ARE ARSENAL OVER THEIR AWAY-DAY PHOBIA?
Of all the improvements made under Unai Emery, Arsenal’s away form was the most obvious. Between defeat at Chelsea in their first away game under Emery and mid-December, Arsenal took 14 of a possible 18 points on the road. That was only two fewer points than they managed in the whole of 2017/18 under Arsene Wenger.
However, away to Southampton 10 days ago, Arsenal were haunted by the ghost of seasons past. A defence that had looked occasionally fragile suddenly made that the new norm. Bernd Leno looked weak under crosses and a Southampton team that had failed to score more than twice in any game since February spooked Arsenal into defeat.
Before hosting Fulham on New Year’s Day, Arsenal face two further away trips against teams that will hope to expose the same flaws in opposite ways. Chris Hughton will surely recall Glenn Murray to his Brighton team today to make himself a nuisance in the air in the same manner that Danny Ings did. On Saturday, Liverpool’s front three are back in the rudest of health and will look to drag Laurent Koscielny and Sokratis out of position to create space in the final third.
Arsenal’s success across those four days will go someway to determining how Emery’s first six months in charge are judged. Take four points, and supporters can still believe wholeheartedly in a top-four finish, as Chelsea and Manchester United also stumble. Take one or zero, and Arsenal will have won only one of their last five games and may have fallen off the pace. More importantly, teams will believe that Arsenal’s soft centre on the road can again be exploited.
HUDDERSFIELD MUST SOLVE SCORING BLUES
No team is relegated by Christmas, and the general dominance of the Big Six against the rest means that fewer points than usual may well be required to avoid relegation. After 18 rounds of matches, seven clubs have failed to collect more than a point per game. The once-magic 40-point target is an unrealistic dream.
However, Huddersfield know they will not get out of the mire until they start scoring goals more regularly. Their three highest goalscorers in the league have all managed only two and none of them are strikers. At home, the issue is critical. Huddersfield have had 111 shots and scored four goals.
The January transfer window will be crucial, with Town linked with both Dominic Solanke from Liverpool — a loan deal — or a move for Brentford’s top scorer Neal Maupay.
Before then, though, Huddersfield travel to Old Trafford and Craven Cottage for what looks like a relegation six-pointer. All David Wagner wants for Christmas is goals.
WILL GEROUD GET A CHANCE TO DOVETAIL WITH HAZARD?
Against Leicester City, Chelsea had 72% possession. They had more than double the number of shots that their visitors managed, had almost double the number of corners and far more of the game was played in Leicester’s third than their own. Yet, Leicester’s 1-0 win was no fluke. They dug in, defended deep and watched Chelsea pass their way into oblivion.
It’s at times like these that you feel so sorry for Eden Hazard. The Belgian leads his Chelsea teammates for goals, assists, chances created, shots and dribbles completed, but without a centre forward that Sarri trusts, he is asked to play creator, finisher, centre forward, attacking midfielder and winger. It is far too much to ask. If Hazard doesn’t produce a superstar performance, or the opposition manage to stop him, Chelsea struggle; the equation is that simple.
On September 16, Hazard described Olivier Giroud as the “world’s best target man”. “He can hold up the ball, it’s a pleasure to play with him,” he continued. So with Alvaro Morata now rumoured to be leaving Stamford Bridge, having seen his form go from bad to worse, surely Sarri might give Giroud another chance to lead the line? After all, he has started nine games in all
competitions this season and Chelsea have won seven and drawn the other two.
Most importantly, it might make Hazard feel a little better about life. Being tasked with performing as a one-man band, being kicked from pillar to post in the process and being criticised when Chelsea lose can’t be much fun. You can see why he might be tempted by Real Madrid’s interest.
DO WE NOW SEE POGBA OFF THE LEASH?
After the social media gaffe following Jose Mourinho’s sacking, the lack of goodwill for Paul Pogba amongst a section of Manchester United’s support was laid bare. They do not hold him solely responsible for his abject performances in 2018/19, but there is an accusation that Mourinho’s decline gave Pogba an easy excuse. That excuse has now been removed.
As if by magic, the old Pogba returned against Cardiff. He registered as many assists on Saturday as he had in every other league game this season combined. Those same supporters might believe that Manchester United’s star player only started trying once his manager had left, but that is overly simplistic. Against Cardiff, Manchester United’s full-back pushed higher up the pitch than we were used to under Mourinho. That in turn allows the two wide forwards to drift inside and let the full-backs overlap, causing a headache for opposition central midfielders. That creates space and time for Pogba to pick passes and have far more options with ball at feet.
One of the reasons Ed Woodward chose to make the change of manager when he did was to afford Mourinho’s replacement a gentle run of fixtures to begin their reign, but he also wanted a manager who was prepared to take more risks in attack.
Pogba has the chance to rejuvenate his form further against Huddersfield and Bournemouth and redeem his reputation in the eyes of some supporters. Speak to those Chelsea fans who criticised Hazard when Mourinho was sacked; they quickly changed their minds.
GUARDIOLA MUST SEEK A REACTION
It would be inaccurate to say that I saw Manchester City’s defeat to Crystal Palace coming, but there have been signs recently that standards are slipping. City have not kept a clean sheet in eight matches, but just as worrying are the lulls in matches where passes are misplaced, the intensity of their pressing drops and opposition sides are invited to put pressure on. Leicester City did it to some effect in the EFL Cup on Tuesday, and Crystal Palace did precisely the same with an even better ending.
One of the difficulties of elite level management is the reduced margin for error. Manchester City may have only dropped 10 points in 18 league games, but suffer any more defeats before the end of January and questions will be asked about why results have dropped off so badly. With Liverpool providing a sterner test than anyone expected, City can ill-afford any more slip-ups.
City now face two testing trips to teams who have beaten Big Six opposition. Leicester soaked up Chelsea’s pressure brilliantly at Stamford Bridge and will be confident of doing the same at the King Power today, while Southampton look reborn under Ralph Hasenhuttl. Puel and Hasenhuttl will look to identify and exploit any drop in City confidence. If there is ever a good time to play Guardiola’s team, it is now.
BURNLEY STILL SEARCHING FOR GOOD NEWS STORY
If Burnley’s home victory over Brighton earlier this month allayed fears of relegation, Sean Dyche’s side are right back in the mire. They have taken four points from 11 league games and scored more than once in one of those games (and still lost 4-2,
Burnley’s defensive incompetence has been well-documented, but they are still on course to concede more shots than any Premier League team did in 2017/18. Combine that with a strikeforce that has scored eight goals between four players in 60 combined league appearances this season, and the problem becomes clear.
It has always been Burnley’s home form that has steered them clear from relegation trouble during their time in the Premier League, but they have won only four times in the league at Turf Moor in the last 12 months. They entertain two teams, in Everton and West Ham, who left Burnley with a single point between them last season. More of the same is needed.
Christmas might be a time for celebrating with friends and family, eating and drinking copiously and recharging before the new year, but it is the best time of the year to be a football supporter. Between today and January 3, there are 11 live Premier League games broadcast involving 18 of the 20 clubs, so just sit back, relax, and allow a wave of football to wash over you. You’ve earned it...