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No one is perfect. That’s great for the title race.
It's more open than you might have thought.
Hi everyone, hope you’re doing well. This article is going to cover the Premier League, and then either Friday or Saturday I’ll have an in-depth look at Barcelona for paid subscribers. If you’d like to read that, you can subscribe now at £5 a month, or £50 for the year. We’ll have plenty of good stuff going up there throughout the season. Shana Tova to any Jewish readers, and hopefully the rest of you survived another international break unscathed. Now let’s get on with the football.
It is far, far too early for serious opinions on the Premier League season. But hey, articles need to be written, so let’s see what we can gleam into the teams chasing the title so far. I took a good look at Manchester United for subscribers recently, so we’ve covered them. And, apologies to league leaders Tottenham, but let’s check in again in a few weeks if they’re still right up there. But for now, we’ll look at the three other sides who were expected to compete for the title: Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool.
When I wrote about them last, I had kind of assumed Harry Kane would be coming. Everything Pep Guardiola was doing seemed built for someone of exactly his profile to come in as the final piece, leading the line as a proper striker while contributing to the build up as well as any false nine.
That didn’t happen. The window has closed and City don’t have a striker beyond Gabriel Jesus. This isn’t the first time they’ve taken this approach in the market. When the club failed to sign Alexis Sanchez, they went without for a season and eventually filled that spot with Riyad Mahrez. When they couldn’t land Jorginho, they sat it out for a year before finally getting Rodri. And when they missed out on Harry Maguire, they let twelve months pass before bringing in Ruben Dias. It seems like they’re letting it sit again.
Does it matter? City won the league without too much trouble last year. They were the division’s top scorers despite no single player bagging more than 13 goals. Guardiola’s team can find goals from anywhere. It looks like he’s earmarked Ferran Torres to play the striker role more often than not, and that’s an interesting tactical wrinkle. The very, very early returns from Torres here are good. Both his goals against Arsenal were the kind of classic poacher’s finishes in front of the six yard box that City have been carving up for fun in Guardiola’s era. How many times have you seen someone in a sky blue shirt just waiting around the penalty spot for a low cross to tap in? We need to see a lot more to be confident, but it seems as though Torres can do that part of the job.
Can he link quite as well, though? A big part of City having such endless control last season was adding an extra midfielder comfortable in possession in the false nine role. Everyone knows Guardiola’s football is all about having players comfortable in the possession game, but we really saw it hit new heights as a primarily defensive tactic last year. Torres’ game is about running in behind. City still have the option of moving Ilkay Gundogan, Kevin De Bruyne or Jack Grealish to the false nine role and I’m sure we’ll see it at times. It’s just a question of whether this motley crew between them can contribute as much upfront as one Harry Kane.
It’s so early in the season that a few kicks of the ball can define a narrative. Liverpool fumble in one of those shots against the ten men of Chelsea and the story is a much rosier one. As it was, they were held for a point. Add in the lack of transfer activity, and suddenly everyone feels a bit nervous about Liverpool.
The team itself is the same as ever. They were dominant against Norwich and Burnley, then should’ve probably got it done against Chelsea. Their expected goal difference of +4.7 is bettered only by Man City (per FBRef, with data provided by StatsBomb). The big unknown of Liverpool’s season was whether Virgil van Dijk would be the same player so soon after injury, and while he hasn’t been tested that much, the early signs look good. This is, broadly speaking, the same side that won the title in 2019/20.
But is that enough? The top of the Premier League has suited up since then. What does the upside for Liverpool look like? If everything goes right for them this year, how does it go right?
Let’s say Harvey Elliott is the real deal. He has a breakout season winning the PFA Young Player of the Year award as the kind of controlled playmaker Liverpool have sometimes lacked. Thiago Alcantara pushes on and shows his Bayern form in a different red shirt. Van Dijk plays like he was never injured, making the whole back four and goalkeeper tick properly once again. Ibrahima Konate slides straight in as one of the league’s best centre backs.
That is a team that could win the Premier League. But an awful lot has to go right to get there, and other teams don’t quite need the stars to align so much.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve come to a conclusion I didn’t think I’d reach: Chelsea are my favourites right now for the Premier League title.
I’d be more confident had they signed a centre back. But they did just about everything else they needed to do. The centre backs they do have are well protected by N’Golo Kante and Jorginho, with Saul Niguez now another strong option. The wing backs help them stretch the play with everyone else generally looking to play inside. The probable front three of Mason Mount, Kai Havertz and Romelu Lukaku covers a lot of bases. And if it doesn’t for some reason, they have plenty of options to change it.
To paraphrase Guardiola, Chelsea stretch you wide with the wing backs, they stretch you deep with their three centre backs, they stretch you in behind with their attackers running into space, and they still have good players passing through the middle. Thomas Tuchel inherited a mish-mash of players and he’s turned it into arguably the most complete side in Europe.
When I think of the things that could derail Chelsea, it’s Tuchel’s traditional desire to play attacking football. If you’re only familiar with his work at Stamford Bridge, you might not realise he’s generally been known for gung ho football, finding unusual ways to cram a lot of attackers on the pitch. He’s brilliantly reversed this at Chelsea, building an extremely solid defence as the foundation for all he wants to do. As long as he sticks to this and avoids reverting to type, I expect Chelsea to be fine.
The other big concern before season and, to be honest, pretty much every season since he arrived is how they might cope without Kante. They’ve brought in Saul, who can’t really do what Kante does (who can?), but at least offers something more physical and aggressive alongside technicians Jorginho and Kovacic. I wouldn’t say my concern has vanished here, but I do think Tuchel is better equipped to keep things compact enough in the middle, possibly having Mount drop in to form a midfield three at times.
That’s the thing about Chelsea: they have all the solutions. Tuchel is an expert at understanding how to use his cards, and he’s been dealt an incredible hand. As the season goes on, I can see areas where Liverpool, Manchester United and Manchester City could really get hurt by rotten injury luck. But Chelsea just look so flexible as to weather anything.
I apologise to Chelsea fans in advance for cursing your season.