Never in Premier League history have the top four had so many points after 10 rounds of matches, making 2023/24 statistically the most high-quality title race to date.
Tottenham Hotspur lead the way with 26 points but there are seemingly three other clubs – Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool – all in the hunt, with Jurgen Klopp’s side only three points off the pace in fourth.
But that does not mean the fabled four-horse race – never before seen in England - is in the offing.
We are just over a quarter of the way through the season. There are still 84 points up for grabs for each side - and seven months for positions and narratives to shift. One of the four could yet fall away.
Alex Keble looks at each of the current top four’s reasons to be cheerful and reasons to be fearful.
Half of the 12 Premier League teams to have previously won at least 26 points from the first 10 matches have gone on to lift the title. Only one of these 12 have finished below third, so assuming Spurs don’t collapse like Newcastle United famously did in 1995/96, they should achieve their primary objective of UEFA Champions League qualification, especially as fifth place may be good enough to qualify this season.
But having enjoyed an unbeaten start (Spurs are in fact two points better off than Arsenal’s 2003/04 "Invincibles" were at this stage) and having briefly been five points clear for the first time since 1960/61, supporters are daring to dream.
Optimists can point to an unexpectedly fast start indicating that further acceleration is likely once Ange Postecoglou’s tactical ideas are further embedded; having had the rub of the green over the honeymoon period, their foundations are very strong for what’s to come.
And what’s to come includes the integration of Brennan Johnson, their big-money signing from Nottingham Forest still finding his feet, and of Rodrigo Bentancur, who was sensational for Antonio Conte and made his return from injury last weekend.
Spurs supporters can also point to the club’s absence from European competition as a major advantage, and one that will only really pay dividends over the winter months as rivals begin to tire.
Postecoglou will certainly benefit from having an entire week to prepare tactically for upcoming opponents, much in the same way Conte did for Chelsea in their title-winning 2016/17 season.
Finally, Spurs have already displayed a wide variety of ways to win, from late comebacks, in the 2-1 win over Sheffield United, to difficult "big six" contests, versus Manchester United and Liverpool, to grinding out an away win at Crystal Palace.
If they can just keep going – keep harnessing the good vibes – then they will challenge.
But there are signs suggesting they are already winding down. Most Spurs supporters appreciate that their team don’t have quite the depth of quality to match Man City and feel that a slight drop-off is inevitable – and some of the underlying numbers suggest it is coming soon.
In that 2-1 win at Palace on Friday, Spurs produced their lowest shot tally (10) and shot on target tally (one) of the season. The previous weekend, Postecoglou expressed his disappointment at the “worst 45 minutes we’ve had” after the break in the 2-0 win against Fulham.
Going back further, understat.com’s calculation of Expected Points – based on the Expected Goals (xG) of individual matches – has Spurs down in fifth, with 6.98 fewer points than in reality, suggesting they might not be able to sustain current results.
And Spurs fans will likely agree that certain aspects of their brilliant start are indeed unsustainable, such as relying on an own goal with the final kick against Liverpool or winning a match when losing at 94 minutes, as happened versus Sheff Utd.
What’s more, their bench isn’t as deep as their title rivals, and 10 Spurs players have started at least nine of the 10 Premier League matches so far. If injuries kick in, they may find their form drops a little.
We will get answers to some of these doubts over the next four matches, when Spurs face Chelsea, Wolves, Aston Villa and Man City. Come through that run unscathed and fans will have every right to start believing.
Arsenal’s 1-0 victory over Man City had huge symbolic significance. It was evidence that Arsenal have matured and have caught up to City’s level, while Kai Havertz’s assist for the winner signalled how important he could be for a club that lacked depth during last season’s run-in.
From that perspective, Arsenal seem much better prepared. Eddie Nketiah’s hat-trick last weekend, Havertz’s presence, Fabio Vieira’s strong start and Emile Smith Rowe’s return from injury show that Arsenal have the variety needed to prevent another huge downturn in form in the second half of the season.
Whereas the 50-point run in the first half of 2022/23 felt like a one-off – feel-good vibes and a fairytale rise for those young players – the unbeaten start this time seems measured and cultured, like a very good team playing to their real level. The Man City win confirmed that.
Not enough is being made of his frequent absence: if Arsenal can stick tight to the top even without their talismanic No 9, then just how good will they be when Jesus is back in the groove?
It will be a while until we see the best of Jesus, though. He is once again ruled out, this time with a thigh injury that is reportedly set to mean a return in early December. Arsenal supporters might fear that a title challenge just isn’t possible with Nketiah leading the line.
Mikel Arteta has invited pressure with the addition of David Raya and his suggestion that he will rotate his two goalkeepers, something that has historically never worked: 'keepers tend to struggle for confidence without the assurance of being No 1 and sure enough, Raya has made some high-profile errors recently against Chelsea and Lens.
The UEFA Champions League is also proving to be an exhausting challenge for Arsenal, who last season breezed through their UEFA Europa League group, recording five wins from six matches, and did not find it a distraction to domestic achievements.
They have won seven points from matches directly after their three Champions League contests, including the win against Man City, but the issue might take its toll as the season goes on.
Reasons for optimism at the Etihad Stadium are blindingly obvious. Man City have won five of the last six Premier League titles. Pep Guardiola’s genius is unquestionable and he is in possession of a team with the wizened experience needed to see out a tough title battle.
They might even pull away. Man City already have one more point after 10 matches than they did last season, suggesting Guardiola is in a comfortable position. He deliberately trains his team to finish strongly and start a little more slowly.
Being second on points at this stage is no issue at all.
The 3-0 win at Man Utd last weekend was arguably their best performance of the season and evidence that City will only get better, gliding through winter to assert their dominance over the rest of the division.
Better still, they have faced the fewest shots in the Premier League, with 68, and have won all of their 14 home league matches in 2023.
The consecutive defeats to Wolves and Arsenal raised eyebrows, but Rodri was absent, a rarity in itself, and City haven’t lost any of the last 24 Premier League matches in which he has played, winning 22 and drawing two.
Nevertheless, there are some indicators that Man City aren’t quite as powerful as they were last season.
Winning the Treble was a huge emotional release that may yet bring a hangover and arguably Man City have looked a fraction more ponderous in matches this season.
Their Passes Per Defensive Action (PPDA, which measures the intensity of a team’s pressing) has risen from 11.7 last season to 12.7, suggesting a dip in pressing intensity, while their possession average has dropped from 64.7 per cent to 63 per cent.
These are small changes, but with Kevin De Bruyne out until January, it has been enough to leave them feeling a little less urgent and creative in matches.
Man City’s transfer activity also appears to have left them marginally weaker in 2023/24.
Like Spurs, we will discover where Man City are at over the next few weeks. After facing AFC Bournemouth at home this weekend, their next four Premier League matches are: Chelsea (A), Liverpool (H), Spurs (H) and Villa (A).
If Man City have slowed down a little, if they miss De Bruyne, and if they are more prone to being hit on the break, then these four fixtures will prove to be very difficult, opening up the title race.
Ever since Klopp changed formation towards the end of last season, moving full-back Trent Alexander-Arnold into central midfield when his team had possession, Liverpool have been on the up.
Following an 11-match unbeaten run through April and May, Liverpool have now won 48 points from their last 21 Premier League matches. Statistically, they are very close to being back to their best.
This season they have only dropped points in away matches against Chelsea, Spurs and Brighton & Hove Albion, beating everyone else. That is reason alone to think they can put a sequence together to put up a title challenge.
The reason, beyond the tactical switch, is a new-look midfield gelling well. Dominik Szoboszlai has been a revelation, both creatively and in counter-pressing, while Alexis Mac Allister is pulling the strings from the base and Ryan Gravenberch has looked superb in three consecutive starts in October.
Liverpool have also benefited from being able to rotate in the Europa League, while Darwin Nunez and the returning Luis Diaz have rejuvenated a terrifyingly direct Liverpool attack that has in turn got the best out of Mohamed Salah, who has amassed 12 goal involvements in 10 Premier League matches.
But under the bonnet, things aren’t as secure as that sounds. Liverpool just don’t control matches in the way they used to, looking vulnerable to counter-attacks through a midfield missing Fabinho and being targeted down Alexander-Arnold’s side.
Liverpool defensive comparison
|Opp. touches in Liverpool penalty area/90||17.80||23.80|
The perception of Liverpool’s soft underbelly means opponents are emboldened to hit Liverpool hard, whereas in previous successful Klopp seasons, teams have fearfully retreated, conceding possession and territory.
In other words, Liverpool are no longer calmly dominating like they did in 2019/20 or 2021/22 because they have not sufficiently scared their opponents into submission.
Until that happens – until Virgil van Dijk gets back to his best and the Fabinho hole is patched up – Liverpool will look vulnerable.
All of the top four have apparent weaknesses, however, and it is simply too early in the season to say with confidence which will be ironed out and which will prove too significant to overcome.
Man City are the strongest side and the most likely to pull away, as they have so many times before, but Arsenal, Liverpool and Spurs are all notably stronger than they were in 2022/23.
A long and exciting title challenge is definitely on the cards.