After the first six games of the season, Manchester City led the league by a fair margin. They hadn’t yet been beaten, and they were starting to look like Pep Guardiola wanted.
Chelsea, meanwhile, found themselves eight points behind the leaders. They were in eighth place, too, and just behind Crystal Palace on goal difference. But all changed, changed utterly. Chelsea are now 10 full points ahead of City – and 40 full goal difference points ahead of Palace.
Things changed, but it’s not all that surprising. 15 games is a long time in the Premier League, and it also matters which teams you play in those games. With just under half of the season left to play, that means Chelsea have most of the big teams left on the fixture list.
The only challenger, the only member of the top six, that Chelsea have faced twice is Tottenham Hotspur. Which puts them in an interesting position: Spurs are their nearest challengers, but neither are in a position to take points off each other. The gap can only be closed by defeats, essentially.
But we’ve seen how easily that can happen.
Whilst City topped the league early on, they are now in crisis. It might seem unfair to say that a side with a new manager and a new style of play are ‘in crisis’ when they are only three points off second place, but the bar is set so high for City and their manager. And so that’s the narrative we’re given.
The other part of the current storyline casts Chelsea as the unstoppable force. But just as it might be unfair to paint City’s low ebb as their rightful place, it’s surely unfair to paint Chelsea’s best form as their normal position, too.
They are clearly the favourites, and if they don’t win the title, it will likely be their own fault. The same can be said for City, too: they are where they are because they’ve refused to show a pragmatism that league football requires. That doesn’t just mean Premier League football – it means any league football anywhere in the world. This isn’t a case of ‘respectfully, Mr Guardiola, you don’t know the league’.
Raising its head in this scenario is the tyranny of good form: it makes you think you’re on the right track, makes you forget there are other teams in the league, too. They who watch your games, they who formulate plans and systems, and they who figure you out. They train. They get better. They compete.
City’s refusal to adapt to a changing surf was, perhaps, more of a decision taken with an eye on a long-term plan than a short-term mistake. If Guardiola truly believes in a three-year project and winning with a particular style of play, then pragmatism in the first season would be madness. The hope is that writing this season off as a period of transition will pay dividends in the next few years. Pragmatism may have to come later, though – once the players know what they’re doing.
Chelsea, meanwhile, are all about the pragmatic, and have been ever since they sacked Claudio Ranieri and appointed Jose Mourinho. They’ve won every title that it’s possible to win through sheer pragmatism.
But the tyranny of form could well hit Chelsea, too. Conte’s decision to switch to a three-at-the-back system was born out of pragmatism. And it was one that shocked and confused the league: even the fact that we talk about ‘three at the back’ gives a clue as to how curious we find it in England, even if we shouldn’t really see it as particularly uncommon.
Conte turned plan B into plan A after sticking his finger into the prevailing wind and coming up trumps. But the good form precipitated by the tactical switch seems to have turned ‘three at the back’ from a blind date with necessity into a full-blown philosophy; a love supreme.
And yet there are 17 games to go. Other teams have been watching, waiting. Spurs took advantage. This league isn’t over yet.
There are some important things in Chelsea’s favour: no European football, a manager known for his relentlessness, and a team who look like they have a solid spine that won’t suddenly collapse (though in the history of things suddenly collapsing, only the things that looked like they wouldn’t collapse do so unexpectedly).
Yet Chelsea have already seen first hand how thing can change, change utterly. They saw it after they won the league title in 2014/15, and they’ve seen it again this season. And there are others primed to take advantage.