With the New Year period over and the FA Cup third round more or less complete (barring replays), the second half of the season is into its normality phase.
Sunday and Monday have some marquee games, but Saturday’s slate of fixtures shouldn’t be ignored. The action could swing things at the top and bottom of the table, with some potential for upsets against some of the bigger teams.
We’ve taken a close look at four of the best games that Saturday has to offer.
West Ham vs Arsenal
The lunchtime kick-off could be one which sparks a whole new narrative around Arsenal. The Gunners have scored 11 and conceded 11 in their past five league games. They vacillated from a 5-1 annihilation at the hands of Liverpool to a 4-1 annihilation of Fulham.
If Arsenal lose, then they’ll be counting on North London rivals Tottenham to beat Manchester United, otherwise Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team could draw level on points, while Chelsea could pull six ahead in fourth. At points in the season, Unai Emery’s side have looked like true competitors in the top-four battle. That set of results would be chastening.
However, the good run of form that West Ham are in has largely been prompted by a friendly run of fixtures. They’ve only faced one top six side since the start of November. Only one of the other ten matches was against a side in the top half.
West Ham’s attack has been on-form, but the defence has conceded over two expected goals in three of the last four matches. Two sides with strong attacks and shaky defences mean this could be a shoot-out.
Brighton vs Liverpool
What should be a fairly routine victory for Liverpool takes on a degree of significance given that Jurgen Klopp’s side have lost their last two matches.
Brighton may be in decent form, with draws against Arsenal and West Ham and a 1-0 win over Everton, but they’ve been a lower-midtable side over the season as a whole. Barring Glenn Murray, their attacking threat is limited. The Brighton player with the second-most expected goals this season is centre-back Shane Duffy, which tells you all you need to know really.
Meanwhile, Liverpool have the second-best attack in the league, according to expected goals, and the best defence. Anything can happen, but there should really only be one winner.
Burnley vs Fulham
The bottom of the league is so tight that it seems not a week goes past without a crunch game. Two wins in a row have Burnley up in 16th, two points ahead of the drop zone and four in front of Fulham.
However, Claudio Ranieri has tangibly improved Fulham since taking over the reigns in November. For many months, the Cottagers were the only team in the league who took more shots outside the box than inside, something which Ranieri has now inverted. He’s improved their attack and defence by a quarter of an expected goal per game — not a huge leap, but one that could be significant in the relegation battle.
Burnley, though, have hit their own good form of late, with two wins in a row against West Ham and Huddersfield. More importantly, they deserved both wins.
The chances that they created were worth over two expected goals in both matches, something they’d only done twice in the 19 league games prior to that. The expected goals value that Burnley conceded in those matches were the two lowest single-game figures all season.
This will be a match of two previously dreadful teams who have suddenly come good. Home advantage and better form may swing it Burnley’s way, and will be a good indication of whether that form will last for the rest of the season.
Chelsea vs Newcastle
Another top-six side for Newcastle to face, making it three in four league matches to bridge the New Year. They lost their two previous ones, against Liverpool and Manchester United, and will be expected to lose this one too.
However, they come up against a Chelsea side who have been limping along of late. Their results may have remained decent — three wins in the last five matches — but their attacking threat has dropped heavily. They’ve failed to create chances worth 1.0+ expected goals in four of the last six league games, something that they’d never done during the season prior to that stretch.
Due to Rafael Benitez’s sacrificing of a threatening attack, Newcastle have a midtable defence in terms of goals and expected goals conceded. Nicking a 0-0 draw is probably all they’re hoping for.
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