The first column back after the festive period is always one of the hardest of the season to write. There has just been so much going on in such a short period of time that it is hard to separate what is real from what is just the product of matches coming fast and furious for all 20 Premier League clubs. Throw in injuries caused by the piling up of fixtures and the odd suspension and managerial change and you get a combination of things that might represent real change and things that are almost certainly just anomalies.
What do I mean? Christian Eriksen rode Son’s suspension and the fact that he’s, um, incredibly well rested to consecutive starts on the 28th and New Year’s Day and even scored his second Premier League goal of the season against the Canaries. With Son’s return and a long break from Premier League action combined with the possibility that the Dane is sold in January rather than being allowed to leave for nothing in the summer, I’d expect that this is just an anomaly.
While Christian Eriksen’s playing time is almost certainly an anomaly, and maybe just a reminder to potential buyers that he is ambulatory and maybe even still good at football, the overall “meh-ness” at Spurs seems to have returned pretty quickly after the brief Mourinho bounce. It isn’t so much that the results over the festive period were incredibly poor so much as they were just “blah”.
Presumably, you want to see things getting progressively better as the players better understand and adapt to the new manager’s approach. Instead, things got immediately better from a results standpoint which seemed to be more a positive reaction to Pochettino not being there any longer. As Mourinho’s tenure has continued, the defense, the Special One’s trademark, hasn’t gotten any better while the attack has gone from scintillating early on to just pretty good now.
Perhaps of more concern is the fact that there don’t seem to be any serious indications that Spurs plan to bolster their defense. If Ryan Sessegnon is the answer at left back, even left wing back, then the question you should be asking probably involves the Championship rather than an assault on the Top Four. Similarly, Serge Aurier is an OK but certainly not exceptional option at right back. Remember when Spurs were two-deep with significant talent on both flanks? Hard to argue that they’re even above average with their first choice player on either flank at this point.
Spurs’ saving grace, and the saving grace of every side that hasn’t had the first half of the season they had hoped for, is the fact that Chelsea seem to be fading fast after a blistering start to the season. Maybe the kids are just exhausted from being counted on week-in and week-out for the first time in their careers. Maybe other managers have figured out Frank Lampard’s Plan A and he hasn’t figured out an effective Plan B quite yet.
Unlike Spurs, Chelsea seem to be eager to spend some money to fix their problems. Coming off a summer of enforced non-spending, they seem to have some money burning a hole in their pockets. What isn’t clear, at least from the rumors, is whether they have any idea what they should be doing with it. Center back seems to be the consensus need with Nathan Ake the likeliest target given Chelsea’s buy-back clause.
Beyond center back though, there isn’t a clear need where there is a massive gap in quality. They would, presumably, like younger depth at center forward with Timo Werner having been mentioned while Michy Batshuayi and Olivier Giroud seem to be on the outs.
Beyond those two positions, the problem that the Blues face is that they don’t have glaring needs so much as a lot of spots that could be upgraded at little bit. Both outside back spots could be better but aren’t actively negatives (and it’s hard to see them blocking Reese James’ path on the right). The central midfield pieces are adequate but not spectacular unless N’Golo Kante is restored to his favored deep-lying role where he’s, you know, the best player in his position in the world. It seems unlikely that a clear upgrade would be available here in January.
Ultimately, the challenge for the Blues is one of timing. The blessing and curse of brining talented kids through is that you have to give them some time to grow. The top three spots in the table seem pretty well set. Are the Blues willing to let their kids give fourth place a go as part of the developmental process or is the need for Champions League football next season so pressing that the development of one or more of the kids has to be sacrificed for the near term gain of the cash and transfer market drawing power of being in Europe’s premier competition.
Back to the topic of what is real and what is just an anomaly, I’m buying in on Arsenal’s rejuvenation under Mikel Arteta. Maybe I’m just looking too hard through Arsenal-red colored glasses but even the massive frustration of the loss to Chelsea had a lot of hope in it. Arsenal were clearly the better team in the first half. They were organized. They were active. The players seemed to be in the right positions. These all seem like pretty basic things for a prospective top four candidate, and they are, but they are things that we, as Arsenal supporters, have been bemoaning the lack of all season. Yes, they lost focus briefly and let the lead slip away and ultimately lost but you could at least see positive change.
Fast forward to the win over Manchester United and you saw all of the same virtues without the accompanying breakdowns. United are not as good as Chelsea and played an abject match in the first half but the second half pressure was of the sort that Arsenal would have allowed to beat them as recently as a few weeks ago.
Perhaps more importantly than any individual match result was the arrival of a formation that made sense for that match. With Lacazette flanked by Aubameyang and Pepe with Mesut Ozil free to create for them, the Gunners looked like a potent attacking force again. Lucas Torreira and Granit Xhaka were positioned in front of the defense and clearly told not to get TOO far forward. Guess what, it worked. Putting players in their natural positions and telling them to do things they are capable of doing actually works.
The Gunners will still struggle to play the ball out of the back because that is not a strength of Sokratis nor of Torreira and Xhaka will certainly continue to struggle when pressured. The loss of Calum Chambers for the season is certainly going to be an issue unless the Gunners can get into the market and pick up a center back with what one can only assume will be limited funds.
Looking at the competition for the fourth spot, Arsenal will certainly have an uphill battle to overcome a nine point deficit over the back half of the season. Still, the momentum is heading in the right direction for the Gunners which is the first time that one could say that since the Europa League semi-final victory last season.
Other Interesting Items from the Festive Period
Hornet Pride – Don’t look now but Watford are actually looking pretty good. Winners of three of their past four and undefeated in all four including matches against Wolves, Sheffield United, and Manchester United. The attacking trio of Ismaila Sarr, Gerard Deulofeu, and Troy Deeney is gelling. If those three can stay healthy then you have to like their chances of staying up after a miserable first half.
Clarets Tiring? – Sean Dyche typically has a small squad that predicates whatever success it has on working incredibly hard as opposed to being outrageously talented. The fixture congestion at this time of year seems tailor made to undermine that approach. You can only go all-out so often and three losses on the trot to middling-at-best teams (sorry Red Devils, you know it’s true no matter where you are in the table) seems to be evidence of just that. With some time to rest between now and Week 22, I’d expect a bounce back.
Moyes Return – David Moyes returned with a bang as the Hammers throttled Bournemouth in his first match in charge. I’m not going to get too excited quite yet. The Hammers have talent but we’ve seen it squandered before (or maybe it just isn’t talent that fits terribly well together). Bournemouth are struggling mightily and the loss has them in the relegation zone. Let’s not get too excited about a West Ham revival until we see a little more.
Players Worth Tracking/Picking Up/Trading For
Michy Batshuayi – With Wesley out, Batshuayi is the rumored replacement on loan. It’s always worthwhile to pick up a guy who is likely to be going from being buried on a bench to being a clear starter.
Olivier Giroud – If it isn’t Batshuayi, then it will likely be Giroud who leaves and becomes a starter elsewhere. The problem is that more of the rumors have Giroud leaving the Premier League altogether rather than going to somewhere like Villa.
Nicolas Pepe – Mikel Arteta has been credited with helping to shepherd Leroy Sané at Manchester City. Pepe will certainly get every opportunity to follow in the German’s developmental footsteps as Arsenal look to rebound/rebuild.
Sebastian Haller – Frustrating for the past couple of months, maybe David Moyes will help reinvigorate him and create a more consistent support system rather than changing out the attacking midfield group around him every week.
Mesut Ozil – He certainly looked like a different player against Manchester United. I’m not saying to bet the farm on him but Arteta seems to have a firm grasp on how to deploy the World Cup winner to maximize his creative abilities while minimizing his downside.
Mason Greenwood – At some point Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (or someone else) is going to notice his efficiency in the minutes he gets and start playing him more, right?
Reese James – This feels more like a next season thing but if you’re in a league that allows you to keep players season-to-season then guys like James and Phil Foden seem like ideal guys to pick up and stash ahead of bigger roles on teams that are more likely to improve than regress between this season and next.
Ayoze Pérez – The former Newcastle man has made a habit of mediocre first halves of seasons before lighting up the league over the second half of the season. He already kicked off his second half in the win over his former side. The only caveat is that with the emergence of Kelechi Iheanacho, Perez won’t be given as much latitude as the Foxes now have the sort of rotation options that we usually associate with a traditional powerhouse, which, come to think of it, is what they look like sitting in 2nd 21 weeks into the season.
After being inundated with matches over the past two weeks, we get a little time to casually follow the FA Cup and League Cup before the Premier League resumes on Friday the 10th of January with Liverpool’s trip to Tottenham Stadium the marquee match-up late on Saturday the 11th. In the meantime, we’ll be carefully following the Transfer rumor mill and get you all of the analysis you need when moves actually happen.