A run of seven losses in nine games culminated in Wednesday’s Manchester derby loss for Manchester United, form that manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needs to correct instantly as they remain alive in the race for a Premier League top four spot.
On Sunday they face one of their rivals in that race, as Chelsea come to Old Trafford in a classic six-pointer. A win would draw United level on points with the Blues and give their Champions League qualification hopes a shot in the arm.
Here’s a look at the tactics available to Solskjaer as he looks to end United’s poor run. Check out our analysis of Chelsea’s potential tactics here.
FLUID FRONT THREE CAN HURT CHELSEA’S HIGH LINE
United’s form in front of goal is alarming – four hours and 40 minutes without a goal, eight hours and 47 minutes without a goal from open play, and nearly a month since a goal from a forward.
What can Solskjaer do to get the goals flowing again? The best solution could be a recall for Alexis Sanchez as part of fluid front three. Sanchez doesn’t have the best record against Chelsea – only two goals and an assist in 16 appearances – but plugging him into the attack is a good tactic against the Blues’ high defensive line.
Sanchez’s movement would pull Chelsea’s defenders out of position and create space for the rest of the front line. As a bonus, he could also press Jorginho when United are out of possession.
SOLSKJAER TO TAKE LEAF FROM JOSE’S BOOK?
During Jose Mourinho’s time in charge of United, he masterminded two home wins over Chelsea, and both followed a similar blueprint: man-mark Eden Hazard.
In 2017, it was Ander Herrera who tracked the Belgian, while last season the task fell to Scott McTominay. Both midfielders are set to be late fitness calls on Sunday, though Solskjaer hinted that Herrera would likely be involved in this game.
Chasing the elusive Hazard all across the pitch is never the easiest task, not least when you’re returning from injury. Perhaps the United manager could adopt a tag-team approach: start with Herrera and bring McTominay on later, or vice versa. Neither would have to face the rigours of the full 90 minutes, and Solskjaer could even get one yellow-card foul out of each.
Pep Guardiola does not think Manchester City have been helped in their Premier League title push by their Champions League elimination.
While Liverpool must play a two-legged semi-final against Barcelona during their domestic run-in, City no longer have to worry about midweek games.
Some might suggest the lack of fixture congestion would aid City as they bid to see off the Merseysiders in a tight title race but Guardiola feels the opposite is true.
City’s quarter-final exit has meant a change of routine for a side that have played a lot of midweek fixtures due to their progress to the finals of both domestic cups.
City boss Guardiola said: “When that happens in November, December, January, February that helps a lot. That happened for Liverpool. In that period it was better for Liverpool than us.
“But to be involved in the Champions League semi-finals – you are not tired. You do not feel any pain. That is a better position to be in, to be in the semi-finals.
“The toughest months in this competition are December, January, February when they had two weeks in training camps and we had to be here playing every three days. That is a big advantage for the opponent.”
City bounced back from their agonising Champions League defeat to Tottenham by beating the same side in the Premier League and then winning a tense derby at Manchester United in midweek.
Guardiola feels this response underlined City’s champion qualities.
He said: “The most incredible thing was that we beat Tottenham at home three days after the defeat in the Champions League. They showed me the character, the personality and the team we are.
“They don’t have to do anything else to convince me. They want to win this title. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t have done what we have done.”
City have their fate in their own hands but the pressure is back on them to win at Burnley on Sunday after Liverpool moved back to the top with victory over Huddersfield on Friday.
Guardiola says there can be no room for complacency against a Clarets side that regularly make it hard for visitors at Turf Moor.
Guardiola said: “It is always difficult because of the way they play. They play in a special way.
“It is the end of the season, the last games, and everyone feels the pressure to win the games. We are going to prepare for what we have to do to try to control Burnley’s strong points.”
For Arsenal, it’s a chance to end a two-game losing streak having fallen to defeats against Crystal Palace and Wolves in the past week, though their struggles away from home will be brought under the spotlight again.
Here’s a look at the talking points for the Gunners’ clash.
BALANCING PREMIER LEAGUE AND EUROPE A HEADACHE FOR EMERY
Arsenal’s push for a top-four spot and Europa League triumph is about to leave the squad stretched thin. From here on out, the Gunners play Sunday, Thursday, Sunday, Thursday, and Sunday, before a two-and-a-half week break until the Europa League final if Unai Emery’s side prevail against Valencia.
Two years ago, United manager Jose Mourinho effectively ceded the Premier League route to qualifying for the Champions League, putting out a weakened side against Arsenal in between Europa League semi-final ties despite a top-four finish still being achievable. A win would have moved United within one point of the top four, but Mourinho put all his eggs in the European basket – a decision that paid off, as they lifted the trophy.
A win on Sunday would put Arsenal into the top four, at least temporarily, depending on the result from United-Chelsea. Yet their away form has been abysmal this season – they have more losses, seven, than wins (six). And Leicester will be no cakewalk.
The narrow margins this season, with just four points covering Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal, and United – make the decision on rotation a tougher one than what Mourinho had in 2017. But Emery will have a headache soon.
NO QUICK FIXES TO ARSENAL DEFENCE
Shkodran Mustafi was the villain of the piece when Arsenal lost to Palace, allowing Wilfried Zaha to walk past him and restore the Eagles’ lead in a game ultimately decided by one goal. The German was duly dropped – only for Emery’s side to put in an abject performance defensively in their loss to Wolves.
Mustafi wasn’t the only defender not to make it into Wednesday’s XI having played on Sunday – Konstantinos Mavropanos also struggled against Palace, and lost his place to fellow Greek centre-back Sokratis.
So what is the answer for Emery?
Leicester are just the sort of side that can hurt Arsenal. Jamie Vardy is a nuisance for the best defenders, Demarai Gray has the pace to trouble Ashley Maitland-Niles, and James Maddison will spot any gap in the Gunners’ defence – and they’ve been leaving plenty.
The Arsenal manager could opt to switch to a back three, bringing in Sead Kolasinac to play at left-back and pushing Nacho Monreal. It’s a system that has worked for Emery quite often this season – though not against Palace. And it would leave Arsenal vulnerable on the counter, which would be music to Leicester City ears.
There are no quick fixes for Arsenal at the back.
LEICESTER CITY THE KING-MAKERS
Leicester City’s fixture list puts them in an intriguing position during the Premier League run-in. They face Arsenal on Sunday, then Manchester City the following Monday, before ending the season with a home fixture against Chelsea, which means they will have a direct impact on both the title race and the fight for the top four.
That they face Arsenal and Chelsea, both poor away sides, at home is good news for United and Spurs fans, with those two sides having done the double over the Foxes this season.
Meanwhile, Leicester have already had their say in the title race, getting a shock win against City in December and then battling back for a draw at Anfield a month later when Liverpool had the chance to go seven points clear with a win.
And of course, Brendan Rodgers – the last manager to have Liverpool involved in a title race, when they fell just short in 2014 – has his own target. European football is still on the cards if Leicester finish seventh, with a heated battle involving themselves, Wolves, Everton, and Watford still ongoing.
It’s no miraculous title campaign, but these are still exciting times at the King Power Stadium.