Tuesday 23 January 2018 / 09:04 AM


Highlighting the crucial points and what to look for in the upcoming weekend of EPL action

The Champions League effect

The Champions League kicked off on Wednesday morning, with United, City, Chelsea and Tottenham walking away with comfortable wins, Liverpool the only English team to leave winless.

The second major competition shines a light on our contending teams from a different angle. Even matched up with new opponents and such different stakes, each team still adhered to their current trajectory: City were dominant in possession, drilling the ball around the park in a 4-0 glorified training session against Feyenoord, as did Chelsea overpowering Qarabag FK to the tune of 6-0, and United looked the goods in a comfortable 3-0 win over FC Basel.

The form teams stayed in form, whilst the battlers of the next tier kept the course: Spurs looked to succumb to another game full of missed opportunities before finally cracking through their own drought, putting three past Dortmund as Kane and Eriksen led from the front. Liverpool, meanwhile, looked their same hollow selves, caught between strong attack and weak defence as they stumbled into a 2-2 draw against Sevilla.

The effects of the UCL will extend past the games played in the competition, as both the form-lines and squad depth will overlap with the domestic competition. The extra travel and minutes on already tired legs forces managers to get creative, as well as proactive, in sharing the load across the entire squad, whilst adapting to the European style and quickly shifting back to the speed and physicality of the Premier League can take its toll fast. Keep a close eye on how the top teams cross over back to England, and whether any of the pesky mid-tier sides catch them napping.

Manchester mettle

The two current leaders in the title race head into games that will again highlight their prowess and give us a better understanding of where they stand going forward.

United have ticked all the boxes thus far. As always, fanfare went into overdrive when they came out dominating through the first three games, and an impressive goal difference of 10-0 demanded attention. In that context, last week’s 2-2 draw with Stoke serves as a reminder, and a pretty nifty one at that — the overbearing, deep-driving style that worked seamlessly to open the season won’t cut and paste into every setting, and they need to work on adaptability if the original plan doesn’t cut it (or, according to Mourinho, lament the absence of Felani as reason).

Everton is an interesting foil in this scenario. They’ve been far from good, and with the pace now permanently stuck in second gear, it’s hard to imagine what they can throw at United to trouble them. Rooney’s return should lift spirits, and Everton do feel on the edge of finally cementing their own team style, but the match-up tilts heavily in Man United’s favour. In that case, United could look to blow them open through the middle and tear up the backline, a plan that would work fine, but find them back on the path of the opening weeks. Instead, an alternative measure of trying to draw out and strategically create chances that allows for some growth we have yet to see.

If all else fails they can return to the power dribbling, ‘feed Lukaku’ game-plan and Everton won’t have an answer. Meanwhile, their crosstown rivals will travel away to Watford in hopes of holding steady atop the table. A comfortable win over Feyenoord is encouraging, the question now lies with them — was it a breakout game or a breakthrough game?

City showed they have the gusto to take the reins of the game, find the net early and continue the path without giving up cheap turnovers or killing their own momentum. Unbeaten Watford will be the final test — if City have really taken the step, they’ll breeze past Watford and assert their class on a good team who isn’t on their level.

The keys may lie in the line-up: Pep has finally broken through with his formation, again going for the 3-5-2 that shifts into a 4-3-3. Fernandinho was effective in moving between centre-half and defensive midfield and Pep could call upon him (or Yaya Toure) to play a similar role when they feel they have a matchup which they can attack, which will be the case against Watford. The start of a heavy schedule followed by an away game could take its toll, but these are the type of games we find out what the team’s made of. Massive in the context of their season.

Match of the week — Chelsea vs Arsenal

By essentially remaining stagnant between the end of last season and the early running of this campaign, it’s remarkable how far apart the two teams are. Chelsea have managed to dip under the radar — falling away to the more eye-catching performances of the Manchester duo — they’ve managed to overcome their disastrous start at Burnley to reassert themselves in the race. Arsenal took the opposite approach after barely getting past Leicester, plummeting to a fortnight of poor form. They may have found slight restoration in beating Bournemouth 3-0, but that won’t prepare them for what’s to come.

Arsenal’s defence has been poor, but the easy access coming directly through the centre is making their life very difficult. Wenger has yet to find an answer, and the fragility and lack of presence in the midfield has been on full display thus far. This shapes to be a key swing area of the matchup, with Chelsea finding success lining up in a new formation after Conte realised he needed to adapt for the loss of Matic.

The trio of Kante, Bakayoko and Luiz may not have the deft passing touch and control, but they’re all gamers, ready to scrap and win the ball back, protecting their goal at all cost and looking to feed the men in front. How Arsenal deal with Chelsea’s grizzly midfield will give us an idea as to how far they’ve come.

Also keep an eye on…

  • Renato Sanchez: The much-vaunted prospect debuted to considerable adulation but little substance last week. Another week in camp should bring the best out of him, and hopefully ignites the Swansea midfield from the right of the diamond.
  • John Stones: Joint leader in Champions League scoring with Messi and Ronaldo. That was as fun for me to type as it was confusing to read.
  • Eden Hazard: Should be primed to make his first team debut, and Chelsea have really lacked his polish out wide. Hazard was second in the EPL last season in successful “take-ons,” with 143, and his 75 percent success rate in 1-vs-1 situations was among the leagues best. His
  • Cyrstal Palace: Hoping the storied ‘new manager’ good fortune sparks a revival that can save their season before relegation becomes a real problem.
  • Stoke vs Newcastle: If Stoke are the real deal, they’ll handle business against a typical ‘good-bad’ team. A Europa spot hangs in the balance.
  • Wayne Rooney: Back at Old Trafford in Everton colours. What odds can we get on him to net?
  • Andrew Robinson: was exquisite in his Liverpool debut against Palace — 133 touches and the most constant creative force on the pitch. He hasn’t played since, and considering Liverpools defensive struggles, he should be close to a look in.

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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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