The 2020-21 Premier League title race has now become a battle for second place with Manchester City stretching their lead at the top to 12 points over the weekend.
A win at home to Wolves on Tuesday would take City 15 points clear of the pack and register their 21st consecutive victory in all competitions, so the challenge of closing the gap next season is already focusing minds among rival clubs. And if City strike a deal to sign Lionel Messi this summer, their domestic challengers will have an even bigger task ahead of them in terms of beating Pep Guardiola’s team to silverware next season.
But now is the time that plans must be made by the Premier League’s top clubs to catch and overhaul City. They all have issues to address — some with bigger problems than others — but with this season’s title race as good as over, what do they need to do to make themselves strong enough to win the league next year?
MANCHESTER UNITED: Find a goal scorer
Although manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has moved United forward since replacing Jose Mourinho in December 2018, there are still plenty of areas in need of strengthening at Old Trafford. If money were no object then a commanding goalkeeper, world-class centre-half and prolific centre-forward would all arrive this summer.
But with finances impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be that United can only tick one of those boxes. If that’s the case, they simply have to put all their resources into signing a centre-forward capable of scoring at least 20 league goals a season.
Don’t be fooled by United’s status as the Premier League’s top scorers this season. Take away the nine they scored against Southampton and they would be fourth in the list. The best gauge of United’s lack of potency is their return of just ONE goal in seven league games so far against Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City this season — and that was a penalty in a 6-1 defeat against Spurs.
United have had great goal scorers during the Premier League era including Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie. They now need to dig deep to fund a move for Erling Haaland, Harry Kane or, if a swap deal with Paul Pogba is on the cards, Cristiano Ronaldo because their current options simply don’t deliver when it matters.
LEICESTER CITY: Keep finding nuggets and keep Vardy fit
Leicester’s 2015-16 Premier League title triumph looks more miraculous with every passing season, but manager Brendan Rodgers has made the Foxes competitive again and they are now a genuine threat to the Big Six. Whether they can win the title again is debatable, but Leicester are a well-run club with a proven track record of finding top quality players for good value, so they will always be around the top six if they can maintain that formula.
Back in 2016, Leicester’s title success was built around transfer gems such as Jamie Vardy, N’Golo Kante and Riyad Mahrez and the current team is following a similar pattern with the likes of James Maddison, Wesley Fofana and James Justin. But to have any hope of catching Guardiola’s City — who they beat 5-2 at the Etihad earlier this season — Leicester must unearth more stars this summer and somehow find a long-term replacement for goal scorer Vardy, at the same time as ensuring that the 34-year-old can stay fit.
CHELSEA: Rebuild the midfield
Just like United, Chelsea have a number of holes to plug in their squad. Both clubs need better quality at centre-half and centre-forward, while manager Thomas Tuchel would also benefit from big-money signings such as Timo Werner, Kai Havertz and Christian Pulisic growing into match-winners.
But the biggest area in need of reinforcement at Chelsea is the midfield, which can no longer rely on N’Golo Kante to dominate the centre of the pitch as he did in his first season at the club in 2016-17. Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic are good Premier League players without being outstanding while Billy Gilmour, at 19, still needs time to develop into a regular starter.
Right now, Chelsea lack the power to dominate and control games from midfield as they did when they had the likes of Frank Lampard, Claude Makelele and Michael Essien in their prime. Finding a new Lampard, Makelele or Essien is a tough task, but a stronger midfield would directly improve the defence and attack, so Chelsea need to unearth a player capable of doing just that.
Steve Nicol feels Thomas Tuchel is yet to solve Chelsea’s attacking problems since he replaced Frank Lampard.
LIVERPOOL: Get Van Dijk fit and press reset
On paper, Liverpool are the most likely challengers to Manchester City next season, but everything revolves around Virgil van Dijk returning to fitness and his place in the back four. Liverpool simply haven’t been the same since the 29-year-old centre-half suffered a cruciate ligament injury in October. Van Dijk’s absence has affected every area of the pitch, with the defence losing its leader and organiser and full-backs Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold being exposed defensively.
It has also has knock-ons further up the pitch, with the midfield weakened due to manager Jurgen Klopp having to use Fabinho and/or Jordan Henderson as makeshift centre-halves. Without the drive of those two in midfield, Liverpool have been unable to dominate opponents and chances for their forwards have reduced dramatically.
So getting Van Dijk back is crucial. Yes, there are other areas in need of attention, with Liverpool needing to find a younger version of Henderson, but everything revolves around Van Dijk. With him back in the team, Liverpool can challenge again.
TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR: Replace Lloris and keep Kane
Jose Mourinho will hope that Spurs are now back on track this season after Sunday’s 4-0 win against Burnley revived prospects of Champions League qualification, but if the club are to challenge for the title next season, there is plenty of work to be done.
The priority, as always, will be to ensure that centre-forward Harry Kane resists the temptation to move elsewhere. With Kane, Spurs can beat anyone, and his partnership with Son Heung-min is as potent as any in the Premier League. Mourinho has the quality within his squad to sustain a title challenge, but he needs the likes of midfielder Tanguy Ndombele and defender Davinson Sanchez to develop more consistency.
At the back, however, the time has come to find a replacement for captain and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. The France No. 1 has been among the best in the world at times during his career, but he is no longer in that bracket and Spurs would be stronger, and more capable of sustaining a title challenge, with a better goalkeeper.
What about the rest? This season’s title race has been enlivened by the likes of West Ham, Everton and Aston Villa challenging for a top-four finish, while Arsenal continue to under-perform in the league as they look set to miss out on the Champions League for a fifth consecutive season. But can any of those clubs do anything over the summer to take them to another level next season and make themselves serious top four contenders or even higher?
WEST HAM UNITED: Allow Moyes to build
West Ham are exceeding all expectations this season, with the Hammers sitting in fourth position, a point clear of Chelsea, with 12 games to play. The club harbours ambitions of becoming a force to rival London’s traditional big three of Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs, but it will need a period of growth and consistency to achieve that goal.
Patience has always been in short supply at West Ham, though, so the club needs to buck its own trend and allow manager David Moyes the time to build solid foundations and make the team as consistent and competitive as the Scot made Everton during his 11-year spell in charge at Goodison Park. Keeping Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek at the club this summer, when big-money offers are sure to come in, would be a big step in the right direction.
EVERTON: Back Ancelotti
Carlo Ancelotti has transformed the mood at Everton, on and off the pitch, since taking charge as manager in December 2019 and the three-time Champions League winner has put the team on course for a top-four finish this season.
Last summer, Ancelotti pushed the club to deliver the transfer targets he wanted and made sure that James Rodriguez, Abdoulaye Doucoure and Allan were added to his squad. All three players have made a big contribution this season, while Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Lucas Digne and Michael Keane have all improved dramatically under Ancelotti’s management.
The Italian has proved his credentials beyond all doubt, so the Everton board and director of football Marcel Brands must given Ancelotti what he wants this summer to take the team to the next level.
ASTON VILLA: Keep Grealish and strengthen
Despite battling with relegation until the final week of last season, Aston Villa have sustained a push for European qualification this time around. Villa are still a work in progress under manager Dean Smith and they remain heavily reliant on the creativity of midfielder Jack Grealish, so the priority is to introduce enough new quality into the squad to convince the England international to stay at Villa Park.
Nobody expects Villa to challenge for the title anytime soon, but keeping Grealish and making improvements in all areas could certainly help the club become a consistent top six challenger.
ARSENAL: Trust the kids — and be patient
It is now 17 years since Arsenal won their last title, with Arsene Wenger’s “Invincibles” still the only side to win the Premier League without suffering a single defeat in a season.
Arsenal won’t be winning the league anytime in the immediate future, but after more than a decade of drift at the Emirates, there are positive signs in the shape of youngsters Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli. Manager Mikel Arteta has given them the chance to shine this season and all three have grasped their opportunity, but Arteta needs time to overhaul a squad that still has too many under-performing senior players.
If Arsenal can keep their best young players and replace the fading stars with similarly promising youngsters, they can look forward to a brighter future. But they might be approaching the 20th anniversary of the “Invincibles,” in 2024, before they can seriously challenge for the title again.