The 2021-22 Premier League season is now in full flow and, after seven matchdays, looks like it could be one of the most exciting title races for years. Just two points separate leaders Chelsea and sixth-placed Brighton, with the top four positions already occupied by this season’s Champions League participants Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaku have hit the ground running with big goals since returning to United and Chelsea respectively, while Mohamed Salah and Kevin De Bruyne (since his return from injury) continue to drive Liverpool and City with inspirational performances. And while Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal have struggled for consistency in the early weeks of the season, the north London rivals head into the international break on an upwards trajectory.
So what have we learned from the first stage of the season? And are the “Big Six” heading for success or failure?
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P7, W5, D1, L1, GD +12
Story so far: Thomas Tuchel’s team are a point clear of Liverpool at the top of the table after winning five and drawing one of their seven league games. Chelsea have only dropped points against Liverpool and Manchester City — drawing at Anfield and losing against the champions at Stamford Bridge — but those results have not prevented the Champions League winners from claiming top spot.
What’s gone right? The big issue for Chelsea last season was their lack of a reliable goal scorer, with midfielder Jorginho topping their Premier League scoring chart with just seven goals, so the £97.5 million summer signing of Romelu Lukaku from Inter Milan was designed to solve that problem. And although the former Manchester United forward has now gone six games without a goal in all competitions, he has scored three in six Premier League games and is showing signs that he could hit 20 league goals.
Lukaku has given Chelsea a goal-scoring presence up front and has already made a difference. He has been prone to hot and cold streaks during his career, however, and Chelsea will need him to be consistent to maintain their impressive start.
What’s gone wrong? Failing to beat Liverpool and City might prove to be a worrying sign for Chelsea. Although Tuchel’s team dominated at Anfield, despite playing with 10 men for the entire second half following the sending off of right-back Reece James, they still left with just one point. And then came the 1-0 defeat at home to City last month.
If Chelsea are to win the title, they will need to pick up points against City, Liverpool and Manchester United, otherwise they will be under pressure to claim maximum points against everyone else. So far, they have done that, but it is difficult to envisage Tuchel’s players sustaining that record all season.
Where are they heading? Early season form is promising, but Chelsea still look some way short of being able to match City and Liverpool in terms of depth and consistency over a long season. Both those clubs can overcome the loss of one or two key players, but Chelsea would be in trouble if Lukaku, Antonio Rudiger or goalkeeper Edouard Mendy were to be sidelined for a lengthy period.
So far, so good, could be the verdict at this stage, but Chelsea need everything to go in their favour if they are to remain ahead of City and Liverpool.
Steve Nicol says Man City outplayed rivals Liverpool after the title contenders played out a 2-2 draw.
P7, W4, D3, L0, GD +11
Story so far: Jurgen Klopp’s side are the only unbeaten team in the Premier League after seven games and they have had a difficult start, with games against City and Chelsea. Salah is once again proving to be the key man, with the forward joint-top of the scoring charts alongside West Ham’s Michail Antonio with six goals. Three draws in seven games — two of those were against Chelsea and City — will be a frustration to Klopp, but Liverpool are going along nicely in second.
What’s gone right? The uncertainty over Salah’s future, with the 29-year-old yet to agree an extension to his contract that expires in June 2023, could have become an unwelcome distraction for the player, but his form so far has dispelled those concerns. Virgil van Dijk’s return to action after a 10-month cruciate ligament layoff has also gone smoothly, with the centre-back restoring his calmness and experience to the heart of Liverpool’s defence.
What’s gone wrong? Although Liverpool emerged unbeaten in two home games against Chelsea and City, Klopp’s team were dominated in both for long periods. They could only score a Salah penalty in a 1-1 draw against 10-man Chelsea and were fortunate to emerge with a 2-2 draw against City at the weekend after being outplayed by Pep Guardiola’s team. Liverpool are unquestionably a force to be reckoned with in this season’s title race, but failing to beat their two closest rivals at home will be a worry.
Where are they heading? In Salah and Sadio Mane, Liverpool possess two of the best goal scorers in the Premier League and their presence alone should ensure that they will be in the title race at the end of the season. At times against City and Chelsea, Liverpool were overrun in midfield, but against weaker opposition Klopp’s team are able to dominate. That is the only correction Liverpool need to make. If they can turn the tide in midfield against the top teams, they will be tough to beat.
Shaka Hislop speaks after Man City recorded just one shot on target in their 0-0 draw vs. Southampton.
3. MANCHESTER CITY
P7, W4, D2, L1, GD +11
Story so far: The failure to sign Harry Kane or Cristiano Ronaldo as a replacement for Sergio Aguero, who moved to Barcelona as a free agent, cast a shadow over City’s start to the season, but Guardiola’s team have still managed to score 14 goals in seven games. An opening day defeat at Tottenham was a rare false start, but they have since taken four points from two games against Chelsea and Liverpool so there is no obvious cause for alarm at the Etihad.
What’s gone right? There has been no obvious hangover from losing last season’s Champions League final to Chelsea and the lack of a replacement for Aguero has so far not been an issue. Defensively, City look even stronger than last season, with Aymeric Laporte restored to the team alongside Ruben Dias ahead of John Stones. City look like a team that can sustain a title challenge on auto-pilot, regardless of who Guardiola picks on a week-to-week basis.
What’s gone wrong? The flipside of City’s solid start is the lack of a genuine focal point in attack. Results suggest it is not an issue to play without a centre-forward, but a closer look at the numbers shows that no player has scored more than two league goals and the club have managed just four goals in four games away from home.
It is an eternal debate with this City team as to whether a Kane or Ronaldo would help or hinder their attacking play. Having one goal-hungry striker could diminish the potency of a team that attacks in waves and often has five offensive players on the pitch at any one time. Time will tell, but when a team has so few weaknesses, the absence of a proven centre-forward could ultimately be a big issue.
Where are they heading? Judging by their performances at Stamford Bridge and Anfield, City are still the best team in the country and the side to beat again. City dominated at Anfield with Raheem Sterling, Riyad Mahrez, Ferran Torres, Fernandinho, Ilkay Gundogan and Stones either left out or unavailable. Their depth is ominous for the rest of the title contenders.
Stevie Nicol has doubts over Man United’s squad depth as they give up a lead in their draw with Everton.
4. MANCHESTER UNITED
P7, W4, D2, L1, GD +8
Story so far: Ronaldo is back at Old Trafford. For all of the ups and downs of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team this season, the one dominating storyline is Ronaldo and the goals he scores, the games he doesn’t start and, yes, whether he eats dessert the night before matches. While the focus on the 36-year-old might appear trivial, his return of five goals in six games so far shows that whatever United achieve this season, Ronaldo will be at the heart of it. And within that lies the fate of Solskjaer, whose tactical shortcomings have resurfaced again in the opening weeks of the campaign
What’s gone right? Ronaldo’s impact since arriving from Juventus in September has arguably been bigger than United could have dared imagine. He has scored regularly and also delivered crucial goals, none more so than his stoppage time winner against Villarreal in the Champions League.
United’s incredible record away from home in the league continues, with Solskjaer’s team now unbeaten in 29 games — an English league record. Mason Greenwood’s development is another plus, with the 20-year-old hitting three goals in seven league games.
What’s gone wrong? United dropped 26 points in 19 games at Old Trafford last season — losing six times — and they have failed to improve that form this time around. Solskjaer’s team have taken one point from their last two home games and won one in four at Old Trafford in all competitions.
Solskjaer continues to struggle to find the formula to stop opponents hitting United on the counter-attack, where they take advantage of a weak midfield, and the team’s recurring failures prompted Bruno Fernandes to raise his own concerns after the 1-1 draw against Everton. And although Ronaldo and centre-back Raphael Varane have made strong starts since arriving this summer, winger Jadon Sancho has yet to impress since completing his long-awaited £72.9m move from Borussia Dortmund.
Where are they heading? Early season hopes of a title challenge at Old Trafford remain alive due to United sitting just two points behind leaders Chelsea, but performances suggest it will be difficult for Solskjaer’s team to keep pace with the top three. United’s inconsistency is their Achilles heel. In attack, they are capable of scoring against any opponents, but they cannot defend well enough and lack the midfield solidity to control games. So don’t expect United to win the title this season.
Tottenham manager Nuno Espirito Santo hopes to lift his side following three defeats in a row with a win against Mura in the Europa Conference League.
P7, W4, D0, L3, GD -4
Story so far: It has been a tale of highs and lows for Spurs. An opening win against Man City sparked a surge to the top of the table after three games, but they have since been heavily beaten in London derbies against Crystal Palace, Chelsea and Arsenal. New manager Nuno Espirito Santo has struggled to convince fans that he is the man to take the team forward, while Kane’s future and focus remain high on the agenda. But despite the extremes of good and bad, Spurs go into the international break just two points off the top four.
What’s gone right? The major positive from the early weeks of the season is that Kane remains at the club, despite his attempts to force a summer move to Manchester City. Son Heung-Min has also signed a new long-term contract. Progression to the fourth round of the Carabao Cup ensures that Spurs remain in with a chance of winning a trophy this season and Dele Alli has shown glimpses of a return to the form that once made him one of the most sought-after young players in Europe. But the negatives outweigh positives at this stage.
What’s gone wrong? Kane has failed to score a single goal in the Premier League this season and the England captain has been noticeably starved of service in the big defeats against Chelsea and Arsenal. Nuno’s dour tactical approach reflects his personality, so the former Wolves coach has yet to win over sceptical fans and some of his players, who had expected a more high-profile appointment as Jose Mourinho’s long-term successor.
Tottenham’s numbers are also a worry. They have scored six goals in seven league and conceded 10. But Sunday’s 2-1 win at home to Aston Villa has at least sent Spurs into the international break on the back of a positive result.
Where are they heading? If Kane can start scoring, Spurs should be good enough to seal a top six finish despite Nuno’s cautious tactics. But everything depends on Kane. If he continues to struggle for goals, Spurs may decide to cut their losses and let him leave in January. Whether they could find a club willing to pay a transfer fee of over £100m, as well as find a suitable replacement in the same transfer window, is doubtful, though.
Mark Donaldson and Steve Nicol reflect on Arsenal’s stunning 3-1 win vs Tottenham at the Emirates Stadium.
P7, W3, D1, L3, GD -5
Story so far: Arsenal made their worst-ever start to a season, with a 5-0 defeat at Manchester City a humbling reminder of how far the club has fallen in recent years. But manager Mikel Arteta has inspired a turnaround since that hammering at the Etihad and Arsenal are now five games unbeaten in all competitions. They remain in the bottom half of the table, though, which highlights just how bad they were while losing their first three games without scoring.
What’s gone right? The big positive for Arsenal has been the team’s response since losing the opening three games. Sources at the Emirates have maintained that Arteta will stay for the long term and that early season results would not cost him his job, but the pressure was growing until important wins against Norwich and Burnley stemmed the tide.
The 3-1 derby win at home to Tottenham changed the mood for Arsenal and Arteta, though, and it has given the club the feelgood factor again. New goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale has brought personality and confidence since replacing Bernd Leno as No. 1 and, with three of their next four league games at the Emirates, Arsenal are now on a pathway to recovery.
What’s gone wrong? Conceding nine goals in their three opening games, without scoring, was a dismal start for Arsenal and they were torn apart by both Chelsea and City in that run. Those defeats highlight the gulf between Arteta’s developing team and the heavyweights at the top of the table. And despite the recent revival, which included the win against Spurs, Arsenal’s progress can only be measured when they come up against the top teams again.
Where are they heading? Recent form suggests that Arsenal may have turned a corner under Arteta, but they remain a young team being managed by an inexperienced coach, so inconsistency is the most likely outcome this season. But the crucial requirement for Arsenal this season is to return to European competition and the run of games in the weeks ahead, combined with the revival since the City defeat, suggest that Arteta can guide the team into the top six.