Festive debrief: The state of play after a hectic 12 days in the Premier League
Your hangover has (hopefully) subsided, you've kidded yourself that you've turned over a new leaf and are currently trying to work out the latest possible date to haul down the Christmas decorations. It's also a good time for the 20 Premier League teams to take stock, with the season's most hectic period over and a week standing between us and the next round of league fixtures.
United struggling at the Theatre of Comfort and Wine
Manchester United's title defence came off the rails on New Years Day, in a 2-1 defeat at home to Spurs. This time the damage was fatal. There will be no late comebacks, there will be no red ribbons in May. The loss now leaves David Moyes' team 11 points off the pace, and with several teams contending for the title, as opposed to one, it was so long, farewell to the traditional United title charge as early as January 1st.
Moyes has had many things to contend with since taking over from Sir Alex Ferguson. Given his complete inexperience in the rarefied air of management at the very highest level prior to July 1st 2013, all things considered he's done a reasonable job so far. His one major failing, however, one which will be of serious concern to both supporters and the United board, is the home form.
Considering Moyes is working with an almost identical squad to the one which swaggered to last season’s title, the contrast between United's home form in 2012-13 and 13-14 is quite remarkable. The Red Devils boasted the league’s best home record last season, winning 16 out of 19 games and dropping only nine points - three of those against Chelsea with the title sewn up and foot firmly off the gas.
Halfway through Moyes' first campaign, the champions have already dropped seven more points at home than they did in the entirety of last season, winning only 4 of 10 home games - a pitiful return. While United's away record is the Premier League's third best, their home form is the division's 11th best, behind the likes of Hull, Stoke and Newcastle, with only 12 goals scored - as many as West Ham (and we all know their attacking problems) and 26 goals fewer than rivals Manchester City.
The problems are evident: a laboured, overly conservative home setup, lack of speed in transitions, an over-reliance on wing play and woefully unsuccessful crossing. Consequently, defeats to West Brom, Everton, Newcastle and Spurs have virtually decimated United's season. Once considered a fortress, Old Trafford is currently less the Theatre of Dreams and more a pretty nice, accommodating theatre to which you take your girl or your mates and enjoy yourself. Moyes must rectify this problem immediately.
Sherwood's Spurs are enjoying their new-found freedom - for now…
Struggling to win matches at home thanks to arguably over-cautious tactics? That was also the story of the first half of Tottenham's season. Despite the 6-0 gubbing at the Etihad, Tottenham's away record this season is superb - the joint best, in fact. When Andre Villas-Boas was sacked following the 5-0 home humiliation at the hands of Liverpool, Spurs had won five of eight away matches, but only three of eight at home.
While Wednesday's win at Old Trafford was the headline result of Tottenham's Christmas, it was actually the comfortable 3-0 win over Stoke that best highlighted the changes made by the new regime. AVB rarely strayed from the 4-2-3-1 that his squad - many of whom were not at the club last season - were seemingly struggling to adapt to. His replacement, Tim Sherwood, has lined up in a 4-4-2 formation in each of his four Premier League matches to date. The result has been that Spurs have played with far more freedom, and scored as many goals in Sherwood's first four league matches as they did in Villas-Boas' last ten.
The newly rediscovered swagger was no more evident than in the Stoke match, Tottenham's first league win by more than two goals in a year and three days. The big test for Spurs - not to mention their new manager - will come in matches where perhaps a more pragmatic approach is required. There will be matches where playing two up-front and leaving themselves outnumbered in the middle and exposed out wide will be suicidal. The vista of Manchester City to White Hart Lane towards the end of this month, for example…
Away day swashbuckling boosts City's title charge
Having taken just four points from their first six Premier League away matches of the season, it had quickly become obvious that finding a way to blast their way past opponents on the road like they were doing at the Etihad would be the key to City forging a sustained title tilt. That's exactly what they have done over the last month, taking ten points from four away matches, generally by 'going on the front foot' and attempting to out-score their hosts.
Manuel Pellegrini dabbled with a slightly more cautious system in early-season away matches - often with just one striker or Sergio Aguero playing in a more withdrawn role. The result was that City mustered just eight goals on their first six away days. Since then, they've rattled in 11 in four. They won both of their festive away trips despite conceding twice in each - winning 4-2 at Fulham, then 3-2 at Swansea. All this without their talisman and top scorer, Aguero.
At present, throwing caution to the wind and persisting with the midfield partnership of Toure and Fernandinho seems to be paying off. Much like Spurs, City will have to be a little more reserved in certain matches, or risk being over-run, but they certainly appear to have found the formula for finishing off the league's lesser teams on the road.
Terry's form is a boost for Mourinho, but a headache for Hodgson
Jose Mourinho's side may not be blasting in goals at quite the same rate as City (in fact, they've scored 19 fewer in the league), but the Blues are sat in third place after 20 matches, just one point behind Manuel Pellegrini's side, and two behind table-topping Arsenal. There's no question they're title contenders, not least as they seem to have a knack of frustrating their rivals in the big head-to-heads (see the pre-Christmas snore-fest at the Emirates).
Chelsea picked up 10 points from four matches over the Christmas period, and conceded just one goal, despite facing Arsenal, Liverpool and an attack-minded Southampton side. That fearsome defensive record owes a lot to the performances of their captain, John Terry, who has defied all expectations and currently looks somewhere near his best. Given England's lack of options at centre-back, this has led to one or two calls for a return to the national team for the controversial Barking-born blocker.
For his part, Terry straight-batted questions about a possible international return after the Southampton game, insisting he would continue to focus on Chelsea and that 'the door was closed' on his England career, but his dismissal wasn't entirely convincing, and you can be certain he'd be willing to make the trip to Brazil in June should he be given the nod.
Regardless of any individual's opinion, the issue of Terry's inclusion in any England squad is clearly not one that will be resolved on the basis of his form alone. But if he does maintain this level of performance, the questions are certain to linger; Roy Hodgson and the FA may wish to work on answers of their own before the next squad is announced in early February.
One famed relationship is on the verge of breakdown
Loyalty doesn't come around too often these days, but it's a quality reciprocated by both manager and player where Sam Allardyce and Kevin Nolan are concerned.
It has been for almost 14 years, in fact, ever since Allardyce handed a 17-year-old Nolan his Bolton debut against Charlton in March 2000. When Allardyce took the West Ham reins in summer 2011, Nolan followed, after both men had taken in separate spells at Newcastle.
But after the 31-year-old picked up his second red card in four games at Craven Cottage on Sunday, there was no arm round the shoulder from the man who has overseen 10 years of the midfielder's professional career: only paternalistic disappointment.
"I don’t understand it,” said Allardyce. "I have to find out what’s wrong with him.
"Our captain was irresponsible. Not just today but for the future because he is suspended. He's let everyone down and himself. That's two in the space of the month now. It's not something I will allow to happen."
Is this the end of the duo's partnership as we know it? Most West Ham fans would greet the notion with a shrug. No longer is Nolan the goalscoring threat he once was, nor the aggressor whose controlled tenacity defined him.
When the dust has finally settled, it could cost his mentor a job.
Sober realism - it's the new Arsenal way
For years, Arsenal under Arsene Wenger have been admired for the technical quality of their football. "Wenger's style of football is the best in the world," FC Porto coach Paolo Fonseca once commented, and while the Gunners have repeatedly come unstuck when it comes to the crunch over the last eight years, Wenger's dedication to a tiki-taka style, ball-playing approach has been unwavering. This is borne out by the stats: prior to this campaign Arsenal boasted the highest possession count in each of the previous three Premier League seasons.
This year, however, is different. Wenger has switched his style. Arsenal have turned from pass-masters to arch-pragmatists. Their possession averages had been dropping slightly every year regardless - 60.3% in 2010/11, 60.2% in 11-12 and 58.2% in 12-13, but this season Arsenal have added defensive strength and resilience to their armoury, and it is these qualities that may finally fire them to the title.
Arsenal are the Premier League's possession-hoggers no longer. At present their average is 56.2%, 4th in the division behind Swansea, Southampton and Manchester City. However, no team has kept more clean sheets than the Gunners, as Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker have evolved into arguably Wenger's best and most reliable players. After the gritty 1-0 win at Newcastle, in which Arsene Wenger of all people took off a forward (Theo Walcott) and brought on a defender (Carl Jenkinson) as Arsenal defended deep, the Frenchman praised Arsenal's new ability to win ugly.
"We have shown another aspect of our team that means resilience and fight. We threw our bodies in the box and have shown a lot of resilience." They can still turn on the style when needs be, but Arsenal's is a title challenge built as much on the sober realism of businesslike defending as it is their famous neat passing triangles.
Anfield the key for Liverpool
Back-to-back defeats for Brendan Rodgers' men at Manchester City and Chelsea have left some pundits suggesting Liverpool's title hopes have been severely dented. Yet it is what they do at Anfield, rather than on the road, which could prove most crucial. Having already played at not just City and Chelsea but also Arsenal, Everton, Spurs and Newcastle, Liverpool will now welcome all those teams to Anfield before the climax of the current campaign.
Liverpool have dropped just three points from 30 at home this season, having regularly dropped points at home to weaker sides in the previous two or three years. They overcame both Cardiff and Hull with relative ease over the Christmas period, and appear full of confidence every time they play on their own patch.
"We have got all these teams to play at home. All the teams, apart from Manchester United, are all to come to Anfield. We are very strong at home," Rodgers said easier this week. "That's what gives me the great confidence. How we've been at Anfield over the course of this year means we have a big part to play in our own destiny and that is all you can ever hope for. You look at the other teams, like Manchester City, they have played a lot of their [big] games at home and so have got to travel.
"They have had their difficulties on their travels. So for us the second half of the season at Anfield will be massive. We love playing there. We enjoy playing there. We feel comfortable there to go and get a result against anyone and we aim, along with our supporters, to make it a real difficult place to get a result."
Everton are the next top eight visitors to Anfield, on January 28th, before Arsenal visit 11 days later.
Benteke and Vlaar vital to Villa survival & Lambert's job security
Aston Villa's 1-0 win at Sunderland was absolutely crucial in the context of their season. After a torrid recent run, the three points lifted Paul Lambert's team clear of the relegation zone, to the far more comfortable environs of 11th, and the security and class brought about by two of their key players was vital in helping Villans everywhere breathe more easily heading into 2014.
Benteke wasn't back to his best at the Stadium of Light, but his return to the starting XI after missing most of the festive period through injury was massive. Villa's top three passing combinations all involved the big Belgian, and the aura and strength he brings to Lambert's team is palpable. Benteke is like the king on Villa's chessboard: he may not do everything all the time, but the team's entire focus is based around him. Without him they look lost.
The return of captain Ron Vlaar was also of huge importance. Clearly not 100% fit, Vlaar battled on for 70 minutes before picking up another injury, which isn't thought to be too serious. The Dutchman's return resulted in Villa's first clean sheet since November, again against Sunderland - the last time Vlaar played 90 minutes before his injury. The duo are of huge importance to Villa's prospects this season - and, after some difficult moments at Villa Park of late, to Lambert's job security, too.
NEW YEAR REPORT How the Premier League clubs rated over Christmas