As we head into the weekend all but four teams have played precisely 19 league games this season – that is, precisely half the total – and the other four are about to do so, so it may be a good time to take a deep breath and consider where we are. And where we are is, after all, fairly remarkable. The league leaders, Manchester United, have found themselves behind in 57.9% of their matches, considerably worse than 16th-placed Aston Villa's 52.6%. They have also conceded 28 goals whereas seven of the last 10 league champions conceded 29 times or fewer all season, with the 37 shipped by United in 2010-11 the outlier by a distance (though they did concede 45 in 1999-2000 and still win the league by 18 points). Clearly the leaders are desperately flawed, which is bad news for the Premier League's best-in-the-world PR guff but wonderful news for any neutral who likes to watch thrilling football matches. Give me ludicrous comebacks and controversy-laden 4-3 scorelines over humdrum clean-sheet-scattered victory grinds any day of the week, and anyone who disagrees should go and sit in the corner.
West Brom's recent record at Old Trafford is hideous – 11 defeats and three draws in their past 14 visits dating back nearly a quarter of a century – but who cares about that when their 15th most recent visit, a 5-3 victory on this weekend in 1978, was so brilliantly memorable, the Baggies coming back from 1-0 and 3-2 down to pummel the home side in the second half? The Observer exulted over "unrelenting incident and excitement" and the match is still celebrated as one of the best in the club's history – so much so that more than 300 fans were attracted to The Hawthorns earlier this month to remember it over dinner with some of those who played. "It was such a fantastic game. It was like two heavyweight boxers slugging it out and waiting to see who fell first," said John Wile, who captained West Brom. "They were two teams who didn't know what it meant to settle for a draw." A few years ago Ron Atkinson, the Baggies' manager at the time, revealed the content of his half-time team-talk. "I went in and told them that they didn't deserve to be losing 3-2 and that there was no reason in the world why we should not grab an equaliser," he said. "Then Tony Brown said: 'Boss, it's 3-3. I have just equalised.'" The Throstles went top of the league after another win on New Year's Day and ended the season third (United were 14 points back in ninth), while the home side liked what they saw so much they signed both Atkinson and the man of the match that day, Bryan Robson.
After their Boxing Day defeat at Sunderland, and United's win over Newcastle, the question everyone wanted to ask was: is it all over? The answer was: not yet. "At this moment United are better than us. They are at the top but we have time to recover," said Roberto Mancini. "We have clawed points back before, we proved it at the end of last year. We have just got to believe," said Joe Hart. This is true enough and United's defensive flaws offer plenty of hope, but City's game on Saturday looks testier than United's, and they cannot afford many more three-point swings. Talking of which …
Given the number of times Arsenal and Newcastle United have met it seems remarkable that the head-to-head record between them is tied, with 66 wins each after 170 encounters in all competitions. But it has been one-way traffic in recent years, and of 20 meetings over the last decade Arsenal have won 11 and lost two, and that is despite having a man sent off in three of their last four games. The big questions here are 1) Will Newcastle be inspired by their performance at Old Trafford on Boxing Day – in which case they could surely win – or be discouraged by the result? And 2) Does a seesaw swing, or is that action limited to other playground apparatus? Arsenal, who have won their last three league games, are in form while Newcastle, who have won two and lost seven of their last 10, are emphatically not, but for all that this match, like that head-to-head record, seems delicately poised.
The 62nd meeting between clubs which have never drawn 0-0 will be particularly relished by fans of Swansea, who still have happy memories of the 61st, a 3-0 win at Craven Cottage in March. Swansea scored five times against the Cottagers last season and it is likely that none of the four players who delivered those goals will be in the first XI on Saturday – Gylfi Sigurdsson, Joe Allen and Scott Sinclair all play for other clubs and Danny Graham has started only twice since September, though a minor ankle injury to Michu might give him a chance. Most neutrals, though, will be watching to see what other comedy T-shirts Dimitar Berbatov might be keeping quite literally up his sleeve, following the "Keep Calm and Pass Me the Ball" effort against Southampton. A few similarly slogan-distorting ideas courtesy of the Guardian: "Good things come to those who wait at the back post"; "Probably the best striker in the world"; "It's good to score"; "Does exactly what the manager says in the team talk". Take them, Dimitar, they're on the house.
Chelsea have won their last four domestic fixtures by an aggregate score of 17-2 but Everton are unbeaten at home since March and came out on top in their past three home league games against Chelsea. After six wins in their past seven games – the only one they lost was the one that meant something – Rafael Benítez's doubters are close to being at least temporarily silenced. David Luiz's critics already have been – Benítez was last heard lauding him as "a complete football player" after the Boxing Day win at Norwich, perhaps the first time the words "a" and "complete" have ever been used to describe the Brazilian without being followed by "and" and "utter", and proof of the impressive impact of his move to the middle. Sadly, due to a suspension to Marouane Fellaini – repeatedly linked with a move to Stamford Bridge over the last few months – David Luiz will be the only flamboyantly coiffed midfielder wowing in midfield.
After the impact of Norwich and Swansea on the Premier League last season, many were expecting them to be suffering from the much-trailed second season syndrome about now. In fact they are getting on just swimmingly and that miserable malady has been felt by one man above all: Sunderland's James McClean. A fortnight ago he said he could "turn it around and get back to where I was last season, maybe more". "I want to top last season's performances," he said. "A lot of attention comes my way on the pitch compared to when I first broke through and no one had heard of me. I could play with a bit more freedom then but it's down to me to get back to the levels I was at last season." He appears to have succeeded and after the Boxing Day win over Manchester City Martin O'Neill said he "was truly terrific, offensively and defensively". On Saturday his improvement will be tested by direct comparison with the league's most effective left-footer, Tottenham's Gareth Bale, fresh from a hat-trick at Aston Villa.
A match between the two Premier League teams most likely to look quite different in a month's time, with Harry Redknapp poised to wave Tony Fernandes's overworked chequebook in the January sales and Brendan Rodgers already dotting i's and crossing t's on a couple of much-trailed contract offers. Neither club is enormously proud of its current displays but even so the visitors will demand success – after all, Liverpool have the division's ninth best away record (which is a slightly more impressive way of saying that they have won at Norwich and Southampton), and will still be smarting from the way they managed to turn a 77th-minute 2-0 lead into a 3-2 defeat in last season's encounter here. Encouragement comes from the fact that Loftus Road is a significantly less fearsome destination than the Britannia Stadium, where Liverpool were emphatically turned over by Stoke on Boxing Day. Indeed it is the least fearsome destination in all of the Premier League. Even after their recent improvement the Hoops have won only seven of a possible 27 points at home. In games against teams in the top half of the table, where Liverpool grimly cling by the breadth of José Reina's hair (and a goal difference superior to Norwich's), QPR have two points from a possible 30. On the plus side they are likely to have an unusually motivated Djibril Cissé.
Aston Villa's last 10 games have featured a 3-2, a 3-1, a 4-1, a 4-0, a 5-0 and an 8-0. Sure, there was a goalless draw – though it was against Stoke so should not count – but it is a 3.4 goals-per-game average. Wigan are hardly goal-slouches themselves – with only a single 0-0 draw in the Premier League over the last year (against Villa, as it happens, in February) and recent form that even the Villans might complain about (one win and seven defeats in the last nine) which have seen them drop into the bottom three. For all that, they will leapfrog over their rivals if they can win this by three goals, which recent history suggests is distinctly possible. "There is no pressure on these lads at all," said Paul Lambert after Boxing Day's 4-0 shellacking by Tottenham. "They will go again and give us everything." Well, let's hope so.
Every one of the teams which played, or was intended to play, at home on Boxing Day is at home again this weekend. Presumably this is because the Premier League make it a priority to ensure that "any club away on Boxing Day should be at home on New Year's day and vice versa", but it still seems a bit harsh on those fans forced into rapid-fire consecutive away matches. In this BBC feature from 2009 Glenn Thompson, the IT dude in charge of the fixture list, said that he "manually creates the fixtures for Boxing Day and 28 December to try to minimise the travelling distance for fans", which seems eminently fair, and that year no side was at home on both of those dates (although the FA Cup took up New Year's weekend, simplifying matters slightly). More recently the habit has been to give teams a home-away-away-home run, or vice versa, over this period, which is probably as fair as it can be but will still have forced some people to do a lot of travelling this Christmas week, while others have got away with none. It is quite a quandary but, having said that, I must consider the possibility that I am the only person in the world who considers this remotely interesting, so will stop there.