With four points separating seven teams at the top of the table, this season promises to be the most unpredictable yet
It has been 13 years since the Premier League was so congested, with such a large cluster of hopeful teams elbowing each other to make sure they are well positioned on the leaderboard at this stage. The last time it was as crowded at the top – seven teams lie within four points of each other after eight games – was in 2000, when the early fliers were something to behold.
Peter Taylor's Leicester City were understandably giddy to scale the peak of the English pyramid for the first time since the 1960s. Here was a team built on the defensive growliness of Gerry Taggart and Matt Elliott, with the hyperactive energy of Robbie Savage and Neil Lennon haring around midfield, and an experimental forward line bringing together two new signings in Richard Cresswell and the ripplingly muscular Ade Akinbiyi. In hindsight, their dalliance at the top of the table looks even more of a Premier League quirk than it did at the time.
As it turned out, Leicester crumbled pretty quickly. They signed Dennis Wise to try to steady their course, finished 13th, and were relegated the following season. Needless to say, the team who were tucked in a point behind Leicester eight games into the 2000-01 season were Manchester United. The defending champions cantered away to retain their crown.
Today, United find themselves in the odd position of being outside the top group in the Premier League. The mission to leapfrog their way back into contention is complicated not just by their own adjustment to life after Sir Alex Ferguson, but by the number of high-calibre teams jostling for position at the top. With the most respectful of nods to the Leicester vintage of 2000-01 (and a modest Aston Villa and Charlton who were also among the pacesetters), the current top seven have a far more generous spread of quality.
A new phase of the season is fast approaching. The next few weeks throw up some pivotal duels and a clearer picture will emerge to reveal how many have staying power in this Premier League race.
This weekend Chelsea host Manchester City. Arsenal will soon cross swords with Liverpool and Manchester United (with the small matter of Borussia Dortmund the midweek meat in that particular sandwich). Liverpool face the derby against Everton the week after their trip to the Emirates. Tottenham will soon come up against both Manchester clubs.
Will the strongest break away from this closely bound pack as has been the case in recent seasons? Brendan Rodgers is not alone in thinking this Premier League looks set to be far more competitive than the norm. With the changes being absorbed by the usual suspects under new management, the revivals being enjoyed at Liverpool and Arsenal, and up-and-coming sides making strong impressions, he expects it to be closer than ever.
"Every team can hurt you," he says. "It's so prestigious staying in the Premier League. Clubs like Southampton and Swansea have invested everything into their teams. They are not just being in the league and surviving, they want to do well with it. And that makes it a more competitive league. That's why a few years ago you had a top two or three teams. But now there is less fear and there is a lot of quality in all the teams."
José Mourinho echoes those sentiments: "At this moment, with the way the Premier League is going week after week, I think no result will put a team in a great situation. No result will put a team in a difficult situation. Every weekend, somebody loses points. Some weekend, more than one of the top teams loses points. The league is hard."
Appraising this campaign was always going to be more tricky because of the influx of new managers around the top clubs. Arsène Wenger reckons it is still too early to assess how the likes of Manuel Pellegrini's City, David Moyes's United, and Roberto Martínez's Everton will shape up. There is one big exception, though. "It's like Mourinho opened the door, went out for a drink, and came back," he quips.
Although the normal levels of adaptation between coach and club may not entirely apply at Chelsea, Wenger reckons the others still need a significant chunk of time to create an established pattern. "It takes you a few months," he says. "Six to eight months before you become accepted, before you know how everything works inside the club, all the links to know the players well, how they respond under stress situations, on whom you can rely."
Wenger has that luxury, but still needs to convince some that his team can handle the hottest challenges. He remains confident his team won't easily be knocked off course. "It is a step up now, for us to be at the level of these games coming up. I think we learned against Dortmund. We controlled them quite well, a team who went in a convincing way into the final last year. It should, despite the disappointment, give us belief."
Martínez feels the general uncertainty has given all managers a frisson that there are some special circumstances to be taken advantage of. "You could ruffle a few feathers this season due to the fact that any team that has a new manager is going to have a transitional period and need some time to adjust," he says. "I always felt that with the number of changes that the teams had this season, the first time in 26 years, that the first third of the competition was going to be quite open. I expect the usual suspects to start picking up points in the middle and final thirds."
Mourinho expects United to rally and sees them "very much" as contenders despite their current position. They have Arsenal, Tottenham and Everton coming up, but the Chelsea manager is looking beyond that. "They had lots of difficult matches, and other teams didn't," he assesses. "They played already against Chelsea, against Liverpool, against City… There will come a time and a period of fixtures where they will win consecutive matches and other teams will lose points, and they will close the gap and put themselves in a position to fight for the title."
Last season, Chelsea were top of league after eight games. In their next match they came unstuck against Manchester United. Within a month Roberto Di Matteo had lost his job.
In this fiendishly difficult to predict season, we rule out anything at our peril.