With most Premier League clubs having played half of their games this season, the Pitch to Post podcast panel provide their half-term report.
In a topsy-turvy campaign which has had eight different Premier League leaders, crisis after crisis and at one point a 15-team mid table, things are beginning to settle as the title challengers, European chasers and relegation battlers emerge.
In the latest Pitch to Post Review podcast, Jasper Taylor is joined by Roger Clarke, Gerard Brand and south coast reporter Mark McAdam to analyse all 20 clubs at the halfway stage.
They had the Mesut Ozil issue hanging over them for a while, but that is being resolved. Sokratis and Sead Kolasinac have gone, and Arsenal are starting to get surplus players off the books.
You’re starting to see Bukayo Saka, Kieran Tierney and Emile Smith Rowe come into their own, and Arsenal have a bit more of an identity under Arteta.
But who could have expected Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the big story of the summer in terms of his new deal, barely scoring any goals this season? There is still more to come from him.
You do get the feeling things are starting to turn in the right direction for them.
Dean Smith has done a phenomenal job in turning Villa from one of the most naïve teams in this league to one of the most vibrant and effective.
He’s turned Villa into a balanced team, he’s stopped them going gung-ho, he’s judging each game for what it is, and not going for a blanket approach, and the result is a solid defensive base and real excitement on the counter attack.
Ollie Watkins is the runner they’ve always wanted up top, Ezri Konsa and Matt Targett have improved immeasurably, they’ve got a brilliant goalkeeper in Emi Martinez, and that’s just to name a few. But Jack Grealish has been in the form of his life. What a player.
Villa could well be in the mix for European places with half a dozen games remaining, however whereas in previous seasons you may have two or three rivals for that, this season it’s looking more like four or five – Saints, West Ham, Everton, maybe even Arsenal.
They have had a covid outbreak, and did lose Ross Barkley for a while, however I think overall they’ve been lucky with injuries so far. If they can keep their key players fit – in particular, Grealish – I think they’ve got a good chance of reaching Europe for the first time in a decade.
Whilst results haven’t been superb this season, you can’t escape the fact the likes of Pep Guardiola are being so glowing in their assessment of Graham Potter. When one of the greatest managers of all time says he is the best English manager right now, praise doesn’t get much bigger than that.
They play a certain way, they stick to their principles, they have young players and are clever with how they set up tactically, the front three all press high and they can transition very nicely.
But it is about results. This season they started with three wins from four in all competitions, and you’re thinking they will challenge in the top half, but then they go on and win one of their subsequent 18.
But they’ve stuck with Potter, they’ve stuck with their principles, they still play their attacking football, and it’s going to be fascinating how this season plays out, because they’re very much in a relegation battle.
They still haven’t won at home in the Premier League, and if you don’t win at home, it’s going to be a long, hard season.
I think it was always going to be really hard to improve on 10th, especially when you spend practically nothing, like they did in the summer. In early November they hadn’t won a single game in their first eight, but they’ve taken 17 out of 33 points since and got themselves daylight between the drop zone.
But the biggest news of the season is the American takeover. Sean Dyche, towards the end of last season in particular, was not shy about his views on the club’s spending, and insisted they need to be more powerful in the transfer market not just to take a step forward but to stay in the league.
I think he’s been proven right because if Burnley don’t up their spending they’ll slowly move down the division – I think Dyche has worked wonders there but he can’t do it every week, every month, every season.
Overall I think they won’t be overjoyed by what they’ve seen on the pitch, but excited, hopeful, optimistic for the future because that investment has come at a very important time for them.
Chelsea were probably thinking there were no real signs, patterns of what Frank Lampard was trying to do. They were lacking identity this season.
There didn’t seem to be any sort of flow or development within the team, and Chelsea right now are struggling to get wins.
If there was a time to change, maybe halfway through the season is the time to change. Had Frank Lampard done enough as a coach to earn the right to take Chelsea where they want to be? If he hadn’t been a club legend, would he have been anywhere near the job?
In early December, Chelsea were being praised for their strength in depth. Essentially two strong first XIs could be fielded, but Frank Lampard took that too literally, and instead looked to please everybody in a top-heavy Chelsea side.
In 25 Premier League and Champions League games, he has started 17 different front threes. Only one player – Timo Werner – has played over half the available minutes in both competitions this season. That’s owed in some part to injury, but also to Lampard’s incessant need to rotate.
But the chopping and changing isn’t restricted to the front three. In that good run of form in November, Lampard fielded Mason Mount, N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic in a midfield three for three straight games. Otherwise, Lampard has failed to keep the same midfield in consecutive Premier League games throughout the entire season.
And in defence, the ruthlessness in which he brought Antonio Rudiger back into the side against Fulham, replacing Kurt Zouma because “some of our results have been indifferent” was indicative of Lampard’s desperation to tweak.
Lampard looked to “kick-start us from the slump we are in” on that occasion, and in fact throughout the season all over the pitch. It only served to further stall their progress.
You hear rumblings from some Palace fans that they are not overly happy with the style of football.
They are far enough away not to be in relegation trouble, and probably won’t challenge for the European spots, so it’s about seeing the season through.
There is still a lot of love for Roy Hodgson, and he just does a tremendous job season-after-season – but they are inconsistent at Palace, they never go off on good runs, and they don’t have a lot of goals in the team.
They’ve brought in Jean-Philippe Mateta, who has scored a lot of goals in Germany, and there will be a pressure on him to get the goals they’ve been missing.
Eberechi Eze has lit the place up at times, but if they can find some end product, they will be able to move up the table. But 13th spot is just about right for Palace at the moment.
It’s been an encouraging season so far for Everton. Some of the things they were trying in the second half of last season have begun to come off this term.
Their numbers haven’t changed much – they’re creating and conceding more or less the same number of chances – but they’ve become far more savvy to get results, and that’s a tell-tale sign of a Carlo Ancelotti side. He’s more synonymous with being a winner than he is being an entertainer.
Their new midfield signings have all settled quite nicely, Abdoulaye Doucoure gives them legs, Allan gives them grit and James Rodriguez gives them a clinical edge in the final third, but I actually think Ben Godfrey has been their signing of the season in defence.
I think more than anything they’ve got grittier, and their game management has improved massively. The win over Arsenal around Christmas really showed it; they’ve turned into bullies, and Dominic Calvert-Lewin is a massive part of that.
Credit to Carlo Ancelotti, they’re in a good spot to get European qualification.
I think Fulham are going to find it really tough to stay up. They have tightened up, and they play some really nice football to watch, but you just feel as if they are lacking a bit. They got off to a bad start, and it’s a lot to make up.
It’s a shame because the football is impressive and you want to see someone like Scott Parker do well, he clearly has a philosophy of how he wants the game to be played.
They haven’t got the goals on the end of it – they are lacking that player who is going to score for them. Mitrovic hasn’t fired, Bobby Decordova-Reid is their top scorer with just four goals, Cavaleiro only has a couple.
I’m not sure there are enough goals in this team to keep them safe. They’re not getting thrashed each week, although they play some nice stuff, and there is a lot of goodwill around for Fulham, I think they are going to find it tough to stay up.
This team has split opinion. As I said last week, you’ve got one half of football admiring Marcelo Bielsa, the other thinking this style is going to fail miserably.
I’m somewhere in the middle, but that doesn’t actually matter a jot. What matters is what Leeds fans think about it, and they’re enjoying it, while I think being wary of where they can improve.
We mustn’t forget they are newly promoted, and they’re currently 11 points clear of the drop zone midway through the season. I don’t think they can ask for much more than that. And they’ve actually done all this with many of their first XI out injured, particularly in defence.
They are extremely entertaining; they’ve had the fourth-highest shots for, and the fourth-highest shots against. It’s unheard of from a newly-promoted side, and fair play to them.
My concern has always been the future with Leeds – their transfer movement is going to be intriguing in the future, because these Bielsa players have specific traits. They’ve more or less got the same team from two years ago in the Championship. What I’m also really surprised at is how little Leeds players get linked away from the club, but I think that might change in the summer.
Rodgers has proven himself to be an exceptional coach, and he has an extremely well-drilled team. Everyone in that Leicester team knows their role, and you can see a pattern in their play.
A big deal has been made of the amount of injuries Liverpool have dealt with, but at one stage or another, Rodgers has seen a first-choice defence ripped away from him at parts this season, but they’ve more than fought through it.
James Justin and Wesley Fofana have been brilliant, Youri Tielemans too, James Maddison has been playing with swagger and adding goals to his game. And of course Jamie Vardy, who gets a large proportion of their goals.
But with his hernia operation, it will be a big test for them. Can they cover for that. They’ve managed to show they can cover in defence, but it might be a bigger test for Rodgers to see if they can cover for Vardy.
But Leicester can be absolutely delighted with how they have gone so far, and Brendan Rodgers can take a lot of the credit for that.
We had many definitive assumptions about Liverpool last season – they were one of the best teams ever in the Premier League, and their defence in particular was just outstanding – and one by one these assumptions have been thrown out of the window.
Even before their best player was ruled out for most of the season, they had that stunning 7-2 defeat at Aston Villa. Then you lose Virgil van Dijk. Then you lose your summer signing Thiago. Then you lose Joe Gomez. Then Joel Matip gets a recurring injury. Then you lose your other summer signing Diogo Jota, unnecessarily.
And yet they just about find themselves in contention in the title race. Any other season, they’d be long gone, completely out of it. I actually think Liverpool are breathing a sigh of relief at the halfway stage, albeit knowing both their luck and performance has to improve.
But I do think the way they are being written off is premature – I think their front line is misfiring rather than any sort of huge structural issues, particularly in defence. Matip’s return should mean midfielders, well, play in midfield, which should have a knock-on impact up front. Those midfielders and their energy are everything to this team – I’d actually want to see Fabinho moving out of defence and into midfield as soon as possible, if that is at all possible.
There was a lot of concern early in the season that Pep Guardiola had changed beyond recognition. This side, who we’re so used to scoring 100 goals a season, were suddenly shooting far less and creating far fewer chances.
It was unrecognisable to some and I think rubbed some up the wrong way. That Manchester derby draw had many concluding that the City we knew had gone, that Pep had gone too far the other way in trying not to concede.
Pep is probably laughing at those conclusions now because City have a defensive line that looks as solid as it ever has since Vincent Kompany left. Ruben Dias has been a revelation, Joao Cancelo has also massively upped his game, but the transformation of John Stones since before Christmas has been incredible. I don’t think any of us saw that coming.
City have always been the entertainers, but they were getting a reputation for rolling over the lesser teams four or five every week and struggling against pacey counter attacks; as soon as you broke through City’s midfield you had a back-tracking defence, and pace would kill them.
That’s changed slightly now, and they’ve found a perfect balance – they’re protecting themselves more, and they needed to.
There are obviously still a few concerns there – Sergio Aguero has hardly played, it’s still unclear as to whether Gabriel Jesus can lead the line, Raheem Sterling is not firing like he was and Kevin De Bruyne is out for some important games. But overall they’ll be pleased, and quietly confident over anything else.
Could they have dreamed of being at this point when the season started? The short answer is no. They finished third last season, but it was a low points total and they were a long way off Liverpool and even Manchester City.
But when you think of the calendar year, and particularly since Bruno Fernandes arrived, they have been in the form of at least challengers. Their form suggests they deserve to be up there.
They didn’t have much of a pre-season, and it showed at the start of the campaign. They had the defeat by Palace, the 6-1 disaster against Spurs, and the defeat by Arsenal. But they’ve turned the home form around and the away form is fantastic.
Start putting the pieces together and the belief looks to be there. Since they went out of the Champions League they’ve turned things around fantastically well. Paul Pogba has come into some sort of form, Luke Shaw is looking the player United signed in the first place.
All in all, United are certainly looking as good as anyone. In terms of where they are, they will be absolutely delighted, surprised, and growing in confidence that they can push it all the way and be genuine contenders.
If you look at results only, you’d give Newcastle a 5/10. If you’re looking at performances, it’s a 3/10. If you’re looking at all-round feeling at the club, it’s as close to 1/10 you can possibly get.
The fans are sick of Steve Bruce – they actually made some good signings in the summer in Callum Wilson, Ryan Fraser and Jamal Lewis in particular, and they’ve all really been inhibited.
Bruce in particular must be relieved there are no fans in stadiums because I think he would have felt the wrath of those passionate Newcastle fans; only one side have mustered fewer shots, and only two sides have created fewer chances.
What’s worse, the takeover talk has essentially ground to a halt. It has been a miserable season.
When you give your manager one task – to stay in the Premier League at whatever footballing cost, not financial cost – the football is going to be wretched, and if you’re not a newly-promoted side, it’s going to create anger among fans.
In recent weeks it has turned very sour. The uninspiring football was getting the odd result before, but now it’s almost gone inside itself and the players don’t seem to believe in it. They may well be seven points clear of the drop zone but I actually don’t know where their next win comes from. Worrying times for Newcastle.
Sheffield United fans wouldn’t have expected such a drop off this season, but the warning signs were there after the restart last season, really struggling to recapture the form after they came up.
They were on a real roll when they first came up, but when things started to turn, you began to see a squad that perhaps wasn’t Premier League quality.
But even so, I don’t think anybody would have expected five points at the midway point, and just 10 goals, half of them coming from David McGoldrick.
They are a club though where you won’t see fans calling for the manager’s head; if they are honest now, they are going to be in the Championship season, and if there is anyone to bring them up it is Chris Wilder. I can’t imagine making any sort of change now would make a difference, because they are so far off the pace.
It’s been a few years since I can remember talking about Southampton so glowingly. They’ve been superb this season, and you can see what their structure and identity is about as a football club.
Ralph Hassenhuttl has them playing exciting, high pressing football, with youngsters from the academy filling up the bench.
So far this season it has been hugely positive, spending most of the campaign in the top half of the table. They’re into the fifth round of the FA Cup, and everything feels good at the moment.
Whilst there’s no fans at the stadiums, there are smiles on faces around the club, and you can see on social media how excited the fans are.
They can mix it with the big six, and with Hassenhuttl’s style, they are definitely a force to be reckoned with, and it’s quite amazing they’ve managed this with injuries to Vestergaard, Djenepo, Redmond, Romeu and Ings too.
Due to the nature of this title race, you probably can’t rule Spurs out. But I think there’s a reason they’re not being talked about like Manchester United, City or Liverpool, because they have this habit of blowing leads – they’ve dropped 10 points from winning positions this season.
There have been some proper Jose Mourinho performances this season against Manchester City and Arsenal but also in the way they perhaps sit back on a 1-0 win and get stung, when they should perhaps go on to get a second or third.
Because of that, they’ve dropped down to fifth. They’re not out of the mix, but perhaps a slight change of philosophy to go a little bit more gung ho.
There always seems to be a player out of favour in Jose’s squads – at Chelsea, Man Utd, Real Madrid, Inter – and at Spurs it is Dele Alli. How that is resolved, it remains to be seen.
And also Gareth Bale, who came back to a lot of fanfare, and Mourinho hasn’t quite found the way to integrate him. So there are a few issues rumbling in the background.
Let’s look at this realistically – did West Brom expect to be battling relegation this season? Most definitely, so there isn’t a shock there. But I think they would have wanted a few more reasons to be hopeful than what they current possess.
Their last result was their best of the season by far – that could be a season-defining victory at the home of their biggest rivals in Wolves. That means a lot to Albion fans and the good feeling has rocketed with that one victory. But they’ll need nouse and team spirit to stay up, because I’d seriously question whether they have the actual quality to stay up.
Lack of firepower has really cost them this season. Sheffield United are rock bottom of the table but statistically West Brom have been the worst side in an attacking sense this season by quite some distance. They’ve only created 112 chances, the fewest in the league.
Callum Robinson has had 12 shots in 18 games. Grady Diangana has created four chances in 15 appearances. It’s not good enough.
Sam Allardyce may well get their act together but with the market the way it is, it’s going to be difficult for him to work the magic in terms of personnel that we’re used to seeing with him.
It’s quite remarkable as it looked like it was going to be long, hard season after their opening-day defeat by Newcastle. It felt like the direction of travel was only one way and that David Moyes wouldn’t last.
Moyes seems to have created a team spirit from the arrivals. It’s 35 years since West Ham had a points total like this at this stage of the season, so they are doing something right.
They’ve had players that haven’t quite hit it off, and they probably do need to get another striker in, because it is always a struggle to keep Michail Antonio fit.
But Moyes overall seems chipper, seems confident, and seems to have the backing of the owners. For the first time in a while at West Ham, things seem to be heading in a good direction, and David Moyes should take a lot of credit for that. He had a point to prove, and he is proving it.
Is this a season of transition at Wolves, or real backwards steps?
Their last Premier League result was their worst of the season by some distance – losing at home to their bitter rivals West Brom – meaning they’re without a win in six in the league.
They’re massively inconsistent – both results and performance-wise – and there is actually pressure on Nuno now from some quarters of the support.
But of course, the loss of Raul Jimenez at Arsenal in November was huge – he’s such a big part of how they play and arguably the best No 9 in the league – and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they’ve seen their results drop since he’s been out. They’ve had bad luck with injuries elsewhere, too.
Tactically, too, they’ve got from that trusted three-man defence to a 4-2-3-1 and it’s simply not effective – they’re a counter-attacking side with several very good passers who simply don’t get on the ball. In over half of their games this season they’ve had possession at 45 per cent or below.
So improvement is needed, and when you finish seventh one season and now sit lower mid-table, the fans are going to be grumpy. Expectation has gone up and they’re really short of meeting that.