Anyone who says they know what to expect from Man Utd versus Spurs is lying to you. Also: it’s a biggie for Brendan, Villa, Nunez, and Arsenal in the Europa League…
Game to watch – Manchester United v Tottenham
Like most managers taking over a failing team, Erik ten Hag’s first job was to firm up Manchester United. If that wasn’t already abundantly clear, defeats at Brighton and Brentford thrust the priority into sharp focus. With that objective largely achieved, now Ten Hag has to get to work on their attacking deficiencies.
United failed to break down Newcastle on Sunday in the latest frustrating episode for home supporters at Old Trafford against stubborn opposition. That isn’t to say that the Red Devils didn’t create chances – they missed gilt-edged opportunities in the late stages – but they aren’t creating enough. And, certainly in the last week, those they have carved out, they haven’t finished.
Ten Hag’s men have scored 12 Premier League goals from an xG of 12. They are ranked 11th for goals scored per 90, despite their frontline containing Cristiano Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford and Antony. The manager may wish to include Antony Martial, but three separate injury concerns already this term only reinforce the view that the flaky Frenchman cannot be relied upon.
The identity of the forwards doesn’t change the general view that United’s edge is too easy to blunt. Christian Eriksen’s absence on Sunday was evident and Ten Hag can only hope the Denmark midfielder recovers from illness in time to face his former side at Old Trafford on Wednesday night.
Tottenham themselves continue to flummox. And Antonio Conte has a similar issue with the balance and make-up of his forward line. Son Heung-min has toiled for much of the season and Richarlison – injured now anyway – has struggled to find his fluency after his summer move. Harry Kane has propped up Spurs, but Conte is still ruing the absence of Dejan Kulusevski.
There is no obvious immediate solution in sight for either boss ahead of the midweek meeting at Old Trafford. But with both defences generally sound, the focus for United and Tottenham will be to get their forward lines firing, especially the hosts, who could fall 10 points behind Spurs if they fall to defeat.
Team to watch – Aston Villa
Villa needed to offer something, anything, against Chelsea to ease the pressure on Steven Gerrard. Did they do enough? The Villans didn’t make it any worse for their manager, even if the 2-0 defeat – prompted by individual errors – brought little in the way of relief.
The visit of Chelsea wasn’t must-win for Gerrard but their trip to Fulham will be taken as a measure of the scale of the problems at Villa. The result at Craven Cottage, regardless of their performance, will carry far more prominence when the Villa hierarchy judge the manager’s immediate employment prospects.
Many Villa fans have already reached their verdict and, despite some encouragement in aspects of their performance, plenty didn’t bother to stick around to greet the final whistle with either acknowledgement or dissent.
What can Gerrard do? He can hardly be blamed for Tyrone Mings’ inexplicable header that gifted Mason Mount his opener, or Emiliano Martinez wandering behind his wall for Mount’s and Chelsea’s second. Villa’s attacking deficiencies are also an issue for individuals wasting chances, but structurally, Gerrard is yet to find a balance that makes his side a regular and prominent threat.
Villa actually had their joint-highest xG of the season against Chelsea, with their most creative influences Philippe Coutinho and Emi Buendia both benched for the majority of the 90 minutes. In their previous four games, unbeaten with three draws and a win, only once did they record an xG higher than 1.00.
It’s a balance Villa have failed to find all season – and into last term. Gerrard has been grappling with the same problem for most of his 11 months in charge. He needs to find an answer this week.
Manager to watch – Brendan Rodgers
Gerrard wasn’t the only manager to cop flak from his side’s supporters on home soil this weekend. Leicester were booed off after a 0-0 draw with Palace, during which the Foxes felt it necessary to cancel birthday announcements because they were being sabotaged by those urging the club to ditch Rodgers.
We assume the same policy will be in place when Leeds United rock up to the King Power on Thursday evening. Leeds have their own problems and the scrutiny is on Jesse Marsch. But the American still has enough patience and support in the bank; Rodgers has exhausted almost all of lines of credit.
Leicester owners are maintaining their faith for now, though that may be more because of the costs associated with axing Rodgers rather than what belief they retain in the manager to drag the Foxes up the league. Khun Top certainly didn’t look a happy man as he watched Leicester acknowledge the supporters who stuck around upon the final whistle on Saturday lunchtime. Just down from him, Gareth Southgate looked utterly bewildered after he went to Leicester to be seen to be at least watching James Maddison.
Maddison will be missing against Leeds, a side who gave leaders Arsenal a rough time on Sunday, after collecting a fifth booking in the dying stages on Saturday for a dive that highlighted Leicester’s desperation as they drifted towards another disappointing outcome. It is that drift Rodgers has to reverse in time for two fixtures – they go to Wolves on Sunday – against fellow bottom-six strugglers.
Player to watch – Darwin Nunez
As Tickers discussed in his 16 Conclusions in the wake of Liverpool’s win over Manchester City, we’re becoming big fans of the chaos that seems to follow the Reds’ big summer signing. We’re just not sure yet if that’s a compliment.
Nunez came off the bench for the final 20 minutes during which time he fluffed a sitter to make the game safe having already made an even bigger mess of a three-on-one situation when Mo Salah was had the goal gaping. Did Nunez see Salah? He must have. He was in his line of sight and the passing lane was laid. Nunez, hilariously or infuriatingly depending on your allegiance, just chose to go down a dead end.
Mercifully for Nunez, Liverpool won and the post-match agenda had plenty of talking points above his questionable decision-making. But it was a cameo contribution worthy of scrutiny, especially now Jurgen Klopp’s attacking options have been limited further still by an injury to Diogo Jota.
The Portugal forward’s misfortune makes it more likely Nunez will be in Klopp’s XI when West Ham come to Anfield on Wednesday. If Liverpool are to make the City win a turning point, they may need their £85million striker to find some composure to put behind him a ‘frantic and raw’ start to life in the Premier League.
European game to watch – Arsenal v PSV Eindhoven
This midweek should have been even bigger, with a reeling Manchester City side due to visit an Arsenal side buoyed by retaining their lead at the top of the table while also having celebrated Invincibles Day 2022-23 upon Liverpool’s win on Sunday. But, instead, the Gunners will welcome PSV Eindhoven to the Emirates for a Europa League clash rescheduled from the period of national mourning after the death of the Queen.
Mikel Arteta has to perform a delicate balancing act. At stake against PSV is top spot in Group A and the possibility for the hosts to put a five-point gap between themselves at the Dutchmen with two games to go. If Arteta goes too far with his rotation, he risks losing the ascendancy when only the group winners qualify automatically, as well as a hefty portion of their momentum.
And PSV are no mugs. In Cody Gakpo, they have a forward currently on 13 goals and 11 assists in 13 games in all competitions. No player in Europe has had a hand in more goals so far this season. Maybe Man Utd should have dug deeper for the 23-year-old. As a team, PSV have bagged 17 in their last four games.
They represent the biggest test in Europe so far for Arsenal, who have won all their games following Europa League fixtures up to now but, as the win at Leeds highlighted, they are having to dig increasingly deep. Before they go to Southampton on Sunday, the Gunners have to take care of business while Arteta takes care of his squad.
READ MORE: Premier League winners and losers: Arsenal’s champion week and Guardiola’s Anfield complex
EFL game to watch – Blackburn v Sunderland
There’s a full programme in the Championship this week, with Tony Mowbray’s return to Blackburn on the box on Tuesday evening.
After five years in charge, Mowbray was allowed to drift out of Ewood Park in the summer before he resurfaced at the Stadium of Light upon Alex Neil’s departure. He goes back to Lancashire with the ninth-placed Black Cats looking to move to within a point of Rovers, who sit in fifth. Such is the ridiculousness of the Championship, however, nine teams below Mowbray’s men are just one win from leapfrogging them.
Like everyone else, Blackburn have been consistently inconsistent. Their run of form over the last 10 games: LWLWLWLWLW. If they can arrest that sequence, they could go top of the table by beating the Black Cats.