Thursday 22 March 2018

Premier League preview: Rodgers and Sherwood under pressure, Tinkerman tests and will Spurs rollover?

Ten questions to be addressed over the Premier League weekend.

Rodgers and Sherwood: who is under more pressure?

Oh, Brendan, where did it all go wrong? One moment you were held up as one of the brightest young managers in the Premier League, happily recounting stories of taming the previously untameable Mario Balotelli (so it turned out, Roberto, that all you needed to do was ask him to mark a man when defending a corner!), and busily lecturing anybody who would listen on the intelligent intricacies of his new-fangled 3-1-1-2-1-2 formation.

The next, and you’re on the verge of being replaced by the formidably trendy Jurgen Klopp, a man who has actually achieved more in the game than simply winning the Championship play-offs with Swansea City. Could Saturday’s match against Villa be the final one in charge for Rodgers?

Mind you, the man in the dugout at Villa Park isn’t doing much of a better job, and a poor derby win doesn't make up for four points from six games.

Over the past few weeks, it would appear that Tim Sherwood has found out that there is more to management than simply waving your arms about a bit whilst pronouncing every passing fixture as “the most important in the history of the club”, all the while fastidiously dressing like a middle-aged estate agent specialising in rural properties.

He will almost certainly out-last Brendan Rodgers this season—if only because his replacement is less obvious than the situation at Liverpool—but this fixture already has the sorry stink of resignation dogging it.

When is Martial going to stop breaking records?

Were you one of the smirking masses that pointed and laughed at Manchester United’s transfer policy this summer?

Indeed you’d be hard pressed to find somebody that didn’t sneer at United’s haphazard summer spending strategy, whereby they quite miraculously managed to spend what seemed like too much and far too little, simultaneously. The crowning glory of their policy was to splurge £36m on a random 19 year old, who went by the name of Anthony Martial. Everybody laughed. Some United fans got cross.

Anthony Martial scores Manchester United's first goal

Since then, Martial has scored three goals in his first two Premier League games, as well as netting against Ipswich Town in the League Cup. And, if he scores at Old Trafford against Sunderland (which is a distinct possibility for reasons best surmised in only two words: ‘Younes’ and ‘Kaboul’), he could become the first player to score in each of his first three Premier League appearances for Manchester United.

That would be some record to break. But then Martial appears to have an encouraging knack for that.

Can the Tinkerman pass his biggest test yet?

Without wishing to revisit sorry old stories that it is unlikely anybody has much desire to revisit; Leicester City Football Club did not have the best of summers.

And, with the departure of arguably their best player, as well as the manager who somehow galvanised them to safety (via an Ostrich analogy or two), they needed something special if they were to retain their top flight safety for another year. They needed somebody special. They needed, the Tinkerman.

Whether it’s the revelation that he keeps a framed portrait of every Premier League manager in his office, like some kind of doting (but ultimately crazed) distant Auntie, or his recent pronouncement that Leicester can reach the Champions League, it is difficult not to admire Claudio Ranieri.

Arsenal are next up for Claudio Ranieri's Leicester

And there is more steel to him than meets the eye: Leicester have now come from behind to salvage at least a point in four successive Premier League games – an achievement only one team has ever managed before (Everton, with a six game run between Sept-Nov 2012). His side are one of only three teams in England’s top four flights to remain unbeaten, but Arsenal are the first truly top tier team that they face.

If they can avoid defeat at the King Power Stadium, to make it through the first two months of the season unbeaten, than people might just begin to take Leicester as seriously as they should.

Will anybody bother to watch Southampton v Swansea?

Stick this in your statistical pipe and smoke it: there have only been seven goals scored in the six Premier League clashes between the Saints and Swansea, and the last three Premier League encounters between these sides have seen the away team win 1-0.

The Premier League equivalent of a televisual marathon in watching paint dry, this game promises boredom, boredom, and perhaps some more boredom.

But hang on just a moment- not all hope is lost. Southampton banged in six goals whilst on League Cup duty this week, in perhaps the first recorded instance of guests travelling to Milton Keynes and actually enjoying themselves. And, if we all agree to conveniently forget the fact that they’re without a win in three, Swansea went and beat Manchester United a few weeks back, didn’t they?

So there’s perhaps more chance of this match being an entertaining encounter than initially meets the eye. Hopefully.

Who does Steve McClaren ring during Newcastle matches?

Just who does Steve McClaren feel is so important as to ring up in the middle of Newcastle matches? Alan Pardew? (‘Hi Alan, it’s Macca, I was just wondering if you had any tips on winning over these fans, as they seemed to love you so much?’) Mike Ashley? (Hi Michael, it’s Macca, you wouldn’t happen to still have the receipt for that Mitrovic chap, would you?’) Wayne Rooney? (‘Hi Waz, it’s Macca, this stress is doing nothing for my hairline, I don’t suppose you have the number of the Belgravia Hair Centre, do you?)


In all seriousness, already the fall guy with the black and white tie is feeling the pressure, and Wednesday’s defeat to Wednesday represented the nadir of a reign which has, so far, been something like one big nadir. Mike Ashley has been very open in his support of the new manager, and it is difficult to see McClaren leaving the club anytime soon given the staunch level of support Alan Pardew also received from the board, but it will be interesting to see how long the patience of the supporters lasts.

Another interesting side-note: Jose Mourinho will surely be especially keen on securing all three points, as he has never won a Premier League game at St James’ (D2 L3) Park. He must be useless.

When will Alexis Sanchez rejoin the party?

Alexis Sanchez is struggling. As with many other players who featured in the Copa America (the stuttering, injury-plagued starts of Sergio Aguero and Pablo Zabaleta are worth drawing attention to, also), Sanchez has failed to rediscover the form he enjoyed last season, and is without a goal in 6 games.

That’s despite having more attempts on goal this campaign (31) than anybody else in the League, and playing alongside the most creative player, in Santi Cazorla- who has forged the most goalscoring chances (21) this year.

Alexis Sanchez's impressive first season with Arsenal has been recognised

Whilst it would be ridiculous to write Arsenal’s multi-talented outfit off as a one man team, they are clearly missing their superstar, and Alexis needs to begin scoring again soon. Arsenal's match against Leicester promises to be an open affair, and Sanchez will surely fancy his chances of ending his drought.

Will Tottenham rollover?

Jonathan Wilson knows a thing or two about football, and in one of his online columns this week, he wrote that Tottenham fans should look past their recent League Cup defeat to Arsenal (for which the Gunners largely have the unlikely partnership of Mathieu Flamini and Fazio to thank) and instead focus on the positives.

Positives such as the return of Christian Eriksen, a clutch of new signings yet to fully embed with the squad, and the team's yougn average age (against Crystal Palace last week, for example, Spurs' starting XI was the youngest of any team in a Premier League game so far in 2015/16, at 24y 118d).

At White Hart Lane, however, you’d be hard pressed to find such optimism. Fans have been left frustrated with the club’s slow start to the season, and a number of individual players are finding themselves repeatedly targeted by the fan base, particularly Kyle Walker and Nacer Chadli.

Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham face a run of big games

To add to the club’s troubles, this weekend’s guests are Manchester City. It has to be said, along with Champions League football, keeping hold of their best players, and maintaining the same manager for longer than two seasons, Spurs don’t really ‘do’ City. In recent years the Citizens have found life all too easy against the London club-- and City have scored 27 goals in their last 8 meetings-- with Tottenham failing to win a single point in their last four matches.

Although Mauricio Pochettino is far from fearing for his job (or as far as a Tottenham manager could ever be) he can ill afford yet another Tottenham collapse against Pellegrini’s pace-setters.

When is it okay to get excited about Ross Barkley again?

Ross Barkley’s midweek appearance in the League Cup against Reading marked his 100th match for Everton.

It’s an impressive record for a 21 year old who has had his fair share of injury problems, and an especially exciting event given Barkley’s recent surge in form. After a difficult season last term, in which Roberto Martinez frequently shifted him around the midfield, Barkley has been given a more consistent role this time around, and has looked dangerous when given license to roam forward, with the dependable James McCarthy deployed in a holding role.

Everton's Ross Barkley has had a strong start to the new campaign

Gareth Barry is the latest to wax lyrical about Barkley’s current form, declaring in a recent press conference that “Ross has got all the potential to become as good as them.” The ‘them’ in question? Only Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. Which does beg the question: when are we all legitimately allowed to start finding ourselves excited by Barkley again?

Perhaps after a string of match-winning performances, as the excitement for Euro 2016 begins to build in the New Year- that would do nicely.

Which ex-players will haunt their old haunts?

Along with half and half scarves and the monstrosity that is Soccer AM, the non-celebration that footballers are so fond of after scoring against a former club, is surely one of the more tiresome aspects of what the purists like to sagely dismiss as ‘modern football’.

Diving, ugly transfer stand-offs, and Diego Costa levels of defender-baiting skullduggery are all part and parcel of the sport, but to celebrate a goal against a former team-- who have most probably decided that the former player is no longer worth keeping on the books-- has suddenly become the ultimate faux pas.


It will be interesting to see whether we’re treated to a rendition or two of the head-bowed, arms folded 'celebration' this weekend. A number of players are set to return to former clubs, including Romelu Lukaku-- who returns to the Hawthorns after a highly successful loan spell with the club-- and James Milner, who comes up against his club, Aston Villa.

John O’Shea meanwhile returns to Old Trafford with Sunderland, with United fans still busy attempting to figure out how he ever made 393 appearances for the club, and Gary O'Neil is back at West Ham. And finally, it wouldn’t be a Premier League weekend without Southampton coming up against yet another former player: Swansea’s Jack Cork is in line for a start against his old team.

What has gone wrong at Stoke?

So it completely contradicts just about every headline written about the club in the past few months, and it absolutely ruins all of these tiki-taka-on-Trent japes that have kept people so amused throughout the tail-end of last season and the summer, but people are finally starting to face up to the fact that Stoke City aren’t actually very good, at present.

Despite a much-celebrated transfer policy of attempting to sign any continental player who once watched a Champions League final from the sidelines, Stoke are in stasis. They have won only three points from their six PL games so far in 2015-16, which represents their worst ever start to a Premier League season, and—of perhaps more concern given the club’s commitment to overhauling their image—they have made a league-low 79 touches in the opposition box this season after six games.

Mark Hughes was not happy after his Stoke side were held at home by Leicester

Regardless of the board’s commitment to their long-term ‘project’, and regardless of the squad’s lack of experience in playing together, they need to begin winning. They face a tough game against Bournemouth this weekend, however, who are officially the hardest working team in the top flight.

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