Thought English football’s traditional Christmas fixture pile-up has been bad in the past? It is about to become a whole lot worse.
As noted in these pages recently, the first 11 rounds of this Premier League season were completed across the course of 87 days. The next 11 rounds of Premier League fixtures will be completed in the space of just 47 days - between 18 November and 3 January.
The next six-and-a-half weeks could well define the season like no Christmas period before, but some clubs have it harder than others; some clubs are going to have to cope with the added workload during a run of particularly tough fixtures.
By scanning through the schedule and calculating weighted averages for each club’s home and away points over this season and last, we can approximate the difficulty of each fixture.
Then, we can judge who has a favourable set of matches over the festive period and who, once the games come thick and fast, may struggle.
The most favourable schedules
1. Crystal Palace
There has not been much good news for Crystal Palace supporters so far this season but if Roy Hodgson is to turnaround the bottom club’s fortunes, now is the perfect time to do it.
After playing four of the top clubs in their last six, Palace’s schedule clears up considerably, with an out-of-sorts Everton visiting Selhurst Park this weekend. Stoke City, Bournemouth and Watford come to south London in the weeks that follow, while Hodgson’s side play away to Brighton and Hove Albion, West Bromwich Albion, Leicester City, Swansea City and Southampton.
The only particularly tricky spell comes with back-to-back home games against Arsenal and Manchester City on 28 December and New Year’s Eve respectively. By that stage though, Palace may have significantly improved their total number of points. If they have not, survival may be mission impossible.
Another struggling side who could well climb out of trouble over the festive period is Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth. A three-game run in mid-December sees them host Liverpool between trips to both Manchester clubs, but aside from that spell, things are relatively straight-forward.
Huddersfield Town, Burnley, Southampton, West Ham United and Everton are the other visitors to Dean Court before 3 January, while away days at Swansea, Palace and Brighton should not be the most testing.
If the Cherries can pick up points against the string of bottom-half sides they face over the next six-and-a-half weeks, their survival prospects should seem a little rosier.
3. Manchester City
The bad news for neutrals hoping for a entertaining title race is that Manchester City look likely to build a significant lead at the top of the table before the New Year.
Pep Guardiola’s heavy rotation policy should have prepared his players for the extra workload regardless, but even so, his side face only two of the top six over Christmas - Manchester United away and Tottenham Hotspur at home.
Of the other nine opponents, seven are currently in the bottom half of the table and City face each current member of the bottom-three - West Ham at home, Swansea and Palace away. Will any of them have enough to beat the champions-elect?
After a difficult start to the campaign, Liverpool have gradually gained ground on the rest of the ‘top six’, over-taking Arsenal in the table with a convincing victory over West Ham before the current international break.
Jurgen Klopp’s side have already played all but two of other nine teams in the top half, leaving them with a host of stragglers to face before the fixtures reverse.
Southampton, Everton, West Bromwich Albion, Swansea and Leicester all come to Anfield over this period, as do the one direct rival Liverpool are yet to face - defending champions Chelsea. On the road, Klopp’s side face Stoke, Brighton and Bournemouth before trips to Arsenal and Burnley.
Liverpool’s challenge will be to pick up maximum points against those lesser lights, given their reputation for struggling against deep-lying, disciplined defensive lines.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Marco Silva’s job at Watford so far is that they have already played Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal yet they remain in the top half of the table.
Much of that is down to their excellent away form and upcoming trips to Newcastle, Burnley, Palace and Brighton should not prove too intimidating.
Visits from Huddersfield, West Ham and Swansea should also give them a chance to improve on a patchy home record.
The least favourable schedules
Southampton are the side who, on paper, have the most challenging set of Christmas fixtures. This is chiefly because of their six matches away from home, five are against members of the ‘top six’.
Starting with Liverpool at Anfield this weekend, Mauricio Pellegrino’s side also travel to Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United before the year is out. Arsenal, meanwhile, visit St Mary’s on 10 December.
Southampton have already made a sluggish start to the campaign despite having a relatively kind set of opening opponents. Things clearly need to improve but Pellegrino may find results hard to come by before the New Year.
2. Swansea City
Swansea have flattered to deceive so far, with Paul Clement failing to improve on the steady, unspectacular results that just about proved enough to keep them in the top-flight last season.
Meetings with Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham over this period suggest points will be only more difficult to find, and there also challenging away days at Turf Moor, the bet365 Stadium, Goodison Park and Vicarage Road to contend with.
Arguably the most important dates of the Swans’ whole Christmas period will be 24 November and 23 December - when Bournemouth and Crystal Palace visit south Wales respectively.
3. Newcastle United
All three of the promoted sides have, to a degree, benefitted from the fixture computer’s kindness at the start of the campaign. Now it’s payback time.
It seems Newcastle United are in for the bumpiest landing, starting with a date at Old Trafford this weekend. Two further trips to Chelsea and Arsenal come a little bit later down the line, as does a visit to St James’ Park from Manchester City.
The rest of their home games are not the worst but not too kind either - with Everton, Leicester and impressive travellers Watford all on their way north-east over the course of the next month.
4. West Ham United
David Moyes may need to start winning right from the get-go if he is to lift confidence levels at a flagging West Ham.
A wretched three-game block in early December sees a trip to Manchester City followed by home London derbies against Chelsea and Arsenal. Tottenham at Wembley comes a little further down the line on New Year’s Eve.
His start to life at the London Stadium is not too straight-forward either though, with this weekend’s away day at Watford, with Leicester at home and Everton away to follow. It may get worse before it gets better for Moyes.
5. Huddersfield Town
Another promoted team to have prospered from a favourable start, Huddersfield have so far confounded the pundits who put them down as relegation certainties during pre-season.
We may find out whether or not they truly have enough to retain top-flight status over this jam-packed period. David Wagner’s side have been strong at home this term but play just five times at the Kirklees over this period, with Manchester City and Chelsea two of those visiting opponents.
The Terriers will not realistically expect to take much from an away day with Arsenal either. Indeed, having just won once on the road all season - that opening weekend victory against a poor Crystal Palace - trips to Bournemouth, Everton, Watford, Stoke and Leicester could prove tricky.
What should we expect?
On the whole, the other Premier League clubs all have a fairly mixed schedule. Of the other top clubs, Chelsea's run is the best, especially once their upcoming trip to Anfield is out of the way.
Manchester United have a marginally tougher set of matches to come than any of their rivals, with dates against both Arsenal and Manchester City as well some testing away trips to mid-table sides.
Provided they fill their managerial vacancy with the right candidate, Everton have a chance to build on their dramatic victory over Watford and pull themselves out of danger, with West Ham, Huddersfield and Swansea all set to visit Goodison Park.
The main conclusions to draw, however, are: a) there is no reason why Manchester City should not keep on collecting points and build up an even greater lead at the top of the table, and b) the battle to avoid relegation should tighten up considerably.
While Bournemouth and Crystal Palace could gain ground, the likes of Southampton, Newcastle and Huddersfield might want to start looking over their shoulder.
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