Quarter-term report on the six Premier League title contenders

A quarter of the way through the 2016/17 season, the top five teams are separated by just three points. But who will be celebrating come May? We assess the key title contenders...
Quarter-term report on the six Premier League title contenders

MANCHESTER CITY

What have they done well so far?

Pep Guardiola’s men started the season like a bullet leaving a gun, winning their opening six Premier League games. Some of their early-season football was simply irresistible as Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Aguero, and a revitalised Raheem Sterling terrorised opposition defences. The undoubted highlight came at Old Trafford where City beat Manchester United far more comprehensively than the final 2-1 scoreline might suggest. Saturday’s 4-0 win at West Brom was a timely return to form after a tricky few weeks.

Where’s the weak spot?

Hard to look past Claudio Bravo, a keeper brought in to realise Guardiola’s grand vision of building from the very back. The transition from Joe Hart to Bravo hasn’t been a smooth one. Bravo’s debut jitters at Old Trafford nearly cost City dear while his blunder in the Champions League tie against Barcelona sparked a collapse from Guardiola’s men.

Who’s their Mr Untouchable?

De Bruyne and Sterling both started the season in flying form but the key man at City remains Aguero. If he stays fit, the brilliant Argentine is a certainty to break the 25-goal barrier. Kelechi Iheanacho has promise but doesn’t bring the same guarantee of goals.

When is their acid test?

Next month promises to be quite taxing. December begins with a visit from Chelsea before a trip to the King Power Stadium to face champions Leicester City. City host Arsenal on December 18 before finishing 2016 with a trip to Anfield on New Year’s Eve.

Can they go all the way?

They can and, in all likelihood, they will. Their final seven games — Hull (h), Southampton (a), West Brom (h), Middlesbrough (a), Palace (h), Leicester City (h), and Watford (a) — all look eminently winnable. If they’re within touching distance of the top at the start of April, they’ll be hard to stop.

ARSENAL

What have they done well so far?

Responded brilliantly after taking just one point from their opening two games. Arsenal have won every league game bar one since — a frustrating goalless draw against Middlesbrough — mixing guile (the 3-0 hammering of Chelsea) with grit (last-gasp wins over Southampton and Burnley). The partnership between summer recruit Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny in central defence looks promising too.

Where’s the weak spot?

Up front. Arsenal have plenty of players who can score goals but lack a player who can be trusted to break the 25-goal barrier. At times Alexis Sanchez has looked the solution but on other occasions, notably against teams that sit deep, the Gunners have looked toothless. Oliver Giroud provides a physical alternative and is capable — as he proved against Sunderland last weekend — of providing goals but the Frenchman is also capable of going through lengthy droughts.

Who’s their Mr Untouchable?

Koscielny and Mesut Ozil are key players but it’s hard to look past Alexis. Through the middle or on the left wing, the Chilean scores goals, makes goals and inspires his team-mates with his tigerish, relentless work-rate.

When is their acid test?

This month will prove revealing as the Gunners host Tottenham on Sunday, travel to Manchester United, and play Paris St Germain in the Champions League. However, the real challenge will come if Arsenal are still in the hunt with four games left. They travel to Spurs at the end of April, and then host Manchester United before going to Stoke, a trip Gooners look forward to with all the enthusiasm of a trip to the dentist.

Can they go all the way?

Looking at the depth of their squad there’s no reason why not. However, recent history makes it hard to be overly bullish and a tough run-in could prove their undoing.

LIVERPOOL

What have they done well so far?

Quite a bit. They’ve won away from home against title rivals Arsenal and Chelsea. They’ve scored four or more goals in four of their opening 10 games, most recently in Saturday’s 4-2 win at Crystal Palace. Their flair players — Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, and Adam Lallana — are playing brilliantly on both an individual and collective basis. In short, they look impressive.

Where’s the weak spot?

At the back. Jurgen Klopp’s men have kept just one clean sheet in the league — and looking at the defence it’s hard to see that statistic improving. Left-back Alberto Moreno might be good going forward but defensively he’s a glaring weakness. Centre-backs Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip don’t convince either while the goalkeeper Loris Karius also looks vulnerable.

Who’s their Mr Untouchable?

Liverpool’s offensive arsenal is mightily impressive but their undoubted star — indeed the star of the season so far — has been Coutinho. The Brazilian makes goals and scores goals and has been consistently exceptional since the opening weekend of the campaign.

When is their acid test?

March will be interesting. Liverpool begin the month by hosting Arsenal and end it with a trip to Manchester City. Positive results in both games would give Liverpool major momentum heading into the business end of the season.

Can they go all the way?

They have the offensive potential to win it while the lack of European football is a significant factor in their favour. However, a leaky defence could prove costly.

CHELSEA

What have they done well so far?

Shown bouncebackability. After a miserable September during which they took just one point from a possible nine, Chelsea have won their last four league games, highlighted by perhaps the most impressive display of the season by any side when mauling Manchester United 4-0 at Stamford Bridge. The fact Eden Hazard and Diego Costa look to have rediscovered their mojo augers well.

Where’s the weak spot?

They haven’t conceded a goal in their last four league games but Chelsea still look suspect at the back. Gary Cahill is prone to lapses in concentration while David Luiz is anything but a defensive rock. John Terry may come back into the team but approaching his 36th birthday he isn’t the same force of nature he once was.

Who’s their Mr Untouchable?

It’s tempting to say Hazard or Costa but N’Golo Kante has proven an inspired signing. You only need to look at how Leicester City have struggled this season to realise the value of the French midfielder. He protects the defence and harries opposing midfielders into submission. He has quickly established himself as the heartbeat of this Chelsea side.

When is their acid test?

April. Chelsea host Manchester City and go to Manchester United that month and also face tricky trips to Bournemouth and Everton. They’ll do well to avoid dropping points from that quartet of fixtures.

Can they go all the way?

Given they finished a lowly 10th last season, Chelsea are hard to fancy. However, that overlooks the fact that this is team is backboned by players who won the title just 18 months ago. A lack of European football will help them too, as will the fact they have a hugely impressive manager in Antonio Conte. They tick a lot of boxes.

TOTTENHAM

What have they done well so far?

They haven’t lost a single league game and they’ve conceded rarely, just five times in the opening 10 games. They’ve kept churning out results despite the absence through injury of talisman Harry Kane. Their performance in the 2-0 win over Manchester City showed that, at their best, they can beat just about anyone.

Where’s the weak spot?

They may remain unbeaten but the fact Spurs are outside the top four proves they’re drawing too many games. The win over Manchester City was a significant statement but one that has been undermined by three successive draws since. Unless they start turning some of those draws into wins they won’t be mounting a sustained title challenge.

Who’s their Mr Untouchable?

Son Heung-min has done pretty well in Kane’s absence but the England striker remains Spurs’ most valuable asset. They need him back, and they need him firing.

When is their acid test?

It’s arrived. This month is derby month for Spurs, beginning with Sunday’s trip to the Emirates. They then host West Ham before finishing November with a trip to Chelsea. A decent points haul from those games would give Mauricio Pochettino’s a good platform for a decent season.

Can they go all the way?

Probably not. Spurs have a lot going for them but whether they have the strength in depth required to maintain a challenge is open to debate. They hit a wall in mid-April last season and face a daunting run-in this season with away games at Leicester and West Ham and home games against Arsenal and Manchester United among their final five.

MANCHESTER UNITED

What have they done well so far?

They won their opening three games before bouncing back from successive league defeats to hammer Leicester City 4-1. They haven’t won a league game since but they did create an obscene amount of chances in two of those games, the 1-1 draw at home to Stoke and in Saturday’s stalemate against Burnley.

Where’s the weak spot?

Their manager. Jose Mourinho doesn’t appear to have rediscovered his equilibrium after the way his second coming at Chelsea turned sour. He seems to be at war with the world at present and even at this early stage of the season it’s hard to see United challenging for the title. Even a top-four finish looks a tall order.

Who’s their Mr Untouchable?

By default, it’s Paul Pogba on the basis that he returned to Old Trafford for a world-record fee. He’s rarely looked worth the outlay so far but having invested so heavily in re-signing him he’s almost undroppable. Whether he should be is a different question entirely.

When is their acid test?

United may not win the title this season but they could still play a significant part in deciding who does claim the crown given they travel to Arsenal and Tottenham in May. Lose both of those games and United could again miss out on a Champions League spot for a second successive season.

Can they go all the way?

There’s a hell of a lot of football to be played between now and May 21 but United face an awesome task to win the league given they already trail the top three by eight points. They need City, Arsenal, and Liverpool to implode and need to go on a sustained winning run themselves. Neither scenario looks likely.

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