Ten BIG questions for the weekend's matches

By Alex Keble 16 Feb 2024

Alex Keble looks at the main talking points for each of the Matchweek 25 fixtures

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Who will win the battle between Rodri & Gallagher?

The 4-4 draw between these two sides feels a long time ago. Manchester City have stabilised considerably while Chelsea, after looking tactically coherent between the boxes for much of the season, have started to wane.


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Nevertheless, Chelsea and Man City could again provide us with another entertaining match on Saturday.

That’s because Chelsea come alive when encouraged to do so by expansive, hard-pressing opposition; the extra space and the high tempo set by the elite clubs kicks Mauricio Pochettino’s high-octane football into gear.

There have been 27 goals in only six Chelsea matches against "Big Six" opponents this season, reflecting the manic energy that Pochettino’s side are happy to give in to.

From that perspective, the head-to-head between Rodri and Conor Gallagher could prove decisive.


Gallagher, buoyed by a brace at Crystal Palace on Monday night, leads the Chelsea press with his tenacious playing style, attempting 56 tackles, more than any other Chelsea player and the seventh-most among Premier League midfielders.

In the eight-goal draw in November, Gallagher made three tackles (displayed below in red) and five fouls (yellow).

Conor Gallagher v Man city

He will need to lead by example at the Etihad Stadium, setting the tone for his team-mates but also getting tight to Man City’s metronome, Rodri, through whom everything flows for Pep Guardiola.

Rodri’s capacity to resist opposition pressure and calmly pass Man City out of danger is indispensable against a hard-pressing team like Chelsea.

Can Villa get back on track despite injury crisis?

Aston Villa’s injury problems continue to pile up, and no sooner had Pau Torres and Jacob Ramsey returned than Diego Carlos and Boubacar Kamara were struck down.

It leaves Villa with a centre-back partnership - Torres and Clement Lenglet - who have appeared on the same pitch only once before, for a couple of minutes in stoppage time at the end of a UEFA Europa Conference League victory over Alkmaar.

Kamara is a huge loss, too, especially in the middle of a difficult spell for Villa. They have lost three of their last six Premier League matches, as many as in their previous 21, while the defeat by Manchester United has put their place in the top five in doubt.

They desperately need a victory at Craven Cottage to get their season back on track. In better news for Villa, Fulham have faced 46 shots in their last two home Premier League fixtures (21 v Everton, 25 v AFC Bournemouth). Villa ought to create chances, then, especially with Ramsey and Alex Moreno reconnecting on the left after their respective injury absences.

But Fulham have won six of their last nine home Premier League matches, scoring three or more goals in five of those wins, while Rodrigo Munoz – with three goals in his last two – will fancy his chances up against Villa’s unfamiliar centre-back pairing.

Can Solanke rediscover scoring touch against Dubravka?

Bournemouth are without a win in five Premier League matches and Dominic Solanke has scored only one goal across that period. It goes without saying that if Andoni Iraola’s side are to rediscover their December form, they need Solanke back to his best.

Maybe a trip to Newcastle United is just what Solanke and Bournemouth need. Newcastle have conceded 10 goals in their last three matches at home in the Premier League, as many as in their previous 16 combined.

More alarming still, in their last 10 Premier League matches Newcastle have conceded an xG of 27.6, which is close to three goals per match.

It would be unfair to blame their leaky defence on the goalkeeper, given that his team-mates have conceded so many high-quality shots on his goal, but Martin Dubravka replacing Nick Pope has coincided with the downturn.

Martin Dubravka shot map 2324
Nick Pope shot map 2324

Dubravka is conceding a goal every 43 minutes in the Premier League this season, while Pope averages one every 131 minutes.

Pope has conceded 14 goals from an xG conceded of 14.1 while Dubravka has conceded 25 goals from an xG conceded of 28.1, suggesting a slight decrease in shot-stopping ability, but nothing major.

The 4-4 draw with Luton Town, who only racked up an xG of 2.4, was the worst showing.

Luton shots v NEW

The bigger difference is their starting positions, with Pope significantly better at sweeping up behind a defence that is too easily broken at the moment.

He averages 2.01 defensive actions outside the penalty area (OPA) per 90, with an average action distance from goal of 19.8 yards. Dubravka is posting 0.90 OPA per 90 and an average action distance of 11.9 yards.

Iraola’s counter-pressing football aims at getting in behind quickly after the ball is won back, and therefore Dubravka’s low starting position may hand Solanke the chance to improve his goalscoring return.

Can Blades keep momentum by building a defensive wall?

Sheffield United’s chances of safety might appear difficult, but the bottom end of the Premier League table is always more compressed than you think.

A seven-point gap to 17th can be closed to almost nothing at all in the space of a fortnight, and should Chris Wilder’s side follow up a 3-1 win at Luton with their first back-to-back victories of the campaign, the mood at Bramall Lane will shift dramatically.

The visit of Brighton & Hove Albion could be a real opportunity. Roberto De Zerbi’s side are winless in six away Premier League matches (drawing two and losing four) and generally struggle when faced with a low block and forced to dominate possession.

De Zerbi wants to attack at high speed, taking advantage of an opposition press by spinning in behind, but this just isn’t possible if the other team refuse to come out.

That explains why Brighton have won only two of the 10 league matches in which they have held at least 65 per cent possession.

Consequently Wilder’s stubborn defensive wall, erected just outside the penalty area, might be the perfect strategy to stump Brighton – and change the course of their season.

Can Toney & Maupay disrupt Liverpool’s centre-backs?

The tactical pattern of the early kick-off should closely follow Brentford’s 3-1 defeat to Man City, when Thomas Frank’s stubborn 3-5-2 formation almost held a 1-0 lead up until half-time.

Brentford, playing their 100th Premier League match, will once again sit low, look to slow down the visitors, and attack via long balls up to Ivan Toney and Neal Maupay.

Their supporters have reason to be hopeful. First of all, using a back five will allow Brentford to double up on Liverpool’s wingers, potentially shutting down Jurgen Klopp’s favoured area of attack.

The longer balls up towards Toney (who is likely to move on to Ibrahima Konate, trusting Maupay to lose Virgil van Dijk in a foot race) will help stretch the pitch lengthways, creating a big gap between Liverpool’s defensive and midfield lines.

In previous meeting when this has happened, Liverpool’s lack of a powerful No 6 has been exposed. Consequently Vitaly Janelt and Matheus Jensen may find joy pouncing on the loose balls that drop around Toney.

A lot rests on Van Dijk and Konate managing to control Toney and Maupay. If they don’t win their respective battles, Brentford can cause an upset.

Will Arsenal again make a fast start from Rice set-pieces?

One of the defining characteristics of Arsenal’s four-match winning streak since their winter break has been scoring early set-piece goals.

Declan Rice, moved on to corners, assisted the first goal in the 11th minute against Crystal Palace and the opener in the 31st minute against West Ham United. From here, Arsenal could relax into their football and win comfortably.

In fact, last time out their first three goals were all scored from set-pieces, putting Arsenal top of the Premier League charts for set-play goals, with 16.

That is bad news for Burnley, who have the highest set-piece xG against in the division (10.65). They have also conceded the second-most set-piece goals (12) and the second-most set-piece shots (113).

It seems likely, then, that Rice’s deliveries will break the deadlock and prompt a simple away win.

Burnley remain far too open against the bigger teams, conceding three goals against Liverpool and Man City over the last three weeks.

They are also yet to win a Premier League match this season against a side starting the day in the top 10 on the morning of the encounter, drawing one and losing eight.

Will Luton pull off a shock against in-form Man Utd?

Erik ten Hag has won all nine of his Premier League fixtures against promoted sides, which is the best 100 per cent win ratio of any manager in the competition’s history.

Man Utd have won four in a row and Luton were beaten 3-1 by rock-bottom Sheff Utd last weekend.

The form guide only points one way - but Premier League football is rarely that simple.

The Kenilworth Road crowd will be up for this one; Man Utd’s fast and furious new forward line ought to be frustrated by a team forced into a deeper shape; and Ross Barkley is a lurking threat to Casemiro and Kobbie Mainoo.

Luton scored eight goals (with Barkley scoring or assisting three of these) in their two recent matches against Brighton and Newcastle, whose front-foot approach is certainly more similar to Man Utd’s than Sheff Utd's.

In other words, Rob Edwards’ side prefer these kinds of matches, when spring-loaded counter-attacks funnelled through Barkley can catch bigger clubs by surprise.

Can Wolves’ counter-attacks work without Cunha?

Matheus Cunha’s injury could have major ramifications on Wolverhampton Wanderers' season. Cunha, who suffered a “significant” hamstring injury in the words of Gary O’Neil, has scored or assisted 15 of his team’s 37 Premier League goals this season (or 41 per cent).

But it isn’t just his direct influence that Wolves will miss. O’Neil is a pure counter-attacking coach, and Cunha’s powerful dribbling is the fulcrum of that style: he tops the Wolves charts for progressive carries (93) and successful take-ons (52).

Cunha's dribbles v Man Utd

Hwang Hee-chan is fit to start his first Wolves match since December 30, but nevertheless there is now extra pressure on Pedro Neto to come up with the goods.

Which winless side will prevail in crucial six-pointer?

Everton haven’t won any of their last seven Premier League fixtures, their superb run of form through autumn and early winter now a distant memory as the thought of relegation looms.

Palace have won only three of their last 17 matches in the competition, and two of those wins came against promoted sides Burnley and Sheff Utd.

Premier League matches in February don’t come much bigger than this.

Everton just about edge it. Their poor form is partly mitigated by a tough set of matches, while Palace have lost their last three on the road, conceding 11 in the process, and are without an away win since 4 November.

What’s more, Everton won the reverse fixture 3-2 seven days after Palace’s most recent away win, and also beat the Eagles 1-0 in the FA Cup third round last month.

Can West Ham bounce back from disaster at Arsenal?

The 6-0 defeat at London Stadium was West Ham’s worst result of the season. It is essential that David Moyes gets his team back on track.

Luckily they have what looks a kind fixture on Saturday, when they travel to the City Ground to face a Nottingham Forest side winless in six matches in all competitions.

Nuno Espirito Santo, who has seen his side fall to within two points of the bottom three, will equally see this as a chance to change course, and with Callum Hudson-Odoi and Anthony Elanga finding form, Forest could benefit from West Ham awkwardly playing on the front foot.

But this is unlikely to be the most entertaining match of the weekend. It will be nervy, scrappy, low on quality – and of monumental significance to both sides.

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