Brentford v Brighton
Brentford’s plan of attack for their inaugural Premier League campaign was made perfectly clear before a ball had even been kicked. They planned to attack.
That’s what manager Thomas Frank candidly admitted ahead of the Bees’ opening clash with Arsenal last month and this was perceived as a club playing to its strengths after outscoring the rest of the Championship for two years’ running in consecutive charges to the play-offs.
For sure, this was a high-risk strategy, one that had undone newly-promoted Blackpool a decade ago and fellow non-conformists Norwich City in more recent times, but anyone who witnessed their gung-ho dismantling of the Gunners would struggle to be critical of the approach even if it suggested that in due course the West London club would leave their chin exposed too often to knockouts. In the fiery environs of their Community Stadium, in front of a packed-out crowd, Brentford were ruthless, relentless and blood and thunder. Even if relegation came of it, they would be exhilarating this season.
Only then came two away draws, to Crystal Palace and Aston Villa, and the feeling now is that Frank — shrewd to the core — hoodwinked the media and by doing so, fooled future opponents. Of course, Brentford were rampant against Arsenal, in an emotionally charged first top-flight fixture for 74 years. But at Palace and in the Midlands, they were considered, measured; trusting a finely tuned and balanced side to put in finely tuned and balanced performances.
It will be intriguing to see if this theory holds true at the weekend, especially as they are once again in front of their passionate support. Because if there is patience and nuance then Frank has played his club up to a patronizing stereotype of a typical underdog, then corrupted it for his own means.
Brentford’s three impressive results have them in the top ten, just trailing Brighton who have also changed a commonly held perception, if subtly. Last season, they gained an unwelcome reputation for spurning opportunities galore; for being plucky and unlucky, but this time out the Seagulls are biding their time and waiting for the right chance to fall, not just any. In their opening trio of fixtures last term Graham Potter’s men averaged 52% possession. That has risen to 63% at this early juncture with only Manchester City and Liverpool putting together more passes.
It bodes well for a side that hit the woodwork a staggering 17 times last season that Neal Maupay has already converted twice because the forward was routinely the culprit for Brighton’s near-misses and all-round the south coast team have become calmer and consequently more clinical.
A low-scoring draw is the sensible punt for this one, with both sides content to continue their good progress. Bet-building on a draw and under three goals is 3/1.
Most tackles in the #PL 2021/22
65 – Wolves
60 – Brentford & Brighton pic.twitter.com/iZR8ReUDoT
— Premier League (@premierleague) September 2, 2021
Leicester City v Manchester City
The visitors immediately bounced back from an opening-day loss to Tottenham by blasting ten past Norwich and Arsenal without reply, and demolition-jobs like that will go a long way to consigning their failed attempt to sign Harry Kane to the past.
Last term, the Citizens ably compensated for the absence of a recognized number nine by sharing out the goals between their wealth of creative talents and it’s pertinent that their present haul has seen Sterling, Gundogan, Grealish, Jesus, Torres, and Mahrez all get off the mark. In 2020/21, Gundogan was City’s most prolific player with 13 – the least scored by a top goal-scorer of a league champion since 2004 – but all-told seven of their attacking assembly bagged five-plus in the league and we can expect to see the same democracy in action again. By comparison, Manchester United and Liverpool had four apiece.
This makes the narrowing down of a likely difference-maker difficult if the reigning champions are to be backed here, which they should be. Last term, following an international break, City headed to the King Power and left with a 2-0 victory. It is 15/2 for the same result to be repeated again.
If that outcome doesn’t transpire, and the Foxes manage to puncture a defence that kept clean sheets in a remarkable 52% of their fixtures last year, then at least in this regard it is much easier to identify the probable executioner. For Jamie Vardy has scored nine from 17 previous encounters with City, twice firing hat-tricks, and with two in three already this term is quickly up to speed.
Traditionally, the veteran hit-man relishes being a thorn in Pep Guardiola’s side – all of his nine goals have come during the Catalan’s tenure in England – and by playing off the last man against a system often susceptible to that he has consistently been a danger. Furthermore, Leicester boast a decent record against City, winning five from their last 14 meetings.
Regrettably, all this encouragement for the hosts pales to their injury concerns at the back. With Wesley Fofana, Jonny Evans, and James Justin all unavailable, and new signing Jannik Vestergaard struggling with a knee issue, it has forced Brendan Rodgers to shuffle his pack, reimagining midfielders as centre-backs, and so far, it has shown. The Foxes have been subjected to 50 shots from their first three games and the eyes of City’s many attacking threats will light up at that stat.
Jamie Vardy is inevitable 🦊 pic.twitter.com/seZpD932Hv
— Goal (@goal) August 14, 2021
Chelsea v Aston Villa
Since Thomas Tuchel took on the reins at Stamford Bridge back in January, the main talking point about his transformed side has centred on his centre-backs, with a defence so parsimonious they have been compared to the very best in the competition’s history.
Last season, the Blues rose from a lowly ninth mid-term to securing a top four spot, while famously lifting the Champions League in May, and this steep elevation largely derived from keeping 19 clean sheets in Tuchel’s 30 games in charge. It reached the point where opponents placed huge emphasis and need on converting their scant chances and when that happens, a significant psychological edge has been gained.
Chelsea’s lockdown has continued into 2021/22, with just two goals conceded from their four fixtures – their Super Cup triumph over Villarreal included – but interestingly now they are having to work harder to maintain it. Tuchel’s men have been forced into seven more clearances this season than an Arsenal side in collective disarray, and no other player in the top-flight has made more tackles than Cesar Azpilicueta.
If this offers up a chink of hope for Villa, memories of last year also entice optimism, with four points gained from their two meetings, Anwar El Ghazi scoring in each one.
Only then we acknowledge the presence up top now of Romelu Lukaku for the hosts; a formidable hit-man who this past week celebrated his 100th appearance for his country by scoring his 67th international goal. Then we acknowledge that even if Chelsea are breached they possess so many offensive threats they render a concession redundant almost all of the time.
Discipline might be an issue for the visitors, because only four teams have picked up more yellows than the Villans this term, and it’s a concern too that they are going behind early, twice giving themselves a mountain to climb inside ten minutes.
Indeed, all things considered, a Chelsea win this Saturday feels like an inevitable outcome, though don’t expect a landslide and certainly not a repeat of the staggering 8-0 decimation inflicted back in 2012. Throughout Tuchel’s reign, his side have only won handsomely on two occasions so 3/1 for a winning margin of two seems right.
— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) September 5, 2021
Leeds United v Liverpool
The narrative that Liverpool are back to their ferocious best after a summer of recovery is too simplistic, overlooking the fact they were unbeaten in their concluding ten of last season, a run that included a 4-2 win at Old Trafford.
Even so, it is highly pertinent that their four principle forwards — Jota, Salah, Mane and Firmino — have all got onto the score-sheet for 2021/22 with Salah and Mane already firing their triggers 25 times combined.
This upsurge in form and influence from their attacking department is immensely encouraging for a side that so relies on causing chaos and terror in the opposition third. During their title-winning campaign Liverpool’s fearsome trio scored 54% of their league goals and — again, resorting to simplicity — if the Reds are scoring then they’re typically winning.
Yet nowhere is their turn-around in fortunes so apparent than in the dramatic improvement witnessed from Trent Alexander-Arnold to this point. Last year, the critics were sharpening their pens, suggesting the young right-back was burnt-out and too often ineffective. From his three excellent performances to date, the 22-year-old has created the most big chances across the top-flight.
As for Leeds, it has been a mixed return from their opening outings, looking impressive in parts against Everton, but surrendering so much space at Old Trafford they appeared at times to be eleven perfect strangers. Should results go a certain way 24 hours earlier, Marcelo Bielsa’s side face an early dip into the bottom three should they succumb to defeat and playing as they are, Liverpool have the capacity right now to inflict that.
From the potential goal-scorers at Elland Road, Sadio Mane stands out in the betting. The Senegalese striker is 13/10 to notch anytime.
— Anfield Watch (@AnfieldWatch) September 2, 2021