It really is the most wonderful time of the year. With four games each in the space of 12 days, ten-and-a-half per cent of all of this season’s Premier League games will be played between Friday December 22 and Wednesday January 3. There are games on TV practically every day, which at this time of year I find are best enjoyed lying prone and trouserless in a front room armchair, munching through an entire box of Lidl knock-off After Eights that you promised your partner you’d definitely keep untouched for when parents visit. Don’t judge me.
The players, their clubs and especially their medical staff may hate it (the fixture calendar, not my mint-based gluttony, which you would need to ask them about yourself if you’re so desperate to know), and I suppose you could make a convincing argument that forcing teams to rotate their squads to navigate such a compact fixture list hurts the integrity of the competition.
Humbug to that hypothesis. Not only is it good to put teams through different kinds of challenges throughout the season (of which squad depth is surely part), but the festive fixture calendar introduces a welcome element of randomness at the exact moment that the league season threatens to become processional.
With weakened sides, slippery pitches, and tired legs all playing a part, this is the weirdest time of year for football, as the last few years can confirm:
· Only two teams (Spurs and Manchester United) made it through last year’s intra-festive period with a 100% record, with Everton dropping points at Hull, Liverpool beating Man City but drawing with Sunderland, Arsenal drawing 3-3 with Bournemouth, and Chelsea losing to Spurs.
· Nobody managed a clean sweep over Christmas and new year 2015/16, but between them Norwich and West Brom claimed 16% of the points they would take all season, while eventual champions Leicester drew two and lost one of their three games.
· On January 1 2015, Stoke held Manchester United to a 1-1 draw, Liverpool drew 2-2 with bottom club Leicester, Southampton beat Arsenal 2-0, Hull beat Everton 2-0, Manchester City scraped past Sunderland in a 3-2 win that featured all five goals in the space of 16 minutes, Newcastle and Burnley played out a 3-3 thriller, and the day was capped off by Tottenham’s incredible 5-3 win over Chelsea.
The history and the ferocity of the fixtures lend this time of year a real ‘anything goes’ air; that’s what we love about it, and why we so overwhelmingly reject the idea of having a winter break, or advocate for it to occur in mid-January instead. We’ll never get anything as full-on as the famously nutty results from Boxing Day 1963, but there is still the sense that if anything can happen, it’s going to happen now.
By that token, after watching Manchester City’s reserves struggle through 120 minutes against a less-than-full-strength Leicester side in the Carabao Cup, it is tempting to think that if Pep Guardiola’s side are going to falter at all this season, now is the most likely time for that to occur.
It’s just a shame, then, that the fixture computer has not held up its end of the bargain. City host Bournemouth on Saturday, travel to Newcastle on the 27th, spend New Year’s Eve at Crystal Palace, and then greet Watford at the Etihad two days later. The last of those opponents are currently the highest-ranked of the four, in tenth, but given Watford’s current form, they may well be closer to the relegation zone by the time they come up against City.
Playing four times in 10 days is a big test even for the best sides, and even taking into account that their opponents and rivals face an equally punishing schedule. But the reality is that City still have an excellent chance of coming through the slipperiest time of year with their unbeaten record intact, at which point the talk of an invincible season will surely begin in earnest.
But even accepting that a title race is incredibly unlikely to suddenly emerge, there is plenty enough going on to keep you coming back for more, like those delightfully forbidden mint chocolates. It’s not inconceivable that within the next two weeks, Tottenham could slip to 10th, West Brom could rise to mid-table, or Burnley could find themselves in the top four. Or all of these. Or none of these.
This is the most intense and unpredictable time of year in a sport we already prize for its unpredictability; may we gorge ourselves fat on whatever silliness Father Football brings us this year.