Sanchez and Ozil must find form quickly with Tottenham looming
If Phil Jones starts as expected for Manchester United against Newcastle United on Saturday at Old Trafford, it will be the first time he's started 12 consecutive Premier League games since moving to the club over six years ago.
The defender managed 11 in the autumn of 2014-15 under Louis van Gaal, but he's never hit 12 in a row. Injury usually sees to that.
Until the Chelsea defeat, United had never been behind in a league game this season with Jones on the pitch. At Huddersfield, he went off after 23 minutes with the score at 0-0 after he banged a nerve in his hip and couldn't feel his leg. There was no time for it to settle and he had to come off. He still couldn't feel his leg after the game, which United lost, in part because of an error by Jones' replacement Victor Lindelof. Jones was fine to play in the next game when he again impressed in the win against Tottenham, though he'd limp off in an England friendly against Germany last week.
Jones keeps United's physios on their toes, and that sometimes means literally looking after his toes -- and the rest of his body. In six years, he's missed games because of a toe injury, several knee injuries, a malleolar injury, something called venous occlusion, a sprained ankle, concussion and separate injuries to his hamstring, shinbone, thighs, shoulders and back. He's football's Evel Knievel, the motorbike stunt man of a hundred broken bones who put his body through hell.
Though Jones would rather holiday in Nevada than attempt to jump the Grand Canyon like the U.S. daredevil, his all or nothing attitude is hugely desirable to managers. Jose Mourinho rates Jones, a Lancastrian raised 30 miles from Manchester, though he worries about the injuries.
"Phil puts his head where people wouldn't put their feet," says former United defender David May. "He's not everyone's cup of tea, but if you can keep him fit he's a great player. Out of four central defenders, Phil is the most consistent and reliable when he plays. I like him and Eric Bailly together, too. They work well.
"Phil was brilliant at start of the season and he was different class when United went so many games unbeaten last season," May adds. "He reminds me a little of Steve Bruce in that he reads the game really well and would run through a brick wall for the team."
Jones is patently not as quick as the fleet-heeled Bailly.
"It doesn't matter," is May's opinion. "He's really improved in his reading of the game. He's in position first, he understands his own game, when to make decisions and the right decisions. A few years ago he'd think less and had more of a 'I've just got to win that ball' mentality."
Mourinho tries to protect Jones by having him focus on the Premier League. He's not played in one of United's seven cup games so far, where Lindelof and Chris Smalling have been given more minutes. With Antonio Valencia now permanently in the right back role, Jones is also used only as central defender.
Jones made his United debut in the 2011 Community Shield against Manchester City after agreeing to join the club, a decision he made at a hotel overlooking the Mediterranean in the South of France where Sir Alex Ferguson was holidaying. Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea also wanted the 19-year-old from Blackburn Rovers. Ferguson was not even sure what Jones' best position would be, but felt he could play anywhere.
David de Gea, Ashley Young and Tom Cleverley made their debuts in the same game. While De Gea has played 285 times for United since, Jones has started 155 times, with 23 appearances as substitute. Ashley Young, who is considered an effective squad player rather than an automatic starter, has started 124 and come on in another 49 as a sub.
Jones is still only 25. The ninth 'Jones' to play for United (Smith, with seven, is the second most popular surname for United players) may have played more than any of the other eight Joneses, but he's never started more than 36 games in a season.
First-choice centre-halves are usually virtually ever-present. Former legendary central defender Steve Bruce managed that eight times, Rio Ferdinand and Gary Pallister seven times, Nemanja Vidic four times. All those players had seasons where they started more than 50 games. In Bruce's case, he started 50 or more games four seasons on the bounce and started an astonishing 61 times in 1993-94, when United won the double.
The success of the partnership of Ferdinand and Vidic is one reason why Jones wasn't initially starting every week. And it's true that football has changed with bigger squads, but Real Madrid, with Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, had a settled central defensive partnership last season while Juventus' defence has been the most settled in football for years.
Jones needs to be well managed, for the benefit of the club and for himself. He's the one who has to live in his body after he's retired. Many a former player, including those at United, regret playing through injury because their manager pressured them to do it.
Jones also plays for England as he seeks to add to his 24 caps. He should play in Russia next year, but Mourinho and United fans will be nervous when he does -- and for good reason.
Man City fans mock Jones in song because "You signed Phil Jones, we signed Kun Aguero" in the summer of 2011. But Jones, who cost £16.5 million, less than half of Aguero's fee, can answer that by pointing out he has won more with United than Aguero.
For now, he's also starting every week alongside Bailly. The pair have started eight of the 11 league games together, a strong partnership that has contributed to United having the best defence in the league this season.
Can they be the first United defensive partnership since Vidic and Ferdinand a decade ago to start more than 30 league games in a season? It certainly worked then as they helped the team become crowned English, European and World Champions.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.
Manchester United's Andreas Pereira has said he wants to remain at Valencia beyond his current loan deal.
The 21-year-old midfielder joined the Spanish side for the 2017-18 campaign on Sept. 1 in search of playing time and has made nine league appearances, including four as a starter, for a side that is second in the La Liga standings, just three points behind leaders Barcelona after 11 rounds.
Asked if he would like to play for Los Che beyond June 2018, Pereira told Valencia-based sports newspaper Superdeporte: "Of course, that would be a very good option for me, it would be positive. I'm happy at Valencia CF.
"Valencia is a big club and seeing our current form, everyone wants to remain here.
"Everything is going so well, everyone in the squad is happy. We want to maintain this."
Pereira signed a one-year contract extension with United shortly after arriving at Valencia and is tied to the Premier League side until June 2019.
United do have an option to recall Pereira during the winter transfer window but the Brazil under-21 player wants to remain at the Mestalla stadium at least until June 2018.
"In my mind I want to be here and help Valencia until June," Pereira said. "That was my intention when I came here. I know there is a clause inserted into the loan deal and I will have to wait and see. But my focus is on Valencia and I would like to stay here."
Pereira impressed while on loan at Granada last season where he scored five goals and set up three more in 34 La Liga starts.
However, the Andalusian club finished bottom of the standings and were relegated.
Pereira has been likened to former Manchester United great Paul Scholes, including by former United player Phil Neville.
"It gives me great pride and to hear those words is beautiful," he said. "I really liked Paul Scholes, he was my coach when I was young. For me, he was one of the best and I was lucky that he coached me. Paul is one of the football greats."
Jose Mourinho said he was disappointed Pereira chose to join Valencia on loan instead of fighting for a starting place at United this season.
However, Pereira says he is learning a lot from Valencia coach Marcelino and has heaped praise on the former Villarreal boss.
"He has given me a lot of confidence and I feel important in this team," the Belgium-born Pereira said. "Marcelino tells me what I have to do. He is the one that has created all of this, this great environment. All that we are achieving is because he has built this group. He is a great coach. He tells us with clarity what one in particular has to do as well as what the team has to do at a given moment.
"I think if we continue to listen to him, we can go very, very far. I want to continue doing what I'm doing, helping the team win and offering the best of my football for the collective aim that we have, which is to continue winning games."
Valencia head into Sunday's game at Espanyol unbeaten in La Liga and on an eight-game winning run in the league, which is their best ever start to the competition.
Adriana Garcia is a Valencia-based football writer who covers La Liga for ESPN FC.
The North London derby always means a lot to Arsenal and Tottenham. In years past, when Arsenal were dominant, it was a way for the neighbours to try and put a spoke in their rivals' wheel, and it's a fixture which has generally seen an equalisation of talent for the duration of the 90 minutes.
When the Gunners had Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires, they were miles ahead of Spurs on paper. Yet there was rarely ever anything more than a single goal between the sides, the games often settled by the tightest of margins in Arsenal's favour.
In recent times the dynamic has shifted, and Tottenham look the better side right now. Aided by the non-stop scoring of Harry Kane -- a player who has scored in every league match he's played against Arsenal -- and the fact Mauricio Pochettino has fashioned a well-organised, hard to break down team, it's now over three years since an Arsene Wenger side has tasted league victory in the derby.
It makes this weekend's encounter all the more pivotal, and it's a game that could have a real impact on the rest of Arsenal's season. If they win, they cut the gap to Tottenham to just a single point, and take from it the confidence and belief that could help reignite what has been a stuttering campaign thus far.
Should they lose, Spurs would have taken three massive points at the Emirates, an already restless fan base would find itself further agitated and the gap would be a substantial and unhealthy seven.
The Gunners' form has been patchy, especially away from home, and it's hard not to draw some parallels between that and the fact their two star players, Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, have yet to make the kind of contribution you'd expect from players of that talent.
There have been some mitigating circumstances, with the Chilean arriving back late from international duty during the summer, and the German hampered by injury, but here we are heading for mid-November and between them they have just two goals and four assists. By comparison, at this stage of last season they had nine goals and six assists, and Sanchez's shortfall this time around has really been significant.
There have been questions raised over their commitment, with neither looking likely to sign new terms with the club, and every time a player finds himself in a poor patch of form in circumstances like this, fingers get pointed. It's not something Arsene Wenger is hugely concerned about, choosing to believe that professional players will always do their job.
"When you sign a contract somewhere, you commit to give your best until the end of the last day of that contract," he said during the summer. "I would say: 'Why should they not give their best?'"
However, when contracts remain unsigned and the prospect of two players of that quality leaving on a free looms large on the horizon, it's understandable fans can take a dubious outlook. The only answer either of them can give is on the pitch, and as yet they haven't been convincing.
Wenger needs both of them to step up, and soon, because his team are more likely to win games if they're playing anywhere close to their potential. They score, they create, and when they're on song -- as they were in that 5-2 win against Everton a couple of weeks ago -- they make Arsenal a much more dangerous team.
Not to mention that disquiet over their futures will be dispelled if they start chipping in with goals and assists. People will still have concerns about what they might do next summer, or even what the club might decide to do in January, but if there's end product then it go a long way to silencing some of the dissenting voices.
Arsenal are heading into a hectic and difficult period of the season. With Spurs at the weekend and Manchester United in early December, they could find themselves back on track in a big way if they can get good results in those games, but to do it they need Ozil and Sanchez to start firing.
Andrew Mangan is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @arseblog.