Game to watch – Tottenham vs Liverpool
Eleven months ago, this fixture marked the lowest point of Jurgen Klopp’s tenure as Liverpool manager. In October 2017, his team were brushed aside 4-1 at Wembley to drop to ninth in the Premier League. Klopp would spend the following week discussing his substitution of Dejan Lovren before half-time and fielding questions about whether he feared the sack.
But that defeat was also a turning point. Liverpool won ten and drew four of their next 14 league games, and have only lost three times in the Premier League since. Lovren’s Wembley nightmare was not the sole reason for the purchase of Virgil van Dijk in January, but it did make signing a central defender a priority. Klopp brought his players together after that humbling and insisted that they must improve. Improve they have.
Back at the scene of the defeat, Liverpool now have the chance to prove that they have moved past the team that have finished ahead of them in each of the last three seasons and can truly be considered worthy title challengers. Tottenham are the only team to have made the top three in each of the last three years, but they and Liverpool enjoyed contrasting summers. Klopp has been permitted to recruit players to fuel a title challenge. Mauricio Pochettino has spent nothing and would rightly consider a top-four place as a success story.
If Liverpool now have greater ambitions than Tottenham, they must hammer that home on Saturday. There may be questions about Spurs that only the next few months will answer, not least regarding their new stadium, but there is no doubting their home form at Wembley. Since November 2017, they have only failed to win three of their 19 home games, with defeats against Juventus and Manchester City and a 1-1 draw against West Ham in January.
This is also Klopp’s chance to answer questions of his own. Following the 4-0 defeat of West Ham on the opening weekend, Liverpool have ground out victories. Some supporters might even say they have won despite their general performance level, not because of it. The front three is yet to click as a collective and both Naby Keita and Fabinho were omitted from the team against Leicester City.
Klopp knows where the weakness in his team lies. Liverpool’s last seven league games away at the Big Six have returned four defeats and three draws; their last win was at Chelsea in September 2016. Two years is too long to go without laying down a marker. The time is now.
Player to watch – Marouane Fellaini
Fellaini has kept his place as Jose Mourinho’s teacher’s pet. Even after the arrival of Nemanja Matic to shore up Manchester United’s central midfield, Mourinho overlooked Fellaini effectively holding the club to ransom and pushed through the Belgian’s new contract. When the manager needed a trusted soldier at Burnley a fortnight ago, it was Fellaini who replaced £52m new signing Fred.
Fellaini played as a defensive midfielder at Turf Moor, brought into the team to deal with an attacking aerial threat that never really materialised. “They are physical, they are direct, they go very direct to the box,” Mourinho said. “They are very pragmatic and we thought that we needed a little bit of Marouane physicality for that.”
We can expect the same plan at Vicarage Road, given Watford’s own physicality. If Mourinho cannot fully trust his central defenders to deal with the threat of Andre Gray and Troy Deeney, who must be licking their lips at the prospect, Fellaini is at least guaranteed to make his presence known.
There is a valid question of style here. Manchester United supporters will presumably not care how their team wins on Saturday teatime just so long as victory is forthcoming. Aesthetics tend to be deprioritised when results are suffering. But if the strategy doesn’t work as well as it did against Burnley, or their opponents are not as generous defensively, Mourinho should expect to come in for plenty of stick. It’s one thing using Fellaini in case of emergency, but Mourinho’s remit is to get some fluency through Manchester United’s midfield to support their attack. Is he really the man for that plan?
Manager to watch – Sean Dyche
All is not well at Turf Moor. This is no cause for huge panic yet, but Burnley have taken one point from their first four games and have already faced two bottom-half teams from last season and a promoted club.
The statistics hardly make for more positive reading. Burnley’s success has been founded upon defensive resilience, but only two Premier League teams have conceded more goals – Huddersfield and West Ham. No team has allowed more shots. No team has allowed more shots on target.
Burnley are not going to suddenly start creating stacks of chances. They ranked 16th by that measure last season and 15th for shots on target, and so far this season rank 16th for both. So any drop in defensive organisation is going to hurt Dyche’s team. They cannot afford to let it slip.
Until now, Dyche and Burnley have had a reasonable excuse. Europa League qualifiers on Thursday night can cause short-term fatigue, although it is alarming that results dropped off so quickly and the squad seemed to be so powerless to deal with the extra workload. Their exit from that competition might well be considered a blessing in disguise.
That part-excuse has now gone. Most of Burnley’s squad has stayed together during the international break, and Dyche takes his team to Wolves on Sunday afternoon knowing that a huge improvement is required. Burnley’s next four games are massive: Wolves, Bournemouth, Cardiff and Huddersfield. Then come Tottenham, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal, Leicester and Everton in the space of 11 games.
Defeat at Molineux would not be a disaster, but Burnley need to stop the rot soon. A thin squad that has typically taken the majority of its points in the first half of the season (57% in 2016/17, 59% in 2017/18) cannot afford to start at a snail’s pace.
Team to watch – West Ham
Everything points to Manuel Pellegrini being given time to sort out West Ham’s myriad issues. Comparisons have been made with Frank de Boer at Crystal Palace, who was also sacked after losing his first four matches in charge, but the two situations are very different.
De Boer had not been backed with transfers or appointments within Palace’s off-field hierarchy, and so it was simple to turf him out and recruit Roy Hodgson. West Ham have backed Pellegrini in the transfer market and also given him a Director of Football he has worked with before. Sack the manager and the entire process needs to start again. West Ham have neither the money nor time to do that easily, and so the club again would jump into short-termism.
Instead, the hope is that Pellegrini will steer this ship around, even if it is taking longer than many within the club had hoped and anticipated. Over the last fortnight, Pellegrini will have worked on defensive organisation and a plan to try and solve the club’s central midfield conundrum. That may include changing personnel or formation.
But this cannot go on indefinitely. Having lost at home to Bournemouth and Wolves, four of West Ham’s next four home league opponents are Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester City. You don’t have to be a genius to realise that they’re going to have to pick up some points on the road soon to stave off full-blown crisis.
Not ideal, then, that the full list of teams West Ham have beaten away from home in the last 19 months in the league reads as follows: Burnley, Stoke, Huddersfield, Leicester City. And the last one of those was against a Leicester team missing nine first-team players. Things can only get better, Manuel. And they bloody must. Fast.
Football League game to watch – Birmingham City vs West Brom
All is not well at Birmingham City, a phrase that could have been uttered at pretty much any point over the last two years. The short version of the story is that Birmingham were effectively under a transfer embargo having suffered a series of financial losses outlawed by the EFL, but then proceeded to sign Kristian Pedersen despite the EFL not permitting them to do so. An EFL commission will now meet to discuss Birmingham’s punishment, which could be as serious as a 12-point deduction.
Given that Garry Monk’s side are only on four points having drawn four and lost two of their opening six games, that punishment would prompt a wave of pessimism about the club’s chances of avoiding relegation. The mood isn’t exactly chirpy anyway.
For West Brom, a topsy-turvy start to Championship life. Darren Moore’s team put seven past QPR and have won five of their last six in all competitions, but they have conceded three against Norwich, lost at home to Bolton and their only clean sheet of the season came against Luton Town in the EFL Cup.
A local derby on a Friday night following the international break allows for wind to be thrust into sails by victory, but defeat for either side will only increase the sense that preseason ambitions may well be difficult to realise.
European game to watch – Athletic Bilbao v Real Madrid
Early days, but Julen Lopetegui’s arrival at the Bernabeu and Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure seems to have sparked Real Madrid into a new mood. Real trail Barcelona on goal difference but have scored ten times in their first three La Liga games and have maximum points. Gareth Bale has started the season like a train, and Karim Benzema is back in the goals.
Still, Lopetegui is not going to be judged on wins against Getafe, Leganes and Girona. On Saturday evening he faces his biggest test of the league season so far, a trip to the San Mamés to face an Athletic side who have won one and drawn one of their opening two matches. They haven’t played a league game since August 27 after their fixture against Rayo Vallecano was postponed due to a shonky pitch.
The San Mamés is hardly a fortress these days. Athletic have won seven of their last 22 home league games, although they did hold Real to a 0-0 draw last season. Expect Bale to score and Lopetegui to continue his winning league run.