The Premier League title race is not over after four games – but enough evidence has now been produced to know the pattern is set and the race will once again involve only two horses.
Manchester City and Liverpool have only taken that short period to confirm they are now arguably even further ahead of the chasing pack than in May, when a single-point advantage sent the title to Manchester City and third-placed Chelsea trailed in 25 points behind Jurgen Klopp’s side.
It does not mean the season will be any less exciting, but it is sobering to already know which way the wind is blowing with 34 games remaining. Same two title contenders.
Chelsea are in serious transition under Frank Lampard, operating with a transfer ban and without Eden Hazard, while to watch Manchester United draw at Southampton on Saturday was to see a team and club light-years away from their glory days with a fight on its hands to finish in the top four.
And then we come to the north London derby between Arsenal and Spurs at Emirates Stadium on Sunday.
It was thrilling, chaotic, wonderfully entertaining. And packed with the sort of flaws that informed every observer that neither will be anywhere near the top two.
Spurs have threatened a challenge in recent years and there is still every chance Mauricio Pochettino’s side will compete for prizes after reaching the Champions League Final in May.
The title? Forget it.
Pochettino has cut a frustrated figure since pre-season and his mood will not have been helped by watching Spurs concede a two-goal lead to share the points with Arsenal.
Spurs are not quite right and it is manifesting itself in performances and results such as the failure to break down Newcastle United in a damaging home defeat and the loss of a big advantage here.
They could, for perspective, point to draws earned away at Manchester City and now Arsenal but they have not been themselves in either game despite results that are very creditable on the surface.
There has been an air of uncertainty over the club but at least one cloud should roll away with the closure of the European transfer window and Christian Eriksen’s continuing presence at the club.
The Dane, influential here with an early goal and two subsequent near misses, has shown no desire to commit to the club and only a lack of interest from elsewhere keeps him where he is.
It is almost as if Pochettino feels Spurs’ season cannot truly get started until the European window is shut and he knows exactly who he is working with. Eriksen should also be more settled as he will know he can only earn his prized move by performing for his current club. He has to get on with it.
Even here, there were still continuing and understandable questions about Eriksen’s future. Pochettino simply wants to get on with the season and his outlook will not be helped by an indifferent start of just one win and five points from their first four matches.
|Tottenham’s inconsistent start to the season|
|Aston Villa (h)||3-1|
|Man City (a)||2-2|
There has also been speculation about the future of Toby Alderweireld, and Pochettino has surprised fans by not using the excellent Jan Vertonghen, who returned at Arsenal.
Pochettino has also had to deny rumours about his own future, forcibly dismissing speculation he would leave after this derby.
The Spurs manager’s desire to move on with certainty was obvious as he said: “From Monday when the transfer window shuts we will all be on the same page. With Christian Eriksen we have to wait but it showed it was the right decision to play him. He showed a great performance.
“I am optimistic and happy to work with the squad and try to fight for big things for the club. What happened in the past happened in the past and you cannot fix it. It is about drawing a strong line for the future. It’s important to move and learn from the past.”
All rather cryptic but leaving the sense that Pochettino feels Spurs’ season starts now.
As well as the obvious need for strengthening – Spurs were not hugely active in the transfer market with only the likes of Tanguy Ndombele, Ryan Sessegnon and Giovani Lo Celso coming in – this is a group of players and a manager that has largely been together a long time and that alone lends itself to new faces.
Former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who knew a thing or two about success, was a great advocate of a four-year shelf life, feeling that after this period a squad needs freshening up. Not only has Pochettino been at Spurs for that timescale but the likes of Eriksen, Vertonghen, Harry Kane, Hugo Lloris and others have been there for that spell and more.
Spurs currently lack a spark. It may simply be early-season blues, it may be the atmosphere of uncertainty that Pochettino hopes will end on Monday or it may be they do now need a fresh injection of players and different characters for Pochettino to impose his principles on.
Whatever it is, there is no way anyone can seriously see this Spurs side challenging Manchester City or Liverpool.
Spurs wobbled badly under Arsenal pressure and have the brilliance of goalkeeper Lloris to thank for a point, although they will point to Kane hitting the post and a penalty claim when he went down in a grapple with Sokratis.
Pochettino and his players also need to up their game after another draw against a rival from the so-called ‘big six’.
Since the Argentine arrived before the 2014-15 season, Spurs have won only three of 27 Premier League away games against that group, drawing nine and losing 15, including none of their last six.
Not good enough.
And while it may be killjoy talk, no-one can seriously present a case – even this quickly – for anyone coming near the reigning champions and Liverpool, seeking what would be their first title in 30 years.
Indeed, the obvious flaws shown already by Spurs, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United may provide excitement, expectation and encouragement elsewhere, with the likes of Leicester City and Everton in particular, and perhaps even West Ham United, sure to feel they have a chance of muscling into the chasing pack, especially as they have no European distractions.
The title race, however, will be fought out on the 36-mile stretch between Etihad Stadium and Anfield. This much we already know.