Manchester City v Wolves
Goals have been in very short supply in games involving Bruno Lage’s team of late, with just one in Wolves’ favour and one against from their last four contests. That might change on Saturday lunchtime when one of the Premier League’s most quietly improved sides comes up against opponents who last failed to bag at least two per game at the tail-end of October.
That particular fixture was a 2-0 defeat for Manchester City to Crystal Palace – a horror show for the Sky Blues that aptly occurred just prior to Halloween – and all the talk following the unexpected loss focused on City’s propensity to fire blanks. It was the sixth occasion when Pep Guardiola’s creation had failed to leave a mark on the scoresheet in 2021/22 and pundits and supporters alike were suggesting the side was in desperate need of a centre-forward.
Five weeks on, few are maintaining that stance now that City have rediscovered the irresistible form that has harvested so much silverware in recent years. From minute one of matches they are controlling the tempo, bossing possession, and scoring freely and this despite being deprived of Grealish, Foden and De Bruyne lately.
Chiefly it has been Bernardo Silva who has stepped up and compensated for the absences in Guardiola’s intricate blueprint. In addition to firing five in five, the Portuguese schemer has also put in a series of sensational displays. At times, there appears to be two of him on the pitch, a clone of his name-sake David, then cloned again.
Wolves should be aware of the hosts’ habit for getting off the mark early as City have scored inside the opening 15 mins six times this term already. But should they ride out the initial storm of passes, they possess enough quality to trouble the current league leaders. Since losing three on the bounce back in August, Wanderers have accrued 21 points from a possible 36, keeping a credible five clean sheets along the way.
Even so, it is a fool’s errand to go against City, playing as they are. They are 4/1 to be ahead after ten minutes, continuing their quick deconstruction of everything they face.
— City Xtra (@City_Xtra) December 7, 2021
Chelsea v Leeds United
Mateo Kovacic’s positive Covid test this week cruelly came just as the Croatian was training his way back to full fitness and with N’Golo Kante also unavailable, it means Chelsea are once again without two of their most influential players. Against a team in Leeds who seek to impose their possession-based football regardless of the opposition or venue, they will be sorely missed.
What’s more, they miss out at a juncture what the Blues’ imperious form is slipping of late, with Chelsea falling to a number of strange results. A 1-1 draw at home to Burnley could be quantified by the smash-and-grab nature of the Clarets’ late equalizer. Their 3-2 loss to West Ham last week however, revealed that Thomas Tuchel’s immaculately assembled machine is starting to succumb to glitches.
A recently reignited Leeds is just the team to take advantage of such defects, having lost only once in their last seven games. Despite losing Kalvin Phillips to a knock, Marcelo Bielsa’s side will be inspired by the rediscovery of their dynamism in recent weeks, in addition to Patrick Bamford finally shaking off an ankle problem. Surprisingly, given their brilliant results and dominant displays, only four sides have been dispossessed more often than Chelsea this season. Leeds dispossess for fun.
As well as the away side snapping into tackles and fully testing Chelsea’s resolve, we can also expect both sides to take plenty of shots. Only Liverpool and Manchester City have accumulated more attempts on goal than either team and naturally, this has led to inevitable rewards. Only once this season have Chelsea failed to score. Leeds meanwhile have made a habit of converting late in games, with two equalisers and a winner all arriving in additional time in recent weeks.
Mason Mount has found the target in his last two outings. He is 11/10 to score anytime at the Bridge.
🙌 Bamford is back! pic.twitter.com/YGuG2AUCke
— Leeds United (@LUFC) December 5, 2021
Liverpool v Aston Villa
Steven Gerrard’s return to Anfield this weekend will understandably garner a great deal of attention but of far more interest to his former exploits on Merseyside is what he’s doing right now with the Aston Villa.
Since arriving in the west Midlands, the 41-year-old has transformed a side that was previously to be sleep-walking into relegation under Dean Smith. Three wins in four have seen the Villans sharply climb the table to tenth and while his tactical switches are clear to see. He has given his full-backs full license to bomb on while also to deploying two number 8s that compensates for Villa’s loss of Jack Grealish. But what is most apparent is the vastly improved output of the players. In a very short space of time, captain Tyrone Mings has rediscovered the levels that first gained him international recognition while John McGinn and Ollie Watkins have also been noticeably reinvigorated. And in midfield, Marvelous Nakamba is finally living up to his namesake.
All have been uplifted and inspired, eager to impress this legendary figure on the training ground and on matchdays. It is a testament to Gerrard’s stature as much as his coaching acumen.
It naturally follows then that Villa head to Anfield with their tails up, yet some caution is advised should the temptation be to back the visitors.
Villa’s new gaffer has repeatedly stated that overall, he is happy with his team’s performances but wants to see the newly installed intensity sustained across the full ninety minutes. This selective excellence was witnessed against Leicester last week with Villa at full-throttle for spells. As such, the worry is that should they slacken at Anfield they will be punished and severely so. Liverpool have scored twice in ten-minute periods on eight different occasions this term and this has long been one of their biggest strengths under Jurgen Klopp. They smell complacency, pounce, and within a few passages of play the game is all but concluded.
It is also necessary to factor in the ferocious scoring record of Mo Salah in 2021/22, with the Egyptian already on 20 goals for the season. What’s he has also just helped the Reds set a new English top-flight record of scoring two-plus goals in 18 consecutive fixtures. As such, it’s difficult to see the visitors keeping a clean sheet. If that is indeed the case can even a reimagined Villa realistically concern the title-contenders sufficiently to secure the points?
Back Liverpool to win and both teams to score at a very reasonable 8/5. Incidentally, expect set pieces to feature heavily this weekend with both teams joint-top for scoring from free-kicks and corners this term.
▪️ Three wins out of four matches with Aston Villa
▪️ Defeats former manager Brendan Rodgers
Next up for Steven Gerrard: Anfield 👀 pic.twitter.com/bg7bi777v0
— B/R Football (@brfootball) December 5, 2021
Norwich City v Manchester United
With Ralf Rangnick portrayed almost to the point of parody by the British media as a gegenpressing guru it was perhaps inevitable that many focused on United’s work rate during his first game in charge last week. Sure enough, we saw a first-half performance against Crystal Palace that had the Reds close down passing lanes and harry full-backs into making mistakes, with the application of Marcus Rashford warranting special praise. Granted, United’s collective exertion tailed off in the latter stages as fatigue kicked in, but they still won the ball on 12 occasions in the final third, a figure that was nearly double their previous best. The conclusion, therefore, was that United looked re-energized under the German, with a greater intensity shown, particularly beyond the halfway line.
This is all pertinent and bodes well for their short-term future, especially with a run of fixtures that sees the 13-time Premier League champions take on sides currently placed 20th, 12th, 9th, 18th and 19th. Ally hunger to a team featuring Bruno Fernandes, Jadon Sancho, Rashford and Ronaldo and a successful remainder of 2021 beckons.
Yet, as much as United’s adoption of a pressing game intrigues, another aspect to their 1-0 victory over the Eagles was oddly overlooked, an aspect that very much suggests improvement is afoot at Old Trafford. For only the third time this season, the Reds kept a clean sheet.
Better yet, they restricted Palace to just two shots on target throughout, a figure that is dwarfed by the sevens and eights that had become the norm throughout Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s final few months. With a better organized defensive structure in place – a structure that will solidify further when Raphael Varane imminently returns from injury – United can give themselves a chance to play poorly and prevail, without having to resort to dramatic comebacks.
To what extent Norwich will trouble this work in progress is negligible. They themselves have improved of late, sparked into life by the arrival of Dean Smith in the dug-out, but just one goal in their last three reveals that scoring remains a real issue. Indeed, to put the Canaries’ bluntness forward line into context, only Teemu Pukki has scored more than Fred this term, a player who many United fans believe is holding their team back.
The visitors are 8/5 to win to nil.
Even Ralf Rangnick couldn't believe Fred's finish 😅 pic.twitter.com/JszRxXw25S
— ESPN UK (@ESPNUK) December 6, 2021