It’s one of the most open races the Premier League has witnessed for years, with various clubs represented and seemingly no fewer than seven potential winners.
But we’re not talking about the title race. No, Chelsea are odds-on favourites to win the league. Instead, the battle for the leading scorer’s Golden Boot is set to provide plenty of entertainment for the rest of the campaign.
Saturday sees a particularly exciting head-to-head battle, because the last two winners of the award meet at the Etihad Stadium. Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero triumphed in 2014-15, with 26 goals, while Tottenham’s Harry Kane won it last season with 25.
They are, slightly surprisingly, the only previous winners still playing in the Premier League, with the likes of Luis Suarez, Robin van Persie, Carlos Tevez and Didier Drogba having departed England. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of competition for the 2016-17 award.
As things stand, no fewer than three players are tied on 14 goals at the top of the charts: Chelsea’s Diego Costa, Manchester United’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal. Kane has 13, one ahead of Sunderland’s Jermain Defoe and Everton’s Romelu Lukaku.
Aguero boasts the best goals-per-game rate, but two lengthy suspensions mean he’s only managed 11. Like his searing runs behind the opposition defence, the Argentine striker is starting from slightly further back than you’d expect, but he remains a serious threat.
In all, six of the Premier League’s top seven sides are represented among the leaders, with only Liverpool, who have effectively been strikerless for much of the campaign, missing out. (Sadio Mane, with nine, leads their scoring chart.)
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about this seven-horse race is the variety of candidates involved. Three players could be considered typical, English-style No. 9s, all about strength and physicality: Costa, Ibrahimovic and Lukaku.
All three are more than simply aerial threat — in fact, that’s probably Lukaku’s weakness — but it’s notable that both Ibrahimovic and Lukaku have scored four times apiece with their head this season. None of the other contenders have managed more than two.
Then there’s Kane and Defoe, who are — broadly speaking — goal poachers, despite playing very different roles. Kane is upfront in a team based around heavy pressing and so often receives the ball in tight space and has to finish smartly and instantly, as he did three times in last weekend’s victory over West Bromwich Albion.
Defoe, meanwhile, spearheads a side that spend long periods on the back foot and, therefore, uses his pace in behind the opposition defence before finishing coolly and calmly in one-on-one situations. His goal last weekend against Stoke was a good example.
There’s one statistical note that summarises their poaching style: Of the seven leading scorers, Kane and Defoe are the only two who haven’t netted a goal from outside the penalty box this season.
Finally, there’s Sanchez and Aguero, and they are similar in style: stocky, speedy South Americans who traditionally played slightly withdrawn roles but have found themselves pushed forward to lead the line.
The Arsenal man is probably the better all-rounder, capable of dropping deep and playing on the flanks, and that might cost him in terms of the Golden Boot race, with Olivier Giroud’s excellent form meaning Sanchez probably spends much of the remainder of the season on the left, having previously been used upfront.
Sanchez and Aguero are probably the most “modern” strikers of those mentioned, with styles that are about speed and dynamic movement. Both are capable of scoring headed goals, however; Sanchez, in particular, boasts a sensational spring.
Another interesting statistic involves the number of shots each player has taken. Costa and Ibrahimovic both have 14 goals, for example, but Ibrahimovic has attempted 31 more shots, a marked difference.
Indeed, this correlates with the fact that Ibrahimovic has scored three goals from outside the box — the most on this list. Although primarily a No. 9, the Swede is — as we’ve seen so many times before — capable of the truly spectacular.
The history of the Premier League top scorer award demonstrates how the centre-forward role has changed over the years. Initially it was dominated by pure No. 9s, with Andy Cole and Alan Shearer dominating the formative years of the prize.
Then small, fast players like Michael Owen and Kevin Phillips triumphed before athletic and powerful forwards like Thierry Henry, Drogba and Cristiano Ronaldo took centre-stage.
In recent years, it’s largely been about players not previously considered pure strikers: Tevez, Van Persie and Suarez were all considered No. 10s when they first arrived in the Premier League.
The centre-forward role in a Premier League side these days seems to be a mix of different styles, and that neatly summarises this season’s collection of tactical styles at the top of the league: There’s possession, pressing, counter-attacking — a bit of everything to suit everyone. What seems consistent, though, is that the strikers mentioned suit their side’s game.
The best bet for the award is Ibrahimovic. Earlier in the campaign, he missed a string of sitters, but that was only ever likely to be temporary. Now he’s in form and, as the statistics show, shooting from all angles and all distances.
Ibrahimovic looks unlikely to continue his incredible record of winning league titles this season, but the man who has won the top scorer prize twice in Serie A and three times in Ligue 1 has a great chance of doing the same in the Premier League.