There's pressure building on three managers in the Premier League. Alex Keble looks at what they need to do this weekend.
Crystal Palace v Man City: Lose, and Guardiola could unravel
It would be unfair to label what’s happening at Manchester City a crisis, and yet their eight-point gap to Liverpool is pretty shocking for such an early stage of the season. Pep Guardiola teams aren’t supposed to lose to the likes of Norwich or Wolves, and when you add in the nervy performance at Everton there is a growing sense Man City’s period of domination under Guardiola is coming to an end.
Only once has he completed four seasons at a club, and that one at Barcelona was defined by anxiety; his methods might just be too intense for a stint as long as this one.
Why they’re under pressure:
Failure to adequately refresh the squad has somewhat crept up on City. Vincent Kompany’s departure and Aymeric Laporte’s injury has left them with a weak back four, exacerbated by Guardiola’s ultra-attacking philosophy and the idiosyncratic positional weaknesses of Oleksandar Zinchenko and Kyle Walker. Wolves went through one-on-one with Ederson three times before scoring a fortnight ago.
They won’t be the last team to break beyond City, largely because both Fernandinho and David Silva are starting to show their age while Rodri is struggling to adapt to the pace of English football. Suddenly their midfield no longer looks imperious, not least because Kevin de Bruyne’s new wider role makes it harder for City to build quickly through the middle. These days there is a template for opponents to follow: sit deep, absorb pressure, and then sprint at the heart of the defence.
The dangers Crystal Palace will pose
Roy Hodgson’s team know exactly how to do just that. In a rigid 4-5-1 formation they are happy to remain patient, Gary Cahill leading a newly sturdy back four that can restrict space for Raheem Sterling and suffocate De Bruyne. Unless City play with a significantly higher tempo than they’ve recently managed, Crystal Palace will make this a tense and low-scoring affair.
On the counter, Palace will launch long balls forward for Wilfried Zaha and Jordan Ayew to team up in the spaces around Nicolas Otamendi. His errors hand a big chance to Hodgson’s energetic forwards, particularly with James McCarthy threading through balls in behind. Riding high in sixth, Palace are the perfect team – tactically and psychologically – to exploit City’s vulnerabilities.
What Man City need – and what happens if they lose
If City fail to win, the title race is over. The implications of that could have a knock-on effect that sees Guardiola’s fourth year unravel; with little to play for domestically, City may subconsciously ease off and begin to tire of their manager’s anxious fretting and high demands. This, of course, is a worst case scenario. It is more likely City would eventually resettle, finish comfortably second, and be refreshed – plus more motivated than ever – when it comes to the Champions League knock-out rounds.
Everton v West Ham: Silva on the brink
Marco Silva’s job is seriously under threat following four consecutive league defeats that leave Everton in the bottom three, and while some managers would be given patience Silva’s track record has cranked up the pressure. His tenures generally start well and then fade badly, openness in defence and a crumbling attack becoming hallmarks at around the eight month mark. Sound familiar?
Why they’re under pressure:
Everton’s biggest problem is defending set-pieces, conceding 22 since the beginning of 2018/19 and five in the last four games. But beyond this basic flaw the Toffees appear to lack direction, Gylfi Sigurdsson’s waning influence leading to staleness in possession that is exacerbated by midfield players only capable of passing sideways.
They badly miss the energy Idrissa Gueye gave in midfield, while Moise Kean’s rawness means there is no cutting edge in the final third. Silva’s tactics are supposed to be a bit like Mauricio Pochettino’s – high pressing, narrow attacks, and aggressive overlapping full-backs – but, without a coherent midfield capable of pressing effectively, it is falling apart.
The dangers West Ham will pose
Everton’s high full-backs and general inability to compress space when possession is lost makes them particularly vulnerable to counter-attacks down the flanks. West Ham, then, are just the team to inflict further damage on Silva.
Andriy Yarmolekno and Felipe Anderson will look to run in behind Lucas Digne and Seamus Coleman, while West Ham’s willingness to run directly at defenders could lead to numerous set-pieces for the visitors. The Hammers are a tall, powerful team who will likely exploit Everton’s vulnerable from corners and freekicks. Elsewhere, Declan Rice will expect to win his individual battle with Sigurdsson.
What Everton need – and what happens if they lose
Anything but victory would put Silva on the brink. West Ham are supposed to be behind Everton developmentally, and so Manuel Pellegrini’s strong start to the season accentuates the disappointment at Goodison Park. Everton expect to be competitive in these sorts of games as part of a push for a top six finish. Defeat would highlight how far the club have fallen behind schedule.
Silva needs to win, or else this might be his final home game in charge.
Tottenham v Watford: Pochettino era nearing its end?
There is a growing sense we are reaching the end of the Pochettino era; the weariness in his press conferences and the drifting performances from the players suggest we are fading to black. But there is still time. Spurs are always slow starters and are only three points behind Leicester City in fourth, which would be par for the course considering the ludicrous strength of the Premier League’s top two.
Nevertheless, this weekend’s game could play a vital role in the wider narrative – and after two astonishing defeats, 7-2 against Bayern Munich and 3-0 at Brighton, Tottenham desperately need to change the story.
Why they’re under pressure:
It is obvious that Spurs are struggling to motivate themselves after last season’s overachievement. It is hard to climb back up the mountain when an appearance in the Champions League final feels like the ceiling, particularly at a time when challenging Man City or Liverpool for the title is light-years beyond their resources. Spurs are stuck in an existential crisis.
Daniel Levy deserves most of the blame. It is his brinkmanship – in buying and selling players – that has left Pochettino with an ageing squad that is no longer inspired by his words. Worse still, many members of the squad are either aware they were on the transfer list over the summer or are already thinking about their free-transfer moves next year. The result is disharmony and tactical meandering; they don’t press hard enough anymore. Pochettino’s furious system has lost its spark.
The dangers Watford will pose
Fortunately, Spurs could hardly have asked for a simpler game. Watford are yet to win a match this season and have endured a dreadful start to life under the returning Quique Sanchez Flores. Already bereft in attack with far too much reliance on the erratic Gerard Deulofeu, Watford have become yet more cautious under Flores – which should mean Spurs can keep a clean sheet even without Hugo Lloris.
Then again, Watford will sit in a deep 4-5-1 formation and look to frustrate the hosts, something several smaller clubs have done at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium recently; Spurs huff and puff without intricate attacking patterns these days, explaining their recent 1-0 defeat at home to Newcastle. Watford’s organised defence could make Spurs look distinctly average.
What Spurs need – and what happens if they lose
Tottenham don’t just need a win, they need a convincing win, because scraping past Watford 1-0 won’t be enough to ease concerns in the board room or raise morale in the dressing room. Ideally, Spurs need to race out of the blocks and play with the sort of tempo that used to define this team, while whoever starts at right-back needs to put in a competent and confident display.
Not that defeat would be disastrous. Pochettino isn’t going to be forced out of the club before the end of the season and neither will he choose to leave midseason, which, thankfully, means plenty of time to turn things around.
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