Premier League 2018/19 Half-Term Report

Ding dong merrily on high! We’re halfway through the season! Ding dong merrily on high! Still no Tories tried for treason. Glo-ooooo-ooooo-ooooo-ooooo-oooooria let’s have a look at how dreadful our pre-season predictions were, steadily backtrack, and try to work out which of the terrible teams in this season’s Premier League are going to prove the most terrible and who, if anyone, can oust Manchester City as champions. Who’s been good this year? Who deserves a block of coal and an extended period with the reserves? And why on Earth did we back Watford to go down? Make room on your plate next to the brussels and turkey – it’s the Half-Term Report.

 

Arsenal

It was suggested pre-season that Life after Weng wouldn’t be the sunlit uplands that the hardcore Arsene Out brigade had imagined. Indeed, some pundits had the audacity to question whether Unai Emery was fit for the job after the Spaniard had overseen back-to-back defeats in his first two games as Arsenal manager, against last season’s champions and the season before’s champions. Since those narrow and completely unWengerlike setbacks however, the Gunners haven’t looked back. Having coughed and spluttered their way to five wins in a row, a vintage Arsenal performance at Craven Cottage saw the arrival of Emeryball to North London, with the new gaffer getting far more out of Alexandre Lacazette than his predecessor had managed, and finally playing the kind of football fans had craved since the Invincibles.

There are still big question marks over Arsenal’s first-half form which had seen them fail to take a lead into the break in their first seventeen games of the season, while a surprise defeat at struggling Southampton provided a timely reminder of their vulnerability.

Top of the Class: Lucas Torreira
Perhaps Arsene Wenger’s biggest mistake in his twenty-two year tenure was failing to properly replace Patrick Vieira who, alongside his graceful and gut-busting box-to-box runs, provided Arsenal with just the right amount of bastardry in the middle of the park to ward off suggestions they had a soft centre. Over the years, the Gunners engine room got less fighty and more flighty, and as a result the club were tarred with a ‘don’t like it up ’em’ tag.

That condundrum looks to have been solved by the acquisition of Lucas Torreira. A £26m signing from Sampdoria following an impressive showing for Uruguay at the World Cup, Torreira has injected the first bit of serious bite to Ashburton Grove since Atom and Humber departed for Manchester. With the highest interception-to-minutes ratio in the Arsenal team, and a knack for a bruising tackle, the 22 year old has already become a fans favourite. A late, game-winning overhead kick against Huddersfield hasn’t done his popularity much harm either.

Must Try Harder: Mesut Ozil
It’s been a rotten year for Mesut Ozil. Scapegoated for Germany’s failure in the World Cup and then badly let down by his teammates following his public quotes about institutionalised racism in the DFB, Ozil has endured another stop/start Premier League campaign. Whilst his three goals so far this season see him closing in on his total for the entirety of last term, a lack of assists and general team involvement have often seen him cut a frustrated figure. A mooted move to Italy in January might just arrive at the right time for a player whose influence at Arsenal has waned year-on-year.

Pre-Season Prediction: 3rd
Revised Prediction: 5th
Emery has allegedly been told its fourth or bust this season, with a certain team in red dropping out of top four contention, leaving two spots for three teams. On current form, you’d be barmy to bet against the Gunners securing a return to the Champions League, but they’re also up against another two sides that have been ruthless in their pursuit of points. It’ll be close, but we think they’ll just miss out. Fortunately they’ve got a Europa League specialist in the dugout.

 

Bournemouth

The Eddie Howe love-in is back and biglier than ever, as Bournemouth have shaken off a difficult campaign to confound expectations once more. Did you know they’ve got a very very small stadium? An electric start to the season from the Cherries had all and sundry cooing over Howe and his ability to turn decent young players into world-beaters (including us), though since the start of November the team from the south coast have found themselves in something of a downturn.

Having been talked up as potential challengers for the Best of the Rest crown following a crushing 3-0 win at Fulham (there’s a theme emerging here…), Howe’s men went on to lose six of their next seven, slipping back into midtable. Even so, Bournemouth have shown enough in the first half of the season to suggest that they’re no longer punching above their weight, but are a team genuinely going places, provided they can keep hold of their inspirational manager.

Top of the Class: Callum Wilson
“If he can stay injury-free he’s got the potential to be one of the best in the league”. Callum Wilson’s story looked to be following that familiar, tragic script of wasted potential and misfortune. In his first three seasons in the Premier League he’d managed just forty-eight starts thanks to a string of injuries, seeing his influence on the team stymied. This year however, with a block of wood  permanently strapped to his fingertips, his fitness has never been in question, and Bournemouth have felt the benefits. Eight goals in his first fifteen games saw him match his season-high total of last year, and a well-deserved England call-up was capped with a debut goal against the United States at Wembley. No sooner has he been given an extended run in the team, the Premier League’s big boys have begun to circle, with Wilson jumping the queue ahead of Andy Carroll and Peter Crouch on Chelsea’s Christmas shopping list.

Must Try Harder: Steve Cook
Creakier than a barn-door in a storm, Bournemouth’s defence is the one thing holding them back from challenging for a European spot, and no-one exemplifies their shortcomings more than Steve Cook. It feels churlish to single out Cook who, up until this season, has been a solid performer for the Cherries, rarely betraying his rise from the third tier of English football. This term, however, Cook has looked off the pace, too often out of position, and easily dominated by more physically imposing forwards. In the 4-0 drubbing from Liverpool, Cook was wildly exposed by the pace of Mohamed Salah, eventually putting through his own net under no immediate pressure from the Reds frontline. Still only 27, there’s nothing to say that Cook can’t become a useful squad member for Howe, but if Bournemouth are serious about pushing on, a more reliable partner for Nathan Ake needs to be sourced.

Pre-Season Prediction: 17th
Revised Prediction: 9th
 Pre-season we didn’t think Bournemouth’s recruitment had sufficiently plugged the gaps from last season, but we hadn’t reckoned with Wilson’s extended period of leave from the physio room, nor Brooks’ seamless transition to the top flight. Despite a couple of heavy defeats, the Cherries are a match for most these days, and an upper mid-table finish would represent steady progress this season. 

 

Brighton and Hove Albion

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It’s testament to the fine work done by Brighton and Hove Albion owner Tony Bloom and manager Chris Hughton that, although only in their second season in the top flight, it feels like the Seagulls have been gliding around the Premier League mid-table for years. Hughton’s summer transfer business looked exciting on paper, with a Brazilian full-back, a World Cup centre-back, the Eredivisie’s top scorer and a wonderkid from France all arriving on the south coast, but its the outstanding players from Brighton’s debut season that continue to impress.

In Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy, Brighton have one of the outstanding defensive partnerships outside of the top six, with the performances of goalkeeper Mat Ryan breathing confidence into the backline. A short-term injury to Pascal Groß has hampered creativity in the Seagulls midfield, but fortunately the work put into set-pieces on the training ground has paid dividends – Brighton sit third for goals from dead-ball situations. Whilst form has been patchy in the first half of the season, a memorable victory over Manchester United in August has been followed up with crucial wins against fellow potential strugglers. Hughton’s side head into the festive fixture madness outside of the relegation mini-league, and will be hoping to push on towards mid-table in the new year.

Top of the Class: Glenn Murray
In a major scoop we’ve actually got hold of the transcript* of Hughton’s converstation with Bloom when it came to convincing Brighton’s owner to sanction the purchase of Glenn Murray from Bournemouth. Channeling his inner Will Young, Hughton crooned:

“I’m gonna sign Glenn Murray/and make him play forever/he’s got an eye for goal and bags full of endeavour/Cause he’s had two good seasons/the only striker I need/he’s more clinical than I have ever seen/I’m gonna take this man and make him evergreen”.

Bottom of Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs’ Christmas card list, Murray at least continues to return goals, even if the same can’t be said about his tax. Top scorer at the Amex last season with twelve, and seemingly over his chronic injury problems, Murray has already hit the net eight times in this campaign, and looks likely to surpass his impressive exploits of 17/18.

*this didn’t happen

Must Try Harder: Alireza Jahanbakhsh
Not content with signing one surefire flop from the Dutch league in Jurgen Locadia (nine goals in fifteen appearences for PSV Eindhoven last season, one goal in sixteen for Brighton since January), Chris Hughton then forked out a significant wedge on winger Jahanbakhsh in the summer following a stunning campaign with AZ Alkmaar that saw the Iranian score twenty-one and assist twelve for the Cheeseheads.

Alas, alack and Alireza, it hasn’t yet clicked for the 25 year old at the Amex. With just ten appearances so far, mostly from the bench, an inability to affect games has seen him struggle to make an impression on the Seagulls first team. Undoubtedly players need time to settle when arriving from Europe, but history is up against a player who follows in the footsteps of Afonso Alves and Vincent Janssen.

Pre-Season Prediction: 10th
Revised Prediction: 13th
After a pre-season prediction driven by wide-eyed excitement at Brighton’s summer recruitment, harsh reality has set in, and perhaps Hughton’s team aren’t quite ready to challenge for a place in the top half. Still, one look at their class of 2017 contemporaries is enough to convince Albion supporters that things could be a lot worse, and a season of consolidation is no bad thing.

 

Burnley

The early bird catches the worm, which must have been music to the ears of the annelid-munching Sean Dyche, as his Burnley team began their 2018/19 campaign a full sixteen days before their Premier League counterparts, with their European odyssey kicking off in the exotic surroundings of north-east Scotland. That short-lived sojourn on the continent came to an end in the last week of August, by which time the Clarets found themselves firmly entrenched in the brown stuff at the bottom of the league.

Received wisdom suggested that once the distraction of Europe had disappeared from the horizon, Burnley would get back to doing what they do best (and if you replace ‘Burnley’ with ‘The Conservative Party’ you’ve got a chilling vision of what 2019 has in store). Back to back wins against Bournemouth and Cardiff City in September looked to have turned the tide for Gravelbox and his merry men, but the eight game winless streak that followed pointed to a side that are in serious threat of relegation. Put simply, Burnley have forgotten how to defend, with the 36 goals shipped already this season in sharp contrast to last year’s miserly backline – it took until the penultimate game of the season for Dyche’s side to concede the same amount in 17/18.

Top of the Class: Joe Hart
Despite conceding the joint most goals by any single ‘keeper this season, Joe Hart has been the difference between defeat and humiliation in a host of games for the Clarets, and one of the few bright spots in a miserable campaign. Having been turfed out of Manchester City by Pep Guardiola, and suffered two humbling seasons on loan with Torino and West Ham, the move to Turf Moor provided Hart with the opportunity to rebuild a tattered reputation that has seen him jettisoned from the England squad. On this season’s evidence, he remains one of the most talented stoppers in the country, and could prove the difference in Burnley retaining their top flight status.

Must Try Harder: Ashley Barnes
What a difference a year makes. Back in January, Barnes was being linked with a shock move to Chelsea, as his hustle n’ bustle aggressive forward play made him a nightmare for even the best Premier League defenders. Fast-forward to the end of 2018 and the former Austria U21 international finds himself struggling to get into Dyche’s starting XI ahead of Chris Wood and Sam Vokes. With just two goals to his name from September’s surprise hammering of Bournemouth, Barnes looks a shadow of the player that finished as the club’s second top-scorer last season. Whilst the form of Hart may be crucial in keeping Burnley in games, Dyche would love nothing more for his nuisance #10 to rediscover the form that made Antonio Conte take notice.

Pre-Season Prediction: 13th 
Revised Prediction: 18th
Last season’s success was all about keeping it tight, nicking a goal, and seeing games out for Burnley, going the whole season only conceding three or more goals on three occasions. This term, that ethos appears to have gone out the window, with three or more goals conceded on seven occasions already, including morale-sapping hammerings at the hands of Manchester City and Chelsea. Unlikely to transform into the kind of side that wins games 4-3, Dyche has a job on his hands to stem the flow of shots afforded to the opposition. If he can’t, there’s only one way Burnley are headed.

 

Cardiff City

Having spent two months struggling to believe they were actually here, admiring the opposition, conceding goals at will and fooling pundits into thinking they were the worst Premier League side of all time, Neil Warnock’s Cardiff City finally woke up against Fulham (who else?), and have hardly looked back since. Though still among the favourites to go down, the Bluebirds have given themselves a fighting chance thanks to a massive upturn in form at home, with four crucial victories already secured in the Welsh capital. In Josh Murphy they have an exciting young winger full of pace and trickery, while Junior Hoilett on the other flank has rolled back this years so far this season, with two stunning strikes against Wolves and Watford.

Susceptible to defensive collapse, as witnessed in meetings with the bigger sides in the league, the Dogs of Warnock possess the kind of fighting spirit that can often be enough to help a side over the line in a relegation scrap. Provided they keep picking up points against the teams around them, they’ve every chance of securing a second season in the top flight.

Top of the Class: Callum Paterson
Originally signed from Hearts as a full-back, Paterson revealed his penchant for scoring goals in Cardiff’s promotion campaign, finishing the season as the club’s top scorer in the Championship with ten. So far this term he’s shown that the step up to the Premier League is no big deal for a converted defender, netting four in twelve for the Bluebirds, including the crucial winner against Southampton. Fleet-footed, strong in the air, and a knack for being in the right place at the right time, Paterson has relieved the pressure on summer signing Bobby Reid. Don’t be surprised to see him finish a second successive season as Cardiff’s top marksman.

Must Try Harder: Kenneth Zohore
That Warnock has been forced to turn to his right-back for goals in a damning indictment on the Bluebirds first-choice striker from last season. Zohore scored twenty-three times for Cardiff in the Championship following his move from FC København in 2016, but in three starts so far this season he’s managed just six shots on goal, all the while playing with the air of a man who’d rather be anywhere else. With Paterson and Reid jumping ahead in the pecking order, it looks a long way back into the first team for the great Dane.

Pre-Season Prediction: 20th
Revised Prediction: 17th
There’s still a long way to go, but the fact that Neil Warnock still finds himself in a job gives you an idea of how the first-half of Cardiff’s season has gone. One of the favourites for the sack race in the pre-season betting, football’s favourite dinnerlady has shown his ability to work with the tools at his disposal, and get the most from a limited squad. In a season that’s more a race to the bottom than a fight for survival, the Bluebirds might just do enough to survive.

Chelsea

Swapping sartorial Mediterranean elegance for scruffy granddad chic might seem anathema to the folks on the Kings Road, but so far the replacement of Antonio Conte with Maurizio Sarri seems to be working out fairly well for Chelsea. Despite the machine-like march towards 2017’s Premier League title, Conte’s relationship with the Blues hierarchy quickly turned sour last year, thanks in part to a transfer policy put in place that seemingly restricted the former Italy coach to signing players on the fringe of Roy Hodgson’s England squad. In place of the cold, distant Salentino comes a cuddly chain-smoking Neopolitan, and Chelsea’s players look like they’re having fun again.

Switching from Conte’s title-winning three-man defence to a flat-back four that raised plenty of eyebrows once David Luiz had been given a starting role, the Blues flew out of the traps in August, winning their first five games at a canter. Though progress has been slowed by defeats at Tottenham and Wolves, Chelsea’s new manager has at least given us a hint of a title race after inflicting Manchester City’s first league defeat of the season – a result that left Liverpool top. Whilst it may be another eighteen months before the former banker’s tenure can seriously be judged, he has already pulled off one minor miracle and made Chelsea ever-so-slightly more likable. It’s a shame about some of their fans, mind.

Top of the Class: Eden Hazard
When he’s not been busy making kissy faces at Real Madrid, Eden Hazard has been treating Stamford Bridge to some vintage performances, having already scored three-quarters of his final tally for last season in this campaign, whilst more than doubling the amount of assists. Under Sarri, Hazard is flourishing in a freer role, switching between a false nine and a floating ten and dovetailing well with Olivier Giroud in particular. The chances of him staying West London to spearhead a title push next season look slim, but he can at least provide Chelsea supporters with a few more memories in his final months.

Must Try Harder: Jorginho
It’s fair to say that Jorginho has a big fan in Maurizio Sarri. The former Napoli coach loves the Italian midfielder so much, the first thing he did when he took up office at Cobham was get on the phone to Roman Abramovich and convince Chelsea’s owner to part with £50m (that’s ten Peter Crouches) to secure his services. Sarri is such a big fan of the deep-lying playmaker that he moved Ngolo Kante, one of the best holding midfielders in the world, out of position to ensure his golden boy would fit into the team. The cigarette-chewing tactician is so besotted by the Brazilian-born passmaster that he’s started him in every Premier League match, despite a disappointing return of one goal and zero assists. Yes, he’s broken a league record for completed passes in a match, and no, Chelsea don’t get extra points for that.

Pre-Season Prediction: 5th
Revised Prediction: 4th
Few expected Sarri to have such an immediate, positive effect on his new side, and for a short while there was even talk of a three horse race at the top. There’s still a soft underbelly at Chelsea however, and Alvaro Morata is yet to drop his Mateja Kezman tribute act. There’s questions to be answered when the going gets tough, but with Arsenal emerging as the Blues main challengers for that fourth Champions League spot, you’d back Sarri to get the job done.

 

Crystal Palace

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Good old Roy. Roy the Boy. Croydon Roy. South London born and bred. He was always destined to manage Crystal Palace, the team he came to watch as a nipper. And isn’t he doing a good job? Look at the difference between last season and this; the Eagles are a whole…one point better off than they were at this stage last year. Just in case you’ve suffered a bout of amnesia, Palace lost their first seven games last season without scoring a goal, before good old Roy came along and lifted them out of the relegation zone just in time for Christmas.

This year, little progress has been made. Winning games without Wilfried Zaha remains a problem (though they did manage it for the first time in over two years against Leicester City), and none of their strikers can score. In fact, Palace rank joint second lowest for goals in the league. Now we’re not saying this is down to Hodgson (Hi, Harry Kane at Euro 2016), but with Steve Parish refusing to splash the cash in the transfer market and referees seemingly less sympathetic when it comes to Palace players tumbling in the box this year, the veteran coach will surely have to address his side’s lack of goals sooner rather than later. Though they have just stuck three past Manchester City at the Etihad, to be fair…

Top of the Class: Aaron Wan-Bissaka
The Fantasy Football manager’s best friend, highly rated Wan-Bissaka broke into the first team at Selhurst Park towards the end of last season, posting an impressive performance against Manchester United in his second senior start. This year, he’s become a key part of Hodgson’s side, winning the club’s Player of the Month award for August and continuing to impress in a struggling team. Lightning quick and an aerial presence, Wan-Bissaka appears to have all the attributes necessary to become a fantastic modern full-back. Palace will do well to keep hold of the 21 year old.

Must Try Harder: Max Meyer
Chairman Steve Parish would have been delighted to secure his club’s marquee summer signing on a free transfer, though with the German playmaker picking up a rumoured £170,000 a week, he might have hoped for a bigger return on his investment than the two assists provided by Meyer so far this season. Undoubtedly blessed with technical ability, there’s more than an inkling that the former Schalke man lacks the fortitude for the position that Palace find themselves in. Clearly signed with a push for upper mid-table in mind, when it comes to a relegation scrap Meyer is little more than an unnecessary luxury on current form.

Pre-Season Prediction: 11th
Revised Prediction: 14th
It was the addition of Meyer, alongside Hodgson’s good work last season, that had us thinking Palace could trade blows with the likes of West Ham and Leicester City for a place in the top half this term. Without Luka Milivojevic’s penalties however, the Eagles are lacking a difference maker, and the second half of the season could be a real slog.

Everton

It might have taken the best part of a year, an overinflated transfer fee, and an interminable six months with the mayor of Fray Bentos in charge, but Everton finally got their man in Marco Silva this summer. And, just another £75m later, they’ve finally built a team that can challenge for seventh in the Premier League. Undoubtedly, the Toffees look a much better side this season, and once their raft of summer signings have fully settled in at Goodison Park, they’ll be a sticky proposition for anyone in the league. But. For all the plaudits Silva deserves for his commitment to attractive, attacking football, his reputation for leaving a team short at the back precedes him, and Everton have already dropped plenty of points from winning positions this season. If there’s one thing you can say about Sam Allardyce it’s that he knows how to kill a game. Some days it felt like he was killing the whole sport.

Those defensive concerns could be allayed by the continued presence of Yerry Mina, however, whose towering presence in the Toffees’ backline is a major upgrade on Ashley Williams. Meanwhile. Gylfi Sigurdsson is beginning to show the form that convinced Everton to throw £50m the way of Swansea, and Lucas Digne and Bernard look like handy acquisitions.

Top of the Class: Richarlison
Richarlison’s £35m+add-ons move to Merseyside might be the moment the death knell sounded for the ‘Game’s Gone’ brigade. Whilst Yer Da’ was busy telling you how much Andy Gray would be worth in today’s game, the Brazilian was scoring a brace on his debut and silencing the critics. Moved into a central role and scoring at a rate of one-in-two, Richarlison has displaced the Turkish Kevin Davies from the Everton first team, and looks likely to reach double figures before the end of 2018. If he can harness the temper that saw him sent off for a headbutt at Bournemouth, he might emerge as the long-awaited replacement for Romelu Lukaku.

Must Try Harder: Andre Gomes
It’s an uncomfortable truth that not every footballer that plays for Barcelona is very good. Take Ibrahim Affelay. Or Marc Muniesa. Or anyone Mark Hughes has ever signed, really. Andre Gomes is, in fact, a decent footballer, but thanks to his association with the Nou Camp, expectations upon his arrival were sky high. So far he’s put in some decent shifts in an Everton shirt, clearly possessing an eye for a pass and generally looking classy in possession. Sadly, that’s where his influence on the team ends. On current evidence, he’s all fur coat and no knickers. He is,  however, incredibly handsome.

Pre-Season Prediction: 9th
Revised Prediction: 7th
Everton’s final league position this season may well depend on how things pan out up the M62. Based on the talent and resources available, Silva’s side look a shoe-in for seventh, and could even sneak into sixth should Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s rescue mission come a cropper. Beyond that, Farhad Moshiri and Bill Kenwright will have to dig a lot deeper to push the Toffees up the table. 

 

Fulham

In what looks like being a short stay in the Premier League, Fulham have at least brought new meaning to the phrase ‘selection headache’. Fourteen players arrived at Craven Cottage in the summer transfer window, which led to Slavisa Jokanovic making thirty-three changes to his starting line-up across twelve games. After a difficult opening to the season, it looked like things might have started to click for the Cottagers in a scintillating 4-2 victory over Burnley, but Jokanovic’s faith in his preferred open style of play was soon punished as, across four games against Everton, Arsenal, Cardiff and Bournemouth, his side conceded fifteen goals. Rooted to the foot of the table with a goal difference of minus twenty, the Serbian coach was sacked.

After a mercifully short period of sitting by their phones and waiting for a call, Alan Pardew and David Moyes switched on Sky Sports News to discover that Claudio Ranieri had been appointed as Jokanovic’s replacement, so both could go back to having a long stare in the mirror. Tongue-in-cheek talk of a title challenge filled social media, but the Italian did at least have an immediate impact, overseeing only the second win of the season for the West London side against Southampton. Since then, though, it’s very much been a case of as you were, as even Manchester United have got in on the act of thrashing the beleaguered new boys.

Top of the Class: Aleksander Mitrovic
Mentally-unhinged Serbian Aleksander Mitrovic divided opinion upon his departure from Tyneside, with many Newcastle fans declaring that Rafa Benitez hadn’t given him a fair crack of the whip. Six goals in the opening six games of the season did little to change opinion, but while he sits above Alexandre Lacazette and Romelu Lukaku in the goalscoring charts, the fact he looks odds on to suffer his second relegation from the Premier League is fuel to the fire of his critics. Clearly an adept target man, and lethal from close range, Mitrovic still needs to do more for the team if his goals are actually going to win points.

Must Try Harder: Alfie Mawson
At £15m, Alfie Mawson looked one of the bargains of the summer. Though relegated with Swansea City last time out, Mawson was one of the few players to emerge with any credit from the Liberty Stadium last season, earning a call-up to the England squad thanks to some commanding performances in the Swans defence. Injury delayed his introduction to the Fulham first team, and so far he’s looked a shadow of the player that Gareth Southgate thought could challenge John Stones for a starting berth. Slower in the tackle and more hesitant to clear his lines, the lack of a settled side has clearly hindered Mawson’s progress. If Fulham are to shore up that leaky defence, the 24 year old needs to hit some form.

Pre-Season Prediction: 16th
Revised Prediction: 19th
So far this season has been a disaster for the Craven Cottage faithful. Hopes of even challenging for a place in Europe weren’t considered delusional following the recruitment of some exciting talent from the continent, but while the likes of Andre Schurrle and Jean Michaël Seri have impressed in patches, other summer signings have flattered to deceive. Owner Shahid Khan won’t be shy with the chequebook in January, but quality, rather than quantity, will be the key to survival.

 

Huddersfield Town

“Sometimes in football you have to score goals”. Not my words, Lynn, but the words of Thierry Henry. Blindingly obvious? Yes. Easily done? Not so much. After last season’s great escape, Huddersfield look likely to fall through the trap door at the second attempt, with a lack of firepower leaving them averaging a goal every 147 minutes in the first half of the season. David Wagner’s insistence on shoring up a defence that leaked 58 goals last term has at least given the Terriers the meanest backline in the bottom five, a statistic that could be crucial come May, but only if it starts going in at the other end. A first win of the season against Fulham (of course) started a three-game revival which culminated in the shock, Aaron Mooy-inspired win at Wolves.

Since then, however, Town have been on the wrong end of tight results, which only further highlights their lack of a proven goalscorer. With Mooy likely to miss the next two months with injury, they’ve also lost their creative spark. It’s going to take all of Wagner’s tactical nous to pull Huddersfield out of this one.

Top of the Class: Philip Billing
At 6’3”, Danish midfielder Philip Billing is an intimidating presence in the Huddersfield lineup and, having shown glimpses of his ability in the past two seasons, has firmly established himself as a first team regular. Patrolling in front of the back four, Billing tops the charts for successful tackles in the team with fifty so far this season, while his thirty-four interceptions leave him third for turnovers. A goal at Everton in September, his first in the Premier League, suggest his talents don’t end in the first third of the pitch, either.

Must Try Harder: Steve Mounie
Not to be confused with erstwhille Dumbarton midfielder Steve Mooney, Steve Mounie is the man charged with scoring the goals that pull Huddersfield away from danger this season. How’s that going? Well, let’s just say he’s been sent off more often than he’s celebrated so far this term. Averaging just two shots per game, and yet to find the back of the net since a 1-1 draw at Brighton in April, it’s fair to say Mounie isn’t having a vintage season. With fellow forward Laurent Depoitre also suffering a barren spell, Town are left desperately searching for their next match-winner.

Pre-Season Prediction: 19th
Revised Prediction: 20th
Hardly the worst side to have ever graced the Premier League, Huddersfield simply aren’t dangerous enough in front of goal to win games. Unfortunately, without serious investment, there’s little to suggest that’s going to change any time soon. Even Fulham can score goals, for christ’s sake.

Leicester City

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Regardless of where they finish in the final league table, Leicester City’s 2018/19 season will be remembered for little else than the tragic events of the 27th October when, following his team’s 1-1 draw with West Ham at the King Power Stadium, Foxes owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha boarded his helicopter along with two business associates and the two pilots and began the regular journey down to London. Moments later, a malfunction in the tail propeller caused the vehicle to fall from the sky, taking all five lives with it.

The outpouring of grief in the city was absolute. Grief for the loss of a football club owner who had dared to dream and delivered to its supporters, but more pertinently grief for a man much loved in the community, who gave so much to Leicester and its people. In an all-too-rare showing of unity, the entire football world rallied around Leicester City and its fans, sharing condolences and providing their own tributes to a beloved member of the football family. Perhaps fittingly, Leicester seem destined for a place in midtable obscurity come the end of the season. At this moment football has never seemed so insignificant at the club.

Top of the Class: James Maddison
After an outstanding season for Norwich City in the Championship last year, James Maddison was earmarked as one to watch this season following an eye-watering £20m move to the King Power. But even those familiar with the midfielder’s ability must have been surprised by the ease with which he’s taken to the top flight. An impressive debut against Manchester United was followed with a stunning free-kick against Wolves and, a dismissal for diving aside, the youngster has barely looked back since. A well-deserved England call-up arrived in October, and at just 22 he looks likely to become a regular for the national team in the coming years.

Must Try Harder: Kelechi Iheanacho
It’s tempting to copy and paste our entry from last season, where we declared that Iheanacho had a lot of work to do to live up to his £24m price-tag following his move from Manchester City in 2017. Now a first-team regular, having been shoehorned into a supporting role behind Jamie Vardy, the young Nigerian is yet to rediscover the scoring form that convinced Leicester to splash out on a fringe player from England’s richest club. One goal and three assists so far this season will hardly have Vardy worrying about his starting berth, while an average of 0.8 shots per game is the upshot of his introduction in a deeper role.

Pre-Season Prediction: 12th
Revised Prediction: 12th
Few thought Claude Puel would still be in a job by Christmas, and we can only assume it’s because he has poor personal hygiene or makes endless bad-taste jokes since he’s proven himself a perfectly decent coach, but goings-on off-the-pitch seem to have pulled focus from the manager’s future. With a sense that there is little to play for and most of those at the club would like to get this season over and done with as soon as possible, a lower midtable finish will hardly be seen as the end of the world.

 

Liverpool

It’s a little known fact that Jurgen Klopp is a big fan of sixties psych-pop band The Zombies. He also bears resemblance to the living dead, but this is probably a coincidence. Either way, the charismatic coach will have been humming their seminal track This Will Be Our Year for the past few weeks because, shock of all shocks, Liverpool are top of the table at Christmas for the first time since 2014. And, while it may have taken £130m, Klopp finally seems to have fixed the Reds’ Achilles heel. The £75m capture of Virgil van Dijk in January appeared to pay immediate dividends as Liverpool went on to reach the Champions League final, while the summer signing of Alisson from Roma has (mostly) put to bed the era of the goalkeeping blunder at Anfield.

The narrative so far this season, despite Liverpool’s unprecedented start to the campaign, is that defensive solidity has come at the cost of a blunted attack. Mohamed Salah is, apparently, having a poor season. In fact the Egyptian is the top goalscorer in the Premier League, and the Reds have scored more so far this season than they had at the same point last year, thanks largely to the goals being shared around the front three, along with Xherdan Shaqiri’s contribution – another recruitment masterstroke – and the surprise addition of goals from Daniel Sturridge and Divock Origi; previously frozen out of the first team picture, but now useful additions from the bench.

Top of the Class: Virgil van Dijk
It was with very good reason that Klopp spent over six months testing Southampton’s resolve in pursuit of their star player. Not only bringing a touch of class, composure and organisation to the Liverpool backline, Virgil van Dijk has improved the players around him tenfold. Both Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip – no strangers to a catastrophic rick – look more confident whilst playing alongside the Dutchman, while Joe Gomez has matured into one of England’s most exciting young talents. It seems that, rather than a millstone around his neck, that £75m pricetag has emboldened van Dijk, and the Netherlands, too have benefited from this newfound sense of responsibility. Eighteen months ago van Dijk was among the best defenders in the Premier League. On current form he’s surely one of the best in the world and, should Liverpool win that elusive title, would be a shoe-in for Player of the Season. 

Must Try Harder: Naby Keita
Another player carefully tracked and scouted by Klopp and his team, Naby Keita had earned himself a reputation as one of Europe’s most dynamic midfielders with his tenacious displays at RB Leipzig. An all-action, box-to-box playmaker with a penchant for spectacular goals, Keita was seen as a major upgrade on the ageing James Milner. Having arranged a deal for the Guinean a year in advance, expectations were high come the start of the season. Sadly, despite showing flashes of his ability, Keita is yet to really shine in a Liverpool shirt. An injury in the Champions League trip to Napoli hindered his progress early season, and its clearly taking longer than anticipated for the young midfielder to settle. If he can rediscover the form that convinced the Reds to part with more than £50m, he may have a big part to play in a title push.

Pre-Season Prediction: 2nd
Revised Prediction: 2nd
In the week before Christmas, Dejan Lovren announced that Liverpool could go the whole season unbeaten, which is as good as surrendering the title, but it does as least look like we’ll have something closer resembling a title race than most predicted pre-season.

Manchester City

Manchester City and their manager are confounding expectations this season. They only made one major signing in the summer (though admittedly that was a club record £60m), they’ve lost two games before Christmas (just), and Pep Guardiola has eschewed his stylish-hooligan get-up for the type of cardigan usually worn by a man who’s lost his visitation rights following a messy divorce. Were they not a point off the top and by far the highest scorers in the league, you might even mistake them for a club in crisis.

So they’re not on course for another runaway title win, but since they’ve been without Kevin De Bruyne for most of the first half of the season, they’re not doing too badly. In his stead, Leroy Sane has stepped up with seven assists, while Riyad Mahrez has gone some way to repaying that record fee with five goals. Sergio Aguero and David Silva, both supposedly creeping towards that part of their careers where Shanghai suddenly seems like a nice place to spend a year or two, show no real signs of slowing up. Were it not for the fact that Liverpool have spent a fortune on tightening their defence, City would be running away at the top of the table in third gear. As it is, Guardiola will need to ring a little bit extra out of his players in the second half of the season to ensure they retain the title. You’d be insane to bet against it.

Top of the Class: Raheem Sterling
Remarkably there are still some people that don’t think Raheem Sterling is an exceptional footballer. Yes, they’re the kinds of people that read the Daily Mail, claim they voted to be poorer in the referendum, and say things like “you can’t even order a black coffee these days!”, but even so, it takes someone with a stupendous lack of insight to regularly watch Manchester City and not see that Sterling is a man of incredible talent. His nine goals this season have taken him above Tim Cahill, level with Peter Beardsley, and one behind Gianfranco Zola in the all-time Premier League scoring charts. He’s been directly involved in fifteen of Manchester City’s goals this season, the second highest team involvement of any player, behind Eden Hazard.

He’s only just turned twenty four and, after being abused by supporters at Stamford Bridge, had the bravery to call out racism in the tabloid press for feeding a new wave of discrimination in the stands. Not only an extraordinarily gifted goalscorer, Sterling has gone some way to returning the media narrative to all young black footballers. For that he should be treasured.

Must Try Harder: Gabriel Jesus
Typically, two days after the planning for this piece was put in place, Gabriel Jesus put in match-winning performance against Everton, scoring twice in a 3-1 win. One brace does not a satisfactory half-season make, however. It’s undoubtedly been a difficult year for Jesus. Roundly criticised having failed to find the net for Brazil in the World Cup, he’s found first team opportunities hard to come by at the Etihad this season, with Guardiola preferring to stick with one up top, and trusting the always-in-form Aguero over his young understudy. In 2019, Jesus needs to refocus and put a difficult six months behind him. Since signing he’s looked like the natural heir to Manchester City’s all-time top scorer, it’s time for him to step up.

Pre-Season Prediction: 1st
Revised Prediction: 1st
Though we’d never hear the end of it, there’s an ever-increasing swell of support among neutrals for Liverpool to knock Manchester City off their fucking perch this season. Despite going into Christmas in second place, however, City clearly have a few more gears to crank through before they’re playing at full potential. With De Bruyne now ready to be reintroduced into the first team, and Aguero well rested, it would be a big surprise to see the Cityzens anywhere but top come the end of the season.

 

Manchester United

mourinho

Football’s a funny old game. One minute you’re the most successful club in the country, winning every trophy going and seemingly unstoppable in your pursuit of glory. The next, you’re paying £22.5m to get rid of a buzzkill with a buzzcut and replacing him with a management team whose most recent Premier League experience was being sacked by Cardiff and Hull. Yes, the dream is over. Jose Mourinho failed to build on the ‘treble’ in his first season at Old Trafford, and instead concentrated on spending the following eighteen months alienating everyone from his £50m signings to the maid that puts the chocolates on the pillows at the Lowry. But before we reach for the world’s smallest violin, its worth remembering that Manchester United are sixth in the table, still in the Champions League, still the most valuable football club in the world, still the most successful team in English football history, and can still call upon £350m worth of talent in their starting XI.

The choice of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as caretaker manager is a curious one, but its remarkable the amount of leeway a European Cup winning goal will give you in the dugout. That and not being Jose Mourinho.

Top of the Class: Anthony Martial
When your boss is on your back all day every day for years on end, it gets to the point where you either curl one off on his desk and tell him to shove his job, or you hunker down and prove him wrong. As far as we know, Anthony Martial has only chosen the latter solution, emerging as one of United’s few bright spots in a deflating first half of the season. Since arriving at Old Trafford, both Mourinho and his predecessor have struggled to find a natural position for Martial, with the Portuguese deciding that the best place for his £58m wonderkid was on the bench. Finally given a run in the first team, the former Monaco forward has proven his worth, with six of his eight goals this season earning points for the Red Devils.

Must Try Harder: Nemanja Matic

If Mourinho were the hero in a rom-com, Nemanja Matic would be Andrew Lincoln’s character in Love Actually. Sure, you think he’d do anything for you, but actually while you’re busy making yourself look batshit in press conferences, he’s in the mix-zone with an armful of placards that say “He’s doing my head in” and “Can’t wait for him to be gone, tbh”.

Much like the last time Jose was fired to the strains of Mud’s Lonely This Christmas, the Serbian midfielder has gone completely missing when his manager has needed him most. An outstanding performer last season, and earmarked as the missing piece in Mourinho’s Manchester United jigsaw, Matic’s efforts have dropped significantly this year, averaging 0.9 fewer interceptions per game, and 0.7 fewer tackles. His statuesque performances in the middle of the park have undoubtedly contributed to a marked increase in goals conceded.

Pre-Season Prediction: 6th
Revised Prediction: 6th
Solskjaer’s appointment was met with a wave of positivity from United supporters who, having been through two and a half years of painfully dull football, are just happy to see something – anything – different. In truth its impossible to say what’s going to unfold at Old Trafford in the second half of the season, but based on the new bosses debut in the crushing victory over Cardiff, the sacking of Mourinho may see an upturn in form from the likes of Pogba and Lukaku, and an unlikely push for the top four might be on the cards.

 

Newcastle United

For the rest of the country it’s lights on the high street, The Pogues on the radio and the Coca-Cola advert on television that signal the start of the festive season. For Newcastle United, it’s rumours of a takeover. Much like last season’s pantomime, where Amanda Staveley was definitely buying the club (OH NO SHE WASN’T!), Peter Kenyon and Garry Cook have emerged as the two figureheads of potential bids that are definitely not being used as a smokescreen by Mike Ashley to cover up a lack of investment in the January transfer window. No, siree.

The Toon Army, though, will be hoping for a Miracle on Barrack Road, as a new owner remains the last hope of hanging on to a manager that continues to work magic with the lowest budget in the league. After an abysmal start to the season that saw the Magpies fail to win any of their opening ten games, a run of four wins from seven has lifted them away from trouble heading into a tough set of fixtures over Christmas. With on-loan striker Salomon Rondon the only trusted source of goals, this is a squad in desperate need of new faces.

Top of the Class: Martin Dubravka
It took Martin Dubravka roughly thirty-five minutes to become a folk hero at St James Park, with a magnificent save from Anthony Martial on his debut helping Newcastle to a crucial 1-0 win over Manchester United that acted as a springboard to safety in the second half of last season. Signed on a permanent deal for £5m in a summer that saw Liverpool and Chelsea spend a combined £130m on their goalkeepers, the Slovakian might just prove one of the bargains of the season.

An accomplished shot-stopper and good with his feet, one wonders why it took until the age of 29 for Dubravka to be plucked from the relative obscurity of the Czech First League. With his match-winning performances this season already alerting Juventus, it mightn’t be long before the former Sparta Prague man is a household name across Europe.

Must Try Harder: Kenedy
Another player that impressed on loan last year, Kenedy returned to Newcastle on another short-term deal in the summer, and reminded supporters of his potential in an impressive display against Tottenham on the opening day. Since then, the Brazilian has sparkled in fits and starts, but more often than not has proven something of a liability. At Cardiff he was fortunate to avoid a red card, before missing a stoppage time penalty in a game that saw him go fifty minutes without completing a pass, before a reckless surge upfield against Wolves led to a late Matt Doherty winner that deprived the Magpies of a precious point. Clearly a player with bags of ability, Kenedy now finds himself at a crossroads, with the chances of him breaking into the first team at Chelsea looking slim. An impressive second half of the season could reignite interest from Bayern Munich and PSG, though on current form even Newcastle would think twice before making his move permanent.

Pre-Season Prediction: 15th 
Revised Prediction: 16th
Even with Rafa Benitez’s experience and tactical nous, Newcastle are one or two injuries away from full on crisis. A team lacking in goals and creativity, if Mike Ashley is serious about offloading the club at the highest possible price, he’d be foolish to risk a third relegation in his time as owner by failing to provide the tools to secure safety. The fans preference, of course, would be for him to take his Sports Direct signs and ride off into the sunset. Now that really would be a fairytale.

 

Southampton

Whilst it might take a Special One to be sacked in the lead-up to Christmas twice in one career, it takes a truly incompetent one to be sacked by two clubs in the same year. That Mark Hughes laid the foundations for Stoke City’s relegation last season and still ended up with a Premier League management gig come the end of it is proof if proof be needed that there is no such thing as karma. Thankfully cosmic order was restored after an start to the season so abysmal it had Southampton fans reminiscing about Mauricio Pellegrino’s time in charge.

With fire-fighter Hughes out of the picture, Saints have reverted to the previous model of appointing an exciting foreign coach who possesses something approaching a vision and can set up a team to score. Ralph Hasenhüttl cut his teeth in the lower reaches of German football, before promotion to the Bundesliga with Ingolstadt 04 saw him poached by newly-monied RB Leipzig. Having established Die Bullen as regular contenders for European football, he’s now charged with pulling the Saints away from relegation danger and, if the spectacular victory over Arsenal in his first home game is anything to go by, Southampton are going to be just fine.

Top of the Class: Danny Ings
Boyhood Saints fan Ings has required no extra motivation to succeed this season. Loaned from Liverpool after an injury-hit three years at Anfield, Ings has been charged with filling the goalscoring void left by the inconsistent Manolo Gabbiadini and perma-crocked Charlie Austin. Despite leading the line for a team desperately lacking in attacking quality, Ings has so far come up with the goods, with seven goals in twelve starts an impressive return for a striker in a relegation scrap. Provided he can stay fit, Ings could prove the difference for Southampton come the end of the season.

Must Try Harder: Jannik Vestergaard
Ostensibly signed as van Dijk’s replacement, Danish international Vestergaard arrived at St Mary’s with a big reputation following some impressive performances for Borussia Monchengladbach. Sadly, much like defensive partner Wesley Hoedt, his form has fallen off a cliff since moving the the south coast. Part of the fourth worst defence in the division, Vestergaard’s rick against Cardiff in a relegation six-pointer gifted Callum Paterson with the winning goal. With new manager Hasenhüttl not known for his defensive focus, it falls to Vestergaard to call upon his experience to shore things up at the back for Saints.

Pre-Season Prediction: 14th 
Revised Prediction: 15th
Under Hughes, Southampton were sleep walking to relegation, something that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago when Ronald Koeman was steering them to their highest league finish since 1985. Even in the early stages of his tenure Hasenhüttl appears to have summoned a little bit extra from his new squad and, if a certain England international’s deleted tweets are to be believed, he’s finally introduced a tactical plan to proceedings.

Tottenham Hotspur

Tottenham Hotspur’s manager, or Mauricio Pochettino (what has he ever won?) to give him his full name, continues to do a fine job under tight financial restrictions at the club. With an ongoing stadium fiasco the ideal excuse for a dip in form, Spurs remain consistently brilliant. Nine points better off than the same stage last season, having already played over half of their away games, Tottenham still have their fingertips on the coattails of the top two, all in spite of spending diddly-squat in the summer.

A crushing win at Old Trafford in August signaled Spurs’ intent to retain their top four status this season amidst talk of a resurgent Arsenal and Chelsea, and despite defeats to Liverpool, Manchester City and their North London rivals, inflicting Maurizio Sarri’s first defeat as Blues boss provided Tottenham supporters with another memorable night under Pochettino. Focus will now turn to finalising a move-in date for the new stadium, and with a run of home fixtures towards the end of the season, a surprise late title push isn’t entirely out of the question.

Top of the Class: Harry Kane
“The thing about Harry Kane is, he’s just a four-season wonder”. After an unexpectedly long and bruising World Cup campaign with England, Golden Boot winner Kane could’ve been forgiven for phoning it in just for a year. Instead, his scoring exploits have continued apace, with nine goals by Christmas falling just short of last season’s tally at the halfway point. With three assists – one more than in the entirety of last season – Kane continues to add to his game year on year, and his role as England captain has clearly impacted his leadership on the pitch for Spurs. Expect Kane to be in and around that top scorer spot come May.

Must Try Harder: Eric Dier
When Eric Dier first arrived at White Hart Lane he was that most unusual of players. Born in England, but trained on the continent. That implied glamour often meant that some of the weaknesses in Dier’s game were overlooked, whilst his ability as a ball-playing-yet-defensively-minded footballer was met with universal acclaim. Now the enchantment of Dier’s time in Portugal has worn off, the critics have begun to circle, and with good reason. In just a few short years, Dier appears to have been left behind. Not quick or combative enough to fill the role of a Kante, nor imposing enough to slot in as a van Dijk-esque marauding centre-back, the Essex-born midfielder is quickly spiralling into the football black hole of being labelled a ‘utility man’. Some abysmal performances in the league this season alongside his Billy Big Bollocks routine against Arsenal have exposed Dier’s limitations, and with Harry Winks emerging as a potential upgrade, his time at one of England’s top sides looks to be running out.

Pre-Season Prediction: 4th
Revised Prediction: 3rd
A club seemingly lost in transition, the stewardship of Pochettino has ensured limited damage to the good ship Hotspur in the past couple of years. It now falls to Daniel Levy to secure the Argentine’s services for the forseeable future if Spurs are to remain at English football’s top table. With Manchester United sniffing around, it’d be prudent for Tottenham’s supremo to act quickly.

 

 

Watford

WATTOT

The question we continually ask ourselves at TLF is ‘who are Watford?’. The only answer we’re so far able to come up with is that Watford are the team that will always scupper your accumulator. Backing them to put an end to Bournemouth’s good run? They lose 4-0. Expecting them to capitulate further in their next game against in-form Wolves? They win 2-0. There is simply no rhyme or reason to Watford, and for that we’re grateful.

By retaining the services of Javi Gracia and putting a handbrake on their usual scattergun approach to the transfer window, Watford finally have something of an identity. They’re often defensively unreliable. They’re a side full of endeavour. They can, on occasion, be a devastating attacking force. They’re a team full of players that should by plying their trade somewhere a little more glamorous. That they’re seventh with a goal difference of zero tells its own story. But where once they had the makings of a yo-yo club, there is now stability in fluidity.

Top of the Class: Ben Foster
For all the foreign imports from far flung corners of the globe, it’s been the return of Ben Foster that has cemented the Hornets position as an upper mid-table Premier League team. Foster spent two years on loan at Vicarage Road during his time at Manchester United, and was part of the promotion winning side of 2006 before establishing himself at West Bromwich Albion. Now into his prime goalkeeping years, Foster has brought calm to a defence where chaos once reigned. Alongisde three clean sheets, he’s played his part in reducing Watford’s deficit by eight goals from last season, and its clear his experience has breathed new confidence into Gracia’s backline.

Must Try Harder: Gerard Deulofeu
For comment on the expectations of former Barcelona players, see Andre Gomes. For an excuse as to why a player who’s recently scored is in the Must Try Harder category see Gabriel Jesus. For a mercurial winger full of pace and ability but with the knack of going missing at important moments, see Gerard Deulofeu. The Spaniard made a big impression on his Watford debut last season, tearing Antonio Conte’s Chelsea apart in the side’s most complete performance of the season. Earning a permanent move to Hertfordshire, the former Everton man has regressed to the mean, showing outstanding ability once in every five games before fading into the background weeks at a time. At 24, he’s still got time to fine-tune that obvious natural ability, and on form he could be the catalyst for a European push, but Gracia has a job on his hands to harness his inconsistent playmaker.

Pre-Season Prediction: 18th 
Revised Prediction: 11th
Oh what fools we were to doubt the Pozzo family. We’re still not entirely sure what their plan is, or even if they have one, but once they’d flown out of the traps at the start of the season, our relegation prediction looked as short-sighted and embarrassing as Elton John after one too many Snowballs. Watford are here to stay.

 

West Ham United

It’s unclear whether Manuel Pellegrini was aware that he’d signed up to manage a football team or joined a second-hand car dealership when he rocked up on the opening day of the season with the kind of bouffant not seen since Dirty Den handed Angie her divorce papers on Eastenders, but after a difficult start to the season for big-spenders West Ham, the Fucking Old Cunt appears to have weaved his magic in Stratford.

Whilst a win against Manchester United might have proven a false dawn, and a 4-0 thrashing at home against his former club Manchester City provided Pellegrini with one of the more uncomfortable afternoons of his career, a four game winning streak heading into the Christmas period has catapulted the Hammers into the top half. Big performances from summer signings, particularly defensive rock Issa Diop, have vindicated the Dildo Brothers, whilst the reborn Javier Hernandez and Robert Snodgrass have both played big parts in West Ham’s rejuvenation. A long-term injury to Marco Arnautovic is the one downer on a decent first half of the season, but with the volume turned up both inside the stadium and in Pellegrini’s hair, the boys from East London look like a team going places.

Top of the Class: Felipe Anderson
Tipped by many as a potential big-money flop, Felipe Anderson has undoubtedly taken time to adjust to his new surroundings, having arrived in the summer from Lazio for £35m. Now acclimatised to the English weather and a diet of jellied eels, Anderson is quickly filling the void left by Dmitri Payet two seasons ago. Not only blessed with typical Brazilian flair and an eye for the spectacular, Anderson’s work-rate has seen him singled out for praise, averaging 1.3 interceptions per game alongside his constant goal-threat. With six goals and two assists, he’s vital to West Ham’s success.

Must Try Harder: Jack Wilshere
There was one Englishman that won’t have spent the summer of 2018 enjoying the World Cup. Jack Wilshere, once vaunted as the saviour of English football, took to Twitter to express his dismay at being left out of Gareth Southgate’s squad following an extremely average season with Arsenal. A predictable move to West Ham should’ve been the platform for Wilshere to work his way back into Southgate’s reckoning, but as so often has been the case in the midfielder’s career, the best laid plans of mice and men have been totally shafted by injuries. Whilst its unfortunate that Wilshere continues to be dogged with fitness issues, the upturn in West Ham’s form in his absence is an uncomfortable coincidence. In four starts he’s yet to win a game in claret and blue.

Pre-Season Prediction: 7th
Revised Prediction: 8th
With a generous set of fixtures over the festive period, this is West Ham’s chance to put themselves in the running for that newly-cherished seventh spot in the table. It looks likely they’ll be pipped to the post by Everton come the end of the season, but finally the  Hammers are heading in the right direction.

 

Wolverhampton Wanderers

Returning to the Premier League after a six year absence, backed by the billions of Fosun International, and with an up-and-coming manager from the continent taking charge of a team chock-full of exciting talent from Portugal and beyond, its Wolverhampton Wanderers, Jim. But not as we know them. The men in gold made such an impressive start to the season that many had them pinned as the best promoted side in the Premier League era after just a handful of games. Putting the wild inaccuracies of this statement aside for just a second, Phil Neville and co. were made to look very silly when, weeks after that proclamation, Wolves embarked on a six game streak without a win, including defeats to strugglers Huddersfield and Cardiff.

Whilst its unlikely Nuno Espirito Santo’s side are going to come close to matching the feats of Newcastle in 1994 or Nottingham Forest in 1995, they have at least posted some impressive performances for a newly promoted side. The early season draw with Manchester City, which saw Wolves take the game to the champions, showed the fearlessness in the Molineux ranks. Draws at Old Trafford and the Emirates have impressed fans and neutrals alike, while the victory over Chelsea was breathtaking. The squad has strength in depth too, and the emergence of teenager Morgan Gibbs-White has been an unexpected boon.

Top of the Class: Matt Doherty
Making his debut in Wolves’ last relegation from the top flight, Irish full-back Doherty has slowly become a mainstay at Molineux as a reliable defensive option. Under Nuno, however, he’s flourished into an excellent wing-back. In the Portuguese’s fluid system, the wing-backs are given freedom to roam the flanks, and Doherty has taken full advantage, helping himself to three goals already this term. A naturally adept defender too, Doherty’s aerial ability has proven crucial for Wolves when facing set pieces, and his 95 successful aerial duels ranks among the best in the division.

Must Try Harder: Leo Bonatini
Arriving on loan from Saudi side Al-Hilal last season, little was known or expected from Brazilian forward Bontini, but his twelve goals played a massive part in helping Wolves run away with the Championship title. Having made his move to the Black Country permanent, Bonatini will have been dismayed to find Raul Jiminez arrive on loan from Benfica and immediately take his place in the starting line-up. Limited to just 130 minutes so far this season, clearly Nuno trusts his newly acquired Mexican to the former Estoril striker, and Bonatini will be hoping he can grab any opportunity thrown his way during the busy festive period.

Pre-Season Prediction: 8th
Revised Prediction: 10th
Not quite the best promoted side the Premier League has ever seen, nor ready for a push into the race for Europe, Wolves are at least building a foundation for an extended stay in the top flight. With Nuno, they have a tactically adept manager with fresh ideas, and thanks to the owners relationship with super-agent Jorge Mendes, the next big thing from overseas could be just a phone call away.

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