Game to watch: Arsenal v Crystal Palace
Amid all the talk of transfers at Arsenal – and there’s bloody loads of it – you could be forgiven for forgetting that there is a football match taking place at the Emirates this weekend.
To the more gossip-hungry Gunners, it is an unwanted distraction from all the speculation about signings, and Arsene Wenger might well be glad of that because it takes the focus away from his team’s wretched fortunes on the pitch in recent weeks.
Two wins in 11 matches is not good enough overall but the last fortnight has been especially grim, with two poor performances following a couple of Premier League draws which could easily be pinned on the officials. Which is what Wenger wanted to do to Mike Dean in the most literal sense at West Brom.
Seeking revenge for one of those rare Arsenal wins are Palace, whose defeat to the Gunners at Selhurst Park just after Christmas represents their only defeat in 12 Premier League matches. It has been a stunning turnaround inspired by Roy Hodgson, who has transformed the Eagles from relegation certainties, without a point or a goal in the opening seven matches, to a side that is now rarely discussed as even being a candidate for the drop.
No longer are Palace lacking a punch, and Wenger would be right to be worried about their potency in attack. If they watched Arsenal at Forest or Bournemouth, then Christian Benteke, Wilf Zaha and Bakary Sako will be relishing another crack at the Gunners’ rearguard, which is at least boosted by the return of both Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal to paper over some canyon-sized cracks.
As exciting as Arsenal’s transfer business may be, it could make very little difference in the context of this Premier League season if they allow the deficit to the rest of the big six to grow any larger than the current five points. This one is crucial.
Team to watch: Swansea
Since Carlos Carvahal took over, the Swans have shown a bit of spirit and that, combined with the general wretchedness of the teams around them, has offered some hope that all might not be lost in the battle for survival. In addition to FA Cup progression, Carvahal has claimed a win, a defeat and a draw from his three Premier League games in charge and, despite being an initially-underwhelming appointment, the former Sheffield Wednesday boss seems to have stamped his mark on the side already.
One thing Carvalhal appears insistent upon is that his team builds from the back and, where possible, play their way out of tight areas. Under Paul Clement, Swansea averaged 185 passes per match inside their own half. Since he was sacked, that number has risen to an average of 253 – an increase of 37%.
Their passing accuracy has also improved but, as you might expect from a team rooted to the foot of the table, they remain prone to error. Newcastle harried them early on at St James’ Park last week and if the Magpies possessed even a smidgen of ruthlessness, they could have had the points wrapped up before the half-hour mark.
If Newcastle can break up the Swans’ possession high up the pitch, then just imagine what Jurgen Klopp’s pressing machine might achieve on Monday night. Carvalhal has a decision to make over whether he continues to instruct Alfie Mawson and Kyle Bartley to take risks on the ball, especially when the back four could contain a young right-back in Connor Roberts who has yet to make a Premier League start. That is unless Mike van der Hoorn recovers from injury in time to take up a position he looked less than comfortable in when faced with the pace and pressing of Christian Atsu last week. And if you’re not comfortable with Atsu, best of luck with Sadio Mane.
Player to watch: Juan Mata
The speculation surrounding Alexis Sanchez will not have escaped the forward players already at Jose Mourinho’s disposal. Among that array of attacking talent, it seems Juan Mata has most to lose from the Chilean’s arrival and a much-needed injection of oomph.
In seeing off the challenge of Henrikh Mkhitaryan for his place in Mourinho’s XI, the Spain playmaker may have given himself another problem, with his form making the Armenian surplus to requirements and free to facilitate Sanchez’s departure from Arsenal.
At the Emirates, Sanchez was most effective off the left flank but with Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford pushing each other on a weekly basis down that side, Mourinho need not meddle in that area. At Barcelona and before that at Udinese, Sanchez played mostly off the right, which is where United look most likely to use him. At least initially.
That doesn’t necessarily mean curtains for lovely Juan, who can also operate in a central area. But he has earned Mourinho’s trust coming off the right wing, where there is more space to operate. In the middle, where there is less wriggle room, Mata is less effective, especially when you consider Jesse Lingard’s current form.
So Mata, despite becoming one of Mourinho’s most trusted players, has it all to prove again, starting at Turf Moor against a Burnley side who haven’t won in six Premier League matches.
Manager to watch: Paul Lambert
Despite being initially underwhelmed at his appointment, Stoke supporters are feeling a little more positive about Paul Lambert after his first press conference.
During his presentation, the new Potters boss spoke about what was required to provoke the improvement needed to climb the Premier League table. “Going forward, I think we are really good,” he said. “We have to be more aggressive off the ball, close people down a bit quicker and if we can do that we’ll be all right.”
As a route to safety, it’s the simplest any manager could plot. As a minimum, any incoming boss should be able to provoke more graft and intensity out of the players in a new squad. Lambert also needs to organise Stoke as a unit, especially defensively. That is his biggest priority: plug a defence that has leaked 50 goals so far this season, while also retaining a cutting edge in attack. It was a balance he never managed to find in almost three seasons at Aston Villa.
The timescale is vastly different now for Lambert. The next six games will go a long way to deciding their fate this season. In the coming seven weeks, they host Huddersfield, Watford and Brighton, as well as travelling to Bournemouth, Leicester and Southampton. You could consider at least half of Lambert’s first six fixtures as six-pointers, before a run of matches against Man City, Everton, Arsenal and Spurs. With no time to waste, Stoke need the new manager bounce to begin this weekend against the Terriers, who have conceded seven in their last two outings.
One-v-one battle to watch: John Stones v Joselu
John Stones was regarded as one of the biggest success stories of Manchester City’s stunning season before a hamstring injury kept him sidelined for nine Premier League matches. Since returning to the side, City have not kept a clean sheet in four matches and Stones has regressed, making three errors that have led to goals in his last three outings.
This weekend perhaps offers the England centre-half the perfect opportunity to play his way back into some form. Newcastle are toothless at the best of times, but when these two sides met three and a half weeks ago, Newcastle rarely strayed across the halfway line. Nicolas Otamendi completed seven more passes than each of Newcastle’s outfield players combined. Despite the criticism he received for such a lack of ambition, and the desperate need Newcastle fans have at the moment for something positive to cheer, Rafael Benitez is too stubborn to deviate too far from that plan again.
If Stones is to be rattled again, then Joselu, who started against City last time out and came off the bench to rescue Newcastle against Swansea after Dwight Gayle had wasted three great opportunities, needs the performance of his Premier League career, because he is unlikely to get much help. If nothing else, it will be a test of Stones’ concentration and one he must pass if he is to shake off the questions that are again being raised.
Football League match to watch: Derby County v Bristol City
The Friday Night Football offering from the Championship brings together two sides in vastly contrasting form. Derby are on the rise, having climbed into second place on the back of an eight-game run that has seen Gary Rowett’s side win six and draw two. Bristol City, however, are on the slide. The late home defeat to leaders Wolves when Lee Johnson’s side were their nearest challengers has sparked a streak of five defeats, with no goals scored in their last three Championship matches.
Perhaps you could forgive the Robins for having half an eye on the Carabao Cup semi-final second leg next week, when they will attempt to overturn a one-goal deficit against the Premier League leaders. But Johnson has always maintained that their Championship campaign remains the priority. Unless they arrest their slide quickly, City could finish the weekend clinging on to a play-off spot despite only weeks earlier being talked up as leading candidates for automatic promotion.
European game to watch: Inter Milan v Roma
Tune in on Sunday evening to see these two Serie A heavyweights desperately attempt to revive their campaigns.
All appeared to be going swimmingly for both sides before December arrived. Inter were top of the table before they drew at Juventus on December 9. Since then, the Nerazzurri’s unbeaten start seems like a distant memory, having lost two and drawn two of their four Serie A matches to slip nine points off the pace being set by Napoli. Luciano Spalletti has also seen his side knocked out of the Coppa Italia by AC Milan.
Roma also require a kick-start to their season after failing to win any of their last four matches, which also included a cup exit. But victory over their former coach this weekend, with Radja Nainggolan restored to the side, could see them return to the top four, perhaps even replacing Inter in the top three.
After positive starts, the more extreme view is that both teams are approaching crisis point. Victory on Sunday will dig either side out of such a rut.