Over 10 days and 30 matches, the Premier League holiday spectacular was always building to the final climax on Wednesday.
After Chelsea won its first two matches of the stretch to extend its winning run to a record-tying 13 matches, Tottenham grew as the great Lillywhite hope of the puffing pursuing pack. When they met in a match played at a ferocious pace and with a robust physical edge at White Hart Lane, Dele Alli headed two goals to give Tottenham a 2-0 victory.
It was a victory that meant Spurs and Manchester United were the only two clubs to win all three matches over the holiday sprint. The result also means that Liverpool and Arsenal, which both drew earlier this week, could regard their Christmases with more satisfaction as they both gained a point on Chelsea.
Yet even though it lost, Chelsea still leads Liverpool by five points and Tottenham and Manchester City by seven. It is still the favorite to win it all.
This was a match that showed why Spurs and Chelsea have, by some distance, the two best defenses in the league. Yet the two Tottenham goals both looked remarkably easy.
Alli twice leapt unchallenged to meet crosses from Christian Eriksen and place headers past Thibaut Courtois. Chelsea has David Luiz and Gary Cahill for aerial defense. It had only let in two headed goals all season. Yet Alli, running from midfield, found himself up against the smaller César Azpilicueta and Victor Moses, who is not a natural defender. Neither got close to Alli, and Moses played the Tottenham man onside for the first goal.
Spurs has made a habit of throwing away leads against Chelsea, most notably in the battle of Stamford Bridge last season which ended Tottenham’s fading title hopes. This time it held off spurts of Chelsea pressure with assurance.
“We have a history with them last year and this season they stopped our unbeaten run in the Premier League,” Eric Dier told Sky Sports. “So to stop their winning streak that was nice and to close the gap was a big statement for us.”
This was a Tottenham team settling a grudge.
“There’s a lot of things that went into it today,” Alli said. “I think you could see that the performance from boys and we fought from the first whistle to the last.”
While Alli and Tottenham surely end their furious run on top, here's a deeper look at the true winners and losers after a 10-day marathon of matches:
Alli, the greatest of the holiday slate
Even for the most spectacularly talented soccer players, development is not a steady upward climb but tends to come in sudden surges when the lessons click. Alli is making such a leap. No player in the Premier League enjoyed a more spectacular run of 10 days. Alli scored two goals in each of Tottenham’s three games over the span of a week and has now scored seven goals in his last four matches.
Alli scored 10 goals in an impressive debut season in 2015-16. He has scored 10 goals in 19 games this season. Part of that is down to his teammates. Tottenham is dominating more. Eriksen, its assists king, has learned exactly where to look for Alli. Yet Alli, who was wasteful in front of goal earlier this season, has become more confident and precise with both his positioning and his finishing. Suddenly he knows he is going to score.
It was hardly surprising that Real Madrid, which has treated Tottenham as a feeder club in recent seasons, was reported earlier this week to be contemplating a bid for Alli.
For now, he said, “I’m happy to help the team and score the goals.”
The rich get richer
The gap between the winners and losers in the Premier League this season is extremely pronounced.
Heading into the game between Tottenham and Chelsea that ended the seasonal sprint, the top six teams had won 13, drawn two and lost just one, and that was in the only game between two members of the elite: the encounter between Liverpool and Manchester City at Anfield. As it stands, the top six are separated by 10 points, while the gap between sixth and seventh is at nine.
At the other end of the table, the bottom five won just one game between them in three rounds. The gap in class has widened.
The quiet winner outside the top four
Like Tottenham, Manchester United won all three of its games. It came out lead-legged in its last game at West Ham, but then Mike Dean sent José Mourinho a late Christmas card as he showed red (which the FA later rescinded) to Sofiane Feghouli after 25 minutes. Mourinho sent on Marcus Rashford and Juan Mata, and against 10 men, United turned on the style and emerged victorious to stay in the top-four hunt.
Mata scored but it was Rashford, who had been making less of an impact lately, who transformed the game. After the match, Mourinho said the teenager has “United in his DNA.” It was as if he had pinned a medal to Rashford’s chest.
Undefeated, but feel like losers
In the first two rounds, the top six won their 10 matches against other teams by an aggregate of 30-7. Then on Monday, Liverpool gave up two penalties and drew, 2-2, at Sunderland. The next night, Arsenal drew, 3-3, at Bournemouth. With United and Chelsea on winning runs, both teams acted as if they had lost.
Arsenal’s display was a microcosm of recent seasons. It was awful for an hour, trailed by three, but, as its opponents panicked, the Gunners scored three in the last 20 minutes to salvage a point. Once again, Arsenal showed character when all seemed lost and recovered enough to salvage pride but not enough to seize victory. Late surges that leave the Gunners just short of their objective have become the theme of recent seasons.
The lone winner among the losers
At the other end of the table, only Swansea could feel like winners, and that was because its 2-1 victory at Palace in the final round of matches meant it was the only one of the bottom five to win even one match over the holiday season.
Swansea remains in the bottom two, but it can see the surface again after parting ways with Bob Bradley and replacing him with former Bayern assistant coach Paul Clement.
Swansea's victory over Palace pushed Hull back to the bottom. Perhaps it was not a coincidence, then, that Hull announced it had “parted company” with Mike Phelan.
Despite some suicidal defending, Hull’s problem under Phelan did not seem to be coaching. It played well for long periods in recent matches. The issue is that it has no attackers in its squad good enough to score at Premier League level. Whichever coach agrees to grasp the holly branch being held out by the club should insist that a goal scorer joins as well.
Not lost in the spotlight
Why so many players insist on leaping into tackles with both feet off the ground and studs showing is a question for another day. The difficulty for referees is that if they brandish a red card every time they see the soles of a players boots, few games would finish with 11 men on both sides.
When Feghouli of West Ham and Phil Jones of United slid into each other after 15 minutes on Monday, either could have suffered a broken leg or seen a red card. After Jones rolled around in apparent agony, Dean sent off Feghouli. He wasn’t necessarily wrong, but he has a reputation for being quick with his red card. This one turned an evenly balanced game into an eventual romp for United, and it was Dean’s second severe red of the week after sending off Nathan Redmond of Southampton for a shove against Spurs.
The fans howled, the pundits criticized, the media ridiculed. Dean, they said, seeks attention. Dean’s bosses at the FA went with the flow and overturned the red. On Sunday, he will be back in the spotlight again as he referees the Spurs-Aston Villa FA Cup game. It is difficult to believe he wants the attention he will receive.
Is Pep losing it?
On Monday, as his team beat Burnley, Pep Guardiola gesticulated to the City fans, cupping a hand to his ear to make it clear he thought they were not giving 100%. He then gave a passive-aggressive, confrontational interview to the BBC. He seemed to be challenging his British critics to bring it on.
It was perhaps purely coincidental that the same evening a friend of his, Lu Martin, appeared on Spanish radio saying that Guardiola had said City was a “second-tier club” on a par with Villarreal and not a big team like Chelsea.
The comparisons seemed calculated to insult. Villarreal is a town of 50,000. Its club has never won a major trophy. Until Roman Abramovich took over, Chelsea trailed far behind City in trophies and stature. Yet, unlike Villarreal, City is one of only two European clubs with owners richer than Abramovich.
If Guardiola is trying to alienate supporters and his bosses, he is doing a pretty good job. Conspiracy theorists quickly suggested he wants to free himself in case Barcelona, second in La Liga, decides to fire Luis Enrique. The issue, as always with Guardiola, might be more complicated, though.
Guardiola has no practice in losing. Like Barcelona, he is not used to being in second place. Third, and sliding, is a foreign land. He is struggling to cope.
Results speak loudest. Any coach would struggle this season, given the makeup of the City squad and the form of its rivals. The wealth of City’s owners mean that, with a modicum of intelligence, the club can solve any problems in just one or two transfer windows. The question is whether Guardiola has the patience to cope with being an also-ran for even one season.
Everybody loses next season
Arsene Wenger, Jurgen Klopp and Sam Allardyce all blamed the Christmas fixture rush for poor results in the final round of matches. What will they say next year?
Despite the three-game, 10-day crunch, the schedule was unusually benign this year. Christmas Day, when there are never games, fell on a Sunday, which also eliminated Christmas Eve, when teams, and broadcasters, dislike scheduling matches because fans are traveling or shopping.
Next weekend is the FA Cup, so Wenger can field youngsters and backups at Preston and Klopp can do the same at home to Plymouth and against Southampton in the League Cup semifinal three days later. Even though Liverpool played on a Monday in the last round before Christmas, it will have played just three league games in 26 days before it goes to Old Trafford on Sunday, Jan. 15.
Next year, when the season finishes earlier ahead of the World Cup, the Christmas dates fall more conveniently for the broadcasters and the club treasurers. According to the BBC, the Premier League plans six rounds of matches between December 16 and January 1, and that’s before the TV schedulers start moving things around. Liverpool and Arsenal could conceivably play six times in 14 days. If they didn't like this year's holiday slate, they certainly won’t like the next one.