Remember when most of the pundits said that Chelsea were going to retain the league title? That Manuel Pellegrini was a lame duck keeping the seat warm for Pep Guardiola, irredeemably dooming Manchester City? That Louis van Gaal was no longer the manager he used to be, and that Manchester United’s squad was bafflingly imbalanced? That Arsenal hadn’t strengthened sufficiently in certain key areas and were still temperamentally fragile? Of course you do, it was only two months ago.
Remember when it looked as though City, bolstered by smart signings, would walk away with the league? As though Chelsea had misjudged their pre-season and had given themselves an impossible handicap to overcome with a slow start? As though United had been undermined by a chaotic transfer strategy and by Van Gaal’s insistence on a particularly sterile form of possession football? As though Arsenal hadn’t strengthened sufficiently in certain key areas and were still temperamentally fragile? Of course you do, it was only a month ago.
Remember when it looked as though United had lucked out on transfer deadline day and that the players might have assimilated Van Gaal’s process? As though City were overreliant on three or four key players and guilty of a strange directionlessness when they weren’t there? As though third-season syndrome had set in to undermine Chelsea? As though Arsenal hadn’t strengthened sufficiently in certain key areas and were still temperamentally fragile? Of course you do, it was only a fortnight ago.
Remember when it looked as though City will probably be all right so long as Sergio Aguero stays fit? As though Van Gaal’s obsession with possession would lead him to ignore a game plan that has worked against a particular opponent for a decade? As though Jose Mourinho had shot it completely? As though Arsenal hadn’t strengthened sufficiently in certain key areas and were still temperamentally fragile but were capable of outstanding performances on their day? Of course you do, that was last weekend.
This has been an extraordinary start to the Premier League season, one already replete with an abundance of diverse storylines and shifts of momentum.
When Arsenal overran the league leaders United on Sunday to move within two points at the top, it was only the third-biggest Premier League news of the weekend. Van Gaal was midway through explaining how his team had let him down when the news broke that Brendan Rodgers had been sacked—precisely because, according to the Independent, Fenway Sports Group believe vulnerabilities at the top mean the league title is a possibility for Liverpool this season.
How realistic a view that is is open to question—although it’s certainly fair to say the Liverpool of the season before last might have fancied their chances this time around—but what is clearly true is that the top sides all have flaws and have all undergone difficult starts to the season.
Eight games in and, with all due respect to Leicester City, Everton and Tottenham Hotspur, all the realistic challengers for the title have lost at least a quarter of their matches.
It’s not unusual for a couple of leading sides to have iffy starts, but this across-the-board inconsistency is extremely unusual. Last season, for instance, United had lost twice at this stage, but City and Arsenal just once and Chelsea not at all. Chelsea, the leaders, had 22 points, four more than City do now.
Not since 1988-89 has there been a season in which the realistic contenders for the title had all lost two of their opening eight games—and that, of course, is hardly comparing like with like; the stratification that exists in the Premier League today was nothing like as pronounced back then.
Each of the top four—or five if you include Liverpool—have their specific reasons for the slow starts. While it’s worrying for City that they are still so dependent on the core of players who led them to the title in 2011-12, they were unlucky to lose Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure and David Silva simultaneously at a time when Aguero was still returning to fitness and Joe Hart had a game out with a back problem.
What was dismissed as fatigue as Chelsea stuttered towards the line last season seems to have developed into something far worse, with Mourinho apparently in danger of losing the dressing room and railing indiscriminately against refereeing conspiracies and hinting at his unhappiness at the club’s failure to land the players he says he told them he wanted in April.
Mourinho's comment amid Saturday’s seven-minute monologue that “I assume my responsibilities, it's time for everyone to assume their responsibilities” was surely another reference to his frustration at the summer recruitment.
United and Liverpool are both suffering the familiar problem of accommodating a host of new players, albeit in slightly different ways.
United’s issues are bound up in Van Gaal, whose ongoing genius remains doubtful. His approach on Sunday was a particular concern.
Sir Alex Ferguson laid out in his autobiography that the way to beat Arsenal is to sit deep and counter, an approach that had proved so effective Arsenal had won just one of their 13 league games before Sunday against United.
Van Gaal eschewed that advice and saw the occasional ponderousness of his team in possession savagely exposed by Arsenal’s pressing.
Arsenal, themselves, remain Arsenal, the familiar players going through the familiar routines, predictable in their unpredictability.
It’s tempting, though, to seek wider themes, particularly given the ongoing underperformance of Premier League teams in European competition. Is there something holding top Premier League sides back?
Van Gaal spoke last week of the “rat race” of the Premier League, how the competitiveness of the Premier League leaves the top English sides exhausted, partly because the games are more intense and partly because they cannot risk resting players.
That theory correlates with the domestic struggles of the top sides; the relative equitable distribution of wealth in the Premier League (at least compared to other European leagues) and the growing financial muscle of the middle-class mean the mid-ranking sides pose more of a threat to the elite than elsewhere.
But that’s not the whole story. How many Dinamo Zagreb or Olympiakos players would get in the Arsenal side? How many PSV players would Manchester United want to sign? How many Porto players would interest Chelsea? There is an underperformance relative to ability and wealth, and it may be that wealth is part of the problem.
Things may settle down as the season progresses, but at the moment it feels as though the churn of players is itself inhibiting them. High-class arrivals can boost a mid-ranking side but destabilise a top side.
The mutual understanding that defines the very best is inhibited while the sense of a corporate identity—players buying into the club as a cause—is lost, which may explain the argument Danny Higginbotham outlined in the Independent last week about a lack of fight from English teams in Europe.
Which leads to the question of whether it matters. An absence of the very highest quality may impinge on the performance of Premier League clubs in European competition, but the upside is heightened intrigue in the league.
Every weekend at the moment, it seems, generates a welter of excitement and intrigue, and perhaps it’s wiser simply to enjoy that than fret too much about the unlikelihood of John Terry, Kompany, Wayne Rooney or Per Mertesacker lifting the Champions League in Milan next May.