Alex Keble analyses where the weekend's matches could be won and lost, including:
- Why individual battles could decide Spurs v Liverpool
- Villa's test against Brighton
- Fernandes v Eze
- How Everton can continue their revival
- Why Fulham will be a stubborn opposition for Chelsea
Individual contests could decide Spurs v Liverpool
Udogie was repeatedly targeted by Arsenal's Bukayo Saka last weekend, who occasionally took advantage of his difficulty shifting back from his inverted central midfield position – including for their opening goal.
Salah, who could be supported by the returning Trent Alexander-Arnold, will be sought with longer forward balls as Liverpool look to take advantage of Spurs' tendency to be too open just after they lose possession. That is the price of Ange Postecoglou’s expansive football.
But what you get in return is the capacity to overwhelm the opposition, and there is every chance that could happen this weekend as Yves Bissouma and James Maddison, if he is passed fit, look to take advantage of the teething problems in Jurgen Klopp’s new-look midfield. That is the key battleground.
Liverpool are allowing 18.8 progressive passes per match this season, up from 13.3 in 2022/23, moving them from second-best in the division to eighth-worst on this metric. They are also allowing 36.2 progressive carries per 90, an increase on last year’s 29.0, while opponents are averaging 63.4 more touches per match, 90 per cent of which are accounted for in the middle third.
This is explained by the decompression that is occurring while Dominik Szoboszlai and Alexis Mac Allister adapt to their new club. Mac Allister in particular, can look a little isolated at the base of midfield, which is where Maddison will be operating.
Maddison's 44 shot-creating actions top the Premier League charts by some distance, making 33 per cent more than second-placed Rodri with 33, while the Spurs midfielder's 10.7 progressive passes per 90 also ranks fourth. It is easy to imagine Maddison running riot in the holes in Liverpool’s midfield.
But that does not mean Spurs will win. The blunt force of Darwin Nunez running behind Postecoglou’s high line is a counter threat that might even this contest out – or could see it descend into pure chaos.
Villa best placed to win battle of Champions League hopefuls
If the Premier League gets a fifth UEFA Champions League spot this season, and with Manchester United and Chelsea struggling for form, there is an opening for teams such as Aston Villa and Brighton & Hove Albion.
Both have started very well but need to beat the other to lay down a marker.
Villa are looking to win five of their first seven league matches for only the third time ever, while Brighton are hoping to make it six victories from the opening seven for the first time since 2015/16.
Villa appear to be the best placed to get the three points, primarily because Unai Emery is a reactive coach happy to drastically alter his tactics to expose opposition flaws – and Brighton have one of those.
West Ham United simply refused to be baited into a press in their 3-1 win at Brighton in August, playing only 31 passes in the first half, the second-lowest figure on record. Of all Brighton’s opponents this season, West Ham made the most interceptions with 19 and produced only 15 tackles, reflecting their complete refusal to press.
In fact, the two contests this season in which Brighton have held above 70 per cent possession – versus West Ham (78 per cent) and AEK Athens (75 per cent) – happen to be the two times they have lost.
In theory, Villa should be happy to follow that plan, sitting off and waiting to counter-attack. They have the third highest PPDA (a measure of pressing intensity, where a low score suggests a more active press) in the division, just behind West Ham, and Villa's 22 direct attacks top the charts.
However, Emery’s dangerous high line has been deployed consistently throughout the season. Should Villa continue with it, Brighton will happily go more direct and search for Kaoru Mitoma on the left.
But you would expect Emery to adapt. He will certainly need to if Villa are to extend their record of nine consecutive home wins in the Premier League – and if they are to announce themselves as credible candidates for a potential fifth Champions League spot.
Eze v Fernandes the key battle
But Man Utd have only won three of the last eight meetings between the sides and Roy Hodgson is unbeaten in his last four league matches at United.
Palace could even see this as an opportunity to return to form. They averaged 6.5 shots per match in their two most recent league encounters, after having had at least 10 shots in 13 of their previous 14 fixtures under Hodgson. Man Utd, meanwhile, have conceded five goals in their last two matches at Old Trafford.
In Palace’s most recent league match, a 0-0 draw with Fulham, Eze had three shots and created three chances, making him responsible for 87 per cent of their seven efforts on goal. This follows a pattern - Eze's combined total of 42 shots and chances created is more than any other Premier League player this season.
Fernandes, whose brilliant volleyed-winner at Burnley last weekend was his 80th Premier League goal involvement, is Man Utd’s Eze equivalent. Indeed, the two players have a surprising amount in common statistically.
Eze v Fernandes attacking stats 2023/24
|Statistic||Eze||PL rank||Fernandes||PL rank|
Given that Palace aren’t going to open up too much for such a tricky away tie, and with Man Utd struggling for fluency - they rank 12th for possession in the competition with 48 per cent their lowest-ever average - this won’t be an encounter with many chances.
It could be one moment - from Fernandes or Eze - that decides it.
Everton can continue their revival
Luton Town have been unlucky this season. Having to postpone their first match at Kenilworth Road, a winnable fixture against Burnley that could have kickstarted their season, was unfortunate. And now what should have been their easiest fixture to date has arrived just as Everton find form.
A 2-1 EFL Cup win at Villa Park in midweek made it consecutive victories for Sean Dyche for the first time as Everton manager, while the 3-1 success at Brentford – scored off a 1.9 Expected Goals (xG) – went against type. It looks as though the Toffees might have broken the curse and got their season up and running.
This is the ideal fixture for Everton to have next, and an unmissable opportunity to win back-to-back Premier League matches for the first time since October last year. Luton have accrued only one point from their first six matches and look worryingly poor in front of goal.
The Hatters have managed a competition-low nine shots on target, while two of their three goals this season have been penalties.
By contrast Everton have been creating plenty of opportunities, with their average of 14.2 shots per match more than they have achieved in any season since 2013/14. Now that Dominic Calvert-Lewin is off the mark, and after scoring five goals over the past week, Dyche’s side should be in a position to start putting more of those chances away.
Fulham’s stubborn midfield might stunt Chelsea
Chelsea collectively breathed a sigh of relief when Nicolas Jackson netted their EFL Cup winner over Brighton in midweek, but their goalscoring problems cannot be said to be behind them until they do it in the Premier League.
Mauricio Pochettino’s side have failed to score in each of their last three matches despite accruing an xG of 5.5 in that time. Chelsea last went four in a row without scoring in September 2007. A trip to rivals Fulham isn’t the easiest of contests in which to avoid equalling that unwanted record.
Nobody has kept more clean sheets this season than Fulham, and although they have the third-highest xG against in the Premier League this season, with 13.1, that is accounted for by Joao Palhinha’s absence. In the three matches he has started Fulham have conceded only one open-play goal, in the 2-2 draw with Arsenal.
The other goal in that match was a penalty conceded by a clumsy Kenny Tete slide tackle, and Tete has since been replaced in the starting XI by Timothy Castagne. In other words, Marco Silva has got his team back to their stubborn best, led by Palhinha’s tackling and backed up by a powerful back four.
It won’t be easy for Chelsea, especially without Wednesday's hero, as Jackson is banned. Chelsea still lead the charts for underperforming against their xG (by 6.5 goals) and their 211 touches in the opposition penalty area is the second-most this season so far. The problem is missing their chances – and Jackson has been the main offender, scoring once from 19 shots and a 3.8 xG.
Fulham won’t give much away, not under the floodlights in a local derby, and in fact Chelsea are more likely to be overawed.
They are winless in their last 18 Premier League matches against sides starting the day above them in the table, drawing five and losing 13 in a run that stretches back to May 2021.