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Garry Monk’s Excellent Work Flying Under The Radar

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Since Kenny Jackett left Swansea in February 2007, the Welsh side have made intriguing and inspired appointments for their managers. Current Everton boss Roberto Martinez got his start at the Liberty Stadium and led the club to the Championship before heading off to Wigan and Merseyside. Paulo Sousa proved nothing more than a season long stop gap but still almost guided Swansea to the play-offs. Brendan Rodgers led the Swans to the promised land when he took over and kept them there with some wonderful football. Michael Laudrup was a legendary player and led Swansea to the League Cup and into Europe where they won at the Mestalla 3-0. So, when Laudrup was sacked with the club two points above the relegation places in February 2014 it was arguably Huw Jenkins’ biggest decision in his time as chairman. Would he go for a short-term fix to avoid the drop before going for his main target in the summer? Would he find someone with a similar footballing philosophy to his previous managers?

Jenkins stuck to form and went outside the box when he chose former club captain and still player Garry Monk. A rock at the heart of Swansea’s defence for nearly a decade, Monk had risen through the leagues with Swansea but was starting to feature less and less in the Premier League. He had been expected to join the backroom staff in a reshuffle that was supposed to aid Laudrup but instead he was thrust into the hot-seat and expected to thrive.

And thrive he has. While Monk may not have instilled the same attacking flair of past bosses or lead the club to trophies or Europe, he has brought about a real sense of stability to Swansea which is arguably something that might have been lacking in the managerial department. The average shelf life of Swansea manager in the last few seasons has been eighteen months to two years and as Monk approaches that marker, there looks to be no sign of a departure nor another club swooping in for the Swans boss which is hardly surprising as Monk’s work in South Wales has been largely ignored.

Monk took over a squad that was struggling badly for form and belief with Laudrup’s final few weeks in charge looking increasingly desperate and ragged and with no chance of changing it at all, Monk led Swansea from two points above relegation to nine and twelfth place last season, one place behind manager of the season Tony Pulis’ Crystal Palace. He was unfortunate to see his side knocked out of Europe last season by a Napoli side that was stronger on paper and led by a Champions League winning boss in Rafael Benitez. This season alone, Monk has beaten Manchester United and Louis van Gaal twice and saw Swansea equal their Premier League points record this past weekend at Everton (a game Swansea viewed as two points thrown away) with the club in eighth place and still having six games to play.

It’s not just on the pitch where Monk has proved himself. Transfer wise, he has pulled off some superb dealings. Gylfi Sigurdsson floundered at Spurs and Monk was quick to snap up his former teammate which has been a masterstroke.  Ecuadorian Jefferson Montero has frustrated more than entertained but has the ability to be a difference maker in big games (see the win at Old Trafford) while Argentine Federico Fernandez has been a very able replacement for Chico Flores. Bafetimbi Gomis is no Wilfried Bony but Monk was able to convince him to stay when he was struggling and has been rewarded with some decent performances from the Frenchman while Jack Cork and Kyle Naughton look to be very solid buys to add depth to the squad. Monk has also brought back Korean Ki Sung-Yeung into the team after he was unwanted by Laudrup and has been rewarded with some excellent performances. And Ki is not the only player who looks revitalised under Monk.

Jonjo Shelvey has long been touted as a future star with big emphasis on future. Now 23, Shelvey finally looks to be making a consistent breakthrough under Monk and is starting to become a decisive influence for the Swans. Lukasz Fabianski was rather justifiably nicknamed “Flappyhandski” by many during his time as back-up at Arsenal but the Pole has been a very good replacement for the departed Michel Vorm and has 11 clean sheets this season (only Simon Mignolet and Fraser Forster have more). Wilfried Bony’s form under Monk was good enough for Manchester City to spend £28 million on the Ivorian while Neil Taylor has returned at left back after his long injury lay-off and the departure of Ben Davies with some solid performances. Monk has found himself able to get players playing for him and the club in the way he wants them to and that is not something every manager is able to do at such an early stage of their career.

One of the big factors that has helped Monk is his familiarity at Swansea. The majority of the squad are former teammates of the Swans boss which gives him an instant respect in the dressing room which will also permeate through to new signings. He’s also loved by the fans for his tenure with the club which means that he will get what few managers need and what is deemed such a precious commodity – time. Monk has had time and freedom to manage his way and the results are showing. Swansea have quietly crept into eighth place based on a solid defence that has only conceded 40 times all season in the league (only bettered by the top six) despite only scoring 38 times.

And that there is perhaps the biggest criticism of Monk’s time at Swansea. The lack of goals is fine when the defence plays well but what happens if the defence begins to falter? Where do the goals come from? Wilfried Bony scored nine by January and is still Swansea’s top scorer so who is the next man Monk has in mind to get the goals? This is the big test that Monk faces now. How does he get rid of the problems and elevate Swansea into the top six or seven?

If the past 14 months are anything to go by, Garry Monk is more than capable of building on his impressive start at the Liberty Stadium. So why, with young and English being in vogue in the Premier League, are more clubs with managerial issues looking towards Monk? Maybe it’s because he’s still relatively new and in his comfort zone. Or maybe it’s because he’s not the fashionable choice, a solid and hard-working manager that gets the results in a low-key manner. And that’s the way Swansea fans would like it to remain.

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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