Where did that go? With three rounds and a total of thirty Premier League matches played out in just eight days from Boxing Day to the 2nd of January, the Festive Period flew by in a whirl of live matches and questionable scheduling and we now find ourselves having emerged at the other end of the FA Cup Third Round.
Every year the complaints emerge from managers and coaches about the ludicrously condensed schedules over the Christmas period, yet until their club hierarchies, as the key stakeholders in the Premier League, are prepared to sacrifice broadcasting revenue for a more recovery-friendly festive calendar, it is unlikely to change any time soon. Very much the case of: ‘he who pays the piper [continues to] call the tune’.
With the games coming thick and fast, the holiday period is usually seen as something to be endured, or indeed survived, for those teams who see themselves as remaining involved in the title race, those with European qualification ambitions, or those battling to retain their place in the Premier League. It is very much accepted football wisdom that even if the title can’t be won at Christmas it can certainly be lost.
Just over a month ago, (Football Nerd Weekly Ramblings- Is it really too early to say the title race is over? Meanwhile Premier League greed shows no sign of abating. ). I pondered on these pages whether it was too early to say that the championship race was over. That was in the aftermath of Liverpool’s victories over Brighton and Merseyside rivals Everton; if it wasn’t over then three wins out of three including a thumping 4-0 win over closest challengers Leicester City, while Manchester City suffered another loss at the hands of Wolves, suggests that it most certainly is now.
What has been most impressive about Jürgen Klopp’s charges has been their unerring consistency no matter what challenges they have faced; the win over Leicester came just four days after their return from their two-match sojourn in Qatar in which they won the Club Word Cup. The performance at the King Power as impressive a display as it was, made for uncomfortable viewing for the rest of us, as it simply demonstrated how much better the Reds are than the rest of us.
Currently sitting atop the Premier League table with a scarcely believable 13 point lead and a game in hand and having just completed an entire calendar year unbeaten in the League, there is seemingly little doubt for anyone other than Liverpool fans not wanting to count their chickens, that the title is headed to Anfield for the first time in three decades. For those of us of an Arsenal persuasion there is a very real fear that they will match our cherished Invincibles feat of going the entire campaign unbeaten, so fingers crossed for an unexpected slip-up somewhere, anywhere, please!
Onto matters Arsenal and things have taken an unexpected turn for the positive at the previously toxic Emirates. Unproven and inexperienced he may be but the impact that Mikel Arteta is having on a squad that had fairly evidently downed tools under previous Head Coach Unai Emery is tangible, even after just four matches.
Emery’s overly reactive, timid even, approach which worried too much about the opposition led to a sense of ennui, if not apathy, amongst the Arsenal support. The football was turgid with no decipherable philosophy or system.
The first thing Arteta has done is to instil a far more proactive, front foot approach with an increased intensity. Hell, even Mesut Özil has been seen to be pressing and harrying under the new coach’s set up in which commitment and effort are Arteta’s “non-negotiables”. Make no mistake there is still a massive job on to arrest the decline at Arsenal, let alone to start to even contemplate a challenge for the top four and a potential return to the promised land of the Champions League, but watching Arsenal over the last few weeks has felt like less of a chore and more something to be enjoyed.
Assuming that Manchester City and Leicester City don’t fall apart completely now that the title is all but mathematically out of reach for them, the patchy form of Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United might also give some (slim?) hope to Gooners of European qualification if they can start to build some momentum under their new boss.
After a decent enough start to the season, the opening weekend thumping at Old Trafford aside, Chelsea endured a bit of a slump during the autumn in which they lost four out of five matches in late November and early December before righting the ship with a win at Spurs. Their late win at Arsenal over the festive period was bookended by defeat at home to Southampton and a draw away at Brighton. Although the 5 point lead they hold over fifth-placed Manchester United still puts them in the driving seat for the final Champions League spot.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s Manchester United have been the very definition of inconsistency, with no one, let alone the manager, seemingly able to predict what they are going to produce one game to the next. Capable of beating Manchester City one week with a ruthless display of attacking intent but then drawing at home to Everton and losing away at struggling Watford in the following two.
Ever since Sir Alex called it a day no one at Old Trafford seems to have any real plan for the future, a scattergun approach to transfers has seen the squad resemble exactly what it is: a jumbled mix of approaches and systems. Despite an early upturn in form when Solskjær replaced Mourinho initially on an interim basis, there seems to be scant evidence of tangible development or progression after he was appointed in the permanent role. United have picked up just 39 points from their last 30 league games with no sign that things will be any different over the next 17.
After an initial new manager bounce when Tottenham surprisingly opted to replace Mauricio Pochettino with José Mourinho, their form seems to have returned to being somewhat patchy. The manager formerly known as the “Special One” but now apparently “The Humble One” (yeh right!), won his first two league matches in charge but has since seen his new charges garner 10 points from a possible 21. With talismanic striker and unquestionable leader of the team, Harry Kane, ruled out until at least April, want-a-way stars most notably, but not necessarily limited to, Christian Eriksen set to leave this month, and the limitations on transfer funds brought about by the stadium debt and a notoriously frugal ownership, it might be that José has bitten off more than he can chew again.
Of course it is entirely possible that Wolves, Sheffield United and potentially even Crystal Palace, all of whom sit between Arsenal and the European places, may not fade away as we anticipate, or that Everton might continue their encouraging start under the man many wanted to see take over at the Emirates, Carlo Ancellotti, and stand in the way of the Gunners’ aspirations. With games away at Palace, at home to Sheffield United and then Everton to come before the end of February, as well as the resumption of the Europa League, we won’t have long to find out if Arteta is the man to take us back to where we all want to be. Micky it’s over to you!