For the first time ever, the Premier League has been split into two distinct phases this season, with the first drawing to a close just before the World Cup.
Now, following the absorbing events in Qatar, England’s top flight is poised to return in time for its traditional Boxing Day fixtures to be played out in front of thousands of expectant fans – and several million viewers worldwide.
Before football’s global gathering intervened, Arsenal had unexpectedly risen to the top of the table – leaving defending champions Manchester City and several other contenders in their wake – and plenty of other storylines throughout the division kept us transfixed by the game’s richest and most popular league.
A number of managers were axed, traditional heavyweights Liverpool and Manchester United both endured their struggles, while two promoted sides recovered from slow starts and the other pushed into the top half of the standings.
Here, Sports Mole recaps the Premier League’s story since the action kicked off back in August.
Arteta’s Arsenal sprint out of the traps; City lurk behind
Approaching the midpoint of the 2022-23 season, Arsenal peer down upon the rest of their Premier League competitors, having established a five-point lead over nearest rivals Manchester City before the action was paused last month.
A return of 12 wins and just one defeat from their 14 top-flight fixtures has seen momentum build behind the Gunners’ unlikely title challenge, and they have not lost in the league since the first week of September, at Manchester United.
They could even have remained unbeaten but for some below-par officiating on that occasion, as it was recently confirmed that Gabriel Martinelli’s early goal at Old Trafford – ruled out following a pitchside review – was incorrectly chalked off.
Almost 40 days, or six weeks if you prefer, since the Premier League ground to halt, Mikel Arteta’s men will welcome London rivals West Ham to the Emirates on Monday, having won all six of their home games so far.
One of the keys to his young side’s success has been naming the second-most consistent starting XI in the top flight this term – smartly captained by Martin Odegaard – but star striker Gabriel Jesus returned from Qatar injured and has subsequently undergone knee surgery.
Arsenal’s chances of a first title since in nearly two decades perhaps rest on adequately replacing the brilliant Brazilian – and a couple of encounters with Arteta’s former boss Pep Guardiola over the next few months may also decide their fate.
Six goals clear of his nearest rival in the Golden Boot race, the immediate impact of Manchester City’s summer capture Erling Haaland has resonated around the Premier League this season – but the champions have otherwise endured a slight drop-off in their usually electric form.
Indeed, City lost their final match before the World Cup, suffering a second defeat in five when they were upset at home by Brentford. An early trip to St James’ Park also saw them held to a 3-3 draw by potential future title rivals Newcastle United, after fighting back from two goals down in a true ‘game of the season’ contender.
Amid talk of complacency – not a word fondly regarded by workaholic coach Guardiola – they have occasionally dropped points on the road, yet remain well-placed on the shoulder of an inexperienced Arsenal side.
Of course, Haaland – who joined Phil Foden in netting a hat-trick in the 6-3 thrashing of Manchester United – was not involved in Qatar, so will be fully fired up to add more goals to his frankly terrifying total of 18 in just 13 league games.
The Norwegian’s EFL Cup strike against Liverpool during midweek certainly suggests he can hit the ground running against Leeds United – the club he apparently supported as a boy – on Wednesday.
A battle royale for the top four
It seems that newcomers Newcastle will join regular contenders Tottenham, Manchester United and an inconsistent Liverpool in the running for access to Champions League football next year, having continued their impressive upturn under Eddie Howe.
Perfectly placed to take advantage of Chelsea’s struggles – brought about by turmoil in several leadership positions, plus a lopsided recruitment strategy – the Magpies have been inspired by midfield maestro Bruno Guimaraes, and signed off for the World Cup with a series of five wins on the spin.
In fact, the break arguably could not have come at a worse time for Howe’s ascendant side, and they sit third in the Premier League table after losing just one of their first 15 matches.
Despite high hopes pre-season, Liverpool, United and Chelsea all appear to be out of the title race already, and will instead be occupied with scrapping each other for a top-four finish in May.
Following another superb campaign last season, Jurgen Klopp’s ageing team have both failed to fully integrate expensive summer signing Darwin Nunez and adapt to life without Sadio Mane. Meanwhile, their bitter rivals from Old Trafford started atrociously – being beaten by Brentford and Brighton on the opening two matchdays – before rallying under new manager Erik Ten Hag.
The former Ajax coach managed to lance the boil of Cristiano Ronaldo’s inevitable departure from his second spell at the club – which happened in acrimonious fashion, just as the season came to a halt – while introducing some much-needed quality to United’s midfield, in the shape of proven performers Christian Eriksen and Casemiro.
Chelsea’s rebuild, though, may occupy their latest managerial incumbent Graham Potter – who was rewarded for his excellent work on the South Coast with Brighton by a rare opportunity in the Premier League elite – even longer.
The capital club closed out the first phase of their season, which had already seen Champions League-winning coach Thomas Tuchel jettisoned by new owner Todd Boehly, with a five-game winless streak.
With their last league win coming back in mid-October, results including a 4-1 humbling at the hands of Potter’s former club leaves Chelsea some eight points adrift of old foes Tottenham, who occupy fourth place in the table.
Spurs were, once again, far from easy on the eye under the regime of Antonio Conte, and have already lost four times. Their ambitions squarely rest on the broad shoulders of Harry Kane, who will be eager to rebound quickly from his World Cup heartache by adding further to a tally of 12 top-flight goals so far this term.
Promoted sides make an impact
Of the three clubs to have made their Premier League return in August, it is last season’s Championship winners Fulham who have managed to adapt best to the rigours of probably the most demanding domestic league.
Survival seems to be within the grasp of Marco Silva’s side in 2023, as the fine form of leading marksman Aleksandar Mitrovic – who also scored twice for Serbia at the World Cup – sees them sitting inside the top half of the table on goal difference, following five wins from their first 15 games.
Meanwhile, having been landed with the colossal task of totally reshaping the squad that earned Nottingham Forest promotion back to the top flight after so many years away, Steve Cooper’s job appeared to be in jeopardy when the playoff winners unsurprisingly stumbled through their opening fixtures.
After integrating upwards of 20 new players, Forest finally moved off the bottom of the table with a win over Crystal Palace just before the break, but they still join Wolves and Southampton inside the relegation zone.
Against recent convention, Cooper was rewarded with a new contract rather than being dumped for the next cab on the rank, but Bournemouth were quick to show Scott Parker the door following a downbeat start to their comeback campaign.
Among five clubs to have replaced their manager since the start of August, the Cherries have clearly benefited from the impact of interim coach Gary O’Neil, who has brought clarity to their approach and was recently given the job on a permanent basis. Victories against Forest, Leicester and Everton have surely given them a good chance of staying up – particularly if the promised investment of new owner Bill Foley bears fruit in the January transfer window.
The struggle to survive
As at Forest, the respective boards at Leicester City and Leeds United kept faith with their managers following sticky starts to the 2022-23 season, and were ultimately rewarded by a period of improved form before the break.
With chief creator James Maddison hitting top gear, the Foxes have pulled themselves clear of the drop zone, and four wins from five – the only blot being a slim loss to Manchester City – have rejuvenated an apparently jaded Brendan Rodgers, who will surely be glancing up the standings rather than down when the action resumes.
Under the Marmite management of Jesse Marsch, Leeds have continued to leak goals as they persist with their high-tempo style, and losing 4-3 twice plus 3-2 at home to Fulham sums up the pitfalls of such an approach. Only two points separate them from the bottom three, but they do have a game in hand on all of their relegation rivals.
Two more established mainstays of the Premier League, West Ham and Everton, also sit just above the dreaded dotted line, and the former have been a pale shadow of the side that confidently took on all-comers last season; the latter seem set for another scrap for survival, with Frank Lampard favourite to be the next top-flight boss given the boot.
The Toffees entered the break just a point above the bottom three following a run of one win from their last eight matches in all competitions, including a pair of three-goal losses at Bournemouth – only one goal from their final four before Qatar 2022 intervened demonstrates where the Merseysiders have been failing.
Victims of the sack race make way for new blood
While Lampard clings on at Goodison, the dismissals of both Tuchel and Parker were all too predictable given the disparity between their outlook and that of their employers. As the World Cup loomed, Aston Villa, Southampton and Wolves all acted, too, and Steven Gerrard joined Ralph Hasenhuttl and Bruno Lage in moving to the outer realms of the managerial carousel.
Former Spain coach Julen Lopetegui was appointed Wolves boss just before their home loss to Brighton in early November, but officially starts his spell in charge at Molineux this week.
Having failed to see an upturn following a revolution in his backroom staff and a summertime revamp of the Saints’ squad, Hasenhuttl bit the dust; leaving top-flight newcomer Nathan Jones with the task of guiding Southampton out of the bottom three.
After the turgid football and grim media appearances of Gerrard’s time at Villa Park, a spark of optimism was ignited among a disgruntled fanbase upon Unai Emery’s appointment last month. The former Villarreal coach, who had his £5.25m release clause met by the Villa board, started with wins over Manchester United and Brighton to lift his new club up to 12th in the table.
No doubt, more owners will hit the eject button as the second part of the season unfolds, as the price of losing precious Premier League status is one most clubs will not meet if any alternative can be found.