What the EPL?!: Arsenal top, Liverpool pushing and City ominous – so is this the best EPL season ever?
Whisper it quietly, but we’re building into one of the all-time great title races in the Premier League this year.
Arsenal are back top of the pile after Liverpool drew with Manchester United, and Manchester City, the ominous runner from deep, are in the middle of a slump that has them 12th in the form table at a time when they have to depart for the Club World Cup in Saudi Arabia.
By the time they’re back, it’s possible that either Liverpool or Arsenal could be ten points ahead – though, annoyingly, not both, as they play each other this weekend, so at least one will drop points.
City would love the draw, as it wouldn’t really benefit either the Gunners or Reds, and perhaps neutrals should support that too.
For one, it would create the possibility of a third leader in a month, should Aston Villa, who haven’t lost at home in 16 games, defeat bottom club Sheffield United at Villa Park, crowning the Birmingham club as Christmas champions in the process.
For two, it would see a genuine three way title race – four if you include Villa, who insist they aren’t part of this – for the first time in a very long time.
Two way title races can be great, but three-way…that’s gold.
We’ve not had one since the late 2000s, when United, Chelsea and Arsenal all went at it in 2007/08 and then Liverpool stepped into the Gunners’ spot in 2008/09 – two years in which the Premier League clubs all also made the Champions League semis, showing the depth of the competition.
2023/24, too, is unlike some of the great two horse races (2018/19 and 2021/22 spring to mind) in that each team is flawed as well as strong.
For many of the great races we remember, the strength has been the relentlessness of the champion and challenger, but that also spoke to a malaise among the other teams, who were too easily cast at the wayside, meaning the games themselves weren’t always the best to watch.
Now, the whole league is strong and the bulk of it has a real playing identity, too, meaning that more interesting things happen all the time.
The Premier League is really three or four little competitions going on at once – think of it like the jerseys in the Tour de France – with the title, the top four, the European spots and the relegation battle all contested space.
On that front, we currently have three of the four red hot, with the title as mentioned, plus both Villa and Ange Postecoglou’s Spurs (currently fifth) crashing the top four.
With a gap of four points between Villa and Spurs, then another four down to Newcastle, it’s looking highly likely that one of the two is going to make it at the halfway point.
In those European spots, we have a lovely mix of the fallen giants, Chelsea and United, performing the role of #narrative machines, plus the aforementioned Magpies, West Ham and Brighton all showing that there are many ways to skin a tactical cat in this competition.
Any game featuring those three is interesting, and they have proven to be absolutely capable of beating anyone good but losing to anyone bad, which is the sine qua non of a good season in the Prem.
You can also throw Everton in there, in that they would be part of that cohort were they not deducted ten points, in itself another frisson of delight for the neutral observer.
The only thing missing, really, is a relegation battle. The three newly-promoted teams are all but down already, which is a shame for the Best. Season. Ever. argument, but hey – nobody is watching this league for Luton and Burnley.
We’re only at the midpoint and it would be premature to call it right now, but the signs are good that this will end in a manner as epic as it has been thus far.
If City do end up substantially behind, it will create the narrative that they have to come back, with each passing win moving them inexorably closer to the top.
From when they return until facing Liverpool on March 10th – nine games – they face just one top six opponent, Newcastle, giving plenty of time for that to build.
Arsenal and Liverpool will start to get nosebleeds, Villa might continue to make people think they can actually do something and, over at Tottenham, absolutely anything could happen.
Oh, and we have the loose horses careering across the track aspect, too.
There’s AFCON and the Asian Cup, which randomly removes stars from top teams across the board, a Club World Cup, a huge accumulation of fatigue and injuries that comes from playing longer due to stoppage time rule changes, inevitable fixture postponements due to bad weather and, of course, the endless VAR chat.
As far as the title race goes, City are favourites for the Champions League and Arsenal are rated fourth, so you can expect them to have a lot of extra games, and Liverpool are in the same spot but in the Europa League.
To think that at the end of last season, premature obituaries were read on the league given City’s domination in winning the treble.
This time around, however, the self-proclaimed Best League in the World might be about to live up to that tag.