The English Premier League is one of the fiercest nine-month tournaments there ever will be. Few can be compared to it, let alone be better than it. This is because, over the last two years, money has been pumped into several clubs and the gap is now shortening.
Newcastle United are the richest club in the world after their takeover by the Saudi-backed consortium. West Ham United shall not be forced into giving away their best players after Czech billionaire Daniel Kretinsky took hold of 27% of the stake in the club. Mind you, this is a club that was already punching above its weight.
However, the top clubs are still at the very top. They hold the best players, the best academies, the best managers, and the prestige. For the last half a decade, Manchester City have won what has truly been theirs. They have the perfect combination of a well-run club with the finances to back it up. Liverpool surely hold qualities of the former but do not believe in the latter model. Chelsea had the money but lacked the manager. Manchester United are neither here nor there. Arsenal are in a rebuild, and Tottenham Hotspur are hoping they do not follow the same path, now that they have brought in Antonio Conte.
But as far as performances and the subsequent results go, there are only three realistic title challengers. Jurgen Klopp and his enthusiasts; Pep Guardiola and his technicians; Thomas Tuchel and his juggernauts.
Thus, after nearly 1/3rd of the Premier League season done, let us take a look at how they are faring and what their upcoming weeks hold for them.
After Chelsea and Man City decided to break their club record transfer fees to sign Romelu Lukaku and Jack Grealish respectively, few gave Liverpool a chance. They looked like a squad that everybody already has seen before and knew how to stop. Klopp had different plans. He believed in his existing men, and the Reds backed it up by handing contract extensions to several of them.
They started the season on a cantor and ripped apart what came in front of them. Gini Wijnaldum left the club, and Harvey Elliot replaced him ever so smoothly. Mohamed Salah got a lot of rest and returned fitter than ever for pre-season. Virgil van Dijk returned from injury, as did the rest of the cavalry. They wanted to make a statement on opening day, and they made one. Brentford managed a victory on their return to the Premier League against Arsenal, but the Anfield outfit were not going to extend the same courtesy to Norwich. The entire front three got on the scoresheet that day, and everybody knew that Klopp was coming for the title again. A victory against Burnley in the following weekend meant they would fight it out for top spot against Chelsea before the first international break of the season.
The Blues scored first on the day only to concede a penalty and have one of their men sent off. The Reds came back into it but could not finish the job. However, this did not beleaguer their hopes, and they got going after the break against a less than convincing Leeds United side. A week later, a well-drilled Crystal Palace side experienced the same fate. The problem with all of these sides were that they were not ready to compete toe-to-toe with this relentless Liverpool side.
But Brentford did have the courage to do so. The Bees welcomed them into their town and were not going to let them get out without sharing the points. The Scousers took the lead but Thomas Frank motivated his side to deliver a come-back, and the result of it was a chaotic 3-3 affair. On the same weekend, Man City outclassed Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and were coming to Anfield on the following Sunday to stamp their authority.
Salah was always scoring goals and has won the Premier League Golden Boot twice in the last four seasons but the Egyptian had plenty left in the tank. Man City dominated the game until the Reds came out in the second half with an angry right-winger willing to turn the game on its head. The 29-year-old wriggles past 4 defenders to score sumptuously, only for Kevin de Bruyne to equalize five minutes later. It was a high-quality game, and both teams showed what it will take to win the league this season.
Klopp had now experienced his side achieve two draws, and it was time to send a statement again, to another newly-promoted club. Watford travelled to Anfield, but Salah and his brilliance sent them packing. A resounding 5-0 victory put them in the driving seat to face a broken-down rival in Man United. Old Trafford has rarely been silenced, but Liverpool even managed to make Ole Gunnar Solskjaer see the utter state of his team. The Egyptian bagged his hat-trick on the night and humiliated the opposition in their own backyard. But the Merseyside outfit then took the wrong step of taking the foot off the gas.
Brighton came to town and drew the game after being down by 2 goals. This could have been considered a stutter in form had West Ham not picked apart Klopp’s defence a week later at the London stadium. That game could have easily been drawn, but in all honesty, both teams got what they deserved on the night. The former Borussia Dortmund boss is committing the same mistake he did last season. He is over exhausting his starting XI by playing them in all competitions. It has got him the results in the 100m race, but his side might not win the marathon.
They were supposed to retain their title last year but had to face some harsh facts. Squad depth is necessary and not a luxury. “You win many titles with a lot of money; you win one title with minimal investment” – this was more or less the gist Pep Guardiola gave when he was asked whether he can win titles without his club’s frequent nature of spending. Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool are evidence that the Spaniard was speaking the truth. The German can motivate his players all he wants, but he understands that it will not be long before they are running out of fumes.
What do they need to do to maintain a title run?
Their investment in the summer needed a little more oomph and when Salah, Sadio Mane, and Naby Keita leave for international duty for the whole of January, they better be hoping they are ahead in the league table. They are fourth on the league table but are not far off the top. However, their fixtures post the break begin against an encouraging Arsenal side. If they hope to maintain a title march until the next break in March (let alone till the end of the season), they shall need to be firing on all fronts.
The defence needs to be strengthened, and Fabinho needs to be on the pitch for as long as his fitness permits. Ibrahima Konate needs to be brought in to complement Van Dijk and Trent Alexander Arnold needs to take stock of his defensive duties. Any combination in the midfield is fine as long as they are willing to be workhorses.
It is not the final lap, but one will need to put in all they have to reach that mark. Liverpool are title contenders in their own right but must plan smartly and use their resources cleverly to retain what they could not last season.
B) MANCHESTER CITY:
If there were doubts about Liverpool challenging for the title, there was more than enough to ponder over the scenario in the blue half of Manchester. Jack Grealish was brought in for a British record transfer fee, but Harry Kane did not leave North London.
To add to their troubles, they lost on the opening day of the weekend against a Spurs side without the talisman City thought they would land. But they retaliated the following weekend against Norwich City. Liverpool outplayed the Canaries, and the Citizens doubled down on it with a 5-0 win. A week later, Arsenal were embarrassed in a similar fashion but it felt like something was still missing in the City contingent. Their need for a striker had an air of desperation, so much so that they looked into signing a friendly foe of Pep Guardiola – Cristiano Ronaldo.
The paperwork was supposedly done until Manchester United shimmied their way into the deal and decided they shall not be humiliated. The red half of the city rejoiced as the Spanish boss continued his good work without shedding a tear. Because the reigning champions lifted the title without a frontman last season and they would have no problem in doing so again.
After the first international break in September, they picked themselves up right where they left off and got the result against Leicester City. However, their lack of a lethal forward came back to bite them against Southampton in an awfully boring game of chess against the youthful side of Ralph Hasenhuttl. There were questions asked of their tactics and things did not look good, especially after both Liverpool and Chelsea won 3-0 against their opposition on the same weekend. However, they got a mid-week boost as Kevin de Bruyne, and Phil Foden returned to the ranks.
They were set to face Chelsea in London, and given the form of the two sides; the ladder was always leaning towards the Blues. But, in what looked a casual affair for Guardiola, his side picked apart their supposed title contenders and covered every blade of the grass to ensure the opposition did not even manage a whiff of their goal. The game ended 0-1, and City sent the message they wanted to send. Next up, their arch-rivals of the last four years, Liverpool.
Domination would have been an understatement to what Guardiola and his men managed in the first half at Anfield. But they could not get going until the opposition did. It felt like it was impossible to retaliate after the wonder goal of Salah, but City being the team they are, pulled one out of the hat. Makes you wonder what they could have been with a fearless No 9. But that must not take away from the fact that Phil Foden was mesmerizing on the day.
After that draw, they did not want to take any prisoners. Burnley were slapped 2-0, and Brighton did not know what hit them as they shipped in more than two goals for the first time on that day. The reigning champions looked confident, but Patrick Vieira delivered a telling blow at the end of October. An Aymeric Laporte red card changed the game on its head and Crystal Palace smelt blood in the second half.
Regardless, the Spanish boss was not going to dwell on it too long. The Manchester derby was up next, and they had a chance to humiliate the same club that stole Ronaldo away from them three months ago. Make no mistake, Guardiola wanted to embarrass them like never before. The game was at Old Trafford, but venues have rarely been an issue for this relentless side in the last half a decade. They dominated the game from start to finish and made the Portuguese star sorry for not joining them. The constant pressing and passing made the United fans mock their own manager. Their second goal included all the 11 players in the process, and this was more than just a statement. They were toying with their rivals and showcasing the gulf in class.
But praise needs to be reserved for Bernardo Silva. The playmaker has hit top form for the club again and looks unassailing. His driving runs and ability to track back all the time is a bonus for any manager, let alone Guardiola. He ran the show against Chelsea, caught the eye against Liverpool, and drove United into the ground. His consistency is going to prove crucial over the rest of the campaign but there are some bigger concerns at hand.
What do they need to do to maintain a title run?
One cannot stress enough the need for a proper No 9. The reports linking them to going in for Kane again in January is no joke. They need somebody to score the goals. Guardiola might rotate his squad week after week, but a bucket full of creators cannot do what a centre-forward can. They were not the best club when they won the title in 2014, but they had Sergio Aguero. His goals got them through tough times and converted draws into wins. They have already lost and drawn twice this season. They may have achieved glory last season, but it was an anomaly. Chelsea and Liverpool are aware of the stakes and will not let that happen again. They need to bring in a world-class forward in the winter window, by hook or by crook.
Another area they need to settle on is the defence. John Stones was stellar at the back last season alongside Ruben Dias. There was no need to change it this season, and Laporte’s red card against Palace was evidence enough. He does not look comfortable. Then again, it is not his fault. Dias and Laporte have looked more comfortable when they have had Stones with them. Thus, they need to keep the common denominator, and the numerators can change. The Englishman adds calm to an otherwise risk-taking City side, and a title run will need some patience.
Other than they that, they know the assignment at hand. They are the experts at it, and they know how it is done. Getting to the top is easy, staying there is hard. Guardiola understands the drill.
Massive investment last summer, massive investment this summer. The difference between then and now is the manager. Frank Lampard is a club legend, and the fact that he managed a Top 4 finish with no investments and by promoting youngsters cannot be forgotten. He did not have the experience to take the project forward, and he was aware of the pitfalls. Moreover, he was given a commanding good-bye, and Tuchel acknowledged his predecessor’s accomplishments after lifting the Champions League at the end of last season. But what is done is done and it is a new season, new era, and a new leaf.
A centre-forward was needed, and perhaps Chelsea landed one of the best in the business, if not the top dog. Lukaku guided Inter Milan to their first Scudetto in over a decade and in a similar formation to the one the Blues operated in during the second half of the campaign. Tuchel and his players started the season on the back of lifting the UEFA Super League.
Their first game against Palace was a foregone conclusion. The European winners looked faster, smarter and more on the job, and a 3-0 victory at Stamford Bridge was a positive beginning. Romelu Lukaku then had the opportunity to make his ‘second debut’ for the club against Arsenal. It felt like they knew they were going to win, and the Belgian made sure of it. His first goal was a reflection of what is going to come, and the second goal meant that the Blues are in it to win it this season.
However, their next test was against Liverpool, and it already felt like a title decider. It was a litmus test for Tuchel and his men because they needed to prove their craft against the best in the land. They carved open the opposition multiple times in a hostile Anfield atmosphere and took the lead as well. But a controversial penalty decision saw Reece James sent off and Mo Salah taking his chance from six yards out. It felt like Liverpool would rout the Blues in the second half but the defending on the day was perhaps the best any club has produced all season. The 10 men stuck to their job and hugged each other in unity at the full-time whistle. It was a draw, but it meant more than a point.
The first international break followed, but Chelsea did not take the foot of the pedal. Aston Villa played their hearts out at Stamford Bridge, but Lukaku showed the importance of a proper No 9 as he scored twice to win 3-0. The next game saw them visit the Tottenham Hotspur stadium, and not a lot was expected from this Spurs side. But they took advantage of this and broke open the men in blue in the first half but could not find the back of the net. Tuchel’s men were wasteful, but a tactical tweak in the second half saw Mason Mount come out and N’Golo Kante come in. The game changed and the likes of Thiago Silva and Antonio Rudiger took it upon themselves to do so. The game ended 3-0 again, and the Blues assumed top spot on the table.
A week later, City delivered a reality check. They outperformed, outran, and outnumbered the European champions on their own land. The score-line might have been 1-0, but the Blues were poor on the day. This loss was followed by a defeat against Juventus, and for the first time during his time at the Bridge, Tuchel was on the backfoot.
He needed a performance against Southampton, and his men delivered. Timo Werner showcased his importance and made his way back into the line-up. However, it took Ross Barkley to make his first appearance in over two years to open up a 10-man Saints. Regardless, the result was important and they maintained their top spot on the table.
Since then, they have been imperious. Brentford took the beating out of Chelsea, but Edouard Mendy delivered a match-winning performance to take all three points after the international break in October. But after that game, the German boss lost both Werner & Lukaku to injuries in a UCL game. That did not change anything as they smashed Norwich 7-0 three days after losing their goal-scorers.
They met a tough Newcastle side in the following week, but two moments of brilliance by Reece James blew away the Toon Army. A left foot thunderbolt and a right-foot smash followed by a Jorginho penalty meant that they dragged out a victory on a day when it seemed it would not have been possible.
Everything looked fine, and they were supposed to put away Burnley before going into the November break. They created the chances and more but could not finish. Poor decision making in the final third cost them, and the Clarets then made Chelsea concede their first goal from open play. They lost two points on the day but thanks to favourable results elsewhere, they maintained a distance at the top.
It has been a squad performance by this highly motivated Stamford Bridge outfit so far but, they too, have their restraints.
What do they need to do to maintain a title run?
Currently, the Blues have not hit top gear yet. Their best is yet to come, but Tuchel needs to ensure it is there. Lukaku had not scored for four league games before getting injured, and the German boss was finding it hard to give his fringe stars sufficient game-time. At some point, he will need to pick his battles.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this version of Chelsea but they are not going to win the title like this. They need somebody to bang in 20 goals at least if they are to maintain their place atop the table. Ruben Loftus Cheek has been a revelation and needs to be played more to manage the minutes of an ageing Kante. Saul Niguez needs to step up, or he knows where the exit door lies in January.
The contract situation of the backline needs to be sorted out. The last thing they need is four defenders not playing at the top of their abilities because they know that they do not have a future at the club. Kepa Arrizabalaga needs to be feeling confident because once Mendy leaves for the AFCON tournament, they will be playing some crucial games. Mason Mount does not look like his old self, but it only takes a game to turn things around.
It is only November, but it is time the Blues take things into the fourth gear. They have a heavy fixture schedule, and minutes need to be distributed to avoid injuries to key players. Efficiency is the key for them, and it shall be vital if the league title is to return to West London.
There you have it – the contenders, their report cards, and their upcoming assignments. However, each of them needs to ensure that their title race does not end before it even starts. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is already paying the piper for it at Old Trafford. This could be a three-way race, one that has not happened since 2014. But the quality of the squads, the stakes, and the managerial egos are stingier than ever. Everybody wants to win, but only time will tell which club has the bigger desire to do so and who fate chooses to favour in the long haul.