The show must always go on. Celebrations in Argentina were still frantic when the Carabao Cup returned two days after the World Cup final, feeling like a parallel universe far away from Qatar or Buenos Aires. “Amazing,” Jurgen Klopp enthused despite Liverpool’s 3-2 defeat by Manchester City, in what was probably the best football game played since last Sunday. It was all a warm-up, as on Boxing Day the Premier League resumes. You will do it at full speed and without breaks, as if there was no World Cup at all.
There have, of course, been the events in the six weeks since Alejandro Garnacho’s late win for Manchester United at Fulham will shape the Premier League’s restart. It’s always been a season like no other, due to the first-ever Winter World Cup, but the traditional schedule of matches over the festive period still holds. Asking which players went through the most intense emotions in football during the World Cup is a lot, but there will be others who are relieved. Likewise, some coaches have basically gone through pre-season while others have only had their squads restored in the last week.
It’s hard to know what to expect, but that’s exactly what made the first weeks of the Premier League season so exciting. It was a campaign full of stories. Who would have predicted Arsenal would move within five points at the top of the table on Christmas Day? Or have Liverpool slipped dramatically, after only months of being the best team in Europe? Erling Haaland has already scored 18 goals, which is one more than Chelsea, Newcastle are in the top four, six teams have changed coaches, and Cristiano Ronaldo has parted ways with Manchester United.
After this celebration of World Cup football, it’s fair to wonder what the appetite will be like, but assessing the teams’ reaction to the break adds intrigue to a season that was already shaping up nicely. At the top of the tree, Arsenal and their sudden emergence as title contenders provide the most interest.
Can it last? Well, Mikel Arteta’s side have had their best ever start to a Premier League season and are on top at this stage for the first time since the 2007/08 season. With 37 points from 14 games so far, if they keep up this pace, they will break the 100-point mark, which is the benchmark you need to meet if you want to beat Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
Arsenal’s advantage is that they are not expected to do so. Arteta hasn’t built his squad to a peak this season, and his 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 that finished fifth with 69 points last season, that’s quite a jump.
Even before the World Cup, and despite plenty of excellent football in Arteta’s side, much of what Arsenal was doing seemed unsustainable. Over the first 14 matches, Arteta has had eight players start every match. Pivotal to that was Gabriel Jesus, who returned from the World Cup finals to have surgery on a right knee injury that is expected to leave the striker out for several weeks.
It feels like a big moment in Arsenal’s season and how they will react to the question of how long they can keep their health at the top. Arteta was asked if Arsenal would join the transfer market but replacing Jesus isn’t 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 his display of movement, dribbling, pressing and linking up Arteta’s attack overall, Jesus delivered so much more. It’s hard to find a quick fix for that, but inertia could also lead to regret as Arsenal face this rare opportunity.
Manchester City may not give them one, despite their five-point gap and because of their number 9. When the Premier League was suspended in November, Haaland was on course to break every scoring record, and the six-week break gave the 22-year-old time To recover from injuries that had begun to set in during his debut season in England. It only took him 10 minutes to get back into the game in the win against Liverpool.
The thinking during the early weeks of the season was that the addition of Haaland to City created an unstoppable force, but the figures show Guardiola’s side have the same points now as they did at this stage last season, when they were without a striker. Absolutely. The shock defeat to Brentford last weekend before the break may have been a whim of the World Cup season, but Thomas Frank’s side have also shown how to completely shut out the Norwegian.
Apart from Calvin Phillips, Guardiola will be happy with how his team is back from the World Cup as well. And Kevin De Bruyne showed against Liverpool that his subdued performance in Qatar was more a symptom of Belgium’s overall decline, and although City had more players at the World Cup than any other side, the majority returned home after the quarter-finals. The exception, World Cup-winning Argentine striker Julian Alvarez is not a guaranteed starter for Guardiola’s side is a show of their strength.
At this point, embarking on one of his winning runs over the course of the second half of the campaign to blow Arsenal away seems the most likely outcome for the remainder of the season, but the two encounters between the two obvious title contenders could turn out to be more decisive. Until then, between Boxing Day and January 15th, there is only one day in the calendar without Premier League, FA Cup or Carabao Cup matches. The show goes on, as always.
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