It is often said by pundits and managers alike, that the Premier League table will not start to take shape until at least ten games into the season. Due to the random nature of the fixture selection, and also because of some clubs’ occasional tendency to be slow out of the blocks, the table standings are often dismissed as being unimportant at such an early time in the season. With this in mind, it makes fascinating reading to glance at the table just four matches in, with a host of clubs in similar positions to where many have predicted they will eventually finish.
Whilst few would place Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham as the final top three, it should also be considered that pundits and writers have almost unanimously tipped a top six (In no particular order) of: Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Spurs. With just four games played this season these clubs have already accounted for the top six positions, and it’s hard to imagine any other clubs breaking the stronghold come the end of season, even Everton who have made a habit of challenging the top teams for a large portion of the season in previous years. Whilst Everton have undoubtedly improved over the summer, they are ultimately in a period of transition in terms of their playing style under new manager Roberto Martinez, and those above them have also strengthened further.
The opening weeks have provided compelling, if sometimes unspectacular viewing and the general consensus is now that there could be a genuine six horse title race. The two Manchester clubs have suffered indifferent starts to the campaign, and hotly tipped Chelsea were grounded by defeat at Goodison Park, the second consecutive league match where they’ve failed to hit the net.
Despite a hugely disappointing comfortable home defeat to Aston Villa on the opening day, Arsenal have responded by winning six games on the bounce in all competitions. It's also easy to forget that Arsenal have no fewer than seven first team injuries at the moment, and when the club returns to a full bill of health they will have real competition for places, especially in midfield. Arsenal sit in second position in the table and with experienced manager Wenger, coupled with the big changes at the rest of last season's top four, the team could well be a dark horse and finish in the top two come the end of the year.
A mention should also be given to Spurs who despite numerous changes to the playing staff, and the loss of Gareth Bale, sit in third position and have conceded just one goal in the opening four games. Whether they'll be sitting around this position come May remains to be seen, but Villas-Boas will be quietly assured after a strong start from a squad that will take potentially months to completely gel.
The current incumbents of seventh to eleventh place in the table is also interesting to observe. Stoke City sit in seventh place and have impressed under Mark Hughes despite a relatively difficult early fixture list, barring the home tie against Crystal Palace. Seventh position may be a bit beyond their realisitic expectations for this season, but the early performances suggest that they won't be too far off, and a top ten spot would satisfy most Stoke fans.
The next four positions in the table are taken up by: Everton, Newcastle, West Ham and Southampton, respectively. Four large clubs with big fan bases and big ambitions, who will all have targeted a strong top ten position at the start of the season. Everton appear the strongest contenders out of these clubs, and Southampton have realistic aims of at least ninth position after a summer of strong recruitment. West Ham's lack of quality options up front means re-emulating last season's impressive tenth place finish may be out of their reach, but with no Europa League distractions this season you can't help but feel that on paper Newcastle should be finishing in or around their current league position.
It is the bottom of the table that speaks a lot of volumes at this early stage. Crystal Palace have been almost unanimously tipped to be relegated come the end of the year, and despite an impressive home victory against Sunderland it's still hard to look beyond them. They currently sit in eighteenth position and barring perhaps Hull City, there's no obvious choice that comes to mind when trying to pick a team that could concievably fall into the bottom three this year.
West Brom sit in nineteenth position and whilst there's still a lot of football to play, the future is looking bleak for the Baggies. West Brom finished in a strong eigth position last season, but this was largely due to a very impressive start which slumped into relegation form at times in the second half of the season. The main issue with West Brom is their failure to adequately replace seventeen goal striker Romelu Lukaku, who will spend this season on loan at Everton. Doubts remain over whether Anelka still has the ability to consistently score at the highest level, Victor Anichebe is a handful physically but lacks clinical finishing, and Vydra is an unquestionable talent but unproven in the Premier League. These factors combined may result in West Brom struggling to finish many places higher than their current position when it comes to crunch time.
Finally we come to Sunderland, who sit at the bottom of the table in twentieth position. A busy summer which saw no less than fourteen players arrive at the Stadium of Light has quite predictably left the squad unbalanced, and Di Canio's decision to rely heavily on free transfers and loans has been the subject of questioning by many in the game. There's a chance that by January these players will have gelled into a strong outfit, but the way things are going Sunderland could be many points adrift at the bottom by then, with too much left to do. QPR paid the price for trying to bring in too many players at once, as did West Ham three seasons ago, and it's hard to overlook Sunderland for relegation this year. It wouldn't shock many fans to see Sunderland still in twentieth position by the end of the season.
Whilst at a glance it does appear that the table has taken some shape, it's also important to remember that the beauty of the Premier League is often it's unpredictable nature, and there will no doubt be some surprises when the last ball is kicked in May. Once the tenth round of fixtures has finished, and the time when the table is supposed to mean something has arrived, it will be interesting to review if these clubs' fortunes have changed.