Football writer Chris Bland has been in great form recently and returns to tackle this weekend’s final two Premier League fixtures in addition to a big clash in Serie A. Read on for his weekend football tips.
Sheffield United vs. Manchester United
Surprise package Sheffield United host Manchester United in the first meeting between the two since an FA Cup tie in 2016, when Sheffield United were a League One side.
Much has changed since then and Sheffield United are now two places above their Premier League rivals. They look well suited to frustrate United once again.
Manchester United head into the game on the back of an impressive win against Brighton. However, the tactics employed by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer saw his side only muster 42% possession. They relied on utilising counter-attacks to break down Graham Potter’s side. This worked effectively, however. United’s problem this season has been creating chances when the opposition don’t take the game to them.
Whether Sheffield United will allow the space in behind to be exploited awaits to be seen. An xG of 0.64 (Bournemouth), 0.97 (Newcastle) and 1.26 (West Ham) highlights the issues they’ve had against compact defences and they could potentially struggle once again.
The Red Devils midfield looks short on numbers. Replacing Scott McTominay may be a bigger task than was once thought. Without Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic, the Scottish midfielder has stepped up. His defensive and offensive contributions haven’t been overlooked in recent weeks.
With three goals, and impressive defensive statistics, to his name, finding an all round replacement from the United squad could spell trouble. It should play into the hands of the Blades. Sheffield United look to control the midfield with a narrow three, as well as over-lapping centre backs stepping up. So they could easily see themselves over-running the Red Devils midfield. Particularly with United’s lengthened injury list seeing Fred, Pereira and Mata as options.
Although not always a direct side, Wilder is happy to revert to a direct approach if the game suits it. Up against a United midfield which can easily be overrun, as well as defender Victor Lindelof who has at times shown his vulnerability to direct play, the Blades are well suited to causing United problems.
McGoldrick will be well suited to causing Lindelof problems, and as a result it could see a scrappy, direct approach from Sheffield United, as they also look to guard against the front three’s lightening quick speed on the break.
A tight game is expected, and with both sides struggling from open play to both take chances and create at times, a cagey draw would be no surprise.
Lecce vs. Cagliari
Sunday’s Serie A offering sees high-flying Cagliari travel to struggling Lecce, and its hard to see past Rolando Maran’s men.
Three wins on the bounce have seen Cagliari move up to fourth in the league. Their last two victories have been mightily impressive. A fantastic counter-attacking performance saw Atalanta defeated 2-0 away from home. Then they blew away an improving Fiorentina side 5-2, racing to a five goal lead after just 65 minutes.
Joao Pedro has been the in-form striker with six goals so far this season, whilst Giovanni Simeone is regaining the form which saw him move to Fiorentina in 2017 with four to his name. Radja Nainggolan is the driving force of creativity, with four assists, and the high-scoring Cagliari attack will be confident heading into Sunday’s clash.
The signs are ominous for Lecce, and their form is particularly worrying. Since beating SPAL in September, three defeats and four draws have seen them slide down the table to 16th and, although there were credible draws against Milan and Juventus in this run, a deeper delve into the statistics suggests that the barren run for Lecce doesn’t look like improving.
Lecce have conceded 25 goals this season but also have the highest xGa of any side in Serie A. At 29.72, they are expected to concede over two goals a game, and they are coming up against a Cagliari side both full of confidence, and in rampant attacking form. The attacking numbers don’t make for much better reading. An xG of just 7.32 to go with the seven goals scored from open play for Fabio Liverani’s side means breaking through Cagliari’s defence will be a tough ask.
However, there is a flip side to this. Cagliari themselves are massively over-performing offensively and defensively this season and. when the league table is adjusted for expected points, they see themselves lying in 13th. Despite this, Lecce’s struggling defence and attack is hard to overlook, and they themselves lie 20th when expected points are taken into account. Whether the run ends this week is certainly questionable but Cagliari’s form is certainly one to keep a close eye on over the coming weeks.
Aston Villa vs. Newcastle United
Monday night’s offering comes from Villa Park as Steve Bruce travels to one of his many former sides in search of a third straight victory in charge of the Magpies.
After an alarming start to the season, the return of Allan Saint-Maximin has buoyed the Magpies and seen them win three of their last five, jumping up to 13th in the table. Aston Villa on the other hand have lost their last three, all be it two of which were against Liverpool and Manchester City, seeing themselves drop to 17th.
Averaging the lowest possession of any side in the top five European leagues, Newcastle’s tendency to sit and counter will mean that the returning Jack Grealish will offer a huge boost to the creativity of Aston Villa, who will need to be on top form to break down a compact defensive unit. Jamaal Lascelles will be a miss through injury, however Fabian Schar’s return will be timely for Newcastle, and offer them an extra attacking force with the Swiss defender’s willingness to bring the ball out from defence.
However, despite Newcastle’s upturn in form, the xG statistics still point in the way of struggles creating chances and letting up a hatful (20.23 xGa), especially from open play. Coming on top in tight games against West Ham (a 3-2 win at 1.93 to 1.54) and Bournemouth (a 2-1 win at 2.33 to 1.92), the defensive concerns are still there, and the lack of goals up front is rather worrying. In Allan Saint-Maximin and Miguel Almiron, they possess two of the Top 10 players in the Premier League this season’s xG charts without a goal to their name, whilst Joelinton’s return of 0.18 xG per 90 shows he is struggling to find the chances. A season long xG of 10.11 for the whole side is of further concern, and doesn’t bode well with Villa’s backline welcoming back Bjorn Engels from injury.
Aston Villa themselves do let up a hatful of chances, with 20 goals conceded at an xG of 22.45, and have shown themselves to be susceptible to the counter attack, whilst the full backs were given the run around by Adama Traore and Jota in defeat at Wolves, a similar threat to Newcastle’s attackers.
The statistics make this for an intriguing encounter, as do the tactical edges both sides possess. Villa’s susceptibility to the counter attack will cause problems, however the space Newcastle could allow the creative talents of the returning Grealish, John McGinn and Anwar El-Ghazi should see them have enough to break down the compact backline.
Verdict: Aston Villa