When Thomas Tuchel comes in after games and scans the other results, he doesn’t automatically go to Liverpool or Manchester City. At least not yet.
“There are some teams behind us who show consistency, who show quality, who show determination,” the Chelsea manager said last week. “This is what it is. You have a right to be proud of your competition here, in the Premier League, and for us it feels good because we are in the middle of that race and we want to stay here. I don’t know if it will settle down.”
There is a bit of a giveaway, though, as the top of the table starts to give way. All of Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool have goal differences of plus-20 – and an aggregate of plus-74 – which is way out in front of everyone else in the division. The next closest is West Ham United, on plus-eight, with no one else possessing a positive goal difference.
It gives rise to the tantalising prospect that the Premier League may well see its first proper three-team title race.
It is something the competition has teased in the past but never really come close to. The 2013/14, 2007/08 and 1998/99 seasons all finished with mere four-point gaps between top and third, but the last of those – twice Chelsea, once Arsenal in 2007/08 – all felt too far off to really be in contention when it mattered.
Most seasons have ultimately funnelled out into two-team races – or even one.
That was often far from the case in the pre-Premier League era. Title races involving multiple teams were relatively common, given how they require a number of different factors, and good teams, coming together.
All of 1985/86, 1974/75, 1967/68, 1959/60, 1948/49 had three teams going for the league, with 1971/72 and 1946/47 featuring four.
It is that 1971/72 season that remains the most celebrated, with Brian Clough’s Derby County famously winning the title on a Spanish beach. Their 58 points – in the days of two points for a win – were enough, as neither Leeds United, Liverpool nor Manchester City were able to take advantage with their remaining game. They all finished on 57 points.
Much of that was due to the greater equality of the era. With the maximum wage having been abolished only a decade before, the financial gaps between clubs were nowhere as great. It was a more democratic league, as could be seen by the fact no one retained it between 1959 and 1976, and it had 11 different winners.
There was a greater element of randomness as teams persevered into the season.
It is ironically the complete opposite situation that could create a three-team race this season. City, Chelsea and, to a lesser extent, Liverpool are among a band of super clubs with a financial power beyond almost everyone in the game apart from the ailing Manchester United. And that doesn’t just apply to England.
These are probably the three best teams in Europe right now, with perhaps three of the best coaches.
It has duly created something of a rock-paper-scissors dynamic to their race. All have so many qualities, but – crucially – different key qualities.
City have the experience and consistency, having won three of the last four leagues under Pep Guardiola. Chelsea have the immense strength in depth, given they have so many options in virtually every position.
Liverpool lack that, but probably have the best first XI, and maybe the highest ceiling, with the standout stars.
It is instructive that three of the league’s four top scorers all play for Jurgen Klopp: Sadio Mane and Diogo Jota on seven each, and the peerless Mohamed Salah on 11. They have contributed to 39 goals so far, which is more than any other side in Premier League history that a team have scored after 13 games. It is a return of an incredible three a match. This is why their ceiling perhaps seems the highest. When they click, they’re almost unstoppable. The question is how often it can happen – especially with the African Cup of Nations coming up in January.
They will lose Mane and Salah. The Egyptian is on another level to anyone in the league right now, even Kevin De Bruyne.
Guardiola, however, has constructed his system in such a way so performance is fairly interchangeable regardless of the individuals involved. While there is at least an argument Liverpool are better when they are at their best, City possibly perform to a higher level more often. It is like they offer a series of 8-out-of-10 displays rather than so regularly going to 10.
They also have a glass jaw, even if it is difficult to reach.
There’s almost no getting at Chelsea at all. They don’t have that attacking level yet but they do have the strongest defence – with just five conceded – and a huge variety to their scorers. Chelsea currently have 10 players on two goals or more, with their top scorer a wing-back in Reece James. There is still the prospect of the returning Romelu Lukaku clicking, too.
It all adds up to the prospect of something very exciting, and exceedingly rare. It is also why this December period will possibly be instructive itself.
The onset of these midweek fixtures is the start of a more hectic Premier League schedule, which will test just how sustainable the teams’ form is. This is when the table will start to settle, precisely because the fixture list is so chaotic. It will leave the managers knowing who to look to.
The hope, for once, is that it evens out into a three-team race.
It would be great if there was even more, of course. Given how we’ve never seen three go the distance, however, it would be one to savour.