Manchester United's position at the top of the table is entirely familiar yet also a bit of an oddity.
After all, it is only a couple of months since Wayne Rooney was so dissatisfied that minds were getting acclimatised to the notion of him playing for another club. It was not easy, however, to tell whether he was confronting Sir Alex Ferguson or collaborating with him.
The situation, in any case, was manipulated well enough for it to be understood that the manager would have a far bigger budget. We can be clear that he would not be negotiating under pressure were he to enter the transfer market shortly. The Boxing Day victory over Sunderland was so assured that the 2-0 margin indicated that this was an energy-saving exercise in which United restrained themselves.
Even so, Rooney was convinced that he had sniffed decay at Old Trafford. It could be that he and others will still have their concerns until substantial signings are made. Ferguson himself must crave to cut such deals. It is not lost on him or any United fan that the side has recorded only one away win in the league – at the Britannia Stadium in October when the decider in the 2-1 victory came four minutes from the end.
The goals have begun to flow but United do not head the table because of exploits that have left the public gasping. A poignant transition is still in progress. Gary Neville has enjoyed merely a couple of outings in the Premier League, the latter of them as long ago as 24 October. Paul Scholes has been absent through injury for over a month. The 37-year-old Ryan Giggs looks more resilient but has been in the starting line-up only half-a-dozen times in the Premier League.
And yet United, at present, are in command. That testifies to Ferguson's finesse. While Rooney tentatively attempts to rediscover his bold self, Dimitar Berbatov gets an invitation to revel in prominence. There have been 13 goals from him, all in the Premier League, and while the five against Blackburn tilt the tally, it was a hat-trick by him that secured the tight 3-2 defeat of Liverpool. Previously his best total in an entire league season for United had been a dozen.
Most likely Berbatov is thriving on the attention he receives, although he should remember that it was the industrious Rooney who was in the line-up against Arsenal when Ferguson wanted to play with one forward. There is a healthy sense of new developments elsewhere and someone like Anderson is finally having an impact. Allowances have to be made in his case for this year's cruciate ligament injury and the fact that, despite being bought three-and-a-half years ago, he is still a mere 22.
United, for all that, remain short of their former level of peak performance and Rooney was not mistaken in his belief that the club might have to load up with money and head to the transfer market. The pressure is relieved by the fact that others have wavered. Roberto Mancini, for instance, wants to have a more orderly Manchester City but in the 2-1 defeat at home to Everton last week the visitors were not put under duress until their forward Victor Anichebe was sent off with an hour gone. Manager and fans alike suffer when the team average one goal per game at its own stadium in the Premier League.
At Arsenal Arsène Wenger points to the youth of his side. Perhaps allowances do have to be made but being young is not in itself a guarantee that greatness will be achieved in due course. Chelsea, by contrast, have some leading performers nearer the end of an athlete's age range. Rejuvenation is essential and it will be costly if Roman Abramovich wants footballers of the calibre that he bought in former times.
Everything may yet alter and United are still to go to the Emirates, Stamford Bridge and White Hart Lane. However, the interest being stirred derives from the appreciation that there are uncommon levels of fallibility. No English club went beyond the quarter-finals of the Champions League last season and Liverpool could not get out of their group.
It is the European programme that must deliver the definitive verdict on the sides. Even so, there will be fun ahead if the second half of the Premier League delivers tension and excitement as flawed teams strive to exert control.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010