Game to watch – Manchester United v Tottenham
Midweek football does not get much better than this. There’s beef, there’s intrigue, there’s one man clinging onto his job while pretending that there’s nothing to see here because The Man United Way and 1999 and all that, facing the man – the mercenary, the gun for hire who didn’t ‘get’ the club – whose job he claimed. Both teams are massively flawed, both teams are flaky, both teams are porous, but only one team comes into this fixture in any kind of form. Which means that the side with only three away Premier League wins in the whole of 2019 are the narrow favourites to win at Old Trafford. Largely because Jose Mourinho.
But Mourinho did not win any of his half-dozen clashes with fellow Big Six opposition last season with Manchester United, and has so far only beaten inferior opposition as Spurs manager – and three times they have looked defensively suspect, particularly against Olympiakos in the Champions League. For all the talk of revival – and it’s true that Dele Alli looks like a man re-born after Mourinho’s predictable tweak of playing him closer to Harry Kane – Spurs are yet to be truly tested, but have still contrived to tumble over their own shoelaces. If they can control the game at United, with all the pressure a trip there still brings, then we can truly start taking them seriously as Champions League contenders. And if Mourinho can take it all in his stride without proffering fingers to cameras, fans or badges, we might just start believing that his new-found humility is more than simple PR.
Depending on the fitness of Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay, Solskjaer has decisions to make ahead of Wednesday. If either of the pair can run at 80%, it is probably worth taking a risk; facing a buoyant Spurs with a central midfield of Andreas Pereira and Fred might well be a suicide note that even Ed Woodward cannot ignore. He is also under pressure to jolt the under-performing Anthony Martial, but he might need the Frenchman’s Jose-fuelled anger to give him an edge he has been missing in recent weeks. And even the smallest edge is likely to cause problems in that fragile, sloppy, as-yet-not-Mourinho-ed Spurs defence.
One question: Which result would suit Mauricio Pochettino? The one that boosts his job chances or the one that boosts his ego?
Team to watch – Liverpool
And so 11 games without a clean sheet became 12 as Liverpool first cruised and then threatened to capsize against Brighton. I made Virgil van Dijk my player to watch last weekend, but there was no great prescience; nobody could have predicted that the Dutchman would be the match-winner rather than the match-saver. And so we still await a performance of real control from Liverpool in which the opposition is never granted a chink of light. But maybe we will not see such a performance again this season and maybe it really does not matter. They have forged an eight-point gap without every really looking invincible. When May comes and they claim the title, they really will not care a jot how many clean sheets they have mustered.
They can now boast a club record 31 games unbeaten, with 22 victories from their last 23 Premier League matches. Any complaints or niggles about the unconvincing nature of their recent performances looks ridiculous in the context of such numbers. But then there comes a derby, without their goalkeeper, without their best central midfielder, and with a striker who is yet to score at Anfield this season, and you start wondering again if this is the game in which the cracks become chasms.
We absolutely have to wonder – because otherwise this season becomes a procession that no Premier League neutral enjoys – but in reality, Liverpool somehow finding a way to beat just about everybody 2-1 probably just means that they have another gear and one day soon they are going to leave 11 poor souls in the gutter. That could be Wednesday. But maybe, just maybe…either way, it makes it worthwhile having two screens on Wednesday. Or maybe three…
Manager to watch – Frank Lampard
“I don’t think it’s any time for harsh reactions and judgements across individuals or the team. It’s time for a look at a bit of character to see how our reaction is for Aston Villa,” said Frank Lampard, facing the first mini-crisis of his Chelsea reign after three games in a week without victory. Stretch back further and you find that six November games only brought victory against Watford and Crystal Palace. They should beat Aston Villa at home, but then they should have beaten West Ham.
As Daniel Storey wrote in Winners and Losers: ‘The absence of Tammy Abraham clearly hurt Chelsea. Olivier Giroud is a completely different type of striker and they wholly failed to service him. Mason Mount in particular was poor, but Jorginho not much better. The defensive openness continues to haunt Chelsea. Reece James made a mistake for the goal and Fikayo Tomori is also struggling for consistency. Chelsea have four clean sheets in 22 matches this season. At the same stage last year, Maurizio Sarri’s team had 11.’
The question is what Lampard can change before Wednesday. Will he bring back N’Golo Kante and sacrifice the out-of-form Mount? Will he risk a not-quite-fit Abraham? Will he risk a not-quite-fit Antonio Rudiger? Will he push Christian Pulisic up front and bring in Callum Hudson-Odoi? Lampard might be talking about ‘character’ – which puts the onus on the players – but he might have to look for his own solutions to this mini-malaise. Earn your corn and your burgeoning reputation, Frank.
Player to watch – Rodri
His failure to move quick enough to block Jonjo Shelvey will be remembered by Manchester City fans more readily than any of his 19 actual touches against Newcastle United on Saturday. And that pretty much sums up Rodri’s first few months in English football. It’s all been a bit ‘not quite’ and that’s not quite enough when you are filling the shoes of Fernandinho and your job is to protect a defence featuring John Stones.
Many City fans would love to see Fernandinho return to City’s midfield but Pep Guardiola was prickly when pressed on the subject on Monday. He “prefers Dinho” to actual centre-back Nicolas Otamendi at centre-back so Rodri will face Burnley instead of the suspended Ilkay Gundogan. The good news is that this is one of those games that should suit Rodri’s height; the bad news is that it is likely that he will be colder than he has ever been in his life before. City need him to warm up fast.
Bonus Thursday game to watch – Arsenal v Brighton
There is something seriously naughty about Premier League football on a Thursday. Even if we suspect that most of you will flick back to Sheffield United v Newcastle when you realise just how terrible this no-wins-in-eight Arsenal really are. And then back again to see them secure a 2-2 draw to stay clear of relegation.