Unlike any other of the major leagues in Europe, the Premier League programme intensifies over the festive period. This year in particular offered a test of survival for the clubs with all of them having to play 3 league matches within at most 10 days. The scheduling this year saw a number of teams playing 2 games with only 48 hours in between; drawing high profile criticism from managers who are relatively new to the English game, most notably Jurgen Klopp, and those who have years of experience of the game in this country with Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho unusually being in harmony in condemning the different rest periods afforded to different clubs.
The packed festive period is based on a long standing tradition of the English game, one that is almost seen as a badge of honour for the self-styled ‘toughest league in the world’; while it is certainly true that it is something that is to be enjoyed by fans and endured by players, there is no doubt that every year it carries the potential to have a dramatic influence on the title race.
This year the developing script of the Premier League has seen a return to the normal order of things with a clear top six in the table separated from the rest by a significant points gap. Chelsea’s remarkable winning run since the early autumn served to set the challenge for the five clubs in the chasing pack of trying to survive by dropping as few points as possible in order to hang onto their coattails and remain in the hunt.
When Spurs brought the Blues’ winning run to an end through two Dele Alli goals on Wednesday night, it essentially meant that all of the chasing back could reflect on a fairly successful festive programme. That win made it five in a row for Mauricio Pochettino’s men and lifted them to third place in the table with the full anticipation of another title challenge; the key question for Tottenham may well rest in how they handle their Europa League commitments and manage their squad to endeavour to avoid a repeat of the faltering at the end that disappointed them last season.
Manchester United’s three wins against Sunderland, Middlesbrough and West Ham continued their recent, almost under-the-radar run of form; although they certainly benefited from some questionable refereeing decisions for all Mourinho’s claims that ‘If you speak about the decisions, Manchester United are the champions of wrong decisions’. While it could certainly be argued that based on the quality of opposition United only met expectations; it is starting to feel that Mourinho has ominously got them moving in the right direction. The visit of Liverpool in the next round of fixtures after the FA Cup interlude should prove an interesting test of their aspirations.
While Jurgen Klopp’s men may feel somewhat frustrated at dropping two points at Sunderland, they can reflect on a successful first half of the campaign. Their victory over Manchester City at Anfield was more notable for the way that they stifled City’s attacking threat for all but a short period in the second half, than for their usual free-flowing ‘heavy metal’ football. As the closest team to leaders Chelsea and with Conte’s men to visit Anfield on the last day of this month, the belief of another title challenge continues to grow.
Pep Guardiola was in an uncharacteristically confrontational mood after his side’s 2-1 victory over Burnley, which was probably less to do with the performance in that match and more to do with the loss at Anfield and disappointing recent results. The inference of the Catalan’s behaviour may be that he is finding things harder than he imagined in England so far. There certainly seem to be fundamental flaws in the balance of the side, they are not clinical enough in attack and beyond fragile at the back. They key changes that the manager has made from last season’s side all seem to be going against him: the decision to jettison Joe Hart in favour of Claudio Bravo, who seems ill-suited to the English game; the continual changes in system and formation especially in defence and the unconvincing way the team seem to be trying to adapt to his brand of football all underlie City’s recent lacklustre form. It may well be that over time things will start to click and City will evolve in the mould of his Barcelona and Bayern sides; at the moment though it is probably fair to question whether what he has delivered so far has fallen below expectation?
While 7 points out of 9 may seem a decent return for Arsenal and a getting back on track after losing at Everton and City in the run up to Christmas, there remain some major concerns for the Gooner faithful. The 1-0 win against West Brom was an all too familiar battle to break down a deep-lying, highly organised defence which again screamed out for a more pragmatic plan B from Arsene Wenger and his charges. The win against Crystal Palace on New Years Day was notable for Giroud’s spectacular ‘scorpion’ goal but could have easily ended in a 2-2 draw as the Gunners continually threw players forward in the second half despite having a two goal lead; they had the enduring solidity of Peter Cech to thank for making sure they didn’t throw away the crucial 3 points. The performance for the first 70 minutes at Bournemouth pointed to a lack of mental resilience and a team that believed what its manager had been saying in the lead up to the game, that having only 48 hours rest would be ‘a big handicap on the fixtures’. The unexpected Alexis Sanchez-led comeback did suggest some sort of fighting spirit within the squad, but I suspect the vast majority of Gooners, myself included, remain unconvinced that the season will play out as anything other than the customary battle for a top four finish.
The key for Chelsea will be how they respond to this first defeat in 14 games, prior to Wednesday night they were threatening to become the runaway leaders, but now find themselves pegged back to an extent. On the horizon, the trips to Leicester and Anfield later this month and the visit of Arsenal in the first week of February may well determine whether they can pull away from the pack or whether they are reeled in? It feels very much as if the season to date has been simply about keeping pace, from next weekend it feels as if the real race is about to start.