Christmas is almost upon us and with it comes a bumper set of fixtures. It will, as always, be a busy time for Premier League clubs. And for the top teams, in particular, it is crucial that they come through the festive period relatively unscathed.
That is, of course, easier said than done. The number of games in such a short space of time makes it difficult for even the most talented squads to navigate. And much depends on the fixtures: some will inevitably have a less demanding run of games than others.
The Christmas period, though, is a test of endurance, of perseverance and consistency. The top clubs usually have enough depth to deal with the heavy schedule without succumbing to fatigue and injuries, but they do not always get through it entirely unblemished.
The evidence suggests that the likelihood of upsets increases slightly during the festive period. Only twice in the last four seasons have the teams that make up the current top six – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, emerged with 100 per cent records from the four games played between late December and the New Year.
The intensity of the schedule makes it hard, even for the very best, to maintain high levels of performance throughout. That is where superior fitness and intelligent game management comes in.
In Mauricio Pochettino, Tottenham have a coach who has clearly mastered this potentially tricky part of the season. Since his arrival at the club, in 2014, none of the top teams have bettered Spurs’ points totals over the Christmas period.
Tottenham have, in fact, not been beaten during the festive period under Pochettino. It does not seem coincidental. The energy, the youthful vigour with which his team play means sides with tired legs find them even more difficult to stop.
Conversely, Manchester United have accumulated the least points of the top six at Christmas over the last four seasons: 28 in total. Aside from the 2016/17 campaign, when Jose Mourinho’s side won all four games, they have been consistently poor. Last season, they managed just six points, and in the 15/16 campaign a measly four. The Red Devils will be hoping to fare better with Mourinho no longer at the helm.
Christmas, then, is not always the season to be jolly for Manchester United. And there may be some apprehension ahead of the upcoming festive fixtures, particularly given their recent form.
Arsenal, too, have struggled for consistency over Christmas in recent years. That is perhaps not surprising given their vulnerabilities towards the latter stages of Arsene Wenger’s tenure: they managed just six points from four games last season and seven the year before.
There is a feeling that this season’s festive fixtures, following defeat against Southampton on Sunday, have taken on even more significance. The Gunners travel to Anfield on the 29th, another test of their resilience under Emery.
Liverpool tend to be stronger at Christmas, especially over the last two seasons. Klopp’s side recorded ten points from four games in both 2017/18 and 2016/17, a substantial improvement on the six points garnered the campaign before.
Like Tottenham, Liverpool are a team that tired opposition do not relish facing. They have some crucial, and potentially season-defining games, during the festive period this season, though: after hosting Arsenal, the Reds travel to Manchester City, the biggest test of their title credentials.
Pep Guardiola’s side were impressive at Christmas last season, as a side that managed 100 points over the season would expect to be. On the pitch, they did not appear overly fazed by the relentless run of fixtures, although the Catalan coach did voice his concerns about the English tradition of cramming several games into a short period of time.
“I know here in England the show must go on, but that’s not normal guys,” Guardiola said. “We’re going to kill the players. They play 11 months in a row. We have to think about the artists.”
City’s players survived, of course, and they went on to win the title comfortably. But many agreed with Guardiola’s assertion that a break is required. It is a demanding period, not just physically but mentally too. Chelsea, who like Arsenal and Manchester United, have been inconsistent over the festive fixtures of the last few years, will attest to that.
Based on recent history, expect Tottenham to be strong over Christmas and the New Year. And expect managers to complain about the busy schedule, regardless of whether their team wins or loses.
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