Game to watch – Liverpool v Leicester
Quite why neither broadcaster saw fit to televise this meeting, or Leicester’s trip to Old Trafford three weeks ago, isn’t immediately obvious. This Saturday evening’s entertainment is West Ham v Crystal Palace and while Hammers and Eagles fans might welcome that selection, the rest of us would rather watch Brendan Rodgers’ glorious return to Anfield with his flying Foxes.
Rodgers hasn’t been back to Liverpool since they sacked him four years ago but the ex-Reds manager may be thinking that he’s timed his run perfectly. OK, Liverpool have won 10 straight home games, scoring 33 goals in the process, but it is the Foxes who remain the last side to leave Anfield with anything other than an arse-kicking. And Jurgen Klopp’s side look neither as free-flowing in attack or impenetrable at the back as we know they can be.
In contrast, Leicester are clicking into gear at both ends. Jamie Vardy will have been licking his lips at the sight of Virgil van Dijk being dumped on his backside by Hwang Hee-chan on Wednesday night, especially with James Maddison set to return from injury for the visit to Merseyside. Joel Matip is expected to be back to partner Van Dijk but the Liverpool centre-backs will have to shackle a striker making the most of limited involvement.
Vardy is touching the ball an average of 20 times a game this season. To put that in context, Mo Salah is averaging the fewest of Liverpool’s front three with 49 touches per 90 minutes; Sergio Aguero is having almost exactly double that of Vardy; the 32-year-old has the fewest touches per 90 minutes of any forward to have started at least five matches.
Yet only five players have scored more goals. Rodgers has told Vardy that he doesn’t want the centre-forward involved in the build-up play, rather he should be dragging centre-backs up the pitch to create more space for the likes of Maddison and Ayoze Perez. It’s a ploy that seems to be working and watching how Van Dijk and Matip cope with Vardy’s wandering will be fascinating.
The Reds’ defence has already been served notice that an improvement is required – and quick: “I am sure Brendan Rodgers thinks if we defend like we did tonight then probably Jamie Vardy will run five times alone with the goalkeeper,” said Klopp after watching his back four capitulate in the face of Salzburg on Wednesday. “It was a very important lesson for us tonight. We will learn but we have to learn quick. I knew before that we have to improve a lot.”
Matip’s return should reassure Klopp. When Joe Gomez has played – it was he who started the season as first choice – Liverpool have conceded nine goals in three games in all competitions. With Matip in the side, Liverpool’s concession rate is one every 94 minutes. So impressive has the former Schalke defender been that some have suggested that he has become a more important presence even than Van Dijk.
For all the panic around their rearguard, Liverpool’s remains the Premier League’s joint-best defence, alongside Saturday’s opponents. Though Leicester, marshalled by Jonny Evans and the hugely-impressive Caglar Soyuncu, have allowed 24 shots fewer on their goal than Liverpool. How they handle Klopp’s front three will be just as intriguing as the battle at the other end of the pitch.
At least, it will be for the few among us who can watch it at 3pm on Saturday.
Team to watch – Newcastle
Sky Sports opted to televise Leicester’s game last week instead, though Newcastle will wish they hadn’t. In full, glorious high definition we all watched as the Foxes mercilessly ripped the Magpies apart with not so much as a squawk in response.
Newcastle offered the kind of performance that generally turns the tide against a manager, though Steve Bruce has been doggy paddling into it since he was appointed at St James’ Park. The players were primarily to blame for a “f***ing embarrassing” surrender at the King Power Stadium, but it is always the manager who carries the can, even if he did attempt to shift the responsibility towards the dressing room.
Fortunately, you would think, for the Newcastle players, they have the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that last week’s humping was a one-off. Manchester United arrive at St James’ Park with their own problems and if the Magpies have any fight about them, they must recognise an opportunity to win back some goodwill from their supporters.
To do that, Newcastle will have to go on the front foot. No team has had less possession than the Magpies this season, which might be understandable in some circumstances, but backing off Brighton in their last home game was seen as a concession too far. It was only in the final period, when Andy Carroll and Allan Saint-Maximin came off the bench, that Bruce’s side offered any kind of threat on the Seagull’s goal.
Newcastle may again have to allow their visitors more possession but their intent upon winning the ball back – as they inevitably will against this stodgy United side – will be closely scrutinised. The travelling Toon Army stayed with their side last week, singing through the pain as Leicester poured salt into their wounds, but the home crowd are far more likely to make their displeasure felt unless there is a huge upturn in performance and effort.
Player to watch – Nicolas Pepe
The Arsenal record signing would hardly be the first import to struggle in his first months in the Premier League and Unai Emery is willing to accept that “he needs time”. But without doubt the Gunners expected more of an immediate impact for their £72million.
Pepe notched 24 goals for Lille last term but the 24-year-old has managed only one from the penalty spot for his new club. At Old Trafford on Monday night, his ineffectiveness stood out even on a pitch crowded with mediocrity. With more than 15 minutes to go, he was hooked for Reiss Nelson.
Pepe may reasonably ask for more help from his team-mates against Bournemouth on Sunday because a lot of the good work he is doing appears to be going to waste. The winger remains the Gunners’ most creative player having more chances overall and from open play than anyone else in an Arsenal shirt. But only one of those 11 chances he has created has been converted.
He can also help himself. Only six players in the Premier League have taken more shots, with Pepe having attempted one more effort on goal than Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The difference: Aubameyang is currently hotting the target with 71 per cent of his efforts. Pepe’s shooting accuracy is down at 47 per cent.
As Emery says, Pepe may well be an “amazing player” with “a great career” at Arsenal ahead of him. But supporters would appreciate more tangible evidence from the Ivory Coast international.
Manager to watch – Mauricio Pochettino
‘The end of days. The end of the road. The end of an era.’ That was Winty’s verdict after Pochettino had watched his Tottenham side crumble in the Champions League and though it remains likely that the Bayern Munich humiliation represented a nadir for the manager at this club, neither party appears willing to make the first move if indeed either wants a separation.
So on Pochettino must go to Brighton on Saturday lunchtime amid continued speculation over his behaviour around the Spurs squad and how the players have interpreted that. Widespread reports suggest the players have noticed a change in Pochettino’s demeanour since the summer, when he admitted that he would have left had Spurs beaten Liverpool in the Champions League final. Pochettino got his retaliation in first, accusing his players of having ‘different agendas’.
Whichever side you take, no one can argue that there is not something wrong at Tottenham – something deep-rooted and difficult to put right, especially when the suspicion is that the manager isn’t all that fussed about staying to apply a fix. Nor is there any one single solution. Pochettino’s has been out-thought tactically too often this term, while his motivational techniques are also failing. The Argentine can’t put one right without the other.
Our first hint at Pochettino’s intent will come from his team-sheet. The greatest area for concern remains his hopelessly-imbalanced midfield. With each season Pochettino likes to change his engine room and some new signings offer him more options than ever. But what he has tried so far hasn’t worked. Harry Winks has had a creditable start to the season, but the England midfielder playing centrally forces new boy Tanguy Ndombele into a slightly wider, more unfamiliar role and though he has shown glimpses, it is hard to tell whether he is unfit or he if he permanently looks knackered.
Pochettino will have even greater resources at his disposal in the coming weeks, especially in the creative department. But in the meantime, the Spurs boss has to find a Band-Aid big enough at Brighton to stop his side bleeding out.
Football League game to watch – Fulham v Charlton
Sky Sports’ Friday night offering is Birmingham v Boro, with both bottom-half sides in fairly wretched form. Fulham and Charlton, though, are both fairing rather better ahead of their Saturday lunchtime London derby at Craven Cottage.
Indeed, Charlton could have moved into the top two on Wednesday had they maintained their superb recent home form by beating Swansea at The Valley. But Lee Bowyer’s men suffered a 2-1 defeat after talking an early lead, with the Swans moving to the summit instead.
Fulham also have eyes on the top two and they can move level on points with the leaders should they see off the Addicks. Bowyer reckons the Cottagers have “the best squad in the division” and ahead of the meeting with Scott Parker’s side, he was at pains to point out the vastly contrasting priorities of the two capital clubs: “Scottie’s job is to get promotion – ours is to stay in the league. You’re talking about two different scales.”
Bowyer also moaned over having to make changes for the Swansea game with the Fulham meeting in mind. Jonny Williams and Naby Sarr will come back into his XI but the Charlton manager still resents having 24 hours less rest than Fulham having played on Wednesday night.
Tune in at 12:30pm to see if Bowyer’s attempt to shift the pressure on to Parker’s inconsistent Cottagers pays dividends.
European game to watch – Inter Milan v Juventus
Watching Barcelona and Sevilla clash while attempting to close the gap on Real Madrid is one option for you this Sunday night. But we recommend the Derby d’Italia at 7:45pm before switching over for the final 15 minutes from the Nou Camp.
One of the most anticipated Serie A games of the season takes place at the San Siro with Inter and Juve first and second in the table respectively. Inter have started the season under Antonio Conte in perfect fashion, while champions Juve trail by two points after dropping them at Fiorentina three weeks ago.
The crunch meeting comes amid the backdrop of another appeal from Juventus to get Inter stripped of the 2005-06 Scudetto, which they lost first in the wake of the Calciopoli scandal. Juve are hoping it will be 30th time lucky…
This will be the first time Conte has faced Juve since leading them to three successive titles between 2011 and 2014 and without the suspended Alexis Sanchez, he must pick his side up after the Champions League defeat to Barcelona. Maurizio Sarri’s Juve appear to be taking shape, with Juan Cuadrado adapting to a new right-back role while Miralem Pjanic closes in on the target set for him by Sarri to touch the ball 150 times per game. He managed 127 in the win over SPAL last weekend while he switches focus from switching play under Max Allegri to looking forward under the new regime.