Ten BIG questions for the weekend's matches

By Alex Keble 10 Feb 2024
Keble Matchweek 24 graphic

Alex Keble looks at the main talking points for each of the Matchweek 24 fixtures

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Alex Keble analyses where the weekend fixtures could be won and lost.

- Hojlund and Watkins relishing high lines
- Lamptey's new role unhinging Spurs
- Martinelli and Saka are key against West Ham
- Elanga will give Burn problems
- Toney's influence can spark Brentford
- Can Dyche's 4-4-2 stop Man City?
- Bournemouth or Fulham to push for Europe?
- Luton's form can move them clear of relegation
- Chelsea can flourish in absence of Eze and Olise
- Kompany's "Big Six" test

Which of Hojlund or Watkins will break in behind?

Unai Emery’s debut as Aston Villa head coach was a 3-1 victory in this fixture in November 2022, and yet the first thing that comes to mind for Villa fans is letting a 2-0 lead slip at Old Trafford on Boxing Day.

That result seemed to trigger a downturn from which Villa (losing their second home match in a row in a midweek FA Cup defeat to Chelsea) haven’t recovered, and trigger a dramatic turnaround for Manchester United.

It was the match in which Erik ten Hag found the right combination up front. Marcus Rashford from the left, Alejandro Garnacho from the right, and Rasmus Hojlund down the middle have scored 10 goals in their last four Premier League contests together.

Consequently Ten Hag’s tactical vision of fast and direct transition football is finally coming together.

United should again find success against Villa’s ultra-high line, which isn’t functioning especially well with Clement Lenglet and Diego Carlos in the heart of their defence.

However, Man Utd remain very open to being counter-attacked themselves, and the hosts should be able to repeat the tactical moves of their 5-0 win over Sheffield United, when Ollie Watkins was repeatedly put in behind with long forward passes from Douglas Luiz.

Villa and Man Utd are vulnerable in defence and strong in attack in exactly the same ways. It ought to be a game of direct, high-tempo attacks in both directions.

Will new Lamptey role expose Postecoglou’s tactics?

Brighton & Hove Albion’s 4-1 victory over Crystal Palace last weekend was the direct result of Roberto De Zerbi’s tactical decision to swap James Milner and Pervis Estupinan for Jack Hinshelwood and Tariq Lamptey in the wing-back positions.

Their 3-4-3 formation was the same on paper, but in reality Lamptey and Hinshelwood sat significantly wider than Milner and Estupinan, pulling the pitch horizontally to create space on the outside of Palace's defensive blockade.

Lamptey, in an unfamiliar left wing-back role, was the catalyst, driving to the byline to earn a corner from which Brighton took the lead, before crossing for the other wing-back, Hinshelwood, to make it 2-0.

De Zerbi is likely to keep this pair in the team for the trip to Tottenham Hotspur, where Ange Postecoglou instructs his full-backs to drift all the way into central midfield, opening up big pockets of counter-attack space down the flanks.

If Spurs leave room on the outside of the centre-backs, Lamptey and Hinshelwood should be able to break into it.

Can Martinelli and Saka help Arsenal overcome West Ham hoodoo?

Arsenal have failed to win any of their last three matches against West Ham United in all competitions, and each of their last two in the Premier League have been significant, symbolic results.

Towards the end of last season Mikel Arteta’s side let a two-goal lead slip to draw 2-2 at London Stadium, precipitating the 3-3 draw with Southampton and 4-1 defeat to Manchester City that saw their title challenge disappear.

This season, a 2-0 loss at Emirates Stadium on 28 December was followed by a 2-1 defeat at Fulham three days later, once again putting their title hopes in jeopardy.

Arsenal have recovered since then, and yet supporters surely travel to to east London fearful of history repeating itself.

Thankfully for Arteta, West Ham are winless in six matches in all competitions and throughout that period have looked a little shaky in the full-back areas.

Garnacho had the beating of Emerson in Man Utd’s 3-0 win last weekend, scoring twice from that wing, while Vladimir Coufal struggled to contain Rashford.

Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka have scored five goals between them in Arsenal's last three matches. Both appear to be back to their best. That spells bad news for the West Ham full-backs.

Does Elanga versus Burn give Forest chance of a rare win?

Since the 2-1 win against Sheff Utd back in August, Nottingham Forest’s four Premier League wins have all followed a similar pattern: sit back, absorb pressure and hit quickly on the counter-attack.

Newcastle United know all about that. They were beaten 3-1 at St James' Park thanks to three Chris Wood goals all scored on the counter-attack, and although Wood is injured, there is a good chance Forest will repeat this tactic.

Throughout the last few months Newcastle’s waning press in midfield has decompressed the lines, in turn opening up space for opponents to pick out a pass in behind, or simply dribble through the middle, as we saw for Luton Town’s first goal in last weekend's 4-4 draw.

Luton space v Newcastle

This is why Newcastle have conceded at least three goals in six of their last nine Premier League matches - and 37 in total, which is already four more than in the whole of last season.

Worse still for Newcastle, the draw with Luton exposed the weaknesses in Dan Burn’s game. He was outpaced repeatedly in a one-on-one battle with Chiedozie Ogbene and won’t be looking forward to facing Anthony Elanga this Saturday.

Elanga’s speed on the break was a constant issue in the reverse fixture. It is a mismatch that hands Forest the advantage.

Can Toney’s influence return as Wolves recalibrate at Molineux?

Ivan Toney’s goalscoring return in a 3-2 win against Forest ended a five-game losing streak, but it hasn’t exactly turned the tide for Brentford, who have since lost consecutive matches.

But Spurs and Man City were unforgiving opponents, and Thomas Frank’s side should fare better at Molineux, where Wolverhampton Wanderers are more vulnerable than you might think.

Gary O’Neil’s side are at their best when able to sit back and spring counter-attacks through Pedro Neto and Matheus Cunha, both of whom are in superb form.

However, seven of Wolves’ 11 home matches this season have been against "Big Six" teams, plus Villa and Newcastle, who are the kind of opponents willing to dominate possession at Molineux.

From here on out, Wolves will more regularly be expected to take the contest to bottom-half opposition, which poses a challenge for O’Neil.

Wolves have won only one of the five matches in which they have held 55 per cent or more possession this season, drawing one and losing the other three, and won four of the seven in which they have held 40 per cent, drawing just once.

Brentford are back-foot specialists and will enjoy firing longer balls forward to Toney and Neal Maupay, who has scored in each of his last three Premier League appearances.

Does Dyche’s 4-4-2 have any hope against City?

Man City have lost only one of their last 35 Premier League home encounters and are unbeaten in 13 matches against Everton. But an even more significant statistic is that Sean Dyche has lost 16 of his 19 career meetings with Man City, winning only once.

There was often a perception that Dyche’s Burnley (and now Dyche’s Everton) were tough opponents for title hopefuls, but that has never really been the case.

Instead, his teams are surprisingly open because they don’t sit deep (despite being mischaracterised as doing so) and because Dyche’s flat 4-4-2 can leave too many gaps between the lines.

His most recent match against Man City, a 3-1 defeat in late December, saw Everton lead until the 53rd minute, and yet they were open throughout, conceding 12 shots in the first half alone. This screen grab below, taken while the score was 0-0, typified the problems they had.

Nunes chance v Everton

A two-man midfield often doesn’t quite work against teams as fluid and midfield-focused as Man City, who look particularly menacing now that Kevin De Bruyne is operating alongside both Julian Alvarez and Phil Foden.

These three will flit around the half-spaces, most likely overloading Everton’s two-man midfield, which will contain Idrissa Gueye but is still without the injured Abdoulaye Doucoure.

Foden, who scored a hat-trick last time out, is combining superbly with De Bruyne and Erling Haaland to create a team far stronger than the one that won at Goodison Park. Everton’s chances are slim.

Which mid-table side will jump at chance of a reset?

AFC Bournemouth and Fulham, separated by a single point in mid table, are entering a defining stage of the season. Over the next few weeks they will either slide into obscurity or enter the race for a top-half finish - and perhaps even a European spot.

Both clubs could do with a victory and a reset. Fulham have won only one of their last seven Premier League matches, and having tasted victory only once away from home all season, matches at Craven Cottage have taken on greater significance.

Meanwhile, Bournemouth are winless in their last four contests and, like Fulham, risk drifting away after a strong first half of the campaign.

A gap to Chelsea in 11th is just starting to open up. Fulham and Bournemouth, with Palace just below them, are at a crossroads.

Can in-form Luton pull clear of relegation rival?

A club of Luton’s resources must ride every wave of momentum and squeeze the maximum out of this brilliant run of form. There is simply no room for error at the bottom.

That means victory against rock-bottom Sheff Utd, whom Luton beat in late December at the beginning of this sequence, is essential. Rob Edwards will know that dropping points in what is theoretically the easiest match of the season would be a huge missed opportunity.

He can feel optimistic. The Hatters have scored 22 goals in their last 10 Premier League matches and have won a remarkable 11 points from their last six – which is more or less European qualification form.

Luton have finally settled into Premier League life and, thanks in no small part to the experience and leadership of Ross Barkley, are playing with the kind of self-belief that is severely lacking at Sheff Utd.

The Blades have conceded 59 goals in 23 Premier League matches. The last team to let in 60 in as few as 24 games in a top-flight season was Ipswich Town in 1963/64.

Barkley, with three goals and three assists in his last six matches, will be licking his lips.

Will Eze & Olise absence allow Chelsea to build momentum?

Chelsea’s FA Cup win at Villa Park on Wednesday evening could be a turning point for Mauricio Pochettino, who has the opportunity to build momentum at struggling Palace on Monday.

Roy Hodgson’s side might have won their last two Premier League encounters at Selhurst Park, but that counts for little considering Eberechi Eze and Michael Olise are both injured for this one.

Palace have won only one of their six matches this season in which neither played, beating Burnley 2-0 in November.

That loss of creativity will hit Palace hard, especially considering they haven’t kept a clean sheet in 12 matches.

Chelsea may only need a single goal to win, and with Christopher Nkunku back from injury, Nicolas Jackson in form in a new left-wing role and Noni Madueke finding his feet in the 3-1 FA Cup victory at Villa on Wednesday, Pochettino will back his players to get the three points.

Can Kompany learn how to play against "top six" opposition?

Burnley supporters won’t be expecting much at Anfield this weekend.

So far Vincent Kompany hasn’t found a way to adapt his expansive style of possession football when facing the elite Premier League clubs, and frankly Burnley haven’t come close to competing.

On Boxing Day, Liverpool were 1-0 up within six minutes and went on to ease to a 2-0 win at Turf Moor, while at the end of last month Man City were 2-0 up after 22 minutes at the Etihad Stadium.

If that wasn’t bad enough, a league-high 29 per cent of Burnley’s goals have been from outside the box (7/24), and yet no side has conceded fewer of these than Liverpool, who have only allowed one such goal.

Kompany needs to make Burnley tougher to break down.

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