W2W4 previews the week’s Premier League action by highlighting its most compelling storylines.
Arsenal have a point to prove
Was Arsenal’s 5-1 thrashing of Everton last weekend a sign of things to come or merely a false dawn? A debut goal for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and a hat trick of assists for Henrikh Mkhitaryan provided a timely boost ahead of a season-defining run of fixtures, but we are yet to truly know the mettle of Arsene Wenger’s new lineup.
By March 1 we will have a clearer understanding of the Gunners’ involvement in the race for the top four, whether they can go all the way in the Europa League, and if they can claim silverware against Manchester City in the Carabao Cup final.
Arsenal also host City in the league in their next five matches as they try to salvage a campaign that has thus far left them languishing in sixth following four victories in their previous 12 top-flight outings. But first it’s a trip to Tottenham in the North London derby, and a chance to rein in their rivals as a stumbling Chelsea side also begin to look anxiously over their shoulders.
Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Spurs at the Emirates in November suggested they would refuse to quietly fade away in the battle to secure Champions League football for next season. Since then, however, Wenger has had to do much of his talking in the transfer market, losing Alexis Sanchez to Manchester United but adding to the club’s firepower in Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang. He will need both to maintain their early promise if the Gunners are to make up for lost time.
Perhaps the biggest concern for Wenger is his team’s away form. Arsenal have won only five matches on the road in all competitions, claiming fewer away victories than Burnley and Watford in the Premier League. They have scored fewer goals than Leicester, Watford and West Ham, and conceded more than rock-bottom West Brom along with eight other clubs below them in the table. It is a miserable return for a side expected to challenge at the top end of the division.
But where better to put that right than Wembley on Saturday — where Aubameyang will face Spurs for the third time this season. Mauricio Pochettino’s side kept the striker quiet in their 3-1 victory over Borussia Dortmund in September, but he found the net in their second Champions League meeting in November, albeit in a 2-1 defeat. Arsenal will be looking to their record signing for inspiration at Wembley — time is fast running out to avoid a second successive season outside the top four.
Can Conte hold on?
Perhaps the real question is whether the Chelsea manager wants to hold on to his job as the Blues prepare for another Monday night game against West Brom. Antonio Conte has cut a frustrated figure for much of the campaign and is now venturing dangerously towards the “Mourinho season” territory he warned about avoiding back in the summer.
A 4-1 defeat to Watford on Monday marked the first time since October 1995 that Chelsea have lost back-to-back matches by a margin of three goals, with Conte at a loss to explain his team’s recent troubles. “We tried to pay football but I think today we didn’t show this,” said the Italian. “In this situation, the fault is the coach’s — maybe I made a bad decision with the starting XI.”
The strange thing about Chelsea’s plight is that it has been mostly self-inflicted. The manager’s frustrations with the club’s transfer policy are evident, but neither party is entirely blameless for the current predicament. Michy Batshuayi’s debut brace for Borussia Dortmund only raised more questions about why Conte never fancied the striker at Stamford Bridge, with the coach’s general demeanour hinting that he is ready to move on.
A 1-0 defeat to West Brom brought an end to Andre Villas-Boas’ nine-month reign at Chelsea in 2012 and, if the Blues fail to find a way past the Baggies on Monday, time will surely be up for Conte too.
Time running out for Pardew
Speaking of which, Alan Pardew is another manager under pressure following last weekend’s 3-2 defeat to relegation rivals Southampton. It was West Brom’s sixth loss in 12 top-flight fixtures since Pardew’s appointment, with the former Newcastle and Crystal Palace manager claiming only one victory so far.
It seems the clock is ticking on Pardew’s spell as a Premier League manager. The 56-year-old has won just seven of his last 48 Premier League games since the start of 2015, yielding a 15 percent win ratio from the tail end of his reign at Palace and his current tenure at the Hawthorns.
If it’s any consolation, it appears to be a good time to face Chelsea. Pardew must take the opportunity to save the Baggies from being cast even further adrift.
Liverpool’s stop-start season continues
After the disappointment of conceding a last-gasp equaliser to Tottenham at Anfield, when Liverpool really should have capitalised on a sublime first half to claim all three points, Jurgen Klopp’s side must pick themselves up yet again for Sunday’s trip to Southampton.
It has been a steep learning curve for the Reds this season, blowing teams away with their breathtaking football at times before stumbling against the likes of Swansea and West Brom. With only the top four and Champions League left to play for, Klopp will want to see his side secure their place in the former to stand the greatest chance of an unlikely triumph in Europe. Victory at Southampton will afford some breathing space to focus on the double-header against Porto.
Allardyce under pressure
It was a humbling 500th match as a Premier League manager for Sam Allardyce, and one which may have left him questioning whether it was right to return with Everton in November. The Toffees have won just one of their last nine games in all competitions, sliding dangerously towards the relegation pile-up in the bottom half of the table.
With Crystal Palace climbing the other way under Roy Hodgson, Allardyce must find three points against his former club on Saturday to move on from the Arsenal debacle and silence questions about whether he can still inspire Everton to a top-half finish.
Matthew Stanger covers European football for ESPN and is the editor of The Set Pieces. Twitter: @MatthewStanger