Arsenal’s attacking line-up
Injuries and suspensions have postponed the dilemma, but Arsene Wenger now has some very difficult decisions to make in attack. Sarah Winterburn this week wrote a piece regarding the falling status of Danny Welbeck at the Emirates, but it is not just Welbeck wondering where he stands in the Arsenal attacking queue.
On Monday, the Daily Mirror’s Arsenal correspondent John Cross tweeted his concerns that Joel Campbell, Yaya Sanogo and Lukas Podolski have been loaned out. ‘To let three forwards go out on loan in January opens up the strikers to Arsenal’s potential defensive shortage like they have now,’ Cross said. ‘Bizarre.’
Well, not really. Arsenal play with two central midfielders, leaving four spaces for Welbeck, Tomas Rosicky, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott and Alexis Sanchez. It is, finally, a lovely problem for Wenger to have. Watch out Aston Villa.
Three times in the last two weeks I have read the words ‘finally, this was the Liverpool of last season back again’. I think I even wrote it myself once.
With that in mind you’d assume that Brendan Rodgers’ side are knocking on the door of Southampton and Manchester United. Hey, let me hand you these shackles! We’re back in the big time, baby!
Except that, actually, it isn’t the case. For all the positive talk of resurgence, any improvement can only be deemed as baby steps. Liverpool took 13 points in their first eight Premier League matches, scoring 13 goals. Their last eight have returned 15 points, and they have scored 12 goals. You can put away the bunting for now.
At home, Liverpool still look laboured. The last seven visitors to Anfield were Sunderland, Basel, Arsenal, Swansea City, Leicester, Chelsea and Bolton; only one has left defeated. Draws against Leicester, Sunderland, Basel and Bolton should do little to relieve concerns that this is an entire season of underperformance. Rodgers has already got his excuses in early.
The home form has to change with the visit of West Ham on Saturday. After this weekend, Liverpool’s next four league games are against Everton (a), Tottenham (h), Southampton (a) and Manchester City (h). Include West Ham, and Rodgers’ side will need more than ten points if they are to avoid a rude awakening from their top-four dream.
Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll
In his last eight league games, Andy Carroll has scored five goals, has one assist and been named Man of the Match three times. In his last eight league games, Stewart Downing has scored three goals, has two assists and been named Man of the Match twice.
We’re not quite at the stage of complete redemption just yet, but it has been a striking joint revival of fortunes. What better place to continue that trend than at the scene of their lowest ebb – the £55m duo are back in town. Don’t expect many muted celebrations.
If Garry Monk had the feeling that everything is falling down around him, you would forgive Swansea’s manager for his hyperbole. Wilfried Bony has been sold, Bafetimbi Gomis is publicly touting himself for a move, Wayne Routledge has been ruled out for a month with a knacked hamstring, Ki-Sung Yeung is at the Asian Cup and Gylfi Sigurdsson is now out for the next three games after his ludicrous lunge at Blackburn’s Chris Taylor.
So who do you call on in your time of crisis? Jonjo Shelvey, that’s who. Yes, the man who has missed six matches through suspension this season.
“The time for him to step up and show he has learnt from his mistakes is here and he needs to show that on the pitch,” Monk said this week. “I speak to Jonjo regularly and he knows what he needs to improve on and hopefully we get to see that in this coming period. It is time for him, he has had problems and I have spoken about it to him. It is an important period for him to make sure he can stake a claim.”
Everyone ready for Shelvey to lash out with his elbow at Morgan Schneiderlin in the opening 20 minutes?
There is a strong chance that Chelsea will be without both Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa for Saturday’s match against Manchester City. This represents unfamiliar territory for Jose Mourinho, the first time in the league when both of his highest-profile summer signings have been missing.
If that is the case, it would seem likely that Mourinho will revert to type, keeping the game tight and hoping to win the game in the last 20 minutes. With a five-point lead at the top, Chelsea hold all the cards.
It’s a tactic that Mourinho knows well. When his Chelsea team won the title in 2004/5 they drew both league games against second-placed Arsenal. In Serie A, Mourinho’s Internazionale side drew 1-1 and won 1-0 (with a late goal) against second-placed Juventus in his first season, and drew 1-1 and lost 2-1 to Roma in his second. During his title-winning season with Real Madrid, they lost to Barcelona at home and won the away game late on. Last season, Chelsea won 1-0 away from home against Manchester City with 35% possession. The home game was won in the last minute. ‘Safety firs’t is the mantra, and it works
Whilst City pride themselves on attacking against the league’s best teams, Mourinho seems content to see his side as the unmovable force, saving their flamboyancy for the Premier League trailers. Just ask Swansea.
With that in mind, the onus is on Manuel Pellegrini’s side to take the game to Chelsea. It should make for a fascinating watch.
On Saturday, City must play with a tempo that was completely lacking against Arsenal and Middlesbrough. Their defence is not sufficiently trustworthy to approach the match in any other way – it’s now seven matches without a clean sheet.
With Samir Nasri and Yaya Toure still missing, David Silva has been forced to act as the master of all trades, but City desperately need an alternative. With Toure absent, one suspects Nemanja Matic will be tasked with thwarting Silva, and is likely to do an effective job.
The pace of Jesus Navas is the obvious answer to the problem, but the Spaniard has flattered to deceive this season. It is not that the winger has been dreadful, but has performed in fits and starts, short of consistency and thus dependability.
In his last four away starts, Navas has been particularly quiet. He created just seven chances against Southampton, Sunderland, Everton and West Brom. Silva created six against Everton alone.
There is a risk of making Navas the fall guy for all of City’s attacking problems, but it is certainly time for him to perform in the biggest matches. Don’t let those boyish blue eyes fool you – the winger turns 30 this year.
Angel Di Maria
Finally put back into a role behind the strikers rather than as one of them, the expectation was that Angel Di Maria would immediately show Louis van Gaal the error of his ways against Cambridge United in the FA Cup.
It really didn’t go to plan. Di Maria had five shots at the Abbey Stadium, none of which came close to opening the scoring. One went out of the stadium.
As I briefly mentioned in 16 Conclusions last week, the worry for United supporters is that Van Gaal’s use of Di Maria striker has sapped away at the Argentinean’s confidence. His home debut against QPR felt magical, as if we were lucky enough to witness the start of something meaningful. It offered reminders of Wayne Rooney’s Old Trafford bow against Fenerbache in 2004. That match now feels a long time ago. Di Maria looks like a fallen Angel.
“I tried him as a striker as we needed pace in that position. We must stretch the pitch,” Van Gaal said before Cambridge match. “Then you make the pitch bigger, your midfielders can play in a bigger space and play a better positional game.”
If you wanted pace, Louis, you should have bought a pacey striker. Spending £60m on an attacking midfielder and then crowbarring him into an unfamiliar position really isn’t the answer, and it’s making me sad now. United supporters feel the same.
Manchester United face Leicester on Saturday, a chance to not just get back to winning ways but also to play with a freedom missing since the win over Newcastle on Boxing Day. The hope is that Van Gaal chooses to play Di Maria on the right hand side of a diamond 4-4-2 formation, and actually gives the Argentinean a chance to pick up the ball from deep and run at his opponent. What he does best, in other words.
I wrote recently of my concern that 21-year-old Romelu Lukaku unsurprisingly looks jaded after playing 250 career matches by the time he turned 21, but Roberto Martinez doesn’t appear to be reading. I can call him what I like now.
Instead of relieving the workload on Lukaku, Martinez has done the opposite. Everton this week allowed Samuel Eto’o (20 appearances in all competitions this season) to join Sampdoria, and do not intend to get a replacement.
“At the moment because Arouna Kone is physically fit I do feel we don’t need anyone to replace Samuel in that position,” said Martinez. “We have players who are performing a lot in that No10 position – Ross Barkley and Steven Naismith – and we have Kone and Romelu Lukaku in attack.”
That’s the same Aroune Kone who has managed 464 minutes of football since May 2013 through serious injury and has started two league games for Everton. Good luck, Romelu.
“Our work is more in trying to recover the confident mood we have shown in our play and trying to get the players back from injury,” was Martinez’s conclusion. That reminds me of those people in America who claim a spirit will protect their wooden shack during a hurricane.
Yet again Martinez is putting all of his eggs in the basket marked ‘Lukaku’. It’s a foolish game, and one that makes a mockery of the decision to blow the entire summer transfer budget on one man. It’s a judgment that may prove to be Martinez’s undoing at Goodison.
I’m not beating around the bush anymore. Fail to beat Burnley at home on Saturday and Poyet should be out on his a*se. It’s still three league wins all season.
Hyde of the Conference North are the highest-ranked team in England to win fewer league games than Sunderland. They’re the club that resorted to social media puns in order to cover up the names of trialists because they are so short of players.
The impending suspension for Diego Costa will force Chelsea to call on their old warhorse. For whatever reason Loic Remy seems untrusted by Jose Mourinho; this is another chance for Mr Big Game to etch his name even deeper into his manager’s heart.
The latest word in football’s lexicon to attain asterisk status. Frank Lampard is back at Stamford Bridge on Saturday evening. God help us if he scores a goal.