It’s that time of year again. A time of bounty and excess and gluttony. For Premier League fans, at least.
Because it’s the holiday season, which means the world’s most popular soccer league crams as many games into the calendar as it possibly can without regard for the players’ health or the fairness of its competition. But we’ll get to the latter point.
Starting Friday, undefeated league leaders Liverpool will play four games in 14 days and five in 18 – including a tough game against Arsenal and a showdown with second-place Manchester City as that fourth game. City, for its part, is staring down the barrel of six games in 18 days – although the latter two are against minnows Rotherham United and Burton Albion in the FA Cup and League Cup, respectively.
What about Tottenham Hotspur, lagging in third place – six points off Liverpool and five behind City — but still within striking distance? Six games in just 17 days, including one against Chelsea. The fourth-placed Blues, meanwhile, have six games in 18 days as well.
Finally, Arsenal, the last team with any realistic ambition of getting in the title race: five games in 15 days, including the aforementioned clash with Liverpool.
This habitual Christmastime congestion often makes for a pivotal point in the title race.
Last season, City weathered this period well with three wins and a tie on its way to the title. Manchester United, meanwhile, took just one win from four, effectively ending its challenge by allowing City to open up a gap.
The season before, 2016-17, Chelsea won three from four in its championship campaign. But the one loss came to Spurs, who were vaulted back into the title race with four straight holiday wins, and would wind up as the only team to finish remotely close to the Blues.
Leicester City’s miraculous Premiership title in 2016 was very nearly derailed during the holidays. The Foxes, who had just 11 players who made more than 14 league starts that year, had a perilously thin squad and went winless during a three-game stretch from Dec. 26 through Jan. 2, tumbling out of first place. Many thought that was the end of their title hopes, but then Arsenal did an Arsenal. The Gunners went winless in their first four post-holiday games and won just seven of their last 18, handing the title back to Leicester.
Shall we do one more? In Chelsea’s rampant 2014-15 title, when it spent just one matchday of the season out of first place, one of just two times it failed to win in consecutive games was on Dec. 28 and Jan. 1. It wouldn’t happen again until the tail-end of the season, when the title was practically assured.
This year, too, it’s likely that the picture that emerges at the other end of the holidays will look a lot like the final standings come the end of the season in May. This time of year is a cauldron for contenders, who will either forge sturdy credentials or wilt in the heat.
But it also reinforces why the title is unwinnable for so many teams. It takes an enormous amount of depth to get through it without taking significant collateral damage, either in the standings or in the durability of your players for the remainder of the season.
Consider, after all, that the smallest team by far to win the title in eons, Leicester, very nearly gave it away then. It hardly had the depth to cope. And Claudio Ranieri’s unruly band of overachievers didn’t even have to compete in Europe, which would have further cluttered its schedule and ramped up the workload by at least another half dozen games.
Chelsea, likewise, didn’t have to worry about continental games during its last title run, following a disastrous prior season. And even then it barely held on to first place in the wake of the holiday games. Which is to say that even moneyed and, consequently, deep teams have trouble coping with the fixture congestion.
What hope is there for a team with a smaller budget? Especially when it’s unlikely that you’d be making a run at the title without having qualified for Europe the season prior, further straining thin resources? Those teams don’t have the manpower to stay in whatever competitiveness they may have clawed into during this dastardly stretch of games.
While the holiday games are a great spectacle in that they’re a challenge for the prospective title-winners to cope with, it also enshrines the inherent imbalance that essentially makes the Premier League a two-tiered society. The reason that a team like Leicester winning only happens once a generation – the last outsider to win it was Blackburn Rovers in 1995, and they were a much bigger club at the time than Leicester was three years ago – is because the economics of the game practically prohibit it.
Talent concentrates at the top to the exclusion of even the upper-middle class teams. And it’s never more evident than around Christmastime that the effect is to leave everybody else out of the party.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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