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Workloads and Fixture Schedules

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Comparing fixtures of possible top four contenders after international break up to and including New Year's Day madness.

It'll be okay Brendan, it'll be okay. Maybe.
It'll be okay Brendan, it'll be okay. Maybe.
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno

Liverpool's aim for the Premier League is to finish in the top four. Anything more would be grossly unrealistic and possibly delusional; anything less would be disappointing and worthy of inevitable ire.

Sam Allardyce and his entertainers West Ham United sit in fourth spot on 18 points, just ahead of Garry Monk's Swansea City pass machines by virtue of goal difference. Southampton have been excellent so far, going strong in both the Premier League and the Capital One Cup. Ronald Koeman's side would need to lose in the next three matchdays to be overtaken by one of the bigger names currently below the South Coast club in the table. Such a scenario would need Arsenal to win three games in a row to take over by virtue of points. Manchester United would need to win the same number of games in the hope that there would be a sufficient goal difference swing to climb ahead. Liverpool, Everton, and Tottenham would need four rotten results for the second-placed side and would need to begin a winning streak in the league that has proved beyond them to date.

Clearly, there are a lot of points for some of the usual suspects to make up. Most would have thought that Chelsea and Manchester were certainties for the top four with two place available for the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham, and Everton. Southampton's presence and excellence could alter that in what could be an intriguing development for the Premier League. West Ham and Swansea are both doing well but are expected to fall away or be overtaken, depending on one's perspective. Southampton is a different prospect even eleven league games into the season with an impressive combination of clean sheets, performances, goal difference, consistency, and results. Defeats at Anfield and White Hart Lane were narrow as well as somewhat unlucky. Still, the number of games have been enough for fans of all twenty Premier League clubs to make general judgements, form ideas, identify weaknesses and strengths, and assess the business conducted in the summer transfer window.

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What next for Liverpool and any of these top four aspirants? The next game is tediously the most important, and Liverpool travel to Crystal Palace after the international break with another opportunity to banish some ghosts from last season. Liverpool have twelve fixtures in all competitions up to and including New Year's Day, and nine of those are in the Premier League. This period will be looked at in comparison to likely top four rivals. For the curious cats out there, the club has successive away games (Sunderland and Aston Villa) in the league following the New Year's Day home match against Leicester. This would be Liverpool's first set of consecutive away games since the travels to Manchester City and Spurs in August. Here is the list of fixtures, and all are in the league unless stated. Each side has 9 Premier League games to play, and there are no extra games to be added before January 2015.

November 2014

Cry. Palace v Liverpool Sun 23 Nov
Ludo Razgd v Liverpool Wed 26 Nov (Champions League tie)
Liverpool v Stoke Sat 29 Nov

December 2014

Leicester v Liverpool Tue 2 Dec
Liverpool v Sunderland Sat 6 Dec
Liverpool v FC Basel Tue 9 Dec (Champions League tie)
Man Utd v Liverpool Sun 14 Dec
Bournemouth v Liverpool Wed 17 Dec (League Cup giant-killing opportunity)
Liverpool v Arsenal Sun 21 Dec
Burnley v Liverpool Fri 26 Dec
Liverpool v Swansea Mon 29 Dec

January 2015

Liverpool v Leicester Thu 1 Jan

Perhaps Liverpool fans are so depressed at the moment that any fixture will be viewed as problematic.The December games against Manchester United at Anfield and Arsenal at the Emirates stand out. Both follow cup ties, and Brendan Rodgers will hope that Liverpool go into those league games on the back of positive results. Qualification for the knock-out stages of the Europe's premier cup competition could bring much-needed confidence to an under-performing squad. Trips to Leicester City and Burnley must yield maximum points.

Arsenal's fixtures

Arsenal have 11 games in comparison. After the international break, Arsène Wenger's side host Manchester United. Ties against Southampton (home), Liverpool (away), and Southampton (away) are the other big games. However, Stoke (away) and West Ham (away) shouldn't be ignored as potential problems. Arsenal's fixture list is not as easy as one would think with injuries, tactical shortcomings, and a soft underbelly all regular hindrances to progress for North London's Champions League representatives.

Manchester United's fixtures

Manchester United have spent huge sums to return to the Champions League and are set to heavily spend again in just under two months. Defenders are desperately required. Arsenal (away), Southampton (away), Liverpool (away), and Tottenham Hotspur (away) are the four games to watch. A trip to Stoke to start 2015, followed up by a home match against Southampton, reveals that this will be a tricky period for Louis van Gaal to navigate through. Just 9 games for the Premier League's most successful side historically, and this is the lightest of the schedules in comparison to that of Manchester United's rivals.

Tottenham's fixtures

Tottenham currently boast the same number of points as Liverpool and have Everton (home), Chelsea (away), Manchester United (away), and Chelsea (home). Swansea (away) could be a difficult game for Mauricio Pochettino and his struggling side. 12 games for Spurs, 9 of which are in the league, and only Liverpool have the same number of games to play. Chairman Daniel Levy is under more pressure than his manager at the moment with fans questioning the methods used in handling the running of the club over the past few seasons. Tottenham are not only searching for form but also, an identity.

Everton's fixtures

Everton looked to be resurgent last season as part of Merseyside's renewed influence on England's top tier, but sit in the bottom half alongside neighbours Liverpool. Tottenham (away), Man City (home), and Southampton (away) will be difficult for Roberto Martínez's Europa League competitors. Everton feature highly in both goals scored (fourth best) and conceded (joint fifth best) in the league. 11 games between now and 1 January 2015. Hull are struggling and will be Everton's first league match in both December and January. A quirk of the fixture list has Manchester City as Everton's second games in those respective months. Next up is Big Sam's West Ham United at Goodison Park.

Southampton's fixtures

Southampton have to face Manchester City (home), Arsenal (away), Manchester United (home), Everton (home), Chelsea (home), and Arsenal (home) in that order. Trips to Manchester United and Newcastle complete a somewhat light January schedule. After the clash with Arsenal on the first day of 2015, Ronald Koeman's side would have played 10 games, including one in the Capital One Cup against Sheffield United. Six of those ten are against the league's best clubs, but Southampton are at home for five of them. Surprise packages West Ham and Swansea travel to St Mary's during that period, so it will be a testing time for Chelsea's nearest challengers.

In the Premier League, Southampton have conceded:

* 13 goals fewer than Everton
* 11 fewer than Tottenham 
* 10 fewer than Liverpool
* 9 fewer than Manchester United
* 8 fewer than Arsenal

Only Chelsea have scored more goals, and Southampton's attack is functioning far better than many of the pre-season favourites for the top four. That's a big difference irrespective of workloads and fixture schedules. The Premier League is filled with average clubs, and Southampton could continue to be superior to most of them. Liverpool are not far away from the top four but are some distance behind Southampton. It may be a case of Chelsea, Man City, Southampton, and one other. The points per game needed for sides to reach a historical target to finish in the top four has been outlined earlier in the week, and Liverpool would need to build some momentum in this period to make a convincing push for Champions League football in 2015/16.

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This period is crucial. Liverpool would have played 20 league games with less than half of the season remaining, and many sides look ill-equipped to deal with the pressure of falling far behind by January. Imagine Southampton in third with a twelve-point lead over Liverpool. What about Manchester United boasting a ten-point advantage in fourth? This scenario after twenty games would be difficult to surmount. The same could be said for Arsenal, Manchester United, Everton, and Tottenham. There are too many weaknesses in these sides to be confident of a run late in the season to turn it around. Other teams have exposed them and will probably continue to do so. Southampton may drop points during this period until the New Year, but remember that other clubs have some work to do themselves to take advantage.

It may be that two clubs join Chelsea and Manchester City at Southampton's expense. However, it would take quite a run of results, and the failings of others cannot continue indefinitely. At least one club vying for the land of milk and honey will start to build momentum, may be two. The goal for all of these sides is to be in a position of strength by the time the January transfer window arrives. Clubs would point to the likelihood of Southampton slowing down with so many difficult fixtures. That may be true, but it does not mean that it will be your beloved club that will take advantage. There is no joy in clubs dropping points when Liverpool continue to do so. Also, lessons from last season were humbly detailed just a couple of months ago.

Naturally, the loyalists will tell you it is early in the season. They are right. Manchester United fans were saying the something similar last season when the club had lost three, won two, and drawn one of its opening six games by the end of September. By the middle of December, David Moyes' side was locked in seventh spot and would never come close to touching a top four place for the rest of the season.

Forget about Manchester City and Chelsea for a moment, they will finish in the top four. After matchday 10, Tottenham Hotspur never touched the top four last season. After matchday 3, Arsenal largely remained in the top four while Everton were relatively close to the top four throughout the season, dropping below fifth after a handful of matchdays. Liverpool dropped out of the top four after successive away losses to Manchester City and Chelsea before the Gregorian calendar New Year but remained in the top four for virtually the entire campaign. The biggest comfort for Liverpool is the failure of others.

It is my belief that the combination of momentum, opportunity in the January transfer window, and unbearable pressure on rival teams trailing behind will ensure a similar outcome to last season even with eighteen games left. If the points gap is close between fourth place and one or two clubs, matters may be different. Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers must ensure that the necessary improvements are made to compete with what is a good set of players. Arsène Wenger, Mauricio Pochettino, and certainly Louis van Gaal will be under pressure if their claims for fourth spot demands some ridiculous points per game calculation by the New Year. If such a scenario occurs, the pressure may be too much for a concerted recovery to be made by the season's end.