What to expect from the Premier League in the New Year?
December 20, 2017
The Premier League is nothing if not unpredictable, and while we may think we know what to expect from the New Year – the capacity to surprise and delight is something that sets top-flight English clubs apart.
In this article, we’ll look at what to expect from both the top and bottom of the Premier League during the second half of the season and ask: which teams are likely to succeed?
1. Manchester City’s form will falter
Given the level of hyperbole that surrounds the Premier League in the modern age, we should not be surprised at the praise that has been lavished on Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City side recently. While much of it is deserved, some appears a little excessive and perhaps more indicative of the lack of competition that currently exists in the Premier League.
Guardiola’s side have won a record breaking 16 Premier League games since August, while opening up an 11-point lead at the top of the table. They’ve also embraced the type of progressive, territory-based philosophy that seemed unlikely to succeed in the English game, potentially creating a modern dynasty for the cash-rich Mancunian club.
Still, suggestions that this is one of the best sides ever are perhaps premature. If anything, City’s rivals have been exposed as having a significant lack of ambition and tactical awareness, while Guardiola still has yet to win a trophy during his 18 months in charge at the Etihad.
There are also genuine defensive weaknesses within the Manchester City side, which continues to deploy a high defensive line and a holding midfielder in Fernandinho who lacks positional sense.
Given this, we expect City’s form to fall away at some point in the New Year, as their rivals finally showcase their courage and develop tactical plans to counter Guardiola’s detailed but ultimately predictable model.
Whether this is enough to reignite the Premier League title race is questionable, but it could at least lay the foundations for a more keenly-contested campaign next time around.
2. Stoke may finally be braced for a relegation battle
The so-called ‘sack race’ is one of the most unedifying aspects of the modern Premier League, although few can deny that it makes for utterly compelling viewing.
Interestingly, the beleaguered Stoke boss Mark Hughes is currently leading this race, with bookmakers making the Welshman 5/4 to leave his position. It’s hardly a surprise, with Stoke hovering in 17th place in the Premier League, having lost four of their last six matches and conceded 14 goals during this period.
The club was also outclassed last time out at home against fellow strugglers West Ham, suffering a 3-0 defeat in front of a livid and increasingly restless crowd.
Beyond this, there is a clear sense of stagnation at the Britannia Stadium, with the Potters having largely failed to evolve in recent times despite benefiting from significant investment. Former Real Madrid forward Jesé Rodríguez is the latest high profile signing to struggle in the Potteries, with the suggestion being that Hughes is no longer able to successfully get the most out of his talented but temperamental collection of stars.
If things do not improve, this could easily be the year that Hughes’ underachieving Stoke side become embroiled in a relegation battle.
With this prospect looming large, the decision to sack Hughes looks likely to come sooner rather than later.
3. The newly-promoted clubs will continue to struggle
About the current form table, it’s interesting to note that last season’s promoted teams have all dipped into the bottom three at times this season. This is a worrying trend for these clubs, particularly as all three enjoyed a positive start and occupied positions in the top half of the table during the autumn.
The decline of Rafa Benitez’ Newcastle United is most alarming, the club has lost six of its last seven games and conceded 16 goals in the process. This run has included heavy defeats at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge, with the side strangely lacking the Spanish manager’s usual defensive organisation and tactical know-how. Currently in 18th place, they will need an upturn in form quickly to stop the skid.
Both Brighton and Huddersfield are also close to the mire, struggling for form and precision in front of goal. In fact, these sides have scored just three and four goals respectively during their previous six outings prior to the weekend and remain among the least prolific teams across the course of the season. The Terriers at least skewed these figures with a surprise 4-1 win at Watford, but they need to do this more consistently in the New Year if they’re to retain their top-flight status.
We expect this trend to continue in the weeks ahead, while the January transfer window could prove crucial. Without significant reinforcements, any of these three clubs could be left battling relegation until the end of the season.
4. Man United fans will fall out of love with Mourinho
When Jose Mourinho was appointed the manager of Manchester United, there was a sense that the club had hired the wrong man at the right time. More specifically, they appointed a manager whose ethos was entirely opposed to the traditions of the club, in the hope that they could rediscover the winning mentality that had been slowly eroded since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
Of course, Mourinho’s pragmatic playing style was not an issue last season, with the Portuguese manager still more progressive than the rigid Louis Van Gaal and the outclassed David Moyes. The fact that he also became the first United manager to win two major honours in his debut season also appealed to fans, who hoped for a genuine title challenge to materialise this year.
Where once he was a tactical innovator and trailblazer, however, Mourinho has become increasingly cautious and predictable since his time at Real Madrid – and this is now blindingly apparent in the wake of Manchester City’s much-vaunted brilliance.
In fact, the obvious contrast with Pep Guardiola’s philosophy has laid Mourinho’s failings bare, with United’s timid surrender in the recent Manchester Derby also representing a tipping point in the Portuguese manager’s relationship with fans.
We expect this to continue in the New Year, with Mourinho seemingly on course for his usual, third season departure. Only a significant triumph or change in playing style could alter this course now, and both of these events seem increasingly unlikely with every passing game.