But Arsenal are obviously top because that’s who they are now. Man Utd and Ashley Young are thriving. West Ham, Nathan Jones and Harvey Elliott are not.
One of the increasingly few criticisms that suspicious pundits have levelled at Arsenal this season has been about their tendency to celebrate victories like they’ve won the Premier League title. It is starting to feel as though we might witness how Aaron Ramsdale, Benjamin White, Martin Odegaard and friends would actually commemorate that success soon enough, but Mikel Arteta will be pleased that the attitude changes to one of introspection once a threshold is crossed.
“My excitement comes from going into the dressing room when the players are talking about what they should have done better today. That means that they know that we can still play better and be better,” he said after beating Brighton to open up a seven-point gap at the summit.
For the first time this season, Arsenal have complete control over their title fate. The two games coming up against Manchester City in February and April will linger at the forefront of collective minds but they can now theoretically afford to lose both and still maintain their lead.
But when a young, hungry squad’s first private thought is to seek out room for improvement after dropping five points in 17 games, all while sustaining the sort of injury issues which were meant to derail them, defeat to anyone, never mind a Manchester City side starting to stutter, becomes tough to fathom. They look like champions. They’re playing like champions. They’re coping with the pressure like champions. It might not last but Arsenal have already achieved some special things this season regardless.
Man Utd manager Erik ten Hag
It is difficult to imagine how Erik ten Hag could realistically have navigated his opening months as Man Utd manager any better. Even those two defeats against Brentford and Brighton which marked a disastrous start to the campaign actually worked in his favour as he was given leeway to make more sweeping changes.
The summer transfer window was uncharacteristically excellent for Man Utd. The Harry Maguire situation is such a non-issue – even after a decent World Cup for the defender – that Luke Shaw can be picked instead at centre-half and the only eyebrows raised are by pundits in the BT Sport studio who don’t realise he’s the same height as Diego Costa.
Cristiano Ronaldo was given enough gold-plated rope with which to hang his reputation as a Man Utd club legend. Some performances have offered a tantalising glimpse of what actual coaching can achieve at Old Trafford. A Champions League qualification place is in their grasp.
And the management of Marcus Rashford at the weekend was a masterful display of just how Ten Hag has installed himself as the omnipotent figurehead at Man Utd. The Dutchman dealt with the matter internally, gave the player the chance to control the narrative by offering him the option to reveal the nature of his indiscretion or keep it private, punished him proportionately by naming him among the substitutes, then buried the issue by bringing him on to score the winning goal.
Ten Hag’s post-match confirmation that he has assumed responsibility of the club’s reserve team to ensure “co-operation”, encourage a pathway to the senior side and instil a “culture” was the final proof that Man Utd have an actual adult in charge of their affairs for the first time in almost a decade – a manager in every sense.
The four Premier League clubs to have won their two festive fixtures: Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United and Fulham. After going into the World Cup break on the back of consecutive 2-1 defeats against Big Six clubs, Marco Silva has his side in the conversation for European qualification, even if only as ear-wiggers.
This is already more more wins and goals than Fulham managed in the entirety of their last Premier League season in 2020/21; they are one draw off their points total from 2018/19. The expectation was for another fleeting top-flight visit but the Cottagers and Silva have set up camp for the long haul.
In terms of 37-year-old former Manchester United wingers who have since honed their craft in a new position and made a triumphant return to their former club in the summer of 2021, Ashley Young is faring considerably better than Cristiano Ronaldo. With his contribution to a spirited victory at Spurs, the Aston Villa veteran can also claim to have had more of a positive impact on Erik ten Hag’s side this season.
Young referred to himself as “old school”, as well as the “grandad”, “the senior member” and the “leader” of the squad in an interview late last year; as the oldest outfielder by eight years in the Villa starting XI which won in north London on New Year’s Day, it is a role he has had to embrace. But he has been impeccable in setting the standard under Unai Emery. Seeing a teammate who turns 38 this summer outpacing Heung-min Son really must stir the soul and his goal-line clearance from Harry Kane’s header was crucial.
This has already been one of the great underrated careers for an English player. Young has won the Premier League, Serie A, Europa League, FA Cup and League Cup, played under Sir Alex Ferguson, Louis van Gaal, Aidy Boothroyd, Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte and Gerard Houllier, featured in a World Cup semi-final, ranks 40th for all-time Premier League appearances above Gary Neville and Ashley Cole, made his debut in the old First Division and remains as consistent and reliable as ever. He is still a manager’s dream in his 20th season as a professional.
James Tarkowski ranks first for most blocked shots in Europe’s top five leagues this season (40), with Ben Mee in third (21). Heritage.
That was certainly a performance to please the purveyor of basics himself, Frank Lampard. Everton were diligent and dedicated to the task at hand, restricting Manchester City to one of their less impressive and creative attacking performances of the season; every starter for the visitors completed at least one tackle, interception or clearance.
With a regular enough threat on the counter-attack, Everton’s game plan was cogent and well-coached for the first time in a couple of months.
The point required no little fortune. Any number of the seven shots Everton players blocked could have deflected more wildly and Demarai Gray’s equaliser was a moment of inspiration rather than the denouement of a carefully crafted move. But that is usually the nature of the beast against Manchester City and does nothing to detract from a creditable draw.
For the first time since March 2022, Nottingham Forest avoided defeat despite conceding the opening goal in a game. Only Leicester (0) have salvaged fewer points than Steve Cooper’s side (2) from losing positions so far this season and reversing that trend could be the difference between staying up or going down.
Another important factor will be Forest’s home record and six matches unbeaten since those consecutive 3-2 losses to Bournemouth and Fulham in September keeps them firmly in touch.
“Don’t take fans for granted, earn their support week-in, week-out,” Steve Cooper said after a hard-fought draw. “If we can do that, we can make this a tough place – that’s all in our control.” Therein lie the foundations for survival.
Only four players in Europe’s top five leagues have scored more goals than Ivan Toney so far this season – and each of those names are eminently predictable: Erling Haaland has 21, then Robert Lewandowski, Kylian Mbappe and Harry Kane are all one ahead of the Brentford forward on 13 each.
That is not company the 26-year-old should ordinarily be expected to keep but then he is a suitable talisman for Brentford in that sense. The Bees are on their longest unbeaten run since promotion and a current top-half place is entirely merited.
Joachim Andersen and Marc Guehi
There was a time when Crystal Palace’s record with and without James Tomkins and Mamadou Sakho summed up how crucial that defensive partnership was to the club’s form. Joachim Andersen and Marc Guehi have replaced that pair impeccably: they have won six, drawn four and lost four Premier League games when starting together this season, while Palace have been beaten in six of the last eight games one or both of the defenders missed. Not many teams can boast better first-choice centre-halves; it gives Patrick Vieira something to build his team around.
Glorious sh*thousery up against Jacob Murphy. Pretty decent player too, all in all. But that sort of stuff really does set him apart.
When the argument turns to hypothetical deflection instead of actual analysis of the situation, the battle is lost. The precious few still backing David Moyes have resorted to asking who could do a better job in the circumstances and which managerial target would realistically replace the Scot, rather than actually directly defending his work.
It would, after all, be foolish to pretend West Ham’s season has been anything but a rank failure. In terms of expectation, summer investment and the position from which they started based on last campaign, the Hammers have been the worst club in the Premier League by some margin.
The credit in the bank which Moyes deposited over the last few years is approaching its overdraft and while it can’t be said that he has been too stubborn – the system was changed against Brentford and Tomas Soucek was finally dropped – that is almost more damning than if he had altered nothing.
The word is that the owners have no intention of sacking Moyes but unless a seemingly irreversible tide turns, they will soon be forced into action. West Ham have been in relegation form for roughly a year: they collected 39 points from 36 games in 2022 and the only four ever-present clubs to do worse in that time all switched managers.
Who can do a better job? That is impossible to know. But it is also absolutely not reason alone to stick when twisting at least offers some hope of potential salvation.
There are fingers to be pointed at Daniel Levy and the Spurs owners for the part they have played in shredding the club’s golden ticket when they hit their peak half a decade ago. Given the opportunity to firmly establish Tottenham as a genuine force in at least the medium term, they resolutely failed on every metric aside from delivering the stadium in which supporters can now sit and pay a small fortune for the pleasure of watching their club be really sh*t every week or so.
Those are legitimate grievances which will be justifiably aired each time this thoughtlessly assembled squad collapses under the weight of a Big Six reputation that is barely relevant on the pitch, if even still accurate at all, in 2023.
But for Antonio Conte to keep playing his trademark transfer market card of ‘back me or sack me’ is ironically rich given the fare offered up by the team he is paid a not inconsiderable sum to coach. The Italian stressed the need for expectations to be “realistic” post-match when the bare minimum requirement of a competent performance was not provided. He said that Spurs need to “add two players, but two players priced £50m, £60m, £70m” every season to compete after watching Aston Villa have more than twice as many shots as them at home. He claimed that finishing fourth last campaign was a “miracle” despite his biggest achievement so far being managing Spurs to conceding the opening goal in their last 10 consecutive games.
It’s all a bit Jose Mourinho – and the decision-makers at Spurs deserve precisely this level of disconnect and disappointment for twice being naïve enough to jump into bed with Serial Winners without actually going all the way and bowing to their demands for ready-made signings.
The power balance inherent in those two managerial appointments was always unhealthy and makes Conte’s constant insistence that he cannot helps Spurs unless they help themselves sound deluded. He cannot keep talking about the club like a scathing pundit looking from the outside in for as long as he presides over tactics so infuriatingly ineffective and dull.
Losing 2-1 is an improvement on always being beaten 3-1 but it’s still not ideal, particularly in the throes of a relegation battle which Southampton seem increasingly unprepared for. Saints have scored in four consecutive games without taking a single point, which will happen when fundamental defensive problems require at least two goals for a draw at best.
Southampton have kept a solitary clean sheet this season; every other team has at least three. They are essentially starting games at an automatic disadvantage because of their obsession with concession and when your entire attacking plan amounts to ‘let James Ward-Prowse shoot from range’, that makes for an awkward combination.
If considering recalling 9-0 fetishist Jan Bednarek from a loan during which he was substituted at half-time of his only start is the answer, the wrong questions are being asked.
It just isn’t going very well at all. If his sensational overhead kick attempt directly before Rayan Ait-Nouri’s winner against Everton didn’t underline the crushing regression of Diego Costa’s mobility, a half-time substitution after being nullified by centre-half Luke Shaw ought to do it.
In a pretty dire summer of transfer business overall, there is an argument to say that Chelsea handing Cesar Azpilicueta a two-year contract extension was the worst decision of the lot. Once one of the Premier League’s most consistent defenders, the Spaniard has become a liability who offers nothing resembling the player he is filling in for.
It is not practical for Chelsea to be so reliant on Reece James but much of the problem revolves around the downgrade in that position when he is inevitably unavailable. The Blues have signed two right-backs since 2010 and with Davide Zappacosta gone it is still on Azpilicueta to stand in.
No longer is that a positive. Azpilicueta is experienced, no doubt an influential dressing-room figure and a master at fronting up – “Since the beginning of the season, we’ve lost too many points and now we are really far from where we want to be; we need to work hard to improve, to be humble, to analyse ourselves and see how we can be better” – but opponents are beginning to exploit him regularly.
Azpilicueta stepping up, failing to win a header, being out of position and then blocking a tame shot led directly to the concession of the corner from which he lost his man for Nottingham Forest’s goal. When not contributing much in attack, those sort of defensive mistakes must be fewer and further between than they have been recently.
The one player to appear in all 25 Liverpool games so far this season, and boy did it show against Leicester. Harvey Elliott was slow, feeble and careless in possession at Anfield. A one-sided midfield battle, fighting alongside Jordan Henderson against Boubakary Soumare, Wilfred Ndidi and Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall, gave the impressive Thiago a seemingly endless workload.
Add that to Jurgen Klopp’s post-match revelation that Elliott had injured Robertson – who had a dreadful game – in the warm-up with a stray knee, and the 19-year-old did not close his year out in the best of ways.
In fairness to Elliott, the amount of pressure placed on him to cure Liverpool’s self-inflicted midfield problems is unjust. The Reds have a decent enough selection pool in that position but many of those options cannot be relied upon to play regularly (Fabinho, Thiago, Henderson, Keita, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jones) and some are simply not of the requisite standard (Milner, Arthur). Elliott is technically proficient and permanently available but currently lacks the necessary physicality and energy to thrive in a Klopp engine room. There is a reason the German absolutely adored Georginio Wijnaldum, who ticked the boxes of ability and durability effortlessly.
Pep Guardiola’s unprompted comments about sub-optimal body language in training have been interpreted as a sideswipe of sorts at Phil Foden and Joao Cancelo, whose recent relative lack of playing time is easy to overlook in such a gilded squad.
Foden in particular makes for a curious case. Jack Grealish has been entrusted far more often of late, with Foden starting one of the last six Premier League games and playing 37 of a possible 180 post-World Cup minutes.
It begs just one question: is Gareth Southgate going to lead his own personal Clamour for Foden to get more opportunities for Manchester City?
Turns out they got rid of a Champions League knockout stage manager in August. Seems daft.
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