Premier League Preview: Gameweek 4


Tony Pulis

Here are The Football Lab’s predictions for 2 of the weekend’s games in the Premier League. Chelsea look for their first home win of the season against Crystal Palace, while Tony Pulis returns to the Britannia Stadium for the first time, when his West Brom side travel to Stoke.

Chelsea v Crystal Palace

Crystal Palace will sense an opportunity here. Chelsea have had a disastrous start to the season, with just 4 points from their first 3 games, and at the moment, they do not look the same, defensively secure team that they were last season.

Centre-back John Terry was sent off in the second half of their 3-2 win at West Ham, and Chelsea came under a lot of pressure from then on. They benefited from a combination of poor finishing from West Brom, and a string of crucial saves from goalkeeper Thibaut Courtios.

Right-back Brandislav Ivanovic has been a liability for Chelsea so far this season. He has been torn apart by Jefferson Montero of Swansea on the opening day, Manchester City’s left-sided Silva-Sterling-Kolarov trio, and to an extent Callum McManaman against West Brom. The worrying thing for Ivanovic is that Crystal Palace are strong in wide areas.

So far this season, Wilfried Zaha has normally played on the right wing, with Jason Puncheon or Bakary Sako on the left, but Alan Pardew may be tempted to swap them around. Puncheon likes to drift inside, and we saw last season that he can thrive in central areas. However, Ivanovic will be frightened by a player with raw pace, rather than creativity. Zaha has a very nimble frame and has the skill to confuse the opposition full-back, which means he might have more joy against Ivanovic than Sako, who will look to simply power past his man.

There is also the option for Yannick Bolasie to start on the left wing, or come on as a substitute. Maybe for personal reasons, Bolasie has struggled to get into the team so far this season. He was not part of the match day squad that faced Aston Villa last week, due to the unfortunate passing of his father.

However, if he were to come back into the team with a sense of determination, he would provide a real threat for Crystal Palace, as he did last season. With Chelsea likely to dominate possession in the middle of the park, there will be chances for Palace to break at speed, and isolate Chelsea’s full-backs against their wingers.

Last season, Crystal Palace became the masters of winning games with less possession, once Alan Pardew took over. The Eagles have beaten the likes of Tottenham, Manchester City and Liverpool despite having little of the ball in those games, and boast the Premier League’s joint-best away record in 2015, thus highlighting their counter-attacking prowess. Jose Mourinho might only have lost 1 of his first 99 home games in charge of Chelsea, but don’t bet against him losing a second on Saturday.

Stoke v West Brom

Tony Pulis returns to the Britannia Stadium for the first time since leaving Stoke City in the summer of 2013. His West Brom side might be bottom of the table at the moment, but that will not last long, because they have had to play league leaders Manchester City, and champions Chelsea, who they made sweat for 3 points. Sandwiched between those games was a scrappy 0-0 draw at Watford, which was a reasonable result.

Pulis built a strong defensive setup at Stoke City, which Mark Hughes benefited from in his first 2 seasons in charge, but there is a danger that that is starting to be eroded away. The only good part of Stoke’s start to the season so far, has been the final 12 minutes of their 2-2 draw at Tottenham Hotspur, when they scored twice to rescue a point.

Otherwise, they performed fairly poorly in their 1-0 defeat to Liverpool on the opening day, they relied on a string of second half saves from Jack Butland to preserve a draw at Norwich, and were nearly knocked out of the League Cup by League Two Luton Town.

Stoke have signed a lot of exotic, attacking players this summer, but they will not perform properly if they do not have the solid base of 2 holding midfielders behind them. Marco Van Ginkel started alongside Glenn Whelan in the game against Norwich, and that partnership did not work at all. Van Ginkel is a naturally attack-minded player, and he does not respond quickly enough to losing the ball. Added to that, players such as Marko Arnautovic and Ibrahim Afellay do not track back, and that leaves Glenn Whelan exposed.

Last season, both Whelan and Steven N’Zonzi played very aggressively and looked to win the ball from the opposition. If one player failed to win the ball, the other would be behind them, sweeping up. Stoke’s problem at the moment is that Whelan is the only player in their midfield who is trying to win the ball, and opposition teams are finding it easy to play around him, due to his lack of pace. Even though only 1 key outfield player has left the club – N’Zonzi – the balance of the team is not the same as it was last season.

One would expect that their opponents, West Brom, will have a massive advantage over Stoke when it comes to set pieces. Craig Dawson, Gareth McAuley, Jonas Olsson and Rickie Lambert can all provide a genuine aerial threat from dead ball situations, and will benefit from quality delivery from Chris Brunt. West Brom are one of the most threatening teams in the Premier League from dead ball situations, while Stoke, contrary to recent seasons, are now arguably one of the weakest. The Potters only have 1 defensive minded player in their standard first XI that is over 185cm tall, and that is Geoff Cameron. Every time West Brom get a corner, their players will fancy their chances against the likes of Marc Muniesa and Glen Johnson.

West Brom’s expertise at set pieces could make a pivotal difference in this match, because once they get in the lead in games, they are very difficult to break down. In all competitions, the Baggies have gone on to win 10 of the last 12 games in which they have taken the lead. This blog will back them to pick up a 10th win to nil of the calender year.