Football’s decision makers continue to attempt to navigate a way through the coronavirus crisis that has seen all major leagues suspended indefinitely until competitive action can safely resume. But while the game is on hold, decisions and plans are still being made at the top clubs in preparation for when football returns.
The leading clubs in the Premier League all face different challenges and objectives, and issues to overcome. So what are the priorities to address and questions to be answered?
Top priority when football resumes: For Liverpool, only one thing will matter when — or if — the 2019-20 season resumes: They simply have to secure the two victories that will confirm the club’s first league title since 1990. Until the Premier League was suspended last month, Jurgen Klopp’s team were just six points from confirming themselves as champions. A 25-point lead over Manchester City is as good as unassailable, but mathematically, the job has still not been done and that is the key. Two more wins, whether they come in June, July, August or September, is the absolute priority for Liverpool.
Biggest question to be answered: Leaving aside the ultimate question, which is whether this season will ever be played to a conclusion, Liverpool have to plan ahead with a business-as-usual approach. That means Klopp and the club’s recruitment department must assess the squad and decide whether it can dominate for the next two to three seasons or if it requires new players to replace those who may have already produced their best at Anfield. Liverpool have made just one first-team signing — Takumi Minamino — since summer 2018 and they lack a true game-changer in midfield, so the biggest question of all is whether they can afford to have another quiet summer window this time around.
Top priority when football resumes: The Champions League. City’s owners have made no secret of their determination, maybe even desperation, to have the European Cup in the club’s trophy cabinet, and this season arguably offers them their best-ever chance. Holders Liverpool have been knocked out and City are 2-1 up from the first leg of their round-of-16 tie against Real Madrid in Spain. Overturning UEFA’s two-season European ban is another battle City must win, but on the pitch, Pep Guardiola’s team now have a great opportunity to end the wait for Champions League success.
Biggest question to be answered: A cloud of uncertainty is hovering over the Etihad Stadium because of UEFA’s decision to ban City from European competition for the next two seasons for “serious breaches of club licensing and financial fair play regulations.” City have lodged an appeal against the sanction with the Court of Arbitration for Sport, but that hearing is now on hold due to the coronavirus crisis. The outcome of the appeal is absolutely crucial to the club’s future. If they fail, the financial and reputational damage will be huge, but they also risk losing star players who will not accept being out of the Champions League at the height of their career.
Top priority when football resumes: Leicester went into the shutdown in third place, with an eight-point cushion between themselves and fifth-placed Manchester United in the race for Champions League qualification, so getting the job and clinching a top-four spot is the priority. Manager Brendan Rodgers will be concerned by a recent run of form that has seen his team win just two, and lose four, of their past eight Premier League games, however. Can Leicester hold on during their last nine games or has the rot set in? With United due at the King Power Stadium in the final game of the season, it could go down to the wire.
Biggest question to be answered: Can Rodgers keep his team together? Leicester’s performances this season have raised the profile of several of their younger players, with Ben Chilwell (Chelsea) and James Madison (Manchester United) both being targeted by heavyweight rivals. Champions League qualification might be enough to persuade both to stay, but the Foxes face a fight if they want to keep them.
Top priority when football resumes: Chelsea need to hold on to a place in the top four to be certain of Champions League qualification. So far this season, manager Frank Lampard has been able to keep his young side in the top four, but Manchester United, Wolves and Sheffield United are all on their heels, so it will be a testing final period of the campaign for Chelsea.
Biggest question to be answered: Chelsea allowed planning permission to lapse earlier this week on their modernisation and rebuilding project at Stamford Bridge, despite the club hierarchy insisting that owner Roman Abramovich has only shelved the plans, rather than abandoned them completely. But when, or if, the transformation of the ground into a 60,000-seat super stadium goes ahead is now a crucial issue for Chelsea because they risk falling behind Arsenal, Tottenham and even West Ham if they fail to renovate a now-outdated 41,631-capacity Stamford Bridge.
Top priority when football resumes: United still have two routes to Champions League qualification open to them via the Premier League top four and the Europa League, and they must take at least one of them to avoid Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s position as manager being placed under intense scrutiny. Returning to the Champions League is also crucial in terms of United’s recruitment plans as targets such as Jadon Sancho, Donny van de Beek, Matthijs de Ligt and Kalidou Koulibaly would be unlikely to move to Old Trafford to play in the Europa League.
Biggest question to be answered: Will Paul Pogba be at United next season, and do they actually want him to be there? The Pogba saga has now rumbled, on and off, for the best part of two years, but with Fernandes proving himself an instant hit at Old Trafford since his January arrival from Sporting Lisbon, United can now perhaps sell Pogba and not suffer as a consequence. Both Juventus and Real Madrid are keen, but whether either has the money or desire to sign him this summer remains to be seen.
Top priority when football resumes: Get Harry Kane back on the pitch. The England captain has been out of action since suffering a hamstring injury on Jan. 1 and Spurs have struggled for goals and results ever since. They are out of the Champions League, out of the FA Cup and seven points adrift of the top four, so Kane’s presence is desperately needed by Jose Mourinho’s team.
Biggest question to be answered: Is Mourinho the right man for Tottenham Hotspur? Many Spurs fans were against his appointment as Mauricio Pochettino’s successor last November because of his connection to London rivals Chelsea and the style of play the Portuguese favours. So far, injuries to key players have conspired against Mourinho, but the jury is still out and he will need to finish this season with some kind of flourish to keep his critics at bay.
Top priority when football resumes: Just like United, Wolves have two roads to Champions League qualification, but with coach Nuno Espirito Santo favouring a small core of players over squad rotation, managing the workload will be key to their prospects. A final day trip to Chelsea could be a Champions League decider.
Biggest question to be answered: Wolves face the same problem as Midlands rivals Leicester when the season draws a close: can they hold on to their best players? Jimenez, Traore, Neves and Diogo Jota are all attracting interest, while Doherty has also caught the eye with his high-energy performances down the right for Nuno.
Top priority when football resumes: Arsenal are on course for their worst Premier League campaign since 1994-95, when they finished in 12th position, just six points above the relegation places, but they can still salvage something from the season by claiming a Europa League spot. Mikel Arteta’s team went into the shutdown in ninth position, but a top-seven finish is likely to be enough for Europe, and qualifying for the Europa League will be crucial for the club’s finances.
Biggest question to be answered: What next for Aubameyang? The 30-year-old former Borussia Dortmund striker is out of contract in June 2021 and has yet to agree a new deal at the Emirates. Barcelona considered a move for Aubameyang in January and are expected to return at the end of the season, having identified him as a potential replacement for Luis Suarez. If Arsenal miss out on Europe, they may have no option but to cash in on their star striker.