Key questions for the weekend's matches

By Alex Keble 13 Dec 2023

Alex Keble looks at the main talking points for the fixtures ahead on Saturday and Sunday

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Alex Keble looks at the main talking points for Saturday and Sunday's Premier League matches.

Can Solanke propel Cherries into top half?

AFC Bournemouth are the Premier League’s form team, winning 16 points from their last seven matches, having been winless in 13 contests before that. It’s been a startling turnaround for Andoni Iraola and, riding a high, they will anticipate sweeping past Luton Town on home ground.


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It’s also the perfect opportunity for Dominic Solanke to do something he has never done before: score in consecutive Premier League matches.

Solanke has scored four goals in his last five league encounters for Bournemouth to trigger talk of an England call-up. He needs to capitalise on the media attention if he is to make Gareth Southgate’s next squad in March.

Of course, it says a lot about Solanke’s roundabout journey to this point that he has never managed to score in successive top-flight matches.

He might not get a better chance than Saturday’s match against Luton: one of two sides yet to keep a clean sheet this season and the team with the division’s highest Expected Goals Against (xGA), with 33.2.

Will Chelsea be stumped by another low block?

There are many problems engulfing a crisis-ridden Chelsea side that have lost three of their last four matches in the Premier League, but arguably the biggest is their inability to play against a low block: deep defensive shells are repeatedly stumping Mauricio Pochettino’s side.

Chelsea have held 65 per cent or more possession in six Premier League matches this season. They have lost four and won only once, at home to Luton in August.

Those losses include a 1-0 home defeat to Nott'm Forest in September, when the visitors saw just 24 per cent of the ball, and Chelsea’s most recent match: a 2-0 reverse at Everton, who held just 28 per cent possession.

This issue might be caused by Pochettino’s tactical focus on hard pressing, fast transitions and playing vertically through the lines, none of which can be done versus a defensive team that sits deep and refuses to engage in that kind of contest.

Then again, Chelsea's Expected Goals (xG) tend to be quite high in these matches (2.3 versus Forest, for example), missing chances perhaps through sheer frustration with the pattern of the game.

Only Brentford, Everton and Manchester United have underperformed against their xG to a greater extent than Chelsea this season (-5.3), and they have two of the division’s five most wasteful players for xG: Enzo Fernandez is joint first, with -2.8 and Nicolas Jackson is joint third, with -2.7.

Sheffield United are exactly the kind of team Chelsea don’t want to face. Chris Wilder has immediately made them more compact and defence-focused, with the Blades conceding their fewest shots with 10 and recording their lowest xGA, 0.6, of the season in a 1-0 victory over Brentford last weekend.

The visitors will compress space between the lines, diligently shuffle across and hope to feed off the growing anxiety inside Stamford Bridge.

Can Palace cause trouble at the Etihad yet again?

Manchester City’s four-match winless run has ended, but having been 1-0 down to Luton on the hour-mark, it is too early to say if the wobble is over. We will know for sure at the final whistle on Saturday.

That’s because Crystal Palace are Man City’s bogey team: a cursed opponent for Pep Guardiola and a team often capable of sitting deep, frustrating the champions and counter-attacking to an unlikely victory.

Since Guardiola took charge in 2016, only Man Utd have won more league matches at Man City, with three, than the two of Palace.

In 2021/22 Palace drew 0-0 at Selhurst Park and won 2-0 at the Etihad, and although Man City did the double over them last season, the matches were close: Palace fell 1-0 to a late penalty at home and were 2-0 up in the away match, only to capitulate in a 4-2 defeat.

If that wasn’t enough to make City fans a little twitchy, 11 of Palace's 16 points, or 68.8 per cent, this season have been won away from home, the highest ratio in the division.

Roy Hodgson’s defensive shell and classic counter-attacking tactics worked a treat last weekend, with Palace leading Liverpool 1-0 up until Jordan Ayew’s red card and a turnaround inspired by substitute Harvey Elliott.

Unlike Liverpool, Man City do not have a deep bench and are struggling to change the tide when things go against them. If Palace start strong, if Hodgson’s defence slow things down, Man City’s title hopes could take a hit.

But if City ease through the match then we can say with confidence they are back in their groove and back in control, at the Etihad at least.

The title race

Position Pos Club Played Pl GD Points Pts
1 Man City MCI 38 +62 91
2 Arsenal ARS 38 +62 89
3 Liverpool LIV 38 +45 82
4 Aston Villa AVL 38 +15 68
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Will Fulham take advantage of Newcastle’s tiredness?

There is no denying that Eddie Howe’s side look tired.

The heavy legs were clear to see in their 4-1 and 3-0 losses to Spurs and Everton last week, and although they fought valiantly in the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday, the 2-1 defeat to AC Milan will have been physically and emotionally draining.

By contrast Fulham are walking on air having won 5-0 in consecutive Premier League matches, and although they haven't won on the road since the opening weekend of the season, Newcastle’s recent decline still gives Marco Silva’s side the edge.

To make matters worse for the Magpies, Kieran Trippier, who sits joint-first in the Premier League for assists, with seven, is suspended. It will take something special for Howe to lift Newcastle to a much-needed win on Saturday.

Will Dyche show Burnley what they’re missing?

For the first time since departing in 2022, Sean Dyche makes his return to the ground where he spent 10 years building Burnley in his image.

He will hardly recognise the place. Vincent Kompany has completely changed the ethos at Burnley in his short time since replacing Dyche, making this weekend’s match against Everton a distinct clash of styles.

Kompany’s aesthetic football drew plaudits in the Championship, but in the harsher light of the Premier League we are seeing the benefits of the "Dychian" way.

Everton have won their last three league matches by an aggregate score of 6-0 and have earned away victories in four of their last five road trips, winning more than three times as many matches as Burnley so far despite only scoring four more goals.

The secret, as ever with Dyche, is defensive resolve. Only Arsenal, Liverpool and Man City have conceded fewer goals than Everton's 20. Only Arsenal and Newcastle have kept more clean sheets than their five.

Burnley, meanwhile, have scored only 10 goals at Turf Moor and look very leaky at the back, conceding the second-most goals in the division, with 34.

By full-time on Saturday, Burnley supporters may be feeling a tad nostalgic.

The relegation battle

Position Pos Club Played Pl GD Points Pts
15 Everton EVE 38 -11 40
16 Brentford BRE 38 -9 39
17 Nott'm Forest NFO 38 -18 32
18 Luton LUT 38 -33 26
19 Burnley BUR 38 -37 24
20 Sheffield Utd SHU 38 -69 16
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Can Brighton continue their Emirates streak?

When it comes to Brighton & Hove Albion, there are always goals (they have scored and conceded in each of their last 32 Premier League matches), and given Arsenal’s attacking dynamism, we can look forward to an entertaining end-to-end contest – and perhaps a surprise win for Brighton.

Arsenal have lost their last three at home against Brighton in all competitions, and indeed Brighton have won four of their seven encounters at Emirates Stadium.

It’s a hot streak that Roberto De Zerbi could really do with continuing as Brighton look to build back from a difficult autumn. Victory would make it ten points from their last five matches - and likely a return to the European spots.

How will Emery adapt to Brentford challenge?

Aston Villa’s run of 15 consecutive victories at Villa Park has covered for weaker performances on the road.

Perhaps what’s needed is a change of strategy, and there is no better place to start than a trip to Brentford, whose bullish, long-ball and defensive approach will require a rethink.

Villa are a narrow team of late, using John McGinn as an extra midfielder off the wing and deploying Ezri Konsa as the right-back in order to maximise passing options through the centre of the pitch.

But this is where Brentford are strongest, and should the hosts concede the majority of possession and territory, their narrow shape will block Villa’s preferred route to goal. It’s exactly what Nott'm Forest did to beat Villa 2-0 last month despite holding only 27 per cent possession.

One option available to Unai Emery is to start Matty Cash, who has been benched recently, and use him and Alex Moreno, who could start in place of the suspended Lucas Digne, as traditional full-backs. This would put some width back into the team and encourage Villa to go around the outside of the Brentford defence.

Whatever the plan, it needs to be different to what has come before. Brentford are a fresh challenge – and Villa’s away performances need to improve if they are to maintain an unlikely title challenge.

Will West Ham lose more ground on European rivals?

West Ham United are enjoying their time in the UEFA Europa League, qualifying comfortably for the knockout stages and building upon last season’s UEFA Europa Conference League triumph. If they want the adventure to continue next season, they need a strong Christmas run.

A 5-0 defeat at Fulham last time out has surely dented their confidence, and while they remain only three points off sixth, West Ham are also just five points ahead of Bournemouth in 14th.

That congested middle ground will be sorted into something lasting and coherent during the flurry of fixtures over Christmas. For that reason alone, David Moyes cannot allow the big defeat at Fulham to knock his team off course.

Can Gakpo help Liverpool overwhelm United midfield?

Liverpool’s 7-0 victory in this fixture last season was defined by the hosts swarming and overwhelming United through central midfield, a feat achieved via the deployment of Cody Gakpo as a "false nine".

Gakpo gave Liverpool an extra body in midfield to link things together so that Darwin Nunez and Mohamed Salah, effectively operating as split strikers in a diamond 4-4-2, could be released into the final third.

There is a good chance Jurgen Klopp will repeat the trick considering how disconnected and confused Man Utd’s midfield three of Sofyan Amrabat, Scott McTominay and Bruno Fernandes have looked of late. Fernandes’s suspension only adds to their concerns.

With Trent Alexander-Arnold also dipping infield, and with Wataru Endo settling nicely at the base, Liverpool’s numerical and tactical advantage in central areas might lead to a similar scoreline to last season’s drubbing.

It gets worse for United fans. Liverpool are unbeaten in seven league home matches matches United, winning four and drawing three, they have won the last two by an aggregate score of 11-0 and have secured victories in all seven of their league encounters at Anfield so far in 2023/24.

Meanwhile United have not won any of their previous 13 Premier League away matches against teams in the top eight, drawing three and losing 10.

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