Chelsea manager sees Manchester City as his biggest title rivals but Arsenal's new-found grit gives food for thought
"It is a whole new competition," José Mourinho said when asked for his thoughts on his first six months back in England. "This Premier League is completely different to the one I knew before."
Not all that different, surely. Yes there are a couple of Welsh teams on the fixture list, a dearth of Lancashire sides and an unfamiliar owner at Fulham, but the Premier League changes to that extent every season without losing its essential character. Mourinho was probably talking about the top end, the cluster of clubs attempting to win it, and in that sense he is perfectly correct. The league has changed considerably.
When Mourinho left, in September 2007, don't forget, his Chelsea side and Manchester United were the big two title rivals, actually the only two title rivals, with the rest usually nowhere in sight after Christmas. In September 2007, Arsenal were beginning their second season at the Emirates and struggling to come to terms with the loss of Thierry Henry, Ashley Cole and Sol Campbell.
They didn't realise at the time that their wait for a title to follow the 2004 Invincibles would last for at least another nine years, though judging by his comments Mourinho seems to have had a shrewd idea. The then Chelsea manager had never seen Arsenal win anything in the league, and seemed to think Arsène Wenger and his team were there to be wound up rather than worried about.
Manchester City were even less of a threat in that period. Though installed at the Etihad and with big money to spend, in September 2007 they were managed by Sven-Goran Eriksson and owned by Thaksin Shinawatra. There were signs that something fairly significant was beginning to take shape in Manchester, but it would take another buyout and a couple more managerial changes to achieve anything of note. Not to mention a clearout of players such as Elano, Martin Petrov, Gelson Fernandes, Vedran Corluka and others.
When Mourinho last encountered City in the Premier League they were still recognisably their inconsistent, unpredictable old selves, only much wealthier.
Looking around the top group now, Mourinho finds himself below City and Arsenal, locked in a three-way fight for top spot with Manchester United nowhere. Traditionally one might suppose the team from Old Trafford would hit form at this time of year and make a late run to at least get in contention, but transition, rather than tradition, looks like being the United story this season.
David Moyes and the United hierarchy have become the new Spurs. They would be delighted beyond their wildest dreams just to finish fourth this season so as to continue their acquaintance with the Champions League. Meanwhile the old Spurs, who really have only themselves to blame after so many seasons hanging around on the periphery, have been overtaken in the race to claim a top-four spot by Liverpool and Everton.
Whether that remains the case at the end of the season is anyone's guess, though Liverpool and Everton look strong enough to deny not only Spurs but United fourth place.
Neither have particularly large squads, and injuries to key players could yet impact on results, though by the same token neither are playing in Europe this term which could given them a slight advantage over the teams above them when the Champions League starts again next month.
As long as Liverpool have Luis Suárez in his present form they remain capable of beating anyone, and with Everton, Arsenal, City and Chelsea still to come to Anfield they must be given an outside chance of the title, though Brendan Rodgers has been talking of steady rather than spectacular progress and one has the impression a Champions League finish would be a more than acceptable reward. Especially if it is gained at the expense of United.
For Liverpool to succeed, the present top three would have to slip up, and as Mourinho has suggested, that doesn't look like happening. The old Arsenal would have thrown away a few points through defensive blunders by now, or been frustrated by an inability to score goals that turn draws into victories, but Wenger appears to have corrected all those faults and added a touch of steel.
City still have a few defensive faults, particularly if anything happens to Vincent Kompany, but seem to have got over their early season wobbles away from home and are scoring enough goals to stay firmly in contention. Chelsea, unusually, are the quiet threat this season, the dark horses, but they play United on Sunday and City a fortnight after that.
Arsenal have home games against Fulham and Crystal Palace in the same period, sandwiched around a trip to Southampton.
So while it may be too early to determine whether Arsenal's new grit and fighting ability will keep them on top, it could easily do so for the rest of January and possibly until the return of the Champions League.
So is Mourinho tipping them for the title? Of course not. "Manchester City, in terms of the power of their squad, are in another dimension," the Chelsea manager said. "It would be my greatest achievement if we beat them to the title this year."
A likely story, but with Mourinho going on to add that United are not happy but calm, and that he doesn't think Moyes is under any pressure, the verbal preliminaries are clearly under way in advance of Chelsea's games against the Manchester pair.
Arsenal do not get a mention, but then Arsenal do not have to play Chelsea until mid-March, when they crop up in a series of difficult and possibly season-defining fixtures that also include Spurs and Everton away, and City at home.
By the end of March, it should be clear whether Arsenal are going to stay on top or not. Until then, Wenger can keep on giving Mourinho something to think about.