After 13 games, the top three are separated by just two points. Could we be set for the first genuine three-way title battle the Premier League has seen in years?
Over the last six seasons, it is only really thanks to Liverpool and Arsenal that we have had any excitement at all at the top of the Premier League.
Manchester City have been almost totally dominant. They have unrivalled resources and nobody else has been able to compete for a sustained period of time.
There have been pretenders, and a fair few of them. Tottenham have been “in the title race” for about five minutes in every other season; Chelsea led the league at this stage a couple of years ago; Manchester United were top at the midway point in 2020-21. But none of them mounted anything like a proper challenge to City.
Last season, Arsenal made things interesting for a decent stretch but City’s rise to the top always felt pretty inevitable, and in the end, they won the league fairly comfortably considering Arsenal had been top until the final couple of months of the campaign.
Only Liverpool have disrupted City’s run of consecutive title wins, and them doing so in 2019-20 required an almost unprecedented level of consistency at the top of the league. A year earlier they failed to win the title with a colossal 97 points, simply because City played close to the perfect season. That is the standard City have set.
And even when Liverpool ran City close, it was only Liverpool competing. Then, when Arsenal gave it a good go last season, it was only them in contention. To compete with City these days, a team has to be so good that it separates them – and City – from the rest of the pack.
But the way this season is shaping up, maybe, just maybe, it’s going to be different. For the first time in a long time, it looks like we could have a genuine three-way title battle. And, at the time of writing, Aston Villa are still very much in the mix, while Tottenham, Manchester United and Newcastle are all gearing up to make the battle for Champions League qualification very interesting.
At the top of the table, just one point separates first and second at the 13-game mark, something that has happened nine times before in the Premier League era. However, on only five of those occasions have first and third been separated by as little as two points, and only once before in Premier League history have first and fourth been separated by as little as two points, as Arsenal and Aston Villa are right now. This is as tight as the top of the Premier League table has ever been at this stage.
In the current era of Manchester City dominance, the top four have been separated by at least seven points at this stage in all but one season, and the top three have been at least four points apart, and sometimes as many as 11.
Going further back, the only other time in the Premier League era we have ever seen the top four as bunched at the top at this stage of a season as they are right now was 2015-16 – the year Leicester City won the title against all odds.
Whatever happens this time around, we aren’t going to see a surprise as big as Leicester winning the league, even though the Opta supercomputer makes City huge favourites to win the title, giving them a 77.7% chance of doing so in its latest set of Premier League season simulations. While Arsenal and Liverpool are outsiders for the title, they are both in good shape – better than they have been in a while – and have shown in previous campaigns, as well as the first 13 games of this season, that they both have the potential to compete with City and make this the first genuine three-way title race we’ve had since 2015-16.
This season might not be the most goal-filled title race we’ve ever seen; it might just be won by the team with the best defensive record.
Premier League history has followed a cyclical path in terms of how important it has been for an eventual champion to be the league’s best side at keeping the ball out of their own net. After the Premier League’s inaugural champions, Manchester United, had the best defence when they won the title in 1992-93, none of the next seven champions conceded the fewest goals in the league. Then, between 2000-01 and 2008-09, seven of nine champions had the best defensive record, before a run in which only two of eight title winners between 2009-10 and 2016-17 had the best defence.
Since then, during Man City’s period of Premier League dominance, the team with the best defence has won the title in five of six seasons. The only time they didn’t was the aforementioned 2018-19 season, when City won the title conceding only 23 goals – the sixth-fewest any team has ever managed in a Premier League season – but Liverpool shipped only 22 as they came second with 97 points. In this current era, defensive record is as important as ever.
That might explain why Mikel Arteta has been happy to sacrifice some of Arsenal’s free-flowing attacking threat for defensive solidity this season, though Wednesday’s 6-0 demolition of Lens in the Champions League hinted at the shackles coming off. Domestically, at the 13-game mark, Arsenal have the best defence in the Premier League, with just 10 goals conceded. They are closely followed by Liverpool (11 goals conceded).
Arsenal are smarter than they were last season when they fell away in the closing weeks, while Liverpool are experienced in hunting City down under Jürgen Klopp, and their summer midfield refresh could not have gone any better. They look as strong as ever, having only lost once all season, and that was a game when they had been reduced to nine men at Tottenham, and they still only lost to an injury-time own goal.
The problem for them is just how sustainable it is to keep conceding the first goal before mounting a comeback. The 1-1 draw at Manchester City last weekend was the sixth time this season Liverpool have let in the opening goal of a game but still got a result; they have won at least four more points from losing positions (12) than any other team in the Premier League in 2023-24.
The numbers speak to a togetherness and team spirit in the squad typical of the best of Klopp’s sides, and so far it has been enough to keep pace at the top. The fact they have conceded first so often and still have the second-best defensive record in the league shows just how secure the foundations are.
There aren’t many who consider Aston Villa’s title charge any more sustainable than Tottenham’s, but Unai Emery deserves praise for building a team that has risen so sharply up the table and into the Champions League places after a run of seven wins from nine games. Just two points off top spot, they are in the mix for now, even if they are still a good few months of sustained form off a genuine title challenge.
But even if they don’t make this a four-team race for the title, they will make the race for Champions League qualification more exciting. If City, Arsenal and Liverpool are shoo-ins for the top four, that leaves Villa, Spurs, Manchester United, Newcastle and Brighton, separated by just six points, all in the hunt and battling it out for one Champions League spot – or possibly two, if Premier League teams earn a fifth place in next season’s competition, as seems likely. West Ham and even Chelsea will still be holding on to some hope of clawing their way back into the race for European qualification, too, especially with the lure of a fifth spot in the Champions League.
At the bottom of the table, mathematically speaking, this isn’t anything like the closest relegation battle we’ve had. It’s not been unusual for the teams in 17th and 18th – the gap between safety and the relegation zone – to be separated by as little as zero or one point at this stage of the season, whereas after Luton Town’s win over Crystal Palace, the current gap is four points.
But it is still shaping up to be a good battle. After the newly promoted clubs all made poor starts the season, it had looked like the relegated teams for 2023-24 were a foregone conclusion. Everton’s 10-point deduction and Luton’s improvement, however, have made things very interesting. There are plenty of subplots down at the wrong end of the table to keep us interested.
It’s early days. Arsenal might stop sneaking 1-0 wins, Liverpool might stop recovering from a goal down and City could quite feasibly pull away in the next couple of months. Villa’s form could be a purple patch and Everton might just prove too good to go down, even with their massive points penalty.
But there are good reasons to hope that this season could be the most exciting one we’ve seen in the Premier League in years. Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.