With two months of the season gone and eleven league matches completed, the Premier League table is starting to take shape.
As always, the usual top six have emerged top of the pile although, surprisingly, Sean Dyche’s Burnley are still clinging resolutely onto their coat-tails.
What is perhaps more extraordinary, though, is the gap that has opened up between Manchester City and the rest of the top six – a gap of eight points which has prompted some pundits to suggest that the title race is already all but over.
Colin Millar brings you the midseason report cards for each of the league’s top six clubs.
1 Manchester City
The runaway leaders have made an imperious start to the campaign, winning ten of their opening eleven matches and building an eight-point lead over city neighbours United in the process. They have already hit 38 league goals which, with 27 matches to spare, is a figure which would equal or beat the projected total goals tally of 11 of their 19 competitors for the entire season.
They have also progressed to the quarterfinals of the League Cup and topped their Champions League group in what has been a seamless yet stunning opening to the campaign. Many are citing them, perhaps prematurely, as champions-elect due not only to their results but also to the level of their performances.
Are there any cracks in their armour? One can only wonder what might have been different had City stumbled in Gameweek Three – Raheem Sterling’s winner in the 97th minute at Bournemouth, in hindsight, proving to be fundamental to their future success. It came in the wake a flat 1-1 draw with Everton and would have represented a somewhat uninspired start to the campaign after a routine 2-0 opening day win at Brighton. Since that moment, they have racked up 47 goals in all competitions and conceded only nine in 15 matches since.
Benjamin Mendy is ruled out until April and Fabian Delph as a utility left-back is a concern and a potential area to be exploited. Nicolas Otamendi’s performances are still rash and Vincent Kompany’s consistent injuries continue to niggle.
Also important to remember is the fact that City are often fast starters – they won their opening six games last season and five the year before that, before being swiftly derailed. It is hard to see such a collapse happening to this team, though, and whilst rougher patches of form are inevitable, it is hard to imagine a more perfect start to their campaign.
2 Manchester United
For the opening seven matches of the campaign, Manchester United went toe-to-toe with their city neighbours before hitting a poor patch of form. It is easy to forget, in light of recent results, that United were not only defeating sides consistently earlier in the season but swatting them away with a swagger and self-confidence not seen since Sir Alex Ferguson’s time.
Their first ten matches in all competitions from the league’s opening day brought nine victories, no defeats and 32 goals – an average of over three per game. New signings Nemanja Matic and Romelu Lukaku fitted seamlessly into the system and were notable upgrades. United’s team were athletic and physically imposing, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial were both excelling as a result of their direct competition while Paul Pogba was unmatched in the central areas. Twelve clean sheets across all competitions represents the continuation of the solid base built by Jose Mourinho in the second half of last season.
But the Red Devils have suffered with key injuries – Pogba’s absence has been notable with Marouane Fellaini’s injury adding to a long-term list which included Michael Carrick, Marcos Rojo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Shortcomings in their squad were exposed and the form of others notably decreased, most notably Lukaku and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Low-key performances and results in three successive away matches have derailed United’s flying start but, having played three of their top six rivals in the space of four games including notoriously tough trips to Anfield and Stamford Bridge, this was perhaps to be expected. A return of 23 points in 11 matches is around par for a club of United’s ambitions and their cup fixtures, which have been favourable, have produced solid returns.
For a side who finished last season in sixth place, a title challenge may have been a steep ask this campaign. Equally, though, there has been a marked improvement since last season. The task now is to re-find form quickly, build another winning run and apply pressure, where possible, to Pep Guardiola’s side.
3 Tottenham Hotspur
This campaign was always going to ask questions of Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham – a side who had collected more points over the past two league seasons combined than any other club. Whilst enhanced expectations at the club have led to an increased desire for silverware and success, this needed to be balanced off against a move into a temporary home.
With only two points gained from their opening three home matches at Wembley, it would have been easy to concede that the stadium move may have been a step too far for a side who had arguably played at their peak for the past two campaigns. Yet they have since triumphed in five of six league matches including three at home, with a 4-1 demolition of Liverpool the undoubted highlight. A narrow defeat at Old Trafford, without an injured Harry Kane, has been the only recent blotch.
Spurs main successes so far have been in the Champions League with a group stage exit only twelve months previously being perhaps the low point under the Argentine coach. Memorable victories over Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid ensured progression with two games to spare in arguably the toughest group and obliterated doubts surrounding their presence in Europe’s premier club competition.
Operating on a budget of around half of other top six rivals, the North London club’s overachieving has shown no signs of subsiding anytime soon.
In many ways, Chelsea have had a strange start to the season – one which is tricky to define and which has been scattered with notable scalps but also disappointing lows. Defeats to Burnley and Crystal Palace, a thumping at Roma and a failing to break through Manchester City and Arsenal at home represent a regression from last season’s consistent excellence.
Summer signings have injected quality and a modest degree of depth into their squad but the exits of Diego Costa and Nemanja Matic have stripped the squad of a previous clear identity. At times, this has left them exposed and fragile, failing to take control of games on a regular basis. Comeback wins over Atletico Madrid and Watford showed that whilst this is a side with deficiencies it is also one with a fighting spirit and genuine talent.
The main concerns stem from the long-term future of boss Antonio Conte and of lack of depth in key areas. The toll of Champions League football did not exist last season and finding the balance of rotation and player conditioning is another key challenge for Conte’s management. A successful defence of their title seems unlikely yet progression in Europe and a top-four league finish both appear likely.
There could be many more twists and turns in this campaign, a campaign which the Italian himself may not yet see out. But after a potentially disastrous opening to the season stability has been restored to Stamford Bridge, temporarily at least.
As with Chelsea, this season was always going to be more demanding of Jurgen Klopp’s side thanks to only their second Champions League participation in the past eight seasons. To date, it has been far from plain sailing with just five league wins recorded in their opening eleven which has left them sitting twelve points off the pace of Manchester City.
Heavy defeats at the hands of the league leaders and Spurs were notable lows for the Reds who have, under Klopp, been noted for their successes in games against the top clubs in the league. Frustrations have also emerged in games against Watford, Burnley, Newcastle and Manchester United, while European draws with Sevilla and Spartak Moscow will be viewed as missed opportunities.
For the first two months, only a 4-0 hammering over a wretched Arsenal could be seen as the standard fans would have demanded at the start of the campaign. More recent results have improved, though, with four wins in five. Star forwards Sadio Mane and Philippe Coutinho have suffered with injuries but Mohamed Salah has settled into the side in double-quick time.
The concern has once again centred on the defence who have conceded just once in the league at Anfield but 16 times in six away outings. Only five top-flight clubs have conceded more: a record which is four goals worse off than second-from-bottom Swansea. This is an instability which, if not urgently addressed, will not only see the club endure a trophyless season but also potentially miss out on a top-four spot.
Fans of the Gunners have become accustomed to their seasons increasingly resembling a broken record. Spells of promise threaten to break through as they chalk up a run of comfortable victories in matches they are expected to win before ultimately succumbing, often comically, in season-defining away fixtures. To date, they’ve managed only one away win in six with four losses already recorded. Five home victories over Leicester, Bournemouth, West Brom, Brighton and Swansea will do little to silence the doubters.
The demoralising 4-0 defeat at Anfield will rank as one of Arsene Wenger’s lowest moments during his two-decade-long stint in charge while predictable failings of varying natures were also on display in losses at Stoke, Watford and Manchester City. A point at Stamford Bridge offered some improvement on recent displays at the stadium but this was a rare display of pragmatism from the French boss.
The elephant in the room is that their two most gifted players – Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil – will see their contracts expire in six months time and neither have any intention of renewing. In all likelihood, both will join top-six rivals on a free transfer if they are not cashed in during January. Record signing Alexandre Lacazette has scored six league goals in nine starts but was benched for the crucial trips to Liverpool and City.
Santi Cazorla’s absence has had a profound impact on Arsenal’s long-term performances and he has quickly become the forgotten man at The Emirates. He holds hope of returning in January but the repetitive nature of Arsenal’s seasons suggest the two-year deal Wenger signed earlier this summer may ultimately prove to be a mistake.
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