In this sequel (read part one, if you haven’t already), the teams who desperately need a ‘gamechanger’ to consistently make a difference in the run-in will be discussed. Unlike the teams already in the top four at this period in time, these absolutely need something to change, a special player to step up and accept the responsibility and inspire others – to see a positive influence in terms of ascending the Premier League table.
5. Manchester United – Henrikh Mkhitaryan
Manchester United finally climbed the league table after their win against Middlesbrough in the weekend. The Red Devils are now 5th in the league, with a clear two point lead over Arsenal, having played the same number of games. But despite the momentum built since early November through managing a quite remarkable 18-game unbeaten run in the league, the general consensus is that the hard work for them starts in April.
United have a fixture list that has been steadily mounting in 2017, due to their participation and progress in the Europa League. In April, they will play 9 games – in the space of 30 days and for a team that don’t prefer a lot of tinkering in terms of the starting XI which is part of the makeup of Mourinho, the task of balancing their squad without it affecting the results between trips within and outside of England is onerous, to say the least.
Not to mention, the difficulty of their run-in in the Premier League. Out of their remaining 11 games, they will have to face the likes of Chelsea and Everton at home, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal away – most probably in successive game-weeks. United’s problems have primarily been scoring goals – an issue that has plagued them in the last three campaigns in addition to chance creation, ignoring systemic problems that existed in the past.
What United need is another source of goals when Ibrahimovic is not firing. The Swede has already scored 26 goals in all competitions and with them set to play at least another 13 games, there is little doubt that he will cross the 30-goal mark. But they need the supporting cast to chip in with goals, particularly in the Premier League when they seem to all go off the boil at once when their forward is missing chances.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan is one of the most efficient attacking midfielders in Europe and the Armenian, after a very difficult start to his Man United career, has managed to contribute to a big chunk of United’s goals either by scoring himself or assisting them. With 3 goals, an assist and 25 clear cut chances created from open play in just 10 starts (and only played the whole 90 mins thrice), the 27-year old, clearly their most potent weapon, holds the key for United to turn draws into victories with more regularity in the run-in.
6. Arsenal – Theo Walcott
Arsenal are in an unprecedented state of flux and disarray for a club that has prided itself in consistency and continuity. They have fallen to 6th after their most recent defeat at the Hawthorns. But despite their on field issues, the off field problems have dominated headlines; the contract situation surrounding their manager Arsene Wenger and two of their best players Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, with all three not really mutually exclusive.
It’s unthinkable to imagine the damage that a failure to finish top four would do to Arsenal but it is not unreasonable to suggest they are not out of the race yet given the familiarity of this position, which funnily enough is the reason for all the unrest. Familiarity has bred contempt.
It is common knowledge that Alexis Sanchez is Arsenal’s most prolific and talented outfield player and also one of the best in Europe in terms of attacking contribution. He has scored or assisted 27 out of Arsenal’s 56 goals in their campaign so far – which is a sizeable proportion – 47%. For a side that is littered with attacking talent, this is not good enough and if they were to crack that top four, much like Manchester United, they need another player to step up and share the burden and there is nobody better at the club to provide a consistent number of goals for a short period than Theo Walcott.
The England International has scored or assisted 10 goals in 18 starts in the league (only second to Sanchez) and there is a growing feeling of resentment among Arsenal fans when it comes to quantifying what Walcott is worth – if he is at all, to Arsenal as a senior member of the squad. The 28-year old has all the tools to put the lower sides to sword and play the supporting role to perfection with his no nonsense approach, which is exactly what is needed at the club to string a much needed run of wins together and give themselves a fighting chance to finish in one of the top four positions.
7. Everton – Ross Barkley
Since the turn of the new year, Everton under Ronald Koeman have been different gravy. After what was a very productive January window, Everton bolstered by their new signing in midfield – Morgan Schneiderlin – have looked mightily impressive, with a rounded starting XI and a forward who is in red hot form. Following the dismantling of Manchester City, Everton showed a different side to themselves – a ruthless streak of churning out win after win, especially at Goodison Park, where they have only faced one defeat over the course of the season so far.
They are in a great position in the league now, knocking on the door of 6th position – now level on points with Arsenal albeit having played two games more. For Everton and Koeman, this is a season in transition – a campaign to see where they stand with regard to the teams above them in the table and find areas where they can improve the squad in the summer.
Although a seventh place finish is not the worst thing to happen for them and the manager considering the gulf in financial power and where they finished in the campaign before, they should be looking at breaking into the top six, if they were to hold that as a selling point to attract better quality players or keep hold of their star striker who caused a stir last week.
One of the biggest strengths of Everton in the second half of this season, has been the rise of a core group of players that have come through the ranks at the club i.e: Tom Davies, Mason Holgate etc. With Barkley as a shining example of what perseverance can help achieve at Goodison Park, Everton can reap the rewards of the excellent youth team structure they have in place.
Ross Barkley (4 goals and 7 assists), in particular, has come on leaps and bounds overcoming the pressure that he was under in the early months of the campaign – and now producing more consistently, at a crucial stage of the season. His partnership with Lukaku has been working wonders with a solid midfield to complement their pace and dynamism, and much of what they can do in the run-in depends on how long that partnership can sustain.