At the start of the campaign, it felt that we might even be in for a four-horse race. Through their own failings, Manchester United quickly fell away, and while Chelsea are certainly not out of contention, a run of one win in four games means they cannot afford many more slip-ups.
Traditionally, December can be a cruel month for Chelsea managers and it has been tricky for Thomas Tuchel.
It leaves Liverpool as Manchester City’s closest rivals and the hope has to be that they keep pace with the champions, who have reeled off eight straight Premier League wins.
There are fears that, just as they did this time last year, City will run away with it.
Then, they won a phenomenal 15 league games in a row during a sequence of 21 consecutive victories.
City would also appear to have the edge with their remaining matches. They have already travelled to Liverpool, Chelsea and United, claiming seven points and arguably deserving nine.
They have faced Tottenham Hotspur away, losing on the opening weekend, and after Arsenal on New Year’s Day have only trips to West Ham and Wolverhampton Wanderers from those currently in the top 10.
Liverpool also travel to Arsenal but have two big away games to come: Chelsea on January 2, and City in April.
City have a formidable defensive record. They have conceded only nine goals in 18 league matches, and have collected 11 clean sheets.
It is the best record in Pep Guardiola’s five years in charge and, for all the manager’s attacking demands, he is a coach who builds from the back.
But even when they won the league with a record 100 points in 2017-18, they conceded 27 goals (at a rate of 0.7 per game).
The key remains Ruben Dias, who was largely partnered in central defence last season by John Stones but is now more often alongside Aymeric Laporte.
It has made little difference, while Kyle Walker and Joao Cancelo, City’s first-choice full-backs, are challenging the Liverpool pair of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson as the most influential in the league.
Defensively, Liverpool are clearly far better with Virgil van Dijk back after last season’s knee injury. His win ratio since joining Liverpool in 2018 is the best in the league and his return has clearly improved them and their desire to play a high defensive line, as, of course, has the fact that there are other centre-halves fit and Ibrahima Konate has been signed.
Still, Liverpool have only the fourth-best defensive record – Chelsea and Wolves have also conceded fewer goals – but have kept 10 clean sheets.
On six occasions, they have conceded more than one goal; this has happened to City only twice. For Liverpool this is offset by the fact that, with 50 goals, they have outscored every team including City.
It is a trade-off that Jurgen Klopp is happy to accept even if, defensively, City have the edge.
Will City rue not signing a centre-forward such as Harry Kane? As free-scoring as they are, they probably do not quite score as many goals as their dominance warrants –
their total of 44 in the league has been bumped up by 11 in their past two games.
So, if anything, they have “under-scored”.
in other games.
However, they do have a frightening array of attacking talent and share the goals around. In all competitions, City have 18 different goalscorers this season. Liverpool have 15.
City’s top scorer is Bernardo Silva with seven, the same as Sadio Mane, and the only other player in the top 25 is Raheem Sterling, with five. By contrast, Mohamed Salah has 15 goals and Diogo Jota has 10.
It means that City’s top three scorers, though, account for 38 per cent of their 65 goals; for Liverpool, the ratio is 58 per cent for their 74 goals.
It is clear who they are dependent on, which brings us on to the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon between Jan 9 and Feb 6.
The Premier League clubs are hoping it is again called off or, at least, that their players do not fly out until after the round of fixtures on Jan 1-3, which includes Liverpool’s trip to Chelsea.
They will be without Salah, Mane and Naby Keita during the tournament and, depending how far their countries go, City will miss Riyad Mahrez.
Can Liverpool cope? The burden will fall on Jota and Roberto Firmino . . . and one other. Again, the advantage is – at least for a while – with City.
Strength in depth
Once more, it would appear advantage City. Their squad, despite the lack of that out-and-out striker, is incredible.
So much so that they can afford to sell Ferran Torres to Barcelona, although that may be the precursor for another forward arriving, while Stones, so outstanding last season, is no longer an automatic starter and Sterling has had to fight for his place back in the team, like Bernardo, while Guardiola can leave out Jack Grealish and Phil Foden for disciplinary reasons. Given the issues around
Covid-19 and availability then, squad depth could be a deciding factor.
Even so, Liverpool have actually used more players this season – 25 to City’s 23 – and are undoubtedly stronger than they were in the last campaign when injuries hit them hard.
Klopp has young players coming through, such as Tyler Morton, and more established stars including Thiago Alcantara finally finding their best form.
For Liverpool, it is obvious: their attacking power.
They are a superbly constructed, well-balanced team but do not, quite, have the unexpected element that City can bring with Kevin de Bruyne, Foden, Mahrez or Grealish.
Because Liverpool have such a phenomenal front three, with Firmino as back-up, they have front-loaded the team to supply for them.
Beyond that, the full-backs, Alexander-Arnold and Robertson, provide crucial assists and chip in with goals, but City have more players who can unlock defences with that single moment of magic and that could also prove decisive.
It all points to City retaining the title, although Liverpool are far better equipped than last season to push them all the way.
Chelsea cannot be discounted –
especially if Romelu Lukaku regains fitness and starts scoring regularly – but need to turn things round qu