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Emery realises the problems of following Wenger and other Premier League talking points

Plus Seamus Coleman’s struggle at Everton, and Liverpool turn to van Dijk to make sure this doesn’t slip.

Arsenal's new boss is learning that there have been some enduring downsides to succeeding Arsene Wenger.
Arsenal's new boss is learning that there have been some enduring downsides to succeeding Arsene Wenger.
Image: John Walton

Can Unai Emery dispel his first storm clouds at Arsenal?

ARSENAL FANS CALLING for the completely inexperienced Mikel Arteta to succeed Arsene Wenger were doing so under the same principle a retiring New York accountant might start turning up at late-night raves and themed yoga: yes, it might go drastically wrong and end up doing more harm than good, but after a life of dreary predictability, it’s worth it for the sheer unknowability of it all.

When Unai Emery then turned up with an impressive CV, articulated principles and a trajectory that could be mapped out reasonably well, it was all a bit… underwhelming. Ever since, however, the change he has effected has proved, on occasion, exhilarating: pressing! Hard work! A willingness to occasionally kick a Spurs player! The dropping of under-performing stars with no respect for their bank account or standing in the game!

Emery’s demands, along with a coruscating attack and a then-yet-to-completely-implode defence carried Arsenal to a 22-match unbeaten run, but that all came to an abrupt end against Southampton in December; a month which also featured a dire draw with Brighton, a feeble cup defeat to Spurs and a risible showing at Anfield in which their defenders threatened to collapse if Roberto Firmino so much as looked at any of them with any intensity.

With the honeymoon emphatically over, the first grumblings toward Emery have been aired: his tinkering blunted Arsenal’s attacking edge in the second half against Brighton, while his decision to sub Alexandre Lacazette in the league win over Fulham was booed.

There is further frustration at Arsenal for which he isn’t at fault – the club can only make loan signings in January, as a result of mismanagement that has awarded Mesut Ozil, a player Emery would sell, with an enormous contract – and there is little he can do when his defence has been stripped back to a half-fit Shkodran Mustafi and a senescent Stephan Lichtsteiner.

With Manchester United resurgent, Arsenal are looking over their shoulders for the first time this season, as some of the detriments of the latter-day Wenger era manifest themselves. Arsenal should have Hector Bellerin, Sokratis and Nacho Monreal back for Saturday’s trip to West Ham, but having benefitted at the start of the season from the fact he succeeded Wenger, can Emery overcome the more tangible down-sides of his predecessor’s reign?

Liverpool have to deal with a defensive crisis… and themselves

Whereas most football managers have merely to deal with their opposition, the Liverpool manager also has to deal with Liverpool. No other club in the Premier League creaks under the weight of their own history to the extent Liverpool do, and Jurgen Klopp tried to tackle this when he was first announced as manager in 2015, stressing that “It’s not allowed that you take history in the backpack”.

Liverpool must now slough off the limiting memories of many wretched and recent disappointments to maintain their position over Manchester City, and while they proved in the first half of the season they have the quality to do so, they must now show they have the mettle to do it all over again.

Liverpool being responsible for their own fate is an objectively a good thing for them but there is a different pressure in being the hunted rather than the hunter.

The pressure distorts every game: Saturday’s game at Brighton doesn’t resemble a trip to a ground at which Liverpool won 5-1 last season, but instead a tricky game against a side who have only lost twice at home all season.

The challenge will also be made more difficult by the fact Virgil van Dijk is the only senior centre-back fit left standing, meaning Fabinho is likely to deputise out of position.

Fabinho will, along with most Liverpool fans, be reliant on van Dijk, a man seemingly impervious to make it all bearable. 

Middlesbrough v Everton - Premier League - Riverside Stadium The Irish captain has lost his place at Everton. Source: Anna Gowthorpe

Can Seamus Coleman win the biggest battle of his Everton career?

It might seem odd that the success of a Johnjoe Kenny is inimical to Irish interests but Kenny is Liverpool-born, and he is currently keeping Seamus Coleman out of the Everton team.

After an encouraging start, Everton have collapsed and have won only once in the league since November. Owner Farhad Moshiri is starting to get impatient – he bemoaned at a club general meeting this week that he has “thrown £250m to turn a museum into a competitive outfit”, and the pressure that is weighing on Marco Silva has trickled down to shoulders of his captain.

Coleman was dropped for the New Year’s Day defeat to Leicester, and remained on the bench for the FA Cup win against Lincoln City, with Silva proclaiming himself as a manager who is unafraid “to take decisions”.

There has been no indication yet as to whether Coleman will return to the starting line-up for Sunday’s game at home to Bournemouth. 

Many Everton fans believe Coleman is not the player he was prior to his horrific leg break against Wales in 2017, and as he ticks into his thirties, Coleman now faces the biggest fight for his reputation at Everton since first arriving from Sligo.

Solskjaer gets his first big audition… against the man who would be king

If succeeding Alex Ferguson was football’s most difficult job, perhaps following Jose Mourinho has become its easiest: calling less for a galvanising figure-head than a kind of defumigator, rooting out the lingering unhappiness and darkness through good vibes alone.

Solskjaer has done exactly what was asked of him thus far at United: five straight wins, achieved with the kind of swashbuckling attacking style that is making Old Trafford a place worth turning up to again.

While there have already been murmurs calling for United to give him the job full-time, the quality of the opposition he has faced – Reading, Newcastle, Bournemouth, Huddersfield and Cardiff – means he has much left to prove.

The arguments for his anointing thus far haven’t gone far beyond Phil Neville’s assertion that Solskjaer “knows the club”, which The42 takes to mean that he knows his way around Old Trafford and Carrington and hasn’t been caught forlornly wandering corridors, lost and bewildered like Spinal Tap trying to find the stage door in Cleveland.

Sunday afternoon, however, offers the first proper test of Solskjaer’s tactical mettle, and it fittingly comes against the favourite to replace him in the summer: Mauricio Pochettino.

The first insight into Jose Mourinho’s addled mind came in the 3-0 home defeat to Spurs in August, in which Ander Herrera was randomly picked as part of a back three. While United’s interim incumbent knows not to do that again, does he know exactly what he should do?

If Solskjaer can prove he can out-manouevre Pochettino – and perhaps even get the best out of Paul Pogba in the process – then he will have his first real claim for the job full-time.

Premier League fixtures (all kick offs 3pm unless stated) 

Saturday 

West Ham v Arsenal (12.30pm) 

Burnley v Fulham 

Crystal Palace v Watford 

Cardiff City v Huddersfield 

Brighton v Liverpool 

Leicester City v Southampton 

Chelsea v Newcastle (5.30pm)

Sunday 

Everton v Bournemouth (2.15pm) 

Spurs v Man United (4.30pm)

Monday 

Man City v Wolves  (8pm)

Ahead of a huge weekend of Heineken Champions Cup action, Murray Kinsella, Andy Dunne and Gavan Casey assess the provinces’ chances of putting a foot in the last eight:


Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud

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