Big Midweek: Arsenal v Newcastle > Chelsea v Man City, Conte, Rashford, Napoli

Bukayo Saka celebrates after scoring for Arsenal in a 4-2 Premier League win at Brighton Credit: Alamy
Bukayo Saka celebrates after scoring for Arsenal in a 4-2 Premier League win at Brighton Credit: Alamy

As we slowly readjust from Christmas, when every day is essentially Sunday, to a world where we have to try and remember what actual day it is, we’re all strapping in for a full round of midweek Premier League action.

It’s not completely normal – the first game was on Monday evening, for example, which can in no useful way be described as midweek – but there’s a couple of belters in there in what is becoming a fascinating title battle…

 

Game to watch – Arsenal v Newcastle
As we approach the halfway point of the season, Newcastle bid to lift themselves from the fringes to the thick of the Premier League title race with a trip to runaway leaders Arsenal, where victory for the visitors would cut the gap at the top to just six points.

We all knew 2022/23 might be a bit different, but did anyone anywhere honestly expect anything like this? Manchester City may have shown uncharacteristic frailty, but the way the Gunners have leapt all over it is extraordinary, while Newcastle have suffered just a single defeat all season and that was pretty bloody unlucky one at Liverpool way back in August.

We’re in January, and it’s no exaggeration to say this game between Arsenal and Newcastle is the most important of the season so far. The fact it’s of far greater importance than Chelsea v City in the same midweek round is itself testament to the fact we are experiencing a bizarro world version of Premier League football.

But what we have at the Emirates is not just a clash between two of the top three but also the league’s two in-form clubs.

Arsenal have won their last five games and nine of the last 10, while Newcastle have eight wins and two draws in their last 10. In that time the Magpies have conceded just four goals, three in games won 4-1, 5-1 and 4-1 and the other when already 2-0 up at Tottenham.

For Arsenal it marks the start of a run that will truly test the extent of their title ambitions, with Tottenham and Manchester United to follow and Manchester City just around the corner.

Right now, there seems no reason to suspect the Gunners are about to fall away in the face of any of that. And there’s also a decent argument that Newcastle currently present the toughest test of the lot.

 

Team to watch – Manchester City
When you’ve set the standards Manchester City have over an extended period of time, it doesn’t take much for things to start looking a bit shaky. It’s all relative.

And this is a shaky patch, amplified by Arsenal performing the Liverpool role by racking up the points with City-esque relentless consistency.

Pep Guardiola’s side have dropped eight points in the last seven games and, with Arsenal in their current mood, must stem the bleeding fast.

It’s not just the points dropped either. It’s who they’ve been dropped against and the general unconvincing manner. It really could have been much worse. As well as taking only a single point from home games against Brentford and an Everton side that is a) Everton and b) managed by Frank Lampard, City have also required a penalty that was late even by World Cup standards to get past Fulham at the Etihad.

A trip to Chelsea – even this current misfiring, confused version – wouldn’t have been Guardiola’s first choice to attempt a turnaround. Especially with the very real prospect of a 10-point deficit staring City in the face by the time they kick off.

 

Manager to watch – Antonio Conte
Watch the manager because you certainly don’t want to watch his football team, who are drearily dull and now ineffective to boot.

Something always had to shift for Spurs, who snuck through the pre-World Cup period with results that wildly outstripped performances. But the signs were there in the last few weeks that it was more likely that results would move to meet performances than the other way round.

And now it’s happening desperately fast. Conte has resorted to deploying the Mourinho playbook of complaining about the resources at his disposal. Which might work for defeats to Liverpool and even at a push Arsenal, but doesn’t really fly when you’ve just been completely schooled by Aston Villa at home.

It was a result that also detonated the defence that what he needs is more of his own players. Spurs have signed plenty of those for Conte – certainly more than Unai Emery has been able to bring in at Villa.

Even when results were good, there was still an impermanence to the arrangement and Conte really can’t reasonably expect significant further investment on his list of targets when he won’t commit to the club beyond the end of the season. But he won’t commit to the club until there is evidence of significant further investment. Even then it’s not clear that Conte committing long-term is a particularly good idea for either him or for Spurs, whose fans’ growing unrest at the objectively miserable football they’re being forced to endure is heightened by the growing possibility of Arsenal winning the league.

The biggest frustration, though, is that for all Conte’s moaning and for all the undeniable holes and weak spots in the Spurs squad it remains quite clearly a group of players capable of far more than is currently being delivered. There are glimpses in those stirring comebacks that keep coming along when Conte’s Plan A has failed. Given Spurs have now conceded first in their last 10 games in all competitions, it’s not unreasonable to suggest maybe Plan B – playing some actual football – might be worth trying from the start of games instead of as a desperate last resort.

A manager who can only play one way with a specific set of players is not worth £15m a year.

 

Player to watch – Marcus Rashford
As long as his alarm goes off, anyway. He may be sleepy, but on the pitch his form has rarely been better. He’s now scored in three successive Manchester United games for the first time since late 2019 after emerging from the naughty step to bag a late winner at Wolves that provides a significant boost to United’s top-four hopes.

A proper striker is needed if United are going to capitalise fully on finally having a proper manager – as well as the assorted strife befalling Liverpool, Spurs and Chelsea – but until and unless one comes along Rashford’s importance is heightened.

A home game against a Bournemouth side that has lost six of their last seven Premier League games and shipped 14 goals in the process represents a wonderful opportunity for player and club to keep the good times going.

It would obviously be better if Rashford hadn’t overslept and missed a team meeting, but the maturity and professionalism with which player and manager have handled the situation also offers a marked contrast to certain former United stars…

 

European game to watch – Inter v Napoli
If you can’t bring yourself to sit through 90 minutes of Conte Sufferball on Wednesday evening – and frankly “Not watching any more Conte Sufferball” is a new year’s resolution we wholeheartedly wish we could join you in – can instead switch to BT Sport and see his former side Inter take on Napoli, very much currently the Arsenal of Serie A after winning 13 of their 15 matches to date.

Inter have been rather all or nothing this season with 10 wins and five defeats, and even this far short of the halfway mark it feels like it will need to be “all” if they (and perhaps anyone) are to remain in title contention – they are currently outside the top four and defeat would leave them 14 points off the pace.

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