With so many domestic fixtures squeezed in as the Amnesty International World Cup loomed, the fortunes of our big Northern clubs seemed to change quicker than a Tory cabinet over the past couple of months. As this weirdest of tournaments gets even weirder with England fast out of the blocks, it’s the perfect opportunity to draw breath and review each team’s current trajectory in the Premier League. So off we go with a healthy dollop of recency bias, starting at the highest placed Northern club – gasp, it’s Man City.
Current League Position – 2nd
Top Scorer – Haaland (23)
City’s final match before the break felt like an office pre-Christmas dress down day. Pep was rocking a chillaxed hoody/jeans combo, the team swaggered onto the pitch, and productivity dived as City half-arsed their way to a shock loss. Slow out of the blocks and losing too many 50/50s, this was nevertheless something of an anomaly.
Brentford’s fourth minute goal marked the first time that the Premier League champs have gone 1-0 down at home in the league since late August when Palace just made City angry, eventually losing 4-2. This team has the air of a runner coming up the rails, a cyclist biding their time in the peloton. Even making Haaland captain of my fantasy team hasn’t reduced his impact which is historic in itself. If I were Paul Merson stealthily glancing at a dictionary, I’d probably splutter that I’ve run out of superlatives, Jeff. The supporting cast isn’t bad either. Foden is really hitting his straps and De Bruyne is still De Bruyne – a world-class player who leads the team with 12 assists and often steps up when needed with something spectacular (check out this thunderbastard against Leicester).
Despite all this loveliness, the World Cup may have come at an opportune moment for City. Although they lead the Premier League in World Cup representatives with a hearty 18, this is more a reflection of their astonishing strength in depth. And while Guardiola will be pulling that hoody over his shiny bonce every time one of his players rolls around the Qatari turf clutching a body part, there have been some uncharacteristically stuttering performances of late. The break in domestic proceedings may prove ideal for a bit of Pep-tastic tuning ahead of the home straight.
Maybe the overriding hope for current leaders Arsenal will be those fixtures around the Champions League knockout stages. We all know what City really hungers for this season.
Current League Position – 3rd
Top Scorer – Almirón (8)
If the Premier League was a Northern nightclub, Man City would be sat in a roped-off VIP area spilling expensive champagne over Liverpool’s vacated seat. But who’s this dance walking up to the velvet rope having stuffed a wad of notes in the bouncer’s jacket pocket? It’s Steady Eddie and The Richest Club in the World TM.
Many, including your faithful Football Correspondent, thought that this would be a period of consolidation for Newcastle before a concerted push for Europe next season. But with various members of the traditional Big Six having passed out in the loos, the Geordies are stemming nosebleeds in a lofty third place.
For all the talk of bottomless pots of gold, it’s the old school players who continue to grab headlines, with this season’s Joelinton Award going to Almirón. Here’s a player who always looked lightweight and often went missing, but is now grabbing games by the scruff of the neck. This phoenix from the flames has encapsulated Newcastle’s rapid rise, scoring monstrous volleys like this beast against Fulham, or turning provider with direct dribbles into the box such as his assist for this Willock stonker. Joe Willock’s beauty won a deserved 1-0 against a rapidly sinking Chelsea in the final match before the break, and for vast swathes of the 90 minutes it was the Magpies who looked like Champions League qualifiers.
Not to be outdone by yesterday’s cast-offs, the shiny new spine has continued to look impressive. Pope, Botman, Trippier, Bruno et al feel like players who have the guile and quality to maintain a push for the top four. Scarily, this is also the first stage of investment in the playing squad, not to mention the prolonged absence of £63 million forward Alexander Isak who is set to return after the World Cup having twanged his thigh during an autumn international.
Newcastle are ahead of schedule and far less burdened than some of the more storied establishment clubs huffing and puffing in a darkened corner of the dancefloor. This joie de vivre is translating into surprisingly dominant performances and when bicycle clip time approaches it may really count for something.
Current League Position – 5th
Top Scorer – Rashford (8)
My top observation from United’s stop-start progression under Ten Hag: bald men with goaties should never wear polo necks unless they’re laughing evilly in a secret underground base. The manager’s dress sense aside, there are definite signs of a revival at Old Trafford. Much like Eddie Howe, Ten Hag has boosted players who looked done and dusted, giving them a sense of purpose and verve. I suggested back in August that a particular point of fascination would be the potential redemption arc for Marcus Rashford. As top scorer with eight goals, he genuinely looks to be enjoying his football again. Just drool over those first three touches after being subbed on against Iran in England’s World Cup opener. There’s no way that goal happens a year ago, probably because he wouldn’t have even been in the squad. Good luck to him.
Those sentiments don’t extend to The Ego, who has now been booted out of the club in disgrace. He had been running Ten Hag close in the super villain stakes with a series of high-profile misjudgements borne from what appears to be a total lack of self-awareness and incredible delusions of grandeur. The interview with Piers Morgan came across as two has-beens with a combined weight of ego which could pull the moon from its orbit. If anything, the whole circus served to turn any lingering support in the dressing room against him. It’s a decisive move to terminate his contract, and the correct one.
Elsewhere, the jury is still out on Antony who looks overpriced and raw, but Casemiro’s class is starting to shine through with a series of quality performances which may help exorcise the ghost of high-profile South Americans past at Old Trafford.
To refer for a second time to my season preview, I suggested that after the likes of Rangnick and Mourinho, what United needed more than anything was a sense of direction. It’s amazing the patience displayed by fans of even the biggest clubs when they feel there is a cohesive strategy in place (and particularly when they are United fans looking down at Liverpool). So altogether a satisfying if patchy first half of the season for United – permission to cackle away Mr Hag.
Current League Position – 6th
Top scorer – Roberto Firmino (9)
Liverpool supporters have been feasting on roast dinners with all the trimmings for the last few seasons, but this season has served up nothing more than a bog-standard bubble and squeak.
Firmino as top scorer tells a tale of injuries and weariness, collective head loss, and enforced but unsuccessful formation tweaks. Who could have imagined Liverpool playing the role of game raisers, losing to Leeds and Forest while beating City and Spurs, the latter representing the team’s first away win of the season?
Klopp’s side continue to feel shaky, giving off the air of an employee prematurely returning to work after a nasty bug. The defence looks leaky, gifting the opposition head-scratching opportunities, with the likes of Alexander-Armstrong lacking in concentration and defensive solidity. In truth, the entire backline has been poor – Joe Gomez has struggled to replace the injured Matip and Konate while, shockingly, Van Dijk has joined Fabinho in driving his form off a cliff like a cut-price Thelma and Louise.
A total of 19 first team injuries prior to Halloween was a frightening statistic which called into question everything from pre-season conditioning to a relative lack of net investment in the playing squad. This latter point has become one of the stories of the season with LFC’s owners apparently deciding to cash in their chips. It appears that a damaging trident of state-owned clubs, toothless Financial Fair Play regulations, and the booing into submission of their plans to make football a closed shop have all been too much to bear for FSG. This story probably has the legs of a giraffe so prepare to be bored out of your skull. Having said that, a militant fan base who have hardly been starved of success may prove less receptive than City and Newcastle supporters should another sovereign wealth fund appear on the horizon. At that point, things may get very interesting indeed.
Current League Position – 15th
Top Scorer – Rodrigo (9)
Leeds are a neutral’s dream – handing out the odd shock result while providing some grandstand finishes and complete brain farts. However, the neutral’s fun is often a fan’s nightmare. There’s no greater gut punch than building yourself into a winning position only to let it slip with defensive lapses. Jesse Marsch’s team often resemble a cartoon character running off a ledge, peddling through thin air before plunging into the abyss, passing Fabinho and Van Dijk holding hands on the way down.
Excitement doesn’t stave off relegation, especially when it precedes disappointment. Wins such as those at Anfield will get fans off their seats, but there’s no point making the DVD if supporters are watching it on repeat when you’re in the Championship.
Issues remain at both ends of the pitch. Crysencio Summerville and Rodrigo may be excellent headline-grabbers, but Leeds are lacking any consistency up front with Bamford’s potential seemingly damaged by one too many injuries.
There’s also a narrowness as a defensive unit which suggests Marsch is trying to negate deficiencies and cut off lanes, only too aware of his team’s shortcomings. The problem being that this just spills problems into other areas – especially out wide where the opposition has often had far too much joy. With the team lacking a little quality in some areas, this feels like a chequebook solution, but who knows how much Leeds can spend after throwing a ton at relatively limited players under Bielsa.
Nevertheless, a couple of statement signings front and back would go a long way to giving Marsch the tools to keep Leeds afloat, but that’s easier said than done during the notoriously shifty January transfer window.
Current League Position – 17th
Top Scorer – Anthony Gordon (3)
Everton has built its season on being stout. Not Guinness levels of stout mind, more a watered-down Mackeson’s. But as of late things have fallen apart, with defensive displays leaving a bad taste more equivalent to a tepid Skol. Some 74 chances have been conceded across their last four games, not helped by an attack which looks as blunt as Calvert-Lewin is injury prone. You see, there’s an ever-present danger when setting out your stall as a team which is hard to break down. When you stop being resolute, there’s nothing left to hang your hat on. Gordon as top scorer with three goals is far from good enough, and it’s no surprise that the only team to score less so far in the Premier League is bottom of the table Wolves.
Things reached a nadir in the Blues’ last game before the break, with Everton losing to Bournemouth for the second time in a week by an aggregate score of 1-7. This led to some distasteful scenes as police formed a barrier between players and their fans and Alex Iwobi’s shirt was thrown back at him. More than anything it’s a waste of a fantastic Christmas present, but it’s certainly not a great look for the self-proclaimed People’s Club. Still, you could argue that it was an apt display of disunity given the ragtag nature of Everton’s play.
It all seemed so positive back in the late summer sunshine with new recruits adding grit and solidity for the fight ahead. Yet tweaks to the system which seemed designed to make Everton more progressive have exposed the midfield and left the defence all at sea, while yielding very little additional firepower.
So here we are again, with the Toffees hovering over the trapdoor like a cat resisting being shoved in a carry case. If teams continue to go through Everton like Mackeson’s goes through me, it will be fascinating to see if Moshiri gives Lampard the time he needs to rediscover that early season promise.
All information correct at time of publication