So here we are in the depths of the latest Interlull (© Arseblog), enduring yet another interruption to the normal flow of the Premier League season for a round of international play-off games and friendlies that hardly demand too much of our interest and attention.
For me, and I suspect the majority of football fans, a structure to the international game that involved only the summer tournaments would be welcomed with open arms. Yet the powers that be have made it abundantly clear that their priority rests with the revenue generation potential of even more meaningless ‘competitive’ international matches as encapsulated by the quite frankly mindboggling UEFA Nations League. It seems fairly clear that, if anything, we are facing at least the same number of mind-numbing rounds of international fixtures for at least the foreseeable future.
However rather than dwell too much on the state and the merits, (or otherwise!), of the international game; with us now being more than a quarter of the way into the Premier League season, it feels like an appropriate juncture to pause, to take stock and consider how the title race is beginning to shape up.
Already the top six, or indeed seven if we include Burnley who sit level on points with Liverpool and Arsenal, seems to be stratifying; with a seemingly clear structure emerging. Lack of consistency, ongoing shambolic defending and either inability, or unwillingness to invest in their squads sufficiently suggest that Liverpool and Arsenal will make up the Europa League places at best.
Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham have all proven capable of unexpectedly dropping points but for the most part all three have generally proven to be a level above the rest of the Premier League with the one obvious exception in the form of the seemingly unstoppable force that is Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
Having dropped just two points so far and boasting an eight point lead at the top, it probably feels too early to describe Manchester City as runaway leaders; although, if anything their 3-1 victory over Arsenal on Sunday certainly reinforced their position as the clear early title favourites.
While there is still an underlying feeling that we were here last season with City, as they reeled off six wins out of six to start the campaign before losing at Tottenham at the start of October, then dropping 15 out of a possible 36 points before the turn of the year; a dip in form from which their title ambitions never recovered. This season however things feel different, and not solely as a result of the eye-watering £220 million splashed on squad enhancement over the summer.
There is an undoubted swagger about Pep Guardiola’s team this time around; the style of play a seeming manifestation of an even more fluid, faster-paced and deadly incarnation of his great Barcelona side. It seems evident that the Catalan master coach has incorporated his learning with regard to the counter attacking style that so struck him during his time in Germany, alongside a more direct attacking approach embraced after his first campaign in England.
The high and intense pressing game and the domination of possession, that have been foundational elements for both of Guardiola’s previous teams’ style of play are still very much in evidence; but the thing that has struck me most about them this time around has been the lighting quick transitions that has seen three, four and more players pouring forward on the counter attack upon winning the ball deep in their own half. There was a moment just two minutes into the game on Sunday when from an Arsenal corner, within seconds, City were in on goal with Aguero flashing a shot over; worryingly for Arsenal fans it was a moment that brought back memories of our very own Invincibles in their pomp, who were often regarded as being at their most dangerous when defending corners.
Despite what some sections of the football media would have us believe, it is way too premature to regard Guardiola’s team as being in consideration for navigating the entire season without defeat; the Premier League has a habit of throwing up too many surprise results for that. It does however feel as if we are witnessing the start of something, the emergence of the latest great side that could and perhaps should become the standard bearer for the Premier League both at home and abroad for years to come; yet they have won nothing yet.
For all their dominance of the match against Arsenal, when Lacazette pulled a goal back just past the hour mark, there was the merest hint of a wobble, of the realisation that City aren’t as solid as they should be at the back and that the defensive frailty that was so evident last year is still there, merely camouflaged by their dominance of possession and their mesmerising attacking play.
For the chasing pack, all of whom have their weaknesses, the crumb of hope must be that if, and it is a huge if, they can negate City’s attacking threat, then the potential is there to create opportunities against a rear-guard that remains unconvincing. With a trip to Old Trafford coming in the second week of December followed six days later by the visit of Tottenham, we should know a lot more about City’s title credentials before Christmas.