Forced to defend his use of 4-4-2 after Manchester City lost the midfield battle to Barcelona in midweek, Manuel Pellegrini found himself facing similar questions from the media having stuck with the formation for Sunday’s Premier League defeat at Liverpool.
“The formation was not the problem,” Pellegrini insisted, but the consistent failure of Sergio Aguero or Edin Dzeko to drop into midfield allowed Jordan Henderson, Joe Allen, Philippe Coutinho and co to dominate at Anfield, just as it had allowed Barca to dominate at the Etihad Stadium in midweek.
It is unlikely Leicester will dominate in Manchester on Wednesday, regardless of the formation Pellegrini deploys, but the Chilean is still under pressure to settle on a system that works and, more importantly, ensure City are not left in Chelsea’s wake or, worse, dragged into a battle for second with those beneath them.
Louis van Gaal
On the subject of systems that work, Wayne Rooney’s match-winning double against Sunderland on Saturday will have been as embarrassing as it was a relief for Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal.
The Dutchman had rued the ‘fact’ that none of his strikers had scored consistently this season, but his comments only added to the consensus that Rooney was being wasted in midfield. While the performance against Sunderland will lead nobody to get carried away, Rooney’s double – and another impressive showing from Ander Herrera in midfield – suggested it was a set-up which benefits the team far more than Van Gaal’s experiment.
Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea count for four of United’s next five opponents after the game against Newcastle on Wednesday. Suffice to say, if they are to stand any chance of holding off their resurgent rivals from down the M62, nothing less than three points against John Carver’s side will do. But is Van Gaal willing to abandon his Rooney experiment for good?
While Mauricio Pochettino undoubtedly deserves praise for the strides Spurs have made under his stewardship this season, a Europa League exit followed by a Capital One Cup defeat to Chelsea made last week one to forget for the Argentine.
One point taken from the last six available has also seen the north Londoners slip to seventh in the Premier League and, with Leicester ending their FA Cup hopes in round four, this is now shaping to be, on paper at least, a pretty average season.
There are positives to take, of course, notably the form of young players like Ryan Mason and Harry Kane, but arguably only a top-four finish could rescue this campaign from the full-to-the-brim drawer marked ‘underwhelming’ at White Hart Lane.
On Wednesday they host a Swansea side that has won two in a row and would move to within a point of Spurs – albeit having played a game more – should they make it three. Spurs have got a kind-looking run of fixtures over the next couple of months and could yet play themselves back into Champions League contention, but Garry Monk’s side present exactly the sort of banana skin that has been slipped on several times before in recent seasons…
Praised for the half-time team talk that allegedly inspired Aston Villa’s come-from-behind FA Cup victory over Leicester, Tim Sherwood has found life in the Midlands rather more difficult since officially taking over as manager.
A 2-1 home defeat to Stoke was followed by a 1-0 reverse at Newcastle on Saturday, making it seven straight league defeats for the Villans, who are second from bottom in what looks like being a six-team battle to avoid relegation.
They have undoubtedly shown more attacking adventure under Sherwood and had plenty of opportunities to score before Papiss Cisse netted what proved to be the winner for Newcastle, but there is only so long that a failure to take chances will be viewed by fans as an improvement on a failure to create them.
Sherwood said after the defeat at St James’ that Villa “can’t drop any more points” and, while that may have been an exaggeration, Tuesday night’s game against West Brom is certainly bordering on the ‘must-win’ variety. After an FA Cup quarter-final against the same opponents, Villa still have Manchester United, Tottenham, Manchester City and Southampton to play.
There has been no ‘new manager boost’. Enthusiasm and positivity alone has not proven enough to awake Villa from their slumber. Now Sherwood must prove he has tactical nous, starting against the manager nobody wants to face in these circumstances: Tony Pulis.
As mentioned, Villa have undoubtedly carried more of an attacking threat since Sherwood’s appointment. That is half the job.
Unfortunately, they are heavily reliant on an upturn in form from Christian Benteke, who was described as “one of the best strikers in the country” by Sherwood prior to the Newcastle game but has now gone nine games without a goal.
The Belgian did at least look livelier against the Magpies than against Stoke the previous week, and he came close to ending his drought with a spectacular overhead kick which was well saved by Tim Krul. He later had a goal correctly ruled out for offside, but Villa do not have time for hard-luck stories. They need points, they need goals…they need Benteke.
“Tomorrow it’s not about style, it’s not about passing. There’s a moment when you need to take your chances and win football games somehow and for us that time is right now.”
Gus Poyet continued to peddle the myth that Sunderland have played good football this season, but the Uruguayan has at least recognised the importance of Tuesday night’s trip to Hull City. It may not be a game the Black Cats must win to avoid relegation, but, with a 10-game break between this one and the next, it is may well be a game Poyet cannot afford to lose if he is to keep his job at the Stadium of Light.
Ellis Short proved when bringing in Paolo Di Canio a couple of years back that he is not afraid to change managers late in the season if he feels survival is in doubt – and is it hard to believe the thought has not crossed his mind again, with Sunderland exiting the FA Cup to Bradford and taking only two points from the last 12 available.
Poyet’s handling of the media and his attitude towards fans has also done him few favours, and a victory for Steve Bruce’s Hull at the KC Stadium would move the Tigers four points clear of Sunderland and potentially reduce the relegation scrap to a five-team fight. Such a scenario could well prove the final straw for the club’s fans and board.
It would be patronising to suggest, as many have, that Southampton have had a good season regardless of how they fare in their last 11 games.
In reality, having spent much of the campaign so far in one of the top four places, it would be hugely disappointing if they were to miss out on Europe altogether. They lost three and won only one of their five games in February, however, and are sixth going into the midweek fixtures, only two points clear of Tottenham, who have played a game fewer. It’s too early to suggest the wheels have fallen off for Ronald Koeman’s side, but they are certainly in need of a puncture repair kit.
Tuesday brings a home game against a Crystal Palace side that have won three in a row on the road – five if you count the FA Cup successes at Dover and Burnley – and represent dangerous opposition. Nevertheless, they are the sort of mid-table team Southampton must beat if they are to maintain a European challenge.
Ronald Koeman had prophetically said before Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at West Brom that Saints had not been “effective enough to score and to win games”. That reverse made it only one goal scored in five; another blank against Palace would be a disaster.
Having shocked many, this particular writer included, with the way in which he effectively combined his trademark attacking tactics with Everton’s traditional defensive strength last season, Roberto Martinez has badly failed on both fronts this campaign.
That only four teams have conceded more goals than the Toffees in the Premier League certainly enables a lot of people to say ‘I told you so’ but, even though Martinez must undoubtedly take the brunt of the blame for the failures on that front, it is hard not to feel a tinge of sympathy considering the number of errors made by Tim Howard in particular this season.
It is rather harder to justify the failings up front, however, with Romelu Lukaku once again failing to seriously trouble a defence, this time Arsenal’s on Sunday, largely because of the lack of invention behind him. It was the third time in six Premier League games that Everton had failed to score.
Lukaku also warrants criticism for some of his performances since making his move from Chelsea permanent, but it would be too simplistic to blame Everton’s recent goalscoring problems on the striker alone. Too often they have dominated possession but failed to create chances; it is a criticism of Martinez’s teams that has been put forward too often for it to be mere coincidence.
On Wednesday Everton go to Stoke. Defeat would leave them 14 points behind Mark Hughes’ side and looking down rather than up. Even a victory would not move them to within sight of a top-half finish, but it would, at least, be a start.
Their fall from the European places into mid-table has not been entirely surprising, but a run of only one win in 11 Premier League games, not to mention a 4-0 FA Cup humbling at the hands of West Brom, clearly represents a worrying run for Sam Allardyce’s side. They surrendered eighth place to Swansea on Saturday and could slip to ninth if they are beaten by Chelsea at the Boleyn Ground on Wednesday night.
That, of course, would be neither a shock nor a disgrace, but Sam Allardyce is never too far away from losing the support of many West Ham supporters who still cannot take to his way of playing. With two London derbies to come – the Irons’ next game is at Arsenal – a return to the early-season verve is the least Allardyce needs to keep those fans from turning.
Mark Holmes – he’s on Twitter.