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 Manchester United’s return to Ferguson era football, and Chelsea’s soft centre…
1) Koeman is an excellent reactive manager, adapting his tactical model to expose opposition weaknesses
Chelsea 1-1 Southampton
Throughout the season Chelsea’s main flaw has been a softness in central midfield as Cesc Fabregas and Oscar fail to adequately support Nemanja Matic; by switching Sadio Mane into an untested central attacking position, Ronald Koeman showed that he had done his homework.
Both Fabregas and Oscar frequently operate high up the field, contributing well to attacks but invariably seen making half-hearted tackles within the opposition half. Chelsea’s flaw was most famously exposed by Tottenham in their 5-3 victory in January, when Harry Kane and Nacer Chadli tore through the middle with quick counter-attacking football.
On Sunday, Koeman shifted Mane into this area and instructed his players to fire long passes to the Senegalese international as quickly as possible. His excellent overall performance was characterised by darting runs into those frighteningly empty spaces and earning the penalty from which Southampton equalised.
Several weeks ago Koeman introduced sweeping long balls into the channels to expose the narrowness of Liverpool’s back three, and deviated significantly from his primary tactical philosophy when playing structured counter-attacking football at Old Trafford in January.
It is becoming clearer with each passing game that Ronald Koeman is an excellent tactician, scouting the opposition and adapting his tactics to exploit their weaknesses.
Southampton’s next match: Burnley (h) With both sides boosted by excellent performances over the weekend, this match could go either way. However, the speed of Saints’ counter-attacks could be enough to outmanoeuvre a side that enjoy applying high pressure.
Recommended Bet: back half-time/full-time draw/Southampton at 5/2
2) van Gaal uses Fellaini to implement transition towards more attacking football
Man Utd 3-0 Tottenham
After a thunderous, Alex Ferguson-esque performance against Tottenham on Sunday there is a new question regarding the Louis van Gaal philosophy that needs answering; are his tactics finally beginning to reveal themselves, or is United’s gradual transition towards long passes and width an admission that his initial plans have failed?
It is rare to see a single strategy implemented so heavily in a single half of football, but at the weekend those sweeping long balls to Marouane Fellaini – operating almost exclusively from the left hand side – represented the vast majority of Man United’s attacks.
The idea was to double up on Kyle Walker, providing space for Ashley Young and the overlapping Daley Blind to drive into; with Ryan Mason failing to come across and provide extra defensive cover, United pinned their opponents back and set the tone for a dominant victory.
The tactic was reminiscent of Ferguson’s propensity for long passes and direct wing-based attacks, and represented a growing trend towards quicker distribution that is symbolised in the re-emergence of Ashley Young in an attacking role.
United have won all four league matches since moving Young back into his preferred position, coinciding with the development of long passes to Fellaini and Ander Herrera’s re-admittance into the team. It seems as though, after months of uncomfortable short-passing football, van Gaal is finally attempting a more direct, more traditional attacking approach.
Man Utd’s next match: Liverpool (a) With Michael Carrick back in the side, United look significantly more composed in possession; Liverpool’s counter-attacking speed should be less of a problem than it would have been a few weeks ago.
Recommended Bet: back the draw @ 51/20
3) Poyet’s team selection and tactics fail drastically
Sunderland 0-4 Aston Villa
Judging by the images of a deflated Gus Poyet staring into the middle distance, it seemed as though he knew – after just 35 minutes of the match – that his tenure as Sunderland manager was over.
The aggressiveness and freedom of Aston Villa’s counter-attacks – symbolised by a magnificent individual performance by Charles N’Zogbia – deserves plaudits, but it was Poyet’s tactical failings that made this victory so simple.
His decision to field attackers Ricardo Alvarez and Steven Fletcher on the wings was a fatal mistake considering the pace in Villa’s attacks and the direct counter-attacking strategy favoured by Tim Sherwood. Neither of them were willing to contribute defensively.
Unsurprisingly, Poyet’s full-backs were outnumbered as Leandro Bacuna and N’Zogbia terrorised a perplexed Patrick van Aanholt, who deserves plenty of sympathy despite a woeful first half performance.
The opening goal developed down Sunderland’s left as Aanholt stuck too tight to N’Zogbia, leaving space in behind for Bacuna – untracked by Alvarez – to penetrate. This exact move was repeated just minutes later, as Scott Sinclair missed an open goal.
Confused and dishevelled, Aanholt swung too far the other way for Villa’s fourth, backing off Bacuna and allowing him to cross onto Benteke’s head unchallenged. On this occasion it was Fletcher, walking towards his goal, who failed to provide support.
Much criticism has gone Poyet’s way recently for being too defensive, but a game against Aston Villa was clearly not the right time to finally attempt more progressive football.
Sunderland’s next match: West Ham (a) This demoralised set of players is unlikely to respond with gusto to a temporary manager, and with West Ham keen to end a sequence of defeats, their strength in midfield should be enough to win.
Recommended Bet: back West Ham to win by two @ 41/10
4) Pellegrini’s 4-4-2 is too rigid and predictable
Burnley 1-0 Man City
In many respects Manuel Pellegrini’s tactics have never seemed convincing, and it came as no surprise to see Burnley – a highly organised team – stifle Man City with such ease. A flat midfield four with little roaming from positions creates a statically predictable formation that is overly reliant on overlapping full-backs.
Pablo Zabaleta made fewer runs ahead of Jesus Navas than usual, and with each player sticking to an assigned area of the field, Burnley could stay relatively untroubled by simply sitting deep, doubling up on Navas, and allowing City to move the ball aimlessly in front of them.
Defending Man City is surprisingly simple; track David Silva’s movement (the only player roaming from his position), and close down Navas to prevent crosses. That these are currently City’s sole creative threats is testament to the similarity of playing style within the squad, and the absence of creative players that differ significantly from the starting eleven.
Scott Sinclair, making an impressive start to his Aston Villa career, was an option that Pellegrini chose to ignore, in favour of the Samir Nasri type who – like most of his team-mates – possesses neither the speed nor the dribbling skills to penetrate deep-lying defences.
Man City’s next match: West Brom (h) Tony Pulis’s side have recorded six clean sheets in nine league matches since he took the helm; their defensive organisation could further derail City’s season unless Pellegrini can – somehow – raise morale.
Recommended Bet: back the draw @ 49/10
For more tactical analysis and betting tips, follow Alex on twitter – @alexkeble