Flawed opponents Liverpool, Arsenal yearning for statement of intent
Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.
Man City vs. Crystal Palace
Aston Villa vs. Man Utd
Hull vs. Swansea
QPR vs. West Brom
Southampton vs. Everton
Tottenham vs. Burnley
West Ham vs. Leicester
Newcastle vs. Sunderland
Liverpool vs. Arsenal
Stoke vs. Chelsea
Weekend battle: Liverpool vs. Arsenal
Liverpool face Arsenal on Sunday, the team they have been doing a very convincing imitation of this season: bark without the bite, an at-times invisible goalkeeper, lots of itty-bitty passing, injuries to key players, profligacy in front of goal, slapstick defending, style over substance and a manager who talks a good game but hasn't been delivering one. Considering both sides' inconsistency and unpredictability, it feels as if a quite ridiculous 90 minutes could be ahead of us in this weekend's match at Anfield.
Something ridiculous did occur in the corresponding fixture last season, as Arsenal infamously capitulated in the first half, waving Liverpool through on goal to concede three times in the opening 16 minutes. Oh, how we laughed (and some probably cried, then set fire to their shirts). The game ended 5-1 in the Reds' favour and the Gunners looked psychologically obliterated -- so much so that they clammed up in their following match, managing a goalless draw at home to David Moyes' Manchester United of all teams.
It is unlikely Liverpool will repeat such an astounding result this time around, mainly because they are missing the sold Luis Suarez and injured Daniel Sturridge -- it was their muddling movement that hurt Arsenal so. The duo's absence was particularly felt at Old Trafford last Sunday as a lack of a natural finisher in front of the goal cost them dearly, with Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea tested without having to really stretch himself -- until he tipped Mario Balotelli's shot onto the woodwork.
With Rickie Lambert looking leggy, Fabio Borini seemingly out of favour and Balotelli struggling with injury, manager Brendan Rodgers has turned to 20-year-old Raheem Sterling as his false nine. Overlooking the very obvious but enjoyable "But what about Liverpool's false goalkeeper?" gag for a moment, Sterling's first goals since September in Wednesday's 3-1 win over Bournemouth in the Capital One Cup eased concerns that Rodgers isn't just randomly shuffling his players around to see what, if anything, works. Or, of greater concern, turning Liverpool into some sort of ego-driven contemporary art project.
Like the Reds' victory against Bournemouth, Arsenal's 4-1 triumph over Newcastle last time out was encouraging, if little else. These are games both clubs should be winning by a couple of goals, without question. Versus one another, however, both have the propensity to combust. Ahead of the hectic festive schedule, these two clubs are in need of a proper pick-me-up, one that reasserts their reputation as sides to be feared. Should Liverpool lose, an eight-point gap between them and Arsenal would open up, which, while not insurmountable, would spoil Rodgers' Christmas.
Under pressure: Ronald Koeman
OK, so he's not under a significant pressure: Southampton are fifth in the Premier League table, for goodness' sake, and just two points behind Manchester United. But four successive Premier League losses are hard to overlook (quite literally because they're four glaring red marks on a form table), regardless of what impressiveness went before. In fact, it is the Saints' unthinkably promising start to the season that highlights the recently disappointing run endured by manager Ronald Koeman and his side. That they are on this sequence and still remain high in the division demonstrates the dreadfulness of their counterparts, too.
Speaking after the 1-0 loss at Burnley, which was followed by a Capital One Cup exit to third-tier Sheffield United, Koeman said: "Again the same story as last Monday against Manchester United. We had more chances, missed a penalty and one of our mistakes ended in 1-0." Indeed, after a barnstorming start to life in England, their main striker, Graziano Pelle, has managed just one goal in eight appearances in all competitions, putting pressure on his teammates to compensate for his dry spell.
However, beyond the handsome Italian, who has seven league goals to his name, midfielders Victor Wanyama and Morgan Schneiderlin are the joint second-highest scorers on three apiece. That Jay Rodriguez, yet to play this season, is now likely to be out until at least the end of January will not help. Time to find those collective shooting boots at home to Everton on Saturday, particularly as, after the Boxing Day trip to Crystal Palace, Chelsea and Arsenal are on the horizon.
Finding form: Manchester United
Put style in the bin, because Manchester United are all about substance right now. That and riding their luck. Six (SIX!) league wins in a row now, as glaring mistakes continue to go unpunished. Just think how frightening they'd be if/when manager Louis van Gaal sorts out their defence -- a challenge not aided so far by an extensive injury list. Saying that, David De Gea's exposure is not only down to a ramshackle backline but also through a midfield struggling to maintain possession and dictate the flow of the match.
Luck, of which you apparently make your own, has been ridden to the heights of third in the table. There's even talk of them being title contenders. Based on the performances of late, and not the results, those suggestions are premature at best and 2014 hyperbole at its knee-jerk worst. They can rely on so few chances created and those opportunities being taken by the in-form Robin van Persie for only so long. Van Gaal remains grounded and, frankly, concerned by their shortcomings, but it's Aston Villa next, a fixture that has scrappy last-minute winner for United written all over it.
Statistically speaking (via @PCarrESPN)
- With 21 points through 16 games, Liverpool are off to their worst league start in 50 years, since they won the equivalent of 16 points after 16 games in the 1964-65 season, when the Reds finished seventh.
- Averaging 1.2 goals per game this season, Liverpool are scoring at less than half the rate of last season (2.7 goals per game), and they simply aren't converting like last season. Liverpool have put 29 percent of shots on target and scored from 8 percent of shots this season, compared to putting 40 percent of shots on target and scoring from 16 percent of shots last season.
- Alexis Sanchez leads Arsenal with nine league goals in 15 games this season. If he scores against Liverpool, he'll be the second-fastest Arsenal player to 10 Premier League goals, trailing only Ian Wright, who scored 10 in his first 14 Premier League matches.
- Look out for set-piece goals when Manchester City host Crystal Palace on Saturday. Palace lead the league with 10 set-piece goals this season, but they have conceded nine set-piece goals, also the most in the league.
- With a three-point lead and a goal-difference advantage of four on Man City entering the weekend, Chelsea are likely to be top of the table on Christmas Day. Though only 10 of 22 Premier League champions have led at Christmas, Chelsea have won the title all three previous times they were in first on Dec. 25.
Any other business: Tottenham
Tottenham Hotspur are showing pluck, and that is a peculiar thing for a club associated with an apparent soft centre. Sure, their form at White Hart Lane (10 points from a possible 24) needs extensive surgery, but their fortitude shown away from home is worthy of quiet chest-beating. Not only have they won the same number of games on the road as leaders Chelsea (four) but the manner of the victories -- via late winners -- shows a spirit-in-progress under head coach Mauricio Pochettino. Either that or a failure to get the job done before it gets hairy, anyway. Next up are Burnley, when a failure to make it back-to-back league wins would lead to renewed question marks over their mental fortitude.
James Dall is an associate editor at ESPN FC. You can follow him on Twitter @JamesDallESPN.