The Premier League can be an unforgiving arena. Many managers have found that to be the case over the past few seasons. In fact, there has been a recent trend of teams finishing in the top two only to drop out of the Champions League places the following season. Liverpool fans know what happened after a stirring title challenge in 2013/14, and losing 6-1 to Stoke City at the end of 2014/15 was the beginning of the end for Brendan Rodgers.
By the end of September in 2014/15, Liverpool had already lost three league games. There were worrying signs of disorganisation and a lack of inspiration on the pitch early on. Going back to 2013/14, the first in the Premier League era without Sir Alex Ferguson, David Moyes experienced similar struggles as Ferguson's successor at Manchester United. Three league games were lost by the end of September, and the defending champions quickly lost a threatening aura that was built up over the course of two decades. The notion of never ruling them out rapidly dissipated within the space of two months.
Last season, Chelsea and José Mourinho travelled on the same path to destruction. Interestingly, Chelsea had also lost three league games by the end of September. The reigning champions were in disarray and could not recover from an astounding dip in form to produce the worst title defence in a generation. This pattern of one of the top two dropping out of the top four is likely to continue this season with Leicester City, but that’s a very different case to previous years. After one of the biggest and surprise achievements in English football, a fun Champions League campaign and solid top half finish would represent progress.
There is an argument to be made, however, that this is a period in England's top flight where weaknesses in top teams are seized upon like never before with many mid-table teams and relegation battlers akin to vultures. When cracks appear in pre-season favourites, a potential feast is on offer for those in need of sustenance. Set up tactically as other teams have successfully done and attempt to extend shock leads as opposed to defending them to the death to repeat the trick.
Manchester United's following fixtures will be a big test of whether they will join the tales outlined above. Although Liverpool's fierce rivals did not finish in the top two last season and have been vulnerable under the previous two managers, the money spent during the summer transfer window on fees and wages should result in a title challenge. Anything else would be unacceptable.
Mourinho's side face Leicester City at Old Trafford in gameweek six, a matchup that should suit Claudio Ranieri and his team—faithfully play the role of underdogs and hit a team under pressure on the break. That game is followed by Stoke City (home), Liverpool (away), Chelsea (away), and Burnley (home). In the five fixtures after this difficult group, Arsenal (home), Everton (away), and Tottenham Hotspur (home) lie in wait. Not an ideal ten-game stretch for Mourinho after losing three games in succession.
For Chelsea, the defeat at Stamford Bridge was a shock in terms of how ordinary the home side looked in comparison to sprightly visitors from up North. After a draw and a defeat, Chelsea face Arsenal (away), Hull City (away), Leicester (home), Manchester United (home), and Southampton (away). Plus Antonio Conte will have to navigate past face Everton, Tottenham, and Manchester City in the next set of five fixtures. This isn't a time for momentum to disappear completely or have further doubts surround a squad.
The past few years have shown that a season can run away from teams early on in a league campaign, especially when rival teams are playing well and picking up points. Such pressure is even more pronounced in the era of the "Super Manager" with the new TV deal as an ominous backdrop. Failure demands change, but further upheaval may only exacerbate the lack of cohesion and direction at a club. This is where managers who are trusted to build for this season and beyond such as Jürgen Klopp, Arsène Wenger, and Mauricio Pochettino can find an advantage. Even Guardiola, who provides immediate success, builds teams to last and thrive beyond his tenure.
For Liverpool, the months ahead provide opportunities to push forward if lessons have been learned from the bitter defeat away to Burnley. All Premier League fixtures are tough, but some are tougher than others. Arsenal, Manchester City, and Everton also have a good fixtures ahead. Tottenham have a decent run, too, with Manchester City the tough game in the middle of the next five before a harder run involving Leicester, Chelsea, and Arsenal.
By the end of October, over a quarter of the league season will have elapsed. Playing catch up is a difficult and joyless pursuit as a few teams will surely find out in the next month or so.