To kick off, all of us at The Boot Room would like to wish you a very Merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year! While many around the country were recovering from a day of merriment however, the Premier League was back on Boxing Day and there was plenty of excitement to raise the watching millions from their slumber. Read on to discover who made our Premier League Team of the Week.
Coming into the weekend, there was no doubt which manager was under most pressure. Louis van Gaal; in charge of a Manchester United side heading to a Stoke City un fine form, walked out of a pre-match press conference earlier in the week. Although it would not be said that the Dutchman has cracked under the pressure yet, he is certainly creaking. After a fairly balanced beginning to proceedings, Mark Hughes’ men strode into the lead when Memphis Depay’s weak attempted header back to De Gea failed to reach its target. Conditions didn’t help but it was a poor effort from the maverick figure. Seizing the opportunity, Glen Johnson sent a calm ball across to Bojan which the Spaniard converted, sparking chants of “you’re getting sacked in the morning by the Potteries faithful. Not much later, Stoke had doubled their advantage when the ball fell to Marko Arnautovic outside the penalty area following a ricochet off the defensive wall. The Austrian smacked the ball beyond David De Gea without a moment’s hesitation.
The score-line remained unchanged until the interval and so Wayne Rooney; who had been sitting on the bench as a result of a ‘tactical’ decision by Louis van Gaal, came on at the start of the second half for the ineffectual Memphis Depay. With the necessity to score twice to secure anything from their travels, Manchester United came forward with increasing frequency as the game went on but could not breach a defence led by Ryan Shawcross and Jack Butland. Finishing at 2-0 to the home team, it was United’s fourth straight defeat, their fifth Premier League match without a win, and in fact their seventh in all competitions without securing all three points. That is their longest sequence of results without a win for 27 years. Louis van Gaal gave a brief wave to the travelling Manchester United fans before entering the tunnel after the final whistle – a symbolic moment perhaps?
Although their troubles away from home continued last week against Arsenal, Manchester City returned to winning ways at The Etihad in an emphatic fashion against Sunderland. Pellegrini’s men were dominant from the early minutes and they pressed their advantage home at regular intervals in the first half. In a position where the Premier League title hopefuls were assured of victory, the decision was taken to introduce Vincent Kompany to proceedings, with the objective of giving him some much-needed first-team minutes. However, in a shattering blow to the fans and playing staff alike, the club captain suffered recurrence of his calf injury only a few minutes into his introduction. As a result, despite the comfortable nature of their victory at The Etihad, many of the blue half of Manchester will have come away from the stadium in a sour mood.
Guus Hiddink’s first official match in charge during his second spell at Stamford Bridge started well, with Chelsea’s players appearing just as motivated as last week when they put Sunderland to the sword. Diego Costa in particular impressed for The Blues, with the Spanish netting twice either side of The Hornets’ lethal strike partnership putting the promoted side in front at home of the Premier League champions. With the scores level at 2-2, when a penalty was awarded for the home side, it seemed as though all of Watford’s hard work would have been for nothing. However, Oscar slipped as striking from 12 yards to blaze the spot-kick horribly over the bar; in stark contrast to the composed effort from the same scenario last week, and as a result, Chelsea’s troubles at home continued into the tenure of their new boss.
Table-topping Leicester City travelled to Anfield thriving on the confidence that comes with performing superbly week after week. Liverpool were not able to draw on similar resources but if the first half in particular was anything to go by, you would believe that it was the Merseysiders who were title hopefuls. The Foxes’ devious duo of Vardy and Mahrez were kept quiet for the most part by Lovren and Sakho, with Liverpool able to fire 18 shots on goal during the first half alone. Nevertheless, The Reds were unable to find the back of the net until Christian Benteke; who came on for the lively Divock Origi after the youngster picked up a hamstring injury, beat Kasper Schmeichel in the Leicester City goal. Eventually, both Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez were withdrawn from the action during the second half despite the league leaders going in search of the equaliser. Have we finally started to see ‘The Tinkerman’ living up to his name, or was the decision actually a sensible one, taking their home game on Tuesday against top of the table challengers Manchester City into account. Despite spurning a pair of glorious late opportunities to seal the three points through Jordan Henderson and Christian Benteke, Jurgen Klopp’s men held on at Anfield to arrest a recent slump in form and move into eighth place. Leicester City on the other hand; having been on top at Christmas, suffered their first defeat in 13 matches and found themselves at the mercy of Arsenal’s result at Southampton. Boxing Day was the first time that the midlands outfit had failed to score since the penultimate game of the last Premier League campaign, 16th May against Sunderland. For this, Liverpool’s much criticised defence deserve a great deal of credit.
After Leicester City’s defeat at Anfield, Arsenal were granted the opportunity of gaining first position in the Premier League. Ronald Koeman’s Southampton stood in their way and after the Dutchman had lambasted his troops during the week, an instantaneous reaction was seen by the Saints’ supporters. The form that had seen them pick up only a single point from the previous 15 available was nowhere to be seen. The players’ work rate was fantastic and when a bolt from the blue off the right boot of reserve right-back Martina, Southampton found themselves 1-0 up. Some terrific work in the heart of midfield by Wanyama and Clasie meant that Özil’s influence on proceedings was limited and in the second half, a breakaway involving Long and Mané resulted in the Irishman sweeping home to take his side 2-0 into the lead. Not content with just the victory, Southampton continued to push forward at a relentless rate when Arsenal surrendered the ball and two further goals; a header from Jose Fonte and Shane Long’s second, consigned the North London outfit to a 4-0 defeat. Coming into the game, The Gunners did possess an incredible 75% win record on Boxing Day over the years under Arsene Wenger but they failed to close the gap on Leicester and still sit in second place.
Jack Butland: In difficult conditions at The Potteries on Saturday lunch-time, Jack Butland excelled. He has certainly been the stand-out performer between the sticks during this Premier League campaign, and Manchester United struggled to beat him much like many others before them. The young England stopper snatched a whipped ball out of the air which was targeted towards his front post; with Fellaini closing in, and quickly sprang a Stoke City counter-attack. As the first half drew to a close, Butland pulled off a crucial double-save, initially only able to parry the first shot coming his way but then capable of hanging onto the follow-up effort.
More top-drawer saves followed in the period after the interval, first producing a fine reaction save from a firmly struck Fellaini effort; although the hulking Belgian should have done much better, before foiling Anthony Martial. Jack Butland sprawled away to his left to reach an effort from the young Frenchman which appeared to be on the way to finding the inside of the England stopper’s post. As always seems to be the case, he provides such a stable base for this Stoke City side and the confidence he imbues on the back four can be seen to flood throughout the entire team.
Cuco Martina: The game against Arsenal on Saturday evening was Cuco Martina’s first Premier League start of the season for The Saints and was only his sixth appearance for the club in total. Even if it had been the only thing that he had achieved during the match, his stupendous goal in the first half would almost justify his inclusion in the Premier League Team of the Week. As the ball dropped to him well outside the penalty area, he approached the tantalising situation with a calmness which befitted the very best players in the world. Martina struck across the ball with the outside of his right boot and as a result, was able to caress the shot beyond a despairing Petr Cech into the far corner of his net. The 26-year-old international right-back for the nation of Curaçao was not content with this goal alone however, and went on to cope admirably with the ever-dangerous Theo Walcott; incidentally one of Arsenal’s several former Southampton players. Martina was composed and put in a very mature display for someone who has seen so little action during the campaign.
Jose Fonte: After being part of a poor defensive display against Spurs last weekend, Saints’ captain was back to his absolute best against Arsenal, making a difference to the result at both ends of the pitch. Despite facing a striker who; in Olivier Giroud, is in a terrific vein of form, Fonte was able to dominate the vast majority of situations presented to him. The long-serving club captain was terrific in the face of a much heralded Arsenal attack and earned his reward that came his way in the second half. Getting the run on The Gunners’ zonally positioned defenders, he powered home a near-post header that capped off a fine display.
Dejan Lovren: Dejan Lovren suffered a horrific injury against West Bromwich Albion a fortnight ago and many; including the man himself, had initially feared that his season was over. However, with the injury far less serious than that, the Croatian found himself back in the thick of the action against a formerly lethal Leicester City side, coming not a game too late as he could replace the crocked Martin Skrtel. Dejan Lovren has certainly played a part in more than his fair share of defensive calamities during his time on Merseyside, but over the last couple of months he has been starting to show the sort of form displayed at Southampton.
Lovren took up where he left off before the injury and kept Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki strangely quiet. He is at his best when playing to his strengths; employing an uncompromising approach and using his physicality, rather than trying to be too clever for his own good. Liverpool’s number six completed all of the tasks that you would want from a centre half as he put his body on the line and cleared the ball far from his goal at every opportunity. Lovren made 14 clearances and to add to that, his influence in the opposition’s penalty area keenly felt too, as his physical presence spawned two chances for team-mates. He was also vastly improved on the ball, having more touches and completing a greater number of passes than any other player on the pitch against Leicester, with only eight of those passes failing to find their target.
Ben Davies: Nathan Redmond had earned many plaudits for the way that he dismantled Manchester United’s defence last week, but Ben Davies seemed determined to not suffer the same fate. Helping the rest of his defenders to leave White Hart Lane with a clean sheet, the former Swansea City left-footer made four tackles, won an equal number of his aerial duels, and nipped in front of his man to make five interceptions. The Welsh international was also credited with the assist for Tom Carroll’s goal; the youngster’s first for the club in the Premier League. Danny Rose is nearing a return to full fitness and so from Davies’ perspective, he is hitting top form at just the right time.
Dele Alli: Dele Alli continued to attract yet more admirers with his performance against Norwich City in the Premier League on Boxing Day. His all-round impact was terrific, but so was his influence on key moments of the match. The former MK Dons midfielder slipped a pass through to Harry Kane which Declan Rudd was tempted to come and claim but could not reach before the striker nipped the ball away from him, with Kane going on to convert from the spot. A genuine assist for Spurs’ number 10 came from the boots of Dele Alli only a few minutes later too when; after helping to spring a Spurs counter-attack, the promising midfielder found himself in Norwich’s final third with an important decision to make over his choice of final ball. Feeding Kane in a few yards of space was an attractive proposition and the clinical finisher lived up to his reputation to double Spurs’ advantage. With the North London outfit looking to close out the game, yet another surging run by the English midfielder; who is impressing all onlookers this season, drew several Canaries defenders with him. He had the presence of mind to feed Lamela on the edge of the box who; on another day, could have found the back of the net.
Dele Alli won five fouls for his team, which is testament to his quick feet and reading of the game at such a young age. Both of these abilities proved integral to making Spurs’ winning performance such a controlled one. Furthermore, Alli could and possibly should have had a goal to add to his day’s work when his header from a corner was directed straight at the grateful Declan Rudd. Seemingly making strides from week to week, the youngster arguably now possesses the status of one of the first names on the team sheet.
Victor Wanyama: Southampton’s midfield was tasked with hassling the ‘assist king’ Mesut Özil, and cutting the supply into the German between the midfield and back four of The Saints. As a result of Victor Wanyama’s efforts primarily; but also Jordy Clasie to a lesser extent, Arsenal’s number 11 was distinctly anonymous. The Kenyan midfield enforcer has not been up to his high standards for much of this season, seemingly missing his partner alongside him in previous years; Morgan Schneiderlin, but this trend certainly did not continue against The Gunners. The Saints’ number 12 got through a tremendous amount of work alongside Clasie before the Dutchman went off with cramp, with Wanyama making six tackles and also often surging forward through the heart of Arsenal’s midfield, putting Ramsey and Flamini to shame.
Marko Arnautovic: Having already put in a match-winning display against the blue half of Manchester earlier in the season with a brace against Pellegrini’s men, Marko Arnautovic was able to demonstrate the same potency to Louis van Gaal’s troops. Stoke City’s top goal-scorer gave Ashley Young a torrid time as the stand-in right-back could not deal with the Austrian’s movement and quick feet off the left touch-line. It appeared that Arnautovic greatly enjoyed driving at Young, committing the former Aston Villa man and causing him to make decisions which do not form part of his natural game. The maverick figure produced a thunderous strike from outside the penalty area for Stoke City’s second goal, lashing the ball into the back of the net without giving De Gea the slightest chance of saving the effort. He could have had a second soon after too, when he sprung the offside trap but could only wide.
Much like his performance against Manchester City, it was his terrific work-rate which impressed even more than his skill on the ball. Marko Arnautovic tracked Ashley Young going back towards his own goal in stark contrast to Memphis Depay on the same flank for The Red Devils. The Austrian also infuriated Manchester United defenders by dropping a little deeper and keeping the ball away from them with deft touches, proceeding to draw them out of a defensive shape which gave his team-mates the space to operate in. Arnautovic ran in behind very well too, timing his breaks to perfection and as a result, proved to be a concerted threat throughout.
Bojan: Operating once more in the ‘false number nine’ role, originally made famous by Lionel Messi but taken on by Mark Hughes’ Stoke City in recent weeks, Bojan was a real thorn in the side of Manchester United. After making a promising start with a few individual moments of magic, the Spaniard broke the dead-lock with only 20 minutes gone. While the finish may have appeared simple, it was only because Bojan’s supreme technique made it look so. In addition, he got on the ball in dangerous attacking areas time after time and supplied so many of the passes which provided chances for his fellow attacking players in red and white. In fact, three of Bojan’s passes directly created shots on De Gea’s goal. Aside from his attacking prowess, his work-rate was felt all over the pitch. Always making himself available to collect the ball in tight spaces, Bojan’s skilful dribbling won four fouls for his team and even when not on the ball, the former Barcelona starlet was working in his own defensive third, making three successful tackles.
Kevin De Bruyne: Undoubtedly the man of the match for Manchester City against Sunderland, Kevin De Bruyne added two more assists to his total for the campaign and also stepped up to bag himself a goal too; his tenth of the campaign. Two terrific deliveries from the Belgian set City on their way to victory as first Raheem Sterling, then Wilfried Bony headed home after the ball was put on a plate by De Bruyne. These were hardly isolated incidents, as he created four other chances of note during the game. His goal ironically came from a situation where he was trying to supply City’s Ivorian forward with another to add to his tally, but the ball squirted into De Bruyne’s path and he finished with the minimum amount of fuss. He possesses an unerring awareness of the location of his team-mates and the opposition on the pitch, making him nearly impossible to stop when the Belgian is in that sort of mood. De Bruyne’s ability to produce perfection in the moments that matter make him a figure of paramount importance for Manchester City. Incisive passing mixed with tricks and flicks at the right time added to the other attributes mentioned earlier mean that his transfer fee of £55 million is looking less and less like an unnecessarily large sum as the weeks go by.
Shane Long: As a crucial component in Southampton’s dismantling of Arsenal on Saturday evening, Shane Long had a fantastic all-round game. He ran The Gunners’ central defensive pair of Mertesacker and Koscielny ragged. You would expect the towering German to struggle with the pace of Southampton’s striker, but his defensive partner should have been much more adequately equipped to deal with Shane Long. Nevertheless, Koscielny had a torrid evening too as Long appeared to simply have a greater desire to reach every ball first. His opening goal of the game came in somewhat controversial circumstances when Long appeared to trip The Gunners’ French centre half on a breakaway, an encounter which gave the Southampton player the space to make his chance significantly easier. Long’s second also came about when running in behind Arsenal’s defenders and he capped off a perfect Southampton performance by slipping the ball through Petr Cech’s legs. But for the width of Petr Cech’s post, the number seven could well have had a hat-trick too, as he was sent free yet again beyond Arsenal’s beleaguered back-line.
Featured Image: All rights reserved by Ian Johnson