W2W4 previews the weekend’s Premier League action and highlights five key storylines.
Klopp, Wenger have problems
As Arsenal visit Liverpool at Anfield on Saturday, deja vu envelops both clubs. Arsenal are living out the same old season, while another surge of hope is fading quickly at Liverpool. Barring an amazing collapse by Chelsea and a reversal of form that has seen Liverpool win just one league match since New Year’s Eve, the Reds’ wait for the title will extend to 27 years, surpassing the barren 26-year spell about which their fans used to mock Manchester United.
Liverpool’s 3-1 loss at Leicester on Monday exposed some home truths. Manager Jurgen Klopp was an alchemist at Borussia Dortmund, combining wiry playmakers, unwanted players and young talent into a team that won two titles and reached the 2013 Champions League final. He now struggles to challenge for a league title with two ageing, converted midfielders in defence. Lucas Leiva, raddled by Leicester’s Jamie Vardy at centre-back, and James Milner, tormented by Riyad Mahrez, were fish out of water Monday.
Simply put, when Liverpool’s attack is not doing the business, their defence is there to be exploited — perhaps even more so when injured captain Jordan Henderson isn’t around to put in his usual long-distance running and screening of the back four. Then again, of course, the same must be said of Arsenal; it was definitely the case on the opening weekend of the season when Liverpool won 4-3 at the Emirates, less a classic than a preview exhibition of the defensive problems that would hamper both teams in the season to come.
Meanwhile, Arsenal are in the limbo of not knowing whether manager Arsene Wenger will stay on at the club, and they have next week’s Champions League second leg with Bayern Munich to think of and dread in equal measure.
Saturday’s match promises to be an absorbing showdown between two teams of flagging ambitions that badly require victory.
Will Man United climb up at last?
On Saturday night, Manchester United could end four months in purgatory. Since beating Swansea City 3-1 in November, United have been landlocked in sixth place. If they beat Bournemouth (as must be expected considering the cliff that Eddie Howe’s team has dropped off since December) and Liverpool fail to beat Arsenal, fifth place will be United’s new roost. A draw at Anfield could push United level with the Gunners in fourth place, albeit behind on goal difference. The winter has been a frustrating grind despite an unbeaten run stretching back to a 4-0 defeat at Chelsea on Oct. 24.
Yet last week’s EFL Cup triumph has emboldened United. With Zlatan Ibrahimovic as the Stretford End’s new folk hero, Old Trafford buzzes with anticipation rather than the disappointment of the three seasons that followed Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. However, climbing to fifth position (where Louis van Gaal finished last season and was sacked) is no triumph and must be followed by a further climb to the top four if Jose Mourinho is to be able to call his first season a success.
Leicester’s Shakespearean drama continues
Rarely has a team been so lambasted in victory. When Leicester players switched on their smartphones after beating Liverpool, a volley of vitriol greeted them on social media. Why, asked the angry brigade, did these “snakes” not put in so much effort for newly sacked manager Claudio Ranieri, everybody’s favourite Italian uncle?
On Monday, the statistic that they collectively ran almost 10 kilometers more vs. Liverpool than in their four previous matches (all losses) was used to damn them. Defender Danny Simpson opened up a Twitter spat with pundit Jamie Carragher in which the pair bantered about the number of Premier League titles each has won.
In the background bubbled the question of who might be the next manager. Assistant boss Craig Shakespeare does not want his Leicester labours lost and fancies stepping up to the big chair, while former England manager Roy Hodgson has been sounded out. Shakespeare will take charge again this Saturday, when Hull City and Marco Silva visit the King Power. Another good result to keep the champions away from the relegation zone and keep Hull down there would be a significant addition to Shakespeare’s resume. It might also quieten those lingering accusations of betrayal.
Can Kane continue his heroics?
Some observers believe Christian Eriksen is Tottenham’s most important player. Others look to the rich talent of Dele Alli or even the perpetual midfield motion of Mousa Dembele. Maybe they are admirers of Hugo Lloris’ goalkeeping excellence.
They’re all good players, fine examples of the quality that manager Mauricio Pochettino has available, but those observers are wrong. Harry Kane — the last king of White Hart Lane following the lineage of Jimmy Greaves, Glenn Hoddle, Paul Gascoigne et al — grabbed a hat trick last week against Stoke with some incendiary finishing, his treble coming a week after smashing in three at Fulham.
Sixth-place Everton should be difficult opposition on Sunday, having not lost in the Premier League in 2017; they should also know what to expect from Kane. But can they stop him?
Football men convene at the Hawthorns
West Brom vs. Crystal Palace will be one for the purists, surely the last game on any highlights show schedule. Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce are brothers in arms, two veteran managers ploughing similar furrows of functional football where results come first and are delivered by highly drilled teams that know the value of set pieces and manly defending. Expect the action to be in the air far more than on the ground, and for the long ball to pervade.
West Brom’s Pulis has never been relegated in his managerial career, while Allardyce has never suffered demotion from the Premier League, but the latter “football man” is in danger at his pal’s former club. Crystal Palace’s 1-0 victory over Middlesbrough on Saturday was Allardyce’s first win since he arrived at Palace at Christmastime. Meanwhile, West Brom have 40 points, which Palace, on 22 points and currently in 18th place, can only dream of.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.