A third of the way through the 2018/19 season, the top three teams remain unbeaten – the first time this has happened in top-flight history. But who will reign supreme come May?assesses the state of play.
The champions have picked up where they left off last season, winning 10 of their first 12 games, scoring 36 goals and conceding a miserly five. Their scintillating start has included away wins at Arsenal and Tottenham and a draw at Liverpool that would have been a win had Riyad Mahrez not missed a late penalty. At home they have been utterly flawless, the dominant nature of their 3-1 derby win over Manchester United on Sunday illustrating the scale of the task their rivals face in dethroning Pep Guardiola’s men.
On the pitch, it’s hard to find one. They dominate possession, average three goals a game, and rarely concede. They might be a tad too attacking focused to win the Champions League, but domestically they tick all the boxes. The only cloud on the horizon is Der Spiegel allegations that City have tried to cheat European football’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules.
It’s difficult to think of one but, while Gabriel Jesus is a fine player in his own right, City look slightly less fearsome when Sergio Aguero isn’t leading their attack. The Argentinian’s rocket against United on Sunday means he has scored or assisted in 23 goals in City’s last 14 Premier League home games. At 30, he looks more devastating than ever.
Given they have the best manager, the best players, and the deepest resources, it’ll be a huge surprise if they are denied. A favourable run-in from March should see them pull clear.
Stayed in touch with Man City, no mean feat considering the champions’ flying start and the sense Liverpool’s brilliant front three have yet to fully click as a unit. The addition of Alisson Becker has reaped instant dividends, the Brazilian keeper conceding just five league goals this season. Liverpool’s resilience has been very impressive, Jurgen Klopp’s men scoring late to maintain their unbeaten start when drawing 1-1 at Chelsea and holding City to a scoreless draw, despite being second best for much of the contest — a hallmark of potential champions.
This time last season the answer would have been the defence, but Klopp has addressed that with the big-money acquisitions of Alisson and Virgil van Dijk. Midfield now looks their weakest link. Georginio Wijnaldum, James Milner, and Jordan Henderson lack guile, while summer recruits Naby Keita and Fabianho have yet to convince.
He may not have yet scaled last season’s stunning heights but Liverpool’s title dreams would be fatally undermined if Mo Salah was to face a significant spell out injured. How their defence would cope if Van Dijk was out of the picture is another dilemma Klopp will hope he won’t have to face.
There’s a lot to like about them, not least the fact they are within two points of City despite not yet hitting top form. However, the feeling persists that, while this is the strongest Liverpool team for a quarter of a century, even a return of 90 points might not be enough to dethrone Man City. They’re good, very good even, but probably not quite good enough.
Inspired by Eden Hazard, Chelsea hit the ground running under Maurizio Sarri, winning their opening five games. They’ve since drawn four of their subsequent seven games but remain unbeaten, and the way they rescued a 2-2 draw against Manchester United deep into stoppage-time spoke volumes about their grit.
Up front. In fairness, Alvaro Morata has found a bit of form of late but it’s hard to envisage the Spaniard scoring the volume of goals a title-winning side require. Ditto Olivier Giroud. The French striker has lots of admirable qualities but he’s a far from prolific goalscorer. As a consequence, Hazard will need to produce a golden boot-winning season if Chelsea are to maintain a challenge.
It’s impossible to look beyond Hazard. The 27-year-old started the season in scintillating form and is all but unstoppable when at his best. However, a recent lay-off for a back injury has disrupted his momentum and in advance of Sunday’s scoreless draw against Everton he spoke of his frustration at the rough treatment doled out by his opponents, concerns Sarri will surely share.
It’s possible but unlikely. To do so, Hazard will have to rediscover — and maintain — his early-season form and Chelsea will need to buy a top-class striker in January. A sustained challenge looks more likely next season than this.
Delivered on their travels. Saturday’s 1-0 win at Crystal Palace was their fifth successive away win and brought their overall tally to seven successes on eight Premier League roadtrips — the 2-1 defeat at Watford in September their sole reversal. That’s impressive going given they’ve yet to hit top form.
The ongoing circus regarding the redevelopment of White Hart Lane means Wembley remains Spurs’ temporary home and they’ve struggled to find their rhythm there, losing at home to Liverpool and Man City. However, the biggest worry for owner Daniel Levy is Mauricio Pochettino’s recent public admission that he has never been as unhappy as Spurs manager as he is at present.
Harry Kane is yet to fire on all cylinders but the goals have continued to flow. Any sort of lengthy injury absence for him would leave Spurs in serious trouble. The reliance on him is huge.
No. Pochettino has worked miracles keeping Spurs competitive at the top end of the league in recent seasons but the stadium situation means he’s operating with both hands tied behind his back. Given they didn’t sign a single player in the summer, a top-four finish would represent another outstanding effort.
Warm to the challenge. The Unai Emery era began with successive defeats to Man City and Chelsea but Arsenal are unbeaten since despite not leading at half-time in a single one of their 12 league games to date.
Last month’s 3-1 win over Leicester was their best second-half show yet while the performance in the 1-1 draw at home to Liverpool earlier this month illustrated a growing maturity.
It’s already been mentioned but those pesky sluggish starts are a problem Emery needs to resolve quickly.
In seven of their opening 12 games, Arsenal have fallen behind and that early lethargy has cost them valuable points, most recently in Sunday’s 1-1 draw at home to Wolves.
Under Emery, the Gunners don’t seem to have one. The new boss has shown a ruthlessness when it comes to making substitutions that has been refreshing to see. Alexandre Lacazette and Lucas Torreira have been Arsenal’s most impressive performers to date but the sense is Emery won’t be slow to react if their form dips.
Not a chance. But this team look a far more resilient group than the sorry looking bunch that lost seven successive away games in the final months of the Arsene Wenger era.
As a result, they are far more credible contenders for a Champions League spot than most anticipated.
In short, very little. The domestic highlight of a dismal campaign came last month when United came from 2-0 down with 20 minutes remaining to beat Newcastle 3-2 at Old Trafford.
Coming within seconds of ending Chelsea’s unbeaten start was also a fine effort but Ross Barkley’s late strike denied a victory that would have eased some of the pressure on Jose Mourinho.
How long have you got? A goal difference of minus-one tells a tale, with United keeping just a single clean sheet in the league this season.
Defensively United have been a mess, an issue that has led to heavy defeats against Tottenham, West Ham, and most recently Man City. Then there’s the form of several big-name players and Mourinho’s sullen demeanour. The list goes on and on.
It says a lot about the strange times in which we live that Anthony Martial, whose days at Old Trafford looked numbered until recently, has emerged as United’s most consistent performer.
His goal against City on Sunday was his sixth in his last five league games. While others have wilted, the Frenchman has risen.
Any title-winning pretensions at Old Trafford were long gone before Sunday’s comprehensive derby defeat left United 12 points behind Man City.
In truth, any such lofty ambitions disappeared in late August when United followed up a 3-2 defeat at Brighton by losing 3-0 at home to Spurs, a rival they now trail by seven points.
It’s still early days but a top-four place already looks a monstrously tall order.