Christmas is a time to put your feet up and take it easy and it was with this spirit that the two defences on show at the Emirates prematurely entered on Friday night to kick off the final round of fixtures before the brief festive holiday English football affords. With last season’s 3-4 bonanza still fresh in the memory, Arsenal and Liverpool served up an early Christmas cracker which only underlined both how enjoyable the two are to watch and yet why neither are even relatively close to being of a title winning pedigree.
As has often been the case this season, it was Mo Salah who got the ball rolling. The winger has needed little luck since returning to England, yet got two thick slices of the stuff to give the visitors a two goal advantage. First, as he finessed an effort into the body of Laurent Koscielny, the Frenchman’s intervention only koschoned the ball into the path of Philippe Coutinho to tuck away the opener before Salah himself clipped another off the leg of Shkodran Mustafi, spinning the ball past Petr Cech for a second.
At this stage Liverpool looked in consummate control of their hosts but, this being Liverpool, reverted to type inside a minute. While we hear it said that teams can be prone to “switching off”, Jürgen Klopp’s outfit have taken the concept to levels the world’s finest performance artists couldn’t hope to match. First Joe Gomez, doing his best impression of an unplugged piece of machinery in an abandoned warehouse, stood statuesque, dust gathering on his shoulders, as Alexis Sanchez nipped in to offer Arsenal an immediate ember of hope. Within four minutes this had accelerated into a forest fire as Simon Mignolet, seemingly preoccupied with what trimming he was gonna prepare for Christmas dinner, only reacted to Granit Xhaka’s speculative effort in time to paw it into his own net. When Mesut Özil repeated the feat moments later it seemed like Liverpool had achieved full scale meltdown as Arsenal, who had been booed off at half-time and conceded again within seven minutes of the restart, suddenly found themselves ahead before the hour mark had even been broken. However, this being Liverpool, they promptly began to pepper the target once more and, this being Arsenal, the hosts dutifully gave up the lead not long after with Cech this time flapping futilely Roberto Firmino’s seemingly submissive shot. This was not an evening of distinction for the two goalkeepers. In fact, so limp-wristed had both their efforts been, one wonders whether they needed the aid of some kind of vice to successfully perform a convincing hand shake at the final whistle.
While a rare Friday night fixture opened the weekend’s proceedings, they were bookended by the first of what will next season become regular Saturday night slots, the first of which saw Manchester United travel to Leicester. This was always going to be a tricky tie for Jose Mourinho’s men. Given how long ago Leicester’s title triumph already feels in the rapid, unsentimentally evolving narrative of the Premier League, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez like to get themselves up for these kind of primetime games at home under floodlights akin to how former prom kings, hair receding and stomachs beginning to bulge, like to occasionally slip into their old suits and snap on their bow ties when the house is empty to remind themselves of the time they sat on top of the world.
It wasn’t long before the old chords started to flow as Mahrez first bamboozled Chris Smalling before stopping to read the day’s newspaper and ponder the meaning of life for a moment. By the time he’d found an answer, the Vardy train he’d been patiently waiting to arrive finally steamed past. The Algerian coolly slid the ball aboard before the striker slid it past David de Gea.
While few onlooking neutrals would have wanted to see Mourinho’s blushes spared, surely none could begrudge the man who turned the visitors’ fortunes around. Juan Mata, a man with the perception to recognise the obscene amounts of money those in his profession receive and the conviction to do something about it as a pioneer of the Common Goal charity, displayed both qualities on the pitch to swing the lead back to United. The first goal typified Mata the man as he softly placed the ball in the corner with an almost apologetic delicacy. This being the season of goodwill, Kasper Schmeichel then returned the favour by reacting to Mata’s flat second half free kick with even flatter feet, beaten well inside his post.
One of the reasons why seeing Mata in full flow has become such a rarity is Mourinho’s preference for the extra energy of Jesse Lingard; but the latter’s miss with the goal at his mercy would come back to haunt the men from Manchester. Even with Leicester going down to 10 men, Mourinho withdrew Lingard for the added ballast of Ander Herrera, appearing to have added a final coating of plaster to his defensive wall. This was before a Smalling groin strain tore a giant crack straight through its centre. With no further subs left to deploy, Marc Albrighton lofted yet another ball towards the void in United’s heart, with Smalling capable of only fidgeting on the spot like a helpless old man caught in six inches of snow as the ball glided mockingly over his head onto the awaiting laces of Harry Maguire.
While Claude Puel has quickly turned Leicester into a functional yet stylish outfit, much like the quilted waistcoat he was sporting on the touchline, for Mourinho this was less Saturday Night Fever, more Saturday night convulsions. Having seen his demand for solemn respect in victory against Manchester City met with by an army of Bristol City fans invading the site of his most ignominious defeat of the season in midweek, this latest setback must now have the Portuguese’s blood boiling at a temperature sufficient to warm houses in bleak midwinter.
It was many weeks ago that Manchester City kicked up dust into crosstown rivals’ eyes and disappeared over the horizon before they’d finished rubbing their eyes. City extended the gap even further thanks to a formulaic home win over Bournemouth. If there’s one thing we haven’t witnessed out of the Cherries since their promotion to the top flight it’s a propensity to grind out a result, Big Sam style, away at the big sides. However, while we’ve grown accustomed to seeing Eddie Howe’s men blown away in such fixtures, here they upgraded to being slowly worn down. Even still, the champions elect never at any moment seemed anything less than in complete control and the ultimate result was never in jeopardy. For City this was menial yet leisurely labour: the footballing equivalent of filing your nails.
The aforementioned Big Sam showed Howe the stolid, stoic dimension Bournemouth are still searching for with a stolid goalless draw against Chelsea. Despite lacking in goals, the game did produce one exceptional moment. In addition to a pair of fine Jordan Pickford saves, Everton’s clean sheet was preserved by a superb double goal-line clearance from Phil Jagielka.
After the frivolity of recent weeks, Burnley were reminded of the prosaic realities of the Premier League as they found themselves subjected to a good Kaning by Spurs. The defeat is a bitter pill dropped into the punch bowl at Burnley’s Christmas party, yet not one strong enough to overpower the sweet taste of success for Sean Dyche’s men thus far this season. One question that does remain, however, is that, given Dyche sounds at the best of times like a man who’s just returned from a three night, death metal karaoke bender, how much more gravelly can his voice become by toasting his side’s start to the season?
While this question will be answered in due course, what we will never find out is the potential butterfly effect on the managerial ecosystem which would have occurred had David Moyes accepted the Newcastle job, as the man himself revealed this week. Rafa Benitez, who eventually took on the task, has himself has been linked with the West Ham job at various stages in the last few years and in a parallel timeline it’s quite possible this game kicked off with the two men in opposing dugouts. In this reality, it was the visitors who escaped with their first win in two months. All Benitez will hope now is that a breakthrough in takeover talks can mirror that in on-field performance to provide the funds that will undoubtedly be necessary to keep the magpies in the top flight come the end of the season.