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We’re not even half way through the new season, and it looks like we might already have ourselves a new Premier League champions-elect. Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City have been nothing short of phenomenal all season, with many pundits suggesting that the title race is already over. Fanalysis, this week, looks at how the ‘Big Six’ have done so far this season, and if anyone can really catch City…
1st Manchester City: 43 points
The table really doesn’t lie here. Played 15. Won 14. Lost 0. Not forgetting 13 wins in a row. But the dominance in the Premier League table does not totally reflect the way some games have gone this season. Yes, City have, at times, blown teams away this season (a 7-2 win over Stoke and a 6-0 win away at Watford only but a few examples) but City have had to work for their 3 points in recent weeks, best proven by coming from behind two weeks in a row to get wins over Huddersfield and West Ham. Is there anyone capable of stopping City winning the league this season? And can they really go unbeaten?
The first question is easy; no. An eight-point gap over local rivals Manchester United is already far too big, and you could certainly see Guardiola’s men recovering quickly even if they lose the Manchester Derby on Sunday as United have their own problems, but that is discussed below. But the second question is a little less straightforward, and, despite their dominance, City surely can’t go the whole Premier League season unbeaten. There are two reasons for this. The first is their squad depth, and despite Guardiola’s successful rotation policy so far this season, nothing can prepare him for the Christmas period, where Premier League sides are about to brace themselves for three successive weeks of three weekly Premier League games. In that period, the Citizens face United and Tottenham, including tricky trips to Swansea and Newcastle, whilst only having a couple of days rest in-between. Furthermore, looking at their squad depth in full, the quality of their squad doesn’t necessarily the match of quality of depth. Benjamin Mendy is a long term casualty, while John Stones will miss the busy Christmas period. And can you really rely on the likes of Oleksandr Zinchenko, Phil Foden, and even Elaqium Mangala in any of the games above?
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The second reason why City can’t go the whole season unbeaten is much more long-term and mainly down to the fact that they’re fighting on four fronts this campaign. Guardiola’s successfully steered his side to a quarter-final spot in the EFL Cup, a competition which the Spaniard has treated seriously all season, while we all saw the manager’s frustration at their FA Cup semi-final defeat to Arsenal last April, suggesting that City are taking the domestic cup competitions seriously this season. The biggest competition in Europe, however, is by far and away the Champions League, and Guardiola’s issue is that there will come a point where he’ll have to choose between an unbeaten Premier League campaign or a Champions League winners’ medal – something which his team is certainly capable of. City’s fans have had a lot of Premier League, FA and EFL CUP in their lifetimes, the one thing that’s missing is the Champions League. They’d take that over an unbeaten league season any day, surely? On top of this, Arsenal had to sacrifice both European success and FA Cup glory to complete an ‘Invincible’ Premier League season, and that was a side which bullied teams physically week-in-week-out. City have been less bullish in recent weeks, meaning that unless there is more serious investment in January, the dream of an unbeaten Premier League season, with further European and domestic progress will have to wait.
2nd Manchester United 35 points
The Red Devils have certainly made vast improvements this time around compared to last season, and a win over City at the weekend would close the gap to five points, and give the red side of Manchester a glimmer of hope. Jose Mourinho has managed to improve not only his squad through the means of a busy summer transfer window, but has also increased the ability of some of the existing players from last season. The central-defensive partnership of Eric Bailly and Phil Jones has gone from strength to strength over the last twelve months, while the Portuguese manager has, once again, revitalised the career of Nemanja Matic, a player he worked with while at Chelsea. At the top end of the pitch, Mourinho has found a way to balance both Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial’s game time, despite the latter being reportedly close to a move away from Old Trafford over the recent transfer windows. This excellent use of squad management has led to Martial and Rashford scoring crucial goals in big games, while Lingard’s form has improved dramatically over the last couple of weeks.
However, it’s also at the top end of the pitch which will be United’s downfall this season, as they have too many big personalities to create a positive, title-winning harmony. It’s no coincidence that Romelu Lukaku has stopped scoring since Zlatan Ibrahimovic has come back into full training after his injury, it feels like the Belgian striker is feeling pressured by Zlatan’s presence, despite the fact that Sweden legend has, so far, failed to dislodge Lukaku’s starting spot. It’s very easy to question why United renewed Ibrahimovic’s contract, especially considering that he’ll only be match fit for half a season, while they also have Rashford in the squad, who can also play through the middle. Perhaps it’s a shirt-sale signing, because so far, it seems like Zlatan is only in the squad as a big name, not as a solid contribution to United’s season. That being said, United will be the closest challengers to City this season, whether they win on the weekend or not, but it’s difficult to see them catch Guardiola’s men up.
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3rd Chelsea 32 points
After a shaky start to the campaign, Antonio Conte has steered the ship a little bit at Chelsea, shrugging off speculation about his future at Stamford Bridge by taking the Blues comfortably, so far, into the top four. Eden Hazard showed at the weekend against Newcastle that he can get back to the form that compared him to Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi a few years ago, while Andreas Christiensen has been transformed from a young prodigy to one of the first names on the team sheet, and 21-year-old has rewarded his manager for putting faith in him with some consistent performances at the back.
However, while Conte has ended the recent talk that he may be relieved of his duties in west London, his team selections in the big games have really prevented his team from progressing up the table and finding themselves closer to Man City. As already mentioned on Fanalysis earlier this season, Conte reverted to a 3-5-2 formation against Guardiola’s men in September, instead of the previously-successful 3-4-3 system that served them so well last season, and the same tactic was used again by the Italian manager in their tie against Liverpool a few weeks ago. In that game, Chelsea were poor and lacklustre all over the pitch, and were very fortunate to grab a lucky late equaliser in a 1-1 draw. Had Conte set his team up properly, the Blues could have come away with 3 points, but now, eleven points behind the leaders looks a stretch too far.
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4th Liverpool 29 points
Liverpool have one of the sharpest attack forces in Europe – let alone the Premier League. They have the league’s top scorer in Mohammed Salah (12 goals), an incredible feat considering he’s a wide player, while the Egyptian has formed an unbelievable partnership with Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino. On top of this, the club’s decision to hold on to Philippe Coutinho, despite big-money offers from Barcelona, has proved to be an excellent decision. It’s no surprise that Jurgen Klopp’s men are the league’s third highest scorers with 33 goals, and recently broke the record for the most amount of goals scored by a British club in the Champions League group stages with 23 goals, averaging almost four goals per European group game.
However, while every is rosy in attack, the aspect which is holding the Reds back is, as always, their defence. It’s been said so many times on this website: you can’t win the league with Dejan Lovren and Robert Klavan in your defence. Liverpool’s strength in depth isn’t that strong, with Klopp having to pick Emre Can and Gini Wijnaldum in a back three on the weekend due to injuries. Yes, they did win that game 5-1 against Brighton, but that wasn’t a very potent Seagulls attack, and would be very vulnerable against a better Premier League side. Unless, Klopp stops neglecting the back line and goes out and buys some better defenders, Liverpool can only achieve top four at best.
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5th Arsenal 28 points
Arsenal are a frustrating team to watch. They have the calibre of players and infrastructure to mount a serious title challenge, but their only problem is consistency. The Gunners could have been capable of going on a strong winning run after winning the North London derby a few weeks ago, but that run came to an abrupt halt with a sloppy, though unfortunate, defeat at home to Manchester United last weekend. A major plus point for Arsene Wenger has been the signing of Alexandre Lacazette, with eight goals so far this season, which makes the inevitable loss of Alexis Sanchez next summer a little less painful. But City are way too far ahead now for a title challenge and the Gunners can only hope for a top 4 spot at this stage. Placed only one point behind Liverpool in fifth, and a crucial game at the Emirates between the two sides next week, that game, already, looks like a European qualification six-pointer.
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6th Tottenham Hotspur 25 points
Tottenham’s slump in form has gone very much unnoticed by the media, as a team once branded as one of the best young teams in Europe sits eighteen points behind the leaders. Spurs are also in a top four race – at best – and while they have the players to recover, such as Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and co, their progression in the Champions League will give Mauricio Pochettino a tough decision to make with regards to their priorities. If they continue to drop more points over the coming weeks, and they easily could as Man City and a trip to Burnley await them before Christmas, do not be surprised if Pochettino puts all his eggs in one basket and tries to qualify for the competition next season by trying to win it. There’s a big risk in doing that though, with big boys such as Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain in their way, and failure to qualify for the Champions League next year could lead to Spurs losing their big players – perhaps even their manager. Spurs need to get back on track this season.
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