The Premier League returns this weekend with an intriguing slate of fixtures including a London derby, a clash between top-four contenders at Old Trafford and Liverpool's visit to Selhurst Park. Here's what to keep an eye out for:
Manchester United vs. West Ham: Red Devils pay for lack of control
One half good, one half bad has rather been the tale of the tape for Manchester United in recent weeks. At the Brentford Community Stadium, they could have been dead and buried at the halftime interval on Wednesday; a few days earlier they frittered away a strong first half at Villa Park.
So off the pace have they been for 45 minutes that they have found themselves coming out inferior on the expected goals (xG) count in both games (2.58 to 2.24 against Brentford, 1.81 to 1.29 against Aston Villa) even if they have claimed four points. Against a favorable set of opponents -- only one of the last seven opponents is currently in the Premier League's top half -- Ralf Rangnick has seen his side produce shots worth 10.4 xG and face shots worth 9.6. Throughout that time, games seem to have happened to the Red Devils rather than them stamping their mark on matches. Only a 3-1 win over Burnley had any real assertive marks to it and that was a game that could have gone rather differently.
Their inability to control matches seems to stem from the issue that keeps raising its head at Old Trafford over recent years: A midfield that simply is not up to standard. Against Brentford, it could not weather the early storm. In the draw at Villa Park, Fred was too often caught charging upfield to try to win possession when he had the sedentary Nemanja Matic in behind. Top midfields cool the intensity of a contest when their side is leading or gets a foot back in the game for its teammates when the pressure is greatest. Not at Manchester United, where it feels like midfield contests are dictated to them even when the likes of Scott McTominay are playing well.
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That is all the more worrying when Rangnick's side are about to face one of the league's more imposing midfield tandems on West Ham's visit. Tomas Soucek may not have been the force this season he was last, but he brings real dynamism to David Moyes' engine room alongside Declan Rice, the player Manchester United so obviously need in their XI. The England international can do it all, this season he has added more progressive passing to go with the ball winning and carrying abilities that he has displayed for so long. If he is on form, then the midfield battle should go the way of the visitors.
If that is the case, the Hammers will have a robust platform with which to unlock Jarrod Bowen, in decisive form over recent weeks with six goals and seven assists in his last 18 Premier League games. Though defeat to Leeds rather spoiled their copybook, Moyes' side has made impressive strides forward since its wobbles around Christmas and could be a dangerous proposition in attack, registering more than two xG in each of its past four league games. Against a team that's showing quite the attacking firepower, Manchester United can ill afford another wasted half.
Chelsea vs. Tottenham: Reguilon gives Blues a greater test
Certainly this London derby is coming at a more opportune moment for one side than the other. While the (somewhat overblown) debate at Stamford Bridge centers around the wobble Thomas Tuchel's Chelsea have suffered in recent weeks, one that has likely seen their title challenge scuttled and should instead have them looking over their shoulder. Pacing up behind them are Tottenham, ain added time earning them a stunning 3-2 victory over Leicester that means Antonio Conte is unbeaten in nine Premier League matches at the helm.
If Chelsea need to swell their belief, they do not have to look far back. They have already beaten Conte's Spurs twice this month in the EFL Cup semifinals, Tottenham's abject performances in the first leg followed by an underwhelming display a week later. A mere five shots on target across 180 minutes reflecting a performance lacking in any vigor. That stands in stark contrast to how they have been playing in the league, where they are a menace on offense.
Admittedly, the opposition has been of a lesser standard for the most part but Spurs have been a devastating attacking force, their average of 2.3 xG per game under Conte the second-highest tally in the league since his appointment in November. Much as his Chelsea title winners of 2017 did, Tottenham stretch defenses to breaking point through their wing backs, though for now their threat on the right is often more theoretical than tangible.
The same is not true on the opposite flank, where Sergio Reguilon looks to be quite the danger man. The Spaniard is in many ways an archetypal Conte wing back, front-footed with an eye for crossing and shooting positions, blessed with pace that allows him to charge to the byline and make up ground when the ball is lost. His adaptation to his new role has been immediate. In Premier League matches under new management, he averages 1.92 chances created per 90 minutes as opposed to a shade over one under Nuno and 0.68 with Jose Mourinho and Ryan Mason last season. Similarly flying upwards are his touches in the box, 4.48 per 90 under Conte compared to 1.96 in 2020-21.
In Wednesday's win against Leicester, he was always the one stretching the pitch, attempting more take-ons than anyone else, always on hand for the quick switch of play. He may not find life quite so easily against Chelsea, but if there is to be a soft point in their back five it may well come on the Tottenham left. In Reece James's absence, Tuchel has generally redeployed a forward (often either Callum Hudson-Odoi or Christian Pulisic) to the right wing back spot. Reguilon may well feast again such opponents, taking advantage of their positional indiscipline as he did in the passage of play highlighted above, one which ended with Matt Doherty's cross finding the Spaniard at the back post for a shooting chance.
Even without James, Trevoh Chalobah and Andreas Christensen, this Chelsea defense is unlikely to just buckle. Though their form may have faltered at the other end, they have still proven to be a team that make it hard indeed to get into the box. Reguilon, though, will offer quite the test.
Crystal Palace vs. Liverpool: Eagles slow another top-three side
For all the power Crystanbul -- the night when Brendan Rodgers' side blew a three-goal lead at Selhurst Park and their fading title charge fell apart -- holds on the collective memories of Palace and Liverpool supporters, it has been some time indeed since the Reds have departed south London feeling disappointed. Their last six visits to Croydon have seen them emerge victorious, 19 goals scored including seven in a demolition of Roy Hodgson's side last season.
Jurgen Klopp is the first to acknowledge it will not be so easy this time. "That was a one-off, a freak of nature," he said. "That day was incredible, we hit pretty much with every shot. They changed and they improved under Patrick [Vieira], I have to say. They look like a real stable team."
That Palace certainly are, firmly ensconced in 11th in the Premier League. As Klopp himself said, they might be higher but the Eagles have perhaps left points on the table in more favorable matchups. That cannot be said when they come up against the best the league has to offer. In three games so far against teams who occupied the top three at the start of the day, Palace have one defeat and two impressive wins, 3-0 over Tottenham and 2-0 over Manchester City.
On both occasions, there were factors in their favor -- a red card for City, Spurs being nowhere near as good as their record is -- but these sort of matches suit a Palace side whose greatest strengths lie in their impressive verticality and the speed with which they counter. No one exemplifies this approach like Conor Gallagher, namechecked by Klopp, who could not help but grin as he praised the Chelsea loanee for "supporting everybody on the pitch." One minute he is the defensive midfielder, the next a bonus striker. Against City, he led his team in tackles and shots.
A Gallagher-led energy alone is not enough to guarantee Palace keep up their good run of form against the best of the best. Liverpool showed on Thursday against Arsenal that they are masters of taking the air out of a ground. But Vieira's side seem to suit the biggest opponents, against a side still without its AFCON stars the Eagles could soar once more.