Happy New Year Premier League fans!
Before I get into this, I have a sincere apology to make, to my good friend Chris and all Spurs fans. It was beginning to look like this would finally be their season, but it would appear that I jinxed them by praising them so much in last month’s article, as they promptly went off the boil and dropped right out of the Champions League qualifying spots.
Tottenham were replaced at the top of the table by Liverpool, who led the league at Christmas as saw in the new year at the top spot, though Manchester United finished the month just3 points behind with a game in hand. Leicester and Everton filled out the top 4, though Villa are just 3 points behind, with a game in hand on Everton and 2 on the Foxes. The rest of the big name teams (other than 13ᵗʰ-placed Arsenal) fill out the rest of the top 8, with Chelsea, Spurs and Manchester City all finishing the month on the same number of points as Villa, though games in hand favour City and Villa.
At the bottom of the table, Chris Wilder’s seat must be feeling pretty toasty, as Sheffield United’s 1-1 draw at Brighton saw them double their points tally for the season, 6 points behind West Brom, who have turned to Sam Allardyce to keep them up. Fulham fill the final spot in the relegation zone, but they are only 2 points behind Brighton with a game in hand, while Burnley will hope that their improved form helps continue to pull them away from danger.
The race is on!
The race for the Golden Boot: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – 13 goals; Son Heung-Min (Tottenham), Dominic Calvert-Lewin (Everton) & Jamie Vardy (Leicester) – 11 goals
The race for Playmaker of the Season: Harry Kane (Tottenham) – 10 assists; Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City) & Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United) – 7 assists
The race for the Golden Glove: Emiliano Martínez (Aston Villa) – 8 clean sheets; Ederson (Manchester City) & Alex McCarthy (Southampton) – 7 clean sheets
Anyone who has been reading my Premier League thoughts for years will know that I hate diving. It’s cheating, pure and simple, a way to deceive the officials into giving a penalty or a free kick.
Now, we’re certainly in a much better place then we were a few season ago, but there are still far too many occasions where you see players either going to ground without being touched or feeling the slightest brush from a defender and Launching themselves through the air as if they were taking flight.
This issue (and the obvious solution) was highlighted to me as I watched 2 matches on 5ᵗʰ December: Chelsea’s 3-1 win over Leeds and Manchester City’s 2-0 win over Fulham. With the score 2-1 at Stamford Bridge, Ian Poveda was caught in the box by Ben Chilwell. Rather than go to ground, he stayed on his feet in an attempt to still make something from the situation, but the chance was now gone. What should have been a clear penalty to Leeds ended up being nothing. Meanwhile at the Etihad, Fulham defender Joachim Andersen caught Raheem Sterling in the box. Though there was less contact than in the Poveda incident, Raheem didn’t hesitate in throwing his legs into the air and doing a dramatic belly flop, and the penalty was awarded for Kevin De Bruyne to double the score and secure the win.
And herein lies the issue and the reason that players will continue to dive: if they are honest and stay on their feet, officials will not react. Officials need to go back to basics and look at what constitutes a foul – it does not need to include the player going to floor. If they start rewarding the honesty of players by awarding a free kick or penalty even when the player keeps their feet, then players will not have to dive in order to win the decision they are due – and anyone who continues to can be rightly vilified!
On 16ᵗʰ December, West Brom became the first Premier League team this season to part ways with their manager, with he announcement that they had sacked Slaven Bilić. That very same day, Sam Allardyce was announced as the new manager. It’s understandable why West Brom made the change, as they were 19ᵗʰ in the league on just 7 points. The problem is, this came less than 24 hours after the team held Manchester City to a 1-1 draw at the Etihad.
No offence to West Brom, but a draw at the Etihad is likely going to be one of the best results of the season, and the fact that both the sacking and the new appointment were announced the next day says to me that the decision was already made ahead of the match, so to sack a manager right after such a positive result shows a certain lack of class.
Big Sam may be an expert in keeping teams up, but this is a weak team in a strong league, and I can’t see this appointment paying off. Bilić will find another team and it would be a beautiful irony if West Brom drops to the Championship and Bilić manages in the Premier League before the Baggies make it back up.
Boom or bust
Leeds have been a breath of fresh air in the league this season. Under the watch of Marcelo Bielsa, the Whites have brought a flashy attack-minded gameplan that has surely been winning them the support of neutrals in a number of matches.
Of course, it hasn’t been all success for them, as their big wins (like 5-2 against Newcastle and 0-5 at West Brom) are a flip side to equally big losses, like the 6-2 loss at Old Trafford. They find themselves entering the new year with 7 wins, 7 losses and 2 draws, with 30 goals for and 30 goals against.
While this level of success will be enough to keep them up this year, they will need to find some way to adapt their game in the long-term, so that they can continue to be super dangerous in attack, but not at the expense of their defence. After all, a focus on attacking brilliance is fine, until your star striker gets hurt or hits a barren spell – I’ve learned that the hard way on FIFA!
The new year means that the transfer window is open again, and some teams certainly need to be utilising it, as some teams have a clear need.
While Manchester City may finally be creeping back up the table, they are still feeling the impact of playing much of the season without a recognised striker. With Aguero and Jesus, they don’t need to break the bank on a superstar, but they need to get someone who has a striker’s natural instincts if they want to start winning the close games.
Other teams that are in desperate need of a striker are Wolves – who have really missed Raúl Jiménez since his head injury – and Brighton, who are rotating between Neal Maupay, Aaron Connolly, Florin Andone and Danny Welbeck of all people!
Meanwhile, Edinson Cavani has been a great option for Manchester United while Bruno Fernandes has helped drag the Red Devils into the title hunt, but they will need an elite winger and centreback if they legitimately want to win the league – though their early elimination from the Champions League will make it even harder for them to get that kind of quality, especially with Ed Woodward still in his role!
What other teams do you think have a burning need to fill during this transfer window?
Team of the Month
The Toffees get my vote for December as, following a drop in form, they returned with an unbeaten month. Things kicked off with a 1-1 draw at Burnley, and then they followed this up with 4 wins: 1-0 against Chelsea, 0-2 at Leicester, 2-1 against Arsenal and 0-1 at Sheffield United. That’s a 7-2 aggregate score in December, including wins against 2 of their rivals for European qualification and another big name team to boot!
They are certainly not the perfect team, with Jordan Pickford skittish between the sticks and summer loan signing Robin Olsen not sufficient competition, but in this season where nobody looks like they will run away with the league, a Champions League spot looks a real possibility, so long as they can stay consistent.