Legends break down EPL top-four battle
LIVERPOOL and Manchester City are set for another Premier League title showdown but who looks likeliest to join them in the top four this season?
The 2019/20 season might still be in its infancy but as matchday eight approaches, themes have already emerged to suggest an intriguing scrap below the top two between heavyweights caught in transition or struggling to balance attacking threat with defensive grit.
Will Manchester United struggle to make the top six, let alone top four? Are Leicester the real deal in the fight for Champions League football?
UNITED'S WORST EVER START
Manchester United and Arsenal played out a 1-1 draw but a once-fearsome fixture between the dominant forces of English football served up low-quality affair at Old Trafford.
United have, in fact, made their worst start to a Premier League season - nine points from seven games sees them just squeak into the top half heading into the weekend - and their stuttering form stretches back into last term; a haul of just 17 points from the last 16 games is the third-worst in the league, excluding this season's newcomers.
Solskjaer spent big on Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka in the summer but youngster Daniel James - more of a wildcard recruit than a sure thing - has been a standout performer, scoring a third of United's goals so far.
Since a 4-0 opening weekend rout of Chelsea, only Brighton (2), Newcastle (4) and Watford (4) have scored fewer goals than United's five, with only Brighton and Watford having a worse shot-conversion rate than their 5.8 per cent.
With Romelu Lukaku allowed to leave and lingering questions over Marcus Rashford's position, Solskjaer's squad is undoubtedly short, with the manager himself admitting his recruitment plans will prioritise creativity and goals.
"It is a worry for United going forward," said Jamie Carragher after the Old Trafford draw, where 12 of their 16 efforts came from outside the box.
"For United, who are renowned as that team of flying wingers, people getting in the box, goals and always a massive goal threat, it is a massive worry and I don't really see it changing. Ole talks about them being more clinical but have they actually got the players with the ability to be more clinical?"
Sky Sports' Jose Mourinho, speaking after the dismal defeat to West Ham, said he felt United were "in trouble to get not just into the top four but the top six", while Gary Neville has conceded the gulf but urged them to prioritise long-term strategy.
"Top four and winning a trophy would be a successful season," he said on his recent podcast. "That's where Manchester United are at. That is unacceptable but they are incapable - after six or seven years of poor recruitment - of going from seventh, sixth or fifth into first. Being on the right track this season is more important than fifth, fourth or third."
AT LEAST GUNNERS HAVE A STRIKER
Like Man Utd, Arsenal's deficiencies were highlighted in the Old Trafford stalemate but the Gunners - looking to seal Champions League football for the first time in five seasons - have seen their top-four odds shorten significantly.
Their attacking prowess - alongside their rivals' own worries - are certainly reasons for optimism.
Injuries have prevented Unai Emery from yet fielding Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe together from the start but Aubameyang has already netted seven times this season and they have created more big chances than Man Utd and Tottenham so far.
"I think Arsenal have just got the edge because of the strikers in their team," Carragher said on MNF. "I think they are going to concede more goals, but Aubameyang is top class. He is one of the best strikers in the league, he was joint-top scorer last season and I would not bet against him being top scorer again. They have Lacazette as well, so there are just more goals there."
A suspect defence remains: no Premier League side has made more errors leading to goals since Emery's appointment, while this term no side has faced more shots in total than the 126 clocked by Opta.
David Luiz remains prone to lapses but Carragher, in a deeper look at Arsenal's defensive flaws, believes Emery has structural work to do to ensure his backline is better protected.
A capitulation at Watford and a wobble against Aston Villa have been further reminders of a soft centre and Paul Merson expects fine margins in a nervy race.
"I'd probably say Arsenal will make it but there were two nervous football teams on Monday night with a lot of pressure on them," he said. "There is not going to be a lot between Chelsea, United and Arsenal; it's not going to be like it has been where the top four are 10-15 points ahead of everybody else."
Tottenham might have pushed Liverpool and City hard last season before finally falling away as the race on two fronts took its toll, but the mood has darkened dramatically across north London - and that was before Tuesday's 7-2 Champions League humiliation at home to Bayern Munich.
A one-off thrashing, with Robert Lewandowski and his teammates ruthless, might sting but be mitigated.
Yet Spurs have crashed out of cup competition to Colchester, looked devoid of ideas in defeat to Newcastle and repeatedly surrendered leads; in the context of a start where Mauricio Pochettino admitted his talented squad is unsettled after a turbulent transfer window, these are troubling times.
Pochettino's side have won just three games out of 10 in all competitions but their dismal run can be traced back to February; since a defeat to Burnley, they have won just 22 points in their last 19 Premier League matches. Newcastle have earned more.
Christian Eriksen was benched again in midweek, while in Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Danny Rose and Serge Aurier, Tottenham fielded a backline made up of players whose futures have all been or remain unclear.
Hugo Lloris gaffed against Southampton but no goalkeeper has prevented more league goals than the Spurs man since the start of last season (14), according to Opta's expected goals on target data. Only four sides have faced more than Spurs' 112 shots and five points have already been dropped from winning positions.
Merson, speaking before a gritty 2-1 win over Southampton that appeared a morale-booster, believes Spurs remain the closest challengers to the two top but feels a spark has gone on the pitch and in the dugout.
"They're the third-best team in the league, in my opinion, still," Merson said. "I don't want to say get rid of Pochettino and everything's right, but it's just gone sour there. With everybody, the whole thing needs changing. They're a good team, who are not going to win the league - once again. It looks a bit like the players are thinking that. The spark's gone a bit."
LAMPARD'S CHELSEA TO PROFIT?
Chelsea's wait for a first home win in the Premier League ended at the weekend but their youthful side has galvanised fans regardless of results and a growing sense of optimism was strengthened in Lille, where Frank Lampard's players passed a stern Champions League test, albeit with the help of an older head in Willian.
They might be in transition but Lampard has approached the task of blooding youth in the face of a transfer ban with relish and his trust in young talent is paying off.
Tammy Abraham has scored eight goals already this season. He, along with Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori are in line for England call-ups. All but one of Chelsea's top-flight goals this season have been scored or assisted by academy graduates.
A team full of enterprise currently ranks second for shots, shots on target and chances created from open play and those opportunities are good ones too - only Manchester City are scoring higher in terms of expected goals.
There is ample room for defensive improvement - they have only kept one clean sheet this season - and the exertions of a long season could well take their toll on players adapting to life at the top level, but Carragher has seen enough to think Lampard's side could capitalise as their rivals toil.
"The one team looking at (Man Utd's draw against Arsenal) who will be encouraged is Chelsea," Carragher said.
"At the start of the season, I thought Chelsea might struggle to get into the top four. It will still be a fight but, even in these early stages, they have more quality than what we have seen from these two teams."
ARE LEICESTER GENUINE CANDIDATES?
Brendan Rodgers might be playing down Leicester's chances - "we know it's a big ask because of all the other clubs that have been regulars there; we're just focusing on our performance levels," he said after a 5-0 thumping of Newcastle, but the numbers marry with the eye test.
Only Liverpool and Manchester City have taken more Premier League points than Leicester's 31 since Rodgers' arrival, with a notable win over Tottenham helping them to third in the fledgling table.
The former Celtic boss has crafted a vibrant, hard-pressing side with Jamie Vardy and James Maddison thriving in attack, while Wilfred Ndidi and new fan favourite Caglar Soyuncu are playing key roles further back.
Neville believes the Foxes - along with West Ham - look in good shape to at least mount a top-six challenge. "If West Ham and Leicester keep their squads fit, they have got a really good chance of getting into that sixth or fifth position," he said.
"You'd probably swap some of both sides' players into the Man Utd team or bench. There's a real chance there. Arsenal are erratic, Chelsea and Man Utd are unreliable and young. We saw Leicester break through at the very top miraculously a few years ago; it wouldn't be a miracle to see them break into the top four or five this time."
Roy Keane also sees an opportunity: "From what I've seen recently of United and Arsenal, if you're these other teams - West Ham, Leicester - if there's ever a chance for them to get in the top four it'll be this season."
Merson is impressed by what he has seen so far - but has words of caution. "Rodgers hasn't even been at Leicester a year and he's already improved that squad 10-fold," he said.
"There isn't one player that has gone backwards since his arrival but there is a long way to go, it's a big ask. Certain players have to stay fit for them; if Jamie Vardy gets injured, who is going to come in? That's the problem over a 38-game season."
This article was originally published by Sky Sports and reproduced with permission