Over the course of the last weekend, every one of the Premier League's ‘Big Six’ clubs failed to win.
They managed just two goals between them, picked up a combined four points, and averaged four shots on target each.
The 12th round of league games was a nadir for the richest clubs in England, but it followed a trend that – at a third of the way through the campaign – looks set to continue for the rest of the season.
Only two of the ‘Big Six’ are currently sat in the top four positions in the table. They have a combined 114 points from 70 games, 15 points fewer than at the same stage last season.
The Premier League’s joint leaders, Liverpool and Tottenham, are averaging slightly above two points per game and have won just over half their games, figures that would usually only be enough to scrape a top-four finish.
Naturally, there are idiosyncratic reasons for each club’s difficulties. But the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic underpins all six cases, with a congested fixture list leading to fatigue, injuries, and squad rotation on a scale never before seen in the English top-flight.
Perhaps surprisingly, it is the elite clubs who have suffered the most.
As the quality of football gets better towards the top of the pyramid so too does its complexity - and the more fine-tuned the system, the more vulnerable it is to collapsing.
Perhaps that is counter-intuitive, and perhaps the biggest clubs ought to be able to swap out players and find ways to bully equally-exhausted opponents, but the tactical and technical chasm between the richest clubs and the rest means the likes of Manchester City, Liverpool, and even Arsenal are unable to adapt.
They are used to working in complex tessellations, pressing and passing in a detailed system that allows them to pull apart defensive opponents.
By contrast, the mid-tier clubs, who are more analogue in their tactics, can continue to sit back and soak up pressure. Their tactics are largely unaffected by the pandemic.
The compressed schedule of the 2020-21 season has hurt the big clubs in two ways.
Firstly, there is no time in the week to work on tactics, which means the choreographed moves – the automatisms – are gone, making life much simpler for those outside the elite. In recent years, pre-set attacking moves were being coached at the ‘Big Six’ in order to prise apart a deep defence.
Those have diminished this season, with Arsenal the most obviously affected.
Mikel Arteta appeared to be making great strides by the end of last season, with his highly structured possession patterns mimicking how Pep Guardiola first got Manchester City in shape. But fast-forward to December and Arsenal look clueless.
Without time to teach them his particularly complex and specialised methods, Arteta’s plans are useless. He is asking his players to operate the most high-tech machinery on the planet without having had time to read the instructions. Unsurprisingly, the end result is chaos and confusion.
City have been similarly affected by this, hence the passivity and sideways passing at the Etihad Stadium, although they – and Liverpool – are more impacted by the second biggest side effect of the compressed schedule: fatigue.
Every team has tired players, of course, and even factoring in European football, the ‘Big Six’ ought to have the squad depth to cope with fatigue and injuries better than the other 14 Premier League clubs.
But again, this is about the fine-tuning of details, and the microscopic level of high-powered performance needed when you are expected to hold at least 65 per cent possession.
When the smaller clubs are tired, their compact off-the-ball shape remains largely unaltered. When the bigger clubs are tired, their pressing system collapses and the whole methodology is undermined.
Liverpool, City, Arsenal, and Chelsea are pressing considerably less, doing so deliberately in order to conserve energy to survive this most challenging of campaigns. The problem is, without pressing their possession game becomes too easy to read and they leave themselves exposed on the counterattack.
In the modern game, organised pressing is essential to attack, defence, and in the transition.
Without a high press, the ‘Big Six’ are not winning the ball in dangerous areas, and therefore are not counter-pressing into space in the final third – a key part of the attacking strategy for Guardiola, Klopp, Frank Lampard, and Arteta.
What is more, they are not able to pen teams in: aggressive pressing is designed to keep the opponent trapped in their own half, helping to grind them into submission. Without it the ‘Big Six’ are taking part in more territorially even contests, hence clumsy draws against mid-table opposition.
And finally, without a coherent press forcing the other team to scramble the ball clear, they are able to get their head up and pick out a pass over the top of the defence. Liverpool, Chelsea, and City have been hit particularly hard by this: midfielders have the time and space to find the runner over the top of those high defensive lines.
If pressing drops, the entire system breaks down. If there is no time to coach the automatisms, possession becomes stale. Put these two together and it is easy to see why the Premier League table is so congested, and why it is the ‘Big Six’ who seem most impacted by the unique challenges of pandemic football.
The exceptions to this are Manchester United and Tottenham, who for different reasons are only partially affected.
Jose Mourinho likes to play conservatively, holding a firm midblock and improvising on the counterattack, which makes his tactics particularly well suited to pandemic football. It is no wonder they are the only ‘Big Six’ club who are not under-performing.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, however, is an anomaly because, frankly, his very appointment is an anomaly. He does not have the experience or coaching credentials to make it work at United, which is why their performances are so erratic; without a discernible plan, they have talented players who will sometimes gel and sometimes not.
There are other factors idiosyncratic to each club. Liverpool have been particularly unlucky with injuries. City have badly missed David Silva and Fernandinho. Chelsea’s new attackers are still adjusting to the division. Arsenal are in crisis for multiple behind-the-scenes reasons.
Nevertheless, the congested fixture list has notably hurt the bigger clubs in the Premier League more than the smaller ones, and with the Christmas schedule soon upon us this will only become more pronounced.That means the league table, as it looks now, could hold. Leicester City, Southampton, and West Ham are all near the top. Everton and Aston Villa are climbing. It could be the most wild season in Premier League history.