Sunday 18 February 2018 / 07:53 AM


What to look out for in the upcoming weekend of EPL action.

Gunning for consistency

Arsenal might have the most riding on this week.

A visit to Burnley to face the league’s premier defensive unit is the last thing they’d want just three days after a trip to Germany, but such is the joys of the Europa League. They’ll try to rotate enough to keep everyone fresh, but they can’t afford to go to Burnley undermanned.

Arsenal, whilst vastly improving from their early-season inconsistencies, are susceptible to stumbling against this style of team. Stoke were able to hold them off and capitalise late for the win, but the Gunners have learnt (we hope) to be more composed and not run themselves into the ground chasing goals for 90 minutes. Their loss to City appeared to force Wenger’s hand on a slight tactical change, and last week’s performance against Tottenham was an encouraging step in the right direction.

Arsenal have to secure their position near the top of the standings to keep pace with the other contending teams. Teams five through seven — Liverpool, Arsenal and Burnley, this week’s opponent — are all tied on points heading into the round and playing fellow members of the top seven. Something has to give.

Every step forward for the Gunners has been marred by a disappointing follow-up — slipping in focus after making a breakthrough can be deadly to the team’s confidence, unable to build upon the strong performances and convert momentum and form into points. After a statement win against Tottenham, they have to follow it up and put their improvements on full display.

They may be playing a team a lower on the ladder fresh off defeating a member of the top four, but this is the biggest test of the season – a real danger game for Arsenal as Burnley have made a name this season stealing these types of games.

Turning Point

Leicester (12th, 13pts), Stoke (15th, 13pts) and Everton (16th, 12pts) have been among the biggest disappointments of the EPL season so far. Despite their early struggles, all three have shown signs of life in recent weeks, and with favourable fixtures on the slate this week – taking on West Ham, Crystal Palace and Southampton respectively – could this be the week they finally turn things around?

Thirteen games into the season, we are fast approaching the point where the competition starts to separate into tiers, and the ground can be too hard to make up once you get stuck towards the bottom of the table. Everton and Stoke are better than their current positions suggest, but are so inherently flawed that competing for Europa spots does feel harder to conceive each week. Wins this week would still keep them in the running and help lift them out of slumps threatening to derail their season.

The Foxes feel very out of place in this group. Based on goal differential they are performing at the level of the eighth-best team in the division, and their run of bad results can be chalked up to a tough schedule and a poor coaching job that has now been cured. With a neat mix of tough and winnable games on the horizon, Leicester need to take points when they can, and the struggling Hammers are the perfectly place to start.

Consolidation or consolation?

Watford and Burnley both grabbed trademark wins last week, using their defensive acumen to grind their opposition out of the game before nabbing opportunistic goals when the chances presented themselves. The wins secured their spots within the top eight with a slight buffer as the four teams below them failed to capture full points.

The clubs’ surprise rise to grab the open Europa spots takes an interesting turn this week as both face tough challenges that threaten to undo their hard work. Interestingly enough, both match-ups play into the style they’ve cut their teeth on: Burnley, built on continuity (only 17 players used, the least of any team) and rock-solid defence (third in opponents expected goals and tied for third in conceded goals) meet Arsenal and their rotating cast of players and styles; Watford’s deadly counter attacking efforts should get to shine against Newcastle who press hard and bring the fight head on.

It will be telling to see how their respective styles translate to big games and whether their early form is sustainable now teams are able to scout their patterns and adapt.

Wins would consolidate an outstanding start, coming up short would mean their successes were only consolation and pull them back into the bloodbath of the chasing group. Season defining fixtures.

Match of the week — Chelsea @ Liverpool

Another week, another massive heavyweight clash at the top of the table on deck, with third-place Chelsea travelling to Anfield to face fifth-place Liverpool. With only three points separating them on the ladder, the outcome is destined to shake up the standings.

The Reds appeared to be running riot against Sevilla on Wednesday morning, three goals up inside the opening half hour away from home, before the same old issues plagued them yet again — shaky defending and incompetence facing set pieces directly leading to goals from a penalty, corner and free-kick.

The draw provided further evidence that Liverpool’s fragile defence will cost them when the going gets tough. Yet another big-game disappointment, it’s almost painful how on-brand both their highlights and struggles were. Their offence, especially when they blaze through on the counter, is downright lethal. No one has found an answer for the Salah-Coutinho-Mane-Firminho quartet that continues to generate open shots at will, but an inability to stop the leaking through the midfield has become their fatal flaw.

That last point is a good segue to the matchup with Chelsea, who have found great success when employing the bruising combination of Kante and Bakayoko deep in the midfield, setting a stable foundation for Hazard, Fabregras, Morata and Willian (who was finally reintroduced mid-week and was superb, scoring two goals) to wreak havoc up front. The dribble penetration that their attacking men can produce, and Morata’s sniper aerial abilities, are almost hand-crafted to target Liverpool’s major flaws, and those concerns make this matchup real trouble for Liverpool.

The Blues prefer to sit deep and let their opponents set the pace, which is risky against such supreme offensive talent, but if they can withstand the attacking prowess, they’ll have very little trouble getting access to Liverpool’s frail backline and have all the tools to capitalise when they get a look at goal. If Eden Hazard continues on the trajectory of his recent performances, the Reds are in deep trouble. If Liverpool are to win this game, they’ll have to find a gear we haven’t seen yet. Otherwise, Chelsea hold all the cards and deserve to be heavy favourites.

(For the punters: At the time of writing, Chelsea are inexplicably priced outsiders for this clash. Outside three-to-one odds for one of the most cerebral teams in the league playing a lower-ranked side that they match up well against it the definition of VALUE.)

Around the grounds

Leicester City @ West Ham: Leicester are far better than their record suggests and this feels like the week they turn things around. The new coach luck is with West Ham, but back David Moyes at your own peril…

Brighton @ Manchester United: The Eagles have no problem dipping below 30% possession and playing the game off their back line, which means United will have plenty of ball but have to find a way to break down a deep-set defence, Brighton using their back-six human wall to close off all routes to the goal. United should have the talent to get it done, but this does feel a lot like their recent troublesome UCL clash with Basel.

Stoke @ Palace: Things haven’t been great at Palace this season, but going toe-to-toe with Everton last time out and matching them comfortably gives hope they can turn things around. They will be disappointed to not have come away with a win after squandering the lead (twice!), but the game-plan they implemented should be held over to this week. In a rare occurrence, their ferocious dribble-first, dribble-second style will actually play into their hands, and if Stoke let them dominate the ball, the overwhelming joy of not being totally pulverised for 90 minutes will bring the best out of Palace. Loftus-Cheek breakout game incoming…

West Brom @ Tottenham: Classic Spurs bounce back game. West Brom average the least average possession per game (43.2%), so there is the danger of Tottenham camping around the goal and aimlessly passing for 90 minutes, but they should easily overpower them and get the job done. Don’t mess this up.

Bournemouth @ Swansea: Was last week an outlier or a breakthrough for the Cherries? If they find that form again the good times keep rolling.

Watford @ Newcastle: The fear is that the two ferocious styles cancel one another out, but whether it’s 4-4 or scoreless, a draw feels on the cards.

Everton @ Southampton: A toss up, because who knows what Everton even think of Everton anymore.

Arsenal @ Burnley: Danger game! Tread lightly. Arsenal should have the talent to get it done, but I unabashedly want Burnley to win oh-so-bad.

Man City @ Huddersfield: The lead-in couldn’t be worse for Huddersfield — getting dispatched by Bournemouth hardly the ideal preparation to face the death star. The result feels foregone.

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About the author

Brayden Issa

Brayden is a Sydney-based sports management student and sports fanatic, specialising in rugby league, basketball, football and cricket. He is concerned with everything related to professional sports performance and management.

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