City should make title charge if key men stay fit next season
Lack of injuries played major part in Chelsea's Premier League success
The domestic football season has barely ended, but there's no better way to spend late May and early June evenings than sat in a beer garden with friends talking about what the next one might bring.
And that's something I did this week. It didn't take long for the first argument to break out, when someone told me "Chelsea won the league by seven points, they have to start as favourites next season."
I understand why anyone might think that. I just don’t agree. I think Manchester City are favourites. I suppose I should attempt to explain why.
Chelsea were the best team in 2016-17, no arguments there. But there are reasons to believe some of the things which enabled them to be the best team in 2016-17 may not be the case in 2017-18.
I spent some time looking at the top six clubs this week, and the number of minutes their key players spent on the field in the league over the whole season. I looked at the players I regarded as the five most influential in each squad.
With all of those clubs, three or four of the key players pick themselves and no one would disagree. In some cases I had to make a judgement call on the fifth player and thought it could be any one of a few, but for the purposes of this exercise I don't think that matters too much.
The theory is that having your best players on the pitch as much as possible will enhance your chance of winning more games and therefore finishing higher in the league. Nothing too controversial there, it stands to reason. If better players on the pitch didn't improve your chance of winning, no one would bother to spend big money on buying new ones.
This is what I found:
LEAGUE MINUTES PLAYED AT TOP CLUBS:
Total minutes played 13,496
De Bruyne 3067
De Gea 3392
Chelsea's five most important players (in my opinion, though I challenge you to disagree with more than one of them) spent a total of 16,816 minutes on the field. That's 2,236 more minutes than their nearest rival on the same metric.
That 2,236 equates to almost 25 full matches – or an average of five extra matches per player. Over a 38 game season, to get an average of five more matches out of your best players than a rival is a very significant advantage.
This isn't to knock Chelsea's achievements this season. Far from it. But we'd be foolish to believe this would be likely to happen again.
Just because key players stay fit for all of one season, there's absolutely no guarantee they’ll do the same again next season.
We must also consider the effect of Chelsea returning to European football next season too, both in terms of the heavier workload potentially leading to more injuries being sustained, and the possibility that Antonio Conte will use his squad more than he's needed to this season in order to keep key players fresh and attempt to safeguard against picking up injuries.
Chelsea were the only team of the six for whom all five of my "key players" played a minimum of 3,000 minutes. Contrast that with Liverpool, City and Manchester United, all of whom only managed to get one top player on the field for that amount of time (and in United's case that wasn't even an outfield player).
Tottenham got the second most minutes from their five top players, with three hitting the 3,000 minute mark. Harry Kane was fourth on that list at 2,653 minutes. A fine achievement considering he suffered a couple of pretty bad injuries. They’ll need to add depth this summer to allow for the possibility of more key injuries.
Some will be surprised to see United ranked third of six on this list given the injury to Zlatan Ibrahimovic and their rotation late in the season when the Europa League became the key focus.
However, in their case perhaps we don't get the full story, since United suffered an incredible number of injuries throughout their squad which you'd have to expect them to have better luck with next season.
Arsenal sit right next to United, so can't use key injuries as an excuse for their regression this season. Arsene Wenger has an awful lot of work to do to bring Arsenal back into a title race next season and nothing stands out as a reason to suggest he can do so.
With Thursday night football never a help, Arsenal should be sixth favourites of the big six as things stand.
Liverpool's 12,729 key minutes brings them in fifth. They suffered key injuries to all of their main men except Roberto Firmino (though he looked burnt out for the last month or so of the season). Also Sadio Mane's spell at AFCON didn't help, and that's one thing they don't have to worry about next season.
They do have to worry about the added fixtures however, especially the way Jurgen Klopp plays, demanding an energetic pressing game every week, they really need to strengthen in terms of quality and quantity to deal with the added pressures.
Last time Liverpool were in this spot they made a mess of their summer spending, bringing in the likes of Mario Balotelli, Lazar Markovic, Alberto Moreno and Rickie Lambert, none of which worked out. They'll need to do better this time.
Finally, seeing the fewest key minutes were City, and it wasn't even very close. This has to be the vital takeaway. Because not only are City looking set to spend an absolute fortune this summer, but we should also expect them to get more production next season from their most important players.
The best type of ability is availability, and for chunks of this season City’s key players weren't available.
Ilkay Gundogan feels almost like a forgotten man. He should not be. He’s a fantastic player and if he can have a full pre-season and perform for around 3,000 minutes rather than this season's 733 he can play an instrumental part in bringing the title back to the Etihad.