Big Midweek: Arsenal, Coutinho, Firmino, Man City, Lukaku

Date published: Tuesday 12th December 2017 8:18

Game to watch – West Ham v Arsenal
“I’m always happy when I win. The best feeling is the Saturday night feeling after a win. But then I put my jacket on as I left the dressing room and thought, ‘Oh no, we’ve got Arsenal in midweek’.”

The identity of the former Sunderland player who coined one of the most appropriate nicknames in recent history remains a mystery, but David Moyes continues to live up to his ‘Energy Vampire’ moniker regardless. Whether in jest or otherwise, the Scot wasted few valuable minutes basking in the glory of beating the Premier League champions before casting a familiar cloud of doom over West Ham once more.

Moyes had to wait five games for his first win at West Ham – only his second in his last 19 games as a Premier League manager. But most impressive was that all three points against Chelsea were fully deserved. They navigated a light drizzle rather than weathering the storm, but the visiting attack was nullified by a staunch and determined defence.

It was not quite enough to lift the club out of the relegation zone, but light can be seen at the end of the tunnel. They are level on points with Alan Pardew’s West Brom, and one victory could propel them as high as 14th, such is the nature of a bottom half where wheat and chaff are one and the same. Bournemouth were as high as tenth and as low as 15th in a live table on Saturday.

Moyes has arguably already delivered above December expectations. The month started with a close-fought defeat against Manchester City, and continued with victory over Chelsea. Arsenal lie in wait on Wednesday, but three points from that triptych of fixtures is far more than most anticipated.

And while Moyes will approach Wednesday with typical trepidation, a visit from Arsenal is nothing for any top-flight club to fear. The Gunners have won on six of their last seven trips to West Ham, but their away problems are mounting. They have as many points on their travels as Bournemouth this season (8); West Ham have accrued more points at home (ten) in one fewer game.

For West Ham, a draw would be a more than respectable result as they make tentative steps towards survival. For Arsenal, victory is the only option. Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool all left the door to the top four open at the weekend, but the Gunners’ propensity to hit their head on the frame instead of strolling straight through was evident against Southampton. There can be no such excuse on Wednesday.


Players to watch – Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino
In between critiquing the performance of the referee, pushing pins into the eyes of his Sam Allardyce voodoo doll and partaking in an interview more awkward than each of mine when looking for work aged 18, Jurgen Klopp was quizzed over his rotation policy at Liverpool on Sunday.

“We did it in the last six or seven weeks. We do it like this,” he replied. “Can they play better? Yes, but it’s an intense time. Ask everybody who played during the week, it’s intense what we’re doing, so that’s why we made changes.

“We can change as much as we want when we win the games, but when we don’t win the games I take the blame,” the German continued, and he is right. He was lauded for his bravery and Liverpool for their depth in making six changes each to beat Stoke and Brighton in successive games, but five alterations failed to bring the same result against Everton. Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino played a combined 35 minutes from the bench as the Merseyside derby shares were spoiled.

Klopp has made 59 changes to his Premier League starting line-up this season – 20 more than any club in the competition, and already five more than they made in the whole of last season. The addition of European football to the calendar obviously complicates matters, but is the German over-egging the pudding?

The proof will be in how those who return to the starting line-up against West Brom on Wednesday fare. Coutinho has scored four goals and assisted two in his last two starts, while Firmino has scored three and assisted one. But has their potentially unnecessary weekend rest disrupted their rhythm?


Team to watch – Manchester City
Lost under a cloud of water, milk, Mikel Arteta’s blood, Romelu Lukaku climbing over bodies in an attempt to enter an opposition dressing room, a bare-chested Marcos Rojo and Jose Mourinho getting so wound up by Oasis that he swore at Ederson was the headline statistic: Manchester City have won a record 14 consecutive Premier League games.

Already the longest run in a single season, City now have the opportunity to remove all ties to the Arsenal side who recorded 14 straight wins over two campaigns from February to August 2002. A Swansea side who picked up only their third league win in 16 games on Saturday are next.

“They can’t keep winning 2-1 every weekend, can they?” Martin Tyler asked of Gary Neville during the victory over West Ham earlier this month; it is a challenge City have embraced. They have won four of their last five games by that same scoreline, the only outlier being the defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk. Which they obviously lost 2-1.

So expect Wilfried Bony to score his customary goal against one of his former sides in the first half before City huff, puff and blow Swansea’s house down with sheer attacking verve late on. It is their new party trick, and it is pretty impressive.


Manager to watch – Claude Puel
Southampton offered little more than three short paragraphs and glib well wishes, but nothing in the way of an explanation. Claude Puel had guided them to eighth place and an EFL Cup final, but became the latest individual to shuffle through the revolving door of managers at St Mary’s.

At no point did anyone believe that Puel would enjoy a three-place and eight-point gap over his former employers within five months. The Frenchman was perhaps fortunate that an opening presented itself at Leicester, but the club have quietly prospered upon his arrival. They have picked up more points than Arsenal and Tottenham since his appointment.

Puel and Southampton never resembled a happy marriage, but the Frenchman has landed on his feet in his search for companionship. Leicester described him as the “outstanding candidate” and “a perfect fit” in October, and the subsequent results are difficult to dispute. A victory at St Mary’s, where Puel oversaw just one win from January until his untimely summer demise, would be cause for the most muted celebrations.


One-on-one battle to watch – Romelu Lukaku v Steve Cook
As Daniel Storey toils over deciding which of his two beloved children he prefers, Old Trafford will wait more in hope than expectation this midweek. Romelu Lukaku’s two assists for Manchester City on Sunday were as many as he has provided for Manchester United since late October, and the Belgian now has just one goal in his last nine Premier League games.

It is refreshing that Jose Mourinho has chosen not to scapegoat his misfiring striker, but then the Portuguese has little other choice. The alternative to playing Lukaku as a striker has been to shift either Anthony Martial or Marcus Rashford in from the wing, and neither has played regularly as the central focal point in a Mourinho system before. But with each passing game, and each passing minute that Zlatan Ibrahimovic clocks up as a substitute, the pressure is on Lukaku to perform now more than ever.

The 24-year-old is struggling to cope with the added workload of European competition. This is his first campaign as first-choice striker for a Champions League club, and he has played 176 more minutes than any other United player in all competitions this season.

Of the 26 players yet to miss a minute in the Premier League this season, ten are goalkeepers, ten are defenders and five are midfielders. Lukaku is the exception, and has not missed a single Premier League minute since September 2016. If his form does not improve soon, his manager will have little choice but to bring that run to an end.


FA Cup game to watch – Hereford FC v Fleetwood Town
Three teams from the seventh tier of the English football pyramid entered the FA Cup second round; only one remains. Slough Town and Leatherhead of the Southern Football League Premier Division and Isthmian League Premier Division respectively fell to league opposition. Can Hereford avenge them in their replay against Fleetwood Town?

Currently fifth in the Southern Football League Premier Division, The Bulls are nine points behind leaders King’s Lynn Town with five games in hand, because non-league football is beautiful like that. But a promotion push has taken a slight backseat for Hereford, a phoenix club rekindling the past glories of their forefathers in this famous competition. Beat Fleetwood, and the reward will be a home tie with top-flight Leicester in the third round. The Ronnie Radford reference-o-meter would go into overdrive.


European game to watch – Mainz v Borussia Dortmund
For Borussia Dortmund, it was a case of sacking Peter to appoint, well, another Peter. A run of 12 games without a win in all competitions, culminating in a 2-1 defeat to Werder Bremen, brought about the demise of Bosz and the coronation of Stöger.

After topping the table on October 21, Dortmund have combined Champions League collapse with Bundesliga capitulation. They are now eighth, 13 points behind leaders Bayern Munich, and face lowly Mainz on Tuesday.

The appointment of Stöger is, at first glance, a strange one. The 51-year-old was sacked by bottom club FC Köln earlier this month, the club winning none of their first 15 games of the season. But that obscures a four-year reign including promotion, a fifth-placed finish last season, Europa League football and a victory over Arsenal this campaign.

“In four years, Peter Stöger has developed the team excellently at Köln,” said Dortmund sporting director, Michael Zorc on Sunday. His latest journey begins now.

Writer to watch – Matt Stead


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