For Premier League Gameweek 19 Alex Keble picks out four key tactical battles and says Leicester can comfortably beat Chelsea, while Man Utd may drop points at Fulham...
"Fulham’s aggression in the midfield battle will force Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side into wayward passing out from the back and lead to the hosts winning plenty of second balls."
Leicester v Chelsea
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N'Golo Kante's injury could seriously derail Chelsea's season. They continue to spread out wildly in search of a goal, lacking the structure or positional discipline needed to prevent counter-attacks when the ball is lost, and against Fulham, Chelsea often completely emptied out central midfield in search of width. Without Kante cleaning up from defensive midfield, Frank Lampard's side are susceptible to opponents cutting straight through them.
Leicester are particularly adept at doing this, with Youri Tielemans and James Maddison regularly playing, or receiving, vertical passes through the lines. Brendan Rodgers encourages direct football like this, and against such a porous Chelsea midfield Leicester can break through to Harvey Barnes in the centre-left pocket.
Chelsea are weakest here, largely because Matteo Kovacic and Hakim Ziyech are both poor at covering the spaces in front of the Chelsea right-back. Phil Foden, for example, was dominant coming in off the left to create chances from within the lines of defence and midfield. Barnes, with four goals in his last five games, can be similarly effective.
Man City v Aston Villa
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Aston Villa's senior team hasn't played competitive football since January 1, meaning a 19-day break since the 2-1 defeat to Manchester United. Although ten first-team players tested positive for Covid-19 earlier this month it has not been revealed whether anyone had symptoms. Consequently, Villa could be hurt badly by the outbreak, as Newcastle United have been, or they could have essentially enjoyed a three-week holiday while the rest of the division played out a gruelling end to the winter schedule.
Even if Villa are refreshed, they will be rusty in terms of team cohesion, and that offers free-flowing Manchester City the chance to record a big win at the Etihad. Ilkay Gondogan has been the standout player of late thanks to City's increasing control of possession and territory; John Stones has added stability, which in turn is allowing Gundogan to roam forward alongside Kevin de Bruyne.
This dual threat is enough to cut through a Villa team that remain guilty of being too confrontational and too expansive against stronger teams. Dean Smith should deploy a low block and try to play purely on the break, but it is far more likely he will try to take the game to City - and therefore see his team torn apart.
Fulham v Man Utd
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Fulham are getting more impressive with each passing week, using a hybrid formation to both press high from goal-kicks (and when opponents take a heavy touch) and also stay compact enough to drop deep when necessary. Their 5-4-1 limited Chelsea prior to their red card, while the flitting movement of Bobby Decordova-Reid (between midfield and attack) ensured Fulham had a narrow front three on the counter. Unfortunately, for Fulham, he is suspended after picking up a yellow card against Chelsea.
This approach can work against Manchester United. Fulham's aggression in the midfield battle will force Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side into wayward passing out from the back and lead to the hosts winning plenty of second balls. United don't play well once their feathers have been ruffled, and given that Bruno Fernandes is in poor form Fulham supporters can be optimistic about Wedensday's game.
However, Solskjaer has the best defence in the league and Fulham's front three doesn't have a lot of technical quality, often missing opportunities to get in behind the opposition defence. United ought to be able to keep a clean sheet - but that by no means suggests Solskjaer will take the three points.
Liverpool v Burnley
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It could be a similar story at Anfield. Liverpool have now gone four consecutive games without scoring a goal, thanks to a combination of factors related to the impact of Covid-19 and their on-going injury crisis. Indirectly, the absence of Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez has destabilised Liverpool's attack.
Jordan Henderson provides the energy and forward momentum from the right of Liverpool's midfield, while Fabinho screens against counter-attacks and uses his passing range to keep the team camped in the opposition half. Neither player has been in their preferred role throughout the last four games, and consequently Liverpool cannot maintain their relentless, suffocating pressure.
What's more, the full-backs are having to play deeper to compensate for the increase in opposition counter-attacks, which allows opponents to simply stay narrow to prevent Liverpool from creating chances. Few teams in the division are as good as Burnley at staying narrow and compact; each of their last four games have ended 1-0. Sean Dyche's side can hold out for a point at Anfield.