The holiday season is over for another year. Gifts have been exchanged, beverages have been downed, and the sobering realization that another 12 months has flown by is sinking in for those of us that have had a busy year. All that is really left is to make some New Year resolutions, think out what happened in 2018 and consider the sorts of sporting predictions for 2019 that inevitably don’t pan out.
For the English Premier League, the end of the year means cramming four fixtures for each team into less than 14 days. Players (and, by association, fans) know that these games can make or break a season, albeit that there is still a considerable way to go. Teams at the top can consolidate their position, the ones at the bottom are looking for any signs that the rest of the season is not going to end in relegation.
And while the fans can “enjoy” a feast of football in a short space of time, the festive fixtures are draining on so many levels. Managers have to manage their squad effectively and players are just hoping that they don’t pick up an injury with so many games in just a few days.
Of course, the average baseball fan will say that their teams are used to an endless run of matches with little to no time off, but let’s not forget that the average soccer player covers a lot more ground in 90 minutes than a baseball player does in nine innings!
Taking all that into account, the sensible option for reviewing the recent EPL action is to bundle a load of it into one end-of-year post. Sadly, this means that individual reviews of each game are put to one side—at least until the fixture list becomes sensible again. On the plus side, it allows yours truly to ramble on about trends and potential outcomes, while giving the illusion that I watched every one of the last 30 EPL games.
So, without further ado, here are five things we learned from EPL Gameweeks 18, 19 and 20.
Spoiler alert: Liverpool are still unbeaten and Spurs still haven’t drawn a game this season. And Paul Pogba’s current form is basically giving the finger to Jose Mourinho.
Top and bottom unlikely to change in 2019
After 20 games, Liverpool sit at the top of the table, secure in a seven-point lead over second-placed Manchester City. At the bottom, Huddersfield are propping up the rest of the EPL, with a paltry 10 points from a possible 60.
Liverpool are looking almost invincible, having won 17 and drawn 3. The team has scored 48 goals and only conceded eight all season, so it is fair to say that they are in a good position as we move past the halfway stage.
The top six is rounded out by the usual suspects—City, Spurs, Chelsea, Arsenal and a rejuvenated Manchester United—although it is worth pointing out that there is a gap of 10 points between 3rd (Spurs) and United (6th). However, there is a further gap of six points between United and newly promoted Wolves in 7th.
In fact, Wolves are closer to the bottom than top.
The club has already amassed a healthy 29 points and is looking likely to reach the mythical 42 points required for safety sooner rather than later. The rest of the top 10 are separated by two points, with Leicester City in 8th, Watford in 9th and Everton in 10th place on 27 points. West Ham, Bournemouth and Brighton are only just out of the top 10 with 27, 26 and 25 points, respectively.
Some six points back from Brighton, Crystal Palace lead the teams who will be a) looking nervously below them and b) are most likely to spend money in the January transfer window. Newcastle United have recovered from their early season gloom and won a couple of games, while Cardiff City will be relying on home form to keep them up. Southampton—who sacked their manager before the festive fixtures began—are only out of the bottom three on goal difference, but if the season ended right now they would be extremely happy.
The relegation places are filled with two teams that should be doing better and one that is my banker tip for going down—Burnley, Fulham and Huddersfield. Both Burnley and Fulham would have expected better seasons, the former because they finished 7th last season and the latter for spending over $120 million in the summer. Huddersfield are going down, sorry, but it has the stench of tedious inevitability.
With that in mind it is safe to say that there is still a lot of football to be played, but the old adage that the table never lies becomes even more relevant as we enter the second half of the season.
Liverpool are really quite goodL
After two games of the 2018/19 EPL campaign, I predicted that Manchester City would both dominate the season and be a good bet to claim back-to-back titles. I may have got that wrong.
Three seasons into his reign at Anfield, and Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool are the team to beat.
Only one team has managed to be unbeaten through a Premier League season—Arsenal in 2003/04—but Liverpool are slowly inching their way towards immortality. No team has ever been seven points or more clear on January 1 and not gone on to win the league, and their haul of 54 points from 20 games is the third-best in EPL history.
City manager Pep Guardiola said in an interview with the BBC that Klopp’s lads are “maybe the best team in Europe or the world right now,” a huge compliment given the players that Pep has at his disposal. Liverpool came away with maximum points from the first three festive games, the most impressive of which was a 5-1 mauling of Arsenal.
Liverpool have had chances to win the league before—notably in 2014—but Klopp made sensible additions to his squad in the summer and there is a genuine belief on Merseyside that the title could be coming back to Anfield for the first time since 1990.
That is not to discount Manchester City entirely, they have the players and, importantly, the experience to chase Liverpool down. The difference is that this Liverpool team is playing without fear, summed up by a fearsome front three—Mo Salah, “Bobby” Firmino and Saido Mane—and a defense that has looked extremely impressive for most of 2018.
Of course, there are still 18 games to go … and next up is Manchester City. Win that and they will be 10 points clear, lose or draw and they still have a cushion. And we all know that getting points on the board and keeping momentum is what defines a champion.
Manchester United players really hated Mourinho
It is less than a month since United were completely outclassed by Liverpool in Gameweek 17 that ultimately led to the sacking of Jose Mourinho.
The media was quick to point fingers at the players, Paul Pogba in particular, and claimed that the team lacked inspiration. Fast forward three games and the appointment of interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been a breath of fresh air. Three festive fixtures, three wins, 12 goals scored, three conceded and Pogba playing like the $113 million man that we know he is.
Pogba and Jose did not get on, that is an undisputed fact, but what is interesting is how Solskjaer has got them back to arguably their swaggering best in such a short space of time.
Granted, the fixture list has been kind to the interim manager—I would have backed Mourinho to get something out of games against Cardiff (A), Huddersfield (H) and Bournemouth (H)—and he has the advantage of knowing that his position is temporary (for the moment). What is crucial to note is that the players have responded to a more positive attitude at the club, something that was missing under Jose.
Everyone thinks I’m looking for attacking football all the time,” said Solskjaer, after the 4-1 defeat of Bournemouth. “But the foundation is how you defend—keep a clean sheet and you have a decent chance to win a game of football. Training sessions have been high quality. The tempo and sharpness has been really good, but we will get better and we are working towards a clean sheet.”
Somewhat ironically, United have not kept a clean sheet in any of their games under Solskjaer, although when you have players like Rashford, Martial and, yes, Pogba (four in two games) on top form, then Manchester United fans could be forgiven for thinking that the dark days of Mourinho can be consigned to the history books.
The acid test for the interim manager will come when they play their immediate rivals for a top six or Champions League spot. On the plus side, that will not happen until January 13 when they face Spurs, so Ole should just enjoy himself while he can.
Festive fixtures always provide shocks
One of the great things about the EPL is that (in theory) any team can beat another on any given day. With the exception of Liverpool, naturally, all of the top teams have had a blip over the Christmas period, some of which were more worrying than others.
Manchester City, for instance, lost two out of their three games. A 3-2 defeat at home to Crystal Palace (which included an absolute screamer from Palace’s Andros Townsend) was followed by a 2-1 loss to Leicester away. Pep’s lad’s got back on track with victory over Southampton, but the sheen of invincibility has been ripped away this season. And with Liverpool firing on all cylinders, City are in no position to drop too many more points this season.
Chelsea and Spurs also suffered slight wobbles, with losses to Leicester and Wolves, respectively. Spurs’ defeat came after thumping wins against Everton (6-2, away) and Bournemouth (5-0, “home”) that encouraged some in the media to dub them title contenders, although manager Mauricio Pochettino was more pragmatic in declaring that they were merely “intruders.”
Pochettino’s comment made more sense after a disappointing game against Wolves at Wembley, with the visitors scoring three times in the last 18 minutes to overturn a 1-0 Spurs lead. Victory would have put Spurs three points behind Liverpool prior to their game against Arsenal, but the team looked knackered and were deservedly beaten.
“We have had a very good run in the last few weeks and to keep that level is difficult,” said Pochettino, after the match. “We tried to play a little more in the second half, but we were too direct and I think we started to pay for the effort in the other games. We are not machines. We need to understand that we cannot get ourselves in this situation.”
It is unclear what situation Pochettino was referring to, but the fact that Spurs had played three games in six days (albeit that two of them were at home) arguably played its part in how poorly the team performed, especially in the second half.
In fact, only Everton had a similarly congested Christmas week, with the Toffees losing to Spurs, before hammering Burnley 5-1 and then losing 1-0 to Brighton. Both Spurs and Everton also play on January 1, so there is some argument that the fixture list has been kinder to some clubs than others … Liverpool and Manchester City had significant gaps between their three games (three days for City, two gaps of four days for the ‘Pool), so make of that what you will.
Some clubs need the January salesS
After struggling through the first half of the season with the squad they had back in August, there will be some managers who will be waiting for the January transfer window to open with the eagerness of a child on Christmas Eve.
The window is the only chance for clubs to either add to their squad or ship out players on loan, with the expectation being that teams in the bottom section of the table will be opening their wallets once again. January is always a busy trading time in the EPL, with the majority of action confined to the excitement of deadline day (January 31st).
Clubs are normally caught between a rock and a hard place at the end of December, weighing up the potential risk of spending millions on a player who might not do the job required versus the financial shortfall of relegation.
After 20 games, it is fair to say that the teams at the top don’t need a lot of tweaking, although Manchester United could probably do with a center-half and Spurs might need to add some back-up for their talismanic Harry Kane. Chelsea will probably buy somebody that they don’t need and then send him on somewhere else, while Everton and West Ham might be the dark horses in terms of bringing bodies in.
Spurs spent nothing in the summer transfer window and there have been rumors that January might see them sending players out as opposed to bringing additional bodies in. However, the financial restrictions from the redevelopment of White Hart Lane may necessitate loan deals rather than permanent signings.
At the bottom, every club from Crystal Palace down would welcome fresh meat.
The gap between 13th and 14th place is already five points and teams like Burnley, Southampton and Huddersfield will be eager to grab bargains if possible. The only exception to this is possibly Fulham, who spent over $100 million in the summer and have been fairly awful ever since—although they did manage to pick up five points out of a possible nine in their three holiday games to date.
Coming up next … EPL Gameweek 21
The final games of the festive fixtures will kick off on New Year’s Day, when Everton host Leicester, Arsenal entertain Fulham and Spurs have a trip to Cardiff. January 1st is a holiday in the UK, so hungover fans are probably hoping that their heroes didn’t have a late one the night before.
Gameweek 21 then continues on January 2 with six evening fixtures—Bournemouth vs Watford is my pick of the bunch—before concluding on January 3 with Manchester City against Liverpool. The game at the Etihad is already being billed as a title decider, but that is just media hype … there is a long way to go until somebody lifts the trophy in May!