TOTOCC News Premier League state of play: Contenders, pretenders, more

Premier League state of play: Contenders, pretenders, more

The Premier League resumed play barely a week and a half ago, and we’ve already seen some plot twists and increased drama. The title race is shaping up to be a tight, two-team race, a usurper is barging its way into Champions League talk, Chelsea are growing more listless by the day and nearly half the league is enveloped in relegation anxiety. Oh, and we’ve still got almost five months to go.

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In case you’ve only just begun to ease yourself back into club soccer life, Bill Connelly and James Tyler are here to lay out some of the races and stakes in England that we’ll be talking about pretty much nonstop over the weeks and months to come.

Let’s start with the obvious: Are Arsenal really going to do this? Are Manchester City still the favorites despite their seven-point deficit?

Tyler: Allow me to begin this in simple fashion. No, Arsenal really aren’t going to do this.

I say this for two main reasons: Man City are Michael Myers and Erling Haaland is Freddy Krueger. They are a nightmare lurking further down the table, persistent and unflinching in fulfilling their missions. While things look great for Gunners fans right now — look at us, five points clear! In January! — City simply won’t stop grinding out results and Haaland doesn’t seem especially bothered by obstacles in his path to goal.

Equally, you have the fact that Man City have been here several times in recent years, never once flinching in the face of having to chase down a plucky league leader. Twice, they hauled back to Liverpool after the Reds built up significant leads, benefiting on both occasions from a game in hand that Pep Guardiola’s side seized upon. Meanwhile, Arsenal haven’t been here in a generation and will be all too aware of the historical forces and factors against them. They’re a young team that’s perhaps peaking too early under Mikel Arteta who, to his credit, has been consistent in his vision and has flourished as manager thanks to support from above.

If the Gunners can’t win it this year, they can certainly stay in that mix next season.

Connelly: The best thing I can say about Arsenal’s chances is that they’ve already lasted far longer than I expected them to atop the table, so my opinions might not be particularly accurate here. With no knowledge of the history of these two teams, there’s really no reason to doubt the Gunners at the moment. They thumped West Ham United and Brighton & Hove Albion after the restart, and I think their 0-0 draw with Newcastle United said far more about the Magpies than it does them. (Newcastle are good, is what it said.)

This team has developed beautifully, and they don’t appear to be shying from the moment. Meanwhile, City drew with floundering Everton last weekend! That’s not great!

Oh, but I’m still picking City. Of course I am. They’re five points back and we’re only now hitting the midway point of the season. That they still have both of their matches against each other remaining is intriguing — Arsenal can build plenty of margin for error by splitting the points in those — but City have won four of the past five titles and added the best pure scorer in the world in August. I’m going to assume they win the title right up until they are mathematically eliminated.

(Yes, I’m going to be kind and just ignore the mixed movie references above. It did lead to me googling “Michael Myers Freddy Krueger same movie” earlier, however, so congratulations on that. And no, it doesn’t appear they’ve been in the same full-length movie. A missed opportunity there.)

If we assume Arsenal and City get two of the league’s four Champions League slots, who gets the other two?

Connelly: Former ESPN college basketball analyst Digger Phelps was famous for basically saying that everyone on the bubble for getting into the NCAA tournament would get in. Add them up, and he’d have had about 80 teams in the 68-team field at any given time.

I feel like a Champions League Digger at the moment. Arsenal and City are obviously in. Liverpool and Chelsea? They’ll bounce back. They’re in. Manchester United seem like they are getting themselves together nicely. They’re in. Newcastle have given us no reason to doubt them this year. They’re in.

Tottenham Hotspur? They’ve shown nice resilience this year, and they still have Harry Kane, Son Heung-min and Antonio Conte. They’re in. On the right day, I might feel like Brighton are in, too. They’ve been so steady!

So that’s eight teams definitely claiming four spots. Not sure I’m going to be right about that one. But FiveThirtyEight’s odds are almost as noncommittal — Arsenal (96% chance) and City (95%) are almost definitely in, but three more teams (United, Liverpool and Newcastle) are between 49% to 59% and three more are between 12% to 24%! This is an absolute mess! A glorious mess, but a mess!

We’ll see what happens in the transfer window — whether Liverpool actually add a midfielder (or just go for another six attackers or something) or Chelsea actually figure out their attack — but at the moment I feel like I trust Newcastle and Manchester United the most. And that feels very strange to say.

Tyler: OK, I’m finally wondering if Liverpool are indeed cooked. I shouldn’t say this out loud, but their vulnerabilities are ever-present in games, every opponent attack looks like it’s going to end in a high-quality chance on goal and they continue to make things more difficult by conceding first. Seriously: they’ve given up the first goal 13 times in 26 games this season (all competitions) and there’s only so much hero ball you can play over 90 minutes to avoid dropping points.

Control is everything in soccer — whether it’s how much you possess the ball, or how organized you are without it — and Liverpool just lack any sense of serenity. Brazil 1982 were fun to watch because they would always concede goals, but with the confidence of a team that can always score one more than you. In the modern era, you can’t keep being 1-0 or 2-1 down with 30 minutes left and expect to find a similar magic. (Lest we forget, too: they needed a header from their goalkeeper in the 94th minute to beat West Brom a couple of years ago, which is how they managed to secure fourth place and Champions League football last season.)

They haven’t been quite as unfortunate with injuries as they were that season — and a few weeks without Virgil van Dijk right now might actually help — but the malaise will continue. Teams know that the Reds are at a low ebb and can be beaten; no fear factor, no good.

OK, so I’m ruling Liverpool out and I think Man United are certainly IN because they have an absence of drama, Erik ten Hag has ironed out a lot of the incompetence and the players who remain after Tropical Storm Ronaldo are happier than ever. I think Newcastle are OUT: too many draws, still a squad reliant on its first string staying fit and until they really start spending, well, how many incredible games can you get from Dan Burn before the magic runs dry? (No offense: the Magpies are a legitimate force now and are firmly in the mix from here on out.)

Who am I picking for fourth? I’m going to regret it, but I’ll go with Tottenham. While Conte’s incessant “give me more quality signings or I’ll go back to Serie A” routine is grating on fans at the moment, the results are there, Kane is back in form, there are signs that Son is trending that way as well and there’s a competency in their defending that you need at the top end of the table. They ain’t perfect, but they get results.

Connelly: It does stand to reason that if Son is suddenly full-on Son again, Spurs might stop always falling behind in matches. But I’m sticking with the Magpies, which is just incredible considering I was predicting them to go down a year ago.

Who finishes higher in the table: Manchester United or Chelsea?

Connelly: I guess I gave away my answer above. At this point, I just trust United to score. Even if or when Marcus Rashford cools off — what a run he’s on of late — they’ve got two of the league’s most creative string-pullers (Bruno Fernandes and Christian Eriksen) working relatively well together, and they’re sixth in the league in xG created.



Erik ten Hag reflects on the progression of his Man United side after their 3-0 win over Bournemouth.

Chelsea are 13th. No one has more than four goals or two assists in league play, and while the individual talent is obviously there, it’s hard to tell how long it might take for things to click. United have a seven-point cushion on them at the moment, and I feel for now like it will hold up.

Tyler: This might be the easiest question, but also the most fun!

Poor Chelsea. They’re bad. Vibes are bad. They can’t score. They don’t score. They have a lot of players of a similar profile (more winger/attacking midfield types than any PL team) that aren’t in form, Graham Potter is still doing his homework on this squad, there’s no sense of fluency and at some point, all the dropped points in the first half of the campaign mean anything less than perfection is required to catch up. The gaps aren’t closing.

Title race aside, who’s the most purely interesting team in the league to you right now?

Tyler: How the hell are Fulham in seventh? How are West Ham 17th? The table has plenty of pleasant incongruities approaching the midway point of the season, but I think the most interesting team to me, still, is Leeds United. (Though I should shout out Brentford and Brighton, both of whom have perfect vibes and no fear.)

Ryan O’Hanlon wrote about the wild variance kind of being the point of Leeds under Jesse Marsch, and that’s why I find them so intriguing: every game is 4-3 or 3-2, Leeds are often on the wrong end of those score lines, but their football is full of vim and chaos and in an era when coaches try to strategize for such randomness, Leeds go the other way and lean in. They’ve only had three 1-0 games all season (all competitions), and two 0-0 draws (New Year’s Eve vs. Newcastle and vs. Aston Villa in October). They’ve beaten Chelsea 3-0 and beat Liverpool at Anfield. They’ve conceded five goals to Brentford, they’ve rallied from 3-1 down to beat Bournemouth 4-3 and they’ve turned a 3-2 lead at Spurs into a 4-3 defeat.

You don’t know what you’re going to get when you watch Leeds. I covet that. I feel bad for their fans, but it’s tremendous content.

Connelly: I desperately wish the ownership story wasn’t such a downer because otherwise I would be all over Newcastle right now. Their net spend is really no different than that of England’s Big Six, or even West Ham, but they have gone from on the brink of relegation to the brink of the Champions League in 12 months. They have made a series of successful transfers, and Eddie Howe’s got them playing almost the exact kind of anti-possession ball that had me fascinated in the World Cup.

We don’t know everything we need to know about their depth or staying power, but what they’ve done to this point is statistically legit. They’ve been one of the four best teams in England, and their presence there would mean one fewer member of the Big Six reaching the Champions League.

There are eight teams within three points of the relegation zone at the moment. Who’s going down?

Connelly: Bournemouth had things going for a minute — they pulled 10 points from a six-match unbeaten streak in September and October — but their underlying numbers were always bad, and they seem committed to dropping like a rock now.

After that, I figure Nottingham Forest and Southampton are most likely. Forest are obviously in bad shape, and five months into the season they’re still playing like a team that needs name tags and play sheets for everyone to get on the same page. I haven’t completely given up on them because I think their individual talent level is still really solid (and because I am an unabashed Taiwo Awoniyi fan), and their Wednesday win over Southampton was of immense importance, but their odds still aren’t great (43%), per FiveThirtyEight. Southampton’s current skid certainly makes them solid candidates, too.

All three of these teams have to feel encouraged, however, by the simple fact that they’ve got company. Everton cannot build momentum, and Wolverhampton Wanderers seem to get worse every time they write a giant, new transfer check. Leicester City pulled themselves to relative safety before the World Cup break but have gone back to looking wobbly. Leeds … even West Ham … there isn’t a lot that would surprise me by how this plays out.

Tyler: I would love to see some giants (Everton, West Ham) go down and keep the Premier League looking fresh/random in 2023-24, but I think two of the positions are locked in already. Wolves are a revolving door of turmoil and indifferent form, while Southampton have used up their great escapes in seasons past: much like with Liverpool, you can only dig out so many times before your shovel breaks or you injure yourself. The Saints’ schedule is generous for a while — and return fixtures against the likes of Man United, Spurs, Arsenal and Man City are spread out over March and April — but Che Adams, Theo Walcott and James “Set Pieces” Ward-Prowse don’t produce enough attacking power to stay up.

As for that third spot, I root for chaos but I think it’ll be Bournemouth. You need goals to stay up and they’re conceding twice as much as they’re scoring. Their final five games include Leeds, Chelsea and Man United. They benefit from a crowded crop of clubs around them all struggling to get results, but unless there’s a January push for some proven forwards, it’s hard to see it making much of a difference.

That said, there’s a lovely bit of poetry in that their final game is Everton away. Wouldn’t it be cool if that were essentially a one-game playoff to stay up?


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