If the Premier League season does not feel like it has properly got going yet it is probably because the first segment of eight matchdays was disrupted by a couple of international breaks, meaning that a competition that only started in mid-September has spent the best part of a month accommodating the glacial pace of the Nations League.
Scotland were lucky in that they at least had some competitive football to savour and celebrate, Manchester City fans must have enjoyed the Ferran Torres hat-trick against Germany, though the general feeling in England was that Premier League games tend to be more compelling than watching Gareth Southgate overpopulate his side with defensive-minded players when looking for a win. The remainder of the calendar year will put that theory to the test, for there are another eight Premier League matchdays to be played in the six weeks to the new year, not to mention rounds of the Champions League and the quarter-finals of the Carabao Cup.
A feast of club football awaits in other words, even if clubs and managers are becoming increasingly worried that too many games in too short a time inevitably leads to injuries and absences. Some theorists argue that the relative lack of preparation and recovery time is what lies behind some of the big scores and unexpected results so far this season, while others believe the absence of fans has had a subtle effect on the concentration of players. Either way, more unpredictable outcomes are likely between now and the turn of the year, and Southgate may even be right in suggesting there are six or seven clubs in the title race this season, not just the usual two.
With Leicester and Tottenham at the top of the table and both Manchester clubs in the bottom half there are grounds at the moment for supposing something of a shake up is taking place, though it might be better to wait until the weekend, never mind the year end, before drawing any firm conclusions. Tottenham host Manchester City on Saturday, while leaders Leicester are at Liverpool the following day. José Mourinho refused to get carried away when Spurs briefly touched the top spot after winning at West Bromwich Albion in their last game, pointing out that it was still going to be difficult to stay ahead of Liverpool and City. Few would contradict him, but at least at the weekend his players get the chance to do the talking.
Leicester are top by virtue of winning six of their eight games to date, which is a better return than anyone else, even if Brendan Rodgers and the supporters must be infuriated that their two defeats came at home against Aston Villa and West Ham. Spurs and Liverpool have identical statistics just behind the leaders, with five wins, two draws and one defeat apiece, though the Tottenham defeat came on the opening weekend of the season against Everton and was by a single goal.
Liverpool not only have the horrendous 7-2 collapse at Aston Villa as a haunting recent memory, they have lost three key defenders since then in Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold. The champions are still expected to mount a determined defence of the title, though progress is clearly not going to be as stately as it was last season.
Southampton, Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and Everton are all doing better than might have been expected, with Wolves, Manchester City and Arsenal all doing slightly worse and Manchester United significantly so. While it is fair to point out that United have only played seven matches and have a game in hand on most others in the division, the same is true of Villa, who currently occupy a European position.
Obviously it is still an early stage of the season, despite the mid-September start, and a couple of wins could catapult anyone from the mid-section of the table to somewhere close to the leaders. But as we go into the traditionally frantic approach to Christmas the portents do not look encouraging for the three clubs at the bottom without a win between them after eight games (seven in Burnley’s case). Sheffield United, after their heroics last season, are bottom with just four goals and a single point to show for their eight games so far. Yorkshire rivals Leeds have a far healthier return of 10 points, and at this point look to have a better chance of doing what Sheffield did last season than the Blades themselves.
Chris Wilder and his players have to be looking to take something from West Ham at Bramall Lane on Sunday, even if they do visit fellow strugglers West Brom a week later. Slaven Bilic’s side played very well against Tottenham in their last outing, and were somewhat unlucky to lose out to a late Harry Kane winner, but this weekend have it all to prove again when they are away at Manchester United.
The fact the last international break of the year is nearing its conclusion does not mean managers can breathe easy between now and the festive period. One could argue that Ole Gunnar Solskjær will be under as much pressure as Bilic when West Brom turn up at Old Trafford. It is equally true that if both the Blades and the Baggies are still winless and in the bottom three when they meet the following week, there might be more than just three points at stake for the losing manager.
Even Sean Dyche, practically the patron saint of managers struggling to stay in the division with limited resources, will start to feel the heat if Burnley’s winless run continues. Dyche has been relegated with the Clarets and come back up again all the better for it in the past, though one has the sense that the same thing is unlikely to happen again.
Relegation is a real enough worry. Burnley are not too good to go down even if they remain a better bet for survival than Fulham, but no manager can afford to go into December still looking for a first win. It is Manchester City away after Crystal Palace at Turf Moor, so if the annual Burnley escape is to be staged again this season, Monday’s game would be a good starting point.
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