Top of Premier League is defined by self-inflicted wounds

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With more a third of the Premier League season already accounted for, this is usually around the time where the wheat is separated from the chaff. Over the last decade, only three teams have been crowned champions, and the top four spots have been shared among the same six teams. Distinct tiers emerge, and there are rarely more than two or three real title contenders going into the holiday season.

This year though, instead of a couple of standout candidates for the league crown, there are six teams that are still firmly in the mix. A combination of an improving middle class and a declining elite has made the top half more competitive than ever – competition that’s great for the league, if not necessarily for England’s Champions League coefficient.

For the challengers that ultimately fail to win the title, though, this season will represent a bigger missed opportunity than usual. And given the relative lack of quality at the sharp end of England’s top flight, there are a number of teams that should have been running away with the title, had they not all been suffering from largely self-inflicted wounds.

The reigning champion, Chelsea, badly mishandled the summer transfer window and failed to bolster what should have been a squad ready to take the next step. As a result of this poor investment – compounded by the seemingly endless distracting antics of José Mourinho – Chelsea are now firmly out of the championship picture (but not, amusingly, out of The Championship picture).

This is an astonishing regression for a team that was really the only decent side in a league that it won at a canter last season. Mourinho had a golden opportunity to enhance his legacy at Stamford Bridge, but through a series of poor decisions – some of which were reportedly not his own – he seems doomed to tarnish it.

SEE MORE: Mourinho can still turn Chelsea around – Ferguson.

Similarly, Arsenal handicapped itself unnecessarily over the summer by failing to add a single outfield player to the squad. Petr Čech was a shrewd and long overdue piece of business, but every soccer fan with half a brain could have pointed out the other areas of weakness for the Gunners. With just a couple of key additions, it would have been easy to see Arsenal pulling out ahead of the pack.

Arsenal has been crying out for a top class center forward since the departure of Robin van Persie, and the depth chart in defensive midfield is a complete joke. The Gunners are now beginning to pay the price for entering the season depending on the likes of Mikel Arteta and for running their few reliable players into the ground.

Without the usual ruthlessness of peak Alex Ferguson or José Mourinho to compete against, Arsène Wenger could have broken out of his decade of stagnation and finally built his third great Arsenal team. Instead, he finds his team just about in the top four, hobbled by a rash of injuries. Just like every year.

SEE MORE: Schweinsteiger faces three-match ban.

After investing heavily for a second consecutive year, Manchester United looked far better prepared to make a run at the league title. United’s squad is as balanced as it has been in several years, and the Reds can make a good case for having the best goalkeeper, center back, and defensive midfielder in the country. United may lack similar excellence in attack, but in this year’s weakened premiership, there is certainly enough firepower in the Red Devils’ ranks to perform better than has been on display so far.

This United side may still be a work in progress, but unfortunately for fans, the position that may be most in need of upgrade is in the dugout. At this stage of his career, Louis van Gaal has become ultra-conservative in his approach, and his risk-aversive tactics are arguably now holding the team back. With a more progressive manager, even this flawed United team could have found itself head and shoulders above the rest of the league.

These collective cock-ups have opened the door to the previously exclusive mini-league at the very top of the table. Liverpool, despite wasting the summer and the beginning of the season with Brendan Rodgers, could foreseeably insert itself into the title race. Tottenham Hotspur, the youngest team in the league, is only four points off second place Arsenal and showing little sign of slowing down. Few people expect Leicester City to maintain its spot on top of the league, but if there was ever a year for a shock qualifier for the Champions League, this is it. The average quality of the top teams in the Premier League may not hold up to the top teams around Europe, but for better or worse, the competitiveness is as high as it has been in recent memory.

Come the end of the season, the status quo may well yet prevail. The top four could be populated by the usual suspects (if admittedly with poorer versions of themselves), Leicester City’s lack of depth could send them comfortably down to seventh or eighth place, and even Chelsea should pull itself together enough to trouble the Europa League spots. But if this year’s current pattern holds, there is a chance for something rare and maybe even historic to happen; for once, the Premier League might just live up to the hype.

Editor’s note: The original version of this story stated Leicester are in second place, where they were at the end of round 14. After this weekend’s results, the Foxes are now first. Brent’s editor failed him.

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