McNulty’s mid-season Premier League report

11 January 2024 0 By Total Football News
Jurgen Klopp, Erik ten Hag ad Vincent Kompany

The Premier League is into the second half of the season and it is clear the battle for the title is shaping up to be a fascinating one.

Liverpool lead the way but the top four are separated by just five points, meaning there are likely to be plenty more twists and turns to come.

Meanwhile, promoted sides Luton Town, Burnley and Sheffield United are in the relegation zone - but those just outside it will be looking over their shoulders.

At the start of the season, BBC Sport's chief football writer Phil McNulty predicted where the 20 sides will finish and he now reflects on their progress so far.

Premier League table

First - Liverpool

Mohamed Salah celebrates after scoring a goalMohamed Salah has been in excellent form for Liverpool but is now away with Egypt at the Africa Cup of Nations for several weeks

Anfield is always the home of high expectations but after the disappointment of last season and Jurgen Klopp's rebuild - dubbed 'Liverpool 2.0' - there was talk of 'transition' going into this season.

Instead, Liverpool are top of the Premier League, in the EFL Cup semi-finals, strolled through their Europa League group and had an outstanding win at Arsenal in the FA Cup.

Expectations have therefore actually been exceeded. Mohamed Salah's continued brilliance, the imperious defending of Virgil van Dijk and a world-class goalkeeper in Alisson remain the bedrock, but a new, exciting Liverpool is emerging.

They are genuine title contenders and the second half of the season is shaping up as something special.

McNulty's pre-season prediction: Second.

What McNulty said in August: "I am expecting a Liverpool resurgence, especially as they boast such firepower in attack with Mohamed Salah, Cody Gakpo, Luis Diaz, Diogo Jota and Darwin Nunez."

Second - Aston Villa

A superb season so far under the expert guidance of Unai Emery. Aston Villa have been a team and a club rejuvenated since he succeeded Steven Gerrard. They are hugely formidable at home, where Manchester City and Arsenal were beaten in a matter of days.

Optimism is therefore sky high at Villa Park, and why not? They are flying high in the league, with sights on next season's Champions League and are surely among the favourites for the Europa Conference League - with European specialist Emery guiding them.

Can they maintain it? Emery will believe they can.

McNulty's pre-season prediction: Fifth.

What McNulty said in August: "I'm going out on a limb a bit here but I have a feeling we will see a very strong Aston Villa this season."

Third - Manchester City

Manchester City players celebrate winning the Premier LeagueManchester City are looking to win the Premier League for a fourth season in a row

Not quite at their majestic best so far this season but there are signs of that form in recent games and the return of Kevin de Bruyne will be a massive lift both psychologically and in terms of their performances. Erling Haaland will also be back soon and we are entering that time of the year when Manchester City usually fire on all cylinders.

They are right in touch despite some slips, and are still my tip to win the title.

McNulty's pre-season prediction: First.

What McNulty said in August: "Throw in the phenomenon that is Haaland and the enduring genius of De Bruyne, allied to so many others, and the champions will be the same again for me this season."

Fourth - Arsenal

Arsenal have shown much to admire this season without the fluency of last term - and a recent poor run has thrown the spotlight on the Gunners' glaring lack of a top-class striker.

Mikel Arteta has created noise around the goalkeeping position by dropping Aaron Ramsdale for summer recruit David Raya. Could the £65m handed to Chelsea for Kai Havertz have been better spent on a reliable finisher?

A fine side, but they are approaching a crucial stage of the season with questions for Arteta to answer.

McNulty's pre-season prediction: Third.

What McNulty said in August: "Do I see Arsenal as title winners? No."

Fifth - Tottenham Hotspur

Ange Postecoglou has made Tottenham Hotspur Stadium a happy place again, which has been no mean feat given he had to contend with the loss of Harry Kane to Bayern Munich. They play in a high-octane, all-out attacking style that comes with risks... but is highly entertaining.

James Maddison and Micky van de Ven looked high-class additions before their injuries while goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario is a bargain at £17.5m.

Spurs will miss Son Heung-min, who is away with South Korea at the Asia Cup, but if you had offered their fans this position at the start of the season they would have surely signed up for it instantly.

McNulty's pre-season prediction: Eighth.

What McNulty said in August: "Postecoglou will need time and patience after the turbulence of recent seasons but his sides usually make for highly entertaining viewing, which will at least be an improvement."

Sixth - West Ham United

David Moyes still seems a taste yet to be acquired by some West Ham United fans. It is a mystery why that is the case after he won the Europa Conference League last season and has them riding high in the Premier League, with the recent win at Arsenal a particular highlight.

The Hammers possess the traditional Moyes traits of organisation and durability but also have Jarrod Bowen, Lucas Paqueta and Mohammed Kudus providing the 'X Factor'.

There is plenty to look forward to in the second half of the season - and they are doing much better than I predicted, although he did get the signings after the season had started and my predictions were made that I felt he needed.

McNulty's pre-season prediction: 11th.

What McNulty said in August: "Moyes is vastly experienced and his first trophy after such a long career was hugely popular within the game but he is not daft and he will know he needs signings."

Seventh - Brighton & Hove Albion

Roberto De Zerbi, left, has impressed as Brighton bossBrighton boss Roberto de Zerbi, left, has been impressive again with the Seagulls

Brighton remain one of the most exciting sides around and are comfortably in the top half of the Premier League despite losing key midfielders Alexis Mac Allister and Moises Caicedo to Liverpool and Chelsea respectively.

Roberto de Zerbi is an inspirational leader and a fine tactician while Joao Pedro has been a top-class acquisition from Watford.

Brighton continue to progress and might fancy their chances in one of the cup competitions they are still in. Good times in Sussex.

McNulty's pre-season prediction: Ninth.

What McNulty said in August: "European football was a fitting reward last season and I expect them to have another good campaign this time around."

Eighth - Manchester United

Manchester United boss Erik ten HagManchester United have not kicked on as Erik ten Hag will have hoped this season

Where to even start with this? The improvement of last season has been followed by dull regression this term, with United not getting out of their Champions League group and losing half of their first 20 Premier League games.

Manager Erik ten Hag presides over a dysfunctional squad that lacks belief and cohesion. He is also under added pressure now Sir Jim Ratcliffe has bought a stake in the club and will be running the football operation. He will demand improvement.

They are making a mockery of my pre-season verdict.

McNulty's pre-season prediction: Fourth.

What McNulty said in August: "I am backing United to continue the improvements started by Ten Hag. No chance of the title but a decent bet for some silverware."

Ninth - Newcastle United

Newcastle players look frustrated after losing to LiverpoolNewcastle have lost five of their last six Premier League games

A mixed bag of a season so far after qualifying for the Champions League last term. Newcastle's Champions League campaign fizzled out after a magnificent 4-1 win over Paris St-Germain while poor recent form is reflected by the fact the FA Cup third-round win at Sunderland ended a run of seven defeats in eight games.

Manager Eddie Howe will hope that victory can re-ignite their season and fulfil the vast expectations of the Toon Army and, perhaps more pertinently, the club's Saudi Arabian ownership.

McNulty's pre-season prediction: Seventh.

What McNulty said in August: "Not sure there will be another top-four finish but the curve is very much moving in an upward direction as far as long-term prospects are concerned."

10th - Chelsea

Chelsea's frenetic last couple of years under the ownership of Todd Boehly and Behdad Eghbali means Mauricio Pochettino needs time to bring order to a dysfunctional club but there is no question it has been a below-par first half of the season.

Cole Palmer has been a bright spark since his £40m move from Manchester City and there is enough talent in Chelsea's squad to still make something of the second half of the campaign. Whether they will, though, is another matter.

McNulty's pre-season prediction: Sixth.

What McNulty said in August: "Chelsea will be nowhere near the title but I do believe Pochettino will put them on a better footing and they can never be ruled out from claiming some silverware."

11th - Wolverhampton Wanderers

I delivered a very pessimistic pre-season verdict after the departure of Julen Lopetegui, but the subsequent appointment of Gary O'Neil has proved to be very smart and Wolves are enjoying a very promising season.

The clouds that lingered over Molineux in the summer as the wait for Lopetegui's future to be decided dragged on have gone and there is a feel-good factor around the club once more.

McNulty's pre-season prediction: 18th.

What McNulty said in August: "Lopetegui looked their best hope of staying up - now he has gone and Wolves are in crisis."

12th - Bournemouth

A very poor start increased worries that the Cherries had made a mistake by sacking Gary O'Neil and appointing Andoni Iraola but the Spaniard has now stamped his mark on Bournemouth to great effect. They have moved up the Premier League playing very entertaining football.

Striker Dominic Solanke is fulfilling his long-held promise and Iraola is now looking like an imaginative appointment.

McNulty's pre-season prediction: 15th.

What McNulty said in August: "Iraola comes with a reputation for exciting football and will be backed."

13th - Fulham

Manager Marco Silva continues to show his capabilities at Fulham as they deliver in his attractive style and look at home in the Premier League after a fine 2022-23 season. Silva is showing why he is so highly regarded and has guided the Cottagers to the EFL Cup semi-finals for the first time.

Joao Palhinha continues to be a player of real influence after the collapse of his move to Bayern Munich. Fulham will be desperate to keep him this month. There has also been delight at the rejuvenation of Raul Jimenez after the striker struggled to regain his best form following a serious head injury while playing for Wolves.

McNulty's pre-season prediction: 13th.

What McNulty said in August: "Fulham's place (10th in 2021-22) may not be so lofty this season, although I don't expect a relegation struggle either."

14th - Crystal Palace

There is a feeling of the end of an era at Crystal Palace as they roll along under veteran manager Roy Hodgson, who has been the subject of speculation about whether he will leave Selhurst Park before his agreed departure at the end of the season.

Palace will not be in trouble but there is the lingering sense this Palace side could have the handbrake released more and that Hodgson could allow the exciting attacking talents of Eberechi Eze and Michael Olise to flourish.

McNulty's pre-season prediction: 12th.

What McNulty said in August: "Expect a Hodgson season. Stable, solid, no trouble."

15th - Nottingham Forest

Nuno Espirito Santo congratulates his Nottingham Forest playersNottingham Forest appointed Nuno Espirito Santo as manager on 20 December last year

All change at the City Ground in recent weeks, with fans' favourite Steve Cooper unable to build on last season's Premier League survival and being replaced as manager by Nuno Espirito Santo.

Nuno has already had fine wins away to Newcastle United and at home to Manchester United, which represents an excellent start that has lifted Forest's spirits as they enter the New Year.

Morgan Gibbs-White has shown what a talent he is and the playmaker will be crucial in the second half of the season while Anthony Elanga's pace is a real weapon.

McNulty's pre-season prediction: 14th.

What McNulty said in August: "It will be interesting to see if Anthony Elanga can build on the occasional promise he showed at Manchester United prior to his £15m switch."

16th - Brentford

It has been a bit of a struggle for the Bees at times this season, not helped by their talismanic striker Ivan Toney serving an eight-month ban for breaching betting rules. He is about to return and it cannot come soon enough.

Brentford will hope to keep him away from any suitors in the January transfer window, because he can make a huge difference to the rest of their season. I still think the Bees will have enough to stay up, principally thanks to their home form and excellent manager Thomas Frank.

McNulty's pre-season prediction: 10th.

What McNulty said in August: "Another season of sound consolidation. The Bees will always be a handful at home."

17th - Everton

Everton are labouring under the punishment of a 10-point Premier League points reduction having been found to have breached financial rules, although they are in the process of appealing.

It has acted as a unifying force and a run of four straight Premier League wins wiped out that deficit and took them out of the relegation places.

There has been a slip recently but Sean Dyche is doing a fine job. The fragility of his squad is still evident though, as has been demonstrated by the impact of Abdoulaye Doucoure's injury.

I stated Everton would stay up even if they were deducted 12 points. I stand by that.

McNulty's pre-season prediction: 16th.

What McNulty said in August: "Manager Sean Dyche's organisational skills may just keep Everton up."

18th - Luton Town

If the art of good management is getting the best out of the resources at your disposal, then Rob Edwards is doing an outstanding job at Kenilworth Road.

Luton have made 'The Kenny' a tough place to go, with Edwards putting together a side that is full of energy and belief as well as skill. Ross Barkley has been rejuvenated while outstanding professional Andros Townsend has been a shrewd acquisition.

The Hatters go into the rest of the season with hope of Premier League survival and the chance to make fools of those of us who predicted a painful demise.

McNulty's pre-season prediction: 20th.

What McNulty said in August: "It is difficult to see Luton surviving but I would take great pleasure in being proved wrong."

19th - Burnley

Burnley have shown signs of life at times but I feel there has also been a reluctance to adapt to changing circumstances - and leagues - by manager Vincent Kompany.

Sticking by principles is fine but the purist football that got Burnley out of the Championship has also looked lightweight and fraught with danger against top-flight opponents. I thought Burnley might have enough to stay up. I'm not quite as convinced any more.

McNulty's pre-season prediction: 17th.

What McNulty said in August: "There has been lots of talk that the three sides coming up will go straight back down but if one club can defy those predictions, then I am going for Burnley."

20th - Sheffield United

Chris Wilder gives instructions to his players on the touchlineChris Wilder is back at Sheffield United, where he previously enjoyed notable success

The Blades have turned to Chris Wilder to dig them out of a deep hole following the sacking of Paul Heckingbottom and the optimistic Wilder will believe it can be done. He is an ideal man for the job, not just because of his past history with the club but also his ability.

Much will rest on whether Ben Brereton Diaz can provide goals after joining on loan from Villarreal. Wilder will whip up the atmosphere at Bramall Lane to provide a source of inspiration - but it will be quite the feat if they stay up.

McNulty's pre-season prediction: 19th.

What McNulty said in August: "Manager Paul Heckingbottom did superbly to take Sheffield United back into the top flight but it already looks like he will have a job keeping them there."