10) Wolves were the best of the rest
The days of Newcastle and Nottingham Forest emerging from the Second Division to challenge for the top-flight title upon promotion are long gone. Last season, Newcastle (10th) became only the third side in the last decade to finish in the Premier League’s top half the season after coming up from the Championship, matching the feats of West Ham (10th, 2012/13) and Birmingham (9th, 2009/10).
Wolves were set to defy history. No team has been promoted from the second tier with quite so impressive a base as Nuno Espirito Santo’s side, who were a Premier League outfit in all but name. A summer in which they made their presence felt only strengthened their case, and they translated that into an impressive start. One defeat in their opening eight games included draws with Manchester City and Manchester United.
But back-to-back defeats against Watford and Brighton have left Wolves licking their wounds. The best defence outside the top five is being let down by an attack more toothless than Burnley’s. Bournemouth and Watford look far more capable of unsettling the elite.
9) Jack Wilshere would regain his England place
In our famous England Euro 2020 ladder, the first after the World Cup, we put Jack Wilshere at No.27. In our most recent edition, he was relegated to No.40. The midfielder has lost his footing and is sliding down the rungs at an alarming rate.
Wilshere’s wilderness at international level almost came to an end in March, when he combined fine form for Arsenal with renewed levels of fitness. But his chances of a first England cap since Euro 2016 ended when he pulled out of the squad due to a tendon problem.
Gareth Southgate’s fingers have already been burned, and he is not about to try his luck again any time soon. Wilshere has not even been in the England picture since, and while a move to West Ham was supposed to offer regular playing time and a platform to express his brilliance, it has backfired massively. He started their first four Premier League games, all of which ended in defeat, and has been injured since September 1. It turns out that the grass is not always greener on the other side.
8) Arsenal were no different than under Arsene Wenger
“I don’t know what he has been doing for the last five or six weeks,” said Tony Adams after one Arsenal game. Paul Merson at least had the common courtesy to wait four matches before telling Unai Emery that “I’ve watched Arsenal and if you didn’t know, you would still think Arsene Wenger was the manager”.
There was a strange rush to ignore context when reviewing Emery’s first steps with the Gunners. The fixture list pitted them against the Premier League’s two most recent champions in their opening two games, and the Spaniard was tasked with replacing a manager who had been in charge for 22 years. No coach could engender change in such a short space of time.
As soon as results picked up, Emery and his squad was given time to breathe and space to grow. The benefits of his insistence on passing out from the back have come to fruition with some sensational team goals, while the statistics also point to some style changes too. Arsenal averaged 58.5% possession, 619.1 passes per game and 10.1 dribbles per game in Wenger’s final season. In Emery’s first ten games, that has become 55.7% possession, 546.5 passes and 6.8 dribbles.
More than anything, the current manager favours a far more straightforward route to goal than his predecessor, and it would be folly to suggest he is letting this ship sail itself.
7) Liverpool’s attack would only improve
They became Europe’s most feared front three for a reason. Between them, Mohamed Salah (44), Roberto Firmino (27) and Sadio Mane (20) scored 67.4% of Liverpool’s 135 goals in all competitions last season.
The club’s fourth, fifth and sixth top goalscorers of 2017/18 were, for varying reasons, unavailable to them this season. Philippe Coutinho (12) left in January, Emre Can (6) joined Juventus in the summer, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (5) remains sidelined through injury.
Yet Liverpool strengthened their attacking options quite significantly. Daniel Sturridge returned, revitalised and ready to embrace his role as Plan B. Xherdan Shaqiri offered a different kind of threat, albeit one just as potent. Naby Keita was signed to link the midfield and attack more effectively. Salah, Firmino and Mane all went to the World Cup, yet were back sooner than expected.
Despite all that, Liverpool’s attack has not quite clicked in the same way. They are scoring two goals a game in all competitions, but the expected improvement is yet to materialise. The Reds have kept clean sheets as often as they have scored more than once in a Premier League match this season, doing so six times each. Jurgen Klopp has managed to upgrade the defence, but it has come at a slight attacking cost.
6) Rafael Benitez could work miracles again
If Rafael Benitez were to compile a list of his biggest problems as Newcastle manager, he himself would be wedged between Mike Ashley and having Javier Manquillo as his first-choice back-up in two positions in 2018. The Spaniard has become his own worst enemy at St James’ Park by far exceeding expectations.
In finishing tenth in the Premier League last season, Benitez effectively handcuffed himself. Newcastle spent the least of the three promoted sides, adding just over £36m worth of talent to a threadbare and average squad. Yet the parent rewarded his child’s bad behaviour: Ashley was taught that he could invest the bare minimum yet still extract the absolute maximum for his troubles.
That party trick has fallen flat this season. Two clubs spent less than Newcastle this summer, and no-one came close to their quite ridiculous net profit of just under £30m. Benitez thrived in difficult circumstances before, but this summer was the time to back him instead of doubling down on the financial restraints. Asked to turn water into wine again, the Spaniard is understandably struggling to catch his breath.
5) Fred was Manchester United’s midfield catalyst
Jose Mourinho has spared no expense in his never-ending quest to unlock the potential of Paul Pogba. He broke the world record to sign Pandora’s midfield box in the first place, but could never find the right combination. Twelve months later, Nemanja Matic brought his toolbox to Old Trafford, and he too has failed to release the latch.
Fred was supposed to be the long-awaited solution, the catalyst to finally get this spluttering engine running smoothly. “Fred will complement our other midfielders’ qualities, which we need,” Mourinho said upon his arrival. “His creative brain and passing vision will give us another dimension to our game.”
At least that was the plan. Instead, Fred has been an unused substitute as often as he has started for United in all competitions this season (six times each). Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata have both played more minutes. The Brazilian became Mourinho’s third most expensive signing ever this summer, but looks to be one of his most pointless too.
4) Manchester City wouldn’t be quite as good
The sequel is never quite as well-received as the original. Manchester City set the bar so high last season that few expected it to be cleared any time soon. Pep Guardiola’s side weathered a perfect storm that combined their own brilliance with a comparatively weak division, and reaped the benefits in full.
That title would surely satisfy the hunger that drove them to new heights, while inspiring their rivals to try and catch them. City’s standards would inevitably slip, more eager challengers would emerge, and that chasm would soon become a mere gap.
Expectation has not completely matched reality. Liverpool and Chelsea do find themselves on City’s level, but only because they have stepped up as opposed to the champions dropping down. Guardiola’s men have scored the most goals (27), had the most shots (211) and completed the most dribbles (106), but they have also conceded the fewest goals (3), allowed by far the fewest shots (59) and kept the most clean sheets (7). A team that has conceded once in 767 minutes has also failed to score just once in 17 matches, and they have already faced Arsenal, Liverpool and now Tottenham away.
City were a phenomenon in attack last season, which helped them stay strong defensively. This campaign, they are excellent at both ends in their own right. Guardiola has somehow improved on near perfection.
3) Cardiff could surpass even Derby
Chris Sutton soon retracted his pre-season claim that Cardiff “will go down – maybe with a record low points tally”, but he was not alone in expressing that opinion. Here was a Championship squad, led by a Championship manager on a Championship budget: this was no recipe for Premier League survival.
Yet with over a quarter of the season gone, Cardiff are more than holding their own. They are not scoring goals regularly, yet have more than four other sides. Their defence has been an inevitable issue, yet they have conceded just two more than Burnley. And in ten games, they have already recorded 45% of the points Derby managed in 2007/08. They might still go down, but this has been far from the embarrassment that was forecast.
2) Fulham would be good
In the summer of 2017, Everton spent more money than every Premier League club except for Manchester City and Chelsea, signing eight first-team players for £150.6m. After finishing seventh under Ronald Koeman the previous season, they were confidently touted as potential gatecrashers to the top six.
In the summer of 2018, Fulham spent more money than every Premier League club except for Liverpool and Chelsea, signing 12 first-team players for £101.7m. After earning promotion with an attractive, attacking brand of football under Slavisa Jokanovic the previous season, they were widely backed as an ambitious side capable of jumping the queue and finishing in the top half.
If Everton doomed themselves by making the wrong signings last season, Fulham have positively Moneyballsed it up this campaign. They signed a £20m defender, £25m and £22.3m midfielders and an £18m striker, yet have a spine as weak as a book submerged in water. They should be praised for trying to smash the glass ceiling, but have only been left with bloodied knuckles and shards in their eyes.
1) Chelsea were not in the title picture
The Guardian noted that Chelsea ‘looked a few beats behind’ Manchester City. The Daily Telegraph went even further, discussing ‘the daunting gap between these two sides’. The Daily Mirror suggested that Maurizio Sarri’s team ‘are going to need so much more to get anywhere near Guardiola’s side this season’, while a site not a million miles from here compared it to ‘watching one of the greatest bands at Wembley being supported by their own tribute act’.
The Community Shield is not the greatest foundation on which to base an opinion. Arsenal’s Invincibles season was preceded by an underwhelming penalty shootout defeat to Manchester United in 2003, and David Moyes did not begin an era of Old Trafford dominance by beating Wigan ten years later. Yet it was after City’s 2-0 win over Chelsea in August that the gulf between these two sides was supposedly exemplified. Forget that Willy Caballero and Callum Hudson-Odoi played in the absence of Thibaut Courtois, N’Golo Kante and Eden Hazard, because this was a clear sign that Chelsea were not on the same level as the champions.
And that really was the common consensus. They were distant pre-season fourth-favourites to win the Premier League title at 12/1, lacking the financial backing of City and Liverpool, the squad of Manchester United or the togetherness and unity of Tottenham. Sarri had been asked to completely overhaul the club’s playing style, yet was allowed to make only two outfield signings. The rest of his squad were title winners, but the memories of their subsequent failure under Antonio Conte were far fresher.
No-one expected Eden Hazard to be quite so brilliant, nor Ross Barkley to be rescued from the back of the cupboard. No-one thought David Luiz would return from the wilderness, that Courtois would be replaced so seamlessly, and that these players would take to their new manager quite so quickly.
Chelsea are the only Premier League side still unbeaten in all competitions, are scoring more than two goals a game, and look just as assured in defence. The gap to City remains but, after ten matches, it is just two points. They will take some stopping.