Friday, 11 January 2019

Premier League: December Review

A brilliant December of Premier League football has been and gone with plenty of surprise results, terrific football and more changes in the dugouts with two managers departing their clubs in the course of the month. Liverpool continue to lead the way and head into 2019 unbeaten while Huddersfield, Fulham and Burnley make up the bottom 3.

It has been a magnificent season so far for Liverpool with the Reds on fire right now after another excellent December saw them open a 7-point lead at the top of the table. Liverpool won all 7 of their December fixtures and overall have won 9 on the spin in the league. Klopp’s team have been flowing forward scoring goals through their brilliant front three of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane. While Alisson and Virgil Van Dijk have been genius signings by Klopp with both fitting in brilliantly in their backline. Van Dijk is oozing quietly, composure and more importantly a voice in backline that was poor prior to his arrival. But Van Dijk has been a wonderful acquisition and makes everything look so easy. Another man beginning to enjoy himself is Brazilian midfielder Fabinho who is beginning to look an excellent signing with his range of passing and breaking down of play in midfield. The Brazilian has finally settled in England after a shaky start to his Liverpool career but to his credit, he has repaid the faith shown by Jurgen Klopp and is getting better game by game. Meanwhile, Manchester City endured a disappointing month overall because not only did their unbeaten record go, they lost 3 of their 7 matches losing to Chelsea, Leicester and Crystal Palace. Guardiola endured a real difficult patch in the season losing 3 in their last 5 games. However, they head into 2019 on the back of a win against Southampton. However, City face their biggest challenge to kick 2019 with a crucial home game against leaders Liverpool. The Champions face the challengers in a must win for City because anything other than win could be fatal for them in the title race. On the other hand, you would be foolish to rule out Tottenham with Pochettino’s men also in the mix themselves after a solid run of form. Prior to their 2018 ending defeat to Wolves at Wembley, Spurs had won 5 on the spin giving them real momentum in the title race. They head into the new year 9 points behind Liverpool after being within touching distance prior to their shock defeat to Wolves. Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea make up the top 4 after an indifferent which saw them win 5 of their 7 games but a shock defeat to Leicester at Stamford Bridge halted the Chelsea charge. But they head into 2019 full of confidence having won their last 2 games and face the challenge of ensuring Champions League football for next season. Eden Hazard is proving the real catalyst in driving Chelsea forward but no doubt Sarri will want the rest of the squad to step up and take responsibility and certainly the transfer window will offer Sarri a chance of reflection and assessment of his squad.

Sides who enjoyed December and the festivities of Christmas included Crystal Palace, Leicester and West Ham. It was an excellent month for the Eagles of Crystal Palace with Roy Hodgson’s team collecting 10 points from their 7 games including a terrific victory at the Etihad against Manchester City. A sumptuous volley from Andros Townsend the pick of the goals as Palace stunned City on their own patch. Palace are moving in the right direction even if their lack of a striker is becoming even more apparent. They are playing some decent football and Hodgson is certainly building a positive atmosphere around the whole football club. Wilfried Zaha is at the top of his game and the likes of Andros Townsend, Max Meyer and James McArthur are stepping up their game and slowly Palace are moving towards the sides above. Leicester also enjoyed December in what has been a flat and inconsistent season so far. The Foxes collected 10 points from their 7 games including terrific victories over Chelsea and Manchester City. However, despite these terrific wins, Leicester fans then endure the frustration of a poor home defeat to struggling Cardiff. These inconsistencies are why Puel is feeling the heat from the media and fans so far this season. Leicester on occasion play some decent football but they lack a spark of creativity and goals at times. Despite that, Leicester fans would be relatively happy with their December and head into 2019 full of confidence with a top 7 finish not out of reach for the Foxes. Meanwhile, it was a terrific month for the Hammers and Manuel Pellegrini. West Ham had the best month by a country mile under Pellegrini winning 5 of their 7 games in December. They began December with 4 straight league wins scoring bags full of goals. Despite that form being halted with 2 defeats in 3, West Ham head into the new year with a sense of optimism and a top 7 finish not out of reach. The Hammers have flourished and that is down to the brilliant Felipe Anderson who has been a breath of fresh air to the English game. The talented Brazilian is West Ham’s talisman notching 8 goals from the flanks and creating chances for his teammates on a regular basis. Another man having a terrific season is Declan Rice who is excelling in his new role as a defensive midfielder. Pellegrini has unlocked his real potential and is looking very accomplished and assured at the tender age of 21. Rice is winning plaudits from all areas and is looking a real gem in the West Ham team.

However, December wasn’t kind for all people and two managers were sacked during the month of December as the pressure became too much. The first to go was Mark Hughes at Southampton and a run of just 1 win in 15 league games this season. Saints were winless in 11 league games and that spelt the end of Hughes reign after 9 months in charge. In being sacked, Hughes became the first man to be sacked by two Premier League clubs in the same year. Hughes’ replacement is the former RB Leipzig manager Ralph Hasenhuttl. In becoming Southampton manager, Hasenhuttl is the first Austrian to manage in the Premier League. Hasenhuttl is tasked with keeping Southampton out of relegation trouble. He inherited the Saints in 19th place after their dreadful start. His reign began with a narrow defeat to fellow strugglers Cardiff but huge wins over Huddersfield and Arsenal has really got the Hasenhuttl reign up and running. But Hasenhuttl knows they need to improve as they ended the year with back to back defeats. 6 points from his first 5 games is a decent enough start having had so little time to put his ideas across to the Southampton players. A big month for Southampton is coming up both on and off the pitch with the transfer open and Hasenhuttl admitting the squad is too big but also emphasised his point of bringing in new faces. Hasenhuttl is winning the Saints fans over and incorporating Southampton youngers like Yan Valery, Tyreke Johnson, Michael Obafemi and Kyle Ramsay will only please the Southampton fans more. Safety is the aim for the Saints and they will hope their new man can deliver that. The other man to be sacked was Jose Mourinho at Manchester United. It has categorically been an underwhelming, poor season for the Red Devils and another abject showing this time at Anfield against Liverpool has seen Mourinho depart Old Trafford after two and half years. United are miles behind their two biggest rivals as well as the London clubs and that is simply not good enough. Mourinho’s style of play has been heavily criticised with United’s brand of attacking virtually gone. His replacement until the end of the season is their former striker Ole Gunnar Solksjaer who has been managing in home nation of Norway. An ill-fated spell at Cardiff a few years ago didn’t deter Solksjaer from taking the job. He is joined by assistants Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna but Solksjaer has brought back Mike Phelan as his number 2. Phelan returns to club since his exit in 2013. Solksjaer is determined to succeed and bring back the good old days of exciting football to the fans and he has dually delivered winning his first 3 games so far collecting excellent victories over Cardiff, Huddersfield and Bournemouth. Albeit they are sides United should beat, Solksjaer has brought back the exciting football and finally unlocked Paul Pogba with the charismatic Frenchman playing his best football since returning to the club. Solksjaer has total belief in him and that is resonating on the pitch with goals and assists firmly flowing Pogba’s way. Solksjaer has made a dream start but knows bigger tests lie ahead with Tottenham to come in January as well as difficult February. Solksjaer may only be there until the end of the season but he is doing no harm in boosting his chances of getting the job on a permanent basis.

One side really enduring a tough time is Huddersfield with the Terries rock bottom after losing all 7 of their league games in December. Goals are in very short supply and they are conceding far too many goals. David Wagner is under pressure and even though they are severely struggling, chairman Dean Hoyle is determined to back him and promised Huddersfield won’t sleep walk into the Championship. Huddersfield have many problems with goals in short supply and their strikers are still yet to score a league goal this season. Laurent Depoitre and Steve Mounie have yet to find the net mainly due to a lack of creativity behind but also Wagner’s consistent changing of the pair meaning a run in the side is difficult. Huddersfield are ominously sinking towards the Championship and something really must give whether that in an influx of a few new players or a change of management. The pressure is mounting on Wagner who is enduring his worst run as Huddersfield and should they lose their next league game against Burnley, they will set a new club record for consecutive defeats. They must start beating their rivals with Burnley and Cardiff to come in their next 2 league games and surely must win both to ignite their season. Wagner believes in the squad he has but must add something different in January otherwise they really will be sleepwalking to the Championship. It seems second season syndrome has kicked in at Huddersfield following their wonderful season last time out and Huddersfield must recapture that spirit, belief and determination they showed to survive.

December was excellent and new year is upon us and that brings the transfer window which every English football fan enjoys. There are also plenty of mouth-watering fixtures to come in the Premier League including Huddersfield vs Burnley, Manchester City vs Liverpool, West Ham vs Arsenal, Crystal Palace vs Watford, Tottenham vs Man Utd, Newcastle vs Cardiff, Arsenal vs Chelsea, Fulham vs Tottenham, Newcastle vs Man City, Bournemouth vs Chelsea, Liverpool vs Leicester and Tottenham vs Watford. Plenty of key games to come both at the top and bottom of the league. The title race is on, but could it be all over should Liverpool beat City? We shall wait and see but a fascinating month lies ahead.

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