Excellent news for the Premier League's churning hype machine: There is a fascinating race going on at the top of the table! Manchester United are three points ahead of the chasing pack, though they haven't looked convincing in recent weeks. Behind them, Chelsea look to have overcome their wobbles while Tottenham are just starting on theirs. Arsenal are having one of their periodic spells of competence, though it remains to be seen how long this will last. And Liverpool ... well, Liverpool are Liverpool. They can beat anybody, and sometimes it's themselves.
So, five teams that can be brilliant, are usually decent, but occasionally end up being weird and bad. Exactly the ingredients that a title race requires. It's just a shame — for everybody involved, for the reputation of The Greatest League in the World, for those that crave a contest — that this is the scramble for second place. For first loser. For the right to be able to look back at this season and say "Well, if only Manchester City hadn't been quite so annoyingly good ..."
Speaking after their win against Huddersfield restored their eight-point lead at the top — eight! in November! — Pep Guardiola was delighted, claiming "More [satisfaction] than winning 4-0. The same words I said in the locker room after the game. We need to win these kind of games in this way. … You have to suffer. You have to live that, and in that last period last month, we did not feel that."
Presumably this wasn't meant as a patronising ruffle of the hair and a pinch of the cheek to City's previous opponents, but it amounted to one just the same. And fair enough. The rest of the Premier League's aristocracy have failed to properly test City, and the smaller teams, with the exception of Huddersfield, have failed to adequately annoy them. That eight-point gap isn't just the beginning of a fine sporting achievement, it's a blow to the very idea of the Premier League. The whole business is sustained by the notion, never entirely true, that anybody can beat anybody. Right now, even the teams that get close to City only serve to make them stronger.
Common sense insists that City will slow down at some point. The Premier League treats Christmas as an excuse to torture footballers for our entertainment, and though City's squad is deep, chances are that somebody will land a blow. They might draw a second game. They might even — whisper it — lose one. Kevin De Bruyne might go to a Tintin cosplay convention and miss a month after being bitten, in a fundamentally harmless but amusingly inconvenient place, by a rival's Snowy. Football seasons are complicated and busy things, and stuff happens.
But a title race will also require the teams behind them to speed up. City have put together a near-perfect first third of the season, and as a result United, in second, have eight points to make up. Sixth-placed Liverpool have a whopping 14. So even if the leaders are merely ordinarily good from this point on — a big if, since they look anything but ordinary at the moment — it will take a similar run of sustained perfection to catch them.
Do any of the teams below them look capable of such a run? The generous and perhaps hopeful answer is "Yes, in theory," quickly followed by some quite strong conditions. If United can keep Paul Pogba fit and recapture some swagger; if Chelsea can keep Eden Hazard fit and manage their thin squad; if Spurs/Arsenal can be Good Spurs/Arsenal more and Bad Spurs/Arsenal less; if Liverpool can find a little bit of solidity and a little bit of nous ...
None of that is impossible. Indeed, given the concentration of playing and managerial talent, not to mention money, we might even be reasonable to expect it. And we should remember that none of these clubs are exactly doing badly: United’s total of 29 points from 31 games is only two behind Chelsea at the same stage last season, and they went on to win the league comfortably. But the rattling pace and intimidating style of City’s start has made the normal imperfections of decent teams look like fundamental shortcomings.
Ultimately, we find ourselves at the end of November, with the prospects of a title race pinned on a broad range of hypotheticals, and the Big Six looking like The Really Big One, plus Quite Good Supporting Acts. Consolation, for those hoping for a contest, will have to come from this tussle for second, third, and fourth, and from the glorious mess taking shape at the bottom of the table. Because unless several weird things happen, the only contest at the very top will be City against history, and Pep Guardiola against the record books. And they don't look much like losing that one, either.