While it is way too early to draw any really meaningful conclusions, as we reach the end of the first quarter of the season, there would seem to be every indication that we are in for the tightest Premier League title race in recent memory.
After 9 games Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool are level on 20 points and separated only by a goal difference of 2; just a point behind those three are Tottenham and Chelsea. At the start of the week, speaking at the club’s AGM, Arsene Wenger suggested that the eventual league winners will need a total of 82-86 points; based on the average of 2.22 points per game achieved by the top three so far that would suggest, over the course of the 38 game season, a total of 84 points, if form can be maintained. In real terms that offers a margin for error of 30 points; or 23 for the rest of the season.
Already, even the front runners have shown vulnerability: Liverpool’s defeat at Burnley, City not having won a Premier League game for a month and Arsenal failing to overcome Middlesbrough at home, all suggested that there will be surprises and twists and turns in the race before the eventual champions are crowned in May.
Tottenham remain the only unbeaten side, but 4 points dropped in the draws against West Brom and Bournemouth since they beat Manchester City has prevented them from grasping the initiative in the race.
After defeats at the hands of Liverpool at home and Arsenal away, it would have been easy to write off Antonio Conte’s Chelsea, but a change of formation to the 3-4-3 that is very much the manager’s tried and trusted modus operandi, has seen the team re-galvanised, culminating in the complete dismantling of Mourinho’s Manchester United last Sunday.
Just as for the trip to Anfield at the beginning of the week, the Sky Sports hype machine was in full effect for the return of Jose Mourinho to Stamford Bridge and the club from which he had been ignominiously sacked less than 12 months ago. This time the narrative of the game was much less about Mourinho’s negative tactics and much more about his side being humbled; it is however difficult to shut down the game when you concede the first goal after less than 30 seconds!
A significant proportion of the Stamford Bridge crowd suggested that their former manager might not be ‘special any more’; and with only one win in his last six league games, following on from the disastrous defence of the Premier League crown last season, do they have a point?
As a seasoned sufferer at the hands of both Mourinho and Manchester United, (I am after all an Arsenal fan!); it is difficult to assert that he won’t get it right with United eventually. It is easy to suggest, as many already are, that Mourinho has been found out, that his tactics have become outdated and he has been usurped by the new generation of smart, young coaches who have converged upon the Premier League in recent seasons. Yet it was less than a week previously that the same manager was being praised for the way in which his traditional tactical approach had frustrated one of these progressive new managers, when his team stifled Jurgen Klopp’s energetic attacking force.
In reality the problems at United have been festering ever since Fergie called it a day; when David Moyes was judged to not be up to the task, the club seemed to change tack and adopt an approach to player recruitment that focused less on squad and team development and more on throwing huge sums of money at big names; seemingly without any real notion of how they might fit and work together. An approach that arch pro-United pundit Gary Neville described as being like ‘a plate that’s got bolognese on it, a chicken tikka masala, a roast dinner with a load of curry and gravy thrown over the top and individually they are quite nice but together he has got to find out which bits of the plate he doesn’t like.’
For the last few seasons, United have often looked every bit a collection of individuals rather than a cohesive team unit; something that is poles apart from the approach that Mourinho adopted in his championship winning campaigns at Chelsea, Inter and Real Madrid; where his success was built upon identifying and bringing in players that would not only complement but augment the whole.
The challenge facing Mourinho at United is perhaps bigger than he thought; after 3 underwhelming seasons and despite the fortunes paid out in transfer fees, United seem to lack creativity in attack and look fragile at the back. The manager himself appears to be in two minds about a significant proportion of the players and seems unsure about how best to fit some of the expensively assembled squad into a system that will get the best out of them.
While they remain only 6 points behind the leaders and with some winnable games coming up; there is every chance that Mourinho will get United back on track and moving in the right direction. However, failure to do so and ultimately to qualify for the Champions League for another season may start to raise questions from those above as to whether he is in fact the right man to re-establish United.