Are we set for one of the best ever Premier League title races?

By Alex Keble 17 Nov 2023
Salah-Haaland-Saka-Keble lead

Alex Keble assesses the contenders, with just three points separating the top five teams

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The final international break of the year gives us a chance to take a final inhale of breath before the Premier League dives into its gruelling winter schedule.

As ever, it is a moment for pause and reflection on the season so far, and without a doubt the biggest story is the almost unprecedented state of affairs at the top of the Premier League table.

Just three points separate the top five teams, raising hopes among neutrals of a three or four-way title battle that goes right to the wire.

The top five

Position Pos Club Played Pl GD Points Pts
1 Arsenal ARS 13 +17 30
2 Man City MCI 13 +20 29
3 Liverpool LIV 13 +17 28
4 Aston Villa AVL 13 +13 28
5 Spurs TOT 13 +8 26
See the full table

There is good reason for optimism that 2023/24 will be a classic at the top.

Only three times in Premier League history have things been so tight at the top after 12 matches played, and on two of those occasions we had a three-horse race still going in May.

In 2001/02 there were three points between the top six, with Leeds United top and Aston Villa and Newcastle United in the mix. As late as Matchweek 34, just two points separated the top three, with Arsenal eventually pulling away to win the title by seven points.

In 2007/08, when three points separated the top five after 12 matches, there were only three points between the top three at Matchweek 33. Manchester United and Chelsea were level on points on the final day, when a 2-0 win for United at Wigan Athletic made Chelsea’s dropped points at home to Blackburn Rovers irrelevant.

The exception was the COVID-hit 2020/21 campaign, when empty stadiums and collective brain fog made for one of the weirdest campaigns in Premier League history.

Three points separated the top five at the point where most clubs had played 12 matches, and yet it was Manchester City – ninth at this juncture, with just 19 points from their 11 matches – who rose to win the title by 12 clear points.

We can safely say that 2020/21, when Southampton and Leicester City were among the early frontrunners, was an anomaly.

If that history lesson isn't enough reason to assume 2023/24 will provide another close title battle between at least two clubs, then consider that the combined 133 points of the current top four is higher than in any of 2001/02, 2007/08 or 2020/21.

Man City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur are performing above expectations, winning more consistently than historically normal. Are we about to witness the first ever four-horse race?

Here’s a look at who is most likely to keep pace until May.

Man City may be slightly weaker

Man City’s quiet, sober rise to the summit of the Premier League table has been an ominous sight to behold. Their machine-like consistency, coupled with their experience, puts Pep Guardiola’s side in a very strong position to become the first English top-flight team to win four consecutive titles.

The rationale for assuming a strong City title challenge is too obvious to detail: five wins in the last six seasons is evidence enough.

It’s also worth noting that their current record of 28 points from 12 matches is about par, roughly the same as at the 12-match stage in their previous five title-winning seasons under Guardiola.

This is significant because Guardiola tends to coach his teams to peak in the second half of the campaign, which is typically when Man City go on a frightening run of consecutive wins, as the table below shows.

City's winning runs in title-winning seasons
Season Pts after 12 matches Position Post-Jan winning streak
17/18 34 1st 5
18/19 32 1st 14
19/20 20 9th 15
20/21 26 2nd 12
22/23 29 2nd 12
23/24 28 1st -

However, there is an argument that Man City are a little weaker this season.

They have won just 10 points from their last five Premier League matches, losing at Wolverhampton Wanderers and Arsenal before drawing 4-4 with Chelsea last weekend.

Here, we see possible signs of a post-Treble hangover, but more specifically a team slowing down a little, struggling to exert control in quite the same way.

Whether it's because Ilkay Gundogan hasn’t been adequately replaced by Matheus Nunes and Mateo Kovacic, or simply because Kevin De Bruyne is missing, Man City are a little looser in midfield and slower in possession.

Their PPDA (passes per defensive action, which measures the intensity of a team’s pressing) has risen compared to last season, from 11.7 to 13.0, suggesting their pressing intensity has dropped, while their "direct speed" as measured by Opta is up from 0.98 to 1.23.

Chelsea’s four goals, which are largely explained by the lack of help given to Rodri, exemplified a slight downturn in City’s capacity to control matches, and it is noteworthy that only Burnley and AFC Bournemouth have made more errors leading to shots than Man City’s seven.

See: Chelsea 4-4 Man City: How Guardiola was unable to bring control to the chaos

These are minor issues, of course, and historically Guardiola irons out problems by January. But it gives hope to the rest – especially given they have a tough run of fixtures against Liverpool (H), Spurs (H) and Aston Villa (A) in their next three matches.

Arsenal have depth to go the distance

Compared with last season, when they won 50 points from their first 19 matches and had 31 on the board at the 12-match mark, Arsenal have seemingly regressed slightly.

But the foundations are better this time around. Mikel Arteta’s squad is deeper, and although their unbeaten start has come to an end, arguably Arsenal’s only poor result so far was the 2-2 draw at home to Fulham.

They should take heart from the fact Jorginho has found his feet; Declan Rice has settled well to give Arsenal considerably greater thrust in central midfield; and Leandro Trossard is in form.

But the most important point to make on Arsenal’s title-winning potential is that crucial injuries have scuppered their first few months.

Gabriel Jesus was pivotal to their form in the first half of last season, and yet he has been restricted to just 128 Premier League minutes as a No 9 in 2023/24. When he is back at the end of this month, Arsenal’s creativity issues should disappear.

And goalscoring is their only issue. Arsenal have the best figure in the league for Expected Goals Against (xGA), with 9.2, but sit seventh behind Brentford for xG, with 21.0.

It isn’t just the one injury that has disrupted their attacking patterns. Across the first 12 matches Arteta has made 12 changes to his starting line-up, which is double the number of the season before.

Among those to be shifted in and out is injury-hit Oleksandr Zinchenko, who was brilliant against Burnley at the weekend, scoring the third goal and topping the charts for touches (116) and passes (94).

Zinchenko's goal v Burnley

He is the linchpin of this team and, together with Jesus, an enormous loss that accounts for Arsenal accruing four fewer points than at the same stage in 2022/23.

In other words, with key players returning, Arsenal look like a more robust team with a deeper bench and greater experience. They should go the distance.

Liverpool 2.0 are getting better all the time

Liverpool’s revival has flown a little under the radar so far, perhaps because the number of changes in what Jurgen Klopp has dubbed "Liverpool 2.0" makes them an unknowable entity at this early stage.

That status cannot hold beyond the first game back after the international break, when Liverpool travel to Man City to prove whether or not they can compete with the reigning champions.

Victory would send Liverpool top, announcing their status as title contenders, while defeat would suggest it is too early in the rebuild for a serious swing at it.

Klopp’s side are undeniably a brilliant force going forward and yet they remain vulnerable to quick counter-attacks, which is essentially a repeat of how things looked in Liverpool’s first season under Klopp.

Nobody quite captures this sense of chaos quite like Darwin Nunez, who is the reason Liverpool top the Premier League charts for xG (23.5) and for shots taken (213), while also hitting only 30.5 per cent of these on target.

Only Burnley, Sheffield United, Brentford and Luton Town have a worse shot accuracy.

Nunez is a very hard worker and strong presser, though, and indeed Liverpool’s defensive concerns are caused by the configuration of a midfield missing a Fabinho type and by Trent Alexander-Arnold’s complicated right-back/centre-midfield role.

West Ham United are the only top-10 team who allow more opposition progressive passes than Liverpool (421), who top the charts for successful opposition take-ons (142) and rank second for total recoveries made (669).

These three stats all point to a wild and disordered state of play when the ball is turned over.

Liverpool’s capacity to challenge for the title depends upon Klopp’s ability to find his best midfield trio, but perhaps more importantly on the extent to which their furious, blunt-force frontline can frighten opponents into dropping deeper.

If they can put a string of wins together and rise to the summit, the fear factor should see things click for Liverpool.

Like Arsenal, they should be able to hang on through the winter months – providing they take at least a point from City.

Spurs' chances aren’t much higher than Villa’s

Throughout Ange Postecoglou’s extended honeymoon period, the new Spurs head coach has kept his feet firmly on the ground, knowing that a regression towards the mean was always likely.

It has arrived, although they have fallen harder than expected over the last week, consecutive defeats leaving them only one point above Villa as injuries and suspensions damage their prospects over the coming weeks.

Even during their excellent unbeaten start, Spurs weren’t quite as good as results indicated. Understat.com’s calculation of xPoints, using xG and xGA, has Spurs in eighth on 19.4 xPoints, suggesting defensive luck has played a part in their early rise.

They might have taken more touches in the opposition penalty area (413) than anyone else, but thanks to their aggressive use of inverted full-backs, their xGA is 18.6, higher than any other team currently in the top 10.

Frankly, that is by the by now that Micky van de Ven and James Maddison – Spurs’ two most important players – are out until January.

See: Maddison ruled out until new year with injury

Spurs have been wounded by those injuries, or at least that would seem to be the case after they unexpectedly dropped deep at Wolves, before falling to a late defeat.

Their next match, at home to Villa, is crucial not only to stop the losing streak and lift heads again but because should Villa win, they can rightfully claim to be just as likely title winners as Spurs.

Realistically, neither side is in the race and yet Villa, three points off the top, have a right to dream, given that Jacob Ramsey, Youri Tielemans and Alex Moreno are all still to make their mark this season.

For that fairytale to become even plausible, they’ll need to beat Spurs after the international break and win each of the three that follow: Bournemouth (A), Man City (H), and Arsenal (H).

Villa have won their last 13 in a row at Villa Park, which is their longest such run in the top flight since October 1983, so it isn’t impossible.

But Villa and Spurs are much more likely to be chasing a UEFA Champions League place than competing for top spot.

Man City, Liverpool and Arsenal, however, have very little between them. A three-way title race is definitely on.

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