Louis van Gaal
When Trevor Sinclair is issuing erroneous breaking news with regards to your future on Twitter, you know you’re in trouble. One game, two games, the end of the season, the summer of 2017, or beyond. Whatever the reported deadline, the time is now for Louis van Gaal at Manchester United.
Yet a turnaround looks unfathomable. United have lost three consecutive games, these to Wolfsburg (7th in the Bundesliga), Bournemouth (14th in the Premier League), and Norwich (16th in the Premier League). Their three preceding fixtures bore a draw in each. Six games without a win, and now Van Gaal is expected to rally his uninspired troops against Stoke and a potentially resurgent Chelsea. The Dutchman requires at least one win to alleviate any of the building pressure at Old Trafford.
As was written last weekend after a fourth league defeat of the season: ‘The reasons for Van Gaal’s immediate unemployment now firmly outweigh those for continued faith.’ The Dutchman was only ever a short-term appointment, but now even the initial three-year contract feels altogether too long a stay; he is not yet halfway through that term. Some fans have turned against the manager, chanting the name of a certain Portuguese at Old Trafford on Saturday. Looking at the collective and individual performances of his players, they have given up on him, too. It’s up to Van Gaal to reunite both camps in order to rescue his job.
So once again, Guus Hiddink enters Chelsea as an emergency safety net, tasked with stabilising a club in danger of implosion. His first appointment as interim manager came with Chelsea in 4th place in February 2009, seven points behind leaders Manchester United. This time they are 15th, 20 points behind leaders Leicester with fourth-placed Spurs 11 points ahead.
For Hiddink, this is once more a no-lose situation. Talk of fractures within the playing squad, combined with a growing vocal unrest from the supporters, has threatened to engulf Chelsea this season. If Hiddink turns it around, he is a genius. If he fails to do so, it was an impossible task even before his arrival.
Yet all is not lost. Jose Mourinho may have left Stamford Bridge under a dark cloud, but Chelsea still have 21 games to rescue their Premier League season. The Champions League has previously been Chelsea’s saviour, and French champions Paris Saint-Germain await in the round-of-16.
Hiddink’s immediate objective will be to channel the performance against Sunderland last weekend. Sam Allardyce’s men provided willing opponents at Stamford Bridge, but the players undoubtedly played with more freedom during their 3-1 win. If Hiddink can find a formation which optimises the talents of Eden Hazard and suits the excellent Willian, that will represent a positive start. Dissenting fans would surely relent. After that, discover just what has happened to Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic. Baby steps for now though, Guus.
Something weird has happened at Arsenal. Arsene Wenger’s side historically suffer in games against fellow title rivals, while blowing away struggling opposition with consummate ease. Not this year.
Arsenal have gained 16 points from six games against top-third sides this season – more than any other side. Only Tottenham avoided defeat. Extend that record to games against top-half opposition and Arsenal still sit top, earning at least six points more than their closest challengers.
It’s against sides in mid-table and below where Arsenal have struggled. They sit ninth in a table of results against teams in the bottom third, gaining fewer points than Liverpool, Watford and Crystal Palace. Against sides in the bottom half, they have 16 points from eight games; Southampton and Everton boast more.
As impressive as the 2-1 victory over Manchester City was, games against Southampton (12th) and Bournemouth (14th) could provide just as big a test. Winning in big games will mean little unless it is consolidated.
With the January transfer window opening imminently, Diego Costa must realise that his future is in considerable doubt. Throughout 2015, the Spaniard has scored league goals against the following sides: Tottenham (5th last season), Newcastle (15th), Swansea (8th), Southampton (7th), Hull (18th), Sunderland (16th), West Brom (13th this season), Aston Villa (20th) and Norwich (16th).
Next are Watford, who have conceded 16 goals in 17 games, and Manchester United, one of only three teams who have conceded fewer than the Hornets. With Mourinho gone, Costa will be reinstated to first-choice striker. He must prove all over again that he is worthy of such a title.
A run of fixtures featuring Manchester United and Chelsea at home and Swansea and Everton away was supposed to prove beyond doubt that Leicester were only ever plucky, though extremely endearing, underdogs. Ten points from those four games, and the Foxes top the table come Christmas Day. Victory over Liverpool on Boxing Day would edge them closer towards ending the calendar year on top of the Premier League after starting it rock-bottom.
While the Liverpool game is of utmost importance, it’s the clash on the 29th which will shape Leicester’s future. Avoid defeat at home to Manchester City and their title credentials cannot be ignored. A loss would not end the fairytale, but it would certainly threaten it.
The only caveat to Leicester’s ludicrous season has been their results against the top third. While they have won seven of eight games against those in the bottom third, they have won just two in five against their closest rivals in the Premier League table. Arsenal beat them 5-2 back in September; can City inflict just a third league defeat in 26 on the Foxes?
Brendan Rodgers’ league record in eight games at Liverpool this season: Three wins, three draws, two defeats, 12 points, 10th place.
Jurgen Klopp’s league record in nine games at Liverpool this season: Three wins, three draws, three defeats, 12 points, 9th place.
As high as the 4-1 against Manchester City and 3-1 over Chelsea highs have been under Klopp, the lows have at least matched those that spelled the end for Rodgers. The German is a better option to lead the side in the long-term, but Kloppmania is well and truly over.
Amid the recent title talk, Klopp himself insisted it would take time to rebuild a broken Liverpool side upon his arrival in October. A Capital One Cup semi-final against Stoke provides hope of a first trophy since 2012, yet the Premier League remains the undoubted priority. Where Klopp once had a winter break in the Bundesliga, during which his battle-worn players could rest their Gegenwounds, the English game ploughs on through Christmas.
Martin Skrtel’s injury provides another headache for the manager, despite the central defender’s questionable recent form. His six week lay-off leaves Klopp with Kolo Toure, Emre Can and Lucas Leiva (again, what?) as his options in front of
Adam Bodgan Simon Mignolet. Oh, and Mamadou Sakho too, providing he recovers from a bout of Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney inflicted dizziness in time for Boxing Day. The January transfer window hands Klopp an opportunity to bring in some of his own players, and Liverpool are in desperate need of reinforcements in defence and midfield. Some will be playing for their first-team future.
As good as Jordan Ayew’s equaliser against Newcastle was – and boy, it was good – just how useful was it for Aston Villa? Draws mean little for Remi Garde’s men now, with Villa 1o points from safety and five behind Sunderland in 19th. Leicester were bottom at this stage last season, but even they were only five points adrift after 17 games. Where the Foxes suddenly clicked only a drunk gambler would expect the same of the Villans. Fail to beat either Norwich or West Ham and they are gone. Done. Finito. Over. F*cked.
Some may say that the sporadic boos heard around St James’ Park after Newcastle drew with Aston Villa were indicative of an unfair support expecting too much. The Magpies had just beaten Liverpool and Spurs, and made it seven points from a possible nine with a draw, albeit a disappointing one.
Yet Saturday’s game served as a reminder that Newcastle are still underperforming badly this season. McClaren may blame the “emotional fragility” of the fans, but his side are 17th, two points above the relegation zone. They have hit some form of late, but so have the sides around them.
With the pressure firmly back on McClaren’s shoulders, fixtures against Everton and West Brom await. Both look difficult on first viewing, but both are also eminently winnable. The Toffees have won just two games on their travels this season, while only Villa have a worse home record than the Baggies. Failure to win either would render McClaren a manager whose job is once more under considerable threat. Rightfully so, too.
David Moyes, Brendan Rodgers and Dennis Bergkamp were the early frontrunners for the Swansea job after Garry Monk’s sacking earlier this month. Gus Poyet then emerged as the favourite, before talk of Ryan Giggs taking over surfaced. Marcelo Bielsa looked certain to take the vacancy a week ago, but once again, it’s all gone quiet in South Wales.
Alan Curtis has now been in temporary charge for a fortnight, overseeing a loss and a draw in his two games – Swansea have dropped into the bottom three for the first time this season as a result. West Brom and Crystal Palace are next up, but which of the players look capable of inspiring only a second win in all competitions since August?
Biggest flop of the season so far? Perhaps. Liverpool spent £32.5million on Christian Benteke, with the nadir of the Belgian’s short stay at Anfield coming on Sunday. His compatriot Divock Origi, signed for £10million from Lille and named in a Ligue Un worst XI of the season last campaign, brought on as a substitute before him. Roberto Firmino started the 3-0 defeat in a false nine formation and, though Klopp silently conceded that it didn’t work through his substitutions, Benteke was not the first man he called upon to bail him out. A damning indictment on the club’s joint-top goalscorer.
But where does Klopp go now, first against Leicester and then at Sunderland on the 30th? Does he persist with Firmino in a central role? Has Origi earned his chance from the start after some positive showings? Or will Benteke force his way back into the starting line-up? It seems incomprehensible to consider the latter of the three the least likely option, but that is somehow the case. It’s up to Benteke to change that.
‘They’re good, but they’ll only get better,’ was my conclusion on Everton late last month. This is a side who boast a £30million 22-year-old with 110 career goals; a team with a defender at the centre of a £40million battle between Chelsea and Manchester United; a unit built around a central midfielder likened to Paul Gascoigne and Wayne Rooney; a club who bought a winger primed for Barcelona in the summer.
Yet it just isn’t clicking at Goodison Park. Romelu Lukaku has scored in seven consecutive Premier League games, but it is a sequence during which Everton have won just two. The Toffees are stuck in 10th during a season where the elite find themselves crushed under the weight of the underdog. Everton find themselves crushed under the weight of expectation.
The blame must lie firmly at the feet of Roberto Martinez. A young manager with a reputation for flowing, attacking football should be perfect for such an effervescent side, but is he actually holding them back? A trip to Newcastle, followed by the visit of Stoke, offer two fixtures where, frankly, four points should be the bare minimum. Whispers of discontent have already permeated the Everton faithful. It’s difficult to win them back from there.