Premier League Playback: Ranking toughness of festive schedule

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JOLLY OR JEALOUS?

It’s that wonderful time of the year again.

Of course, I’m talking about the heavily congested Premier League fixture list which has each team playing five games in just under three weeks. Madness. But we wouldn’t have it any other way.

[ MORE: PL standings | schedule ]  

As clubs prepare for the busy festive season, the midweek slate of games coming up over the next two days signals the start of an incredibly hectic period which is usually critical in determining where each team will finish in the table this season.

Will they challenge for the title or fall off? Can they drag themselves out of relegation or be embroiled in the battle against the drop until May? The next few weeks will be crucial in deciding all of that.

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With that in mind, let’s take a look at and rank the strength of the schedule for each Premier League team (a score of 10 signals the toughest schedule, with 1 being the easiest) between now and Jan. 3 when the break for the third round of the FA Cup arrives.


Chelsea – 6/10

Wednesday at Sunderland
Saturday at Crystal Palace
Dec. 26 vs. Bournemouth
Dec. 31 vs. Stoke City
Jan. 4 at Tottenham Hotspur

Arsenal – 6/10

Tuesday at Everton
Sunday at Manchester City
Dec. 26 vs. West Bromwich Albion
Jan. 1 vs. Crystal Palace
Jan. 3 at Bournemouth

Liverpool – 6/10

Wednesday at Middlesbrough
Dec. 19 at Everton
Dec. 27 vs. Stoke City
Dec. 31 vs. Manchester City
Jan. 2 at Sunderland

Manchester City – 7/10

Wednesday vs. Watford
Sunday vs. Arsenal
Dec. 26 at Hull City
Dec. 31 at Liverpool
Jan. 2 vs. Burnley

Tottenham Hotspur – 5/10

Wednesday vs. Hull City
Sunday vs. Burnley
Dec. 28 at Southampton
Jan. 1 at Watford
Jan. 4 vs. Chelsea

Manchester United – 3/10

Wednesday at Crystal Palace
Saturday at West Brom
Dec. 26 vs. Sunderland
Dec. 31 vs. Middlesbrough
Jan. 2 at West Ham United

Watford – 8/10

Wednesday at Man City
Saturday at Sunderland
Dec. 26 vs. Crystal Palace
Jan. 1 vs. Tottenham
Jan. 3 at Stoke City

West Brom – 8/10

Wednesday vs. Swansea
Saturday vs. Man United
Dec. 26 at Arsenal
Dec. 31 at Southampton
Jan. 2 vs. Hull City

Everton – 8/10

Tuesday vs. Arsenal
Dec. 19 vs. Liverpool
Dec. 26 at Leicester
Dec. 30 at Hull
Jan. 2 vs. Southampton

Southampton – 6/10

Wednesday at Stoke City
Sunday at Bournemouth
Dec. 28 vs. Tottenham
Dec. 31 vs. West Brom
Jan. 2 at Everton

Stoke – 9/10

Wednesday vs. Southampton
Saturday vs. Leicester City
Dec. 27 at Liverpool
Dec. 31 at Chelsea
Jan. 3 vs. Watford

Bournemouth – 8/10

Tuesday vs. Leicester City
Sunday vs. Southampton
Dec. 26 at Chelsea
Dec. 31 at Swansea
Jan. 3 vs. Arsenal

Burnley – 7/10

Wednesday at West Ham
Sunday at Tottenham
Dec. 26 vs. Middlesbrough
Dec. 31 vs. Sunderland
Jan. 2 at Man City

Leicester City – 5/10

Tuesday at Bournemouth
Saturday at Stoke City
Dec. 26 vs. Everton
Dec. 31 vs. West Ham
Jan. 2 at Middlesbrough

Crystal Palace – 9/10

Wednesday vs. Man United
Saturday vs. Chelsea
Dec. 26 at Watford
Jan. 1 at Arsenal
Jan. 3 vs. Swansea

Middlesbrough – 8/10

Wednesday vs. Liverpool
Saturday vs. Swansea
Dec. 26 at Burnley
Dec. 31 at Man United
Jan. 2 vs. Leicester

West Ham – 6/10

Wednesday vs. Burnley
Saturday vs. Hull City
Dec. 26 at Swansea
Dec. 31 at Leicester
Jan. 2 vs. Man United

Swansea City – 4/10

Wednesday at West Brom
Saturday at Middlesbrough
Dec. 26 vs. West Ham
Dec. 31 vs. Bournemouth
Jan. 3 at Crystal Palace

Hull City – 8/10

Wednesday at Tottenham
Saturday at West Ham
Dec. 26 vs. Man City
Dec. 30 vs. Everton
Jan. 2 at West Brom

Sunderland – 9/10

Wednesday vs. Chelsea
Saturday vs. Watford
Dec. 26 at Man United
Dec. 31 at Burnley
Jan. 2 vs. Liverpool


MAN CITY A DEFENSIVE MESS

A lot was made about Pep Guardiola‘s comments after Manchester City were drubbed 4-2 at Leicester City on Saturday as two late goals sparred the expensively assembled side from being embarrassed too much by the scoreline, even though they had their trousers pulled around their ankles on the pitch.

Leicester City got at Man City from the start and their increasingly shaky defense just can’t cope with high-pressure and then long balls in-behind. Guardiola’s side has now conceded seven goals in their last two games, yet he doesn’t believe his team needs to be more adept in tackling and winning the ball back.

“I am not a coach for the tackles so I don’t train the tackles,” Guardiola said. “What I want is to try and play good and score goals and arrive more [in the box]. Yes the duels you have to win that’s true. But normally when you play good you win a lot of tackles but after four minutes 2-0 in the mind of the players [they say] ‘what’s going on, what happened’ and it’s not easy for them. That’s why it’s another aspect of the football but in the end we’re not going to win or lose for the tackles.”

Guardiola went on to admit his defense must improve and he is currently analyzing why they are conceding so many goals and why his tactics of playing out from the back aren’t having the desired impact in the Premier League as it did in Spain and Germany. The experiment to play three at the back isn’t working right now and you can argue the personnel isn’t suited to this system with full backs often asked to play as a center backs and John Stones given no cover when he takes risks.

It’s highly unlikely Guardiola will change his philosophy but surely he should tweak his formation to improve results in the short-term as he now has a big challenge of handling the intense festive fixture list.

With City sitting in fourth place and now seven points off Chelsea in top spot, Guardiola needs to figure out the answer to his defensive headache fast. Simply put, injuries haven’t been kind to him in defense but even if Vincent Kompany or Bacary Sagna had been available all season, you’d think they could still be having the same issues. Pep is trying to force his philosophy on the players to the nth degree and it will take time for them to adapt and trust it.

Right now, the weaknesses of his total football approach from the back is being exposed ruthlessly as teams press Man City high and are forcing mistakes from John Stones, Claudio Bravo and others. Going forward, City always look like scoring. At the back, they always look like conceding. This issue has been around for a few seasons now and it’s not something that can be fixed by buying one or two defenders.

Guardiola’s philosophy adapting to the Premier League is the big issue here and it is unlikely the Spanish coach will ever change his outlook on the game. Sure, he will tweak it and he’ll have to if City is going to challenge for the title not only this season but in the future. He created a slower paced team at Bayern Munich compared to his teams at Barcelona because the Bundesliga and their opponents demanded it. At City, he may have to do something similar or they’ll risk not only dropping out of the title race but also put their top four spot in jeopardy.


GOAL GALORE

Saturday broke a record in the Premier League for the most goals scored in six or fewer games.

There were 29 goals overall, coming in at a whopping 4.83 per game.

We had a 3-2 win for Watford against Everton to kick things off, then a 3-3 draw between Hull City and Crystal Palace as goals flew in late on. We also had a 3-2 win at Turf Moor with Burnley beat Bournemouth and Arsenal beat Stoke City 3-1 at the Emirates Stadium. Swansea’s 3-0 win against Sunderland further inflated the goals figure and it all finished up with Leicester stunning 4-2 win against Man City seeing Jamie Vardy breaking his scoring drought to notch his first-ever Premier League hat trick.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

For the neutral, it was perhaps the best-ever game day in the PL in terms of flat-out entertainment. However, for defensive coaches and those who love to see tight defenses thwart the opponents, it was a nightmare.

There’s been a growing trend of more goals in the Premier League each season and right now we are on track for the highest-scoring season ever if this rate keeps up. Much of that has to do with defenders now being asked to be ball players and more attack-minded first, and then worry about simply defending second. See: Man City, Liverpool, Everton.

With five games coming up for each team a hectic three week period, expect plenty more mistakes and plenty of more goals as the festive season usually delivers high drama and scorelines.

Defenders and goalkeeper usually do not sleep well around the holiday season and this season in particular they may resemble the Grinch more than most.


SWANS FIGURING IT OUT

Bob Bradley‘s Swansea City sealed a massive 3-0 win against Sunderland on Saturday, briefly lifting the Swans out of the relegation zone after beating their rivals against the drop.

Swansea slipped back into the relegation zone (on goal difference) by the end of Week 15 of the Premier League but the performance showed that Bradley’s influence is slowly having an impact on his team.

At the back they looked solid defensivley and going forward they had a cutting edge in Gylfi Sigurdsson, Modou Barrow and Jefferson Montero when he came on, plus Fernando Llorente grabbed another two goals to show he can justify his transfer from Sevilla in the summer and deliver the goals the south Wales club desperately needs.

Of course the win was important but the fact that Swansea grabbed just their third clean sheet of the season, and second in eight games under Bradley’s guidance, will have been even more pleasing for the New Jersey native. Especially after conceding 19 goals in seven games before Saturday.

With the next five games coming up against direct relegation rivals, this display provides not only a blueprint of how to get past fellow strugglers but also belief that they can do it. Winning games breeds confidence and going into a crucial stretch of the season the Swans seem to have it.

Put aside all of the talk of unrest behind-the-scenes with the new owners and an internal review being called for. If Swans can get three wins from the next five games, they’ll enter January as a much more attractive proposition for prospective players as new defenders, and probably another striker, are needed to aid their relegation battle.

Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here

Depay strike downs PSG, brings Lyon second in Ligue 1

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Memphis Depay‘s time in England may not have gone according to plan, but the young Dutchman is tearing it up in France.

[ SPAIN & ITALY: Bale, Real Madrid soar with seven-goal outburst and more ]

The former Manchester United winger scorched the game-winner into net on Sunday, as his Lyon side went on to defeat league leaders Paris Saint-Germain, 2-1, at the Stade des Lumières.

Stunning first-half strikes from Nabil Fekir (15th goal of the season) and Layvin Kurzawa had the two clubs level at 1-1 going into the halftime break, but there was more action to be had after the mandatory stoppage.

A straight red card from Dani Alves in the second stanza put the Parisians at a major disadvantage, and Lyon would capitalize down the stretch with the extra man.

The hosts putting the finishing touches on the match four minutes deep into second-half stoppage time when Depay struck a beauty of a shot past goalkeeper Alphonse Areola.

Depay is now up to 10 goals on the season in all competitions for Lyon, including eight in league play.

The victory brings Lyon up to second place in France’s top flight, while PSG still holds an eight-point  lead over the runners’ up with 16 matches left in Ligue 1 play.

La Liga & Serie A: Bale leads Real to seven-goal outburst and more

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A roundup of Sunday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Real Madrid 7-1 Deportivo La Coruna

Now, this is more like it from the defending European champions. Zinedine Zidane’s side went behind on Sunday when Adrian put the visitors in front, however, Real Madrid woke up and scored seven unanswered goals at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Gareth Bale was the star on the day with a brilliant curler that kicked off the first of his two goals (below). After Cristiano Ronaldo appeared to go down inside the penalty area, Bale carried on and put the ball onto his left foot before sliding his shot in off the inside of the far post.

Meanwhile, Ronaldo picked up a brace of his own on the day, both of which came off of headers for the Portuguese international. The veteran goalscorer also got bloodied on the day, but that didn’t stop him from adding to his impressive goal total.

Real Betis 0-5 Barcelona

A slow start to the match was aided by a Barcelona team that came out for blood in the second stanza. Ivan Rakitic and braces from Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi paced the road side in the second half, keeping their unbeaten La Liga record in tacked.

Although Rakitic was the first to find his name on the scoresheet, it was his assist to Suarez that later on that proved to be a thing of excellence from both parties.

The first half was mildly uneventful for the Blaugrana, however, the Catalonians suffered another injury blow as Thomas Vermaelen left the match after pulling up in the first half with what appeared to be a hamstring pull.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Alaves 2-2 Leganes
Real Sociedad 1-2 Celta Vigo


Lazio 5-1 Chievo Verona

Lazio moved into third place in Serie A after a convincing victory at the Stadio Olimpico. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic’s double for the hosts helped propel them to the win, after Luis Alberto kicked off the scoring in the 23rd minute.

Chievo found a brief response two minutes later, but from there it was all Lazio as they closed to within 11 points of league leaders Napoli.

Cagliari 1-2 AC Milan

Franck Kessié scored twice in six minutes to pull Milan back into the match on the day, and that was exactly what they needed to secure three points at the Sardegna Arena. AC Milan sits seventh in Italy’s top flight through 21 matches, 23 points behind Napoli.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Inter Milan 1-1 Roma
Udinese 1-1 SPAL
Sassuolo 1-1 Torino
Sampdoria 3-1 Fiorentina
Bologna 3-0 Benevento
Hellas Verona 0-3 Crotone
Atalanta 0-1 Napoli

Video: Kurzawa silences Lyon with spectacular volley

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Lyon went ahead inside the opening two minutes, but then Layvin Kurzawa had his say for the visitors on the stroke of halftime.

[ MORE: Fekir’s free kick stuns PSG in opening two minutes]

Dani Alves set up the defender for one of the best volleys you’ll see in first-half stoppage time on Sunday to level the match at 1-1.

Watch below as PSG ties things up with just seconds remaining before the halftime whistle.

Video: Fekir’s brilliant free kick has Lyon leading PSG

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Paris-Saint Germain has established itself as one of Europe’s best sides, but their opponent on Sunday isn’t playing scared against Neymar and Co.

[ MORE: Spurs, Saints play to 1-1 draw at St. Mary’s ]

Lyon has taken a 1-0 lead inside the opening two minutes against the Parisians after a stunning free kick by Nabil Fekir caught PSG keeper Alphonse Aréola off his line.

The hosts could move all the way up to second place today with a victory over PSG, who holds the league lead in Ligue 1 with a nine-point advantage.

The 24-year-old Fekir has been a revelation for Lyon in his fifth season with the club, scoring his 19th goal in all competitions on Sunday.

That total has already surpassed his career-high from the 2014/15 season, when he eclipsed 15 goals.