You cannot win the title in August or September, but you can certainly lose it. Oh, for the days when that cruel adage found its victims only in the contenders who not merely stumbled out of the blocks, but tripped over their own shoelaces in the process.
In spite of clear teething problems and weaknesses, both Manchester United and Arsenal have got away well, making decent starts to the new Premier League season with six and seven points respectively from their first three matches. These days, though, as is well established, decent doesn’t do.
Both sides head into Sunday’s meeting at the Emirates knowing defeat could see them ceding daylight to Manchester City as early as the season’s first international break, Pep Guardiola’s serial champions already the only team to have taken nine points from a possible nine and firm favourites to make it 12 from 12 against Fulham on Saturday at the Etihad.
True, you would sooner be cough up a five- or six-point head-start to City with 34 games still to recover lost ground — but you would much rather not do so at all.
At risk of appearing alarmist with that bleak warning, and of attributing too much jeopardy to an early-September fixture, let us balance with the assertion that points tally is seldom the truest indicator of a team’s prospects at this fetal stage of the campaign.
A late 3-2 victory for the Gunners in last season’s corresponding fixture in January was framed as a confirmative result, proving Mikel Arteta’s side, having weathered Gabriel Jesus’s injury after the World Cup, were ready to push City all the way and that United, despite their own superb run post-Qatar, were not themselves in the race. This season, though, it looks more of a fact-finding exercise, for managers and punters alike, after six performances between the two clubs that have delivered more questions than answers.
To United first, where Raphael Varane’s absence will force Victor Lindelof into action and again expose Erik ten Hag’s lack of central defensive depth, given Harry Maguire appears about as close to voluntary involvement under the Dutchman as you or I.
Injury to Mason Mount has, perhaps blessedly, forced Ten Hag into early deviation from the midfield so easily overrun by Wolves and Tottenham, but Christian Eriksen’s addition alongside Casemiro, who is himself either not yet up to speed or else ailing, hardly adds running power and the puzzle remains unsolved. Scott McTominay’s industry must surely be under consideration in an area of the pitch the Gunners will flood, bolstered by a new dynamism after the signing of Declan Rice.
This game looks like a fact-finding exercise after six performances between the two clubs that have delivered more questions than answers
Up front, until Rasmus Hojlund is fit, Ten Hag remains caught between two bus stops, faced either with playing his most dangerous forward, Marcus Rashford, out of position, or asking Anthony Martial to lead the line.
If many of those issues feel all too familiar to United supporters, then for Arsenal the frustration is that this side does not yet look the one of old — chiefly because it, quite literally, is not. Arteta has been experimenting on the job this term, with his side short of their best against Nottingham Forest, Crystal Palace and Fulham despite an unbeaten start, but thus far the Spaniard has refused the obvious and available option of reverting to last season’s formula for success.
Centre-back Gabriel’s omission remains a curious case, growing more so with each game, as the use of Thomas Partey at right-back, with each of Jurrien Timber, Takehiro Tomiyasu and Jakub Kiwior starting once on the left, preferred to one of last term’s ever-presents in a move not rehearsed in pre-season. Arteta and Arsenal insist the Brazilian remains a key part of their plans and is not for sale, but with the Saudi Arabian transfer window stretching on, so too will the speculation for as long as he remains out of the team.
With Oleksandr Zinchenko now fit, Arteta has it staring him in the face to make the Ukrainian his obligatory inverted full-back once more, nudge Partey back into midfield and have Ben White and William Saliba to shuffle along the picnic bench to make room for Gabriel. Rashford, after all, will be licking his lips at the prospect of isolating Partey one-on-one out wide, having skipped past the Ghanaian for his fine goal the last time the teams met.
With Eddie Nketiah flying high on the back of a first England call-up, Kai Havertz would surely have to be the fall guy further forward for that shift, taking the German out of the immediate firing line perhaps no bad thing after his quiet start to life in red.