So it seems that rumours of the champions demise (Oops! Football Nerd Weekly Ramblings – Liverpool establish an unprecedented early lead, can we say they are now favourites for the title?) may have been greatly exaggerated, after a surprising slip up away at Norwich, Manchester City ripped their chosen Premier League whipping boys, Watford, apart by means of a response. Five goals in the opening eighteen minutes and a final scoreline of 8-0 swiftly put to bed any notion from pundits, analysts and commenters (yours truly most definitely included!) that Pep Guardiola’s team may not be quite at the stratospheric level attained in winning the title in each of the past two seasons.
It seems utterly ridiculous to suggest it but City could, and probably should, have scored more. Missed chances by Sergio Agüero, Riyad Mahrez and Kevin De Bruyne meant that, for now at least the Premier League record score remains the 9-0 that Manchester United inflicted on Ipswich Town nearly a decade and a half ago. In all honesty though would we be massively surprised if that record was surpassed in the not too distant future? Watford fans, having seen their team concede fourteen goals in their last two meetings, including a 6-0 humbling in the FA Cup Final, will be anxiously scanning their fixture lists relieved that they won’t have to face Guardiola’s men until May, unless of course they are drawn together in one of the cups.
In response Liverpool went to Stamford Bridge the following afternoon and secured another win, their fifteenth in succession in the league, thanks to a Trent Alexander-Arnold free kick and header from Roberto Firmino in doing so they restored their five point lead in the title race. After the match Chelsea boss Frank Lampard suggested his side deserved “at least a point” rueing another goal ruled out by a VAR decision, something we seem to be discussing all too frequently for a system that is supposed to only be utilised to address a “clear and obvious error”, that however is a debate for another day.
Perhaps most encouraging for Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool fans was the way their team had to show grit and determination to grind out a result as Chelsea stepped up the pressure late on. As the old cliché goes it is the mark of a good team that can win without necessarily playing well, they are displaying a genuine relentlessness of form that suggests they are going to be difficult to catch, even for a team as good as City.
Both teams are back in action this Saturday with Liverpool going to newly promoted Sheffield United in the lunchtime kick-off and City following a matter of hours later with a trip to Goodison Park. As impressive as Chris Wilder’s Blades have been in establishing themselves in the Premier League in their opening half a dozen games, it is hard to see them halting the Liverpool juggernaut.
In the other match it is difficult to know what to expect from Marco Silva’s Jekyll and Hyde Everton squad who are the very definition of consistently inconsistent, but it feels a stretch to suggest they will be able exploit City’s perceived defensive frailties. In all reality, just as Watford found, they are unlikely to even be allowed sufficient possession to test the Hobson’s choice centre-back pairing of Nicolás Otamendi and Fernandinho.
Worryingly for the rest of the title-pretenders the gap already stands at seven points to Leicester, Arsenal and West Ham, and with no disrespect intended to Bournemouth and the others teams who have got off to a good start, ten points to Tottenham, Manchester United and Chelsea. With none of those sides having displayed anything like a level of consistency to keep them hanging onto the coattails of the top two for very long, let alone hauling them back. In truth it looks like Liverpool and City will continue to pull away and are likely to be out of sight in a two-way race for the championship again. Where would that leave the self-styled ‘most competitive league in the world’?
Across Europe the major, and in actual fact some of the minor, leagues are dominated by the few elite teams, in some such as France and Italy the title race is little more than a procession as the same team wins year in year out. The attractiveness and associated commercial mega-success of the Premier League has been founded on having at least six teams who could realistically be considered in contention, which is without even considering the bolt from the blue that was Leicester’s fabulous fairy-tale of just four seasons ago. Are we in danger of losing that?
Rafa Benitez, who knows a thing or two about football, suggested a few months back that City’s and his former club’s dominance may be “good for football” but “bad for the Premier League“, good for football in the sense that watching the performances of two phenomenally outstanding teams performing at a level probably never seen before, at least in this country, is a joy to behold for anyone that truly loves the game; but bad from the perspective that the rest are so far behind.
It is often said that football success is cyclical and it could be argued that City and Liverpool are benefitting from making the majority of decisions on their managers, recruitment, squad building and style of play correctly, whereas others (yes that’s you Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal!) have made a number of wrong steps, or have peaked and are on the beginning of a downward slope (hello Poch and Spurs!).
In essence we have to ask ourselves what we want: do we want the top two to fall back into the pack to create a more open title race but with football of a lower quality, or do we want the rest of the ‘Big Six’ and Leicester, West Ham, Everton & co to raise their levels and create a truly open battle between a number of teams of the very highest calibre?