The grueling winter schedule officially gets under way this weekend. It’s the time of year managers hate but supporters love, when the matches come so thick and fast it is easy to lose sight of the league table altogether.
But when we come up for air on Jan. 2, there will have been 21 rounds of Premier League action played. The table could change dramatically.
The most interesting area likely to be affected is at the top, where Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea are separated by two points in a title challenge that looks likely to go to the wire.
All three teams have six league games in the space of 23 days, while Chelsea and Liverpool also have an EFL Cup quarterfinal this month.
It will be a hectic time likely to expose any flaws in the respective camps, and certainly by the time Liverpool meet Chelsea at Stamford Bridge right at the end of the festive period things could look decidedly different at the top.
With that in mind, here’s a look at the respective weaknesses of each of the three title challengers, none of which are likely to appear quite so strong after playing so many games in such a short space of time. The winter schedule takes its toll.
Pep Guardiola’s most pressing issue remains the lack of an out-and-out striker, because despite being top of the league, rotating a different player each week into the number nine role is decreasing their goal-scoring return.
City have scored the fewest of the three title contenders, 32 in 15 games, which is their lowest goals-per-game average (2.1) since Guardiola’s first season in charge — when City finished third.
Four of their wins this season have been by a single goal, including their last two against West Ham United and Aston Villa, and both of these teams were unlucky not to take a point thanks to late rallies.
City need to be able to put games to bed a bit better, but more concerning than that is the 1-0 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur, the 0-0 draw with Southampton, and the 2-0 defeat to Crystal Palace.
Again, this is hardly a disaster considering their league position, but it could become a problem when legs and minds tire during the festive period.
And the problem is not just about missing a ruthless touch in the penalty area; in the above three games, City looked too slow, unable to open up a low block due to constantly playing in front of the defense.
They have lacked penetration since Leroy Sane’s departure, a problem symbolized in how Jack Grealish is struggling to settle. He persistently receives the ball, holds it, then plays a simple pass inside, unsure of his license to be creative.
Perhaps things will improve once Kevin De Bruyne is back to full match fitness, but for now Grealish represents City’s lack of creative spark that, by going against the grain, confuses defenders and pierces a defensive blockade.
Defensively, Man City are very strong, although a few errors have crept into their game recently. They are starting to look slightly vulnerable to incisive counters played in behind their high defensive line whenever Aymeric Laporte or John Stones are playing.
Looking at their upcoming games, Wolves may be capable of forcing a frustrating 0-0 draw and Leeds United will test any new difficulty in the transition, but after that they face a run against teams at a low ebb: Newcastle, Leicester, Brentford and Arsenal.
The 3-3 draw with Brentford and 2-2 draw with Brighton have raised some concerns about Liverpool’s ability to defend counterattacks, and as we wrote in November analysis of their goals conceded this season shows the main issue is missing Georginio Wijnaldum from midfield.
His metronomic presence in the middle, evading opposition challenges and recycling the ball intelligently, helped Liverpool to control games in their 2019-20 title-winning year — in which 14 of their league wins were by a single goal. That capacity to take the lead and hold onto it has disintegrated.
Wijnaldum’s positional awareness from the left-center of midfield was also crucial in breaking up counters or stamping them out at source, while by contrast his frequent replacements — Alex Oxlade Chamberlain or Curtis Jones — have made subtle errors in the build-up to concessions against Brighton, Brentford and Atletico Madrid.
These defensive issues, exacerbated by Virgil van Dijk being below his best as he continues his recovery from an ACL injury, could hurt Liverpool when the games are every few days.
Aston Villa, Tottenham, Leeds, Leicester and Chelsea are all tough matches that will contain moments in which Jurgen Klopp’s formation is stretched.
Going forward, there is arguably an over-reliance on Mohamed Salah’s genius. They are lacking that extra creative spark from midfield — the one Harvey Elliot would have been providing — and will lose Salah and Sadio Mane to the AFCON in January.
Liverpool need to rack up points before then, but unfortunately they seem most likely of the three title contenders to be exposed through the remainder of December.
The most winterproof of the three clubs is probably Chelsea, whose machine-like consistency this season is backed up with squad depth and tactical variation.
It is worth noting that they have only dropped points this season against Liverpool, Man City, Burnley (when they somehow failed to convert a 2.88xG into more than one goal) and West Ham.
Goal-scoring is said to be their biggest weakness. Even before Romelu Lukaku’s injuries he did not appear to be settling well, often playing with his back to goal and looking more like the Manchester United-era target man than the agile transitional striker we saw at Inter.
Whether that is a deliberate strategy by Thomas Tuchel remains to be seen, although his good combinations with Timo Werner in the 3-3 draw with Zenit were encouraging.
However, Opta have Chelsea’s xG at 26.19, well below their actual tally of 35, while they have the second-best conversion rate in the division, at 14.77 percent.
Generally speaking, they are scoring more than they should based on chance creation, although a “Big Chance” conversion rate of just 46.15 percent — the eighth-highest in the division — does point to some glaring misses.
The real flaw is chance creation in games when the opponent chooses to sit deep. Tuchel has been at pains to get his team playing quickly through the lines and setting their forwards in behind the defense at the earliest opportunity, and yet most of the time they are unable to do this.
Instead, Chelsea can look a little bit mechanical, with the precision of their build-up play and strict positioning becoming an issue when faced with a brick wall.
It’s only a minor worry for now, and one that Reece James’s influence is largely making irrelevant, although it could become an issue down the line. But probably not this winter.
They have the easiest fixtures of all, playing Leeds, Everton, Wolves, Brentford, Villa and Brighton before they welcome Liverpool to Stamford Bridge in January. None of those teams will absorb pressure from a low block, aside from Everton, whose two-man midfield should be easy for Chelsea to overwhelm.
Chelsea, then, are the most likely to emerge from the Christmas period at the top of the Premier League table.
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