Joe Allen (or Dejan Lovren?)
It was the news that Brendan Rodgers really didn’t want to hear. After Lucas limped off with a thigh injury after 16 minutes of the Merseyside derby, Liverpool’s manager will have been crossing his fingers for a mercifully short lay-off. His prayers were not answered – Lucas will be out of action for around a month.
The Brazilian’s absence will have a significant impact on Liverpool’s play, with Joe Allen likely to be the man asked to fill that breach. Allen’s last five league starts read: Manchester United (a) – L, Stoke (h) – W, Crystal Palace (a) – L, Newcastle (a) – L, Hull (h) – D. That must make supporters gulp a little.
Allen is a good young player, but is far from an ideal screen for the defence, or even an adequate combative midfielder. This is a player Rodgers described as the “Welsh Xavi”. Even the Barcelona version needed Sergio Busquets behind him.
Rodgers’ other option is to bring Emre Can back into the role for which he was presumably signed, but this again is littered with issues. Firstly, Can has been superb in his defensive position recently, but with Kolo Toure still on Africa Cup of Nations duty, the German moving into midfield would necessitate Dejan Lovren being recalled. I can imagine thousands of Scousers wincing at the prospect.
I’m very rarely right, but placed a significant amount of money on Liverpool not winning the Merseyside derby, for reasons given in Big Weekend. As with Manchester United, it felt as if talk of resurgence had been falsely inflated through a gentle fixture list. Liverpool had beaten (most of) the sides we would expect them to beat.
Against Everton, Rodgers’ side looked unappetising, strange given the dismal nature of the home side’s ambition. This was a Merseyside derby that should have been taken by the scruff of the neck, but Liverpool instead made do with a couple of insults muttered under their breath. Each punch was left unthrown.
The match against Tottenham on Tuesday is of crucial significance, the start of a three-game run of league matches that will define Liverpool’s season. Beat Mauricio Pochettino’s side and they could be two points from the top four and in good spirits ahead of Southampton and Manchester City. Lose and they will probably be at least six points behind each of Arsenal, Spurs, Manchester United and Southampton. In the five-team battle for fourth place, Liverpool are currently lagging behind. Or should that say “top four… and beyond”?
It is not easy to retain the title. Since 1984, only Manchester United and Chelsea have managed the feat, and Chelsea on only one occasion. Great Liverpool, Everton and Arsenal sides all failed to keep their fingers grasped around English football’s prize. Manchester City are simply the latest club to find that going again is harder than just going.
That said, this feels like the limpest of attempts from Manuel Pellegrini’s side. Points have been dropped against Stoke, West Ham, Burnley, QPR and Hull, and they’ve exited the cup competitions at home to Newcastle and Middlesbrough. It’s all just so insipid. Even during their miserable attempt at defending their title under Roberto Mancini in 2012/13, City had three more points at this stage of the season.
Pellegrini’s squad is not young or inexperienced, and these players should be at their peak. “With as many points as we have dropped it will be more difficult, but this time we hope we are going to win against Stoke,” the Chilean said on Monday. With the options at his disposal, City supporters would be forgiven for turning their noses up at “hope”; they’ve grown accustomed to expectation.
There are two general schools of thought when examining the reasons for Manchester United’s struggles this season:
1) The strategy and formation is not conducive to success: The most obvious candidate. Perhaps Louis van Gaal is a coaching genius who should not be questioned. Perhaps he has seen something we haven’t about Angel Di Maria pushed into the final third, about Wayne Rooney in midfield and about Ander Herrera not being good enough to even merit a chance.
But United have no pace through midfield, meaning that the opposition is able to easily get players back into defensive areas and avoid the game becoming stretched. It sounds incredibly arrogant, but this really isn’t rocket science; there are thousands of supporters screaming the same messages of advice. Van Gaal is the expert in the field, but I think that performances and results merit the question being asked. There is no question that potential is not coming close to being reached
2) Van Gaal’s ideas are correct, but players aren’t following instructions: If that is the case, then why on earth are the likes of Juan Mata, Ander Herrera and James Wilson being left on the bench without being given the opportunity to effect improvement? Why was Di Maria left on the pitch for so long against West Ham when he was having no effect? If Wayne Rooney is not performing the role you want (and it’s difficult to see how Van Gaal can be happy with his output), why does he also remain on the pitch?
Whichever of these is responsible (or a heady cocktail of both), it needs sorting out on an ASAP basis. Manchester United are fortunate that each member of last season’s top six other than Chelsea currently has fewer points that at this stage last season. United’s total of 44 points from 24 matches would have seen them sixth last year – they are in the top four principally because other teams have had their own shambolic periods.
No longer can Van Gaal rely on the ineptitude of others. United must improve, and fast. They will surely beat Burnley on Wednesday, but now, finally, we must see players click into gear. The simple conclusion is that this squad, if all playing to full potential, is the most expensively assembled in Premier League history and second only in quality to Chelsea’s this season. It’d be nice to see some evidence to that effect.
Angel Di Maria
Four games for Manchester United in 2015. Goals – 0. Assists – 0. Chances created – 8. Shooting accuracy – 20%. Crossing accuracy – 12%.
I watched Angel Di Maria at Real Madrid, so it gave me a funny feeling in my belly when I knew he would be coming to the Premier League. For once we had imported, rather than exported, one of world football’s greatest talents.
Di Maria doesn’t shoulder all (or even the majority) of the blame, but for £60m I expected magic. All I’ve got is the drunk magician at a children’s party clumsily dropping his hat, causing the white rabbit held within to escape and s**t all over the floor.
“I thought I did a good job and walked out with my head held high, and so I’m looking forward to the game,” said Alan Pardew on facing former club Newcastle. “I’m not expecting or hoping for any reaction. We had some great times together. It was not so great the last year, but on the whole my experience there was great.”
You’re kidding nobody, Chunky. Should Palace end victorious at Selhurst Park on Wednesday evening, Pardew will set a world record for smugness, finally breaking CJ from Eggheads’ world record.
Cut all the banterous bulls**t about Aston Villa scoring their first goal since 1874. Oddly enough, survival isn’t measured in goals, for which Paul Lambert should be grateful.
It is, however, decided on points, and that’s something that should still make Lambert slightly weak at the knees. A table based on results since the manager signed his new contract sees Villa rock bottom on 12 points. That’s three fewer than Hull, four fewer than QPR and seven fewer than Burnley. Ouch.
“It’s mixed emotions because I thought we were excellent – we looked really good and I thought we undeservedly lost the game,” Lambert said after the defeat to Chelsea. His side scored from their only shot on target of the match. “I thought at that moment we looked as if we were the team that was going to go on and win.”
A trip to Hull on Tuesday provides Lambert with an opportunity to show us that his side really are improving and that he deserves more patience to turn around this dramatic slump. It’s been a long time coming.
Keep putting them in here. Keep thinking that they might go and take at least a point away from home. Nobody seems to be listening.
1) You really, really need something positive after the uncertainty over your job.
2) Try not to strangle anyone.