The two things that pique the entertainment value of the traditional Premier League Boxing Day matches in the Premier League are thus: The back-to-back-back to fixtures on the show can turn to either be a clockwork parade with ticker tapes, floats or have the look of a car pileup on a foggy highway with a stray tyre bouncing about in and out the frame. It’s this morbid curiosity that makes most us sit through seven-and-a-half-hours of football – crossing our fingers and toes, hoping for the best for the teams we support, and the worst for the teams we can’t. Boxing Day either puts the wind in your sails or a cannonball through it in terms of momentum in the midst of a fixture crunch.
We will look at three of the most intriguing fixtures that could have the most effect in the course of the teams’ respective seasons:
Bournemouth vs Arsenal
It’s 26th December 2019 and Mikel Arteta is in charge of his first game as Arsenal manager away to Bournemouth. Three years ago on this day, he was still spraying passes over the pitch for Arsenal.
From the day he left his jersey locked in his cupboard and wore the tracksuit of a coach, Mikel Arteta has been expanding his mind. He absorbed and translated new ideas from eclectic sources, ranging from international rugby (New Zealand All Blacks) to NBA (Nick Nurse’s Toronto Raptors) into his self-made manual.
His capacity to process scattered information into a cohesive tactical context was evident when former manager Arsene Wenger moved for the Spaniard to replace Alex Song in 2012 (last in the long line of departures to Barcelona). Fans were sceptical. They were anticipating a more conventional defensive midfielder. Instead, what they got was a player they didn’t know they needed until they did. Originally, an unorthodox number 10 at Everton, Arteta took on the role of the ‘regista’ as the bedrock of Arsenal’s midfield. ‘Poor man’s Pirlo’ many fans called him but did so affectionately that it turned into a compliment. On Thursday, he’ll need to bring in the kind of defensive positioning that allowed him to outsmart his more physical opponents and start the slow process of making Arsenal a competent defensive unit on the backfoot, and craft this team in his image: a thoughtful, deliberate, balanced side. All three characters had seemed to flee the roost under the management of Unai Emery. In fact, that is an understatement.
Twenty-seven goals were let in by the North London team in 18 games prior to the goalless draw at Everton, which in turn was their first blank-out since August. Only one team (Burnley with 29) have opened the door for the opposition more often in the top half of the table. What’s also alarming is that Arsenal do not find themselves in the top half of the aforementioned table. Burnley (10th), Newcastle (9th), Wolves (6th), Sheffield United (5th), are all above Arsenal (11th, with 23 points). What provides a bit of comfort for Arteta is that a win at Bournemouth could get them in touching distance of their London rivals Tottenham (7th, with 26 points).
What they also can count on is that Bournemouth are on a bit of a stinker of a run themselves, with three losses in their last five, and that Eddie Howe’s Cherries are not the kind of side that sit back with the low block. This will give Arsenal’s pacy forwards like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette ample opportunity to run in behind the lines. But equally, this would a challenge that Howe’s side will relish with the new opposing manager’s instructions not incorporated into the players’ muscle-memory. Too keen on the attack and Arsenal may keep the barn door open for the likes of Harry Wilson, Joshua King and Lewis Cook. Balance, Arteta will know, is key.
Manchester United vs Newcastle United
Manchester United host former player now-manager, Steve Bruce’s Newcastle posing exactly the set of question Watford asked them a week ago.
Last weekend, the Manchester United bus reached Watford’s Vicarage Road stadium with only 35 minutes to kick-off. You could blame traffic, or you can see it as another example of systematic mismanagement. They lost to the home side 2-0 to goals from Ismalia Sarr and Troy Deeney. The Tyneside club also have the more of the momentum with one more win than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side in the last five.
Bruce’s Newcastle have shown an appetite for the giant-killing act this season, most notably coming together in the 2-2 draw vs Manchester City at St. James’ Park – some of the players in his team, like Jonjo Shelvey relishes such encounters. What they also bring to Old Trafford tonight is a system well-drilled in the art of the low-block, squeezing out any and all space for Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial to use. He conceded to their rather apparent weakness in the post-match press conference vs Watford when he was asked why his teams struggle against lower rung teams than the top clubs:
“We’ve got to play with more urgency. Of course, we want to be a team that can go and dominate teams and break teams down. Yes, we’re good at counter-attacking. Yes, we’ve got pace and fast players. We should always keep that because that’s in our tradition. Now we need to be better at breaking lower blocks. Even (against Watford), we create loads of chances towards the end, but every time we lose it, it’s a counter-attack. So, you need to lock it down more, better at stopping the counter-attack.”
Unfortunately for the Norwegian, Newcastle are a team filled to the brink with players that grow in stature in the counter-attack. DeAndre Yedlin, Miguel Almiron, Jetro Willems, Christian Atsu and Co couldn’t have chosen a better time to further inflict damage on an already hurting Manchester United (8th, on 25 points), knowing that a win will mean they can hop over Tottenham,
Manchester United, and Wolves in a single bound and find themselves close to a Champions League spot. The incentive is bountiful.
Leicester City vs Liverpool FC
If there’s one manager who knows the weakness and strengths of Liverpool inside and out, it’s Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers.
A win for Liverpool and the runaway table-toppers will be 13 points clear of second-placed Leicester City, whereas a loss would mean the Foxes close the gap to seven points and also the end of team's unbeaten run in the league. Jurgen Klopp is fully aware of the importance of this fixture: “It is not allowed to lose games any more, not if you want to win the title,” he said in the pre-match presser.
Leicester have had a mini-slump with a draw and a loss in their last five matches, with a convincing defeat at the hands of defending champions Manchester City last week. And they would be keen to make amends vs Liverpool. Rodgers will know that Leicester will have the best chance of most teams considering Liverpool’s strenuous World Club Cup campaign at Qatar. Liverpool players will be knacked but also will have to acclimatise with the change of weather the two venues brings.
Jamie Vardy has been on a hot streak and in contention of bettering his record for most goals in consecutive matches that the English striker notched up in Leicester Premier League winning season. Joe Gomez and Virgil van Dijk will be wary of long balls played to the striker. But since it is Leicester’s home turf, Liverpool can count on opportunities to spring their own version of the trap. That is provided they can make the most of their chances, which hasn’t been a theme lately, with the goals somewhat drying up and the margins of victory shrinking.
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Updated Date: Dec 26, 2019 14:12:07 IST