“It’s all right until you reach Christmas time,” said Jurgen Klopp in early December. No doubt his Chelsea counterpart Thomas Tuchel now agrees. This period seems to have decided the title race in favor of Manchester City.
Liverpool were only able to rack up one point from their two Christmas games. Chelsea have won two of their last six Premier League victories. When the second meets the third on New Year’s Day, City are likely to have an 11-point lead on top.
This is because Pep Guardiola’s team made peaceful progress even in the chaos. Ten wins in a row in the competition saw them drift apart, just like they did last season. It was relentless. The three-way title race that was promised is no more.
There will be those who will point to the greater depth of Manchester City’s squad as the decisive factor. Nobody can deny the wealth of talents that Guardiola can count on. But one wonders if there could be more. Chelsea also have depth.
At the start of the season, many wondered that Tuchel seemed to have two players for each position. It looked like he could name a second eleven just as strong as the first. This was cited as one of the main reasons they could win the title.
By early December, Tuchel had already made 50 changes to his starting lineup in the Premier League, 15 more than any other manager, including Guardiola. Problems came for him when the Covid-19 crisis hit and rotation was no longer an option.
“It’s not fair,” Tuchel said. “They always make us play, even if we have Covid. We have new injuries and it will not stop. We are struggling, we are pressing our players. We make changes for injuries. We do not change for tactics. Reasons any more”.
Mason Mount top three Christian Pulisic and Hakim Ziyech were asked to start the draw at home against Everton. Chelsea were unconvinced that night, but the trio were only expected to restart three days later, creating even less of a stalemate for the Wolves.
For Liverpool, the lack of forward rotation has been a constant since the start of the season. Mohamed Salah has yet to miss a Premier League match. This continuity has been their strength, a team capable of winning consistently when everyone is in good shape.
Difficulties arose when the car was messed up, the decline turned out to be too big. Andrew Robertson’s absence made itself felt against Leicester, but perhaps the biggest problem is that Salah, Sadio Mane and Diogo Jota have wasted a number of chances.
It was their seventh start as a trio in five and a half weeks.
By comparison, Guardiola’s rotation felt like a luxury. It’s true he’s been without Kyle Walker and more recently Rodri, causing some trouble dealing with counterattacks, but the ability to change his attack options was crucial.
Despite all the changes in personnel and positioning, the City’s fluency resisted. The system works. The ideas are clear. And when the breaks for the national teams are over and the rhythm of the regular matches arrives, it can seem that the whole squad is in motion.
Rotation doesn’t hinder them, it helps.
Jack Grealish started in the 7-0 win over Leeds on 14 December, dropped out for the next two games and returned to the squad for the away win at Brentford. Phil Foden did the same and looked fresh in scoring the winner on Wednesday night.
Raheem Sterling started against the Wolves on 11 December, was knocked out, returned to the squad for the next two wins on both sides of Christmas and went out again in Brentford. Riyad Mahrez was out against Wolves, played three rebounds and rested.
As for Gabriel Jesus, consider his December. He started at Aston Villa, returned to the bench at Watford, joined against Wolves, was rested against Leeds, was reintroduced for the trip to Newcastle, returned to the field against Leicester, then was recalled for the Brentford.
He has been rotated more times in 18 days than Salah and Mane this Premier League season. Jota has also started eight of the last nine games. Expecting to deliver over and over is both physical and mental testing.
Could Klopp or Tuchel have done something different?
Perhaps they will regret those moments when they avoided the opportunity to rest key men. Perhaps there were opportunities to target suburban players a little earlier and that would leave those individuals better prepared when needed.
A few days after Klopp’s comments on concerns about the upcoming fixture, he surprised many by starting both Salah and Mane away against AC Milan in the final match of Liverpool’s Champions League group, even though his team was guaranteed by time the first place.
Roberto Firmino has not played in the Premier League since October, having been used as a substitute in each of the last three Premier League games. Divock Origi scored the recovery winner at the Wolves but didn’t trust a start.
With Ben Chilwell out for the season, did Tuchel have to play Marcos Alonso for 90 minutes in the Carabao Cup match at Brentford? Mount and N’Golo Kante also entered that game.
Romelu Lukaku may wonder why his previous five Premier League appearances came off the bench before being invited to play 90 minutes against Brighton.
Pulisic, meanwhile, hadn’t played a full Premier League match all season until early December, but did so five times this month, four times in a fortnight.
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All three coaches are undoubtedly world-class, Champions League winners all three. They will have had their reasons and one should resist the urge to judge too harshly in these unusual times when external factors are clearly having a greater influence.
For Tuchel, enduring his first Christmas in England was hectic. At times he appeared horrified at his situation, as a manager was denied the opportunity to coach. Klopp has long since agreed to be in a fight where the odds are against him.
Guardiola had the resources and luck, but also the ability to negotiate a path through difficult times. He has played his game and there are no more capable hands. Is everything alright until you reach that Christmas season? His city has just passed.