Mark Odgen: All bets are off in wide-open fight for the Premier League title
For those Manchester City, Tottenham, Chelsea or even Arsenal supporters, preparing to rip up betting slips predicting a title success for their clubs this season following a weekend of reality checks, it may be worth allowing history to offer some consolation.
Then again, it may also simply reaffirm that, when no team are capable of escaping the pack in the autumn, it usually leads to Manchester United winning the title. Having endured their worst start to a Premier League season, one that has included a 4-1 humiliation against Man City and a first defeat at home against West Brom since the 1970s, United lie just five points adrift of leaders Arsenal after their 1-0 win against the Londoners.
City, many observers' favourites for the title, sit in eighth, one point further adrift, after extending their woeful away form with a 1-0 defeat at Sunderland. And Chelsea appear anything but special following the second coming of the Special One, as they lurch inconsistently into fourth after 11 games under Jose Mourinho.
This is where history offers succour to those teams struggling to find their feet in what is the most closely fought title race in more than a decade: the numbers show that a points deficit now counts for little in May.
At this stage of November in the inaugural Premier League campaign of 1992-93, United were in 10th position, nine points behind leaders Norwich City having suffered four defeats. By the end of the month, Alex Ferguson had lured Eric Cantona from Leeds United to Old Trafford and United's fightback, which resulted in a 10-point winning margin at the end of the season, had been ignited.
Three years later, a six-point November deficit while chasing Newcastle was overturned to win the league by four points. United also fought back from six points behind the following November to win that campaign by seven points.
During a speaking tour following the release of his autobiography, Ferguson said that the competitive nature of the race so far this season suggested that fewer than 80 points would be required to win the league.
United's 75-point haul in 1996/97 remains the lowest winning total, yet two of the closest title races of the Premier League era – 1997/98 and 1998/99 – were won with 78 and 79 points respectively. In 1999, champions United, runners-up Arsenal and third-placed Chelsea were separated by four points and this season could yet replicate that campaign.
Arsenal go into the international break in pole position, despite the defeat at Old Trafford, and Wenger believes the six points separating top from eighth highlights the strength, rather than weakness, of the league.
"What we have learned is not only that United could beat Arsenal, but everybody can beat everybody in this Premier League," Wenger said.
While United have the track record, history does not always fall on their side, and Arsenal can take confidence from the outcome of the 2001/02 title race. After 11 games, four points separated leaders Aston Villa from Spurs in eighth place.
Arsenal? They ended the season as champions, seven points clear of Liverpool. So despite the stumbles, false starts and coupon-busting results, it would be foolish to discount any contenders just yet. (© Daily Telegraph, London)