Game to watch – Manchester City v Chelsea
Manchester City could be 12 points off leaders Liverpool at kick-off on Saturday evening. By the time the full-time whistle goes, it’s hardly inconceivable that they would be four points off third-placed Chelsea.
The on-fire Blues are certainly not the opposition Pep Guardiola might have chosen to face after a hugely damaging defeat to Liverpool was immediately followed by an international break. Frank Lampard’s boys have won their last five matches on the road, scoring 18 goals in the process. No other side has scored more away goals in the Premier League this season and the fact they are chasing a seventh consecutive victory could spell further trouble for Guardiola’s patched up back four.
Fortunately, Chelsea are hardly impervious in defence either. Of the teams in the top half of the table, only Burnley have conceded more. Hopefully, this all means we are in for a Saturday night treat.
Guardiola won’t change City’s approach; we wait to see how Lampard plans to find the balance between between stopping City and hurting the champions. His predecessors can’t help with that; Antonio Conte was hammered in the press two seasons ago for an ultra-defensive approach, while Maurizio Sarri’s side were just hammered – 6-0 – last season.
Lampard’s plan is unlikely to be complicated: sit deep when defending, before springing forward with almost carefree ambition. It’s a plot which had some success against Liverpool in the UEFA Super Cup and the Reds’ own triumph against City a fortnight ago demonstrated how weak the champions’ right flank could be. It just so happens to match up with one of Chelsea’s strengths, with Emerson, Mason Mount and Christian Pulisic hoping to outnumber and out-work Kyle Walker and Kevin De Bruyne.
Providing Lampard doesn’t clam up before his first meeting with Guardiola, this has the makings of a thriller.
Manager to watch – Jose Mourinho
Not sure if you’ve heard, but Jose Mourinho is the Tottenham manager now…
The first game of the post-Pochettino era for begins at West Ham, who would enjoy nothing more than spoiling a big day for Spurs and their new head coach. But Mourinho will likely have been preparing for the Hammers long before he was unveiled at Spurs Lodge. And in the analysis he will have done, he will have concluded that West Ham are sh*te.
But so have Spurs been for much of this season and the question to be answered is how can Mourinho inspire an improvement beyond the inevitable new manager bounce?
Handily for Mourinho, his new group of players is well-versed in switching positions and systems – something that seemed to happened at least twice a game during Pochettino’s final season in charge. So adapting to what Mourinho wants should not be as difficult as if they had been used to rigidly sticking to one approach.
Mourinho will most likely send his Spurs out in a 4-2-3-1 formation but most fascinating will be which pegs he puts in which holes. Harry Kane will start up front; the other outfield players all have points to prove in the three days of training the new coach will have with his squad before they make the short trip to the London Stadium.
His midfield will be the most fascinating area to watch and the one most crucial to Mourinho’s hopes of an immediate and sustainable improvement. Behind Kane, Spurs have been a mess. Will Christian Eriksen get the opportunity in the No.10 position to demonstrate that he hasn’t completely zoned out? Either side, Dele Alli, Lucas Moura and Son Heung-Min may find themselves being pestered to track back, especially when Mourinho looks at his full-back options, but they will be expected to explode forward when Spurs win the ball, which West Ham will inevitably allow.
Mourinho has plenty of options for his defensive screen, with Tanguy Ndombele, Moussa Sissoko and Eric Dier all likely to be enthused by the change in leadership. Harry Winks may need to continue the form he showed for England over the last week or so, since the midfielder doesn’t appear to be Mourinho’s type. The new boss will give Winks an opportunity but he will have to make his case swiftly.
Mourinho will surely have spent a fair portion of his time this week getting to grips with his new back four. He cannot do anything about the personnel just yet but refining defensive shape is perhaps the quickest route to an improvement for Spurs. They may drop a little deeper with some added protection – Christ knows they have needed it.
Mr Pellegrino will hope that some local rivalry and the circus around Mourinho might inspire his players to improve upon their record of five defeats and two draws from their last seven. But the biggest intrigue this weekend focuses around their visitors and how Mourinho begins his mission to lift Spurs up from 14th in the table.
Team to watch – Arsenal
The international break is over and, much to many supporters’ irritation, Unai Emery remains the manager of Arsenal. His position, though, will come under even more intense scrutiny should the Gunners fail to convincingly beat a downtrodden Southampton side in a similar state of disarray.
It has been 11 matches since either of these sides has tasted a victory but absences of confidence or momentum won’t wash with Arsenal fans at the Emirates. Can Emery any longer inspire or provoke his hugely frustrating side to turn over a team that has lost its last three matches, conceding 15 goals in the process?
Going back to basics might help. Emery tried to influence the defeat at Leicester by moving to a back three, which is hardly an alien concept to Arsenal, but against second-from-bottom opposition at home, the Gunners boss should start by putting square pegs in similarly shaped holes.
That means a back four, with Kieran Tierney and Hector Bellerin either side of whichever centre-back pairing Emery fancies this week. And ahead of them, Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira, with the Uruguayan allowed to focus on what he’s good at, rather than being asked to be something he is not.
Up front, Arsenal’s attack should have a field day. With Nicolas Pepe and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang flanking Alexandre Lacazette, it should leave Mesut Ozil will plenty of room to pull strings on what should be a third consecutive start for the first time since April.
It should be simple. But, Arsenal.
Player to watch – Trent Alexander-Arnold
Not Cristiano Ronaldo, not Neymar. When Alexander-Arnold was asked to name his toughest opponent last year, it was a Crystal Palace player picked above everyone else.
“On the day, I’d say Zaha was the hardest,” the Liverpool defender told The Times last October. “Just his athleticism. You can’t get the ball off him, hard to tackle, fast, skilful, can score goals, set them up, a match-winner. With Neymar and Ronaldo, you can see they are very intelligent players, people who know their trade, different movements, but they never got much of the ball against us. Obviously Zaha is not at a level of Ronaldo and Neymar, but for me on the day Zaha was probably the hardest.”
Alexander-Arnold goes into battle against Zaha again on Saturday when Liverpool are looking to put more breathing space between themselves and their title rivals. Stopping Zaha at Selhurst Park will go a long way towards doing that.
Alexander-Arnold has received plenty of praise of his own in recent weeks because of his contribution to Liverpool’s attack. But the England international’s defending still leaves room for improvement. A fortnight ago, when Raheem Sterling was getting up a head of steam in the second half, rather than trust Alexander-Arnold to cope, Jurgen Klopp shifted the 21-year-old further forward and brought on Joe Gomez to sort out the City winger. Which caused its own problems – more for Gareth Southgate than Klopp.
While Alexander-Arnold has plenty to prove in his defensive duties, Zaha himself has a point to make after being shackled by Reece James at Chelsea last time out. It was the latest in a series of underwhelming performances from the winger, who is yet to score this season while having offered only a couple of assists. Catching the eye against a defender with chinks in his armour, regardless of his dangerous weapons, would be a start towards building some momentum for January.