Sunday 21 January 2018 / 11:56 AM

EPL MATCHDAY 18 PRIMER

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

The bounce-back effect

Arsenal and Liverpool dropped points for the second consecutive round, this time both failing to score against low-level defences in West Ham and West Brom respectively. The persisting problems aren’t anything new, but the severity of the poor results continues to ensure the microscope is on both clubs.

We are almost halfway through the season and Wenger is still searching for his best line-up. Most teams are into their second and third iterations whilst Arsenal continue to shuffle the cards. Lacazette remains rocks and diamonds, their central defenders haven’t answered all the questions and turning to Giroud is always a step in the wrong direction. Consistency won’t come without a dependable line-up to rely on each week.

Liverpool aren’t without their own struggles: unable to find a balance between outright attack and total protection mode. They still have issues breaking down set defences and can’t find a rhythm allowing the game to come to them. Their counter-attack remains restricted by their distrust in their backline.

Bournemouth are an interesting opponent in this light, especially as their defensive potential continues to materialise — AFC have snuck up to equal-sixth in goals allowed and have used that platform to springboard themselves out of the relegation battle. If Liverpool doesn’t return to their recent goal-scoring form, the Cherries will prove a tough ask.

The interaction between Arsenal and upcoming opponents Newcastle aren’t as black and white (an under-the-radar pun). The only reliable aspect of the Magpies is their undeniable energy and constant aspiration for three points. If Arsenal enter the home fixture expecting a walkover win, they’ll get blown off the park. The overall tactical match-up is a tough forecast, but Newcastle will definitely look to expose the cushiony edges of Arsenal’s formation. Considering the Pies’ recent slide, expect Rafa Benítez and his men to be extra motivated.

Here come Leicester

After a string of improved performances that ultimately proved fruitless, the Foxes have strung together four straight wins and cemented themselves inside the top eight, recovering seamlessly from a disastrous start to the season. Consolidating their new position is a must — Palace is next on the docket, and their recent improvements make this a fascinating test for both sides.

Palace have relaxed on attack, willing to be (slightly) more patient once retrieving possession. Their toned-down counter-attacking style mirrors the controlled style that the Foxes deploy — with both sides preferring to work from their own end forward, the question hovering over the match-up is who will be willing to set the pace of the game and attack first.

With their new-found belief, Palace might be susceptible to some slight over-confidence and be happy to push forward, falling victim to Leicester’s potent counterstrikes. This is where the advantage, and the clearest path to victory lie for Leicester. Interestingly, the keys for both sides is to not overplay their hand and allow the game to come to them, which does very little to preview the game aside from preparing you for the possible draw.

Can Burnley power on?

Sturdy as ever (and not without good fortune) The Clarets continue to defy the odds and now sit tied on points with Spurs and Liverpool, only outside the top four on goal difference.

Brighton provide a new type of test: most (if not all) of Burnley’s success has come on the defensive, protecting their goal and taking their chances on the counter. Brighton is one of the league’s more noted defence-orientated outfits, often protecting their goal with a back-six and playing the majority of the game from their own area.

Brighton might average marginally more possession per game than Burnley (45.2%-44.5%) but they rank first in the league in average time spent in their own half, with 32% of the action coming inside their third of the field. The Eagles won’t be looking to surge forward and pressure Burnley’s goal like they’ve become accustomed to.

There’s been a reasonable amount of skepticism around Burnley’s success, claims that it’s defensive luck and lack of an attacking prowess will eventually bring them undone. A match-up such as this promises to unveil a new side to the Clarets that has yet to be brought to life, and the freedom to attack may unleash some offensive fire that has been hiding beneath their secure style. In addition to their own growth, the win would see them keep pace with the top four – or if results swing their , potentially crack the Champions League spots. (Yeah, you read that right. Champions League. Burnley.)

Match of the week: Spurs @ City

Anything of note that occurred in the league over the past week was overshadowed by a City-shaped cloud. After toppling second-place United, they backed up against Swansea, poised and methodical in constructing another blistering victory. As far as the title race is concerned, everything is viewed through this lens. The most testing week of Man City’s historic run culminates in a showdown with the surging Spurs, who continue to improve after putting last week’s disappointing effort behind them.

The best method to step up and challenge City’s pristine play has yet to be discovered, leaving Tottenham with very little to draw from, especially as their own preferences would appear to be a dangerous proposition. City hasn’t faced a head-on attack like Tottenham’s press, but whether they’re willing to risk pushing forward and allow Manchester’s array of offensive weapons space in behind is among the most intriguing questions leading in. Usually reliant on possession, Spurs will have to prepare for a battle in which they will uncharacteristically find themselves on the opposite side of the ball for majority of the match.

That doesn’t mean they’re without a chance: the recent tweak of their formation — which has coincided with the introduction of Son Heung-Min into the starting lineup — has reinvigorated the attack and helped generate better looks at goal. After struggling to convert, they’ve now scored 10 goals in their last three games, and are playing with a freedom that hasn’t been seen all year. City provides a whole new challenge, but if they can find the ball for extended periods of time, they’re among the best to give their league-leading opponents a run.

From City’s perspective, fatigue may be among the highest concerns, as the pressure mounts to keep the streak alive and opposing teams throw everything at them in hope to be the ones to put an end. That aside, the lead-in couldn’t be more ideal. Their form has been scintillating, the squad churning out domination after domination. An interesting detail: Guardiola has stated that without first-choice left-back Benjamin Mendy in the picture, he is unwilling to go back to the two-striker look that they started the season with. After Gabriel got the start against United, Aguero appeared inspired, and possibly even overzealous, to make his mark against Swansea. Who gets the start, and how they fare, will be one of the central storylines to the fixture.

A win for City would complete a cleansweep of their fellow ‘big six’ club and set another potential rival three points behind.

Around the grounds

Huddersfield @ Watford: If the points swing one way or another, the result shapes as a turning point for both clubs. Watford’s recent run represents their worst form of the season, taking only one point from four games, compromising their position on the table and falling out of the highly competitive Europa spots. Huddersfield have suffered their own downturn but have proven resilient in preventing a total slump, and have been particularly feisty in these match-ups. Great contrast of styles with high stakes for both.

Southampton @ Chelsea: The Blues have to flex some offensive muscle here. Their defensive ability is undeniable, but their control in possession had led to some easy giveaways and cost them results against Atletico in the UCL and most recently in a boilover loss to West Ham. Flattening out the attack and adding some extra flair helped aid the midweek bounce-back against Huddersfield, but they have to demand more of the same here. Must be three points.

West Ham @ Stoke: West Ham’s opponent shot chart against Arsenal was almost identical to the one in their win over Chelsea, which suggests the emergence of an incredibly valuable trait — consistency! There is a real foundation block here: four points from three games doesn’t scream form, but the Hammers have done well to turn things around since their blowout loss to Everton three weeks ago (think Leicester through November). The step down in quality of opponent might free their game up, and with the regulation zone packed tight, a few more results could save their season. This result will be another telling step in their progress.

United @ West Brom: West Brom haven’t won a game since August, whilst Man United desperately cling to hopes they can remain the closest in the race to runaway league leaders City. Even away from home, anything but a commanding win for the Red Devils would be a shock.

Swansea @ Everton: All recent data suggests Everton should win this game — since their rock-bottom loss against Southampton, they’ve peeled off three wins and a draw and looked a legitimately improved outfit. The only missing element to convince us the turnaround is real is pulling off a comfortable win when they’re expected to do so. The ball is in their court.

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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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