There is no more international football for five months. Hooray! Firstly, many have always considered these breaks to be a bit of an annoyance as it means that club football is replaced for the weekend. But, nonetheless, playing international matches during the coronavirus pandemic was simply unfathomable. Of course, national team managers might have argued that they need preparation for the delayed European Championships but, quite frankly, it’s incredible that this huge event is still on!
Another positive aspect about the upcoming matches is that Sky and BT have ditched their paywall scheme. £14.95-per-match is in the bin. Hooray again! A small victory for the supporters of football teams who are struggling through these difficult times.
Game of the week
Tottenham Hotspur vs Manchester City: Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Saturday 17.30 (Sky Sports)
The Citizens feel as though they have been under new management. Guardiola has seemingly relaxed the gung-ho attacking demands that his teams had become accustomed to delivering. Such a transition is perhaps in light of the merciless full-throttle schedule that his players have to plough through. Playing with high energy in all matches might lead to burnout.
The return of Gabriel Jesus is huge for City. His expertly taken goal against Liverpool was a reminder that the Brazilian is far more than a placeholder in the eleven. Although, Guardiola would have happily taken a placeholder at the start of the season. The striker position simply doesn’t suit Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden or Ferran Torres.
Last season, Spurs won this match 2-0, although, they did ride their luck. In classic Jose Mourinho fashion, his players sat deep and put their bodies on the firing line whilst being efficient with their opportunities at the other end. They might not find as much joy against a more defensively disciplined Guardiola outfit but, equally, Son Heung-min and Harry Kane are world-class performers who can score against any opponent.
City are not as explosive as they once were. They have the capacity to be but they have been choosing a more relaxed press in favour of a solid defensive base. There are pros and cons to that less risky approach in a game of this magnitude; less likely to lose but also less likely to take three points.
Newcastle United vs Chelsea: St James’ Park, 12.30 (BT Sport)
Newcastle United have been picking up a steady collection of points, even if their performances didn’t necessarily warrant that total. Steve Bruce deploys a back-five and has been heavily reliant on the trickery of Allan Saint-Maximin and the goals of Callum Wilson. The lack of an obvious attacking plan has angered supporters and a feeble 2-0 defeat to Southampton compounded those frustrations before the international break. Such negativity is in stark contrast to their opponent.
Chelsea are booming. Like Newcastle, the Blues had been picking up points without playing particularly well. However, recent weeks have offered a teaser as to what life will be like when Frank Lampard’s team begin to get into first gear. They are likely to rest Thiago Silva after the Brazilian’s efforts over the international break and that should please Newcastle. Chelsea don’t have the same resolve when he is not in the defence.
The hosts are capable of digging in and being tough to beat. Karl Darlow’s impressive antics between the sticks have been massively beneficial in the absence of Martin Dubravka. But it’s hard to look beyond a comfortable win for the visitors. They’re steadily getting up to full speed and, when they do, they will take some stopping.
Aston Villa vs Brighton & Hove Albion: Villa Park, 15.00 (BT Sport)
Aston Villa have an incredibly exciting attacking quartet. Jack Grealish, Ross Barkley, John McGinn and Oliver Watkins absolutely ran riot at the Emirates against Arsenal. David Trezeguet is another man with an eye for a goal. However, Dean Smith’s men are much more effective on the counter-attack than when they are tasked with dismantling a deep-block. This game could be quite enjoyable.
Brighton & Hove Albion are set up to attack and play out from the back. They play with a level of risk. The Seagulls competed well against Tottenham at the home of the North Londoners but they were made to pay in the latter stages as Gareth Bale headed home an unmarked winner.
Both of these teams try to play football in the right way but there’s a bit more conviction with the hosts. They create opportunities and they finish them. Brighton create situations without the same level of efficiency and it puts a lot of pressure on their back-three. These are testing times for Graham Potter.
Manchester United vs West Bromwich Albion: Old Trafford, 20.00 (BT Sport)
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer batted off his critics once again after seeing his side win 3-1 against Everton before the international break. The players clearly like their manager. While results might not always be positive, this isn’t a repeat of the slump under Mourinho. In that run, the Portuguese manager had lost the dressing room.
Slaven Bilic is many people’s bet for the first manager to be sacked, however such a decision would be harsh. Bilic did wonderfully well to get the Baggies promoted and it’s probably tougher than ever before to survive in the top flight.
United are yet to win at Old Trafford this season so there may be a bit of a mental barrier to overcome. Albion will sit deep and hope for something on the break but it’s tough to see them getting anything at the Theatre of Dreams. A goal from Solskjaer’s team will knock the stuffing out of any resilience posed by the visitors.
Fulham vs Everton: Craven Cottage, 12.00 (BBC Sport)
Fulham were relegated on day-one according to many punters. But Scott Parker deserves tremendous credit for breathing fresh impetus into his players. It was a rough start to the campaign for the newly promoted outfit but they are finding their feet. They’re better at the back and they move forward with purpose.
Everton have fallen back down to Earth after their perfect start. A controversial point in the Merseyside derby has been proceeded by three straight defeats. Those losses have come amid their difficult injury crisis. However, defensive vulnerabilities are still a concern with Jordan Pickford struggling to convince with his hands.
This should be a close affair because Fulham are much better than they were at the start of the season. Everton have gone the other way; from unbeatables to underperformers. But the return of key-man Richarlison will give the Toffees an added bite in attack.
Sheffield United vs West Ham United, Bramall Lane, 14.00 (Sky Sports)
Chris Wilder has been hit with a dose of second-season syndrome; his team look vulnerable at the back and toothless in attack. It seems to be the same summary in every set of predictions. They pass the ball around relatively well but it's just not counting for very much.
By contrast, David Moyes has had a very respectable start to the campaign. They had a nightmare set of fixtures and West Ham have managed to plough through them without too much pain. They have only lost three matches out of their first eight, picking up a point away at Tottenham and winning 3-0 at Leicester.
Something has to give for the Blades and this is one of those games where it might. Their London-based opponents always seem to raise their game against the big-six but, over the years, their mentality has come under question against the lesser teams.
Leeds United vs Arsenal: Elland Road, 16.30 (Sky Sports)
The Marcelo Bielsa sceptics are out and Leeds United fans are laughing in amusement. A few weeks ago, Bielsa was a god but two sluggish defeats to Leicester City and Crystal Palace have suddenly changed the perspective of pundits. Some are suggesting that he cannot keep Leeds in the top-flight if they continue to play with such high risk. Utter nonsense! You cannot win every match and there has been enough justification for Bielsa’s style in the opening eight league matches of the season.
Mikel Arteta is another manager who is seeing a few doubters. The Spaniard won back-to-back trophies over the summer but a recent 3-0 slump at home to Aston Villa has not impressed supporters. It is clear that Arteta is trying to achieve Champions League qualification with a squad that simply isn’t at that level; he has created a flexible system that is designed to get the most out of what he has. His team seem to prefer sitting in a deep shape and attacking teams on the counter-attack; they are not as well equipped to control matches.
Leeds will be confident that they can overturn the Gunners and that could play into Arteta’s hands. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will be desperate to find his goal-scoring touch again after just one goal in his last seven Premier League matches, and that was from the penalty spot!
Liverpool vs Leicester City: Anfield, 19.15 (Sky Sports)
Jurgen Klopp must have UEFA officials on his hit-list after seeing his players disintegrate over the international break. Joe Gomez, like Virgil van Dijk, is now set to miss the bulk of the season after an innocuous injury in training. Trent Alexander-Arnold is set to miss a month of action while Jordan Henderson and Andy Robertson have also picked up niggles. Mohammed Salah has also tested positive for Covid-19. Murphy’s law (not Danny)!
However, Fabinho and Thiago Alcantara, who have also been nursing injuries, are progressing well ahead of this weekend's match.
With Liverpool looking the way that they do, Leicester should be confident when they head to Anfield. Brendan Rodgers can certainly relate to a tragic injury crisis. He is without the excellent Wilfried Ndidi for several more months and the equally outstanding Ricardo Pereira has also been a victim of a long-term layoff. Around them, James Maddison, Jonny Evans and Calgar Soyuncu have all been absent during this campaign.
Leicester have adapted to their troubles by switching to a counter-attacking style, something they excelled in during their title winning season. Liverpool will also have to change their ways if they are to remain successful. A high-line seems suicidal at the moment. But the Reds do have the bulk of their offensive-minded players available and will really benefit from the return of Thiago to counter the creative losses of Alexander-Arnold.
One imagines Klopp will try to gain an early advantage before holding onto that with a deep-block. Their defence is heavily depleted and could feature one or two academy graduates. They will not naively play into Leicester’s hands, like Man City did, but the Foxes will be a tough test for this makeshift backline.
Burnley vs Crystal Palace: Turf Moor, 17.30 (Sky Sports)
Burnley have managed two clean sheets in their previous four matches of football but those shutouts haven’t managed to yield that elusive first league victory of the season. The return of captain Ben Mee is a huge plus for Sean Dyche and his composure in defence was much needed in the draw against Brighton.
Crystal Palace and Roy Hodgson are very much a southern doppelganger of the Clarets. They have a defence-first mindset and will look to hold onto leads instead of aiming to rack up the goals. Unlike Burnley, Wilfried Zaha, Andros Townsend, Eberechi Eze and Jordan Ayew all offer genuine pace that can be utilised in counters.
Theoretically, whoever scores the first goal should feel supremely confident. These are two teams that nudge ahead in matches and effectively hold onto what they have. Unfortunately for Burnley, they are desperately short of luck at the moment and it wouldn't be too surprising if they were able to break their goal-scoring duck without taking all the points.
Wolverhampton Wanderers vs Southampton: Molineux, 20.00 (Sky Sports)
The best of the rest.
What Wolverhampton Wanderers have achieved in such a short space of time is quite astonishing. Yes, they have spent money but so did Queens Park Rangers a number of years ago. Excessive spending means very little. Nuno Espirito Santo is a commanding presence and his pragmatic tactics have provided the foundations for Wolves to gatecrash the European spots. They didn’t invest heavily in the summer, though, so a small drop off should be expected.
Southampton are due their moment in the sun. Ralph Hasenhuttl hit rock bottom with a dismal 9-0 defeat against Leicester but the Austrian has slowly been building his back up. Their momentous wave took a brief dip at the start of this campaign but, once again, the Saints dug deep and they were briefly at the top of the table!
It’s a slower pace and a tight structural shape versus high speed and tenacity. Southampton are without Danny Ings but Che Adams remains a very dangerous threat in attack.