Holiday plotlines to make or break season of goodwill

Titles aren’t won during the congested holiday programme but the period sets the tone for the second half of the season while the arrival of the January transfer window can prove a tipping point in determining the futures of individual managers and players. Here are five questions that could be answered during the next few days.

 

Are Chelsea champions in waiting?

In different circumstances, all bets would already be off. Antonio Conte’s side have grown in stature and confidence during a fearsomely impressive 11-game winning streak that has moved them six points clear at the head of the table, while history shows that on the four previous occasions they have topped the Premier League table at Christmas, they have gone on to win the title.

But doubts still remain about the depth of Conte’s squad — a squad that proved so fragile last season — and in particular its lack of cover for Diego Costa and N’Golo Kante.

Both players are suspended for Monday’s meeting with Bournemouth when Michy Batshuayi will be given the chance to show he can deputise for the prolific Costa.

If the Belgian, who has yet to start a league game, fails to impress, the importance of Costa maintaining his fitness and discipline will become even more of an issue for Conte.

Is Pep Guardiola the right manager for John Stones?

The 22-year-old arrived at the Etihad last summer with a £50 million price tag, the future of the England national team’s defence resting on his shoulders and the consensus that, in Pep Guardiola, he was under the perfect coach to transform him into a modern-day hybrid of Bobby Moore, Franz Beckenbauer and Gerard Pique. Four months on and the experiment has been a failure so far.

Guardiola’s insistence that Stones play the ball out of defence at every available opportunity — and some non-available opportunities — has led to a catalogue of errors and an obvious drop in the player’s confidence. While Guardiola’s manic, touchline micro- management often sees the coach screaming, shouting and gesturing at the defender in full public view.

The defensive implosion in a 4-2 defeat at Leicester at the start of the month was the final straw for Guardiola who dropped Stones for the next two games.

Pep’s “play from the back regardless” approach has already cost England goalkeeper Joe Hart his career at the Etihad. What the future holds for Stones at City may become more obvious over the next week.

Surely Wayne Rooney becomes a record breaker

Wayne Rooney’s goal production has not so much diminished as fallen off a precipice under new manager Jose Mourinho, with the striker’s one and only, league goal coming on the opening day of the season at Bournemouth.

Still, it is worth remembering his body of work which has seen him score 248 career goals for the club, one less than the legendary Bobby Charlton and the 30-year-old has also started United’s last two games, the highly solid away victories at Crystal Palace and West Brom.

Home fixtures beckon against underwhelming north-east opponents Sunderland and Middlesbrough and, surely, Mourinho will have half an eye on the prospect of Rooney starting at least one of those and being handed the opportunity of equalling, even bettering, Charlton’s record in front of his own Old Trafford public.

Whether that offers Rooney any sort of future at United, and how United supporters will remember him, is an entirely different issue but, for now, an appointment with history beckons.

Holiday plotlines to make or break season of goodwill

Does Daniel Sturridge have a Liverpool future?

Publicly, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has always said nice things about Daniel Sturridge. Privately, though, he is known to have reservations about the striker. Sturridge’s finishing skills are not in question; he’s arguably one of the best in the Premier League. However, he has shown little evidence thus far that he can adapt to Klopp’s pressing style.

When Sturridge has played and Klopp has encouraged him from the touchline, there’s always the sense the player is doing so through gritted teeth. Reluctant pressing is not in the German’s vocabulary, though.

Which is why the tireless Divock Origi has been preferred to Sturridge whenever Klopp has decided his forward line requires a striker. At 27, Sturridge is desperate to play regularly, and will not tolerate a bit-part role from the bench for long. The murmurings have been growing louder over the past couple of months.

If Klopp leaves Sturridge among the substitutes during such a hectic period of matches then the writing really will be on the wall for the England international.

Same old Arsenal? Or are Wenger’s side contenders?

Just two weeks ago, Arsene Wenger was happy to talk up his Arsenal side’s new-found resilience, describing a steely core that meant that this year, they had the strength to respond positively to adversity rather than wilt in the way they have on too many occasions in the past.

Then came defeats at Everton and Manchester City and the same old questions are being asked once again.

Overwhelmed in the face of their opponents’ physicality, Wenger’s side reverted to familiar type and looked anything but title contenders. Suddenly the club’s top credentials have come under scrutiny and with Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil entering their final 18 months of their current deals — and Wenger himself out contract at the end of the season — this is no time for Arsenal to drop into the category of also-rans.

Holiday meetings with West Brom, Crystal Palace and Bournemouth provide the north London club with an opportunity to restate their case.


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