Game to watch – Arsenal v Manchester United
If the definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has already established himself as the Stephen Hawking of football management. His nascent Manchester United success has been built on a foundation of uncomplicated tactics, straightforward man-management and constant references to the club’s glorious past.
That is no criticism. He has untangled, untwisted and untied a web that was threatening to envelop Old Trafford, having been parachuted into a club being pulled in numerous different directions by numerous different stakeholders. Fractures have been mended and bridges rebuilt faster than anyone thought was possible. Manchester, the red half at least, is United again.
A fresh set of eyes is all it needed to see that the perfect midfield was already in place, that Marcus Rashford could lead the line, and that this was a predator primed to attack, yet one that was still being asked to defend. Loosening the leash only slightly has worked wonders.
But the most intriguing aspect of the Norwegian’s tenure thus far has been his approach to the media. “I feel like I’m part of this club. I know the club,” he said during his first interview as interim manager; that has been a constant theme.
Such statements seem vacuous, meaningless and fatuous to the neutral, but it was precisely what United as a club, as a fanbase, and as a squad needed to hear. After years of neglect and putting on a brave face, many had to be reminded why they fell in love with this club in the first place, and who better to relight that particular fire than an adored former player, one who ‘gets’ the fabled ‘United way’?
As easy as it is to scoff at the sentiment, Solskjaer’s history with United has been integral. But Ryan Giggs proved that being part of the fabric of the club’s illustrious past is no guarantee of success. It can only be a useful weapon if harnessed properly.
True to form, the 45-year-old paid tribute to one of his former teammate’s finest moments on the eve of a FA Cup fourth-round clash with Arsenal. “The semi-final in 1999 is such an important game,” said Solskjaer on Thursday. “When Peter saved that penalty from Denis Bergkamp, that gave us the advantage and we went on to win the treble. If Bergkamp had scored they would have won the double. That is just how small the margins are.
“That is the standout for me,” he continued. “I was substituted so I watched Giggsy’s goal from the sideline. What a goal that was!”
And in one fell swoop, the hearts of each and every United supporter were warmed by such vivid memories, the squad was enamoured with a manager who had been there and done it himself, and the media was too busy eating from the palm of his hand to care. A simple recounting of history, but a genius way of restoring positivity.
Unai Emery is not blessed with the same advantage of a storied playing career on these shores, but his efforts in overseeing Arsenal’s own transitional period have been no less impressive. The victory over Chelsea keeps their Premier League aspirations alive, and two other cup competitions provide more of a welcome distraction than an unwanted obstacle.
In truth, the FA Cup falls well below both the Premier and Europa League on a list of priorities. The Gunners won the trophy three times in Arsene Wenger’s last five seasons, but it became more a symbol of stagnation than progress.
Having lifted it so often recently, the impact of Emery doing so in his first season would be lessened if it was not accompanied with a top-four finish or first European silverware since 1994.
Yet the Spaniard will realise the importance of building momentum while landing a glancing blow on a direct competitor. Stopping United in their tracks might be an even greater incentive than reaching the fifth round.
Now go and read an excellent tactical preview.
Player to watch – Gonzalo Higuain
It will have been the debut he envisaged: a comfortable cup tie at home against lesser opposition. But having missed the deadline to beat Tottenham in the Carabao Cup semi-final second leg, Gonzalo Higuain will have to make do with a date against Sheffield Wednesday on Sunday at Stamford Bridge.
He will be expected to hit the ground running. Chelsea rarely cede to the demands of their managers but have made a notable exception for Maurizio Sarri. To make such a considerable investment in terms of loan fees and wages for a 31-year-old is a great show of faith in the Italian.
But it might well have come six months too late, the horse having long since bolted with the club’s excellent start on its back. Higuain scored 38 goals in 42 games in his solitary season under Sarri at Napoli; he will have even less time to have an even greater impact with his new club.
Manager to watch – Tony Pulis
The same number of games with goals scored in both halves as 21st-placed Rotherham with three (only Bolton have fewer with two). The same number of goals scored as 22nd-placed Reading with 31. The fewest goals per match with 1.82 (the next-lowest is 23rd-placed Bolton with 2.14). Less average possession than bottom club (and Paul Lambert-managed) Ipswich with 46.5%. Fewer shots on target per game than 18 other clubs.
The fewest goals conceded by nine, and the most clean sheets by two. This truly is what Middlesbrough signed up for.
“It’s a big club with big expectations,” Tony Pulis said after a 2-1 defeat to Steve McClaren’s QPR in December, a fourth consecutive league game without victory. “People want performances and results.”
The Welshman would add that “you have to accept there is sometimes going to be criticism”, and there was certainly plenty going spare. Bringing in Pulis as manager is football’s equivalent of selling your soul to the devil, but Boro fans felt considerably shortchanged. This club with this budget and this playing squad shouldn’t be this bad, even under this manager.
Three wins in their last ten Championship games has dented but by no means destroyed a promotion charge, with a staunch defence ensuring that Boro have not slipped out of the play-offs since the second game of the season.
But entertainment has been in familiarly short supply. The club have scored more than two goals in just three of their last 44 games in all competitions, beating Sheffield United 3-0 and drawing 3-3 with Notts County in August. The Carabao Cup provided brief respite until they were dumped out of the quarter-finals by League One Burton.
Another cup run would be welcomed with open arms, and Leicester-conquering Newport ought to be dispatched with ease at the Riverside. Pulis should relish a clash against his home-town club, and an actual home game against a side 13th in League Two.
Boro’s 5-0 victory over Peterborough in the third round was the joint-biggest win over league opposition of Pulis’s entire career, matching Stoke’s semi-final demolition of Bolton in 2011, and a comfortable Championship cruise past Norwich in 2006. He really ought to try and raise that bar, if only to treat a fanbase that has witnessed just four home wins since the start of October.
Team to watch – Barnet and Brentford
The Bees play The Bees at The Hive. You might say there’s a real…*ahem*…hum about the place.
No, wait, buzz. I meant buzz about the place.
Football League game to watch – Norwich v Sheffield United
There now exists an invisible but completely tangible divide in the Championship. On one side stand Leeds and the 12 other clubs who have seemingly no problem whatsoever with the most absolute basic level of opposition scouting possible. On the other are Blackburn, Brentford, Bristol City, Derby, Hull, Middlesbrough, Millwall, Norwich, Nottingham Forest, Preston and Swansea, who are so up in arms over the despicable Marcelo Bielsa that they literally don’t know what year it is.
— I'd Radebe Leeds (@Radebe_Leeds) January 23, 2019
One representative from each side of the same coin meet on Saturday in a game Leeds will, obviously, keep a close eye on. Second-placed Norwich host fourth-placed Sheffield United in a game that will have a significant impact on the Championship’s promotion race.
Norwich were left one place outside the relegation zone when they last faced the Blades. Billy Sharp’s stoppage-time winner at Bramall Lane in August consigned them to a morale-sapping defeat, and Daniel Farke looked in imminent jeopardy of losing his job. The Canaries won just one of their opening six league games, but have earned 48 of a possible 66 points thereafter to rise to second, a single point behind Leeds.
Chris Wilder’s United had a similarly difficult start in losing their first two games, but have not dropped out of the play-offs since the start of September. After setting a similar pace but failing to keep it last season, lessons will have been learned.
It should, at the very least, be a bloody good game between two of the division’s best sides. If not, hopefully there will be a repeat of these beautiful scenes.
— Crap 90s Football (@Crap90sFootball) January 21, 2019
European game to watch – Dijon v Monaco
There is the Higuain derby between Napoli (2nd) and AC Milan in (4th) Serie A. There is the clash between Feyenoord (3rd) and Ajax (2nd) in the Eredivisie. There is the meeting of Atletico Madrid (2nd) and Getafe (6th) in La Liga.
But for those who prefer to spice it up a little, flick on BT Sport Extra 2 at 7pm on Saturday to watch manager-suspending Monaco try and cut the mustard against Dijon.
Home side Dijon are one place and two points above their beleaguered visitors, who did not quite but pretty much actually did sack Thierry Henry on Thursday. If they ever are going to pull themselves clear of relegation trouble, now is probably the time.