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Is Brendan Rodgers’ time at Liverpool coming to an end?

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Alongside Manchester United as England’s most globally celebrated club, the Reds have, as we all know well, slumbered on their treasure trove of honours accumulated in the seventies and eighties. Failed attempts at resurrection have transpired since then, with the league title proving elusive these past 25 years, while United rose to dominance under Sir Alex Ferguson and conquered Liverpool’s prestigious 18-time winners’ record. Since then, Liverpool have still enjoyed success – FA Cup, League Cup, UEFA Cup and Champions League titles have all been won post-millennium – but almost every Liverpool fan maintains the belief that a Premier League title is the most important of the lot. Especially since their northwest rivals have leapt on to worldwide super-brand heights, the need for domestic dominance has become somewhat of an obsession on Merseyside.

They almost did it too. Last season Liverpool were oh so, so close. The Premier League trophy was theirs to let go of, and they did just that, thanks most prominently to capitulation at Crystal Palace and that slip from the man least deserving of such a cruel twist of fate, Steven Gerrard. Manager Brendan Rodgers was hailed as a messiah of sorts, catapulting Liverpool to the brink of reclaiming their long-lost thrown while Fergie-less Manchester United struggled even to make it into the top half of the table.

Brendan Rodgers was rightly given praise for Liverpool’s 2013/14 campaign, which saw them finish as runners-up to Manchester City and secure a return to Champions League football. An attacking brand which prompted over a century of goals scored and Liverpool’s worst defensive record since 1914/15, as well as the refreshingly English look to the squad, had fans displaying “Make Us Dream” banners which pointed at hope for future success. Rodgers was lauded with the LMA Manager of the Year award for running his team so close to glory, and a contract extension was agreed to keep the Northern Irishman at Anfield until 2018. If the reader is a Liverpool fan, then less than 12 months ago the future looked like it promised success.

Then, there was last summer. Player of the season Luis Suarez was too tempted by the chance of playing with Messi et al. to stick around another season. Daniel Sturridge was struck down by a series of successive injuries which kept him out of action for much of this season. The pillage of Southampton’s successful squad from the previous season backfired, as Lovren, Lallana and Lambert have failed to fluidly transition into Liverpool’s high expectations, while the Saints have further improved under Ronald Koeman. Other signings have flattered to deceive and one in particular did not even have the decency to do that much – Mario Balotelli’s Liverpool move will likely go down as one of the biggest flops of the Premier League era. And for all their transfer activity – spending upwards of £115 million on nine players – positions that were widely considered necessary in addressing were overlooked. Much maligned Glen Johnson is still first choice right-back, Simon Mignolet has no realistic competition as goalkeeper and the defensive midfield options of Joe Allen and Lucas Leiva continue to frustrate supporters.

From an edge of the seat gung-ho mentality, the Liverpool of this season have been in stark yawn-worthy contrast. They are the lowest scorers of the Premier League’s top six and look set to tally less than the 59 goals they managed last season in the first-halves of matches alone. While Suarez and Sturridge scored a combined 52 goals last season (31 and 21 respectively), this campaign’s top scorer for the Reds is Raheem Sterling with a slightly less impressive seven goals after 32 matches. Sure, Rodgers has somewhat improved his side’s defence, but at a drastically conservative cost going forward, and still not enough to contend consistently with the league’s better teams as recent results against Manchester United and Arsenal have shown. Of course, Liverpool’s unbeaten run from mid-December to mid-March was impressive, but it only served to somewhat counteract the disastrous start they had which included seven defeats from their opening sixteen fixtures. Even fourth place now seems like an unrealistic option, even with Manchester City’s recent derailment.

To pile on the league misery, Liverpool are out of the FA Cup at the hands of a very beatable Aston Villa, they left again with barely a whimper upon returning to the Champions League, and Rodgers is now their first manager in over half a century to have failed to win a trophy in his first three years at the helm.

It all sounds very doom and gloom all of a sudden, given the optimism this time last year. This summer will be absolutely critical, both in terms of managerial and playing staff. I think Rodgers, for better or worse, will get one more season to try and revive the optimism he instilled. However, it would certainly be worth hiring a seasoned advisor to aid the 42-year old, and likewise it would be advisable for Rodgers to put his ego aside and listen to a voice of reason. Mistakes like Mario Balotelli and Ricky Lambert cannot be repeated, while the initial dropping of Mignolet only for Brad Jones to quickly suffer injury left all concerned looking very foolish.

There are positives to cling to still for Liverpool fans. Rodgers is relatively young – he was only 39-years old when he took over the Reds. That means that, if the club’s owners are willing, he has the potential still to learn from this season and emerge from it a more experienced manager. He has also started to put together a young squad of potentially exciting players; Coutinho, Markovic, Henderson, Sturridge and, if he stays, Sterling, are positive attacking options in their early twenties. A defensive overhaul is required, of course, and a proven striker to partner Sturridge and replace the Suarez void, and it is in these positions that Rodgers will have to admit he failed to adequately supplement. As an obviously intelligent man, this season will hopefully have shown him a thing or two about how best to address these problems.

Liverpool, I think, will not benefit much from doing the easy thing: firing Rodgers. What could another manager realistically hope to achieve in the similar space of time as he has had? The media are in a Klopp-frenzy, and he is a proven manager for sure, but Dortmund have had an even worse campaign this year than Liverpool. Apart from him, it is difficult to imagine someone like Ancelotti or Guardiola taking over a team without the Champions League, should they leave their respective clubs this summer. A new face will likely, at best, provide initial optimism while rebuilding the team under his philosophy as Rodgers has done.

Brendan Rodgers has the potential to be a top manager, and he very nearly delivered the obsessive Premier League trophy to Anfield in 2014. Liverpool should give the Northern Irishman one more season to prove himself, to find out whether he can push on and benefit from his mistakes. Otherwise, the Reds will yet again be looking at a new manager, repeating the impatient cycle that has failed them these past 25 years.

Jonathan is a football lover based in Dublin. He is an especially keen fan of Italian Serie A, and thinks Guti Hernandez's assists may have been the work of sorcery. Struggles to forgive his father's upbringing as a Saint Mirren fan.

Manchester United

How will Manchester United line up with Alexis Sanchez?

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

The most highly-anticipated transfer of the January window has finally been confirmed. Alexis Sanchez is now officially a Manchester United player after joining from Arsenal in a swap deal with Henrikh Mkhitaryan. It is quite a coup for the Red Devils to have snatched the Chilean from the clutches of Manchester City, who had long been the frontrunners for his signature.

Sanchez scored 80 goals in 165 appearances for Arsenal and his arrival at Old Trafford significantly strengthens Jose Mourinho’s attacking resources. United are second in the Premier League, but lie a distant 12 points behind their Manchester rivals. So how might the Red Devils line up with Sanchez, who will wear the iconic number seven shirt?

What will have most attracted Mourinho to Sanchez is his ability to play in any number of attacking positions. Although his goalscoring ratio for both Barcelona and Arsenal is close to one in two, he would not be classed as an out-and-out striker.

Wenger did sometimes deploy the 29-year-old on his own up top, but more often than not the Gunners boss favoured him on the left of an attacking three, alongside the likes of Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud.

Mourinho is hardly short of forward options. He signed Romelu Lukaku from Everton last summer to spearhead the attack, while Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba have all shown to be more than capable of chipping in with goals.

Sanchez provides another dimension altogether, though. He is more physical than the aforementioned quartet and his tireless work-rate is exactly what Mourinho looks for.

Sanchez could rotate with Lukaku in the number nine role – or even play alongside hm in a front two – but it is more likely that he will occupy one of the three spots behind the Belgian.

When fit, British record signing Pogba is guaranteed to slot into a central role in front of a deep-lying central midfield pairing, which gives the Frenchman the freedom to express himself. That leaves one of the two wider positions, currently occupied by two of Rashford, Martial and Lingard.

Of late, Mourinho has opted for Martial and Lingard, both of whom have been in scintillating form with goals and assists aplenty. To leave out either would seem harsh, but given the high-profile nature of this signing, one will surely make way to accommodate Sanchez, whose inclusion may also help to get the best out of the unconvincing Lukaku.

If Mourinho’s vision is similar to Wenger’s, then the fall guy would appear to be Martial. However, the Portuguese may have other ideas and such is Sanchez’s versatility that the United manager knows he can select the Chile international anywhere in attack without diminishing his influence.

The increased competition for a starting berth can only benefit United and it certainly would not be a surprise to see Sanchez selected as a number nine, should Lukaku’s form continue to suffer.

With the Red Devils hoping to go deep into the latter stages of the Champions League as well as the FA Cup, the flexibility Sanchez offers will be invaluable in facilitating squad rotation. Games come thick and fast at this stage of the campaign and, consequently, player burn-out is a real possibility.

By landing Sanchez, United have issued a massive statement of intent. Despite an improved Premier League season, they will almost certainly have to watch on as City lift the title in May.

Whether the former Barcelona star is the man to shift the balance of power back towards the red half of Manchester remains to be seen. Nevertheless, he undoubtedly improves Mourinho’s squad and it will be fascinating to see how he fares in a United shirt.

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Arsenal

How Arsenal could line-up with Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang?

Jake Jackman

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Photo: Reuters

Arsenal prefer not to do business in the January transfer window, but their hand has been forced this month due to the contract situations of Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Jack Wilshere.

They could all leave the club before the start of next season and Arsene Wenger will recognise the need to prepare for those departures. Sanchez is the only one to have left the club already this month, as he has joined Manchester United.

In return, the Gunners have secured the services of Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The former Borussia Dortmund player has struggled in England, but he has the talent to produce more at the Emirates Stadium.

Considering they are facing a battle to qualify for the Champions League, there could be more arrivals this month to improve their chances of making the top four.

Sky Sports reported that Arsenal are attempting to secure a deal for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Dortmund could be tempted to make a clean break from the striker

The Gunners are at risk of missing out on the Champions League for the second successive season, but their reputation remains strong across Europe. It would be a statement of intent to sign the Gabon international and an exciting move for supporters.

How could they line-up at the end of the window?

Arsene Wenger has favoured a 3-4-2-1 formation this season and it has achieved relative success. It was a major reason for their FA Cup win last season, as it provided more balance and made the side solid at the back.

However, Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang are both attacking players and will be expecting to start most matches. It could be that a switch back to 4-2-3-1 is required to fit both into the starting eleven.

One major problem that Arsenal have faced this season is their lack of quality at the back. Laurent Koscielny, Shkodran Mustafi and Nacho Monreal are serviceable as a three-man defence.

However, it has been rare for all three to be fit at the same time and the squad is lacking in depth. Per Mertesacker is passed his best, while Rob Holding and Calum Chambers remain inexperienced at the highest level.

A change back to a four-man defence would be a smart move unless a quality centre-back is signed this month. A tactical switch would likely mean Monreal loses his place in the starting eleven.

This would be a shame considering his impressive season to date, but he would offer stern competition to Sead Kolasinac.

It would be a boost if they were to sign another centre-back. Sky Sports reported earlier this month that Arsenal had made a fresh enquiry for Jonny Evans, but no reports suggest that a deal is in the pipeline for this month.

If they were to make no defensive signings, their back five would pick itself when everyone was available.

Petr Cech is not the player that he once was, but he remains the best goalkeeper at the Emirates Stadium.

The full-backs would provide the width, as Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac are both excellent at going forwards. Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Nacho Monreal would offer good competition on the left side.

By playing two attack-minded full-backs, Arsenal can afford to play with narrow attackers, which will get the best from those playing in the forward positions.

There has been a resurgence in the career of Jack Wilshere, but he is unlikely to make the starting eleven when everyone is fully fit.

The midfield pairing of Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka has been the most balanced of those chosen by Wenger this season.

The former has provided the drive and attacking support from deep, with three goals and six assists in the Premier League. Meanwhile, the latter sits deep and contributes in both halves of the pitch.

There is still more to come from the Swiss international and it will be next to Ramsey that he takes the next step forward.

The four attacking players would be best suited in a fluid attacking set-up as they are all intelligent players and capable of fulfilling any role. It would likely be a narrow formation with the full-backs providing width.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would be the ones asked to start on the wing. It would be great to see the former be given a sustained run on the right flank, giving him a great opportunity to re-capture his Dortmund form.

Although Aubameyang is primary a striker, he has played on the left-wing during his career and he would be given freedom to interchange with the rest of the front-line. His pace will cause problems and he has the dynamism to excite supporters in the Premier League.

The 28-year-old has 13 goals in 15 Bundesliga appearances this season. In addition, despite Dortmund’s poor Champions League form, the forward found the back of the net on four occasions.

He is a top-tier striker and will add goals to the Arsenal attack. It will be exciting to see him link-up with Mkhitaryan again if a move does go through. Arsene Wenger will be hoping they can be as productive as they were in Germany.

Alexis Sanchez may have left, but Mesut Ozil is probably going to stay at the club until the end of the season.

The Evening Standard report that Arsenal are hopeful that the German international will extend his contract if they do sign Aubameyang alongside Mkhitaryan.

The 29-year-old will be given a central role in the team as the club try to convince him to stay and as the number ten position is his favoured role, this will likely be where he plays.

Alexandre Lacazette has had a mixed first season in the Premier League. It wasn’t easy to come into an Arsenal side that was short on confidence and Wenger will be wanting the Frenchman to kick on alongside the new arrivals.

If Aubameyang does sign, it will increase competition to start up front.

The current Gunners’ number nine has scored nine Premier League goals and contributed three assists. He is involved in a goal every 142.25 minutes, which is not bad, but he will be hoping to improve during the second half of the season.

If the club do sign Aubameyang, it will be a major statement of intent and serve as a reminder to the rest of Europe that Arsenal remain a force to be reckoned with.

A front four of Aubameyang, Lacazette, Mkhitaryan and Ozil promises to be exciting to watch and provide lots of goals.

No one player will be guaranteed a start and that is beneficial to the squad. The rest of the team needs strengthening, but this window would represent a good start to the rebuild.

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Burnley

Burnley 0-1 Manchester United: Three talking points from Turf Moor

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

Anthony Martial scored the only goal of the game as Manchester United recorded their third consecutive victory by seeing off Burnley at Turf Moor. In a game devoid of end-to-end entertainment, the Frenchman struck in the 54th minute when his right-footed shot found the net via the underside of the crossbar.

Burnley tried in vain to force a leveller but could not find a way past David de Gea, as their winless run extended to seven Premier League matches. United, meanwhile, have maintained their grip on second spot but remain 12 points drift of runaway leaders Manchester City. Here are three talking points…

United pass another away-day test

Despite rumours of unrest at Old Trafford, United are now unbeaten in eight Premier League matches. While their hopes of reeling in Manchester City may be remote, Jose Mourinho’s men are red-hot favourites to finish as runners-up. That would be a huge improvement on last season – their first under Mourinho – where United finished sixth. It was only their success in the Europa League that guaranteed them a place in the Champions League.

The Red Devils are definitely progressing and the expected arrival of Alexis Sanchez would give them another dimension. In particular, their away form will please Mourinho. This was United’s fifth victory in their past six Premier League games on their travels, a run that is helping to keep the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool at bay.

Burnley is a notoriously tricky place to visit, but United withstood the physical threat of the hosts and just about had enough to claim all three points.

Burnley are feeling the effects

When looking at the table, Burnley’s position appears to be very comfortable. In eighth place and with 34 points to their name, the Clarets are all but guaranteed to be playing Premier League football again next season. That would have been manager Sean Dyche’s priority and he can feel satisfied with the job he has done.

Nonetheless, this is a difficult period for Burnley, who have not tasted victory since they beat Stoke City on December 12. Scoring goals has been their biggest problem, having drawn a blank in four of their seven-game winless  run. The Clarets are not renowned as being free-scoring – they have found the net only 19 times this season – and rely on a solid defensive foundation.

Perhaps the exertions of their promising start have taken their toll on a settled side. The challenge for Dyche, who had been linked with the Everton job during the height of Burnley’s success, is to ensure his players do not fall into the trap of thinking they have nothing to play for.

Martial is making rapid progress

The Frenchman began the campaign out of favour at United, but he has regained his place in the side thanks to a series of consistent performances. His output has been productive, too. His goal against Burnley was his third in a row, taking him to 11 for the season. Allied to his seven assists, Martial is beginning to fulfil his immense potential.

He cut a frustrated figure at being kept out of the starting XI by Marcus Rashford – there was even speculation he might be on his way out of Old Trafford. But Martial said all the right things publicly and is no longer in the ‘supersub’ category. Competition for places will only intensify if and when Sanchez’s switch from Arsenal is completed.

But the former Monaco starlet should not fear the Chilean’s arrival, but relish it. He has proved he can be a trustworthy player for United. Like Luke Shaw, he is another to have benefited from some stern words from Mourinho, who will soon have an embarrassment of attacking riches to call upon.

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