The Premier League kickstarts 2021 with a barnstorming schedule of games in which all of the top four face off against each other. Here is what to keep an eye out for:
Chelsea vs. Liverpool: Mismatch favors visitors
The meeting of minds between Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel, the man who forged the modern Borussia Dortmund and his anointed successor, at the head of two Premier League hyper clubs is nothing if not mouthwatering. All the more frustrating then that we are unlikely to have seen a real match up between Chelsea and Liverpool with these two at the helm.
When they first met in March, Liverpool were an injury-riddled shadow of themselves, rolling out a center back pairing of Ozan Kabak and Fabinho in a 1-0 defeat. Their meeting earlier this season was turning into quite the barn burner at just the moment Reece James was sent off for a contentious red card; from then on we learned that Tuchel’s Chelsea could defend their box better than anyone else but we rather knew that already.
This time it would appear that Chelsea are in the same situation Liverpool found themselves in 10 months ago, struggling to keep the balance in their side as injuries (and a raft of COVID-19 cases) hit Tuchel in key areas. A manager whose substitutes bench against Brighton cost the best part of $340 million will curry little condolence from his fellow managers when he bemoans the demands being placed on his sizeable squad.
Where he merits some degree of sympathy from neutrals is how his side have been consistently hammered in one key area, much as Liverpool were when they lost Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip to season-ending injuries in the space of a few months. As the Reds’ rose with Van Dijk’s flourishings, Chelsea under Tuchel have been defined by their wing backs, stretching the pitch to its widest points in attack whilst concertinaing inwards when put under pressure. Without Ben Chilwell, now sidelined for the remainder of the season after undergoing ACL surgery, and likely Reece James it is hard to see how Chelsea can be quite so effective.
Marcos Alonso offers an approximation of Chilwell’s qualities on the left and is perhaps more devastating going forward, more robust in aerial duels. Certainly he was considered good enough to be first choice in the position at the start of the season but not against Brighton, where his defensive weaknesses might have been exposed. Meanwhile on the other flank Tuchel’s options boil down to pushing Cesar Azpilicueta out of the back three — an awkward moment to do so with Thiago Silva and Andreas Christensen injury doubts — or using one of the repurposed forwards, Christian Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi.
Chelsea might be able to cope were it not for their opponent. Few top sides gravitate as effectively towards the flanks as Liverpool, who will look to drag the Blues’ back five as wide as possible through their full-backs, creating seams for Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane to drive into. At full strength Tuchel’s back five might be able to just bunker in and hold out but if he is asking the likes of Pulisic, Alonso or Hudson-Odoi to keep an eye on Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold on their outside whilst the forwards drive inwards he will face a tough task replicating the masterclass of the second half at Anfield.
Arsenal vs. Man City: Signs of progress for Gunners in defeat
Arsenal are almost certainly going to lose to Manchester City because, well, that is what they do. Each of their last four meetings since a stunning FA Cup semi-final triumph early in Mikel Arteta’s reign have ended in defeat by an aggregate margin 11 goals to one. Indeed if you scrub cup competitions — where the Gunners are so often a different beast — from the recent records then this is a bogey team like none other in the Gunners history. Nine straight league defeats against one opponent is their worst ever run whilst it has been more than six years since Mesut Ozil inspired them to victory over Manuel Pellegrini’s side.
On other occasions there might be cause for a glimmer of optimism when the new year dawns at the Emirates Stadium. If you were looking for a right flank to quell the threat of Raheem Sterling and Joao Cancelo then there might be few better outside the top three than Bukayo Saka and Takehiro Tomiyasu but the latter is in doubt following a positive coronavirus case that ruled him out of the win over Norwich on Boxing Day. Ben White looked to be a serviceable replacement in that match but not only is City a far greater test but moving him out there robs Arsenal of the solidity that he and Gabriel can bring. There may, however, be no feasible replacement with Calum Chambers out of form, Cedric Soares only trusted against a lower class of opponent and Ainsley Maitland-Niles on the way out.
Further forward this might be a game for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to lurk on the shoulder of the City defense, scarcely touching the ball but waiting for his moment to explode into life and finish a chance. Having been stripped of the captaincy he has departed early to the Africa Cup of Nations though his form prior to his exiling from the Arsenal side would suggest that he might not have contributed much anyway.
As such it feels rather bold to simply say this won’t be a shellacking for the Gunners. But it might not be. If nothing else it will be an intriguing learning exercise for Arteta, who will not be at the Emirates Stadium after testing positive for COVID-19. Can Gabriel Martinelli do what he might want Aubameyang to do in matches gone by, get himself one or two opportunities and finish? How does the central midfield pivot of Granit Xhaka and Thomas Partey, largely impressive when fielded together, compete against the best opposition there is? Even keeping City at bay for 10 minutes is progress based on recent results?
Most significantly of all, what happens when Arteta takes the training wheels off his young squad? There are few more vocal, active managers on the touchline than the Spaniard; in lockdown football scarcely five minutes would pass without a cry of “Dani, Dani, Dani” from the Arsenal dugout. Even with 60,000 at the Emirates Stadium he fights to be heard over the din, micromanaging players to the nth degree.
Arteta will have an earpiece to Albert Stuivenberg and whatever coaches are available after their own COVID issues but he is also keen to see how his side cope in these unfamiliar circumstances. “We will be in touch but as well I want to give them the responsibility and the freedom to make decisions on the pitch and to express themselves,” he said. “I’m going to be here to support and help in certain moments but they have to get the momentum of the game and communication themselves.”
It is fair to assume that they might just show signs of progress against City. For all the drama around them the big picture would say that this year has shown Arsenal offer a strong case for being England’s fourth best team, a league table for 2021 puts them just behind Liverpool in that spot. Arteta would be the first to tell you that the ranking that matters happens between August and May but it at least shows that on current trajectory they might be the best of the rest. That was not always clear; early in the season it was fair to point to a team that was getting battered by the league’s brightest stars and scraping past the rest and suggest that top four was a false position.
Now that Arsenal are starting to put together big three scorelines against the league’s lower lights it might just be that they are at least able to stem the bleeding when they face City. That might not feel like an acceptable return for fans raised on Invincibles and title challenges but for now it might just be good enough.
Watford vs. Spurs: Hornets find the net… and lose heavily
At any other club it would feel remarkably premature to talk about Claudio Ranieri fighting for his future after just 10 Premier League games in charge. But then that is how many Quique Sanchez Flores got in the autumn of 2019 before being given the heave ho for collecting just seven points. The Italian has six and whilst there have so far been no rumblings of change at Vicarage Road it is often Watford’s way that the Sunday after a dismal result brings with it a bolt from the blue, that familiar ominous corner flag shot and “club statement” tweet.
Sacking Ranieri would be harsh indeed when he has coaxed noticeable improvements out of his side, particularly in the final third. Emmanuel Dennis has been the shining light so far with eight goals and five assists. No wonder Watford seized on a missed deadline by the Nigerian Football Federation to block his participation in the Africa Cup of Nations. Even aside from their star man the Hornets have improved greatly in terms of the chances they create; in their first seven games they created shots worth 5.76 expected goals (xG). In 10 games since that number has shot up by 13.65, half an xG per game better.
Logic would have dictated that without Ismaila Sarr, sidelined since late November, the attack might have slowed down. Instead it has burst to life and could be quite effective when their best forward returns in the new year. The pace, dynamism and positional versatility can devastate defenses, particularly if the Watford midfield can win the ball back in position to counter. In the blink of an eye against Chelsea they found themselves three on three with the Blues’ rearguard, Dennis not needing the support runners that came with him before firing the ball beyond Edouard Mendy. It is easy to see them doing the same to Tottenham’s back three.
Of course the issue is what has happened at the other end. Ranieri’s side have not kept a league clean sheet under him and have let in 25 goals. In part that is a reflection of a fixture list that has pitted them against seven of last season’s top eight. Mostly however it seems to point to a team that did not have very good defensive options in the first place that has been decimated by injuries and illness. The simplest explanation for why they are conceding so many goals comes in the defense that let in four against West Ham: Daniel Bachmann, Kiko Femenia, Francisco Sierralta, Craig Cathcart and Adam Masina. It is fair to question if any of them have proven to be of Premier League quality.
Such is the reality when you take more than half a dozen senior defenders out of a squad. With Femenia joining the likes of Danny Rose, Ben Foster, Christian Kabasele and Nicolas N’Koulou on the sidelines the defense may be even more threadbare on Saturday. Harry Kane and Heung-min Son must be licking their lips. Ranieri, meanwhile, will surely be hoping that those above him opt to act with uncharacteristic patience.