Assessing Leicester, Spurs, Arsenal and Man City as title race heats up
With 12 games of the Premier League season left, four sides are still in the hunt for the title. We've had four-way title fights before, but never between a quartet of sides so different in terms of style, experience and mentality.
Considering these contrasts, picking a likely winner at this stage remains tough. Leicester have the points advantage, Tottenham are the best side defensively, Arsenal are the bookmakers' favourites and Manchester City have the title-winning experience. Here's the lowdown on each side's strengths and weaknesses heading into the final stretch ...
Leicester City (first place, 53 points)
• A two-point gap at the top of the table shouldn't be ignored. Without wishing to stress the obvious, this is a double advantage: It doesn't merely explain that the Foxes have been two points better over the course of the season so far -- it also means they need to collect fewer points than their title rivals to seal the Championship. Momentum might be with Arsenal and Tottenham following their weekend victories, but Leicester remain best-placed to win the title.
• Possessing the Premier League's top goal scorer shouldn't be underestimated, either. Jamie Vardy (19 goals) has scored with alarming consistency this season while Riyad Mahrez has 14, the joint-fourth-best total in the division. It feels like Leicester can transfer the ball to these players quickly, and be assured of goals.
• The other three sides in the division are competing on multiple fronts whereas Leicester can concentrate solely upon the Premier League. This is particularly useful considering Claudio Ranieri likes naming a consistent starting XI. He has now picked the same side for six consecutive games -- the first time a Premier League manager has done that this season.
• Leicester have a relatively gentle fixture list. They don't face any more clashes against title rivals, and seven of their remaining 12 games are at the King Power Stadium.
• Leicester's upcoming matches are against sides who sit back and refuse to concede space behind the back four. The Foxes have generally been able to play on the counterattack against sides who have underestimated their quality and refused to adjust strategically, but matches against the likes of West Brom, Sunderland and Watford will test their ability to break down packed defences. Do Leicester have the tools to get past a deep defensive block?
• Ranieri's consistent team selection is partly due to the lack of quality in reserve. The weekend fixtures demonstrated the importance of substitutes -- Danny Welbeck, Kelechi Iheanacho and Erik Lamela all provided key contributions -- but Leicester's reserves simply aren't of title-winning quality.
Tottenham Hotspur (second place, 51 points)
• In the truest sense of the word, Spurs are the best team. They have a better defensive structure than Arsenal or Manchester City and while Leicester can rival them in this sense, Tottenham don't rely on two individuals to the extent Ranieri's side do. It's arguably still difficult to explain Tottenham's approach with possession -- aside from placing a big emphasis upon attacking full-backs -- but Mauricio Pochettino's side are hardly struggling for goals and are the Premier League's best side at pressing in midfield before springing forward quickly.
• The best defensive record in the division is a related concept. Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld understand one another brilliantly, and both suit a high defensive line. Youngster Kevin Wimmer has come into the side and looked solid in the absence of Vertonghen, while Eric Dier is the sturdiest holding midfielder that any of these four sides can offer.
• Pochettino's emphasis on heavy pressing might cause fatigue in the final weeks of the campaign. Spurs have a startlingly young squad and look well prepared in a physical sense, which might be enough to overcome this issue. Yet it wouldn't be entirely surprising if their intensity dipped in the final weeks, especially when the weather becomes warmer.
• Continued presence in other competitions might work against Spurs not simply in terms of physical conditioning, but also because it limits the time Pochettino can drill his players tactically ahead of upcoming Premier League matches. Spurs have every chance of beating Fiorentina this week, but it wouldn't be entirely surprising if he named a severely weakened side.
Arsenal (third place, 51 points)
• Arsenal are creating much better chances than their title rivals and seem to be finding goals from a wider variety of sources. Olivier Giroud isn't in good goal-scoring form but is an excellent focal point when Arsenal have lots of goal threats from deeper positions. His clever knock-down to Theo Walcott for the equaliser on Sunday isn't something offered by Vardy, Sergio Aguero or Harry Kane. It feels like Arsenal will score more goals than the other three sides between now and May.
• Danny Welbeck's extraordinarily late winner was an incredible moment that should give the Gunners a huge boost for the next couple of weeks. It wasn't any more important, in terms of mere points, than Christian Eriksen's winner against Manchester City, but the nature of the goal might prove to be season-defining. Arsenal are a volatile club in terms of confidence, and the most exhilarating moment the Emirates has witnessed for years could prove crucial in terms of belief.
• Arsenal still have a tricky run of away fixtures to come, including trips to Manchester City, Tottenham and Manchester United.
• A Champions League tie with Barcelona is a huge game, which requires significant tactical preparation and will be draining in terms of defensive effort. It's not impossible that Arsenal could be given a real thrashing, too, based upon Barca's current form. A heavy defeat could significantly dent morale.
• There's a sense that the Gunners' best two players, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, aren't quite at their sharpest, although it's not unusual for creative attacking talents to suffer a dip in form during the winter before recovering toward the end of the season.
Manchester City (fourth place, 47 points)
• A fully-fit Manchester City remains probably the most terrifying prospect in the league, offering great midfield power, multiple sources of creativity and the most lethal striker in the division. On form, they can destroy anyone.
• They're the only side that boasts title-winning experience as a group, and they also have a never-say-die attitude because of the incredible manner in which they triumphed four years ago, when they'd widely been written off following a 1-0 defeat to Arsenal.
• There is nevertheless the significant obstacle of a six-point deficit to Leicester and a four-point deficit to both Arsenal and Tottenham. Overcoming six points isn't impossible, but overtaking all three sides is a very different proposition.
• Injuries are causing real problems. Kevin De Bruyne's absence is particularly problematic, Vincent Kompany and David Silva don't seem 100 percent fit and Aguero is always a worry.
• They're still competing in three other competitions, and because they're likely to progress in the Champions League at Dynamo Kiev's expense, City will probably play more games than any of their title rivals between now and May.
• The organisation of the side is still poor. Things improved on Sunday when Manuel Pellegrini played Fernando from the start, but once he departed and City returned to the combination of Fernandinho and Yaya Toure, a huge gap opened up in front of the defence for Spurs' winner. None of the other title contenders shield their defence so poorly.
• Pellegrini's departure, and the imminent arrival of Pep Guardiola, might cause City's players to switch off. It didn't affect Bayern Munich under Jupp Heynckes three years ago, but Bayern were a highly professional, resilient outfit with a point to prove after the previous season's failure to win the European Cup on home soil. City already had a reputation for slackness, and two league defeats since the Guardiola deal was announced has raised further questions about their mentality.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.