensible club and are probably as high now as a club like Brighton can be. Halfway up the league. They certainly won’t forget where they came from. Brighton have a good thing going on. What they do, they do well and players and coaches thrive in that environment.
And what next for Brendan Rodgers?
MB: He probably thinks he should have left Leicester last summer.
IH: I agree. He is linked to so many jobs but suddenly looks stuck.
MB: Leicester have done something that is so difficult: buy players for little money and turn them into a team who win trophies.
Brendan Rodgers is probably thinking that he should have left Leicester last summer
IH: The flip-side is that the expectations are now so high. If I were Rodgers, I might feel it’s the end of that chapter.
I also think he would be a better fit for United than Ten Hag. I remember when he walked into Liverpool 10 years ago. He transformed that club and I don’t know why he is not loved more at Anfield than he is.
The depressing bit. Who goes down?
MB: Norwich, Watford and Burnley.
IH: Norwich, Burnley, Everton.