With the Christmas period setting its festive sun over the English Premier League’s near first half of the 2016/17 season, there’s already some compelling narratives that have emerged to surprise us when compared to the start of the season. Below we briefly review the English Premier League’s season so far, highlight some interesting facts and discuss why Chelsea will win the title.
Top of the English Premier League
Conte’s Chelsea lead the pack with the 5th best point haul after 17 games in English Premier League history. Klopp’s Liverpool are punching well above expectations in 2nd, having improved 13 points from their position at Christmas last season. Manchester City, Arsenal and Spurs are in hot pursuit, each enjoying their own patches of both imperious and fruitless form. Mourinho’s Manchester United are 13 points off top spot, and the pre-season promise of a title challenge appears high unlikely.
It’s intriguing to examine the storyline that the Premier League at Christmas has over the rest of the season. It may seem like self-reflection for the season’s sake, but there are some big lessons that can be taken from seasons past and how they’ve determined who finishes where in May.
Observations of the trends suggest some broad conclusions very much in favour of the latest Italian revolution at Chelsea. The unassuming Antonio Conte hasn’t come into the Premier League with the same tactical fanfare as Guardiola, or the supposed prodigal romance of Mourinho. Klopp, Wenger and Pochettino are known quantities for their sides, all 3 of which are short on the same resources available to compete as Chelsea and both halves of Manchester (though the bank balance at the Emirates may beg to differ).
Conte’s haul of 43 points in 17 games is especially important in context to the rest of the league. While there have been some nail-biting finishes in the league in the past, often the challengers are consistently close to each other as the story progresses. Title winners Manchester City (2013/14), Manchester United (2007/08) and Arsenal (2003/04) were all 1 point away from the team topping the table at Christmas.
Conte doesn’t have this concern. Despite a poor September where the Blues suffered back to back defeats against Liverpool and Arsenal, Chelsea’s run of 11 wins, linked to Conte’s tactical move to a 3-4-3 system, has not only elevated them to the summit of the league, but also has created a large 6 point gap to 2nd placed Liverpool and the chasing pack, who each have their own set of inconsistent challenges to overcome.
Statistically, Chelsea have been the hardest team to beat in the league (10 clean sheets and 11 goals conceded, both the best in the league). They have no European commitments to force squad rotation or place unreasonable demands on player workload to contribute to injuries. Their rivals are either distracted by European expectations (Manchester City, Arsenal) or domestic possibilities (Liverpool’s League Cup semifinal against a tricky Southampton makes January a very congested month – and they’re without key player Sadio Mane too). Chelsea have the benefit too of hosting Manchester City and Arsenal in the season’s second half of fixtures – a massive advantage in the title run in period. Only Liverpool can argue a more favourable run of fixtures in the latter third of the season; but the Reds may find the January and February period more critical and difficult in trying to actually close the gap on Chelsea, let alone pull ahead.
The Chelsea squad itself is in ruder health than rivals would care to admit. Courtois is once again showing the form that makes him a true contender for the best keeper in the league. As of the table at Christmas, Diego Costa leads the league in scoring (13 goals in 17 games). Their star token Eden Hazard is producing again (8 goals).
Their team hasn’t suffered extensive injuries with Kante, Costa, Cahill, Azpilicueta, Courtois, Hazard, Matic and Luiz all starting at least 13 games, allowing some much needed continuity. Their rotation often involves experienced players who can be relied upon to deliver the goods in a title challenge (Pedro, Fabregas, Ivanovic, Willian). As mentioned earlier, their defence appears watertight, so while there’s a risk that injury to Costa or Hazard could cost them in the long run, it appears a lot to hope that a team who concede less than a goal a game won’t figure out how to score the odd one from somewhere to keep winning the games they need to stay at the top.
Perhaps this may be one of the seasons where the numbers are refuted and common sense is shown the red card… but it’s very hard to look past Chelsea for anything but a fresh new set of Premier League medals in May 2017.
Interestingly Chelsea’s betting odds to win the League were 6/1 at the start of the season and now sit at 6/10.
Some Stories to Watch
Finishing 2nd at Christmas is intriguing for Liverpool, who arguably possesses a less balanced squad than the 2 teams immediately behind them. The historical numbers confess them as a Champions League participant in 2017/18, but it remains to be seen if they’ll maintain the promise the history suggests. Finishing 2nd is a statistical advantage, but practically, Liverpool are hardly less vulnerable to the battle; their 7 point gap to Manchester United in 6th could be closed quickly if the defensive frailties at Merseyside persist to undermine their league leading haul of 2.41 goals scored per match. A similar argument could be made of Manchester City as well, but they’re so spoilt of depth in attacking positions (De Bruyne, Sane, Silva, Yaya Toure, Sterling, Nolito, Aguero, and Wilfried Bony amongst others) that it appears highly unlikely they’d struggle to maintain the scoring output required when compared to Liverpool.
Another curious narrative is Arsenal, who (cynically) seem more likely to finish 4th than win a trophy, much less get relegated. The most recent of the big clubs to fall out of the top 4 from Christmas to season end was Chelsea in 2012/13… but winning the Champions League itself that year was considerable good compensation. If Arsenal don’t keep the pace in the league (unlikely), they may consider European focus as a viable alternative, especially given general media and fan confidence that this may be the year they beat Bayern Munich to progress further in Europe…but naturally that all depends on their infamous injury record and who they’d draw as an opponent in the quarterfinal.