Big Weekend: McClaren, United, Arsenal…

Date published: Friday 5th February 2016 9:30

Daley Blind Manchester United

Newcastle
The feel-good factor sparked by Newcastle’s transfer activity has disappeared almost without a trace following an “unacceptable” showing in their 3-0 defeat at Everton. Most worryingly, Steve McClaren put the surrender down to poor attitude, rather than any of the technical deficiencies his squad so obviously display.

The Magpies are barely good enough when their mentality is right and McClaren said before the Everton trip that his side cannot waste any more games, which is exactly what they did at Goodison. The manager compared his side’s approach to the dark days in November when they lost 3-0 and 5-1 to Leicester and Crystal Palace respectively. McClaren tried the stick, then the carrot, with the latter approach then prompting wins over Liverpool and Tottenham.

McClaren needs to provoke the same reaction because time is running out for him too. He’s already lost a large proportion of the supporters and Mike Ashley will surely remember the experience of last season, when the Toon almost paid for his inertia with their top-flight place.

A scenario that would leave Newcastle five points from safety this weekend is not all that unlikely. The Magpies then go to Chelsea, after which they have an 18-day break, which some supporters have already identified as the most convenient time to make a managerial change.

So victory is a must on Saturday. To achieve that, Newcastle must break down a stubborn West Brom side, and keep them out with a makeshift defence. Chancel Mbemba and Paul Dummett are likely to be missing with the suspended Jamaal Lascelles, meaning either Rolando Aarons or Jack Colback will play at left-back, with Steven Taylor drafted in for his first start in six months. Good luck.

 

Norwich
The Canaries have lost their last five, and as Daniel Storey pointed out in midweek Winners and Losers, Alex Neil’s side have conceded four more goals in that run of defeats than the previous 12 matches. That, and the fact that they have allowed more shots on target against them in 2016 than any other team, points immediately to where the problem lies.

Neil fielded two new recruits in the back four during the 3-0 home defeat to Tottenham. Ivo Pinto was dreadful in the first half, while centre-back Timm Klose summed up his debut like this: “I thought I had Harry Kane under control but he scored twice.”

Villa Park this weekend could see two teams s***ing themselves through 90 minutes. Villa have won one of their last 12 at home while Norwich have triumphed in only one of their last 11 on the road. Both sides are neither solid nor threatening in attack. At least Norwich have Steven Naismith and Patrick Bamford to freshen up their forward line, while Neil must realise that a point is not good enough against Villa, a team in turmoil and a club seemingly resigned to relegation.

 

Manchester United
Two wins and six goals have relieved the pressure slightly on Louis van Gaal, but it all seems too little too late for the Dutchman. He appears likely to make it to the summer but all signs point to a parting of the ways come the end of the season.

Van Gaal can still leave United as a Champions League club and maybe even trophy winners, but consistency must be found quickly if the 64-year-old is to head off to the Algarve on anything other than a sour note.

The win over Stoke was widely seen as United’s best home performance of the season but that will count for little if Van Gaal sends out a team to frustrate Chelsea. It’s not clear how much input Van Gaal currently has – the players appear to have taken their opportunity to seize some of the control from their dictatorial coach – but the Blues are certainly not a force to be feared.

Van Gaal has yet to find a balance between attack and defence on the road, with the draw at Newcastle impressing more observers than the smash-and-grab win at Liverpool. At least Michael Carrick is back to orchestrate matters in front of the back four, but there’s only so much he or anyone else can do when the manager keeps picking Marouane Fellaini as a holding midfielder.

 

Arsenal
The Gunners are in real danger of reverting to the same old Arsenal. Their title challenge is far from over, but Arsene Wenger’s side need to show that their recent struggles have been nothing more than a blip – one that ends this week.

Three points from a possible 12; no wins in four games; and no goals in the last three have given Wenger plenty to chew on. The pressure has always got the better of his side over recent years and it is back on the Gunners in a big way as they head to Bournemouth on Sunday.

Wenger has spoken repeatedly about how this Arsenal team is different, but failure to beat the Cherries would make it their longest winless run in the Premier League for five years. Defensively, they look sound, having kept four clean sheets in six games since their Boxing Day gubbing at Southampton. Wenger’s problems begin in front of his back four, where Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini appear incapable of working as a pair. Is Mohammed Elneny ready for a start? If not, why was he Wenger’s only January signing? Francis Coquelin played five minutes against the Saints. If he’s ready, play him.

Mesut Ozil was at his creative best again against Southampton but he and the Gunners are lacking the potency to make their opponents pay. Wenger did not add a top-class striker in January – you don’t find them in the streets, apparently – but it’s no good moaning about that until the increasingly inevitable inquest in the summer.

Bournemouth’s mood will be in stark contrast to that of their visitors, with Eddie Howe’s side having won three of the last four and gained seven points from their last three Premier League matches.  But with Coquelin and Alexis Sanchez both back, this is a game Arsenal must win to capitalise on one or both of Leicester and Manchester City dropping points when they meet on Saturday.

 

Leicester
If the Foxes’ title charge is to come off the rails, surely it will be over the next two games, with a trip to Manchester City preceding a visit to Arsenal.

But why should it? Jamie Vardy is back on fire, Riyad Mahrez is still doing his stuff and Claudio Ranieri’s side look more solid than ever having conceded just one goal in their last six Premier League matches – a run that started with a clean sheet against City.

Ranieri said Leicester “have to run, run and run a lot” at the Etihad but that is a given with the Foxes. If they are beaten on Saturday, it won’t be because City out-graft them.

What’s the worst that could happen? If Leicester lose to City and Arsenal, they will still remain in the title race and firmly in the Champions League mix. They can go to City free of any expectation, and that alone makes them dangerous opponents for Manuel Pellegrini’s side.

 

Alan Pardew
Crystal Palace go to Swansea in a wretched vein of form, having lost their last five Premier League matches and picked up only two points from last 21 available.

Even Handsome Pards sounded like he was feeling sorry for himself after the home defeat to Bournemouth on Tuesday when he bemoaned his side’s lack of composure and the officiating: “No one gets sent off against us, no one.”

Palace’s lack of potency again irked Pardew but Emmanuel Adebayor’s lack of match fitness means the manager must plod on at Swansea with what he’s got. Which is not a lot. Injuries have ravaged Pardew’s squad, with Yannick Bolasie missed most. Yohan Cabaye, though, is back this week, which is handy given James McArthur is now out for the rest of the season.

On top of his squad’s fitness problems, there is a feeling that Palace have simply plateaued. The Eagles probably overachieved during the first half of the season and spent Christmas Day in sixth place before their form dropped off a cliff. The depth of Pardew’s squad means Palace are not yet top-six material but they are better than the 12th place they currently occupy. The next four games against the Swans, Watford, West Brom and Sunderland are an opportunity for Pardew to lift his side back to where he feels they should be.

 

Sunderland
A trip to Liverpool might be seen as something of a free hit for 19th-placed Sunderland, but the performance in the defeat to Manchester City on Tuesday gaves the Black Cats reasons to approach Anfield with feelings slightly more positive than dread.

Sam Allardyce admitted post-match that his side are in “big trouble” but perhaps his pessimism was borne out of frustration at not taking any points from high-flying City. The Black Cats boss added four new first-teamers in January, with three making a very positive impression on Tuesday night.

Lamine Kone looked very assured in the heart of defence; Jan Kirchhoff recovered from a dreadful debut at centre-half to offer a far more accomplished contribution as a holding midfielder; Wahbi Khazri looked a threat when he came on.

If the Black Cats can offer the same level of performance then Liverpool should hold no fear, but much will depend on Big Sam’s expectation.

The boss wanted his side to be close to a point per game before the final eight-match run-in. That leaves Sunderland needing 11 points from the next six games. Time is slipping away and though Anfield might be the trickiest road trip remaining this season, Allardyce and the Black Cats should go to Merseyside in a positive frame of mind.

 

Mark Hughes
Since being spoken of as a contender for the Chelsea and Manchester United jobs, Hughes’s Stoke have got themselves in a rut. In their past four matches, the Potters have exited two cup competitions and lost two Premier League games, both 3-0.

On Saturday, Stoke face an Everton side one place and one point below them. It is the start of a run of five matches against opposition currently in the bottom half of the table. Hughes has to use the positivity generated around the Potteries by the record signing of Giannelli Imbula to stop the rot.

Romelu Lukaku could be missing for Everton, which is convenient for Hughes given his lack of available centre-halves and his team’s dire defending at Old Trafford on Tuesday.

 

Ian Watson

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