Arsenal will have a five-point lead on Christmas Day. They couldn’t, could they? City are silly, Ronaldo is poison, Bentancur is priceless, Ivan Toney makes his point and several managers face some nervous weeks before Our League returns…
With James Maddison describing the injury that forced him off at West Ham as a “small problem” and Brendan Rodgers calling the substitution precautionary, Gareth Southgate can breathe a sigh of relief as all 26 members of his England World Cup squad emerged unscathed from this high-wire final round of games.
Quite literally the early winners as they win Stage One of the 2022/23 Premier League season by five points from an increasingly silly and vulnerable-looking Manchester City.
The truth is that Arsenal have been the best side in this first chunk of the season by a margin at least as wide as their gap at the summit. Can they maintain it? Who knows, but it’s a question that now merits asking and has no certain answer. Which is in itself a huge leap forward for Mikel Arteta’s Gunners.
Most strikingly, they show no sign of having any real Arsenalness about them. Manchester City losing at home to Brentford on Saturday lunchtime would have been a clear invitation for Old Arsenal to make a bollocks of things at the Premier League’s bottom club on Saturday teatime.
But, though Wolves played pretty well and kept Arsenal at bay well into the second half, there was never the slightest hint of panic nor sense that Arsenal were about to let this opportunity slide. There was a serenity about their whole evening at Wolves, and it was fitting that Martin Odegaard got their two goals. He’s far from alone in excelling for this Arsenal team, of course, but his brilliance is more understated than others and appears to have a calming effect that truly elevates this young team.
If nothing else, Arsenal have also entered that rarefied City-Liverpool strata where you start measuring their season not in how many points have been won but in how few have been dropped. Even in this oddly structured campaign, dropping just five points before Christmas is absurdly elite. At present speed and course, it’s a 100-point season for Arteta and co.
Five straight wins in which Big Seven rivals Spurs and Chelsea have been deservedly beaten and mid-table drifters like Villa and Southampton given thorough pastings.
It is of course impossible to fully separate Newcastle’s current achievements from the thorny issues around their takeover but it can’t be used to explain away the scale of improvement under Eddie Howe.
While the players who have joined the club in the last year might all have been harder to recruit had Newcastle not had an intoxicating new vision to sell them, it’s also true that none of those players to have made such a compelling difference to Newcastle on the field would come under the ‘galactico’ banner.
The huge improvement in the levels of players who were already at the club – most notably Miguel Almiron obviously – is also testament to the work Howe and his staff are doing.
But nothing better sums up the nature of Newcastle’s improvement and the shrewd way they’ve gone about things than a back five of Nick Pope, Kieran Trippier, Sven Botman, Fabian Schar and Dan Burn becoming the best in the Premier League.
This weekend was one for players either ‘Celebrating their World Cup call-up by…’ or those ‘Showing [International Manager Who Inexplicably Snubbed Them] what they’re missing by…’
In the latter category, it’s fair to say that nobody did so with quite the panache and impact of Ivan Toney. We said in our 16 Conclusions on the England squad that ‘Harry Kane’s Understudy’ was simultaneously the most hotly-contested yet least significant squad place up for grabs and it would still be wrong to say Southgate got it wrong by opting for Callum Wilson over the Brentford striker.
But two goals, including a winner deep into injury-time, at the home of the champions is still a pretty handy rejoinder. And with or without international recognition Toney is still having a remarkable season as he builds on last season’s success.
We must confess to some doubts about how his goalscoring would hold up as he and Brentford tackled the twin problems of second-season syndrome and no Christian Eriksen to load the bullets, but those doubts are now nought but tish and fipsy as Brentford sail serenely on in mid-table and Toney takes himself into double figures for the season behind only Erling Haaland and Harry Kane, the two obvious standout strikers in the whole league.
Doing a brilliant job in general, did a brilliant job on Saturday. But with Newcastle now officially in a Big Seven and Graham Potter having already taken the leap, Frank must be wary of the fact he is now out on his own as ‘up-and-coming manager impressing with progressive mid-table side who will thus be strongly linked with the job at whichever Big Seven side shits the bed next’.
Villa’s first away win and first back-to-back wins of the season. It’s a new-manager bounce that doesn’t feel like it need obey the gravitational inevitability of most.
The Premier League’s most highly-sung unsung hero. If he’s going to carry on this current habit of adding goals – crucial ones at that – to his game then Spurs really do have a player on their hands. For all Spurs’ myriad problems they now have on current form perhaps the league’s most complete midfielder to go with the world-class attackers that are just about keeping them in the top four despite… well, everything else.
Bentancur’s two late goals to turn dispiriting defeat into yet another comeback victory against Leeds did more than ensure Spurs end the first half of the season on a confusing and fragile high; they continued his own trend for coming up with the goods at massive moments.
This season, Bentancur has scored an injury-time winner, an 81st-minute equaliser and an 83rd-minute winner in the Premier League as well as an 80th-minute Champions League equaliser. Take any of those goals away – or the solo effort that put Spurs 3-2 up early in the second half against Leicester back in September – and Spurs’ season looks very different indeed.
And brilliant a signing as he has been, nobody can pretend this is the player Spurs thought they were getting. A man who scored just two goals in 164 Serie A and Champions League appearances for Juventus has already managed five goals in 20 Premier League and Champions League games this season.
And yet this new-found fondness for goalscoring has come with no detriment to his established and expected strengths: he also regained possession for Spurs 12 times against Leeds, five more than any of his team-mates.
With Dejan Kulusevski making an eye-catching return to Spurs’ starting line-up after injury, the sheer brilliance of Spurs’ transfer work last January really was in sharp focus on Saturday. Now Fabio Paratici just needs to do exactly the same thing this year. Centre-back and right-back this time, Fabio, ideally. Juventus have probably got more amazing players they’re not using knocking about if you go and have another quick rummage in their lost and found.
We still think he was incredibly lucky to keep his job around the time of the international break when his team kept losing 5-2 and 6-2 and suchlike, and we also still think that the only reason Leicester didn’t sack him was because they couldn’t really afford to.
But that said it still needs acknowledging that the turnaround since those darkest days has been starkly impressive in its unlikeliness. And this is not just an outsider’s view; there were vanishingly few Leicester fans who thought Rodgers could make this happen. We’re not sure even Rodgers himself, a man not particularly prone to crushing bouts of self-doubt, honestly thought this would happen.
And yet here we are. Having taken one point from seven games before the international break in September, culminating in that 6-2 defensive clusterfuckastrophe at Tottenham, Leicester have now won five of their last games with the sole defeat a narrow one to Manchester City.
Most impressive of all, though, is the scale of the defensive improvement. After shipping 22 goals in those disastrous opening seven games, the Foxes have conceded only three in the eight games since and dragged their goal-difference back to zero.
If Unai Emery’s Villa exist as a tempter to mid-table chairmen considering a managerial change over the coming weeks, Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester are the sober reminder that sometimes it is still better to stick than twist.
Got his call-up, got his goal, got his small injury to have a bit of a rest. Fantastic work all round.
On balance we reckon we still probably enjoy the days where his chaos doesn’t actually cause any tangible reward the most. But if we are to have more of those days enjoying the Premier League’s single most watchable footballer then we must also have days when it does cause actual things to occur. Two goals and a match-winning performance is pretty good. And still fun, let’s not forget that.
Won’t be bottom at Christmas. Won’t ‘beat’ Derby’s record. Will soon be able to sign another 20 players. It’s all looking up for the Tricky Trees.
Either proved his critics entirely wrong or entirely right, depending on how you want to look at it. He’s ace, though, and gave Barclays 2022/23 Act One its inevitable Big Finish. Classic Barclays it was.
They’re just starting to be a bit too silly, aren’t they? While Arsenal have been doing their very best impression of recent Liverpool sides, City just aren’t keeping up their side of the bargain. There is still widespread belief and expectation that it will be Pep Guardiola’s side that ends the season with another Premier League trophy for the collection but it looks increasingly uncertain with each passing game.
Brentford’s winner may have been a last-gasp breakaway thing, but it wasn’t undeserved and this game was no one-off. It would be easy to excuse pretty much any team full of World Cup stars having a slightly distracted look this weekend, but City took the same chances and only just got away with them against Fulham a week earlier and with one conspicuous exception the rest of the Big Seven managed, in their various ways, to get the job done this week despite the elephant by the corner flag.
Arsenal might still go all Arsenal when the season resumes, but it would appear unwise for City to pin their hopes as entirely on that.
By the time they play another Premier League game it’ll be two months and 11 days since they last won one. That’s a piss-take of a stat, obviously, but five league games without a win is not the sort of thing Chelsea managers tend to survive, even if they have only just got there.
Given the assorted problems and crises most of the Big Six/Seven have encountered at some point or other this season already, ending the first half of the season bottom of that particular group and having scored fewer goals than any other side in the top half has to be a concern.
And the performance at Newcastle really was rotten. Chelsea looked utterly toothless, unable to find any kind of response after falling behind.
It would still seem unlikely that Chelsea pull the plug on Potter this early, but he is learning fast how different the spotlight feels when a Big Six club has a sticky patch.
Results and performances are obviously Potter’s biggest problem, but it doesn’t help his standing among the fans if nothing else that his responses to each setback still feel a bit small-time. A bit, with all due respect to a side currently above Chelsea in the Premier League table, Brighton.
Claiming to be pleased to have competed with a side like Manchester City in the Carabao was tin-eared in the week and sounds even worse after Brentford have gone there and won a few days later.
Genuinely looked to have located at least a bit of resolve in a six-game unbeaten run that, while draw-heavy, did seem to suggest that at the very least the Toffees and their manager had enough about them to avoid any repeat of last year’s relegation-battling unpleasantness. It’s been one win and five defeats in seven games since that run, though, plunging Everton firmly back into trouble as the music stops. If the first three of those defeats, to Manchester United, Tottenham and Newcastle, could be excused then the limpness of the last two against direct rivals Leicester and Bournemouth cannot.
Everton’s recovery, such as it was, was built on a solid defensive foundation that has now entirely eroded. The nature of the successive thrashings from Bournemouth in both Carabao and Premier League this week also points to a mental fragility given this was a Cherries side that had thrown away two-goal leads to lose its two previous games. Everton couldn’t even give them a case of the jitters.
Just in every possible way a terrible time for all a manager’s known failings to start manifesting themselves after an illusory glimpse of meaningful improvement. Lampard definitely isn’t the only manager set for a nervous start to this chairman-tempting gap in the schedule, but he’s the most obvious.
In isolation, the 2-0 defeat to leaders Arsenal wasn’t so bad. Wolves played pretty well for long periods, albeit a performance still ultimately undermined by the familiar failings in front of goal. On another day they’d have got an early penalty which could have made things very different. It certainly wasn’t a disaster. The problem is, it’s pretty hard to look at any game in isolation when you hit the unprecedented six-week winter break bottom of the league, without a permanent manager, having scored only eight goals in 15 games, boasting a worse goal difference than a team that managed to lose one game 9-0, and with seven defeats in your last nine Premier League games.
Leading West Ham to sixth and seventh in successive years was a genuinely impressive achievement – with the seventh-place finish alongside a run to the Europa League semi-finals arguably even more impressive – but this season is looking awful bleak as we hit the winter break. Winning Europa Conference games doesn’t cut much mustard when the new year brings with it the prospect of a grim relegation scrap. To repeat the familiar refrain, this is not a good time to be a manager under scrutiny. Even Johnny Nic is putting the boot in.
A poisonous, malignant influence who has discovered to his horror that everyone can cope perfectly well without him has interviewed Cristiano Ronaldo.
Ronaldo, who wasn’t involved in Manchester United’s last-gasp win at Fulham despite a subs’ bench that contained only eight players including two keepers, used the huge platform of an interview with Talk TV to slate a manager who has thus far done a pretty good job of turning round the disaster-tanker that United had become. Ronaldo may not respect the manager, but the vast majority of United fans do. It is not the manager who has threatened to leave, or refused to come on as a substitute or, frankly, been mainly shit this season. He’s misjudged this so badly and it all plays into the hands of Ten Hag and the club.
Two key lessons here. Never go back. And never trust anyone who’s mates with Piers Morgan.
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