It feels eerily like Brendan Rodgers is mirroring Roy Hodgson and Rafael Benitez’s final doomed days at Liverpool. Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli also need huge performances. Plus, Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho and Manchester United’s right-back.
“Weak”, “soft” and “lacking characters leaders and winners” was the typically subtle verdict from Roy Keane on Arsenal in midweek. It’s a withering assessment that could have been made at any point over the last decade, but it’s an assessment which is growing more and more difficult to challenge.
Where Wenger could previously fall back on progress in the Champions League and a top-four finish in the Premier League whenever his job security was questioned, one of those ‘achievements’ grows more unlikely with each game. Defeats to Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiacos leave Arsenal bottom of their group in Europe, with back-to-back ties against Bayern Munich next. A top-four finish alone may not be enough to save the Frenchman come the summer; indeed it should not be enough.
As Sarah Winterburn wrote in midweek, Wenger got it wrong against Olympiacos. Very wrong, no less. With progress in the Champions League in major doubt, the leaders await in a Premier League clash the Frenchman cannot afford to lose.
If history is anything to go by however, that’s the most likely outcome. The Gunners have beaten United just twice in 17 meetings since 2008, and just once in the Premier League in that sequence. Arsenal have a lower win percentage against United in the league (24%) than versus any other opponent. You can’t help but feel Wenger will be more eager to ensure avoiding defeat rather than gaining the win at the Emirates on Sunday, thus sending out further mixed messages to his supposed title challengers.
“Be careful with the younger players, the players who arrive in the Premier League and perform well. It’s not easy. But again, like last season, it’s not my decision. It’s Roy Hodgson’s decision if he wants to call up Dele Alli. Always in football it’s step by step and we need to be careful. It is too much of a rush to talk about bigger steps for him.” – Mauricio Pochettino, September 25.
“We’ve been impressed with Dele Alli and this is a chance to get to know him. He’s a very exciting talent.” – Roy Hodgson, October 1, after naming Dele Alli in his England squad.
It’s been quite the meteoric rise for the Spurs midfielder. This time last year he was starting for MK Dons against Yeovil in League One; this time in two weeks he could be an England international. For a player with three Premier League starts to his name, much is being asked of good old Bamidele Jermaine.
All eyes will be on the 19-year-old at the Liberty Stadium on Sunday. Whether he replicates his performance against Manchester City from a deeper-lying role or he is utilised in his cutomary more advanced role, Alli will be expected to prove just why he is in line to feature for England despite boasting just two Under-21 caps.
Who fancies a game of spot the difference?
Exhibit A: “The doom and gloom that surrounds us is not coming from within the club, not from me and not from the players – it’s coming from people outside who are having a field day and delighting in the fact we are having a bad time.”
Exhibit B: “I am pretty confident that there is a group of people that don’t want me here to be the manager. Sometimes we haven’t lost games and the hysteria around it is pretty clear that there is maybe something else going on from behind.”
The former comes from Roy Hodgson, the latter from Brendan Rodgers; nearly five years apart to the day. From the bizarre excuses all the way down to the dire performances, this season has been strikingly similar to the final campaigns of both Hodgson and Rafael Benitez before their respective exits.
A draw with FC Sion in isolation is bad, but in the context of Liverpool’s season it merely adds to the increasing pressure on the manager. It is now just three victories from 10 games in all competitions. How Liverpool and Rodgers acquit themselves in the first Merseyside derby of the season could come to define his reign.
Defeat on Sunday is unfathomable for the Northern Irishman, but this is an Everton side fifth in the table and playing in front of a raucous Goodison Park crowd. Considering Liverpool’s last five Premier League wins have come against Bournemouth (currently 16th), Stoke (17th), Aston Villa (18th), Newcastle (19th) and QPR (13th. In the Championship), the Reds are quite heavy underdogs up against their neighbours.
Time to spare a thought for Liverpool fans currently in possession of a 2015/16 club calendar. Those poor souls must suffer with the image of Raheem Sterling adorning their wall throughout all of October – a timely reminder of what they once boasted as the club continue to struggle. Of course, the club isn’t the only one still acclimatising to the move.
For Sterling, the switch from playing the role of big fish in the little Anfield pond to plankton lost amidst the Manchester City talent pool has been an understandably difficult one. This is a player who was asked to help provide for Rickie Lambert and Mario Balotelli on regular occasions last season, and Sergio Aguero and team-mates this.
It’s difficult to shake off the feeling that Sterling needs to produce a big performance in a City shirt sooner rather than later. The England international has missed just one Premier League game this season – that through injury – but has been substituted in a club-high five games. Liverpool are struggling without one of their most potent attacking threats, but Sterling himself is yet to truly adjust to the quality at the Etihad.
It’s understandable. Sterling is still only 20 and has the weight of expectation still sat firmly on his shoulders after becoming a £44million footballer in the summer. It’s arguable that his versatility, while one of his key assets, rather plays against him in a City side boasting players with similar acumen.
“They know they must perform because if they do not they will be replaced,” was the stark warning from defender and team-mate Eliaquim Mangala in midweek. Where Liverpool had no-one better to compete for his place, City have potential replacements in abundance if necessary. Sterling could do with improving his record of one league goal and assist each so far this season to avoid such a scenario.
Another defeat in midweek, but a different tactic from Jose Mourinho. He avoided repeating similar criticism of his players after defeat to Porto, expressing the need to nurture “good feelings, happiness, self-esteem” among his squad. It might be a little too late for that, Jose.
The Champions League reverse on Tuesday represented Chelsea’s fifth defeat in nine weeks in all competitions so far this season; they had suffered their previous five defeats in 55 weeks beforehand. The most startling aspect of the Blues’ form is the continued presence of Branislav Ivanovic in the starting line-up.
Where John Terry, Eden Hazard and Nemanja Matic can be dropped at will, Ivanovic lives a charmed life at right-back. The Serbian has not started a league game on the bench since April 2013 – a run of 62 consecutive Premier League games. The only thing more baffling is that Mourinho is sure to persist with his ‘trusty’ lieutenant in a game Chelsea cannot afford to not win against Southampton.
Manchester United’s right-back
Whomever it may be. Louis van Gaal has his pick of actual right-back Matteo Darmian, bit-part right winger Antonio Valencia, centre-half Phil Jones or bench-bound Ashley Young for Sunday’s test against Arsenal and a newly in-form Alexis Sanchez. Each option will have lasting repercussions for the league leaders.
Darmian is the obvious option – being a right-back and all – but the Italian is also the most reliable choice on a left-hand side vacated by Luke Shaw. If Wednesday’s Champions League victory over Wolfsburg proved anything, it’s that Valencia simply shouldn’t be a starting full-back for a side with such lofty ambitions. The Ecuadorean silenced Sanchez twice last season, but you wouldn’t bet on lightning striking a third time.
Whatever Van Gaal decides, Sanchez is the reward. After struggling at the start of the season, the Chilean has now plundered four goals and provided one assist in his last two games. If Valencia struggled against Wolfsburg, imagine him facing that little fella. And if Jones is favoured, just imagine the gurns.
Said Aston Villa boss Tim Sherwood back in May: “I am allowed to sign whoever I want in the summer as long as I can justify it, but I believe even if we didn’t make a signing we wouldn’t be in this position again.”
Said Aston Villa boss Tim Sherwood after defeat to Liverpool left them 18th: “We need to stay in the division and if we do we will be stronger next year.”
Even in drastically lowering expectations to “if we stay in the division”, Sherwood has managed to make yet another promise he will struggle to keep at Aston Villa. The club may have lost Christian Benteke and Fabian Delph in the summer, but if you are considerably weaker after over £50million worth of investment (only Chelsea, Liverpool and both Manchester clubs spent more), how does one propose you will be “stronger” next season?
Football in the north east
14 games, nine defeats and 11 goals. So stands the cumulative record of Newcastle and Sunderland, currently 19th and 20th in the Premier League respectively and the final two teams yet to record a victory. Newcastle travel to Manchester City (2nd), while Sunderland host away-day revellers West Ham (3rd).
Still, at least Middlesbrough are doing well.
A very different challenge awaits Claudio Ranieri at Leicester this weekend. No longer Europe’s form team, the Foxes head into a Premier League clash at Norwich with their unbeaten record no longer intact. Momentum is crucial, and winning it back is not easy.
For any side to lose their three most important players – and two most expensive signings in their history – within a matter of weeks is devastating. For a newly promoted side it borders on disaster. Eddie Howe is faced with the task of replacing Tyrone Mings, Max Gradel and now top goalscorer Callum Wilson in his Bournemouth squad.
Zero goals in two games? If he’s not careful he’ll revert back to a ‘£56.7million man’ soon.