The English Premier League has yet to reach the midway point but there has been a lot of interesting surprises as fans worldwide savour every breath-taking moment of high-octane football.
Here are the top seven surprises of the season so far:
A Very Bad Manchester United Defence
Jose Mourinho knew before the season started that his defence needs sorting but even he must have been bemused at the generosity of his defence.
Ed Woodward failed to land Mourinho’s targets in Toby Alderweireld and Harry Maguire but nobody expects things to degenerate to such abysmal levels.
Only Fulham, Huddersfield and Cardiff have conceded more goals than the 14 shipped by Mourinho’s men, while some of the individual performances have to be seen to be believed.
Eric Bailly, in particular, has been horrific especially based on showings against Newcastle recently and Brighton on the second weekend of the season.
Mourinho has tried all manner of formations, consisting of too vast a range of personnel.
United will belatedly sign a centre-back in January, but with these same defenders, they had conceded only two goals by the same point last term – the best record in the Premier League.
It took them half a season to concede 14 last year. Mourinho expected problems, but even he must have been shocked at the fragility of his rearguard.
Chelsea’s Seamless Transition Under Maurizio Sarri
Maurizio Sarri could not have envisaged such a devastating start to the season even in his wildest dreams. “I expect in the first part of the season some problems,” he said on the eve of the campaign. His side promptly opened with one of the best Premier League starts ever.
Chelsea is the only top-flight English side still unbeaten in all competitions, with seven wins and two draws from nine games.
Two of those came against Liverpool, who Sarri presumed were much further ahead in their development: “Maybe in one year we will be at the same level as Liverpool,” he suggested before a win and a draw against the Reds forced a re-think.
“I think City and Liverpool are a step forward of us,” he said. “But I think also we are more close than I thought one week ago.”
Liverpool and City are probably better placed to mount a title challenge, but Sarri’s start at Stamford Bridge suggests it might not be a two-horse race.
This season was supposed to be a transitional period but the Sarri-ball project is well ahead of schedule.
If the Italian can iron out a few kinks, with Eden Hazard seemingly hungry to earn a move to Real Madrid while bowing out on a high, then the Blues might be surprising a few more of us come May.
Arsenal’s nine-match winning run
Even the most optimistic amongst the ranks of the Gunners could not have imagined their present position when Unai Emery was appointed as the man to take over from Arsenal’s longest-serving manager, Arsene Wenger.
A World Cup summer hampered preparations with his new squad, while the Premier League fixture computer also stitched him up. After defeats to Man City and Chelsea left the Gunners pointless after two games, some even suggested Emery was already on borrowed time.
A couple of months into the season and even his harshest critics such as Tony Adams and Paul Merson are having to eat their words.
The Gunners are on their best run for almost three and a half years. Granted, the fixtures have been kind after a difficult start, and they have a wonderful chance to further extend their streak before Liverpool finally offer another major exam at the start of next month.
It is not that Arsenal will challenge for the title this season because they probably won’t. Emery still has plenty to work on, with his defence being the most immediate priority.
But unlike the manager initially presumed, perhaps the Europa League doesn’t represent their best chance of returning to the Champions League after all.
The early rave over the Hornets may have been tampered by three defeats and a Carabao Cup exit but four victories in their opening four matches caught everyone unawares.
Much of it comes down to continuity – something Watford have lacked dreadfully in recent years. Javi Gracia became the first manager in four years to end a campaign at Vicarage Road, then preside over the subsequent pre-season and begin the new term.
It gave the Spaniard the opportunity to put his stamp on the culture throughout the club, with hefty fines, yoga and improved diets all appearing to pay dividends.
Gracia’s methods ensured Roberto Pereyra was able to compensate for the sale of Richarlison, while Troy Deeney was being talked of as a potential England call-up. Consistency in selection also helped, with Gracia naming an unchanged XI throughout their impressive opening run.
The Fulham striker who was sold by Rafa Benitez has set the Premier League ablaze after helping Fulham back into the division from The Championship.
Without Mitrovic’s five goals, Fulham would be in much bigger trouble than they already are. The £22million recruit scored twice in their only win of the season, while also netting in a couple of draws. His second-half performance against Watford almost single-handedly dragged Fulham back into a game they really should have lost.
Wolves Unheralded Heroes
The recruitment of Joao Moutinho and Rui Patricio came as a surprise to many outside Wolves, and while the big names have been thoroughly impressive during their splendid start, they have had their thunder stolen slightly by Molineux’s lesser lights.
Defenders Conor Coady, Ryan Bennett and Matt Doherty have all stepped up to play starring roles in a campaign that has seen only Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea lose fewer games or concede fewer goals.
James Milner Is Liverpool’s Best Midfielder
It is a huge credit to the 33-year-old who is playing ahead of £100million summer recruits in Fabinho and Naby Keita, teaching them how it is done in the Premier League.
The midfield machine in his 16th season in the Premier League is still operating as efficiently as ever. “I don’t want to judge his career but it feels like it’s the best moment of his career,” said Klopp earlier in the campaign and all the evidence suggests the manager’s instinct is correct.
Coming on the back of 2017/18, when he broke the record for Champions League assists in a single season, Milner has started the new campaign in a similar vein. If anyone, like Gary Lineker, still wondered what Milner does, the answer is apparently ‘everything’.