In the past three years, four Premier League teams have smashed the 95-point mark. One wasn’t even good enough to win the title.
This was the age of dominant top clubs – ‘mentality monsters’, as Jurgen Klopp called them – teams to whom your average banana skin wouldn’t phase. The likes of Manchester City and Liverpool swept all before them much more convincingly than this season: if City want to reach 95 points this term, they can only afford one more loss all term.
This is well and truly Premier League open season. We had a top-two, seemingly decisive clash between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur last month, only for another one between Liverpool and Manchester United to come around again this weekend. Leicester City can’t be written off (not after last time). Everton are in the mix. In a season where chaos reigns, a Tottenham success over Jose Mourinho is eminently believable.
For the purposes of this article, that’s where we’re drawing the line for now. Chelsea fans may grumble, but including them would be mean keeping Southampton and West Ham – all on the same points at the time of writing – in too.
With teams plagued by injuries, cancelled matches, fixture pile-ups and games in hand galore, perhaps we’ll rue not including Aston Villa (11th place, 11 points off top, having played three fewer games). Who knows?
What on earth is going on? Who’s the favourite for the famous crown?
The award for the Most Improved Club in the league probably has to go to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side. Not too long ago, the Norwegian was staring down a barrel after a disastrous start to the campaign, a dreary Champions League exit and morale at Old Trafford at a low following the failed pursuit of Jadon Sancho.
What a difference a few weeks make. Paul Pogba is resurgent, providing the box-to-box bluster that United have been missing in midfield. Bruno Fernandes is still firing on all cylinders with Marcus Rashford chipping in and Edinson Cavani scoring, too. Even Eric Bailly has returned, stayed fit and looked back to his best in what some believed was a Christmas miracle.
United have depth at the back with three centre backs playing well. Midfield is well stocked with Fred, McTominay, Matic and Pogba all playing well and Donny van de Beek still – still – has to be properly given a run. There’s genuine world-class quality in Bruno Fernandes too. He’s a game changer, the like of which few teams possess.
And as we approach the halfway point, they’re top. That means they can’t be ruled out.
United’s outstanding away record is still yet to be tested at any of the Big Six bar Liverpool. The 20-time Premier League champions’ jubilant reaction to going top is more of a yard-stick of where they’ve been rather than where they are: it feels far too soon to count on the likes of Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford to fire a team to the title.
FFT’s verdict: Stranger things have happened, but it feels too soon for United to be competing. Those away clashes could be the making of this young side, though – don’t count them out.
Winning the title this year would be the least Guardiola thing ever. Pep’s reverted to a 4-2-3-1, lost Sergio Aguero to injuries and has leant on defensive resilience in John Stones and Ruben Dias to squeeze out results rather than obliterate teams. He really does seem just like any other manager right now.
Manchester City still have the ability to blow teams away, too, but this season feels different. It’s a transition campaign for City and an unrecognisable kind of play.
City are superb at the back – something we’ve not always been able to say. Stones has been reimagined the titanic soldier we hoped he’d become, Ilkay Gundogan has grown in stature without David Silva in the side and Kevin De Bruyne is, as ever, a machine.
Even with injuries, illnesses and problems aplenty, City still sweep most before them. Having finally found their stride, a game in hand over their Manchester rivals could lead them to first. Once they’re there, they certainly have the mentality to make it their own.
The club are still more bothered by the Champions League, so his attention may shift later in the campaign.
City have found a way to win but they’ve hardly been infallible at times this season: Guardiola has a habit of overthinking and it wouldn’t be unlike him to drop key points in games that his team should walk.
FFT’s verdict: City will likely be in with a shout right until the end. They need to find another gear before they feel like champions, though: maybe Pep should dig out the ‘Sir Alex Ferguson book of season second halves’.
This is arguably a bigger, better team than the one that wrapped up the title. They couldn’t do it again, could they?
Without the likes of Ricardo Pereira, Wilfred Ndidi, Ayoze Perez, Caglar Soyuncu et al, Rodgers often finds a way. He’s even rested Vardy and not dropped points. The Foxes have the depth that they lacked last season, while Youri Tielemans, Wesley Fofana and Harvey Barnes are kicking on and proving to be some of the best in their roles and age groups in the league.
Too often this season, Leicester have come unstuck against the teams who invite them on to them. It’s the Manchester Citys and Arsenals of the league dominating possession where Leicester thrive on the break – an interesting inversion on last season.
Does Rodgers bottle these situations, too? One more late-season collapse and he’ll get a name for himself. Harsh to say that, though, given the problems that Leicester had last season.
FFT’s verdict: Like United, this is a young team that are being asked a lot of in the circumstances. Getting in the top four would be a great result for Rodgers’ men.
The all-conquering 99-point goliaths last season look considerably wearier this time around. Injuries have taken their toll on Jurgen Klopp’s side, and they’re battling away without the same verve we’re used to.
Still, it’s a brave soul who writes off the Reds. Even with two midfielders at the back, they’re able to hold Man United and dominate the game. Who else can say that?
They’ve been here before. The system is world-class. The likes of Thiago, Curtis Jones and Divock Origi can all step into the team when there are injuries, proving an unbelievable strength in depth. They still have game winners in Salah, Mané and Firmino. And if they sign a centre back this month, they may considerably fix the issues with the backline.
Liverpool haven’t scored in three, their full backs aren’t assisting with the regularity of seasons gone by and confidence is low. Teams aren’t facing the champions with a passive acceptance of defeat that they used to: they see this as a big chance to take a scalp. Liverpool need to start killing off games and keeping their concentration.
FFT’s verdict: That Liverpool are in the race at all given their injuries is remarkable: the next few weeks are pivotal to their bid. Rough patches don’t last forever, and if they’re still within touching distance when they find their form they will be as confident as anybody.
Tottenham were the leaders after 12 games. Historically, that tells us that Jose Mourinho is going to win the league.
But Spurs have struggled to hold on to leads. Kane and Son have shone, Tanguy Ndombele has ascended to his rightful throne but it still feels like this team has another gear. It would arguably be Jose’s greatest achievement …
Son and Kane. Perhaps two of the best five players in the world right now. Mourinho’s system suits the profiles on the pitch and Ndombele has been superb. United, Liverpool and Chelsea all have to travel to north London, too.
Similarly to Leicester, Tottenham prefer the opposition to take the initiative before hitting on the break. It’s come to bite them recently when their opponents have refused to play by the script – their problem is with grasping draws from the jaws of victory.
Kane and Son getting injured is always a worry – even if they do have better backups than ever before – but realistically, is that backline good enough to win the league? While they work well as a unit, Lloris, Dier and Aurier all feel a little too suspect to deliver a league title – unless you destroy teams with your firepower, which isn’t very Mourinho.
FFT’s verdict: Don’t be fooled by Mourinho’s ‘We’re a pony in a horse race’ comments. This is a top squad capable of challenging for a league title, with Kane and Son alone able to take them close. Maybe if Spurs start believing, everyone else will too.
The early Premier League leaders have not been without their setbacks in recent months and find themselves sixth in the pecking order come the halfway point of the season. It’s an achievement based on last season – but can they dig in and go further?
Everton have a winner in charge and experience all across the pitch. Should they win their game in hand, they will be above both Tottenham and Liverpool. It wouldn’t be a shock to see them still pushing the Champions League spots by May – and, if so, they could cause an upset.
Genuine quality in most positions and a manager who keeps them balanced. Everton have goals in abundance, creation from James Rodriguez and a decent midfield these days. Don’t underestimate the feel-good factor, either: Everton are enjoying themselves more than almost anyone this season.
As a first XI, this Everton team can compete at the top. Beyond that, this team is fine, at best. Ancelotti is heavily reliant on the likes of Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin, even Digne and Coleman. This whole team feels like a game of Kerplunk: it’s significantly easier to compete against them if you remove one of the lynchpins.
FFT’s verdict: If you were to offer Everton Europa League football at the start of the season, they’d have been happy. Chelsea, Arsenal, Southampton and Aston Villa will all be fighting the Toffees for Europe in the second half of the season – it seems too much of them to ask for anything more than fifth or sixth place.
This article originally appeared on FourFourTwo.com
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