It’s been a strange campaign with surprise leaders, shocks aplenty and bumps in the road for the big boys… Sportsmail’s experts try and make sense of this SILLY SEASON
- Chris Sutton, Micah Richards, Ian Herbert and Matt Barlow discuss big questions
- Leicester have a real chance of repeating their shock 2016 Premier League glory
- Hakim Ziyech and Diogo Jota have shone while Donny van de Beek has struggled
- Take a look at how the start of this campaign compares to former classic seasons
This Premier League season has already been like no other.
It may be only eight games old, but there has been shocks galore, surprise packages and bumps in the road for some of the big boys.
As we head into the international break, Sportsmail’s experts try and answer all the key questions and make sense of this silly season.
Is it 2015-16 all over again? Can Leicester win the league?
If that was to be Leicester, it wouldn’t be a 5,000-1 shock. Maybe not even 50-1. Can Leicester win the title? Of course they can. Chelsea can, too. But will they? No.
Chris Sutton thinks it would be much less of a shock if Leicester were champions this time out
I backed City in my pre-season predictions. I’ll stick with that for now.
MICAH RICHARDS: No, I don’t believe there will be another fairy tale.
I’m not being disrespectful to Leicester – an outstanding side – but the title will be a shootout between Liverpool, City and Spurs.
Leicester would have issues if they lost Jamie Vardy for any length of time, but if he stays fit I can see them finishing in the top four.
Micah Richards believes the impressive Foxes will finish in the Premier League top four places
IAN HERBERT: I think they can. The cards are falling in their favour. Liverpool are vulnerable in defence without Virgil van Dijk, who underpins their entire philosophy.
Manchester City are a shadow of their best, with a manager who’ll be a lame duck if he doesn’t commit to them by January. Spurs are scrappers at best.
Leicester are young. This gives them energy. They have Vardy and Harvey Barnes, a counter-attacking Batman and Robin.
They have a better defence than last season. It will take fewer points to win this chaotic league. That levels things out. Leicester might just make it.
Leicester’s youth and energy gives them a great chance this season and their defence is better
MATT BARLOW: Yeah, why not? As in 2016, the big clubs are in flux and Vardy is on fire.
Rodgers has created a team with a pleasing balance. Logic dictates that over a season, injuries and fatigue will favour the strongest squads and the usual suspects will emerge at the top.
But having underestimated the powers of Leicester so badly once, it would be foolish to do it again.
Jamie Vardy is crucial as Brendan Rodgers’ side attempt to keep up their fine early season form
Can saints and Villa stay up there all season?
RICHARDS: A couple of points to make. Firstly, I have never seen the Saints play as well as they did on Friday against Newcastle.
They were brilliant and they took Newcastle apart, all without Danny Ings. Did you see Theo Walcott dropping into those little spaces and playing so well?
Then Aston Villa, what a breath of fresh air. They have got goals running through the team with Ross Barkley, Jack Grealish and Ollie Watkins.
I don’t think either team will finish in the top six, but they are both on target to be in the top nine.
Jack Grealish (left) and Ollie Watkins have made Aston Villa a force to be reckoned with so far
SUTTON: Top six? No. Top 10? Yes. Southampton have been brilliant to watch. They’re a well balanced side and even losing Ings to injury has not halted them.
As for Villa, my mate Micah is the leader of the Grealish fan club, so he might say they’re a shoo-in for Champions League footy because of him!
I won’t go that far. I’ll simply back them to avoid a relegation scrap.
BARLOW: I think so. Sheffield United hung in there last season. They have the confidence of points on the board and strikers in the goals.
Southampton went to the top of the table with a comfortable 2-0 win over Newcastle on Friday
Southampton’s campaign will hinge on how well they cope without Ings. Villa are desperate to keep certain players fit.
They fell apart when injuries hit last season. Could they be as effective without Grealish?
Opponents will devote time to stopping them from here but both sides have a plan, are progressing nicely, and are free from the complications of European football. This will be a season like no other.
A glance at the statistics suggests that Leicester could be on course to cause another surprise
HERBERT: Sorry, I can’t see either of them making the Europa League places. The established top six — and Leicester — look too strong.
Five subs or three?
RICHARDS: I’m sticking with three. I understand the argument for more but five subs is weighted in favour of the clubs with the deeper squads.
Pep Guardiola is one of the bosses who stands to gain from being able to use five substitutes
If you give them two extra changes, you are giving them even more of an advantage.
SUTTON: The 20 clubs have voted on this twice this season and both times they kept it at three. That is because five subs would benefit the big clubs, who want it all their way.
Pep Guardiola has only used 14 of a possible 21 subs this season anyway! I’ve never been a fan of managers moaning about fixtures. I even dedicated a chapter to that very topic in my book!
I wrote about how the players have it so much better than they did back in the day. In 1976-77, for example, Liverpool won the league, the European Cup and reached the FA Cup final under Bob Paisley.
They played 62 games in 284 days and claimed the title using just 17 players.
Legendary manager Bob Paisley won silverware without using a huge squad, Sutton points out
HERBERT: Agreed. It should be three substitutes, not five. Why should the elite, with their vast squads, get yet more competitive advantage?
BARLOW: Yep: three substitutes for me, too. Don’t change what was agreed upon and voted in simply to satisfy the self-serving whims of the biggest, richest and most successful.
But what needs to be addressed is the issue of lunchtime kick-offs after European away games. That should be easy enough to fix.
Are the crazy results down to lack of fans?
BARLOW: It is a major factor. Together with random kick-offs times, empty grounds mean a snap from a routine which elite football has perfected over many years.
No fans equals less jeopardy. Creative players feel freer. Defenders miss the heightened tension, the desire to hold out or not cave in.
Empty stadiums have inevitably had an impact on the strange start to the season, say the team
No pre-season, a crammed fixture list, fatigue, the ludicrous handball rule and the march of VAR are all playing a part, too.
HERBERT: It’s partly down to fans. Strikers are less inhibited and conversely teams are not facing the wrath of fans when they go one or two down.
But the lack of physical preparation for this season is the forgotten factor. Games were crammed into a few months at the end of last season, then there was no true pre-season.
Some coaches didn’t expect players to be fully functioning until mid-November.
RICHARDS: No. The teams who are playing in Europe have such a crazy schedule and are playing every three or four days.
The crazy schedule has not helped but empty seats make for an unusual atmosphere in stadia
Those who aren’t have more time to prepare and are taking opportunities that have come their way. You cannot underestimate the impact of travelling and extra games.
SUTTON: No player can use empty stadiums as an excuse for losing. People say fans are the 12th man, but it can work both ways.
Some players go into their shell in front of big crowds, so they prefer having fewer eyes on them. I don’t know what’s behind some of the mad results we’ve seen, but I don’t believe it’s because there aren’t any fans.
Are Fulham and West Bromwich doomed? If so, who else is going down?
BARLOW: Yes to Fulham and West Brom. Also I fear for Sheffield United, who are key players down on last season – Henderson, O’Connell and strikers not firing.
Three of our four pundits agree that Fulham, who lost to West Ham on Saturday, look doomed
Leeds are vulnerable at the back and not likely to change under Bielsa.
SUTTON: It doesn’t look good for Fulham and West Brom, but then it doesn’t look good for Burnley and Sheffield United either. Three of those four seem set to drop down.
Confidence is a huge factor. Burnley have been well-drilled under Sean Dyche. Likewise, Chris Wilder’s team. We’d never deem them disorganised in the past.
But the way their seasons have started, the confidence is seeping out and that leaves them in trouble.
HERBERT: West Brom to drop with Sheffield United, who look terrible and have not spent £56.4 million well.
West Brom are also in the mix, having won promotion but made an unconvincing season start
The third team to fear for are Burnley, whose owners look like they’re on some kind of kamikaze mission. Chairman Mike Garlick is so desperate to make the club financially attractive to buyers that he didn’t even give Dyche an idea of the overall transfer budget this summer.
They spent £250,000 on a reserve keeper and £1m on a 31-year-old midfielder. It’s an insult to Dyche, who deserves more respect. Fail to sort it and the club could descend into open civil war.
RICHARDS: The Fulham-West Brom game last week felt like a relegation decider in the sixth week of the season! They both have their work cut out but it is not a fight I can see them winning.
Joining them? It will be one of Burnley, Sheffield United and Brighton.
Burnley did not spend wisely over the brief pre-season and Sean Dyche is under some pressure
Who will be London’s top dogs: Chelsea, Spurs or Arsenal?
SUTTON: Chelsea. There’s talk of Spurs going all the way under Jose Mourinho. I don’t think they can, but we’ll learn a lot about them after the international break.
Their league fixtures are: Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Crystal Palace, Liverpool, Leicester, Wolves.
There has been talk of improved Tottenham being title contenders under boss Jose Mourinho
HERBERT: Yes, that’s a tough run but I think Spurs will be OK. It’s not pretty but there have been signs in wins at Burnley and West Brom that Mourinho is imbuing them with that ability to grind out wins at all costs.
Don’t be deceived by Chelsea’s run of wins against bang average sides. Arsenal are the same old enigma. They should have hired Brendan Rodgers when they had the chance.
RICHARDS: Spurs for me, too. The style Mourinho has got them playing isn’t the most attractive but it is efficient and ask yourself this: if you were a defender, would you want Harry Kane, who is in the form of his life, Son Heung-min and Gareth Bale running at you?
Those three give Spurs a fear factor and Mourinho should not be underestimated.
BARLOW: I think Spurs unless they lose Kane to injury, which they usually do and almost certainly will, and then Chelsea.
Hakim Ziyech, of Chelsea, is one of the contenders for the best signing of the current season
Signing of the season? And dampest squib?
A look at how this season is playing out so far
HERBERT: Hakim Ziyech, of Chelsea.
A steal from Ajax for £40m. Pre-season injury delayed his start but what wizardry in his four starts. Three man of the match awards already.
And flop: Donny van de Beek.
How did United see fit to pay Ajax £35.1 m for a player who they then decide does not fit into the manager’s plans?
He’s not started a Premier League game. An emblem of the lack of planning at the club.
SUTTON: Edouard Mendy. Chelsea’s big problem was their goalkeeper kept chucking ’em in. That’s now stopped.
I’m not saying Mendy is the greatest keeper in the world, but he’s helped Frank Lampard out of a jam and he cost £22m, which is change down the back of the settee for top-flight clubs.
The worst? We were all told that Arsenal tying down Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would be like a new signing and, after a lot of hullabaloo, he put pen to paper.
Since then, he’s scored once from the spot.
If fans were at stadiums, he wouldn’t exactly have had them on the edge of their seats.
RICHARDS: The fact Diogo Jota is now playing to such a level that Liverpool have deployed a front four tells you everything about his impact.
New Blues goalkeeper Edouard Mendy has helped to transform the Blues’ defensive record
Nobody was expecting this after his £41m move from Wolves.
I also want to see more from Van de Beek. We all do!
BARLOW: Hot: Thiago Silva, one of the world’s best central defenders on a free.
Diogo Jota has been a surprise at Liverpool and has forced Jurgen Klopp to move to a front four
He has galvanised Chelsea at the back, with considerable help from Mendy.
Damp: I agree on Van de Beek.
I’m still waiting to see why United decided they needed to sign him with Bruno Fernandes undroppable.
Will Solskjaer make it to Christmas?
RICHARDS: Yes. I have sympathy for him, given all the scrutiny. It took a lot of courage for United to get that win at Everton. He will keep getting results.
SUTTON: Agreed. United are 14th now and that’s not where they like to be. If they win their game in hand by a few goals, however, they could go seventh.
Solskjaer has a habit of digging out big wins, including away at Everton. I suspect he’s going nowhere.
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s future at the club has come under scrutiny
HERBERT: Yep, because United limp along. After every Basaksehir there is an Everton.
They need to hire Mauricio Pochettino to bring sense, direction and order. Though where there are Glazers, there will always be chaos.
BARLOW: I don’t know. It will be difficult with the presence of Pochettino, Allegri and Co looming large.
The only way to survive is to win games and climb the table. Tough fixtures await after the international break, although Solskjaer’s side have been at their best when counter-attacking.
Solskjaer guided his side to a 2-1 victory at Everton on Saturday but his future remains unclear
A surprise selection for england’s Euro 2020 squad?
BARLOW: Tariq Lamptey. England are not short of right backs but he is fresh and exciting. If you’re bolting late into the England set-up, it’s an advantage to have a background in the Chelsea academy.
RICHARDS: It might seem strange to talk about someone who has 33 caps as a ‘surprise’ but if Ross Barkley carries on in this form for Villa, he has to play for England.
Ross Barkley (right) could be in England contention after a fine start to the term at Aston Villa
SUTTON: Vardy. Come on, Jamie. Reverse that decision to retire and help us out. In the form he’s in, as the Premier League’s joint-top scorer, he’d be pushing to start.
It would be hard to choose between him and Kane. Vardy may turn 34 in January but he would be a huge boost for England at Euro 2020.
HERBERT: James Tarkowski. Featured briefly in 2018, a defender who can actually defend. Despite Burnley’s poor start, he is ahead of Harry Maguire this season.
Tariq Lamptey (centre) has impressed at Brighton and could find himself playing at Euro 2020