‘Tis the season to be merry, especially if you’re a football fan. With dreary international breaks banished till March, there will be no less than six rounds of Premier League fixtures squeezed into December – an opportunity for potentially the most exciting title race in living memory to gather momentum.
Going into this week’s round of fixtures, a mere four points separated Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, and Arsenal at the summit of the table, with Tottenham and Manchester United within touching distance.
The battle between the managers is arguably as intriguing as the battle between the teams. Antonio Conte, Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola, Arsène Wenger, and José Mourinho reads like a Who’s Who of the world’s top managers, while Mauricio Pochettino is rapidly making a name for himself at Spurs.
The title will be decided by a clash of personalities and a clash of styles. Who will come out on top? The frantic festive period may give us the answer.
The Importance of Christmas Number One
In some ways, it’s strange that the media place so much importance on who is top of the table on Christmas Day. Why is more made of being top at Christmas, than being top on New Year’s Day or Easter or any other point between now and the end of the season?
A look at the history books offers some support to the media obsession with Christmas number one.
Last year’s champions, Leicester City, were top on Christmas Day. The last four times Chelsea won the league, they were top at Christmas, and the same applies for the last three times Man United won the league.
All told, in eight of the last eleven seasons, the team who were top at Christmas have gone on to claim the title. Only Liverpool, twice, and Arsenal in the 2007/8 season faltered and slipped down the table.
Jurgen Klopp may not be as keen as Antonio Conte to sit first in the table while he enjoys his turkey!
More Premier League matches are played in December than in any other month. On the face of it, this isn’t particularly logical. Why play more matches in the month with the least natural light, worst weather, and when everyone else in the nation is celebrating a religious holiday by eating and drinking their body weight?
The rest of world football winds down in December. Spain and Germany, the Premier League’s closest rivals, have their winter break over the festive period, but tradition is strong and Boxing Day simply wouldn’t be Boxing Day without four live matches on Sky in a row.
Unsurprisingly, foreign managers view this tradition with perplexity. Jurgen Klopp arrived in England shortly before last season’s festive period and appeared cheerfully bemused about the festive mania. This year he seems less amused. “We have less than 48 hours between our game against Man City on December 31 and in Sunderland on the 2nd,” he grouched, no doubt concerned about the effect a lack of recovery time will have on the high-energy pressing style he favours.
Klopp does, however, have an advantage over Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte in that he has some experience of dealing with the festive congestion. Could Man City and Chelsea suffer in comparison to their rivals because of their managers’ relative lack of experience?
There are a lot of points to be won and lost over the festive period and the way managers handle squad rotation, training, and preparation is key. José Mourinho and Arsène Wenger may feel their years of experience in England will allow them to close the gap over Christmas.
Chelsea and Liverpool have the edge in the title battle at the moment. As their rivals have been keen to point out, Conte and Klopp have benefitted from the absence of European football and free weeks to train and condition their players.
This advantage has proved crucial in the Premier League before. Leicester’s consistency, energy, and lack of injuries played a major role in their run to the title last year. Check out their league position this year for a glimpse of how European football can compromise domestic success.
The other surprising title bid in recent years, the surge from Brendan Rodgers’ unfancied Liverpool side spearheaded by the Sturridge-Suarez partnership, was also built on a clear European schedule.
Man City, Arsenal, Spurs, and Man United will be free of European football in a week, negating, for a couple of months, any advantage Chelsea and Liverpool have gained from their less crowded calendar.
Klopp and Conte haven’t had to rotate at all this season. Will their teams lose momentum when they begin mixing things up?
So Who Will Be Christmas Number One?
Chelsea are the in-form team. Their thrilling win over Manchester City was their eighth in a row and with fixtures against West Brom, Crystal Palace, and Sunderland coming up, they are heavy favourites to claim the top spot at Christmas.
Bet365 have them priced at 11/8 to claim the title next spring, with new members able to claim £200 when joining. The rules of the bonus are explained in detail here. These odds might be set to rise after their clash with City, though. Conte will be concerned that Pedro and Diego Costa limped off during the match, but barring major injuries, their good form looks set to continue into the New Year.
Liverpool, in contrast, have lost their player of the season so far, Phillipe Coutinho, and also have fitness concerns over Roberto Firmino and Sturridge. Nonetheless, their fixtures are also relatively favourable – certainly in comparison to Arsenal and Man City, who play each other at the Etihad in the final round of fixtures before Christmas.
Spurs and Man United are too far behind to realistically challenge for the Christmas top spot, but will hope to close the gap on their rivals ahead of a push in the New Year.
The quality of the Man City vs Chelsea game, particularly the tactical sophistication and array of goalscoring chances, highlighted the potential for this year’s championship race to be the most special in recent years. Following Leicester’s shock triumph last year, the big teams are back. Big name managers are in place, big money has been spent, and the clashes between the teams have become blockbuster events again, delivering entertainment worthy of the billion dollar TV deals and the BT and Sky hype machines.
Whoever claims Christmas number one will still have a lot of work to do to push on for the title. If it is Chelsea, history will be with them, but sport has a habit of making up its own scripts. We all like a bit of entertainment at Christmas. The real winners in this year’s fit of festive Premiership madness could well be the fans.