Monday 2 November 2020 11:47 am

Manchester United and Arsenal leave Premier League looking like a one-horse race

For a moment back then, there was an intoxicating sense of possibility about this Premier League season.

Liverpool’s aura of invincibility looked to have been shredded by a seven-goal humiliation at Aston Villa.

Villa, like Everton, were riding high and reviving memories of past glories with swashbuckling displays.

After three years of duopoly, the league had been flung wide open, there for any team ready to claim it.

It was fun while it lasted.

Since those heady early-October days, it has all been a little more sterile.

Liverpool have regrouped. 

Villa and Everton have fallen back into line with successive defeats. 

And those teams who might be expected to announce themselves as serious challengers — those same Big Six teams who want to effectively run the Premier League because they are so much more important, you see, than the Villas and Evertons — have largely failed to do so in convincing terms.

United stuck in mediocre limbo

Nowhere was that more apparent than at Old Trafford on Sunday, where Manchester United and Arsenal reminded us all how far off the pace they remain.

This was a chance for United to harness the momentum of a superb 5-0 win over RB Leipzig in midweek. A chance to show the 6-1 home loss to Tottenham last month was a freakish blip.

Instead, a tepid 1-0 defeat to a side that had not won at one of its Big Six rivals in the Premier League for five years merely underlined their shortcomings.

The stark facts are that United have just one point from four home games and lie 17th in the table.

Although Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tactical shortcomings are sometimes exaggerated, United’s results smack of an over-reliance on individual talents rather than a system to produce consistent results.

For that reason they doomed to take one step forwards and then one step back, stuck in mediocre limbo and no closer to the top.

No longer leaky, but Arsenal lack bite

Nothing Arsenal could have produced at United would have made them look like title challengers.

But, still, it was a chance to make a statement of progress.

In result, at least, it was a success, especially after three defeat in four Premier League games had stripped Mikel Arteta’s project of momentum.

And while the performance addressed some frequent failings, Arsenal continue to be held back by some familiar failings.

Their two shots on target underline that they are not penetrative enough when they get into the final third.

It’s not just that Arsenal aren’t taking enough shots, it’s that they don’t seem to get into shooting positions enough.

That lack of bite may be down to a focus on shoring up a defence that has been laughably leaky. 

And Arteta’s approach is paying off: the team’s seven goals conceded is the fewest in the Premier League.

But until he strikes a better balance between solidity and incisiveness, they, too, won’t be runners in a title race.

Usual suspects yet to convince

Which leaves Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester City of the usual suspects.

Edouard Mendy’s arrival in goal appears to have stemmed the torrent of goals flowing into Chelsea’s goal. 

Such reliance on one individual feels ill-suited to a title challenge, though. 

And it remains to be seen whether Frank Lampard’s approach is more sophisticated than Solksjaer’s strategy of hoping an array of forward talent overwhelms opponents.

Tottenham, now second, have been the most convincing of the chasing pack. 

Sergio Reguilon and Gareth Bale are classy additions, Tanguy Ndombele is much improved and in Harry Kane and Heung-min Son they have the best strike partnership.

Spurs’ case is strengthened by the presence of a serial winner in the dugout. But given last month’s collapse against West Ham, it feels too soon to be talking them up.

City, meanwhile, are ticking along nicely enough and would be third if they won their game in hand.

They are, of course, formidable. And yet nothing in their results, performances or summer business has nullified a sense of Pep Guardiola’s reign petering out. 

If they are to bridge a gap with Liverpool that stretched to 18 points last season, we have seen nothing to suggest it.

Inevitability of Liverpool success

Liverpool, as ever, just keep winning. Behind they went at home to in-form West Ham on Saturday, yet still they prevailed to go top.

Yes, Virgil van Dijk’s extended absence will test their new-found defensive solidity. 

Yes, fixture congestion and the continued absence of crowds make this season prone to unexpected results and therefore particularly foolish to predict.

And yet. Despite going behind, and despite having a would-be winner disallowed, Liverpool found a way to take three points.

There was an inevitability about it, and it is starting to feel that way about their title defence. 

Manchester United and Arsenal reminded us that very few teams are suggesting otherwise.