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Premier League fans’ half-term reports. Part one: Arsenal to Leicester


Arsenal

Football is such a welcome distraction from the pandemic that, despite our worst start since 1974, hope still springs eternal. Yes, it’s a 3/10 season so far – but a complete change of fortunes is only a matter of stringing a few decent results together.

Stars and flops The real glimmer of hope comes from the youthful core of Saka, Tierney, Martinelli, Smith Rowe and Gabriel. Carrying Aubameyang as a passenger was acceptable so long as he was consistently scoring, but we simply can’t afford to have Willian joining him in the backseat. Pépé still has to prove he wasn’t a massive waste of money and, with Xhaka’s midfield engine room too often looking like it’s playing in reverse, we’re relying on Partey’s return.

Happy with the manager? Arteta would be feeling far more heat by now if he had a full house of fickle Gooners baying at him. Some think he’s out of his depth, but there’s a less vocal consensus that he can turn this round. But refusing to acknowledge the blatant mistake of acquiring another Chelsea pensioner has to count against him. 3/10

We need to sign More midfield creativity. If we can’t do it via promotion from our own ranks, targets include Julian Brandt, Houssem Aouar and Emi Buendía.

Moment that made me smile in 2020 Having been deprived of the pleasure for the past nine months, and having discovered how much I’d taken it for granted, the all too brief return to the Emirates brought tears to my eyes.

Bernard Azulay goonersdiary.co.uk @GoonerN5

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Mikel Arteta
Mikel Arteta: out of his depth, or not? Photograph: Julian Finney/Reuters

Aston Villa

9.5/10 – and it’s only not 10 because it’s all been behind closed doors. We’re playing attractive, effective football, the best we’ve seen for years. In August I’d have been delighted with 15th by the end of the year; instead we ended it 5th. Chickens aren’t being counted – 40 points remains the target – but the form and momentum do make it possible to dream of a single-digit finish.

Stars and flops Grealish has been terrific obviously, although no more terrific than the last three years. Strange how a “slow, greedy diver” can become the new Gazza overnight in the public perception. He’s every Villa fan’s hero; I’ve started wearing odd slippers to be more “Jack”. The summer signings have all been brilliant: Cash looks like he’s played 200 top-flight games not a handful, Martínez seems delighted to have joined a big club and Traoré can match Grealish for tricks and hairstyles. Konsa should be in the England squad, so can expect a call-up in 2025.

Happy with the manager? I’m thrilled for Dean Smith, who gets limited external praise but has evolved superbly. He must pinch himself every day: he’s certainly living my dream. Alongside new assistant Craig Shakespeare he’s added flair and tightened us up. 10/10

We need to sign Watkins has done very well, but another centre-forward to ease his burden would be nice.

Moment that made me smile in 2020 Without this moment we’d be playing Luton and Birmingham having sold Grealish – so it has to be the great man’s goal at West Ham to keep us up.

• Jonathan Pritchard

Jack Grealish
Jack Grealish: tricks and big hair. Photograph: Lindsey Parnaby/AP

Brighton

I imagined we’d be knocking about in mid-table by now, but as it stands we’re heading for a relegation battle. We play entertaining football but, until last night, we’ve struggled badly to find a goal. Maybe knocking three past Wolves will spark something. 4/10

Stars and flops Tariq Lamptey is a superstar in the making; Yves Bissouma has been outstanding, Robert Sánchez is a needed step up in goal with his reach and distribution, and keeping Adam Lallana and Danny Welbeck fit must be a priority. Our attack clearly needs reinforcing, though: Neal Maupay lacks confidence, and though Aaron Connolly can be a menace, he has a lot to learn.

Happy with the manager? For the first time there’s debate about whether Graham Potter can motivate players. His school teacher look is starting to lose its charm, his substitutions are questionable and we’re often worse in the second half of games. But even though Sam Allardyce isn’t available, Tony Pulis is, so we should be careful what we wish for. 5/10

We need to sign We’re unlikely to spend, but reinforcements are on their way with Percy Tau finally able to get a work permit (at last a benefit from Brexit) and the excitingly versatile midfielder Jakub Moder being recalled from Lech Poznan. Also, ahem, Glenn Murray is reported to be returning from Watford.

Moment that made me smile in 2020 @NorthStandChat on Twitter asking if Liverpool will receive punishment for breaking the rule of six at Selhurst Park.

Steph Fincham

Graham Potter
Graham Potter: under pressure for the first time. Photograph: Jed Leicester/BPI/REX/Shutterstock

Burnley

One point from the first six games wasn’t great, but the recovery since has been solid, with the win over Wolves in the final game before Christmas lifting us clear of the relegation places. 6/10

Stars and flops Nobody has flopped, we’ve just been hit by injuries. Among the best performers so far is Ben Mee. Since the captain came back alongside James Tarkowski we’ve looked a totally different team. And surely only Gareth Southgate can explain how Nick Pope isn’t England’s number one.

Happy with the manager? 8/10. I wouldn’t swap him for anyone – and fortunately it sounds like the new US owners feel the same way. We’re all waiting to see what the takeover brings: so far it’s been a mix of nervousness and excitement among fans. There’s clear potential here to give Dyche the backing he wants and establish our club at the top level with a better financial base. It’s going to be a different ride, but one to look forward to with cautious optimism.

We need to sign We don’t really have problem areas in the first team, but we do lack numbers. I’d say a central defender and a wide midfielder are the two most pressing positions where we need some cover, to replace Ben Gibson and Aaron Lennon.

Moment that made me smile in 2020 I’m a Burnley fan who had waited well over half a century to see us beat Manchester United at Old Trafford. Jon Moss blowing the final whistle on our 2-0 win there back in January gave me my biggest football smile of the year.

Tony Scholes UpTheClarets.com @utcdotcom

Ben Mee
Ben Mee: makes Burnley a different team. Photograph: Jon Super/EPA

Chelsea

Better than expected at this stage. Yes we’ve had a rough spell, but we’re still in a decent position, this is a young team which is still learning, gelling and finding its feet. With time and a bit more self-belief we’ll prove we’re capable of going toe to toe with any team. 7/10

Stars and flops Stars so far are Reece James, Édouard Mendy, Mason Mount and Thiago Silva. Silva has brought some calm and leadership to our jittery defence, James is progressing nicely and Mendy has given confidence to those in front of him, via a blip or two. The flop of course, sadly, is Kepa, who continued where he left off last season. Hopefully he’ll come good again – but maybe Chelsea and the Premier League are not the place for him.

Happy with the manager? Still very happy. He addressed our major defensive issues and has done well to introduce so many new players into the squad and first team without it all unravelling. Clearly this is all still a work in progress, and I’d prefer him to make substitutions earlier than he generally does – but he’s learning on the job. Forget the recent run: the future looks bright under Frank. 8/10

We need to sign David Alaba would be great, and the Declan Rice rumours don’t go away. He’d be a fine addition, and it’d also send West Ham fans into meltdown, which is never a bad thing

Moment that made me smile in 2020 Arsenal signing Willian and their fans having to watch his corners every week. That’s made me smile all season.

Paul Baker In memory of Trizia Fiorellino

Édouard Mendy
Édouard Mendy: lifting Chelsea’s defence. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AP

Crystal Palace

It was an exciting start, back-to-back wins over Southampton and Manchester United, but form has been wildly up and down since: a record home defeat to Liverpool, poor results against Newcastle and Burnley, demolitions of West Brom and Leeds. We’ve looked a more potent attacking force, but struggle to keep a clean sheet. 5/10

Stars and flops Tyrick Mitchell continues to progress and Eberechi Eze has been a revelation, gliding past players to take the creative pressure off Zaha, leaving Wilf to bang in the goals. A £16m bargain. But Michy Batshuayi has failed to find the net, having had goals chalked off in three games by VAR, Max Meyer can’t even make a nine-man bench, and Mamadou Sakho now appears to be our fifth-choice centre-back.

Happy with the manager? There’s no doubt we’ve been better in attack, but fans’ patience is being stretched. His continued treatment of Jaïro Riedewald is baffling, putting the Dutch midfielder in and out of the side when he is clearly levels above others in his position. 6/10

We need to sign It’d make sense to extend Nathaniel Clyne’s deal. But beyond that I’d be astonished if we signed anyone else in January given the financial backdrop, and the fact it is the strongest squad in our history with competition for every position.

Moment that made me smile in 2020 Being back at Selhurst for the game against Spurs: the performance, result, and just the joy of being back at our second home lifted everyone’s spirits.

Chris Waters @Clapham_Grand

Eberechi Eze
Eberechi Eze: taking the pressure off Wilfried Zaha. Photograph: Matthew Childs/AFP/Getty Images

Everton

Very much better than expected. Despite a horrific injury list, and a few setbacks, Ancelotti’s vast man-management and tactical skills have formed a unit capable of Champions League qualification. 8/10

Stars and flops Dominic Calvert-Lewin, superb at leading the line, has a towering leap, and the effectiveness of his game in the six-yard box is a joy to watch. Allan, when fit, is Peter Reid mark II; Doucouré is now settling and has a phenomenal work rate; Michael Keane is solid when the game is in front of him; and Iwobi is worthy of mention too. Sadly, André Gomes has struggled post-injury, but we live in hope.

Happy with the manager? Delighted. Leadership and a single-minded determination to succeed. His man-management is a joy, and he’s been tactically adaptable, changing the formation at the back. Highlights have included the five away wins, especially at Spurs. His calmness and willingness to accept the vagaries of professional football stand in stark contrast to those of other high-profile managers. 9/10

We need to sign Ideally we still need cover at right-back (for Coleman), left-back (for Digne) and centre-forward (for DCL). Seems unlikely in January, though: signing Olsen permanently as cover for Pickford may be the only bit of business.

Moment that made me smile in 2020 It doesn’t matter which club Marcus Rashford plays for. He deserves so much praise for his actions highlighting the obscene spectacle of millions of children living in food poverty in a rich nation. Many other players also do so much good work, often without publicity. Footballers have a poor reputation (deserved by some) but there’s a growing number of really positive contributors stepping into the gaps not only created by Covid but by years of social deprivation.

The esk TheEsk.org @TheEsk

Allan
Allan: Peter Reid mark II. Photograph: Daniel Chesterton/Offside/Getty Images

Fulham

We’re grateful that a clutch of clubs have started poorly, otherwise the outlook could have been much worse. The wholesale changes in the summer window, when the campaign was already under way, made it hard to form any realistic expectations – but the new recruits have fitted in brilliantly and seem to have bought in to Scott Parker’s tactics and demands. 6/10

Stars and flops Goalkeeper Areola has been excellent, as have the regular rearguard: Aina, Adarabioyo, Anderson and Robinson; all, amazingly, new to the club this season. Lookman, another newcomer, has slotted in well while returnee Anguissa has been equally eye-catching in midfield. Not so Seri, though – and the jury’s out on Loftus-Cheek thus far. The major flop remains VAR, and its execution. It can evidently use sophisticated slide-rule technology to detect an offside eyelash and yet it often still smacks of someone in Mr Magoo specs blundering with a cracked school protractor and a blotchy ballpoint.

Happy with the manager? Yes. He’s had a lot to contend with, even before Covid infiltrated the camp. But he looks to be forging a pattern of play and a spirit that could keep us up. Oh, and he dresses well, too. 8/10

We need to sign Mitrovic has not been firing on all cylinders, and we have no proven striker in reserve. So Josh King? Or Divock Origi? Adam Armstrong?

Moment that made me smile in 2020 Joe Bryan’s free-kick at Wembley: more disguise than an MI5 operative.

David Lloyd toofif.co.uk @DMLTOOFIF

Scott Parker
Scott Parker: sharp dresser. Photograph: Will Oliver/PA

Leeds

Our target is staying up, and look: our promoted peers Fulham and West Brom are in the relegation places, and we’ve already won as many games as Norwich managed all last season. We never want to lose 6-2 at Old Trafford, but other clubs’ fans seemed more angry about the game than we were. The best part so far might be putting everyone at war about the way we play. 8/10

Stars and flops Nobody predicted Patrick Bamford would be having sleepless nights on the eve of England squad announcements, but he’s revelling. A big shout-out to Illan Meslier for rewriting the rule that says you need experience to stop shots in the Premier League. But Covid means we’re yet to see the best of record-signing Rodrigo.

Happy with the manager? Hahahahaha. What do you think? Marcelo Bielsa has extended his strolls around Wetherby to walking on the River Wharfe. When disaffection might be rearing up we see the Baggies swapping Bilic for Allardyce and remember, there but for the grace of God. Or Bielsa. 9/10, a mark off because we can’t defend corners. Or anything.

We need to sign You’ve seen our defending, right? You think we’re going to sign somebody, right? Wrong. If Bielsa gets a player in January, he doesn’t use them until March, post-reprogramming. We’re very likely to stick, not twist.

Moment that made me smile in 2020 The Championship title. Our half-drunk players outrunning Derby and beating them 3-1 before earning an FA fine for pyro at Pride Park helped make up for the fans’ absence.

Daniel Chapman thesquareball.net @MoscowhiteTSB

Patrick Bamford
Patrick Bamford: revelling in the top flight. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Reuters

Leicester

It’s been another terrific season so far. In the top four above City, Chelsea and Spurs and through to the Europa League knockouts is all we could have asked for. I was worried we’d struggle with our intense fixture congestion, but so far, so good. 9/10

Stars and flops Our established stars continue to make major contributions but special mentions have to go to James Justin and Nampalys Mendy who have done incredibly well deputising for one of the best full-backs and one of the best defensive midfielders in Europe. It’s also pleasing to see Brendan Rodgers finally utilise Ayoze Pérez more effectively too.

Happy with the manager? There’s not much room for criticism in terms of our current progress, but it’s not all been plain sailing. On our day we’re among the best sides to watch in Europe, but when we’re bad, oooyah beauty, are we bad! It’s a learning curve but Rodgers needs to find a way to quicken our football up against deep low blocks – oh, and to answer our enduring set-piece defending woes. 8/10

We need to sign Another striker to give us something different up front. Vardy can’t carry the forward line on his own for much longer and Pérez is better in the No 10 role.

Moment that made me smile in 2020 Seeing Leicester qualify for the last 32 of the Europa League at Braga was a special moment. Especially with two homegrown Chisits and club legend Vardy getting the goals.

Chris Whiting clippings.me/chriswhiting @ChrisRWhiting

James Justin
James Justin: stepped up in style. Photograph: Plumb Images/Leicester City FC/Getty Images

Part two: Liverpool to Wolves





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