The Premier League is back and we’re all trying to remember what was happening before we all got distracted by the problematic shiny thing. Arsenal are top! Madness.
Game to watch – Arsenal v West Ham
The World Cup break came at a good time for some clubs. Arsenal could probably have done without it.
They’d won seven and drawn the other of their last eight Premier League games, including victories over Tottenham, Liverpool and Chelsea, to open up an improbable but intriguing five-point lead over a stuttering Manchester City at the top of the Premier League. They might not end up winning the title, but their dominance of the first part of the season has put them in genuine contention which is itself quite a change of pace.
Can Arsenal slot straight back into that unstoppable form? Will City be so slipshod after the break? Questions that will define the rest of the season at the summit.
At the pointier end of things, West Ham might have been rather more grateful for the pause. Their Europa Conference exploits had given them the most brutal pre-World Cup schedule of anyone, and what had looked like a vaguely encouraging recovery in October – three wins in five games that month – had melted into four defeats in five to leave the Hammers vexingly close to the trapdoor when the curtain came down on act one.
If the first two defeats of that run – narrow ones at Liverpool and Manchester United – could be written off as minimally damaging, the home losses that followed against Palace and Leicester could not.
While Arsenal have a World Cup-wearied and depleted squad, West Ham can look for a fresh start in this tasty looking London Derby that rounds off the Boxing Day action.
Victory for Arsenal would take them eight (8) points (pts) clear for a couple of days, while for West Ham it represents a festive free hit ahead of a run of games into January that will have a far greater say on how the remainder of their season pans out. Before January ends the Hammers face Brentford, Leeds, Wolves and Everton; we’ll know by then whether relegation is a genuine threat for a team that’s gone from finishing sixth and seventh to being at sixes and sevens (sorry).
Team to watch – Tottenham
Manchester City may have been affected more on raw numbers of players and minutes but it is surely Spurs who will feel the most profound impact of the World Cup.
Spurs had 11 non-loan players at the tournament (as an aside, as long as you can live with Heung-min Son as right wing-back those 11 players could also form a passable 3-5-2 with loanee Joe Rodon on the bench: Lloris; Romero, Dier, Davies; Son, Hojbjerg, Sarr, Bentancur, Perisic; Kane, Richarlison) and more than any other Premier League club at the business end. Spurs have a World Cup winner, runner-up and bronze medallist currently making their way back to Hotspur Way – the physical and mental readiness of any of those three players for an instant return to Premier League football has to be in serious doubt.
And then there are the quarter-finalists Kane and Richarlison. The Brazilian we know is out for a while having played 80-odd minutes of Brazil’s defeat to Croatia on an injured hamstring, while with Kane the issue is rather more nuanced. Where, precisely, is his head at? How long will he take to get back on his game? How much harder will it be for him given that his club captain is the goalkeeper over whose crossbar he so career-definingly ballooned that penalty?
The answers to some of the questions now swirling around the Spurs squad may have to wait until beyond Boxing Day – at the very least it seems unlikely any of the three involved on the final weekend of the World Cup will be pressed into service in what will be the first Premier League game for six weeks when Brentford host Spurs in Boxing Day’s early kick-off – but they are going to be a fascinating team to watch over the next few weeks.
They were already confusing, a team for whom results have far outstripped performance this season, and if there had only been a week between this fixture and their last it would still have been one well worth watching, given the chaotic nature of Spurs’ win over Leeds and Brentford’s not-actually-that-smashy-or-grabby smash-and-grab at Manchester City last time out.
Player to watch – Mo Salah
So much focus will inevitably be on those who have spent much of the last month in Qatar’s Football Theme Park, but in truth the most important players over the next few weeks might be the smattering of extremely good ones who weren’t involved.
While the World Cup players have been asked to endure a season’s workload unlike any other, those who missed out will be rested, recuperated, relaxed and ready to go.
There’s some really good ones. Erling Haaland, who gets even more time off with City not back in action until the 28th, being a great big obvious one while Riyad Mahrez is another key one at the Etihad. Dejan Kulusevski at Spurs is another likely to find himself with plenty of slack to pick up there along with your Yves Bissoumas and maybe even the Davinson Sanchezes of this world. Arsenal have a few decent ones – Zinchenko, Odegaard, Tierney – but the big beneficiaries really could be Liverpool.
A whole load of their key players have contrived to play for teams who didn’t qualify for Qatar, which was crafty of them wasn’t it? Naby Keita, Luis Diaz and Andy Robertson all failed to qualify while Joel Matip remains firmly on the Cameroon naughty step seven years after a high-profile falling out.
But topping off that list is Mo Salah, last season’s Golden Boot winner, who ended the first half of the season in some very decent nick after a slow start.
In essence what we’ve discovered from writing this is that there are two types of player we’re really excited to watch over the next month or so: those who’ve been absolutely knackered out or emotionally crushed by the World Cup, and those who’ve had a lovely long break because of it. The latter group could prove season-defining and Liverpool’s crop is a particularly strong one.
Managers to watch – Julen Lopetegui and Nathan Jones
We still won’t fully believe that these two are the managers of Wolves and *checks notes* Southampton until we see them looking pensively on from the touchline watching their teams. And in proper games, too, not Carabao tish and fipsy. That proves nothing.
Both men have serious jobs on their hands, if indeed they truly are who they say they are and actually are now in charge of these Premier League clubs. Like we say, we’ll believe it when we see it.
Wolves are rock bottom having been absolutely shitbone awful this season, hot on the heels of being shitbone awful in last season’s run-in and are in urgent need of sourcing some goals from somewhere otherwise what has been a largely comfortable five-year stay in the Premier League is coming to an abrupt end.
Southampton are only one place and two points better off despite being one of only two teams to take something from Arsenal this season. That and a victory over Chelsea point to a long-standing Southampton problem – namely the vast gulf between their best and their horrifying 9-0 worst – and addressing that dichotomy will be Nathan Jones’ primary if likely difficult goal.
Football League game to watch – Bristol City v West Brom
It truly is a festive feast of TV football on Boxing Day. While Amazon Prime are showing all the day’s Premier League action live, Sky are taking the opportunity of their Premier League-less schedule to showcase the Championship. Seven games are available via the assorted football channels or behind the red button, from Watford v Millwall at noon right through to Luton v Norwich at 7.45, which is at least a slightly less heinous away trip than that facing the QPR fans at Cardiff for the 5.30 game.
If you’re more of a dozing on the couch with a turkey sandwich kind of Boxing Dayer, then it’s glorious and all of it will reward a watch.
We’ve singled out Bristol City v West Brom for no more meaningful reason than West Brom’s current encapsulation of the singular appeal of Championship football by virtue of their heading into Boxing Day within five points of both the play-offs and the bottom three. Textbook Championshipping, it really is.
European game to watch – Glentoran v Linfield
None of Europe’s other big leagues are quite so silly as the Premier League and are thus not rushing back to action just yet. But we will not be deterred.
Not when there’s fifth v third from the Northern Irish Premiership on BBC Two NI and iPlayer.