With nineteen games played it’s time to rake over our pre-season predictions and see how embarrassingly wide of the mark we were. The first half of the season has been dominated by the Manchester City juggernaut at the top of the Premier League, as Pep Guardiola’s side head into the Christmas schedule with a seemingly unassailable lead. There’ve been shocks and surprises at both ends of the table, and six managerial changes already. So without further ado, let’s cast judgement on the top twenty.
It’s been a strange old season for Arsenal supporters so far. A topsy-turvy victory over Leicester City in their opening game gave fuel to both sides of the Wenger Out campaign, while a 4-0 howking at Anfield at the end of August looked to have the long-serving manager on the brink. Since then, the Gunners have been quietly consistent, losing only three of fifteen games, and dominating Tottenham in the first North London Derby of the season. At the time of writing, Arsenal are currently level on points with their neighbours in the Premier League table, and if they can squeak ahead of them come May many of the Emirates faithful will deem it a successful season.
Top of the Class: Aaron Ramsey – The Welsh maestro has regained some of the form that made him one of Arsenal’s most exciting prospects a few years ago. With six assists already this term, Ramsey leads the charge for goal creation behind a trio of Manchester City players, and perhaps holds the key for a serious top four challenge.
Must Try Harder: Alexis Sanchez – It was widely expected that the Chilean would bid Adios to Ashburton Grove before the closure of the Summer transfer window in September. With only a year to run on his contract and no sign of a new agreement, the idea that Arsenal would allow their most salable asset to leave librement seemed unfathomable. Despite a late £50m bid from Manchester City, however, Sanchez has remained, but has yet to hit the heights of his previous two seasons. Five goals and three assists from fourteen starts is hardly awful, but the demeanour with which the former Barcelona man drags himself round the pitch suggests he’d rather be anywhere but Islington. You should try living in Harlow, mate.
Pre-Season Prediction: 6th
Revised Prediction: 6th
In spite of their current good form, farce and disaster seems to be lurking round every corner at Arsenal these days. With Sanchez and Ozil being courted by the two Manchester clubs, and Alexandre Lacazette yet to earn the full trust of his manager there’s still every opportunity for the Gunners to balls this up. Their traditional Easter collapse is still very much on the cards.
Those loud calls backing Eddie Howe as the next England manager after Roy Hodgson’s indiscretion against Iceland can barely be heard now. The Cherries, it would seem, have hit a bit of a ceiling. After two impressive Premier League campaigns it looked as though this year was their chance to push on, having heavily invested in the squad to bring Asmir Begovic, Nathan Ake and Jermain Defoe into a side that had already proven their mettle in the top division. So far, it hasn’t quite worked. Opening the season with four defeats on the bounce, Bournemouth have so far won only four games – three of which were against the newly promoted sides. Defoe is yet to rediscover the form that propped Sunderland up during his time in the North East and, worse still, last season’s outstanding performer Josh King has seen his form drop off a cliff.
Top of the Class: Andrew Surman – The South African born midfielder is into his fourth season as a regular at Dean Court, and before this campaign had earned his reputation as a steady-eddie. In what has been a disappointing season so far for The Cherries, Surman has been the bright spot, providing four assists and coming top for chances created in the side. If Defoe and King can start to put away those chances, Surman and Bournemouth should be just fine.
Must Try Harder: Nathan Ake – Bournemouth’s marquee summer signing was supposed to be the jewel in the crown at the Vitality Stadium. Eyebrows were raised when The Cherries forked out £20m for Ake, but given the mad money flying around over the course of the summer, Howe may have been quietly confident that he’d bagged himself a bargain. So far the Dutch stopper’s performances have been mediocre at best, though he’s hardly alone, with teammates Charlie Daniels and Steve Cook also suffering a loss of form from last season. Fortunately for Bournemouth’s defence Asmir Begovic has proved a worthwhile summer purchase and has kept his side in games this season in spite of those in front of him.
Pre-Season Prediction – 12th
Revised Prediction – 15th
Eddie Howe’s side have so far gone under the radar when it comes to talking about the relegation battle at the bottom of the table, but if they’re unable to start turning some of their draws into wins they’re going to be right among it come the end of the season. It’s looking like this time round, however, the incompetence beneath them may be their saving grace.
Brighton and Hove Albion
It’s very much a case of so far so good for Chris Hughton’s side, as the Seagulls enter the second half of the season closer to midtable than the relegation zone. While they may have been one of the favourites to go straight back down pre-season, Brighton have shown they’ve no qualms about grinding out results, as six draws already this season – three of them goalless – will attest to. There may be a slight concern in their lack of threat up front – only West Brom and Swansea have scored fewer – but a defence built on the solid foundation of goalkeeper Mat Ryan and centre-backs Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy have earned the south coast side six clean sheets already. Indeed, Dunk and Duffy come first and third in the chart for Most Interceptions this term, with the former proving himself a Premier League standard defender despite his three own goals this season.
Top of the Class: Pascal Groß – The German midfielder arrived from Ingolstadt in the summer and has adapted to Premier League life like the proverbial duck to water. A classy operator in the centre of the park, Groß has been the fulcrum of Brighton’s side so far this season, offering a helping hand in nine of his team’s fifteen goals. With Moussa Dembele reportedly arriving from Celtic, his assists will surely rack up over the coming months – he’s the key to Brighton avoiding a relegation scrap.
Must Try Harder: Anthony Knockaert – Vaunted as the best player in the Championship last season, Knockaert is yet to light up the Premier League with the kind of form that earned him nationwide recognition seven months ago. The Frenchman has so far only scored once and assisted once in eighteen appearences, with his standout moment so far this season being on the end of a wild challenge from Jose Holebas that saw the Greek defender sent off. Fortunately his fellow midfielders have stepped up, but if the French winger wants to make a serious claim as a Premier League class player he must start to put in the kind of performances that earned Brighton promotion.
Pre-Season Prediction – 19th
Revised Prediction – 16th
In Chris Hughton, the Seagulls have a steady hand on the tiller and aside from the pasting at home to Liverpool its unlikely they’ll be brushed aside by many teams this season. A knack of picking up points against the teams around them should be enough to see them safe, while the owners willingness to splash the cash can set the South Coast side up for more than just survival.
There’s always one side that completely surpass pre-season expectations, and its safe to say that Burnley are very much that team this year. Predicted to struggle from all quarters which, given that last season was the first time they’d successfully avoided relegation in three attempts, was not unreasonable, the Clarets have continued last season’s excellent home record and extended it to their away form to produce some stunning results. A 3-2 win at Chelsea on the opening day looked to be one of those freak occurences, but draws at Tottenham and Liverpool as well as wins at Everton and Southampton have marked Sean Dyche’s team out as one to be reckoned with when entering the visitors dressing room. After climbing as high as fourth in December a 3-0 defeat at home to Tottenham on Saturday brought the Lancashire side back down to Earth with a bump, but if a top half finish had been offered to Dyche at the start of the season he’d have snapped your hand off.
Top of the Class: Nick Pope – The 25 year old understudy keeper was finally drafted into the first team this season after spending last year on the bench following an injury to #1 Tom Heaton, and he’s grabbed the chance with both of his massive hands. Eight clean sheets from sixteen games is an impressive stat for any goalkeeper, nevermind one that made his Premier League debut in August, and with Burnley possessing the second-worst attack outside of the bottom three, his contribution has been vital. An England call-up surely awaits.
Must Try Harder: Charlie Taylor – The promising full-back arrived from Leeds in the summer for around £6m amid much fanfare. After a host of impressive performances in the Championship, Taylor was being scouted by established Premier League sides, but chose Burnley in the hope of securing first team football. Unfortunately experience has won out over promise and Stephen Ward has made the position his own in Dyche’s first team. An injury to the Irish defender has given Taylor the opportunity to stake his claim for a starting berth, but he’ll have to take it if he’s to develop into the player many Leeds fans expected him to.
Pre-Season Prediction – 18th
Revised Prediction – 8th
In scenes reminiscent of Leicester City’s title winning season, everyone is waiting for the week in which the Burnley bubble bursts and they go back to being perennial strugglers. While they may not possess the quality in the squad to maintain a battle for the top four, it’s difficult to look past them securing a top half finish at a canter. Dyche has his team well-drilled and this could finally be the year he stakes his claim as a top class manager.
It’s very much been a case of ‘After the Lord Mayors Show’ for Antonio Conte and Chelsea so far this season. Unable to rediscover the formidable form that saw them win the league at a canter last time out, and with Diego Costa banished to Madrid, there have been signs of a side struggling to find the motivation to grind out the results that marked them out as a well oiled machine in 2016/17. A shock opening day defeat to Burnley set the tone and despite recording wins over Tottenham and Manchester United, Chelsea have begun to gain a repuatation for losing to teams that need a win – Crystal Palace broke their duck against the champions, while David Moyes gained his first win in the West Ham dugout against Conte. The sudden fallibility of Ngolo Kante has played a big part in the Blues inconsistency.
Top of the Class: Alvaro Morata – The man that played a supporting role in the summer’s big transfer soap opera has hit the ground running in England, with nine goals four assists to his name so far. Filling the boots of football’s newest villain was never going to be easy, but the Spaniard’s value to Chelsea’s cause has become clear during his recent absences. When he’s on form, Chelsea usually win. And to think Manchester United used him as a smokescreen to sign Romelu Lukaku.
Must Try Harder: Tiemoue Bakayoko – A major part of the most exciting team in Europe last season, Bakayoko arrived from Monaco to much fanfare. Billed as a dynamic upgrade on Nemanja Matic, the Frenchman has so far struggled to make his mark on the Premier League. If he’s able to forge a partnership with Kante, then Chelsea could boast one of the most formidable central midfields in the country, but right now he’s looking like a big fish in an enormous pond.
Pre-Season Prediction – 3rd
Revised Prediction – 3rd
The title defence is all but over, but Chelsea have more than enough quality in their squad to hold on to their Champions League place. Question marks over the future of Conte have not helped their cause so far this season, but if the hyperactive Italian does abdicate come the end of the season the Blues may face a period of uncertainty.
We’ve all experimented. Grating chocolate into your spaghetti bolognese, swilling mouthwash before performing oral sex, trying UHT milk in your tea, but none of these experiments has gone as horribly wrong as Crystal Palace appointing a manager with a continental philosophy. Frank De Boer’s 77 day stint in charge at Selhurst Park was a disaster. Despite securing some decent looking signings and looking to implement an attractive style of play, the Dutchman lost all four of his games in charge without scoring a goal, starting with a 3-0 thrashing at home to Huddersfield. Reverting to type, Steve Parish brought in a craggy old English manager with a ton of baggage and some old-school ideas and, after a few more defeats, it started to work. At the time of writing Roy Hodgson’s Eagles are on an unbeaten run of eight games and have become one of the most entertaining sides in the league. With five goals in the last five minutes in the last two months, staying til the final whistle at Selhurst Park has become a no brainer, while a defence that shipped seventeen goals in their first seven games has been shorn up, conceding on average a goal a game in thier last twelve.
Top of the Class: Wilfred Zaha – The Ivory Coast winger has been Palace’s outstanding player of the last few seasons, but his importance to the team has never been as great as it is now. Every foray forward seems to go through Zaha, and he’s become the linchpin of Hodgson’s side. With four goals so far this season he’s joint top scorer, but Roy the boy will do well to hold onto his most exciting player until the end of the season.
Must Try Harder: Jason Puncheon – The former club captain became a fulcrum of the team under Alan Pardew but has dropped down the pecking order so far this season. With just one win and seven defeats in his nine appearances he’s become something of an unlucky charm for the Eagles, and with no goals to his name so far his value to the team is diminishing by the week. He’ll have to go some to displace Yohan Cabaye and Luka Milivojevic from the midfield too.
Pre-Season Prediction – 9th
Revised Prediction – 11th
Two months into the season Palace looked dead and buried, but their resurgence under Roy has catapulted them from relegation certainties to mid-table challengers. They won’t have it all their own way this season, but as Hodgson has shown at Fulham and West Brom in the past, a tactically sound manager can take a limited squad a long way.
Speaking of clubs swapping a bit of Dutch for a bit of proper old English, Everton followed Crystal Palace’s suit and replaced Ronald Koeman with Sam Allardyce (after a lengthy spell trying to prise Marco Silva from Watford’s grasp). The Toffees spent £120m in the summer transfer window to give their side a makeover, with Jordan Pickford, Michael Keane, Davy Klaasen and Gylfi Sigurdsson making up the bulk of their overhaul. But despite splashing the cash two wins from their first nine games, culminating in a 5-2 defeat at home to Arsenal, spelled the end for Koeman. David Unsworth took control of the wheel for four games while a replacement was found, and despite ruling himself out of the job, Sam Allardyce rocked up at Goodison just six months after retiring. His appointment has had the desired affect, with the Toffees rising from the relegation zone to ninth at Christmas, with Big Sam yet to lose a match in charge.
Top of the Class: Wayne Rooney – England’s record goalscorer was written off as a busted flush when he made his long awaited return to Goodison Park in the summer. Used as a sweetener in the deal that saw Lukaku go to Manchester United, Rooney was expected to play a bit part in Everton’s season and continue his slow descent to the football scrapheap. A goal on his second debut had romantics everywhere swooning, but his emergence as Everton’s talisman for the second time in his career has taken everyone by surprise. An excellent hat-trick against West Ham, including a stunning goal from his own half, cemented his place as a force to still be reckoned with, and he currently sits joint fifth in the top goalscorer charts on ten, alongside…Romelu Lukaku.
Must Try Harder: Ashley Williams – The Welsh centre back was once heralded as the answer to Arsenal’s defensive problems and enjoyed a sound first season on Merseyside. This time out, however, his bones have started to creak and suddenly he has become a liability for his club. Wales and Swansea fans have been quick to defend Williams, claiming that he’s never been anything but reliable for them, but perhaps the added pressure of settling Michael Keane into the Everton defence has taken its toll on the 33 year old.
Pre-Season Prediction – 7th
Revised Prediction – 9th
They may not play beautiful football with Big Sam at the helm, but Everton 2.0 are organised, functional, and able to take results as and when they need them. Rooney is on course for a vintage season and there are some excellent players in the squad that are yet to reach their potential. If Sandro Ramirez and Davy Klaasen can start to perform alongside the exciting young players Everton are bringing through, a solid midtable finish is well within reach.
Barnsley, Bradford City, Hull City and Blackpool. All teams that have been promoted to the Premier League with a sense of novelty, performed well early season, but ultimately have ended up disappearing back to where they came, unable to compete with the riches of their contemporaries. For the longest time, Huddersfield Town felt like a similar story. A playoff victory over Reading came seemingly out of nowhere, and they looked likely to be the whipping boys of the league this season, but back to back wins at Crystal Palace and home to Newcastle had pundits reconsidering their predictions of a rock bottom finish for David Wagner’s team. Reality soon bit with a six game winless run, including a comprehensive 4-0 home defeat to Tottenham, but a victory over Manchester United – the hallmark of a doomed side – looked to have changed the Terriers luck. Another long winless run followed, but it was the smash and grab 4-1 win at Watford that finally had neutrals believing that this side could mount a survival bid. With 22 points accrued by Christmas, Wagner is over halfway to safety and has fostered a remarkable team spirit for a side made up of nearly men.
Top of the Class: Aaron Mooy – The former Manchester City midfielder was a crucial part of Huddersfield’s promotion last season during his loan spell, and the decision to make the move permanent was a no-brainer for both sides. Having looked a class above while turning out for Melbourne City a couple of seasons ago, the step up to English football hasn’t been an issue, and the Australian already has four goals to his name this season. Among some very average players, he stands out as Huddersfield’s star man.
Must Try Harder: Tom Ince – Paul Ince’s son has finally got a proper crack at the big time (and a chance to shake off his father’s shadow) after years of impressive performances in the second tier. So far he’s yet to make a real impression – starting seventeen games and registering zero goals and assists. If he’s to carve out a reputation as a Premier League standard player he must start contributing to Town’s cause, and fast.
Pre-Season Prediction – 20th
Revised Prediction – 14th
The one thing Huddersfield aren’t short on is spirit. From the stands, through the dugout, to the pitch, everyone involved at the John Smith Stadium is committed to the cause and relishing every second of top flight football. In Jonas Lossl, Laurent Depoitre and Steve Mounie, Wagner has unearthed some gems – continental flair and a battling attitude. There’s no reason why the Terriers can’t live to fight another season in the top flight.
The sacking of Claudio Ranieri last season sent shockwaves through the Premier League – despite the Foxes seemingly sleepwalking to relegation, how could the owners dispose of a man that had achieved the impossible less than twelve months previously? As it turned out, it was the right decision. Craig Shakespeare took over and guided Leicester to safety with plenty to spare, and headed into his first full season with hopes of building on a job well done. Unfortunately for Shakespeare lightening often strikes twice and, after one win in their first eight, he was asked to clear his desk at the King Power. The appointment of Claude Puel, who’d had a perfectly good season at Southampton last year but still lost his job, was met with bafflement by many and some classic jingoism by Richard Keys. The softly spoken Frenchman didn’t take long to shove the words of his detractors back down their throats, building on the good work of caretaker Michael Appleton to lift Leicester from 18th to 8th. A run of four wins in a row, topped off by a glorious 4-1 win against Southampton at Puel’s old stomping ground, was only slightly marred by a 3-0 surrender at home to Crystal Palace the following Saturday.
Top of the Class: Harry Maguire – Paying £17m for a centre-back from a relegated team may have looked like risky business, but the hefty Yorkshireman has slotted into Leicester’s backline like a dream. Not only a commanding presence in defence, Maguire has proved himself adept at surging forward, providing two goals and four assists so far this season. Whilst he may not be the most glamorous of footballers, the towering defender has acquitted himself well, and if his excellent performances continue, he may leave Gareth Southgate with a tricky dilemma come next summer’s World Cup.
Must Try Harder: Kelechi Iheanacho – Signed for a whopping £25m and breaking the club’s transfer record in the process, Iheanacho was expected to provide the kind of competition to Jamie Vardy’s first team place that Ahmed Musa and Islam Slimani have been unable to so far. Unfortunately it hasn’t worked out for the young Nigerian so far, managing only nine appearances in the Premier League and returning no goals. As a bit-part player at Manchester City he looked like a desirable option from the bench, but he’ll have to get used to playing off lesser playmakers than the likes of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne if he’s to make his mark in the East Midlands.
Pre-Season Prediction – 11th
Revised Prediction – 7th
Under Puel, the Foxes look a serious threat to the sexopoly currently dominating the top of the Premier League table. Keeping hold of Riyad Mahrez is a must – the Algerian has rediscovered some of the form that won him the PFA Player of the Year award in 2016, but is allegedly looking for a move – though the emergence of Demarai Gray and Wilfred Ndidi has lightened the burden on Mahrez and Vardy somewhat.
There was just one thing that Liverpool really really really really really needed to do this summer, and that was buy a decent defender. As it happens, they ended up spunking £35m on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain after chasing Virgil Van Dijk around for three months. Not ideal, and the repercussions were quick to show themselves. A 3-3 draw at Watford on the opening day exposed the worst kept secret that Simon Mignolet was a touch vulnerable in goal, while conceding nine goals away to Manchester City and Tottenham drove home the point that Jurgen Klopp’s side weren’t so clever in their own half. On the flipside, they kept hold of Philippe Coutinho and his reintegration into the team has seen him form ‘The Fab Four’ with Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mo Salah. A more formidable forward line you’re unlikely to meet, and between them they have 32 of Liverpool’s 41 goals so far this season.
Top of the Class: Mo Salah – The jewel in Liverpool’s crown, Salah arrived having spent a fruitful two years in Serie A with Fiorentina and Roma having been deemed surplus to requirements at Chelsea. Somehow combining the trickery of Coutinho, the pace of Mane and the lethal finishing of Firmino, Salah has established himself as the spearhead of Liverpool’s attack after leaving Chelsea with a reputation as a luxury winger. Fifteen Premier League goals speaks for itself, and the Egyptian finds himself tied with Harry Kane at the top of the goalscoring charts at the halfway point of the season.
Must Try Harder: Dejan Lovren – Liverpool’s nominated ‘best defender’ in the absence of Joel Matip is yet to justify the £20m paid to Southampton in 2014 for his services. An absolute horrorshow at Wembley saw him hooked after half-an-hour against Tottenham, with the hosts two goals to the good thanks to his kamikaze defending, and at regular intervals he’s proved himself less than trustworthy in the heart of Klopp’s defence. If there’s a chance of bringing an upgrade in during the transfer window Lovren may quickly find himself surplus to requirements, though he is at least better than Ragnar Klavan.
Pre-Season Prediction – 5th
Revised Prediction – 5th
With the firepower they have at their disposal you would expect Liverpool to have a real go at the top four this season, though a couple of ill-timed injuries may put the kaibosh on those ambitions. Besides that, they look flakier than your nan’s sausage rolls at the back, and until a better defence is assembled there’s always a chance they’ll let a soft one in.
Nineteen games played, eighteen games won, sixty goals scored, twelve conceded, thirteen points clear at the top, seventeen games won in a row, four goals scored in each of their last three, three or more goals in ten games. Not bad. There are few superlatives left to describe the utter domination of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City this season. After something of a damp squib last time out, they’ve come roaring out of the traps since August and, frankly, look unstoppable. Whilst they may have relied on the goals of Sergio Aguero in previous seasons, the Argentinian isn’t even a guaranteed starter in this team, and the mega-bunce dished out on Ederson and Kyle Walker has proven to be money well spent on areas that desperately needed improvement. The Brazilian stopper has emerged as one of the most technically adept goalkeepers in the league, whilst Walker can have a serious claim to be the best in his position in the world. But why dwell on the defence when the attack is so delicious? David Silva is enjoying a vintage season, Raheem Sterling is now finally realising his potential and becoming one of the best English players of his generation, John Stones has come on leaps and bounds, and Guardiola is even getting a tune out of Nicolas Otamendi and Eliquiam Mangala – both written off as dud signings. Barcelona might have been on to something with him you know.
Top of the Class: Kevin De Bruyne – It’s a crowded market, but De Bruyne has cemented his place as one of the best in the world with his performances this season. Top assist-maker with eight whilst adding six goals only tells a fragment of this remarkable footballer’s season. The quality of his passing, his ability to split a defence, and the incisiveness of his play is an absolute joy to watch. It’s just a shame that he’s part of a national team destined to fail. Honorable mentions go to Sterling, who has already beaten his record for goals in a season, Leroy Sane, who looks every inch the future superstar of German football, and Silva who’s importance to the team is on a par with De Bruyne.
Must Try Harder: Bernardo Silva – Another star of the Monaco side that reached last season’s Champions League semi-finals, Silva has been a victim of his team-mates success. Unable to squeeze his way past his namesake David and De Bruyne, the Portuguese has had to make do with a bit part role so far. His chances will come as the fixtures start to pile up, but he’ll have to make a seriously good impression to dislodge Pep’s favourites from the starting line-up.
Pre-Season Prediction – 1st
Revised Prediction – 1st
Yes, we’ve seen teams blow a massive lead before, but never thirteen points at Christmas, and never with a side that look like they may never lose again. Manchester City are an absolute force, competing on four fronts and looking like they may win every trophy going this season. It’s going to take a remarkable slice of luck – and it will purely be luck – to beat them this season, and a record points haul is surely on the horizon. Simply astonishing.
Jose Mourinho is a haunted man. A man that, had the chips fallen right, would be lauded as the most successful manager in the history of football. A man that would have copious league titles, European cups, and various other trophies and awards to his name if only he hadn’t come face-to-face with Pep Guardiola. His first season at Old Trafford was always about consolidation – two cups and a Champions League place was considered a success given the largely abject years under Moyes and Van Gaal, but this was the season he was supposed to mount a real title challenge. Lukaku was brought in for £75m, last season’s £89m signing Paul Pogba had finally adjusted, while Nemanja Matic was considered the final piece of the jigsaw. They flew out of the traps – unbeaten in eight and scoring for fun, despite not really dominating games. A defeat to Huddersfield was seen as just a blip, but a narrow loss at Chelsea and then, the hammer blow, losing at home to Manchester City took any semblance of a title challenge away from United. Second place will be a massive improvement on the last few years, but for Mourinho it won’t be enough. He was supposed to create a Ferguson-esque dynasty, but instead, with Paris St Germain reportedly interested in poaching him, it may go down in the history books as a period of ‘what-if’.
Top of the Class: Jesse Lingard – Having established himself as a useful squad player, Lingard looked to be joining the ranks of the United nearly men – good, but not quite good enough. This season, however, he has become a vital part of Mourinho’s attack. Quick, tricky and a reliable finisher, Lingard has registered four goals and four assists already. Not bad for a player who wasn’t in the first team at the start of the season. It’s just a shame his goal celebrations are so enraging.
Must Try Harder: Henrikh Mkhytarian – The Armenian wide-man arrived from Borussia Dortmund last summer with a big reputation, but was held back by Mourinho until he could prove his fitness. A goal in the Europa League final was the icing on the cake of a decent first season, and Mkhytarian was expected to kick on. As it turns out, Jesse Lingard is a preferable option, and Anthony Martial is also standing in his way. With first-team action limited it looks as though Henrikh may be slinging his hook sooner than he’d hoped.
Pre-Season Prediction – 2nd
Revised Prediction – 2nd
The long and short of it is than Manchester United are a very very good team. They’re just not as good as Manchester City. Provided they can maintain motivation in the second half of the season, they should be able to cling on to second place. After all, that would be progress.
The good news for supporters of Newcastle United is, the Mike Ashley era looks all but over as Amanda Staveley’s takeover bid looms large. The bad news is that it will take more than one, and possibly three or four decent transfer windows before Rafa Benitez can build a team with the quality and strength in depth required to compete in the Premier League. With the resources he’s got, he’s not doing too bad a job, and that’s after a run of one point in nine games. Newcastle clearly lack quality in key areas of the pitch (mainly the green bit) but despite dropping into the bottom three after defeat at Arsenal, a spirited 3-2 win over West Ham brought them back out for Christmas Day. In Dwight Gayle they have a striker desperate to prove his class, while the sudden return of Henri Saivet could be an early Christmas present for Benitez – aside from his error for the first West Ham goal on Saturday, he enjoyed a rip-roaring game.
Top of the Class: Jamal Lascelles – The Premier League’s youngest captain has propelled himself from being able to just about compete at this level to Premier League class. His coming of age under Benitez has been remarkable, and he has now established himself as one of the first names on the teamsheet. His importance to the team was underlined during a five game spell on the sidelines, during which Newcastle shipped fifteen goals – one more than they’ve conceded in Lascelles’ fourteen appearances this season.
Must Try Harder: Jonjo Shelvey – Last season Shelvey proved himself too good for the Championship, acting as the driving force behind Newcastle’s promotion campaign. So far this season he’s been largely anonymous. His tally of red cards dwarfs his attacking contribution, and his importance to Benitez is diminishing by the week – the level headed Mikel Merino offers more both going forward and defensively than Shelvey, who’s one top skill – those raking passes has yet to result in goals so far this term.
Pre-Season Prediction – 15th
Revised Prediction – 17th
Much depends on the investment in the first team in January and whether Ashley finally relinquishes his vice-like grip on Newcastle United, but with Benitez in the dugout they’ve always got a chance of getting a result. The Spaniard has a knack of grabbing a result when it really counts, particularly against West Ham, but there’s every chance Newcastle’s survival bid will go right down to the wire.
Claude Puel’s eighth place finish last season was deemed not good enough by Southampton’s board, who jettisoned him for someone a little more exotic. Mauricio Pellegrino, in only his fifth year of management, arrived from Alaves to much intrigue, and Saints fans looked forward to another interesting campaign. So far it hasn’t quite gone to plan. Despite having striker Charlie Austin free from injury for a quarter of the season, Saints have been more than a little goal-shy, scoring just 18 times in 19 games, while their solid defence from last season has been breached 25 times. With a form book that reads like a traffic light at a rave, there has been very little consistency from the South coast side, and aside from an impressive win over Everton, they’ve been dull as dishwater.
Top of the Class: Charlie Austin – Tell all the folks you know, Charlie Austin will always score goals. Provided he’s not injured that is. After signing for Southampton in 2016, the Hungerford born striker was touted to become a force to be reckoned with in the Premier League, having thrived in a relegated QPR side two years previous. Injuries have hampered his progress, making only 22 appearances in his first season and a half, but this time out he looks like he may be back to his best. Pellegrino has used him sparingly, and from five starts Austin has returned six goals. Decent. If he can work his way into regular first team contention then double figures is no big ask.
Must Try Harder: Virgil Van Dijk – The Dutch defender looked for all the world like he was heading to Anfield in the summer after handing in a transfer request. Despite the player’s willingness to leave, however, Saints stood firm and Van Dijk stayed put. Reintergrated into the first team shortly afterwards, Van Dijk didn’t seem himself. Southampton’s relatively poor defensive record says all you need to know about the rock of their defence and how much he’s crumbled. Whether he’ll still find a way out of St Mary’s in January remains to be seen, but based on his performances surely his price tag has dropped.
Pre-Season Prediction – 10th
Revised Prediction – 13th
There’ll not be pushing for a European place, nor embroiled in a relegation scrap, but there’s very little for Southampton fans to cheer this season besides consolidation. Pellegrino quickly needs to stamp his identity on a team that look a shadow of their former selves.
Stoke City and Mark Hughes, how could one club and one manager be so right for each other? Them, an unfashionable, unfancied side from the West Midlands with an independent weather system that ensures every Wednesday night is wet and windy, and him, a manager unable to cut the mustard at the top of the league, but with an ego too big to fit in the Championship. After seasons of steady mid-table finishes, this is beginning to look like the year Stoke finally come unstuck. Despite picking up wins when he finds himself under pressure, Hughes has turned Stoke into something of a punchbag when it comes to facing the Premier League’s elite teams. Conceding twelve at Manchester City and Tottenham has been the tip of the iceberg, with summer recruits Kurt Zouma and Kevin Wimmer failing to have the desired effect in shoring up the Potters back line. They currently have the worst defence in the league.
Top of the Class: Xherdan Shaqiri – The man who looks like his diet consists of shoeboxes and steroids has been one of Stoke’s few bright spots this season. With four goals and five assists he’s played a part in just under half of the Potters goals, and always looks likely to cause damage with the ball at his feet. He’ll be needing his teammates to lighten the load in the second half of the season, but the Swiss’ form may be the difference in Stoke’s bid for survival.
Must Try Harder: Saido Berahino – Poor old Saido. It didn’t seem that long ago that he was one of England’s bright young hopes after breaking through at West Bromwich Albion. Courted by Tottenham and Newcastle among others, he finally escaped Tony Pulis’ reign of terror at the Hawthorns in January. That was in the midst of a goalscoring drought that looks to show no sign of abating. 668 days without a goal for Berahino, and a player that looked to have the world at his feet a few years ago now appears to have no confidence whatsoever.
Pre-Season Prediction – 17th
Revised Prediction – 19th
Though they continue to pick up wins when Hughes’ job begins to look unsafe, there’s something about this Stoke side that suggests they could fold like a pack of cards at any moment. If they’re to stay up they’ll need to address their defensive deficiencies quick smart, while a prolific striker might be top of the shopping list when the transfer window opens.
Paul Clement rode into Swansea on his black steed last season and managed to change the fortunes of a doomed side and steer them to safety. This time round, they’re back in amongst it again and Clement became the victim of the Swansea board’s itchy trigger finger, losing his job a week before Christmas. Leon Britton has stepped in on a temporary basis, but even with his legendary status at the club keeping this side up is going to be a tall order. Having sold their two best players of last season in Gylfi Sigurdsson and Fernando Llorente in the summer, it was always likely the Swans would struggle without serious reinvestment, and the side currently lack the talent required to survive in the top flight.
Top of the Class: Tammy Abraham – The loan signing from Chelsea had big boots to fill as he was recruited to replace Llorente, but the 20 year old has emerged as Swansea’s biggest goal threat, netting four of his sides eleven goals so far this season. Relying on a striker that wasn’t old enough to remember France ’98 does smack of relegation favourites however, and Abraham will have to hope Wilfred Bony and Jordan Ayew can relieve some of the pressure from his shoulders.
Must Try Harder: Renato Sanches – Arriving on loan from Bayern Munich to much fanfare, the Young Player of the Tournament at Euro 2016 appears to have lost his way. Looking less than fully fit, he managed to lose possession an incredible fourteen times during the first half of his debut against Newcastle, and has only managed seven starts so far this season. His time at Swansea was beautifully summed up at Stamford Bridge, when he mistook an advertising board for a teammate and stylishly passed the ball straight out of play. The camera panned to a forlorn Paul Clement, who was seen to be shouting “For fucks sake, Renato!”
Pre-Season Prediction – 16th
Revised Prediction – 20th
Unless they manage to pull a decent playmaker and a striker that can score them ten goals out of the hat, the only way is down for the team from South Wales. They don’t create enough chances, they don’t score enough goals, and they aren’t solid enough at the back to grind out results. A new manager bounce may give them hope of survival, but they’ll need more than that to claw their way to safety.
The pre-season chat surrounding Tottenham was all about their ‘Wembley Hoodoo’ having crashed out of the Champions League when playing at their temporary home for European ties last season. In their first three home games of the season, Spurs failed to record a win, which only stoked the fires of conspiracy theorists further, but since September they’ve won all but one of their six home games, with a scintillating thrashing of Liverpool putting the talk of a curse to bed once and for all. A sticky patch that saw just one win in six has left them scrabbling for a place in the top four when many assumed they would be involved in a title race, but comprehensive victories over Stoke and Burnley in recent weeks have put the Tottenham train back on the rails.
Top of the Class: Christian Eriksen – The dynamite Dane has long been a key part of Tottenham’s attack, but this season he looks to have stepped up and emerged as one of the best playmakers in Europe. Always deadly from dead-ball situations, and in possession of a wicked cross, its unsurprising that Eriksen is beginning to attract attention from the mega-squids overseas. Provided he continues to add to his five goals and four assists this season, supplying the kind of balls Harry Kane thrives off, a top four place shouldn’t be too much of a stretch for Spurs.
Must Try Harder: Dele Alli – In a case of ‘difficult third season syndrome’, Alli has seemingly dropped off from the tremendous performances that have become his trademark since joining Spurs from MK Dons. Two goals and three assists is a poor return for a player as important to his team as Alli, and the disciplinary issues that are slowly creeping into his game have come to the fore in recent weeks – a couple of over the top challenges in his last two appearances have seen the spotlight fall on Alli’s temperament, as his lack of forms looks to be taking its toll.
Pre-Season Prediction – 4th
Revised Prediction – 4th
It’s going to be a close call for fourth spot, with the top three looking to be sewn up, and Spurs, Arsenal and Liverpool all vying for that final Champions League place, but Tottenham may just about have enough quality to pip their rivals to a qualification place. The impending return of Toby Alderweireld will be massive for Pochettino, while Harry Kane looks unlikely to stop scoring any time soon.
Another side tipped to struggle at the beginning of the season, Watford have taken to life under Marco Silva like a dream. The acquisition of Brazilian wonderkid Richarlison looks to be one of the best pieces of business done in the summer, while the level of performances that Silva has coaxed out of the likes of Abdoulaye Doucoure and Christian Kabasele is a testament to his managerial ability. Momentum has slowed somewhat in recent weeks, with Watford going into their Boxing Day game looking for a first win in six, but eye-catching victories over Arsenal and Newcastle have set the Hornets out as a team to watch this season, and with an average of 3.2 goals per game, Watford’s matches certainly represent value for money.
Top of the Class: Richarlison – The £11m signing from Fluminese is one of those rarest of beasts in the modern football era – a promising young player that few outside of Brazil knew much about. Adjusting to life in the Premier League immediately, Richarlison has been Watford’s stand-out player so far this term, being involved in nine goals already. His work-rate and tireless running have seem him singled out for praise on multiple occasions already, and with his big bag of tricks, he’s a full-back’s worst nightmare.
Must Try Harder: Andre Gray – From value to money to Andre Gray. The £17m invested in the former Burnley striker has yet to reap dividends, with his two goals in eleven games costing Watford £8.5m per goal. Looking short on confidence, and yet to convice Silva that he’s worthy of leading the line ahead of Troy Deeney, Gray will soon need to start taking his chances if he’s to avoid falling by the wayside at Vicarage Road.
Pre-Season Prediction – 14th
Revised Prediction – 10th
Much of the hard work has been done already for Watford this season. That excellent start to the campaign has given them a valuable cushion over the sides struggling at the bottom, though their current run of form will be a worry for Silva. If he can right the ship sooner rather than later then a mid-table finish will be more than satisfactory.
West Bromwich Albion
Tony Pulis turned West Brom into something of a machine last year. Nicking games by the odd goal and grinding out draws in tricky fixtures meant the Baggies were home and hosed and safe from relegation with two months to spare. Judging by their performances at the start of this season, it looked as though they’d decided to extend their summer holiday further and despite winning their first two games, a winless run of ten games led to Pulis’ sacking. That winless run is ongoing, but now Alan Pardew is the man in the dugout, so the banter levels at The Hawthorns have gone up a few hundred notches. Pards has a knack of getting a tune out of average players, for a short while at least, but with the West Brom job it looks as though he may have bitten off more than he could chew.
Top of the Class: Johnny Evans – Reportedly close to signing for Manchester City in the summer, Evans’ stock is still high despite being at the heart of the defence in a struggling team. Remarkably West Brom boast one of the best defences in the bottom half of the table, and much of that is down to the dependable Evans. Whether he’ll be a Baggies player come the end of January remains to be seen.
Must Try Harder: Salomon Rondon – The bustling burly Venezuelan has been West Brom’s main source of goals since signing from Zenit St Petersburg in 2015, but along with his teammates, he’s struggled to find the net regularly so far this season. Three goals from fourteen starts is a scant return for a striker, and with West Brom the holders of the second worst attack in the league, it may fall on him to score the goals and drag his side out of trouble.
Pre-Season Prediction – 13th
Revised Prediction – 18th
Even the famed Pardew Bounce is looking to have deserted West Brom, as their new manager struggles to get to grips with the job at hand in the West Midlands. A lack of goals will ultimately be the Baggies downfall this term, and its difficult to see anything other than relegation on the horizon.
West Ham United
On the face of it, West Ham had looked to have done some excellent business in the summer transfer market, securing Pablo Zabaleta, Joe Hart, Marko Arnautovic and Javier Hernandez for under £50m. It wasn’t until you saw them play that you realised how much the Hammers had overspent. Zabaleta looks well past his best in the West Ham defence, while Hernandez has exposed himself as a one-trick pony – lethal from five yards, lethargic everywhere else. Slaven Bilic managed to cling onto his job until the beginning of November, but the appointment of a manager that had overseen an abysmal relegation last season had a few people scratching their heads. Somehow, though, David Moyes has got the Hammers playing some decent football again, and two excellent wins against Chelsea and Stoke have kicked West Ham’s season into life.
Top of the Class: Manuel Lanzini – The little Argentinian wizard established himself as West Ham’s primary chance creator after the acrimonious departure of Dimitri Payet last season, and his four assists this season have gone a long way to dragging the Hammers out of trouble. With Marko Arnautovic finally looking settled and producing the form that convinced West Ham to splash the cash, Lanzini provides the perfect foil for the big Austrian.
Must Try Harder: Joe Hart – Who’d be a goalkeeper? Joe Hart’s career has lurched from one disaster to another in the past couple of seasons, and that run of bad luck doesn’t look like ending. Deemed surplus to requirements at Manchester City, Hart became the laughing stock of Serie A during a loan spell with Torino last season, but snapped at the chance to re-establish himself as a Premier League number one with a season-long spell at West Ham. After fourteen appearances, conceding thirty goals, Hart was replaced by Adrian, and the Spanish stopper looks to have played his way into Moyes’ starting XI. What the future holds for Hart is anyone’s guess, but England fans will be hoping it doesn’t involve a place at next summer’s World Cup.
Pre-Season Prediction – 8th
Revised Prediction – 12th
The Hammers have shown enough in recent weeks to suggest they’ll drag themselves away from trouble into mid-table safety. Owners David Gold and David Sullivan will be more than happy to splash the cash in January, but might want to have a word with Ellis Short regarding Moyes’ ability in the transfer market. The shower of shite he left Sunderland with after taking them down suggests he might not be the man to trust with millions of pounds.