Alex Keble looks at four key tactical battles ahead of the weekend Premier League action and predicts Newcastle pulling off a shock against Chelsea.
"Rafael Benitez and his players approach these home games with a disciplined, ruthless game plan - and expecting to win. Their low defensive block could stump a Chelsea side yet to find their attacking rhythm, while Jonjo Shelvey and Kenedy have the attributes to strike on the counter."
Narrow Arsenal attacks & West Ham's strong left flank means goals at both ends
Arsenal v West Ham
Manuel Pellegrini's bizarre decision to experiment with a 4-4-2 against Bournemouth despite central midfield being the weakest area of the team betrayed the incoherence of his - and the club's - vision. Eddie Howe's wide men cut inside to dominate around the slow pair of Jack Wilshere and Mark Noble, conjuring memories of Manchester City's poor final season under the Chilean when Fernando and Yaya Toure were often isolated in the middle.
He won't make the same mistake against Arsenal, but nevertheless his central midfield will remain highly vulnerable to any sharp movement into the number 10 space. Unai Emery prioritises direct attacks through the centre (maintaining a narrow formation both defensively and offensively) and so Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan should easily find space to thread balls through for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. West Ham simply don't have the personnel to cope with the energy and intelligence of Arsenal's movement.
However, Hector Bellerin was repeatedly left exposed by Mkhitaryan against Chelsea. If Pellegrini has done his homework he will focus West Ham's counter-attacks down that side via the powerful dribbling of Arthur Masuaku and Felipe Anderson; these two have looked threatening together in both of the Hammers' games so far. Arsenal's narrowness and Mkhitaryan's laziness provide the visitors with an opportunity to create overloads against Bellerin.
Newcastle's disciplined defence could bring shock result against transitional Chelsea
Newcastle United v Chelsea
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Newcastle United's three backs-to-the-wall victories against top six clubs towards the end of the 2017/18 campaign were the difference between relegation and survival; Rafael Benitez and his players approach these home games with a disciplined, ruthless game plan - and expecting to win. Their low defensive block could stump a Chelsea side yet to find their attacking rhythm, while Jonjo Shelvey has the passing range to help the Magpies strike on the counter.
Across three victories at St. James' Park against Manchester United, Arsenal, and Chelsea, Newcastle completed six interceptions out of 45 (13%) in the opposition half, while a 2-1 win against Arsenal in April saw the hosts amass just 28% possession. Benitez knows how to pack a defence, stay compressed, and frustrate possession teams like Chelsea for 90 minutes. Maurizio Sarri's lack of time to coach their attacking patterns makes the job easier for Jamaal Lascelles and company.
Arsenal's numerous opportunities last weekend showed the fragility of Chelsea's high-line, and consequently Benitez's route-one counter-attacks may just grab the hosts a winning goal. Shelvey should find the time and space to clip long balls over the top (Jorginho's positional play isn't quite up to the speed of English football yet) although, without Kenedy, it remains to be seen whether Newcastle have the pace to trouble a shaky centre-back partnership. Antonio Rudiger and David Luiz are playing as if they still expect a third defender to come across to cover the width, something Ayoze Perez could capitalise on.
Mitrovic's aerial ability key to breaking down stubborn Burnley
Fulham v Burnley
For all of Fulham's expansive possession football so far this season they lack a cutting edge, an obvious creative route to goal that doesn't depend upon Aleksandar Mitrovic, which is why they did not look like beating Crystal Palace or Tottenham Hotspur despite long periods of pressure. There is little in the way of fluency for the newly promoted Londoners, and consequently Burnley will feel they can record their first three points of the season on Sunday.
Fulham have only taken five shots in the penalty area that haven't come from Mitrovic. Against Palace, whose tactics are broadly similar to Burnley's in that Fulham will again hold the majority of possession at Turf Moor, the combined xG from three non-Mitrovic shots was just 0.18. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Fulham sit fourth in the table for accurate crosses (5.0 per match), reflecting their reliance on firing it in to the big man.
James Tarkowsi and Ben Mee will fancy their chances of nullifying the Serbia international, not least because Burnley prefer being allowed to sit back, stay narrow, and cope with waves of pressure. A trip to Fulham is exactly the sort of fixture Sean Dyche needs to record a classic Burnley 1-0 win and kick-start their campaign.
Dembele's head-to-head with Fred should define a claustrophobic contest
Man Utd v Tottenham
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Not unlike Dyche and Burnley, Jose Mourinho will be looking forward to an opportunity to steady the ship with a typical defensive performance against a fellow top six team. Manchester United will create a fractured and cluttered game at Old Trafford, hoping to record a galvanising victory in a patented Mourinho style to restore some confidence - and make the manager the centre of attention in a positive light again.
Consequently Mauricio Pochettino must start Mousa Dembele, who has come off the bench and changed the game in both of Spurs' league games so far this season. His composure in midfield helped them gain control of the Fulham game at Wembley (it was 1-1 when he came on and 3-1 15 minutes later) and shut the match down at St James' Park. Without the Belgian Tottenham lack confidence in possession.
With Eric Bailly likely to be more comfortable in a compressed United defensive shape Fred will be the weak spot on Monday night. He clearly needs time to adapt to English football, although Spurs won't test him unless Dembele is there to weave through the middle and play forward passes in tight areas of central midfield - the sort of moves that drag an organised midfield out of position. Either way, this will be low-scoring.