FA Cup review and Premier League preview combined!
Following his impressive debut last week, Alex Keble tactically analyses last weekend’s FA Cup fixtures, offering another round of ‘four things we learnt’, and recommending four things to bet on in the Premier League this time around…
1) Chelsea’s back-up players aren’t good enough – and it could be their downfall
Without meaning to belittle the extraordinary achievements of Bradford City, one cannot fail to notice the significance of Chelsea’s nine personnel changes for Saturday’s humiliating defeat.
The abysmal failure of their fringe players is a serious cause for concern for Jose Mourinho; famed for the consistency of his team selection (nine Chelsea players have started at least 18 of their 22 league games this season), we are forced to ask, for the first time this season, do Chelsea possess strength in depth?
In typical Mourinho fashion, fringe players have rarely featured in the Premier League (nobody outside the first eleven has started more than five games), which may partially explain the rustiness of the display against Bradford.
What will alarm Mourinho is that, when competing for honours on multiple fronts in the latter stages of the season, Chelsea’s strength in depth will be tested; can he trust the back-up players to perform when the first-team tires, or when injury strikes?
The statistics do not read well. Outside of the first eleven, the most creative player this season has been Ramires (with 0.7 key passes per match) or Filipe Luis (with 0.8 dribbles per match), whilst the most successful defensive players have fallen significantly short of their first-team counterparts; John Obi Mikel (1.2 tackles per game) is nowhere near the quality of Nemanja Matic (3.4 tackles), and Kurt Zouma (2 clearances per game) cannot impose himself on the opposition like John Terry can (5.2 clearances per game).
The Premier League title race would be blown wide open if any one of Cesc Fabregas, Eden Hazard, Diego Costa, or Nemanja Matic were to suffer a long term injury, and with a congested fixture list in March and April likely to include important Champions’ League ties, it is not unlikely that one of them will fall away.
Only time will tell if the fringe players – untried, untested, and rusty – will be able to step up for Mourinho. Based on the frightening collapse we witnessed last weekend, Man City have plenty of reason to be optimistic.
Chelsea’s next match: Man City (h) Mourinho teams have a knack for embarking on long winning streaks immediately after a defeat, and with Toure-less City struggling for form, Chelsea are firm favourites for this one.
Recommended Bet: Back Chelsea to win by two goals @ 22/5
2) How to score against Southampton: counter-attack down the wings
Southampton may have recovered from the brief stutter that had threatened to derail their early season canter, but a new defensive vulnerability has sprung to the surface in recent weeks.
It is no secret that Ronald Koeman’s side rely upon the attacking verve of their full-backs, but what is often overlooked, is that Nathaniel Clyne’s marauding runs forward can leave his team exposed; Crystal Palace, on saturday, ruthlessly exploited their Achilles’ heel.
Six of the last seven goals Southampton have conceded have come down Clyne’s side, and alarmingly, most can be traced directly to his individual errors.
Pardew teams are designed to exploit this kind of ill-discipline, utilising quick wingers to instigate counter-attacks (76% of Newcastle’s attacks come down the wing, the league’s highest); on Saturday, Wilfried Zaha and Jason Puncheon frequently caught Clyne out of position, and – perhaps unsurprisingly – all three of Palace’s goals were made in Saints’ right-back position.
It is questionable whether Koeman would consider this defensive lapse as a flaw worthy of attention, considering Clyne’s forward movement significantly contributes to his side’s attack, and his defensive work is mostly exceptional (his 4.2 tackles per game is more than any other player in the division).
However, it is surely worthy noting that, against opposition with pace on the flanks, Southampton would be better suited to a more conservative approach in full-back areas. This weekend’s opponents, Swansea City, will pose a similar threat through Wayne Routledge and Nathan Dyer.
Southampton’s next match: Swansea (h) Despite his superb performances this season, Nathaniel Clyne will need to be very careful – and show some defensive discipline – when Southampton entertain Garry Monk’s side on Sunday.
However, expect Koeman to allow his full-back to pour forward, and therefore, expect goals.
Recommended Bet: Back both teams to score in the first half @ 4/1
3) Sturridge’s return could trigger a major Liverpool revival
For those fans quietly optimistic that Liverpool are beginning to rediscover their creative edge, the 0-0 draw against Championship Bolton sent a strong counter message.
However, Liverpool have discovered a new defensive assurance in recent weeks that should significantly boost a drab, monotonous campaign; the return of Daniel Sturridge could be the final piece in the jigsaw.
Undoubtedly the absence of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge has severely impacted upon Liverpool’s creative threat. Last season, Brendan Rodgers’ narrow 4-4-2 diamond had SAS drift into wide areas, stretching the opposition back line and piercing a hole for Raheem Sterling to charge into.
Unfortunately, Rodgers was forced to abandon this system, since Suarez’s replacements – Rickie Lambert and Mario Balotelli – do not possess the mobility or positional intelligence of the Barcelona forward.
Upon Sturridge’s return, this model could be revived, with Balotelli – more suited to a system with a strike partner – taking a more active role. What’s more, Sturridge’s movement and pace in attack should create more space for the likes of Lazar Markovic and Phillipe Coutinho to flourish, and perhaps make way for some of the speed and unpredictability of last season to return.
The change would be well-timed. After conceding just once in their last four, the addition of Emre Can into the back three is beginning to look like a master-stroke; against Bolton, he was the beating heart of their defence (3 interceptions, 12 clearances).
A cohesive unit is beginning to gel at the back, as Liverpool await the final piece of the jigsaw, and the return of a man whose goals will boost their confidence, but whose movement – creating space for his team-mates – should propel them up the table.
Liverpool’s next match: West Ham (h) Andy Carroll’s physicality will be a stern test for Can, but suffering from a blip in form themselves, expect Liverpool’s defensive discipline to see them through. Bet on Liverpool to win by two goals at 18/5.
Recommended Bet: Back Liverpool to win by two goals at 18/5
4) Poyet needs a tactical master-stroke to save his job
After another miserably lacklustre performance in a stadium littered with empty seats, Gus Poyet’s Sunderland are sinking limply towards relegation; Jermaine Defoe may have been hired to solve their goalscoring inability, but the real problem lies in midfield.
Sunderland’s creative dearth is impossible to overlook; their 10.5 shots per game is the league’s fewest, whilst only Aston Villa have scored fewer goals than Sunderland’s 19, and made fewer key passes than Sunderland’s 7.7 per match.
These statistics were encapsulated perfectly on Saturday, when Sunderland managed just four shots on target against a Fulham side who have conceded 47 goals in the Championship this season.
Signing a goal-poacher seems like a somewhat futile gesture. Utilising a simplistically old-fashioned approach, Sunderland’s primary strategy is encouraging Sebastian Larsson to distribute the ball to Adam Johnson on the wing as quickly as possible (42% of their attacks come down Johnson’s left side).
Unsurprisingly, this one-dimensional tactic is easily nullified by the opposition; if he is to stay in a job, Poyet needs to abandon his defensive instincts and inject a spark of creativity into his central midfield trio.
Even against Championship opposition, Poyet fielded two defensive midfielders (Jack Rodwell and Liam Bridcutt), leaving the tireless but creatively ineffective Larsson (3 assists, 1.8 key passes) as the most likely source of inspiration in central areas.
It was no surprise to hear the familiar chorus of boos at the Stadium of Light, as both Emanuele Giaccherini and Ricardo Alvarez sat on the bench; if Poyet is not bold enough to field one of them, his team will surely be relegated.
Sunderland’s next match: Burnley (h) A huge relegation six pointer, this one could swing on whether or not Poyet is willing to play a more attacking system.
Either way, Burnley’s high pressing will most likely upset a confidence-stricken side already struggling for rhythm.
Recommended Bet: Back Burnley to win at 13/5
For more tactical analysis from Alex Keble, follow him on Twitter – @alexkeble