Early movers in the Premier League
- The Premier League returns this weekend, with Liverpool sitting pretty on top with eight straight wins
- Just two points separate the next five teams, including defending champions Manchester City
"There are still 30 games to go!" retorted Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp after his team had beaten Leicester City via a penalty in added time on 5 October. When a member of the press suggested that the win might be an important one in the context of the season, Klopp had to remind him of the obvious: This is October, the league ends in May. But the teams at the top of the table, especially defending champions Manchester City and European champions Liverpool, are playing like it is already May 2020.
Liverpool are on a brilliant run with eight successive victories, which has put them eight points clear on the top from No.2 City. If you look at the calendar year, Liverpool’s winning run extends to 17 games (they ended last season with nine wins on the trot), just one victory short of the all-time record of 18 set by City in the 2017-18 season. That year, under Pep Guardiola, City had scored a staggering 106 goals and accrued a record 100 points to win the league. Since then, Klopp’s challengers have come up in leaps and bounds, pushing City all the way to the last day of the previous season, which the latter ultimately won by a solitary point.
Both teams have begun this season as if the last one hadn’t ended. And in the new normal of astronomical points hauls—City won with 98 points to Liverpool’s 97 in 2018-19, with the latter coming second despite losing just one game all season—neither team can afford to slip up, even so early in the campaign. It has come to such a pass that a draw is the new defeat, and actual defeats are unimaginable. So far, City have stumbled, with two losses and a draw, while Liverpool, despite being nowhere near their scintillating best, have kept on winning. Klopp’s famous characterization of his team as “mentality giants" is holding true for now.
However, the tussle isn’t just at the top. From the second position down to sixth place, City, Arsenal, Leicester, Chelsea and Crystal Place are separated by a mere two points. While Leicester, currently at fourth, under former Liverpool and Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers, are looking good enough to remain there come May, the rest of the top flight is a little more fluid. Third-placed Arsenal have been unconvincing, but have been unbeaten in their last five matches. Similarly, Chelsea, in transition under new manager Frank Lampard, have ridden the brilliance of young stars like the free-scoring Tammy Abraham to fifth place. Crystal Palace have had a dream start to the campaign, but they are certainly punching above their weight at No.6.
Last season’s Champions League finalists Tottenham had been slated as the team to give some competition to the Liverpool-City struggle just a couple of months ago, but they seem to have regressed. Lacklustre performances have seen them plummet to ninth and questions are being asked if manager Mauricio Pochettino’s race is finally run. And what of Manchester United, the behemoth of the Premier League era? Under rookie manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær, they are languishing at 12th, only two points above the relegation zone.
All this early season drama sets up this weekend’s matches deliciously. For starters, Manchester City will be away at high-flying Crystal Palace, a tricky proposition given that City’s defence is creaking. Arsenal away at Sheffield United and Chelsea hosting Newcastle United could also go any way. And the icing on the cake is the prospect of league leaders Liverpool travelling to Old Trafford to meet their fiercest rivals, Manchester United. Liverpool can register win number 18 in front of United fans, thus equalling City’s record and inflicting yet another demoralizing defeat on the Red Devils. Solskjær would be counting on his club’s pride and history to do one on Liverpool, even if that means helping their cross-city rivals.
That looks like a daunting prospect. So far, Liverpool have scored 20 goals and let in only six, despite having the stop-gap Adrián in goal. Their first-choice keeper, Alisson, is set to return against United—he is the reigning Best Fifa Men’s Goalkeeper as well as the previous campaign’s golden glove winner. United’s misfiring attack will have its work cut out. Similarly, Liverpool’s free-scoring front three of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané have already scored 15 goals in all competitions, while setting up another seven.
While United’s defence looks more solid with the addition of centre-back Harry Maguire, the Liverpool’s sheer will to win might tip the scales. Not so long ago, it was United who were renowned for such bloody-mindedness. In 2002, their 13-time league-winning manager Alex Ferguson had famously stated that his greatest achievement had been “knocking Liverpool off their f****** perch." Times have changed.