Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Premier League Fixture Difficulty: Christmas Fixtures | The Analyst

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We use the Opta Power Rankings to work out which teams have the most favourable and most difficult next five matches over the Christmas period.


Christmas is a time for magic, for wonderment, and for stressing about football results.

Despite almost every other league taking a winter break by mid-December, English football sticks rigidly to tradition at this time of year, which means more football, not less. Otherwise, we might have to spend time talking to family and let’s face it, no-one wants that.

You can tell we’re entering the festive period as promos for Premier League matches now include CGI snow, so we thought it was a good time to look at the upcoming fixtures to see who is likely to have a merry Christmas and who might find a lump of coal in their stocking, or a P45 in the cases of certain managers.

What might the title race look like by January as Arsenal, Liverpool and Aston Villa look to stay ahead of an uncharacteristically out-of-form Manchester City? Can Everton continue to climb away from trouble despite their points deduction? And will Manchester United ever draw a game again?

We’ve calculated the average opponent rating for each team using the Opta Power Rankings, which is a global team ranking system that assigns an ability score to nearly 13,500 domestic football teams on a scale between zero and 100, where zero is the worst-ranked team in the world and 100 is the best team in the world.

The Power Rankings are calculated by results, so a team that beats Manchester City will get a lot more points than one that beats Sheffield United, but a team will of course be considered far less likely to beat a higher ranked team than a lower ranked one. A further explanation is available in the article below.


Most Difficult Next Five Fixtures

Roy Hodgson has been much loved at Crystal Palace across both his spells in charge of the south London club. When he returned for a second stint in March, he even seemed to bring an attacking verve with him as Palace won games and often won them in style.

That has not continued into this season, though. Palace are struggling, winning just two of their last 12 games in all competitions (D3 L7), and their task certainly won’t get easier any time soon. According to Opta’s Power Rankings, Palace face the hardest run of five games over the rest of December. Saturday sees them host second-place Liverpool, before a visit to defending champions Manchester City. That’s followed by hosting rivals Brighton, a trip to Chelsea and finally a clash with Brentford at Selhurst Park. All five of their opponents are currently in the top 11 in the Premier League. They’re not due to face anyone below them in the league until 30 January when they host Sheffield United.

Arsenal lead the way in the Premier League after responding to their only loss of the league campaign so far at Newcastle United with four wins, including a dramatic 4-3 victory at Luton Town on Tuesday thanks to Declan Rice’s 97th-minute goal. However, things are about to get potentially tricky for Mikel Arteta’s men. They travel to in-form Aston Villa on Saturday, who have won their last 14 home games after dispatching Manchester City earlier this week, before also clashing with Brighton (h), Liverpool (a), West Ham (h) and Fulham (a). Their next three games in particular feel significant. Come through those unscathed and Arsenal could wrestle the title-favourites tag from Man City.

Sheffield United and Burnley continue to struggle, and the Opta supercomputer does not fancy their chances of staying in the Premier League this season. They currently have respective chances of avoiding the drop of just 4.9% and 16.7% according to the supercomputer’s latest simulations. What doesn’t help either team is a tough set of Christmas fixtures, with returning Sheffield United boss Chris Wilder coming up against Brentford (h), Chelsea (a), Aston Villa (a), Luton (h) and Man City (a). Burnley must navigate Brighton (a), Everton (h), Fulham (a), Liverpool (h) and Villa (a).

Everton’s resurgence will be tested as their fixtures include games against Chelsea (h), Tottenham (a) and Man City (h), while Manchester United look likely to continue their Jekyll and Hyde form with their mixture of opponents including Bournemouth (h), Liverpool (a), West Ham (a) and Aston Villa (h).

Liverpool’s fixture list is considered to be around medium difficulty compared to others, with their games interestingly spread with winnable-looking away games at Crystal Palace and Burnley, but potentially tough home fixtures against Man Utd, Arsenal and Newcastle.


Easiest Next Five Fixtures

Premier League fixture difficulty Dec 23

Now, something we should point out is that the list of the teams with the easiest fixtures is somewhat skewed by the fact Manchester City will be competing in the FIFA Club World Cup in Saudi Arabia during December. That means their scheduled home game with Brentford has been postponed to later in the campaign, and so both teams will only play four times in this period.

City’s other commitments see them travel to Luton and Everton, as well as hosting Crystal Palace and Sheffield United, so it still appears to be one of the easier runs of games in the Premier League. Just as well for Pep Guardiola’s men, who have gone four without a win (D3 L1) for the first time since 2017. Brentford travel to Sheffield United, before back-to-back home games against Aston Villa and Wolves, and they finish off the year with a short trip to Crystal Palace.

The team judged to have the easiest five games in December is actually Chelsea, who had the toughest five in November when we last checked for fixture difficulty. Mauricio Pochettino’s side have been up and down of late, recording impressive wins over Spurs and Brighton and a strong showing in the 4-4 draw with Man City. But they were far from their best in away losses to Newcastle and Man Utd, and will want to put as many points on the board as possible before the turn of the year to get their season back on track. They face Everton (a), Sheffield United (h), Wolves (a), Palace (h) and Luton (a).

Bournemouth’s form has turned around under Andoni Iraola of late; they have won four of their last six in the league (D1 L1), and that could well continue as they prepare to face Man Utd (a), Luton (h), Nottingham Forest (a), Fulham (h) and Tottenham (a).

Speaking of Spurs, they are without a win in five games (D1 L4) as injuries take a toll on Ange Postecoglou’s squad, but they apparently have one of the gentler Decembers. They face Newcastle (h), Forest (a), Everton (h), Brighton (a) and Bournemouth (h).

As mentioned, Aston Villa are on a great run and have nudged their way into the conversation for the title race. Unai Emery’s side are particularly strong at home, and have another three games at Villa Park in December against Arsenal, Sheffield United and Burnley. Trips to Brentford and Man Utd should be trickier, but they’ve recorded impressive victories at Chelsea and Spurs already this season.

Like Tottenham, Newcastle are struggling to cope with a vast injury list, and it will be interesting to see how they deal with fixtures that include visits to Spurs, Luton and Liverpool. They will fancy their chances in home games against Fulham and Nottingham Forest, and may well need those points as the race for the European spots hots up, with just three points separating fifth and ninth heading into Matchday 16.


How will the Christmas run affect the season predictions? Keep up with the latest percentages from the Opta supercomputer below.


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