Premier League return: 'Big Six' is no more but Manchester City, United, Liverpool and Chelsea are pulling away fast
The 2021/22 Premier League season is fast apporaching with the usual suspects set to do battle for the top prize. The increasing strengths of champions Manchester City, United, Liverpool and Chelsea means that even a challenge to break into the top four looks impossible for anyone else in the division.
Another football season is upon us and returns with something of a slight but significant shift in dynamic at the top of the league.
For years there was something of an acceptance of an elite group in English football.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when it occurred but some time in the last decade, there emerged a ‘big six’ in the Premier League consisting of Manchester United, City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham.
There was some logic to it in the sense these sides regularly finished in the European places at the top end of the table but this group has hardly been impenetrable as Leicester will attest to following their exploits in 2016 as well as their rise up the league in the last two seasons.
It wasn’t even that long ago Everton were a ‘top six’ side but somehow they are not part of these established big boys of the league.
The boys tried to get even bigger with their much-criticised attempt to join the failed breakaway European Super League this past season but bottled it in the face of widespread anger.
The sheer arrogance of the six was baffling considering, as mentioned above, their perceived dominance of the league was a relatively new phenomenon.
Laughably, Arsenal and Tottenham would go on to end the campaign out of the top positions – the Gunners for the second successive year – calling into question their ‘big six’ credentials.
The questions aimed at the north London pair are entirely valid heading into the new season, as it looks very much as though talk of a six may come to an end but four will firmly remain in place.
City are the team to beat in the Premier League
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Champions Manchester City are favourites to retain the title having strengthened their position with the signing of Jack Grealish and Harry Kane also very much on their shopping list.
Crosstown rivals United will be hoping to push their noisy neighbours closer this year and Ole Gunnar Solkskjaer has reinforced his squad with big buys in the form of Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane.
The future of Paul Pogba is still up in the air but United could yet do more business before the deadline as they look to mount a title challenge and start to put the recent years of underachievement behind them for good.
2020 Champions Liverpool struggled last season after major injuries derailed their title defence but with the return of Virgil van Djik to full fitness, Jurgen Klopp will be expecting a far better season than last time around which, even far from their best, saw them still finish third.
Thomas Tuchel unexpectedly took Chelsea to Champions League glory and with the imminent arrival of Romelu Lukaku to bolster his forward line, he will look to build on his unprecedented success after just six months in the Stamford Bridge dugout.
Jadon Sancho talks about Manchester United move
The strengths of this quartet mean they look far and away the strongest teams in the division, not just now, but for the foreseeable future. And while the order they finish might not be set in stone, it seems unlikely that anyone else will break in.
As far as their former big six cohorts are concerned, the two north London rivals have both been through a tumultuous two years, with huge managerial changes disrupting their progress and leaving both in a state of flux, some distance from challenging at the top end of the table.
Tottenham ended last season in seventh place and face the prospect of long midweek trips and an awkward fixture schedule as they compete in the inaugural Europa Conference League – an unnecessary distraction as they look to climb up the table.
Within the club, the embarrassing managerial pursuit that eventually saw them land on former Wolves boss Nuno Espirito Santo doesn’t exactly paint a picture of stability for side that actually very recently found themselves in contention to win the Champions League.
The possible loss of Kane could also deal their once lofty ambitions a fatal blow.
Kane could leave Spurs while Arsenal have their own problems
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Arsenal’s eighth-place finish means they are without European football of any description, meaning perhaps they can concentrate fully on returning to a position of respectability at home.
However, questions still remain over the capability of Mikel Arteta to actually do this and despite some useful reinforcements over the transfer window, the team is still far from convincing.
More than either Arsenal or Spurs, it’s far more likely that Leicester could be the ones to break into the top four but as has been the case for the past two years, they may again just fall short.
Brendan Rodgers' FA Cup and Community Shield winners are an impressive outfit capable of beating anyone on their day but have shown over 38 games that they simply aren't be strong enough.
The Foxes shock title win in five years ago looks unlikely to be repeated either by they or anyone else anytime soon.
Last season was the first time since 2009 that the same teams finished in the top four in successive seasons, albeit in different positions, and there is little reason to expect that to change come next May or even for years to come.