At the start of the season, all the noise was about Pep Guardiola.
The former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager received acclaim from all quarters as pundits and punters alike fell over themselves to praise the new Manchester City boss and decry all possible competition. Personally, I was less convinced. With less Guardiola-style players, I’ve always felt it would take time for his philosophy to penetrate at the Etihad.
Indeed, City may have started like a runaway train, but they have stuttered and stalled in recent weeks. Colour me shocked.
This may sound like I’m blowing my own trumpet, but I have a deeper, darker confession to make. My pick for the Premier League champions back in August was Manchester United.
City had strengthened both on and off the pitch, but I expected them to be in transition this year. I saw Liverpool as masters of inconsistency, just as capable of winning 6-0 as drawing 0-0. Leicester were always going to slide. Chelsea needed a revival of fortunes despite a managerial change. And as for Spurs, they looked destined to go backwards by virtue of standing still. (Sound familiar?)
Theatre of Screams
Manchester United, meanwhile, had looked terrible the previous year. They lacked a proper striker, a creative midfielder and a centreback at the very least. And then they went out and bought players to fill those gaps.
Ibrahimovic always looked like a short term signing, similar in many ways to that of Robin van Persie. Both men are the type who could be the difference for a year, and win you a title, before falling off a cliff.
Bailly was exactly the opposite, a signing for both here and now, and the foreseeable future. Mkhitaryan offered the type of creativity that the red side of Manchester has so sorely lacked. And of course £89m Pogba came with a superstar price tag off the back of a superstar Euros campaign.
But in selecting United as my tip of choice for the title, I had overlooked one very important signing. Hallowe’en came very early this year, when they signed Jose Mourinho.
Mourinho has demonstrated before his ability to take a world class player and reduce them to Sunday league level. In fact, some of Eden Hazard’s performances last year would make that an insult to Sunday league players.
Is it a great surprise then, that Pogba has failed to meet expectations? Or that Mkhitaryan, a purveyor of beautiful football, has been cast asunder by the god of anti-football himself?
We’re now 10 games into the season, and as another international break threatens to send us to sleep, it seems a good time to take stock.
As expected, City are a bit hit and miss as Guardiola gets to grips with the Premier League. His players aren’t always on the same wavelength, and many are being asked to play a style of football which they’re not technically strong enough to play at this moment in time. He’s also discovering that the rhetoric about there being “no easy games” couldn’t be more true.
Leicester have slipped so far down the table that they’re now on the second page. Vardy and Mahrez have failed to hit the dizzy heights of last season, and our 0-0 draw back in August is looking an increasingly poor result, even away from home.
Liverpool are, for me, the surprise package. They are scoring goals for fun, and conceding them for marginally less fun. The real test will come when they suffer an injury to a player of note, although as we saw with the Foxes last year, that’s far from certain to happen.
Little surprise though, that both Liverpool and Chelsea have come to the fore as we move into the winter schedule. Those in Europe have now played a minimum of four additional games, and the energy levels were poles apart last weekend.
Spurs have picked up some long overdue injuries to Kane and Alderweireld, and have looked toothless in the interim. Their squad is thinner than Arsene’s book of tactics.
And then there’s United. Boring, jammy, United. So far, Mourinho has struggled to get the best from all of his summer signings. He’s throwing his players under the proverbial bus, as his traditional “us vs them” approach has very much become a “royal we”.
The nineties derby
We’re doing ok. We’ve played some good football. We’ve played some rubbish football and still ground out results. And we’ve played Middlesbrough. Dropped points against Leicester and Boro, coupled with poor home results against Liverpool and Spurs have left us just off the top, a situation which means we need to pick up maximum points in some of our big games to compensate now.
Our next fixture doesn’t get much bigger. It is of course against United, our rivals of yore. More than that though, it’s against the anti-Arsene himself.
Taking the three points in the early kick-off after the international break would lay the pressure on our rivals. Losing would see United close up to just three points behind.
The first part of the season has gone well, but this is the tightest the Premier League has ever been this far into the season, with just two points separating first and fourth. The challenge now is to push on and sustain a challenge into and beyond the festive period.
This year, United are a mid-table team with a mid-table manager. We need to be dispatching them back to that mid-table mediocrity with minimum fuss in a week’s time. This type of game is symbolic of whether we can finish the season with our hands on a pot. Champions win these types of games.
So clearly, I’d take a 1-0 ricochet from the bar into De Gea’s backside and in. But what if we could hand Mourinho the type of drubbing which cost him his job?
Well, a girl can dream.