The next 6 games – Premier League top half contenders

International football is done for the year, which means we can now concentrate on club football for the next four months notwithstanding another COVID-related stoppage. The fixtures are going to come thick and fast, especially for top teams still competing in Europe. While there have been a lot of upsets and the tables are close so far, it is usually from this point onwards that the contenders are separated from the pretenders. With that in mind, I have decided to break down the season in different phases. This first phase consists of the next six rounds of fixtures. It may seem a bit arbitrary considering the league barely stops, but the weekend of December 19 seems a good point to pause, as its the last round before the even more hectic holiday schedule gets underway. For the purpose of this piece I have focused on the top 10 in the table plus Arsenal, United, West Ham and Leeds. How these 14 clubs navigate these six fixtures should give us a clearer picture of the ambitions and hopes of the teams as we head into the new year.

Leicester

Liverpool (A) Fulham (H) Sheffield Utd (A) Brighton (H) Everton (H) Spurs (A)

Fulham and Brighton should be home bankers and while Everton are tricky visitors, the Foxes have got the better of the Toffees when welcoming them to the King Power in recent times. I still believe Chris Wilder is going to get his Blades sharpened again, making the visit to Bramall Lane trickier than many expect. Which leaves us with the two big away games. Brendan Rodgers’ men were outplayed at both Anfield and White Hart Lane last season and deservedly left with nothing. However, the circumstances of this season provide a unique opportunity for Leicester to make a statement away from home. While I don’t necessarily see them winning at either Liverpool or Spurs, I do expect a show of greater intent and possibly a point or two to take back home.

Expected points — 12

Tottenham

City (H) Chelsea (A) Arsenal (H) Palace (A) Liverpool (A) Leicester (H)

A quite hellish set of fixtures at the end of which we’ll probably be in the right place to judge whether Spurs can genuinely challenge for the title or face a tough fight to get back into the Champions League. Let’s get Palace out of the way, because that’s the kind of game that Mourinho inevitably rides out with grit and determination. Spurs beat all three of City, Arsenal and Leicester at home last season, and I think they are set to repeat at least against the latter two. City are starting to play a cagier game, which throws an intriguing tactical twist when Mou and Pep face off at White Hart Lane, which is a nice way of saying stalemate. While Lamps got the better of his old boss home and away last season, I can imagine Jose sitting in a dark room during the international break curating the perfect plan to stifle Ziyech and Werner at Stamford Bridge. If Spurs get the right results in the other five games, they then have the margin to do their usual thing at Anfield of playing well for large periods but somehow contriving to lose. 

Expected points — 13

Liverpool

Leicester (H) Brighton (A) Wolves (H) Fulham (A) Spurs (H) Palace (A)

Klopp’s Reds have won all their games at Selhurst Park and Fulham are, well, Fulham. That’s six points in the bag. Wolves have been testy opponents home and away for the Reds, but are still to take a point against the champions, so I would back Liverpool to come out on top over there. I do have the sneaky feeling that sooner or later Brighton are going to get a result to match their performance against a big side. Could it be against Liverpool? The injury crisis in defence should result in Leicester and Spurs making life hell for Klopp’s men even at Anfield, but the resilience of this side is too easily overlooked. 

Expected points — 15

Southampton

Wolves (A) United (H) Brighton (A) Sheffield Utd (H) Arsenal (A) City (H)

A tough set of fixtures for Ralph Hassenhuttl’s impressive Saints. The absence of Danny Ings wasn’t felt in an easy win over Newcastle before the break, but the Austrian manager will need to inspire his troops to an even greater level against this next set of opponents. I would back Southampton to win at home again Sheffield United, and I think their style can even land them a win in any of their three away fixtures. But I also see some losses for the Saints, despite getting good results against City and United last season.

Expected points — 8

Chelsea

Newcastle (A) Spurs (H) Leeds (H) Everton (A) Wolves (A) West Ham (H)

All six of these games present a challenge for Frank Lampard. Chelsea lost the corresponding games against Newcastle, Everton and West Ham last season, Mourinho and Bielsa touch a raw nerve for Lampard and Wolves will be looking to make up for an abject humiliation when they welcome the Blues to Molineux. Despite having an excellent month with Thiago Silva and Hakim Ziyech bedding in superbly, the truth is Chelsea simply didn’t face anyone good recently. These fixtures are a different test altogether and if Chelsea manage to win four out of these six games, then I really will be impressed.

Expected points — 10

Aston Villa

Brighton (H) West Ham (A) Newcastle (H) Wolves (A) Burnley (H) West Brom (A)

A dream start to the season could actually be sustained for the Villains with these fixtures. While Villa did concede seven goals in two fixtures against Leeds and Southampton, none of their next six opponents have the firepower to cause them too much trouble. I do think David Moyes will be a bit too canny for Dean Smith’s “just play all my best players” approach and Nuno will get his Wolves to block all avenues to Grealish and Barkley. But the other four matches should be fair game for Villa on current form.

Expected points — 13

Everton

Fulham (A) Leeds (H) Burnley (A) Chelsea (H) Leicester (A) Arsenal (H)

The last international break halted Everton’s momentum completely, with only one point gained from four games since. Can this break lead to a reversal with the crucial Richarlison returning? Carlo Ancelotti will hope so. Everton rarely do well at Craven Cottage, but surely they should be able to beat this Fulham? Ancelotti vs Bielsa looks like a lot of fun, while Burnley away might be tougher than anticipated. I think Everton’s defence will struggle with Leicester’s fast breaks, but Goodison usually bloodies the nose of at least one of the London powers, so expect a win against either Chelsea or Arsenal.

Expected points — 9

Crystal Palace

Burnley (A) Newcastle (H) West Brom (A) Spurs (H) West Ham (A) Liverpool (H)

Let’s be honest, these first three games are best viewed as a cure for insomnia. I expect nothing more than a binary sequence of results. Selhurst Park is often built up as a tough place to visit, but the fact is Palace have rarely won against big sides at home, and I expect Spurs and Liverpool to continue that trend. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Palace win at the London Stadium, because that’s just how things transpire when the two London sides meet.

Expected points — 6

Wolves

Southampton (H) Arsenal (A) Liverpool (A) Villa (H) Chelsea (H) Burnley (A)

Again, I expect all six of these matches to be cagey, with not a lot of goals scored. Wolves operate on such fine margins, that regardless of opponent, all three results are in play. I am going to sit right on the fence here, and suggest two wins, two draws and two losses for Nuno’s men.

Expected points — 8

Manchester City

Spurs (A) Burnley (H) Fulham (H) United (A) West Brom (H) Southampton (A)

Regardless of their form in recent times, one thing City still do well is swat away the bottom dwellers effectively. So that’s nine points in the bank for the three home games against relegation fighters. It’s the three away games that provide the intrigue. Pep’s men lost all three last season, of which only Spurs’ win at White Hart Lane could be considered unfair. Are City better than last season? I’m not sure. Are they as weak as is being suggested? Again, I’m not sure. While Dias and Laporte looks a promising defensive partnership, there is still an air of vulnerability to City. I don’t think they’ll lose all three this season, but I do think one of Spurs or United will beat them.

Expected points — 13

Arsenal

Leeds (A) Wolves (H) Spurs (A) Burnley (H) Southampton (H) Everton (A)

Mikel Arteta has quickly realized that at a big club the pendulum oscillates between hero and zero on a weekly basis. For what its worth I think the Spaniard has done more good than bad in the hot seat, but in seeking balance he has erred a bit too much on the cautious side. Arsenal always find a way to beat Burnley by hook or crook, but the other five opponents all pose enough inherent threat to beat the Gunners. Winning the first two of these games before the derby at White Hart Lane looks like a must for Arteta.

Expected points — 10

West Ham

Sheffield Utd (A) Villa (H) United (H) Leeds (A) Palace (H) Chelsea (A)

After putting in excellent performances and getting great results against a series of tough opponents, West Ham almost threw away a win against relegation-threatened Fulham. It is what makes the Hammers so unpredictable. Sheffield United away is a grudge match since their 2007 relegation battle, and I think the Hammers will hand the Blades their first win of the season. I expect them to beat Villa and it should surprise nobody if they get a result against at least one of Chelsea or United while losing to Palace. It’s West Ham after all.

Expected points — 9

Manchester United

West Brom (H) Southampton (A) West Ham (A) City (H) Sheffield Utd (A) Leeds (H)

Other than the derby, this actually isn’t a terribly difficult run of fixtures for the Red Devils. They should break their home duck against West Brom, while Southampton’s approach and United’s excellent away record should reap rewards at St Mary’s as well. The Hammers have been a bit of a bogey team in recent seasons and the derby is a close call. They should have enough for the Blades and Leeds are another team whose style plays into Solskjaer’s hands. United really should break into the top half after these games.

Expected points — 14

Leeds

Arsenal (H) Everton (A) Chelsea (A) West Ham (H) Newcastle (H) United (A)

A promising start to the season has lost its sheen somewhat, after Leeds conceded eight goals in their last two games. That being said, Marcelo Bielsa’s men remain a must-watch, and are totally capable of flipping the form book on its head. I expect Leeds to upset at least one of Arsenal, Chelsea or United, while two home wins against West Ham and Newcastle should get the confidence flowing again.

Expected points — 9

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