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Winners and Losers From the Premier League’s Festive Period

Virgil van Dijk gets paid, Arsenal’s view of the Champions League places starts to fade, and more from a wacky holiday season in England

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Pep Guardiola called it “a disaster,” and he’s right. European professionals already play too many games, and then once the holidays roll around and the rest of the continent takes some time off, the Premier League forces every team to play something like four games in 14 days. It’s dumb, and it needs to change, but man does it make for a hell of a two-week stretch. There’s soccer on every day, and this season’s festive period was nearly bookended by a pair of wild home draws for Arsenal against Liverpool and Chelsea. (West Ham and Tottenham still have to play.) So, before England inevitably flames out of the World Cup because all of its players have ground their hamstrings into powder, let’s take stock of everything that happened over the past two weeks.

Winner: Virgil van Dijk

Ryan O’Hanlon: Southampton can’t be the winner here: They get a £75 million windfall from the never-not-yielding Fenway Sports Group Money Market Fund, but the only reason they’re not in the relegation zone is their minus-11 goal differential … and they just lost their best player.

We’re not gonna give it to Liverpool, either, because we’ve already seen one can’t-miss, captain-material center back come to Merseyside from St. Mary’s, and uh, if that move had worked out as planned, we wouldn’t be here right now. Now, van Dijk is a monster in the air—only Stoke’s Kurt Zouma has won a higher percentage of aerial duels than the 26-year-old Dutch international—and even if he can’t seamlessly adjust from Southampton’s failsafe-heavy defense to a Jurgen Klopp system that puts its center backs on one-vs.-one islands, he’ll strengthen a team that treats every long ball as if it were a meteor crashing toward earth. It’s a world-record fee for a defender—but not as eye-watering of a number as a percentage of club revenue—and Liverpool’s been in Big Virgil–or-Bust mode since the summer. The club’s nailed transfer after transfer since Michael Edwards took over, so Liverpool gets the benefit of the doubt despite all the uncertainty.

Where there’s no doubt: van Dijk gets the move he’s wanted since the summer, and he’s getting paid. My man now has enough money to buy out Everlane’s entire turtleneck stock five times over.

He’s the real winner.

Loser: Newcastle United

Chris Ryan: On the field, Newcastle survived the holidays just fine. They took seven points out of a possible 12, did their best to spray a fire extinguisher on Manchester City, and managed to stay out of an ever-growing pool of teams in a relegation zone. For now.

The reason this wonderful and beleaguered club is in the Losers section is that a loser still owns them. For the last couple of months, there have been rumors that PCP Capital Partners, led by Amanda Staveley (who was instrumental in the sale of Manchester City to Sheikh Mansour), is looking to buy the club off of Mike Ashley. There was a Christmas Eve deadline set for Ashley’s and Staveley’s groups to agree on a price, but that came and went. Both parties apparently still have interest in doing a deal, but now a more important date has arisen: transfer-deadline day.

Newcastle manager Rafa Benítez publicly bemoaned the state of his roster for months now after failing to get sufficient funds during the summer transfer window. Benítez has managed in Liverpool, London, Milan, and Madrid, and he is as political off the pitch as he is tactical on it. But he’s not bullshitting: This is a thin team that will have a hard time weathering any injuries in the stretch run without reinforcements.

Staveley may well buy the club, and there are even rumors that Ashley could pay for transfers up front, with PCP reimbursing him once Newcastle changes hands. But no one ever won money betting on Mike Ashley doing the right thing. And if Newcastle fails to add players in January, don’t be surprised if Benítez leaves the club.

Winner: Harry Kane

Micah Peters: It’s basically safe to say that Tottenham has debunked the idea of Spursiness, but you might recall they were not doing great going into the holidays. To be specific: A 4-1 loss to Manchester City left them in seventh, a point behind Burnley. They then went out and got nine straight points off of Burnley, Southampton, and Swansea, and props are due directly to Kane—even when he doesn’t start.

Guys. Harry Kane is pretty good at the soccer. Over the break—well, our break—he became the seventh player to score back-to-back hat tricks in the Premier League, broke Alan Shearer’s calendar-year scoring record, and officially bagged more goals in 2017 than both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in all competitions.

Loser: Marco Silva

Donnie Kwak: This shot of the forlorn Watford manager, near the end of Tuesday’s 3-1 loss to Manchester City, just about sums it up. After beating Arsenal in October, the Hornets were in fourth place and Silva was being hailed as the favorite to replace Ronald Koeman at Everton. Since then, Silva has seen his team pick up only 10 points over 14 matches and lose three of four over the holiday period. As of now, it’s the relegation zone, not Merseyside, that is within shouting distance.

Loser: Jason Puncheon and Scott Dann

O’Hanlon: This really looked like it might be the first speed bump. Crystal Palace basically played Manchester City toe to toe over a scoreless 90 minutes. Of course, it should’ve been a 1-0 Palace win, only for Luka Milivojevic to poke a meek injury-time penalty right into Ederson’s shins. City, though, would’ve taken little solace from the continued unbeaten streak, as the Best Player in the Premier League, Kevin De Bruyne, got hacked down by Jason Puncheon in the aftermath of the missed penalty and had to be taken off on a stretcher. Earlier in the game, a similarly uncharitable tackle from Scott Dann knocked down but couldn’t knock out De Bruyne, and then three minutes later, Gabriel Jesus hobbled off with an injury.

City will be without Jesus, who’s quietly been the most efficient goal-scorer on the planet, for at least a month. As for De Bruyne and his two assailants? Well …

They should’ve learned from Dele Alli. Never kick a man when his bones are made of neutronium.

Winner: Harry Maguire

Ryan: On first glance, Harry Maguire looks like the kind of English center back who should have a bandage around his head. Don’t let the 24-year-old Leicester City defender’s frame fool you, though. This isn’t Phil Jones 2.0. This dude is the Yorkshire Marco van Basten:

OK, maybe not Marco. But he does have some Brilliant Orange to him. Leicester manager Claude Puel has suggested that Maguire, who the Foxes bought from Hull this summer for £12 million, could be the next Virgil van Dijk. He is one of the more exciting central defenders in the Premier League, comfortable with the ball at his feet, and able to ping Hollywood passes like he went to the Academy of Steven Gerrard YouTube Compilations. His dagger volley to earn a draw against United was one of the moments of the holiday schedule.

Loser: West Brom

Peters: Whether West Brom lucked into a draw against Arsenal at the Hawthorns on New Year’s Eve was—I was about to say “up for debate,” but that would imply winning a handball call, in the box, in the 88th minute, while trailing 1-0, could be anything other than lucky. Arsenal didn’t deserve to win, but it didn’t feel as though they deserved to tie either. And so the Baggies got their hard-fought draw, following it up with a 2-1 loss to West Ham—during which Jake Livermore justifiably put hands on a West Ham fan—on Tuesday. That makes it [scans fixture list] since literally August that West Brom last won a game.

The club has filed an official complaint against the league over the congested holiday schedule, by the way, which had them facing the Hammers and the Gunners in the space of just 52 hours. The holiday schedule is definitely madness, but I wouldn’t say it’s West Brom’s biggest problem.

Winner: Marcos Alonso

Ryan: The highest praise I can give Marcos Alonso, who scored two goals and made six key passes over the festive period, is that he is as undroppable as N’Golo Kanté.

Loser: Arsenal’s Top-Four Hopes

Kwak: Arsenal’s 2-2 draw with Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium on Wednesday produced a plethora of talking points: a double-post shot by Alexis Sánchez, Jack Wilshere’s first league goal in more than two years, another dodgy penalty against the Gunners, Marcos Alonso’s would-be game winner canceled by Héctor Bellerín’s equalizer, and Álvaro Morata’s apparent haunting by the Ghost of Nicklas Bendtner. But don’t let the details obscure the real story. Despite saving a draw, Arsenal’s defensive frailties once again compromised their ability to defeat a big side. Six points out of a possible 12 during the festive period leaves them five points adrift of a Champions League place, with Chelsea, Tottenham, and Liverpool all trending upward. If Sánchez ends up leaving during the January transfer window without a viable replacement, even a Europa League place doesn’t feel like a guarantee. But hey, at least we signed a 20-year-old center back from the Greek league!

Winner: Mark Hughes

O’Hanlon: If PSG really wants to be “the first great club of the digital era,” then they need to hire Mark Hughes.

That’s nine 1s and two zeros in 13 months in charge … despite a roster that took the original joke three steps too far and now contains the most Champions League winners of any team in the Premier League. Sure, equating trophies with player quality is how you turn into the Brooklyn Nets, but Stoke’s weird-ass collection of talent has to be worth more than this, right? Each week, Hughes gets to pick from a collection of players who’ve suited up for Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester United, PSG, Real Madrid, Liverpool, Tottenham, and Chelsea, among others. And yet, Stoke has plummeted into the relegation zone thanks to a league-worst defense that’s also handicapped the Potters’ potential tiebreaker with the league-worst goal differential. They’re third-favorites for relegation now, according to FiveThirtyEight, and they’re sticking with Hughes, it seems, only until they know they can replace him with someone better.

Good for Hughes for somehow hanging on for this long—and shame on him for looking at this team and deciding that the solution was “more Darren Fletcher.”

Winner: Jesse Lingard

Kwak: Who says no Manchester United player has improved under José Mourinho? Lingard, once known more for his prowess on social media than on the pitch, has emerged this season as one of United’s most consistent threats. Playing more centrally as opposed to on the wings this season, Lingard has scored a goal or notched an assist every 84 minutes in league play—including three goals and an assist during the holiday fixtures. All this from a homegrown player who entered the United youth academy at seven years old, but has only now, at 25, become a regular starter. José has rewarded his persistence. Having supplanted Henrikh Mkhitaryan at Old Trafford, Lingard will surely be looking to bust into Gareth Southgate’s starting XI come summer.