Football, or at least English football, does not stop during Christmas. The last week of the calendar year is one of the most important periods of the entire season because the sheer number of games crammed in before the start of the FA Cup in January means that it is often extremely important in determining who will be the champion. This year is crucial because it will set the scene for what could be a truly historic 2024, one in which there could either be a four-horse Premier League title race or one in which Manchester City becomes the first club in English football history to win four top-flight titles in a row.
Are We in for a Thrilling Premier League Title Race in the 2023/24 Season?
Aston Villa: The Surprise Contenders
The surprise contenders this season are of course Aston Villa. If anyone doubted their title credentials before December, they were forced to reassess those doubts after the Villans beat both of last season’s top two, Manchester City and Arsenal, within a matter of days. The fact that they did so in completely contrasting styles – first dominating Pep Guardiola’s side and then grinding out a win against the Gunners– is further testament to the high-quality team and squad that Unai Emery has built in just over a year.
For Emery, Villa might just be the perfect club. Historically, he has done superbly at clubs like Sevilla and Villareal, relatively small and unfashionable clubs that he has led to triumph in Europe (the Europa League). By contrast, the two times that he has been handed the keys to a “big” (i.e. wealthy and traditional or at least recently successful) club, PSG and Arsenal, he has done an underwhelming job.
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In a way, the Birmingham side are the perfect halfway house between those two extremes: a traditionally big club in English football (so big that, unlike Arsenal for example, they have won the European Cup), but also one that has not done well for so long that it has come to be seen as a smaller or less fashionable club. Emery’s rigorous, seemingly philosophy-less coaching has transformed a team and a club that seemed destined for relegation under Steven Gerrard into one that can genuinely challenge for the Premier League title and at the very least qualify for the expanded Champions League last season.
The key player for Emery and Aston Villa is striker Ollie Watkins. He personifies the transformation that Emery has effected at the club, having gone from a seemingly “too-nice” striker who barely scored in the Premier League to the nastier, snarling, ruthless striker who scored the winner against his old club Brentford and then stared out the fan who had been abusing him all game. If Watkins can stay fit all season, he will not only continue to spearhead Villa’s title challenge but will cement his place as England’s No.2 striker behind Harry Kane in time for the Euros next summer.
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Arsenal and Liverpool: The Less Surprising Contenders
Two other contenders for the Premier League title meet at Anfield this weekend, where Liverpool will entertain Arsenal. It is certainly far less surprising that they are competing for the title than it is to see Aston Villa up there with them. The Reds have already won everything under Jurgen Klopp (albeit only once) and last season they were suffering from a hangover worse than any George Best had after going so close to winning all four trophies that they were competing for, the previous season.
Having completely rebuilt his midfield, and for the better with much younger players such as Hungary’s Dominik Szoboszlai having been added over the summer, Liverpool have been outstanding this season. They beat Newcastle away with just 10 men and of course, their only domestic loss came against Tottenham when they were effectively cheated out of victory, or at least out of leading the game, by a typically appalling VAR decision. Indeed, arguably the only Premier League game in which Liverpool have not been outstanding was their last one, against a struggling Manchester United at home, when they dominated possession but could not score in a tepid 0-0 draw.
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To an extent, that result last weekend has taken some of the pressure off the North Londoners ahead of their Anfield showdown this weekend. If Klopp’s side had beaten United, as they were expected to by almost everyone, they would have already been a point ahead of the Gunners, with a chance to extend that lead to four points this weekend. Now, whatever happens at Anfield, Arsenal know that at worst they will be just two points behind Liverpool, with the return fixture at The Emirates still to come later in the season.
If Watkins is injured for a long period, it is highly unlikely that Villa’s other strikers can take up the slack. Similarly, if Rice misses some games through injury or suspension, the Gunners do not have anyone, with the possible exception of the seemingly permanently injured Thomas Partey, to replace him.
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It is that dependence on one key player, in attack and midfield respectively, that puts both Aston Villa and Arsenal in a weaker position going into the Premier League title race than either Liverpool or Manchester City. For all that the latter two have star strikers in Mohammed Salah and Erling Haaland respectively, they also have more than adequate replacements, in Diogo Jota and Julian Alvarez, to come in if they are absent. The other two contenders do not have that luxury unless they can somehow strengthen in January.
Manchester City – the Perpetual Favourites
Finally, of course, there is Manchester City themselves, who won the Club World Cup this weekend against Fluminense of Brazil. But for all the glory of being able to call themselves “World Champions”, there is a far greater and infinitely more historic prize awaiting City later this season, namely becoming the first team in English football history to win the top-flight title four times in a row.
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Everyone other than City fans must be hoping that they do not achieve that milestone because if they do there is every chance that they would go on to win five, six, or even more titles in a row. And then the Premier League, the much-vaunted “Best League In The World”, would be reduced to the status of a Bundesliga or Ligue 1 in being completely dominated, year after year, by just one team. And if that happens, the prospect of a European Super League, which has reared its head again after a few quiet years, will become not just enticing but almost inevitable.
So, for the good of English football and indeed European and global football in general, it is to be hoped that 2024 sees a four-horse Premier League title race in England rather than just a simple procession by City to four titles in a row and that anyone but City wins it.