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

Solskjaer: Manchester United ‘looked mentally tired’ versus Burnley

Solskjaer reacts to Manchester United loss
Photo by PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images
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OIe Gunnar Solskjaer doesn’t have the answers to what ails Manchester United without Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba, and he can’t even fake it.

The United boss could only hang his side’s 2-0 loss to Burnley on sharpness, as the Red Devils out-attempted the visitors by a 24-5 margin.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

United also had 72 percent of the ball, but Burnley’s whole philosophy is cool with you having the ball if you don’t have the lead.

The Red Devils never looked quite ready to grab that, either, from the moment an early Aaron Wan-Bissaka cross sailed through the six absent receiver. From the BBC:

“The boys looked mentally tired towards the end, we didn’t find that creativity,” Solskjaer said. “We can’t feel sorry for ourselves. When you are at Man United you are privileged because you are playing for the best club in the world.

“Sometimes you go through periods like that and it is a test I am sure they are going to come through.”

It’s all formulaic from the Norwegian manager. “The we’re United and it’s a special place” struck all the right chords when he first took the reins at Old Trafford, but the club hasn’t bought much quality since then and it’s ringing hollow as the depth fails to bail them out.

Spoiler alert: He did.

You can accept that Solskjaer is going nowhere and also accept that the whole thing is not going to improve any time soon. United should absolutely be in the Top Four given the failings of Chelsea, but cannot stop tripping over its own feet.

Man Utd shocked by advantageous Burnley

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Manchester United never showed up at Old Trafford, and Burnley reaped all the benefits.

Chris Wood and Jay Rodriguez scored as the Clarets stunned the Red Devils 2-0 on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

United fails to take advantage of Chelsea’s draw with Arsenal, and sits six points back of the Top Four.

Burnley climbs seven points clear of the drop zone, level with five teams on 30 points.


Three things we learned

1. Wood shines up top: It was a 10th goal to go with his first assist of the season for the New Zealand international, who used a half-yard of space from Harry Maguire to put Burnley in front. Burnley’s philosophy is to find their forwards at all cost, and when Wood is delivering that ethos looks genius.

2. United’s absent wings cost it dear (and jeer): Juan Mata and Anthony Martial were lively, but both Daniel James and Andreas Pereira did little to inspire hope of a goal for the home side. The Red Devils were the focus of crowd derision on the day, as they again wasted a chance to improve their Top Four credentials. Most teams will suffer without their top two attackers, but this is Manchester United. Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford missing or not, Wednesday was iugly stuff.

3. Jay Rodriguez’s new nickname is “Bangers Only”: Joking aside, it’s difficult to remember Rodriguez goals that don’t get you out of your seat. His insurance goal absolutely buried United, and gives him seven across all competitions. It also gives Sean Dyche plenty of competition in training, with Ashley Barnes on the periphery.

Man of the Match: Wood


United’s Aaron Wan-Bissaka cut a promising 15th minute cross through the 18, but no teammate could get a foot to it.

Fred continued his lively play when he hit a low drive to Nick Pope in the 23rd, good endeavor without the required sharpness.

Daniel James forced Pope into a leaping save in the 32nd, and Martial couldn’t get his feet right when Nemanja Matic rolled him to the doorstep in the 34th.

Burnley took the lead out of absolute nothing, Wood taking advantage of Harry Maguire when Ben Mee flicked a long free kick to the Kiwi.

[ MORE: Premier League stats ] 

Rodriguez went bar down with a beauty in the 57th minute to make it 2-0, and real trouble arrived at Old Trafford.

Dele drives Spurs past Norwich City

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A win is a win, even if Tottenham Hotspur’s 2-1 home defeat of Norwich City was anything but convincing in London.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Dele Alli and Heung-Min Son scored as Spurs climbed sixth in the table with 34 points.

Teemu Pukki scored for the spot for the Canaries, who remain dead last and six points off the safe spaces.


Three things we learned

1. Spurs can score in 2020: The Premier League had not been kind to Jose Mourinho’s men since a they twice came back in a 2-2 draw with these same Canaries at Carrow Road. In fact, Spurs went 315 Premier League minutes without a goal before Dele got his first half marker on Wednesday. Losses to Saints and Liverpool were joined by a weekend draw at Watford, so this win was vital (Spurs thrice scored over two FA Cup matches versus Middlesbrough).

2. Bounces go the way of Spurs: Norwich can forgive itself for feeling a bit snakebit considering how poor Spurs looked for most of the day. Dele’s shot or cross was deflected high toward the back post, where Heung-min Son was able to nod it over the line from extreme close-up range.

3. Serge Aurier shines: Bad Serge Aurier shows up quite a bit, but the full back had a great day on Wednesday. Aurier had an assist to go with two interceptions and three tackles. He was a menace and stuck into 50-50 battles, earning plaudits on the day.


Erik Lamela was lively early for Spurs, seeing a free kick deflected out for a corner and another chance saved by Tim Krul.

Dele put Spurs ahead when he lunged past Christoph Zimmermann to poke a Serge Aurier cross past Krul. Heung-min Son set up the play with a lay-off to the Ivorian.

[ MORE: Premier League stats ] 

VAR was kind to Todd Cantwell early in the second half, as the sliding midfielder put his studs into Lamela and it was worth only a yellow card.

Spurs youngster Ryan Sessegnon fouled Max Aarons in the 68th to give Norwich a chance from the spot, and a long review did not lead to a reprieve. Pukki beat Lloris low and to the right for 1-1.

But Dele’s cross floated to Son for a back post winner and blushes were spared for Mourinho.

Leicester City smashes West Ham, loses Vardy

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Leicester City snapped a two-match losing run with a 4-1 defeat of West Ham United on Wednesday.

The third-place Foxes move to 48 points, but lost Jamie Vardy and Nampalys Mendy to first half injuries.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Harvey Barnes and Ricardo Pereira set each other up for goals and Ayoze Perez scored twice late in the win.

Mark Noble scored a penalty of his own for the losing side, whose 23 points are out of the drop zone on goal differential. The Irons have played one fewer match than everyone but Liverpool.


Three things we learned

1. Barnes rides high:  Harvey Barnes is having an uneven season in the Premier League, like many to just turn 22. But the youngster is certainly on an upswing, having scored in a weekend loss at Burnley and collecting a goal and an assist on Wednesday. His six assists lead the Foxes, and may just be the tip of the iceberg.

2. More of the same from West Ham (and that’s not good): David Moyes‘ West Ham looks a lot like Manuel Pellegrini‘s West Ham, which isn’t a surprise given the latter’s better reputation in recent seasons. It’s a draw and two losses since the 4-0 win over an abject Bournemouth, and the Irons’ match-in-hand on the relegation field is against Liverpool (who they still face twice). Felipe Anderson is set to miss a month and that won’t ease concerns either.

3. Vardy injury, defense a big concern: The league’s leading scorer got his leg stretched out on the pitch and was favoring his gluteal area in the first half, eventually limping off the field. Losing him would ask a lot of Kelechi Iheanacho.

The Foxes also would be wrong to overlook another goal conceded, even if it came by controversial penalty. Leicester has conceded in seven of eight league matches,  and five included multiple goals. It’s not a huge worry in a 4-1, but a trend indeed.

Man of the Match: Barnes.


Jamie Vardy cut into the box early but his first touch betrayed him and couldn’t get full power on a shot to Darren Randolph.

The in-form Barnes got the Foxes in front by turning a Ricardo Pereira dinked pass into the open goal.

An injury to Nampalys Mendy accelerated the return of Wilfred Ndidi to the pitch, the midfielder returning in the 34th minute.

Vardy was then forced off the pitch with an apparent back injury, bringing Kelechi Iheanacho into the fold in the 44th minute.

Barnes then returned the favor to Pereira, who whistled his effort into the goal in the fifth minute of first half stoppage time.

[ MORE: Premier League stats ] 

But hold on.

Noble needed just five second half minutes to pull one back for David Moyes’ men, as Sebastien Haller won a suspect penalty off Ndidi.

Kasper Schmeichel made a fine save on Michail Antonio to keep it 2-1.

Leiceste regained control and looked the only threat to make it 3-1 after that, with Perez converted a penalty after Angelo Ogbonna fouled Kelechi Iheanacho.

The Nigerian forward then set up Perez for his second to salt away the win.