What’s the key ingredient in serving up a genuine title race – quality, depth, mentality?

Those certainly help the teams involved, but the one thing required to ensure they go blow-for-blow all the way to the finish line is that they need to have flaws. There can be no Premier League trophy free-for-all if they are not all lacking in some way, as the thrills and spills required to stage for a truly box-office scrap only come about when no participant is immune to a bloody nose.

It’s why the era of the Manchester City super-team has been so detrimental to the jeopardythat fuelsfor a good, old-fashioned, ‘anyone can win it’ title bout. OK, perhaps not anyone, but for the first season in quite some time, more than two teams are heading into Christmas believing that they could go all the way.

City suffering a slump not seen before under Pep Guardiola has opened the door to a classic second half of the season, albeit there can be no guarantee that the current three-in-a-row champions won’t just as quickly slam it shut. We can extol the virtues of Arsenal, Liverpool, and Aston Villa as much as we like, but realistically it could hinge on whether City are merely working through an extended blip, or if they are a team now sliding past their peak.

They do have flaws this year, of that there can be no doubt. Four wins in 11 from all competitions tells its own story, but underneath what or may not simply be a rough patch, it’s hard to deny that Guardiola is missing certain personnel who were key to last term’s treble success. The likes of Ilkay Gundogan, a talismanic midfield figure, and Riyad Mahrez have moved on, while Kevin de Bruyne has missed most of the campaign to date through injury.

Nobody with a slither of self-respect would cry poverty on behalf of nation state owned Manchester City, but it seems their level has, perhaps, dropped to a point where they can be got at by the ever-improving sides around them. A change of scenery, and another trophy, at the Club World Cup might be just what they need to reset and refocus, not to mention giving Erland Haaland time to return to full potency, but on the other hand they could find themselves eight points adrift of Arsenal by the time they next take to domestic action on December 27.

Given last season’s second-placed finish, the Gunners will justifiably fancy themselves as number one contender to City’s crown, and they currently sit atop the division heading into a pivotal weekend meeting with Liverpool.

It’s the second year on the trot that Mikel Arteta has perched his team on the summit at this stage, but it remains unclear whether they are actually a better side than last season. Their position at the top has been held up by several late goals at the end of some not-so-convincing performances. Last-gasp winners being the telltale sign of champions is long-accepted football wisdom, but the counterpoint becomes that getting out of jail so often will eventually catch up to you.

But when they’re not courting stoppage time drama, there is an efficiency about Arsenal that is far more desirable, and valuable, in titles races than the ability to pull rabbits out of a hat every few weeks. Teams who win the title often build their success on a significant number of largely unremarkable home victories, the kind you know happened yet struggle to recall by the time May rolls around and the ribbons are tied to the trophy. The addition of Declan Rice has added a stability that increases their chances of averting a repeat of 2022/23’s eventual capsizing.

They still lack a prolific striker, and it’s not often titles are won without one, albeit significant weaknesses are hard to come by across the rest of the pitch, with a possible exception between the sticks. As it seems to be with City, there are flaws among what is otherwise a team of considerable quality – good enough to be right in it, but possibly not to run away with it. Arsenal have lost to the likes of Newcastle and Aston Villa on the road, and that will be required to change after New Year.

Such results have allowed a Liverpool side still well short of being the finished article to push their way into contention. Jurgen Klopp boasts the advantage of being over the course before, the elite finisher Arsenal lack in Mohamed Salah, and his team positioned themselves favourably despite failing to consistently sparkle.

Last weekend’s drab draw with Manchester United highlighted that they lack the explosive brilliance of Klopp’s title-winning side of 2019/20, with question marks over whether the eternally-unpredictable Darwin Nunez can elevate Liverpool to the same heights as Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino did alongside Salah before him. And yet, they still hold the capacity for brilliance, as was evident in a 5-1 League Cup demolition of West Ham on Wednesday evening.

And then there’s the campaign’s dark horse in Aston Villa, a side so spectacularly turned around by the brilliance of Unai Emery that it’s hard to compute they were sliding towards a relegation battle little over a year ago. Their run of 15 consecutive home victories – stretching back into last term – takes in wins over City and Arsenal, and making your own patch impregnable is a prerequisite for any underdog with designs on pulling a 2015/16 season. The obvious shortcoming, though, is do they really have the depth of squad to compete with the rest? Perhaps not, but the momentum they have built is undeniable, and they could find themselves top of the tree on Christmas Day if results this weekend go their way.

Sorry to labour the point, but what do all these teams have in common? They are all flawed in some way, yet remain very, very good football teams. Special mention goes to Spurs and Ange Postecoglou, although the jury is very much out despite their gutsy arresting of a five-game winless run with an injury-ravaged squad.

It’s not out of the question that they could force their way into contention, but despite the various qualities shown by them and others, it still feels as though the most important factor in all this is what City do when we lurch in 2024. If they truly are a side on the downslope, the next few months could become the most enthralling multi-team title race we’ve seen in a long, long time.