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Liverpool will test Man United's strong start but don't expect entertainment

Liverpool will test Man United's strong start but don't expect entertainment

ESPN

What a match to kick off the weekend: Liverpool vs. Manchester United.

One of English football's greatest rivalries is back as the Premier League returns with a bang. You can predict the outcome of that and all the rest of the weekend's action by voting in our match polls.

Elsewhere, Manchester City will be looking to keep their fine run going as they host Stoke while Crystal Palace go in search of their first goal, never mind point, of the season when they host Chelsea. Roy Hodgson's have nothing to show for their first seven matches of the season -- so is a visit from the champions going to end the rot?

Arsenal are at Watford and under pressure Ronald Koeman takes his Everton side to Brighton in the weekend's other eye-catching fixtures. 

How will the games go? Have your say in the comments below and don't forget to vote in our polls.

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It has seemed a recipe for regressions. Everton have spent £144 million and gone into the bottom five. They have scored three fewer league goals as a team than the striker they sold, Romelu Lukaku, has mustered on his own for Manchester United.

Yet the forward is not the only man they are missing. Ross Barkley is injured but not gone. Everton replaced him without finding him an alternative employer. And not once, but three times. Change may have been enforced by Barkley's refusal to sign a new contract, but it was also botched by Everton's inability to sell him and their triple-pronged efforts at finding a successor.

Because when manager Ronald Koeman fielded the trio of No. 10s he signed this summer, it looked as if Everton were playing with nine men. Gylfi Sigurdsson, Wayne Rooney and Davy Klaassen all converged in the middle, each trying to occupy his preferred position. Everton lost 3-0 to Tottenham when all three started. They were losing 1-0 to Bournemouth when Koeman took two off. It is already apparent the three imperfect 10s cannot play together. There is scant evidence that two can.

Rooney and Sigurdsson have spent 618 minutes on the pitch together. In that time, they have one goal apiece and the Icelander has an assist, all against either Hajduk Split or Apollon Limassol. In the Premier League, their combined record when paired shows no goals and no assists in 472 minutes. Everton's record signing and their boyhood fan represented their two flagship additions. Koeman demoted Rooney against Burnley while selecting Sigurdsson. It suggested he may be concluding they are incompatible. As for Klaassen, the £23.6 million buy from Ajax has offered so little that Evertonians are bemused precisely where his strengths lie.

Yet each is hampered by the presence of the others. There are teams -- Brazil in 1982, Croatia in 1998 -- that had so much talent, a suitable style of play and sufficient understanding that they could accommodate three No. 10s. Everton's class of 2017 are not among them. They illustrate that most sides require the balance different players with different attributes offer. In particular, the three slow or slow-ish No. 10s would benefit from more speed, width and movement on either side and in front of them. Sigurdsson's sole assist, against Apollon, came when winger Nikola Vlasic made a burst into the penalty box.

And it prompts the thought that the No. 10 Everton need most is the one they discarded. Koeman suggested in July that Barkley's Everton career is over. That was before he suffered a hamstring injury that could sideline him until December and before the breakdown of a move to Chelsea, amid a dispute if he attended a medical.

Barkley is less of a classical No. 10 than the newcomers. That may be what Everton need. He is part playmaker, part runner. The Paul Gascoigne comparisons were overblown, but Barkley possesses a similar capacity to beat a man and carry the ball deep into enemy territory, which Rooney used to, but the days when he surged up and down the flanks for Manchester United are very much confined to the past. Now Koeman has a slower trio, each suited to the centre.

In contrast, Barkley flourished operating off the right for Everton in the second half of last season; it was a role Steven Gerrard once filled for Liverpool, spared defensive responsibilities and allowed to use his energy and invention in the final third. The paradox of Koeman's summer recruitment drive is that Everton's best form last season came without a No. 10, but with Tom Davies instead allowed to show his dynamism in the middle while Barkley's flexibility afforded other options. Perhaps, should he revisit such a strategy, Sigurdsson could play off the left, as he sometimes did for Swansea, but that would require picking players with more physical attributes elsewhere in the forward line. And whether through transfer-market failings or Koeman's reluctance to select others, Everton do not have that sort of balance.

Barkley may seem proof that reputations can be elevated in absence. Returns of 21 goals and 18 assists in his top-flight career are underwhelming. He has long been the Evertonian enigma, frustrating many, forever holding unrealised potential.

Koeman has contributed to that image. His criticisms of Barkley could be interpreted as tough love, confrontational leadership, perfectionism or simply irritation. It may seem hypocritical to condemn the man he inherited and not those he signed but the Dutchman is yet to be as cutting in his comments about the recent arrivals.

Yet whether because or despite his manager's rhetoric, Barkley ranked fifth for chances fashioned in the Premier League last season, fractionally ahead of Sigurdsson, behind just Christian Eriksen, Kevin de Bruyne, Mesut Ozil and Eden Hazard. With Everton now having had the third fewest shots on target, albeit a statistic that reflects their failure to replace Lukaku, such creativity would be welcome.

Instead, Barkley remains likely to leave in January. If not, and if he is summoned to strengthen the side, Everton will have to write off a potential windfall for a player who is out of contract next summer. Yet it may sum up the confused thinking at Goodison Park that they have spent best part of £70 million on No. 10s and committed perhaps £15 million a year in salaries to replace him. And if it was supposed to secure an upgrade, Everton may have got a downgrade instead while the No. 10 position looks a metaphor for costly deterioration.

Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.

John Brewin previews the weekend's Premier League action and highlights five key storylines in W2W4.

A test of credentials, but don't expect entertainment

Saturday, Oct. 14 always looked the crucial date on Manchester United's early-season calendar. A match with Liverpool will usually have that status, but the ease of United's schedule in their first seven league matches suggested Jose Mourinho's team might arrive at Anfield in a strong position.

And so it has proved; United have started the season using the dominant, pace-setting template that brought Mourinho success in winning three titles with Chelsea. They have scored 21 goals and conceded just two. Only a 2-2 draw at Stoke on Sept. 9 prevented a 100 percent record. Mourinho's problem is that Manchester City, playing out a tougher schedule that includes defeats of Chelsea and Liverpool, are level on points, ahead by a single goal scored.

If United are testing their credentials, then Liverpool have serious ground to make up. They are seventh in the table, level on points with Burnley. Already, with Manchester's billionaire behemoths streaking clear, a first Liverpool title since 1990 appears a remote prospect.

Is this time for Liverpool to throw caution to the wind, and go for United? Their circumstances, with Jurgen Klopp under the most pressure of his two-year tenure, suggest so, but like last season's 0-0 draw in this fixture, a night of chance-less tedium, Mourinho will probably offer as few openings as possible. Though United have been cruising, it would be uncharacteristic for the counterattack not to be their main weapon.

The last five meetings between the clubs have a binary appearance; only once, a 2-0 Europa League win for Liverpool in March 2016, has either team scored more than one goal.

Liverpool vs. Manchester United may be the fixture that both sets of fans look to when the season's schedule is released in June, but excitement is seldom delivered. It is a blockbuster that misses the mark, delivering nothing like the entertainment of comparable fixtures like Real Madrid-Barcelona, Bayern Munich- Borussia Dortmund or a Milan derby.

Perhaps it matters too much to these rivals to risk all, and neither club has been at its apex in recent years, but it would be a surprise if Saturday delivers a classic.

Can Pep keep City purring?

Pep Guardiola will be keeping abreast of events at Anfield as he prepares his Manchester City for their Saturday kickoff with Stoke. He will hope for better than March's 0-0 draw against Mark Hughes' team, a result that began a slump that ended hopes of challenging Chelsea for the title.

He must also hope that the international break will not affect his team's momentum. Victory at Chelsea last time out was truly comprehensive, despite the narrow 1-0 scoreline. Where last season, Antonio Conte, a manager Guardiola admires, was his master over two meetings, this time Chelsea were easily neutralised.

Guardiola has not compromised his values in having City play a level of football that is the envy of all but perhaps his old club Barcelona and Serie A leaders Napoli, who visit the Etihad in the Champions League on Tuesday.

Hughes, a Barcelona player back when Guardiola was a teenage prospect at the Camp Nou, will have designs on getting another good result against the club that sacked him in December 2009, but even without injured Sergio Aguero and Benjamin Mendy, City are a truly awesome proposition.

Poor Palace must fear Chelsea bounce

Crystal Palace face the prospect of a wounded Chelsea as the search for a first goal of the season, let alone a victory, continues for Roy Hodgson's historically hopeless team. The talk this week has been of Palace looking to add experienced Premier League players in the January transfer window, though by then it might be too late.

Conte, meanwhile, needs to make sure that City and United, currently six points ahead, do not escape over Chelsea's horizons, and a kind run of fixtures may give him that opportunity. A home match with Watford, and a visit to struggling Bournemouth follow on from Saturday's trip to Selhurst.

Palace, despite their struggles, are unlikely to be taken lightly. That probably spells even more bad news for Hodgson and his men.

Koeman under the cosh

Though the break for World Cup qualifying brought bad news for Ronald Koeman in the Dutch national team missing out on the finals, it perhaps came at a good time for him. Losing 1-0 to Burnley, as Everton did in their last Premier League outing, was a new low in a troubled season. On that damning evidence, Koeman needed time to rethink the direction he takes his team in.

Perhaps the worst thing about that sorry Burnley performance was that it had been all too predictable. Koeman has a squad visibly sagging in confidence, and Ashley Williams' unfortunate culpability in the Ireland goal that cost Wales a place in the qualifying playoffs was a reminder of the defensive problems at the heart of Everton's slump.

Brighton boss Chris Hughton is cautious by nature, but he might fancy that Everton are there for the taking at the Amex Stadium on Sunday.

Harry's on his game

It has been a life-changing week for Harry Winks. Probably the only thing worth mentioning from England's 1-0 win in Lithuania was Tottenham's 21-year-old midfielder's assured debut. He is also set for a new club contract.

In Vilnius, Winks targeted a place in England's 23-man squad for the finals, and Mauricio Pochettino has promised him opportunities at Tottenham. Saturday's match with Bournemouth is the next step on his road to Russia.

John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.

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