It was always going to be a strange Premier League season, straddled either side of the World Cup, and it is proving to be exactly that. Nobody saw Arsenal’s title charge coming. Who would have believed that as things stand, Fulham, Brighton & Hove Albion and Brentford have more combined points than Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Liverpool?
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At around the midway point in the campaign, Ian Darke provides half-term report cards complete with grades for all 20 clubs.
Arsenal | 1st in Premier League | A+
Gunners fans must feel they are about to wake up at any moment from a wonderful dream. Playing bright football and with the right mix of silk and steel, Arsenal have lost only once all season in the league. They show no signs of stopping, even with key striker Gabriel Jesus out until March. Martin Odegaard has to be on the shortlist for player of the season. Can they now pass the test of nerves that lies ahead, starting with the Manchester United clash on Sunday?
Aston Villa | 11th in Premier League | B-
Four wins out of six since Unai Emery took over from Steven Gerrard. The Spanish manager’s career record suggests he was not given a fair crack at Arsenal, and it might be that he has the key to get a better tune from a gifted group at Villa Park, especially if he can tighten up a defence that does not keep too many clean sheets. A charge into European contention has to be the aim.
Brentford | 8th in Premier League | A-
Seven games unbeaten, winning four of their past five, the remarkable Brentford story gathers pace. Liverpool and Manchester United have felt their force. With the Bees’ excellent manager Thomas Frank signing a new deal, could “the bus stop in Hounslow” become a European venue? One worry is a potential long-term ban for star man Ivan Toney, who is facing allegations of placing more than 200 bets on football.
Brighton & Hove Albion | 7th in Premier League | A-
Under Roberto De Zerbi, the Seagulls are now adding goals to their attractive football. They have scored 12 times in their past four games. European football is a realistic possibility for the first time in the club’s history. No wonder World Cup winner Alexis Mac Allister is in no hurry to leave.
Gary O’Neil did a superb job when first stepping in as caretaker manager, so much so that he was given the job permanently. The wheels have come off, though, with nine defeats in ten games, and the Cherries have failed to score in their past five matches while their defence is making way too many errors. They need to pull out of the nosedive, and fast.
Chelsea | 10th in Premier League | D+
Out of both domestic cups and way off the pace in the Premier League, this is a big test of the patience of Chelsea’s new owner Todd Boehly, who has spent £415 million on players in a matter of months. They have taken nine of the past 30 points available as new manager Graham Potter adapts to operating at a big club with bigger expectations amid a mounting injury list. The squad is in transition, and this might be a rare fallow year at Stamford Bridge, but Potter deserves time.
Crystal Palace | 12th in Premier League | C+
Losing their way a little with four defeats in six games, midtable seems to be the best Palace can achieve this season. There is undoubtedly more flair in the team these days with Ebere Eze and Michael Olise supporting Wilfried Zaha, but the blend does not look right and scoring goals is a problem, especially away from home. They lack a little of the backbone of Roy Hodgson’s teams.
Everton | 19th in Premier League | D
In serious danger of losing the top-flight status they have held since 1954, the Toffees have taken just one point from their past six games, remarkably in a fighting 1-1 draw at Manchester City. A toxic atmosphere pervades Goodison Park, although the discontent is aimed mostly at owner Farhad Moshiri rather than manager Frank Lampard. Everton moved on from their best forward in Richarlison this past summer, replacing him with Neal Maupay, who has scored just once since his arrival.
Fulham | 6th in Premier League | A-
Marco Silva has done a remarkable job at Craven Cottage in not only getting Fulham promoted, but now challenging for a top-six place. The midfield power of Joao Palhinha has been a key addition while players like American veteran Tim Ream, Andreas Pereira and the shrewdly acquired Willian provide great backup to the goals of a sharper and leaner Aleksandar Mitrovic. Keeper Bernd Leno has been outstanding, too. Fulham have changed divisions in each of the past five years. They won’t this time.
Leeds United | 14th in Premier League | C+
Probably among the best teams to watch in England, unless you happen to support them. Every game seems like a nervy, wild, roller coaster ride, with goals galore barring a surprising 0-0 at Newcastle United. Coach Jesse Marsch has gone public in saying he finds the experience on the sideline tough. Leeds carry enough pace and threat to believe they will stay up again, especially with breakout star Wilfried Gnonto, but they need to stop the nasty habit of conceding at least twice per game.
Leicester City | 15th in Premier League | D-
Seemed to be recovering from an awful start until the World Cup came along. Since then, playing without the injured James Maddison, the Foxes have lost all four league games, scoring only once. Money is tight and so additions will be modest. This is a Leicester side featuring an ageing Jamie Vardy unable to provide the goals he did so magnificently for years. They look too good to go down, but we have heard that before.
Liverpool | 9th in Premier League | D+
A bitterly disappointing season, only partly rescued by the fact that Jurgen Klopp’s team are still alive in the FA Cup and have a mouthwatering Champions League clash with Real Madrid ahead. It seems that last season’s bold bid to win the quadruple has taken its toll on levels of energy and intensity this season. Injuries to Luis Diaz and Diogo Jota have not helped, while Darwin Nunez has been hit and miss in front of goal, but most worrying has been a wide-open midfield offering no screening to a defence that is leaking goals.
Manchester City | 2nd in Premier League | B+
Champions in four of the past five seasons, there is a feeling that winning the elusive Champions League crown might become the main focus this season. City have gone off the boil a little of late, being held at home by Everton and losing contentiously at Old Trafford. Erling Haaland is running away with the Golden Boot race — imagine how many more he might have scored if City had played more to his strengths. This is still a very strong squad that will pounce on any slip by Arsenal.
Manchester United | 3rd in Premier League | B+
Foiled by Crystal Palace in midweek as they sought a 10th successive win, Erik ten Hag has nonetheless effected a revolution at United, who are unrecognisable from last season’s shambolic outfit. His tough handling of Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcus Rashford sent messages that players must respect the shirt and the club. Some sort of silverware looks very much on the cards this season, and they are in the conversation for the Premier League crown if they can avoid defeat at Arsenal on Sunday. The Europa League knockout-round tie against Barcelona next month will be another acid test of how far this team have come.
Newcastle United | 4th in Premier League | A-
Unbeaten in 14 Premier League games since their only defeat at Liverpool, these are heady days for the Toon. At the heart of their bid for a Champions League place is a defence that has conceded only twice in the past 10 games. Sven Botman, a £35m signing from Lille, has been particularly impressive, even if the goals have dried up a little of late. In a year when Liverpool and Chelsea have underperformed, Eddie Howe’s team can clinch a top-four place.
Looked to have signed too many players and struggled badly in the autumn, but Steve Cooper has welded a reasonably settled team now, with the creative talents of Morgan Gibbs-White starting to flourish and Brennan Johnson and Ryan Yates finding their feet in the Premier League. From looking like relegation certainties earlier this season, they have gone six unbeaten at home and could scramble clear.
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Steve Nicol believes Frank Lampard should be worried for his future after Everton’s loss to Southampton.
Southampton | 20th in Premier League | C-
The Saints were in freefall not long ago and fans were telling new manager Nathan Jones, “You don’t know what you’re doing,” but two cup wins and a victory at Everton inspired by James Ward-Prowse has changed the mood. This is still a flaky, erratic team, though, and it will be a close-run thing at the end of the season.
Tottenham Hotspur | 5th in Premier League | B-
Relations between manager Antonio Conte and chairman Daniel Levy seem frosty. Do the players wonder if Conte is on his way? If so, that can impact performances. Son Heung-min has lost his form this season, and the team have trailed at half-time in nine of 19 games. Spurs badly need to get Rodrigo Bentancur fit and firing in midfield, yet despite the frustrations, the north Londoners are still fighting on three fronts and there is a suspicion that there is a better team waiting to get out.
West Ham have won more games in the obscure Europa Conference League than the Premier League, in which they have lost six of their past seven. The pressure is growing on manager David Moyes, who got a rough ride from fans after the latest defeat at Wolves. Jarrod Bowen looks a shadow of last season’s star, Gianluca Scamacca and Lucas Paqueta have not really fired yet, Tomas Soucek has lost his way in midfield and everyone knows this is Declan Rice’s final season in east London. The Hammers are in a relegation fight.
Signs of a pulse since Julen Lopetegui took over with seven points out of twelve, but Wolves are still the lowest scorers in the division. The arrivals of Matheus Cunha and Pablo Sarabia might well pep up their attack and improve a fairly dreadful away record. Never below 13th since they were promoted, they would take 17th this time.