And yet. There is reason to believe this year may be different. City players have logged a whopping 4,628 minutes in the World Cup – more than any team in the Premier League. Arsenal players appeared for 1,699 minutes. Team depth – and indeed, the work of Erling Haaland – can only take City so far if the majority of their players are drained of energy by the spring.
At the other end of the scale, too, can’t say what kind of impact a World Cup break might have. Newly installed at Wolves and Southampton respectively, Julen Lopetegui and Nathan Jones have already had a pre-season to put their ideas into practice. Only one Southampton player has ever watched a Qatar game, but that means almost their entire squad has not played competitive football since mid-November.
At the moment, there are no real answers to any of these circular questions. Only a fool can predict with certainty what might happen in the next few months. This lack of clarity only adds to the excitement and sense that we may be heading towards the messiest campaign of them all.
Premier League summary, top to bottom
Thirteen of the 18 teams who were at the top of the table on Christmas Day finished the season as champions, which boded well for Arsenal. Arteta’s young side had a five-point lead over Manchester City at the start of the second half, but – and this is significant – they lost key striker Gabriel Jesus to a long-term injury.
Only six teams have won 37 points or more in their first 14 Premier League matches, and they have all gone on to win the title. But this season is unlike other campaigns, and City are unlikely to relinquish their crown without a serious fight. If Arsenal can thrive without Jesus, the title race could be wonderfully interesting.
Are there other competitors? Well, Antonio Conte’s Tottenham Hotspur is not too far behind, and there is no doubt about the quality of the starting line-up. And then there’s third-placed Newcastle United, after going five straight league wins. With no European commitments this season, they are a team to fear.
Scramble for European places
There is still time for the other big teams – Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool – to catch up, but the biggest problem for them now is securing Champions League qualification. Eighth-placed Chelsea in particular needed a World Cup break after three successive league defeats before the season was suspended.
The last time Chelsea lost four consecutive league games was in 1998. In other words, it never happened during Roman Abramovich’s tenure as owner. Todd Boyley and his colleagues expect an immediate improvement in results, no matter what they say about the long-term Graham Potter project.
Let’s not forget the former Potter Club. Brighton are in seventh place, and they are able to humiliate any opponent.
Mid table bog
Leicester was bad, and then it was good. Steven Gerrard was sacked by Aston Villa, then looked better under Unai Emery. Crystal Palace was regaining strength before the end of the first half. Fulham defied expectations. Brentford was inconsistent, but fun.
All of these teams can realistically dream of pressing for a place in Europe, but it will take a leap in form and consistency to even come close. Perhaps the most intriguing of them all is Villa, where Emery has had a clear six weeks to impose his ideas on his new players.
Southampton and Wolves both have new managers – Jones and Lopetegui respectively – and their fans will expect to see huge improvements once the season resumes.
This would be bad news for the likes of Nottingham Forest, Everton and Leeds United. And lest we forget West Ham United. The pressure is starting to mount on David Moyes, whose team ranks 16th despite everything he has done for the club. He can’t afford to be dragged too close to the drop zone.
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