Game to watch – The sodding Manchester derby
The entire reign of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as Manchester United manager can be boiled down to a single week around this time last year. The club sat mid-table in the Premier League after consecutive draws with Sheffield United and Aston Villa, their only wins in nine games coming against Norwich and Brighton. The pressure was such that the manager held a supposed ’emotional’ meeting to inform the squad that his fate could be decided by their next two games: against Tottenham before a Manchester derby over the course of three days.
“I’m good, absolutely no problem,” he said at a press conference to start such a decisive week. “Sometimes you laugh when you read stories about what I’ve said, but at least I know the sources are not sources and are just made up, blatant lies.”
Everyone knows the pattern by now. United won both matches in impressive fashion to rise to 5th. Solskjaer vanquished Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, two of management’s greatest minds, in less than half a week. Then a draw with Everton and defeat to Watford ensured any turned corners were met only with dead-ends. Repeat (m)ad(enning) infinitum.
It remains to be seen which category this game falls into, whether United will excavate further or climb triumphantly from their latest self-dug hole. No result can be particularly surprising with a team that beat a Champions League semi-finalist 5-0 24 days after losing 6-1 at home to its previous manager.
Manchester City only exacerbate that sense of uncertainty, Pep Guardiola’s shiny head reserving a rent-free space especially for Solskjaer. Three Premier League meetings have produced two wins for the Norwegian and some baffling City no-shows.
They are the better team and he is the better manager. They are also in much better form, even if titular books are traditionally thrown through windows for these fixtures: five consecutive clean sheets since that poor defeat to Tottenham; six goals conceded in 15 games since that woeful loss to Leicester. A point separates them in 7th and United in a respectable 6th, despite both possessing the baton of big club crisis at numerous stages throughout the season.
Not since September 2014 has there been a Manchester derby with both teams outside the top four. It is the first such meeting at this stage or later since November 2004, and will go far towards telling us which club – if either – is in a false position.
Player to watch – Sergio Reguilon
As Jose Mourinho prepares to visit his favourite ground in England, two questions will plague his every thought. How does he explain to Roy Hodgson what Instagram is? And what can Tottenham do to keep one of the country’s most dangerous right-sided combinations quiet?
Crystal Palace could make the conundrum easy for him. Eberechi Eze and Wilfried Zaha were sensational in dismantling West Brom but it would be typical for Andros Townsend to be introduced, or for Hodgson to indulge in his favourite pastime: interchangeable central midfielder watching.
But as the hosts stumble upon that most unlikely of tactical breakthroughs – putting your two best players closer to one another because ah why not we’ve just lost consecutive games to Burnley and Newcastle without scoring – their opponents must now adapt their own plans to cope.
It changes the dynamic slightly from how quickly Tottenham can counter-attack to how efficiently they can defend. Palace are unlike every other team they have faced. They do not deploy a high line or dominate possession. Heung-min Son will rarely if ever find himself in more than ten yards of space close to goal and Harry Kane can swivel if he thinks the James Mc Experience will let him drop and turn on the halfway line to release a defence-splitting pass. Palace will defend deep and diligently before moving forward at pace themselves.
The vague temptation to start the dependable Ben Davies will surely be ignored in favour of Sergio Reguilon retaining his place at left-back to counter the dual Eze-Zaha threat. The Spaniard offers more in attack but has proven himself more than solid in defence, playing 90 minutes against each of Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal.
Those four teams managed a single goal against Spurs: a Bruno Fernandes penalty. But with Hodgson happier than even Mourinho to cede the initiative, the visitors must try and strike a balance. Palace will focus on creating one-v-one situations on the right instead of constructing flowing team moves or crossing impotently; Reguilon must rise to a slightly different challenge.
Manager to watch – Mikel Arteta
This is properly, actually it. If Arsenal lose to Burnley then Mikel Arteta is gone. The hierarchy won’t even take the rest of the season or his tenure into account. That loss at home is a sackable offence in or out of context.
It was bad enough drawing with Burnley in February to end a run of 11 consecutive victories over the Clarets, dating back to March 2010. Sean Dyche spent the aftermath of that stalemate warning himself not to “get too greedy” instead of growling about diving or another last-minute Arsenal winner. It was horrible.
If But this? This is serious. Arsenal have won one of their last seven Premier League games – and that was courtesy of a second-half penalty against a Manchester United side at the ‘bust’ section of their cycle. They cannot score goals and are starting to concede them with alarming regularity. They would be in a genuine and hilarious relegation battle if they lose.
It is different in the Europa League, where they play freely, with more confidence and in the knowledge that their inherent quality will be more than enough to take them past limited opposition. The mental block developing domestically will only be exacerbated by a Burnley side that prides itself on making themselves difficult to play against.
Most of all, this is one of those impossibly unfair games: Arsenal gain precious little by winning. Burnley are 18th and particularly dreadful away. Draw or lose and Arteta’s grip loosens further. If he plans to try and cross his way past James Tarkowski and Ben Mee he might as well resign now.
Team to watch – Aston Villa
Those heady days of Aston Villa putting seven past Liverpool and challenging for the Premier League title seem from another era, not literally October. It must be a mistake, a mind trick, some sort of quirk in the system that this vibrant attacking team sits in the bottom half.
That is not entirely their own fault, of course. The postponement of last week’s 4-0 win over Newcastle leaves them with two games in hand on most teams. But it has gone almost unnoticed that they have won once in their last five matches as the freight train shudders to an unscheduled halt.
The elements of bad luck in defeats to Brighton and West Ham only mitigate slightly. Before then, Leeds and Southampton both exposed the system almost uncomfortably, with a malleable Arsenal providing a more accommodating opponent to exploit.
As it is, Villa are currently as close to the top as they are 18th in terms of points. A short Saturday lunchtime trip to Wolves should indicate which direction they can expect to be heading in from there.
Football League game to watch – Cardiff v Swansea
Two teams in the Premier and Football League have won their last four matches. Cardiff, quite foolishly, have decided to embark on such a run while falling behind just once.
Even then, it was a Sean Morrison own goal that gave Stoke a lead they could not protect in midweek. Cardiff won 2-1 to follow up impressive victories over Luton, Huddersfield and Watford, each without conceding.
That actually only puts them 9th after an indifferent start. But it gives rise to the belief that they can beat Swansea, who have won only thrice since the end of October but still reside in 4th.
Steve Cooper’s side are still probably the favourites against his Bluebird brethren. They have the best defensive record in the division and Andre Ayew remains a bundle of £20m fun. Cardiff will give them a game, mind. Brentford are the only team to accrue more Championship points since Neil Harris replaced Neil Warnock.
Also something about Wales.
European game to watch – Real Madrid v Atletico Madrid
How very Solskjaer of Zinedine Zidane to veer towards the edge of a cliff before executing a perfect turn and pretending as though it was always part of the plan. Real Madrid ended a run of three winless La Liga games by beating Sevilla on Saturday, before ending a catastrophic Champions League group campaign top by two points with Wednesday’s routine victory.
The fun does not stop there. Next is a visit from this season’s best domestic team across all of Europe. Their most bitter rivals, no less.
Atletico have been stupidly good in Spain. They lead the table by a point with two matches in hand on Real Sociedad and Villarreal. Zidane’s side are 4th, six points off that remarkable pace, having played a game more.
After faltering slightly in Europe themselves, no thanks to being drawn in Bayern Munich’s group, Atletico revert their attentions back to a league campaign in which they have only conceded twice: in 6-1 and 3-1 wins.
No sooner has Zidane alleviated the pressure than Diego Simeone rocks up at the Alfredo Di Stefano Stadium to pile it back on. Lose this and their chances of retaining the crown are pretty much gone.