Thursday, September 12, 2013

5 questions to consider ahead of this weekend's Premier League fixtures

1. Will Ozil start? 
With Tomas Rosicky set to miss Arsenal's Saturday clash at Sunderland with a thigh injury he picked up on international duty with the Czech Republic, there's a strong chance Mesut Ozil will start in his first appearance for the Gunners. Wenger could alternatively opt to bring in Mathieu Flamini to play deeper in midfield alongside Aaron Ramsey and push Jack Wilshere into the #10 role. However, against a Sunderland side likely to set up defensively, the prospect of a center midfield trio with as much creativity and attacking ability as Ramsey, Wilshere and Ozil would likely appeal to Wenger. An attacking six of Ramsey, Wilshere, Ozil, Cazorla, Walcott and Giroud offers the prospect of some truly exciting attacking football. Sunderland's 5 goals against are tied for the worst in the Premier League and the atmosphere is a little stale around the Stadium of Light with Paolo Di Canio continuing to publicly call out his own players- they'll need to be organized and get a big boost from the home crowd to have a chance at getting something out of this one.

(UPDATE: Ozil missed Arsenal's training session today with an illness but will travel with the team to Sunderland. Per Mertesacker also missed with illness and will not travel). 

2. West Ham vs. Southampton: who will win out in clash of styles?
The intrigue of this game is that it pairs two sides with two very different playing styles. West Ham manager Sam Allardyce places far more emphasis on territory than possession. His side is 16th in the league in average possession with 44.4% and have been outpossessed in all three of their opening fixtures. Those stats are particularly startling given two of those games were at home to Cardiff and Stoke, a newly promoted side and a side infamous for its inability to retain the ball (they were also outpossessed at Newcastle in match week 2). West Ham are organized and difficult to break down defensively. They shuttle the ball into wide areas, cross early and often and look for knock downs. They've attacked through the middle of the pitch less than any team this season. The loss to injury of towering forward Andy Carroll and talented crossers Joe Cole and Stewart Downing will certainly hurt West Ham's ability to play their preferred style effectively. Mauricio Pochettino's Southampton side on the other hand currently sits third in the league in terms of average possession. They prefer a more patient, passing attack. The striking partnership of Dani Osvaldo and Rickie Lambert failed to produce a goal in Southampton's loss to Norwich two weekends ago so it'll be interesting to see if Pochettino goes with both those two up front again or decides to go with just one striker. In that loss at Norwich they struggled to defend the flanks which could provide West Ham opportunities to get crosses into the box to Modibo Maiga and Kevin Nolan. West Ham haven't won on their travels since March 2- with a depleted squad that's unlikely to change Sunday. Still, this should be an entertaining game for the clash of footballing philosophies on display.

3. Will Martinez be brave against Chelsea?
Roberto Martinez is a far more proactive manager than his predecessor at Everton David Moyes. Whereas Moyes tends to react to the strengths of each opposition and organize his squad accordingly, Martinez focuses more on his own team's approach. Martinez's Wigan side played Chelsea in the opening fixture of last season and he showed he was unafraid to play expansive, attacking football. Wigan finished the match with more possession but were picked apart twice on the counter in the opening 10 minutes and Chelsea held on for a fairly comfortable 2-0 win. Herein lies the crucial question with Martinez. His sides generally play a brand of football that is attractive on the eye but is he willing to adjust his style to achieve better results? So far his Everton side lead the league in possession yet have managed just three draws. While much of that can be blamed on players getting used to the new system and the lack of an in form striker, questions remain regarding whether Martinez can combine style with substance. If his side continue the trend of bossing possession Saturday against Chelsea, they'll have to be extremely cautious about being caught on the counter. The Blues have a gaggle of talented midfielders capable of reeking havoc on the break and in Jose Mourinho a manager more comfortable playing a counter-attacking style. New signings James McCarthy and Gareth Barry will provide options for Martinez in the middle of midfield after the departure of Marouane Fellaini but on loan striker Romelu Lukaku will be unavailable to play against his parent club. It'll also be interesting to see whether Willian and Samuel Eto'o get their first minutes for Chelsea.

4. Will Kagawa play?
Since the appointment of David Moyes at Manchester United, Shinji Kagawa has played just 7 minutes of competitive football after coming on as a late substitute in the community shield. Moyes has instead opted to use Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck in Kagawa's preferred role behind main striker Robin Van Persie. A 0-0 draw to Chelsea followed by a 1-0 defeat to Liverpool saw Manchester United fail to score in successive games for the first time since August 2007. The lack of offensive output has many wondering why Moyes has refused to field a player with the creative ability of Kagawa. Concerns over Kagawa's ability to defend have been suggested and against stronger sides like Chelsea and Liverpool perhaps Moyes wanted first and foremost to ensure his side had a strong defensive shape. This wouldn't be a huge surprise given Moyes has always been a fairly reactive, conservative manager. However, with newly promoted Crystal Palace coming to Old Trafford and Wayne Rooney sidelined with an injury, not giving Kagawa a shot would make little sense this weekend.
5. Can Liverpool continue unbeaten run?
Brendan Rodgers' side has shown tremendous character opening the season with three difficult wins- an away victory over Aston Villa sandwiched between home wins over Stoke and Manchester United. It's the first time Liverpool have opened a league campaign with three wins since the 1994-95 season. All three wins of those wins have ended in a 1-0 scoreline and the Reds have had to dig deep in each. These were the type of fixtures they were dropping points in last season, points they'll need to pick up to have chance at a top four finish this campaign. They're the only side yet to have conceded. Daniel Sturridge is starting to show his promise having netted all three game winners. Rodgers managed to strengthen his side on transfer deadline day adding French center back Mamadou Sakho and winger Victor Moses on loan from Chelsea. It took Liverpool until October 20 to reach 9 points last season so there's plenty of reason for optimism at Anfield this time around, particularly given the strong form they showed in the second half of last season.

In traveling to Swansea Monday night they'll face another talented opponent. The Swans owe much of their current 16th place standing to a difficult run of opening fixtures, having opened the season with a home loss to champions Manchester United before being beaten by Tottenham at White Hart Lane. They managed their first win of the campaign 2-0 over West Brom at the Hawthornes two weekends ago and will look to use that win and a boisterous home crowd to motivate them Monday night. The Welsh side did however manage just 6 home league wins last season- the 7th fewest in the league.

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