Feature

Ten BIG questions for the weekend's matches

By Alex Keble 1 Mar 2024
Calvert-Lewin, Rashford, Sarabia

Alex Keble looks at the main talking points for each of the Matchweek 27 fixtures

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Can transition kings Wolves pull away from Newcastle?

Newcastle United are stuck in a bad rut. They are winless in their last four Premier League home matches, have conceded 23 goals in their last eight encounters in the competition, and are repeatedly getting caught on the break.

Transitions are a major headache for Newcastle. They rank joint-second in the Premier League for the number of "direct attacks" against them, with 52, and top the charts for the number of goals conceded from those direct attacks, with eight.

Wolverhampton Wanderers are just the team to take advantage: Gary O’Neil’s side are top of the Premier League for "fast breaks" and shots from "fast breaks", with 33 and 31 respectively, thanks predominantly to the brilliance of Pedro Neto.

Matheus Cunha’s injury had many wondering if the counter-attacking goals would dry up, but his replacement Pablo Sarabia is averaging a goal involvement every 122 minutes in the Premier League this season (three goals and six assists in 1096 minutes), better than anyone else in the squad.

Wolves have every right to be optimistic. They have exactly the tactical plan needed to exploit Eddie Howe’s leaky defence and move four points clear of Newcastle in the race for European football.

Race for Europe

Position Pos Club Played Pl GD Points Pts
7 Man Utd MUN 32 -1 50
8 West Ham WHU 33 -6 48
9 Chelsea CHE 31 +9 47
10 Brighton BHA 32 +2 44
View More
Bailey and Watkins to emulate De Bruyne and Haaland?

This match has come at a bad time for Luton Town manager Rob Edwards.

Luton have lost five of their last seven Premier League matches at Kenilworth Road while Aston Villa have won back-to-back away matches for the first time this season.

But there’s more to it than that. Luton were torn apart by Manchester City in the FA Cup this week because of Edwards’ aggressive high line and the enormous width between his three centre-backs, something that Pep Guardiola spotted and targeted.

Unai Emery will do the same thing.

Man City’s second goal was just one example of a problem Luton had all match. Look how far apart the Luton defenders are, allowing City to go route one.

Luton width v Man City

Villa go direct whenever the opportunity allows, ranking third in the division for "direct attacks", with 60.

John McGinn swivels in possession, Youri Tielemans drops off the front, and Leon Bailey joins Ollie Watkins running in behind.

The chances are Emery has scribbled down some set-plays that end with Bailey and Watkins (who have 39 Premier League goal involvements between them this season) making runs between those stretched-out Luton defenders.

Is this the match for Brentford to rediscover winning formula?

Historically, Thomas Frank’s Brentford perform better when allowed to get bodies behind the ball, slow down a possession-centric side, and attack quickly via long balls up to the forwards.

In 2022/23 they were unbeaten in the 11 Premier League matches in which they held 35 per cent or less possession, winning eight and drawing three, which included wins against Man City, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea.

Brentford are something of a bogey team for Chelsea, who have beaten them only once in five Premier League meetings, failing to score in each of the last three contests.

That run includes a 2-0 win for Brentford at Stamford Bridge back in October, a classic smash-and-grab win of the sort that have been few and far between in 2023/24.

Frank’s side have lost four of their last five at home and 15 of their previous 22 in the competition, which is more than anyone bar Burnley and Sheffield United in that period.

Go on much longer like that and Brentford will soon be in the bottom three.

A big scalp like Chelsea – and taken in the classic Brentford style – would do wonders for their confidence.

Can Everton seize opportunity to end their drought?

Everton cannot score goals, West Ham United cannot stop conceding. This is precisely the fixture that Sean Dyche – and Dominic Calvert-Lewin – have been waiting for.

Winless in their last nine, Everton desperately need three points from somewhere, but that won’t happen unless they stop being so wasteful in front of goal.

They have a negative Expected Goals (xG) score of -10, meaning they have scored 10 fewer goals than they should have done given the quality of their chances. That underperformance isn’t far off that of the second-worst team, Chelsea, who have a negative xG of -5.7.

Worst xG performers 2023/24
Team xG
Everton -10
Chelsea -5.7
Brentford -5.2
Sheff Utd -4.7
Man Utd -4.3

Their hopes rest on Calvert-Lewin, a man without a league goal since 29 October and with his confidence waning. In the 1-1 draw with Brighton & Hove Albion last weekend he managed only 17 touches of the ball and failed to take a single shot.

His xG is -6.0, which is the worst figure in the division. Luckily, it’s West Ham up next.

Only Sheff Utd and Luton have a worse Expected Goals Against (xGA) in the Premier League than West Ham’s 46.9 and only the Blades have faced more shots than West Ham’s 428.

What’s more, in five of their last eight league matches David Moyes’s side have had an xGA of 2.0 or higher.

That includes the 4-2 win over Brentford on Monday night that ended their three-match losing streak; Lucas Paqueta’s return has changed their fortunes, but only in the attacking department.

One more crucial detail: that last Calvert-Lewin goal, way back in October, was the winner in a 1-0 victory at West Ham. Is this, finally, his moment?

Who will adapt better to the loss of a key midfielder?

Fulham are still without Joao Palhinha, who serves the second of his two-match suspension for collecting 10 yellow cards, while Billy Gilmour is unavailable for Brighton after his red card last weekend against Everton.

The team who adapts best should take the points – and Fulham’s 2-1 win against Man Utd at Old Trafford last weekend tells us they stand the better chance.

Just like they did against United, Fulham will sit in their compact shape and block a path through the centre; a hallmark under Marco Silva that continued last weekend, even with Sasa Lukic filling in.

Fulham top the Premier League charts for interceptions and, in keeping with their season, at Man Utd almost all of these took place in the central column of the pitch.

Fulham interceptions v Man Utd

That’s bad news for Brighton. They funnel their attacks through the centre and yet must contend without Gilmour, who pulls the string with his vertical passing from the base of midfield.

His most likely replacement, Carlos Baleba, has struggled to adapt to English football. In his last two matches, the most recent of which was late December, Baleba has been taken off within the opening 60 minutes and with Brighton 1-0 down.

More significantly, he is unable to match Gilmour’s progressive passing, a feature Brighton need in order to break through that stubborn Fulham midfield.

Gilmour v Baleba comparison 2023/24
  Touches/90 Progressive passes/90
Billy Gilmour 99.10 8.33
Carlos Baleba 73.20 4.09
Can Forest frustrate Klopp’s kids?

Liverpool’s injury crisis is ridiculous. They will be without a number of senior players for Saturday’s match at the City Ground, with many of them usually in Jurgen Klopp’s first-choice XI.

The six academy products who played a part in last weekend’s EFL Cup victory did an incredible job (as did the nine who featured in the 3-0 FA Cup fifth-round win over Southampton in midweek), but the Premier League grind is a different beast.

And Nottingham Forest will be a major test of the resolve, the patience, and the quality of Klopp’s reserves.

Nuno Espirito Santo will do his best to frustrate Liverpool with a low, low block. All that time passing sideways – knowing those rapid Forest forwards will pounce on any mistake – could be an issue for a midfield that is very light on senior players.

Fortunately for Liverpool, Virgil van Dijk, Ibrahima Konate, Andrew Robertson, and Conor Bradley is a formidable-looking back four to cope with the counters led by Anthony Elanga, and yet we know Liverpool can make slow starts.

They have recovered 22 points from losing positions this season, while 48 per cent of their away points have come from a losing position (12/25).

In the past, Klopp could throw on substitutes to change the match, but with all those injuries that is no longer the case.

Should Forest go 1-0 up, it will be extremely difficult for Liverpool’s inexperienced young players to hold their nerve.

How do Hojlund-less Man Utd avoid suffocation at the Etihad?

Man Utd have lost their last two Premier League matches at the Etihad Stadium by an aggregate score of 10-4.

Most onlookers think this will be another easy win for Guardiola’s side.

Man City hold all the cards. If United push up and decompress between the lines as they have done all season, then Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne – rejuvenated by four combinations against Luton in the FA Cup – will have a field day.

If United drop deep, as they so often do in this fixture, they risk being penned in and suffocated without Rasmus Hojlund’s runs providing a counter-attacking, push-back threat.

With few options, perhaps Erik ten Hag should consider using Bruno Fernandes as a false nine, allowing him to play a third central midfielder against De Bruyne and co while also allowing Marcus Rashford (left) and Alejandro Garnacho (right) to return to the roles that brought that flurry of wins earlier this year.

That’s a bit of a maverick idea, but Ten Hag needs something unusual if he is to prevent a damaging result in the derby.

Man City have kept three clean sheets in their last four league matches. Haaland has scored five goals in three matches against Man Utd and, with four at Luton, he is back in form. United are in trouble no matter what the manager chooses to do.

Can Bournemouth take chance to avoid relegation talk?

A run of seven league matches without a win has left AFC Bournemouth looking down rather than up, but a double header against Burnley and Sheff Utd over the next seven days offers the chance to secure Premier League safety.

Win both and Bournemouth will be on 34 points, which is almost enough to secure their Premier League status. Better still, they’ll be back on an upswing in this topsy-turvy season.

Bournemouth were winless in their first nine matches, then won seven from their next nine, before beginning their current barren spell.

Playing 19th and 20th in consecutive fixtures is just what Andoni Iraola needs. Of course, should they fail to win either, the whole campaign will start to look very different.

Will we see Glasner’s versatility in action?

Oliver Glasner is known for being a versatile and reactive coach, happy to change his team’s structure to fit the demands of a particular challenge.

And so, after Crystal Palace held 56 per cent possession in a 3-0 win over Burnley on his debut, we can expect a completely different (and more defensive) strategy for the trip to Tottenham Hotspur.

Keep an eye on how brave Palace are able to be in possession.

They may resort to old ways of hitting it long, but if they take the risk of playing their way out of the high press (as Glasner will demand), they may reap the rewards of releasing the fit-again Eberechi Eze behind the Spurs midfield.

How do Sheff Utd avoid a drubbing?

Sheff Utd have lost 5-0 in each of their last two home matches, and having also lost 5-2 to Brighton in the FA Cup, Chris Wilder’s side have conceded 15 goals in their last three outings at Bramall Lane.

Arsenal have won 6-0 and 5-0 in their two most recent away matches in the league.

No side in English league history has won three consecutive away matches by five or more goals.

Perhaps nobody will ever get a better chance of setting that record than Mikel Arteta’s free-scoring Arsenal.

How do the Blades avoid a heavy defeat? We don’t know. That’s for Wilder and his team to work out.

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