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The Premier League title: is there any chance of a three-horse race?

Four matches into the season and Liverpool and Manchester City have not showed any signs of deviation from the blistering form they displayed at the end of the 2018/19 campaign. Although we’re still at the very early stages of the season, Liverpool and City’s superiority is suggesting that we may face a familiar scenario at the top of the league in the next eight months.

For anyone out of the loop, Liverpool have cruised to a perfect record with twelve points from four games, leaving them top of the league as they entered the international break. Meanwhile, main title rivals and current holders Manchester City have picked up ten points, dropping points to Tottenham Hotspur – a heavily one-sided match in which Spurs scored with both of their shots on target.

Spurs in fact were considered the only main contender to fight for the title last year bar City and Liverpool, especially since they were ahead of Manchester City around the halfway point of last year’s season. Prior to the commencement of this year’s campaign, Spurs were again considered potential challengers. However, an unsettled start for Mauricio Pochettino and his men has eradicated almost all doubts about a two-horse title race unfolding throughout the season.

So, the attention has turned quickly to the top two, with huge pressure on both teams to compete in what could be another invigorating Premier League title race. The question is, can another team sneak into contention and what must be done to challenge such high-quality squads such as Liverpool and Manchester City?

How can teams stop Liverpool and City?

In order for there to be anything other than a two-horse race this season, the other eighteen sides will need to find a way to thwart Liverpool or Manchester City when faced with them. The current leaders only lost one match last season, but this was against the eventual winners Manchester City, who won two more games than the Reds overall.

Manchester City lost four league games in total in 2018/19 to the hands of Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Leicester and Newcastle. All four of these matches came around the Christmas and New Year period – a dip in form that ultimately prolonged the title race to the final day as City went on to win all of their remaining fixtures from February onwards.

When facing such an impressive attacking side such as Manchester City, it is important to defend intensively, especially on the wings – the full-backs have arguably the most important task in staying sharp and picking up the runs that Sterling and Bernardo Silva will make. With both of these players’ possessing top-class skill and pace, attempting the offside trap is rarely an option, so defenders have to stay sharp at all times during the match. This is why Manchester City are so dominant at attacking and scoring goals as a they can exploit even the most experienced defenses with the slick football that they play under Pep Guardiola.

[GVRA]

The problem with playing Manchester City is that it is almost guaranteed that you will concede a goal, no matter how many defenders you can cram into your penalty area, so bringing the fight to Guardiola’s team is also important. Brighton showed ambition by trying this at the end of August. Granted, the Seagulls were thrashed 4-0 in the end, but perhaps they weren’t clever enough about their approach. Maybe the best way to penetrate City would be to keep the counter attacks reserved and have individual players navigate sharply around the City defenders while moving the ball quickly.

As for Liverpool, defence was certainly their most improved area of last season. Breaking down Virgil van Dijk and the rest of the back-line proved difficult for most teams as the Reds conceded 22 league goals throughout their campaign. However, an early injury to Alisson means that teams have already started to exploit the error-prone Adrian in goal. The Spaniard has not had the smoothest start to life at Liverpool, with some calamitous errors leading to opportunities for the opposition to score.

When facing Liverpool, perhaps counter attacks are the best way forward. Jurgen Klopp tends to send his midfielders to join attacks and, if the opposing team can gain control of possession, there is a lot of space to exploit in the central areas. Getting enough players up the pitch can cause problems for van Dijk and Matip. Often isolating the Dutchman and trying to attack his defensive partner is a successful way for opponents to get goals against the Reds.

Is anyone else equipped to challenge the title?

Even after just four games, it seems pretty unlikely that we will see a third team in the fight for the top spot. Tottenham were favourites to challenge at the start of the season, but the Lilywhites have not supplied any entirely convincing performances so far. With five points in four games, Spurs will need to have a blinder of a season from now on in and the same can be said for the other “top-six” sides, none of whom have amounted more than seven points this season.

Tottenham’s rivals Arsenal won their first two matches and it’s their shoddy defence that puts them well behind Liverpool and Manchester City on quality. In attack, Nicolas Pepe seems to be an encouraging addition to the already impressive front line, while Dani Ceballos has also displayed great skill in midfield. However, David Luiz has barely improved Arsenal’s defence and has been guilty of individual errors that have led to goals already this season. Having said this, Emery’s team seem to be going in the right direction and may challenge the title in future seasons.

Chelsea and Manchester United, like Tottenham, have just five points each under their belts so far. United seem too unsettled as a team to be able to challenge at all, while the transfer ban along with the appointment of an inexperienced manager does not seem to be boding well for Chelsea either.

All in all, it’s incredibly difficult for anyone to be able to challenge Liverpool and City’s dominance this season – any other contenders will need to sharpen up rapidly if it is to happen. However, who’s to say that a team like Leicester can’t be competitive within the top six – we’ve certainly been surprised before.

How can we predict the 2019/20 winner?

One point separated Manchester City and Liverpool last season but it’s too early to see whether we’ll have such a closely matched title race this year. Liverpool are currently the only team to have a 100% record four games in, but considering City only dropped points to Tottenham after racking up thirty shots to their three, there’s not a lot we can deduce from this.

[GVRB]

Having said that, one might ask the question of why Manchester City conceded two goals from three shots in that match, especially when neither of Tottenham’s goals showed the City defence in a particularly good light. Both Liverpool and City have conceded three goals apiece, but Liverpool have faced 42 shots, whereas City have faced 24.

Further to this, Manchester City may have the Champions League as their main objective this year, rather than the Premier League. Liverpool are the current holders of the trophy that City have never won, so the Reds may concentrate heavily on the league this year. Perhaps this means we should be tipping Liverpool as favourites to lift the Premier League trophy.

Harry Mahon

90maat's team correspondent for Tottenham Hotspur and a student at Loughborough University.

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Premier League Table

# Team MP W D L P
1 Liverpool 12 11 1 0 34
2 Leicester City 12 8 2 2 26
3 Chelsea 12 8 2 2 26
4 Manchester City 12 8 1 3 25
5 Sheffield United 12 4 5 3 17
6 Arsenal 12 4 5 3 17
7 Manchester United 12 4 4 4 16
8 Wolverhampton Wanderers 12 3 7 2 16
9 AFC Bournemouth 12 4 4 4 16
10 Burnley 12 4 3 5 15
11 Brighton & Hov… 12 4 3 5 15
12 Crystal Palace 12 4 3 5 15
13 Newcastle United 12 4 3 5 15
14 Tottenham Hotspur 12 3 5 4 14
15 Everton 12 4 2 6 14
16 West Ham United 12 3 4 5 13
17 Aston Villa 12 3 2 7 11
18 Watford 12 1 5 6 8
19 Southampton 12 2 2 8 8
20 Norwich City 12 2 1 9 7

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