Multiple games in a short space of time coupled with postponements and COVID-19 has led to several managers, most notably Southampton’s Ralph Hasenhüttl and West Ham’s David Moyes becoming more and more vociferous in their assessment of the integrity and equity of the Premier League. The risk of injury, number of substitutes and this week, the selection of players previously unavailable for cancelled fixtures have all been a bone of contention. Notably, the rules in other leagues around Europe do not allow players ineligible for selection when a fixture was originally slated to play in the rearranged fixture. However, the insistence that these issues are wrecking Ralph’s season at St Mary’s or bursting Moyes’ bubble in East London might be wide of the mark when taking a more detailed look into their respective side’s performances over the festive period.
Much has been made of the ‘packed’ Christmas schedule in the Premier League; does it endanger player welfare? Is it unfair on the teams with smaller budgets and squads? Do we need more subs? Continental managers voicing their annual concerns about the ludicrous schedule while the old school crowd reminisce on back-to-back games over the Christmas period and 60 game seasons ‘never doing players any harm’. I wanted to find out if the tight window of games at Xmas benefits some teams more than others.
Do Man City, Chelsea and Liverpool use their strength in depth to prey on the depleted squads of teams with smaller budgets and exhausted players? Anecdotally, Chelsea fans will be pretty adamant in asserting that Xmas is precisely the point they lose the title race each year. Under Lampard, they entered December two points off top spot and on a good run, a disappointing period and suddenly his days were numbered by FA Cup 3rd Round weekend in January. I delved into the past 7 seasons to see what conclusions could be drawn between the performances of the current top 3 and whether the festive schedule gives any of them an edge.
For clarity the three matches analysed are Boxing Day, the match between Xmas and New Year and then the New Year’s Day fixtures. From the results, both Man City and Liverpool slightly overperform in the Christmas period over those seven seasons compared to Chelsea. The stats of the latter bear out their supporter’s contention that Christmas is not a season of joy for the Blues. The Liverpool and Man City results make more sense; with bigger squads and more player depth, they can cope with the demands of a physically gruelling period better than most. I was more interested in analysing whether other teams significantly over-perform over Xmas and why that might be, and one team immediately leapt off the page.
Over the past seven seasons, Southampton underperforms over Christmas in the arbitrary term of points per game vs their average points per game across the whole season. However, since Ralph Hasenhüttl took over on 5th December 2018, their Xmas performance has been off the charts. Even including his first three festive games, which rolled around a mere twenty-one days after taking up the role, Hasenhüttl’s record is impressive. Take those three matches out, and in three full seasons, he is unbeaten over the festive period with four wins and four draws at average points per game of 2.0, beating Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs in the process. Whichever way you spin it, it’s impressive and a testament to his style of preparation and coaching. Moreover, his 16 points from 8 games compared to 6 points in 12 matches before his arrival is startling.
And so the delving continued…is Mr Rabbit Hutch (google Hasenhüttl!) the only unlikely hero of the season to be jolly, or are other teams working out how to be successful at a time when logic would point to the “bigger teams” pulling rank.
Caveats and Conclusions
The first caveat of the data is that it is clearly a small sample size. It’s just nine games over three seasons, but it gives an interesting overview. Furthermore, with the ever-changing landscape of managers and players at individual clubs, long term analysis may vary under different management styles – something highlighted with Southampton. The third caveat is the statistics of Points Per Game (PPG) are only to one decimal place; they aren’t intended to be overly specific, just a quick guide to whether teams excel or struggle over the Christmas period. Finally, I appreciate the strength of schedule plays a part in a team’s success (as do prior fixtures in December). Wins against Norwich don’t count the same as against Liverpool, however two of the more surprising clubs that punch above their weight can point to multiple victories against ‘top 6’ opponents to argue their figures aren’t skewed by an easy fixture list (if that even exists in the premier league these days).
Most teams underperform at Christmas in comparison to their overall league performance.
8 of the 15 teams analysed (over the past three seasons) perform worse at Xmas than the rest of the season. This feels logical given the problematic physical demands coupled with the lack of preparation time for upcoming fixtures. Most interestingly, Liverpool, Spurs and Chelsea have struggled over the past three seasons, losing nine of their twenty-five games and only managing eight wins between them. Conversely, Brighton and Southampton have nine wins and only one loss during the same period!
Southampton and Brighton are huge outliers and significantly over-perform at Christmas.
It may come as no surprise to the ‘shrewdies’ amongst the football cognoscenti that Hassenhutl and Potter are excellent coaches. Despite being a small sample size, their impact at their respective clubs has been significant and maybe, at a time where good coaching and game planning comes to the fore, they excel. I also noted a statement made by Hassenhutl recently concerning the five substitutes debate, and his view was that having more subs was a benefit to teams managing smaller squads. Whether that is the case is not relevant here. Still, it may illustrate that teams with small squads maintain consistency in their starting eleven over Xmas, which is effective against teams making swathes of changes in their larger squads. My view is the longer you can maintain a settled and regular team across a season, the more consistent you will be. Just ask the 2016-17 Chelsea team when Conte, with the absence of Champions League football, could pick a regular side, and they cantered to the league title.
West Ham and Palace are also potential surprises.
An interesting tandem as both are/were overseen by very experienced managers with a largely settled squad over the past three years. David Moyes and Roy Hodgson have been involved in more festive fixtures than you or I have had Xmas dinners, and that may play a factor in how they can navigate a tricky period with more success than most.
Chelsea and Spurs really struggle
Both London clubs seriously perform below par over Xmas. It’s hard to pinpoint a specific reason for this, but both clubs have been a bit unstable over the past three seasons. Manager’s have come and gone at a Watford rate and that possibly has had an impact. Chelsea’s aforementioned Xmas woes are borne out in both the short term and long term stats and maybe there is something engrained in the club psyche (for all I’m not a big believer in this sort of thing). It could be that both clubs don’t have a strict enough enforcement on Xmas partie, though spare a thought for poor Sergio Reguillon who was all on his own last year…Pinocchio
Man City benefit most from the congested schedule.
The one thing that wasn’t a surprise is the success of Man City, who, throughout the Guardiola reign, have been blessed with immense strength in depth. Furthermore, contrary to my earlier point about consistency, Pep is so fluid with his team selections that rotation is par for the course. That continuity of normality could be why they not only perform well but actually improve their results over Xmas compared to the rest of the season. Man City probably have the perfect blend of an experienced manager (like Palace / West Ham), an excellent coach (like Southampton / Brighton), a deep squad and a familiarity with rotation that makes them virtually bombproof over Xmas.
Ironically two of the managers with the most to say about the festive cramming seem to have an edge on their rivals, and, for them, it might be prudent to embrace the current climate instead of reform it. Whether the Christmas festive fixture list is purely tradition or maintained as a perfect shop window for a financial monster expanding quicker than our waistlines, there is no doubt it appears to be here to stay…well until next year! Ralph…I’ve got Mr Infantino on line 3.