This Barclays Premier League season was billed as the year of the 'Big Three' before a ball was even kicked. Champions Manchester United, along with Manchester City and Chelsea were projected by just about everyone to duke it out at the top of the table. The best of the rest were merely playing for spots in Europe and posed no serious threat on the big three's aspirations of winning the title. May the best side win.
Through four matches, it hasn't exactly been a stroll for the bookmakers' favourites. All three sit on a respectable seven points apiece; yet have shown the type of frailties that don't come with any easy solution. Meanwhile Liverpool, Arsenal, and Tottenham are the top three teams in the League. Early season luck? Merely poor starts for the favourites? Or is there substantial evidence to suggest the big three can be broken atop the table?
This topsy-turvy start to the season makes for great viewing/listening and intrigue. Each of the big three have already lost away from home and there is a greater belief the three horse race now includes other thoroughbreds making their own claim as worthy title contenders. There simply doesn't appear to be a clear cut favourite any longer.
It's only been a month, but it's certainly worth questioning apparent weakness in United, City and Chelsea that the rest of the league can take advantage of. It's easy to see top players at Old Trafford, the Etihad and Stamford Bridge and assume the cream will rise to the top. An undervalued characteristic of all three, no matter the players, is they are each operating under a new manager. With new managers come new expectations, different approaches, alternative training, changes in squad selection and greater unknown. David Moyes, Manuel Pellegrini and Jose Mourinho are blessed with payroll, sizeable squads and requisite talents. To say each team is complete however would be misleading. And there will be a feeling out period before each team find its form and becomes a true reflection of their manager.
For the purposes of this conversation, we will focus on the aforementioned six teams and their respective title credentials. That's not to take anything away from the likes of Everton and Swansea City, who will most certainly be in the conversation for European spots. As well as the likes of Cardiff and Aston Villa who have already proven capable of notching victories against tough opponents already this season. But from the looks of it, the big three, as well as Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham are making the biggest waves and are worthy of sizing up their title chances.
Liverpool – It's been an unexpected bright start for Liverpool without their top player Luis Suarez, still out through suspension. The Reds came back down to earth Monday with a 2-2 draw at Swansea. A well-earned point, but the way Liverpool were manhandled in the second 45 is a little disconcerting. Not withstanding Monday's finish, the shape of the team gives reason to believe they'll be a more consistent winner than last. 13 draws in league play was a massive letdown. There will be some concern the team is a bit light in the attacking midfield positions, especially with Philippe Coutinho out until at least the end of October with a shoulder injury. Although bringing in Victor Moses on-loan was one of my favourite moves of transfer window, giving Liverpool exactly what they need in another creative, pacey, athletic attacking threat, I still don't think it's quite enough to keep pace with the big boys of the Premier League. Pundits were all over the Liverpool bandwagon a week ago. Sober second thought may have most jumping back off. Don't get me wrong, there is plenty to like. But this year is better seen as another year of growth under Brendan Rodgers. As his young players grow into the side and team identity is cemented, better things will come. This is a work in progress. Verdict - It's hard to see this team doing better than a fifth place finish, best-case scenario.
Arsenal – The opening day loss at home to Aston Villa seems a distance memory. Mesut Ozil added the quality Arsene Wenger desperately needed in his side. And aside from the German International, the teams' top performer has been centre-midfielder Aaron Ramsey. The much-maligned Welshman has finally grown into his own skin, brimming with confidence and becoming a force in tandem holding midfield role. It seems like he's been around forever, yet he's only 22 and coming into his own. His intelligence and ability to read the game has been the biggest improvement. Ramsey used to run wild on the pitch, often exposed at inopportune times. Now, it seems he picks his spots and is playing within himself. That's the good news. The biggest concern for Arsenal is mounting injuries and the threat of more to the already thin squad. If Olivier Giroud ever succumbs to injury, it seems Arsenal will have to resort to playing a false nine. This could be problematic. And I'm really not sure the team has proper steel and composure in the back four and at goalkeeper. Verdict - Despite clear improvement and prospects for progress, I still think they will be hard pressed to secure a Champions League spot this year, something they've done 16 straight seasons. Top four will again be seen as a victory. Ozil expects trophies – and I don't think it's the Capital One Cup he has in mind.
Tottenham – If there is ever a team built to break up the top three, it has to be Spurs. Losing Gareth Bale to Real Madrid could have ended in disaster. But the way Tottenham worked through the madness is an example to all clubs on how to balance ambition with the harsh economic realities of the game. Spurs accumulated top players before selling Bale: shrewd business attracting players of value giving the team better depth and proper additions in positions of need. Chairman Daniel Levy gets shtick for driving a hard bargain, but the end result this time around proves the worth of his diligence. Roberto Soldado is the top striker they lacked a season ago. And building midfield depth, not only in number but quality will keep players fresh with healthy battles for spots in all competitions. Christian Eriksen is a wonderful player and at a cost of £11.5 million was an absolute steal. Eriksen, along with Erik Lamela and Paulinho are instant starters in the side. Young players like Andros Townsend and Danny Rose have returned from loan spells as better players and don't give up a step. The team has quality and depth at goalkeeper as well. Other than possible questions about how the back four will hold up, there's a whole lot to like. Squad balance, size, and technical ability are plain to see. It will come down to how this team deals with being the hunted rather than the hunter as the season progresses that will determine their eventual fate. Verdict - A finish outside the top four would be a disappointment. I see them getting back into the Champions League. And call me a sucker, but I truly believe they have enough to compete for the league title. It may not come this year, but Spurs will be right there to the end.
Manchester City – It has been a stale start for Manchester City under Pellegrini. I questioned the thought process behind their summer purchases in the transfer window. The players purchased all look decent, but there's nothing spectacular. Pellegrini bought safe, and paid out the nose to acquire. Jovetic, Navas and Fernandinho are good players but not really the type of difference makers needed to put them over the top. Alvaro Negredo has the makings of potential super-sub status, but other than that, I'm not sure how improved this team will actually be from the team finishing second and eleven points adrift a season ago. Good news for City is Vincent Kompany returned midweek in the Champions League and seems fit ahead of this weekend's Manchester derby. The team is off-kilter and lacking confidence in the back without their captain. I'll give it some time before casting final thoughts on City. Week to week they may be world-beaters. But I see frailties in the team. Fernandinho and Yaya Toure in the middle need to get on the same page. And the team almost needs a stabilizing influence when things aren't going their way. There will be no worry in attack as long as David Silva is pulling the strings. The system around him and is what I question. And we'll see if Joe Hart can prove the critics wrong and regain top form. Verdict - Right now, I just don't see this team winning the Premier League. City is the most likely of the 'Big Three' to fall in the table.
Manchester United – All seems right again at United. A league win, although assisted by the harsh sending off of Crystal Palace midfielder Kagisho Dikgacoi, and a thorough Champions League win with Wayne Rooney putting in another stand out performance has the team finding confidence before playing rival Manchester City Sunday. Rooney took the headlines for the wrong reasons in recent months. But his start of the season shows no residue of distraction or out of form performances that plagued the end of last campaign. When healthy, Rooney has unquestionably been United's top performer. His movement off the ball, and willingness to play off and around Robin van Persie is as good as it gets. The rest of the team is coming together, as Moyes starts to take the training wheels off his new toy. Marouane Fellaini, an absolute underrated signing that was criticized because of the method, settles the midfield. Playing alongside the class Michael Carrick in a defensive midfield role allows United's skilled players to do what they do best – attack with purpose and precision. Shinji Kagawa moving into the side Tuesday adds another layer, where the Japanese International doesn't have to play as an out and out left sided midfielder. He regularly came inside, allowing the impressive Patrice Evra to get up the flank. It creates somewhat of an imbalance on the field, which is okay, with a more stay-at-home back in the mold of Chris Smalling or Phil Jones deputizing at right back until Rafael's return, to play in a more traditional fullback role. It all seems to be coming along smoothly. And we haven't seen the likes of Wilfried Zaha and a regular dose of Adnan Janusaj yet either. The bevy of options to change shape based on the occasion will be a test for Moyes. Squad rotation will be all-important, something Moyes hasn't been tasked with to this extent before. It's all looking a-ok for United post-Ferguson. Just don't tell too many people. It's a better headline when controversy clouds Old Trafford. Verdict - This is still United's title to lose. No other team has the experience and competitive make-up of this team.
Chelsea - Two losses in a row for Jose Mourinho at Chelsea (three if you include the Super Cup), including a home loss to FC Basel of all teams. Say it ain't so!? So what's gone awry? It almost seems Mourinho has too many options at present time and he's trying to figure out how each piece of the puzzle fits. Unfortunately, he's taken out a key piece to that puzzle, failing to recognize its importance. Juan Mata was Chelsea's top player the past two seasons. His creative intelligence and ability to change the shape of matches cannot be ignored. Yet Mourinho is resistant to starting or playing the Spanish wizard for the full 90. The overlook reeks of ego and must come to an end. Chelsea needs Mata. His misuse thus far has been nonsensical. The new additions to the squad will come along, if they are given proper chances and clearly defined roles. This is up to Mourinho. What type of system does he want to play and who best fills those roles? That has yet to be determined. The good news is they are still creating chances, and lots of them. Some may point to the loan move of striker Romelu Lukaku to Everton as being a misstep. I don't think that's accurate. This team works best with decisive and calculated movement off the ball. Lukaku still has much to learn in this area. Samuel Eto'o will be a good fit. It's not about him adapting to the Premier League. It's about him gaining comfort with his teammates and growing with the system, whatever that may be. It will be intriguing to see how much patience Mourinho has for David Luiz. The Brazilian is a top talent, but he plays where he wants on the field and drifts out of position. Mourinho prefers the safer, reliable option at the back. Luiz is not that. Does Luiz find himself in the doghouse sooner rather than later? His sloppiness and positional laziness is already responsible for goals against. Verdict - Chelsea is the team with the best players in the league. But they have much to prove before they can be called the best team. Mourinho is a calculated tactician. And it won't be long until we see the fiery Mourinho return. This laid back version won't cut it. Look for Chelsea to regain their ways as the manager's fire returns. A lock for the Champions League, look for Chelsea to push United to the end.
You can reach Gareth at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter, @WheelerTSN