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Looking at the Premier League table one-third of the way through the season, and it seems more unpredictable and wide-open at the top than it has in a long time.
Manchester United are in the title race after manager Erik ten Hag stumbled on a winning formula; Arsenal are top of the table despite doubts over their two senior goalkeepers Aaron Ramsdale and David Raya; Tottenham Hotspur can move level with reigning champions Manchester City with a win at the Etihad on Sunday, despite having lost three successive league games. And then there is Aston Villa, which started the season a with a 5-1 defeat at Newcastle but have emerged as surprise challengers after moving within two points of top spot with a 2-1 win at Spurs at the weekend.
Saturday’s 1-1 draw between City and Liverpool at the Etihad felt like a game between the teams most likely to finish in the top two when the season ends in May, but right now, the 2023-24 title race has become a footballing version of the “Wacky Races” cartoon, with none of the contenders immune to the pitfalls that the best teams are usually able to avoid.
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Even City, last season’s treble winners, have displayed vulnerabilities. Who would have expected Pep Guardiola’s side to lose at Wolves in September and then follow it up with a loss at Arsenal a week later? Meanwhile, Liverpool have perhaps been the most consistent of the expected challengers, losing just once in the league so far — and that came amid two red cards and one of the Premier League’s most controversial moments as VAR disallowed a legitimate goal from Luis Díaz — but they also needed a stoppage-time equaliser to snatch a point at lowly Luton earlier this month as Jurgen Klopp’s side have also displayed vulnerabilities.
It is unusual — possibly even unique — for the top seven teams in the Premier League to be separated by only seven points at this stage. All the teams have now completed more than a third of their season, and nobody has emerged as a clear favourite to end up as champions. It’s been an unpredictable, and at times chaotic, season. The fact that United are just six points off top spot, having made their worst start to a campaign since the 1980s, suggests that while we may be set for a competitive title race, it is one that lacks an outstanding side.
But maybe that is the beauty of this season. Man City’s dominance has been good for them, but nobody else — especially the Premier League as a brand, which projects itself as the most exciting in the world. If Guardiola’s team go on to win the title and become the first in English football history (dating back to the first season in 1888) to win four successive championships, the Premier League will start to earn comparisons with the German Bundesliga and Bayern Munich’s long-term dominance.
The inconsistencies of the leading teams this season add to the spectacle of the Premier League — it just needs one of the clubs to find an extra gear to stop City. It doesn’t seem credible that United could be that side, despite the fact that six points is a minimal deficit to close with two-thirds of the season to come.
United sit on top of the form table, having won five of their last six league games, but even their most ardent supporter would struggle to point to a game they have dominated. Injuries and a loss of form suffered by last season’s key players — Lisandro Martínez, Raphaël Varane, Casemiro and Christian Eriksen among them — have forced Ten Hag to turn to players he was happy to offload, such as Harry Maguire and Scott McTominay. Teenage midfielder Kobbie Mainoo’s outstanding performance in the 3-0 win at Everton on Sunday hinted he will get a sustained run in the side and if Marcus Rashford can start firing again then United could yet make a charge up the table, even if their performances suggest otherwise.
Newcastle, a point behind United in seventh, are capable of beating anyone, especially at home, and thanks to their Saudi Arabian owners they have the financial strength to make significant additions to Eddie Howe’s squad in January. Saturday’s clash against United at St James’ Park will be a key indicator of the prospects of both sides.
Villa should not be discounted either. Unai Emery’s pedigree as a top-level coach is without question, and he has built a confident attacking team in just 12 months at Villa Park. Their squad perhaps lacks depth and the top teams could punish Villa for their high defensive line, but if they can avoid injuries they could sustain a top-four push.
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And what of Spurs? The Ange Postecoglou revolution has hit the brakes on the back of three successive defeat as injuries are biting hard, especially with James Maddison and Micky van de Ven facing long-term absences. Postecoglou’s side are so attack-minded that they will surely return to winning ways soon. Though Sunday’s trip to City looks the worst possible place to find some form, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool have attacked City and been rewarded. Spurs could profit by taking the same approach.
The real threat to City is likely to come from Liverpool and Arsenal. Liverpool need to iron out defensive flaws and hope that goalkeeper Alisson Becker’s hamstring injury is not an issue that forces him out for a sustained period. Arsenal, meanwhile, just need one of their keepers — Raya or Ramsdale — to settle down and mute the noise around the position that has been created by manager Mikel Arteta’s mixed messages on who is his No. 1 and why.
City will certainly be concerned that there are so many rivals capable of thwarting them this year, despite the goals of Erling Haaland (18 in 19 games this season) and Rodri’s emergence as the most important midfielder in the Premier League. Guardiola’s side are still favourites, but with so many teams within striking distance, City need to raise their game to keep them at bay.