Paul Merson feels inconsistency is holding Man Utd back from a sustained assault on the Premier League title but a win at Leicester would be a big statement; plus the Magic Man looks ahead to Arsenal vs Chelsea, live on Sky Sports
Saturday 26 December 2020 11:05, UK
Manchester United will have to be taken seriously as Liverpool's main Premier League title rivals if they emerge from their visit to Leicester with another away win, according to Paul Merson.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's position came under scrutiny in November following defeats by Arsenal and Istanbul Basaksehir, and his side's early Champions League elimination intensified the pressure surrounding his job.
But United moved up to third in the Premier League following a chaotic 6-2 win over Leeds last weekend, and Merson believes a seventh successive victory this season away from Old Trafford on Boxing Day would represent a landmark result.
"If United go and win at Leicester, this would be a bigger statement than beating Leeds 6-2," Merson told Sky Sports. "If they can come away with a win, I would think 'wow'. It would turn my head and if they win they would be Liverpool's main rivals.
"I just think with Man City, later on in the season when it comes to the business end of the Champions League, if they're playing a quarter-final on the Wednesday I can't see Pep Guardiola playing his strongest team on the weekend. The Champions League is the one he wants and City are already a lot of points behind Liverpool.
It's fair to say Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side have been sub-par for much of the season, and have struggled against sides who set up in a compact style, particularly at Old Trafford.
"With United, I don't feel like they've got the cover required at centre-half to win the Premier League at present. You would probably say United are Liverpool's nearest threat, and I wouldn't have said that three weeks ago.
"When you look at the games Leicester have lost this season at home [against West Ham, Aston Villa, Fulham and Everton], they've been beaten by teams they were expected to have a go at. They were all games they were expected to win, so this one should suit Leicester, as the game at Tottenham did."
Solskjaer shuffled his pack against Leeds, handing Daniel James a rare start in place of Mason Greenwood. The tactical alteration did not come as a surprise to Merson.
"Against Leeds, I didn't find it a shock at all to see James playing," he added. "When you play Leeds, you need players who are quick and who are capable of beating opponents as they like to set up one-v-one. West Ham did the same with Said Benrahma at Leeds, but he wasn't a starter against Chelsea. Certain players will be used against Leeds who aren't necessarily used every week by their clubs.
"I'd be shocked if James plays at Leicester because you'd normally play Mason Greenwood over him but James is a better one-v-one player with better pace. When it comes to the tighter games and you need a goal, I'd play Greenwood. United have got the squad, but inconsistency is the issue. They went out of the Champions League to RB Leipzig and they've been giving teams a head start all season.
"United are in the hunt but they've not played well. They've got firepower that other teams just haven't got. But people are talking about Scott McTominay as if he's the next Roy Keane all of a sudden. They've just played Leeds. If they could pick one team to play each week, it would be Leeds. They need to be producing these performances on a consistent basis.
"Leeds will make their own chances. They'd make them if they were playing against Bayern Munich, but no side won't make chances against Leeds when they play gung-ho football. Leicester will be completely different. This will be a hard game for United as Leicester won't come and have a go."
United's visit to the King Power Stadium is part of a busy Premier League fixture schedule on Boxing Day, which includes Chelsea's trip to Arsenal, live on Sky Sports.
The corresponding fixture saw Mikel Arteta suffer defeat in his first home game in charge as Gunners boss, but another reverse at the Emirates would increase the pressure on his position following a torrid start to the season.
Arsenal have taken 14 points from their opening 14 games - their worst record at this stage of a season since the 1974/75 campaign - and Merson is struggling to see beyond a Chelsea victory.
He said: "You'd be shocked if Arsenal won, and that's where this has got to. That can't be right. I can't even make a case for Arsenal winning. I watched them against Southampton and I was thinking how many Arsenal players would get into the Saints team. Burnley went to the Emirates and fancied it, Wolves went there and experimented! They played four at the back which they never did before.
"Of course, confidence isn't great at Arsenal and that can play a major part. Man Utd look a different team with confidence, but Arteta needs to go back to what brought Arsenal success - the tactics against Man City in the FA Cup semi-final, the game against Chelsea in the final.
"They need to go back to that way of playing, but he's in a position now as a young manager new in the game, he feels he needs to keep impressing. He has to go back to being hard to beat, using pace on the counter-attack. At the moment, it feels like Arteta is shying away from using what are seen as negative tactics and is focused more on trying to entertain - it's no good.
"Leeds are like the old Arsenal of the past eight or nine years. Arsenal didn't win anything but everybody loved them because you knew you would watch a good game. Arteta needs to go back to what brought him success at the first time of asking. They beat a very good Man City team at the time and Arteta needs to show the players that video and get back to that."
Chelsea's own progress was checked by consecutive defeats away to Everton and Wolves before Frank Lampard's side returned to winning ways at home to West Ham. Merson has his own reservations about the visitors to the Emirates this weekend.
"Chelsea had the chance to go top a couple of weeks ago if they won at Everton but then two games later against West Ham it was a cup final," Merson added. "Had they lost to West Ham, they'd have been out of the title race. In three football matches you can be out of it. No side can afford to lose three matches on the trot.
"Chelsea won 3-0 against West Ham but if they'd got beaten you wouldn't have been shocked. It just didn't seem like they had a plan. It looked like 11 very good players had been told to go out and play. It just doesn't feel like the balance is right there yet.
"This is a massive match for both teams. Arsenal are in disarray at the moment. They did alright I felt against Everton, but they lost. This is Arsenal, so it's not good enough to say they did OK. That's what I would say about a team you expect to be down the bottom. It's just dragging on now. You can't see anything other than a Chelsea win, and Chelsea aren't playing great."
This weekend also sees Willian face his former club, but following a promising Premier League debut for Arsenal against Fulham in which he provided two assists, the Brazilian has struggled to justify his summer switch from Stamford Bridge.
Merson doubts whether the 32-year-old will even be selected on current form.
"He's been shocking," the Sky Sports pundit added. "I'm a big fan of Willian and at Chelsea he was unbelievable. At times, he was unplayable but he is a shadow of his former self and I don't know what it is.
"He's the only one you can ask and again it must come down to confidence. I'm not sure he will play. He's had enough chances to play, more than the other younger players.
"Arsenal's big-name players haven't been performing over the past six weeks or so and this is the problem Arteta has been having. [Pierre-Emerick] Aubameyang scored the other day, but he's not really looked like scoring. His body language hasn't been great, Nicolas Pepe is not even starting all the time and Willian just looks like he's being carried."
The Gunners seem to have suffered from a lack of leadership on the pitch with Aubameyang himself admitting he has not been vocal enough as the club captain during his recent goal drought and the team's overall decline in results.
The team also suffered in the absence of David Luiz during the losses to Tottenham and Burnley while Granit Xhaka's red card in the defeat to the Clarets underlined the ill-discipline levelled at Arteta's squad.
Merson believes Kieran Tierney has been Arsenal's most consistent performer this term and deserves to be handed the armband.
"I would give it to Tierney as he'd run through a brick wall for you," he said. "He's the one player I look at who gives everything, and I'd give him the captaincy. There's a way of showing how much you care, and the relationship he is building with Bukayo Saka down the left looks decent.
"Arsenal need that all around the pitch, and at the moment they're in a relegation battle. For me, I don't see them doing what Burnley are capable of, rolling their sleeves up. Arsenal are searching for the perfect win but they need to start grinding out results."