The Premier League table has a familiar name at the top of the standings as 2021 draws to a close — but not many expected Manchester City side to be getting things their own way quite so easily ahead of their title rivals.
The defending champions are eight points clear at the summit, with Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea second, a point ahead of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. But back at the start of the 2021-22 campaign, most saw things panning out quite differently.
The legendary Sergio Aguero departed the Etihad in the summer and City had no recognised No. 9 striker, European champions Chelsea welcomed home prolific frontman Romelu Lukaku from Inter Milan and Liverpool were back to full strength — including talisman Virgil van Dijk — after an injury ravaged 2020-21 campaign. But is seems that with Pep Guardiola’s men, where there is a will there is a way and — after a wobble at the start of the season (they opened with a loss to Tottenham Hotspur) — they were soon firing on all cylinders and scoring from almost all positions. An astonishing 18 different players have scored City’s whopping 75 goals already this season. Also, their tally of 113 Premier League goals in 2021 is the most by a top-flight team in a calendar year since 1960.
Confidence in front of goal has led to positive results and City are on a 10-game winning run while their foes have flopped. Liverpool most recently lost to Leicester and too many draws have been costly. Chelsea — too — struggled to make an impact when Lukaku was out with a lengthy injury and, despite the Belgian’s return, the Blues were held to a 1-1 draw on Wednesday night as City defeated Brentford to sign off the year in an imposing position.
Time for some stats: The last two times City ended December top of the Premier League (2011-12 and 2017-18) they went on to win the title. There has been a gap of at least eight points only five times in the Premier League table at the turn of the year and each time the leaders have gone on to win the title. The leading team going into the new year has gone on to win the title right times in the past 12 seasons.
Ever the pragmatist, Guardiola played down the advantage. “There are 54 points to play for,” he said. “All of you, thank you for your nice words because we win but I am not going to believe any words you say about it is already done or expected because Chelsea and Liverpool are more than exceptional. One is champions of Europe and the other has been our big rivals over the years. The distance is not because they drop points but because we win 10 games in a row.”
That is all well and good but what started out as at least a three-horse race (some were hopeful of a long-awaited Manchester United revival with the return of Cristiano Ronaldo to Old Trafford), looks like turning into another canter for City — and they have their sights on a fourth EPL crown in five years.
It has been another season to forget for United, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer paying the price for another campaign of underperformance with his job as coach. Ralf Rangnick has come in as interim manager until the end of the season, but narrow wins over Crystal Palace and struggling Norwich, followed by a poor draw against relegation-threatened Newcastle United show how much work still needs to be done at Old Trafford despite summer recruits Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho and Rafael Varane.
It is a similar story at Tottenham Hotspur — as Covid postponements have played havoc with the Christmas schedule — and they are already looking up in the standings at their rivals rather than down. Even Arsenal, who had a dreadful start to the season and found themselves in the relegation zone early on with coach Mikel Arteta almost losing his job, are now ahead of their North London rivals in fourth after an impressive recovery. Leicester and West Ham look like fighting it out with Man United, Arsenal and Spurs for fourth spot and the Europa League slots as the top three looks set — it is just the order to be decided.
Brentford have impressed in their first season in the top flight and sit 14th, nine points clear of the relegation zone and looking good to stay up. It is looking like a different story for Norwich, who are rock bottom on 10 points after 19 games and have already shipped 42 goals while scoring only eight. That is grim reading, even for the most optimistic Canaries fan.
Newcastle are second bottom and will need to spend their newfound wealth — thanks to a Saudi-backed takeover — in January if they are to get out of trouble. There is a bit of a log jam at the bottom of the table and at least half of the teams in the league will be wary of a dip in form that could easily push them into trouble and a fight to avoid the dreaded drop.
At the other end, it is all about City and their quest for another crown to confirm their domestic dominance in England.