As the fixture lists thicken, so too does the plot. The Premier League has always prided itself on the brutality of its winter schedule, of the underlying feeling that, while any team can vault themselves into its upper echelons through no more than deep pockets, to scale its summit demands a resolve deeper still.
The names of Manchester City, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and PSG are already being penciled onto their respective domestic trophies, but at this stage only City will be able to look back in Spring knowing they’ll have been properly challenged. Their crosstown rivals may not have pushed them as hard as many expected, Chelsea haven’t quite recaptured their title winning form of last season and none of the chasing pack have made the necessary strides to compete at the very top. Yet, as their continental contemporaries wait for business as usual to resume, enjoying their winter breaks on the sun-kissed beaches of Dubai, it is through these games, and the sheer, successive physical and mental interrogations they guarantee, that Pep Guardiola’s side, in the uniquely English understanding of things, can be said to have truly earned their crown.
City’s procession towards the title aside, the Christmas period is a time of contradiction, confusion and outright carnage. With the weekly rhythm of results and reaction torn apart by the rapid progression in pacing, narratives suddenly accelerate into one another and collapse in on themselves owing to the sheer madness of it all. For instance, no sooner was Luka Milivojević standing ash faced on the penalty spot at Selhurst Park having squandered the chance to hand City their first defeat of the season than the Serbian was wheeling away in celebration having stroked in Palace’s winner at Southampton. No sooner were Burnley being toasted as the story of the season than they suddenly find themselves five games without a win. No sooner had Jose Mourinho finished complaining about the extra sums of money Manchester City have at their disposal than the Manchester United manager was complaining about Jurgen Klopp complaining about the fact Liverpool can’t compete financially with the Portuguese’s outfit. Likewise, no sooner had Klopp finished complaining about other clubs tapping up his players than he was introducing a player his club have been tapping up for the best part of a year. Ah football, please never change.
Given the sheer volume of games to wade through at this time of year, there’s a certain amount of irony in the possibility that Liverpool finally acquiring the services of Virgil Van Dijk may prove to be the moment of most lasting importance of the current period. It certainly will be if the Dutchman fulfills the vast potential he’s shown in intermittent periods at Southampton. Van Dijk has a smoothness on the ball, a composure and grace rarely witnessed in a position that prioritises a more functional set of skills. Yet, as Liverpool themselves have found out in the past, impressive looking central defenders from Southampton can prove deceiving investments and it would be premature to declare that the latest addition will prove to be the tonic to all of Liverpool’s defensive woes. The omens certainly looked positive on Monday, if only in an indirect sense, however, as Dejan Lovren and Ragnar Klavan, the two men most likely to find their futures at the club in question following Van Dijk’s arrival, combined for the latter to squeeze home the winner at Burnley. Sean Dyche’s side, along with Leicester, Everton, and Watford, find themselves in a mini-league of teams struggling for form yet having enough points on the board not to worry just yet about being dragged towards the danger zone. That is, so long as Marco Silva’s side continue not to throw away leads like they’ve grown accustomed to doing and did so again against Swansea at the weekend.
While Liverpool fans will suddenly be tingling with possibilities, Van Dijk leaves behind a Southampton side that is slowly edging towards crisis. Having kicked off their year by not only losing their best player but also at home to Crystal Palace, Mauricio Pellegrino’s men now find themselves just four points clear of the league’s floor. How and on whom the proceeds of the sale are reinvested will go a long way towards determining their prospects in the second half of the season while the same can be said for most of the other chief relegation contenders.
In this sense, at least Pellegrino knows he’ll have money to play with. For his former boss, Rafa Benitez, there are no such certainties as Newcastle’s ownership talks continue to stumble on. All the more important, therefore, became the three vital points to start the new year as an Ayoze Perez strike pushed Stoke towards having to invest in, not just new players, but a new boss as well. Having already made their management changes, West Ham, West Brom and Swansea will all also be hoping to reap the rewards of the January transfer window. Having lost cruelly at the death against the Hammers last night, Alan Pardew in particular will be looking at the coming weeks as the last throw of the dice before the jaws of despair swallow him hole. The madness of December is over, the insanity of January is about to begin.