Gregg Evans, Carl Anka and more
With almost a third of the Premier League season complete, the table has taken on a largely familiar look.
But there has also been a chaotic element to matches in recent weeks, notably Chelsea’s 4-4 draw with Manchester City at the weekend and their incident-packed 4-1 win over Tottenham Hotspur six days before.
As players head off around the world for the final international break of 2023, what is the state of play in the Premier League and what does it tell us about what is to come once the players return?
Carl Anka, Gregg Evans, Stuart James, Jacob Whitehead, Oliver Kay and Nick Miller have the answers…
Will Manchester City definitely win the title and who is most likely to stop them?
Anka: I feel like this question indirectly asks you to pick a winner for the 12.30 kick-off between Manchester City and Liverpool when the Premier League returns after the international break. It would be foolish to say the title race is over if City win at the Eithad on November 25, but *honks clown nose* my schoolteachers (and the comments section) have never been reluctant in calling me a fool.
I fear the City steamroller is powering up again. Arsenal have opted for greater functionality this season and will be a stronger force because of it, but are missing a couple of extra goals in the squad, while Liverpool are just missing an extra inch of something.
Evans: It’s already looking ominous as City sit top of the pile and continue to grind through the gears, scoring goals for fun.
This is familiar territory for Pep Guardiola’s side. In control, even with a few slip-ups early into the season, yet not far away enough for others to give up hope of catching them. It’s just how they seem to like it.
I don’t think anyone will stop them. Liverpool have the best chance but are still lacking consistency in defence. Arsenal may have beaten City this season but there’s a long way to go and they need to show up more often away from home, as results on the road have dipped.
Can Liverpool sustain their challenge to Manchester City? This is what could decide it
James: It doesn’t feel like a foregone conclusion but you can kid yourself into thinking there’s a vulnerability about City that wasn’t there this time last year. Actually, they had only one more point on the board at this stage and were soon to lose their second game of the season.
From February, City went on a 12-match winning streak, and they are capable of doing that again. The big question is whether the rest of the runners and riders are stronger — Arsenal definitely are on paper and I get a sense Liverpool are going under the radar a little. Three-horse race.
Whitehead: Disappointingly (for the sake of narrative), yes. City have already weathered their customary early season wobble of — thumbs through crisis book — two consecutive league defeats and unsurprisingly look improved since spending £211million (£172m) in the summer window.
The addition of Jeremy Doku, in particular, has given them a further dimension in attack, like adding a warp-speed button to a car already decked out like one of James Bond’s escape vehicles.
They have won 24 of their last 25 home matches across all competitions — and they historically only get stronger as seasons continue. The only impediment is an Erling Haaland injury — and if that happens, Arsenal are best placed to challenge.
Kay: Not definitely, no. Arsenal or Liverpool, or possibly both, could push them all the way. But those two teams desperately need to keep up their momentum. Manchester City are the one team who, even if they have a sticky patch, will still fancy themselves to last the course. Last season, they didn’t really hit their stride until February — and look how it turned out.
Miller: Yes, alas. Which isn’t said because of any particular agenda, but a bit of variety would be nice. We’ve all been tricked into thinking they won’t win it before, so I’m not going to make that mistake again. The only team to have got the better of them in the past six seasons was that absolute juggernaut of a Liverpool team.
There are a few decent challengers to them this time, but no juggernauts.
What will the final top four look like?
Anka: Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool (razor-thin gap between second and third) and Tottenham in fourth.
Tottenham will finish this season’s top scorers. Injuries to Micky van de Ven and James Maddison will have them fall away from the title race, but they should have enough to out-scrap Manchester United, Chelsea and the rest for that fourth spot.
For what it’s worth, every team in the top eight as it is now will remain there come the end of the season — sorry West Ham and Chelsea fans.
Evans: Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Aston Villa
It feels relatively easy to predict the top three — City, Liverpool and Arsenal are the three outstanding teams in the division. So let’s have a closer look at Villa and why they are good enough to break into the top four.
First of all, there are only three teams who have picked up more points than Villa since Unai Emery took control a little over a year ago. No prizes for guessing who they are.
Villa’s home form is also formidable: 13 wins in a row is special and seeing off lower-to-middle-ranked sides has turned into light work. They have a clear identity but can also call on individual brilliance from Moussa Diaby, Ollie Watkins, and John McGinn if a moment of magic outside of the well-drilled system is needed. Giving the big boys a run for their money will be the real test.
James: Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal, in that order. Fourth place is interesting. Chelsea have too much ground to make up. Newcastle’s squad depth is thin. Manchester United are all over the place. All of which leaves Spurs and Villa. Before last Monday’s wild game against Chelsea, I’d definitely have said Spurs. Actually, I still will say Spurs, since playing European football could catch up with Villa in the second half of the season.
Whitehead: Manchester City, Arsenal, and Liverpool for the top three.
Tottenham are my favourites for the other spot, but their true credentials will only become clear as they weather two months without Maddison and Van de Ven.
Newcastle are exhausted and injured — but could come good once players return and the Champions League group stage ends — while Villa’s successive matches against City and Arsenal in early December will be an acid test of their ambition.
Tottenham, with the fewest commitments and best good-time vibes, are my pick for fourth.
Kay: Very much like the current top four. Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool… and then a gap with a cluster of four or five teams scrapping for fourth. I’ll say Tottenham, despite this spate of injuries, since they a) have more points in the bag and b) don’t have the burden of European football.
Miller: Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Aston Villa.
Arsenal and Liverpool are the most likely to push City, and then there’s a melange of clubs scrapping for fourth place (although fifth might be enough for a Champions League spot too). All have their flaws, all have their strengths, but for the sake of novelty, and just because they’re really good fun, I’ll say Villa to finish fourth.
The first manager to get the sack will be…
Anka: The last time you asked me this question, I said Andoni Iraola was a good manager who arrived at the wrong point in Bournemouth’s cycle. Wins over Burnley and Newcastle seem to have steadied the ship. Another Bournemouth victory after the international break could put Paul Heckingbottom’s job at Sheffield United in serious doubt.
Evans: Erik ten Hag. There’s nothing to like about Manchester United right now and that usually paves the way for a sacking.
Forget that United are somehow the Premier League’s in-form team after wins over Luton Town, Fulham, Sheffield United and Brentford. It’s the results in between — a humiliating defeat to a patched-up Newcastle in the Carabao Cup, the struggles in the Champions League and the 3-0 defeat against rivals Manchester City — that paint the real picture of the season.
James: Not long ago, I’d have gone for Iraola. But that was a big win for him against Newcastle on Saturday. Naturally, your eye is drawn to the bottom three but, realistically, who expected Luton, Sheffield United and Burnley to be anywhere else? But would that dose of realism be enough to keep Heckingbottom in a job if results went badly for Sheffield United in their next two games, against Bournemouth at home and Burnley away? Maybe not.
Whitehead: Ten Hag. The reasoning?
Bournemouth and Nottingham Forest have good runs of games coming up, while Burnley and Luton recognise what they have in Vincent Kompany and Rob Edwards, and are unlikely to see a change as being any improvement.
Heckingbottom is under pressure at Sheffield United but performances have improved over the past month, with the club starting to garner some results. That leaves Ten Hag, who is not the principal reason behind Manchester United’s predicament, but with INEOS and Sir Jim Ratcliffe expected to take charge of the club’s sporting operations, there is a sense the new regime may wish to bring their own man in.
Kay: For a variety of reasons, I can’t see a reason for any club even to be within three or four defeats of pressing the panic button. The noise is around Manchester United (and looking at their fixtures, that could get much worse in December) but Ten Hag’s position is not under immediate threat. Stay calm, everyone.
Miller: Steve Cooper. There is talk that Sheffield United could get rid of Heckingbottom but you wonder what that will achieve, and there’s a similar vibe with the other promoted-but-will-probably-get-relegated-straight-away-alas teams.
Manchester United probably can’t afford to sack Ten Hag, Bournemouth’s recent wins will give Iraola some time and pretty much everyone else looks reasonably safe. Aside from Cooper: Forest owner Evangelos Marinakis got plenty of praise for keeping Cooper last season but, by his own admission, that was mainly because he couldn’t get anyone better. As soon as there’s another dip in results, and a valid replacement makes themselves known, he’ll pull the plug.
My player of the season so far is…
Anka: Villa’s Diaby is a joy to watch. A mercurial, front-foot winger who is good at all that clever stuff managers want from inverted forwards but also doesn’t forget the value of getting chalk on his boots and challenging his full-back on the outside. He — along with Doku — are wonderful reminders that dribbling isn’t dead. Sometimes you just want a quick player to run at a strong player and watch what happens next.
It’s such a shame the Tottenham attacker is now facing a spell on the sidelines through injury because he had made a big impact at his new club. Maddison had created the most chances for Spurs but it was his work rate that really helped his side change their style of play.
As vice-captain, he was also having a big impact in the dressing room following the departure of Harry Kane.
James: A few contenders here. It’s easy to overlook Haaland and Mohamed Salah because we almost take it for granted now that they do what they do — they’ve already been directly involved in 16 and 14 Premier League goals respectively. Diaby excites me at Villa. But I’m going to have to say Maddison, who is a joy to watch and was the face of the new Spurs… until that cruelly timed injury against Chelsea.
Whitehead: Haaland. The 23-year-old is three goals clear at the top of the scoring charts without a ‘wow performance’ to my memory. He makes scoring so simple — and it cannot be taken for granted.
Pedro Neto and Maddison have been the two other players who most make me want to switch over and watch them play.
Kay: Rodri. What a player. He came fifth in the Ballon d’Or rankings and he should have been at least two places higher. Manchester City have coped fine without Kevin De Bruyne this season, but when Rodri missed those three games through suspension, they lost them all. He’s the one player Guardiola’s team cannot live without.
Miller: Maddison, Diaby and Neto are really exciting to watch, John Stones has been absolutely superb for Manchester City, Guglielmo Vicario has been the surprise of the season (for me anyway), but the honest and boring answer is Salah. Liverpool were absolutely right not to sell him in the summer and should refuse again in January.
The player from outside the top seven clubs who could be a January transfer target is…
Anka: Does the top seven include Newcastle now, or Aston Villa? Because if it doesn’t include Villa, then get ready for a long January of Douglas Luiz chat. If you want a non-Villa answer, then get ready for Joao Palhinha transfer chat, round two.
Again, another player injured, but what an impact he had before his setback.
There’s no doubting Neto’s qualities as a silky winger with pace to burn and magic in his feet. It’s why Wolves will always know there’s a concern that a bigger club will come in and offer him a pay rise and the chance of European football.
His biggest challenge, however, is staying fit because injuries have been his downfall in recent seasons.
James: I agree with Carl, it’s hard to know who’s in the top seven these days… I mean, Palmer looks like a player at Chelsea.
I’ll say someone who has caught my eye (rather than them being a January target) and, in the process, made me realise that he’s a better footballer than I ever gave him credit for in the past: Bryan Mbeumo. In the absence of Ivan Toney, Mbeumo has been excellent for Brentford.
Whitehead: Another vote for Neto. The 23-year-old has suffered two serious injuries in the past two years — but has now returned better than ever.
Leading the Premier League in assists (seven), the winger has found the end product that Adama Traore always struggled to achieve. Arsenal wanted to sign him at the start of 2022-23 — any bid to reprise that will surely take more money, with increased competition.
Kay: There are a few obvious ones but it’s good to see Eberechi Eze, Kaoru Mitoma and Evan Ferguson have all signed new contracts. I hope those are genuine commitments, rather than just clarifying the terms of future transfers. Lucas Paqueta’s future might be complicated by a Football Association investigation. Neto is one who perhaps looks more… gettable in January.
Miller: It will be interesting to see if anyone is put off moving for Toney in January and, if so, I wonder whether a big club that needs a forward might take a look at Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin. Nottingham Forest’s Murillo looks like he’s the real thing but bigger clubs might want more than half a season of evidence to move for him, so it has to be Neto again.
Is it nailed on that the three promoted clubs will all go down?
Anka: Burnley and Sheffield United’s squads feel worse now than the ones that won promotion. Luton are definitely going to Give It A Good Go, but they seem a touch off the requisite quality to stay up.
The last time all three promoted teams were immediately relegated was when Crystal Palace, Barnsley and Bolton Wanderers went straight back down in 1998. That was the only time that’s happened in the Premier League era, which feels a little odd.
So, Luton, Sheffield United and Burnley – was promotion to the Premier League worth it?
Evans: It would take a brave man to suggest otherwise, so here goes… no!
Although, clearly, all three are struggling, there hasn’t been much from Bournemouth to suggest they are going to perform any better over the long term.
Admittedly, it feels like it will be three from the four that go down, but Luton appear to be making a bit of progress, even if only in their performances rather than results.
James: Bournemouth would have to be atrocious to go down. And that’s not a slight on Luton, Burnley or Sheffield United. The gap between the Premier League and the Championship is huge — and it’s not good for football.
Whitehead: No. Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results, but I am still convinced that there is a good football side hiding within the shell of bottom-placed Burnley. A goalscorer in January, perhaps?
Bournemouth could still be sucked into things, despite their win over Newcastle, but I am less confident about the prospects of Luton and Sheffield United.
Kay: Like the Manchester City question, no, it’s not nailed on, but it’s looking rather likely, particularly now Bournemouth appear to have turned the corner. It’s just so difficult for teams coming up from the Championship. Luton have been competitive in just about every game, but the gap in financial resources — and therefore quality — is so huge. It’s a problem in English football.
Miller: Yeah, sadly. The rest have probably got just enough to get themselves out of bother, which isn’t to say they’re any good, just that Luton, Burnley and Sheffield United are not quite good enough.
And finally… has the VAR system helped or hindered the Premier League this season?
Anka: It’s lengthy, it’s confusing, it’s devolved into a bunch of referees marking each other’s homework. When you try to explain it, you sound like a dullard at best, and a conspiracy theorist at worst. Bin it off.
Evans: It has been total chaos and is ruining the game. I don’t have a sensible answer to make it right, but clearly, something needs to change.
The VAR system was (incorrectly) sold to the football world as a way of bringing objective clarity to the game. What it has done is reveal how much of the football rule book asks for subjectivity.
On top of that, if you want to properly understand the steps VAR is going through during a game, you have to be watching on television, rather than in the stadiums.
James: (Lets out a big sigh). There was a song and dance about the Spurs-Chelsea game but, ultimately, I thought the VAR did what he was there to do and, at the same time, it didn’t stop me, as a neutral, enjoying the game – probably because there was so much to try to take in. Do I like the VAR system? No. Would I want it in the Championship (where the team I support play)? No. Bad decisions happen, get on with it (says someone who was raging at Bobby Madley’s officiating a little more than a week ago).
Whitehead: Helped. The percentage of correct decisions is slowly going up. The sort of howlers that were complained about in the pre-VAR age are gone — the error with Luis Diaz’s disallowed goal being a noted exception.
Football has few objective truths, only opinion. With VAR standards tied to general refereeing standards, it has no ability to maintain 100 per cent accuracy — if such a thing is even possible in a sport in which every facet is debated.
What can be improved is the communication — allow people to disagree, but make it clear why referees made the decisions they did with conversations broadcast and frameworks implemented.
Kay: I’ve been a real VAR-sceptic from the start, but even I expected the process and the protocols to be clearer by now. It was introduced with the promise of “minimum intervention, maximum benefit”. The reality has been the other way around.
There are times when I’m grateful for a VAR intervention, when something glaring has been missed, but it’s very rare. I don’t think it enhances the game at all.
Miller: The toothpaste is out of the tube now but if it disappeared tomorrow I would be delighted. For all the big high-profile mistakes, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the VAR system has quietly corrected a large number of incorrect decisions, but I don’t particularly care about officials getting things right all the time, just as I don’t particularly care about a midfielder getting their passes right all the time.
Football shouldn’t be about the pursuit of absolute accuracy, it should be fun, and a referee pressing their finger to their ear while someone in a studio looks at a tackle frame-by-frame while everyone stands around getting cold and confused is not fun. The disadvantages have long since outweighed the advantages.
(Top photos: Getty Images)