Leeds head into a new era under Jesse Marsch, Dele Alli hopes to haunt Spurs and Brentford must stop sliding. But the Manchester derby is king.
Game to watch – Manchester City v Manchester United
The last four Manchester United managers have lost their first league meeting with Manchester City.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer accepted a 2-0 home defeat to “the best team in the country” who had “set the standard” by April 2019.
Jose Mourinho thought his players “were below the level to play this match” before a slight second-half improvement in a 2-1 loss at Old Trafford in September 2016.
Louis van Gaal actually claimed that Manchester City’s 1-0 derby victory in November 2014 proved “the difference is zero” between the two sides, contrarian that he is.
David Moyes “made the players aware of how I expect them to respond” after a 4-1 Etihad humbling in September 2013. Manchester United lost to West Brom the next week and after another derby battering the following March, he described their bitter rivals as “playing at the sort of level we’re aspiring to”. He was sacked 27 days later.
Almost a decade of being drowned out by their noisy neighbours has bred an inferiority complex that might take just as long to cancel out. Ralf Rangnick is the latest coach tasked with bridging that gap of quality and infrastructure over 90 minutes, even if an unlikely victory would only bring them to within 16 points of the current leaders.
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“I am more than optimistic, but I also have to be realistic,” the German said at his first press conference in interim charge of Manchester United. “Five weeks ago, our team lost 5-0 against Liverpool – and it could have been a lot more if we are honest. Against City it was 2-0, but it could also have been more.”
He described the idea that he “will challenge the top Premier League managers in the next few weeks or months” as “not realistic”, adding: “The games against Chelsea, Liverpool and Man City will be in March and April – and that’s when I will answer the question about challenging them.”
The time of reckoning is upon us. Rangnick has lost one of his 17 matches and placed Manchester United in pole position for Champions League qualification, games in hand notwithstanding. But performances remain patchy, the club’s finishing has collapsed in on itself and that plumbing of the squad in January has not resolved every leak.
Manchester City have dropped five Premier League points since the start of November yet find themselves in a title race as demanding of perfection as three years ago. Liverpool are primed and ready to capitalise on any and all slips. Pep Guardiola and his players know precisely what is required; delivering on it is another matter.
By most metrics, this should be a home win which painfully underlines how far Manchester United have to go. But Guardiola has won five, lost four and drawn two of his Premier League derbies since becoming City manager. Thrown formbooks are scattered in the general vicinity of his assorted windows. Sunday might be no different.
Player to watch – Dele Alli
Frank Lampard failed to score in his first seven games against West Ham following his acrimonious departure in summer 2001. “I used to get tense and up for it because they always used to hammer me,” he once said. “My first years going back there, I wanted to do so well to try prove them wrong, because they were giving me so much stick. And then I scored a few years in, and I sort of lost the shackles and started scoring regularly.”
The former Chelsea midfielder had scored seven times against his former employers by the time of his retirement. Dele Alli wouldn’t mind that sort of return against Tottenham.
It will be interesting to see and hear his reception on Monday evening. The manner in which the relationship between player and club fizzled out after burning so bright should at least guarantee Alli a warm applause from Tottenham supporters petrified of the inevitable performative goal non-celebration.
Perhaps a brief homecoming is what the 25-year-old needs to coax out a talent many might fear has been lost to the ether. Alli has played four games for Everton, managing an hour in defeat to Newcastle, then anything between 15 and 19 minutes in substitute cameos against Leeds, Southampton and Manchester City. A yellow card is about as much as he has to show for it.
But a first game against a former manager, the only one to truly and indelibly discard him, could be enough to get those juices flowing again, temporarily or otherwise.
Spurs vs Spurs of the North (Everton) on Monday night and if you don’t think Dele Alli is scoring a hat-trick, you haven’t been paying attention.
— Hunter Godson (@HunterGodson) March 1, 2022
Manager to watch – Jesse Marsch
With the technical exception of United States international but absolutely and irrefutably German person David Wagner, the Premier League has only ever bore witness to one American manager. Bob Bradley lasted 84 days at Swansea in 2016, referring to “PKs” and “road games”, beating Alan Pardew and generally being treated pretty atrociously. He expressed a hope that English clubs would not be put off the prospect of appointing more of his compatriots by those struggles. It only took five years and a bit for Leeds to listen.
Jesse Marsch has the unenviable task of carrying that baggage while engaging in a relegation battle as the replacement for a beloved manager, not to mention the simultaneous challenge of taking up a mid-season role in an entirely new country. He has not taken the easy route.
Nor is he unaware of the situation, directly addressing the “stigma” accompanying managers from Stateside at his first press conference and promising he’s not a “soccer” man as he’s “used the word football since I was a professional player”.
It is a tiresome yet necessary part of the game – keeping the media onside – but that will be all for nought if results and performances are not delivered in record time.
The good news is that Leeds have conceded 40 goals in the Premier League since their last clean sheet, with Patrick Bamford and Kalvin Phillips nearing returns from injuries that undermined much of what Marcelo Bielsa hoped to achieve. The bar to clear for improvement is low.
But the bad news comes in the form of a Leicester side boosted by Jamie Vardy’s availability, epitomised by a victory over Burnley that suggested the Foxes might finally have found their feet.
Marsch knows he needs to make an instant positive impact. Try not to be two goals down at half-time and work from there, fella.
Team to watch – Brentford
Thomas Frank signed a three-year contract extension with Brentford on January 24. It was a show of immense faith at an increasingly difficult time: the Bees had lost their previous four Premier League games at the time. Yet their subsequent four matches since the ink dried on that deal have scarcely been any better. Three more defeats and a scrappy draw with Crystal Palace have Brentford winless in eight and slipping into danger.
The gap to Burnley in 18th is three points. That includes a two-team cushion of Leeds and Everton but each of the five teams below Brentford, as well as the three sides directly above, have at least one game in hand on them.
Josh Dasilva’s early red card certainly contributed to that most recent loss against Newcastle, but it was clear to see the trajectories of both clubs. While the Magpies are headed in the right direction, Brentford keep sliding towards whence they came.
A visit to Carrow Road could be precisely what they need to reverse that momentum. Norwich are bottom and have lost their last three. Then again, the Canaries beat Brentford in November and are on a six-match unbeaten streak against them. Things really could get worse before a chance of anything getting better under Frank.
EFL game to watch – Mansfield v Exeter
Sheffield United v Nottingham Forest on Friday evening and Fulham v Blackburn at Saturday lunchtime belong in the top half of this Hotline Bling meme with Drake reacting disdainfully. Below them, he happily points with approval at League Two’s play-off showdown.
Mansfield play host on Friday night, boasting the second-longest current unbeaten run in the entire EFL at a potentially unlucky 13 games. Nigel Clough’s side have won their last nine in the league at Field Mill, the only blemish on that record being a stoppage-time FA Cup defeat to eventual tournament winners Middlesbrough.
Exeter City are the visitors, in the midst of their latest streak. They started the season with a draw and a loss, before embarking on a 15-game unbeaten run. There followed six games without victory, then the current journey of nine undefeated.
Mansfield are seventh. Exeter are fourth. One point separates them and both sides have at least two games in hand on every team around them. Let’s play NumberWang!
European game to watch – Napoli v AC Milan
First v second, with third-placed Inter Milan hosting a Salernitana side propping Serie A up so far on Friday night. Napoli and Milan are both out of Europe and singularly focused on the Scudetto. This will be a crucial fixture in terms of delivering it.