Chelsea v Manchester City
Every 2021/22 preview worth its salt backed Chelsea to mount a serious title challenge after a stunning transformation under Thomas Tuchel last term ultimately led to Champions League success.
From January on, the Blues rearguard appeared impenetrable, keeping clean sheets in a remarkable 63% of their games while the German’s tactical acumen ensured his array of attacking options usually found a way. All they were lacking, to really be a complete and fearsome package, was a prolific and reliable goal-scorer.
On the eve of their opening fixture Romelu Lukaku arrived for a record-breaking sum, which addressed their solitary shortfall at a stroke, but in between his arrival and the pundits nailing their colours to the Chelsea mast, along came an unkind fixture schedule that pitted Tuchel’s side against the great and the good right from the off. Away trips to Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham across the first month of this campaign enforced an immediate and robust evaluation of their credentials.
4 games, 4 goals for Lukaku. That’s the tweet. pic.twitter.com/vOvakhbPAU
— Conn (@ConnCFC) September 14, 2021
It can only be said that Chelsea have passed their early examination and comprehensively so, dropping just two points from their first five fixtures and even those demonstrated just how advanced they are, with a defensive masterclass necessary at Anfield. They are, by every metric, a complete and fearsome package.
Next up is City, their likeliest rival for the crown, and with a routine October rota to follow it means victory at the Bridge on Saturday will place Tuchel’s Blues in prime position for their title bid. Supporters of Liverpool and Manchester United therefore will very possibly — and very reluctantly — root for the visitors for this one.
If they do, they might end up disappointed because City are showing Jekyll and Hyde tendencies of late, either pulverizing sides by five or six or failing to convert chances. There is simply no chance of them pulverizing Chelsea.
Tuchel’s three successes over Guardiola last season is highly relevant, from their superior performances as much as the results, while it matters for this six-pointer that City will be deprived of John Stones, Aymeric Laporte and Oleksandr Zinchenko. These are significant absentees with Lukaku ablaze, though don’t underestimate Chelsea’s goal-scoring threat from other sources. Last season a quarter of their league goals came from defenders and that trend has continued this time out.
Under 1.5 goals at 12/5 is a tempting option with the hosts narrowly emerging once again victorious.
Manchester United v Aston Villa
It is all-too-easy to fixate on the Ronaldo factor when assessing United from here on in, and that’s perfectly understandable given his immense standing in the modern game. A five-time Ballon d’Or winner and gold standard megastar, it is also highly pertinent that he has already scored four times in his three appearances for the Reds since making a sensational return to Old Trafford.
Frankly, a case can reasonably be made for an opposition team to cause Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side all manner of problems and then the Portuguese forward could destroy them single-handedly with the minimum of fuss. That’s how good he is.
Yet, even when diverting attention away from his considerable attributes, it’s hard not to be impressed by United’s assembly of offensive threats this season. Mason Greenwood is establishing himself as a real force to be reckoned with, his trio of goals aligned with an increasing bearing on games. Bruno Fernandes meanwhile has notched four, continuing his splendid form for the Reds as if a disappointing Euros never happened. And then there’s Paul Pogba, much maligned and always talked about, creating an astonishing seven assists in his five opening games, a Premier League record. Even Jesse Lingard is now getting in on the act with some late goal-scoring cameos, putting to rest rumours of an imminent departure.
— Premier League (@premierleague) September 19, 2021
All told, United last failed to score in a competitive fixture way back in April. All told, they are a free-flowing, entertaining and often formidable proposition in the attacking third.
Which does not bode well for Aston Villa as they travel to the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ this Saturday to take on an opposition they last beat in 2009. John McGinn is a slight doubt for the visitors, after suffering concussion last week, and it’s vital that the midfielder is passed fit because he has been Villa’s best performing player this term from a statistical standpoint. It’s key too that Emi Buendia starts with the Argentine having settled immediately in the Midlands, sparkling in parts.
Injury concerns aside, there are reasons to be optimistic for Dean Smith’s men though they must be wary of a disciplinary issue that has seen them receive the second most bookings in the top-flight so far. As menacing as the hosts are up front, in the centre of the park there remains a problem or two: no team has been dispossessed more than United this season.
At the back too, they can unquestionably be got at, keeping only one clean sheet to date in the league. Villa only failed to score twice on the road throughout 2020/21.
Both teams to score but United to prevail is 15/8 as a bet builder.
Brentford v Liverpool
Across their seven years in the Championship, so often knocking on the promotion door, so often failing to open it, a marquee fixture such as this would have been dreamed about by Brentford fans. The illustrious Liverpool, steeped as they are in history and silverware, heading to West London, to face relative equals in front of a packed-out newly-built Community Stadium.
Better yet, the Bees go into this intriguing clash buzzing, after putting seven past Oldham mid-week in the Carabao Cup but more meaningful still starting their Premier League adventure in extremely promising fashion. Their eight points from five is the best return for a promoted side at this stage for many a year — surpassing even Sheffield United’s early tally two seasons’ ago — and it has largely been achieved by adhering to the attacking spirit that saw them gain entry to the promised land.
Great backing tonight!
— Brentford FC (@BrentfordFC) September 21, 2021
With two goals and an assist, Ivan Toney is already proving he is a genuine threat at any level while Sergi Canos has been the difference-maker in rousing victories over Arsenal and Wolves. Here, he plays against the side he made a single appearance for in 2016.
Yet, for all of Brentford’s many admirable attributes, what impresses most is their collective intelligence. Only three teams have completed fewer passes this season and they have averaged just 42% possession but to compensate for this they make every passage of play count.
If such economy accounts for their success at breaking teams down, a well-organized back three is resolute at the other end. By scoring first in their draw against Aston Villa, then succumbing to a last-gasp concession to Brighton it means that Thomas Frank’s creation have only been behind for seven minutes all season. It’s telling too that they last conceded more than two goals back in January, to Leicester in the FA Cup.
This though will surely be their toughest test yet and possibly by some distance. Liverpool have taken on more shots than anyone else to date — 42% more than Chelsea who they share top spot with — and this peppering approach has brought ten goals already for Salah and co up front. Further encouragement is found in Fabinho and Keita getting on the score-sheet because it has long been said that the Reds’ midfield do not chip in enough.
At the back, with Van Dijk reinstated and once again imperious, the Merseysiders have conceded just once and by boasting a superior goal difference after five games than in their title-winning campaign it can strongly be argued that Liverpool are back and looking the business at present.
Any romantic notions of a home win therefore should be disregarded sadly, though with Brentford’s defensive fortitude and propensity to take their chances a tight 2-1 away win at 17/2 feels about right.
Arsenal v Tottenham
The North London Derby has produced some memorable moments and classic contests in recent years but on this occasion only the result matters. Consequently, a tight, nervy, low-scoring encounter beckons.
Even at this early juncture of the season both teams have already become well acquainted with turmoil, though their trajectories in and out of crisis differ substantially. Just three short weeks ago Spurs were top of the pile following three consecutive 1-0 wins but two abject performances have sent Nuno Espirito Santo’s side into a tailspin, their tumble down the table exacerbated by injuries, a dearth of creativity and the continued floundering of Harry Kane. Last season’s Golden Boot winner had just five touches in the opposition penalty area in defeats to Crystal Palace and Chelsea while behind the noticeably struggling hit-man a midfield toils without any spark at all.
César Azpilicueta, Thiago Silva and Marcos Alonso (all 5) had more touches in the opposition box than Harry Kane (2) during Chelsea's 3-0 win against Spurs.
He still doesn't have a Premier League goal this season. 🤦♂️ pic.twitter.com/cTEqePaVr7
— Squawka (@Squawka) September 19, 2021
It is a sustained situation that has resulted in Tottenham scoring half the number of Newcastle at this point — a team hardly known for their prolificacy — and it’s reasonable to assume their lack of attacking ambition will extend to the Emirates, with Lucas Moura and Steven Bergwijn both expected to miss out.
The hosts meanwhile appear to be emerging from their darkest hour even if slim wins over Norwich and Burnley hardly suggests they are fully revived. At least the Gunners are creating opportunities once again after completing a meagre three shots on target in their previous two games and for this reason only the home side should be backed at a pragmatic 5/4.
Do not be surprised if bookings surpass goals on Sunday in a cagey clash that might well define each side’s winter to come. Between them, Arsenal and Tottenham are scoring every 180 minutes this season.