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January + moves = title victory

And here is the good news.

Luis Suarez's goals have papered over Liverpool's cracks Photograph: Getty
Luis Suarez's goals have papered over Liverpool's cracks Photograph: Getty

We have ourselves - at least for the time being - a wide open title race in the Barclays Premier League. And that is not something to take for granted. Lost in the euphoria, hype and constant Sky- fuelled reminders that we're watching "the best league in the world" was the basic fact that for most of the past decade - when the Premier League grew and solidified its position as a global juggernaut - it was a coalition of frontrunners and also-rans. Or, at best, a two-horse race.

Currently we have four clubs - Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool - separated by five points at the top of the table. Not to mention Manchester United and Tottenham who, for all their missteps, are a not insurmountable eight points off the pace.

Last year at this stage, United were seven points clear, with Chelsea third, 11 back. The season before that, United and City were level, with Spurs seven back and Chelsea 11 behind. And 2010-11 saw United just two points clear at the top, but with two games in hand.

You can debate whether this parity is a function of a levelling down - big clubs in transition not punching their weight - or whether the top half-dozen clubs have all improved at once. The points totals and general performance on the pitch suggest the former, despite what the increasingly shrill Premier League cheerleaders insist. (And, by the way, the fact the sides at the top aren't as strong in absolute terms is not a reflection on the league, top-to-bottom: in fact, you can make a strong case that mid-table Premier League clubs are as good as they've ever been).

Still, the fact the clubs at the top all have evident areas that can (or need to) be strengthened underscores just how much room for improvement there is. And how this season - more than in recent years - getting your January moves right can be the difference between winning the title or finishing outside the fiscally-vital Champions League places. And, note, of course, that getting January right means not signing anyone and instead focusing on integrating players who have been injured or out of favour. Arsenal's blistering start to the season - indeed, their form dating way back to last spring - has somewhat led folks to forget that in August many were insisting this was still an incomplete, half-baked squad. It still is. They remain an injury to Olivier Giroud away from either playing Nicklas Bendtner or slotting in either Lukas Podolski or Theo Walcott, which would require further rejigging of the team.

And at the back the reserve centre-backs are Thomas Vermaelen or Bacary Sagna out of position.

Manchester City look to be the most complete contenders, but even then sporting director Txiki Begiristain is looking for alternatives. It's a big squad, so it may be a case of shedding before adding, but an extra body in central midfield would come in handy if the accomplished duo of Yaya Toure and Fernandinho slow down. Apart from Javi Garcia, there isn't too much depth there. Jose Mourinho's campaign for a centre-forward is well documented and with good reason: Demba Ba, Fernando Torres and Samuel Eto'o have scored five league goals between them, or one every 322 minutes.

His problem, though, is that Chelsea are just as undermanned in central midfield, which is especially concerning since Mourinho had shown a proclivity for returning to his trusty 4-3-3. The key will be the dynamic between the manager and owner Roman Abramovich. Mourinho was ready to sell off Juan Mata and David Luiz in the summer in order to raise funds for a top-shelf striker, but both moves were vetoed from the top.

Ahead of playing Liverpool today, Chelsea are four points adrift of the summit without having played particularly well. Mourinho could be a victim of his own success if Abramovich figures there's no point in more investment, beyond propping up the middle of the park. Liverpool are tough to judge in the sense that Luis Suarez's stratospheric form can paper over a lot of cracks and you wonder what will happen when (if?) he comes back to Earth.

The defence is still jittery, but adding another centre-back to the four already in residence seems an unlikely fix: Brendan Rodgers is probably better off working with what he has and getting them to improve. Likewise, up front, he'll have to again find the right balance once Daniel Sturridge returns.

The elephant in the room is the midfield, where things have looked smoother without Steven Gerrard. But it's simplistic to suggest they're better off without him. He'll be back, he'll go straight in and, at that point, he'll probably require more defensive cover than Lucas can offer. And that's - most likely - where Liverpool will look in January: a holding midfield alternative.

Given Tottenham's summer, it's unlikely there will be any major moves, unless a spot frees up because someone departs, whether on loan or permanently. No point in spending more money until you figure out whether Tim Sherwood is the guy to lead you long-term.

That said, much of the focus will be internal, trying to get the fancy collection assembled in the last transfer window to work together and assessing who can contribute and who is best off elsewhere.

That leaves Manchester United, the side which, arguably, would benefit most from a hefty injection of new personnel and who have the funds to do it. Except every indication here is that the powder will be kept dry. Central midfield is the most obvious need, but the inclination is to give Marouane Fellaini another shot when he returns from injury, rather than sanctioning another £20 million-plus move for a guy who could turn out to be Fellaini 2.0. Plus, with Darren Fletcher looking fit, Michael Carrick on his way back and Tom Cleverley still around, it's best to take stock before rushing into what could be a pricey January mistake.

The main theme, though, is uncertainty. Rarely in recent years have the rewards for those who make the right moves - and the punishment for those who make mistakes - been so great. And that, often, can lead to an impasse.

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