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 where the problems lie at Liverpool and Man City …
1) Familiar problems lead to Liverpool downfall as the flaws of a 3-4-3 are exposed
Arsenal 4-1 Liverpool
All the zipping and darting of Brendan Rodger’s exciting 3-4-3 system may creatively bamboozle weaker and less tactically astute opposition, but the 4-1 defeat at Arsenal showed – for the second successive week – that the youthful buzz of their fluid movement can suddenly look lopsided and disjointed when facing sterner opponents.
Once again, the chief source of their woes was the structural flaw in fielding only two central midfielders; against a high pressing team who are masters at swarming the ball, the duo of Joe Allen and Lucas Leiva – neither technically nor positionally skilful enough to command this area – was incapable of swerving clear of the onslaught.
Their failures led directly to Arsenal’s possessional domination and subsequent quick-fire treble, leaving Rodgers embarrassed by his decision to switch out Jordan Henderson – the box-to-box orchestrator of Liverpool’s short-passing system. Liverpool’s strength in depth, or lack of it, is of grave concern – as is the fact that this game mimicked precisely the United dominance witnessed at Anfield last Sunday.
These formation deficiencies were exacerbated by the positional errors of Hector Moreno, who was directly at fault for the crucial opening goal; tracking back into a central position, his movement opened up space for Hector Bellerin to exploit, after Mamadou Sakho was dragged out of defence to cover at left-back. Worryingly, it was positional flaws from Moreno that caused both Man United goals the previous weekend.
The combination of these two crucial areas of weakness has undermined the proficiency of Liverpool’s 3-4-3, suggesting that the attack-minded tactic is perhaps unsuited to high pressing, high quality opposition. Being exposed in such circumstances once is understandable, but twice in successive matches suggests a fundamental systemic flaw that requires urgent addressing if Liverpool are to challenge for honours.
Liverpool’s next match: Newcastle (h) John Carver will instruct his players to sit deep and attempt to hit on the counter and therefore Liverpool’s weaknesses may not be exposed. However, with injuries rife and after successive defeats, their attacking fluidity is also suffering.
Recommended bet: back Liverpool to win by one at 49/20
2) Creatively stagnant, Man City’s tactical strategy looks as old and jaded as their players
Crystal Palace 2-1 Man City
The persistence with which Manuel Pellegrini utilises a rigidly structured 4-4-2 formation is, quite simply, remarkable. It is no coincidence that successive deep-lying defensive outfits have found a way to nullify a threat that, over the past 24 months, has been more consistent in approach than any other team in the top half of the Premier League.
Rarely changing from his preferred philosophy and rarely adapting tactically to the unique variations of the opposition, Pellegrini’s style is as jaded and unimaginative as his ageing squad; his own tired endeavours are symbolic of the attributes one would expect from a team without the energetic endeavour of youth.
This latest humiliation was entirely predictable; after all, Alan Pardew had two years of tapes showing him exactly how Pellegrini’s team will play.
City’s 4-4-2 relies upon Yaya Toure’s dominance in the centre, and since he has meandered sluggishly through matches in recent months, his movement is easily tracked. Elsewhere, Jesus Navas – always hugging the touchline – can be stopped by being marked tightly, and David Silva – floating infield and searching for the diagonal through ball – can be stopped by cutting off the inside track and doubling up.
Of course, most top teams field a consistent eleven, and all players have their own specific (and relatively consistent) playing style, but in Man City’s case, it seems particularly jaded – and suffering from both the mental and physical fatigue of age.
With only two players under 29 featuring against Palace, City seem psychologically starved of the creativity that flourishes in youth; the predictability of their style may in part be a sign of age, as a set of players stuck in their particular mould have no Raheem Sterling, no Alexis Sanchez, no Christian Eriksen to sharpen their minds.
The freshness of youth also brings speed and directness of attacking intent, both characteristics that are vital in breaking down deep-lying defensive models such as those of Crystal Palace and Burnley. Man City attempt just 16.6 dribbles per match (12 teams in the division attempt more), and – most tellingly – are fouled only 7.8 times per match, fewer than any other team.
A more youthful energy is needed, both physically and psychologically, for Man City to challenge for the title next season. But as well as a serious overhaul in playing staff, the manager – looking similarly set in his ways – may also need to go.
Man City’s next match: Man Utd (a) United are brimming with confidence and can expect to dominate this encounter. The speed of their long-pass football should put a confidence-stricken City team onto the back foot. It could be a very long day for City fans.
Recommended bet: back United to win by more than two @ 11/1
3) Pochettino’s Paulinho experiment fails in tactical mistake at Turf Moor
Burnley 0-0 Tottenham
Perhaps fearful of further defensive ignominy (Spurs conceded three against both Leicester and Man United last month) Mauricio Pochettino was unusually cautious at Burnley, making a costly tactical error.
A bizarre personnel change shifted his usual 4-2-3-1 formation into a system without a central attacking midfielder, thus creating a considerably more conservative, less mobile approach. Paulista – a proficient passer but lacking in creativity – started only his third game of the season, joining Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb in a midfield trio that clearly lacked attacking intent or even a semblance of forward movement. Paulista made a measly seven forward passes in the opposition half.
Unsurprisingly, Burnley easily nullified Spurs’ predictably width-focused attacks, snuffing out an isolated Harry Kane and keeping chief playmaker Christian Eriksen quiet; a right footer on the right flank, he was unable to cut inside and help stitch up the gap between Paulista and Kane.
Their cautious set-up was particularly surprising given Burnley’s reputation for defensive solidity at Turf Moor, instigated by a deep defensive line; the 1-0 defeat of Man City, in which they held just 36% possession, should have made it clear to Pochettino that Spurs needed to bombard Burnley’s goal and pressurise their back four into retreat.
The tactical error was uncharacteristic of the Spurs manager, and perhaps an indication that his squad lacks strength in depth, as he seeks to adapt to the poor form of Erikson and Nacir Chadli.
Spurs next match: Villa (h) Tim Sherwood will be desperate to take revenge against the Spurs board, and knowing how well he is able to translate his passion onto his players, this should be tricky. Pochettino’s propensity to play high up the pitch at White Hart Lane will play right into Villa’s hands.
Recommended bet: back the draw @ 31/10
4) Advocaat lives up to his promise to “win ugly” with a direct, long ball approach
Sunderland 1-0 Newcastle
The brute force of Jermaine Defoe’s volley and the tearful celebration that followed was neatly emblematic of the passion that characterised Sunderland’s derby day victory. In the process, Dick Advocaat has laid the foundations for Sunderland’s escape plan: a 4-3-3 formation with three powerful centre-forwards will be complimented by a long ball approach that relies upon aerial supremacy.
Sunderland’s most predominant tactic was firing long, diagonal passes up to Jermaine Defoe, Steven Fletcher, and Connor Wickham, who persistently dropped off the defensive line to hold-up the ball and bring their fellow strikers into play. Having forcefully held onto possession high up the pitch, their attacking full-backs were then instructed to throw crosses into the box.
This style is somewhat different from the cautious approach of Gus Poyet; Sunderland attempted 25 crosses (up from a season average of 15), and made 50 aerial challenges (up from a season average of 31).
The system was certainly effective against a team lacking in strength (Fabricio Coloccini and Cheick Tiote were both unavailable), but it remains to be seen how effective this will prove to be outside the battleground of a Tyne-Wear derby.
Sunderland’s next match: Crystal Palace (h) Fielding Defoe and Wickham out wide could leave Sunderland vulnerable defensively, particularly against the counter-attacking speed of Wilfried Zaha and Yannick Bolasie.
Recommended bet: back the draw @ 21/10
For more tactical analysis, follow Alex on twitter – @alexkeble