All of us
International breaks inevitably draw a series of widespread groans, but absence sure makes the heart grow fonder. After days of counting down on an imaginary advent calendar, domestic football is back.
Borussia Dortmund, Nottingham Forest (leave it), Celtic, the Melbourne derby, Tottenham, Liverpool, Roma, Sevilla, Arsenal, Borussia Monchengladbach, Ajax, Barcelona, PSV, Milan, Valencia, FC Basel, Marseille, Napoli, Fiorentina, Atletico Madrid, Corinthians, Athletic Bilbao, Internazionale and Juventus all live on television in a 48-hour period, with plenty in between. Bliss.
The urge to have Premier League football back during intra-season gaps reflects the success of the product; we’re hopelessly devoted.
If the international break blurred your memories of Chelsea’s crisis, the suspended ban and fine handed to Jose Mourinho by the Football Association will have brought it all back into focus. The punishment was handed out for comments made by Mourinho to the media in which he claimed officials were “afraid” to award Chelsea penalties following the 3-1 home defeat to Southampton.
It is Mourinho’s public refusal to admit culpability for his side’s poor form that most grates. Star players have been blamed. Physios have been blamed. Doctors have been blamed. Officials have been blamed. Governing bodies have been blamed. If each have been attacked in order to create a siege mentality within his squad, the effect has been negligible. This has been a season of regular and significant backward steps, with little respite.
Cesc Fabregas this week claimed that Chelsea could still win the title, but their players and manager must break out of their limp before they can run. Only by beating Aston Villa, Dynamo Kiev and West Ham in their next three fixtures can they avoid the talk of crisis. Mourinho is fighting for his job, and don’t you believe otherwise.
It was former Newcastle striker Micky Quinn who suggested that Steve McClaren had three games to save his job. The immediate reaction was that that seemed one game too many.
Newcastle face Norwich at St James’ Park on Sunday. The game will be broadcast live on Sky. Is this to be another televised north-east barrel-scraping contest?
The following week is the Wear-Tyne derby, Sam Allardyce desperate to beat his old side and cup his ear towards the Gallowgate end. The smile would be wide enough to insert a small barge sideways.
Fail to beat Norwich, and you fear for McClaren’s job safety. Lose or draw to Sunderland and he might as well start clearing his desk. Gone goes the photo of Joseph-Desire Job, gone goes the Dutch phrasebook, gone goes the good luck card from Alex Ferguson.
It’s no overstatement to say that McClaren’s managerial future (in the top flight at least) hangs on Newcastle’s next two games.
In Elliot’s last five games for Newcastle he’s beaten Chelsea at home and Manchester City and Crystal Palace away. Just when McClaren needed a lucky charm.
Depending on what you read and who you believe, Sherwood’s got one, two, three, four or five games to save his job (and reputation). Chelsea (a), Swansea (h), Southampton (a), Tottenham (a), Manchester City (h). Ouch.
Under Dick Advocaat, Sunderland were cast adrift, limp and lifeless in the battle for survival despite not even being bottom of the table when he left. Under Allardyce, things look different. Suddenly you realise that Sunderland are only six points from 13th with 30 league games remaining. A change can do you good.
Allardyce’s big problem is that Sunderland have not just lost games, but lost them to clubs outside the elite. Leicester, Norwich, Tottenham, Bournemouth, West Ham and Aston Villa – no wins. Now comes the tricky run. Before the turn of the year, Sunderland face Everton, Southampton, Crystal Palace, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool.
Sunderland’s Premier League performance outside the home straight of the season is diabolical. Since January 2013, they have won ten league games outside of April and May, a total of 57 points from 76 matches. Time and again they have been saved by a late spurt. At some point that luck will run out.
Sunderland might have appointed the perfect man for the necessary job, but this will be the hardest task of Allardyce’s career. He must plug the worst defence in the Premier League and improve an attack that has scored less than a goal a game over the last three years. He still has 12 games until any new players can be recruited.
It is fitting that Allardyce should start his task against Tony Pulis, for it is the pair’s survival blueprint that Sunderland’s new manager will look to follow. The club’s Premier League status depends on it.
You can probably take the thoughts of former Dutch strikers Youri Mulder and Pierre van Hooijdonk with a handful of salt, but there is no doubt that Memphis Depay has struggled to bed in at Old Trafford. The spectacular form of Anthony Martial has made for unflattering comparisons.
Both Depay and Louis van Gaal have already given reasons for the Dutchman’s poor form, the player blaming the physical demands of the Premier League and his manager pointing to the league’s “high rhythm”. Both are valid excuses, but an improvement is still needed. United can’t afford to carry players.
Depay’s dribbling ability is not in doubt, but his end product has been noticeably lacking in the Premier League. He has created just four chances in 589 league minutes, four times fewer than Juan Mata. When you’ve created half as many openings as 2015/16 Wayne Rooney, you know something is amiss. Assists are far from the perfect barometer of form, but Van Gaal would still appreciate the arrival of the first in the league from his £24.6m signing.
We should be wary of putting too much pressure on a 21-year-old still settling in England, but Van Gaal will be acutely aware that patience is exhaustive. Reports suggest that Depay might be expected to make an impact from the bench this weekend.
Okay, here goes:
- Who starts as the lone striker?
- Does Coutinho play centrally or drift wide?
- Is Adam Lallana his type of player?
- Does he use two defensive midfielders?
- Where does James Milner’s work fit best?
- How far up the pitch do the full-backs roam?
- Where does Emre Can fit in?
- Is Joe Allen set for a renaissance?
- Does Roberto Firmino play left or central, or not at all?
- Can you tell I’m giddy with excitement?
I’ve decided, re-decided and re-decided again on what the (or maybe my?) ideal Klopp team is at Liverpool when all fit, and come up with the following: GK – Mignolet, RB – Clyne, LB – Moreno, CB – Sakho, CB – Skrtel, DM – Lucas/Can, CM – Henderson, RM – Milner/Lallana, AM – Coutinho/Firmino, LF (further up than RM) – Sturridge/Firmino, ST – Benteke/Sturridge. That makes me feel all kinds of sexy.
Manuel Pellegrini and injuries
Coping without Sergio Aguero for a month is enough to cause any manager grief, but when combined with an injury to David Silva, headache is upgraded to migraine. Throw in Aleksandar Kolorov’s hamstring problem, and Manchester City have lost their top scorer, most creative player and best performer this season.
It was therefore an inopportune time for Pellegrini’s bosses to pile the pressure upon City’s manager, inadvertently or otherwise.
“No team can expect to win every year, but competing to win in England’s domestic competitions and improving our performance in the UEFA Champions League are entirely reasonable goals for Manchester City,” chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak said.
“The desire for silverware has always been a critical element of his Highness Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed’s strategy for the reinvigoration of Manchester City FC both on and off the pitch. The fact that we consider last season to be below par for Manchester City is a testament to how far we have come in the last seven years. This is a level of ambition that we should not shirk or shy away from.”
It’s difficult not to feel sorry for Pellegrini. Even if he wins the title this season, the suspicion is that the Chilean would catch City’s owners putting up the bunting for Pep Guardiola’s welcome party. It’s a hard enough job without the Sword of Pepacles hanging over you.
Now the task has got harder still. City face Sevilla, Manchester United, Liverpool and Juventus in the next six weeks, and must do so without the core of their attacking success. A dominant performance against Bournemouth is a necessary prelude.
As is written here, it’s his time to shine. Not before time, too.
Tottenham’s defensive midfielder
With Philippe Coutinho presumably picked in the hole behind the striker, Mauricio Pochettino has a potential headache in central midfield. Eric Dier’s rise as a central midfielder is one of the stories of the season so far, but he collected his fifth booking of the season at Swansea, and is suspended.
That problem is exacerbated by Nabil Bentaleb and Ryan Mason’s struggles for fitness. Between them, the pair have started one Premier League match since the end of August, and are both ruled out of Saturday’s game. The form of Dele Alli has been a revelation, but he is more of a box-to-box midfielder and needs cover.
Pochettino has three possible options. The first is Tom Carroll, probably ruled out on the basis of inexperience. The second is moving Toby Alderweireld into central midfield, but that would necessitate change to a settled defence. The thought of Federico Fazio starting against Daniel Sturridge could cause an awful lot of sleepless nights in north London.
The most logical solution is to play Moussa Dembele as the holding midfielder. A player Tottenham are actively looking to sell must be trusted in an unfamiliar role. Coutinho must be licking his lips.