After Round 11 of the 2016/17 Premier League season, Richard Jolly offers some thoughts on the state of the things:
The title race will be tight
Extraordinary an achievement as it was for Leicester City to win the league last season, the fact they finished 10 points clear of second-placed Arsenal highlights the way others failed to present a stiff enough challenge. This year should be different. There were three leaders in the space of 24 hours over the weekend, in Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool, while a fourth club, Arsenal, spurned the opportunity to go top in that time. Even beyond that quartet, the only unbeaten record belongs with Tottenham Hotspur while, as Jurgen Klopp said on Sunday, “never write off Manchester United”. The standards are being raised, the sense of competition is greater and, given the influx of influential managers and ideas, it may prove a great title race.
It is a league for attacking midfielders
There have been two major tactical trends: the adoption of a back three and the way traditional forwards, even target men, have been replaced as the supposed spearhead by smaller attacking midfielders or wingers such as Alexis Sanchez and Roberto Firmino. Liverpool are emblematic, a team featuring four fast attacking midfielders who interchange fluidly and fluently. Chelsea have been revived by a switch in system that granted Eden Hazard and Pedro to roam behind and around Diego Costa. Arsenal are prolific without a proper striker starting. Manchester City are defined by Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva, Ilkay Gundogan and Raheem Sterling. The chances are that the champions will be the club with the outstanding attacking midfielder.
Lightning isn’t striking Leicester twice
Few thought it would, admittedly, but the champions are only two points above the relegation zone. Had Leicester been 14th a year ago, it would scarcely have been notable. Now it is. Chelsea, who mounted the worst defence of any Premier League winners and finished 10th last season, may be pleased to see Claudio Ranieri’s men in the wrong half of the table. But a drop-off was inevitable, it is significant how much better Leicester have fared in the Champions League, where they are yet to concede, than the Premier League, where Riyad Mahrez only recorded his first assist on Sunday. With Jamie Vardy having gone 13 games without a goal, Robert Huth and Wes Morgan far less defiant and N’Golo Kante sorely missed, it underlines what a one-off last year was.
The promoted clubs can stay up
Rewind to the start of the season and virtually everyone predicting, this observer included, had tipped Burnley and Hull to go down, probably in 19th and 20th. Now Burnley sit ninth and, just when Hull seemed in freefall, they illustrated their character to beat Southampton on Sunday. Meanwhile, Middlesbrough may find wins rarities but draws at Arsenal and Manchester City are illustrations of their defensive solidity and character. It will still be hard for all three to survive but the shocking starts Sunderland and Swansea have made should offer hope that two can beat the drop.
There is no quick fix at Manchester United
Jose Mourinho still just about has the reputation as the best short-term manager around; he arrives, he wins a league title and then he goes. The Portuguese tends to start swiftly but, since a run of four wins in August, he has encountered more troubled times at Old Trafford. If it indicates that Mourinho, the clinical decision-maker who identified and signed his four preferred transfer targets, is uncharacteristically uncertain – unsure of his finest team and, for reasons that elude most, marginalising Henrikh Mkhitaryan – it also suggests the malaise at United is deep-rooted. Changing the manager is not enough in itself, and United stand sixth, the lowest of the genuine contenders.