Big Weekend: Lampard, Man Utd, Jose v Bielsa

Dave Tickner
Jose Mourinho Spurs

Game to watch – Manchester United v Aston Villa
Let’s get the caveats out of the way. We’re guessing a little bit here, while trying not to second-guess ourselves into a corner, about which games you will actually be able to watch. All things being equal, Chelsea v Manchester City is the game you should actually watch. But it might not happen. But it might. But if it doesn’t, some other poor sod is going to have to throw some copy in here because you can’t have Big Weekend without Game to Watch. That would be madness.

Of course, there might feasibly not be any games to watch as Covid cases soar in the real world and – far, far more importantly – the Premier League. But the League remain adamant – and weirdly proud – that not only will there be no pausing of the season but that there will not even be any thought given to even possibly discussing it. It all screams of David Brent assuring his staff there wouldn’t be cutbacks and there certainly wouldn’t be redundancies. It seems like a matter of when rather than if that statement comes back to bite them, but for the purposes of this specific column at least, let’s hope it’s at least 72 hours.

So, Manchester United v Aston Villa. Still very good. Still definitely watch this one even if the Chelsea-City game goes ahead. This one might be better anyway, actually. Forget about all that stuff earlier. This is the game to watch, bar none and with no covid caveats. Coveats, if you will.

The facts are that this New Year’s Day fixture pits second against fifth and two of the division’s most in-form teams. Both have taken 11 points from their last five games – a record bettered only by Everton over the same period – and both will be buoyed by Liverpool dropping more points to stragglers on Wednesday night.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer insists Manchester United are not in a title race because at just 15 games into the season no title race even yet exists. It’s an interesting philosophical point, and possibly a valid one given the number of teams we’ve had to rule in and out of the possibly non-existent title race already this season. If Jose Mourinho’s Spurs stumble to the top of the league but it’s only November, does it make a noise? I mean, it’s only about six weeks ago that Southampton were top and they’re now ninth despite not appearing to do anything dramatically wrong since.

But if there is in fact a title race, then United are conkers deep in it. Win this, and they’re level on points with a weary and uncertain Liverpool. But if United are in it then so too are Villa; if they win this they’re only a point behind United and four behind the leaders with a game in hand on both. Lose it, and they could end the first week of 2021 right where Southampton are.

The new year hasn’t even started and already it’s dramatic and confusing and scary. Hold me.

 

 

Team to watch – Tottenham
Because surely, surely, they’re not going to do the same thing again, are they? Not against Leeds? Please, tell me they’re not going to do the same thing again? Against Leeds?

This is, in many ways, the most interesting fixture of the whole Christmas-New Year period, and the events of the last week have only heightened the obvious clash of styles. As Spurs once again tried and failed to protect a 1-0 for a vast ocean of time, Leeds simply twatted five goals past West Brom.

From the aesthetic viewpoint, Leeds are actually the team to watch here. They’re much more fun. But Spurs are the team we will learn from here. Against a team in free-flowing goalscoring form but with a sketchy defence, it would be the very definition of madness for Spurs to try once again to adopt the tactics that have already failed them so badly against Newcastle, Crystal Palace and Wolves this season. Spurs have better players than Leeds. They should back themselves to win a proper game of football against Leeds. They can hurt that defence in multiple ways. They cannot, based on all the evidence of recent weeks, hope to sit in a low block for 90 minutes and keep Leeds quiet.

We will learn a lot about Tottenham’s prospects for the remainder of the season (whatever season may remain) in this one. If they low-block-and-counter for the first 45 minutes and then low-block-and-hoof for the second – again – then their league season is doomed. Even if it happens to work in this particular one-off game, we already know it will fail too often across the whole season if deployed game after game after game after game.

If, however, they show us something different, show us that they can get Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min playing in the same postcode again, or get Tanguy Ndombele on the ball for longer than the first 20 minutes before spending the next 70 whacking it over his head, or not concede from a corner for once, then there is hope. They have not been punished for a miserable, largely joyless run of one win in six league games, and still sit only seven points off top spot with a game in hand. Mourinho could still have the last, bitter laugh. But only if he accepts he’s currently taking his tactics to sarcastic, performative extremes.

 

Manager to watch – Frank Lampard
He’s getting awful crabby. Other managers have got in his head. He’s blaming lazy players when things don’t go well. He’s looking increasingly mardy. His heart doesn’t even seem to be in the Lampardian Transition any more. Not like it was. He’s turning, dare we say it, just a little bit Jose.

Only Sheffield United have lost more of their last five league games than Lampard’s Chelsea as their own nascent title bid stutters just as it started to look like really taking shape. There is a confusion at the heart of Chelsea’s apparent strategy, apparently investing in a young, inexperienced manager for a long-term project and then throwing around the sort of cash that really demands instant challenge for top honours.

In the last few weeks, it appears to be getting to him. Bad time to (possibly) be playing a Manchester City side who belatedly appeared to be emerging from their own funk before they got riddled with rona.

 

Player to watch – Anwar El Ghazi
Before December, El Ghazi had scored one goal in his previous 25 Premier League appearances, and that one goal was a 91st-minute penalty to reduce Villa’s deficit against Manchester City to a mere 6-1 back in January 2020 when the world was slightly less of a dumper fire. Then, inexplicably, scored five goals in five games in December as Villa won three and drew two to jump into the title picture. Seemingly on his way out of the club when out of form and favour, now January 2021 may hold even more delights than a consolation goal against Manchester City.

 

 

Football League game to watch – Stoke v Bournemouth
While everyone gets excited about the congested Premier League table, this is just standard practice for the Championship where 10 points separate second from 12th.

In the middle of this group lie Bournemouth and Stoke attempting to return to the top flight at the first and third time of asking respectively.

For Stoke, things are finally looking up, and victory here would take them level with the Cherries and firmly in the promotion picture.

 

European game to watch – Borussia Dortmund v Wolfsburg
Dortmund are having a dodgy spell. Since losing a top-of-the-table clash with Bayern in October, Dortmund have lost a further three games out of five – including a 5-1 spanking from Stuttgart.

They return from their winter break to face a Wolfsburg side currently above them in the Bundesliga table. The two-week break really needs to have worked for Dortmund.

Dave Tickner