Unai Emery

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.

Rodgers happy at Leicester, not interested in Arsenal

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When Brendan Rodgers looks back on his coaching career someday he will regard this as one of his smarter decisions.

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The Leicester City manager has rubbished talk of him taking over at Arsenal, as Rodgers is the bookmakers favorite to replace Unai Emery at the Emirates Stadium.

Following Leicester’s dramatic late win against Everton on Sunday, Rodgers was a little noncommittal when asked about his future and instead admitted he has a release clause of $18 million in his Leicester contract.

Speaking ahead of Leicester’s clash against Watford on Wednesday (Watch live, 2:30 p.m. ET online via NBCSports.com) the former Liverpool and Celtic manager put all of the speculation to bed.

“Yeah, the message is clear and it has been and probably I’ll get asked again until they appoint someone, but it’s very simple. I’m very happy here,” Rodgers explained. “I made a choice nine months ago to come here for a purpose. The purpose was very clear in that I wanted to help this club move forward out of where it was when I came in, and looking to lead it forward with a group I feel has huge potential. Why would I want to move from that?

“OK, I moved after nearly three years at Celtic and people may look at me thinking: ‘Right, because a club like Arsenal, with the great institution and size, and all of that …’ But it’s all about happiness and I couldn’t be happier here. My contract is until 2022 and the club haven’t said they want to release me from that.”

Rodgers would be best served to stay at Leicester City until the end of this season.

If he leads the Foxes to a top four finish this season, which looks highly likely, he will gain huge plaudits and be one of the first names on the list for the top jobs in Europe, not just the Arsenal job, next summer.

Arsenal wanted him before they hired Emery and it is clear that his style of play and ability to get the best out of young talent is very attractive to many clubs, but specifically the Gunners. When it comes to Rodgers, he has built up a reputation of being a manager who will jump ship quickly after his move from Swansea to Liverpool and then Celtic to Leicester, but in both of those situations it was a no-brainer.

Given all of the uncertainty behind-the-scenes at Arsenal and the obvious flaws in the playing squad, Rodgers would be mad to leave this Leicester side behind to take charge of the Gunners. Right now he’s managing the only club which looks likely to sustain a title challenge with Liverpool this season.

Rodgers is a man who likes the spotlight and eventually it would make sense for him to move to Arsenal, or Chelsea or even a club like Man City if Pep Guardiola departs. But until then, Leicester is the perfect fit for him and he knows it.

The fact that Rodgers is best served to remain at Leicester instead of joining Arsenal says as much about his fine work with the Foxes as it does about Arsenal’s recent demise.

How long is Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s leash?

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Since the dismal 1988/89 season when Manchester United finished 11th, no manager has ushered in fewer points through the season’s first 14 matches than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer this campaign, with the Red Devils held again on Sunday to a 2-2 draw with newly-promoted Aston Villa.

Not David Moyes, not Louis Van Gaal, not Jose Mourinho.

That does not tell the whole story – far from it. Manchester United is in the midst of a rebuild that has not gone as smoothly as Chelsea’s youth movement, but for all the bumps in the road it has not felt as chaotic as Arsenal’s train wreck, despite the Gunners sitting a spot higher.

Still, you are what the table says you are, and right now the table has spoken: Manchester United is the ninth-best team in the league.

Ole Gunnar Solakjaer’s sheer numbers are just as ugly. He has a 27% win rate as a permanent manager in the Premier League, having emerged victorious in just six out of 21 league matches since signing on permanently on March 28. In contrast, the now-fired Unai Emery retained a 47% mark during his time at Arsenal. Even with his spectacular start during the caretaker manager days, Solskjaer has won under 50% of his matches in charge of Manchester United (24 wins, 14 losses, 12 draws in 50 matches – an 84-point haul over that span).

In a league environment that often sees clubs shoot managers first and ask questions later, patience can be a virtue, but it can also be a club’s undoing, and the fine line between those two parallel universes is often as blurry as . The manager in that 1988/89 season was Sir Alex Ferguson, amidst his third year in charge. Thanks in large part to what he achieved after to Manchester United stayed its hand, there is no way he would have survived that kind of lost campaign in this climate.

There are a host of sharks circling, and the allure of returning Manchester United to glory would be enough to lure any top manager should the board make a move. Carlo Ancelotti is running out of time at Napoli and could be available. Massimiliano Allegri is available, as is Mauricio Pochettino, who the Manchester United board has reportedly coveted for years.  A number of up-and-coming Premier League managers like Nuno Espirito Santo and Dean Smith could be options, and Manchester United may not want to wait for Arsenal to get its pick first.

All is not lost for Manchester United this season, and xG metrics seem to suggest an eventual turnaround. Their -3.92 xG differential to actual goals scored is third-worst in the Premier League, indicating the offense should come around. To go along with that, their defense has been fantastic, owning the 2nd-best xGA in the league, and their +3.04 xGA differential to actual goals conceded is sixth-worst in the league. Daniel James, despite a poor performance against Villa, has been a positive addition this season, and Fred has improved in midfield under Solskjaer. Harry Maguire looks worth every penny spent this offseason, while Aaron Wan-Bissaka has quietly been one of the better Premier League values of the summer.

Solskjaer has to this point avoided the off-field blights that eventually spelled disaster for Emery at Arsenal, but the results are no longer an anomaly – they have become the norm. Along with that, Solskjaer’s notable calm demeanor may be having an adverse effect on the club; he himself claimed that Jack Grealish‘s goal in the Villa draw “knocked us a little emotionally,” a mental frailty never present during Ferguson’s best days.

The Norwegian said after the Villa draw that he’s not looking at league position. “I wouldn’t have sat here and talked about us being fifth if we had got that one goal extra, so the league table at this point is not the biggest concern because it is so tight. I just need to make sure that we get performances and get three or four performances after each other – and results.”

He should start worrying about league position soon, because while it doesn’t feel like the wheels have fallen off the OleMobile just yet, the optics are looking less and less savory. Manchester United stuck with Sir Alex back when the going got tough, but these are entirely different times. As the season slips away, where is the point of no return? When is enough, enough?

Ljungberg maintains ‘Top four 100 percent achievable’ despite draw

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Arsenal interim manager Freddie Ljungberg is thinking big despite his Gunners’ sloppy performance in the first match of the post-Unai Emery era.

The Gunners drew Norwich City 2-2 at Carrow Road on Sunday, a result aided by VAR controversy and several monumental Bernd Leno saves.

It’s a draw that leaves Arsenal seven points back of fourth place Chelsea after 14 matches.

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“Top four is 100% achievable,” Ljungberg said after the match, via Football.London, adding, “I’m just trying to make it as simple as possible. I’ve been here last year and of course I have an opinion on how we can play and everyone has a fair chance.”

The longtime Arsenal playmaker was an assistant before taking the reins and is appreciative of his current, honor, even on an interim basis.

That honor will involve solving abject defending and seemingly no plan to defend in transition, as Arsenal was torched for two goals and it would’ve been much worse if not for Leno.

“We have a problem on the transition and I want to fix that,” Ljungberg said. “I hope the club knows what I can and can’t do. I’m very honored they have trusted me to do this.”

Arsenal needs January additions to be sure, but might want to appoint a tactician sooner given what more dropped points would mean during a congested December.

Norwich City holds sloppy Arsenal

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Arsenal needed two goals from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to take a point from Norwich City at Carrow Road, a 2-2 draw which doomed the Gunners to their worst season start since 1975.

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The draw comes in the first match after Arsenal fired Unai Emery, as interim boss Freddie Ljungberg oversaw another defensively-challenged performance.

Arsenal needed a number of sensational saves from Bernd Leno to get their point, which leaves them 8th with 19 points.

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Teemu Pukki and Todd Cantwell scored for Norwich City, who sits 19th with their 11th point.


Three things we learned

1. Gunners defense invites Pukki and friends to party: Emery may be gone, but it didn’t instantly fix the Gunners’ defensive woes. Norwich City went ahead when Pukki used a clever change of direction to open up for a perfect Kenny McLean through ball, then watched as the Arsenal backs allowed him to turn and dribble to space for a shot that turned off Chambers and past Leno. The Cantwell goal wasn’t too different, and Bernd Leno was outstanding in denying what could’ve easily been a number of additional goals.

2. VAR denies Krul penalty save: Norwich City goalkeeper Tim Krul has been a penalty-stopping marvel for years, but he was denied his fourth season stop from the spot when VAR spotted his plant leg off the line before he saved Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s effort. Don’t get us wrong: He left his line and this isn’t VAR’s fault as much as it’s the law. In some cases like this, it’s illogical to expect a keeper to hit the line every time unless you make him start inside the goal. Perhaps the idea is to make penalties more automatic, but it’s a tough but correct application from VAR that allowed Arsenal a brief respite.

EDIT: The call was apparently against Max Aarons, who entered the box before Aubameyang’s effort and was the first to touch the rebound. As you were.

3. Cantwell continues to raise profile: Norwich City’s 21-year-old midfielder collected his fourth goal of the season to go with two assists. Born 25 miles from Carrow Road, he’s averaging 1.3 key passes and 1.3 successful dribbles per game in helping the Canaries find, perhaps, their next James Maddison.

Man of the Match: Aubameyang — Saved penalty aside, the Gabonese goal collector gave the Gunners plenty to like (again) in scoring his 52nd and 53rd Arsenal goals (in 82 appearances).


It was mostly Arsenal early, though Onel Hernandez led a 17th minute charge that led to a hard shot directly to Bernd Leno.

Tim Krul produced more brilliance typical of his season with a flying slap of Calum Chambers‘ header.

That’s when Pukki finished Norwich’s lightning counter, calmly turning the ball onto his right foot for a shot that deflected past Leno.

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The score line looked set to change within moments, as Mesut Ozil‘s spun free kick was slapped out of the air by Zimmermann.

Krul came off his line to best Aubameyang’s spot kick, and VAR didn’t let the nominal distance sway it: Aubameyang bagged the re-kick despite Krul’s obnoxious hypeman antics on the touch line.

Norwich retook the lead in the second minute of stoppage time, Cantwell scoring for the second-straight match.

Leno continues to perform well for Arsenal under siege, splaying to make a world-class save on McLean at the hour mark.