Tottenham currently top Premier League table, ahead of Liverpool on goal difference; Chelsea have made impressive start; Man Utd, Man City picking up pace; Leicester are fourth - but are Sky Sports writers backing them to stay there?
Friday 11 December 2020 09:06, UK
Gary Neville believes Chelsea and Tottenham have a shot at the Premier League title this season. Jurgen Klopp reckons Frank Lampard's side could well scupper Liverpool's chances of retaining their crown, while Jose Mourinho has called Spurs "ponies" in the race.
Liverpool and Manchester City have dominated the top flight over the last three years but could this really be the season that their monopoly ends?
Plenty of football is left to play but with patterns emerging, injuries biting and several teams showcasing their credentials, it's time for the Sky Sports writers to assess the top of the table.
Who looks the best bet for the title? Who's got the edge in the top-four race? Read on for their verdicts.
1. Liverpool 2. Man City 3. Chelsea 4. Tottenham
The gap has closed in the Premier League. The Covid-19 crisis coupled with injuries to key players saw Liverpool stutter in the opening weeks of the season. But look again at that Premier League table and there they are - level with Tottenham at the top of the table.
If this was Liverpool's blip and still no team has more points, then the problem for the rest should be obvious. The champions are now the Premier League top scorers with 26 goals. Perhaps they will not be so defensively strong this season, but they will not need to be. The attack looks stronger. If they win the title by one point instead of 18 it is still enough.
Tottenham have impressed and it would be no great surprise to see Jose Mourinho push Manchester United out of the top four this season. Do they have enough to defeat deep defences with the same regularity as their title rivals? The evidence is not quite there yet.
Chelsea's underlying numbers are more encouraging. They boast the second-best attack and the best defence, according to the expected-goals data, and are on a 16-game unbeaten run in all competitions. With the squad depth at Frank Lampard's disposal, they look a safer bet to last the course. This is not a group that looks particularly reliant on one or two players.
At Manchester City, meanwhile, Kevin De Bruyne is crucial to the hopes of Pep Guardiola's team. The feeling persists that it is a team in transition but even if the focus shifts to the Champions League come the spring, it would be a shock if they are too far away.
The problem for City is the same as the problem facing every other team hoping to prise the title from the grip of Jurgen Klopp and his players. The improvement required is major not minor - and will need to be sustained for many more months - if anyone is to keep pace with this Liverpool team.
1. Man City 2. Liverpool 3. Tottenham 4. Chelsea
Manchester City appear to be finding their groove in front of goal and achieving solidity at the back. I can't see any team stopping them if that's maintained. They have a wicked blend of experience and youth, world-class depth to navigate this condensed season and the league's standout player in Kevin De Bruyne. Their hunt for the elusive Champions League trophy could be a distraction, but the squad depth provides capacity to compete across all competitions successfully.
I think Liverpool will be challenging down to the wire but the impact of their centre-back injuries cannot be underestimated - although the January transfer window could play a part.
Spurs' conservative approach and reliance on converting limited chances against bigger teams is likely to misfire eventually and I'd expect them to finish third - but win a trophy along the way. However, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg has been a revelation in the holding role and the additions up top now provide cover if Harry Kane or Heung-Min Son are injured, albeit diminished.
I'd put Chelsea in fourth, with capacity to climb higher next season. The team is oozing with development and flair, while Timo Werner looks set to take the league by storm.
1. Tottenham 2. Man City 3. Liverpool 4. Chelsea
This is a peculiar season which began in September with many questioning who could stop Liverpool from retaining their title, but which 11 games in sees Tottenham leading the way on goal difference from the champions, while Crystal Palace in 11th lie just eight points off top spot.
It has taken Jose Mourinho a year to mould his players into a team in his image - snarling, impossible to score against and devastating on the counter - but now that he has, the Portuguese's "pony" maybe hard to stop.
And if defence wins championships, then Spurs, who currently boast the meanest back line in the Premier League, have exactly the manager to lead them to an unlikely title win.
Man City will no doubt run them close, although something just is not right with Pep and Co this season, while Sergio Aguero's continued knee issues will also count against them.
Successful defences of the Premier League have been rare in recent years and despite starting the campaign as many peoples' favourites for the title, injuries are sure to catch up with Liverpool eventually, especially at the heart of their defence where Jurgen Klopp will struggle to keep the injury-prone Joel Matip and Fabinho fit for the whole season.
And while Frank Lampard's new-look Chelsea have started impressively, expect them to fall away in the second half of the campaign when European commitments and domestic cup competitions could prove an unwanted distraction.
1. Man Utd 2. Liverpool 3. Man City 4. Tottenham
Before people start throwing things at their screen, let me explain.
Do I think Manchester United are the most likely winners of the Premier League? Of course not.
However, with my betting analyst head on, it's simply bonkers that they are available at 20/1. That equates to the market declaring that United have a five per cent chance of winning the Premier League - that probability figure is just too low for a team possessing such high quality and mass resources. It should be nearer 15 per cent in what is likely to be a much closer title race this season due to Liverpool and Manchester City's iffy starts and injury problems. Hence my decision to invest.
Granted, some of Manchester United's performances have been too bad to be true - the first half at West Ham a prime example - but, despite playing badly, United are winning matches and are just two points off top spot if they win their game in hand. I'm confident that consistency and elite level performances will eventually return in a team that went 14 Premier League games unbeaten at the end of the last campaign, grabbing a Champions League spot when all looked lost at one point. I was on them to finish top four at 5/1, which perhaps explains why my faith in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is perhaps stronger than most.
United's philosophy of being defensively solid without the ball and super speedy in transition with a front-line full of pace, trickery and quality is a formula that can make them rightful challengers. Plus, they have, arguably, the biggest game-changing player in the league. Bruno Fernandes has had a transformative impact on the club since his £68m arrival from Sporting Lisbon on the penultimate day of the transfer window, living up to sky-high expectations.
His supreme cameo and assist against the Hammers means that Fernandes has now been directly involved in 36 goals in the 38 games that he has played for Manchester United in all competitions since debuting in February - 22 goals and 14 assists. Five more than any other Premier League player in this period.
When you throw in the serious possibility of Solskjaer strengthening in January and the natural improvement from the younger members of his squad will gain from playing in big matches, United deserve to be in the title conversation.
And, if on Saturday, Solskjaer's men do what they did to Manchester City twice last season - beat them - then the masses will also start to rethink their credentials. And that 20/1 will be long gone.
1. Liverpool 2. Chelsea 3. Man City 4. Tottenham
Forget your 99 points. For Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool, winning this title will be their greatest achievement. And they'll do it, because even after suffering a season's worth of injuries in four weeks, they've still been the best.
There were concerns when energy dropped early in the season, but Liverpool still have more roads to goal than any Premier League team, and this season has seen Klopp peel the layers of his squad to find trustworthy stand-ins. It may be chalk and cheese to last season - it's looking like the most competitive title race in years - but they have enough.
Behind them, Chelsea have a found a balance in recent weeks between defence and attack, and their options in the final third are too good to be ignored. Even if injuries come, they have a queue of attacking players wanting playing time. Frank Lampard is burning through aspirin with that welcome headache.
Meanwhile, Manchester City are the best team in the Premier League one week, in crisis the next. There is a 'way' to play against Pep Guardiola's side now - Leicester and Tottenham ruthlessly exposed it - and their attempts to surrender some attacking power for defensive solidity will always be hindered by that defensive midfield position. Rodri simply isn't Fernandinho.
And while Jose Mourinho's "ponies" at Tottenham have shown they are a team for the big occasion, they'll need two distinct identities to win this title. The majority of a title-winners' points come against sides who will sit back, and Spurs' most difficult performances this season have come against those teams.
1. Liverpool 2. Man City 3. Tottenham 4. Chelsea
Jurgen Klopp's flurry of fist-pumps in front of the Anfield Kop was a reminder that a powerful connection has been re-established. A 4-0 win over Wolves sparked overdue title celebrations between manager and supporters and the desire to party properly when Anfield is (hopefully) full again come May feels a potent motivating factor.
Virgil van Dijk's injury was the dominant early narrative but back-ups have stepped up impressively all over the field. That is testament to mentality as well as coaching. Liverpool remain irresistible in attack but they have shown resilience as well as swagger, and Klopp is in hungry, combative mood. They are still the team to beat.
Manchester City, themselves feeling the bite of injuries and a truncated pre-season, have steadily been finding rhythm. City have been vulnerable on the break and not incisive enough in attack but four clean sheets have come in all competitions, Ilkay Gundogan quietly impressed and Sergio Aguero is expected back soon. Guardiola has a new deal but City have old know-how.
Tottenham's defensive transformation has been remarkable. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg appears an inspired signing and the Kane-Son show upfield continues to be a compelling watch. There is the Jose factor too; Mourinho looks like a man enjoying football again.
Only Spurs have conceded fewer goals than Chelsea but Frank Lampard, albeit with eye-watering funds, has plugged the gaps. The Blues' expected goals against total is the lowest in the league. N'Golo Kante is thriving again, there is depth up front and Lampard deserves credit for gelling faces old and new. Experience may reign in the end but they have the tools for the long haul.
1. Liverpool 2. Tottenham 3. Chelsea 4. Man City
We've all been foolish enough to predict how football will play out in a logical way, and if it did do that, it wouldn't be much of a game. But Liverpool have kept in touch with the top of the pack despite a raft of injuries, are the defending Premier League champions and have barely stopped winning for the last two and a half years.
One of the most impressive aspects of their consistency has been their recent form. It's not been as spectacular as their almost impossible run in the first half of 2019/20, sure, but without various first-team regulars, most importantly Virgil Van Dijk, they have defied criticism and expectation to keep winning. If that isn't the sign of champions, I don't know what is. They don't give up. After going so close in the Champions League in 2018, and the Premier League a year later, Liverpool dusted themselves down and went again. And now they've got the taste of success too.
That's why I think Jose Mourinho's Tottenham will push them all the way, but not quite far enough. Spurs have a thicker backbone than in previous years and they're in great form, but I think over the course of another 27 games, Liverpool can dig deeper. And you could kiss their chances goodbye straight away with any sort of injury to either of Son or Kane.
We're seeing Chelsea in a purple patch too, but I'm not sure an ageing Thiago Silva and Kurt Zouma is a Premier League-winning partnership, while Manchester City just aren't the same team they were 18 months ago - but over 38 games should have enough to see off both their near neighbours and Leicester.
1. Liverpool 2. Tottenham 3. Man City 4. Chelsea
2020 has finally reared its ugly head for Liverpool. First-choice centre-back pairing Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez are set to be absent for much of the season - but who would have noticed? Since Premier League stalwart Van Dijk's injury against Everton, Liverpool have played 11 games in all competitions, with six clean sheets and just six goals conceded.
Liverpool's attack remains as effervescent as ever and while some eyebrows were raised when Diogo Jota signed from Wolves in the summer, he is turning out to be another shrewd acquisition. The Reds have the manager, mindset and pedigree to survive without their injured defenders and claim their second successive Premier League title.
But they will far more closely run this time around. The Jose Mourinho way is back with a proverbial bang at Tottenham, finally finding a team that suits his style. He's transformed Eric Dier into a solid centre-back - Tottenham have the best defence in the league so far - and Harry Kane into a creative midfielder. His Heung-min Son partnership is verging on one of the Premier League's best ever. They look on course to end the season with long-awaited silverware, but may just be pipped for the league title.
So used to being among the headlines, Man City are going quietly about their business. They've snuck into sixth - three points off the top four - and it's hard to rule them out to finish in those places. They have the squad depth to compete on multiple fronts and title-winning experience but the questions from last season haven't quite been answered. They have already lost to two top-four rivals - Leicester and Tottenham - and that could be the difference in May.
There's no denying that Chelsea's superstar squad are also starting to click. Unbeaten in 13 games, Frank Lampard's side are the league's second-highest scorers (25) - one behind Liverpool - and have the joint-second best defence, but similarly to Man City, it could be results against their rivals that trips them up. Their only league defeat has been against Liverpool, with goalless draws against Man Utd and Tottenham. If they can find the key to unlock these fixtures, Chelsea could be in the Premier League title race until the final throes.
1. Liverpool 2. Man City 3. Tottenham 4. Chelsea
The race will be tighter this year, but I expect the outcome to be the same.
It was tempting to write Liverpool off when they lost 7-2 to Aston Villa then lost Virgil van Dijk to a cruciate knee injury either side of the October international break. But they have navigated six Premier League games without defeat since then and sit level on points with Tottenham at the top of the table. Crisis? What crisis?
Let's not forget that Liverpool won the title by 18 points last season. Not so much a gap as a yawning chasm. Van Dijk's absence weakens them, of course, but they can afford to be weakened and still get the job done - especially when their deputies step in as ably as they have lately and their attack looks this dangerous. Liverpool have in fact scored more goals after 11 games than at the same stage of last season.
Manchester City will push them close. Ruben Dias already appears to have made a difference at the heart of their defence and Pep Guardiola's new contract suggests he believes he can take them back to the top. But there are still frailties there. Have they really improved enough to overhaul the champions?
Has anyone? Tottenham are certainly stronger, with the Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son double act proving difficult to stop. Chelsea have equipped themselves with formidable attacking depth too. But those sides are yet to prove they can produce the consistency required to win a title.
Oh, and as for Arsenal, it's fair to say my early-season optimism has been somewhat dented. Bottom four looks more likely than top four for them right now.