Big Weekend: Liverpool v Arsenal, Lukaku, Sanchez, Pep

Date published: Friday 28th December 2018 3:33

Game to watch – Liverpool v Arsenal
It feels like a lifetime ago, yet it is only 55 days since Arsenal and Liverpool played out a pulsating 1-1 draw at the Emirates Stadium. That result meant the two sides were separated by just four points after 11 games. Eight matches later, the gap is now 13 points.

Their respective form since they met last month has indeed differed. Liverpool are on a run of eight consecutive Premier League wins and have their club record of 11 firmly in their sights. Arsenal have won four games, drawn three and lost one, with their own unbeaten run a distant memory. Despite Jurgen Klopp’s protestations, they are most certainly not in a Premier League title race.

Nor should they be. This stumble was always inevitable for a side both in transition and struggling with injuries. Unai Emery’s Midas touch has worn off, long-term doubts still linger over numerous players, and familiar mistakes are creeping in once more. The honeymoon is over, yet that does not mean this will not be a successful marriage.

It is just unfortunate that they come up against a side much further along in their development, much longer in the tooth and much more established in their manager’s image. Klopp’s Liverpool have never looked quite so brilliant; Liverpool as a whole haven’t for quite some time either.

On only three occasions has a Premier League club passed the halfway point of a season without being beaten. Arsenal (2003/04), Manchester United (2010/11) and Manchester City (2017/18) all combined attacking flair with defensive solidity to win the Premier League title, and Liverpool are cut from a similar cloth. They have conceded at least eight fewer goals than any side, scoring more than all but third-placed City.

The solitary black mark against Klopp’s side was – until victory over Manchester United – their record against fellow members of the Big Six. In a mini league between those teams, Liverpool were top from 2015/16 to 2016/17. But their gradual shift from chaos to control has seen them fall to fifth in the same table from 2017/18 to the current season. The only club below them is Arsenal.

As mentioned in 16 Conclusions from last month’s draw: ‘These games used to be Klopp’s playground, but he needs to remember how to pick on people his own size if Liverpool are to succeed this season.’ Their last dropped points came against the Gunners; if they can right that wrong they will enter 2019 with a six-point lead at the top.

 

Players to watch – Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez
Paul Pogba is not the only player to have made the most of his clean Manchester United slate. Nemanja Matic and Fred look revitalised alongside him, Victor Lindelof resembles the player Jose Mourinho thought he had signed, and Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial are enjoying more freedom under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Those eager to suggest these players had simply stopped playing under the previous manager would do well to remember that said manager stopped managing these players properly too. It works both ways.

But there are some who are yet to receive their second chances. Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez have been unavailable for galvanising victories over Cardiff and Huddersfield, so must be desperate to face Bournemouth.

Considering Lukaku’s last game ended with him having more yellow cards than shots against Liverpool, and Sanchez was most recently seen as a second-half substitute in the drab draw with Crystal Palace, it is safe to state that plenty has changed. The shackles are no more, and nor are the excuses.

The pressure has never been higher. United have scored eight goals in two games without their most expensive striker and highest-paid player, and should theoretically welcome such elite attackers back into the fold with open arms. But Rashford will not relinquish his central role so easily, while Lingard, Martial and Mata have had new life breathed into them. Lukaku and Sanchez must fight harder than ever for their opportunities.

 

Manager to watch – Pep Guardiola

“We started the season with cleans sheets, we conceded five goals in I don’t know how many games. It was incredible how stable it was. We have players to play with the ball and it’s not a team built to just defend a lot of the time. But you have to make that effort to change that dynamic.”

Pep Guardiola is fast running out of time to change the worst defensive dynamic of his entire managerial career. The implications of defeat to Leicester were two-fold: first, Manchester City have not kept a clean sheet in their last nine games – the longest such run Guardiola has ever endured as a manager. You have to go back as far as October 2008 and the Spaniard’s first few months at Barcelona for his only other nine-game spell without a clean sheet.

Second, Guardiola has never lost three consecutive league games as a coach. He has lost two in a row twice at City, Bayern Munich and Barca, but never three. As unlikely as it seems that Southampton will complete this maiden hat-trick, the champions must avoid complacency at St Mary’s on Sunday.

After all, Saints gave City a fairly torrid time last season. They required stoppage-time goals to overcome them both home and away, as Guardiola’s side struggled to break down a stubborn, resolute defence. And Nathan Redmond will want to avoid another bollocking from an opposition manager.

A side that dropped 14 Premier League points in all of last season has already dropped 13 after 19 games this campaign. Liverpool’s dominance means the margin for error is already minuscule. Guardiola is walking a tightrope.

 

Team to watch – Huddersfield
Not only does 19th host 20th on Saturday, but the two teams on the longest current winless Premier League runs face one another. Fulham and Huddersfield have both gone six games without a win to prop up the table, and will fancy their chances of turning things around before the year is out.

Fulham’s new-found defensive resilience could play into the hands of a Huddersfield side who deal with adventure about as well as a sleep-deprived grandparent. The formerly expressive Cottagers have actually scored fewer goals (3) than the blunt Terriers (4) in their last six games – although a draw with Wolves finally lifted them off the bottom of the table.

But a six-game losing streak does not look like ending anytime soon for Huddersfield, whose club record of consecutive league defeats stands at seven. Few would bet against them either matching or surpassing it.

As mid-table and the shit seven at the bottom begin to thin out a little, Huddersfield’s plight becomes more clear. They are already five points adrift of safety, and time is running out.

That might not be cause for concern for many sides, but the Terriers must be panicking. They won just three of their last 19 league games in 2017/18, picking up 15 points. Wolves are above them in a calendar year table for 2018, and Swansea are still only six points behind. This slide started last season, and shows no signs of relenting this campaign.

 

Football League game to watch – Leeds v Hull
Norwich face Derby in a game between two sides who have been in the Premier League for a combined 15 of 26 seasons, but never at the same time; Championship leaders Leeds face a far more forgiving task at Elland Road.

Marcelo Bielsa’s side have turned even the staunchest of non-believers into disciples this season. Those who remained unconvinced have surely been converted by back-to-back 3-2 victories through stoppage-time winners. That sort of momentum is impossible to manufacture, and just as hard to resist.

So a home game against the side currently in 16th, 21 points behind, would ordinarily seem straightforward. Yet Hull have found some form of their own, winning four and drawing one of their last five league games.

Nigel Adkins truly has turned the ship around at the KCOM Stadium, with Hull having even held Norwich to a draw late last month. But it would take a gargantuan effort to repeat that feat against the leaders. Leeds have lost at home once in the league since March, and are busy ensuring the wheels are firmly fixed on their promotion bandwagon.

 

European game to watch – Rangers v Celtic
With more than half of the season gone, there might be a genuine title race brewing in the Scottish Premiership. Celtic have won the title with three, eight, two and three games left respectively in the last four seasons. They will surely be pushed a little closer this time around.

They are still top, of course. But the gap to second-placed Rangers is three points, albeit the leaders have a game in hand. Kilmarnock are lurking in the shadows, just a further point behind.

If Celtic are to be thwarted, there is a sense that Rangers must win here. Defeat would give Celtic too great an advantage, while a draw would be a squandered opportunity. But beating Brendan Rodgers’s side would be as much as psychological blow as anything. Celtic have lost as many league games as Rangers (3), so it is not quite as preposterous as it sounds.

The last time Steven Gerrard was so immersed in a title race involving Rodgers, he lost his footing and his nerve in spectacular fashion. If he can remain calm and focused on the task at hand at Ibrox, Rangers have a fine old chance.

Matt Stead

 

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