Weekend Wanderings: Manchester United close to best Xi, Arsenal improving but Chelsea continue to thrill

In a new addition to the site, Rich Laverty takes a weekly look at five areas of the weekend’s football and explores the key issues behind teams in form, out of form and why. This week, Manchester United’s points deficit and Arsenal’s need for improvement are highlighted, while Chelsea are looking to be strong contenders for the title.  

Despite points deficit, Mourinho is closing in on his best XI

Manchester United’s home game against Arsenal on Saturday afternoon was potentially their most complete of the season. Despite their league position, United have been largely impenetrable at home this season – only the blue side of Manchester have walked away from Old Trafford with three points.

While things don’t look great, United are close to clicking and a more clinical edge would have seen them take the maximum nine points in their last three homes to leave them just two points off the top. But they have a soft centre that wasn’t there under Sir Alex Ferguson, it seems as if right now every shot on target United have against them finds the back of the net.

Mourinho will believe that Eric Bailly and Chris Smalling may have kept out Olivier Giroud’s late header, while Phil Jones was shrugged off the ball by Laurent Koscielny. His midfield trio of Michael Carrick, Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera seems to be working well, and Juan Mata has established himself as the team’s key player.

United aren’t conceding many but they’re paying the price for all four strikers being out of form. Ibrahimovic’s goal tally is neat but his profligacy in front of goal against City, Burnley and Stoke has cost United a lot of points. Wayne Rooney played well against Swansea but isn’t finding the net, while both Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial are struggling for form. It’s coming, but it has to come soon and eventually someone is going to be on the end of an Old Trafford beating.

Toure has provided his Tevez moment

With slightly different situations and Yaya Toure certainly not angling for a move away from Manchester City in the many ways his former Argentine teammate did, Toure’s return to the first team on Saturday showed he hasn’t lost it.

Not one, but two goals saw Pep Guardiola’s side pick up three important points at Selhurst Park and showed Toure still has a lot to offer despite a difficult 2015/16 campaign.

His return wasn’t too dissimilar to Tevez’s, the former City striker assisted a crucial goal against Chelsea and would play a big role in helping City gain their first league title in dramatic fashion. City have been dominant enough in certain games this season, and Toure’s return gives them another world class option.

Arsenal’s fight is improving, but is it enough?

Arsene Wenger (rightly) pointed out that Arsenal would have lost their game at Manchester United on Saturday had it been played last season.

He’s right of course, Arsenal buckled to a Louis van Gaal side that included Guillermo Varela and Premier League debutant Marcus Rashford as well as missing several key first team players. On Saturday, the Gunners’ performance wasn’t much better; they didn’t manage a single shot on target for 89 minutes and were lucky to not be more than 1-0 down.

But United’s inability to extend their lead cost them when two of Wenger’s subs combined for a late equaliser, leading to a lot of debate about whether Arsenal’s mental strength is improving. The late goal suggests it is, but yet another nerve-ridden performance at Old Trafford suggests it’s not. Wenger’s big game record has improved slightly in recent years but there’s always a sense Arsenal won’t do it when it matters most, and if they do they’ll likely blow it against a lesser team soon after.

Several players suggested after the match they needed to do more as a team, and if they are to come above Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool to win the title this season, they’ll need to do a lot more despite being 17 games unbeaten.

We have big officiating issues

Whilst refereeing and officiating in general is always a big talking point in the Premier League, the weekend was perhaps a new low for bad decisions.

In our regular Ref Review feature, Mark Halsey has praised several referees recently and during the last round of games before the international break, there were almost no bad decisions to analyse – this week that won’t be the case.

It got worse during the course of Saturday afternoon, starting with the recently impressive Andre Marriner at Old Trafford. Despite a soft first booking for Matteo Darmian, Marriner failed to then hand a second caution for a much more serious foul not long after. Maybe Marriner realised his error, but more controversy followed when he failed to award Manchester United a penalty as Nacho Monreal blocked the onrushing Antonio Valencia with his arm.

Fortunately, Marriner wasn’t the referee we were all talking about come 5pm, Roger East’s failure to award a penalty to Bournemouth when Ryan Shawcross scythed down Callum Wilson may go down as one of the most baffling decisions in Premier League history. It wasn’t just the Premier League; I was at Sheffield United to see Darren Deadman completely forget the new rules when he sent off Shrewsbury’s Jim O’Brien for conceding a penalty despite the player making a genuine attempt to play the ball.

Chelsea are best placed to take the Premier League title

That’s six wins in a row, 17 goals scored and a staggering zero goals conceded since Antonio Conte moved to a 3-4-3 system after his side’s humiliation at the Emirates Stadium.

A steely 1-0 win at Middlesbrough on a cold November afternoon is hardly a game any Chelsea fan will remember should their team win the league, but it’s the kind of game that is crucial to doing so.

Draws for Liverpool and Arsenal now mean Conte’s team sit a point clear at the top of the table with a better goal difference than any of their rivals. While all four of the sides at the top of the table right now are capable of scoring for fun, Chelsea are doing so without conceding at the other end.

Add that to the fact they have players who have been there, done that and got the Premier League medals to show for it and a lack of European football to keep themselves fresh, they’re already big favourites in my eyes to clinch another Premier League trophy.

Follow Rich on Twitter at @RichJLaverty.

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