Everyone’s had a few festive Premier League games and we’ve (pretty much) got a wonderfully shock-filled FA Cup third round out of the way, so it seems an opportune time to see how the mood around the clubs has shifted since those far-off before times of November when it still didn’t really feel like a World Cup was actually about to really happen. But happen it did, and now so has a lot of other stuff.
So who’s cheerier and who’s feeling ever more gloomy? Here’s our best guess, with November’s rankings in brackets…
20) Southampton (16)
Hmm. Sacked Ralph Hasenhuttl, which was a shame but fair enough. Then appointed Nathan Jones, which was a lovely idea but probably one for a team not fighting for its very Premier League existence.
Three defeats in three games under Jones – the latest of which a catastrophically grim home defeat to Nottingham Forest – has put them in a tight spot. While there seven clubs separated by three points from 13th to 19th trying to get themselves out of the relegation scrap, Southampton first need to get themselves in it. There is already a significant chance that’s going to require a third manager of the season. Non-zero chance of a Wiganesque relegated-and-win-the-FA-Cup double, though. Something, innit?
19) West Ham (20)
Their plight is not currently quite so grim as Southampton’s, and a frenetic 2-2 draw at Leeds at least stemmed some of the bleeding after a five-game losing run but they still haven’t won a Premier League game since October and are outside the bottom three by a solitary goal. For a club that’s finished sixth and seventh in the last two seasons and then invested significantly in the summer it’s a hard fall, albeit one that their supporters were warning us about in comments on this feature months ago when we thought all was still relatively rosy for the Hammers.
Like many other clubs in the lower reaches of this list, the main cause for optimism (beyond a suddenly really rather wide open FA Cup) is the sheer number of teams that are just as bad as they are. It’s currently an eight-team scramble from which no team currently appears likely to straightforwardly extricate themselves from but that which, by definition, five will survive.
18) Chelsea (19)
Actually quite impressive to be the most shambolic of the Big Six this season given the efforts at Spurs and Liverpool, but Chelsea are currently winning handsomely. There were at least the odd green shoots in this week’s defeat to Manchester City, but looking for positive signs in a home defeat to City is all a bit ‘Old Arsenal’. That cannot be good enough for Chelsea and besides, how often do we see precisely this sort of improved performance in that sort of game only for reversion to the shitty mean next time around?
Todd Boehly and the top brass may be weirdly willing to accept a lengthy (by Chelsea terms) rebuild and a transitional season, but whether the fans are as amenable to Graham Potter’s ongoing struggles is less clear. And besides, ‘rebuild’ and ‘transitional’ shouldn’t really in Chelsea’s case mean ‘as near to the bottom three as the top four’ and yet here they are, 10 points away from both sharp ends of the table. Going out of the FA Cup to Manchester City is no disgrace, but the manner of it was pretty f**king grim.
One silver lining: last time they had a season this bad, they won the league the following year.
17) Everton (17)
Another manager has found Everton to be an impossible job. Luckily for Frank Lampard, his mates in the media will make sure that ‘not the only one to blame’ will be smoothed over to ‘not at all to blame’ but a) it’s hard to see how that helps Lampard all that much given his now rock-bottom stock surely means the middle of the Venn diagram of ‘Club would offer Lampard a job’ and ‘Job Lampard would deem worthy of him’ is now empty and b) none of that is of any consequence at all to the Everton fans who are watching another grim relegation battle rolling out in front of them.
There’s a lot of other rubbish in the bottom eight this season, but there are no guarantees for the Toffees. And there not even one of the strugglers with the potential escapism of a fun if doomed FA Cup run to enjoy.
16) Leicester (15)
Appeared to have turned a corner before the World Cup but have doubled back since, losing all three league games upon the resumption and making hard work of Gillingham in the cup. Could be a team we can file under ‘Break Came At A Bad Time’, could just be that Newcastle, Liverpool and Fulham are three tough games to come back to. Either way, still an unshakeable notion of something coming to an end at Leicester. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that what’s coming next won’t also be great, but does probably mean there’s going to at the very, very least be a bit of shit in the middle. Strong argument for just getting that bit out of the way quickly rather than the apparent current delay-the-inevitable policy.
15) Bournemouth (13)
The giddy days of Gary O’Neil’s caretaker reign are now long gone. It’s seven defeats in the last eight Premier League games – including back-to-back defeat to Spurs and Leeds in games they led 2-0 and 3-1 respectively – while the only win in that run came against Everton and thus barely counts.
But you suspect they’d still have taken their current position after 18 games – outside the bottom three, a point away from 13th – if offered it in August no matter how curious the path they’ve taken may be.
14) Leeds (9)
Hmm. They’re doing okay, and mutiny seems a fair way off even if the supporters are less convinced by Jesse Marsch than his players seem to be, but they just can’t drag themselves convincingly clear of that messy eight-team tangle at the bottom.
Currently on a curious six-game league run going back to before the World Cup in which two wins were followed by two defeats and now two draws. That sort of sums them up, as does the fact the first of those draws was a tenaciously hard-earned one at Newcastle while the second was an annoying missed opportunity at home to fellow battlers West Ham.
13) Crystal Palace (7)
Definite fallers as the vibes and feels of the most exciting attacking options outside the elite are offset by annoyingly inconsistent results. At least being inconsistent is better than being consistently bad, but getting absolutely walloped by an out-of-form Tottenham was a definite buzzkill.
While they’re perfectly safe in mid-table, a nagging sense grows that they should be doing a bit better than those around them because reality insists that a club like Palace can’t really rely on having an attacking trio of funsters like Wilfried Zaha, Eberechi Eze and Michael Olise too often or for too long. Losing at home to a really shit Southampton in the FA Cup feels like a huge missed opportunity.
12) Wolves (18)
Showing greater signs of life than those around them thanks to the early work of Julen Lopetegui. Can be grateful that the great morass of clubs in the bottom eight allowed them to avoid becoming detached at the bottom at their worst, and what they’re producing now could well ease them clear. Four points from three games since the resumption is decent, with the one defeat a narrow and non-damning one against Manchester United.
Their upcoming league games are a splendidly mixed bag, with games against Man City and Liverpool between far more important and on current form very winnable engagements with West Ham and Southampton. Take (the right) six points from that run and then beat Bournemouth at home and it all starts to look far less vexing at Molineux. Might even be able to enjoy the run-in in relative peace at this rate.
11) Liverpool (12)
Just still so maddeningly inconsistent, and Virgil van Dijk suffering a serious injury is giving off nasty 2020/21 vibes, with this season in danger of reminding Liverpool what a bad season really looks like after their recent excellence.
They still finished third in 2021! They’re currently level on points with Fulham and five points behind Spurs for f**k’s sake! Would also help if their strikers started taking some chances.
10) Manchester City (14)
Drew at home with Frank Lampard’s Everton, which I think means they must automatically forfeit the title although, full disclosure, I can’t quite lay my hands on the precise Premier League statute confirming this just now. Needed that win at Chelsea to reel in Arsenal a teensy bit.
Hard to gauge right now, but sense remains they’ve somehow managed to take a relentless Premier League winning machine, add a freakish 50-goal striker to the mix, and somehow get worse. We’ll have a clearer idea by mid-February; they’ve got league games against United, Spurs (twice) and Arsenal to get through before February 15. For now, though, it’s still troublingly meh at best. Can’t play Chelsea every week, can they?
9) Tottenham (6)
As ever, who the f**k knows what these absolute clowns are up to. Are you good or shit, lads? Make up your damn minds. The uncertainty emanates from the top, where a chicken-and-egg impasse exists; Antonio Conte won’t commit his future to the club until his ambitions are met in the form of multiple big-money signings (to go with the multiple big-money signings he’s already been given) and Spurs won’t commit to further multiple big-money signings for a manager who won’t commit his future to the club.
Doesn’t help anyone’s mood that Conte literally laughs at the notion of Spurs being title contenders after having a fortune spent on a team that he guided to fourth place ahead of Arsenal last season, nor that he accompanies his too-often-dour football with frequent suggestions that he is doing Spurs a favour just by being there. They’re now third favourites for the FA Cup having avoided the more obviously tricky parts of a draw that ensures there will be at most five of the Premier League’s top 10 in the last 16; but if you look at Preston away in a wide open FA Cup and think ‘That’s a good draw for Spurs, isn’t it?’ then you are definitely not a Spurs fan.
8) Nottingham Forest (11)
Yes. This is going quite well now. Remember when they were about to sack Steve Cooper, instead gave him a new contract, and everyone laughed? Turns out giving the manager who got you promoted a bit more time with the squad of 20-odd new players you’ve just signed wasn’t quite as daft as everyone thought.
Every chance there could be three teams worse off than Forest when the music stops, and you would absolutely have taken that in August. They’ve taken 12 points from their last eight games, including four off Liverpool and Chelsea. It’s really very tidy form indeed with which to attack a potentially season-defining run of games coming up against Leicester, Bournemouth and Leeds.
7) Aston Villa (10)
It’s all far happier now at Villa Park, isn’t it? Ten points from five games under Unai Emery – including wins over three of the top eight – have lifted Villa safely clear of all the relegation unpleasantness and there’s now the very real prospect of just being able to enjoy the rest of the season. A cup run would’ve been nice, though.
Still, it’s all very different to the team that had managed just 12 points from 13 games under Steven Gerrard and looked destined for a season right in the thick of the shit with your Evertons, West Hams and the Bournemouths of this world.
6) Brentford (8)
Everyone else seems to have at last cottoned on to a fact Brentford fans have known for a while now: Thomas Frank is a really good manager. This is, of course, a mixed blessing for Brentford because it means he’s going to be increasingly prominent in the chatter when bigger (if very often demonstrably shittier) jobs come available. The uncertainty over Ivan Toney’s immediate future is another pisser because he’s been tremendous this season.
Overall, though, we’re at pretty much the halfway point of the season and they’re sitting above Chelsea and only two points behind sixth-placed Liverpool. It’s good, isn’t it? There are no symptoms of second-season syndrome here.
5) Brighton (5)
Just absurdly good at knowing and accepting their place in the food chain and managing to just keep on keeping on. If you were asked last season to identify the three most significant figures in Brighton’s excellence, you’d most probably have picked out Graham Potter, Yves Bissouma and Marc Cucurella. All have now left, none are having any fun at all at their new clubs, and Brighton have seamlessly replaced them all and, if anything, got better again.
As ever, the only slight irritation is the constant itch we always have with the Seagulls: imagine what they’d be like with a striker who could score goals.
4) Fulham (4)
Their season was already going marvellously well before the World Cup break, and they’ve won four out of four since then to climb to seventh in the league and through to an FA Cup fourth-round clash at home to Sunderland. It is a season alive with possibilities and what once looked like being a PFM-baiting hipster stance of ‘Marco Silva for manager of the year’ is already heading towards the humdrum and mainstream. A properly good football team who’ve managed to escape the yo-yo reputation in the right direction. Which is rare.
3) Manchester United (3)
Annoyingly properly good. Barely funny at all now. Might even get rid of Harry Maguire. Have got rid of Cristiano Ronaldo and improved markedly for it. A proper manager is a really good idea, it turns out. Who knew?
Their fans, seeing a stuttering Manchester City and quite understandably anticipating an on-brand Arsenal collapsof**k are even starting to whisper furtively about title bids. That’s probably a bit much, but ending the season with either a European or domestic knockout trinket seems pretty feasible right now.
2) Arsenal (1)
You almost have to admire the commitment to the brand. One slightly disappointing league result and one tricky FA Cup draw and they’ve retreated instantly and entirely to their safe space of screaming at referees and muttering darkly of conspiracy.
The media coverage of Mikel Arteta has been f**king mental, though, and ultimately there does need to be acknowledgement that the result that slightly upset him and Arsenal fans meant they had only gone eight points clear at the top of the table. Arsenal fans have cottoned on to what’s happening here. There is every chance they do end up blowing what is now only a five-point lead at the top, because they don’t have title fight experience and are going toe-to-toe with an exceptional football team. There will be no shame in a team that hasn’t finished in the top four for years ending up second to the dominant team of recent years. If/when the ‘collapse’ happens the narrative is going to be that it was Arteta’s volatility wot lost it. The cognitive dissonance involved in arguing that the reason a football team came up short against Actual Pep Guardiola is because their manager was too animated about decisions will be great fun for the rest of us but you can see why it’s a piss-boiler for Gooners.
That said, if anything, we reckon the Arsenal fans are even happier now than they were a week ago. They love this shit and now have the best of all worlds. They’re at the very least in a title battle, which is unexpected and tremendous, they can definitely start planning the first St Totteringham’s Day parade since 2016, and now they still get to kid themselves on there’s a conspiracy against them. Marvellous.
1) Newcastle (2)
The FA Cup exit was a negative but overall the mood is quite enormously giddy on Tyneside. It sounds half mad, but there really was no guarantee that becoming the richest football club on the planet would make them a success. There still isn’t. Especially for a club with such a proud tradition of bollocksing up the most promising of positions.
But what they are right now is absurdly and wildly ahead of schedule and they’ve done it with a managerial appointment and subsequent signings rooted entirely in common sense. We need them to sign Neymar now for our own amusement, but the Newcastle fans are understandably pretty content with the present more sane and thus far productive speed and course.
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