Pre-season predictions it might be the most open top flight for years after managerial changes are proving correct … for now
The marketing men at Gloucester Place would normally blanche at any accusation of predictability but, five games into the new campaign, the Premier League is already following the prescribed script.
Contenders have outwitted each other in early season collisions – ambitious rivals emerging from the pack to set the pace – as a summer of upheaval gives way to an autumn of jostling among the elite. All that pre-season anticipation that this could be the most open title race in years actually feels persuasive.
The fledgling table is crowned by north London rivals Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, with Manchester City and Chelsea hovering at their shoulder alongside Liverpool, so promising until deflated by Southampton. Manchester United are licking their wounds in eighth after a demanding start. All those managerial changes, with David Moyes, Manuel Pellegrini and José Mourinho newly installed, convinced teams usually on the periphery this was an opportunity. Little served up so far would suggest their hope was misplaced.
The leading managers had chorused a belief that six clubs were in contention, even if it is a seventh, Everton, who retain the only unbeaten record in the division.
"All six of us have lost at least one game," said Mourinho after, statistically, the worst start of the Roman Abramovich era still meant Chelsea topped the table overnight on Saturday. "That's what makes the division what it is. It's why clubs go to Asia, to North America, everywhere and people prefer to watch the Premier League more than any other championship: anything can happen."
The fact there have been so many meetings, five, among last season's top seven has ensured no club has been allowed to run up an early lead. The defeats inflicted upon all but Everton – largely in those squabbles with each other, although City did lose at Cardiff and Arsenal to Aston Villa – contrast markedly with the placings in Europe's other leading leagues. There are five undefeated sides in Spain, where Barcelona and Atletico Madrid have yet to drop a point and Real Madrid hover just behind, having shed points only to Villarreal. Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich are unbeaten in the Bundesliga, with Bayer Leverkusen close in third. France's nouveaux riches, Monaco and Paris St Germain, have not lost, while five teams in Serie A are unbeaten.
And yet, with such regular spats among each other, the English elite are still effectively finding their rhythm. "At this stage all you have to be is in contention, around Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, United, City or Liverpool," said Mourinho. "If you're a long way adrift it's a problem. Some of them have started the Premier League in a brilliant way. We've started the season in a 'bad' way. People tell me it's been a disaster. For other sides, to lose is apparently normal. For us it's the end of the world but we're still [up] there."
Chelsea's squad is still adapting to the changes in style Mourinho is intent upon implementing, an ongoing process that will next be tested by an awkward trip to White Hart Lane. City, so impressive in the derby on Sunday but error-prone and rather vulnerable in their three previous domestic games, will also take time to settle under Pellegrini, particularly with £100m of talent experiencing this division's helter-skelter for the first time. Sunday's events at the Etihad reinforced just how integral Vincent Kompany, absent during that spell of vulnerability, will be to the Chilean and his club's chances.
United have their own issues to resolve after their worst start to a league season since 2004, a solitary point from meetings with Chelsea, Liverpool and City a reflection of a state of flux as Moyes seeks to make his own mark. A period of adjustment post-Sir Alex Ferguson was inevitable, and the schedule has been unremitting for the new manager, but the champions have not scored from open play in the league since the opening day. They will draw encouragement from an experienced squad and the reality they have carried away six of their 13 Premier League titles, despite winning only two of their opening five games.
Yet Moyes's side are not pursuing only one trailblazer this term but up to five. If City and Chelsea can be expected to grow into the campaign, are Arsenal and Spurs likely to fall away this time? Arsène Wenger's side sprinkled stardust on their lineup by recruiting Mesut Özil and have built up such momentum to suggest confidence, at present, may compensate for a lack of depth in other areas of Arsenal's squad. They have already defeated Tottenham, which may end up a properly eye-catching result, given the physical power and strength André Villas-Boas has integrated post-Gareth Bale. Spurs have the ability to bully teams into submission these days. Their credentials will be clearer after Saturday's visit of Chelsea.
Throw in the improvement at Liverpool, a side now to be buoyed by Luis Suárez's return, and the impact Roberto Martínez appears to be having at Everton - that last 10 minutes of the transfer window already feels critical at Goodison Park - and the division currently has challengers to admire from all corners. "The fact the top three teams all changed their managers set it up," said the Everton midfielder, Gareth Barry. "Nobody is that stable and nobody looks like they will run away with it. That means there could be a surprise."
Admittedly, a sprint start can grind to a halt and history warns that the established order could yet prevail. Rewind four years to the autumn of 2009 and, by the end of October, the leading seven clubs had suffered 16 league defeats between them, Wenger was insisting six could still win the title and that a haul of 80 points, the lowest total for almost a decade, might be enough to take the prize. Yet, by the next May, Carlo Ancelotti's Chelsea had compiled 86 points and beaten United in a two-horse race, the gap between first and sixth a hefty 22 points. These are early days. Even so, the campaign promises plenty.