Close this search box.

The deflating reality that only two Premier League teams have feasible title cases


premier league title race, 2023-24, saka, arsenal

Don’t be fooled by the five-horse race rhetoric. Only two sides fighting it out at the top of the Premier League have a shot at the title. Our football expert explains why.

Currently, just five points separate first-place Liverpool and fifth-place Tottenham Hotspur on the Premier League ladder. After years of a two-horse races between Manchester City and either Arsenal or Liverpool, an increasingly competitive field is a breath of fresh air for English football fans.

Yet, the reality is much less idyllic at the top of the ladder. Five are in the hunt for Champions League football next season, but less are in the hunt for the title; that race is limited to two.

Why it’s a two-horse race for the Premier League title

Mathematically speaking, five fanbases would comfortably consider their side well and truly in the Premier League title fight; Liverpool, Manchester City, Aston Villa, Arsenal and Tottenham.

Each side has their strengths; Liverpool has Mohamed Salah, Manchester City has Manchester City, Aston Villa have their organisation and offside trap, Arsenal have their structure and Spurs have their resilience.

Each side has its talisman; Salah for Liverpool, Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland for City, Ollie Watkins at Aston Villa, Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka and Martin Odegaard and Heung-Min Son and James Maddison at Tottenham.

FPL gameweek 22, Kevin De Bruyne
Has Kevin De Bruyne’s return ensured Manchester City are title favourites?

Equally, all sides have their weaknesses. Liverpool’s goalscoring output is Salah-dependant and their injury record doesn’t inspire confidence. Manchester City’s left side is weaker than in previous years. Villa lacks a world-class talent. Arsenal’s problems extend across the pitch. Spurs can’t keep players on the park through injury or suspension.

While none of the five front runners are perfect, this might be the most flawed front field we’ve had since 2016-17, two stand out as the most likely to be in the hunt come May: Liverpool and Manchester City.

After 20 rounds, Jurgen Klopp’s men top the table with 45 points, followed closely by Pep’s recently revitalised City on 43 points. At this stage none of Aston Villa, third on 43 points, Arsenal, fourth on 40, and Spurs sitting fifth but with the same points tally as Arsenal can be considered in the title fight.

Why? Let’s unpack it, working from fifth place up.

Premier League, ange postecoglou, Spurs
Can Ange Postecoglou steer Spurs to a Premier League title at first time of asking?

The case for Ange Postecoglou’s Spurs firming for the title is evident: when they’re fully fit and firing they’re a frightening proposition with a suffocating press and precise, swift ball movement that slices through opposing defensive blocks like a sharpened sword through bread.

They’ve beaten Newcastle, Manchester United and Liverpool, drawn with Arsenal and City and would’ve collected points against Chelsea had discipline and fitness not evaded them during the match.

The problem is just that. They cannot buy fitness or discipline. So far in 2023-24 they’ve lost James Maddison, Rodrigo Bentancur, Micky Van de Ven, Giovani Lo Celso, Manor Solomon and Bryan Gil to injuries for extended periods.

Cristiano Romero, Destiny Udogie and Yves Bissouma have spent multiple weeks suspended on the sidelines. At the same time, Bissouma, Pape Sarr and Heung-Min Son AFCON and Asian Cup commitments render them useless for a chunk at the season’s midpoint.

Regardless of who you are, it’s impossible to win anything with a squad stretched as thin as Spurs’. 2023-24 might prove to be too early for any potential Tottenham title push. If they adequately strengthen in coming years, there can be no doubt their trajectory has title credentials written all over it.

At least Spurs’ problems have a clear fix. Arsenal, on the other hand, are crushed by woes from every angle. December was Mikel Arteta’s month from hell. Sailing was smooth at the Emirates until that dreaded final month of 2023 rolled around. Suddnely all momentum they’d built in the early part of the season crashed and burned.

Once the best defence in the Premier League, since the beginning of December Arsenal’s back four’s conceded 50% of its 20 goals shipped this season as the Gunners succumbed to three losses. Two of those defeats, to West Ham and Fulham, were games title challengers win, summing up the present situation at the Emirates.

Up front is another issue. Arsenal’s greatest strength in 2022-23 was scoring by committee. Gabriel Jesus, Gabriel Martinelli, Bukayo Saka and Martin Odegaard each scored over 10 goals that season.

Fast forward to now and all look as likely to score as a fish does to run. Saka particularly is finding difficulty with teams double and triple-teaming him to suffocate his space. Even when he overcomes these significant blockades, he’s rarely rewarded with anything more than a kick or foul.

saka, january transfer window
Bukayo Saka has struggled in the face of increased defensive pressure this season

It’s reported Arsenal will hunt a striker in January if the funds line up. This may cure their goalscoring woes, particularly if their insistence on crosses and cutbacks, which go unmet more often than not, is to continue. Whether they splash on Ivan Toney or Victor Osimhen or not, the damage is too widespread and their opponents too great to be overcome at this stage.

Aston Villa have been the Premier League’s surprise package this season. Under Unai Emery, whose image in the British footballing world has undergone a monumental facelift this campaign, Villa is incredibly well-organised and frightening on the break.

To put it lightly, they are one of the best sides in the Premier League without being real title contenders. They’re so cohesive as a unit, with a deep understanding of their individual and collective roles, which is why they’ve succeeded. Emery’s coaching has also elevated much of the side’s performances.

But, they lack that guy every Premier League title winner has. A talisman who, when the chips are down, produces the brilliance and magic necessary to claim three points. Think Haaland and De Bruyne at City, Eden Hazard at Chelsea or Riyad Mahrez at Leicester City.

Aston Villa plays collectively, like a senate. Sometimes though a title challenger needs a dictator, someone to assume control and take fate into his own hands.

So, who are the two horses in the Premier League title race?

Obviously, Manchester City. Kevin De Bruyne’s return against Newcastle inspired nothing but fear in City’s opposition. In just half an hour he scored a goal only he could score and provided an assist no one else on the pitch would’ve seen.

Yes, City aren’t without flaws. John Stones’ injury woes haven’t been kind to their campaign. His hybrid role between central defence and midfield was crucial to City’s new tactical set-up that culminated in their historic treble and Ruben Dias has been far from his best, often outpaced or outmuscled by opposing attackers.

On their left edge, Josko Gvardiol’s Premier League adjustment period has lasted longer than expected with the Croatian not helped by Jeremy Doku’s ill-discipline and defensive ineffectiveness. Teams have noticed this Achilles heel and targeted it to great effect, just see City’s early season loss to Wolves.

On top of this, Ilkay Gundogan’s departure has left them lacking the necessary control in midfield, which for so long was their bread and butter.

Even so, with De Bruyne back, Erling Haaland returning to fitness, Bernardo Silva continuing to perform at his level, and Phil Foden finding form in a central role, Pep has enough firepower to call upon come season’s end to ensure victory is always possible, even when defeat feels more likely than not.

Their greatest title challenger is also the current Premier League leader. Those sick of the Liverpool-Manchester City title fight, which has become normality since the back end of the 2010s, should get used to it again.

FPL gameweek 21
Despite not playing since early December, Erling Haaland remains among the league’s top scorers

Like each of the Premier League’s top five, Liverpool are deeply flawed. Their defence is weakened by Joel Matip, Andrew Robertson and Kostas Tsimikas’ sustained absences and their goalscoring output is unhealthily reliant on Mohamed Salah.

Yet, there’s just something about them that cannot be ignored. Salah is arguably the best player in the Premier League this season, their midfield functions exceptionally in every facet, Trent Alexander-Arnold’s inverted role has unleashed him, Virgil Van Dijk and Alisson are at their best, and Darwin Nunez is enough of a chaos agent to occupy defences even when he doesn’t influence the scoreboard.

Mohamed Salah, AFCON, FPL wildcard, Premier League
Liverpool’s title dreams hinge on the form and fitness of their talismanic Egyptian, Mohamed Salah

A thigh injury sustained by Salah at AFCON would make the most stoic Liverpool nervous. Any hope of a second Premier League title hinges on the Egyptian’s full fitness. The same can be said for City with Haaland and De Bruyne, though their squad is deeper and more reliable than Klopp’s.

Regardless of your allegiances, one thing is certain; the quality of the Premier League has elevated this season. Any side hoping for a title fight needs to not just worry about the others in the title race, but also the quality existing lower down the order.

Strap in, this might just be a title race for the ages.

Kyle Robbins
Kyle Robbins
Kyle is a senior sports writer and producer at Only Sports who lives and breathes sport, with a particular burning passion for everything soccer, rugby league, and cricket. You’ll most commonly find him getting overly hopeful about the Bulldogs and Chelsea’s prospects. Find Kyle on LinkedIn.

Latest Stories

melbourne storm spine issues
Melbourne has the NRL's best spine. But there's one major problem
ange postecoglou, tottenham
The key to Tottenham succeeding under Ange Postecoglou
lebron james, bronny james, la lakers, nba
Will LeBron James be playing for the Lakers come next season?
A-League, APL, budget cuts
Is there, in fact, a silver lining to the APL's A-League budget cuts?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles