Game to watch – Tottenham vs Chelsea
It was supposed to be Mauricio Pochettino under pressure. On the eve of the season, with Kyle Walker gone, Eric Dier wanting to go and Danny Rose plotting his own exit, Pochettino was in damage limitation mode. Headlines intimated that Tottenham were in crisis, with the first-team squad backing Rose in his very public desire to, at the very least, increase his wages.
At that time, this fixture loomed large. Chelsea, the defending champions, would breeze past Burnley and arrive at Wembley intent on repeating their FA Cup semi-final victory of April. Then the interrogation of Pochettino, his methods and his overall plan for Tottenham could truly start.
What a difference a week makes. Tottenham were hardly dominant against Newcastle’s 11 men but eventually won against ten, yet it is Chelsea who are suddenly the top-six crisis club. Last season felt like a campaign of manufactured crisis, but 2017/18 has started at an even quicker rate.
Writing for ESPN, Mark Ogden noted this week that ‘one of the above would be a problem if Chelsea were winning, but results are going against them and Conte’s recent mistakes will return to haunt him if his team fails to find some form quickly.’ A reminder that Chelsea have played one competitive match since lifting the Premier League trophy.
Yet there is pressure on Conte after the defeat to Burnley. Whether it is the fault of him, Michael Emenalo, Roman Abramovich, the players or a combination of the whole shabang, Chelsea are light on squad players and stretched for the trip to Wembley. The bench last Saturday already resembled a hotchpotch band of unlikely brothers. Now Cesc Fabregas and Gary Cahill are also unavailable.
If Chelsea are the most unsettled member of the top six, suddenly everything looks more tranquil at Tottenham. The one benefit of such a low turnover of players this summer is that it should not take any time to bed a new-look team into the season. There are few better sides in Europe at exploiting the flaws of others with high-intensity football. Chelsea know that from the same fixture last season.
That is not to say Tottenham are under no pressure, for there is still the ‘W’ factor to overcome. Since the start of 2009, Spurs have played nine games at the national stadium, winning one and losing seven. There is nobody at the club, on the playing staff or otherwise, who is delighted about the prospect of playing there. Pochettino has spoken previously about the bigger pitch hampering their press. Visiting teams will see that as a weakness they can exploit.
It is therefore an intriguing match in prospect. Lose and the fear will grow within Chelsea that they are heading for another 2015/16 struggle. Lose and the fear will grow within Tottenham that their temporary home will undermine their hopes of maintaining such excellent progression. 1-1 it is, then.
Player to watch – Sead Kolasinac
There is little doubt that Kolasinac is going to be box office, but box office isn’t exactly what Arsene Wenger needs. He already has a vibrant band of attacking options should Alexis Sanchez stay put, but defensively he needs business, not party.
Gary Neville was quick to point out the Bosnian’s deficiencies against Leicester last Friday, and he was right to label him as irresponsible. Wenger picked him as a central defender and would therefore have expected a level of positional discipline that Kolasinac failed to provide.
His obvious answer to Wenger might be that he is a left-back rather than central defender, and he has a point. By the end of the Leicester game, Arsenal had a right wing-back at left-back, the starting left wing-back at right-back and two left-backs in central defence. At least Petr Cech is definitely a goalkeeper, as much as his decision-making on crosses might have convinced you otherwise.
If Arsenal stick with the same shape against Stoke, Xherdan Shaqiri will be licking his lips. His best position is just behind a right wing-back and wide of the third central defender, and he will look to revel in the space afforded to him by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s natural attacking instincts.
If that is the case, Kolasinac will need to be on his best behaviour if Arsenal are to succeed again. Wenger will not need anybody to tell him that conceding three goals a game is a difficult strategy when attempting to get back into the Champions League.
Team to watch – West Ham
For all the calamity of West Ham’s defending last weekend, Slaven Bilic might reasonably plead that we should see how many other teams Manchester United rip apart at Old Trafford this season before tearing into his own club. It’s a strong argument.
Yet that does not mean Bilic gets away scot-free. One of the hallmarks of West Ham’s 2016/17 season was a lack of defensive organisation, and that is something on which Bilic must have worked. Should they falter again at Southampton on Saturday – who failed to score against Swansea – the suspicion will grow that it is the manager that is the problem rather than the personnel.
Bilic was given a deservedly gentle ride last season after West Ham failed to improve the squad and then sold their best player. Having been backed over the course of this summer, particularly with the signing of Javier Hernandez, Bilic will know that he needs to take West Ham back into the top half. Thanks to the intricacies of their home stadium, starting the season with three straight away games means they may be playing catch-up before August ends.
Manager to watch – Rafael Benitez
Testing times. If there is anything more depressing than being allowed to buy Stoke’s fourth-choice striker – behind 36-year-old Peter Crouch – because the Potters have signed a forward from Paris Saint-Germain, then I don’t want to experience it. Those Newcastle supporters, and manager, who demanded improvements to the squad have seen seven players arrive this summer, but only one or two of them are obvious upgrades. And even they will take time to settle.
Benitez has made no secret of his unhappiness at Newcastle’s lack of proaction this summer. They have been slow to move for players, slow to tie up deals and slow to accept the reality of this changed transfer market. This was a squad light on numbers even before injuries to Paul Dummett and Florian Lejeune and the suspension to Jonjo Shelvey.
Against a team they beat in the same fixture and finished above last season, Newcastle could do with getting on the board. Lose again, and the talk again will be of crisis at a club for whom that seems the natural state.
One-on-one battle to watch – Christian Benteke vs Liverpool’s central defenders
Last week I selected Andre Gray for this same battle, but Watford didn’t even need him to cause Liverpool the exact problems that I feared could be their undoing. If Jurgen Klopp thought that Stefano Okaka’s physical presence had given him a Saturday afternoon headache, Christian Benteke will try and do the same but with an added point to prove.
There is no secret to Liverpool’s weakness, no masterplan to cause their downfall. Tell your wingers to hit the byline and either cross the ball to Benteke’s head or win a corner from which your biggest players can take advantage of Liverpool’s shambolic use of zonal marking. If that doesn’t work, let them over-commit players forward and catch them on the counter attack.
It’s certainly a strategy for Palace, who have won on their last three trips to Anfield. And who scored both of their goals in this fixture last season? Benteke, that’s who.
European game to watch – Bayern Munich vs Bayer Leverkusen
Milan are officially the most interesting team to watch in Europe this season, but Bayern Munich aren’t far behind. Having accepted that only an unthinkable clusterf*ck would see them fail to win the Bundesliga title, Bayern have decided to invest in the future of their squad.
Carlo Ancelotti has paid fees for four players, aged 22, 21, 21 and 21. Corentin Tolisso is the most exciting, hopeful that a promising first season in Germany could see him break into the France squad for next summer’s World Cup, while Kingsley Coman has joined on a permanent deal from Juventus after his loan spell.
Leverkusen are trying to rebuild after a miserable 2016/17, in which they finished 12th. Hernandez has gone to West Ham, Omer Toprak to Borussia Dortmund and Hakan Calhanoglu to Milan, leaving supporters worried about a campaign in which Leverkusen might have to look down rather than up. Sven Bender has joined from Dortmund, but that is the only arrival for more than £2m.
If you needed any other reason to watch, the game is on Friday evening and fills the void of Arsenal vs Leicester without any Premier League football. What else are you going to do, talk to people?
Daniel Storey – Buy Daniel’s book and donate to charity in the process. Be nice.