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Premier League weekend preview: What to look out for

By Alex Keble 2 Dec 2023
Kompany, Burnley

Alex Keble on a crucial match for Kompany and the Chelsea weakness that Brighton will look to exploit

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Alex Keble analyses where the weekend's matches could be won and lost, including:
- Now or never for Kompany
- Emery holds the edge over Iraola
- Why City should be wary of Kulusevski
- Man Utd must match Newcastle's energy
- Brighton to target Chelsea's full-backs

Kompany fast-approaching crisis point

The scale of Burnley’s poor start is beginning to set in. Six defeats on the bounce will do that.

With four points from 13 matches, Vincent Kompany’s side have made their worst-ever start to a Premier League season, including the two years (2014/15 & 2021/22) in which they were relegated, when on both occasions they took 10 points from the first 13.

At Turf Moor, the situation is even more concerning. They have lost all seven of their Premier League home matches this season and this weekend could see them become the first team in English football history to lose their first eight such contests.

Burnley will not get a better chance to end that losing streak, nor get a better chance to reset their season, than Saturday’s fixture. It is surely now or never.

Sheffield United and Burnley are no longer the Premier League’s bottom two clubs following Everton’s points deduction, but they rank 19th and 20th in pretty much every other important metric, including goals scored and goals conceded.

Neither side has kept a clean sheet this season. Sheff Utd have been ahead for just 44 minutes in total, a league low, while Burney have trailed for 563 minutes, a league high.

It goes without saying this is a crucial six-pointer for both, but with Burnley at home, they are under significantly more pressure, especially given the Blades have taken four points from their last three matches, compared with Burnley’s zero.

To get that crucial win, the hosts need to discover a goalscoring touch. Lyle Foster, who has five goal involvements in the Premier League this season, is receiving help for mental health issues and in his absence, Burnley are struggling to convert chances.

Indeed, 19-year-old Luca Koleosho has had more touches in the opposition box than any other player without scoring, with 48, while only Enzo Fernandez (22) has had more shots without scoring than Koleosho, with 19.

Meanwhile Zeki Amdouni, Burnley’s club-record signing, has netted just once despite taking more shots (21) than any other Burnley player.

No wonder they have the Premier League’s lowest post-shot Expected Goals (xG), a measure of shot quality based on how likely it is the goalkeeper will save the effort, with a score of 10.1.

Paul Heckingbottom’s side concede the most shots (245) and the most goals (34). This is Burnley’s chance to improve their goalscoring record. It might be the last chance to turn their season around.

Emery & Iraola’s history gives Villa the edge

Aston Villa could do something really special this season. Only Manchester City (26) have won more matches than Villa's 22 this calendar year, and only Man City, with 33, have scored more goals than Villa's 31 in 2023/24.

Villa face Man City and Arsenal, both at Villa Park, in their next two matches following this weekend’s trip to AFC Bournemouth.

A win at Vitality Stadium, then, sets Villa up for an ambitious challenge to go top of the league in mid-December.

Villa should win a tactical battle that is clearly in their favour. Andoni Iraola’s high-pressing football is exactly what Unai Emery likes to face; Villa are superb at passing around the press and charging forward as if on the counter-attack.

Indeed, there is history to back this up. Emery has won both of his previous meetings with Iraola, his Villarreal beating Rayo Vallecano 2-0 and 5-1 in the 2021/22 LaLiga season.

The 5-1 result in particular should worry Bournemouth supporters. Emery’s Villarreal held less possession (44 per cent) but consistently raced behind the onrushing Vallecano players, scoring twice from fast breaks. They also scored three set-piece goals.

Bournemouth have conceded nine goals from set-pieces in the Premier League this season, more than any other side. Villa are always dangerous from these and in the 2-1 win at Tottenham Hotspur, they equalised via a set-play, scored by Pau Torres – who also netted from a set-piece in that 5-1 Villarreal win back in 2021/22.

The last time Villa were in the top three this late into the season was 1998/99, when they sat top of the table on Christmas Day. Win at Bournemouth and it might be time to start wondering just how far this team can go.

Kulusevski the main threat to Man City

Spurs have lost their last three Premier League matches and with the injuries piling up, Rodrigo Bentancur re-joining the list, the last thing they needed was a visit to the Etihad Stadium.

The decline in Spurs’ potency and their increased defensive vulnerability quite clearly makes Man City favourites. Highlighting that Erling Haaland faces a pair of full-backs deputising as central defenders might be as deep as our analysis needs to go.

But Man City, with only three wins in their last seven Premier League matches, aren’t exactly in good form - and Spurs have historically been Pep Guardiola’s bogey team.

Spurs have won five of their last seven league games against City and since Guardiola arrived in England in 2016, Man City have lost to Spurs more times (six) than against any other opponent in the Premier League.

The main reason for that record, however, is Spurs' tendency to use conservative and defence-first coaches. Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho both knew how to sit back, absorb pressure and hit Guardiola on the counter-attack.

Ange Postecoglou has no interest in doing that, which again points to a Man City victory.

If the visitors are to cause an upset, they will need Dejan Kulusevski to come to the fore. The Sweden international, who scored at City in each of the last two seasons, enjoyed playing the James Maddison role against Villa last weekend.

“I felt so good today, I felt like the real Dejan,” he said after a match in which he produced a season-best nine shot-creating actions.

And Kulusevski happens to be operating in arguably Man City’s weakest area. Rodri may struggle to receive adequate defensive support from Bernardo Silva in the zone Postecoglou tends to pack with bodies via the deployment of under-lapping full-backs.

It offers a slither of hope for Spurs in what could be an erratic, out-of-control match like so many of Spurs' under Postecoglou – and just like Man City’s 4-4 draw with Chelsea.

Man Utd must match Newcastle’s energy

Newcastle United’s 3-0 victory at Old Trafford in the EFL Cup at the beginning of November fits a pattern.

Manchester United are winless in their last three Premier League games against Newcastle, who won this exact fixture 2-0 back in April with their joint-highest xG of the season (3.7), blowing Erik ten Hag’s side away with their energy and counter-attacking composure.

A repeat of that contest seems probable, especially after yet another wild and open Man Utd match in midweek; their 3-3 draw with Galatasaray could easily have seen twice as many goals.

Ten Hag’s side remain very difficult to read. They have the best last-five form in the Premier League (W4 L1) and yet Man Utd still aren’t playing in a discernible tactical style and their opponents continue to find it easy to play through them.

Few take their chances quite like Galatasaray did, but that doesn’t mean Man Utd aren’t vulnerable to counter-attacks: only Sheff Utd, West Ham United and Nottingham Forest have allowed more progressive carries against them this season than United's 276.

It’s a telling stat and one Newcastle fans should be excited by, because even with all their injuries, they have plenty of explosive players capable of dribbling directly at the defence, chief among them Anthony Gordon, who has been involved in six goals in his last eight Premier League matches, with four goals and two assists.

St James' Park is an intimidating place to go, often inspiring home players to clatter into challenges and blow their opponent away – as Chelsea, 4-1 losers last weekend, can confirm.

Mauricio Pochettino, berating his team for being “soft in every single challenge,” said he was “very, very, very, very, very angry” after the game.

That’s what Newcastle can do to you. Ten Hag might be feeling the same way at full-time on Saturday.

Frantic Chelsea could suffer down the flanks

It’s been a tough few weeks for Chelsea. Just as things were stabilising under Pochettino, a 2-0 home defeat to Brentford has triggered a flurry of strange results, culminating in conceding four goals in consecutive Premier League matches.

Chelsea have lost five of their 13 league games this season and shipped 20 goals, their worst-ever in the competition bar their infamous collapse in 2015/16.

In that campaign, as reigning champions, they won 15 points from their first 14 matches. Lose to Brighton & Have Albion on Sunday and Pochettino will have won just one more point (16) from his first 14 contests.

Defeat is certainly on the cards. Chelsea are winless in five league matches against the Seagulls, although they did come out on top when the two sides met in the EFL Cup in September, winning 1-0. 

But of even greater significance is a potential tactical mismatch. Chelsea are without the suspended Reece James and Marc Cucurella, while Ben Chilwell and Malo Gusto out, leaving Levi Colwill and possibly Axel Disasi as the likely starters in the full-back positions.

Defending the flanks has been an issue for Chelsea all season, thanks in part to Pochettino’s tendency to sit his wingers high up the pitch. A lack of support for the full-backs has led to dominant performances in recent weeks from Anthony Gordon, who scored a goal and provided an assist and Phil Foden, who completed five take-ons, in particular.

Brighton’s Simon Adingra and Kaoru Mitoma will fancy their chances 1v1 with Chelsea’s second-choice full-backs – and we can anticipate both players getting plenty of those.

Roberto De Zerbi’s side rank joint-third in the division for shot-ending high turnovers, with 23, while Chelsea top the charts for number of miscontrols (211). There will be more end-to-end football at Stamford Bridge and, perhaps, more disappointment for Pochettino.

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