Sir Alex Ferguson tried to ensure Manchester United were ruthless against teams in the lower half of the table to afford them some slip-ups against the better sides, although Manchester City famously clinched their first title at United’s expense on goal difference having won their two meetings by a score of 7-1.
Antonio Conte and then Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have raised standards over the past five seasons by simply beating everybody in sight, turning draws into bad results because of the need to keep accumulating three points.
The most obvious way to jump ahead of your rivals remains to beat them directly, ensuring that you push yourselves up while keeping them down.
Win the mini-league of big teams, and you give yourself an excellent chance of winning the whole thing come May.
A mini-league used to consist of the top four, then became the Big Six and now probably has to consist of the top eight teams. West Ham have shown this season that their sixth-placed finish last season was no fluke, while Leicester have finished fifth under Brendan Rodgers for two successive campaigns; they deserve to join City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, United and Tottenham at the top table.
City have played more of these teams than anyone else in their first 11 games with just West Ham missing from their list and, with the exception of Arsenal, all of their big fixtures have been away from home.
It wasn’t a good start for Guardiola’s side either, losing to Tottenham on the opening weekend of a season that has already seen Nuno Espirito Santo depart. Since then though the Blues have been excellent, with victory over United at the weekend confirming that they have only dropped points in one of five subsequent games – a 2-2 draw at Anfield.
That gives City a more than respectable average of 2.17 points per game in the mini-league, a total bettered only by West Ham’s three wins and a defeat from four matches (2.25 points). Chelsea (1.75 points), Liverpool (1.25 points), and United (1.2 points) have all done significantly worse so far, although Chelsea have obviously done far better against the teams lower down the table as they hold a three-point lead after nearly a third of the season.
With West Ham visiting the Etihad on November 28, City then have a run of five games without playing one of the top sides before facing Leicester and Arsenal in the week after Christmas.
The plan for December has to be to make sure their efforts in the mini-league are not in vain.