Chelsea and Liverpool could both be vulnerable, Nathan Aké has a rare chance and are Newcastle the Entertainers again?
Clockwise from left: Kepa Arrizabalaga, Nathan Aké strikes a pose, Callum Wilson of Newcastle and Burnley’s Dwight McNeil. Composite: ProSports/Shutterstock; Manchester City FC via Getty; BPI/Shutterstock; Reuters
1) The big Chelsea v Liverpool showdown
Last season Liverpool won 15 league games by the odd goal, and began their title defence in similar style, beating Leeds 4-3 in an indecently entertaining match. But this habit is not an easy one to sustain, and it is worth nothing that they have lost five of their past 14 games, conceding 19 times in the process. It is true that now is a good time to play Chelsea – Kepa Arrizabalaga is still first choice, Ben Chilwell and Hakim Ziyech are unfit, and Timo Werner and Kai Havertz have not fully settled. But Werner still looked sharp against Brighton, while Havertz can change the course of a game at any moment. If Chelsea somehow refrain from tossing goals in their own net, they will ask some serious questions of a back four that has looked more vulnerable of late. DH
- Chelsea v Liverpool (Sunday, 4.30pm – all times BST)
2) Aké’s early chance to prove himself?
With Aymeric Laporte’s build-up to the season interrupted by a positive test for Covid-19, John Stones short of match practice having been left out of England’s squad for the Nations League games against Iceland and Denmark, a similarly rusty Nicolás Otamendi left on the bench for four of City’s final six games of last season, and with new reinforcements possibly arriving, City go into this match with a defence looking unusually fragile. All of which presents Nathan Aké with the kind of opportunity to cement a place in the first team. The Dutchman’s versatility has been both a blessing and a curse – he has excelled at defensive midfield and at left-back, where he played twice for the Netherlands earlier this month, as well as at centre-back – but Monday at Molineux might bring the opportunity to shine at the heart of defence in a title-challenging squad; something that he never really got at Chelsea and has been working for ever since. SB
- Wolves v Manchester City (Monday, 8.15pm)
3) Arteta’s feelgood factor to overwhelm Hammers?
Fresh from putting the biggest open secret in football to bed and signing his new contract, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang could hardly have a more appetising task ahead of him. West Ham are the ideal opponents for a celebration, at least on the evidence of a poor defeat to Newcastle, and need to strengthen their back line as a matter of urgency. For Arsenal this is an excellent opportunity to continue harnessing the good feeling Mikel Arteta has built up over the summer. Liverpool lie in wait after this but six points from six would be a strong start. West Ham did cause Arsenal plenty of trouble in the final match before lockdown, feeling mightily unfortunate to lose to Alexandre Lacazette’s goal, but it would take a brave onlooker to predict them doing the same this time. Aubameyang looks to have been further energised by the fluidity Willian has brought to Arsenal’s attack and that relationship should receive further opportunities to flourish here. NA
- Arsenal v West Ham (Saturday, 8pm)
4) Manchester United spreading load beyond Fernandes
The difference between Manchester United and a serious title tilt is probably not Donny van de Beek, but he looks a shrewd acquisition nevertheless. By the end of last season Bruno Fernandes was barely a hologram, Ole Gunnar Solskjær left with no choice but to select him in every game because he was so central to the team’s play. Now, though, there is an alternative – but Van de Beek is much more than that; a clever runner and enterprising passer blessed with the gift of timing, who will be seeking regular starts. Given Fernandes has only just returned to training, there is a strong chance the Dutch midfielder is handed one against Crystal Palace, for a game in which United’s lack of preparedness could easily cost them. But beyond that it will be interesting to see whether Solskjær will deploy Fernandes and Van de Beek in tandem, with Paul Pogba playing the anchor role – he has the passing, the physicality and, as we saw in the World Cup, the discipline too. If United can incorporate such talents into a coherent threesome, they are in business. DH
- Manchester United v Crystal Palace (Saturday, 5.30pm)
5) McNeil can show Leicester why they wanted him
Dwight McNeil was heavily linked with Leicester earlier this summer, but the apparently imminent arrival of Cengis Under would appear to fill the Foxes’ quota of young, creative left-footers with any further arrivals surely jeopardising Harvey Barnes’s place in the team. McNeil created 12 major chances last season – joint eighth in the Premier League, along with Willian, Son Heung-min and Leicester’s Jamie Vardy, but four more than Leicester’s most creative midfielders, James Maddison and Youri Tielemans – even if only half of them were converted. He also set up the goal that put Burnley ahead in this fixture last term, when Leicester came back to win 2-1, and Sean Dyche has said that his development would be best served by remaining at Burnley, where he is becoming “a very rounded player”. It is hard to tell how serious Leicester were in their pursuit, but this weekend McNeil gets a chance to show them what they missed. SB
- Leicester City v Burnley (Sunday, 7pm)
6) Leeds have dazzled, now can they win?
Back in June, Leeds wiped the floor with Fulham at Elland Road. They went top of the Championship with a 3-0 win and their opponents’ woes were compounded when Aleksandar Mitrovic received a three-game ban for elbowing Ben White. The fixture is repeated on Saturday. Leeds dazzled in defeat to Liverpool on the opening day but need to show they can win points at this level when expected; Fulham were troublingly limp in defeat to Arsenal but they may, at least, have extra firepower to call upon now. Mitrovic, who was injured at the end of last season, was eased back off the bench last weekend but started at Ipswich in the League Cup on Wednesday and headed a trademark winner. Fulham look sorely reliant on him if they are to avoid serious troublew. NA
- Leeds v Fulham (Saturday, 3pm)
7) Reguilón and Bale will help but Spurs still rudderless
There is no doubt that Sergio Reguilón and Gareth Bale would improve Tottenham, but their squad still has major holes. They could use a commanding, ball-playing centre-back with pace – who couldn’t? – and decent back-up for Harry Kane – but it is in midfield that they look, to quote the famous simile, as miserable as Mourinho. Against Everton, Harry Winks and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg played behind Dele Alli in front; Winks and Højbjerg are adequate players, tidy and aggressive respectively, but not good enough to decide how things go. A fit Giovani Lo Celso will help, but because Mourinho is unlikely to play him alongside another attack-minded player, it is hard to see Spurs doing much beyond waiting to counter while hoping not to concede. It is impossible to escape the feeling of liminality. DH
- Southampton v Tottenham (Sunday, 12pm)
8) Albion’s Goodison trip recalls great Pulis heist
West Brom have been much-mentioned around Goodison Park this week, given that in Everton’s one-sided victory over Salford in the Carabao Cup they took 32 shots, which as several statisticians pointed out was the most they have taken in one game since the visit of the Baggies in February 2016. That match must go down as one of the most outrageous point-thefts in footballing history, as a West Brom side that enjoyed only 24% of possession and conceded 33 shots (to five of their own) and 14 corners (to their own one) scored with their only shot on target to earn a 1-0 win in an example of peak Pulis-ball. “It is one of those moments in football sometimes that are difficult to explain,” frowned Roberto Martínez, Everton’s then manager. It was only four years ago but including the managers only three people involved that day are still active in the Premier League: Everton’s Séamus Coleman, West Brom’s Jonny Evans, now at Leicester, and the referee, Michael Oliver. SB
9) Villa’s strengthened spine on view
Emiliano Martínez is expected to make his debut for Aston Villa against Sheffield United, capping a whirlwind three months for the goalkeeper. When football restarted after the Covid-19 shutdown, Martínez was widely viewed as a competent if unremarkable deputy to Bernd Leno. This week he was transferred for £20m, to considerably mixed feelings around Arsenal, and those who backed him throughout a difficult decade in north London are convinced that he will quickly become established as one of the league’s best in his position. His arrival should strengthen Villa’s spine significantly and, given they also wish to sign Bertrand Traoré and Milot Rashica, the big signings are unlikely to end there. Villa look bright, ambitious and well poised to push on from last term’s great escape. NA
- Aston Villa v Sheffield United (Monday, 6pm)
10) Saving the best for last?
The capacity of football and 2020 to surprise is much fabled, but excited anticipation of a game between Newcastle and Brighton feels like something beyond even those two giants of the unexpected … except here we are. Newcastle were excellent last weekend, and it was clear from those 90 minutes at West Ham that the responsibility to do something worth seeing no longer rests solely on Allan Saint-Maximin. Jeff Hendrick, Ryan Fraser and Jamal Lewis were smart signings who offer varieties of attacking impetus and Callum Wilson is a proven Premier League striker, whose all-round game facilitates their best attributes; a 90-minute tussle with him and Andy Carroll feels about as much fun as … football in 2020. Brighton, meanwhile, played really well in defeat against Chelsea. Tariq Lamptey’s purpose and thrust has been a revelation, while Yves Bissouma is growing into a fine player, brimming with energy and quality. Now Neal Maupay and Leandro Trossard are together up front, it is harder to see from where an opponent’s clean sheet might come. This might just be the most entertaining game of the weekend. DH
- Newcastle v Brighton (Sunday, 2pm)