SOCCER

As UK Heads Into Strict Lockdown, Premier League Provides Entertainment

Dec 31, 2020, 11:06 AM
Jorginho of Chelsea FC...
Jorginho of Chelsea acknowledges the fans after his sides victory in the Premier League match between Chelsea FC and Burnley FC at Stamford Bridge on January 11, 2020 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images )
(Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images )

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The festive period has been a good one to us English Premier League fans, and as we head into round 17 and then a two-week break we’re none the wiser as to who will be crowned champions.

The two-week break is beneficial to everyone, as players are overstretched, but also the entire Premier League is starting to suffer more with COVID-19 outbreaks within their individual team bubbles. This break will give teams and the league time to decide what is the best course of action. When the EPL restarts on January 12 there could be more postponements before this weekend is out. Games to keep an eye on include Saturday’s KSL 5 match between Brighton and Wolves, which kicks off at 10:30 a.m.

You can get up nice and early before that though and enjoy the match between Spurs and Leeds on NBCSN at 5:30 a.m. and what will be a fascinating duel and hugely contrasting styles. Keep an eye on NBCSN, Monday’s showdown between Southampton and Liverpool at 1:00 p.m., as the alpine Klopp (Ralph Hasenhuttl) takes on Jurgen Klopp. As the rest of the U.K. moves into a minimum of Tier 3 COVID-19 restrictions and the rest into Tier 4, it will mean we will not see fans in the stadiums for the immediate future.

Manchester United v. Aston Villa

We start on New Year’s Day, as two fantastic and in-form teams go head to head in the 1:00 p.m. kick off on NBCSN. Manchester United are well and truly in the thick of a title race, and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise. They are robust and creative. They are seeing out games these last few weeks with superb game management and are exactly where they deserve to be. Second in the EPL table, breathing down the necks of arch rivals, Liverpool.

Whilst there is a long way to go, United had a later start to the season and took more time than normal to get going after a shortened preseason but now as the Red Devils are on the go, they are getting results and successfully managing their squad. Credit to the manager, he’s showing that he’s not only growing into the role, but that his plan and principles are paying off. Setting up with a defensive six (four defenders and two holding midfielders) to allow the front four to do their thing, attack. It has made them difficult to beat recently, and with Bruno Fernandes pulling the strings behind the forward three, they look like they are able to score on almost anyone.

They are relentless in their approach. This does not mean that it’s always attractive, or that we see them attack consistently, but there is something clicking. Something that has to be respected about what United are doing, and are going to do, if they can keep Bruno Fernandes at his peak. I’m not saying they’re a one man team, but since his arrival in late January 2020, United have generally been on an upward curve. He is so good, truly one of the best players in the EPL, and his drive and determination have brought the standards up at United. I think, and I don’t say this lightly, that without Fernandes, United wouldn’t be where they are now, and almost certainly Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wouldn’t be in a job.

The visitors are equally fantastic, conceding just one EPL goal in the whole of December. Their recruitment this off season was probably the best of anyone in terms of meeting the squad needs and how quickly the newly acquired players settled in. Dean Smith, along with his recruitment team, deserves huge credit in how they approached this season. The major coup was keeping captain fantastic Jack Grealish. The attacking midfielder has, in my opinion, gone on to another level and with Villa seemingly well and truly out of a relegation dogfight and more likely to challenge for the Europa League places, this summer they’ll be once again fielding calls for the services of their No. 10. Grealish is, for the most part, in the thick of everything Villa does well, but he also puts in a hard graft and wears opponents down. This along with the addition of Ollie Watkins up front and leading the line is showing what Smith demands of his players. A work ethic that is always β€œthe team first.” Throw in the likes of John McGinn and Douglas Luiz who control the middle of the park, and protect the back four. You then have El Ghazi and Traore in the wide areas, who not only provide width in attack, but also do the dirty work in supporting their full backs behind them. This squad plays for the team with breadth and depth.

This for me is probably the game of the weekend. Two teams that are in fine form. With two No. 10 types driving their respective teams forward. I think the attacks we’ll see will be explosive, maybe a little frantic at times, but 100% pure entertainment.

Prediction: You can imagine every outcome in this matchup, as you think about the form they’re both in, and how they approach the game right now. I’m going to stick my neck on the line though and say United will get a firm grip on the second place in the table, if not more, with all three points going to the home side.

Chelsea v. Manchester City

Sunday’s showdown is one to keep an eye on, as NBCSN gives us a treat at 9:30 a.m. Two teams look to climb the table, and overcome some indifferent form.

Chelsea has a manager who looks to be under increasing pressure. Frank Lampard was a hero on the field at Stamford Bridge back in his playing days, but he has looked well short of ability when it comes to his dugout duties. Relying heavily on the talent in his squad, and then some fantastic additions this summer, it still hasn’t gone to plan. Sure, some of these additions need to adapt more, as German duo Timo Werner and Kai Havertz have struggled mightily at times. The issue is, I’m not sure what Chelsea is trying to do. There doesn’t seem to be a clear plan, and that is squarely at the manager’s feet. Do I think Lampard is a bad coach? No. But he’s learning his trade at one of the biggest clubs in Europe. The return on investment for Chelsea will be a cause for concern, absolutely but right now, it feels like he’s looking for a moment of brilliance from one of his attacking players. More of a ‘something out of nothing’ scenario rather on an approach that they’re developing. The good thing for Chelsea, as they try to figure things out, is that they do have match winners in the squad. The likes of Christian Pulisic, and the previously mentioned Havertz and Werner are all fantastic players on their day and with Mason Mount you’ve got a young midfielder that is starting to show signs of how he can control the midfield attack.

City have shown some glimpses of late that they are a force to be reckoned with, their relentless approach to the attack can be brilliant, but exhausting, to watch. In truth, whilst the defense is much more stable, the attack has suffered. For all the possession they love to have, they’ve only stuck the ball into the back of the net 21 times this season. Of course, they have a couple of games in hand, but it’s still alarmingly low for a Pep Guardiola team. I’m of the opinion that they’ll make a move for another No. 9 in January when the transfer window opens.

The game will be, as you’d imagine, a lot of possession for Man City, with Kevin De Bruyne pulling the strings from midfield. For Chelsea, I expect them to be defensively organized, maybe sitting a little deeper than usual to deny City space and then, when the time is right, using their pace to counter attack. I do hope that we’ll see some end-to-end soccer. With both teams intent to get maximum points I expect some of the talent on show to be really well worth your time in tuning in with match winners on both sides.

Prediction:Β Just like the previous match, I could see it going either way because of the talent on offer for both sides, but it’s tough to bet against City. I just have a feeling that things are starting to turn for Pep’s lads. Either way, kick back and enjoy the show.

That’ll do it for the next few weeks as the EPL takes its two-week winter break. Keep an eye on those COVID-19 numbers that are starting to hit squads, leading to possible further postponements.

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As UK Heads Into Strict Lockdown, Premier League Provides Entertainment