When the Premier League resumes at the weekend all eyes will be on Old Trafford to see whether Manchester United can become the first team to take points off Liverpool.
On the face of it such an outcome seems unlikely, even if derbies often have a life of their own. United have been terrible in the last few weeks, leading to fevered speculation over Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s future and the wisdom of appointing him in the first place, while Liverpool have sailed on so serenely that Jürgen Klopp’s team building and tactics are now attracting more attention than Pep Guardiola’s at Manchester City.
As a long-established football cliché would have it City are looking for a favour from United on Sunday, in which case they might be looking in entirely the wrong place. United are struggling to do themselves any favours at the moment, and after City’s second defeat of the season arrived at the hands of Wolves the defending champions have yet to prove they are capable of taking advantage of any Liverpool slips in any case.
A combination of City’s fragility and Liverpool’s consistency has brought about a remarkable turnaround in English football in an unexpectedly short space of time. Clearly it is too early in the season for talk of the title being Liverpool’s to lose or City giving up on the league in order to concentrate on Europe, but a division which last season prided itself on providing one of the few close-run contests among the major leagues is already running counter to type.
Should Liverpool win at Old Trafford to equal City’s Premier League record of 18 successive victories there will be a gap of at least eight points at the top of the table with a quarter of the season completed. Not only would this have been hard to predict last season, when only a point separated the top two teams after 38 games, but it is a new departure for the rest of Europe to take in.
In this country we are accustomed to looking a little sneeringly at some of the lop-sided leagues around Europe, with their regular winners and big gaps between title hopefuls and the rest, yet this season England is an exception to its own rule. Look around the rest of the bigger European leagues and the widest margin separating first and second to be found anywhere is a mere two points. Just one win potentially allows Barcelona to overtake Real Madrid in Spain, and the same is true for Nantes behind Paris Saint-Germain in France, Sivasspor behind Alanyaspor in Turkey and even Celtic behind Rangers in Scotland. In Germany, Italy and Portugal only a single point splits first and second, while in the Eredivisie at the moment Ajax and Eindhoven are level on points.
An eight-point gap in mid-October is right out on its own, and while the season is still young enough for Borussia Mönchengladbach to lead in Germany and the even more obscure Famalicão to head the table in Portugal, should Liverpool manage to beat United it would be their third top-six scalp in nine matches after already accounting for Chelsea and Arsenal. That is last season’s top six, obviously, though as Leicester City are top four at the minute they should probably count too. So it is not the case that Liverpool have not yet played anyone, and while we should perhaps wait until the next two obstacles in United and Tottenham Hotspur have been cleared, the initial theory that the title will be decided by games between Liverpool and City – their first league meeting of the season is on 10 November at Anfield – is weakening by the day.
Should City’s woes continue, or put another way should Guardiola persist in playing a high defensive line with Nicolás Otamendi at the heart of it, another pre-season theory will soon bite the dust. It may turn out that the top two are not engaged in a private duel with the rest of the league as spectators after all. City are only a point ahead of the chasing pack, and should a few more opponents come up with the equivalent of Adama Traoré in the coming weeks the two-horse title race everyone predicted may not materialise.
It is a safe bet that City will improve significantly when Kevin de Bruyne returns, though with Europe in mind the player Guardiola currently needs as soon as possible is Aymeric Laporte. While City were unlucky with injuries to the French defender and John Stones coming so soon after Vincent Kompany’s release, a situation where Fernandinho is the most reliable centre-back is unsustainable. Guardiola may have to buy in January even if Laporte recovers on schedule in the new year, because it would be a lot to ask of a player returning from a cruciate injury to both slot in seamlessly and restore authority.
Liverpool and City’s continental rivals look on with interest, even if we are still only in October. There has been a progression at the Etihad in the last four years, City have steadily improved with each campaign to the extent where they saw off a challenge from Liverpool last season that would have overwhelmed anyone else. That process has now been interrupted, if not yet halted, and if Liverpool are to be beneficiaries they must adapt to the subtly different pressure of holding their nerve while out in front. In his time in England Klopp has seen Leicester, Chelsea and City do exactly that. He has waited patiently for his own chance, and a perfect start has brought it about. Liverpool have stepped out of City’s shadow, and the story of the rest of the domestic season will be how well they cope with the relentless expectation.