Alex Keble returns with his regular analysis of four key tactical battles ahead of the weekend action in the Premier League, including why Liverpool can overwhelm Man Utd's midfield, and how Stoke could beat Arsenal...
"As in the victories over Chelsea, Man City, and Man United earlier this season, Xherdan Shaqiri and Bojan will enjoy bursting forward after sustained periods of Arsenal pressure."
Stoke v Arsenal
Shaqiri v Flamini
Live on Sky Sports 1
Stoke City's exciting front three has flattered to deceive on occasions this season, but against the possession-dominant teams they tend to flourish in the spaces that open on the counter-attack. As in the victories over Chelsea, Man City, and Man United earlier this season, Xherdan Shaqiri and Bojan will enjoy bursting forward after sustained periods of Arsenal pressure. The absence of Francis Coquelin could be crucial.
Stoke averaged 42.8% possession across those three matches, playing very much on the back foot; though Mark Hughes is trying to instil a short-passing philosophy, this does not actually suit their key strengths, and it is not a coincidence that they perform so much better against the big teams.
Shaqiri, Bojan, and Marco Arnautovic created 14 chances in these three games, with the vast majority coming from quick, direct attacks through the centre-right zone.
Sadio Mane was dominant in a similar area during Saints' 4-0 win over Arsenal recently, and Firmino excelled in similar spaces on Wednesday night. Although they had initially adapted well to losing Francis Coquelin, the cracks are now beginning to show after some easy wins against relegation candidates. Mathieu Flamini is too soft against quick-footed attackers; he completed just two tackles against Southampton, and failed to make a single defensive action in the middle third of the pitch against Liverpool. Shaqiri and Bojan will fancy their chances.
Back both teams to score at 10/11
Liverpool v Man United
Henderson v Fellaini
Live on Sky Sports 1
Jurgen Klopp will be delighted to have both Jordan Henderson and James Milner available; their high energy, flitting movement, and intelligence will become crucial components of his tactical vision. Against Man United's haphazard midfield, their impact could be crucial.
United are conservative in their pressing but like to dominate territory, while Liverpool press high and try to raise the tempo well above the levels United are comfortable at; this will be a congested, potentially wild affair that should heighten the significance of the central midfielders on the pitch.
Henderson and Milner average 100 passes between them per game, and their remarkable energy levels allow them to press extremely aggressively (Henderson made seven interceptions against Arsenal) whilst remaining available to receive the ball in all areas of the pitch.
In many respects they are the opposite of Marouane Fellaini. The Belgian is looking increasingly clueless in central midfield, committing numerous fouls, wandering aimlessly out of position, and exposing his team in key areas. Georginio Wijnaldum dominated in the final third as a direct result, and it is easy to see Henderson achieve something similar.
Back Liverpool to win at 5/4
Aston Villa v Leicester
Bacuna v Vardy
Live on Sky Sports 1
This is a monumentally important match for both of these sides. Villa have the opportunity to build a head of steam by beating the league leaders, while Leicester have a chance to re-find their goalscoring touch against one of the leakiest defences in the Premier League. Villa's Leandro Bacuna added something new to the team at right-back against Palace, and his battle with Jamie Vardy could be key.
Bacuna made five tackles and five clearances in a strong, confident performance that kept Wilfried Zaha quiet (one chance created). His introduction comes at a great time for Villa given that Leicester attack down the flanks 75% of the time (second most in division) and Jamie Vardy usually makes his defence-splitting runs in the channel Bacuna will be defending.
Their match-up will be intriguing, as will the head-to-head between Libor Kozak - another surprising starter against Palace - and Wes Morgan. Finally recovered from a horrific run of injuries, Kozak won six headers in midweek as part of a very assured performance as Villa's target man. He could be the key to any revival hopes still lingering at Villa Park, but will face an incredibly tough challenge from the imperious Wes Morgan. Watching those two battle for the same ball will be great fun.
Back Villa to win or draw at 4/6
Man City v Crystal Palace
Aguero v Delaney
Crystal Palace have failed to score in any of the four Premier League matches since Yannick Bolasie's injury, and now there are problems developing at the other end. Damien Delaney has struggled at centre-back of late, and this could prove a major issue against Sergio Aguero.
Delaney made just one tackle and one interception in the games against Villa and Chelsea, defending somewhat chaotically against Diego Costa and Libor Kozak (both of whom were able to phsycailly dominate far too easily).
Aguero will pose a different challenge. His ability to find space in the box will surely trouble Delaney, who is often too slow, and too busy ball watching, to track the movement of more tricky opponents.
Back Man City to win and over 2.5 goals at 10/11