First of all let me state formally for the record that it is way too early to make any predictions whatsoever with regard to the destination of the Premier League title.
Last weekend Liverpool’s comfortable (in the end at least) victory over Newcastle combined with Manchester City’s surprising capitulation away at newly promoted Norwich City opened up a five point gap in the table between the two title favourites, after just five matches.
Normally such an early differential would be written off as a quirk of fixture scheduling and we would suggest re-examining the situation after ten games or fifteen or at the halfway stage, this just feels different. Indeed this is the first time in the history of the Premier League that a team has established itself with a lead this big after just five matches.
In a race that was nip and tuck all the way between Liverpool and City last time out, Pep Guardiola’s men carried off the title thanks to not dropping a single point from the end of January and defeat at Newcastle, right through to the end of the season, a staggering run of fourteen league wins in succession. Liverpool’s valiant challenge saw them lose just one game throughout the entire season but ultimately fall short by a solitary point, seven frustrating draws proving decisive in the end.
In another race that seems destined to be decided by ever so fine margins Jürgen Klopp’s men have already seized the initial momentum, yet according to the bookies it is City that remain the odds-on title favourites, even if their manager was prepared to joke this week that: “Congratulations Liverpool, you are the champions…”
Notable in his absence at Carrow Road was Aymeric Laporte, unquestionably City’s best defender since leader and talisman Vincent Kompany headed home for a new challenge at Anderlecht. If rumours are to be believed the French defender’s knee injury is very serious and could see him out for as long as six months. To literally add insult to injury came the news this week that somewhat-maligned replacement John Stones will likely be absent for up to six weeks after injuring himself in training leading up to Wednesday’s Champions League clash with Shakhtar Donetsk.
Just to put that into context, that leaves only Nicolás Otamendi as a recognised and experienced option at centre back, a player described by Jamie Carragher, who knows a thing or two about being a top-level centre back, on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football show as follows: “He dives in, he has done it all his career…He will never change and that’s why he’s not good enough to play for Manchester City. I have never believed it from day one and nothing I have seen in the last four or five years has changed my mind.”
The evidence of an admittedly minuscule sample size of just one match, suggests that we might be right in anticipating a greater defensive fragility from the reigning champions even if, as seems to be anticipated, Guardiola drafts midfield anchorman Fernandinho into the centre of defence, just as he did with a certain Javier Mascherano during his tenure at the Camp Nou some eight years ago.
Another theory that has been doing the rounds pretty much since they were eliminated from the Champions League by Tottenham in the spring, is the belief that City will prioritise Europe’s elite competition above all other potential prizes this time around; the thinking being that this will make them more vulnerable in the League. However as their title rivals aptly demonstrated last year it is possible to compete on two fronts: carrying off their first trophy under Klopp, the self-same Champions League so coveted by the powers-that-be at the Etihad, while at the same time gaining enough points to have won the title in all but two of the seasons since the Premier League was launched.
For their part Liverpool seem to be getting stronger and stronger, after finishing off last season with a winning run of nine games, this has now been stretched to fourteen in a row with their 100% start to the season. Even more impressively they haven’t lost at (Fortress) Anfield in the League since March 2017, forty-three games ago.
As highly impressive as the dynamic and fluid attacking trident of Mané, Firmino and Salah have been ever since the Egyptian was brought in as the final piece in that particular jigsaw, it is the defensive solidity that has been developed by Klopp that perhaps sets them apart from City. They may have only conceded two less goals than their rivals so far but we can fully expect that difference to grow during Laporte’s absence. Highly-rated Joe Gomez, injured for a significant part of last season, is currently Liverpool’s third choice centre back, seemingly unable to dislodge Joel Matip as a partner to the imperious Virgil Van Dijk; yet one suspects he might well waltz into City’s backline given the current dearth of quality available.
This weekend City host bottom of the table Watford on Saturday afternoon, assuming there is no further slip-up in that one it would close the gap, at least temporarily, ahead of Liverpool’s visit to Stamford Bridge on Sunday. Looming just over the horizon for Jürgen Klopp’s side are home games against Leicester and Tottenham and a trip to Old Trafford, while City face a relatively, on paper at least, easier run of games and will hope to have an opportunity to gain back ground before the autumn is out.
See I told you it was too early to say that Liverpool are going to win the League…or is it?