Even this early in the season, the Premier League has a familiar look. The top six are – with the exception of upset-kings Burnley – are in position. Liverpool are the unfortunate ones to sit in seventh instead, but it will not be long before Jurgen Klopp’s side nip past Sean Dyche’s Clarets.
The Manchester clubs have made the early running at the top of the table, and already have a five-point lead over the chasing pack. Anything less for Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola would have been a disappointment at this point, however.
Expectations across the four competitions are varied for each of the top six. Judging them all by the same framework is not worthwhile, so we’re going to take a look at the potential weaknesses that could yet upset their respective attempts to reach par.
We know how the tale goes with Arsenal. Their crisis at the beginning of the season has been calmed with a few decent results – including their draw with Chelsea – but the Gunners’ tendency to meltdown remains a cloud over them.
Depth defensively is a glaring issue, particularly as Arsene Wenger is set to persevere with a back three. An injury to Laurent Koscielny and the back line immediately has a wobbly look to it, though Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac form an all-action wing-back duo.
Winning against the supposed lesser teams has pulled Arsenal back into the top six pack, but the real test of their credentials for the term will be whether they can repeat their Stamford Bridge performance when they face the Manchester clubs. Too often Arsenal have given their fans hope at this time of year, making the cynicism of their recent improvement is understandable.
Returning to the top four would be a significant achievement for the Gunners this year. Wenger will have to manage the impending departures of two stars while he tries to reach that goal, though.
For Chelsea, like Arsenal, depth is a worry. Late additions of Davide Zappacosta and Danny Drinkwater made sure the squad wasn’t tracing paper thin, but injuries to Alvaro Morata and N’golo Kante in the last couple of weeks ask new questions of Antonio Conte’s side.
Their performances against Arsenal and Manchester City were underwhelming in the extreme. A tricky Champions League group stretches their squad yet further, and so much of their attacking ingenuity must come through Eden Hazard. If the Belgian can get to his best form of last season, any other weakness could pale into insignificance, but the pressure on Hazard as he returns to full fitness is enormous.
Conte made no secret of his discontent with the squad over the summer, and his faith in the fringe players will be ultimately tested between now and Christmas.
The loss of Kante is expected to be longer-term than Morata, giving a chance to Tiemoue Bakayoko and Drinkwater to show that the Blues can cope without the PFA Player of the Year.
A top four finish and a run into the latter stages of the Champions League would be okay for Chelsea. Another title is possible, so is a collapse out of the top four, and so much of that is down to Hazard.
Criticising Liverpool’s defence has become a clichе in itself. Dejan Lovren, Ragnar Klavan and others are often the targets of such critique, and Jurgen Klopp has been vocal of his disappointment with the defence at times this year.
Klopp has also, however, bemoaned the missing of chances. Chances have been created this season, but too often they have failed to convert opportunities into goals, as was evident against Burnley and Newcastle. Liverpool’s expected goals tell the story in this respect. They had 1.79 xG against Newcastle, but scored only once, and conceded once despite limiting Newcastle to 0.37 xG. It is only a one-game snapshot, but it’s a familiar picture.
That has been Liverpool this season. Even with difficulties at both ends of the pitch and the 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Manchester City, they sit a solitary point behind Chelsea and Arsenal.
Failure to address the central defensive problems will hold Klopp’s side back this term, but the ultimate concern has to be their inability to finish off chances.
The story has been similar in the Champions League, though they are still expected to progress from their group. A return to the knockout stages in Europe’’ premier competition will be welcomed, but dropping out of the top four again must see Klopp’s future brought into question given the failure to address long-running problems.
Manchester City have been almost faultless this season. Their attack has been as joyous as was expected, and the defence has barely given opponents a sniff.
With their creative force and firepower in the final third, goals should not be an issue. They have the talent to find a way to score, just as they did against Chelsea despite failing to create many clear opportunities.
John Stones has realised his potential as one of the league’s best defenders, and Nicolas Otamendi has been solid. Only once has a true hole been found in their armour, and that was done by Liverpool before Sadio Mane’s red card.
If anything can hold Pep Guardiola’s team back from winning the title, it will be defending against quick attacks. Benjamin Mendy is out for the season, and an injury for Stones or Otamendi leaves them desperately short at centre-back.
City are my favourites for the title as it stands, but – like Liverpool – not adding a centre-back in the summer window could cost them.
Manchester United have depth in their squad, and have coped even without Paul Pogba of late. The defence has shown signs of the invincibility synonymous with successful Jose Mourinho teams, and their relentless approach has worn down opponents.
Their football has been thrilling at times. Mourinho’s teams often start the season well, then become uncatchable once they take a lead at the top. It is currently neck-and-neck with their Manchester rivals, but sterner tests are coming up for Mourinho.
While Pogba is absent, Henrikh Mkhitaryan is the creator most important to the attack. Juan Mata is more than an able deputy, however, and the attacking depth makes no player completely irreplaceable. Even after his stellar start, an injury to Romelu Lukaku would be no disaster with Marcus Rashford capable of leading the line.
Two players standout down Manchester United’s spine: Eric Bailly and Nemanja Matic. The balance of the team could go with the loss of Matic, and the defence is reliant on Bailly. The fitness of that pair will be definitive in the coming months.
Mauricio Pochettino has built a good team at Spurs. Their finishes in the top three in the last two seasons reflect that. In bringing some World’s Best StrikerTM stuff out of Harry Kane, though, Pochettino has made Spurs a very good team, and a team that are significant silverware away from being considered one of the best in Europe.
The great question of what happens if Kane gets injured continues to loom. It was answered in part last year, and the arrival of Fernando Llorente goes some way to calming the concerns. Most teams will be hurt if they lose their best player, so there’s not much more to say on that front.
With Erik Lamela’s return still unknown, and Moussa Sissoko playing centrally, it’s a lack of wide options that is the greatest weakness of the current squad. Heung-min Son is one of the better non-guaranteed-starters in the league, but he carries a hefty burden of providing attacking spark and goals to supplement Kane.
Spurs’ bench often has fewer game-changing options than their rivals, which will hurt them again this year. Aside from that, the already influential downturn in home form will make a push for the title a smidgen too far again.