WHEN Joe Gomez broke down in training with England earlier this week with a knee injury that could potentially end his season, it was a personal disaster for the centre-half, and a massive blow for Liverpool, who are already without the sidelined Virgil van Dijk.

In many ways, though, the unfortunate incident was merely in keeping with the way the Premier League season has gone so far. Neither Liverpool nor Manchester City are having things their own way, and as a result, both appear unexpectedly vulnerable. Leicester City, Tottenham and Chelsea all look viable title contenders, and while the chances of ‘another Leicester’ occurring remain unlikely, it would be premature to rule Southampton and potentially even wildcards Aston Villa out of a sustained run at the top of the table. Two months into this strangest of seasons, and unpredictability rules okay.

There are multiple reasons for the sudden volatility at the top end of the top-flight – the condensed nature of the season because of coronavirus, the fact the teams involved in the latter stages of last season’s European competitions effectively missed out on having a pre-season, the crazy scheduling of so many international matches this autumn that has further increased the workload of the biggest stars – but there are also individual factors pertaining to both Liverpool and Manchester City that account for each side’s comparatively slow start.

With Liverpool, the dropping of seven points from the opening eight games can be attributed in no small part to simple bad luck. Van Dijk’s long-term injury has robbed Jurgen Klopp of his most important player, the rock at the heart of the best defensive operation in the country last season. Alisson’s injury, now resolved, was almost as damaging, and Gomez’s absence, if confirmed as anticipated, will be another huge obstacle to overcome.

It can be argued that Liverpool were extremely fortunate to avoid injuries to their key players when they ran away with the title last season, so recent events are simply a case of things evening themselves out. Even so, having to negotiate the next couple of months with Joel Matip, Rhys Williams, Nathaniel Phillips and a repositioned Fabinho as the senior centre-halves will test Klopp’s managerial abilities to their limit.

Manchester City have also suffered with injuries this season, although given their age and previous track record, setbacks to Sergio Aguero, Fernandinho and Benjamin Mendy can hardly be said to have been unexpected. If Nathan Ake’s injury sustained while on international duty with Holland on Wednesday turns out to be serious, that will be more unfortunate.

Pep Guardiola’s biggest issue at the Etihad is that he is presiding over a squad that has grown old together and that no longer looks as potent or effective as it used to. Fernandinho and Aguero are both well into their 30s and their bodies are creaking. David Silva has not been adequately replaced, and the decision to allow Leroy Sane to leave looks increasingly ill-judged. Riyad Mahrez, Bernardo Silva and Ferran Torres are extremely talented players, but they are yet to really fire this season. City will inevitably have their moments, but look hugely reliant on Kevin de Bruyne and Raheem Sterling.

Liverpool and Manchester City’s wobbles would not matter so much if the chasing pack was also going backwards, but when it comes to three teams in particular, that is not the case.

Leicester currently top the table with 18 points from eight matches, and their position at the head of affairs is neither undeserved nor a fluke. Brendan Rodgers has assembled a fine side at the King Power, strong and resolute in defence and like lightning on the counter-attack.

The evergreen Jamie Vardy remains their figurehead – the Foxes are benefiting from the 33-year-old’s decision to call time on his international career – while James Maddison is back to his best, Harvey Barnes is in the best form of his career and both Youri Tielemans and Dennis Praet look tailor-made for the Premier League.

At the other end, Kasper Schmeichel’s title-winning credentials are well established, Jonny Evans remains one of the most underrated players in the country and both James Justin and Timothy Castagne have added something extra at wing-back. The demands of the Europa League could have an effect, but Leicester look genuine contenders.

The same is true of a Jose Mourinho-led Spurs. Harry Kane and Son Heung-min have justifiably hogged the headlines in the early weeks of the season thanks to their goalscoring exploits, but it is at the other end of the field where Mourinho has worked his magic.

No Premier League side has conceded fewer goals than Spurs this season, and while Eric Dier’s performances at centre-half have been something of a revelation, it is the installation of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg as a holding midfielder that has transformed the resilience of Mourinho’s side. Recruiting full-backs Matt Doherty and Sergio Reguilon has also been a huge success.

Chelsea’s transfer spending this summer was astronomical, but you still have to invest wisely, and Frank Lampard appears to have struck gold. Timo Werner is looking increasingly at home in the Premier League, Hakim Ziyech has burst onto the scene after recovering from injury and Thiago Silva has slipped seamlessly into life at Stamford Bridge. Given their formidable squad depth, it is hard to see Chelsea slipping away anytime soon.

That is bad news for Liverpool and Manchester City, but a thrilling prospect for everyone else. ‘Project Big Picture’ might have been designed to limit the number of clubs able to challenge for the title – this season’s battle is more wide open than ever.