Premier League bold predictions: Grealish stars in Liverpool vs. Manchester City clash; Mount revives Chelsea

Headlined by a clash between title contenders Manchester City and Liverpool at Anfield the Premier League returns to action this weekend with an intriguing slate of fixtures. Here’s three things to look out for:

Liverpool vs. Manchester City: Grealish’s statement game

There are few games more challenging to read in advance than this clash of the two great powers of the Premier League. No meeting of Manchester City and Liverpool is quite like the one that came before, as both managers tweak their tactical plans for the unique challenges that come with the opposition. While Pep Guardiola might have recent form on his side, two wins in which they scored four goals either side of a 1-1 draw last November, he would be the last person to claim he has got Jurgen Klopp’s number.

That is not least because the Liverpool team he will be facing now is something close to approximating the full blown Klopp Experience. The expected goals (xG) numbers are gaudy, the pressing is the sort to leave opposition defenders crumpled in a corner of the dressing room at full time and the ball keeps finding its way to Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah (one and two in non-penalty xG so far this season) in dangerous places.

Pitted against that is a City side who have shown that last season’s defensive revival was no outlier. Ruben Dias looks as at home next to Aymeric Laporte as he did John Stones and Rodri seems to improve with every season in the Premier League. Guardiola’s frontline may be a source of constant debate thanks to its the lack of a true center forward, and it is perhaps short that reference point who can take 2.5 to three shots a game, but these critiques are relatively minor for a team running up two goals a game in the Premier League this season.

In short, there are any number of facets that might win this game for both sides. They are two of the best sides in Europe, capable of punishing their opponent for an off day. Almost any player could win this, yes even Joao Cancelo. So why not the new guy? Jack Grealish has been nothing if not interesting since his arrival at the Etihad Stadium. For the most part the England international has been stationed on the extreme left of the City attack, a position where he could do a great deal of damage against James Milner, the likely starter at right back with Trent Alexander-Arnold ruled out.

It could be the spot where City overwhelm Liverpool.  Should Bernardo Silva start as the left of two midfield eights, as he did in the win over Leicester, then the visitors can set up passing triangles with the Portuguese international, Grealish and Cancelo that will stretch that flank. There are of course no guarantees that Bernardo will start in that position — or even that he will start at all in spite of his superb form — but if he does he offers the ideal foil for Grealish, a natural left footer who will look to run outside him and get into crossing positions that free his team mate to attack on his right foot.

Jack Grealish and Bernardo Silva dovetail down the Manchester City left
Wyscout/Sport 7

In the image above Grealish opts to cross to Raheem Sterling after moving further infield, a tempting delivery that his team mate might have been able to hook back towards Gabriel Jesus. He might otherwise have driven through the gap between Southampton defenders and taken a shot like the one he scored against RB Leipzig or moved forward and eventually worked a pass to Bernardo on the byline. Early on in his City career this has been a hallmark of Grealish’s play, he has options available to him. More often than not he is choosing the right one. Attacking what might be the soft spot of this Liverpool defense, he could be the one to swing the game.

Chelsea vs. Southampton: Mount revives Blues attack… if fit

That this feels like the first wobble of the Thomas Tuchel regime only goes to reflect the extremely high standards the German has set since taking over at Stamford Bridge in January. Defeats to Manchester City and Juventus make for the second time Chelsea have lost back to back games under this manager, though really there is no great shame in being edged out by a very good Premier League rival and a Champions League opponent who had an outstanding night defensively.

On the other hand, that loss in Turin reflected a worrying trend for Chelsea in recent games. They are simply not creating chances when the scores are level. In 99 minutes of parity against Juventus and City, Tuchel’s side created shooting opportunities worth 0.29 xG. It seemed like, at least to some degree, the manager’s failed experiments in one game brought about difficulties in the next. At Stamford Bridge on Saturday Chelsea willingly ceded possession, planning to keep things tight with a bank of five and three robust midfielders in front of them before unleashing Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner on the counter.

Chelsea’s pass network in their 1-0 loss to Manchester City

It did not work. Property builders across London must have recoiled at the sight of all the prime real estate left vacant in what ought to be a Chelsea midfield. There was space, surely, for a multimillion dollar town house for Andreas Christensen to lob the ball over. In response, in Italy, Tuchel opted to have a frontline composed largely of players who wanted to come to the ball. Both Kai Havertz and Hakim Ziyech looked most at ease coming to Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic to take possession off them but all that did was place more of the visitors’ play in front of the Juventus backline, just where Leonardo Bonucci wanted it.

It is perhaps worth noting at this juncture the cause for concern around Havertz, who seemed primed for a breakout year after starting well in preseason but looks to be a shadow of the best version of himself in a Chelsea shirt, let alone what he achieved with Bayer Leverkusen. Of the 17 take ons he has attempted in the Premier League and Champions League he has completed just two. His expected assists (xA) have cratered to just 0.04 per 90 minutes while his xG has remained at the same level this season as it was last.

He, more than anyone else, seems to be struggling with the slow ball that is an occupational hazard of this attack. Tuchel has also acknowledged that Havertz and Ziyech are short on confidence, though that may just be because when they do play they are struggling to get involved in games with so much of Chelsea’s attacking thrust coming from wide areas. 

Without Mason Mount and N’Golo Kante, the latter of whom is definitively unavailable due to a positive COVID-19 test, there seems to be little ability to drive forward, beat a man and potentially give their teammates a chance to attack a disorganized backline. Even the perennially unavailable Christian Pulisic, a player who attempted more take ons per 90 minutes than anyone in a Chelsea shirt, would offer something that this frontline is missing.

Mount’s absence might be the most critical. The England international seems the most capable of occupying multiple roles, usually functioning as the link man between midfield and attack and consistently varying his position and role to get the most out of those around him. He is the man to unlock defenses that Chelsea have needed in their last two games; of the 11 big chances the Blues have created this season, the England international has made the most with three and his 0.27 xG assisted per 90 minutes is a tally bettered only by Lukaku and Reece James (whose absence is felt almost as much down the right flank) according to fbref statistics.

Add Mount to Saturday’s side and there is someone who can unleash Werner in behind. Put him in Wednesday’s team and there might be someone in that front three who could actually beat a man. He is not a silver bullet for this Chelsea side’s rather slow play on the front foot, but if he returns to the side — and England manager Gareth Southgate (who is expecting him to be available for next week’s international break) intimated that that ought to happen on Saturday — then Chelsea might just be a bit more vibrant again.

Crystal Palace vs. Leicester City: Eagles soar again

There was a time not so long ago when Leicester City, no matter how great their form, could be guaranteed to give up three points, if not more, to Crystal Palace. Year in, year out the respective teams would be named, the consensus would be that the Foxes should edge a tight match and they would find themselves utterly pulverized by Palace. Four games between December 2017 and February 2019 brought the following scores for the Eagles: 3-0, 1-0, 5-0, 4-1.

Under Brendan Rodgers Leicester have started to see the better results in this fixture, but this weekend feels more like a day where Palace might pick up a statement win. Certainly, Patrick Vieira’s side look to have taken almighty strides towards being an impressive Premier League outfit in recent weeks. Six points from their first six games may not seem like many, but they have had one of the toughest early fixture lists with games against Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and West Ham ticked off the list, as well as a grudge match with Brighton. To emerge from those games with a positive overall xG difference (7.41 for, 6.97 against) is no mean feat.

The same has not been true of Leicester. It remains early enough in the season that the broader xG trend can be overly influenced by one or two games, but there is a pattern emerging so far of Rodgers’ side looking notably more vulnerable at the back without Wesley Fofana and Jonny Evans, who has struggled with a niggling foot injury throughout 2021. They have allowed the seventh most xG to opposition of any Premier League team from a fixture list that, while difficult, has only contained one of English football’s superpowers, a 1-0 loss to Manchester City. Meanwhile, at the other end, Jamie Vardy is the only Foxes player with more than one xG to his name in a team that has taken the fifth least shots, just 65 in total. Even the Europa League is offering precious little solace.

Palace may be lower on that particular metric but the shots they are taking are better, perhaps reflecting the elegance with which Connor Gallagher glides into the box to make chances for himself and others. With summer signings Joachim Andersen and Marc Guehi looking to be building a solid tandem at the back it may be that both the present and the future are beginning to look a lot brighter in south London.

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