Feature

Five key questions for the weekend's matches

By Alex Keble 12 Jan 2024
Five questions Keble

Alex Keble looks at the main talking points for each of the upcoming fixtures

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Alex Keble analyses where the first five fixtures in Matchweek 21 could be won and lost.

Will De Bruyne’s return expose a Newcastle weakness?

Kevin De Bruyne is back and everyone is terrified, not least the Newcastle United supporters who, watching De Bruyne’s assist in the FA Cup last weekend, will have realised Manchester City’s captain won’t need time to get back up to speed.

The good news is he might not start. The bad news is he will probably come off the bench just when Newcastle are beginning to tire - and ready to exploit the biggest flaw in Eddie Howe’s defence.

The Magpies have looked jaded for a while now and yet their form at St James' Park has remained stable, particularly when facing "Big Six" teams who allow Newcastle to sit deep, compress space between the lines and hold opponents at arms’ length.

They have beaten Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United at home in the Premier League, conceding only one goal, also beating Man City 1-0 in the EFL Cup back in September.

That suggests Howe’s side can keep things tight, frustrating City and slowing them down right up until De Bruyne is ready to take the field. At which point, things may fall apart.

In the 4-2 defeat at Liverpool a fortnight ago, all three of Liverpool’s open-play goals were built down Newcastle’s left wing. Mohamed Salah caused Dan Burn serious problems, but more importantly Curtis Jones came across to help Salah against the overworked Newcastle left-back.

Liverpool had overloads constantly, including for the penalty (that Salah missed at 0-0), before Trent Alexander-Arnold hit the crossbar and eventually for the opening goal.

De Bruyne tends to move from his No 8 position out to the right to support the Man City winger, which is not only what he did to overlap and cross for their fifth goal against Huddersfield, but also what he did repeatedly in the 3-3 draw between Newcastle and Man City last season.

KDB touch map

He is the master at finding space on the right, either coming short for a cross or bursting ahead of the play. Unless Burn receives considerably more support on that flank than he got at Anfield, De Bruyne will make a memorable Premier League return.

Can Pochettino exploit Fulham’s right-sided issues?

The derby comes along at a perfect time for Chelsea and the worst possible moment for Fulham.

The hosts have won their last two Premier League matches in a row and are looking to make it three consecutive victories for the first time since October 2022. The visitors have lost each of their last four away contests, conceding three or more goals in each one.

Chelsea also have the tactical advantage, although it isn’t guaranteed that Mauricio Pochettino will use it.

Fulham are developing an issue at right-back. In their most recent away match, a 3-0 defeat to AFC Bournemouth, numerous chances were created down Fulham’s right, including the first goal.

In what has become a growing theme, right-back Kenny Tete was dragged too far infield, leaving Justin Kluivert free to score the opener.

Kluivert's goal v Fulham

This was not an isolated incident, and despite Fulham’s impressive comeback against Arsenal a fortnight ago, they came under early pressure due to a weakness on that side. The loss of Calvin Bassey to the Africa Cup of Nations threatens to exacerbate the problem.

Chelsea don’t tend to focus their play down this side arguably because with Ben Chilwell injured, Pochettino lacks an attacking left-back. Of Chelsea’s attacks, 41 per cent are down the right compared to 30 per cent down the left, which is the biggest percentage gap in the Premier League.

Pochettino may use Raheem Sterling on the left in order to put Fulham’s right-back under pressure, but more likely he will again pick Sterling to play in tandem with Cole Palmer on the right.

Counterintuitively, attacking down the right wing is precisely how Bournemouth pulled Tete infield. By overloading one side of the pitch, Chelsea will then be able to switch the ball quickly to whichever of Noni Madueke or Mykhailo Mudryk starts on the left.

Fulham must be particularly careful not to get distracted by Palmer.

Will six-pointer prove season-defining?

Six-pointers rarely feel as big as this, not in January.

Luton Town and Burnley, separated by four points, are 18th and 19th respectively in the Premier League table and, looking up, it seems unlikely that both clubs will preserve their top-flight status.

Brentford welcome Ivan Toney back this month. Everton have won at least twice as many matches as anyone in the bottom three. Nottingham Forest have won back-to-back matches since changing manager.

Neither Burnley nor Luton have similar reasons for optimism, although Vincent Kompany’s team are in a worse position as it stands. They are the first top-flight team in history to have lost nine of their first 10 home league matches.

More concerning still, two of Burnley’s three wins have been against fellow promoted sides and they are four points short of Luton despite beating them back in October. To think, had Jacob Bruun Larsen not scored an 86th-minute winner, Luton would be a massive eight points clear of Burnley.

That shows just how enormous – and potentially season-defining – these six-pointers are at the bottom end of the Premier League.

Luton’s recent back-to-back league wins proved they can compete at this level, but if Rob Edwards’ side are to stay up at the expense of an established Premier League club, you would think they will have to win their mini-league with Burnley and Sheffield United.

That means beating Burnley at least once this season. That means winning on Friday evening. There is no margin for error.

Will Gueye’s absence see reverse fixture repeated?

Abdoulaye Doucoure is back from injury but Idrissa Gueye has left for the African Cup of Nations, giving Sean Dyche another midfield selection problem this weekend.

It’s a bad time for it, too. Aston Villa are particularly strong through central midfield thanks to the way Unai Emery sneaks players into the this area to form a four-man box, which he did to great success in Villa’s 4-0 victory over Everton back in August.

Dyche’s 4-4-1-1 formation was overwhelmed by the presence of John McGinn, who dipped infield off the left, and Moussa Diaby, who dropped off the front.

These two were consistently found with passes through the lines, pushing Everton back and directly leading to the opener, as shown in the image below.

Aston Villa v Everton

But that’s far from the only reason to doubt Everton’s chances this weekend.

Since beating Arsenal 1-0 last February in Dyche’s first match in charge, Everton have failed to win any of their nine Premier League fixtures against teams who started the day in the top six, losing each of the last seven.

Everton have also conceded six goals from corners this season, the second most in the division, while set-pieces have been a specialty for Villa since before Emery’s tenure began.

As if that wasn’t enough, Villa have pace in Ollie Watkins that could get behind a slow Everton defence. That’s what Wolverhampton Wanderers did repeatedly in a recent 3-0 victory, and although Dyche won’t make the same mistake of using a 3-4-3 formation, coping with balls in behind remains a problem for the Toffees.

Everton have lost their last three in a row and face an uphill battle on Sunday.

Which of Garnacho and Werner will excel in end-to-end match?

Tottenham Hotspur’s 2-0 victory over Man Utd on Ange Postecoglou’s home debut was a wild and frantic contest that the visitors could easily have won. Erik Ten Hag’s side had 22 shots, which is their second-highest total of the season to date.

This match ought to be very similar.

Spurs’ propensity to pour forward in high numbers leaves them open to quick breaks the other way, making for end-to- end matches.

That’s particularly true when facing strong counter-attackers such as Man Utd - Spurs rank second in the league for direct attacks (50) and Man Utd are fourth (45).

In fact, it’s likely to be even more chaotic than the reverse fixture, first because Alejandro Garnacho’s excellent form boosts United’s counter-attacking power, and second because Spurs welcome Timo Werner into the mix.

Werner is a great fit for Postecoglou. His speed and intelligent runs fit the system, and more importantly, his finishing should improve in a team that plays with plenty of space in front of them.

Nevertheless, Garnacho is in a stronger position out of the two this weekend. He played on the right wing in United's 2-0 victory over Wigan in the FA Cup third round and if Ten Hag picks the same team, Garnacho will be up against Destiny Udogie – which means he’ll often be up against nobody.

Udogie runs into the final third like a No 8, taking up central locations that leave Spurs without a left-back if the opposition is able to break back the other way. With Garnacho lurking on that side, there is every chance Man Utd will find joy.

Udogie touches v Man Utd

Then again, Spurs are the form team. They haven’t done the league double over Man Utd since 1989/90 but they might not get a better chance than this. Spurs have won four of their last five Premier League matches, while United have won one of their last five.

One more defeat and United will have lost 10 league matches this season, more than they did in the whole of 2022/23.

Ominously for Ten Hag, of the four campaigns in which they have previously lost 10+ matches, only once, in 2015/16, did they not change their manager during the season. He needs another Garnacho masterclass.

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