We are two matches into the group stages of both the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa League, and we can begin to envisage how clubs are performing.
The 2020-21 Premier League season has officially reached the halfway mark, and what a season it has been thus far.
We have seen the champions thumped 7-2, nine different teams finish a match week at the top of the ladder, and for the first time in what feels like forever, we have a title race on our hands.
But of the current crop of potential challengers, who are the pretenders, and who are the contenders?
Manchester City – contenders
The current Premier League leaders Manchester City are without a doubt the chief contenders for the Premier League title.
For the first time since the departure of club legend Vincent Kompany, Manchester City’s defence has looked well-organised, and over the last seven matches, virtually impregnable. Six clean sheets and one goal conceded across their last seven matches is a remarkable defensive record for a side that has been infamously leaky at the back.
These assured defensive performances have come off the back of John Stones and Ruben Dias’ astounding defensive efforts. Stones has improved his game massively this season and Ruben Dias offers assurance in the Manchester City back line that has been missing for the last few seasons.
Off the back of strong defensive displays, Manchester City’s dominating midfield and attack have been doing just that: dominating. And that is without chief talisman Sergio Aguero.
Kevin De Bruyne had finally clicked into gear before his injury, and Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva, Raheem Sterling, Riyad Mahrez, and most surprisingly Ilkay Gundogan have all provided De Bruyne with ample options when going forward.
Having been playing virtually without a striker over the last month and a half, with several players operating as a makeshift striker during that time, Manchester City look more than certain to contend for the title come season’s end, and with Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus and Aymeric Laporte all yet to feature heavily so far this season, it could become a one-horse race very quickly.
Manchester United – contenders
City’s cross-town rivals and nearest challengers on the Premier League ladder, Manchester United sit second on the ladder with 39 points and have easily been the biggest surprise package of the Premier League season so far.
Not too many people would have tipped Manchester United as title challengers at the start of the season, myself included, but the reality is they are. Despite their recent loss to bottom-placed Sheffield United, Manchester United are still firmly in this title race.
Bruno Fernandes, much like De Bruyne at Manchester City, is one of the finest players in England this season, having scored 11 goals and provided seven assists so far. He is proving to be the most vital player to United’s success.
But that is not to dismiss the performances of their other players. Paul Pogba has been in fantastic form the last few months, Fred and Scott McTominay have proved their worth at the base of midfield and Harry Maguire has grown more assured at the heart of defence as the season progresses.
If United can continue their form over the remainder of the season, they will be undoubtedly challenging for their first Premier League title in almost a decade come May. However, there are two major concerns for this United side that could hinder their title challenge.
The first is Bruno Fernandes, their main man, and his concerning form against the Premier League’s big six. In nine games against the Premier League’s big six, Fernandes has won two, drawn three and lost four. But perhaps most alarmingly, he has only managed three goals and two assists across these nine matches. If United want to cement themselves as serious title challengers, then Fernandes will need to drastically improve his numbers against big six sides.
The second thorn in United’s side is their striker situation. Anthony Martial, who doesn’t look comfortable up top, and Edinson Cavani have combined for a total of six goals and six assists in 29 Premier League games. For a side mounting a title challenge, these numbers are nowhere near good enough and will need to improve over the second half of the season if United are serious about their title dreams.
Liverpool – contenders
The last month has been one to forget for the Champions. Following their 7-0 thumping of Crystal Palace, they failed to record a win in their next five matches before finally breaking their drought with a 3-1 win against Spurs.
However, regardless of their poor form, you cannot simply write off Liverpool in this title race. The champions have been in the hunt for the title in the past three seasons and this season will be no different.
The absence of Virgil Van Dijk will continue to be a hindrance for Jurgen Klopp, and with Joe Gomez and Joel Matip injury-prone, an unsettled defence could prove to be Liverpool’s biggest hindrance for a title.
But going forward, Liverpool is the same old Liverpool. Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino are on their day one of European football’s deadliest front threes, while Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson – Europe’s best fullback pairing – offer an extra point of attack for Liverpool.
Moreover, Thiago Alcantara has recovered from his injuries and COVID-19 and looks to be growing with every minute he spends on the pitch.
Liverpool’s only hindrance for their title challenge will come from within. Injuries have been their problem to start the season, and should they continue to persist as the season progresses further, Liverpool’s title challenges will be in real danger of slipping away from them.
They cannot afford to lose Matip and Gomez for extended periods, as there is only so much football Jordan Henderson and Fabinho can play as makeshift centre backs. Additionally, the mental burden another title challenge will have on them could take its toll, especially given the increased demands that come with the Champions League knockout stages.
Leicester City – contenders
Leicester sit third in the Premier League table and although many may tip them to tail off at the end of the season, they are still heavily in contention for this title race.
In Jamie Vardy they not only have one of the Premier League’s best strikers, but they also have a Premier League champion who knows how to win the league from an underdog position, which is the same position the current Leicester side are in.
Additionally, behind Vardy, they have one of England’s most well-balanced midfield trios in James Maddison, Youri Tielemans and Wilfred Ndidi, who each offer a different skill set that is complementary to each other. That means that not only will an ample amount of chances be created for Vardy, but also a number of chances will be stifled for the opposition, given Ndidi’s pedigree as one of the League’s best holding midfielders.
Another advantageous area for the Foxes is their manager, Brendan Rodgers, who has experience challenging for a title with a relatively unfancied side. His Liverpool side in 2013-14 was very similar to his current Leicester side, with a strong mix of youthful fearlessness and experienced wisdom mixed in with a tactically astute manager and spearheaded by a striker who knows how to score goals for fun against any opponent.
Don’t write off Leicester City just yet, because if there is one thing that we know about the 2020-21 Premier League season, it’s that anything is possible.
The rest of the pack
There were a few sides who most likely will not challenge for the title but could have their say in it. Spurs and Everton both started the season in remarkable form, and both have two Premier League winning managers in Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti.
However, for both these sides, injuries and inconsistency have proved to be their Achilles heel, and as both these sides stagnate, the top four distances themselves further.
This can also be said of Chelsea, who started the season with flying colours, but have now begun to plateau. With Frank Lampard’s sacking still fresh and Thomas Tuchel needing time to cement his tactics on the players, Chelsea – who sit 11 points off first-placed Manchester City – are well and truly out of the title race.
For West Ham, a surprise entrant into the European places, questions remain about whether or not they are good enough. They are in fine form, and in David Moyes, they have a manager who has experienced disrupting title races at both his Everton and Manchester United days. But when you compare this West Ham side with the sides that sit around them in the table, the difference in player quality is resounding.
As for London rivals Arsenal, they have the quality on paper to take points from some of the top sides, but much like Chelsea, the points gap between themselves and first place is too great to recover before the season’s end.
Irrespective of where these five sides sit on the ladder, there is no doubt that they can take points from any of the contenders and have an indirect say in who wins the 2020-21 Premier League title.
The end of this Premier League season may prove to be the most exciting since Manchester City stole the title at the death in 2011-12, and regardless of whether your team is a pretender or a contender, their involvement in the narrative of the 2020-21 season is undeniable and will make for thrilling viewing over the next few months.