The Premier League: So, what have we learnt so far...?

With a third of the Premier League season gone, Jack Pitt-Brooke assesses the progress so far

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The Independent Online

What are the chances of a proper title race, who could be in the top four – and who’s for the drop.

Q Do we have a title race?

A This was, before the weekend, threatening to be a non-race for the Premier League title. It looked like a no-contest, the opposite of last  season’s tense three-way tussle between Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool.

Over the weekend, though, Chelsea stumbled in drawing 0-0 at Sunderland, City triumphed 3-0 at Southampton and now it looks slightly different. Six points is not a big gap with two-thirds of the season left.

Two things will decide whether we have a race or not. The first is whether City have the dedication and the focus to replicate Sunday’s display at St Mary’s – their best of the season – over the next 25 games. City, on song, are still the best team in the country, and took Southampton to pieces even without the injured David Silva.

The second is whether Chelsea have the strength in depth to maintain their present form. Jose Mourinho has instilled an intense mentality in his players but they do have a shallower squad than City. Should Chelsea lose Cesc Fabregas, Eden Hazard or Diego Costa to injury, they would also miss the ability to play the way that has done so well for them so far. Chelsea will need to be unlucky to lose the league, and City will have to improve, but unlikelier things have happened.

Q Are there any vacancies in the top four?

A The presumption at the start of the season was that the remaining two Champions League places would be sewn up between two of the three biggest clubs, Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal – all with strong track records in the competition.

The evidence so far suggests some vulnerability among that trio, albeit for different reasons. Arsenal’s problem is obvious: the sense of inertia that has hung over the club for years. This is the 10th season since Arsène Wenger’s side last finished in the top two and little that has happened so far suggests 2014-15 will be different.

If the issue at Arsenal is not enough change, the problem at United and Liverpool is the opposite. United are still in their long post-Sir Alex Ferguson rebuild and, even after spending £150m on top-quality players this summer, they are still finding their way as a team and need to bring in a leader at the back next month to secure their top-four place.

Liverpool’s story is different. Having narrowly missed out on the title last year, and lost the player who took them so close – Luis Suarez – they have had to find a new way to play this season and are struggling in distant mid-table.

 

Q Could one of these pretenders take it?

A If there is a Champions League place available, the Europa League could decide who takes it. Southampton and West Ham, unburdened by Thursday night football, have flown through the opening third of the season.

Southampton’s momentum – despite a hectic summer of ins and outs – has been remarkable although, after their defeat by City on Sunday, there is a fear they could revert to the mean, and with some force, after facing Arsenal and Manchester United over the next week. West Ham are less spectacular but they have found a new way of playing which – if Cheikhou Kouyaté, Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia can stay fit – could keep them near reaching the European places.

At their best, Tottenham and Everton are better teams, but have been compromised in the Premier League by their Europa League campaigns. Everton have saved their best performances for Europe, while Spurs are still finding their rhythm. If either had been knocked out early they would probably have enough to push for fourth place, but both, in fact, have qualified for the knockout stages. Both must reprioritise if they want to challenge over the next two-thirds of the season.

Q What of those dreaming of better things?

A This is the point in the season where some teams may relax, having realised that they are good enough to stay up, while others will start  preparing themselves for a long, cold, difficult winter. Newcastle United, Stoke City and Swansea City should all be in the first category.

Newcastle have stabilised since their dismal start and had won five straight league games before their 1-0 defeat at Upton Park on Saturday. Despite injury problems, they should be fine and the early-season talk of Alan Pardew’s imminent departure will be long forgotten.

Stoke, slowly evolving under Mark Hughes into a brave counter-attacking team, seem unlikely to find the  consistency to push for anything too far into the top half. And Swansea, now into Garry Monk’s first full season, will be dangerous enough as long as Wilfried Bony stays fit. But maybe not dangerous enough to quality for Europe.

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Saido Berahino has the ability to keep West Bromwich Albion up (Getty)

Q The teams struggling  to survive?

A It is clear enough to some clubs that the remaining 25 Premier League games will be tough and that they will not be able to relax until it is all over on 24 May.

After producing a remarkable escape to stay up last year, Sunderland have not preserved much of that momentum this season. They have only won two league games – against Stoke and Crystal Palace – and will have to fight for every goal. Palace have beaten both Liverpool and Everton under new manager Neil Warnock but have to make up for some very obvious deficiencies if they are to stay up. West Bromwich Albion’s hopes rest on keeping Saido Berahino fit and engaged, because there are not many goals coming from elsewhere.

And then there are two teams who might have hoped for more. Hull City reached the FA Cup final in May and spent money in the summer but have struggled for results. They should click in time but there will be questions about Steve Bruce’s future until they do. Meanwhile, Aston Villa, who gave Paul Lambert a new four-year contract in September, have three points from their last nine games.

Q The promoted sides?

A All of the above sides will be fighting to stay up, but it will be harder depending on how many of the promoted sides – all currently in the drop zone – improve over the last two-thirds. Queen’s Park Rangers should have the best chance of clambering out of danger. Despite all their problems, they have guaranteed goals in Charlie Austin and three home wins already. Another four or five and they should be safe.

Leicester City were admirable in their summer upgrades – not least Leonardo Ulloa and Esteban Cambiasso – but they have not won since their thrilling 5-3 victory over Manchester United on 21 September and when losing becomes a habit, especially for a Premier League newcomer, it is hard to shake. Burnley are enterprising but are still, in essence, a Championship side. It is difficult to see how they will not be one again, in fact, next season.

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