It hasn’t taken long for Manchester City to hit the front. No side in English league history has ever won four in a row, still less six league titles in seven seasons, but there Pep Guardiola’s side are already two points clear with three games played. And while City needed an 88th-minute strike from Rodri to win at Sheffield United on Sunday, they got it. Would Newcastle, who contrived to lose to 10-man Liverpool, have done so? Would Liverpool? Would Manchester United, whose start to the season has been shambolic? And perhaps most pertinently this weekend, given how they squandered points at home to Fulham, would Arsenal?
In some respects this has the makings of the most competitive Premier League season there has ever been. While Tottenham’s membership of the Big Six seemed questionable before the Ange Postecoglou revolution, so Newcastle and perhaps Brighton and Aston Villa have emerged as challengers. If the idea of a Big Nine is fanciful, there is at least a Fairly Large and Fairly Good Nine (whether through financial might or smart recruitment). The thought of them all taking points off each other is undeniably enticing, a mass free-for-all that makes soccer as unpredictable as it was half a century ago, that transforms the Premier League into what its staunchest advocates – “anyone can beat anyone” – would like it to be.
Except it’s not that, because City just don’t seem fallible in the same way. It’s true that they have not yet been at their fluent best this season, true that the departures of Ilkay Gündogan, Riyad Mahrez and João Cancelo and the injury to Kevin De Bruyne have left the squad looking a little short. It’s true also that their two away games so far have been against newly promoted sides. But when, after pummelling Sheffield United for 85 minutes on Sunday they then conceded a freakish equaliser, their response was to find an immediate winner.
There will be those who insist the timing of Rodri’s winner was coincidence, that if you have 30 shots in the game, eventually the weight of numbers will tell. Perhaps that is true. But for City’s rivals, those two minutes when it seemed they might drop unexpected points may be as good as this season gets; however illusory it may be, the sense was of a door opened fractionally and then slammed shut. And perhaps that was particularly true because of the contrast to Arsenal.
For the third time in their last nine home league games, Arsenal went behind in the first minute. That has become more than a quirk; it’s a failure of mentality. Bournemouth caught them cold with a clever kick-off routine, while Southampton and Fulham have been presented with the ball in dangerous areas.
Arsenal then toiled, got back into the game and, after goals in the 70th and 72nd minutes, took the lead, and seemed to have the victory sealed when Calvin Bassey was sent off after 83 minutes. At which point they suddenly conceded. Perhaps it was slightly freakish. Arsenal had had 19 shots to Fulham’s eight and 11 on target to Fulham’s three. They won the xG, depending which model you prefer, by just over three to somewhere between 0.5 and one. But equally it all felt a bit similar to the 2-1 win over Nottingham Forest on the opening weekend, when Arsenal came under late pressure having seemingly had the game under control. However well Arsenal held out having gone down to 10 men against Crystal Palace the previous weekend, game management would seem a problem.
But it’s not the only issue. With Oleksandr Zinchenko limited to two appearances from the bench so far, Mikel Arteta has employed Thomas Partey to do a similar job but on the right, tucking into midfield when Arsenal have the ball. Not only has the Ghanaian – understandably – not looked as comfortable in the hybrid role, but his selection has meant Ben White moving into the middle in place of Gabriel, which in turn has meant William Saliba operating at left centre-back rather than right. Where the White-Saliba axis on the right was a strength last season, so far Partey-White has looked vulnerable. It was a run through precisely that channel from Anthony Elanga that brought Forest’s goal.
Nor is it yet clear whether a midfield of Declan Rice flanked by Martin Ødegaard and Kai Havertz offers the requisite defensive solidity, even for games against the Premier League’s middle ranks. It’s understandable that Arteta should demand more flexibility and options given how exhausted Arsenal appeared by the end of the last campaign – particularly when there is the Champions League to contend with as well this season – but the result has been two dropped points despite a fairly benign fixture list to start with.
And that’s the biggest issue with City’s consistent excellence. To win the league, a team can probably only afford to drop 20, maybe 25 points over the whole season. Everybody apart from City has seen at least two go already.