Dan James

Premier League storylines: Matchweek 15

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Midweek Premier League action is coming up on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

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December is here and that means one thing: PL games by the boatload. Oh yeah, family and presents and food and stuff too… but mostly, Premier League.

Here’s a look at the top storylines heading into the next three days of PL action with two games on Tuesday and Thursday and six on Wednesday.

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Mourinho returns to Man United with Tottenham

  • Man United v. Tottenham, Wednesday (Watch live, 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

Jose Mourinho returns to Old Trafford as he aims to make it four wins out of four as Tottenham’s manager. If you read that sentence to someone this time last year they likely would have fallen off their chair. A lot has changed in the last 12 months since Mourinho was fired by United, but mostly for him. United are still sluggishly pushing for a top four finish and look no closer to achieving that this season than they did last season. In fact, after 14 games last season Mourinho’s United had 22 points on the board. This season they have 18, despite heavy investment in Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Dan James.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s side have coughed up leads against Aston Villa and Sheffield United in their last two games and now sit eight points off the top four, while Spurs are two points ahead of them. Harry Kane against Harry Maguire should be an epic battle and Mourinho knows this United team better than most and will no doubt have a very specific gameplan to edge his team further ahead in the race for a top four finish. Mourinho has received a pretty positive reception on his recent returns to Old Trafford as a TV pundit, but that will quickly evaporate if he’s sliding down the touchline on his knees in celebration on Wednesday. Spurs have momentum but both teams are conceding plenty of goals. This should be box office and if Mourinho wins, ex-Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino will surely move closer to taking Solskjaer’s job. The wild managerial merry-go-round continues.


Arsenal, Everton in freefall

  • Arsenal v. Brighton, Thursday (Watch live, 3:15 p.m. ET on NBCSN)
  • Liverpool v. Everton, Wednesday (Watch live, 2:30 p.m. ET online via NBCSports.com)

Unai Emery has gone and Marco Silva is hanging on by a thread. All is not well at Arsenal or Everton. Both clubs have spent a lot of cash over the past few years but not in the right areas. Arsenal continue to buy talented attackers and neglect their defense, while Everton focus on wingers and midfielders instead of buying the top striker they needed to replace Romelu Lukaku. Aside from issues on the pitch, there a plenty off it for both clubs. Arsenal don’t seem to have a plan for the future as majority shareholder Stan Kroenke has his son Josh talking about the Arsenal DNA and how Freddie Ljungberg is the right man for now. Things didn’t look any different under Ljungberg on Sunday at Norwich as Arsenal were good going forward but a shambles at the back.

There is no clear plan for the future at Arsenal and the same can be said for Everton. Majority owner Farhad Moshiri is sticking with Silva, for now, but with different opinions behind-the-scenes and a team woefully underachieving, it’s a case of who can Everton attract to do any better than Silva currently is? A jolt in the right direction for Arsenal and Everton, who face Brighton and Liverpool respectively in midweek, is badly needed but it is the long-time plan which needs more attention. That has been badly neglected in recent months and both are paying for short-sighted splurges in transfer window rather than transformative philosophical changes. Everton will do well to get anything at Anfield, and although they’ve been unlucky in recent weeks, a heavy defeat to their rivals would be the end for Silva. As for Arsenal, a heavy win is the least Ljungberg will want as he aims to stake his claim to take the Gunners over for the rest of this season at the very least.


Can Leicester, Man City stay in touch with Liverpool

  • Leicester City v. Watford, Wednesday (Watch live, 2:30 p.m. ET online via NBCSports.com)
  • Burnley v. Man City, Tuesday (Watch live, 3:15 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

Liverpool are looking lonely atop the Premier League table. Leicester City are doing their best to stay in touch with them, and their dramatic 2-1 win against Everton on Sunday proved they have momentum, and perhaps fate, on their side in their unlikely title bid. Of course, Man City are still the favorites to hunt Liverpool down, just as they did last season, but Pep Guardiola‘s battered and patched up defense head to Burnley knowing that they really can’t afford to drop any more points… this season. An 11 point lead over Man City is an incredible achievement at this stage of the season but anybody who has watched Liverpool regularly will admit they’ve been far from their best this season. They’re grinding out win after win but unless their form improves, eventually they will slip up. Leicester host struggling Watford and Man City head to Burnley knowing they have to win to put the pressure on Liverpool. It is that simple.

Relegation six-pointer at St Mary’s

Southampton breathed a huge sigh of relief after their late comeback win at home against Watford on Saturday but Ralph Hasenhuttl knows they are still in deep trouble. Saints’ first half display was one of their worst of the season as the pressure of not having a home win since April weighed heavy on the shoulders of his players. There was a negative vibe among the home fans at St Mary’s as they booed their players throughout, but the arrival of Sofiane Boufal off the bench in the second half swung the game in their favor. Hasenhuttl has called on his players to be brave and he must be brave with his team selection too.

Neither Saints or Norwich can defend but both teams have shown they can score plenty of goals and in a key relegation scrap, it’s all about which club can hold their nerve in front of goal on Wednesday. Saints are under pressure but face Norwich, Newcastle, Aston Villa and West Ham in their next four and they know they need momentum at this key point of the season. As for Norwich, there is no pressure on them. Everybody knows they have the smallest budget in the PL but they continue to punch above their weight and should have beat Arsenal on Sunday. Southampton and Norwich will be in a relegation battle all season and this game is crucial in deciding which team finishes above or below the dreaded dotted line.

Solskjaer lauds ‘vital’ Martial following long-awaited league away win

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For the first time in 12 matches, Manchester United scored more than once in a competitive match.

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To be exact, the Red Devils struck on three different occasions at Carrow Road on Sunday in their 3-1 victory over an ill-fated Norwich City. Scott McTominay, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial all contributed a goal a piece as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and company moved up to seventh in the table.

Perhaps the most striking fact, however, is that United’s win away from home is their first in Premier League play since February. Couple that with two, consecutive wins in a span of four days, and there are almost zero reasons why the Norwegian manager should be unpleased with his team’s necessary revival. To the BBC:

“This had been a good week for us,” Solskjaer following Sunday’s victory. “It started with a decent performance against Liverpool and now two wins away from home. It gives the players confidence and momentum.”

“The third was a very good goal and a class finish,” he added. “It is great for Anthony Martial to score a goal like that. We could and should have had a few more goals.”

The Frenchman, spearheading United’s attack, wasn’t particularly sharp – his blocked penalty kick stands out – in his 75-minute shift against a struggling and sluggish Norwich, but he managed to score minutes before coming off.

More important than the goal, was the build up to it. It embodies a quality United will need in order to dust off the negativity (and poor play) that has haunted the side for far too long: the synchronization between Martial and Rashford. When the high-flying and astute duo connect, there is very little that can stop them.

“We’ve missed Anthony the last two months and it’s great to have him back,” the Norwegian manager admitted on Sunday night. “Him and Marcus, they’re just gonna improve and that partnership is gonna grow. Sometimes we play the two of them, today we had Dan James as well, so we had the three of them. So very happy and great finish by Anthony.”

“He (Martial)’s vital for us,” he added. “He’s a top striker and to have him back, fit, smiling, enjoying his football is a big thing for us. He’s clever in his movement but he’s not been given credit for his clever defending.”

Finally, things, slowly but surely, coming along for United. And the prudent thing to say – at least according to Solskjaer – is that Martial is a big reason why there is a break in the clouds at Old Trafford (and when they hit the road).

“We feel Anthony’s an important player for us and we’ve felt the effect of him not being there and pleased to have him back and scoring goals,” Solskjaer said.

What we’ve learned, so far, from Premier League

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As we approach Matchweek 4 in the new Premier League season, snap judgements on teams continue to be shared.

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But what have we actually learned in the opening weeks of the new campaign?

Here’s a look at some of the storylines emanating from the first 270 minutes of the season.


Man United continue to be their own worst enemies

After losing 2-1 at home to Crystal Palace, it’s easy to write off Man United under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. But that wouldn’t tell the whole story. As Nick Mendola pointed out yesterday, it’s not time to panic just yet. Had they scored two penalty kicks via Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford, it is very likely they’d be sitting joint-top of the table with three wins from three. United have been their own worst enemies, with Pogba and Rashford fluffing their lines and David De Gea making another costly error to lose in stoppage time at home against Palace. United’s defense looks better, Rashford, Dan James and Martial are a threat and the side is settled with better balance in midfield. If this young side can cut out costly errors, they will be in the top four hunt all season long.


West Ham, Leicester well placed for top six push

The Hammers and Foxes are both looking very decent early in the season and both seem capable of pushing into the top six. Leicester are unbeaten and should have beat Chelsea, while West Ham took care of business against Watford and should have beat Brighton after an opening day mauling at the hands of Man City. Sebastian Haller looks the real deal up top for West Ham as they finally have a striker who can hold up the ball and bring their plethora of wonderful attacking midfielders into the game.

As for Leicester, they have so many youngsters who can put on a show. Harvey Barnes was the hero this week but James Maddison, Hamza Choudury and Demarai Gray are all stars for Brendan Rodgers‘ side. Caglar Soyuncu has also slotted in seamlessly to replace Harry Maguire. Leicester look set to push for a top six finish as the likes of Tottenham and Chelsea have failed to impress early this season. West Ham and Leicester are ahead of Wolves and Everton in the push for European qualification.


Liverpool a ruthless machine

Jurgen Klopp‘s men have been far from their best but they’re getting the job done and a ruthless second half blitz saw them ease past Arsenal on Saturday. After a disjointed summer where several stars didn’t even go on their preseason tour, Liverpool are clicking through the gears when they need to. Losing Alisson to injury in the season opener was far from ideal and that has led to Liverpool conceding in each of their three games so far, but Firmino, Salah and Mane have all stepped up at different times to seal three-straight wins. Not vintage stuff at all from the Reds, but they’re getting the job done in a ruthless fashion when they’re on top in games and that is title-winning material.


Chelsea’s kids are alright, but top four will be a big ask

It will be a lot of fun to watch Chelsea this season. But only if you’re a neutral. Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount have hit the ground running and going forward they look very dangerous. Defensively they are a little all over the place with Andres Christensen and Kurt Zouma their first-choice duo at center back, for now. Chelsea won 3-2 at Norwich and drew 1-1 with Leicester, but they should have lost the latter game. In midfield they are a little open and Frank Lampard‘s game-management is lacking a little. He and his young players will grow into this season, but the first few weeks have told us that finishing in the top four would be akin to win the title for Chelsea this season.


Tottenham’s poor form continues as uncertainty unsettles

Spurs’ shock defeat at home to Newcastle United highlighted a worrying trend for Mauricio Pochettino‘s side. Only two PL teams have picked up less points than them in the last 15 games, and the Argentine coach pointed to uncertainty over the future of several key players as having an impact on his squad. Aside from sorting out where Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld or Christian Eriksen will go as their contracts run down, a dip in form for Harry Kane has also hit Tottenham hard. In a season where they were supposed to push for the title after finally spending big this summer, they are already five points off leaders Liverpool. A north London derby at Arsenal on Sunday (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) gives Spurs the perfect opportunity for a boost, but if they lose that it will heap more pressure on Pochettino.


Old guard standing tall for reigning champs

Pep Guardiola‘s side sit two points behind Liverpool and their old guard have been dragging them through games in the opening weeks. Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva and Sergio Aguero were at it again at Bournemouth over the weekend and City’s slick attack has continued to run seamlessly because of them. Defensively they’ve missed another veteran badly, with Vincent Kompany not being replaced as Nicolas Otamendi and Aymeric Laporte haven’t struck up a similar partnership with the former looking far from settled. For now, City will rely on their veteran stars to led the way but others need to step up, like they did last season, if they’re going to challenge for every trophy going.

Pogba unsure about future at Man United

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Paul Pogba has cast fresh doubt over his future as a Manchester United player.

Speaking after their 4-0 demolition of Chelsea, where he grabbed two assists in the second half after yet another Jekyll and Hyde display, the 26-year-old Frenchman revealed he could still leave United this summer with the transfer window still open across Europe.

Pogba had previously admitted he was ready for a new challenge and his agent Mino Raiola reinforced that Pogba wants to leave United as Real Madrid remain interested.

“Obviously there have been things said but only time will tell,” Pogba said. “This question mark remains. However, as I said, I am here in Manchester. I enjoy playing with my teammates and I always want to win every game. I always give it everything. I am always good whenever I play football. It is what I love – it is my job. I give the maximum each time I am on a green pitch.”

Pogba remains a divisive figure and his display against Chelsea summed that up. In the first half he gave the ball away, was easily pushed off the ball and didn’t look too interested. In the second half he set up Marcus Rashford with a delicious ball over the top and then went on a surging run to set up Dan James for United’s fourth.

Even though the summer transfer window is shut in the Premier League, players can still leave and it seems as though Pogba’s future will be open in the air until early September.

Surely United will not sell him now as they’ll have no chance of replacing him.

Romelu Lukaku left out of Man United squad

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Romelu Lukaku has yet to feature for Manchester United in preseason and speculating regarding his future at Old Trafford will continue to swirl.

The Belgian star was left out of United’s 26-man squad for their trip to Norway to play Kristiansund on Tuesday, and there was no reason given for his absence on the club website.

Lukaku, 26, has been linked with moves to Italian giants Juventus and Inter Milan throughout the summer and it appears the end-game is near.

Reports suggest that Juve will offer Paulo Dybala for Lukaku, while Inter have been negotiating with United for some time but the Red Devils are said to want over $90 million for their Belgian striker and Antonio Conte‘s side are yet to offer anywhere near that.

An extra caveat to all of this is that Lukaku traveled with United to Australia and China for their lengthy preseason tour but didn’t play a single second due to a minor injury.

He could often be seen training on his own or working out on an excercise bike in the gym, as his future remains up in the air.

Do United need him?

Given his penchant as a proven goalscorer, you always need those around. But given the fact that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wants young, speedy strikers and he has a lot of them, Lukaku’s skillset makes him surplus to requirements right off the bat.

We saw him chucked out wide at times during the second half of last season and although he caused problems in that role, he never looked comfortable. Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and youngsters Dan James and Mason Greenwood looked more natural fits for United’s new high-octane playing style.

Lukaku has talked about his love for Serie A on multiple occasions and it appears his time in the Premier League is about to come to an end.

When we look back on his United career, 42 goals in 96 appearances isn’t a bad record at all. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.

His hold-up play didn’t improve much, neither did his record against the top six clubs, and the lack of service he received — especially in the opening months of Jose Mourinho’s final season in charge — saw him frustrated so when chances did arrive he snatched at them.

Along with Paul Pogba, Lukaku always seemed to be under pressure at United and it seems close to the mark to say both have been too inconsistent over the past few seasons.

Here is United’s squad in full for the trop to Norway

David De Gea, Lee Grant, Joel Pereira, Sergio Romero; Diogo Dalot, Phil Jones, Victor Lindelof, Marcos Rojo, Luke Shaw, Chris Smalling, Axel Tuanzebe, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Ashley Young; Fred, Angel Gomes, Daniel James, Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata, Nemanja Matic, Scott McTominay, Andreas Pereira, Paul Pogba; Tahith Chong, Mason Greenwood, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford.