Pit stop ignites fourth-place Premier League war

Sometimes all it takes is one acquisition to turn a hopeless season into a genuine fourth-place push

Despite the physical nature of their sport, footballers have a notorious sensitivity about changes to their environment. Not all of course — but for every stoic go-with-it Michael Carrick there is a Carlos Tevez who rages into a tantrum when the aircon is adjusted a notch. How then is the introduction of a shiny, new winter break going to go down?

Thanks to the timing of it, days after the January transfer window closed, there’s an unshakeable sense that what we’re getting is a soft reset. Mid-season signings are offered the unusual opportunity of getting a week to acclimatise themselves to their new environment while their new sides have a minute to reflect on the past few months. For some it’s welcome relief; for others it’s momentum lost.

There’s much to play for too. The league title may no longer be in the offing but the line-up a couple of places below Liverpool couldn’t be more opaque.

After holding Chelsea to a 2-2 draw last weekend, Leicester City put their hand up to join Manchester City in taking positions one and two in the “also-rans” category. You could never know for certain with neither able to shake a bout of erratic form, but unless somebody else stumbles on to consistency, they should be all but locked up.

Which leaves the scraps of fourth to fight for.

Current incumbents Chelsea have managed to cling to the position largely by virtue of their challengers matching their missteps every other week. How frustrating it must be for Frank Lampard to glance at his four-point lead knowing it could so easily be in the double digits had he not lost games to West Ham, Southampton and Bournemouth — all at Stamford Bridge.

Blame the recklessness of youth or the paucity of creativity, but this is not an outfit that’s capable of getting it done week in, week out. There’s been no lack of motivation when it’s time to visit North London, but Lampard has failed to instil the same hunger to break down stubborn defensive lines from less illustrious opponents.

It’s clear that this is not the finished product but it’s all that he will have to work with until May. Some reports suggest he’s annoyed with the board for not pushing harder to secure his wish list but he would have known going into it that this month is not one for big requests. Almost everyone would agree, too, that retaining faith in a youthful core is far more prudent than picking up the cigarette butts, such as Salomón Rondón, that were being shopped around.

It’s a temptation that not everybody resisted. Manchester United, some might say, being one of them.

“He must be the luckiest man!” former Dutch striker Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink said of their decision to loan in Watford alumni Odion Ighalo.

“Going to China, being away from Europe nobody seeing him for two-and-a-half years since he was at Watford and then getting a loan move at United. Wow. That doesn’t happen! It says how far behind United are from Liverpool, Manchester City and even Chelsea. They have got a big job ahead.”

As shocking as the deadline day move was, the truth is Ole Gunnar Solskjær had to do something. With Marcus Rashford out with a long-term back injury, he presumably couldn’t fathom the idea of asking Anthony Martial to take sole responsibility for leading the line for the foreseeable future. Ighalo also brings pure goalscoring talent that might just rear its head — perhaps there’s no high ceiling but there’s likely a few key strikes left in the 30-year-old.

Absolutely none of that contention was present for the signing of Bruno Fernandes, United’s latest coup from Sporting Lisbon. Having seemingly been in negotiations forever, Solskjær will be relieved to have got his man locked down in this window. Fernandes should immediately inject some tempo and ideas into a midfield that has found space to field players like Jesse Lingaard far too regularly and for far too long. Sometimes all it takes is one acquisition to turn a hopeless cause of a season into a genuine fourth-place push.

If we’re talking immediate effect, however, no other new signing has hit quite as hard and fast as Steven Bergwijn. With his very first shot in the Premier League, the competition he dreamed of playing in, he set Tottenham Hotspur up to get the massive win over Manchester City. And what a shot it was: a subtle chest trap followed by a picturesque swivel and half-volley. Yet, if anything, it would have been his movement that beguiled José Mourinho. Bergwijn ran until he couldn’t anymore and was forced off with a cramp in the 70th.

As satisfying as the day was, pragmatic Mourinho won’t be forgetting about the hour that preceded the Dutchman’s strike. City were unquestionably dominant and will have strong curses reserved for both Hugo Lloris and Lady Luck. Had Oleksandr Zinchenko not knocked over the Jenga tower with some silly moves, it’s likely we’d have a very different ending to write about. This is still not a Spurs team created in their boss’s image.

Which is why the Portuguese is surely one of the happier managers to get his team behind doors for an extra week. He’s kept his calm throughout his slow start and the weekend off might be just what he needs to deepen his imprint. Throw in the fact that disruptive influences Christian Eriksen and Danny Rose have been chucked out and it’s easy to envision Spurs finishing strongly. If one was forced to pick a fourth-place favourite it might even be them.

Quite a bit lower on that list are rivals Arsenal: an institution that simply does not belong in the Champions League at present. Most Gooners have taken a liking to the fight that Mikel Arteta has inspired but unfortunately that fight usually just leads to nothing more than a draw.

Pablo Mari from Flamengo and Southampton’s Cedric Soares have been brought in and the former especially will immediately improve the backline. At the very least it will be taken off of suicide watch with Shkodran Mustafi and David Luiz no longer compelled to play together.

With arguably more troubles coming from the final third, it’s hard to predict what effect, if any, the signings will have on the results to come. For a club whose entire business model is built on the maxim “we will score more than you”, the recent failings up front leave faith in short supply.

The final option is that none of the obvious choices speed out of the winter pit stop and allow a minnow to swim by. Sheffield United are enjoying an unthinkable season and have only got stronger; a new club record brought in the exciting Sander Berge whereas the once-hyped Jack Rodwell has been tossed one more Premier League bone. The common sentiment is that the Blades will eventually go on a losing streak befitting of their stature; which is exactly what everybody said about Leicester three years ago.

Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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