Premier League’s back! Arsenal and their surprise emergence as title contenders offers the most interest

Premier League’s back! Arsenal and their surprise emergence as title contenders offers the most interest


The show must always go on. The celebrations in Argentina were still at fever pitch when the Carabao Cup returned two days on from the World Cup final, as if it was a parallel universe away from Qatar or Buenos Aires.

“Spectacular,” Jurgen Klopp enthused despite Liverpool’s 3-2 defeat to Manchester City, in what was perhaps the best game of football played since last Sunday. It was all a warm-up act, though, as on Boxing Day the Premier League resumes.

It will do so at full speed and with no breaks, as if there had not been a World Cup at all.

There has been, of course, and the events in the six weeks since Alejandro Garnacho’s late winner for Manchester United at Fulham will shape the Premier League’s resumption. It was always going to be a season like no other, given the first-ever winter World Cup, but the traditional fixture schedule over the festive period remains.

It’s a lot to ask for players who went through the most intense emotions in football while at the World Cup, but there will be others who are rested. Likewise, some managers have essentially had a pre-season, while others have only had their squads restored in the past week.

It’s hard to know what to expect, but that’s exactly what made the opening weeks of the Premier League season so exciting. It was a campaign bursting with storylines. Who could have predicted Arsenal having a five-point lead at the top of the table on Christmas Day? Or Liverpool regressing so dramatically, just months on from arguably being the best team in Europe?

Erling Haaland has scored 18 goals already, which is one more than Chelsea, Newcastle are in the top four, six teams have changed managers and Cristiano Ronaldo has split up with Manchester United.

After such a feast of football at the World Cup, it is fair to wonder what the appetite will be like, but assessing how teams react to the break adds intrigue to a season that was already shaping up nicely. At the top of the tree, Arsenal and their surprise emergence as title contenders offers the most interest.

Can it last? Well, Mikel Arteta’s side have made their best-ever start to a Premier League season and are top at this stage for the first time since the 2007/08 campaign. With 37 points from 14 games so far, if they maintain this pace they would break the 100-point mark, which is the standard you need to meet if you are to beat Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.

The advantage for Arsenal is there is no expectation for them to do so. Arteta has not built his side to peak this season and their progress since missing out on the top four last season has been ahead of schedule. Since 2016, 95 points has been the average for Premier League winners. For a team who finished fifth with 69 points last season, that is a significant leap.

Even before the World Cup, and despite a lot of the excellent football Arteta’s side were playing, a lot of what Arsenal were doing seemed to be unsustainable. Through their first 14 matches, Arteta had eight players who started every game. Central to that was Gabriel Jesus, who returned from the World Cup to have surgery on a right knee injury that is expected to rule the striker out for several weeks.

It feels like a big moment in Arsenal’s season and how they react will answer the question as to how long they can sustain their push at the top. Arteta has been asked if Arsenal will dip into the transfer market but replacing Jesus is not just about goals. The Brazil international had not scored for Arsenal in 13 games before the World Cup, since the North London derby win over Tottenham on October 1, but in offering movement, dribbling, pressing and generally tying up Arteta’s attack, Jesus provided so much more. It’s hard to find a quick fix for that, but inertia could also lead to regret as Arsenal are faced with this rare opportunity.

Manchester City may not give them one, however, despite the five-point gap and because of their own number 9. When the Premier League paused in November, Haaland was on track to break every scoring record and the six-week break has given the 22-year-old time to recover from the injury niggles that were beginning to crop up during his debut season in England.

It took him just 10 minutes to get back up and running in the win over Liverpool.

The prevailing thought over the opening weeks of the campaign was that adding Haaland to City has created an unstoppable force, but the numbers show that Guardiola’s side have the same points now as they did at this stage last season, when they were playing without a striker at all.

The shock defeat to Brentford in the last weekend before the break may have been a quirk of the World Cup season, but Thomas Frank’s side also showed how to completely shut out the Norwegian.

Apart from Kalvin Phillips, Guardiola will be pleased with how his squad have returned from the World Cup as well. Against Liverpool, Kevin De Bruyne showed why his quiet performances in Qatar were more of a symptom of Belgium’s overall decline and although City had more players at the World Cup than any other team, the majority came home after the quarter-finals.

That the exception, Argentina’s World Cup-winning striker Julian Alvarez, is not a guaranteed starter for Guardiola’s side is a show of their strength.

At this point, City embarking on one of their winning runs over the second half of the campaign to blow Arsenal away feels like the most likely outcome of the remainder of the season, but the two clashes between the apparent title contenders could be more decisive.

Until then, between Boxing Day and January 15, there is only one day on the calendar without either Premier League, FA Cup or Carabao Cup action. The show goes on, just like it always does.

  • The Independent report
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