Review of the weekend’s games and Premier League predictions!
In his latest tactical analysis blog, Alex Keble offers ‘four things we learnt’ from the Premier League action, including the resurgence of Hull City, and where Liverpool need improving…
1) Everton’s resurgence gathers momentum ahead of a crucial summer for Martinez
Everton 3-0 Man Utd
Having staggered around aimlessly in the lower levels of the Premier League for so much of the campaign, Roberto Martinez’s Everton have ceased floundering, sobered up, and re-emerged into the light with a confident and energetic victory over Manchester United.
The stylistic shift at Goodison Park has been gradual, but – clearly disheartened by the stagnancy onset by their tactical stubbornness – a slow transformation towards less idealistic goals has restored some clarity to their ambitions. Playing largely on the counter-attack against United, Everton’s players flourished in simplified roles; Martinez’s side seem to have fully recovered from the damaging effects of a long and demoralising campaign.
Martinez’s tactical acumen was vindicated in numerous ways on Sunday, but chiefly it was the individual brilliance of Gareth Barry and James McCarthy that defined this fixture. Their calm control over central midfield spread through their team-mates, and – by organising those around them – made United’s attack look blunt and immobile.
They made eight tackles between them, but in truth their leadership and positional discipline were not caught in the statistics; both players glided across the pitch with a seemingly telepathic understanding, Barry shielding the back four and cutting the line to Marouane Fellaini and McCarthy pressing cleverly to stunt United’s passing game.
Elsewhere, Leon Osman’s inward drifting instincts helped prevent Juan Mata from dominating on that side, whilst John Stones and Phil Jagielka out-muscled Falcao with ease. It was a damaging knock to Louis van Gaal’s tactical reputation, but further evidence that Everton have risen from the mire and, with some slight tweaks over the summer, will be back to challenge for Europe next season.
Everton’s next match: Aston Villa (a) Everton will be rewarded for caution in this game, but with such a good record at Villa Park and with confidence high, expect them to play on the front foot.
Recommended bet: Back over 2.5 goals @ 1/1
2) Coquelin proves his quality against the very best
Arsenal 0-0 Chelsea
The mountainous strides taken by Francis Coquelin this season have been as extraordinary as Harry Kane’s, albeit from a less headline-grabbing position. In a gritty, cluttered, and physically demanding game against Chelsea, the young midfielder displayed a composure and technical speed that could elevate him towards world-class status.
Amongst gracefully executed slide tackles and darting interceptions, Coquelin showed great strength against the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Oscar, and Willian. He frequently protected the ball by wriggling free of pincer pressing, shielding possession in congested areas, and threading passes through cluttered bodies to retain possession for his team (93.2% pass accuracy).
Arsenal’s growing maturity owes much to the introduction of Coquelin. Renowned for crumbling against top teams, it is testament to his influence that Arsenal’s clean sheet against Chelsea surprised nobody.
And it is not coincidental that Arsenal’s resurgent form coincides with the discovery of a combative midfielder who – unlike Mathieu Flamini, Gilberto, or Alex Song – is dependable in possession. Arsenal have earned 44 points in 18 league games in which Coquelin has featured (2.4 points per game), and 23 points in the 15 games he has not (1.5 points per game). Over the course of a full season, Arsenal would have earned 58 points without Coquelin, and 92 points with him.
Playing with such confidence and intelligence against the future champions is the latest test that the youngster has passed with flying colours. His first full season at Arsenal just might help Arsene Wenger fight seriously, for the first time in years, for the title.
Arsenal’s next match: Hull (a) This should be a simple game for Arsenal although with Hull’s back-to-back wins – and clean sheets – complicates matters.
Recommended bet: Back Arsenal to keep a clean sheet @ 5/4
3) Hull’s 3-5-2 is making a comeback at just the right time
Crystal Palace 0-2 Hull City
It is an unfortunate truth that, whilst clutching desperately for points at the bottom of the table, frequently switching formation signifies desperation, not tactical intelligence. Steve Bruce’s side have undergone numerous shifts this season, but it is the 3-5-2 that re-emerged three weeks ago that represents Bruce’s most popular choice. And against Crystal Palace, his choice was vindicated.
In such a formation, it is Hull’s wing-backs that represent the most important attacking threat, by taking up positions that are difficult to mark; on Saturday, Palace’s use of high wingers helped open up space for Ahmed Elmohamady and Robbie Brady to burst into.
Yannick Bolasie and Wilfried Zaha were caught too high up the pitch on numerous occasions, whilst the rest of the defence – usually so compact, narrow, and difficult to break down – were stretched apart by the width of Bruce’s wing-backs.
Hull’s rare successes this season have frequently come as the result of this tactic; Elmohamady (1.7 key passes per match, 3 assists) holds the best creative statistics in the team, whilst Andrew Robertson has impressed throughout.
This would be a fitting time for the 3-5-2 to finally click for Steve Bruce. Consistency – in performance and tactical style – is the key to success. And with Arsenal, Tottenham, and Manchester United still to play, a system that can function on the counter-attack, but with a back five, is the most likely path to survival.
Hull’s next match: Arsenal (h) Despite beating Liverpool on this ground in midweek, Arsenal present more formidable opposition.
Recommended bet: Back Arsenal to win @ 4/6
4) Liverpool’s strike force needs improving
West Brom 0-0 Liverpool
Brendan Rodgers’ pre-match comments regarding the need for a goalscoring striker were highlighted after a painfully dull 0-0 draw in which Mario Balotelli displayed, once again, his unsuitability for Liverpool’s high tempo attacking style.
Tony Pulis’s side lined up in a typically rigid defensive structure, sitting in compact rows that require creativity and speed to break down. With Steven Gerrard controlling midfield and Balotelli ahead of him, this was a Liverpool team desperately lacking in pace.
Balotelli completed just 14 passes, had one shot on goal, and attempted a solitary take-on. It is unsurprising that Rodgers only uses the Italian as a last resort, but with Daniel Sturridge out for the season, he may be called upon again this weekend.
An absence of strength in depth has seriously undermined Liverpool’s challenge for the top four this season, but deficiencies in the final third can be traced primarily to a lack of movement, energy, and creativity from the lone forward. Against Hull on Tuesday, this pattern was repeated exactly.
Rodgers will likely be given one more season at Anfield. He must sign a proven goalscorer if he is to remain in the job twelve months from now.
Liverpool’s next match: QPR (h) With QPR looking confident and Liverpool incapable of scoring, this could be the shock result of the weekend.
Recommended bet: Back QPR to win @ 29/4.
For more tactical analysis, follow Alex on twitter – @alexkeble