The Premier League half-time report
As the world’s most popular football league goes past the season’s half-way mark, here’s what to watch out for
The English Premier League returns to action on 11 January after a hectic run of games over the festive period. There were 30 matches in eight days, from 26 December-3 January (all other European leagues break for the holidays). It’s undoubtedly fun for viewers, but it’s a gruelling grind for the teams. Almost every manager has voiced his displeasure with the fixture pile-up, none more so than Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp, whose team had to play two extra games at the Club World Cup in Qatar just before Christmas. So, in 2020, with over half the league games done, where do the teams stand?
Liverpool march on
The league leaders have all but vanished into the distance, and the Reds’ 30-year wait for the title is now looking like a matter of “when" and not “if". Liverpool blazed through the holiday season, picking up maximum points, and delivered a thrashing to second-placed Leicester City on 27 December, when they won 4-0. On 21 December, Liverpool also became world champions after defeating Brazil’s Flamengo in the Club World Cup final. Right now, no one can lay a glove on the runaway league leaders, who have not lost a single game in the league for a year. Their lead at the top of the league stretches to 13 points and they have a game in hand. On 11 January, they meet Jose Mourinho’s sputtering Tottenham Hotspur, and another win seems likely.
The race for the top 4
Given the near-inevitability of Liverpool’s coronation this season, the one thing to look forward to is the race for the remaining three Champions League positions. Leicester currently sit at second with 45 points and defending champions Manchester City are third with 44 points. At No.4, Chelsea are a further eight points behind. Even though Leicester and Man City might both drop points, in all likelihood they will remain in the top 4 come May. This would leave Manchester United, Tottenham and Wolverhampton Wanderers to fight it out with Chelsea for the fourth Champions League spot. While you would expect financial behemoths like Chelsea, Man United and Tottenham to be up there, it would be great if smaller teams like Wolves pip them to the post.
New manager bounce
Three new managers were appointed in December. West Ham sacked Manuel Pellegrini on 29 December, after the former Man City manager found his expensively assembled team embroiled in a relegation scrap. Enter caretaker boss David Moyes. He had been parachuted in before to save West Ham two seasons ago, and true to form, his charges immediately registered a much-needed win over Bournemouth. It was a strong statement of intent, with West Ham running out 4-0 winners. They followed it up with a victory in the FA Cup. However, their next opponents include the in-form Sheffield United, Leicester and Liverpool.
On 18 January,West Ham will also face Everton who have a new manager of their own, Carlo Ancelloti. The three-time Champions League-winning manager has generated a great deal of positivity at the Merseyside club, but as the humbling at the hands of Liverpool’s youth players at the FA Cup showed, he and Everton have a long way to go.
Arsenal are the third club to get a new manager, Mikel Arteta. Till recently the deputy to Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, Arteta comes with the same high-pressing, slick-passing ethos. However, his more urgent job is to get Arsenal to show some steel and fight for victories. Currently languishing at 10th, they are a long way away from vying for top honours.
Will Jamie Vardy win the golden boot again?
Leicester striker Jamie Vardy has had one of the more storied careers in recent times. From playing for non-league side Fleetwood Town in 2012 to a Premier League winner with Leicester in 2016, the striker’s story has been one of talent, determination and intense self-belief. As Leicester completed their fairy-tale league win four years ago, Vardy, with 24 goals, also took home the Golden Boot as the league’s highest goal scorer. This season, he’s in even more deadly form, having already scored 17 goals and provided three assists. While Leicester may not win the title, their talismanic striker is one of the key reasons they find themselves in second position, above Man City.
Manager Brendan Rodgers has made the Foxes a team to fear in the league, and one of the reasons is the way he has resurrected Vardy’s form by playing to his strengths. At 33, Vardy remains lightning quick, and Leicester’s speedy transitions and balls played in behind opposing defenders are perfect for him to run on to. He is a deadly marksman, with an amazing 39% shot conversion rate. In a league with such fêted strikers as Sergio Agüero and Mohamed Salah, Vardy’s hunger for perfection remains a joy to see.