As the English Premier League returns this weekend, here are ten things to look forward to:
1) Martial and Mkhitaryan should keep their places
One of the biggest accusations aimed at José Mourinho down the years has been that he favours workmanlike players who can follow instructions over unpredictable talents who are harder to control but more likely to decide a game with a moment of genius. Mourinho’s treatment of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Anthony Martial at Manchester United has provided his critics with more ammunition. But now is the time for the United manager to give both of them a proper run in his strongest side. Mkhitaryan created Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s early opener in Wednesday’s League Cup win over West Ham with a silky backheel, before Martial scored two emphatic goals in the second half. Although it was a cruise for United against mediocre opposition, both players did enough to keep their places for Sunday’s tougher trip to Everton.
2) Will another man-marking job test Liverpool?
Bournemouth’s home form is decent and their record of having lost only one of their last five matches at their mini-fortress is commendable. Truth be told, they were desperately unlucky in that defeat Sunderland and the three clean sheets they have kept at Dean Court already this season suggest Liverpool will not have it all their own way this weekend. What they almost certainly will have is opposition that do not sit back and defend in the way Southampton and Sunderland did with varying degrees of success in Liverpool’s most recent league excursions. At St Mary’s Jürgen Klopp’s men drew a very rare blank, while it took them 75 minutes to break the deadlock a week later at Anfield. Eddie Howe will have noted the success of the limpet-like man-marking job done on Philippe Coutinho by Sunderland’s Jason Denayer until the Brazilian succumbed to injury. The first blast on the referee Bobby Madley’s whistle will reveal if the Cherries manager has planned a similar scheme to try to keep Liverpool’s front three quiet.
3) West Ham need Noble’s leadership
West Ham were wretched at Old Trafford on Wednesday, defending poorly, creating little of any note and rolling over with far too much readiness once the game began to run away from them in the second half. Their lack of belief and fight must be a huge concern for Slaven Bilic, who needs his players to realise they are in a relegation battle. There is no room for complacency and Bilic needs Mark Noble’s leadership more than ever now. Noble has been unable to replicate the form that led to him being tipped for an England call-up last season but West Ham badly missed their rested captain against United. Arsenal will run riot at the London Stadium if Bilic’s side perform so meekly again.
4) Omens there for City to end Chelsea’s winning run
Chelsea have won seven league games in a row, something they last achieved in the period spanning the end of the 2009-10 season and the start of the next when, as now, their run had featured the concession of but a single goal. Ominously that string of victories came to an end with a 1-0 defeat at Manchester City. Four points clear at the top of the league (this was late September, and they had played only five games) when they set off for what was still known as the City of Manchester Stadium, Chelsea had been overtaken by the end of November and they ended the season nine points behind Manchester United. There are omens there for both of these teams. After all, on the same weekend this season it was City who had a four-point lead at the top of the table (at that stage their advantage over Chelsea was eight), yet a couple of months later they lie third and Pep Guardiola has been speaking of this match as a chance “to play the best team at the moment in the Premier League”. “The last five or six weeks they have played amazing,” he said of Antonio Conte’s side. “We have to try and discover his secret and what we need to do to beat him and will prepare as best as possible.” This could be a definitive test of City’s mettle, in their first meeting with another of the league’s top four sides (they have already lost to the side currently fifth, and are yet to beat a top-half team at home). Given they are unchanged in their last six games, Chelsea’s best team seems established; Guardiola’s will remain uncertain at least until late on Saturday morning, when it will become clear precisely how impressed he has been with Yaya Touré’s recent good performances (Ilkay Gundogan is expected to return to the starting XI in his place).
5) How much gas is in Crystal Palace explosion?
The focus will once again be on Alan Pardew as the beleaguered Crystal Palace manager goes into the home match against Southampton clinging to his job in the wake of last week’s extraordinary defeat at Swansea City’s Liberty Stadium. In a lengthy interview with Dominic Fifield for the Guardian as recently as mid-October, Pardew said he was aware of talk linking him with the England job but suggested he had no wish to leave Palace and wanted to be remembered for the legacy he would leave at the club. That much, at least, seems assured. The interview made for interesting reading, not least Pardew’s talk of the numerous technological innovations he had overseen at Crystal Palace’s training ground. Blinding your players with science is all very well but, when smartphone apps, Sky Pads and number-crunching appear to come at the expense of the rudiments of defending set pieces, something has clearly gone terribly wrong. Crystal Palace’s inability to defend corners and free-kicks was highlighted in this column last Friday and the following day they shipped four goals from dead-ball situations. “I don’t just want them to do basic things, I’m asking them to do complicated things,” said Pardew of his players in October. Five consecutive defeats later he must be ruing those words.
6) West Brom’s chance to assert themselves
Flying under the radar, West Bromwich Albion are an unlikely presence in the top half of the table. That looked unthinkable when they slumbered to a goalless home draw with Middlesbrough at the end of August, when a few rumbles of discontent could be heard from West Brom’s fans about their team’s style of football. Yet now, at the start of December, Tony Pulis has West Brom in ninth place. They are tipped as possible relegation candidates at the start of every season, yet Pulis has never been relegated from the Premier League and, while his pragmatism can be tough to watch, it is impossible to argue that he is not meeting expectations at The Hawthorns. But can he exceed them? With two wins and a draw from their past three matches, three points over Watford could see West Brom end the weekend in sixth place.
7) Eriksen must produce more
Christian Eriksen is one of those players whose reputation often protects him from widespread criticism. Yet many Tottenham fans have been unimpressed with the Dane’s contribution this season. Sure, Moussa Sissoko is the main whipping boy at White Hart Lane at the moment. Mauricio Pochettino pulled no punches with his assessment of the £30m summer signing’s form last weekend. But it was also interesting to hear Pochettino demanding more desire from his attacking midfielders in the final third a few weeks ago, when Harry Kane was yet to return from his ankle injury and Tottenham were struggling for goals. As the most high profile of Tottenham’s creators, much of the responsibility falls to Eriksen. Compared with his rivals at other clubs – Mesut Özil, say, or Philippe Coutinho – he has not produced enough. Having scored his first league goal of the season with a fine strike in last week’s defeat at Chelsea, Eriksen needs to push on when Swansea City visit White Hart Lane on Saturday.
8) More Premier League indifference from Leicester City?
Make no mistake, Leicester are in serious danger of being relegated. They will always have last season’s fairytale title win but they desperately need to arrest their current slide if they are to avoid the ignominy of becoming the first reigning English champions to go down the next season since Manchester City in 1936-37. While their adventures in Europe have made a mockery of their domestic form, they may also have contributed to it; most of the current squad have been there, done that and were always unlikely to do it again as far as the league title is concerned, while their run in the Champions League is a novel and exciting escapade. Leicester have won only one top-flight encounter since beating Burnley in the middle of September – against the haplessly charitable Crystal Palace – and are currently on a run of four without a win in the Premier League. Failure to beat the bottom side Sunderland would get the alarm bells jangling in earnest but it is a measure of the champions’ apparent indifference to their league form that this is a match Sunderland will go into with something approaching bullish confidence.
9) Another northern Monday night
Tinfoil hat-wearing southern conspiracy theorists may be curious to learn that Middlesbrough v Hull City continues a quirky six-match run of Sky Monday Night Football matches featuring teams almost exclusively located north of Watford Gap, with the Welsh side Swansea City and … actual Watford being the exceptions. Since Chelsea beat West Ham in an all-London needle match in August, Sky has used its Monday night showcase to present Sunderland v Everton, Burnley v Watford, Liverpool v Manchester United, Stoke v Swansea and West Brom v Burnley – a largely uninspiring selection of fixtures in which the only one likely to get neutrals bubbling with anticipation turned out to be the lamest of the lot. Obliged to televise a certain number of each team’s games, Sky is clearly keeping its powder dry until the business end of the season by fulfilling its obligations to less glamorous sides who will not be involved in the title shake-up early doors. On the face of it events do not really get less glamorous than Middlesbrough taking on Hull City at the Riverside on a freezing Monday night in December. Indeed, the huge number of empty seats at the KCOM Stadium stadium for Hull’s midweek EFL Cup quarter-final win over Newcastle suggests many of the visiting side’s increasingly disaffected fans will not even bother tuning in. In the absence of any pre-match hoopla, those who will are left to hope both teams contrive to serve up a decent game for a TV show that remains more popular for its fascinating extended pre- and post-match punditry than most of the football action it hypes without an ounce of shame or sheepishness.
10) Stoke and Burnley labour over whether to stick or twist
Burnley’s five away games this season have brought one point and a 1-13 aggregate scoreline, the most recent – a 4-0 reverse at West Bromwich Albion – so riling Sean Dyche that he called his charges “weak-willed” and promised extensive change. “The definition of madness is always doing what you’ve always done and expecting a different outcome,” he has since mused. Stoke showed the potential benefit of a bit of change when using an unfamiliar 3-4-3 formation to secure a 1-0 win at Watford last weekend, a result achieved despite the absence of Joe Allen, Glenn Whelan, Jack Butland and Ryan Shawcross – at least the first two of whom are likely to return here. “We had a different formation, a different game plan than we’ve normally had,” Mark Hughes said this week. “That’s another string to our bow, it’s one we can revisit. We may well continue in the same vein.” Burnley will surely look to add another string to their bow rather than sticking with the 4-4-1-1 with which they started at The Hawthorns. “We’ve got to rethink our mentality away from home and what we’re about,” Dyche said, “rethink how we can take maybe different shapes, different formats, personnel.” Their poor away form certainly increases the pressure on the home side to beat them but Hughes is not worried about being taken by surprise by Dyche’s anticipated noodlings. “It might be the case that we face a team that we’re not expecting,” he said, “but we’re in good form, so it doesn’t matter what they do really.”
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