We’re certainly not at the point in the Premiership season, with all teams having played either 13 or 14 matches, where observers would say there’s “parity.”
Saying that, we’re not quite sure whether this season is all about the two Manchester clubs fighting for the league title, and by extension, perhaps the F.A. Cup as well. “Parity” implies that any team can beat any team in any given match, and while that’s not quite the case, we have seen more than an unusual amount of bizarre results.
West Bromwich Albion is tied with Chelsea for third in the table, and beat the Blues in Roberto Di Matteo’s final Premier League match. Swansea City sits eighth and West Ham United is tenth. Even more surprising are the teams in the bottom half of the table, with Liverpool being far worse than anyone imagined, having won just three of 14 matches thus far. And I’d argue one of the bigger shockers has been the decline of Newcastle United.
The Magpies went toe-to-toe with the heavy hitters through the first four months of the 2011-12 campaign before things truly fell off the map for them in the New Year, and they still finished fifth and stayed in the Europa League. This year, Newcastle is reeling, having also won just three of 14 matches, forcing manager Alan Pardew to admit he glances at the “drop zone” once in a while. Given Newcastle supporters have all too fresh a remembrance of being relegated, it’s a fear for sure, even if it possibly is an irrational one. It’s certainly a critical home match Monday for Newcastle against Wigan Athletic, given they’ve lost four straight contests, all of them to middle-of-the-table teams and have been outscored 7-2 in doing so.
Also surprising this season is the share of contenders for a top five spot, and more struggles for bigger clubs like the aforementioned Liverpool and Newcastle, and that we may simply have a season where there isn’t a “great” Premier League team.
The easy counter to that is that we have two in Manchester United and Manchester City, and one in Chelsea, if they can eventually begin scoring goals, and can look the title threat they were throughout September and October under Di Matteo’s leadership. That could happen even if Chelsea’s fan base won’t embrace Rafa Benitez as manager and if the squad begins to execute. And there’s always that theory that being able to focus on domestic goals via elimination in the Champions League may eliminate the wear-and-tear, especially for an older club like Chelsea.
But Manchester United’s three losses in 14 matches, coupled with Manchester City’s struggles to be consistent offensively might suggest that these are simply very good versions of what were superior products last season. Not too many fans from either side of the divide in Manchester could truly suggest they’re more impressed by their teams than at this point 12 months ago.
Yes, United has been far more consistent in the Champions League than City has been, but they also drew a far easier group and still looked average in both Galatasaray matches, and looked to mail it in against CFJ Cluj. A recent defeat to Norwich City and a struggle against a woeful Aston Villa side haven’t restored any great confidence in what the Red Devils can accomplish.
Remember, the bar was set very high by City and United last season. Every time I have to call up the Premier League standings from the 2011-12 campaign, I still end up fixating on the “points” column and the 89 each squad put up. It may be something that’s never duplicated: the top two teams in the Premier League having a combined record of 56-10-10. A combined 178 points, and that hasn’t been matched since 2004-05 when Chelsea and Arsenal combined for the same number of points, with most of the heavy lifting done by the Blues, who only lost one match, conceding 15 goals in their 38 matches.
To give some perspective, Manchester United’s already given up 18 goals and Manchester City 10. We’re five matches away from the halfway point of the schedule and the two northern giants have yet to meet up, which they will do a week from this Sunday afternoon at the Etihad.
Of course, Manchester United could still win two major trophies this season amongst the Champions League, the F.A. Cup, and of course, the Premier League title. Manchester City could repeat as Premier League champs or win their second F.A. Cup in the past three seasons. And maybe they’ll shock us all and both teams will play at an infinitely higher level the rest of the season, leaving Chelsea, West Bromwich Albion and Tottenham in their dust.
But so far, these look like “very good” Manchester squads, yet maddeningly inconsistent ones, and it’s inconsistency that truly limits labeling a team as “great.”