Manchester City's momentum threatened by international break
Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.
Man City vs.Tottenham
Arsenal vs. Hull
Burnley vs. West Ham
Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea
Everton vs. Aston Villa
Newcastle vs. Leicester
Southampton vs. Sunderland
QPR vs. Liverpool
Stoke vs. Swansea
West Brom vs. Man Utd
Weekend battle: Manchester City versus Tottenham
Curse you, international break, for threatening to disrupt the intangible holy grail that is "momentum." Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini had seen his side seemingly find said impetus, having managed a return of eight points from a possible 12 to put them second in the table before their star players headed for Manchester airport, waving a temporary goodbye to the perpetual outrage and tribalism of club football.
City's bulldozer in midfield, Yaya Toure, indicated he is on his way to rediscovering his clout after he scored a vital goal that eventually broke Aston Villa's resistance, while David Silva, a player rarely talked about as being among the elite despite consistent evidence to the contrary, was at his orchestral best. The (unfairly) much-maligned James Milner has also been in the groove, meaning the signs are good for City -- the fear for Pellegrini, however, will be that the different training regimes and lengthy travelling might have jolted his personnel from their rhythm. Indeed, it is doubtful if Toure will even play this weekend.
Saturday's opponents, Tottenham, meanwhile, would be forgiven for still having night terrors after twice being ravaged by City last season. An eye-watering 11 goals were conceded over those two matches. Spurs now have Mauricio Pochettino at the helm, though, and, if their past two league outings are anything to go by, it appears the foundations for defensive solidarity are beginning to take shape -- their victory over Southampton marked a first clean sheet in five attempts, while organisation was apparent at Arsenal.
An imbalance of attack and defence, coupled with individual lapses of concentration and calamitous decision-making, were Spurs' undoing in away Premier League fixtures at City, Liverpool and Chelsea last season. Pochettino, whose team face four fixtures in the space of 11 days, is trying to cure those ailments. Alas, August's 3-0 loss to the Reds reiterated there is no quick fix. Time, modern football's nemesis, is key for the Argentine, who said: "It is always difficult to put together a different philosophy in such a short time."
Under pressure: Roberto Martinez
This isn't how it was meant to be. Everton, after achieving their best Premier League points return last season, were expected to kick on during this campaign. Sure, the addition of Europa League football was a mooted spanner in the works, but blame for such a disappointing beginning to 2014-15 cannot be solely apportioned to football on a Thursday night. The Toffees are without a win in five matches in all competitions, with just one top-flight victory after seven matches leaving them a place above the relegation zone.
You do not have to be a tactical expert to realise there are problems defensively, and potentially more to come. Everton had the third-best defensive record in the division last season, but at present, they have the worst, with 16 goals conceded in seven matches. While the club's record 28 million pound signing of Romelu Lukaku in the summer was a statement of intent and one that should pay dividends, so long as the 21-year-old fulfils his undoubted potential, it does somewhat highlight the lack of back-line recruits.
Indeed, Sylvain Distin's joints are understandably creaking as he approaches his 37th birthday, while his apparent heir, the 21-year-old John Stones, has been ruled out for up to 14 weeks, horrifyingly edging Antolin Alcaraz ever closer to the starting XI. Should the defence continue to leak then the awkward-sounding alarm bells will ring louder. After inheriting an outfit organised by David Moyes, it remains to be seen if Martinez -- whose former club, Wigan, were infamously porous -- is capable of bringing clean sheets back to Goodison Park.
On Saturday they host Aston Villa, for whom you might say the bubble has burst. Their very promising start was built on a tight defence and taking what few goal-scoring chances they created. But after four matches unbeaten, Paul Lambert's men have lost their past three. However, take into consideration the ludicrous run of fixtures they have had to deal with (Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and, finally, Everton) and also factor in they won at Anfield, then maybe prolonged pain isn't a certainty. Tactically, meanwhile, it will be interesting to see how they get on now that Roy Keane is without his menacing beard.
Finding form: Manchester United
Manchester United are fourth in the Premier League table? That can't be right. Some sort of printing error, probably. Right there, ladies and gentlemen, is a football jape. Oh, how none of us laughed, especially serious manager Louis van Gaal, who instead is rather encouraged by how things are going after the nervy win over Everton made it three victories from four outings. Speaking after that result, he said, "I told my players, 'We are not playing well, but we are fourth in the table -- so what will happen when we do play well?'"
David De Gea is playing superbly and Angel Di Maria is playing exactly how you would expect for someone who cost 59.7 million pounds, while the fortnight gap between matches has meant further recuperation for the many names on United's injury list -- these are promising signs at Old Trafford. The Devils will certainly be expected to overcome West Brom on Monday, but thereafter, it is time to roll up the sleeves for the proper test(s) that Everton failed to really offer. On Oct. 26, United host Chelsea, and then it's a Manchester derby. Over to you, Van Gaal.
Statistically speaking (via @PCarrESPN)
• Manchester City host Tottenham on Saturday, looking to emulate their success against Spurs last season, when City beat Tottenham twice by a combined 11-1. Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero have each enjoyed success against Tottenham -- Dzeko has six goals in six games, and Aguero has scored five goals in five games.
• Arsenal will have to find a way to replace Mesut Ozil, who is out 10 to 12 weeks because of a knee injury. Though he's been maligned much, Ozil leads Arsenal with 14 chances created this season.
• League leaders Chelsea are at Selhurst Park to face Crystal Palace on Saturday. Palace are the worst passing team in the league this season, completing only 66 percent of passes thus far, well behind the next second-worst team, Burnley, at 71 percent.
• Daniel Sturridge may return for Liverpool on Sunday after missing four league games with a thigh injury. The Reds scored only four goals in four league games without Sturridge, and since his debut, they have won 19 percent fewer points per game without Sturridge than when he plays (1.75 compared to 2.09).
• Manchester United visit West Brom on Monday aiming to win their third straight league game. That modest streak would mark the first time United have won three straight league games in this calendar year. United are winless in five straight away league games going back to last season, and the club last went six straight away league games without a win in 1996.
Any other business: Burnley
Yikes, it's looking bleak at Turf Moor. Currently on four points after seven matches and having scored just three times in those games, it threatens to be just one, largely winless season back in the top flight for Burnley. At least they managed their first goals since the opening weekend with a 2-2 draw at Leicester last time out, and with a number of important players sidelined, too. These, though, are fragile straws to clutch. Burnley manager Sean Dyche said after the result: "I was really pleased with the performance, and the point adds a bit of gloss to it." That wasn't entirely inspiring.
James Dall is an associate editor at ESPN FC. You can follow him on Twitter @JamesDallESPN.