The first half of this 2015-2016 Barclays Premier League season will always be remembered as one with abundant parity, drama, and shocking results.
Leicester City were at the bottom of the table for Christmas 2014, but they spent this year’s holiday in first place. Chelsea won the league with ease last year and Jose Mourinho looked poised to manage the Blues into a new dynasty of Premier League success. This Christmas Mourinho was unemployed and Chelsea were in the incomprehensible position of 15th place.
The festive period of the Premier League season is unlike any other sequence of fixtures in European football. Every team plays three matches between Boxing Day (December 26th) and the first Sunday of January. The bigger teams in the league are usually best prepared for this run of fixtures due to the depth in their squads. In the past this stretch of games has given the opportunity for those big clubs to put some distance between themselves and the smaller clubs in the table. With the structure of the table the way it was going into Boxing Day this year, many of those traditional Premier League big boys were trying to right the ship after disappointing first halves to the season. Thus this season’s span of holiday fixtures served more as a regression to the mean than a separation of the pack.
Chelsea and Manchester United each won their last game, something that two of the most successful teams in Premier League history seemed to have forgotten how to do recently. Chelsea handled Crystal Palace in South London, but before that they drew with United and Watford. United beat Swansea after their tie with Chelsea, but also had an embarrassing 2-0 loss to Stoke City on Boxing Day.
United still seem to be playing the same boring football that has put Louis Van Gaal on the hot seat at Old Trafford. One good sign for the Red Devils was Wayne Rooney scoring his first goal in the league since October, but if United are to push up the table they will need more contributions from big money signings like Memphis Depay. Depay was completely at fault for Stoke’s first goal on Boxing Day when he tried to head backwards for David De Gea, only for Glen Johnson to intercept and set up Bojan in the middle.
Chelsea should improve after their disastrous start, but it’s probably too little too late for them to seriously challenge for the Champions League places. Guus Hiddink would be considered a miracle worker if he could somehow guide the Blues back into the top four.
Unfortunately for fans who love an underdog, no one suffered more of a regression to the mean over this period than Leicester City. The Foxes lost their spot atop the table as they only took one point from their last three games. They lost to a struggling Liverpool team and then were held scoreless in successive 0-0 draws with Manchester City and Bournemouth. The two draws particularly stand out as Leicester probably should have won both matches. They allowed Manchester City to keep a clean sheet without captain Vincent Kompany for the first time all season. In the Bournemouth game they missed a penalty and couldn’t capitalize on Simon Francis being sent off for the Cherries.
They’re only two points behind leaders Arsenal, but with more tough matches right around the corner it’s time to stop talking about Leicester like they are going to win the league. Even manager Claudio Ranieri would agree with that. Ranieri bought his players champagne after the Bournemouth game to celebrate that they had reached 40 points, a mark set by teams before the season who are hoping to avoid relegation.
Speaking of relegation, Aston Villa are done and dusted. Villa are a founding member of the Premier League and are historically the biggest team in Birmingham, England’s second most populous city. They haven’t been relegated from the top flight of English football since 1987, but surely that will change this year. I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed a team so completely inept at the back. Watch the goals they conceded in Saturday’s 3-1 loss to Sunderland and try not to laugh. The third goal featured some nice passing from Aston Villa, only they were passing to the wrong team. Leandro Bacuna and American international Brad Guzan each gave the ball right to Sunderland players, eventually allowing Jermaine Defoe to score his second goal of the game and 10th against Villa in his career.
My favorite match of the festive period, that didn’t involve Tottenham, was Manchester City’s 2-1 victory over Watford. Trailing 1-0 in the 82nd minute City were in danger of slipping six points back of league leaders Arsenal, but then they showed their quality. Yaya Toure scored a scintillating volley from a corner kick, and just two minutes later Sergio Aguero produced one of the best headed goals of the season to give City the win.
I loved watching this game because of the quality of City’s goals and because of the result’s implication on the chase for the league title. I really really really don’t want Arsenal to win the league. Tottenham aren’t going to win the league (come on reverse jinx!!), Leicester aren’t going to win the league, and Manchester United aren’t going to win the league. That leaves Manchester City. City seem to me like a team that is at their best when they are chasing the title, not when they are trying to hold onto a lead. They’re right behind Arsenal and, unlike the gooners, have players in their side with experience and knowledge of what it takes to lift that trophy in May.
Meanwhile Arsenal looked pretty average during the holiday season. They got absolutely thumped by Southampton 4-0 on Boxing Day in what was, for me, one of the most enjoyable matches of the season. They beat Bournemouth like they were expected to, and then barely squeaked out a 1-0 victory against Newcastle.
Newcastle should have won the game, but they’re Newcastle so they found a way to screw it up. Possession, which is usually dominated by Arsenal in this fixture, was split evenly between the teams. The Magpies put six shots on target to Arsenal’s three. Newcastle would have won if Aleksandar Mitrovic hadn’t done his best Roberto Soldado impression by missing a tap in from two yards out.
Next up in the league for Arsenal is a Liverpool team that really hasn’t shown any improvement since Jurgen Klopp took over for Brendan Rodgers in October. Klopp was angry after his teams 2-0 defeat to West Ham at Upton Park, and he had every right to be. Liverpool were thoroughly beaten by the Hammers, who were still without their best player Dmitri Payet at the start of the match. The loss was a particularly cruel one for Liverpool fans as Andy Carroll scored for West Ham against the team that had infamously spent/wasted £35 million on him.
Carroll flourished at one end while Liverpool’s Christian Benteke floundered at the other end. Benteke cost Liverpool £32.5 million this summer when they bought him from Aston Villa, but in my opinion they’ve once again spent unwisely here. Benteke is just not the right fit for the Reds. The Belgian striker is 6 foot 3 and has made a living in the Premier League by feasting on aerial balls into the box. Liverpool don’t play enough crosses for Benteke to be as successful as he was at Villa. Instead they ask him to do more with his feet further away from goal. Klopp certainly realizes this, but an adjustment to Liverpool’s play style may not take effect soon enough for them to return to the Champions League this season.
No team looks better positioned for a return to the Champions League than Tottenham Hotspur. Wow that felt really good to write, but it’s actually true!! If there is a perfect example of how things should be done in today’s Premier League, it’s Tottenham. Mauricio Pochettino has been a revelation since taking over at Spurs in the Summer of 2014. Today’s Tottenham team is full of some of the brightest young players in all of Europe.
At the forefront are young English talents like Harry Kane, Dele Alli, and Eric Dier. When Sergio Aguero is out injured, Kane is the best striker in the Premier League. Dele Alli already has five goals on the season despite only being 19 and playing in League 1 last season, the third division of English football. Recently Alli has been labelled as “the next Steven Gerrard.” Let’s hope he lives up to that name, minus the slipping.
Spurs have only lost twice in the league this season, and their goal differential of +18 is tied with Man City for best in the Premiership. Tottenham’s defense is much improved from the past few seasons with the signing of Toby Alderweireld from Atletico Madrid last summer. Jan Vertonghen and Alderweireld have played together with Ajax and the Belgian national team, and share a natural chemistry and understanding at the back. Then even if a team manages to get past the Tottenham defenders they have to beat Hugo Lloris, who has shown this season why he is the best keeper in the Premier League.
Spurs took the most points of any team during the festive period of fixtures, 10 points from their last four matches. I was lucky enough to be in attendance to see Tottenham win 3-0 against Norwich, 2-1 at Watford, and tie 1-1 at Everton. Had it not been for the crossbar, Spurs would’ve won the match at Goodison Park as well. The Watford result in particular stood out to me. Spurs stayed confident after conceding an equalizer to Odion Ighalo, and eventually won in the final minutes when Son Heung-Min scored a brilliant back-heel right in front of the traveling Tottenham fans.
The Spurs fan’s celebrations at Vicarage Road that day were something special. The team ran right up to the crowd as players and fans hugged each other despite security trying to separate them. It was a beautiful moment for a Spurs fan to witness because of what it signified. The players and fans of Tottenham Hotspur sharing a common love and a common belief that this is the season that Spurs can make a glorious return to the Champions League.