With the English Premier League approaching its halfway point and the glut of festive fixtures about to test the limits of squad depth, there is a consensus that the season is moving nicely through the gears. The business end of the EPL is still some months away, but there is little doubt that the current table is an accurate reflection of how teams are performing.
After three match weeks in 10 days, EPL Week 17 was relatively normal, albeit that the period between December 21st and January 3rd will require every Premier League club to play four games. This will include the traditional Boxing Day fixtures on December 26th, a day when fans get to shake off their turkey-induced lethargy and watch their teams hit the actual halfway point of 19 games.
Seasoned football supporters know that 19 games constitutes a fair barometer of what the rest of the season will hold. Teams at the top will be looking to consolidate their positions, while those at the bottom are waiting for the January transfer window to open so that they can strengthen the squad and, hopefully, stave off the prospect of relegation. Mid-table clubs will also be shopping in January, mainly to ensure that they get to enjoy another season of dining at the top table.
In fact, EPL 17 was an intriguing glimpse into not only how the rest of the year will play out but also who the movers and shakers will be in 2019. The top six has a familiar look, with wins for Liverpool, Manchester City, Spurs and Chelsea. At the bottom, Crystal Palace, Newcastle United and Southampton all claimed three points, while Fulham’s miserable season continued with a defeat at home to a resurgent West Ham.
With that in mind, here are some highlights. Spoiler alert: EPL 17 was not a good week for the “Special One.”
Tough Times For Manchester United
Liverpool vs Manchester United is one of the biggest games of the season. That is a fact. So much so, that NBC Sports described it as the biggest rivalry in football (some Spurs and Arsenal fans might disagree, but NBC’s Liverpool love-fest has been ongoing for some time) and it was widely seen as the game that would define Jose Mourinho’s tenure at United.
Liverpool won 3-1 against a United side that was described as “lackluster” and “second rate” by the BBC and the performance left Sky’s football expert Gary Neville (and former United player) almost speechless …which is a good thing. United, according to almost everybody who watched the game and who were lucky enough to not be sitting at an LAX airport bar where the request for “soccer on the TV” was ignored,
After the game, Mourinho said that the strongest team won, but was confident that United would finish in the top six at the very least. To say that is not good enough for a global brand is an understatement and the club needs to reset, a plethora of former players said. Mourinho took the blame for the loss and, on December 18, United acknowledged what many of us had been waiting for and sacked him.
Naturally, questions will remain as to why the club waited until just before the holiday fixtures to pull the trigger, but Mourinho’s departure is another public relations nightmare for a footballing behemoth that has enjoyed unprecedented success in the Premier League era. Former United favorite and so-called “smiling assassin” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has already been named as caretaker manager until the end of the season, with the expectation that the Old Trafford club will now take a long, hard look at who they want to be in the hot-seat next.
Early speculation has put Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino at the top of the list, although United would have to pay at least $50 million to get their man. Add into the mix that Old Trafford is arguably no longer the gilded citadel on the hill that it was under the 26-year reign of Sir Alex Ferguson and it may be that Poch decides that North London is a better platform for his talents as opposed to the weight of expectation in Manchester.
Arsenal’s Unbeaten Run Ends
The North London club was unbeaten in 22 games before their trip to the South Coast to face a Southampton side that had struggled to score goals or keep clean sheets. Arsenal fans would have expected another victory after a run that had included draws against Liverpool and Manchester United (although the latter doesn’t seem that impressive in hindsight) and a 4-2 victory over Spurs in the NLD.
If only football was so simple.
Southampton had recently sacked manager Mark Hughes and appointed Ralph Hassenhuttl (whoever he is) as his replacement, with the Austrian taking charge of his first home game after defeats at Spurs and Cardiff. Anybody who has followed football for a while will know that New Manager Syndrome is a well-established part of the EPL, and it was always likely that an upset was on the cards.
And so it came to pass. Saints won 3-2, thanks to an 85th minute winner from Charlie Austin, a result that moved them out of the relegation zone and into the nose-bleed heights of 17th.
Arsenal are now three points off the top four in fifth, a remarkable stat given that they hadn’t lost in the league since the opening two gameweeks of the season. Granted, those defeats came against Manchester City and Chelsea, but their impressive run of results included wins against the might of Cardiff, Newcastle Huddersfield and Fulham, with draws against Palace and Wolves. In addition, the majority of Arsenal’s Europa League opponents in the group stages could comfortably be filed under “Google Search,” so maybe this was a reality check for a team that is still a work-in-progress.
“If we won’t win like today, we cannot be in the top four,” said Arsenal boss Unai Emery, in a post-match interview with the BBC. “After 22 matches unbeaten we didn’t lose and we are only fifth position in the table and the reason is because other teams are very well. Other teams usually they are winning but we need to do our way and continue to build. The objective is therefore top but we know it’s not easy because the other teams are at a high level. We need to be very, very demanding.”
Spent millions, bottom of the table
Fulham’s spending spree in the summer raised a few eyebrows amongst the wider football community, with an expectation that the West London club would probably be able to comfortably hold on to a mid-table slot.
Promoted teams know that there is a massive gulf between the Championship and the EPL, but Fulham owner Shahid Khan –who also owns the Jacksonville Jaguars and offered the FA over $750 million to buy Wembley Stadium—must have thought that signing 11 players would allow the team to kick-on.
Seventeen games in and Fulham have already sacked the manager who won them promotion, replacing him with former Leicester City boss (and fairy-tale EPL winner) Claudio Ranieri to get them out of the bottom three. The club has an abysmal record after 17 games—won 2, drawn 3, lost 12—and have a -26 goal difference after only finding the net 16 times so far.
Common wisdom dictates that the club at the bottom of the table in January is normally relegated (only three teams in the history of the EPL have stayed up after propping up the table at Christmas), so the omens for Fulham are not good. Khan sanctioned a $100 million-plus transfer kitty during the summer transfer window, but it is fair to say that he has not got value-for-money.
Fulham are the only club in the top-four professional divisions that have not kept a clean sheet, and their 2-0 defeat to West Ham was just another example of how dreadful some of their finishing and defending is. They had 16 shots in total compared to West Ham’s six, four of which were on target as opposed to the Hammers’ three. The difference is that West Ham scored two goals from their three shots.
After spending so much in the summer, it is hard to believe that the funds will be available to bolster/improve the squad in January, but relegation could be even more expensive in the long run. On the plus side, the festive fixtures have been kind to the WestLondon club, with games against Newcastle, Wolves and Huddersfield, and a trip to Arsenal the only game against the EPL elite. However, history is not onFulham’s side and their four-year wait to return to the Premier League is likely to end in tears.
The Best of the Rest
Spurs continued to defy the pre-season pundit claims that spending nothing and not completing the move to the new White Hart Lane in 2018 would affect them by beating Burnley 1-0 at Wembley to consolidate third position. After making it through to the Round of 16 in the Champions League with a dramatic draw away to Barcelona in mid-week, the average Spurs fan would have expected a routine win over a Burnley side that has been a shadow of the team that finished 7th in the EPL last season.
As we noted above, football doesn’t work like that.
A 91st minute winner from Christian Eriksen broke Burnley hearts, the Lancashire team putting up a spirited resistance against a team that is yet to register a draw this season. The result was the 100th EPL win as manager for Pochettino, and cemented the fact that Spurs are enjoying their best start to a campaign since the black and white days of the 60-61 Double-winning side.
Chelsea also ensured that the top four has a familiar look to it, securing a hard fought victory over Brighton on the South Coast. Eden Hazard was reportedly the star of the show, scoring one and assisting another as the Blues made the bold choice to start without a striker.
Brighton “left themselves too much to do,” said manager Chris Houghton, after his side trailed by two at half-time, with his cigarette-chewing opposite number Mauricio Sarri admitting that he was worried about the “last five minutes of the game.”
Elsewhere, Wolves beat Bournemouth while Huddersfield lost to Newcastle. Manchester City briefly returned to the top of the table with a 3-1 win over Everton (before Liverpool dismantled United a day later) and Palace beat Leicester. Watford went three up against Cardiff with at least two contenders for goal-of-the month, before theWelsh side mounted a spirited comeback (but ultimately pointless) by scoring two goals in the last 10 minutes.
“I am disappointed with the individual errors for the goals, but I am pleased with the way we kept going,” Cardiff manager Neil Warnock, said, adding that the referee was basically a Sunday League trainee. “We set ourselves up to be difficult to break down and I cannot legislate for individual errors. We cannot keep playing like this every week and losing – we need to get results away from home.”
40 Games In 14 Days
Unlike their European counterparts, EPL players don’t get a winter break. As a result, there is a full program of fixtures over the next fortnight, and it becomes hard to pick the must-see games of each individual gameweek.
The holiday period is traditionally a slog for both players and fans, with the games coming every couple of days. Factor in the extended travel that most clubs will enjoy, and the festive fixtures are one of the few times that being an armchair supporter makes sense. The potential for both injuries and stories is also elevated, with every team eager to just get through the next four games. And once they have done that, the FA Cup then takes center stage in the second weekend of January.
That being said, the top six seem to have a relatively winnable set of fixtures, with only Liverpool’s games against Arsenal (December 29) and Manchester City on January 3, respectively, standing out as elite matches. I will naturally be watching as many of the games as is humanly possible, and enjoying a feast of football that will—in all probability—give us a clearer view of how the season will end. Unless you are Jose Mourinho … your season is over.
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