Imagine what a title race this could be, if only Manchester City didn’t exist. On Sunday, Arsenal and Tottenham played out a thrilling and high-quality 2-2 draw; both have dropped only four points this season. Brighton are averaging three goals a game and have dropped just three points in six games. And as Manchester United and Chelsea struggle – because at least one big team has to be in crisis to offer a sense of light and shade – Sunday’s win over West Ham would have carried Liverpool top of the table having won five in a row, as their midfield rebuild begins to mesh with the rejuvenated forward line.
But City do exist and their excellence means Liverpool are only second. City have won five of the last six league titles and with each passing week it becomes increasingly likely they’ll make that six out of seven. And while much will – rightly – be made of their ownership, and of the 115 charges they face relating to alleged breaches of the Premier League’s financial regulations as they built to this position of strength, they are also an extraordinary football team.
City have won six out of six this season. The English top-flight record of 11 straight wins to start the season set by Tottenham in 1960-61 is under threat. And what’s perhaps most intimidating is the sense that City haven’t quite got going yet, that they’re still feeling their way into the season. John Stones is yet to play this campaign. Kevin De Bruyne was injured in the opening game. Jack Grealish has been restricted to two starts. Bernardo Silva was injured against Red Star Belgrade last week. There have been plenty of possible excuses, but City haven’t needed them.
Perhaps the suspension to Rodri for being sent off against Nottingham Forest on Saturday will disrupt them, but they have Mateo Kovacic or Kalvin Phillips ready to step in. This is not a vast squad, but the versatility of so many players in it means it runs deep. The only slight quibble with their start is that, aside from Newcastle – who in the event were oddly passive – City haven’t played any of the other serious title contenders. After Wolves away next week, there suddenly comes a run of Arsenal away, Brighton at home and then a Manchester derby at Old Trafford. With Rodri suspended for three games, a wrinkle may be coming.
But nobody really expects it. It’s indicative of how good City are and how that is taken for granted these days that their start has attracted very little comment. The win over Forest on Saturday was defined by two goals of stunning quality in the opening quarter-hour and, if there was a sense that Forest had the better of the second half, after Rodri’s red card, it’s also true that City held out comfortably enough under the aerial bombardment.
There is an implacability about them that applies pressure to other sides. After the north London derby on Sunday, Mikel Arteta was asked whether he is concerned that there is already a four-point gap between his side and City. Already there’s a sense that Arsenal can’t afford to lose against City in two weeks: a seven-point gap, even at this stage, would seem almost insurmountable.
In their last five title-winning seasons, City have averaged 95.67 points. That means a team wanting to challenge – if City are near their best – can’t afford to drop more than 20 points. Arsenal have already leaked four. It may be that there is greater quality towards the top end now, with the Big Six joined by Brighton, Aston Villa and Newcastle, and that those seasons of high-90 points are no longer possible but, still, nobody can expect to drop 30 points and still win the title.
As for Liverpool, the side who would be top in a Cityless world, there has been an oddly frenetic quality to their start to the season. Three times already they have conceded first, while against West Ham on Sunday they conceded an equaliser that transformed what could have been a straightforward afternoon into something edgier. In seven games in all competitions this season, they have kept only one clean sheet.
That is clearly an issue, and it may be that issues at the back of midfield end up being costly, but there is a fury about Liverpool going forward that was missing last season, Dominik Szoboszlai has settled remarkably quickly and there are a wealth of options in the forward line. Jürgen Klopp believes that something is beginning to grow again.
But the question for all the challengers is how long they can sustain a challenge, how long can they keep finding ways to win, do they have the emotional energy, to take on champions who never seem to stop, who never have an off-day.
On this day
Tom Finney was one of the greatest players England ever produced, a skilful and industrious winger in the golden age of English wing-play, who totalled 76 caps for England, usually on the left because Stanley Matthews had priority on his preferred right flank. He spent the vast majority of his career at Preston North End, winning the Second Division title with them in 1951 and then twice being a runner-up in the First Division. He was the first player to be voted Footballer of the Year twice. When he retired in 1960, he had amassed 433 appearances from Preston, despite losing the first five years of his career to the second world war, when he served in Montgomery’s eighth army in Egypt and then Italy.
He seemed the ultimate one-club man, but in 1962, he was briefly persuaded out of retirement to play for Toronto City in the Eastern Canada Professional Soccer League. And then, on 25 September 1963, he played in the European Cup for the only time, turning out for the Northern Irish champions Distillery against the great Benfica. Distillery drew the first leg 3-3 but, without Finney, lost 5-0 in Lisbon.