So, the mad Christmas/ New Year fixture pile up is over, managers have had their moan about the strains it puts on the players (they have a point) and attention turns, briefly, to the FA Cup, where most Premier League clubs will field at least half a reserve team against doughty opponents from the lower divisions.
Time to take stock of those Premier League 2017-18 predictions!
We’re 22 games in, so a bit more than halfway through the 38 game season. But with the Christmas fog clearing, there’s a sharper picture.
And we must start with Man City. They were my tip to win the league, and right now, they are looking unstoppable. They are playing football that is on a different level to everyone else. After an awkward first season, Pep Guardiola has adapted his Barcelona template to the Premier League, and has his team playing in the style to which he is accustomed – the blaugrana way. And it is a joy to watch, especially when de Bruyne and Silva weave their magic in midfield, ably assisted by perhaps the surprise success in the City team, Raheem Sterling. Pep has done something for his confidence in front of goal, and he just can’t stop scoring. Aguero, Sane and Jesus – the three on rotation – have weighed in with their fair share of goals too, often tap-ins, after the aforementioned three have carved up the opposition defence with their incisive passing and movement. Yes, Manchester City are a pleasure to behold at the moment.
It’s not just the attack though. Guardiola bought well in defence too. Kyle Walker is a good asset bombing forward (as Mendy was until he got injured) but the key signing was the Brazilian goalkeeper, Ederson. He has been outstanding, and brave, when called upon. And that gives the whole defence confidence, even though Vincent Kompany has missed most of the season, and may be reaching the point when his time is up.
So, City are 15 points clear at this stage, have scored 64 goals in 22 games and have a goal difference of 51. They have not yet lost a game, and until they drew 0-0 with Palace, had won 18 games in a row. Remarkable statistics – so are they invincible? Can any team hope to catch them? I’d say the answers to both those questions is no. Someone will beat them – Palace almost did. But, unless injuries ravage the team, I can’t see any of their rivals wiping out that 15 point gap. And I daresay Pep will strengthen the squad further this month, starting with a new centre back – money is no object.
Second, in both my predictions and the current table, are City’s grumpy neighbours, Man Utd. Manager Jose Mourinho seems especially tetchy. He knows his mega-spending, and his management, have not been good enough to keep pace with the blue side of Manchester. His tactics look very out-of-date. The Guardian had an interesting article recently, suggesting that Mourinho’s notorious “third season syndrome”, when he falls out with the players and the club after initial success, has come a season early. His first season was satisfactory for starters, winning the League Cup and Europa Cup, the latter of which gave United a place in the Champions League, which they couldn’t command with their league position. But this was meant to be the season when it all fell into place. It hasn’t. They have been unlucky that Pogba has been out for long periods with injury – he has looked very good when fit, a real all-round midfield powerhouse. Lukaku has looked strong at times up front, but clueless at others. He needs more support up front. Overall, there still seems to be a lack of creativity and, at times, ambition in the team. Classic Mourinho traits when under pressure. May it stay that way.
The rest of the top six is in line with my predictions (no great insight from me there!) although only Spurs are in the place I expected – 5th. Arsenal have underachieved for all the usual reasons: great going forwards at times but with a tendency to over-elaboration; and comical in defence, especially early on in games. The 3-1 home defeat to Man Utd summed up the season. An amazing game, which they should have won about 7-1. De Gea played a blinder in goal for United, and Arsenal dropped some dreadful clangers in defence. Will it ever change? Not under Wenger, I suspect. Will they finish better than the current 6th? They can, but I don’t say that with any conviction. One silver lining in the cloud is the return to fitness and form of Jack Wilshere. He has been outstanding in recent games, bossing midfield in a way we haven’t seen for 2-3 years. Could be good for England’s World Cup prospects, too, if he can stay in one piece. Good on ya, Jack!
Chelsea have been unspectacular, but a bit better than I expected. Morata has been a success up front, though he fluffed a lot of chances in recent games, including the mighty Hammers’ 1-0 victory over them. Cesc Fabregas has been elegant in midfield when he starts – he could add to any team in the league, except perhaps, City, who expect even their artists to defend from the front, Barca style. And Liverpool are good to watch going forward – a real Klopp team now. They are second highest scorers with 50 goals, and Salah has been sensational. I’m not sure even Klopp realised he was buying such a prolific goalscorer. Some of Liverpool’s defending has been Arsenal quality, which is why Klopp has spent an unbelievable £75m on Dutch defender, Virgil van Dijk. Previous clubs: Groningen, Celtic, Southampton. He’s got some stepping up to do, but if he tightens that Liverpool defence, I can see them challenging seriously for third or even second place. The cloud on the horizon is the likely loss of Coutinho to Barcelona, so they will need to spend big on a good replacement, both to keep the fans happy and to sustain their promise. Spurs have looked very good at times, but had a bit of a wobble before Christmas, and lost a bit of ground. They seem to have overcome the Wembley nerves now, but I wonder whether they have enough depth in the squad, especially in attacking positions. They are still highly dependent on Harry Kane for goals. He’s doing the business for sure, but he does get injured from time-to-time. I think 5th feels about right for this season.
Perhaps the biggest flop of the season has been Everton. They spent a lot of money in the summer, and I thought they’d bought well. I had them 7th. Some people thought they could break into the top six. Manager Ronald Koeman was highly rated, and viewed by some as Wenger’s natural successor at Arsenal. The fly in the ointment was that they didn’t really replace Lukaku effectively. Rooney has scored a few, but not enough to compensate for the loss of their main striker. And it all went belly up; so badly in fact, that Koeman was sacked, and Big Sam, speciality avoiding relegation, was brought in. He’s doing the job and they are now 9th, though still only 7 points off the bottom three. So they can’t afford to relax.
Aaah, the best of the rest, I said. The happy Hammers. Settling in to the London stadium, after a difficult first season there. Some decent summer purchases. All was looking rosy. Wrong! They got off to a bad start and never looked likely to recover under Slaven Bilic, who looked increasingly forlorn at games. It’s hard to say what the low point was – there were so many. But losing 3-0 at home to Brighton must be in contention. Sadly, Slav’s departure was inevitable. I, and most West Ham fans, liked him. He had a great first season, and last season was bound to be a transition. He was passionate and articulate. But he seemed to lose the ability to give the team shape, both defensively and in attack. Confidence waned and the players didn’t seem to be playing for each other. Record signing Arnautovic was a disaster, and seemingly a red card always waiting to happen. I was readying myself for the prospect of watching a Championship team play in the London Stadium, the home of the 2012 Olympics! The Board’s solution was to hire David Moyes, deemed a failure at Man Utd (unfairly, I thought), Real Sociedad and Sunderland. The fans were mostly negative, but I felt it might be a shrewd appointment. He was a real success at Everton, building a solid, but also quite entertaining team on a pretty low budget. And he had something to prove after recent failures. It was worth the gamble I thought. A point against Leicester in his first match. OK. But then a truly abject performance away to Everton, who were in the depths of despair, and had just been thrashed by Southampton. Nothing like playing West Ham to revive your fortunes! The R-word was uttered again. But then, a transformation. Away to Man City. I feared a bloodbath. I checked the odds on a 6-0 City win. A miserly 18 to 1. City were 9 to 1 on to win! I watched the game with friends in the pub, including two City fans. West Ham started superbly. Defensive discipline, hard pressing, and a well-taken goal. 1-0 up at half time. In the second half City started to weave their Barca magic. West Ham started to tire and eventually conceded two. But they had a great chance to equalise near the end, which they didn’t take. So they lost, but emerged with great credit. And since then it has been mostly good, with that magnificent win against Chelsea, a 3-0 away win at Stoke and creditable draws against Arsenal and Spurs. They now have a run of games against teams in a similar position to them (15th right now, but only five points behind Everton). They must take advantage. Or the drop could still be in prospect.
The surprised success of the season has been Burnley. They currently lie 7th ; I had them down for relegation! Their defence and home form has been the foundation. Sean Dyche has them playing with real discipline. Simple, old style football. Not pretty, but very effective when done well. They have only scored 19 goals (West Ham have 25), but have only conceded 19 too. So a 1-0 or 0-0 is most likely what you get when you watch Burnley. I’m sure their fans are happy. Their biggest challenge might be holding on to their manager, who gets mentioned whenever a Premier League coach gets the boot. I’m not sure they’ll sustain their form at the current level, but a top ten finish looks a reasonable prospect.
Credit too to Huddersfield, who I confidently predicted would finish rock bottom. They have a very good manager. David Wagner, and play with real passion. They’ve been tonked a couple of times, but beat Man Utd for the first time since 1952, and have maintained pretty good home form. I think they could slide as the season wears on, but they keep on getting results. Crunch game next week against West Ham at the John Smith’s stadium. If the Irons win (a big if) they will go above th’ Udders – it’s a dogfight for all the teams in the bottom half. Four points separate Huddersfield in 11th from Stoke in 18th.
Six Premier League managers have lost their jobs this season – a third of the total. A poor start, still wobbling in December: you have to go, so a new manager gets to spend whatever transfer funds are available in the January window. The first sacking was Frank de Boer at Crystal Palace, after four straight defeats in the league. I said in my predictions that “Palace may benefit from the management skills of Frank de Boer – or else they will be so baffled by his Dutch sophistication they’ll be relegated!” It was looking like the latter, so off he went, replaced by underwhelming ex-England manager, Roy Hodgson. He had a poor start – the defeats continued – but he has slowly turned it around, after an intial victory against Chelsea, of all teams. Palace now lie 14th, on the same points, 22, as West Ham. So, well done Roy.
Who will be the seventh casualty? Bookies favourite is Mark Hughes, at Stoke: 5 to 1 on! They are on a terrible run, and he seems at a loss. The fans seem to have turned against him. Stoke have a knack of clawing their way back up the table after a wobble, so will they just do that again? Quite possibly, but if I were a Stoke fan, I’d be very worried right now. Likewise West Brom. New manager Alan Pardew hasn’t been able to turn things round yet, since taking over from Tony Pulis. He could run out of time. I’m a bit surprised about West Brom’s fate. I thought Pulis would keep them solid mid-table. Boring, but effective. But they hit a bad run and couldn’t break out of it. Good news for West Ham, I guess.
So, on the predictions front, I’ll keep my top six, with City to the fore. Liverpool higher than 6th, and Arsenal lower than 3rd. As for relegation, I’ll stick with Swansea and (just about) Huddersfield, but add West Brom, in place of Burnley. And keep my fingers crossed that David Moyes has permanently rediscovered his Evertonian muse…
Team to watch in the second half of the season? How about Leicester? As long as they hold on to Mahrez.