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W2W4: Man United face tricky test, can Arsenal validate keeping Wenger?

As the calendar flips to a new year, W2W4 highlights the biggest storylines within the first games of 2018 ...

Will Chelsea punish Arsenal again?

Chelsea are proud owners of a formidable record against Arsenal ever since Roman Abramovich acquired the club in 2003. In 29 subsequent Premier League meetings, the Blues have won 14 and lost only seven -- with two of those defeats coming in the first season of the new era at Stamford Bridge. A season that ended with victory over Arsenal in the Champions League quarterfinals, before Abramovich completed his jigsaw by hiring Jose Mourinho.

It has been such a long period of dominance that it was almost a shock when Arsenal bloodied Chelsea's nose on two occasions last season. The first saw them win 3-0 at the Emirates Stadium in September -- a match that precipitated Antonio Conte's switch to a back three that ultimately secured the title -- while the second saw the Gunners claim a third FA Cup in four years with a 2-1 victory at Wembley.

Four days later, Arsene Wenger signed a new two-year contract despite missing out on a place in the top four for the first time in 20 years. In those golden days at the start of the summer, with the FA Cup win still fresh in the mind, there was room for fleeting optimism that this year could be different for Arsenal. Make a few decent signings, play the kids in the Europa League, save the stars for the Premier League and who knows? Maybe the title wasn't beyond reach.

Those idle thoughts didn't last for long and the upshot is that Arsenal must win on Wednesday, otherwise you begin to question -- many for the umpteenth time -- why the club persisted with Wenger. If it was owing to the belief that he can lead another title charge, this season has proven, like the last decade, that it is no longer the case.

If it was for stability, the contract situations surrounding Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Jack Wilshere have been the greatest self-inflicted distraction any top-six side has faced. If it was loyalty then, while some would acknowledge the decency of that decision, it must be said that sentimentality doesn't bring silverware.

Arsenal are four points off fourth and 21 behind the leaders Manchester City after another lacklustre display in a 1-1 draw at West Brom. It's time to show they are building for something rather than merely treading water toward the top of the Premier League.

Tricky test for Man United

Everton away might be the worst possible fixture for Manchester United after a miserable Christmas return of three successive draws.

While some supporters were disgruntled with Jose Mourinho's negative tactics in the 0-0 draw at Liverpool earlier in the campaign -- in which United registered just six shots to 19 for the hosts -- plenty would concede that a point away to top-six rivals is a respectable result, especially when they possess the firepower that Jurgen Klopp has at his disposal.

Jose Mourinho's squad returns to Merseyside having not won for a fortnight.

But that excuse doesn't apply when United return to Merseyside to take on Everton on New Year's Day, despite the Toffees' much-improved resilience following Sam Allardyce's appointment. This is a fixture Mourinho is expected to win, and at a time when United could not look more different to the side that began the season with six wins in seven matches, 21 goals and six clean sheets. It almost seems strange to think that United were level with Manchester City at the top of the table by the time they met Liverpool in mid-October. Mourinho won't need reminding that the gap to Pep Guardiola's side now stands at 15 points. 

It has been questioned whether the manager's pragmatism at Anfield had an adverse effect on his players' attitude. United were flying before that stalemate, but suddenly they appeared inhibited. The next game brought a first defeat -- 2-1 to newly promoted Huddersfield Town -- followed by a 1-0 loss at Chelsea a fortnight later. The last six fixtures have yielded just two victories, each by a single goal against Bournemouth and West Brom.

Mourinho's only solution so far has been to suggest he needs more money to spend. But while he battles with the board for funds, he must also arrest a slide that has seen United surrender second place to Chelsea. Everton are a competent outfit, but United strolled into town and pinched their best player for £75 million in the summer. They should be operating on a different level, and yet Allardyce will relish setting up a scrappy encounter to see United drop even more points in a campaign that is beginning to unravel.

Burnley's defence vs Liverpool's attack

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? In September, Liverpool and Burnley played out a 1-1 draw at Anfield as Sean Dyche's supreme defensive organisation stifled Jurgen Klopp's rampant forward line. It was a match that had a similar pattern to Liverpool's encounter with Leicester on Saturday; Burnley took the lead in the first half, but Mohamed Salah (who else?) quickly rescued a point.

Against Leicester, Salah stole the show once more to secure all three points for the Reds, with Klopp describing his team's reaction to going a goal down as the "best I've ever seen." Was it evidence that Liverpool are learning to grind out victories when necessary, following frustrating draws at home to Everton and West Brom? A New Year's Day trip to Burnley could provide a conclusive answer to that question -- though they could be without Salah who has a knock.

Can Spurs cope without Kane?

The "Harry Kane team" could be minus Harry Kane at Swansea on Tuesday after Mauricio Pochettino admitted the striker is struggling with illness. Kane's back-to-back hat tricks helped see off Burnley and Southampton over Christmas, but Pochettino may now be forced to shuffle his squad to cover for the absence of his star player. Swansea were buoyed by a vital win at Watford on Saturday in Carlos Carvalhal's first game in charge -- it would be somewhat poetic if a returning Fernando Llorente burst their bubble.

Pressure on Hughes

Stoke boss Mark Hughes gave a candid interview after watching his depleted side suffer a 5-0 thrashing at Chelsea. The manager confessed to being pragmatic with his team selection, protecting the likes of Xherdan Shaqiri, Joe Allen and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting for Monday's six-pointer at home to Newcastle.

Hughes took responsibility for the defeat, but his admission that he chose not to field his strongest team increases the scrutiny on his future. Hughes finds himself under mounting pressure after Stoke's slow start to the season, and should they fail to beat Newcastle at the Bet365 Stadium, his costly gamble will have undermined both his integrity and his position.

Matthew Stanger covers European football for ESPN and is the editor of The Set Pieces. Twitter: @MatthewStanger


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