The 2017/18 season is only 3 months old, but it’s already produced some intriguing narratives. Below we give an update to the English Premier League season, and how our initial outlook has changed for the finish line of the campaign.
Is it another one horse race?
Last season despite a mixed start to the campaign, Antonio Conte’s Blues took substantial charge of the top of the Premier League table, particularly off the back of a 13 game winning run in the middle part of the season. This season however, Manchester City only has the bizarre blemish of a home draw to struggling Everton on their record; every other match has not only produced victories, but some substantial goal returns. They’ve scored 5 or more goals in 4 of their first 10 league fixtures, and average just over 3 goals scored per game. In the Champions League, this form is equally impressive; 4 wins from 4 matches, 3 goals per game. The goals are being shared too, with Aguero, Sterling, Sane and Jesus all scoring 6 or more thus far. Only Manchester United can boast a (marginally) better defensive record.
Guardiola’s side look very impressive, with considerable squad depth. They’re yet to play the likes of Man United and Spurs, but it would be a brave to bet on them not only winning those fixtures, but the majority of fixtures around them. A lot has to go wrong for the Citizens not to make good on their status as favourites for champions.
Punching above their weight… again?
There’s something especially intriguing about the work of Mauricio Pochettino and his Spurs. While some concerns cloud the skies over Conte’s Chelsea and Mourinho’s United, optimism is understandably flush at Tottenham. This isn’t to read too much into current matters; Man United also had an impressive start compared to expectations, but have faltered in recent weeks. Spurs meanwhile, appear to be making a statement of ambition that last season’s near title challenging 2nd half season performance is something they want to sustain.
It’s unfortunate that Man City have been as good as they have, otherwise the performances from Wembley could have been more universally appreciated. Spurs have not only kept pace with Man United and Chelsea, they’ve done so with substantially less financial muscle in wages, turnover and transfer spend, while topping their group (featuring Real Madrid and Dortmund) in the Champions League, and with less contributions from some of last season’s key players (Wanyama, Dembele). The key issue that remains for them to solve is matches against their direct rivals; 6 of the points have given up this season went to Man United and Chelsea. If they solve that issue and remain fortunate with injuries, Spurs may yet secure their 3rd consecutive top 3 finish.
Targeting transfers for top 4?
Hovering outside the top 4 race at present are Arsenal and Liverpool, who both seem to have cause for lamenting their tactical efficacy and transfer window impact. Both sides seem to have inherent defensive issues, albeit Arsenal less so. Both sides are lauded for goalscoring capability. Yet, Liverpool’s draws with Watford (3-3), Newcastle (1-1) and Burnley (1-1) speak volumes about their attack being pressured to compensate for defence. Arsenal’s defeats to Stoke (0-1), Liverpool (0-4) and Watford (1-2) have undermined the “goalfest” victories enjoyed against Leicester (4-3), Bournemouth (3-0) and Everton (5-2).
Much of the response to these struggles have largely been focused on addressing them through transfers in the upcoming window, with both clubs under pressure to address defensive reinforcements, questions of leadership, and overall squad quality. It’s a point particularly exacerbated by the excellence of Spurs in both transfer success and the long term sustainability of their tactical approach. Liverpool and Arsenal have greater access to financial prowess and more global marketability. But if neither of them address their issues correctly and decisively in the next window, it’s highly unlikely that one, let alone two of Man City, Man United, Chelsea or Spurs will allow their form to collapse enough to sneak the Reds or the Gunners into the top 4.
Escaping the drop?
As usual, the Premier League’s charm for creating intriguing stories from its lesser known cast remains intact this season. In respect of promoted sides, often highly favoured to struggle to stay the course, whereas Newcastle are currently in mid-table as expected, Brighton have done a solid job of keeping goals to a minimum against more illustrious sides and picking up key wins over Swansea, West Ham, Newcastle and West Brom. Huddersfield have had a less effective defensive unit, but have also managed to construct great wins over Crystal Palace, Newcastle, West Brom and Man United.
Two of the league’s longest survivors in Everton and Crystal Palace face a far bigger challenge; both sides have already had managerial changes and the current incumbents (David Unsworth and Roy Hodgson respectively) appear to have had little effect. It seems unlikely that these clubs would entertain a third managerial change, and while it’s far too soon to judge Unsworth, Hodgson’s side, despite some talented individuals, appears devoid of workable tactical ideas, and it’s unclear if the experienced manager has the right game plan in place to ensure Selhurst Park enjoys Premier League football next season.
Nearby in London, West Ham’s freefall and issues off the pitch continue to make Slaven Bilic’s tenure as manager difficult to predict. Like Everton and Crystal Palace, their poor goal difference suggests that their tactical ideas are functioning ineffectively to sustain a successful campaign to avoid relegation. Assuming that Bilic does in fact become one of the next managers to leave their club, it could be a critical appointment for the Hammers to ensure they do escape the drop.
Swansea meanwhile, despite having had a fair mix of tricky opposition still appear to be feeling the effects of losing key players in Fernando Llorente and Gylfi Sigurdsson in the transfer window. Paul Clement doesn’t seem to have the measure of the new season as yet, and while it’s early days, it seems they’ll be far too reliant on the potentially poor form of teams around them to ensure they avoid relegation.