You know that old cliche about the Premier League title race being a marathon and not a sprint? Well the next six weeks are when the miles begin to bite, and it really does become survival of the fittest. It may also be the stage of the season when the clubs chasing Manchester City at the top of the Premier League have their best chance of closing ground on Pep Guardiola’s team, with the fixture list between this weekend and Jan. 3 most resembling a motorway at rush hour.
Since the start of the season, from the second weekend in August to this Saturday, every top-flight team in England will have played 11 league games in the 100 days since Arsenal kicked off the campaign with a 4-3 win at home to Leicester City on Aug. 11. But over the next 47 days, they will be expected to play their next 11 games — a sequence that will test the squads of every club in terms of fitness, endurance, depth and, more than likely, luck.
Of the 47 days between this Saturday and Jan. 3, when Chelsea travel to Arsenal in the final game of the Christmas and New Year fixture list, there will be league games on 27 of them.
For City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United, there are also two European games and a Carabao Cup quarterfinal to squeeze in, but many will argue that they have the squads to cope with such a draining workload. Yet when overwork and fatigue sets in, mistakes begin to happen and injuries also start to occur.
Scientific data from as far back as 2009 highlighted how player performance can drop sharply during December and January, with a combination of heavy fixture congestion, a change in climate and playing conditions and muscle fatigue all contributing.
While every other major European league shuts down for the winter, the Premier League continues to plough on through the wind, rain and snow, and it has an effect. If (or perhaps when) England fail to deliver at the World Cup next summer, the lack of a winter break will be used as a factor. It may also ultimately prevent a Premier League team from winning the Champions League this season as the big sides from Spain, Italy and Germany all benefit from a midwinter break and are refreshed because of it by the time the knockout stages come around.
But in terms of the race for the title, City’s eight-point lead now faces its biggest threat over the coming weeks, with Guardiola’s players having to face United and Tottenham on successive weekends in December.
City currently look impossible to catch, but can they sustain their form during such a busy period? Will Kevin De Bruyne maintain his incredible form? Can Leroy Sane continue to terrorise defences with his pace and awareness? Or will Guardiola’s team endure another midwinter slump similar to the one that derailed their title challenge last season?
After Man United lost at Chelsea, Jose Mourinho claimed earlier this month that he expects his team to grow stronger now because the likes of Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcos Rojo and Marouane Fellaini will return from injury and inject freshness and energy, just when those qualities are needed most.
Time will tell, granted, but the task for all title challengers is to go into the New Year with hopes still alive of finishing on top spot. Navigating the next six weeks will be crucial to those ambitions, but expect some surprises along the way.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_