Three horse race
For the first time in years it looks as though the Premier League title race will involve three clubs. We assess the respective merits of Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham and invite you to send in your own conclusions.
Last Updated: 14/01/12 9:58am
Having been imperious up until the turn of the year it is only now with successive defeats that questions have begun to surface over the depth of quality in Manchester City's much lauded squad. There is no doubt City possess the greatest number of players who wouldn't look out of place on the cover of FIFA 12, but with Stefan Savic the only centre-half in the Premier League this season to have made Andy Carroll look like a professional (well nearly), Vincent Kompany's enforced absence could be sorely felt come May.
Kolo Toure is away with the Ivory Coast at the African Cup of Nations and with Nedum Onuoha out of favour, Roberto Mancini - cue cries of derision from his and the club's detractors - is right in saying City don't have the biggest squad at present. Pablo Zabaleta is an option to slot in alongside Joleon Lescott, or alternatively his presence in the side could see Micah Richards shift across to centre-half. Alternatively they could just buy Gary Cahill.
Rafael van der Vaart's recent comments about City have been mischievously reported in Friday morning's papers but the reality is Mancini's side haven't lost 'it', but rather their three best players. Kompany, David Silva and Yaya Toure (like his brother at the ACON) make Mancini's side tick, so should we really be talking about 'losing' anything, other than a couple of cup games, in their absence?
Silva started against Manchester United but wasn't at his best as he looks to shake off an ankle injury, while Kompany's dismissal and subsequent ban is arguably the biggest difficulty they've had to deal with since Carlos Tevez. There is no easy solution to the problem of Yaya Toure's absence either. Nigel de Jong's destructive qualities are well documented and he's been unfortunate to be reduced to a peripheral role this season after excelling last year, but his team-mate's remarkable driving runs from deep will be sorely missed.
City miss their best players just like any other side and it's largely premature to talk of cracks emerging on the back of a couple of iffy performances. Samir Nasri has endured a tough start to life in Manchester but a brighter performance against Liverpool could be built on given greater responsibility, should Silva be wrapped in cotton wool over the next few weeks. He hasn't become a bad player overnight.
Monday's away day in Wigan should steady the ship, before ten days that could shape their season as a home game with Tottenham is followed by the second leg of their Carling Cup semi-final and a trip to Goodison Park.
For a squad that is supposedly the worst Sir Alex Ferguson has ever worked with, Manchester United have got a decent second string. As City will find out with Kompany, losing your defensive talisman is difficult to cope with.
Nemanja Vidic's serious knee injury and Rio Ferdinand's descent into Ledley King territory has accelerated the progression of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones into regular starters. Both, for the most part, have coped admirably but with all young players inevitable peaks and troughs will ensue.
The elephant in the room is a lack of a world class central midfielder. Ferguson has oft spoken of a loathing for dealing big in January so the imminent return of Tom Cleverley, who was excellent in tandem with Anderson before injury reduced the pair of them to the sidelines, could not be better timed.
Paul Scholes' surprise decision to come out of retirement adds further depth but if Cleverley can scale previous heights he'll have to content himself with a place on the bench, at best.
The De Silva twins have dropped into the shadows after last year's breakthrough but could add an infectious youthful enthusiasm should it be needed when legs begin to feel weary at the back end of the season, while Ryan Giggs, Park Ji-sung and Scholes are the older heads guaranteed not to suffer a dose of 'squeaky bum' at just the wrong time.
It's difficult to see how Javier Hernandez won't improve on a subdued first half to the campaign after arriving to the party late after suffering serious concussion in the summer, while Ashley Young could provide added vim when he returns from injury. As an attacking force, as Sir Alex is always keen to attest, Manchester United are a match for anyone. Danny Welbeck and Dimitar Berbatov would walk into most other Premier League teams (literally in the case of the Bulgarian) so it'll be interesting to see who is given the nod most often to complement Wayne Rooney between now and the season's close.
In relation to Tottenham's title rivals Harry Redknapp likes to cast himself as some kind of Oliver Twist. Rare is it a press conference passes without reference to comparative wealth, with Redknapp seemingly of the opinion Emmanuel Adebayor et al are paid in gruel to wear the cockerel with such pride. There is no doubt Spurs have worked the market well, both in terms of buying and selling, but just a cursory glance at their possible second string dispels the idea of Daniel Levy as a footballing Shylock.
"City are where they are because of Sheikh Mansour and Chelsea thanks to Roman Abramovich," said Redknapp to Friday written press. "We have not done it that way and it makes me proud. You don't have to go out and spend fortunes to find good players. (no, but it sure helps)
"Spurs are not third in the Premier League because someone has walked through the door at White Hart Lane and slapped a bundle of money on my desk. City can pay players £200,000 a week, it's unbelievable. The people running Spurs have invested wisely."
Redknapp has urged Tottenham to bid for Gary Cahill, who Chelsea are struggling to strike an accord with over personal terms, but with Michael Dawson now fit again and Sebastien Bassong (£8million) the club's fifth choice centre-half their strength in depth is matched by few. There's no secret to Redknapp's success in the transfer market; he buys good players. It sounds like a ridiculous statement to make, but when was the last time Spurs bought a player which provoked a reaction of 'why have they done that?'
Now do the same for their main rivals. Carroll, Henderson, Owen, Bebe, Torres, Squillaci, Andre Santos....When you consider top goalscorer Jermaine Defoe (11 goals from 14 starts) has to sate himself with a place on the bench and the lavishly talented Sandro has to play second fiddle to Scott Parker, there must be a growing sense in Spurs' dressing room that a first title since they last won it in 1960/61 is not beyond them. Key will be keeping Luka Modric, Gareth Bale and Adebayor fit.
Spurs v top five
It's fair to say that Saturday's home clash with Wolves represents the calm before the storm for Tottenham. Their following six games in the league, which sandwich an FA Cup tie against Watford, pits them against five of the top seven. Recent victories in wars of attrition against West Bromwich Albion and Everton have rightly been lauded. As Rory Smith in The Times recently reflected 'there is nothing glamorous about a title challenge' and at the last time of counting, the same points are awarded for beating Everton as they are for Manchester United.
That does not, though, mean the next phase of matches do not represent a litmus test for just how far Tottenham have come this season. Bookending these fixtures are games against Manchester City (a) and Manchester United (h); if Spurs are within three points of the summit on March 3 (the date of the United game) then even Arsenal fans may have to concede their neighbours are in it to win it.
A summer disrupted by Modric's moaning overlapped into a disastrous start to the season that included a 5-1 mauling in North London to City and then a 3-0 defeat at Old Trafford. Taking their Manchester massacres out of the equation their results since against the 'Big Five' have been excellent, with two wins and a draw testimony to an upturn in fortunes that has seen them suffer just one defeat in their last 18 matches.
It's telling that the only season in which they qualified for the UEFA Champions League came in 2009/10, when their win rate against the 'Big Five' was at a five-season high on 50 per cent. Last term's dip to just 30 per cent culminated in 'Thursday night, Channel Five' chants. And nobody wants that.
Now they have learnt that most side stutter as much as strut to the title, if Spurs can get their win rate over their rivals to 50 per cent, or more, they won't be far away in May.
|Tottenham v Big Five (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Man City, Man Utd)|
Marathon not a sprint
The popular assumption is that Manchester United up their game in January and come good after the New Year. The stats bear this out, with United having accumulated more points in the second half of a season than the first in 12 of their 19 Premier League campaigns.
Despite a common perception that this is not a vintage United side this is actually the best start they have made to a season since 2006/07 and only in two other campaigns since the Premier League's inception in 1992/93 have they begun more impressively.
Currently they average 2.37 points per game. In the second half of a season United have bettered this figure on just five occasions, the last time coming in 2008/09 when a positive swing of 0.49 took them from an average of 2.11 to 2.60 to claim a third successive total.
Given the form of both Manchester City and Tottenham and the points they have accumulated respectively, it seems likely United will have to match their efforts in the first half of the term to retain the title.
|Man Utd - PL era|
|Season||To Jan||From Jan||Difference|
Exits from cup competitions are rigorously lamented on record but off tape a manager may let slip a wry smile. As the old saying goes 'the league is your bread and butter' and even a club as ambitious as City would accept organic progression deems that a Premier League title comes before a European crown.
The club's first foray into the Champions League showed they still have some growing to do, but more importantly demonstrated they could definitely hold their own in such lofty company. In no way did they return to familiar shores with their tail between their legs, which makes a relative slump domestically thereafter even more difficult to fathom. Injuries, suspensions and perhaps the widespread raising of expectations look to have played their part.
Prior to their Champions League exit City had a win rate of 78.3 per cent from 28 games, losing just twice in the process. Compare that with the eight games since (win rate 37.5 per cent - W3 D1 L4) and it becomes clear Mancini has plenty of work to do.
It's going to be one hell of a race...
|Before CL exit||23||18||3||2||78.3%|
|Since CL exit||8||3||1||4||37.5%|
We'd love to hear your views on what looks to be a fascinating title race. Are Tottenham realistic championship contenders or will the Manchester clubs pull away? Have your say by filling in the feedback form below...