The Premier League resumes on Boxing Day following a break for the World Cup; Sky Sports football reporters recall where we left off in November – and look forward to the return of one of the world’s greatest leagues.
So, where were we at the time?
Football did not return home from Qatar. That’s OK because what we truly want is Premier League football’s tense, topsy-turvy, nail-biting rollercoaster.
The excitement of the World Cup may cause some to forget where we left things in the top tier in the middle of November. Teams were ecstatic, managers were under pressure, players were going through hard periods, and supporters were as outspoken as ever, both positively and negatively.
So many questions must be answered in the next six months. Is it Arsenal’s turn? Can the bottom-flight teams turn their fortunes around? Has Manchester United really turned the corner? Sky Sports football reporters provide a thorough recap of the major talking topics at each Premier League team – and where their destiny may lay.
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West Ham (H), Brighton (A), and Newcastle are the next three Premier League games (H)
Arsenal supporters might be excused for thinking it was all a dream a month after their final Premier League game. But it wasn’t the case. You are indeed five points ahead of Manchester City at the top of the standings. The issue now is to remain there, which has been made more difficult by Gabriel Jesus’ World Cup injury, which is anticipated to keep him out for three months. The Brazilian striker only scored five goals in the 14 Premier League games before the break, and none in the previous six, but his influence on Arsenal’s overall game since joining from City has been transformative.
Will they be able to maintain their fantastic start without him?
Others have stepped up in terms of scoring production, such as Martin Odegaard, Gabriel Martinelli, Bukayo Saka, and Granit Xhaka, who have combined for 18 goals, but replacing everything else Jesus contributes is a different story. Eddie Nketiah will be hoping to capitalize on his opportunity. The January transfer window may also provide opportunities. However, Arsenal enters the game knowing that how they handle without Jesus would likely make or break their championship challenge.
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Aston Villa Football Club
The humiliating loss against Fulham, which resulted in Steven Gerrard’s dismissal two hours after the final whistle, is long forgotten at Aston Villa. Three Premier League victories in four games, as well as the hiring of Unai Emery, have catapulted the club into a new era – and, importantly, five points above the relegation zone. Emery’s first two victories against Manchester United and Brighton fueled expectations that their UAE training camp might be exploited to much greater benefit.
After all, the team’s problems have been exposed away from home, with just five points from eight matches. However, the most pressing issue for Emery to address is an offensive that has generated just 16 goals in 15 games. After scoring only seven goals in their first 11 games under Gerrard, they have already scored nine in their last four. Emery has used a 4-2-2-2 configuration that looks to suit midfielders such as Douglas Luiz, Boubacar Kamara, and John McGinn as well as forwards Ollie Watkins and Danny Ings.
Villa, on the other hand, will need offensive additions this winter, especially in wide areas, if they are to compete for a top-half finish. A move for promising attacker Joao Felix seems ambitious, but Villa supporters will embrace Emery’s more optimistic attitude.
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In four weeks, a lot can happen. Bournemouth has recruited Gary O’Neil as their permanent head coach since the start of the World Cup, becoming the latest top-flight team to fall under American control. Although Bill Foley’s £100 million-plus buyout had been in the works for months, the agreement was only confirmed last week. The 78-year-old billionaire from Las Vegas has previously disclosed his ambitions to build the Vitality Stadium and training facilities on the south coast, and he exclusively told Sky Sports News that he expects “four or five new players” to join in the January transfer window.
Foley, with the help of Oscar-winning actor, director, and producer Michael B. Jordan, has catapulted Bournemouth into the worldwide limelight. It’s an exciting moment for everyone at the club. The club’s immediate goal remains Premier League survival, but Foley plainly feels O’Neil is capable of doing so after steadying the ship since Scott Parker’s departure at the end of August. Bournemouth sits 14th in the standings, three points above the relegation zone, after winning four, drawing four, and losing four games under the 39-year-old.
When the Cherries face Crystal Palace at home for the first time in seven weeks on December 31, there will undoubtedly be additional excitement in the town. Foley will be in attendance that day. The start of the domestic season may not seem like a big deal to most people, but it signifies the beginning of a new era for Bournemouth. With the exception of the 5-1 drubbing at Newcastle and the 4-0 setback at Aston Villa, Brentford had put an end to any conjecture about them being the next victims of the fabled second-season syndrome’ by the time the Premier League halted for the World Cup last month.
If they hadn’t already done so, they look to have cemented their place as fixtures in the top tier. And who can forget how they entered the break? They went to the Etihad as absolute underdogs following a humbling Carabao Cup shootout loss to Gillingham, but they refused to fold and came away with a well-deserved 2-1 triumph against reigning Premier League winners Manchester City.
Ivan Toney, the Bees’ iconic frontman, was in the limelight that day. He scored both goals in response to Gareth Southgate’s decision to leave him out of the England squad, leaving many wondering why he would not be traveling to Qatar, especially given his excellent penalty record and the fact that he was the league’s second-highest scoring Englishman with 10 goals, trailing only Harry Kane. Toney was charged with 232 suspected betting regulation violations between February 2017 and January 2021, it was announced only a few days later.
He was a member of Brentford’s trip to Spain earlier this month and took part in a mid-season friendly against Bordeaux, Celta Vigo, and Wolfsburg, but then he was charged with 30 further alleged violations of FA betting regulations. If the charges against him are found to be true, the striker might face a long suspension. Given that he has scored 11 of Brentford’s 26 goals in all competitions this season, with Bryan Mbeumo and Yoane Wissa following up with three apiece, you get the impression the Bees will be keeping an eye on developments in the situation.
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After his dramatic debut in the dugout – a 3-3 draw with Liverpool in October – Roberto De Zerbi had a rough start to life at Brighton, losing three of the next four games. That slump was flipped on its head when the Italian supervised a 4-1 win against former Brighton manager Graham Potter and his Chelsea megastars, followed by a 2-1 victory over rock-bottom Wolves the following week.
However, Brighton was unable to maintain their winning streak and was defeated 2-1 by Aston Villa before the World Cup break, so De Zerbi would have welcomed the six-week break to regroup and analyze. Despite this, Brighton’s strong start to the season has propelled them to seventh place in the standings, one point ahead of Chelsea and one point behind Liverpool. Brighton sent eight players to Qatar, including World Cup champion Alexis MacAllister, demonstrating the club’s meteoric rise in recent years.
The Seagulls have funds to spend in the 2019 transfer window after selling important players Yves Bissouma and Marc Cucurella for large sums in the summer, getting compensation from Chelsea for Potter, and selling Ben White to Arsenal for £50 million in July 2021. Brighton, on the other hand, tends to be thrifty and acquires left-field players at low costs. Mac Allister is a prime example: discovered and contacted in Argentina following extensive data study, the midfielder was signed for just £7 million.
According to the statistics, Brighton’s playing style has been compared to that of the “big six” teams for some time, with one major difference: they have lacked a clinical striker. Despite having few alternatives up top, the club is in the top seven in the league in terms of goals, projected goals, shots, chances created, total passes in the final third, and reclaiming control in the final third.
With the likes of Mac Allister, Leandro Trossard, and Moises Caicedo providing world-class performances in midfield and attack, De Zerbi may aim to reinforce his defense as a priority in January, having surrendered 14 goals in his eight games. Pascal Gross started at right-back for the third game in a row, while Lewis Dunk joined 19-year-old Chelsea loanee, Levi Colwill – with Brighton manager Gary Rowett having to settle for some temporary solutions after Adam Webster was ruled out with sickness. Tariq Lamptey of Ghana is a good option at full-back, but the Seagulls would benefit from adding a center-back and a full-back as well. Brighton must fend off interest in their key World Cup players.
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Chelsea fans may be excused for forgetting how their team finished the first half of the season. The Blues’ 1-0 loss to Newcastle in their penultimate encounter before the World Cup was their third in a row, with the Blues failing to record a goal, much alone a point, throughout that stretch. The season stop came at the ideal moment for Graham Potter, who, following a nine-game undefeated start after arriving in September, seemed to be in need of a rest by November.
The former Brighton manager compared the work of steering Chelsea through their demanding game calendar to being in a washing machine and talked of his desire to “recover”. Potter was back at work earlier this month, overseeing Chelsea’s training camp in Abu Dhabi, after likely having time to reflect on his first months at Stamford Bridge. With the head coach trying to turn his team’s fortunes around, he’ll be glad that the season kicks off with two extremely winnable games against Bournemouth at home and Nottingham Forest away.
If Potter can help Chelsea get six points from two games, he and his team will acquire some much-needed momentum ahead of a January double-header against Manchester City. However, if the west Londoners continue to struggle upon their return to the field, the pressure on Potter will rapidly resume, as will doubts about Todd Boehly and his consortium’s direction of the club.
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The Crystal Palace
Crystal Palace is exactly where you’d expect them to be as the season nears its midway point. They are now 11th in the league after five victories in 14 games. They play Fulham at Selhurst Park on Boxing Day. Despite failing to re-sign Conor Gallagher on loan, Palace has maintained their stability, improving their return from this time last season by three points.
The only dark cloud hovering over Selhurst Park is Wilfried Zaha’s uncertain future. With his contract at Palace set to expire at the end of the season, the 30-year-old is apparently evaluating possibilities outside of his childhood club. Michael Olise and Eberechi Eze have shown their ability, but they must improve if they are to replace the big vacuum left by Zaha’s departure. The remainder of the season might be crucial for the dynamic, offensive duo’s development as they learn more from Zaha before taking on his mantle as true match-winners.
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Everton was spotted meandering around the Vitality Stadium like lost souls the last time they played, for the second time in four days. They cannot afford a poor performance when the Wolves visit Goodison Park on Boxing Day. Frank Lampard will have spent the last few weeks trying to re-calibrate his options following an optimistic start to his first full season on the south coast.
Everton’s 7-1 aggregate loss to Bournemouth in league and cup matches produced unsavory scenes from the away end, but the club has since traveled to Australia to heal those wounds and concentrate minds. No team has surrendered more shots from high turnovers (29) than Chelsea, indicating that Lampard may have to return to a more pragmatic strategy if better results do not come soon.
The Everton manager will not want to completely damage what he sees as a work in progress; James Tarkowski and Conor Coady have created a strong relationship in front of Jordan Pickford, while Amadou Onana, with the seasoned Idrissa Gueye and Alex Iwobi, is reveling in his new position. However, a large points return from a demanding run of games, and a transfer window must lie ahead for those naysayers to become believers once again in the Lampard project.
Everton needs an offensive midfielder who can cause havoc between the lines. As they hover barely above the relegation zone, they need a completely fit Dominic Calvert-Lewin and must fill the vacuum left by Richarlison. Only then can the club regain its prominence.
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Fulham was ninth in the Premier League when the season ended for the World Cup, a more-than-respectable performance for a side that had only just achieved promotion back to the top flight – but its supporters were left wondering if the break came at a good or terrible moment. Marco Silva’s team had recently suffered back-to-back league losses, their fifth and sixth of the season, albeit at the hands of champions Manchester City and at home to Manchester United.
Both of those 2-1 defeats came as a result of demoralizing stoppage-time goals, so maybe the World Cup break came at the ideal moment for the Cottagers, particularly since top scorer Aleksandar Mitrovic was sidelined with a foot injury at the time. The Serbia international will be crucial to Fulham’s aspirations of having a similarly successful second half of the season and finishing in the top half in their first season back in the Premier League.
Mitrovic scored nine goals in just 12 league games prior to the World Cup, and Silva will have been relieved when Serbia was eliminated from the group stage in Qatar, giving his main man – who started every game for his country in the tournament – some much-needed rest before the action resumes at Crystal Palace on Boxing Day. If Fulham can maintain Mitrovic healthy between now and May, they will almost certainly aim for a top-ten finish.
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Jesse Marsch’s Leeds face a difficult start, hosting Manchester City before traveling to third-placed Newcastle. But keep in mind that Leeds entered the World Cup as the division’s best entertainers. Only 22 goals were scored in Leeds’ last four league games. This streak featured a win at Anfield and a 4-3 comeback victory against Bournemouth after falling behind 3-1.
They were then 10 minutes away from defeating Tottenham before being defeated 4-3. Those wins have just about maintained Marsch’s position at Elland Road after the German-American seemed to be on the verge of losing his job following a 3-2 home defeat to Fulham in late October. The World Cup break may have suited Patrick Bamford, who got the respite he needed not just to prevent injury but also to put in some work on the training field as he prepares to return from a string of ailments.
If Bamford is still unable to perform, Leeds will be forced to seek elsewhere. Behind Rodrigo, there’s plenty of young talent in Crysencio Summerville, Wilfried Gnonto, and Brenden Aaronson – whose goal total belies the rest of his performance. Can a porous defense hold up in the early going? They can’t depend just on Tyler Adams, who led the United States to a World Cup victory in Qatar.
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It remains to be seen if Leicester City benefited from the World Cup’s scheduling. Brendan Rodgers and his team would have snapped your hand off in September, when the club was at the bottom of the standings, for a reprieve from the criticism. However, James Maddison’s improved form enabled the East Midlands club to move up to 13th in the rankings, only four points behind seventh.
With just eight points separating sixth and seventeenth place, European football remains an ambitious but attainable goal. The Foxes will have to defeat teams in the form before the World Cup, such as Fulham, Brighton, and Brentford. The World Cup will feel like a racing restart after an accident in Formula One – there is an order, but momentum has been lost, and anybody can capitalize if they play their cards well.
Leicester will rely heavily on Maddison’s momentum after his return from Qatar. He did not play in any of England’s World Cup matches, thus he may lack the match fitness that Rodgers desires. He will, however, have healed from the injury he suffered before the World Cup and has spent the previous month working with some of England’s greatest players.
It will also be interesting to watch what Leicester can do during the January transfer window. They have been connected with Moroccan midfielder Azzedine Ounahi, who has helped the Atlas Lions keep their unbeaten streak going since June. Leicester’s goals have been restricted, so they will need to bring in more chance-makers like Maddison if they are to continue their ascension up the league after a poor start.
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Following the news that striker Luis Diaz has experienced a setback in his rehabilitation from a knee injury, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp will most likely continue to use Darwin Nunez as a left-sided attacker when the Reds return to play on Boxing Day against Aston Villa. Klopp will be hoping that Liverpool’s club-record acquisition can pick up where he left off before the season was halted, with the striker now looking to have settled at Anfield after his summer transfer from Benfica.
After being sent off on his home debut against Crystal Palace in August, the Uruguay international had a difficult start to his Liverpool career, slowing whatever momentum he had garnered from scoring in his first two games for his new club.
His next goal came in a 3-2 loss to Arsenal in October, but it appeared to give the 23-year-old newfound confidence that he belonged at the club, as he went on to score in league wins over West Ham and Southampton, while also contributing an assist in a win over Tottenham, as well as Champions League goals against Rangers, Ajax, and Napoli.
Nunez and Liverpool, in fact, did not want the season to end following his double in a 3-1 home victory against Southampton last month, which was without a doubt the forward’s greatest performance for the Reds. While Nunez’s amazing scoring streak ended with Uruguay in Qatar, Klopp will be hoping Nunez takes up where he left off during the hectic Christmas season as they attempt to close the gap in the top four.
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As the season restarts, City finds itself in the unusual situation of being in the chasing pack. Pep Guardiola’s team must be ready to capitalize on any errors made by league leaders Arsenal, and possibly hope that the Gunners struggle to deal with the absence of former City star Gabriel Jesus. The Citizens have a record-breaking return for goals, projected goals, shots, generating opportunities, passes, and final-third passes – nothing new there.
On the other hand, two opponents have surrendered fewer goals – Arsenal and Newcastle – but City’s anticipated goals conceded remain at a league-low number, indicating that they continue to give up the fewest clear-cut opportunities. Julian Alvarez has raised his reputation in the World Cup after replacing Lautaro Martinez in Argentina’s starting lineup, and he should expect to get more playing time as a consequence.
Phil Foden made his debut on the global stage as well. Meanwhile, England teammate Kalvin Phillips has returned from injury and will provide depth to the midfield.
Norway international Erling Haaland, who has a league-high 18 goals in only 13 outings, will return from his sabbatical. Haaland’s strike ratio dropped from otherworldly to three goals in his past four league games just before the break. Is it a slant? Probably for Haaland. Wounded World Cup talents like Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan, and Joao Cancelo will regroup with plenty to prove.
Guardiola has also signed a new two-year contract extension that will keep him at the Etihad until at least 2025, giving him plenty of time to add to his trophy collection. Keep in mind that Guardiola has won the Premier League in four of his previous five seasons. To summarise, City does not need to go out and get first-team players. Arguably, Arsenal’s attitude to the transfer market next month will be crucial in defining the magnitude of the City’s struggle ahead.
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Above all, the World Cup break has succeeded in putting an end to the unwelcome distraction that was overshadowing Manchester United’s development under Erik ten Hag. The Cristiano Ronaldo story has come to a close after his walk-off against Tottenham and provocative remarks. The player got his desire to leave Old Trafford, and if Ten Hag was truthful, he probably got the result he wanted as well.
While eliminating Ronaldo from the equation is beneficial, it does not immediately fix United’s difficulties. As their warm-weather friendly losses to Cadiz and Real Betis demonstrated, there is still work to be done for the team to completely adopt Ten Hag’s footballing ideas.
The strange example of Jadon Sancho, who was banished to the Netherlands for private training sessions, suggests that work remains for certain people, but United supporters have cause to be overwhelmingly optimistic about the league’s return.
From World Cup champion Lisandro Martinez to Marcus Rashford to forgotten man Harry Maguire, important people have returned from Qatar with improved reputations and should be ready to go when the season resumes.
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The World Cup break came as a welcome opportunity for some teams to rest and recuperate following a frantic start to the Premier League season, but Newcastle fans didn’t want it to end. Eddie Howe and his team surpassed all expectations with their strong start to the season, and after finishing with five victories in a row, they will return to action in the third position. The main issue is whether Newcastle can take up where they left off and recover the momentum, confidence, and positive energy that carried them to such heights.
That may be determined by the level of work Howe and his coaching staff has been able to accomplish with the players over the hiatus – and the indicators are promising. Newcastle showed no signs of rust with a 5-0 thrashing of Saudi Arabian champions Al-Hilal during a warm weather training camp in the nation, with Miguel Almiron and Joelinton both scoring twice.
That touring party, which is already back in the northeast, will shortly be joined by the five Newcastle players who participated in the World Cup, and the good news for the squad is that none of those players were overworked or advanced beyond the quarter-finals in Qatar. Bruno Guimaraes, Nick Pope, Kieran Trippier, Callum Wilson, and Fabian Schar should be psychologically and physically prepared for what lies ahead.
Rather than being an undesirable interruption, the break may prove to be beneficial in the long run. Certainly, if Newcastle can hit the ground running when they return, they will have a favorable run of matches to capitalize on – but Arsenal at home on January 3 might be a significant indication of whether the second half of the season will live up to the first.
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Nottingham Forest invested resources into becoming a top-tier club after a tremendous Championship run that culminated in a play-off triumph against Huddersfield. It was obviously a project that the club could sell to 22 players. As Forest begins their Premier League season in 18th place, you have to question whether the players still believe in the concept.
There was also the joy of defeating faltering giants Liverpool in October. But it’s been a terrible reality for Forest, who are only three points above the bottom of the table. A relegation battle is almost certainly in the cards. The Premier League, on the other hand, is tight and crowded this season. If other results go their way, a Boxing Day victory for Steve Cooper’s team could move them up to 14th, equal on points with Leicester.
A quick check at the goal differential reveals precisely what Forest has to work on. Leicester’s is zero, whereas Forest’s is -19; a less sloppy tally would result in a different outcome. It will be a bonus if Forest can learn anything from their first two games against Manchester United and Chelsea. However, it is possible that Forest’s season will resume in game three against Southampton, who are also in the relegation zone. This is a must-win game. If they win that, there’s no reason Forest can’t remain up.
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Before the World Cup break, the major debate is: stick or twist? Southampton’s board elected to twist pragmatically, a week sooner than planned, but such is the shifting spirit of football hierarchy. The results are convincing. And the truth is that Southampton was starved of them. Problems predate the summer transfer window, but Ralph Hasenhuttl will have been left wondering ‘what if’ when he stepped down in early November.
What if Southampton were to get one of the attacking targets to whom they have long been linked?
The chances of luring Dutch sensation Cody Gakpo, who has been linked with a summer transfer to the south coast, are now close to none, not least because of his exorbitant fee. Another World Cup hotshot to supposedly slide past the net was Portugal’s, Goncalo Ramos. At the very least, the competition gave some relief from the agony of failure – nine of their 15 league games ended in defeat.
Only Everton, Nottingham Forest, and Wolves have scored fewer goals in the first half of the season than Southampton. Nathan Jones, a Premier League newcomer, has been tasked with turning their fortunes around. Sounds dangerous. The former Luton Town manager, known for his man-management abilities, will need to strike the ground running if the Saints are to avoid relegation.
January is not the best month to go shopping for season-saviors. Exaggerated price tags make it almost hard to get a deal, and Southampton simply lacks the financial power to compete with the division’s heavyweights.
As a result, they’ll have to be astute. As they were throughout the summer, the emphasis this time will be primarily on adding a proven striker to the ranks. Only then will they have a chance to put some gap between themselves and the scary red line.
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Tottenham’s position in the top four and progression to the last 16 of the Champions League makes for interesting reading, but results have outrun performances, with just a handful of emphatic victories. Spurs supporters are most frustrated by the team’s pattern of stifling first halves followed by free-flowing second halves, which is mirrored in the fact that Tottenham has failed to lead at half-time in their previous nine matches in all competitions.
Spurs must eliminate sluggish beginnings if they are to have a solid second half of the season. The return of Dejan Kulusevki will aid Antonio Conte in this endeavor. The Swedish winger got his first start since September in Spurs’ penultimate game before Qatar, a rollercoaster 4-3 home victory over Leeds, and made a huge difference by excellently assisting Rodrigo Bentancur’s late winner.
The 22-year-old is crucial to this Spurs team, and his directness and inventiveness were much missed during his two-month absence due to a hamstring injury. Another injury to him would be devastating. Kulusevski also serves as a reminder of how crucial the January transfer window can be; his arrival on the deadline day, along with Rodrigo Bentancur, altered Spurs last season.
A prospective new agreement for Conte – who reopened contract discussions with Tottenham on Monday – might well be the solution to ending the club’s torturous 14-year trophy drought.
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West Ham United
West Ham United returns to Premier League competition in an unusual position, 16th in the standings, after a difficult start to the season. The World Cup break came at an ideal moment for David Moyes, who was under pressure after three consecutive losses. The Scot, who has altered West Ham’s fortunes during his second spell in east London, has been let down by underperforming first-team regulars and newcomers who are failing to adjust.
Moyes will be hopeful that the time away from the London Stadium has rejuvenated his team. West Ham’s prospects in Europe are much brighter. They’ve been flawless in the Europa Conference League, winning all eight of their games to advance to the final 16. Finding a method to repeat that success in the Premier League is critical to Moyes’ job security.
After spending £179.2 million on additions in the summer, it seems doubtful that West Ham will be active in January. However, it is evident that the club still needs additions at center-back, particularly given the injury worries surrounding Kurt Zouma and Nayef Aguero. Luiza, a defender from Sao Paolo, is likely to arrive in January but is considered a long-term player.
Wolves were bottom at Christmas and have had a dreadful season so far, and if they are to continue in the Premier League, new manager Julen Lopetegui must be successful. The former Sevilla manager has a strong background, but he inherits challenges at Molineux. The team with the fewest points in the country has an unbalanced roster.
Expecting Diego Costa and Raul Jimenez to shine up front is based on trust rather than logic, given the defense is thin and the midfield is stronger in possession than out of it. There’s a lot to do. Lopetegui will hope to be backed with fresh acquisitions, but first, he must demonstrate that there is a plan in place to get this squad out of the crisis.
The hope is that he has utilized this time to identify answers both on the training field and on the transfer market. The wolves are not yet at the bottom of the standings, but they might be short. They return to Premier League action on Saturday as they travel to Goodison Park to play Everton, who are barely above the relegation zone. A four-point difference might shrink to one or seven. There isn’t time to waste.