Man Utd’s derby defeat at the hands of noisy neighbours Man City has pushed them out to third favourites behind City and Chelsea for the Premier League. At the start of the season there was not much difference between the two Manchester clubs, with bookies predicting a tight battle between them all season and anticipating Chelsea and Arsenal to finish third and fourth respectively. But the derby result has changed all that and after four games they are now expecting City to go on and win it comfortably.
Yet that might be a bit foolhardy. This is, after all, the same bookmakers that continuously wrote off Leicester City’s chances throughout last season and were stung to the tune of £50 million. The return of the Premier League has seen a flurry of activity, and since the derby defeat pushed Man Utd out from pre-season odds of 7/2 to 11/2 the majority of punters have been backing Utd. Meanwhile City have gone in from 5/2 to just 10/11 and the betting public are clearly not convinced.
Four wins out of four since the return of the Premier League is ominous form for Man City, however. New manager Pep Guardiola has implemented a brand of football previously unseen on these shores and it has proved pretty effective so far. There is no room for mere workhorses: every single player in his starting 11 must be supremely comfortable on the ball, even the goalkeeper, hence the departure of City stalwart and England number one Joe Hart. He has managed to fit David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Nolito and Raheem Sterling into the starting 11, when previously only three of them would have played, having sacrificed a more defensive midfielder like Fernando. We have seen full backs slotting into midfield, centre backs carrying the ball into the final third, and the madcap excitement of the sweeper keeper. The way they pressed Man Utd in the first half at Old Trafford was terrifyingly ferocious, and it paid dividends. They ran out deserved winners, but they nearly undid all their good work by reckless defending. The thing about City is that you will always get chances against them. In four league games, against Sunderland, Stoke, West Ham and Utd, they have failed to keep a single clean sheet. Fair enough because they won all four, but most Premiership winners in recent memory have been built on a solid defence and the ability to grind out results. City may not always be able to ride their luck, and the goalkeeping situation will be a worry to their fans.
Hart was prone to the odd error, but was genuinely solid. New keeper Claudio Bravo had a horror show against Utd: he dropped the ball at Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s feet for the Utd goal, could well have given away a penalty with a two-footed lunge on Wayne Rooney following a poor touch and generally flapped about all afternoon, causing dozens of heart in the mouth moments.
Utd were outplayed, but over the course of a season they could grind their city rivals down. They seem to be built on more solid foundations: David De Gea is arguably the league’s best goalkeeper, Paul Pogba brings athleticism and power to the midfield, and they have more warriors rather than ballplayers. The old cliché about winning away at a grim stadium on a cold winter afternoon could go more in Man Utd’s favour than City’s. They are a Jose Mourinho side, and should be able to grind out plenty of strong results, so they are still in with a great chance.
Beyond them, Chelsea are in with a shout after moving ahead of Utd to be made second favourites following their unbeaten start to the season. Eden Hazard is once again firing on all cylinders, as is Diego Costa, while N’Golo Kante has added steel to the midfield. Meanwhile, everyone is talking about Liverpool, who have leapfrogged Arsenal to be made fourth favourites. They have been impressive in beating Leicester and Arsenal, but the defeat at the hands of Burnley doesn’t instil much confidence and they seem to be a few players short of the team Jurgen Klopp needs to really compete at the top of the table and they look seT to fall away.
Arsenal have finally got their chequebook out and snapped up some decent reinforcements, and they have won their last two games to climb the table, but it looks like another season merely making up the top four is the Gunners’ destiny once again. Tottenham and Everton look like good dark horse options, but may struggle to finish ahead of the Manchester clubs due to the relative strength of their squads. Finally champions Leicester, who defied odds of 5,000/1 last season, are back out at more than 100/1 after a miserable start to the 2016/17 campaign.
A number of good teams are in the mix, but when all the dust has settled and all the smoke has cleared, it could well come down once more to Utd and City, Mourinho and Guardiola, and City’s gung-ho tactics could just open the door for Utd to nick it.