Premier League Holiday Season's Winners and Losers
The Premier League's 40-match, 14-day sprint is finally over, and all 20 clubs, at last, have some time to breathe (well, save for the FA Cup matches this weekend) and reflect on where things stand.
The top six fortified their standing despite a set of mixed results among them, while there was a bit of movement on the bottom in a relegation race threatening to drag six, or perhaps seven teams down to the wire.
Further complicating matters is the opening of the transfer window, with Chelsea wasting little time in wrapping up a summer arrival for Christian Pulisic, while others contemplate how to fortify their squads for the home stretch.
The festive season, as it always does, churned out sets of winners and losers, both on a club and individual level. Here are five of each from a hectic period that had a massive impact on how the rest of the season will play out:
The Red Devils are back! Well, maybe. That remains to truly be seen. But at the very least the aura of positivity and self-belief has returned at Old Trafford. Manchester United was the only club to win all four of its holiday matches, rolling through a slew of bottom-half teams under caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. United outscored its opponents 14-3 and soared to within six points of a top-four place. Considering where things were left off when Jose Mourinho was fired–Man United was 11 points out of fourth, had a 0 goal differential and one win in its previous six matches (1-2-3)–it's safe to say the season is back on course. If not to trophies and glory, then at the very least to stability and a pathway forward. United's table standing didn't actually change, but its outlook most certainly has.
Restored to the starting lineup after Mourinho's dismissal, Pogba rewarded Solskjaer with a pair of two-goal performances and three assists in four games. It's almost as if one of the keys to a World Cup-winning squad is an asset that should be nurtured and molded and not targeted and discarded. That's not to say Pogba was blameless during his ongoing spat with Mourinho, but it's clear he can be part of the solution at Man United, while the same could not be said of his now-former manager.
Liverpool missed out on a chance to take full grasp of the title race by falling at Man City in a thriller on Thursday, but that doesn't take away from the fact that strengthened its case to become champion over the course of the last two weeks. Jurgen Klopp's side is still the favorite to win the title, though walking away with a nine- and 10-point lead over Tottenham and Man City, respectively, would have clearly been preferred. Instead, the Reds lead City by four and Spurs by six, but as long as there's no psychological aftermath from the loss at the Etihad, they should be just fine. The margin for error, however, isn't as big as it could have been.
Spurs did their part to ensure it's a three-horse race for the title, though it didn't actually close the gap on Liverpool, with both going 3-1-0 during the holidays. With things so finely poised, you wonder how much Tottenham will wind up regretting the end of its 3-1 home loss to Wolves. Margins are small at the top of the table, and that 15-minute lapse at Wembley could ultimately prove quite costly. Regardless, Tottenham's attack was largely on fire (15 goals in four games), and the club remains very much in the hunt.
The two who gained the most on the bottom of the table were Burnley and Crystal Palace. Burnley climbed out of the drop zone and finds itself on much more stable ground after consecutive wins over West Ham and Huddersfield. With its next league match, on Jan 12., coming at home against 19th-place Fulham, the Clarets have another relegation race six-pointer on the docket and can continue to make headway on staying up.
Palace, meanwhile, scored the shock result of the holidays by winning at Manchester City to kick things off and rode that momentum to a 2-1-1 mark that brings the Eagles a full six points clear of relegation danger.
It certainly could have been worse for Pep Guardiola's side. Man City salvaged its holidays with its riveting win over Liverpool, and it maintained its chances at defending its Premier League title, but the consecutive losses to Crystal Palace and Leicester City were both head-scratching in nature and detrimental in the table. Man City wound up losing three points on Liverpool (though it could have easily been nine), and for all of the positive vibes flowing around the Etihad on Thursday, it still needs to make up four points without any head-to-head matchups with Liverpool remaining to win the title. Liverpool's schedule the rest of the way is incredibly favorable, meaning City might need a boost from rival Man United (one of Liverpool's toughest games remaining, on Feb. 24) while largely remaining flawless, to lift the trophy again.
The fifth-place Gunners are still in the hunt for the top four but had a chance to make a statement vs. Liverpool and promptly fell flat. The 5-1 loss, which came on the heels of a disappointing draw at Brighton, has Arsenal in a fight for a Champions League place, and watching Man United close the gap by five points while simultaneously not gaining any ground on fourth-place Chelsea represents a disappointing holidays at the Emirates. The upcoming Jan. 19 showdown there against Chelsea will be an opportunity to render it all moot, though.
The optics look pretty terrible for Mourinho, with Man United going on a four-game winning streak immediately after his dismissal, but you wonder how he would have fared had he stayed put. Clearly the vibes the club is giving off now are different, but could Mourinho really not have also steered United to 12 points against Cardiff, Huddersfield, Bournemouth and Newcastle? Perhaps it wouldn't have happened as emphatically given the differences in approach that he and Solskjaer have displayed, but the timing of his firing proved to be a masterstroke in PR for the club given the fixture list. The luster of what looks like a genius move could wear off soon, especially with a brutal run of games coming for the club, but for now, Man United's previous struggles certainly look like much of Mourinho's doing.
Huddersfield actually had one of the easier slates among all 20 clubs, facing three other sides in the relegation fight, yet it lost all four of its games–the only club in the league to do so. The climb to safety appears to be impossible, even with 17 games to go. The Terriers sit on 10 points, are eight points from safety and chasing three sides tied on 18. Three of the next five league games come against Man City, Chelsea and Arsenal. It all looks quite bleak for David Wagner's side.
Huddersfield may have been the only side to lose all four games in the two-week sprint, but Everton wasn't far behind, dropping three of its four and continuing its tumble out of the top half of the table. The Toffees' holidays were a bit bipolar, starting with a horrendous 6-2 loss to Tottenham and following with a 5-1 thrashing of Burnley. Two narrow 1-0 defeats followed, leaving the club with a sub-.500 record, a 0 goal differential and no shot at sneaking into the top six.