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Premier League Week 39 and Beyond

by Neal Thurman

The concept of a 39th match week in the Premier League, one that would be played abroad to boost fan interest and cash in on the worldwide interest in the league, has been discussed from time to time and, generally, dismissed.  Well, apparently, Liverpool, Spurs, Arsenal, and Chelsea have decided to run something of a pilot as they completed the Prem's stranglehold on this season's European competitions.  No, Madrid and Baku aren't exactly the destinations that they would have chosen if they were drawing this up for maximum benefit to the league.  That would probably look more like Los Angeles and Guangzhou but getting to do a trial run on someone else's dime is certainly nice.  

 

With all of this European success and the relative lack of major story lines heading into Week 38, I'm going to take a look at what the European finals mean to each team in the longer term and then starting to take a look at the transfer market in a very random fashion. 

 

Liverpool vs Spurs

The stakes for both Liverpool and Spurs are pretty serious.  You could argue that the outcome of the match is more important for Spurs than it is for Liverpool.  For the Reds, the trajectory is all headed in the right direction.  The stars seem settled and the results continue to improve.  If they fail at both the league and Champions League this season, there will certainly be disappointment but it certainly won't be the end of the world.  It will be fairly easy for them to make a few adjustments to the squad in the summer with what should be a reasonable amount of money available and make another run at both competitions.  There are no crucial members of the squad that are on the wrong side of the aging curve.  With Barcelona, Real Madrid, PSG, and Bayern Munich all in various stages of upheaval for various reasons there isn't any looming barrier to another run at both the Premier League and Champions League titles other than Manchester City.

 

At Spurs, things are a little bit different.  The run to the Champions League final certainly highlights the upside of a squad that has great talent in it.  The concern is that it also papers over some of the cracks that are starting to show.  Spurs were down 3-0 on aggregate to Ajax for a reason.  Hugo Lloris is still an above average goalkeeper but his best is behind him.  The former Ajax CB pairing of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld are both in decline and it seems likely that Alderweireld will be leaving in the summer.  The outside backs, long a strength for Spurs, have been a shadow of what they were as recently as last season with injury and regression both seeming to play their parts.  In midfield, the loss of Mousa Dembele has been felt already and there is a steady drumbeat of rumors that Christen Eriksen wants to leave for more money.  Throw in that all Spurs supporters, whether they admit it or not, are officially worried about Harry Kane's ankles and Mauricio Pochettino could bolt after the season and there is a case that this could be now or never for Spurs.

 

Don't get me wrong, the emergence of Lucas Moura and the continued excellence of Son Hueng Min supporting Harry Kane (when healthy) means that Spurs won't be dropping too far off the pace anytime soon.  What does seem clear is that this summer, win or lose, there will be significant risk that much of the core group, especially at the back, will need to be changed out.  If Spurs are sporting a Champions League trophy as they head into the transfer market, that will make recruiting strong replacements much easier than if they lose to Liverpool and face questions about the manager and a bunch of key players leaving.  

Arsenal vs. Chelsea

Things are similar on the other side of North London.  The stakes for Arsenal in the Europa League final are much, much higher than they are for their cross-London rival for Europe's fallback prize.  Chelsea are not in anywhere near as good shape as Liverpool are heading into the summer but it isn't clear that winning the Europa League actually mitigates any of Chelsea's issues.  Given the success that the Blues have had since Roman Abramovic took over the club, supporters aren't likely to get too excited about adding a Europa League title to the trophy closet.  Would they rather win it than lose it? Sure.  Will it add significantly to the Premier League titles and Champions League title they've picked up recently? It doesn't seem likely.  Chelsea's issues are all tied up in their transfer ban and how ready Christian Pulisic is to replace Eden Hazard and who else, if anyone, leaves and how they are replaced.  The Blues have some serious issues in their squad and being shut out of the transfer market over the summer and next January is going to make it hard to figure out what to do in the attacking positions that seem almost certain to lose Hazard but could also see Olivier Giroud, Gonzalo Higuaín, and one of Pedro/Willian leave as well.  Throw in what could be a long recovery for Callum Hudson-Odoi from his Achilles injury and Chelsea may have to lean heavily on its long list of loanees and youth team stars to make a serious contribution.

 

At Arsenal, the outcome of the Europa League final changes the entire trajectory of the next phase of their rebuild.  Entry into next season's Champions League provides both additional funds for transfer fees and wages but also puts the club in a position where they are, once again, attractive to the sorts of players who could be significant upgrades on the players currently in the squad.  As it stands, the Gunners probably need two center backs, a left back, and an attacking midfielder at minimum with a back-up goalkeeper and another wide attacker next on the list.  If, as speculated, the club find takers for Mesut Özil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, then they'd probably need at least one more attacking midfielder inbound if not two.  If the Gunners are playing in the Europa League again next season then that is going to be a difficult shopping list to credibly fill out.  There will likely have to be a few more hits of the Rob Holding variety or promotions from the youth squad - looking at you Reiss Nelson - to make the money work.  If they make it to the Champions League by way of winning the Europa League then they can probably do all of their business with established players and allow the rising youth to force their way into the side rather than being depended upon.  

 

Winning the Europa League also changes the conversation at Arsenal.  Too often as Arsenal have struggled down the stretch the narrative has been "same old Arsenal" or "we could have gotten these results from Wenger".  A manager can only do so much.  The defensive failures that Arsenal have experienced don't appear to be the systemic failures of the Wenger era but rather personnel inadequacies, especially among the holdover defenders from the Wenger era.  The players just aren't good enough at the back and the money wasn't there to replace them all last summer.  To me, that isn't a manager issue, it is an overhang from the previous administration.  Winning the Europa League changes that conversation and gives Emery a little time and money for a makeover and, one would hope, earns him the benefit of the doubt.  That outcome would be invaluable for the Gunners on multiple fronts.  

 

Random Transfer Thoughts

As we enter the summer, there are some trends that it seems likely we will see more of.  Liverpool's ability to find value in players from relegated sides - Andrew Robertson from Hull City and Xherdan Shaqiri from Stoke City - seems likely to inspire more bargain hunting in at least some quarters of the top half of the table.  The other question that is on my mind is how much talent will shake loose from teams like Barcelona and Real Madrid as they experience makeovers.  Is there another Alexis Sánchez (remember he used to be very good) or Lucas Digne waiting to star one or two levels down from Spain's top two? Honestly, I'm adding PSG, Manchester City, and Bayern Munich into the mix for potential stars shaking loose as well because all are going to make some changes and have talent that could be useful elsewhere.  

 

  • Ryan Sessegnon's star has certainly faded a bit but he's incredibly young and was in a rotten situation at Fulham.  He will almost certainly stay in the Premier League with Spurs the long-rumored destination but Everton (as a Richarlison replacement?) seeming a little more reasonable at this point. 
  • It won't happen but it would be fantastic for the Premier League if Romelu Lukaku stayed in the league but moved just slightly down the table if Manchester United decides that he's not going to be their man in the middle for the long term.  He'll probably end up at a continental Champions League club but how fun would it be if he were central to a mid-table side like Crystal Palace with the money they could make from the sale of Wilfried Zaha or Wolves if they can't work out a permanent deal for Raúl Jiménez
  • We haven't heard a great deal about Brexit in a few months but expect the market for players who will qualify as "homegrown" players to be extremely hot at clubs look to make srue that they'll be on the right side of any regulations that are imposed on them whenever the ugly divorce between the UK and the EU gets sorted out. 
  • I saw a rumor the other day that Ryan Babel may be headed back to Turkey in the summer.  Hard for me to believe someone who has been as productive as he has been since showing up at Craven Cottage wouldn't have a few Premier League offers over the summer.
  • I am very interested to see who the Alexis Sánchez figure will be at Manchester City.  Playing time changes from season-to-season but between Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sané, Bernardo Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Riyad Mahrez, and whatever holding midfielder they bring in to replace Fernandinho there just isn't enough minutes.  Even if Ilkay Gundogan and David Silva leave or see their minutes reduced significantly, we can probably assume that Kevin De Bruyne will be in better health and play more minutes next season and Phil Foden will continue to ascend as well.  That means someone will end up in a situation similar to Mahrez this year with only 13 starts in the league.  Mahrez is 28-years-old and may not be interested in playing another season as a well-paid reserve.  
  • If you're looking for mid-table players who could earn a big money move then the list probably looks like Zaha, Richarlison, Maguire, Tielemans, Maddison, Fraser, Brooks, Jota, Neves, Jimenez, Perez, Wan-Bissaka, Chilwell, Sessegnon, and Rice.  I'm not suggesting all of them will move but all are worthy of a move up the table and are young enough that they are likely to be worth enough to bigger clubs to justify the sorts of transfer fees that it will take to get them away from their current clubs.  I'd also be considering Karian Grant as well but I'm a sucker for production over a small sample size.
  • It will be fascinating for me to see how Manchester United's castoffs do for new clubs.  There seem to be some players who could shake loose like Eric Bailly who, between injuries and managerial chaos, didn't get a great chance to play to their potential.  
  • More to come as we move beyond the end of the season and into a long summer of speculation and rumors 

 

Neal Thurman
Neal Thurman manages the Rotoworld's Premier League coverage and contributes to Never Manage Alone which he co-founded. He is also a diehard Arsenal supporter. You can find him on Twitter @NealJThurman.