Jose Mourinho appears to have another huge problem at Manchester United in the shape of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, while Arsenal’s title chances are talked up and the form of Diego Costa is heralded in this week’s Monday Verdict.
This season, we can finally hang our hat on Arsenal – and here’s why
There’ll be plenty reading this column this morning still expecting Arsenal to slip up this season. After all, they self-combust every season, right?
While it’s hard to ignore what history so plainly tells us, there’s a compelling case being made by the class of 2017 that suggests (very strongly) that this might finally be Arsenal’s year again.
We’ve seen in the past how they’ve started the season poorly, before a late charge has seen them finish well; or more commonly, the seasons where they start strongly before suffering a mid-season meltdown that sees them blow their title chance (see last season’s late February wobble that effectively ruled them out of the title race).
However, there’s something very different about Arsenal this season – and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to pick a weakness in their armoury.
We’ll start at the back where the arrival of Shkodran Mustafi has transformed their defence. There was always the suggestion that the Gunners just lacked that one commanding centre-half, but in the no-nonsense German, Arsenal look like they’ve finally found the perfect partner to Laurent Koscielny.
The switch of Alexis Sanchez to a more central striking role has also paid huge dividends for Arsenal. Pushing him further forward, where his movement and trickery pulls defences around far more than Olivier Giroud ever could, has proved a masterstroke. He’s not just a pretty footballer either; the man can prove he can finish too, with his header – and just as importantly, the movement to reach it – against Sunderland typical of a seasoned central striker.
22 – There were 22 passes before Sanchez’s goal v Sunderland, the most before a goal in the Premier League this season. Move. pic.twitter.com/u30eP4fYUU
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 29, 2016
But while Giroud has been the biggest fall-guy in the change, the likes of Alex Iwobi, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott have thrived; the latter two easily already enjoying their best form at the club.
Iwobi’s efforts have drawn high-praise from Arsene Wenger, who even suggested the Nigerian could play at No 10, but it’s the improvements, and more so, confidence being showed by Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain which has really caught my eye.
For years, the duo have flattered to deceive, and would either’s sale during the summer have upset that many Arsenal fans? Both players were linked with moves away – Walcott most strongly to Liverpool, and Oxlade-Chamberlain to West Ham.
It’s a different story now with Walcott netting eight goals in 11 games this season and Oxlade-Chamberlain now involved in seven goals in his last eight games (four goals, three assists).
But can either player yet consider themselves regulars? In fairness, the duo are probably in direct competition with one another – and the returning Aaron Ramsey – for a place in the side, and both seem to be pushing one another to new heights this season.
Giroud cannot be forgotten either. Here is a man who, despite limitations with his sometimes cumbersome style, can still score a goal: a strike rate of 84 goals in 193 appearances for Arsenal is testament to that – even if this season’s efforts underline the fact his selection was possibly holding them back.
Saturday’s 4-1 win at Sunderland drew high praise from our writers after the game and it’s easy to see why. Their Plan A was sumptuous; their Plan B, when needed, was devastating.
Giroud is that Plan B – and he’s a bloody good one to have at that.
With the club boasting their deepest and most competitive squad in years, and with the team showing they’re capable of winning games in different ways – something their title rivals cannot arguably do – 2016/17 can finally be the season that Arsenal can rule England again.
The writers believe it; the doubters are becoming fewer and the momentum the club are building finally has the players believing in it too…..
Oh dear, what can the Zlatan be….
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When Zlatan Ibrahimovic joined Manchester United on a free transfer over the summer, some of the experts would have you believe that his signing was supposed to inspire United in the same way Eric Cantona’s had 24 years earlier. Ten games in and United are already a whopping seven points adrift of the Champions League places, with Jose Mourinho already setting foot on that all-too-familiar road of self-destruction…..
It had all started so well for Zlatan; the talismanic Swede netting five times in his first five games for the club. Money (£240k a week in wages) well spent, it seemed!
Since then though, there’s only been one goal in 10 appearances, and none in his last six league games – the first time he’s suffered a drought like this since December 2007 in his Inter Milan days. (Roberto Mancini was his manager at the time before anyone starts dishing up the conspiracy theories, mind!)
So just what is it that seems to make Zlatan so protected from the axe at United and just what is it he has over Mourinho? The United manager has shown himself capable of the big decisions by dropping the out of sorts Wayne Rooney. So why not Zlatan?
Had it been Rooney playing centrally and going so long without scoring, you can bet your bottom dollar the media would be all over him….
It does make you do wonder if there was something written into Zlatan’s contract stipulating the player, when fit, is guaranteed to start for Manchester United? I’m speculating, of course, but having only missed one of the club’s 16 games to date (the 4-1 win over Fenerbahce) there’s growing claims that this could be the case.
But while Zlatan can consider himself unlucky not to have found the net on Saturday in the goalless draw with Burnley, he has now missed big chances against Burnley, Chelsea and Liverpool.
And questions are being raised if his lack of pace and mobility is holding Manchester United back?
I’m not for a second doubting his quality, or what he can contribute to the club this season. But surely, moving Marcus Rashford into a more central position would give United far greater a threat.
Rashford, who has often been occupying a place on the left side on a three, appears wasted there. Who replaces the teenager in the wider position, isn’t hugely important. United have options with Anthony Martial, Ashley Young, or hell, even Rooney waiting in the wings.
But what is important is for United to let Zlatan take a backseat for a few games. He can recharge his batteries and United can see whether, like with Arsenal and Giroud, his lack of mobility is actually holding them back….
Dead. Men. Walking. ?pic.twitter.com/qdiqcIynhC
— Bleacher Report UK (@br_uk) October 30, 2016
The naysayers have been quick to write off United already this season, and while it’s probably safe to assume they won’t be title challengers, they’re still very much capable of getting back into the top-four mix and even winning a trophy.
Zlatan, however, comes with a massive personality – arguably the biggest in the game – and I do wonder if there’s a part of Mourinho that is subconsciously trying to avoid a falling out.
With Mourinho seemingly wavering under the pressure of late, does he have the cajones to take Ibrahimovic out of his side….?
Super Costa back to doing what he does best
— Chelsea Videos (@chelslatest) October 30, 2016
It’s amazing to think Diego Costa could have quite feasibly turned his back on Chelsea this summer, given his importance to the side this season.
With the player confirming he wanted a return to Atletico Madrid and with Chelsea seemingly prepared to spend big on the likes of either Romelu Lukaku or Alvaro Morta, a parting of ways seemed inevitable.
But whatever was said in the intervening weeks between Antonio Conte’s arrival as manager and the close of the transfer window appears to have done the trick.
Costa this season has been different class and he’s back to being in that select band of players whom you can safely feel comfortable backing as an anytime scorer each and every time he takes to the field.
Following his effort at Southampton, the Spain striker now has seven goals in nine Premier League games this season – a tally matched only by Romelu Lukaku and Sergio Aguero. And just to exemplify his form in front of goal, his stunner against Southampton was his 40th Premier League goal in just his 64th appearance; a tally he’s reached seven games faster than Aguero.
Costa obviously has that side to his game that no-one wants to see (our feature last season calling the player a ‘Master of the Dark Arts’ proved one of our best read articles), but it seems life under Conte is suiting him.
Having called for the player to use his aggression in a positive manner, it seems Conte is getting his wish and Premier League defenders have a reason to be on their guard once again.
Pressure off Pep – or is it?
A Sergio Aguero double helped Manchester City end the longest winless run of Pep Guardiola’s managerial career in emphatic fashion; the 4-0 win at West Brom gaining the club their first win in seven matches.
Speaking after the game, Guardiola said: “I was very pleased. What most pleased me? Three points. After six times without winning we needed points for the health.”
He’s not wrong either: with Barcelona on the horizon in midweek, failure to win at the Hawthorns could have meant the club would face going into their next Premier League game at home to Middlesbrough seeking a first win in nine: an unthinkable prospect.
Another John Terry saga looming?
John Terry has signed one-year contract extensions in each of the last three seasons, but now it appears he is no longer indispensable for the Blues.
After a shaky display in his first match for more than six weeks in the EFL Cup loss at West Ham, Terry returned to the substitutes’ bench for a third successive Premier League game.
Chelsea again kept a clean sheet, their fourth in a row in the league, in Sunday’s 2-0 win at Southampton.
Terry is free to talk to foreign clubs in the new year, so an exit could be closer than ever for the man who made his first-team debut 18 years ago this month.