1. Man United’s attack remains a work in progress
THINGS HAVE BEEN looking up for Manchester United recently with Jose Mourinho overseeing an excellent unbeaten run. But it’s hardly been prolific.
Yes, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has taken to the top-flight superbly but, as happened tonight, who else is there when the veteran Swede is struggling to make an impact?
Mourinho still doesn’t know his best attacking trio and seems to change his mind with every passing week. And there doesn’t seem to be a right answer.
Marcus Rashford is as effective out wide as Anthony Martial is (not very), but the manager seems to have little confidence in giving either the chance to play through the middle, such is the importance of Ibrahimovic.
Mourinho is not a gambler and what that means for the future of both Rashford and Martial is unclear. He’s been involved in an odd stand-off with Martial, which lessens United’s options considerably while Rooney is, even now, struggling to even make an impact when introduced from the bench.
Mkhitaryan was hauled off again without so much as a cursory glance from his manager and that tells you everything about Mourinho’s frustration regarding the Armenian’s consistency.
Right now, United are as close to the top-four as they are to Everton in seventh and they’ve managed 33 goals in 23 league games.
They’re in a Cup final and may be in two by the season’s end. But the side have drawn nine times in the league so far — a clear sign as any that there’s plenty of work to do.
- Eoin O’Callaghan
2. Chelsea’s title to lose
After a dire January that has seen them beat no one other than League Two side Plymouth, there was a renewed sense of optimism at Anfield following Liverpool’s improved performance in the 1-1 draw with league leaders Chelsea.
Yet the London club seemed just as content as Liverpool with Tuesday night’s outcome. Most of the Blues’ main title rivals dropped points this week, meaning they currently hold a nine-point lead at the top.
This advantage would have been even healthier had Diego Costa’s late spot kick not been saved by Simon Mignolet, who redeemed himself after he was culpable to a degree for David Luiz’s bizarre opening goal.
But Chelsea are not in first place because of their prowess in these big games. Indeed, Liverpool actually have a better record than Antonio Conte’s men against the top-six.
Nonetheless, what separates the Blues from the chasing pack and what makes a Premier League title win look increasingly inevitable is their remarkable consistency against the weaker opponents.
They have dropped points just once against a side outside of the top-six teams — in the 2-2 draw with Swansea back in September.
By comparison, their rivals’ records against the so-called smaller clubs is considerably worse. Of the other five teams, Tottenham have the best record in this regard, and they have dropped 10 points against the bottom 14 teams.
- Paul Fennessy
3. Gabriel Jesus a star in the making
Pep Guardiola made some brave calls last night, although given their predictably tepid display, West Ham were the perfect side to experiment against.
Having gone out on a limb to sign him amid the high-profile departure of previous number one Joe Hart, the Man City boss finally ran out of patience with the struggling Claudio Bravo this evening after a number of unconvincing performances, with reserve goalkeeper Wily Caballero taking his place in the starting XI.
But perhaps more surprisingly, despite 18 goals in his last 24 games, Guardiola opted to bench Sergio Aguero, with highly-rated 19-year-old striker Gabriel Jesus coming into the side.
With his team selection, the manager was opening himself up for criticism should City drop points. Yet helped by some awful West Ham defending, the visitors coasted to a 4-0 victory at London Stadium.
Jesus, in particular, excelled, scoring and earning the man-of-the-match award. Unlike Aguero, he is willing to run and press the opposition all day long.
Born into a Brazilian favela, the starlet has come a long way already, though it remains to be seen whether he can fulfill his undoubted potential.
However, on Wednesday night, the signs were highly encouraging, as the teenager frequently showed a Luis Suarez-esque level of tenacity and footballing intelligence, while being completely unfazed despite coming coming into a significantly pressurised situation.
Consequently, the reported €33 million plus add-ons that City paid Palmeiras last summer for the youngster’s services may indeed turn out to be money well spent.
Moreover, simply getting this far is a testament to Jesus’ phenomenal natural ability, given the countless young players on the books at City who are destined to be loaned into obscurity.
- Paul Fennessy
4. Tottenham’s formation change fails to pay dividends
Tottenham may have moved to second in the table on Tuesday night, but there will be a lingering sense of regret after they could only draw 0-0 with relegation-threatened Sunderland.
Despite 73% possession overall, Spurs could muster just three shots on target against a well-organised Black Cats side.
Tottenham had scored 16 goals in their previous five matches, but oddly lacked cutting edge in the final third in this uninspired outing.
One possible reason for their sudden issues is the change of formation instigated by manager Mauricio Pochettino.
Spurs had been playing well with a 3-5-2 formation but Belgian defender Jan Vertonghen’s injury appears to have unsettled them to a degree.
The White Hart Lane outfit tried playing the same formation against Man City, with Kevin Wimmer in the side in place of the absent Vertonghen, though the Austria international was unconvincing and substituted at half-time, with Spurs reverting to a four-man backline thereafter.
Against Sunderland, they continued with four at the back, as Wimmer was left on the bench. Accordingly, full-backs Kyle Walker and Danny Rose (who was injured and replaced by Ben Davies on 38 minutes) did not have as much freedom to attack and Spurs were weaker going forward as a unit because of this situation.
With Tottenham missing Vertonghen, there is a growing suspicion that they lack the strength in depth of their top-four rivals — a problem that could prove pivotal come the end-of-season run-in.
- Paul Fennessy
5. Mustafi’s 22-match unbeaten Arsenal run finally ends
Shkodran Mustafi’s 22-game unbeaten run with Arsenal came to an abrupt halt on Tuesday as the Gunners were beaten 2-1 at the Emirates Stadium by Watford.
The Germany international has proved a good luck charm for Arsene Wenger since his arrival from Valencia in the summer with the Gunners having been unbeaten with the 24-year-old in the side in all competitions.
Mustafi had gone 15 Premier League games unbeaten, more than any other top-flight player, before Tuesday’s visit of Watford.
The defender’s unbeaten outings included the Gunners’ 3-0 win against Chelsea early in the season, the recent 5-0 mauling of Southampton in the FA Cup, and both of Arsenal’s draws against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.
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