There is simply no time for Premier League teams to rest on their laurels as the games continue to come thick and fast at the turn of the year. Here are 5 quick observations from Matchdays 19 and 20 in the first week of January 2017.
The Leicester miracle still defies belief
It was funny to think of the Middlesbrough-Leicester City as a battle between a newly promoted side and last year’s title winners. The stalemate played out exactly like a scrap between two teams ranked 15th and 16th respectively in the table.
Middlesbrough are a decent passing team, who are positive in possession. They are compact without the ball, and have the best defensive record of any team outside the top six. However, their inability to score goals is a major issue. The lack of wins explains their position in the table. They proved a good test for a Leicester side that are a pale imitation of last year’s title winners.
While the Foxes were able to grind out a win against West Ham United two days prior, they looked off the pace against Middlesbrough. They lacked sharpness going forward, especially with Jamie Vardy out and Riyadh Mahrez in fits and starts. Summer signings Ahmed Musa and Nampalys Mendy are yet to settle, and the N’Golo Kante sized hole in midfield is ever present.
Even when off-form, Mahrez remains their chief creator, and they will miss him when he heads off to the African Cup of Nations with Algeria. A title defence may have been out of question long ago, but it will be an uphill battle from here to finish anywhere near the top ten.
Have to rave about Dele
Dele Alli’s stock continues to rise after two outstanding performances against Watford and Chelsea. Alli linked up play seamlessly throughout, and proved the difference as he bagged two goals in each game. He is exciting and inventive on the ball, with the pace and physicality off the ball to trouble seasoned defenders.
There’s also a bit of character and fight about him, which complements his ability to grab games by the scruff of the neck. We should not forget that Alli is just 20 years old. His key stats after 50 top flight matches is pretty impressive reading, when compared with three of the best English midfielders in the Premier League era is pretty impressive:
- Dele Alli: 16 goals, 10 assists
- Paul Scholes: 16 goals, 3 assists
- Steven Gerrard: 2 goals, 3 assists
- Frank Lampard: 5 goals, 2 assists
Undoubtedly, Alli’s career still has a long way to go, but it would seem that he has overtaken Everton’s Ross Barkley as England’s most promising attacking midfielder. Surely it is just a matter of time from here that Alli replaces Wayne Rooney at No. 10 for England.
Can Liverpool top 2nd this year?
In traditional Liverpool fashion, they have managed to excite and frustrate fans in a span of less than 48 hours. Having picked up from where they left off at 2016, Jurgen Klopp’s men blend hard graft with real craft against Manchester City, exemplified by Adam Lallana’s excellent form this year.The two-footed Lallana has popped up all over the park, contributing to a number of strong wins by scoring important goals and laying off assists for his teammates.
But while Liverpool’s win against Man City was a clear statement of intent, the draw against Sunderland was an unfortunate stutter. That being said, it’s too early to write off Liverpool at this stage. Liverpool may not have the deepest of squads, but they are also not in Europe this season. Being able to focus on the Premier League may aid their title charge, even if they will have to do without Sadio Mane this month. He will be at the African Cup of Nations with Senegal. Daniel Sturridge may be the most obvious replacement, in the currency of goals, if he is able to stay fit. January momentum will be key if Liverpool are to have a real shot at a first Premier League title.
Manchester United’s Many Blessings
Manchester United have been unfortunate a few times this season, as their wasteful finishing was punished with a series of draws that have left them playing catch-up in the table. Against Middlesbrough on Matchday 19, the woodwork again denied them twice. It looked as if it would be another one of those days, but two late goals by Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba turned the match on its head, and United made it 5 consecutive league wins. In a twisted form of karmic justice, it seemed as if Lady Luck was going to dole out all her blessings in their game against West Ham United.
With West Ham starting the game brightly, they looked to give United a run for their money. United were a little slower to the ball, and seemed a little exhausted from their exertions against Middlesbrough. However, the whole complexion of match changed 15 minutes in, when Sofiane Feghouli sent off after 15 minutes in a 50-50 challenge with Phil Jones. Thereafter, 10 men West Ham were able to get a number of sharp stops out of United goalkeeper David De Gea, but could not be expected to contain even a lackluster United for 75 minutes.
The introductions of Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford proved instrumental in stretching the Hammers. Mata managed to put United in front from a smart Rashford cutback, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s rifled finish for the second was clearly offside. Fortuitous as it may have been, United have now won 6 on the trot, and will hope that the rest of the top four start dropping more points.
Arsenal confound and frustrate in equal measure
Arsenal’s start to 2017 has yielded mixed results. Olivier’s Giroud’s stunning backheel finish in the 2-0 win over Crystal Palace was a perfect way to ring in the New Year. Giroud’s goal may have been underpinned by a large slice of luck, but also exemplified the attractive attacking football that the Gunners could deliver at their best. Fortune favoured the bold in this instance, and our highlights reels are a lot richer for it.
However, Arsenal fans will attest to the fact that supporting their team is a lesson in managing expectations. Renewed optimism is often accompanied by setbacks, and the 3-3 draw with Bournemouth a familiar feeling of déjà vu. Having found themselves 3-0 down after 60 minutes, Arsenal showed character to draw level at the death. Admirable as this may be, one cannot help but feel that this was another wasted opportunity to gain ground on the rest of the title contenders. Why could the Gunners not start the game as they finished it? Simply put, Arsenal should have made it 6 points from these two games, and anything less is not the stuff of which champions are made.