EPL Weeks 16, 17 and 18 – Happy Christmas to all, especially Manchester City

 

Often in these weekly articles I get a little carried away in the third act and go on a big rant about something or other. Usually it’s to do with the England National Team, Roy Hodgson or how arrogant Jurgen Klopp is. Luckily for the reader(s), this week will be no different. But first we have to start at Old Trafford to really get a sense of why the rant is coming.

Week 16 really was all about the Sunday fixtures. Well, two of them at least. Saturday was just the precursor to the two derbies up north when Everton rescued a late draw against Liverpool at Anfield, and Manchester United were beaten at home for the first time in 40 games, falling 2-1 to Manchester City.

City’s win also set a new record of games won in a row in the Premier League era, beating Arsenal’s record of 13, which City extended in Week 17 with a win over Swansea. Their start to the season is now the best-ever start to a Premier League season, and there seems to simply be no stopping the blue side of Manchester as Pep Guardiola continues to push his brand of football at the Etihad.

For the most part this season, City have been exciting, ruthless in attack and strong at the back, but over the last four weeks (not including the Week 17 win over Swansea) I’ve seen bang average performances.

Every team will go through a slump. It’s how you grind out wins during that slump that proves you have what it takes to win the league, and that’s exactly what City have been doing, but I do think that we’re writing the title race off too early.

A bang average City performance beat Manchester United because the Red Devils were truly pathetic. Jose Mourinho, a tactical genius in his own right, had no answers after Plan A failed. Plan B was simply “60-yard balls from the back, we’ll see what happens.” A better game plan could have had City on the ropes, but credit has to go to Guardiola for tactically out-performing Mourinho on the day.

In fact, the only time United looked like they could play football was when they went 1-0 down just before half time. Marcus Rashford scored the equalizer just a short while later from a poor defensive error from Vincent Kompany, and then United reverted to the hit-and-hope style of football we saw for most of the first half.

When City scored the eventual winner, they instantly went to a back four formation and shut United down. There seemed to be little United could do to penetrate the City defense, despite a penalty call late on and a couple shots on target from Romelu Lukaku.

Performance aside, and is was a poor performance, it seems to be what we’ve come to expect from Mourinho against the top six sides. Only against Tottenham were United truly comfortable at all times, but after the early season “parking of the bus” at Anfield, it does seem like a shift has happened in United’s game plan against the big clubs. For better or worse, it remains to be seen, but United only have five more fixtures against the top six, with three of them at home.

While City may be too far away to catch, one would think that United are definitely going to push the title race as far as they can.

But the rant really starts in the complete overreaction to Manchester United’s poor performance from the media, armchair pundits and in some cases their own fans.

First of all, we all need to take step back and applaud Manchester City on how good of a season they are having. Ok? Well done to them. Now, let’s look at the Premier League table. Manchester United sit quite comfortably in 2nd place, a spot that they’ve longed for since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.

Their form over the last six games is second best in the league, and the eight games they’ve won at home this season matches their win record at home for the entirety of last season.

They’ve also played six games in the last 18 days, and will play another six games over the next 15 days, so to say Manchester United are weak, or under-performing or any other mediocre phrase to push an anti-United agenda is a joke.

Manchester United are still in four competitions comfortably, topped their group in the Champions League, and in Week 17, bounced back from the Derby Day defeat to beat a dangerous Bournemouth 1-0 with a weakened starting x11.

I understand the anti-United rhetoric. You can’t be the most successful team in English Premier League history without fans of other teams wanting you to lose, but framing three losses this season as a failure is lazy and quite boring, especially when it comes from people who are paid for their opinions.

Manchester City are excellent, but that doesn’t mean nobody else can be.

And rant.

Matchday 17 yielded no real surprises, but I must touch on West Ham United, who labored to a 0-0 draw when they welcomed Arsenal. The draw comes a week after West Ham defeated Chelsea at home, meaning they’ve now taken four points from potentially two of their toughest opponents this season in the space of less than a week!

The David Moyes appointment drew criticism from many in the footballing world. I myself said that Moyes could easily sink the West Ham ship, but they arguably now have their toughest fixtures of the holiday period over, and they’ll definitely be hoping to continue their good form in to the New Year. Matches against Stoke, Newcastle, Bournemouth and West Brom await the Hammers between now and January 2nd, so it’ll be more of a test of stamina than character, as it is for all the Premier League teams for the next few weeks.

A mouthwatering fixture awaited in Week 18, however, when Tottenham traveled to the Etihad to face high-flyers Manchester City, hoping to put a dent in the title dreams of the Blues. The rest of the fixture list for Matchday 18 is frighteningly average, with Leicester welcoming Crystal Palace, and Brighton taking on Burnley.

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As we edge closer to Christmas, weeks seem to get longer, we spend much more time in work than we should (despite just spending an average amount of time there), and there seems to be so much football that a four-day gap between Week 18 and 19 just seems preposterous.

Fixture congestion has been a topic in a few of my articles, so I’m quite happy to see a decent gap in fixtures (unless your team is still in the Carabao Cup), but I do sometimes feel conflicted when I can’t go home and watch the highlights of a midweek game.

Regardless,  Manchester City continued their absolute dominance of the Premier League in Week 18, winning 4-1 at home to Tottenham. The win extended Pep Guardiola’s winning run to 16 games (SIXTEEN!), and it truly shows that Manchester City can beat anybody.

In any other year, Tottenham would be considered serious title contenders, but a big loss to City seemed to cement their “Race for 3rd” as the two Manchester clubs opened the gap further away from Spurs.

City were 4-0 up before Tottenham got one back through Christian Eriksen, but it was nothing more than a consolation goal in a game spoiled by Tottenham’s unprofessionalism in the face of losing.

We saw a similar narrative in Leicester’s title winning season when Tottenham lashed out against Chelsea players when they realized they were no longer going to win the Premier League. Mark Clattenburg didn’t take control of that match that time and let things get out of control, but it’s clear to me that this is just how Tottenham react to losing, no matter who the opponent is.

Spurs could have easily had two red cards, and Dele Alli has some serious growing up to do before the World Cup if he is going to be trusted in Gareth Southgate’s England team.

Pep Guardiola

It was men against boys, literally and figuratively, and the game left a lot of teams vindicated for playing defensively against a City side that refuse to be played at their own game.

Guardiola deserves a huge amount of credit for persevering and really making his brand of football work in the Premier League. Unfortunately for everybody else, it could spell a period of dominance like Manchester United had till around 2014.

The final game of the week saw Sam Allardyce’s Everton climb further up the table and well and truly away from the prospect of relegation with a 3-1 win over Swansea City. The loss for Swansea means they continue to sit rock bottom of the Premier League, and the win puts Everton inside the top 10.

Interestingly, West Ham and Crystal Palace (who also hired “old and tired” British managers) are now out of the relegation zone and slowly climbing up the table.

Everton are now only six points behind the aforementioned Tottenham, and could easily break in to the top six over the holiday period is results go their way.

Unfortunately, it could be argued that the game was spoiled by refereeing errors from Jonathan Moss, who gave a penalty to Everton when the foul was clearly outside the box. The subsequent penalty was put away by Wayne Rooney to make the game 3-1, and it was practically game over from that point.

It also didn’t help Swansea too much that they don’t seem to have any form of attack, so it’s unclear whether they could have rescued the game at 2-1. Their only goal of the game came from a corner, and they’re always a toss-up anyway, mixed with poor marking on this particular occasion.

Swansea waited two days after the loss to sack Paul Clement, but at this point the Swansea job seems tainted. It cannot be easy to work under owners who continuously make bad decisions regarding player sales and management decisions.

Losing Fernando Llorente and Gylfi Sigurðsson is tough for a club of their stature, especially without replacing them with anybody of similar quality. Money is available for Swansea to improve, but whatever manager is in charge doesn’t seem to have access to it.

Huw Jenkins, chairman of Swansea, seems to make all transfer decisions, and he’s quite laughably bad at that. Any manager he appoints is also supposed to somehow keep the team out of the relegation zone, despite having their best players sold from under them.

Huw Jenkins of Swansea

Swansea have sold their top goalscorer for the last three season in a row and haven’t recruited one viable replacement, so it’s no surprise that they’ll probably finally go down at the end of the year, but a real change has to be made at the very top.

A Director of Football in charge of transfers can work in the right setting, but things have to come together well with enough input from the man in charge of the team itself. It’s clear that no matter who Jenkins puts in charge at Swansea, the transfer policy doesn’t change to accommodate, so they’ll presumably continue to slid down the table and the leagues.

But the good news for Clement is that he gets Boxing Day off now!

See you next week for a Week 19/20 wrap up as it’s all too close together and I’ll be way too tipsy to write something on Christmas Day!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

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