Alex Keble returns with his regular analysis of four key tactical battles ahead of the weekend action in the Premier League, including why Stoke can heap further misery on United, and how Leicester can beat Liverpool...
"United's low tempo, possession-centric football may have led to the flat-footed defending that has crept into their game in recent weeks, and a repeat performance against Stoke's exciting front three could see Jose Mourinho in the dugout before the New Year."
Stoke v Man Utd
Bojan v Fellaini
Saturday, 12:45, Live on Sky Sports 1
With reports suggesting that Louis van Gaal has just two games to save his job, the Boxing Day trip to Stoke will be a nervy affair for Man United's players. Their low tempo, possession-centric football may have led to the flat-footed defending that has crept into their game in recent weeks, and a repeat performance against Stoke's exciting front three could see Jose Mourinho in the dugout before the New Year.
For the third consecutive match, Van Gaal fielded Marouane Fellaini and overlooked Morgan Schneiderlin. The Belgian typifies the laissez-faire, positionally hapless performances of United in recent months, and his continued selection is bizarre. Both Bastian Schweinsteiger and Michael Carrick are equally slow and out of sync, leading to a flimsy central midfield that opponents - from Wolfsburg to Norwich - are drifting through easily on the counter-attack; neither Carrick nor Fellaini made a single tackle or interception against Norwich, and just three between them at Wolfsburg. Three of their last five goals conceded have been from attacks built down the centre of the pitch.
This should give Stoke plenty of encouragement. Though struggling for goals (seven in their last ten league games), Stoke's attacking midfield trio of Xherdan Shaqiri, Bojan, and Marko Arnautovic play very narrowly; their interplay in central areas should be enough to overwhelm United's central midfield - so often caught too far away from each other, too high up the pitch, or simply soft in the tackle and unwilling to close down tightly.
Back Stoke to win at 23/10
Liverpool v Leicester
Sakho v Vardy
The most underrated aspect of Leicester's game is their pressing, helping them to force mistakes high up the pitch that give Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy the opportunity to gallop towards goal. Though their less fashionable manager does not get anywhere near the same credit, this is very similar to the gengenpressing model favoured by this weekend's opponent - Jurgen Klopp.
The frantic press and counter-attacking game has begun to dominate English football, overtaking the patient passing philosophy; as Manchester United and Everton struggle for points, Watford, Leicester, and Spurs are making good progress. Last weekend, Mamadou Sakho and Martin Skrtel were easily ruffled by the tireless hounding down of Watford's front two; they average an 85% and 90% pass success rate respectively across the season, but achieved just 82% and 75% last weekend. Watford won more than twice as many tackles (12) as Liverpool (five) in the first half.
Leicester make more tackles (23.5 per game) than any other team bar Liverpool. Jamie Vardy will target the nervous Sakho, who may give away possession cheaply. With Lucas Leiva looking positionally shaky this season, the forced errors should lead to Riyad Mahrez receiving the ball in acres of space. And when that happens, there is only one result.
Back Leicester to win at 27/10
Aston Villa v West Ham
Gueye v Song
Aston Villa seem dead and buried, and surely this weekend's home tie against West Ham is their last chance to mount a comeback: failure to win, and a single digit points tally at Christmas will leave them utterly doomed. Remi Garde's central midfield has begun to look promising in recent weeks after a switch to a narrow 4-4-2 formation, but if they are to force a breakthrough they will need to out-muscle Alex Song.
Jordan Veretout and Idrissa Gueye take it in turns to shuttle higher up the pitch for Villa, as part of a fluid, revolving midfield formation instilled by the new manager. Villa are attempting to play a narrow, short-passing game. Gueye in particular has a great muscular presence, turning defenders and driving forward towards goal.
West Ham have drawn each of their last three games 0-0, and this is largely thanks to the return from injury of Alex Song; he has made only three starts since his recovery and West Ham have not conceded a single goal in that time. Song averages 6.8 tackles per 90, more than any other central midfielder in the Premier League; his head-to-head with Gueye could settle this one.
Back under 2.5 goals at 6/10
Swansea v West Brom
Williams v West Brom set-pieces
West Brom matches are increasingly difficult to predict, but with just one win in their last seven Tony Pulis will know that they desperately need to find some consistency. After some impressive wins for Norwich, Bournemouth, and Newcastle in recent weeks, this match looks increasingly like a relegation six pointer.
This should not be a high scoring game. Swansea have netted just once in their last four, whilst West Brom will be without the suspended Salomon Rondon and James McClean - responsible for scoring or creating seven of West Brom's 17 league goals this season. Sadio Berahino simply does not look mentally capable of leading the line for the Baggies any more.
In a scrappy contest, set-pieces are of heightened significance, and 32% of West Brom's goals (six in total) have come from free-kicks or corners. Since manager-less Swansea are in disarray, Ashley Williams' ability to organise those around him and keep minds focused will be crucial, as will his own aerial prowess when defending his goal.
Back under 1.5 goals at 17/10