Game to watch – Liverpool vs Arsenal
Well of course. For whichever side loses at Anfield on Sunday, a bubble bursts very early on in the season. Not everyone agrees on which four teams will finish in the top four places come May, but most agree that there will not be room for both Liverpool and Arsenal. It is hardly as simple as this basic equation, but Arsenal’s two losses to Jurgen Klopp’s team cost them their Champions League place last season. It did not cost Arsene Wenger his job.
This time, Wenger dare not lose. There is an extreme reaction every time Arsenal are beaten, a melodrama that Wenger’s continued employment at least helps to fuel, but the manager can reasonably protest that his side were dominant against Stoke and merited victory in a game they simply could not win. Should they lose their second away game in eight days at Anfield, Arsenal will be in the bottom half and with no Champions League football as they head into the first international break of the season. The season suddenly begins to feel very long indeed, and Wenger’s two-year contract far longer still.
Yet Klopp would hardly welcome a home defeat either. His side dominated Crystal Palace and kept a clean sheet before guaranteeing their Champions League qualification in midweek, but this is not the time for backward steps. Klopp will be hopeful that Liverpool’s renewed optimism over Champions League participation will give the squad a feelgood factor that helps account for some of the sapping workload, but lose to Arsenal and the questions about squad depth and the club’s inability to land their transfer targets will only resume.
If a draw – and the subsequent lack of panic – therefore suits both managers, this fixture is hardly set up for both teams to play for that eventuality. These were the worst two defences in the top six last season, and both have soft underbellies that can undermine even the most resolute of performances at the drop of a hat.
In fact, those flaws are exactly what makes this the game of the weekend for the neutral. This fixture contained 11 goals in two games last season, has contained 35 goals in the last eight meetings and the last ten at Anfield have produced a ridiculous 44. Of the 19 Premier League games with 15 or more shots on target last season, eight involved Arsenal or Liverpool. Finally, watch out for the two goalkeepers. The 11 goals in the two fixtures last season came from just 22 shots on target.
Player to watch – Harry Kane
If Tottenham have their weird hoodoo to overcome on Sunday afternoon, so too does their striker. Harry Kane has now gone ten Premier League games without a goal in August, and last Sunday against Chelsea had eight shots without scoring, his highest unsuccessful total ever. Those who consider him unlucky for hitting the post should be reminded that the goalposts don’t move.
Kane has now had 14 shots without scoring this season, at least five more than any other player in the division. His August problems are not an issue of finding space or making chances for himself to score, but of finishing those chances. For a striker who has scored 78 goals in 118 Premier League appearances, it is an odd blind spot.
“It is something that is spoken about a lot, but I am not too bothered by it,” was Kane’s understandably straight-batted response when questioned about his summer drought. “It is part of the game, I just need to keep working hard, keep my head down and I am sure the goals will come.”
Perhaps there is something in Kane being a confidence striker who needs one goal to start a run, a player for whom ‘the zone’ lasts longer than most but also takes a while to come after the summer break. Or perhaps this is just a twist of statistical fate that in five years people will look back on and raise their eyebrows.
On Sunday, Kane has the chance to make the latter far more likely than the former. Fail to score against Burnley, and he will go into September once again looking to use international football to light the blue touch paper for his club season.
Team to watch – Chelsea
From a position of crisis, Chelsea are suddenly buoyant again. Should they be the first team to beat Everton in all competitions this season, Antonio Conte’s side might well be in the top six and the murmurs about unrest and senior players backing Diego Costa look a little foolish.
Yet there is an argument that Conte’s team were more than a little fortunate against Tottenham. Mauricio Pochettino’s side had 18 shots in total. The last time Chelsea allowed the opposition so many shots in a league game was on May 15, 2016, when Guus Hiddink was in charge. Were Conte’s team not fortunate that Kane mislaid his shooting boots?
With that in mind, this is an important fixture for Chelsea. Should they fail to beat Everton, they will head into the international break in the bottom half, with a difficult Champions League draw and virtually eliminated from the EFL Cup given that they face Nottingham Forest at home. Win, and suddenly that title retention doesn’t look so foolish with players expected to arrive before the close of the transfer window.
Manager to watch – Eddie Howe
You have to admire Howe’s honesty. When asked the reason for Bournemouth’s dismal performance against Watford last weekend, their manager scratched his head, looked around a bit and then shrugged slightly.
“I’m really disappointed from our perspective,” he said. “I felt we started OK, but then lost direction in the game and it was no surprise to see Watford score really. I can’t turn round and say that Watford did not deserve to win. It is really unlike us, I can’t put my finger on it.”
Howe needs to start putting his finger on it, because Bournemouth were bloody wretched. This is the same team, bar a few notable improvements, as the one that finished miles above the relegation zone last season, and yet have been woeful in attack and even worse defensively. It’s a bit of a mystery given that Bournemouth were many people’s tip to be the surprise package of the season.
As Peter Goldstein wrote on Monday, Bournemouth have allowed 35 shots in two matches. Given that the defence has not changed from the start of last season – when Nathan Ake was on loan – it isn’t hard to diagnose that Howe is missing a reliable central midfielder to screen that defence. Neither Harry Arter nor Andrew Surman are that.
Against Birmingham on Tuesday, Lewis Cook played that role. Given his success with England’s Under-20 team this summer and the loss of Jack ‘hold me back lads’ Wilshere, would it not be a reasonable idea to give Cook a chance?
Whatever solution Howe lands upon, he could do with it working. If you thought Bournemouth struggled against West Brom and Watford, wait until Manchester City’s band of attacking brothers walk into town.
One-on-one battle to watch – Paul Pogba vs Wilfred Ndidi
There is an instant response to anyone that pours praise on Paul Pogba for his first two league performances this season. Roque Mesa struggled for Swansea on Saturday lunchtime, and French and Saunders could probably have done a better protecting job than Noble and Obiang.
But at least part of the reason for those shoddy performances is that Pogba makes players look bad with his fantastic movement, ball control and skill. Asking Mark Noble to shadow Pogba is like asking a chihuahua to be a bouncer.
On Saturday against Leicester, Pogba will truly be tested against an excellent central midfielder tasked with stopping him at source. Wilfred Ndidi was one of the signings of the January transfer window, crucial in Leicester’s resurgence in form. Since his first start in the Premier League, the only player to have made more tackles is the player he (eventually) replaced: N’Golo Kante.
Should Pogba mesmerise Ndidi as he did Mesa, Noble and Obiang, we can start talking about his majestic form without fear of being shouted down.
Football League game to watch – Nottingham Forest vs Leeds United
Two clubs who have sold their best striker for £15m, and somehow look more dangerous going forward without them. Nottingham Forest were predicted by many to finish in the Championship’s lower reaches after Britt Assombalonga left for Middlesbrough, but have won five of their six matches and scored 13 goals. The signings of Barrie McKay and Jason Cummings from Rangers and Hibs respectively look like outrageous bargains for a combined total of £1.5m. Add in Ben Brereton and Zach Clough, and Forest have four first-team forwards aged 22 or under.
Leeds, meanwhile, are in a state of flux after Chris Wood signed for Burnley. They have signed Jay-Roy Grot – a truly exceptional name – from NEC Nijmegen, who will be a gamble, and are also interested in Middlesbrough’s Rudy Gestede. Kemar Roofe may get a chance at the City Ground on Saturday.
In a Championship that promises to be more open than ever with few obvious standout favourites for promotion, fans of both clubs will consider this their best shot at promotion for years, while also being content with a season in which something absolutely ridiculous doesn’t happen off the field. The last time Forest went an entire calendar year with sacking a manager was 2010. The last time Leeds did the same was 2011.