Three games into the 2016/17 season and the Premier League’s natural order is already starting to form. The cream has already risen to the top, with the drudge sinking to the bottom. There are some exceptions, of course, but English soccer’s top flight has settled into a rhythm, even at this early stage.
Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United sit at the top of the Premier League table having won all of their opening three fixtures. The trio are considered to be the frontrunners for the 2016/17 title, with the rivalry between the two Manchester clubs in particular already defining the new season. Their contest is simmering for now, but will dictate English soccer’s predominant narrative soon enough.
So is the pursuit of silverware in England destined to be a race between just three teams this season? Of course, with Leicester City sensationally tying their ribbons to the Premier League trophy just a matter of months ago, it would seem reckless to write off anyone, but on early evidence City, Chelsea and United are quite some distance ahead of the rest.
Jose Mourinho’s Man Utd side look most ominous. They have won three out of three games without playing anything near their best soccer, seeing off Bournemouth and Southampton without much bother. They came within seconds of dropping points at Hull City, but their last-gasp win provided the greatest statement yet that United are for real this season. They have the resilience and character to handle a title race.
City are still adapting to Pep Guardiola’s style of play and philosophy, with their defensive backline still somewhat suspect. But just like United, they have strung together results without playing their best soccer. Their attack already looks the most potent in the Premier League, to such an extent that they could feasibly outgun anybody.
But City and United were always expected to challenge for the title this season. Chelsea’s development has been a little more surprising, with Antonio Conte forging a hard-to-beat team much quicker than anyone had predicted. They too have swiftly found the groove of consistency and resilience that makes them title contenders.
Outside that trio, drastic improvement would be needed for any others to join the race. Liverpool could still get it right. They have shown glimpses of what they can do as a side, with their opening day performance and win over Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium especially impressive.
However, Jurgen Klopp still hasn’t found the cutting edge in the final third his side needs to compete against the Premier League’s very best. Liverpool have already found that out to their cost on two occasions this season, losing at Burnley and drawing at Spurs despite dominating both games.
Meanwhile, Arsenal’s existential crisis has carried over from last season to this. Arsene Wenger has been the subject of much frustration and protestation among the club’s support over the past few weeks, with the North London side unwilling to compete with some of their rivals for the very best in the transfer market.
Yet it mustn't be ignored that Arsenal have their strongest squad for the best part of a decade and have kept a settled team over the summer, something many of their counterparts and rivals haven’t been able to do. After an eventual second place finish last term, that could actually work in their favour.
As for Spurs and Leicester City - last season’s title challengers for much of the campaign - work is needed if they are to match the success of last term. Both clubs’ transfer policy over the summer has been somewhat low key, with Spurs in particular frustrated in the pursuit of many of their top targets.
But despite the common consensus that Leicester have dropped off the pace they set for themselves last season, the Foxes have picked up the same number of points this season as they collected against the same teams last. They are very much par for the course as things stand. And so it would be reckless to count them - or anyone else - out at this stage. We learned that lesson last season. That is the real legacy of Leicester City’s 15/16 title triumph.