With Manchester United six points clear of Manchester City and cruising, valid questions are being asked about the title race. Most pertinently, is it even a title race anymore? United’s procession towards the Premier League crown once again looks rather inevitable as they defeat opponent after opponent with relative ease.
This is a team who even when they play badly, tend to win. When they concede first they still take three points. When refereeing decisions go in their favour, they are said to have got the rub of the green. When those decisions go against them, they still find a way to win.
So is there anything to stop this seemingly inevitable title win?
Of course there is. United have come from 12 points behind in the past to win the league. One year Arsenal were 13 behind United and came back to claim the Premier League. Clubs can overhaul large deficits in the title race, and City’s six point disadvantage is eminently surmountable. In theory even Chelsea, Tottenham or Arsenal could mount a second half surge.
A key ingredient for a title turnaround is that the league leader cannot be that consistent themselves. If the team at the top drops few points, no-one else has a chance. But with United having lost three games already and conceding goals aplenty, the ingredients are there to eat into their lead.
At the current rate, having dropped 0.52 points per game, with just over half the season to go, United could be expected to lose another 11 points. That would give them 94 points, a figure rarely if ever reached, only adding to the suspicion the title race is over. So the big question is whether United will drop off over the course of the season.
That is where things get interesting. Counter to popular opinion, United aren’t actually much better in the second half of seasons than the first. Since United remarkably overturned Newcastle’s advantage in the 1996-7 season, commentators frequently trot out the ‘United always get better after Christmas’ line, a myth created by journalists who substitute easy clichés for actual research.
A cursory glance at statistics shows that the amount of points Sir Alex Ferguson’s side pick up before and after the midway point of the season are not radically different. Their form has actually dropped overall in more seasons than it has improved after the midway point in recent years. Last year they allowed the lead to slip through their fingers as Man City stole the title at the death. In the last six seasons, on four occasions United won more points in the first half of the season than the second. In those seasons, United have collected a cumulative total of 260 points in their first 19 games, and exactly 260 points afterwards. So the chance of United dropping off, rather than getting stronger, as the season gets into the final months, is over 50 per cent on past form.
This is not to denigrate United in the slightest. There is no questioning their big game mentality and ability to rise to the occasion – something they do better than perhaps any side in modern football, and they are far and away the best team in England at present. The point is that they can and have been caught in the second half of seasons before.
The big question then is how likely is it that a team will be able to put together the kind of run that can knock United off their perch? Not very, but also not out of the question. Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal all have the quality – that is when they are playing at their best they are all as good as United on their day.
The problem for the three London sides is that the number of times during a season that they play at their best is far less than the number of times United do. They do not have the same quality in abundance in their squads, and so they cannot rotate to the same extent, and therefore United are better at maintaining a consistent level of excellence. That is why none of the London sides are likely to be able to put together the kind of form which enables them to overhaul United. Although it is not completely out of the question.
That leaves Manchester City.
Having won the title last year they are clearly capable of putting together the kind of run required, yet there are reasons to doubt them. Their form last year was predominantly based on the performances of three key players. Yaya Touré, David Silva and Carlos Tevez.
For the first half of the season, Silva drove them on, his creativity and passing ability pivotal. Thereafter, they suffered somewhat. It was not until Tevez came back to form at the end of the campaign, and Touré showed his class, that they played well enough to get the form necessary to overhaul United. This year, Silva has been inconsistent, Tevez likewise. Touré has been rather less effective because he has had to drop back to negate the loss of Nigel de Jong, a crucial shield in front of their defence.
Javi Garcia has not been able to replace him effectively, and so City are easier to break down in midfield. Roberto Mancini has to either coax some form out of Garcia or sign a new player to get their form back in the second half of the season.
They, therefore, are not looking like a likely contender for the title either at present. Yet they are not so far off that they cannot improve enough in the coming months to win the league again.
In conclusion, the title race is far from over. There are five teams with the quality to win the title, although only two are realistic contenders at present. City are the most likely challengers of course, and if any of the London sides are likely to find some form and consistency it is Chelsea because of their willingness to spend big to enhance their squad. United remain the probable winners of this particular title – they have looked so far this season a class above their rivals. Yet there is plenty of reason for them to lose this seemingly most predictable of title races.