As we reach the one-third mark of the 2023/24 Premier League season, the final international break of the calendar year provides one last chance to pause and reflect before we are consumed by the frenetic winter schedule.
The real meat of the campaign begins in November, when midweek matchdays and the Christmas schedule plunge the Premier League into a daily grind. We will come up for air in February with the league table set in a clear pattern.
To put it another way, we are at the end of the beginning. Here’s our review of the story so far.
Liverpool join Man City and Arsenal in title race
This is the fourth time in Premier League history that so few points have separated the teams at the top, and on two of the other three occasions we had a three-horse race going strong in May.
The exception to this being the ultimate exception of the weird, anomalous, and pandemic-hit 2020/21 campaign.
Liverpool top the charts for Expected Goals (xG), with 26.5, and their 10 goals conceded is the joint-fewest in the division. Yet the perception they are soft against counter-attacks – see the 1-1 draw at Luton Town – has unfairly tempered expectations.
But in reality, Virgil van Dijk is much improved, Dominik Szoboszlai has been a revelation in midfield, Darwin Nunez is helping to create a terrifying new front line and Liverpool have lost only one of their last 23 Premier League matches.
Nunez and Salah combine v Brentford
Arsenal have four points fewer than at the same stage last season but they look a lot more defensively robust thanks to the addition of Declan Rice. The Gunners boast the league’s lowest xG Against (xGA), with 9.2, having had the third-best XGA of 42.0 in 2022/23.
Not enough has been made of the absences of Gabriel Jesus - who has only managed 128 minutes as a No 9 this season - or string-puller Oleksandr Zinchenko and as both return to the side, Arsenal should build on a newfound defensive solidity to go all the way.
Better yet for neutrals, Man City’s chances of a fourth successive title are weakened by Kevin De Bruyne’s injury, the apparent downgrade in central midfield following the departure of Ilkay Gundogan and the fact that Pep Guardiola’s side have won just 10 points from their last five league matches.
Just one point separates the top three. If we’re lucky, it will stay in that pattern for months to come.
Man Utd crisis offset by good results
One of the stories of the season is undoubtedly the near-collapse of the Erik ten Hag project, which after a almost-perfect 2022/23 has come apart this season. Or has it?
Manchester United are sixth in the Premier League with 21 points, only two fewer than at the same point last season, and only four points off the (likely) fifth UEFA Champions League spot.
But the league table tells a lie. United’s tactical identity has completely disappeared and, as Bruno Fernandes seemingly gets them out of trouble again and again, they are winning tight matches with a single moment of quality.
Fernandes' goal v Fulham
Indeed they are 11th in Opta’s xG-based "expected league table". Frankly, a position in the bottom half is more closely aligned with the eye test.
All seven of their league victories have been by a single goal. They have scored only 13 times.
Injuries have played their part but cannot fully explain why Man Utd have once again fallen back to the position in which Ten Hag found them 17 months ago.
Promoted clubs face an uphill battle
In 1997/98 all three promoted teams Barnsley, Bolton and Crystal Palace, were relegated from the Premier League. It has never happened before or since.
Burnley’s plight reflects Vincent Kompany’s desire to play expansive and progressive football, but so far the difficult transition from Championship to Premier League has closely mimicked Norwich City’s similar attempts in recent years.
The Clarets are simply too open, vulnerable to losing possession in their own half or being picked apart by virtue of spreading too high and wide on the pitch. Kompany’s side have made eight errors leading to shots, the division's joint-most, while recording 92 interceptions, the fewest of any bottom-half team.
Luton were expected to make Kenilworth Road a difficult place for opposing teams, but are yet to win at home.
There is, however, no reason to be negative about a team that were playing League Two football five years ago and have a fraction of the budget of their rivals.
Nevertheless Luton are in trouble. The Hatters have conceded at least once in all 12 of their matches to date, and in their only win of the season, 2-1 at Everton, the xG was 0.9 to 2.9 in the Toffees’ favour.
Luton's MW7 goals v Everton
🎶 Lockyer at the back, Morris in attack!— Luton Town FC (@LutonTown) September 30, 2023
The goals at Goodison. 👊 pic.twitter.com/mij66ScbL4
Sheff Utd have won four points from their last two matches, ending concerns they could break Derby County’s record-low points tally of 11, and yet they remain mired in the relegation zone.
Paul Heckingbottom’s side are bottom of the Premier League charts for xGA (26.2), shots against (222), goals against (31), and shots for (103).
Spurs start strong but Villa are equally impressive
But that narrative has taken a serious hit over the last fortnight, with successive losses and a string of injuries and suspensions.
Indeed the manner of their late 2-1 defeat at Wolverhampton Wanderers, as they nervously sat deep, suggests the honeymoon period is over.
Still, their season remains impressive and Spurs’ attacking football has been a joy to watch, with Postecoglou’s double inverted full-backs confusing the opposition at every turn.
They top the charts for progressive passes (639) and touches in the attacking penalty area (413), highlighting their aggressive forward intent. Spurs are also in top spot for Passes Allowed Per Defensive Action (PPDA), with 9.2, and tackles won (155), proving their defensive work is equally assertive.
But following back-to-back losses, Aston Villa are now only one point behind them – and Unai Emery deserves just as much attention as Postecoglou. In fact, returning to Opta’s "expected league table", Spurs are down in 10th, four places behind Villa's sixth place.
Emery, who has overseen 13 consecutive home league wins at Villa Park, has barely put a foot wrong all season, masterminding a risky high line and press-baiting fast transition football that is no less exciting to watch than the Postecoglou revolution at Spurs.
John McGinn's superb MW12 strike v Fulham
Villa boast a division-high 35 "direct attacks" and have caught the most offsides (58) by a considerable distance: two stats that capture the essence of Emery’s tactical philosophy.
What’s frequently overlooked is that four of Villa’s starters – Jacob Ramsey, Tyrone Mings, Alex Moreno, and Emiliano Buendia – have been injured all season. Ramsey and Moreno are due back imminently, while Youri Tielemans is beginning to find his form following a summer move from Leicester City.
Villa, it seems, are just getting started.
Chelsea’s Pochettino revolution begins to take hold
Playing their part in two all-time classics in the space of six days – the 4-1 win at Spurs and a 4-4 draw with Man City – Mauricio Pochettino’s Chelsea are in full flow now, and yet his ideas had already taken effect some time ago.
Palmer's penalty equaliser v Man City
Opta’s "expected league table" has Chelsea in fourth, which conforms to the high-octane football – both on and off the ball – that has gelled surprisingly well between the two boxes; it was merely poor finishing that had Chelsea on a measly five points from their first six league matches.
Pochettino coaches Bielsa-like principles of constant forward thrust, encouraging a rampant high press and vertical passing as often as possible. That is the Chelsea we are seeing, hence why they are top of the table for through-balls, with 41, and third for progressive carries (302).
Chelsea are second in the league for total xG (25.2) but ninth for goals scored (20), with Nicolas Jackson (-1.8), Cole Palmer (-1.7) and Fernandez (-1.6) all underperforming against their personal xG.
Their inability to convert chances is a particular issue when faced with deep-lying defences. Chelsea have held 64 per cent or more possession in six Premier League matches this season but won only one of them, 3-0 at home to Luton in August.
The goals should come with time, not only as Jackson is getting more comfortable all the time, but because Christopher Nkunku – who scored 20 Bundesliga goals last season – is due back from injury at the end of this month.
It’s probably too late for a title challenge, but Pochettino’s Chelsea revolution is well under way, and will soon be one of the biggest stories of the 2023/24 campaign.
European commitments are slowing down Newcastle and Brighton
If Villa and Spurs are leading the race for a Champions League place, and Man Utd and Chelsea can both feel optimistic about the months ahead, then that doesn’t leave much room for the other two contenders - Newcastle and Brighton & Hove Albion.
Unfortunately for both, the story so far has been respective difficulties juggling European commitments with domestic football.
Newcastle - who arrived in the Champions League ahead of schedule and were put in the group of death - have picked up only five points from the four Premier League matches that have followed their group games.
Bad luck with injuries explains Newcastle’s downturn in form, although even this factor is likely linked to the extra workload preparing for, and playing in, those midweek European matches.
Brighton won five of their first six Premier League matches this season, but are now winless in their most recent six, last claiming three points against Bournemouth on 24 September.
It surely cannot be coincidence that this corresponds with the beginning of their UEFA Europa League adventure.
Mitoma seals Brighton's MW6 win v Bournemouth
The Seagulls have taken six points from the four matches that followed Thursday night football, including dropped points at home to Fulham and Sheff Utd.
Those two encounters in particular, hint at a separate issue: as Brighton’s reputation increases, so too does opposition wariness, leading to stubborn defences that Brighton are currently struggling to break down.
Roberto De Zerbi’s tactical set-up is arguably not suited to facing a low block. So far this season Brighton have won nine points from seven matches, at a rate of 1.3 points per match, in which they held more than 60 per cent possession, and 10 points from five matches (2.0 points per match) in which they had less than 60 per cent.
They, and Newcastle, must find new ways to win – and new ways to cope with a demanding fixture schedule that is only going to get worse through the winter.