There is a downside to these winter breaks, as more and more people are starting to notice. With no Premier League games to talk about at the moment discussion will be mostly suspended until a proper fixture list returns. In the meantime there is just the league table to look at, 25 games in. Clearly a lot can still happen between now and the end of the season, but most of the issues appear to have been settled already.
With a record-breaking lead at the top of the table Liverpool are not going to be caught, and it seems unlikely now that Manchester United or Wolves, let alone Sheffield United, will manage a top-four finish. If fourth place is up for grabs, the contest will be between José Mourinho’s past and present: Chelsea and Tottenham.
Down at the bottom, although anyone in the lower half is theoretically in danger, Norwich and West Ham have the most work to do and the main point of interest is likely to be which of the clubs above Watford will be dragged into the mire if Nigel Pearson continues his impressive rescue work at Vicarage Road.
So far so predictable, you might say, except that this newspaper’s prediction for Watford was a comfortable 11th-place finish. No European cigar, but no relegation panic either, and certainly not three managers before Christmas. By the same token, absolutely no one on these pages back in August foresaw the rise and rise of Sheffield United. The consensus was that the Blades, far from sitting in a Europa League position with an outside chance of overtaking Tottenham, would not only get relegated but would finish bottom. One never knows quite what to expect with promoted sides, and Sheffield United and Norwich are cases in point, though it appears it may be a mistake to base any Premier League assumptions on the way they performed in the Championship the previous season.
For anyone unfamiliar with The Guardian’s annual exercise in footballing guesswork, all the regular reporters at Premier League games are invited at the start of each season to submit a suggested final table, and the results are then pooled to preserve anonymity and produce a sort of aggregate of opinion. This does not make it any more accurate, as readers will know, though at least individual writers are spared months of below-the-line mockery if they get things spectacularly wrong. On that score this writer is prepared to admit that his table had Liverpool at the top and Norwich in the bottom three, though most of the stuff in the middle was nothing to brag about.
But then lots of the averaged table was completely wrong too; that’s the fun of this Nostradamus routine. Collectively, we had Manchester City as champions for a third year running, with Tottenham and Chelsea in third and fourth places and Newcastle, Brighton and Sheffield United going down. Comparing the predicted table with the real thing at the moment, only two clubs occupy the positions we forecast – Chelsea in fourth and Southampton in 13th – although we were close in having Everton and Wolves in eighth and ninth, when they are currently ninth and eighth. That would have been Marco Silva’s Everton, of course; we would have had no clue that Carlo Ancelotti would end up in charge at Goodison, something that still seems a little unreal.
Similarly, we were not banking on Mauricio Pochettino leaving Spurs, Brendan Rodgers leading Leicester into Champions League contention or Steve Bruce doing such a fine job of stabilising Newcastle. What stands out, though, is how badly West Ham and Watford have underperformed. The latter appear to have found a manager who can at least give them a fighting chance, whereas David Moyes seems permanently surprised at how much things have deteriorated since he was last at the club.
If points were awarded or deducted for how much clubs have defied expectations over the course of the season so far, Leicester City and Sheffield United would be close to the top of the league and West Ham might be right at the bottom, with Manchester United and Arsenal dawdling in mid-table. Not that there is any need to construct such a hypothetical model. West Ham are close to bottom of the real table, Leicester and Sheffield United near the top and Manchester United and Arsenal in between. There is just the one significant distinction to make.
Though Leicester and Sheffield United are close to the top of the table, that does not mean either are close to Liverpool. Even Manchester City are not close to Liverpool, and from the sound of it a 22-point gap is causing Pep Guardiola some pain. When it comes to doing far better than expected Liverpool have surely raised the bar for all time.
Quite a few people other than me thought they might be champions this year, based on their performance last season and continued improvement under Jürgen Klopp, but absolutely no one was predicting 73 points from a possible 75 to open up such a huge gap on their challengers. That is simply not the sort of thing anyone would dare predict, even anonymously.
To put the present league table into context, no one has a bad word at the moment for Chris Wilder and his Sheffield United players, who instead of nailed-on relegation certainties are a couple of results from the comfort of the 40-point mark. Everyone agrees that the Blades are having a tremendous season, yet they still do not have half Liverpool’s number of points. In fact if you add Sheffield United’s and Tottenham’s points, you arrive at Liverpool’s 73.
At which point there is space left for one further prediction.
Not that Liverpool will continue in this vein for the remaining 13 games, because winning the title early could make a difference and so might Europe, but that Klopp and his players are going to find it hard to match this level of relentlessness next season and nigh-on impossible to better it. The only way to improve on 73 points from 25 games is to take 75 points from 25 games, after all. Liverpool are only human, whatever the league table might suggest, and if for that reason alone perfection is supposed to be unattainable.