While Manchester City have began their title defence with an unbeaten start they presently look a shadow of the side that swept aside all before them last term.
Three draws suggests a blunting of their cutting edge up front while their previously impenetrable backline is being breached far too easily and often.
Is this due to Mancini unnecessarily tinkering with a winning formula? Are they finding it difficult to adjust to being the headline-grabbing scalp for opponents? Or is it just – as some are blithely suggesting – a title-winning hangover?
Does such a thing even exist?
The Cutter looks back at the opening five games of every Premier League season since its formation in 1992 because – to paraphrase Harry Hill – there’s only one way to find out….facts!
1993-94 Manchester United 13pts
Certainly no signs of alka seltzer and the Hollyoaks omnibus on mute here as United resumed their dominating form that saw them lift the inaugural Premier League trophy, their first title for a quarter of a century.
Four wins and a draw (with notably three of the successes away from home) saw them sprint from the blocks on their way to an impressive double that season.
Hangover rating: An early morning jog in the park
1994/95 Manchester United 10pts
They would go on to lose their crown to Blackburn Rovers by a single point and a stuttering start hardly helped the champions. A routine 2-0 dismissal of QPR on the opening day was bolstered by a hard-fought triumph at Spurs and routing of Wimbledon. But dropped points at Forest and Leeds revealed a couple of early gremlins in the system.
Hangover rating: A queasy stomach from mixing their drinks but it soon passes
1995/96 Blackburn Rovers 4pts
Parallels can be drawn between Rover’s title glory the previous season to Manchester City’s. Both found themselves in unchartered territory as the team to be shot at as they visited grounds as the reigning champions. Both did so whilst tagged as having bought their seat at the top table. Both were crowned after a tight final day trumping of United.
Rovers struggled to adapt to the situation right from the off. A Shearer pen settled a bitty opening day encounter with QPR before the wheels came off at Wednesday and Bolton with consecutive 2-1 reverses. A home clash with United looked the perfect opportunity to re-establish their credentials but another loss, followed by a drab draw with Villa, suggested a crisis of identity. Having won the league by a single point they were now the same distance from the drop zone.
Hangover rating: A Freshers week hangover from hell
1996/97 Manchester United 9pts
Having reclaimed their title from the Ewood Park nouveau riche United got their 96/97 campaign underway with a comfortable 3-0 destruction of Wimbledon at Selhurst Park. Business as usual then? Hardly. Three consecutive draws – two of which were at home – brought fears from the Stretford End that Ferguson’s summer overhaul (that included Euro stars Cruyff and Poborsky and the departure of influential skipper Steve Bruce) was going to require a lengthy period of bedding in they could ill afford. A 4-0 demolition of Leeds at Elland Road however soon allayed such trepidation and United romped to their fourth title in five years.
Hangover rating: A groggy walk of shame to the bathroom to see Karel Poborsky looking back at you in the mirror
1997/98 Manchester United 13pts
Ferguson had evidently instructed his troops to down a pint of water before turning in because they awoke in August all guns blazing. An away win at Spurs marked their intent and an unbeaten spell that lasted until the end of September illustrated they were not overly mourning the retirement of Cantona. However, despite being 11 points clear in March this was ultimately a sorely disappointing campaign, with Arsenal clawing back the deficit late on and with no trophies being won elsewhere.
Hangover rating: Fresh as a daisy and in the gym by dawn
1998/99 Arsenal 7pts
Going into the new campaign as double winners the Gunners fired off an opening day salvo against newly-promoted Nottingham Forest despite the summer departure of Ian Wright. Wenger had been frustrated in the close season with failed attempts to lure Kluivert or Henry to the club in an effort to replace the irreplaceable and their lack of firepower soon showed with three consecutive 0-0 stalemates illustrating starkly that their backline was as stingy as ever but there were problems elsewhere. A 1-1 draw at home to Leicester exacerbated matters into an early crisis with the freshly crowned champs residing in mid-table.
Hangover rating: Functioning and steady on their feet but in desperate need of some vitamin C
1999/00 Manchester United 13 pts
What was to become United’s season of seasons with an incredible treble clicked into place immediately with a ground out draw at Goodison Park followed by four sterling displays that garnered maximum points. Yorke had his scoring boots on from the off bagging four before the season was barely underway.
Hangover rating: Up with the lark with the alarm-radio blaring out Shed Seven’s It’s Getting Better
2000/01 Manchester United 11 pts
The arrivals of Barthez and Van Nistelrooy further strengthened an already intimidating squad and United immediately imposed themselves on the new campaign with an unbeaten quintet of fixtures that included a 6-0 hammering of Bradford. 14 goals showed they were going to be an unstoppable and relentless attacking force once again.
Hangover rating: A clear head and a spring in their step
2001/02 Manchester United 8 pts
This was Ferguson’s season horribilis where for a while it seemed his empire was crumbling around him. First he made what he later admitted was his biggest mistake by selling Jaap Stam at the peak of his powers and bringing in the waning Blanc to replace him. Next he splurged over thirty million on the extravagantly gifted dud that was Veron. Finally he declared his intention to retire.
All these decisions had an immediate impact as United endured a mixed start to the season on their way to a third place in May – the first time they’d finished outside of the top two since the Premier League was formed.
It was great for the neutrals however with 23 goals in the first five games alone with an unprecedented 10 ending up in Barthez’s net.
Hangover rating: Blearily wandering into a room then forgetting what you’ve gone in there for
2002/03 Arsenal 8 pts
Three wins and two draws for an unbeaten opening defence of the championship must have pleased Wenger especially in light of Tony Adams’ retirement that summer. What must have pleased him even more was the fortitude shown to grind out those draws in two tricky London derbies at West Ham and Chelsea.
Weeks later Arsenal would break the club record for scoring in consecutive games (47) but it was still not enough to prevent United sneaking in once again for their 8th PL title.
Hangover rating: Some chocolate croissants dunked in strong black coffee and they’re away in style
2003/04 Manchester United 12 pts
Despite the Reds winning four of their opening five fixtures it was the loss to Southampton that immediately cost them dear as this was the season where Arsenal were invincible. Even so United started with their customary swagger brushing aside Bolton, Newcastle, Wolves and Charlton whilst bedding in a young Portuguese winger with braces.
Hangover rating: One of those hangovers that deceives you into thinking you’ve avoided it until the migraine kicks in a round midday. United finished a disappointing third
2004/05 Arsenal 15 pts
The imperious Arsenal side of this era resumed their invincibility all the way until late October where a 2-0 loss at Old Trafford finally derailed them. In their opening fixture they humiliated Everton in the curtain raiser and scored an astonishing 19 goals in their first five.
Hangover rating: Qu’est-ce qu’un hangover? La vie est bonne
2005/06 Chelsea 15 pts
Following a Drogba brace in the Community Shield Mourinho’s men continued their muscular dominance of the league with five opening victories, achieving all with ease except for a troublesome opener to Wigan. Crespo settled matters there with virtually the last kick but it was the fearsome Drogba who dispatched the rest of Chelsea’s early opponents to head home pointless.
Hangover rating: A hair-of-the-dog Special Brew from the Special One.
2006/07 Chelsea 12 pts
A 2-0 triumph at Ewood Park was celebrated with defiant gusto as the media prematurely jumped all over the preceding loss at Middlesbrough. Two home victories swiftly followed to hammer home the point that Mourinho’s troops were going nowhere.
Hangover rating: A brief moment of panic as nausea swells but a dry retch and a cigarette and all is well.
2007/08 Manchester United 8 pts
This was indisputably Ronaldo’s time as the winger struck an incredible 31 goals en route to an inevitable player of the year award. But the slick-haired magician was slow from the blocks as too was his team-mates as United managed a paltry (by their standards) three goals in the opening five fixtures. Two of these were enough to eke out 1-0 wins which glossed over a early crisis of faith that saw the Reds draw a blank at home to Reading, under-perform at Portsmouth and head back pointless from Eastlands. The results were concerning. The performances were dismal.
Hangover rating: Somehow manage to bluster through the morning despite bloodshot eyes and a pounding skull.
2008/09 Manchester United 8 pts
A rare Darren Fletcher strike was required to save a point in their curtain opener at home to Newcastle and the Scot was needed once again to settle matters at Fratton Park the following week. A consequent loss at Anfield and hard-fought draw at Stamford Bridge meant it was difficult to gauge United’s form and a routine 2-0 dismissal of Bolton proved little.
Hangover rating: Staring lethargically at the ceiling for a full hour on awaking.
2009/10 Manchester United 12 pts
A 5-0 spanking of Wigan away with Rooney, Owen and Berbatov all getting on the scoresheet illustrated United’s attacking strength in depth but it was the defeat at Turf Moor that grabbed the most headlines in August. Consecutive victories over their North London rivals Spurs and Arsenal soon dispelled any doubts however that United were in anything but commanding shape.
Hangover rating: Susceptible to loud noises but that aside in fine fettle
2010/11 Chelsea 15 pts
The previous season’s double winners could not have hoped for a more impressive and statesmanlike opening to confirm their re-emergence as the dominant force in English football under Ancelotti. With over seventy million splurged on Torres and Luiz the Pensioners blasted aside West Brom and Wigan with consecutive 6-0 maulings before dispatching Stoke, West Ham and Blackpool in similarly authoritative fashion. More ominously still they conceded just the once in the 450 minutes of the new campaign. Who would have guessed that by May Ancelotti would find himself in the dole queue with Torres a national figure of fun?
Hangover rating: As irritatingly full of pep and vigour as one of those fitness gurus on breakfast telly
2011/12 Manchester United 15 pts
A mixed pre-season was concluded with a sublime second half comeback in the Community Shield against their city rivals but doubts remained over United’s capabilities with a squad that was poor by their standards. On paper at least. On the pitch they romped to an early goal-glut scoring 21 in their opening five including famously an 8-2 destruction of a beleaguered Arsenal.
Hangover rating: In the office before even the cleaners arrive to impress the boss
2012/13 Manchester City 9 pts
Having won the league in such an extraordinary way in May and looking ominously accomplished against Chelsea in the Community Shield the visit of Southampton was regarded as a formality; saints to the slaughter. It wasn’t. The south coast side exposed the vast swathes of spaces in front of the City defence and a vulnerability that was entirely absent last term. These are failings that have not been addressed and three draws in City’s opening five fixtures reveal a fragility that needs to be swiftly rectified.
Hangover rating: Wandering home in a happy daze after a one-night stand with a supermodel only to realise all-too-late you’ve walked into heavy traffic.
Conclusion: Title-winning hangovers do exist although they’re perhaps rarer than many believe. Kudos must go to Chelsea for amassing a highly impressive 42/45 points in the fifteen games that have followed their three league successes. Should Di Matteo lead them to glory this time out pity their opponents next August.
As for City today’s encounter at Craven Cottage will go some way to showing whether their early struggles are due to the champagne supernova that followed Aguero’s strike or deeper problems at the heart of the reigning champs.