The Premier League never sleeps. While the rest of the European leagues enjoy their winter break, the festivities of Christmas are no deterrent to the machinations of the English top flight. Here are 5 observations from the first round of fixtures post-Christmas.
1. CHELSEA’S TITLE RUN CONTINUES
The rich vein of form under Antonio Conte shows no signs of abating with 12 straight wins. Chelsea sauntered 3-0 past Bournemouth with the confidence of champions. Pedro’s little shuffle to find space, before curling the ball into the far corner, epitomizes their revival from battling mid-table obscurity last year to top of the pack this season. A signing deemed a mistake last season has been rejuvenated alongside Diego Costa and Eden Hazard in attack. You would say that, by this stage, the title is Chelsea’s to lose.
2. CHALLENGERS KEEP UP THE CHASE
Liverpool moved back up to second with a convincing 4-1 win over Stoke. Their high-tempo game has been fantastic to watch at times, but Jurgen Klopp will need to shore up that back line as their forwards cannot be expected to outscore the opposition every week. Simon Mignolet may regained his spot in goal from the polarising Loris Karius, but the Belgian still does not inspire confidence. Performances so far this season would indicate that a derailed title bid would likely come from conceding too many goals. Further upfield, Sadio Mane has been a fantastic signing from Southampton. Brilliant form means that he will be a big miss when he joins Senegal for the African Cup of Nations next month.
Manchester City strolled past Hull with minimal fuss in a 3-0 win. The Pep Guardiola revolution continues apace, and one would expect further changes when the January transfer window opens. City has some of the most creative talents in the league, with Sergio Agüero, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. Yaya Toure and Kelechi Iheanacho offer additional firepower, if needed. As with Liverpool, a flimsy defence may prove to be their undoing. A Nicholas Otamendi-Aleksandr Kolarov central defensive axis does not look particularly sturdy, while Claudio Bravo is yet to settle in goal. City will need a little more pace and steel across the rest of the team to complement their attacking fulcrum, and to keep the goals against column to a minimum.
Arsenal laboured past West Bromwich Albion with a late Olivier Giroud winner, but their results often provide as many questions as answers. Is this a real sign of the Gunners’ newfound resilience, or just the sign of a team that may not quite have enough in the tank to finish the season on top? It has become glaringly obvious, in the last month, that Santi Cazorla, who suffered a long-term Achilles injury, has been a big miss. His creativity and incisive passing may have been less apparent with Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil on form, but is so important in helping the Gunners knit attacks together. It may be the case that “same-old” Arsenal may once again, lack the squad depth to challenge for honours.
3. MANCHESTER UNITED MARCH ON AS EXPECTED
United strolled to a 3-1 win against Sunderland. Zlatan Ibrahimovic continued a rich vein of goal-scoring form, despite looking a little off-colour during the game. Record signing Paul Pogba has started to show more consistently what he offers from midfield – his driving runs and imaginative passes gives United a platform to build from. However, United’s attackers also showed signs of why they remain outside the Champions League places. Prior to the late flurry in the last ten minutes, when a magical flying backheel finish by Henrikh Mkhitaryan put Sunderland to the sword, United was wasteful. As with many games this season, they spurned good opportunities to kill off the game much earlier. A tendency to sit too deep after gaining the lead has been a problem that continues to plague this United team. Given how slowly United started the season, United’s best hope may be to sneak into the Champions League places, with a title challenge looking unlikely at this stage.
4. RELEGATION BATTLE CONTINUES TO FASCINATE
Halfway through the Premier League season and the bottom half of the table is as competitive as ever. Only 8 points separate Watford in 10th and Sunderland in the final relegation spot in 18th. Hull and Swansea are a further two points behind Sunderland. As ever, a good run of results can propel a team up the table, as much as a poor run can condemn a team’s prospects of remaining in the top flight.
Despite losing against Man United, Sunderland did show some signs of life in their game. Much will depend on whether Sunderland can keep Jermaine Defoe fit and firing. Throughout his career, Defoe has been a certainty for goals in the Premier League, and he will be instrumental in their hopes of staying up. Crystal Palace may be sitting precariously above Sunderland, but the appointment of Sam Allardyce may finally stop the rot and bring some fight back into the team; their form was in free fall under Alan Pardew. Leicester is now in serious trouble with a disappointing 2-0 loss against Everton. Champions League football has seemingly stretched last season’s champions to the limit. Without N’Golo Kante in their ranks, their midfield and defence have often looked overrun, while Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez look a shadow of last year’s titans. As is the case with newly promoted teams, Middlesbrough and Burnley are not out of the woods yet, and it would be no surprise if both teams were dragged back into the relegation dogfight.
5. HULL AND SWANSEA LOOK ODDS-ON TO GO DOWN
Hull’s encouraging start of the season with wins against Leicester and Swansea has been quickly forgotten, with their threadbare squad lacking the quality to convert chances to win games. A big issue with Hull is the inability to turn positive performances into actual results. Hull’s fate may mirror their time in the Premier League two years ago, where good performances under Steve Bruce were not rewarded with the right results, and their form simply deteriorated from there.
Swansea has looked even more disappointing, and Bob Bradley’s sacking comes as no surprise as they desperately look for a solution to stop the rot. Their 1-4 reverse against West Ham was an emphatic loss. The way their defence hemorrhages goals, and their midfield losing possession, have been common features this season. Leroy Fer, a summer signing from Norwich, looks as if he will experience his third successive relegation, having gone down with Queens Park Rangers and Norwich. Up front, the purchases of Fernando Llorente and Borja Baston have not worked out so far, and they are not scoring enough to patch up a leaky defence. Gylfi Sigurdsson remains their key creative force, capable of providing goals and assists, but they may struggle to keep his services. Serie A teams Inter and Roma have been linked with a January move, and Swansea’s chances of staying up will only dissolve further without him.