It is often said that if a shark stops swimming, it drowns. While that’s actually a myth, sharks, unlike fish, do have keep swimming to avoid sinking to the bottom. The same is true of teams in the Premier League these days. If they’re not moving ahead, they’re falling behind. There’s no such thing as standing pat. If you’re not a shark, you’re a fish waiting to be eaten.
The Premier League’s biggest sharks these days are Manchester City (the self-styled #SharkTeam, even), and everyone else is fighting for their scraps. There, by definition, can only be one winner in any given Premier League season after all. It is a brutal competition, especially as, unlike in other major European leagues, there are six teams with realistic or at least semi-realistic chances of winning the competition. This reality is generally hard for fans (and owners) to accept, but is something that’s undeniable. When Manchester United can miss the top four for two consecutive seasons, it can happen to anyone. Current United boss José Mourinho used to talk about this a fair bit during his second tenure at Chelsea and it has never escaped Antonio Conte’s narrative either, not even during last year’s title win.
With the fight for the top four coming down to the final stretch and Sunday’s game likely a pivotal part of that, Conte, when asked to compare Spurs’ trophy record with Chelsea’s, returned to this topic in his pre-match press conference on Thursday once again.
“I think that every manager wants to win a trophy.
“I must be honest, if you want to win trophies, maybe for important managers, it’s easier to go to another country. In England, if you stay here, never, never will it be easy to win trophies. Don’t forget that only one team can win the title and, in England, it’s not simple. You start every competition with six teams, six top teams who are ready to win something during the season.
“For example, last season, Chelsea won the title, Manchester United won the Carabao Cup, and Arsenal won the FA Cup. This season, probably Manchester City will win the title, but they dropped in the FA Cup. It’s not simple.”
Over the past couple decades, the Premier League’s elite has expanded from two (Manchester United, Arsenal) to three and four (Liverpool and Chelsea) to five (Manchester City) and now to six with Spurs stepping up from the fringes. We’ve gone from a big two to a “Big Four” to the “Sky Six” and the era of any of the six being assured of Champions League football is gone for the foreseeable future. Yes, not even for Manchester City’s sharks.
But the really troubling part at the moment is that Chelsea are showing signs of falling behind all but Arsenal. That’s true literally (i.e. we’re fifth and five points behind Spurs in fourth) and conceptually, with others seemingly improving year-on-year and Chelsea going the other way. Sunday’s opponents aren’t necessarily the prime example of this improvement in a year when everything has clicked for Manchester City, but joining the aforementioned elite over the past few seasons should be credit to them and manager Mauricio Pochettino, who despite a lack of titles, is rumored to be quite in-demand by teams richer than his current employers (Chelsea included).
“I consider Mauricio Pochettino a really good manager. I think that, if Tottenham grew a lot in this period, he has a lot of credit for that. I think they have started before us. Talking about my period, my era, For sure, now, they are ahead of us. [...] We are talking about a really good team, a great team, a really good manager, many good players, many talented players in this team. I have great respect for Tottenham. In these years, they grew a lot. Now they’re one of the best teams in England.”
“But, despite this, last season we were able to win the title and reach the final of the FA Cup. This season, we want to try to repeat our achievement in reaching the final of the FA Cup.”
-Antonio Conte; source: Mirror
Conte admitting that Spurs are ahead of Chelsea — and he certainly doesn’t mean it just in terms of the current standings — is unlikely to be received with acknowledging and understanding smiles, but at the moment, that’s our reality. Conte’s words not quite on the level of Mourinho’s extraordinary post-Sevilla rant for United supporters and their lofty expectations, but, like Jack Nicholson said, truths can be hard to handle. Whether you blame Conte or the Board or the players or a combination of all for this conundrum, Chelsea are in need of improvement and quickly, too, if we are to salvage the season with an FA Cup trophy and, perhaps more importantly, Champions League qualification.
That mission starts Sunday. Spurs may be one of the best, but we shouldn’t forget, so are we.