Just as the Premier League was starting to heat up, in came a third, boredom-inducing international break of the season to interrupt all the fun once again.
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You may have forgotten during the past two weeks of doldrum and dead rubbers, but a host of narratives were beginning to bubble to the surface. An injury-hit Tottenham gave Ange Postecoglou a masterclass in what it means to be ‘Spursy’, Chelsea and Manchester City shared eight goals in a thriller at Stamford Bridge and Bournemouth escaped the bottom three for the first time in a relegation battle that has just got a whole lot more interesting.
Everton’s 10-point deduction has breathed fresh life into the survival pushes of the three no-longer-quite-so-doomed promoted sides, while, at the other end of the table, the top five are separated by just three points.
So, as the Premier League finally resumes ahead of four months of uninterrupted action, here are the big talking points going into the weekend’s matches…
Are Chelsea actually good again?
This period was marked out as a particularly dangerous one for Chelsea and Mauricio Pochettino, but a thumping win over Spurs and a pulsating 4-4 draw against Manchester City have flipped perceptions. Suddenly the west Londoners look transformed, from profligate huff-and-puffers into a cold and clinical attack – one that will soon be enhanced further by the returning Christopher Nkunku.
Albeit against nine men, Chelsea racked up 4.06xG (Expected Goals) in north London before accumulating 3.47xG against City – a combined tally that is only a little shy of Sheffield United’s total xG for the entire season so far. Admittedly the defence is looking a little leaky, but Chelsea’s midfield now boasts considerable craft as well as energy and bite, while the Cole Palmer-inspired frontline will worry any defence in the league.
They now travel to St James’ Park at an ideal time, with Newcastle missing a host of key players, though it will also represent a very different type of test. Spurs and City both tried to impose themselves on Chelsea with front-foot football, but Newcastle will make Saturday’s game stodgy and defensive – the type of match Chelsea have struggled in. If they have turned a corner, this is the fixture to show it in.
Man Utd to bear brunt of Everton outrage?
Manchester United ended the last batch of matches, somewhat surprisingly, as the Premier League’s form team. In amongst the doom and gloom of a lacklustre European campaign and early Carabao Cup exit, the Red Devils have picked up 12 points from the last 15 available to quiet some of the noise that has engulfed Erik ten Hag.
But if they could have chosen to avoid any fixture to restart the campaign, it would have been an away trip to Goodison Park. The Premier League’s decision to hand Everton an immediate 10-point deduction – the most severe penalty in the 135-year history of English top-flight football – has been met with derision and fury on Merseyside, and United are about to feel the full force of it.
Banners and flags have been prepared for the game, while protest cards which will be held aloft both during the Premier League anthem – which will be drowned out by boos – and in the 10th minute of the match. United have actually lost seven times at Goodison Park since 2009 and it is one of their unhappier hunting grounds, but rarely will they have encountered an atmosphere quite like what awaits them on Sunday.
Can teetering Tottenham get back on track?
After such a bright and encouraging start to the season, Tottenham’s campaign has rather abruptly been thrown into make-or-break territory. After back-to-back defeats against Chelsea and Wolves, the first of which saw the club lose five first-team players either to injury or suspension, they now face a challenging run of games that begins against high-flying Aston Villa, with Manchester City, West Ham and Newcastle all to follow.
Villa did the double over Spurs last season and are well-equipped to collect another win in north London. With Cristian Romero serving the second of his three-match ban and Micky van de Ven sidelined, a centre-back partnership of Eric Dier and Ben Davies looks ripe for pillaging. Postecoglou has already shown that he will not deviate from his principles, which means a precariously one-paced and very high back-line could be easy pickings for Ollie Watkins and the rapid Moussa Diaby.
Tottenham are also without Yves Bissouma for the match, after he picked up a fifth booking of the season last time out, but Spurs will be buoyed by Rodrigo Bentancur’s midweek performance for Uruguay against Bolivia. Still, this is a team that suddenly feels as though it has lost its spark and recapturing the sense of joy that permeated the first 10 games of the season will be a massive task for Postecoglou given the options available to him.
Title showdown at the Etihad?
It has gone a little under the radar due to the international break, but the Premier League returns with an absolute blockbuster of a lunchtime clash between Manchester City and Liverpool. The defending champions against the team many view as their biggest challengers – and the only side to thwart Pep Guardiola in the last six years.
City go into the match sweating over the fitness of top scorer Erling Haaland, who left the Norway camp early after picking up an ankle injury. In addition to longer term absentees John Stones and Kevin De Bruyne, the likes of Ederson, Mateo Kovacic and Nathan Ake are all dealing with knocks too. The champions are looking ever-so-slightly vulnerable while Liverpool are beginning to show signs of the ‘mentality monsters’ that were such a thorn in the side of Guardiola a few years ago.
Sure, Arsenal have only lost once and pushed City incredibly close last season, but in almost every metric it is Liverpool who stand out as the main challenger. They have the highest xG in the division while also only conceding 10 times – the joint-best defensive record. In Mohamed Salah they have an outstanding goalscorer, something Arsenal undoubtedly lack, while Virgil van Dijk is back to something close to his best. A win on Saturday would take them top and throw down a major marker.
Will Ramsdale seize his chance to impress?
With David Raya ineligible to face parent club Brentford, this weekend will see Aaron Ramsdale start between the sticks for Arsenal in a Premier League game for the first time since the beginning of September. Mikel Arteta has repeatedly said he has no number one goalkeeper and Saturday’s trip to the Community Stadium – and more so what happens afterwards – will prove whether that is really the case.
The goalkeeper situation has turned into something of a headache for Arteta, with Ramsdale’s dad criticising the handling of it last week and even taking a swipe at the two Spaniards: ‘David Raya has not pulled up trees so far, let’s say he’s not going to. Even though the way it’s been done, in my eyes, it’s been wrong.’
Yet the early stats would appear to support Arteta’s decision, with Raya’s save percentage 14% higher than his team-mate’s while Ramsdale also has the lowest post-shot xG per 90 of any goalkeeper in the league, meaning he is conceding significantly more goals than you would expect from the chances Arsenal’s back-line are giving up.
Brentford will provide a stern test on Saturday, particularly from set-pieces, but it is already starting to feel like the writing is on the wall and perhaps the question is not so much about whether Ramsdale deserved to be dropped, but whether Raya is of the quality required to be the long-term number one.
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