January saw Man City finally show they are beatable, Alexis Sanchez and Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap sides and two managerial changes but what else caught Adam Hurrey’s eye? Here’s January’s winners and losers.
Who won the month? Swansea City
While appreciating the attempt to try something different, away from the established top-flight managerial merry-go-round, Swansea dipping into the Championship for a new manager felt like the early preparations for relegation.
Carlos Carvalhal, though, has quietly — but quickly — given them a lifeline. Defeat at Tottenham came without disgrace, a point at Newcastle settled the ship, and then came a home-turf doubleheader against Liverpool and Arsenal.
A total of 21 shots rained in on the Swansea goal, but Liverpool were beaten from a set piece. A precious three points, but an unsustainable gameplan. Arsenal had a one-goal lead and 75 percent of the ball at the Liberty Stadium, but crumbled in the face of the self-belief that Carvalhal has restored. Rightly unheralded players like Sam Clucas and and Mike van der Hoorn have been transformed while underperforming headliners like Jordan Ayew are now taking responsibility.
Add in the deadline day arrival of Andy King and the return of club-record signing Andre Ayew and things are suddenly looking up in South Wales.
While all around them struggle for momentum, Swansea might have stumbled across their rescue package.
Who lost the month? Chelsea
Their mid-month thrashing of a startled Brighton proved to be an anomaly. Chelsea’s frantic draw with Arsenal gave way to three successive 0-0s across three competitions and then just a single goal in six-and-a-half hours of increasingly predictable football.
With Alvaro Morata looking lost — his morale sapped by some attentive Premier League defending that frequently left him pleading with referees from the floor — Chelsea’s hunt for striking reinforcements took a surreal turn. Andy Carroll, Peter Crouch and Ashley Barnes were all run through the rumour mill to wide bewilderment until the rather more sensible, £18 million prospect of Olivier Giroud finally presented itself.
On the pitch, everything now went through Eden Hazard, no matter how much space he had found, and attacks seemed to be forced down cul-de-sacs. The odd Marcos Alonso free kick aside, Conte’s wing-backs (last season’s title-winning masterstroke) ground to an attacking halt, especially without an in-form target to aim for in the middle. All that came to a dismal head with the chastening lesson Bournemouth gave at Stamford Bridge on the final day of the month.
With the arguable exception of a plummeting Huddersfield, the Premier League clubs dragged themselves wearily through a seemingly endless January without too much catastrophe. Among the elite clubs, nobody made that slog look harder than Antonio Conte’s empty-looking side. Much will be expected from their new faces.
Player of the month: Roberto Firmino
The re-emergence of the traditional No.9 in English football has been warmly received: a towering focal point whose job is to finish off the craftiness going on around him. The theory is a comforting one for the purists, even if the reality of Romelu Lukaku and Alvaro Morata’s recent output hasn’t quite lived up to it.
But there are pockets of resistance to the retro trend, none more so than at Liverpool, whose front three are a unique spectacle. Sadio Mane’s pace is a clear and present danger, while Mohamed Salah has hit an irresistible goalscoring groove to go with his own running power. In between them, though, Roberto Firmino is excelling as the Premier League’s most unique centre-forward.
His is an unusual blend of work rate and impudence which, although not as prolific as Harry Kane, is arguably more of a nuisance to an opposition defence. His perpetual motion is a Kloppian dream, while his two Premier League goals of the month suggested he might be underrated as a finisher. His sumptuous goal against Manchester City – 50 percent curled, 50 percent dinked -= had a Robbie Fowler-esque quality to it, but his cheeky near-post surprise at Huddersfield was entirely his own trademark.
Goal of the month: Willian v Brighton
Before hopping on the train down to Brighton for a Saturday lunchtime kick-off, Chelsea were experiencing a bleak January. Within six minutes of kick-off, Chelsea had scored twice and Michy Batshuayi — their afterthought of a centre-forward — had been at the heart of both. The second, ultimately pelted in from 18 yards by Willian, was a work of art.
The Brazilian picked the ball up just inside the Brighton half and, as only he can, shuttled the ball into the final third. A poked pass to Hazard. A cushioned touch for Batshuayi. A layoff for Willian again. The ball fed back into Batshuayi, who steered it with his instep to Hazard. Same again. Willian didn’t have to break stride.
Three players, eight touches, eight Brighton players bypassed, all within a 10-by-10 patch of grass.
Good month for… Insider trading
There was once a time when selling a player to a Premier League rival was almost unthinkable. It was a practice that belonged to mid-90s Serie A, where managers and goalscorers would happily do the rounds and rack up the clubs without too much hassle.
Arsenal have found themselves at the forefront of a culture shift in that regard. No strangers to seeing their best players leave for nearby pastures new over the last decade or so, they decided to hold their January clear-out for the benefit of their Premier League peers. Amazingly 293 goals were shipped out to Manchester United, Everton and Chelsea in the shape of Alexis Sanchez, Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud — all understandable sales in their own way, but with a latent fear that each could come back and bite Arsene Wenger, this season or beyond.
The simple explanation is a financial one: no other league can afford this mass recycling of elite cast-offs quite like the English top flight. The cost of the payoff — crucial goals and muted celebrations from former Gunners — is yet to be established.
Bad month for… Old fashioned tackling
With footballing solutions to Manchester City’s ultra-modern bid for world domination now exhausted, the month ended in a spectacular flurry of studs and ligaments as Pep Guardiola watched his players kicked to bits, first by Cardiff in the FA Cup and then by West Brom as inevitable defeat sunk in at the Etihad.
Joe Bennett and James McClean were guilty of trying to halt some knife-through-butter surges from Leroy Sane and Kevin De Bruyne respectively — in the latter case, De Bruyne simply marched on to score. Sane wasn’t quite so fortunate, and will be out for up to six weeks.
“For football in general players are the artists,” Guardiola sighed, in that particularly Guardiola way that heavily implies everyone else is wrong and he hasn’t got the time to teach them. “The only thing they can do is protect them.”
The longer City continue to dance around inferior opponents, though, the more they will be the targets for desperate, frustrated last resorts.
What February needs to deliver
Tottenham could provide the bulk of the domestic entertainment: their trip to Anfield should be highly watchable, as should the North London derby at Wembley. Manchester United vs. Chelsea would have been a grudge match a few weeks ago, but you now suspect Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte have more to worry about than each other’s sharp tongue.
Above all, though, February is traditionally the month of season-ending collapses, where multiple competitions collide in a tangle of injuries, suspensions and — for somebody –European dreams cut to shreds.
Adam Hurrey analyses the language of football. You can follow him on Twitter: @FootballCliches.