Introducing our new Premier League Stats and Analysis Column
Welcome to our new weekly stats and analyis column!
Bring you the stats that matter each week, we’ll analyse the highlights and low points for the previous weekend’s action with a view to presenting insightful, useful data which can assist in the decision making process for future betting selections.
To kick things off, here’s the four key things we took from last weekend’s action!
1) How to beat Man City; cut the line to Silva and the champions look flat and predictable
For all the deft flicks, jinking runs, and flitting movement of Man City’s attackers, there is no doubting that, as City calmly steamrolled through 2014, it was Yaya Toure who powered them forward.
His searing runs through the centre of the pitch are the beating heart of their every move, and in his absence, their fatally one-dimensional system is being embarrassingly exposed.
Toure’s dominant influence contains within it a hidden flaw, as dependability becomes over-reliance, and without his one-man-stampedes – that suck opposition players towards the ball and create space for his team-mates – City’s playmakers struggle to make an impact.
In their 2-0 defeat on Sunday it was patently obvious that Jesus Navas and David Silva do not work hard enough to create space for themselves (compared to the tireless Alexis Sanchez and Santi Cazorla, for example).
As his number of take-ons (the stars) indicate, Cazorla worked extremely hard to create space in spite of Man City’s possessional dominance. Silva, on the other hand, was considerably more lazy.
Nullifying a Toure-less City is, in short, easy. Arsenal, finally learning after years of naivety, were set up in compactly organised, deep defensive lines, conceding the vast majority of possession in a Testudo-style strategy that left City aimlessly passing the ball in front of them, unable – or unwilling – to move around and create space.
Aaron Ramsay (5 tackles, 2 interceptions) and Santi Cazorla (2 tackles, 3 interceptions) rarely ventured forward, whilst Francis Coquelin (6 interceptions, 11 clearances) screened the back four, and squeezed David Silva out of the game.
Future opponents should take note of the ease with which this strategy is implemented, and the flat predictability of a team so heavily dependent upon Yaya Toure and David Silva for creativity.
Chelsea – masters of patience, of defensive cunning, and of ruthless counter-attacking football – are next up; finding a solution to these glaring tactical inadequacies is imperative for Manuel Pellegrini, if their title challenge is to regain momentum.
Arsene Wenger faced a similar tactical crisis earlier in the season, when his side’s predictable low tempo football was countered in successive matches with a similar Testudo-style approach.
Wenger moved Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain into a central role, where his pace and direct dribbling drew defenders out of their compact shell; it was a bold and fascinating strategy that Pellegrini should look to.
Replacing Toure like-for-like is impossible, but in James Milner he possesses a hard-working midfielder capable of injecting some incisiveness and energy into central areas.
Somewhat lost amongst the vast array of attacking talent at Man City, it is easy to forget that James Milner made his name as an outstanding number 10 at Aston Villa; perhaps his energy and inventiveness in central midfield would speed up City’s attacks and prevent the dogged war of attrition they faced on Sunday.
Man City’s next league match: Chelsea (a). Chelsea will surely implement a similar model at Stamford Bridge, albeit with slightly more attacking dynamism. Nemanja Matic should easily stifle David Silva, thus nullifying the only threat in this side.
2) Spurs still struggling to unlock defences, and Soldado isn’t good enough
Rather than symbolising the arrival of a new and exciting era, Spurs’ remarkable dismantling of Chelsea on New Year’s Day looks increasingly like an anomaly, with their creative difficulties resurfacing almost immediately.
One thing at least is for certain: with Roberto Soldado back in the team, things are unlikely to improve.
An increasingly familiar knock-on effect of the tiki-taka trickle down – that has transformed the elite Premier League sides into short-passing, high-pressing, possession-based units – is a simplistic opposition defensive model.
As exemplified by Arsenal on Sunday, clubs have begun to recognise that a patient tortoise-shell approach (deep and compact defensive lines with minimal closing down) essentially nullifies the effectiveness of a low tempo strategy that relies heavily upon pulling players out of position by constant movement of the ball. Sit back, let them play in front of you, and the threat to goal is dramatically reduced.
Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs perfectly exemplify this developing problem. Despite averaging 55.7% possession and amassing 498 passes per game, a shocking 52% of their shots – and 25% of their goals – have come from outside the box, as they struggle to break through the brick walls that await them in the final third.
Spurs have scored more than twice just once in the league this season; unwilling to curb their own attacking instincts and sit deep, it is far easier for Spurs to score five against Chelsea than against a team like Sunderland.
Last weekend saw the return of the sluggish, casual, and woefully out-of-form Roberto Soldado to the side; not only does he slow the tempo of Spurs’ attacks – and thus allow the tortoise-shell to reform.
But his inclusion also leads to Harry Kane being repositioned into a deeper, creative role that he cannot successfully fill (average 0.7 key passes, 77.3% pass accuracy).
The most obvious solution to the Sunderland-style defensive shape – for all the top sides – is, quite simply, to run around it; the explosive dribbler, so frequently replaced by the inverted winger-cum-playmaker in recent years, is likely to make a Premier League comeback soon.
It was only after Pochettino substituted Mousa Dembele for Andros Townsend, and moved Christian Erikson into central midfield, that the game shift and the breakthrough arrived. Townsend may be considerably less technically gifted than many of his team-mates, but his speed and directness drew nervous defenders out of position, opening Sunderland up.
Undoubtedly Spurs, with a reputation for short-passing football, will continue to struggle to penetrate deep-lying defences.
As Soldado’s performances throughout the season have shown, their tactical system can only function with high energy, hard-working individuals; Andros Townsend and Aaron Lennon may ultimately hold the key to long-term success.
Tottenham’s next league match: West Brom (a). Defeated 1-0 when the two sides met in London, expect a doggedly determined showing from Pulis’s men. Traditionally, his sides are masters of organisation and ruthlessly patient defending; this will be extremely tough for Spurs.
3) West Ham have lost the creative fluency of their early season canter
Given the ultimately emphatic nature of West Ham’s 3-0 victory over Hull City, it is easy to forget that a chorus of boos greeted the half-time whistle at Upton Park. In truth, murmurs of anxiety are slowly rising in East London, as the dynamism and flair of their early season charge continues to fade, and a limply familiar, Allardyce-patented hoof-and-run football re-emerges.
Heavily influenced by Brendan Rodgers’ reawakening of the 4-4-2 diamond at Liverpool last season (in which SAS would split centre-backs into wide areas to allow Raheem Sterling to charge through the middle), Allardyce began the season with Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia bursting down the flanks and Stewart Downing – reprising his free-role at Aston Villa – dominating in central areas.
However, Andy Carroll’s return from injury has seen a transformation into an energy-less, 4-5-1 long ball system; West Ham have averaged 70 long balls in the last six games, up significantly from the 37 average for games up until Carroll’s return in early November.
Entering this game on a four match win-less streak, the Hammers were consistently outmanoeuvred and overrun in central midfield in the first half, as they failed – once again – to flourish creatively in a system that leaves Noble, Song, and Nolan watching the game develop without them.
A steady stagnation is setting in at Upton Park, and their 3-0 victory – which could so easily have been a defeat – merely hides a trend that is rapidly developing.
The tactical shift made to accommodate Andy Carroll has seen West Ham revert to long ball football, to disjointed passing, and to static, creatively hollow displays. Carroll is an enormous talent, but he brings with him an old-fashioned style that – irresistible to Sam Allardyce – could be leading West Ham back down the Premier League table.
West Ham’s next league match: Liverpool (a). Beginning to rediscover some intelligent cohesion of their own, Liverpool will surely outmanoeuvre a lead-footed West Ham side, in the same way Hull City so effortlessly did in the opening 45.
4) How Villa can score goals: Carles Gil
The stagnant monotony that hangs like a cloud over Villa Park is becoming, for those desperate and commendably loyal Villa fans, utterly soul-destroying.
With many of the bottom clubs, whether through spirited determination or managerial changes, on an upward trajectory, Villa’s chances of relegation are rapidly increasing.
Villa have had fewer shots (10.2 per match), made fewer key passes (7.5), and had less time in the opposition half (23%) than any other team in the league, scoring just 11 times this season.
What’s more, during Paul Lambert’s tenure Villa’s goals to games ratio, shots per game, and key passes per game, have declined year on year.
However, in new signing Carles Gil Villa have, just maybe, found a solution to their goalscoring void. Gil’s record last season at Elche (1.2 key passes, 1.6 dribbles) outstrips any Villa player bar Fabian Delph, and the young Spaniard brings with him a pace and directness Villa have been sorely lacking.
In his brief cameo on Saturday, a mazy run and clever one-two brought about a goalscoring opportunity, whilst his first corner in a Villa shirt created a chance for Nathan Baker (Villa have not scored from a corner this season).
Villa’s next league match: Arsenal (a). Assuming Arsenal will dominate this match, their defensive slowness and overcommitment to attack should leave plenty of holes for Gabby Agbonlahor and Carles Gil to exploit. It may seem far-fetched, but there is a decent chance that Villa will finally score a goal.
Alex Keble is a freelance journalist who contributes to notable sports publications such as FourFourTwo and The Blizzard – Follow @AlexKeble on Twitter.