Even before a ball had been kicked in anger, many were tipping a three-way title race this season in the Premier League.
Chelsea’s transformation under Thomas Tuchel halfway through last term was pronounced, with clean sheets commonplace and only two defeats from mid-January onwards resulting in a sharp climb up the table. Their dramatic improvement ultimately led to a Champions League triumph in Portugal.
If all this marked the Blues down as a team on the rise, then their expensive summer purchase of Romelu Lukaku had them immediately instated as one of the favourites to lift the league crown.
The mood at Melwood meanwhile was defiant after an underwhelming campaign for Liverpool saw them decimated by injuries and looking — on occasion — distinctly jaded. The return to action of Virgil Van Dijk was a significant boon as too was the securement of Ibrahima Konate to further bolster their back-line while an unbeaten spell at the tail-end of last term intimated a return to the ferocious form that brought a title to Anfield in 2020.
The Reds are a tempting 4/1 to repeat their achievement of two seasons ago and be crowned champions next May.
As for Manchester City, a fifth league crown was eventually won at a canter and if their array of attacking options wasn’t formidable enough, adding Jack Grealish gave them even greater scope to dismantle opponents a goal at a time. Flexible and frightening up front and having kept clean sheets in 52% of their fixtures last season, Pep Guardiola’s men would surely be the team to catch.
As is proving to be the case so far, because at the halfway juncture of 2021/22 it is City who reside at the summit though just a slip or two would allow either Liverpool or Chelsea to take advantage and claim the top spot. As expected, it is tight between the trio and the prospect of all three being in serious contention come the season’s finale remains.
— Manchester City (@ManCity) December 28, 2021
As for the gulf that exists between this imposing triumvirate and the rest of the top-flight, the figures are stark and undeniable. Prior to the mid-week fixtures that see out this year, the Premier League had been lavished by 500 goals to date this season. Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea were responsible for 28.4% of them. Remarkably, the trio combined have lost one game fewer than Arsenal, who presently stand in fourth.
They are, in different ways, phenomenal creations; winning machines with world class talent not only in plentiful supply on the pitch but populating the bench. They are each furnished too with generational coaches. Indeed, the more their collective attributes are acknowledged the more we arrive at a thrilling conclusion that this season’s three-pronged fight for the title might ultimately be decided by their head to heads.
The next pivotal clash featuring two of the contenders takes place at Stamford Bridge on January 2nd as Jurgen Klopp’s Reds head to the capital. Liverpool last lost there in the league in 2018 and are 7/5 to emerge once again with the precious points.
Or perhaps, it might come down to the fine margins, the respective strengths and weaknesses that gain a point here or drop two points there. With this in mind, we asked match-going supporters of each side to assess their teams, highlighting the pluses that give them a crucial edge and candidly revealing concerns over possible shortcomings.
We begin at Chelsea, a side that has encountered some patchy form of late, largely due to the absences of Mateo Kovacic and N’Golo Kante, two key presences in midfield.
Luc Jones is under no illusions as to the importance of this duo, who have recently returned from injuries to help implement once again Tuchel’s exacting blueprint. Yet, he doesn’t hesitate when asked what the Blues’ greatest strength is: Tuchel himself.
“I think anyone that knows football and isn’t just hiding behind a picture of a footballer on Twitter knows he is as good as it gets in terms of being in charge of our club.”
Regarding Chelsea’s possible Achilles heel, Jones pinpoints too many costly opportunities going astray in front of goal, a consequence, he believes, of the club’s injury plight.
“With the amount of tinkering we had to do with COVID & injuries, it could be down to mixing and matching our front three.”
Thomas Tuchel says his Chelsea side are really struggling with the Premier League's relentless schedule.
The Blues picked up more injuries on Boxing Day in their win at Aston Villa.
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) December 27, 2021
Ryan Goodman meanwhile is more circumspect, playing down the suggestion that his team has any significant advantage over their title rivals.
“It’s difficult to give an edge over the others as we’re behind on a majority of fronts. On paper, we have great strength-in-depth, but a couple of injuries have been an issue.”
In the debit column, Goodman offers up a predictability too often displayed by the European champions that he insists will have them trailing come May.
“It’s a simple case of not knowing how to break teams down and everyone knows how to play against us. Low, compact block and then hit on the counter. We have creative players in the squad but it’s also a mentality issue. Much of the time, we concede, and we lose our heads and concentration. We aren’t strong enough mentally, or creative enough to win the league at this stage.”
Expect Mason Mount to feature heavily against Liverpool on Sunday. The 22-year-old is 15/8 to score anytime in this unmissable ‘six-pointer’.
Two hundred miles to the north, John Gibbons from the Anfield Wrap has so far been delighted with the thunderous football served up by his side, after a disappointing title defence last season.
“This Liverpool, at their best, combines an extraordinary amount of talent with a relentless desire to win. They believe in themselves, they believe in each other, they of course believe in the manager and because of that they always believe they will find a way to win. After a “lost” season last year Liverpool now feels very close to their best.
From a goalscoring perspective they are also less reliant on the traditional front three. Much of that is down to the signing of Diogo Jota, but Origi and Minamino quietly now have five goals each and the midfield are chipping in much more too. It makes it much harder to say, ‘Stop Salah stop Liverpool’. Although no one can stop Salah anyway, so that’s fine.”
15 Premier League goals with his right foot 👉
14 Premier League goals with his left foot 👈
Diogo Jota doesn't have a weak side. pic.twitter.com/cnJIv5ELCE
— GOAL (@goal) December 28, 2021
Even when marvelling at the Reds’ varied means of prolificacy however, doubts accompany the optimism.
“In terms of weaknesses there were concerns in the summer about squad depth. These have proven to be largely unfounded, especially in defence with the signing of Konate. In midfield though, we do maybe still feel one light.
But the main thing that concerns me is the uncertainty moving forward and what that might mean. Liverpool are a team that thrives off the passion of a crowd and the energy in their legs. If rising COVID leads to fixture congestion and, heaven forbid, games behind closed doors, recent history suggests City and Chelsea cope with this a lot better than we do.”
Manchester City fan Lloyd Scragg is also looking into the near distance, though for him it is an imminent international tournament that has his attention.
“City’s edge over Liverpool is well known — it’s their squad depth and the forthcoming African Cup of Nations will throw up an interesting case study. Take Mahrez out of City’s team and he can be replaced by Jesus or Grealish. Take Salah out and you’re talking about Minamino or Origi. That’s a big difference in quality.
The advantage over Chelsea lies in contrasting consistency. Liverpool have proved they can match City toe-to-toe in terms of relentlessness and an ability to go on winning runs. I don’t think Chelsea have that in them.”
Chelsea and Liverpool drop points while Manchester City win their eighth straight league game on Sunday 🤑 pic.twitter.com/g2YUeImWcH
— B/R Football (@brfootball) December 19, 2021
Determining an imperfection meanwhile, has this otherwise very contented Blue identifying a potential problem that not even the genius Guardiola can solve — the inexorable passing of time.
“City’s biggest weakness? If we’re being honest, there aren’t many, though Ferran Torres’ departure worries me from a numbers perspective.
But I think it’s the lack of adequate cover for Rodri. Age has finally caught up with Fernandinho.”
City head to Arsenal this weekend, boasting an impressive record of scoring early in league fixtures this term. They are 11/2 to be ahead ten minutes in.