Game to watch – Arsenal v Tottenham
Not since March 2016 has there been a north London Premier League derby where both sides had lost their previous match. As Leicester were suffering a brief title stutter three years ago, Tottenham prepared for the visit of their most bitter rival by wasting the chance to go level on points at the top with a terminal defeat to West Ham. Arsenal, in turn, stayed three points behind Spurs after being beaten by Swansea.
The eventual meeting was between two flawed sides: one at the start of their cycle and the other edging towards the end. Mauricio Pochettino’s precocious but promising Tottenham battled from a goal down to take a 2-1 lead, while Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal displayed a rare example of resilience by equalising late on with ten men.
History might be repeating itself on Sunday, only with the roles reversed. There is a sense that Tottenham are approaching the natural end to a beautiful journey; Arsenal are only just really embarking on theirs. One team might have reached their ceiling. The other cannot yet be sure how high they can go.
Arsenal should not let one setback make them lose sight of their development. The loss to Liverpool was an eye-opening, chastening experience, but there were signs of progress. Nicolas Pepe and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had chances with the scores level, and for 40 minutes the match was relatively even. Unai Emery’s tactics were pilloried, as if forming a plan to beat Liverpool at Anfield is straightforward.
Tottenham should not ignore their own situation. This was a side expected to rival Liverpool and Manchester City, to challenge that perfect pair and become the most troublesome third wheel imaginable. For four successive seasons they overachieved by simply qualifying for the Champions League. Finishing as runners-up in that competition last campaign makes that a difficult sell for a fifth time.
Both teams are still searching for identity, meaning, answers. They will not find them at the Emirates on Sunday – at least not in a definitive sense. But this is the perfect platform for either Arsenal to announce or Tottenham to rediscover themselves. This will be this season’s clearest indication of their expected trajectories.
Player to watch – Mason Greenwood
Southampton are not a natural or obvious barometer by which Manchester United should be judged. They are two teams at opposite ends of the Premier League scale, clubs who both changed managers in December of last year to varying degrees of success, but whose demands and expectations could hardly be more different.
It was in that bitterly cold month at the end of last year that they last met at St Mary’s. Southampton took a two-goal lead in the first half before being pegged back by the 39th minute through Ander Herrera and Romelu Lukaku. Neither scorer is still at United, Mark Hughes was sent packing two days later, and Jose Mourinho followed a fortnight later.
When they faced each other once more at Old Trafford in March, the honeymoon was coming to an end. The 3-2 home victory was United’s tenth in 12 Premier League games under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. They would lose their next match to Arsenal then win just two of their final eight fixtures.
Southampton are intrinsically linked to United’s progress simply because they faced them at their absolute best and forgettable worst over the past nine months.
For Mason Greenwood, it means even more. By the time the 17-year-old’s first-team credentials became impossible to ignore last season, Saints were earmarked as his first test. It was not to be; the forward made his bow in that unfathomable Champions League victory over PSG four days later, followed by a Premier League debut within the week. But fate has offered him a second bite at the south coast cherry.
If Anthony Martial recovers from the injury he suffered against Crystal Palace, he will likely feature on Saturday. Marcus Rashford will play, and Solskjaer will decide between the rest of his eight forwards as to who else he trusts. But if Martial is sidelined, the manager should prioritise youthful exuberance.
It is time for the Norwegian to put £1,000-a-week worth of money where his mouth is. Creativity was United’s weakness against Palace but they need to take the chances when they present themselves. Injury has provided an excuse for United to play their most “natural finisher”. Use the opportunity wisely.
Manager to watch – Jurgen Klopp
It took until September 23 for Liverpool to establish any sort of lead, even the most slender, atop the Premier League table last season. That Chelsea matched them stride for initial stride is often forgotten in a red mist of gegenpressing glory.
The wait this campaign was almost a month shorter. Liverpool’s victory over Arsenal on August 24 ensured they maintained the only perfect record after just three games. Jurgen Klopp’s side will set the pace once more.
A two-point gap in August is, realistically, meaningless. It spawns claims of ‘nervousness’, bullish predictions and preparations of humble pie. But after a season where the runners-up dropped just 17 points, every little really does help.
Liverpool will have broken this gruelling season into stages; the first is almost over. After two finals and three Premier League games, a visit to Burnley is their final test before the breather of an international break. To lose momentum now would be regrettable.
It will not be easy. Burnley have won, drawn and lost their opening three fixtures, pushing Arsenal to a 2-1 defeat at the Emirates and emerging from Molineux unfortunate to have been held. Ashley Barnes is in imperious form and a club desperate to disprove the doubters is a dangerous proposition.
But Liverpool know they have built up a head of steam they cannot afford to let dissipate. Their games against Burnley last season were two of their most difficult: recovering from a 1-0 deficit after 61 minutes at Turf Moor in December to win 3-1, and coming from behind for a 4-2 home victory in March. It is that sort of unbridled energy they must continue to harness.
Team to watch – Newcastle
For Steve Bruce, the surprising steps forward were soon followed by a few strides back. Considering his starting position at Newcastle, that is a balance he can ill afford.
Resting seven players for a Carabao Cup second-round game is forgivable. The win over Tottenham three days prior made it almost understandable. And Newcastle were only beaten on penalties by a remarkably strong Leicester side after an admirable effort. This was not yet another meek cup exit. A small dose of luck would have made Bruce’s selection gamble seem like a masterstroke.
But that is the life of Premier League managers, who flit seamlessly between hero and villain with each passing decision.
A further issue for Bruce is the rod he rather foolishly made for his own back in the summer.
“I’ve put my neck on the line immediately,” he said in July, explaining why he won’t prioritise Premier League safety over a cup run. “I’m not really bothered what’s been done before.
“I can understand the philosophy of it but my perception of it all changed at Hull. We were 2-0 up in the FA Cup final against Arsenal. We nearly won it. Hull supporters had the best day out in their lives. That’s got to be a route and that’s what we’ll try and do. I realised it at Hull. We got to the FA Cup final and if you ask the supporters what their biggest day was, getting into the Premier League or getting to the FA Cup final, they’d say the final.
“Surely as a club we can win five games? Can we win a cup tie, can we do well in the League Cup or the FA Cup? That’s got to be an aim. It’s not just about staying in the division and being happy with that – that would be wrong.”
His pre-season promise of a Newcastle team that “will always try to play on the front foot if we can” has also morphed into a defensive side with less possession than any other in the Premier League. Victory over Tottenham turned the tide but only slightly: the Magpies must take the initiative and all three points on Saturday against a Watford side that have lost their last six in the league.
Football League game to watch – Leeds v Swansea
“I’m not surprised,” said Marcelo Bielsa. “They are showing a good level. They have a very clear idea of how to play.”
The Leeds manager would be in the minority if he truly expected Swansea to keep pace with his Championship favourites at this early juncture. The default favourites have lived up to their moniker with four wins and a draw, only for Swansea to emerge as genuine contenders to their crown.
The most impressive aspect of Leeds’ start is perhaps the standard of opposition. Bristol City and Brentford will likely challenge for promotion again, Stoke are better than their results suggest and Wigan took down Cardiff. Leeds have beaten all of them. A draw with Nottingham Forest is the only blot on their report card.
For Swansea, their greatest strength has been in attack. The sales of Daniel James and Oli McBurnie have done nothing to blunt their threat, with no club in the entire Football League scoring more than their 11 goals so far.
First hosts second. It will be fun.
European game to watch – Juventus v Napoli
Or Lazio v Roma. Or Rangers v Celtic, providing someone borrows this banner.
Legia fans have just unveiled a huge flag of Pope John Paul II at Ibrox. pic.twitter.com/EYyrbPjzDw
— Andy Mitten (@AndyMitten) August 29, 2019