Back in August, the perceived wisdom regarding this EPL season was that it would be Liverpool and Manchester City slugging it out (if slugging is a term that could ever be applied to two of the slickest teams in football) for the top spot. If pressured into giving another name that could potentially push those two, then last year’s second placed Manchester United was usually offered up, or Spurs despite their inactivity over the Summer. Very few if any gave Chelsea, and in particular Sarri much chance of getting their act together so quickly, in order to throw their hat into the ring. But that is exactly what the West London outfit have done, and for us, the neutrals, it has given us the first genuine three horse race for the title for many years.
Maurizio Sarri’s record in Italy was good. Not brilliant, but good, but one that was more noted for its style than the haul of trophies it garnered. So how come it has clicked so quickly at Stamford Bridge, and are they flattering to deceive, or bona fide title contenders? Taking the second part of that question, I don’t think after the two games against Liverpool, anyone can deny that they are. They are playing as a team, for the manager and each other – something that has not been the case too many times in recent seasons. They also have world class players, especially Hazard who is back to looking like one of the best players on the planet. The game at Anfield was almost as telling in that their second string was stronger than Liverpool’s, something that could very well come into play as we get deeper into the season.
How have they clicked so quickly? The vast majority of that team have not only been together for several seasons but have won the league together. Sarri has managed to get them playing back to their best. As mentioned Hazard is loving the way they play. Olivier Giroud, possibly one of the most selfless strikers in the league is the perfect foil for the Belgian’s more offensive role. Luiz has returned from the wilderness and is showing why he was so highly rated. Alonso spends more time in the opposition’s final third than many other sides’ forwards. Sarri’s style of play, the overloading of specific areas of the field, the quick, incisive passing is not only a joy to watch, it is tailor made for the EPL. It is a variation of what has worked so well for Manchester City.
Next weekend, Liverpool and Man City face each other. Chelsea have the seemingly easier task of going to St Mary’s. This time next week, Sarri’s Chelsea could very well be second in the league on goal difference. The Europa League is a distraction, but it can be used in a way that the Champions League cannot, i.e. to rotate the squad, get players up to speed. If it does not work out, it is no disaster. Sarri and Chelsea do not need to win, or at least try to win the Europa League in the way that Mourinho and Manchester United did, and Emery and Arsenal do.
Under the Radar
Incredibly, considering their dominance last time out, Manchester City have been getting their work done relatively quietly. Without hitting the heights of last season, they still sit top of the league, albeit on goal difference. That said, a tricky away fixture next Sunday at Anfield could see them drop to third place. Nothing has gone wrong for Pep Guardiola’s Citizens, it’s just perhaps we expect so much from them that they need to do something really amazing to grab the headlines. 21 goals for, just 3 against, with the only dropped points being the controversial draw against newly promoted Wolves. It is certainly impressive, but while they have been going about their work, doing what they do – despatching teams with relative ease – it is Liverpool and Chelsea who have been taking the lions share of the attention.
Liverpool are a lot better equipped this season to mount a sustained title challenge. At the back they appear to have solved their frailties, and while Salah has yet to reach the heights of last season, others, particularly Mane, have stepped up.
One factor that could play a part in ultimately who is sitting at the top of the Premiership is that whereas the league is the number one priority for both Chelsea and Liverpool, that is not the case with Manchester City. Pep, the owners, and the fans are desperate for Champions League glory. While in the group stages, despite their shock loss to Lyon, that should not prove too much of a damaging distraction, come next spring it will be a different matter. Decisions will have to be made in terms of resting players, prioritising games, and those small margins could well be the difference between winning the EPL and not. Whatever happens, this season looks like it could be the tightest, and most competitive title race for some time.