1. Fullham’s Relegation Battle
Claudio Ranieri returned to the Premier League to take over as Fullham’s manager on November 14, 2018. Despite picking up a quick victory in his first match, Ranieri has amassed a total record of 2-3-7. While Fullham was just promoted, the footballing world expected the Lily Whites to compete right away, especially after spending £100 million this summer. Now, sitting in the 19th spot and seven points away from surviving relegation, it is time to panic for Fullham FC. It is difficult to imagine that any potential new January signings would provide a form-changing boost, though the Ryan Babel signing from Beşiktaş looks promising. Aleksandar Mitrović proved early into the season that he is a legitimate Premier League striker. Ryan Sessegnon must live up to his wonder-kid status, Jean Michaël Seri must live up to a price tag that had top six clubs looking for his signature this summer, and André Schürrle must show his Dortmund pedigree. Any hope of escaping relegation will depend on Ranieri’s ability to galvanize his group of talented players for the second half of the season.
2. Wolves’ Top 6 Challenge
Wolverhampton Wanderers have proven to be the most interesting team in the Premier League this season. In nine matches this season against the top six, they hold a 3-3-3 record, showing that they can compete with any other team in the league. They currently sit in 8th place, but could find their way out of a 12-point deficit from the top 6 with only four difficult fixtures left on their EPL schedule. Additionally, after defeating Liverpool in the FA Cup, they face an easy 4th round draw to move on in the competition. Manager Nuno Espírito Santo has effectively gotten all of his players on the same page after overhauling their roster coming into the Premier League, which is unsurprising given his Portuguese background combined with the eight Portuguese players that they have listed on their 24-man roster. This includes key contributors like Diogo Jota, Rúben Neves, Rui Patricio, João Moutinho and Hélder Costa. This unique combination of team chemistry and natural talent could make for a surprising run for the Wolves in 2019.
3. Homegrown Player Rule as a Factor for Less January Transfer Activity
In an effort to make the EPL more competitive for clubs that don’t have as many funds as the high rollers and in hopes of bringing up more homegrown talent, the Premier League mandates that a maximum of 17 non-“homegrown” players could be on a 25-man roster at a time. For a player to be considered homegrown, they must have spent a significant amount of time at an English or Welsh academy, and/or be English or Welsh. For example, players like Paul Pogba and Hector Bellerin spent two years in an English club’s academy, meaning they can be considered homegrown. This has proven harmful in transfer activity, as teams are able to take advantage of other clubs’ ability to pay large amounts and necessity for English talent. This past summer, Aston Villa tried making Tottenham overpay for Jack Grealish, which they were unwilling to do. This January, history is repeating itself as we see players like Callum Wilson of Bournmouth being labeled with a £40 price tag. Given the stingy nature that we have recently seen from teams like Spurs, Manchester United and Arsenal, we may be in for an uneventful transfer window.
4. Manchester United’s Manager Sweepstakes
Caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s success since taking over has made it difficult to look elsewhere for a long-term manager solution. Names like Mauricio Pochettino, Zinedine Zidane, Massimiliano Allegri and Gareth Southgate have caught the attention of United’s front office, but how could they demote a manager with a perfect record after half a season of turmoil? Higher ups are likely looking for any reason to demote Solskjær, so we can only expect him to keep the reins if other candidates refuse or if he continues his unfounded streak. Given the club’s current success, the best course of action would be to wait and see how things play out.
5. Is Sarri the Answer for Chelsea?
Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri may have deflected his recent woes with the sale of Álvaro Morata and purchase of Gonzalo Higuaín, but it remains to be seen if Higuain has enough left in the tank to regularly contribute for a top-flight Premier League club. Sarri’s possessive footballing strategy has its drawbacks, and his lack of a consistent striker leaves him to rely offensively on Eden Hazard too frequently. While his fullbacks have quality, they lack the requisite pace to play on the wings simultaneously, which opens the pitch up for opposing wingers. A wide attacking team like Liverpool would surely expose Chealsea’s faults, which is why Antonio Conte played César Azpilicueta at the center-back position in his tenure as manager. Chelsea is trending downward, but Higuain’s arrival could hopefully change that. Please stop loaning Michy Batshuayi.
6. Manchester City’s Cup Involvement
It comes as no surprise that, aside from Liverpool, their biggest competition is themselves. Manchester City is still contending in the Carabao Cup, the FA Cup, the Champions League and the Premier League. While the prospect of winning four cups in one season seems exciting, its completion would surely take a toll on the fatigue of the club’s players. A deep run in the Champions League appears likely, but could impact the fitness of the team’s top players for the Premier League. City must keep winning domestic games to keep up with Liverpool, and this could prove difficult if Pep Guardiola doesn’t get his tactics right.
7. Liverpool’s Wonder Season could Still End as a Flop
Call me a pessimist, but I can’t help but think about the possibility of Liverpool finishing without any silverware this season. Liverpool have crashed out of both the FA Cup and Carabao Cup, leaving a Champions League matchup against a formidable (but Müller-less) Bayern Munich squad and a league lead of four points. A Champions League fallout would likely mean a strong domestic finish, so it is hard to believe that Liverpool will not walk away with ANYTHING at the end of May. Still, it could happen. The team has shown flashes of lacking defensive options, having had to sub in a teenager against Wolves after a Lovren injury, and having had to play Fabinho is the center back role in the following games. Still, a world-class front three, a top-three center back and goalkeeper and an electrifying manager should keep them in contention both domestically and in the Champions League.
8. Tottenham’s Stadium Move
Dele Alli and Harry Kane are both out of commission until March, and Hueng Min Son is away on international duty. Lucas Moura is also dealing with an injury, leaving Spurs with very few attacking options at the moment. Fernando Llorente has scored more domestic goals for other teams this season than for Spurs, so they would do well to pick up an offensive threat before the January transfer deadline ends. However, it is difficult to expect Daniel Levy to reach into his pockets given the stingy attitude that he showed over the summer. The only hope for Tottenham’s next few months of fixtures is for their form to take a positive turn. This could take effect through a move to their new White Hart Lane, which has continuously pushed forward its grand opening date. Spurs have grown accustomed to calling Wembley their home over the past few seasons, but a move to their new stadium could provide the spark that Spurs need to continue challenging in all four levels of competition.
9. Özil’s Arsenal Involvement
Unai Emery’s squad is starting to show some life this season, but watching their play through 90 minutes makes it obvious that this team is missing the requisite creativity and flair in the middle of the pitch to take their team to the next level. The problem with fielding Mesut Özil as the playmaker of the team is that it often seems as though the team rides or dies with his performance. If Özil picks out the right pass for a goal off of the counterattack, the team will be successful. However, if he overthinks a simple ball, it could produce a costly turnover. This kind of make-or-break quality is shared by players like Paul Pogba who are involved on so many parts of the pitch that their level of play is integral. The truth is that Arsenal do not have the quality to finish in a Champions League spot without Özil’s influence in the middle, but if Unai Emery is unwilling to take that risk, he may very well find his team regressing in the final stretch of the season.
10. The VAR Discussion Escalates
Everybody knows that VAR will eventually be instituted in all high-level footballing competitions – the question is simple when. Managers like Antonio Conte, Mauricio Pochettino and Jose Mourinho have spoken out about different problems that they have with VAR, scaling from the extra time that should be given due to its implementation, to the effect that it would have on the emotion of the game. Other managers have expressed a disinterest or ambivalence in the subject, expressing their understanding for the technological development of sport. Some managers have even expressed their enthusiasm for its institution. While providing video review for key moments in matches would certainly increase the percentage of correct calls, it does indeed disrupt the flow of the game and present its own issues that some fans would have initial issues with. In light of recent calls in the Premier League, it will be interesting to see how soon its implementation will come.