Arsenal can profit from chaotic title race thanks to three wildcard teams

The cliché used to be that the league table takes shape after 10 games. If everything happens faster these days, the standings after eight look like a guide to how they will look after 38. Chelsea are 11th and Crystal Palace ninth but were they to swap positions, then the eventual top 10 may already be in situ, if not necessarily in the positions they will eventually occupy. The current bottom five could be the sides in the scrap to survive: they include all three promoted clubs, with two of them below the dotted line. The teams in the relative obscurity of 12th-15th might be destined for lower mid-table.

So far, so predictable? Not entirely. If Ange Postecoglou appears a one-man rebuttal of Antonio Conte, taking a Tottenham team shorn of Harry Kane to the top of the table while eschewing his predecessor’s self-defeating negativity, the surprise package at the summit highlight a wider and more welcome theme. There might just be a title race.

At this point, it is worth pointing out there was one last season. Arsenal were top for 248 days. It is easy to retrofit the campaign and argue Manchester City’s eventual triumph was inevitable; it was not, though for the vast majority of those 248 days, they remained favourites in the eyes of many.

Yet if they retain the same status now, it is with a greater sense of competition. Pep Guardiola’s City have cruised to two titles – as frontrunners in 2017-18 and after a mid-season surge in 2020-21 – without significant opposition. Their other three Premier League crowns have been secured after a fight: twice with Liverpool, once with Arsenal. This season could offer the prospect of a race with several genuine competitors.

Certainly Arsenal, given added belief by finally defeating City in the league, could sustain a challenge. There is some confidence within Liverpool, too, with Jurgen Klopp energised by a new-look side that seems packed full of goals. And if Klopp himself may be unsure how far they can go, Liverpool have harnessed momentum to go on winning runs in the past. So, in the first half of last season, did Arsenal.

The assumption may still be that Tottenham will slip off the pace; but, as none of their next four opponents are in the top eight, perhaps not yet. And there are signs they have substance: only three of their first eight games have been at home, for instance, and they have already faced Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool, taking seven points (contentious and fortunate as their win against Klopp’s team was). Spurs may face a defining 15 days from 25 November, when they face Aston Villa, City, West Ham and Newcastle. There are reasons to wonder if Tottenham have the necessary strength in depth, though Rodrigo Bentancur will be a high-class reinforcement when fit again.

But there are also grounds to wonder if, unlike the country, the Premier League has had its own form of levelling up. Spurs are definitely better than last season; Liverpool too, with Dominik Szoboszlai adding quality and a midfield where they had a mess. Mikel Arteta’s relentless tinkering is designed to improve Arsenal and if the jury remains out on Kai Havertz, there is no doubt Declan Rice has brought an upgrade.

Pep Guardiola and Mikel Arteta look set to fight it out for the title once more (PA)

The biggest factor, however, may be that City look worse. Perhaps, after reaching the heights of the treble, the only way is down. If Rodri’s suspension showed a fallibility that may be removed by his availability, their personnel feel lesser. Mateo Kovacic, Matheus Nunes and Jeremy Doku are not as intimidatingly good as the departed Ilkay Gundogan and Riyad Mahrez and the injured Kevin de Bruyne, even if the latter could provide an injection of brilliance after Christmas. City have had two terrific results thus far, beating Newcastle without recourse to substitutes and when tired and winning at West Ham, yet their fixture list has been kind. Arsenal was their toughest test to date and they failed it. Now they have to face Brighton, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool before December arrives; each will examine the mettle of this team.

One possibility, which felt obscured when City won their first six league games, was that, after the seasons of ridiculously high points tallies, this year more teams will take points off each other and that around 85 may be enough. It could be a consequence in part of the division’s rising forces, each threatening to gatecrash the Champions League party. If David Moyes’ ability to get top-eight finishes without playing in the Champions League suggests West Ham’s ceiling is fifth, there could be three wildcards in the battle at the summit: Aston Villa, Newcastle and the wildest of all, Brighton.

Roberto De Zerbi’s great unpredictables have played five of their last six games against probable top-half finishers. They are the division’s top scorers, with Newcastle second; if that was inflated by their rout at Bramall Lane, a demolition of Paris Saint-Germain showed how potent Eddie Howe’s team could be. For them, as for Tottenham, 25 November brings the start of a four-game spell that will examine their credentials: Chelsea, Manchester United, Everton and Tottenham beckon. It looks a similarly pivotal period for Villa, who have Spurs, Bournemouth, City and Arsenal then.

Ange Postecoglou has inspired Spurs to top of the league (Getty Images)

Newcastle have to host Arsenal in early November, and virtually every weekend contains a game with the potential to reshape the table and reframe the debate. It is, in part, because these appear flawed contenders. Arsenal lack an elite striker and Arteta has reflected on their lack of home clean sheets while, without a specialist nullifier of a defensive midfielder, Liverpool have shown a fragility at the back.

The statistics – from shots conceded to expected goals against – suggest the best side defensively is City. Like their propensity to hunt the leaders down in the run-in and Erling Haaland’s capacity to score more than everyone else, it indicates that Guardiola’s team are still the likeliest champions.

But where there was certainty, there may now be more doubt, more intrigue, more twists and turns. And if Chelsea and Manchester United, whose expenditure ought to have positioned each to challenge, scarcely look in the title race now, there is the prospect several others might be: some for a while, perhaps one or two into the finishing straight.


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