An EPL season like no other
By Imran Malik, Assistant Editor
Have you ever seen anything like it? In all my years of watching the beautiful game, I can say, hand on heart, that the 2020/21 English Premier League season is shaping up to be the greatest of all time. And no, I’m not just saying that because my beloved Toffees are in with a genuine chance to win the title. Well, maybe I am, but then again, any of the current top 10 have a real chance to be crowned champions and that is why this is the most thrilling season there has been in years. Maybe ever. Definitely ever.
Usually at the halfway point, whoever is leading the pack tends to be closely followed by two or three others and it is a tight race until the bitter or sweet end — apart for the last campaign. Liverpool were home and hosed with 15 games still to play. That isn’t happening this time. Nobody is dominating and we seem to have a new leader after every round of fixtures. It’s incredible.
There have been surprises aplenty thus far and you can be sure there will be many more as the games come thick and fast. It’s time then for a half-term report on all 20 teams. There’s been good, bad, ugly and Sheffield United. Blades fans might want to look away now.
1st — Manchester United
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been under the spotlight ever since taking the job as manager and there were several moments last season when you thought he was on the verge of the sack. But United stuck with their former super sub and he has propelled them to the top of the table at the midway point of the season. They seem to start every game badly but go on to win. If Bruno Fernandes plays well United play well, while Marcus Rashford has been great on and off the pitch (he deserves all the plaudits for his campaigns on the issues of homelessness and child hunger in the UK). The Red Devils are leading the title race and have a healthy six-point advantage over current champions Liverpool — but the way this topsy-turvy season is shaping up, there’s no guarantee that they’ll stay there.
Half-term rating: 9/10
2nd — Manchester City
Much was expected this season from City and though they haven’t blown anyone away with any signs of scintillating football, their six-game winning run has seen them rise from mid-table to second. They are just two points behind neighbours United and have a game in hand. It is looking good for Pep Guardiola and he will be hoping the winning run continues but without star man Kevin De Bruyne, who has been ruled out with a hamstring injury for up to 6 weeks, it’ll be easier said than done. However, Ruben Dias has been solid as has — and I kid you not — John Stones.
3rd — Leicester City
They picked up brilliant away wins over City, Arsenal and Tottenham and will fancy themselves to keep the good form going into the second half of the season, but they will be without talisman Jamie Vardy for a few weeks as he undergoes an operation for a persistent hip problem. He’s banged in 11 goals this season and the loss of the 34-year-old could hit the Foxes hard. But Brendan Rodgers will have a few tricks up his sleeve — he is trying to tempt Christian Eriksen back to the Premier League (although his sky-high wages could be a stumbling block. Sorry mate, you’re not worth £300k a week) but you can expect Leicester to have another very good season.
4th — Liverpool
The US has had two Presidents since Liverpool last scored a goal in the league! The champions have not been at their best and lost their impressive 68 game unbeaten home record following Burnley’s smash and grab at Anfield. Having lost key man Virgil Van Dijk for the season, many believed the Reds would concede goals aplenty but the young lads Rhys Williams and Nat Phillips have done well, although Jordan Henderson does not look happy filling in at the back. However, with Sadio Mane and Mo Salah still a threat and Thiago Alcantara back from injury, Jurgen Klopp will demand a huge improvement if Liverpool are to defend their title. It’d take a brave man to bet against them. Well I’m brave and I’m an Evertonian. So, no, they won’t do it.
5th — Tottenham Hotspur
They’re not looking very convincing but then again nobody is and the way this season is shaping up, they will fancy their chances of topping the lot. With Harry Kane and Son Heung-min up front they’ll always have a goalscoring chance — but it seems they won’t be getting any ammunition from Dele Alli as his time at the club appears to be drawing to an end. You can expect Jose Mourinho to start the mind games soon, he always likes to have a little dig around this time. It’s far more preferable than all the whingeing.
6th — Everton
The last time Everton won all seven of our opening fixtures in all competitions came when none of us were even alive. It was during the 1894-95 season (ask your great, great, great grandad about it …) so you can understand the excitement at Goodison Park at having finally repeated the feat more than a century later. Following a little blip in form, serial winner Carlo Ancelotti has got them back on track and they’re sitting pretty in sixth with two games in hand. If they win those they can fly up to second. With a brand of football that is pleasing on the eye, Dominic Calvert-Lewin scoring for fun, Allan dominating the midfield and James Rodriguez back to his creative best, a top-four finish is the bare minimum that the Toffees should expect. We haven’t won the title since 1986-87 and I’m not saying we will this time, but we won’t have a better chance …
7th — West Ham United
David Moyes has had his fair share of criticism ever since taking the reins at Old Trafford but he proved during his time in the hot seat at Goodison that he can build teams that compete without much of a budget — and he is repeating that trick at West Ham. He’ll be rewarded with a new contract at the end of the season and deserves it not least for unearthing Tomas Soucek and Said Benrahma who have been brilliant signings. And that early-season comeback against Spurs will live long in the memory. Well, for Hammers fans anyway. But in all seriousness, that Manuel Lanzini leveller may well win goal of the season.
8th — Aston Villa
They were almost relegated last season then found themselves in the top four this season and are now in mid-table but have games in hand which if they win will see them back among the elite. They stuck with manager Dean Smith when many other clubs would have given him the boot and it’s paying off nicely. Much of Villa’s good work comes from Jack Grealish and if they can keep him injury free (heck, or just keep him — there are plenty of suitors out there) they could have a very good campaign. But as weird as this season has been, it is still hard to believe that they put seven past Liverpool ...
9th — Chelsea
Why so much expectation was thrust on Frank Lampard’s shoulders is one of life’s little mysteries. His only previous managerial experience was with lowly Derby, yet the Chelsea faithful reckoned the club legend would lead them to glory. He paid the price with his job on Monday. Due to the sheer peculiarity of this season, Chelsea are still in with a shout of the title. Owner Roman Abramovich has spent heavily yet again and will want the Blues fighting for the title. They have had an average campaign so far but are still within touching distance. Thiago Silva was brought in to provide some leadership at the back and with Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham and Kai Havertz at the business end of the pitch, they’ll be up there.
10th — Southampton
They have been good to watch as they play the game with a fast tempo and with the likes of Che Adams, Theo Walcott, Danny Ings and James Ward-Prowse, the Saints can be a handful on their day. Boss Ralph Hasenhuttl deserves credit for improving the team and there’s no reason why they can’t push on in the second half of the season for a Europa League spot at the very least.
11th — Arsenal
Do you remember Arsene Wenger’s Invincibles? Well, they’re calling Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal the Unthinkables. The current team looked ripe for a relegation dogfight having made their worst start to a season since 1974 but with four wins and a draw in the last five games, they’re in a slightly less precarious position. But, it may just be paper over the cracks. Arteta will have to hope he can keep the current form going but there is no hiding the fact that they have had an appalling first half of the season.
12th — Leeds United
Without question, they are everyone’s second favourite team. Whether they win or lose, they are always thrilling to watch, what with their all-or-nothing approach to every single game. They run around so much and cover every blade of grass that it isn’t a surprise the pitch at Elland Road has had to be relaid. They were smashed at Old Trafford yet even at 6-1 down they kept venturing forward in numbers in the hope they’d pull a goal back. Naive? Oh yes. But it sure is fun to watch. Patrick Bamford has been brilliant.
13th — Crystal Palace
With just one win in their last five following a bright start, Palace may be in for a bit of a struggle during the second half of the season. They have match winners in their ranks in Wilfried Zaha and Eberechi Eze — but will they be able to hold on to the former who almost left the club in January last year? Roy Hodgson will be hoping to get some consistency going and with the arrival of striker Jean-Philippe Mateta at Selhurst Park, Palace sure don’t lack an attacking threat. It’s at the other end of the pitch where they’re having problems.
14th — Wolves
We all thought they would kick on but they have struggled this season. They’re missing Raul Jimenez after that horrific head injury against Arsenal and will be hoping to get the deal done for striker Willian Jose from Real Sociedad as a replacement. They’ll need to start playing like we all know they can if they want to finish in the top half but it looks like it’ll be a transitional season for Nuno Espirito Santo.
15th — Burnley
Aside from the brilliant win at Anfield, it has been a difficult first half for Sean Dyche — but he did predict as much. They have the lowest budget in the league and lowest net spend too. They were in the bottom three for a while but they are finding their bullish self again however they will have to keep fighting for every point if they are to avoid being dragged into a relegation battle. It’s not been pretty but with the Clarets, it never is. Well, you know what they say — football teams are a reflection of their manager ...
16th — Newcastle United
They are where you expect them to be, hovering just above the relegation zone after Saturday’s 2-0 loss to Villa, and they should just do enough to stay there. Is that enough for the fans? No chance. And with Steve Bruce happy to serve up a bland style of football week in, week out, you wonder how long he’ll be at the helm. Still, Callum Wilson has been a hit following his move from Bournemouth but the Toon Army expect far more than what they’re getting. The return of Allan Saint-Maximin after two months out due to COVID should give them a lift.
17th — Brighton
They’re still playing an attractive brand of football and some would say they deserve more points, but the fact remains they have only three wins to their name and are in a battle to survive the dreaded drop. They managed that last season and Graham Potter will be hoping there are worse teams than his this time around again. Tariq Lamptey is a superstar in the making and if they can keep Adam Lallana fit they might just pull it off.
18th — Fulham
They did well to hold Liverpool to a draw and went one better against Leicester. Following a poor start, it appears they have the bit between their teeth (the draw against Spurs was arguably their best performance of the season). But, that Ademola Lookman penalty still haunts them and it is likely they’ll continue to struggle, however Scott Parker can take encouragement from some of their recent displays. Aleksandar Mitrovic must start firing on all cylinders.
19th — West Brom
Following a poor start to the season they got rid of Slaven Bilic — who did ever so well to get them promoted — for Sam Allardyce and not much has changed in terms of results or performances. He may have bitten off more than he can chew this time around. The Baggies don’t look fit, they don’t look organised, they struggle to score goals and they are leaking them at the other end. Can Fireman Sam pull off another rescue act? It’ll go down to the wire.
20th — Sheffield United
Nineteen games played and just one win to show for it, and that too thanks to a controversially awarded penalty. It’s been a disastrous season and it doesn’t look like improving. They were knocking on the European door last term but are now rock bottom and appear destined for the drop. It looks like they have forgotten how to defend and their finishing has been appalling and at times, laughable. Are they playing rugby? They seem to think so with a majority of shots at goal looking more like conversion attempts. It’s been like watching a rusty bicycle on a F1 track. Can Chris Wilder find that spirit of last season? He’ll have to, and fast.
The managerial sack race hots up
By Matthew Smith, Sports Editor
It is nearly February and despite the topsy-turvy manner of this season, until Monday we had only had one managerial casualty — Slaven Bilic at West Brom. Frank Lampard joined him on the scrapheap on Monday when he tasted ruthless Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich’s axe as his expensively assembled squad — Lampard spent more than 200 million pounds in the summer but players such as Timo Werner have failed to fire — stumbled to a series of poor results with five losses in eight games and the Blues have slid down the table.
However, one thing that is guaranteed, there will be more Premier League coaches joining the queue at the job centre before the season is out. But who else is in the firing line?
STEVE BRUCE — NEWCASTLE
The former Manchester United star was always going to be up against it, with owner Mike Ashley failed to sell the club and refusing to shell out on new players. The Magpies are outside the relegation zone as it stands, but if their meek performance in a 2-0 loss to Aston Villa on Saturday is anything to go by, Bruce will be the fall guy and be on his way well before the end of the campaign as the club look to avoid the drop at any cost.
CHRIS WILDER — SHEFFIELD
How Wilder has held onto his position this far is beyond me. There is patience then there is silly. It took until January 12 and 19 games for the Blades to pick their first win of the season — an unwanted Premier League record — and that was a shaky 1-0 win over a shonky Newcastle. The only reason I can think of for Wilder still clinging onto his job is a bit of faith after an impressive run in the league last season. That and the dearth of possible replacements. Not many coaches out there would fancy trying to get this mob into shape to even attempt a bid to stay up.
MIKEL ARTETA — ARSENAL
The axe was looming large over the Gunners legend in his second year in the hot seat after departing Manchester City as Pep Guardiola’s assistant. A solid first campaign saw Arsenal finish eighth, qualify for the Europa League and triumph in the FA Cup over Chelsea at Wembley. However, a dramatic loss of form saw the Gunners slump to their worst start to a league season since 1974. a recent resurgence has eased the pressure somewhat, but Saturday’s defeat to Southampton in the FA Cup has cast a cloud over the Spaniard once again and another slump will lead to him being shown the exit door.
JURGEN KLOPP — LIVERPOOL
Yes, you read that right. Where did it all go wrong? As recently as September, Liverpool could do no wrong as they backed up their Champions League triumph in 2019 by storming to the English Premier League championship by a record 18-point margin over Manchester City, and left Manchester United trailing in third, a whopping 33 points adrift. But the tables have turned dramatically with United atop the league standings and Liverpool in crisis. On Sunday, Liverpool went down 3-2 to their old rivals at Old Trafford to crash out of the FA Cup. Reds boss Jurgen Klopp responded by saying “don’t worry about us”. But the truth is the Liverpool board will be worried and will soon start demanding answers before they are forced to make a change of their own. The Anfield club’s only victory in the past seven was over Aston Villa’s youth team in the last round of the Cup. We may not be worried Jurgen, but you should be. Steven Gerrard’s impressive run at Rangers in Scotland, means they have a ready-made replacement waiting in the wings.
A timeline of the Premier League season so far
By Marwa Hamad, Assistant Editor
Season delayed due to COVID-19, as scheduling chaos erupts amid pandemic
The EPL 2020-21 was pushed back to September 12 instead of August 8. The 2019-20 season had previously been disrupted, including a three-month interruption, leading to a late finish date on July 26, instead of wrapping up in May.
Premier League unlikely to return to full capacity until vaccine, say experts
The Premier League, which had removed crowds toward the end of the 2019-20 season, would be unlikely to return to full capacity anytime soon. “Realistically I think it probably will need a vaccine and also a high take-up rate of that vaccine before we can really see full capacity stadia,” James Calder, part of the team that helped lay down protocols on return of sports, told the BBC in July.
Messi to Man City rumours grow; Robbo doesn’t want him anywhere near the EPL
As rumours grew that Messi would make a move from Barcelona to Manchester City, Liverpool’s Andy Robertson said he doesn’t want the Argentine icon anywhere near him. “He’s one of, if not the best player to ever play the game, so for him to go to one of your nearest rivals is probably never a good sign … I don’t want him anywhere near the Premier League and hopefully it stays that way,” admitted the Reds left-back.
Leicester thrash Man City 5-2
In the first big upset of the season, Leicester thrashed Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium, including a hat-trick from Jamie Vardy. This marked the first time since 2003 that City conceded five foals at home since 2003.
Aston Villa deliver 7-2 thumping to Liverpool
In a shock result, Aston Villa thrashed Liverpool for a 7-2 result, including a hat-trick from Ollie Watkins and two goals from Jack Grealish. Villa, playing at home, only had 30 per cent possession, but still managed the massive result.
Virgil Van Dijk out of the game with brutal injury, Liverpool demand review
The Reds luck got worse: star defender Virgil Van Dijk was wiped out for the remainder of the season with a brutal knee injury. Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford’s dangerous lunge out of goal resulted in an ACL rupture for Van Dijk. Despite the dangerous tackle from Pickford, the goalkeeper wasn’t booked; VAR ruled Van Dijk offside instead. Liverpool demanded the Premier League review the VAR calls from the Merseyside derby.
Five substitute rule goes out the window
The five substitute ruling, part of Project Restart, aimed to help players deal with the atypically intense scheduling in the wake of COVID-19 delays, and protect them from injuries. But it was voted out in October, which didn’t sit well with several outspoken managers. “I don’t understand and cannot believe that the vote went against that because we have to look after the players and think about the players,” says Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp blamed it on a “lack of leadership” while City boss Pep Guardolia questioned: “Why, in all the leagues is it happening, and here we cannot protect the players?”
Ozil excluded from Arsenal’s 25-man Premier League squad
In a shock move, Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta failed to name his most expensive player, Mesut Ozil, as part of his 25-man Premier League squad. This signalled the beginning of the end of Ozil’s time at Arsenal. By January, the German midfielder would complete a move to Turkish side Fenerbahce.
Petr Cech makes shock comeback for Chelsea
A 38-year-old Petr Cech was named an “emergency goalkeeper cover” as part of Chelsea’s 25-man Premier League squad. Cech had joined Chelsea’s coaching staff in 2019 after retiring from the game.
Liverpool draw with Manchester City
In one of the most anticipated matches of the season, Man City drew with Liverpool for a disappointing 1-1 result. Nonetheless both sides fought for the win. Klopp played his trusty trio of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohammad Salah at the front, though only Salah scored. Meanwhile, City’s Kevin de Bruyne missed a crucial penalty, and they only managed an equaliser from Gabriel Jesus.
EPL scraps controversial pay-per-view model a month after launch
The league scrapped its controversial PPV model in the UK, only a month after it launched. The PPV model had mandated fans to pay £14.95 for games that had not been chosen for regular broadcast on television. It quickly drew harsh critiques.
Teams given green light to welcome 2,000 supporters to stadiums
Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham, Everton, Fulham, Crystal Palace and West Ham were among the EPL teams that would allowed to welcome crowds of up to 2,000 back to their stadiums starting December 2, following a new tiered system from the UK government. Klopp, however, questioned the logic behind the ‘2,000’ figure: “I don’t understand why you can put 2,000 people in a stadium with 60,000 [capacity], and 2,000 people in a stadium when 9,000 people would fit in,” he said. Meanwhile, Gary Neville wondered whether this would result in “unfair competition” as other clubs had to continue to play to empty stadiums for the time being.
Two fixtures postponed, but the league refuses to suspend games
Aston Villa’s fixture against Everton, and Fulham’s clash with Tottenham were both postponed due to COVID-19 outbreaks, but the league refused to take another break to curb the spread of the virus. “The Premier League has not discussed pausing the season and has no plans to do so,” the league said. “The league continues to have confidence in its COVID-19 protocols to enable fixtures to be played as scheduled, and these protocols continue to have the full backing of government.”
Premier League agree to £250m EFL bailout package
The Premier League struck an agreement with the English Football League for a 250-million-pound bailout package, to help mitigate the financial damage caused by COVID-19. “The Premier League is a huge a supporter of the football pyramid and is well aware of the important role clubs play in their communities. Our commitment is that no EFL club need go out of business due to COVID-19,” said chief executive of the Premier League, Richard Masters.
Mo Salah equals Ronaldo’s Premier League goalscoring record
The Liverpool winger matched Ronaldo’s Premier League goalscoring record after Liverpool defeated the Wolves 4-0. Salah scored his 84th Premier League in his 131st match, equalling Ronaldo’s tally of 84 Premier League goals in 196 matches. Salah was quicker to reach the total, needing 65 fewer games.
After less than a month, clubs can no longer welcome fans
After a short-lived period of allowing up to 2,000 fans into their stadiums, Liverpool and other EPL teams dropped to Tier 3 of a UK government plan, which meant they could no longer welcome any fans to their stadiums. Only teams chosen for Tier 1 and Tier 2 could welcome 4,000 and 2,000 fans respectively, and by end of December, all EPL teams had been removed from the higher tiers.
United thrash Leeds
Manchester United beat Leeds United 6-2, positioning them as worthy contenders for the title. At that point, United had been unbeaten for six of their previous seven matches and were within five points of table-toppers Liverpool.
Kane and Son match a record as they rack up assists
Harry Kane and Son Heung-min matched a 26-year-old Premier League record after their 3-0 win against Leeds United early this month. Kane and Son have combined for 13 goals this season, with one of them assisting the other, matching the record set by the ‘SAS’ of Chris Sutton and Alan Shearer for Blackburn Rovers in 1994-95.
Mourinho says he refuses to submit his team to unrealistic schedule
The Spurs boss said he would not allow a repeat of what happened earlier this year, when Spurs had to play two Premier League fixtures, a Europa League match and a League Cup fixture within seven days. “The only thing we can say is that what we did in the beginning of the season is impossible to repeat and we refuse to repeat. We would never accept to play seven matches in three weeks like we did before,” said Mourinho.
Snodgrass investigation under way: Did it breach Premier League rules?
The Premier League began an investigation into whether an agreement between West Ham and West Brom over Robert Snodgrass’ transfer — which resulted in the midfielder being excluded from a match between the two teams — has broken any competition rules. “[We agreed] this game he wouldn’t be allowed to play. If we needed to get the player, which we did, we had to agree to that,” said West Brom manager Sam Allardyce in a prematch interview. But the league rules state: “No club shall enter into a contract which enables another party to that contract to acquire the ability materially to influence its policies or the performance of its teams in league matches.”
Fifa’s concussion subs trial to be implemented by Premier League
Concussion substitutes are soon to arrive to the Premier League. The league’s top-flight clubs agreed this month to add two extra permanent substitutes, who can only be brought on in case of a concussion or a suspected concussion, as part of a Fifa trial. If a team makes a concussion substitution, the opposing team can then make an additional change, as well.
Managers question virus celebration fears
After the Premiere League issued a new celebration edict this month in the hopes of curbing the spread of COVID-19, some managers questioned the need. “So to control the emotions is a fair ask, but to dictate emotion will probably be very difficult on the pitch,” said Chelsea manager Frank Lampard. “If that’s what the protocols are we’ll try our best to adhere to it. But I can’t promise that anyone won’t get carried away if they score a goal,” said Allardyce.
Sergio Aguero out with COVID-19 after City confirms three more cases
Manchester City’s woes grow as their top-scorer Sergio Aguero, who was out for months recovering from a knee surgery, tested positive for COVID-19. “After a close contact, I’ve been self-isolating and the latest test I took was positive for COVID-19. I had some symptoms and I’m following doctor’s orders for recovery. Take care, everyone,” wrote Aguero. City earlier this month confirmed several new cases of COVID-19, including goalkeeper Scott Carson, teen midfielder Cole Palmer and one unnamed member of staff.
Frank Lampard gets the sack after five league losses in eight games
Lampard’s FA Cup victory on January 24 (3-1 against Luton Town) was short-lived. The Chelsea manager - and former Chelsea player - got the sack on January 25 after failing to provide the results needed, leaving in Chelsea sitting in the mid-table. “We are grateful to Frank for what he has achieved in his time as Head Coach of the Club. However, recent results and performances have not met the Club’s expectations, leaving the Club mid-table without any clear path to sustained improvement,” a statement from the club read. The favourite to replace him is former Paris Saint-Germain manager Thomas Tuchel.