Ahead of each round of fixtures in the Premier League, W2W4 looks at the main storylines to keep an eye on.
Are we about to see the best of Spurs and Chelsea?
It’s been a curious season at the top of the Premier League. The established order is more or less in place, only goal difference keeping Watford and Bournemouth above Manchester United, and thus the top six being the big six. The elite feel more entrenched than ever, the rest having to leap upon increasingly meagre scraps.
And yet, Manchester City aside, which of those big sides can truly say they have consistently played to their potential? Manchester United’s problems are obvious, Arsenal had a good spell but their last few games haven’t been great, even Liverpool haven’t been entirely convincing.
Then there’s Tottenham and Chelsea: Mauricio Pochettino has already noted that his side’s start to the season — their best in Premier League history, at one stage — is a slight illusion, and they’ve been fortunate to escape with the points a few times. Chelsea have probably been closer to their manager’s ideal, but they are still learning about Maurizio Sarri. And yet they’re all still winning without being at — or in some cases close to — their best.
Arguably all of this makes the encounter between those two sides on Saturday more fascinating: the optimistic view is that the best of Spurs and Chelsea is bubbling just beneath the surface, waiting to pop up and show itself. So are we about to see these theoretically brilliant teams display their brilliance in practice?
Who can regain some momentum?
Arsenal’s start to life under Unai Emery had inspired optimism not seen at the Emirates for years: watching Arsenal was fun again, and for a while at least, that was enough. But while their remarkable run of 11 straight wins (in all competitions) suggested that fun might turn into tangible achievement this season, in the weeks before the international break Arsenal seemed to lose a little momentum. They’ve drawn four of their last five games, and while one of those was against Liverpool, some of the others exposed a few weaknesses that might hold them back.
On Sunday they face another team who began the season brilliantly but suffered a couple of setbacks before the break. Bournemouth’s defeat to Manchester United was excusable and even a little unlucky, but the loss at Newcastle was less forgivable. This is one of the weekend’s more interesting games because it features two sides looking to find their stride again after a few small stumbles.
United see what they could’ve won with Zaha
At some point, if it hasn’t already, the curious 18 months Wilfried Zaha spent at Manchester United, in which he made as many league appearances as he had loan spells, will be regarded as one of the Premier League’s greatest missed opportunities. And at no other time than now: imagine a United attack featuring Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Zaha.
Jose Mourinho is frequently (sometimes fairly) defined as a defensive manager, but his basic philosophy is to have a solid backline which allows dynamic attackers to do their thing, and there are few more dynamic attackers in the Premier League than Zaha.
Ultimately his failure to settle at United might be nobody specific’s fault, but if Zaha does what he can do to their backline, when he returns with Crystal Palace on Saturday, it will provide a stinging reminder of what might have been.
Manuel Pellegrini searches for some credit
Even though he won the Premier League and left Manchester City with a winning percentage a hair under 60 percent, Manuel Pellegrini’s reputation is not as one of the great managers in Premier League history. Maybe it’s because winning the title is a minimum requirement at City; maybe it’s because his successor was Pep Guardiola and he suffers by comparison; maybe it’s his taciturn demeanour; maybe it’s because he went to China straight after his departure.
Whatever the reason, Pellegrini might see his spell at West Ham as a time to prove his managerial chops. This week the Chilean said his target with the Hammers was to reach Europe inside three years, which seems perfectly achievable, but a more immediate target is giving his old club a bloody nose, when they visit the London Stadium on Saturday. Maybe then people will take him more seriously.
Could Ranieri have an instant impact?
Claudio Ranieri has been here before. The man who took Leicester to implausible glory has experience more relevant to his current task — saving Fulham from relegation — in his past at Cagliari and Parma, even if both of those jobs were some time ago. But there’s no mistake that he has a stiff task on his hands at Craven Cottage, arriving to find a collection of talented players that Slavisa Jokanovic hadn’t managed to craft into a team, and a defence that can’t stop conceding.
Ranieri identified tightening that defence and generally boosting confidence as his first tasks this week. It’s tempting to not expect much for his opening game, against Southampton on Saturday: he’ll only be able to work with his full squad for two days due to international duty, and his methods tend to take a few weeks to take hold. However, the good news is Ranieri is a different enough personality to Jokanovic that he might be able to immediately harness the ‘new manager bounce’: don’t be surprised if the previously desperate Cottagers start setting things right against Southampton.