We preview this weekend’s action of the Premier League, starting with a huge derby at the London Stadium when West Ham United take on Tottenham Hotspur.
West Ham United vs Tottenham Hotspur
The big talking point: West Ham’s biggest game of the season. Not a joke, not a jibe, just the truth: in spite of last season’s dreadful underperformance, beating Spurs 1-0 at home was enough to save Slaven Bilic’s job.
What will happen: It’s not that West Ham’s players try harder in this game than any other, but they do seem much more focused – it’s a cliche, but their supporters cheerfully hold this fixture up as a cup final and the players have traditionally reacted to that. Whether that’s healthy or not is a question for another time.
What won’t happen: Don’t expect a repeat of Spurs’ by-the-numbers impotence from last weekend. Mauricio Pochettino has a periodic tactical botch in his locker, and every now and again surrenders points through over-rotation – but he typically responds very well to defeats. The emphasis on the training ground this weekend, before and after the League Cup win over Barnsley, will have been speed, technique and combination play around the penalty box. Tottenham won’t be turning the sky black with crosses again in a hurry.
Burnley vs Huddersfield Town
The big talking point: No ‘big’ talking points, but this is another potentially intriguing examination of Huddersfield’s survival credentials. Given their own history and financial past, Burnley are a natural role model.
What will happen: Huddersfield will face a trap game. Turf Moor is very much a Premier League stadium and it houses a highly competent side, but Championship teams don’t dream of this sort of fixture when they chase promotion. There will be no live cameras, no natural adrenalin, and no big-game glint; that may sound like a set of incidental factors, but combined they’re quite the obstacle. Either Huddersfield overcome it, or they will likely lose.
What won’t happen: The caveat, though, is that nothing we’ve seen from David Wagner and his team to date suggests that they’re really susceptible to these little intangibles. They were dreadful at West Ham, admittedly, but their Premier League games so far have been characterised by (what seems like) immaculate preparation and, generally, good execution under all circumstances.
Leicester City vs Liverpool
The big talking point: Not the Carabao Cup game between the two sides, but Jurgen Klopp’s reaction to it: he seems much grumpier than usual at the moment. There’s just a suggestion, after the humiliation at the Etihad and the misfire at Anfield, that his patience is starting to run thin with a few players.
What will happen: A style problem. Every week, the same point is made about Leicester’s style – as it has since before their title win – but with good reason: their propensity to move quickly and vertically upfield makes them problematic for any opponent not entirely comfortable in their own structure. And that, to a tee, is Liverpool: they possess a mesmerising attacking thrust, but remain perilously imbalanced. Leicester’s raking Danny Drinkwater passes have been packed up and sold to Chelsea, but they retain the weaponry to further spoil Klopp’s September.
What won’t happen: Obviously there will be no Adam Lallana in the Liverpool lineup, nor will there be for some time, and that’s one of the underappreciated issues for them. Lallana is generally presented solely as a creative player, whereas he’s also a critical part of his side’s pressing game too. Suggesting him to be a solution to their defensive issues is clearly nonsense, just as “signing a better centre-half” wasn’t a magic bullet either, but his structural worth has never been more apparent than it is right now.
Manchester City vs Crystal Palace
The big talking point: City’s range of gears. Christ, they look terrifying.
What will happen: No, there’s not going to be a first win for Roy Hodgson here. Pep Guardiola’s players have caught some breaks this season – at Bournemouth in particular – but they finally look like the team he was hired to build. Intimidatingly, their chemistry also appears to be growing by the week and the chances of Palace being able to throw a net over all of Guardiola’s attacking pieces seems remote.
What won’t happen: There will be no Wilfried Zaha. Not yet. He reportedly began training outside last week, but isn’t expected back in action until the other side of the international break.
Southampton vs Manchester United
The big talking point: Unfortunately, the real talking point concerns Romelu Lukaku and certain songs being sung in his direction. Football wise, though, it’s United’s start to the season. They don’t quite possess their city neighbour’s dexterity or rhythm in attacking areas, but they look mightily impressive all the same.
What will happen: Virgil van Dijk should start. Interesting: he did a lot of talking over the summer, was very bold about what he believes his status in the game to be and now, against Lukaku, Martial, Rashford and pals, will have to back it up. Much of Southampton’s defensive strength comes from Oriol Romeu’s shielding work and Mario Lemina alongside him; so Van Dijk is hardly an army of one, but he will be a natural focus.
What won’t happen: Any change to Southampton’s forward line. Other than the victory (and a rare goal from open play), the real discussion point from Selhurst Park was Manolo Gabbiadini’s benching in favour of Shane Long. Expect the same here: Long is an inferior player but probably a broader outlet, is certainly a bigger issue for defenders in the channels, and will deal far better with the likely isolation.
Stoke City vs Chelsea
The big talking point: Stoke and their home performances against the top six. Arsenal have been beaten at the Bet365 Stadium, Manchester United were run very close; it may not be the hostile environment it once was, with Rory Delap shelling the visiting penalty box from the touchline, but even the best sides continue to struggle there.
What will happen: And Chelsea should struggle, too. Eden Hazard played the full 90 minutes against Nottingham Forest on Wednesday night and, after such a long absence, is unlikely to play from the beginning again so soon. Without him, as last weekend showed, Chelsea are denied their sharpest edge. Stoke may not be a ruthless side, they remain without a consistent goalscorer, but they do possess a nicely constructed back three capable of absorbing pressure and a pacy counter-attacking threat. And Xherdan Shaqiri, of course, who doesn’t have to be playing well to change the score.
What won’t happen: The Hazard issue is worth dwelling upon. Questioned about his star player’s recovery after the Champions League game with Qarabag, Antonio Conte stressed his determination to handle Hazard’s rehabilitation calmly. Quite right, too. Even with the two Manchester clubs setting a rapid early pace, Chelsea must see beyond their immediate concerns and manage this carefully. No Hazard on Saturday – at least not from the start.
Swansea City vs Watford
The big talking point: One defence which held up extremely well under close examination by a title contender, versus another which really, really didn’t.
What will happen: Swansea are not a particularly creative side under any circumstances, but this game will be defined by whatever damage Watford’s 6-0 loss to Manchester City has done. There are really only two ways of processing that kind of result: either Marco Silva’s players accept that City are City and that the defeat was of little real consequence, or they allow it to shatter their self-belief and ruin their good start.
What won’t happen: No re-appearance of the old Wilfried Bony. The Ivorian was a fascinating player to watch at his best – who didn’t enjoy his rare brew of skill and strength? – but he’s a long way from that. Judgement should probably be reserved until Bony is match fit (something he isn’t close to being), but the suspicion remains for the moment that Swansea have made a signing on sentimental rather than practical grounds.
Everton vs Bournemouth
The big talking point: Everton’s form. Four defeats in a row, 13 goals conceded without reply; not good at all given how much was spent over the summer.
What will happen: Ronald Koeman’s calling card as a coach is rigidity. He’s not quite a pragmatist but, on the Dutch footballing spectrum, he’s certainly more Van Gaal than Cruyff. And, in the main, Everton have been resilient under him. From that perspective this recent burst of awful, flimsy football – characterised by team-wide fragility – has been deeply concerning. Lose here and Koeman has problems.
What won’t happen: Probably not a repeat of the 6-3 in February, but a clean sheet for either side would buck their respective trends. Everton held Stoke scoreless on the opening day (in what now looks like a very good result) but have conceded in every league game since, and Bournemouth’s 1-0 win over Brighton in midweek (AET) was the first time this season they’ve shut out an oppontent in any competition.
Brighton & Hove Albion vs Newcastle United
The big talking point: Newcastle’s owner-defying start. No doubt there’s a false sense of validation permeating from the boardroom at St James’ Park as a result, but Rafael Benitez – in spite of an absurdly frugal transfer window – has his team performing well beyond their means.
What will happen: Perhaps this will be the first true measure of what Brighton are? The opening month of the season is always a false depiction of the newly promoted and, really, nobody can say for certain yet whether Chris Hughton’s team will be undermined by their theoretical lack of goals or whether their defence is really good enough. This should be an indicator: at home against a team with a similar recent past, and in a fixture which they really have be winning.
What won’t happen: Goals. Newcastle can really defend. Remove the two goals shipped against Tottenham (after Jonjo Shelvey’s ‘moment’) and Xherdan Shaqiri’s stunner last week, and they’ve really only conceded once from a situation which they should have prevented (Aaron Mooy, Huddersfield). Given the personnel he’s had to work with, that’s some coaching job from Benitez – and likely to lead to another clean sheet here.
Arsenal vs West Bromwich Albion
The big talking point: Arsenal’s performance at Stamford Bridge: sturdy, stubborn and – arguably – the better team. Fancy that. But let’s also not forget Gareth Barry for this weekend: an imminent record-breaker for all-time Premier League appearances. Well done that man.
What will happen: One of the features of modern Arsenal, though, is their propensity to trip themselves up shortly after appearing to turn a corner. There won’t be a single home supporter at the Emirates on Monday night who isn’t braced for a Tony Pulis gut-punch.
What won’t happen: But those fears will be ill-founded. We all know the West Brom cliches: they’re organised, they’re disciplined, they’re a threat from set-pieces. Etc, etc. Except they’re none of those things at the moment and they’ve been playing dreadful football since September began. Their 3-0 loss to Brighton two weeks ago was a shocking performance and, although they took a point, their showing against West Ham really wasn’t much better. Their fundamentals have slipped and, oddly, they already seem to be in a post-survival mood.
-This story originally appeared on FourFourTwo.co.za