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 Pellegrini’s tactical error and Sherwood’s under-appreciated qualities …
1) Joey Barton’s superb performance highlights Chelsea’s problems in central midfield
QPR 0-1 Chelsea
It was only the typically machine-like ruthlessness of Jose Mourinho that prevented a spirited QPR side from collecting at least a point on Sunday, in a game that demonstrated their individual class and collective integrity. Premier League survival is far from impossible, and after Joey Barton’s dominant swagger from central midfield made Nemanja Matic and Ramires look foolish, you wouldn’t bet against him leading this side to an unlikely escape.
Barton’s terrier-like approach to football – charging around maniacally, head bent forward and legs nipping at the ball – hums with aggression and determination, and on Sunday Chelsea’s midfield were simply overwhelmed by his presence. Barton’s harassing of the ball occurred seemingly everywhere, conveying a passion that was markedly absent in the opposition.
Matic and Ramires meandered harmlessly across midfield for the majority of the match, with the former once again overwhelmed by defensive responsibility; it is a major tactical issue at Chelsea that neither Cesc Fabregas nor Ramires have provided adequate defensive cover alongside the Serb, leading to a soft-centre that has been exposed on numerous occasions this season.
If Chelsea have a flaw that needs correcting this summer, it is finding a central midfield pairing that gel sufficiently to provide a composure and technical control that provides defensive solidity as well as creativity. Clubs such as PSG (Thiago Motta and Marco Verratti) and Juventus (Andrea Pirlo and Paul Pogba) exemplify such partnerships that Fabregas – frequently absent defensively and positionally indisciplined – may not be capable of forging.
For QPR, with difficult fixtures on the horizon Chris Ramsey will be relying upon Barton to continue this phenomenal vein of form because, in terms of defensive midfield partnerships, there are few in this country better than Sandro’s and Barton’s.
Chelsea’s next match: Man Utd (h) Holes in central midfield may well be exposed again by United, particularly if Mourinho instructs Kurt Zouma to man-mark Marouane Fellaini on the far left.
Recommended bet: back the draw at 13/5
2) Pellegrini makes drastic tactical error, as Toure shows he can no longer be relied upon
Man Utd 4-2 Man City
Although Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United proved themselves tactically and individually superior in numerous areas of the field, it was the battle for supremacy between Yaya Toure and Marouane Fellaini that settled this encounter. As United stride on, Manuel Pellegrini increasingly appears ill-suited tactically to Premier League management.
The mirror reflection of each manager’s tactical instructions was almost comical, as Toure and Fellaini seemed handcuffed to one another throughout the opening 45; each had been told to man-mark the other, and thus each moved up and down the pitch hand-in-hand.
And then, curiously, Toure unshackled himself from defensive responsibility and remorselessly began drifting through the match, directly resulting in Man United’s first two goals. Although perhaps Fellaini’s headed goal came outside of Toure’s zone of responsibility United’s equaliser came from the Fellaini-as-second-left-winger tactic that has become the hallmark of van Gaal’s team.
Toure’s care-free snub of his manager’s direct tactical instructions asks serious questions of Pellegrini’s man-management and motivational skills, with City’s head coach looking increasingly incapable of changing the tide.
The introduction of James Milner in a central attacking role was promising but well overdue, and if Pellegrini continues with the 4-5-1 that looked reinvigorated in the opening ten minutes then perhaps their slump is soon to end. Sadly, it would appear that his time as Man City manager will end this summer regardless of how they play in the last seven games. Toure’s disrespectful attitude in this match suggests that he and his fellow players are already aware of that fact.
Man City’s next match: West Ham (h) The congested central midfield of West Ham could prove tricky for David Silva and co. With both teams on a poor run of form, expect a nervy performance from both.
Recommended bet: back Man City to win by two at 57/20
3) Sherwood’s tactical knowledge is under-appreciated, as Delph and Cleverley shine
Spurs 0-1 Villa
Tim Sherwood’s narrow 4-3-1-2 formation tactically out-manoeuvred one of the league’s most respected tacticians, and yet the majority of the post-match analysis continued to highlight the Villa manager’s motivational skills as the key to success. Both Tom Cleverley and Fabian Delph looked confident in wider roles, whilst the interchanges between Gabby Agbonlahor and Christina Benteke have clearly required hard work on the training ground.
Villa’s central midfielders were expected to cover significant ground across the wings and central midfield at White Hart Lane, and the movement of both players – cutting from inside to out, and swinging long balls towards Benteke – left Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb incapable of affecting the game.
Undoubtedly a confidence-boost has helped such tactics flourish: Cleverley in particular possesses attributes – energy, creative movement, and quick one-touch passes – that rely upon self-belief to be successful. However, it is unfair to suggest that the simplification of Villa’s general approach is tactically regressive, since it requires a good footballing brain to have so quickly found a style and formation suited to his new team.
Villa will almost certainly avoid relegation now, whilst Spurs – looking leggy and disinterested on Saturday – may not even qualify for the Europa League.
Villa’s next match: Liverpool (n) The FA Cup semi-final comes at a great time for Villa, who look more dynamic and confident than Brendan Rodgers’ team. The directness and power of their counter-attacks could outmanoeuvre a Liverpool back three.
Recommended bet: back Villa to win at 24/5
4) Newcastle’s changing defensive styles highlight where Liverpool’s weakness lies
Liverpool 2-0 Newcastle
After a catastrophic first half performance at Anfield in Monday night’s defeat to Liverpool, Newcastle showed greater bravery by pushing higher up the pitch after half-time. The tactical change unnerved Liverpool and added to mounting evidence that Brendan Rodgers’ side are vulnerable to high pressing systems that deny the slow building of attacks from the back.
John Carver has utilised a deep defensive line throughout his short tenure as Newcastle manager, when in truth a more aggressive system is suited to a team with players who refuse to track back – such as Gabriel Obertan and Remy Cabella. Their opening forty five on Monday was arguably the worst seen in the Premier League this season; in terms of overall team shape, individual positioning, and work rate, Newcastle were in disarray.
For the second period they began pressing high up the pitch, with the back four moving twenty yards up the pitch. This aggression significantly stunted Liverpool’s dominance and, having switched to a three man midfield for this game, left them incapable of creating the space needed to build through central midfield.
Similar results were produced in Liverpool’s defeats to Arsenal and Manchester United, when high pressing and tenacious tackling unsettled Rodgers defenders and, with Lucas Leiva and Joe Allen less mobile in central midfield than most, left them with few passing options.
Liverpool would benefit from the purchase of a box-to-box midfielder in the summer (in the mould of Monaco’s Geoffrey Kondogbia or PSG’s Blaise Matuidi), to sit alongside Jordan Henderson and offer greater connective links to other areas of attack.
Newcastle’s next match: Tottenham (h) Spurs are struggling to score goals, but this Newcastle team are the most beatable team in the league.
Recommended bet: back Kane to score any time at 21/20
For more tactical analysis, follow Alex on twitter – @alexkeble