What has Project Restart changed for the ‘Big Six’ heading into 2020-21?
As the Premier League’s 2019-20 season draws to a close on Sunday, it’s almost impossible to ignore what Project Restart has done to the attitudes and perception of several traditional powers.
Some of the changes have been predictable. Adding a healthy Harry Kane or Paul Pogba to a lineup don’t lend long odds to success.
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Other teams, or in Chelsea’s case players, have a few more questions to answer.
Let’s take a look beyond the obvious. What’s obvious? Well West Ham surviving the drop is a huge win but we’re not exactly thinking David Moyes has solved the decade-long puzzle that is success at West Ham and is the answer.
Disclaimer: Any uneven play for any team could totally be excused by two things. One is the incredibly congested schedule presented by the coronavirus pandemic. The other is that each team is a collection of humans reacting to that pandemic, something that the majority of us have never seen. Given vulnerable families and friends, let alone vulnerable players themselves, there’s plenty of reason to just nod at scary variables.
In alphabetical order...
The Gunners have looked a lot better since Mikel Arteta took the reins at the Emirates but they’re also ninth on the Restart table which isn’t much better than their pre-pandemic run in England.
So much of what next season looks like rides on what the Gunners do in the FA Cup Final because they’ll already have to resign Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and recruit players without the prospect of Champions League football. What will the vibe be if there’s no Europa League? Yeah, the iconic red-and-white shirt of Arsenal is always a draw but players want to be on the biggest stage in their primes.
Winning the FA Cup, however, would be able to be sold alongside tournament wins against Chelsea and Man City as well as a regular season win over Liverpool to deny the champions’ centurion hopes.
There’s also an argument to be made about Arsenal having an easier route through 2020-21 if they can only focus on the Premier League, but that’s not the question posed in this post.
Verdict: TBD Aug. 1
Despite a distinct lack of N’Golo Kante and a group of B+ center forwards, Chelsea is three points off the Project Restart lead.
There are unsightly losses to West Ham and Sheffield United, so it hasn’t been a tremendous restart for Frank Lampard’s Blues.
But the story is the same as it was earlier this year. Chelsea is producing chances at a rate as high as anyone not named Man City, and the forwards are just scoring in an average-at-best fashion.
The Blues have Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech, and maybe Kai Havertz coming to Stamford Bridge to join Christian Pulisic as seemingly lights-out options. Even if Havertz doesn’t arrive and Ziyech and Werner take some time to settle, the Blues have those B+ forwards (Olivier Giroud and a still-young Tammy Abraham) to go with Callum Hudson-Odoi as intriguing attackers.
Chelsea will feel it’s got the goods to challenge for a Premier League title next year, and it will definitely feel better about it than it did before the break. Part of that is due to signings, but that’s part of this period isn’t it?
The thrilling 5-3 win against Chelsea joins the Reds’ terrific collection of silverware to stress that Liverpool is a giant without true worries about contending in the future.
But there’s absolutely zero denying that their deserved Premier League title came with heaping doses of “Team of Destiny” medicine. Liverpool has collected about 23 points more than the expected goals table suggests it’s should’ve (This is a metric and not a fact, so we’re not dismissing their amazing season at all).
Going into the final day of the season, the 2019-20 Reds have allowed 10 more goals this season than last, scoring seven fewer (They may still make amends for the latter at St. James’ Park on Sunday, but we digress).
Eleven of the conceded goals have come in Project Restart and seven since they sealed the PL title. And while most teams who clinch early switch off a little bit, the Reds’ faithful would be justified in wondering just how much of that palpable intensity will be conjured next season with that long-sought title in their pocket.
All that said, the Reds are four points of the top of the Project Restart table despite having very little reason to play with desperation or intensity.
Verdict: Slightly down but still very shiny
Here’s a controversial take: Pep Guardiola’s Man City was still the most-feared team in the Premier League and will be the favorites to reclaim their title next season.
City was outplayed by desperate Bournemouth and ousted from the FA Cup by Chelsea, so it has been far from perfect, but Raheem Sterling has been back to his best and Phil Foden has given every reason to believe that David Silva’s exit is something the club can overcome next season.
The lifting of the European ban also came in Project Restart and that’s a monumental win for the club. Kevin De Bruyne and legions of others are no longer threats to skip town.
The club still need an answer at left back and center back depth with Eric Garcia potentially leaving and no clear cut starter next to Aymeric Laporte, but has Ederson, Laporte, Rodri, and Kevin De Bruyne up the heart of the pitch with those bevy of attackers up top. Laporte missing as much time as he did this season is without question the main reason City finished so far off Liverpool’s pace: John Stones is average for a team of City’s ambition, Nicolas Otamendi is past his once-vibrant prime, Garcia is young, and Fernandinho being able to play with Rodri instead of CB would’ve been a monstrous proposition over 30-plus matches instead of a handful.
City buried Liverpool 4-0 and has the league’s joint-most points and a plus-22 goal differential during Project Restart. And while we pointed out Liverpool’s massive dose of good fortune, City would have a 11-point table lead if xG was the metric (which, we know Liverpool fans, it is not).
Verdict: Maybe, ever-so-slightly down but probably dead level.
The Red Devils are healthy now and Project Restart has shown Paul Pogba that -- provided no flop Sunday or, failing that, in the Europa League -- he can stay in Manchester and compete for everything he wants in his career.
Pogba has joined Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, and a host of others to show that anything is possible for this Red Devils team. If Ole Gunnar Solskjaer didn’t totally murder his lineup selection for the FA Cup semifinal, they could still be in line for a possible FA Cup-Europa League double.
So, yeah, there’s still a huge question with Solskjaer, who definitely understands the massive renown of playing for United but still needs to cement his credentials.
And they desperately need a healthy and athletic center back to pair with strong, solid, and slow Harry Maguire, but Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s got speed on the right and Luke Shaw is okay on the left.
They also didn’t beat anyone of traditional strength over this stretch, drawing Spurs, but they can only play who’s on the docket.
All that info collected, how can you look at a joint-best 18 points in Project Restart with a plus-14 goal differential and not think there’s every reason United can join Liverpool, Manchester City, and whoever else shows up to the title fight next season.
Verdict: Rocketship to the moon (presuming they get enough fuel for the journey from either Sunday at Leicester or the UEL)
Spurs have one point less than Restart leaders Man City and Man United, but that’s not a huge surprise given Jose Mourinho has been able to work with healthy Kane, Heung-min Son, and Steven Bergwijn.
But Mourinho hasn’t exactly won over Spurs nation despite the points and a win in the North London Derby.
What he needs to sort out is whether he can co-exist with a very talented Tanguy Ndombele. He needs to determine whether he can turn Dele Alli into the player back into star or find someone more consistent to fit the bill.
Spurs have had a tricky road to travel since coming back and have impressive wins, some decisive like the waxing of Leicester City in a must-have match.
All that said, Tottenham could still be playing and recruiting without European fuel. If that happens, it means Wolves pipped them to sixth and Arsenal won the FA Cup to take seventh place out of Europe. And as much as that will mostly be down to bad summer planning and worse winter injuries rather than Mou, it will leave him in a precarious summer spot.
Verdict: Same questions, same answers.