Happy New Year! I hope you have all had a fun festive season. The good news is that the time off has allowed me to catch up with all the action so you’re finally not left waiting til halfway through the next month for my thoughts.
And what an intriguing December it was. COVID reared its ugly head with a number of matches being postponed throughout the month. Manchester City may not have faced any of their rivals in December, but it was still a crucial month for their campaign, as they won 7 of 7 matches, while rivals Chelsea and Liverpool both dropped points, allowing the Sky Blues to welcome in the New Year with an 8-point lead over Chelsea and a 9-point lead over Liverpool, who have a game in hand.
The rest of the Big 6 saw their seasons getting back on track, and all 3 of Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur found themselves in European positions, with 5ᵗʰ-placed West Ham completing the top 7.
At the other end of the table, Newcastle earned their first league win of the season against fellow relegation scrappers Burnley, who also picked up points with a series of draws this month that leaves both teams within a win of Watford, who are currently just outside the bottom 3 after a poor month, though Burnley have a game in hand over Watford, who themselves have a further 2 games in hand over Newcastle. Meanwhile, despite having as many league victories this season as Newcastle and Burnley combined, Norwich find themselves rooted to the bottom of the table and still waiting to hit double digits for goals scored in the campaign.
The race is on!
The race for the Golden Boot: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – 15 goals; Diogo Jota (Liverpool) – 10 goals; Jamie Vardy (Leicester City) – 9 goals
The race for Playmaker of the Season: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – 9 assists; Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool) – 8 assists; Paul Pogba (Manchester United), Jarrod Bowen (West Ham) & Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City) – 7 assists
The race for the Golden Glove: Ederson (Manchester City) – 11 clean sheets; Alisson (Liverpool) & Aaron Ramsdale (Arsenal) – 9 clean sheets; Édouard Mendy (Chelsea) – 8 clean sheets
We just can’t seem to escape the impact of COVID on the sport, but December saw it really rear its ugly head. Whether due to the new Omicron variant or not, players and managers were routinely missing games as they self-isolated, while a whopping 15 matches were postponed during the second half of the month.
The festive period is one of the busiest in the Premier League calendar, now that calendar is in disarray. You just need to look at the table, where the amount of matches a team has played by the end of 2021 ranges from 20 to 16. And it’s not as if the issue is over, with one match having already been postponed this year at time of writing.
At some point, these games will need to be played, and unless the FA chooses to take advantage of a winter World Cup and extend the season, these games will need to be played wherever there is a gap, and that’s just going to make things even busier for some teams.
It’s been an interesting month for Arsenal. A team who started with a pointless opening month before going perfect the next found themselves back in an awkward spot as captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was dropped from the matchday squad for the 3-0 win over Southampton for a disciplinary breach. This was the second time that disciplinary action had been taken against the club captain, which is a bad look, so it was no surprise to see Aubameyang officially stripped of the captaincy a few days later.
And since then, things have gone well for the team. It’s not as if he had been firing on all cylinders this season, and having Lacazette regularly starting up front has created some better consistency and chemistry that is bringing the best out of the attack.
The one thing that is missing somewhat is clear leadership. Given Granit Xhaka’s captaincy tenure did not end well I can’t see him taking the armband in more than just the occasional match, while the team on the whole is largely quite young. But this could be a blessing in disguise, as it forces players to stand up and take on a more important role. It may not have been an easy 2 years under Mikel Arteta, but this looks like a team finally going in the right direction.
Breaking through the ceiling
While West Ham have been having a good season, December was somewhat of a blip for them, with draws against Brighton and Burnley and losses to Arsenal and Southampton. Following the Southampton game, an interview with Michail Antonio caught my attention as he talked about the team probably suffering from some mental fatigue, as they were not used to the high number of matches they were playing this season due to their involvement in the Europa League.
This got me thinking about just how hard it is for a team to break into the Europan positions on a regular basis. It’s so rare that you see a team come out of nowhere to win the league like Leicester did, because it is so hard for a team outside the Big 6 to have a squad that has a strong enough starting XI to defeat their rivals and a squad deep enough in quality to keep a challenge going all season. When you add in the extra matches that European football gives you, and it just adds to that necessity for a strong and deep squad.
But that isn’t something that you can just generate overnight. You need to develop players within your squad, spend money wisely on players that will improve the squad and also try to hold onto the stars that got to into these positions as the traditional big teams come calling.
If you can successfully keep yourself in the European positions for a number of seasons then you have broken the glass ceiling, but right now, in a league that is so competitive, there’s no team that has yet managed to consistently break through. Could West Ham be the ones?
Team of the Month
Who else could I really pick here? City went 100% from 7 matches this month, and while they may not have had to play any rivals, the manner of many victories was impressive, with a 6-3 win against Leicester and a 7-0 rout of Leeds.
With 23 goals scored and just 5 conceded, it was another dominant display from the league leaders, and with their closest rivals dropping points, the title seems all but certain to come back to the Etihad this season.