Premier League Matchweek 29 preview - what to look out for

By Alex Keble 29 Mar 2023
Arsenal cele

We assess Arsenal's bid to avoid unwanted history and preview the huge relegation six-pointers

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Following the final international break of the season, the Premier League returns this weekend. With drama guaranteed at both ends of the table, Alex Keble looks at the key talking points.

Can Arsenal avoid an unwanted first?

With matches still to come against Manchester City and Liverpool, there aren’t many Arsenal supporters counting their chickens.

Yet historically speaking, holding an eight-point lead at the beginning of April is unassailable.

Only eight times in the competition’s 30-year history have teams top of the Premier League on 1 April not gone on to win it, and each of those has held a maximum three-point lead at that stage. 

Clubs top on 1 April who didn't win title
Season Club Pts lead Season Club Pts lead
92/93 Norwich 1 09/10 Man Utd 1
97/98 Man Utd 3 11/12 Man Utd 2
01/02 Liverpool 1 13/14 Liverpool 2
02/03 Arsenal 2 18/19 Liverpool 2

The caveat is that the 2022 FIFA World Cup has nudged the season forward a little and ordinarily we are on Matchweek 30 or 31 by April Fool’s Day.

Accepting that reasoning, Arsenal need only to hold their current advantage over the next two matches to have historical precedent on their side, and judging by recent form – plus the return of Gabriel Jesus – they can get halfway there on Saturday. 

See: Managers coy over fitness of Haaland, Rashford and Saliba

Arsenal have won their last six Premier League encounters, which is their joint-longest run under Mikel Arteta, suggesting the blip in February is firmly behind them.

Plus, they have only dropped nine points against sides outside the top three all season and are in free-scoring form, netting 19 times through those six victories.

If that wasn’t enough for Leeds United (who have kept only two clean sheets this calendar year) to worry about, Jesus is finally back to full fitness. 

Leandro Trossard’s goalscoring exploits may prevent Jesus from returning to the starting line-up on Saturday, but nevertheless, Jesus’s recovery is a huge boost.

It’s easy to forget how vital the Brazilian was to setting the tone for Arsenal’s season: he has 10 goals or assists in 14 Premier League starts this season.

Across all competitions, the Gunners are unbeaten when he starts (15 wins, one draw). 

Forest’s reliance on home form 

Steve Cooper’s impressive ability to keep Nottingham Forest above water has been threatened by a six-match winless run that leaves his side just two points outside the relegation zone.

Forest could be rock bottom by the end of the weekend. This appears a must-win contest. 

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Home matches against fellow relegation candidates are always important, but they are particularly crucial to a Forest side so reliant on their form at the City Ground: 20 of their 26 Premier League points have been won at home, including five of their six wins to date.

What’s more, only one of these wins has come against a top-half club (a 1-0 success over Liverpool in late October), and across their remaining five home matches Forest still have to face Manchester United, Arsenal and Brighton & Hove Albion

Based on what’s come before, you'd think Cooper simply has to beat Wolverhampton Wanderers (and Southampton, their other bottom-half home fixture) to acquire the points needed to stay in the division.

Considering that five of their six wins this season have been by a 1-0 scoreline – the other being a 2-0 home win against Leicester City in January - Forest fans will be praying for another clean sheet, and indeed it seems likely this will be a low-scoring affair. 

Wolves and Forest have scored the joint-fewest goals in the division (22 each), and while Forest's 3.1 shots on target per match is an average lower than anyone else, Wolves shot conversion rate of 6.9 per cent is also the lowest.

It probably won’t be full of goalmouth action, yet the tension will make it hard to look away. Just one goal could change the trajectory of the season for both clubs. 

Stellini’s first match a unique challenge 

Tottenham Hotspur’s continuity caretaker appointment of Cristian Stellini might surprise those who assumed the club wanted to move away from the hallmarks of the Antonio Conte era, but Stellini’s record of nine points from four Premier League matches on the touchline reveals the logic behind the decision. 

Stellini and Conte enjoyed a 20-year working relationship but that does not necessarily mean Spurs’ new caretaker boss will produce similar results. 

Spurs’ defence has looked more assured in the Stellini matches and indeed this side of the game has taken precedence: they have conceded an average of 9.8 shots against per match, down significantly from 13.5 across the whole campaign, but scored just five goals in four matches.

Spurs also attempted a season-high 30 tackles in the 2-0 victory over Chelsea while their two highest foul counts of the campaign were under Stellini: in the 1-0 win against Man City (19 fouls) and the 1-0 defeat at Wolves (18).  

Spurs tackles v Chelsea
Spurs tackles v Chelsea (H)

That defensive prowess will be needed in the months ahead, given that Spurs' 40 Premier League goals conceded this season are as many goals as in the whole of 2021/22, but in the short term, a defence-first approach might not be the best way to face Sean Dyche’s miserly Everton.  

Everton have won three of their four contests at Goodison Park under Dyche and all by a 1-0 scoreline, reflecting a desire to put weights on their opponents’ ankles.

They average 38 per cent possession under the new manager, down from a season average of 43.8 per cent; Stellini will need a plan for how to work with the ball and break down their stubborn hosts. 

Casemiro ban gives Isak chance 

It’s been a tough run of matches for Casemiro. His last three Premier League appearances read: red card, 7-0 defeat to Liverpool, red card, a sequence that means he now has the same number of sending offs for Man Utd as in his entire 338-match Real Madrid career.

Casemiro will miss the next three encounters, starting with the trip to St. James' Park on Sunday. 

See: Fred can dictate in Casemiro absence

It is a big loss. Man Utd have won 31 points from the 15 matches he has started (2.1pts/match) and 19 points from the 11 in which he has not (1.7pts/match), thanks in part to his influence defensively and offensively: he tops the Man Utd charts for tackles attempted (3.9/match) and touches among midfielders (75.8/match).  

The absence is badly timed, too, considering firstly how effective he was in the Carabao Cup final victory over Sunday’s opponents, scoring the opener, and secondly containing the growing influence of Newcastle United forward Alexander Isak.

The Swede, with three goals in his last two matches, has upgraded Eddie Howe’s attack with his intelligent movement to pick up the ball between the lines and dribble forward.

Only Allan Saint-Maximin attempts more take-ons for Newcastle than Isak’s 4.1 per 90, and Isak regularly drifts across the width of the pitch to pick up a pass outside the remit of opposition midfielders. 

Isak touches v Forest
Isak touches v Nott'm Forest (A)

In other words, Man Utd could have done with Casemiro to clamp down on the in-form Isak, particularly given Man Utd's record at letting in goals on the road.

Only AFC Bournemouth, with 38 away goals conceded, Forest, with 32, and Leicester (30) have let more goals away from home than Man Utd's 27 in the Premier League.

The hosts, on the back of consecutive league wins, will back themselves to move above Man Utd on goal difference this weekend. 

Hodgson begins run of six-pointers 

Roy Hodgson is back in Croydon at his beloved Crystal Palace, where he spent four years stabilising their position in the Premier League before his departure in May 2021.

The perceived wisdom with the subsequent appointment of Patrick Vieira was that Palace wished to move towards a more expansive or progressive style of football, but after a year of movement in that direction, this season Palace have regressed back towards the numbers of Hodgson’s final campaign.

  2020/21* 2021/22 2022/23
Possession 40.6% 51.1% 43.6%
Pass completion 74.5% 78.5% 77.3%
xG/90 0.9 1.2 0.9
Shots/90 9.1 10.6 9.8
xGA/90 1.5 1.1 1.4
Shots against/90 14.1 11.6 13.3

*Hodgson's final season

Hodgson’s return may signal Palace’s intention to play pragmatic football to get over the line, although his track record at Watford throws a curveball.

He won just two of 18 Premier League matches for Watford in the second half of last season, leaving Vicarage Road with the lowest win percentage (11.1 per cent) of any Hornets manager in history and with a points-per-match average (0.4) which, over a 38-match season, would have left Watford on 17 – just six more than Derby County’s record low in 2007/08. 

But Watford and Palace are entirely different prospects, and Hodgson’s return is timed to coincide with a dramatic shift in the club’s fixture list.

Every single one of their 12 league matches in 2023 have been against the top 11, while eight of the final 10 are against the nine clubs embroiled in a relegation battle, starting with Leicester on Saturday. 

With the four points separating Palace in 12th to bottom side Southampton, the fewest between those two positions in Premier League history heading into April, the stakes could not be higher.

Fewest points 12th-20th in April
Season Points difference 12th-20th
2022/23 4
2010/11 5
1996/97 9
2008/09 10
2012/13 11
1995/96 13
Can Guardiola solve Liverpool puzzle? 

Leaving aside the Carabao Cup fourth round (in which, so soon after the World Cup, Man City and Liverpool started a combined eight players who rarely feature in the first team), Jurgen Klopp has got the better of Pep Guardiola in recent matches, winning the last three.

This can be partly explained by Liverpool’s tendency to sit a little deeper than they used to, pressing less and refusing to let the match descend into the end-to-end chaos that made this fixture a Premier League classic. 

They held 37 per cent possession in the reverse fixture, a 1-0 win at Anfield, and this conservative shape appears to have been anticipated by Guardiola, who made the unusual decision to field Bernardo Silva in a deep midfield position alongside Rodri.

Tellingly, Man City didn’t look comfortable in this rejigged system, while Mohamed Salah scored the winner in a counter-attack – highlighting Liverpool’s new strategy to absorb pressure and hit Man City on the break. 

Liverpool tackles v MCI H
The heavy volume of Liverpool’s tackles in their own half highlights their deeper line of engagement

But things will inevitably be different at the Etihad Stadium. Man City have lost just one of their last 13 home meetings with Liverpool, while no team has a bigger difference between points won at home and away than Liverpool’s 18 this season.

Klopp’s side have looked a little stretched at times, a situation likely to be exacerbated by Stefan Bajcetic’s absence – and one that could be punished by Kevin De Bruyne, whose 21 through-balls are more than anyone in the division.

Linking with Erling Haaland, provided that the Norwegian is passed fit after a groin problem, Man City will look to exploit any moments in which Liverpool fan out from their more hunched position. 

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