English football treasures the packed programme of action over the festive season and, despite the disruption of Covid-19 and the complaints of some managers, it again delivered in spades.
As so often, the intense spell of games not only provided fans with the chance to get out of the house and leave the leftovers in the fridge but led to real clarity in the title race.
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Chelsea and Liverpool produced a Premier League classic on Sunday with an enthralling 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge, but that only helped Manchester City, who now have a 10-point lead at the top of the table.
City beat Arsenal 2-1 at the Emirates on Saturday, the winning goal coming in the final seconds from midfielder Rodri.
In many ways, those two games encapsulated this title race — City found a way to win for the 11th game in a row, while their rivals entertained in frantic fashion but gave up crucial points.
The quality of Chelsea and Liverpool is undeniable. Both have been crowned Europe’s best in the past three years by winning the Champions League, an honour that has evaded City. But both are perhaps better suited to the high-octane challenges of a knockout competition than the long haul of a Premier League season that by its nature rewards consistency.
Pep Guardiola’s City, on course for their fourth Premier League title in five years, play a style of football in which they usually control games, wearing down opponents with their unmatched ability to keep possession and create openings.
They have evolved in recent seasons but Guardiola’s fundamental approach to the game, honed at Barcelona, is unchanged — the high technical level of his superbly drilled team and their understanding of their approach to games delivers consistently.
The German coaches of Liverpool and Chelsea, Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel, instead prefer a more high-energy game with attacks launched down the flanks by attacking full-backs, intense pressing and fast breaks in transition.
The style imported from the Bundesliga is enthralling to watch and has the potential to sweep aside weaker opponents but feels somewhat anarchic compared with City’s disciplined destruction of opponents.
Liverpool found the consistency needed during their title run in 2020 when they were close to unstoppable, going on an 18-match winning streak midseason and winning all but one home game.
This year, they have already dropped points at home three times and won only six of 11 away games.
“What Liverpool are lacking now that they had in the title-winning season is control of a football game,” said former Liverpool captain and now Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher, who compared the performance at Chelsea to Klopp’s first two seasons at the club.
“That was the best game I’ve seen this season, but in terms of Liverpool winning the title, that’s what’s going to cost them. Five times now, they’ve taken the lead this season and they’ve not won the game. That’s the difference between Liverpool and Man City right now.” Chelsea may still be a work in progress one year after Tuchel took over from Frank Lampard, and the problems with their big summer signing Romelu Lukaku are hardly helping.
Tuchel’s side have won just once in their last five games — dropping points against Brighton, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Everton before Sunday’s thriller.
The title race isn’t over, but the fight for Champions League qualification is looking like the bigger battle.
Arsenal currently occupy the fourth slot but West Ham United, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United are all in contention with just four points separating them. Should United beat Wolves on Monday they would go level on points with the Gunners.