While other European leagues take a well-earned break over the festive period, the Premier League traditionally doubles down on match day delivery. In the past two weeks alone, England’s top flight has provided us with no fewer than 39 league fixtures.
Some of the players have certainly looked fatigued by the additional action; Wolves, for example, looked exhausted playing Liverpool less than 48 hours after an energy-sapping victory over Manchester City. And Manchester United put on a zombified performance when they handed Mikel Arteta his first win as Arsenal manager on New Year’s Day.
Festive fixture congestion may not be popular among players and managers, and it invites plenty of legitimate criticism, but the Premier League has been incredibly entertaining over the last few weeks.
In Wolves’ aforementioned triumph over City, we saw an early red card, a retaken penalty and an epic late winner for the underdog. Brighton’s Alireza Jahanbakhsh scored one of many world-class festive goals. And Jose Mourinho received a yellow card for being “rude to an idiot.”
The only real disappointment of the period has come in multiple instances of VAR offside controversy. Far too many column inches have been dominated by the shortcomings of the offside rule, when the focus could have been on some truly incredible soccer.
But the biggest storyline of the festive period — and the team we’ve all had our eye on since the fixtures started ramping up — is Liverpool.
At the start of December, many speculated about the Reds’ ability to hold onto a lead at the top of the league. After all, Jurgen Klopp’s side held a sizable advantage last season going into the new year and they managed to let it slip (if you’ll excuse the choice of words).
Liverpool fans, of course, will need no reminding that they have let the title fall through their fingers on numerous occasions since they last won the top flight 30 years ago.
However, Liverpool have emerged in 2020 completely unscathed, with a seemingly unassailable lead of 13 points and a game in hand. By the time the Reds host neighbors Everton in the FA Cup this coming Sunday, they will have played 11 matches in 33 days across five competitions.
Not only is that a match every three days, but it also involved three Premier League away trips, a Champions League jaunt to Austria and a 9,000-mile round trip to Qatar to play in the FIFA Club World Cup. With the exception of their League Cup loss to Aston Villa, which took place while Klopp and the entire first-team squad were in Qatar, Liverpool won every single match in that 33-day period.
At this point, Liverpool are not only the best team in England, but also the world. Klopp’s men had an incredibly difficult winter test and they passed it with flying colors.
But before we declare Liverpool the undisputed winners of the festive fixture period, there are a few candidates at the other end of the table.
Southampton came into December in dreadful form and looked doomed for the drop when they lost 1-0 at home to Manuel Pellegrini’s feckless West Ham on December 14.
Since that match, however, the Saints have won three of four games, drawing the other against Crystal Palace. They deserved a win against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Boxing Day and stunned Tottenham on New Year’s Day.
They were firmly in the relegation zone in mid-December, but now they’re in 12th place, just two points behind Arsenal. For that, manager Ralph Hassenhuttl and goal scorer extraordinaire Danny Ings deserve plenty of credit.
Yet incredibly, it’s not Southampton who have shown the biggest turnaround at the foot of the table.
That accolade belongs to Watford.
Yes, the Hornets still find themselves in the drop zone, but they are no longer rooted to the bottom with no hope of survival. They have earned the same amount of points as Southampton in their last four games and have taken some similarly impressive scalps.
Manchester United were comprehensively beaten at Vicarage Road a few days before Christmas and Wolves were given the same treatment on New Year’s Day. Watford find themselves just two points from safety, having started December with a single league win to their name.
The difference-maker in this transformation also happens to be one of the least popular personalities in the sport: Nigel Pearson.
Known for calling journalists “ostriches” and his affiliation with a far-right political party, Pearson hasn’t won too many friends in the media. His cantankerous personality can often rub players the wrong way, too.
But Watford appear to have a successful alchemy in their third managerial appointment of the season. Pearson has earned 10 points in five games since taking charge, and he’s organized the side, stopped the backline leaking goals and revitalized the attack. Gerard Deulofeu and Troy Deeney, in particular, have shown vastly improved form.
It’s easy to forget that it was Pearson who promoted Leicester to the Premier League in his second stint as manager in 2014. It was Pearson who rescued the Foxes the following year, making them the only team to survive relegation after being bottom of the league at Christmas.
It was Pearson who started a run of good form that carried directly into 2015-16, when Claudio Ranieri helmed the game’s most unlikely league title win. Had the Englishman not been fired after his son was involved in a controversial Thai vacation video, he might have led the Foxes to glory instead of Ranieri.
Pearson brought Leicester back from the brink, when all hope was lost. And it looks as if history is about to repeat itself at Vicarage Road.
As impressive as Liverpool’s continued excellence is, turning around a sinking ship during the festive fixture pileup arguably makes Pearson and Watford the true winners of the trickiest part of the season.
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