Monday 23 July 2018

Guardiola the clear winner in punishing festive slog

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola Photo: PA
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola Photo: PA

Paul Wilson

Never mind what TS Eliot had to say about April, there can be little doubt that December is "the cruelest month" for Premier League footballers. This was especially true of the one just seen, which managed to cram seven full rounds of fixtures into its page on the calendar. If the New Year's Day activity is included, which it probably should be as it marks the end of frantic, festive programming before the much needed intermission for the FA Cup, the true figure is eight games played within just over four weeks.

That is a lot; it is no wonder managers from Pep Guardiola to Alan Pardew have been complaining about unnecessary and sometimes unfair strain on sinews and squads.

Most of the rest of football thinks it is a good idea to take a short break at this time of year, or at least thin out the fixtures a little to allow players to regain breath for the second half of the campaign. England has never been in favour of such slacking. For a variety of reasons to do with tradition, commercialism and misplaced machismo, it prefers to slog it out through the wind and rain, perhaps believing that building an element of the Grand National into an otherwise slick and streamlined product somehow keeps it real and linked to a more rugged past.

Most years the Premier League just about gets away with it, although there has long been a suspicion its players pay the price in summer tournaments. Occasionally the calendar invites abuse and is duly abused. Eight games represents over a fifth of the league season.

While in normal seasons this could be regarded as fun, with the Christmas shake-up sorting out some of the early runners from the potential stayers, this time it seems a bit pointless if the only challenge to Manchester City is going to come from avoidable muscle strains or desperate attempts to stop their leading performers. "The schedule is killing the players ," Guardiola said. "These are the artists we come to watch and they need time to recover."

The schedule seems to be killing a few managers, too, or perhaps pointing up failings that already existed. West Brom have not won a league match since August and have only 16 goals to their name. Yet it was still impossible not to feel sympathy for Pardew when Andy Carroll rifled that last-minute winner for West Ham.

Pardew is up against it. There has been no detectable improvement in fortune since he succeeded Tony Pulis, though he rightly complained about being asked to play for a second time in 48 hours against relegation rivals who had had a week's rest. Hectic bordering on stupid fixture programming can be accepted with a shrug if it is the same for everyone. If it is not - which is the case - there are questions to answer.

Guardiola and City were the clear winners of the eight-game glut, with seven wins, 20 goals and a 15-point lead at the top of the table, even if their winning run ended at 18 at Crystal Palace. Roy Hodgson did his recovering reputation no harm with 13 points from the same period to propel Palace out of the relegation places, while Liverpool scored more goals than anyone and were the only team other than City to go through unbeaten.

José Mourinho, as is his wont, gained more attention for press-conference posturing than results on the pitch, though behind all the bluster Manchester United were impressive in places, notably when winning in some style at Arsenal and Everton. They could not beat City, though, and neither could Tottenham.

Losers over the festive period included Watford manager Marco Silva, who in the space of just over a month has gone from being head-hunted by bigger clubs to fearing for his job. Oddly, Silva's slide began on the night in November that Sam Allardyce watched David Unsworth's final Everton selection beat West Ham 4-0. Watford went down 4-2 at home to United, and in the eight games since have picked up a mere four points.

Allardyce himself, initially smug at being invited to take over a going concern, is now alarming supporters with his unnecessarily barren brand of football. Arguably Allardyce's best club opportunity has come along late in his career but it will be another short stay unless he can prove more flexible.

The last month has also included Arsène Wenger protesting far too much over some routine penalty decisions, Álvaro Morata proving a nervy finisher, Swansea losing their way to the extent of turning to their fourth manager in two years and David Moyes rehabilitating himself in a role that could easily have proved his last in top-flight football.

The new year prize for telling it like it is goes to Mark "who else are you going to get?" Hughes, whose career is hanging by a thread with Stoke in the bottom three. It is a fair question. One might get a Pardew, who is taking too long to exert an influence, or possibly a Hodgson or a Moyes, who even in unpromising circumstances can produce uplift.

The pressure at the bottom comes from all three promoted clubs averaging a point a game or better to give themselves a reasonable chance of staying up. They all survived December at any rate and this season that was no mean feat.


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