As October reached its end, with each of the Premier League teams having now played a quarter of their matches, it feels like an appropriate time to take stock of how things are shaping up.
Going into the season considered opinion suggested that the push for the title was going to be a two horse race between Pep Guardiola’s reigning champions Manchester City and Jürgen Klopp’s vibrantly evolving Liverpool side. The form of both teams so far this season has done little to discount that prediction. Save for a goalless draw between the two at Anfield a couple of weeks back, the only other points dropped have been in draws away from home: City at Wolves in the third match of the season and Liverpool at Stamford Bridge at the end of September.
The battle between these two looks like being a war of attrition right the way through in which any dropped points whatsoever will be seen as an opportunity for the other. The two are set to go head to head at the Etihad on the 3rd of January in what will essentially be pretty much the midway point of the season and may go a long way to determining who will hold the advantage going into the second half of the race.
Before then though both teams face some intriguing challenges, Liverpool play Arsenal home and away, Everton and Manchester United at Anfield as well as facing a potentially tricky trip to Molineux to face Wolves on the weekend before Christmas. City for their part host cross-city rivals Manchester United next weekend and also travel to Chelsea before the notoriously busy Christmas period gets underway.
While it is far too early to suggest that the next time the two meet will determine the destination of the championship, it does feel that if both emerge largely unscathed through the fixtures before and through the festive period, it will be a pivotal game to say the least. We can only hope that this time a football match might be allowed to break out, rather than each side cancelling the other out as happened at Anfield.
If it was relatively straightforward to predict that City and Liverpool would be in the mix for the title, it is something of a surprise that just two points behind and also unbeaten are Chelsea. The protracted appointment of the latest incumbent in the Chelsea dugout, Maurizio Sarri, combined with the seeming decline of a squad that finished fifth and thirty points behind the champions just one season after winning the title probably meant that expectations were relatively low at the Bridge.
Yet such has been the start under the guidance of the former manager of Napoli and the imposition of his exciting ‘Sarri-ball’ style of play; that Chelsea must be considered as bona fide challengers. The Italian manager himself has suggested that it will take three months for the players to fully understand his philosophy, which is something of a daunting thought considering the Blues’ start to the season.
It is probably fair to say that Arsenal under new Head Coach Unai Emery have operated somewhat under the radar. After getting off to the worst possible start by losing their opening two fixtures to other members of the top six, the new man in charge has quietly gone about his work, instilling his philosophy and ideas into a squad that was in much need of rejuvenation, and overseeing a run of seven league victories in a row and a total of eight games without defeat, albeit against some of the league’s lesser lights.
The Gunners currently sit in fourth place, only four points behind the leaders, but tellingly their continually wide open defence has seem them concede ten more goals than City and nine more than Liverpool. If Arsenal are to stay in contention for a return to the top four Emery is going to have to find a way to tighten things up at the back.
Could it be that the lack of investment through the summer and the involvement of a significant chunk of their squad in the latter stages of the World Cup are starting to impact on Tottenham? While they sit just one point behind their North London rivals, it feels as though Mauricio Pochettino’s side haven’t lived up to their form of recent seasons so far this term. They would no doubt suggest that defeats to early season surprise package Watford, as well as Liverpool and Manchester City are not exactly disastrous, and would point to their 3-0 victory at Old Trafford as a sign of their continued potency; but it just doesn’t feel as if they have same impetus and momentum they have enjoyed over the last four years or so.
Once again the Premier League has borne witness to the great José Mourinho soap opera; the 2018 incarnation has probably even surpassed the 2007 and 2015 versions for increasingly bizarre behaviour and scarcely veiled criticism of those above him at the club and a significant proportion of the playing staff. Where once we used to accept this as the Portuguese’s Machiavellian modus operandi, increasingly this time around it feels as if he doesn’t know what to do to get his team back into the hunt after such a poor start to the season. If rumour is to be believed he was on his way out the door a couple of weeks ago, only saved by his team’s late rescue act at home to Newcastle United.
A draw at his old stomping ground of Stamford Bridge amidst yet more controversy and a home win over Everton last weekend may have steadied the ship in the league, but poor results in the Champions League and that ominous trip across the city on Remembrance Sunday looming on the horizon would seem to leave Mourinho with work to do to save his job. Then again would any of us really be that surprised if he found a way to get one over on his bitter managerial rival, Pep Guardiola, once again?
In terms of the best of the rest: Watford threatened briefly at the start of the season to break into the top four only for it to unravel somewhat with three defeats and a draw in the four games after the victory over Spurs. Everton have been way too inconsistent and in actual fact it is Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth who currently occupy sixth position in the table. While, Wolves have won admiring glances from many but they now enter a run of fixtures in which they face Spurs twice, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool before the year is out.
Even at this early stage it feels as if the top six is taking shape to be exactly as was predicted by many at the start of the season. Assuming Manchester United find the form that saw them finish second last time out and none of the others fall away drastically then the only real questions remain: whether Liverpool are strong enough to depose City and secure their first title in 29 years; and in which order the other four will finish behind those two? The more things change, the more they stay the same as the old proverb goes.