Rodgers, Wenger, Mourinho all under pressure this Premier League weekend
Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend’s fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on.
Battles of the weekend: Everton vs. Liverpool, Arsenal vs. Man United
After a less than “Super” Sunday in the Premier League last weekend, two of the most iconic fixtures in English football are set to be served up this time around.
Evaluating who will emerge victorious from a Merseyside derby clash between Everton and Liverpool at Goodison Park, and the clash between Arsenal and Manchester United at the Emirates, is a task made even more complicated by the unpredictable nature of this season’s push for the top four. There have been a lot of shock results littering the confusing Premier League plot line of the last few weeks.
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The quartet of the managers doing battle on Sunday have felt pressure in the opening weeks of this season as Everton’s Roberto Martinez, Liverpool’s Brendan Rodgers, Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger and Manchester United’s Louis van Gaal have all come in for criticism. While Wenger and Rodgers are under the spotlight the most, that pendulum could quite easily swing in the opposite direction depending on results.
Rodgers will argue — with some justification — that he should silence his doubters if he heads into the international break with 14 points on the board, which would represent a four point improvement on the tally achieved at the same stage last season.
But another defeat in a game that is so significant in the battle for local pride will whip up the ‘hysteria’ that Rodgers suggested is around his club in a bid to destabilise his position.
What of Mr. Wenger? You sometimes wonder why the veteran tactician continues to run the gauntlet of criticism that comes with each and every Arsenal defeat, with those who want him ousted from the position he has held since 1996 seemingly waiting for him to fall.
Last Tuesday’s 3-2 home defeat against Olympiakos in the Champions League means he needs to get a victory against United to steady his ship once again, with the two week break on the horizon likely to be uncomfortable for the Gunners boss if his side loses its third Premier League game of the season.
“Every defeat is a crisis, every game is a trial,” is a regular comment Wenger offers up these days and both he and Rodgers will be facing their jury once more this weekend.
Under pressure: Jose Mourinho
What have you done, Jose?
It’s hard to fathom how the manager whose team dominated the Premier League last season finds himself heading into this weekend’s fixture against Southampton at Stamford Bridge as one of the bookies’ favourites for the sack. However, much of this Chelsea “crisis” has been invented by Mourinho himself.
His decision to hand his squad of Premier League champions an extended summer holiday backfired as they started this season well off the pace physically. To add to that, the much-discussed public fall-out with his medical staff on the opening day of the season added to the already muddied Chelsea waters.
When Mourinho then opted to substitute his skipper John Terry at half-time in the crucial clash against Manchester City which they lost 3-0 a week later, he alienated a key ally in his camp. While Mourinho has appeared invincible in the past, these random acts of aggression have failed to produce reward.
Even his plan of publicly suggesting he was willing to drop his star names and replace them with youngsters had no effect. His team were well off the pace once again as they went down to a 2-1 defeat to FC Porto in the Champions League on Tuesday and now the vultures will be hovering over Stamford Bridge this Saturday.
For the first time in his decorated career, Mourinho appears to be struggling to halt a slide as his team head into their latest game just four points off the relegation zone and a full eight away from Premier League leaders Manchester United.
This is uncharted territory for the coach who has been addicted to winning for so long. You wonder what will happen to the embattled hero of the Stamford Bridge if Chelsea lose again this weekend.
Finding form: Tottenham
A familiar pattern has prevailed at Tottenham during Daniel Levy’s reign as chairman, yet current boss Mauricio Pochettino is threatening to break the mould.
Levy has hired and fired seven managers during his reign and each time he makes a change, the club tends to rip up Plan A and start all over again.
Yet the facts confirm that, despite all his tinkering, Levy has only seen Tottenham play in the Champions League for a solitary season during his time in charge at White Hart Lane. During that spell, the likes of Harry Redknapp, Andre Villas-Boas and Tim Sherwood paid a price for their failure to secure top four finishes but Pochettino is working under different rules.
The departure of sporting director Franco Baldini means the Spurs boss and his friend Paul Mitchell will work together on the recruitment of players from this point forward.
Based on results on the field, Pochettino may be capable of causing an upset in the unpredictable race for a Champions League place and last weekend’s 4-1 win against Manchester City was a very un-Spurs like victory, as they took their chances against a top four opponent and secured a thrilling win, which had echoes of their 5-3 win against Chelsea last season.
Now they need to follow up that triumph with a victory at Swansea that may well send them into the international break sitting in the top four positions that Levy so craves.
Showing patience with his managers has not been a habit the Spurs chairman has embraced, but Pochettino is showing signs to suggest he is worth persisting with.
Statistically speaking (by @PCarrESPN)
– Man United have Arsenal’s number? Manchester United travel to the Emirates to try and continue their eight-match unbeaten run against Arsenal in league play. United’s longest run of unbeaten matches against Arsenal in league play is nine, done in 1954-58.
– Misfiring Gunners: Arsenal leads the Premier League with 148 shots but their 19.6 conversion percentage (10 goals from 51 shots on target) is the second-worst in the league, ahead of only Liverpool (19.4 percent).
– Midfield maestros: Arsenal and Manchester United are 1-2 in the Premier League in passes attempted and pass conversion percentage, but Arsenal has more than double the chances created than United, 114-55.
– Close-range scorers: Expect Arsenal to get plenty of shots in the penalty area. They have the second-closest average shot distance in the Premier League at 17.3 yards while Manchester United’s opponents’ average shot distance is 16.3 yards, shortest in the Premier League.
– Merseyside streak: Will something give in the Merseyside Derby? Liverpool’s Brendan Rodgers has never lost one (1-5-0) while Everton’s Roberto Martinez is seeking his first win (0-3-1)
For more stats previewing the Premier League season, check out Paul’s team-by-team notes here.
Any other business: Sunderland vs. West Ham
Contrasting emotions will be in play when rock-bottom Sunderland take on “title contenders” West Ham at the Stadium of Light on Saturday.
Even the most one-eyed Hammers fan would struggle to assert the side are really up for the title, but they are in third place and their sparkling away form has already seen them record wins at Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City.
While Slaven Bilic’s side have been less convincing on home soil, West Ham chairman David Gold is daring to dream that his club’s fixture list in their first season in London’s Olympic Stadium may feature European football.
“We want to be getting in the mix to qualify for Europe each season and in Slaven, we feel like we have a coach who can move us in that direction,” Gold told ESPN FC. “Moving to the Olympic Stadium gives us a chance to take this club to a new level and why can’t we aim for the stars. Football is all about dreams and occasionally they become reality.”
European football is a very distant reality for Sunderland fans and under-pressure manager Dick Advocaat knows that his time as Black Cats boss could soon come to an end unless he ends their winless run.
Advocaat’s aim will simply be to get his side’s first Premier League victory of what has been miserable campaign so far. If they fail once again, you wonder whether a new Sunderland boss will be in place for the club’s next game against West Brom later this month.
Kevin Palmer is a sports writer with Ireland’s Sunday World newspaper and ESPN. You can follow him on Twitter: @kpsundayworld