Happy New Year all!
It may seem odd to say that a league spanning from August to May can be decided in one month, but with 7 rounds of football in December and some huge results, the Premier League title may have been all-but wrapped up the title for Liverpool by the end of the festive period.
Elsewhere, two managers followed Slaviša Jokanović into unemployment with Mark Hughes being replaced at Southampton by Ralph Hasenhüttl and Ole Gunnar Solskjær replacing José Mourinho at Manchester United.
I have some real sympathy for Sean Dyche. His Burnley side have not been awarded a penalty in the Premier League since 15th April 2017 against Everton, despite a number of incidents since that looked like they should have resulted in the referee pointing to the spot. The latest incident came in their 3-1 loss to Arsenal, where Kevin Long was bundled over by Sead Kolašinac in the Arsenal box. Soft? Maybe, but by the letter of the law it should be a foul, and by extension in this case, a penalty.
What will be even more galling for Dyche is that in the same round of fixtures, Dominic Calvert-Lewin had a goal disallowed for Everton for a push on Davinson Sánchez during their 2-6 loss to Tottenham – a push that was arguably a softer foul than Kolašinac’s. Then, just 2 matches later, Kolašinac did concede a penalty in the 5-1 loss to Liverpool by pushing over Dejan Lovren. 3 pushes, 2 fouls… the maths just doesn’t add up.
One of my real bugbears in football is the amount of pushing and pulling that goes unpunished. The powers that be need to decide that either any push or pull is legal or every push or pull is a foul, and the officials then need to enforce this. Otherwise we see games ruined by players being penalised one week and not another for the exact same act.
A crazy few minutes
Brighton’s 3-1 victory over Crystal Palace gave us one of the craziest moments of the season, and unfortunately not many people come out of it looking good.
Glenn Murray went down in the box under pressure from James Tomkins – perhaps a little easy, but that’s another debate altogether – but referee Kevin Friend did not award a penalty. Murray stayed down with an injury and in the afters, Shane Duffy inexplicably thrust his head into Patrick van Aanholt, earning himself a deserved red card. Having lost a defender, manager Chris Hughton replaced Pascal Groß with the more defensive Leon Balogun. Things didn’t end there as Friend had awarded a corner, thinking the ball had been played by Tomkins rather than Murray and the corner resulted in Balogun scoring a stunning volley with his first touch of the ball!
While I would hope the officials would be able to get the decisions between a corner and a goal kick correct at this level, this incident to me really highlighted one of the differences between football and rugby. In rugby, an offence like Duffy’s headbutt would cause a reversal in the referee’s original decision as well as any necessary cards. This way, the aggressor is punished with a dismissal and his team are also punished. Had that been the case here, Duffy’s indiscretion would have seen the corner (that they already shouldn’t have) be reversed to a Palace free kick, which could have made a huge difference given the 1-0 scoreline at the time.
Great month for Liverpool
December couldn’t have really gone much better for Liverpool. They continued their unbeaten campaign with 7 wins from 7, including victories over Manchester United, Arsenal and local rivals Everton. Meanwhile, title rivals Manchester City dropped points with losses to Chelsea (2-0), Crystal Palace (2-3) and Leicester (2-1); Tottenham lost to Arsenal (4-2) and Wolves (1-3); Arsenal lost at Southampton (3-2) and drew at Manchester United (2-2) and Brighton (1-1) and Chelsea lost 1-0 to Leicester.
8 of the last 9 league leaders on Christmas Day have gone on to win the title, while Liverpool’s leade on New Year’s Day would be the biggest margin overcome in Premier League history were they to lose the title, so the signs are very good for the Reds. Mohamed Salah may not be scoring with the same regularity as last season, they look much more secure at the back with Virgil van Dijk looking one of the best centrebacks in the league and Alisson currently sits top of the league in terms of clean sheets.
I don’t expect them to go unbeaten this season, but barring a slew of injuries to key players, I find it hard to imagine they will drop enough points to allow anyone else to overtake them, especially as I expect their rivals to also drop more points in such a hotly contested league this season.
Throwback to the past
The inevitable finally happened this season as United’s loss to Liverpool saw the end of José Mourinho’s reign at Old Trafford, with the Special One being replaced by former fan-favourite player Ole Gunnar Solskjær until the end of the season. The move has had instant results, with the team playing a much more attack-focused gameplan with the players looking much freer than before. They may not have played table-topping teams, but 4 wins from 4 has made Solskjær only the second manager in the history of the club to win his first 4 league games in charge, the first being Sir Matt Busby.
It has been wonderful watching their recent performances and with Solskjær in charge and Mike Phelan on his staff, this is probably the closest feeling we have had to the classic United since Fergie retired.
However, I do not want to get carried away. United are still struggling to keep clean sheets and are in desperate need of a top-quality centre back, but the rumours have been that United will be limited to loan signings with Solskjær currently only on loan from Molde until the end of the season. That will not be enough to keep up with the top teams and if players like Pogba begin to act up again (I cannot believe that his new form is down purely to him being given more freedom on the pitch as opposed to him now actively putting in effort) then things could turn horribly again.
Personally, I really hope things work out for the rest of the season and would love to see the Baby-faced Assassin get the role on a permanent basis.
Top 6 prediction
- Manchester City
- Tottenham Hotspur
- Manchester United