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Premier League midweek preview: What to look out for

By Alex Keble 4 Dec 2023
Ten Hag, Hojlund

Alex Keble on how Chelsea can add to Man Utd's home woes and Man City's huge match at Villa

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Alex Keble analyses where the midweek matches could be won and lost, including:
- How Chelsea's full-backs can hurt Man Utd
- Why Emery could finally beat Guardiola
- Spurs must end winless run against West Ham
- Brentford can move above Brighton

Chelsea can expose Man Utd's weak spots

Mauricio Pochettino was pleased with the fight his Chelsea side showed against Brighton & Hove Albion on Sunday after a tepid performance against Newcastle United the previous weekend.

Indeed, before Conor Gallagher’s red card changed the shape of the contest, Chelsea had won six out of their seven aerial duels, or 86 per cent, committed twice as many fouls and made almost double the interceptions of Roberto De Zerbi’s Brighton.

Chelsea v Brighton defensive stats
Stat Chelsea Brighton
Fouls 10 5
Interceptions 7 4

That’s the kind of energy and tenacity Pochettino demands – and the kind that tends to beat a hesitant Manchester United team who were torn apart by Newcastle’s aggression on Saturday, despite the close 1-0 scoreline.

Chelsea are top of the Premier League chart for through-balls, with 45, while their 305 attempted take-ons rank fourth, exemplifying the Blues' directness and forward-thinking intent.

They are also No 1 for aerial duels won, with an average of 58.3 per cent, and their 51 bookings this season is another competition-high, reflecting their forcefulness.

Put those two things together and Man Utd fans have something to worry about.

Newcastle’s victory came as a direct result of having midfield runners bursting beyond their opposite numbers, and full-backs willing to overlap while Man Utd wingers Marcus Rashford and Alejandro Garnacho failed to track back. It led directly to the winning goal.

It formed part of a wider pattern of the season for Man Utd, who have had their passes intercepted 170 times, more than anyone else in the division.

Similarly, 753 loose balls have been recovered against them, the fifth-most in the Premier League behind Everton, Sheffield United, Fulham and Luton Town.

It’s easy to imagine Chelsea following Newcastle’s lead, especially now that Reece James is back from suspension and ready to help Raheem Sterling burst beyond Garnacho.

Man Utd have lost three of their last five Premier League home matches. They are also yet to beat a side that finished in the top eight last season, suggesting issues when facing stronger opposition such as Chelsea.

If Pochettino gets a performance as fierce as Sunday’s, Chelsea can move to within two points of Man Utd.

Premier League

Position Pos Club Played Pl GD Points Pts
7 Brighton BHA 26 +8 39
8 Wolves WOL 26 0 38
9 Newcastle NEW 26 +9 37
10 West Ham WHU 25 -8 36
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Villa can capitalise on Rodri's absence

Manchester City have walked into a difficult patch of form without anybody seeming to notice. They have drawn each of their last three Premier League matches,  conceding 10 goals in their last four matches in all competitions, and have won only 12 points from their last eight league fixtures.

This is hardly an ideal time to travel to Villa Park, where Aston Villa have won 13 Premier League matches in a row, their longest run since October 1931. But like Man City, there are signs of Villa slowing down a little as the fixture schedule begins to take its toll.

Villa’s 2-2 draw at AFC Bournemouth on Sunday was a little fortunate and, although their form is considerably better at Villa Park, another midweek fixture is going to be tough on the legs, especially for players such as Ollie Watkins, John McGinn and Douglas Luiz, who have started every league match this season.

But there are still plenty of reasons to believe Villa can get something from this one – and even, with a win, leapfrog Man City in the table.

The title race

Position Pos Club Played Pl GD Points Pts
1 Liverpool LIV 26 +38 60
2 Man City MCI 26 +33 59
3 Arsenal ARS 26 +39 58
4 Aston Villa AVL 26 +21 52
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Rodri’s suspension is a major boost for Villa. Since his debut in 2019/20 he has missed 16 Premier League matches and Man City have lost six of them, or 37.5 per cent, including the last two, a 1-0 defeat at Arsenal and 2-1 loss at Wolves earlier this season.

Without Rodri, Man City have no orchestrator at the base of midfield and appear more vulnerable to counter-attacks, which just happens to be Villa’s specialty - they rank second in the Premier League for "direct attacks", with 37.

Unai Emery will sit Villa a little deeper, inviting some pressure before hitting the visitors in high numbers through their softer centre, deploying his typically narrow wingers in the half-spaces in order to crowd the Rodri-less danger zone.

In fact, only Man City attack through the middle column of the pitch more often than Villa, with 32 per cent and 31 per cent respectively. McGinn and Leon Bailey will look to drift inside whenever they can, hoping to capitalise on any sluggishness from Man City, as Tottenham Hotspur did in their 3-3 draw on Sunday.

Dejan Kulusevski, and then Giovani Lo Celso after half-time, saw plenty of the ball in central attacking midfield, partly because Spurs were brave enough to weave out of the high Man City press - as Villa will be - and partly because Pep Guardiola’s team are weaker in midfield this season.

Emery has never beaten Guardiola in 13 previous meetings, encompassing spells at Arsenal, Valencia and Villa. He might not get a better chance than this.

West Ham well-suited to facing Spurs

The 3-3 draw at Man City was vindication of Ange Postecoglou’s methodology and a clear sign that his Tottenham Hotspur team need not change for anyone, injury crisis or no injury crisis.

But despite all the positives at the Etihad Stadium, Spurs are still winless in four Premier League matches, and another defeat on Thursday evening could leave them only two points ahead of Brighton & Hove Albion in eighth.

West Ham are not the type of opponents Spurs will want to face right now. David Moyes’s deep line of engagement and focus on counter-attacks is the tactical approach Postecoglou’s football is most vulnerable against.

Spurs have held at least 65 per cent possession in four league matches this season, and have struggled in each one. It took two goals in stoppage time to claim a 2-1 win over Sheffield United. Crystal Palace were beaten 2-1 but Spurs recorded an Expected Goals (xG) tally of just 1.1. Luton were narrowly defeated 1-0, and Brentford got a 2-2 draw.

Spurs' late goals to beat Sheff Utd

West Ham will be a similar opponent to these four. The Hammers rank second in the Premier League for progressive carries played against them, with 343, and third for progressive passes played against them, with 689, indicating how deep they sit.

Spurs don’t like facing a low block. What’s more, they can be vulnerable to counters of the sort fired into the channels for Jarrod Bowen, the area which Spurs' full-backs vacate in order to join the central midfielders.

Spurs have faced 73 switches of play, more than any other team, while West Ham have played 66 switches, more than anyone else.

When the ball is turned over, West Ham could quickly play diagonals out to their wingers in search of space behind Spurs' marauding full-backs. It may be the defining tactical battle of an awkward match for the hosts.

Can Brentford go above Brighton?

Seven rounds into the 2023/24 Premier League season Brentford had only seven points and Brighton, with five wins, were on 15 points. The Bees were lying just three points outside the relegation zone, while  the Seagulls were only three points off the top.

Seven rounds later there are only three points separating the sides, and a win for Brentford at the Amex Stadium on Wednesday would lift Thomas Frank's side above Brighton.

Premier League table

Position Pos Club Played Pl GD Points Pts
8 Wolves WOL 26 0 38
9 Newcastle NEW 26 +9 37
10 West Ham WHU 25 -8 36
11 Chelsea CHE 25 +1 35
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It is difficult to explain why the Bees have suddenly improved, other than to say Brentford's early-season performances were not as bad as their results suggest. Brighton’s downturn, on the other hand, is easy to understand.

European football has inevitably taken its toll and Brighton simply don’t look as secure domestically this season. More importantly, their tactical system under Roberto De Zerbi is no longer flummoxing teams.

Sit deep, refuse to press and counter quickly - that is how Everton, Fulham and Sheff Utd have secured draws against Brighton in recent matches and, naturally, how Brentford will go about their business in midweek.

They have the firepower to pull it off, too. Bryan Mbeumo has been involved in 14 goals in his last 17 Premier League matches, with nine goals and five assists.

Meanwhile, former Brighton striker Neal Maupay has two goals and two assists in his last six appearances for Brentford, emphatically ending a sequence of 30 Premier League matches without a goal involvement before that.

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