Elation, heartbreak and drama
> Why the Premier League is unrivalled in world football
WOW, what a start to the Premier League season – and with a break for some pesky international fixtures we have a moment to catch our breath and marvel at a title race that looks thrillingly wide open.
Only one point between the top four clubs after 11 matches is surely vindication of the view that our elite division is the most competitive in the world of football.
Who will capture English sport’s great prize?
Well, it’s far too close to call when top spot in the table is constantly changing hands, sometimes twice in the same weekend.
Eleven games gone, almost a third of the marathon, is long enough for some trends of battle to be clear, yet with more than enough time for teams to rise from the flames or fall into the abyss.
Yes, I’m recalling how it was 12 months ago – when the top four were all within a single point of each other as England lost 2-0 to Spain in a mid-November friendly.
The clubs involved then were Manchester City, Manchester United, Leicester and Arsenal.
It was the genesis of the most magical fairytale triumph in the history of English football, and the highest point of a campaign that faded badly for the uninspiring United team of Louis Van Gaal.
Surprised? I certainly was. I didn’t expect it when searching for a comparison with this season amid the noisy hype that surrounds the so-called showdown of the super managers.
Actually, this time round, there are two points separating the top four, with United and Leicester replaced among the contenders by Liverpool and Chelsea.
Tottenham are fifth again, drawing a few too many matches, but looking likely.
Oh, and wouldn’t you know, England play Spain in a mid-November friendly this week.
What’s the old proverb? The more things change, the more they stay the same. That was a favourite saying of Winston Churchill, and he knew a thing or two about the tides of history.
There is another echo from last season; the reluctance of all the top bosses, just like Claudio Ranieri a year ago, to declare their clubs as potential title winners.
It worked for the Leicester maestro, and the intelligence of Jurgen Klopp, Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola is plain in their reticence.
What is different now, what exhilarates and lifts the spirits, is the increase in sheer quality of football and the commitment to attacking play by clubs like Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City.
Last year Liverpool had scored 12 goals in their opening 11 games. This time it is 30 as the whirlwind Klopp style has taken full effect.
Chelsea’s tactical switch to 3-4-3 under Conte has seen them blossom into a devastating force when going forward, witness the 5-0 thrashing of Everton in their most recent outing.
When City play at their mesmerising best, the carousel football demanded by Guardiola has been the finest sight to behold this season.
Arsenal and Spurs are also entertaining teams, easy on the eye, set up to attack and chase goals.
All five of these clubs are clearly genuine title contenders, and eventual glory for any of them would not surprise me.
Which leaves us with Manchester United – the team, to use another favourite phrase of Churchill, who are a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
United imported a celebrated new manager in Jose Mourinho, broke the world transfer record last summer, spent a whopping £158million on players to fund a proper challenge – and yet they languish far below their excellent start to last season.
Mourinho appears distracted at times, has begun to alienate players, and in the past few days has let it be known that he wants an investigation into all affairs of the first team and a change of culture at the club. I don’t doubt that is required. David Moyes felt just the same when he was manager at Old Trafford, but wasn’t given the time to make the serious alterations he felt were necessary.
The truth won’t be a shield for Mourinho to hide behind – not when there is so much flair and style and fun elsewhere.
His team are still within range of the leaders, and of course they can climb into contention given the quality of their squad.
But will they? The history of the vast majority of his phenomenal career says United should rise again. The lesson of last year says not. – Express Newspapers