Time does not really stand still during international breaks, it just tends to feel that way because a fortnight is a ludicrously long pause in the frantic pace of the domestic programme. A break suggests three or four days somewhere sunny. Two weeks is more like a full-blown vacation, a get-away-from-it-all escape that can have the usual holiday effect of making the return of normality seem a little strange for a while.
We left the Premier League with Liverpool sitting on top, which seems a little strange in itself, and Chelsea handily placed in second. Antonio Conte does not appear to need any time to acclimatise himself to a new country after all.
Along with Liverpool and Manchester City, his Chelsea side have been collecting most of the plaudits for being effective as well as entertaining this season, and it could be said of all the top three clubs that they have responded quickly to meet the high demands of their new managers. Jürgen Klopp is not quite as new as Conte and Pep Guardiola, granted, though this is his first full season. When Arsène Wenger was new to England, 20 years and two months ago, he made a favourable impression from the start but his statement achievement came the following season when Arsenal won the double.
Klopp is busy telling everyone that Liverpool are not yet ready to win the league because in England there are six teams who can win it and that does not include candidates from left field such as Leicester, currently two points above the relegation positions and making last season look even more of a mirage.
All the new managers say pretty much the same thing about the Premier League: there are six teams who can win it. But are there? And if so, which are the top six? Would the super sextet include Manchester United, who have lost three games already and, along with Tottenham Hotspur, appear to be finding goals hard to come by? Spurs started the season impressively and are still the only unbeaten side in the league, though they have scored exactly half the number of goals Liverpool have managed and have been held to more draws than anyone else in the table.
Everton will do well to crack the top six this season, let alone finish in a Champions League spot. Ronald Koeman himself has just practically admitted as much. And immediately below Everton are Watford and Burnley, not the most obvious of title contenders, Leicester’s miracle last season notwithstanding.
While Tottenham and United cannot be discounted at this early stage, they both seem to be struggling with the demands of European competition. Spurs are finding their group a challenge and playing at Wembley perhaps an even bigger one, and disappointing results in Europe tend to have an adverse effect on league form.
United are rediscovering that too. They have not been convincing in the Europa League, and for a club of their stature under-performing in the lesser Uefa event amounts to the worst of all worlds. José Mourinho does not really want to be in that competition, he made that clear from the outset, but from that position there are two possible escape routes. One is to embrace it and try to secure a Champions League berth by winning it, as Liverpool came so close to doing last season. The other is to engineer an early exit so as to be able to concentrate on the domestic league. Many thought Mourinho would do the latter, indeed he sounded as if he would, though a club of United’s rich European tradition cannot easily opt out of sell-out nights at Old Trafford and their new manager knows he has to be careful not to confirm some of the preconceptions surrounding his appointment.
Yet United are not forging ahead at home or abroad, and as long as they are involved in the Thursday-Sunday routine they seem unlikely to catch up with the standards being set at the top of the table. It is probably no accident that Liverpool and Chelsea are flying so high because they are both free of European commitments this season. Klopp and Conte insist they would rather be in Europe than out of it. But for a manager getting his feet under the table at a new club in a new country, a streamlined season must simplify matters considerably.
Wenger keeping his side in the Champions League on a permanent basis while consistently maintaining a challenge at home might suggest otherwise, though it has not exactly gone unnoticed that Arsenal’s story for quite a long time now has been one of plateaus rather than peaks.
Manchester City are a different story again, for while they predictably stalled against Middlesbrough to lose top spot after the emotional high of beating Barcelona, in the long run the confidence and capability Guardiola seems able to inject can only stand the club in good stead in the league.
However many credible title contenders the Premier League really boasts, City must be counted among their number. As must Liverpool and Chelsea, by virtue of their present positions and the absence of European distractions. Arsenal remain a puzzle. They have topped their Champions League group without too much difficulty and are level on points with City in the league, but why should this season finish any differently than the previous dozen?
Perhaps we will know more once Premier League hostilities resume, for the early kick-off on Saturday takes Arsenal to Old Trafford, and when Mourinho meets Wenger hostility is generally in the air somewhere.
Arsenal have not won in the league at United for 10 years, so long ago that Emmanuel Adebayor scored the winning goal. Since that meeting Wenger has been sent to the stands (2009), witnessed an 8-2 beating (2011) and even had to endure the sight of Robin van Persie earning David Moyes’s side the points in 2013, though this will be his first time in the house of pain with Mourinho sitting in the opposite dugout.
The challenge facing the United manager should not be underestimated either. Mourinho cannot afford a fourth defeat before Christmas, especially against a side United normally beat. There was a time when United v Arsenal would automatically be billed as a title decider, regardless of the stage of the season when it took place. Those days are gone, there are other teams in the mix now, but Old Trafford next Saturday still might tell us something. Like how close to the mix either side really is.
The Guardian Sports