Tactical analysis of the weekend’s games and Premier League predictions!
In his latest Premier League tactical analysis blog, Alex Keble offers ‘four things we learnt’ from the action, including how Villa might be building something good, and why Brendan Rodgers is running out of time…
1) Chelsea do not possess the squad depth necessary to recover from their slump
Everton 3-1 Chelsea
There is a startlingly familiar pattern emerging at Chelsea as Jose Mourinho, scowling and huffing in perplexed but helpless frustration, watches his empire collapse. Third season syndrome has overshadowed the Portuguese’ glittering managerial record, and on close inspection it is easy to see why his whirlwind dynasties always crumble with the slow motion certainty of a controlled explosion.
Mourinho’s biggest managerial flaw is his lack of squad depth and rotation. Though his short-term successes are unmatched in the modern era, his preference for selecting the same 13 or 14 players each week means that, inevitably, his clique are physically and emotionally jaded after two seasons fighting at the top.
Furthermore, when this leads to a lack of confidence there are no substitutes available to refresh the squad or fix the weak points. This week, John Obi Mikel’s poor performance highlighted why, when a squad is so small, systemic tactical problems cannot be alleviated quickly.
Mikel attempted just one tackle and zero interceptions, and was hauled off by a fuming Mourinho in the 55th minute; his positional play was no more commanding than Cesc Fabregas’s in that role, leaving Chelsea desperately vulnerable through the middle. It is no wonder Ross Barkley dominated.
Chelsea’s problems run deep, and with so many first team players low on confidence, the manager’s preference for a tight clique of trusted allies has left him short of alternatives. It seems increasingly unlikely that Mourinho will turn things around this season.
Chelsea’s next match: Arsenal (h) With the ever-fabulous Francis Coquelin, the quick-footed interplay of Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil, and Arsenal’s attacking overload of the centre, Chelsea will be in serious trouble.
2) Man Utd still relying on un-van Gaal moments to score goals
Man Utd 3-1 Liverpool
Man United are another team consistently displaying tactical patterns that look jaded and uncomfortable. Louis van Gaal’s obsession with possession-based football has created a United team playing with idealistic restraint, and seemingly unwilling to take necessary risks in the final third. It was only after the introduction of Ashley Young, an old-fashioned winger of directness and speed, that they were able to break the deadlock against Liverpool.
Across the ninety, Man United completed a miserable six key passes and six dribbles in a performance of tentative sideways passing. However, the half-time introduction of Young shattered the robotic passing.
Within minutes, Young picked up possession on the left flank and drove directly towards goal, earning a free-kick that led to Daley Blind’s opener. The England midfielder hugged the touchline throughout the half, offering a simpler strategy to United’s left focused play and greater movement off the ball than Memphis Depay.
Credit should be given to van Gaal for recognising the need for greater attacking urgency, but the manager’s preference for conservative, patient football means that Young is still unlikely to feature prominently this season. Given the tradition at Old Trafford for exciting football, the latest drab North-West derby was a worrying sight for United fans.
Man Utd’s next match: Southampton (a) The defensive solidity and tactical conservatism of Ronald Koeman should make this another tedious affair. The two sides have already amassed five clean sheets between them, and will be relatively happy with a point.
3) Rodgers’ tactical philosophy is falling apart
The frequency of managerial changes in modern football makes Brendan Rodgers’ inconsistent three year tenure a peculiar oddity, but as the fourth year drags on with yet another tactical reinvention, it may be time to realise Rodgers is not entirely in control at Anfield.
Rodgers’ Swansea side were synonymous with attractive tiki-taka football, but this philosophy has slowly dissipated since his arrival at Liverpool. His first season at Anfield was characterised by an attempt to dramatically instil short-passing tactics, but each successive year has seen a gradual decline in his preference – and no clear alternative emerging.
Rodgers’ second year was characterised by ferocious attacking football that, in retrospect, more closely reflected the whims of Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez than a deliberate strategic shift by the manager. The third season was even less Rodgerian, as Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling created a style of stop-start swarms towards goal, and 2015/16 has begun with a chaotic absence of tactical direction.
Against United, Liverpool’s passing lines were restricted and, frustrated, they quickly resorted to long balls forward for target man Christian Benteke; the cohesion that Rodgers has traditionally expected from his teams has dissipated entirely. Liverpool have averaged 49.8% possession this season, have the 11th best pass completion percentage (79.5%), and have won more aerial duels (22.2 per match) than any team bar Aston Villa.
Losing key players to injury and transfer has forced Liverpool into constant tactical transition since Rodgers’ arrival, but the inconsistency of the tactical philosophy – and the slow degradation of possession-centric aesthetics – is raising question marks over the manager’s suitability for the role.
Liverpool’s next match: Norwich (h) Norwich are scoring freely this season, but Liverpool should look somewhat more composed against a newly promoted side.
4) Positive signs in Villa’s attack suggest Sherwood is building something exciting
Leicester City 3-2 Aston Villa
After losing the spine of his team in the summer, Tim Sherwood can be forgiven for Villa’s eclectic start to the campaign. However, their intelligent attacking tactics against Leicester was cause for optimism, suggesting that – given time – Sherwood’s Villa tenure could be a success.
Lining up in an unfamiliar 4-4-2 formation, Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish and Carles Gil looked menacing throughout. Leicester City struggled to cope with their high tempo dribbling and clever passing, made possible by Gabby Agbonlahor’s and Scott Sinclair’s movement; Sherwood instructed both forwards to drift out wide, splitting the Leicester defence and opening up space for the two wingers to drift infield.
With Adana Traore on the bench and Idrissa Gana settling nicely into central midfield, it should not be long before Villa start scoring freely.
Villa’s next match: West Brom (h) Sherwood’s passion should swing this derby match in Villa’s favour, and the creativity of Grealish and Gil could be too much for Pulis’s weakened defence.
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