As Jose Mourinho’s shadow continues to be cast over Old Trafford, take a look at the key talking points following this weekend’s Premier League fixtures.
Van Gaal operating in Mourinho’s growing shadow
Since the turn of the year, things have been starting to look up for Manchester United and under-fire manager Louis van Gaal. However, this weekend could hardly have gone any worse for the Dutchman.
Having endured a dreadful festive period, which culminated in four consecutive defeats and reports Van Gaal had offered to resign at Old Trafford, it appeared the 64-year-old had finally started to turn around the Red Devil’s prospects. United went five matches without a loss, the highlight of which being the 1-0 win at fierce rivals Liverpool. Meanwhile, misfiring captain Wayne Rooney regained his scoring touch, notching five times in four games.
Crucially, United’s fans remained sceptical of Van Gaal and his team’s uninspiring performances. And their frustrations came to the fore on Saturday. Hosting Ronald Koeman’s Southampton, United continued their remarkable run of failing to score in the first half at home – which has now been stretched to 10 matches. The Old Trafford faithful booed their side off the pitch at half-time, before Saints debutant Charlie Austin landed the killer blow with an 87th-minute winner. Cue even more anger from the stands.
To make matters worse, on Sunday morning, reports suggested former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho has written to the United hierarchy in an attempt to prove his suitability for the role. Mourinho’s agent, Jorge Mendes, has denied these claims, but it has long been understood that the ‘Special One’ craves the job.
“You cannot say they are not right,” Van Gaal said of the supporters’ boos. He’s running out of time to prove them wrong.
Klopp finds attacking antidote but defence leaves a lot to be desired
Whilst the hiring of Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool has arguably been the most exciting managerial appointment in the Premier League since Mourinho first arrived over a decade ago, the German’s tenure at Anfield has so far offered more questions than answers.
At times the former Borussia Dortmund boss’ renown “heavy metal football” has been evident to breathtakingly brilliant effect. And yet there have been moments where the Reds have been undeniably underwhelming. That’s not necessarily been Klopp’s fault – Liverpool’s squad is terribly unbalanced – but after showing such promise it is hard not to be disappointed.
In displays such as the 4-1 win at Manchester City and 6-1 demolition of Southampton, the Reds have shown a destructive attacking brilliance. But recently they have appeared disjointed and lacking a fluency, not aided by the fact their best fit goalscorer, Christian Benteke, is clearly not mobile enough for Klopp’s liking. In their last seven Premier League matches before the weekend, the Merseysiders have only scored more than one goal twice.
However, Liverpool suddenly became an attacking force once again at Norwich, bagging five goals. Roberto Firmino appears increasingly more comfortable leading the line, while most encouragingly, midfielders Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Adam Lallana all chipped in with long overdue goals.
One thing which is yet to change, though, is the Reds’ porous defending – especially from set-pieces. With all due respect to the Canaries, if Liverpool have Champions League ambitions, they can’t be conceding four goals at Carrow Road.
Klopp’s side, as they have shown, aren’t going to score five goals every week. He needs to make sure they don’t have to.
Costa continues to give Arsenal the blues
Has there ever been a bigger pantomime villain than Diego Costa in the Premier League’s history? Many have tried, but none have matched their tyranny with such ruthless quality, which only enhances the Chelsea striker’s enthralling character.
Arsenal have often had a tendency to fall for such tricks. Joey Barton once famously got Abou Diaby sent off, paving the way for the Gunners to blow a 4-0 lead at Newcastle. And few sights appear to rile the North Londoners’ back four as that of a raging Costa.
And so it transpired that on Sunday Per Mertesacker became the latest Arsenal defender to see red for an incident with the Brazilian. Only 18 minutes into the contest at the Emirates, Mertesacker desperately felled the onrushing Costa, who was heading clean through on goal, to leave his side in the lurch.
Typically, it was Arsenal’s public enemy number one who bagged the winner only five minutes later.
But there is a more important point at hand here. Such a turbulent season has left the Premier League title there for the taking. At times, Arsenal appear perfectly-placed to finally end their drought for the crown of English football. And yet on a worryingly frequent basis Arsene Wenger’s men conspire to shoot themselves in the foot.
If they want to be considered serious contenders then they need to start aiming for the opposition.
Star duo prove there is plenty of fight left in the Foxes
No team has benefited from Arsenal’s inconsistency as much as Leicester City, whose fairy tale title challenge was supposed to have finished by this point in the campaign.
The Foxes’ results post-Christmas suggested Claudio Ranieri’s men could be running out of steam, but they still found themselves top of the table thanks to the vulnerabilities of Arsenal and Manchester City.
Make no mistake, their rivals will now be starting to worry, especially after Leicester dispatched an impressive Stoke side with relative ease – securing a 3-0 victory.
Most encouraging for Ranieri would be the return to form of blockbuster duo Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez. Record-breaking striker Vardy ended a seven-match goal drought with a composed finish, while Algerian winger was involved in a goal for the first time in over a month with a delightful assist for Leonardo Ulloa’s tap in.
Thanks to Manchester United’s defeat, Leicester now have an unthinkable 10-point buffer for a place in the top four. They fairy tale is showing no signs of ending shortly.
Relegation battle starting to heat up
With the incoming riches of next season’s TV rights deal, there has arguably never been a worse time to be relegated from the Premier League than this year.
At one stage it appeared certain that Aston Villa and Sunderland were going to be two of the unfortunate trio. And while Villa still have a mountain to climb, both sides have improved under new managers, meaning teams further up the table are starting to look nervously over their shoulders.
What would have been almost unthinkable earlier in the season, Villa have now gone five matches without a defeat, following the 0-0 draw with Midlands rivals West Brom. What could ultimately prove costly for Remi Garde’s side is the amount of games they are drawing, but the fact they are taking points off other teams will give huge hope to Sunderland and Newcastle.
The North East duo undoubtedly have talented players amongst their ranks, but they are still failing to find the required consistency to climb out of the relegation zone.
Above them, Norwich are on a four-match losing run and things are starting to look ominous for boss Alex Neil, while teams as high as Everton in 12th could be starting to feel tense.
With the league so unpredictable, it may only take a team to put together one run of good results to get out of trouble, anyone who fails to do so could be doomed.