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 midfield trio thrive, the relegation battle heats up while Arsenal struggle with a lack of effort from certain players.
Jose Mourinho has found his best midfield, but for how long?
Michael Carrick. Ander Herrera. Paul Pogba. It’s the midfield trio Manchester United fans believed would cure their early season slump and it appears to have done just the trick. Although it does seem to signal no first team spot for United’s best attacker – Juan Mata – at times this season, fans won’t mind if it means a speedy rise up the table.
West Brom on Saturday was the fourth league game running the trio have started together and if not for Marouane Fellaini’s late lapse in concentration at Goodison Park, it would have been 12 points from 12.
Pogba’s quality is there for all to see, his strength, his vision and his directness have taken United’s midfield to another level, while Herrera’s tenacity compliments the quality and control of the ageing Carrick. It looked like the 35-year-old would depart Old Trafford in the summer, but he has once again shown his importance and replacing him may be one of Mourinho’s biggest challenges during his tenure at United.
Santa’s elves may be able to add the bow to two relegation spots this Christmas
While it’s the season to be jolly, there can’t possibly be a lot of seasonal cheer going around Swansea and Hull right now. The pair are three points off safety and both have a vastly inferior goal difference going into the Christmas period.
Despite two home wins in a row for Bob Bradley, which saw the Swans bag eight goals, they have conceded 11 on the road in their last three and were thumped 3-0 by Middlesbrough on Saturday – the kind of game they should be looking to take points from.
It looks equally bleak for Hull, after taking six points from their first two games, the Tigers have managed just one win since and have lost their last seven games on the road. One of them will progress in the FA Cup after being drawn against each other and a cup run is the last thing either need. Hull may be hoping for a league cup final to bring some sort of optimism but Manchester United stand in their way.
Both have two home games coming after Christmas, Swansea will be looking for points against West Ham and Bournemouth, but Hull face the tougher prospect of Manchester City and Everton.
Sunderland lack all the quality, but they’ve found the fight
One team that isn’t helping Swansea and Hull’s cause is the ever determined Sunderland. It’s becoming a running theme that however doomed they look, a different manager pops up every season to turn it around.
It didn’t look at all good for David Moyes at one point this season, but things are just starting to swing Sunderland’s ways – with the players acknowledging they’ve re-found last season’s spirit and determination.
The Mackems have won four of their last seven games and importantly three of them have come at the Stadium of Light, somewhere Sunderland need to make a fortress – especially against teams around them.
Moyes now faces two big away games – a return to Old Trafford and a huge trip to Burnley – and things could look bleaker than they do now if Sunderland don’t improve on their sole away win during the season so far.
It’s same old, same old for Arsenal
It all looked so good, it always does doesn’t it? Arsenal started the season so strongly, bar a first day defeat to Liverpool. Then an impressive unbeaten run put them right in the hunt, although they did partly facilitate Chelsea’s incredible winning run which currently stands at 11 games.
But how it has all gone wrong in true Arsenal fashion? After getting through November relatively unscathed, Arsene Wenger’s men have now lost two games in the space of the week after leading in both. While Everton and Manchester City away were tough games on paper, both were in poor form and both matches followed the same pattern.
The Gunners took the lead early and looked in relative control against both sides before it all went spectacularly wrong. In both games, once the equaliser went in, Arsenal fell apart and a winner for the hosts looked predictable on both occasions. The lack of effort shown by certain players summed up so many issues Arsenal have and they now go into Christmas sitting nine points off Chelsea. Not only that, they still drew Bayern Munich in the Champions League despite winning their group. A dreary December indeed.
Referees need a break…literally
If you’re a regular browser of our website you’ll have noticed this year we get weekly input into our Ref Review feature from ex-professional referee Mark Halsey. It’s been fascinating getting an insight into the weekly mental torture of being a top level referee and Halsey has been a regular advocate of referees getting a physical and mental break.
Craig Pawson endured a shocking evening on Wednesday, failing to identify several big calls in the Crystal Palace vs Manchester United match – including the failure to send Marcos Rojo off for a straight red card. Halsey described him as looking like a “frightened rabbit” during the match and maybe he should’ve been taken off duty this weekend.
Instead, his errors were clearly inside his mind as he officiated Stoke vs Leicester on Saturday and sent Jamie Vardy off for a two footed challenge nowhere near as bad as Rojo’s. While it looks bad on Pawson, he would’ve had serious doubts over his midweek decision and knows more questions would’ve been raised had he done the same on Saturday. Is it a good idea for him to referee Liverpool vs Manchester City on the 31st? It doesn’t look like it…
Follow Rich on Twitter at @RichJLaverty