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 Hull City’s tactical switch and why van Gaal’s new tactic does not deserve criticism …
1) van Gaal’s long ball approach does not sacrifice his possession-centric philosophy
Liverpool 1-2 Man Utd
Manchester United’s performance in the North-West derby exactly replicated the direct, Fellaini-centric tactical philosophy that was trialled so successfully in the 3-0 demolition of Spurs last weekend. And since Louis van Gaal’s reversion to Ferguson-esque attacking tactics looks set to stay, it is important to note that this is not Pulis-style long ball football that suffocates attacking fluidity, but rather a precision system that facilitates an expansive approach.
On Sunday, Marouane Fellaini once again operated almost as a second left winger, with long passes consistently directed onto his head in order to distract Liverpool’s right-sided centre back and set Ashley Young free. His aerial dominance was the centre-piece of United’s bullish central midfield display, contributing towards Steven Gerrard’s recklessly naïve decision to begin his cameo with undue aggression.
It could be argued that Brendan Rodgers should have altered his tactics to accommodate United’s new approach, and indeed the Fellaini tactic – as at Old Trafford last week – was the dominant element of the game. However, it is worth noting that this tactic does not necessarily reflect a regression from short-passing, possession football, and is certainly not an “anti-football” approach.
Excluding David de Gea’s kicks, United had a 75% long pass accuracy against Liverpool with Fellaini winning 11 of his 15 aerial duels, reflecting the accuracy and deliberateness of these passes. Furthermore, their overall passing statistics in the match (563 total, 461 successful) remained consistent with their season average (550 total, 466 successful).
In truth, this tactic merely serves to move the ball into high areas faster, essentially shifting the short-passing approach thirty yards up the field; both of United’s goals resulted form slick passing moves, with their attackers finding significantly more space in the final third thanks to the fast transitions that pinned Liverpool back in their own half.
This strategy has always been seen as an important aspect of total football, and has only become unpopular in recent years due to the extreme example of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
Man United’s next match: Aston Villa (h) Villa’s defence is physically very strong, and if Tim Sherwood shifts Alan Hutton back to the right side he could give Fellaini a real test. However, the momentum United are building will surely be too much for the relegation contenders.
Recommended Bet: back Man Utd to win by 2 @ 14/5
2) Tactical shift shows Bruce is up for the fight, and exposes Chelsea’s soft centre – again
Hull City 2-3 Chelsea
Steve Bruce’s shift in formation midway through the first half had an unexpectedly drastic effect on the various tactical battles taking place at the KC, and proved once again that Bruce possesses the intelligence and guile to keep his Hull City side afloat.
Key to their (almost) revival on Sunday was the free-roaming Gaston Ramirez, who floated in between midfield and attack after Bruce’s switch from 3-5-2 to 4-4-1-1; unlike Chelsea’s typical 4-2-3-1 style that saw Cesc Fabregas operate as a withdrawn number ten, Ramirez drifted delicately between the lines, pulling Nemanja Matic into awkward positions and creating opportunities for his team-mates.
It was another example of Chelsea’s soft centre, and their over-reliance on Matic for defensive organisation. Last weekend, as we highlighted in this blog, it was Saido Mane who terrorised the space in front of Chelsea’s defence; Bruce had clearly done his homework, with Ramirez’s positional play emulating Mane’s exactly.
It should concern Jose Mourinho that this problem has persisted in consecutive matches, and that the inclusion of Ramires did little to stem the flow. For Hull, this narrow and unfortunate defeat will do nothing to dampen the confidence instilled after collecting nine points from their previous six games.
Hull’s next match: Swansea (a) A stuttering Swansea side are potentially vulnerable in the same area of the field, and the sheer tenacity of Hull City in recent weeks could unsettle Garry Monk’s side.
Recommended Bet: back the draw at 47/20.
3) Southampton find new option in Shane Long
A peripheral figure for the majority of the campaign, back-to-back starts for Shane Long has unearthed a new dimension for Ronald Koeman to explore at just the right time.
Long’s style is characterised by a tireless work ethic and excellent footballing brain; he may not be the most technically gifted player in the Southampton squad, but his intelligence more than makes up for it; his positional play, decision-making, and timing make him both an aerial threat and a menace in the final third.
Unlike Graziano Pelle, whose poor run of form has left Southampton in desperate need of a second option, Long can play on the shoulder of the last defender, providing a long ball option that is often required during sticky, confidence-stricken patches. He received overhead through balls six times against Burnley, and seven times against Chelsea.
The consistency of his passing and chance creation is testament to the intelligence of his approach play, and after proving his worth both as a target man centre forward (eight aerial duels v Chelsea) and a tricky winger (three dribbles and five crosses v Burnley) Long firmly planted his flag with the opening goal last weekend.
Southampton fans have had concerns over the creative deficiencies in recent weeks amidst fears that their players had burnt out; seeing a player of Long’s style coming to the fore will instil confidence that this Southampton team have the strength in depth to qualify for Europe.
Southampton’s next match: Everton (a) Everton are continuing to look scrappy, and were outplayed for large periods of their match with QPR.
Recommended Bet: back Southampton to win @ 9/5
4) Advocaat shows early signs of a new direction but the real changes are still to come
West Ham 1-0 Sunderland
Dick Advocaat’s post-match press conference highlighted the unlikelihood that Sunderland will develop into an expansive, attacking side under his short tenure; speaking of winning games “very ugly” and being prepared to “play very negative if the need is there”, the new manager will prioritise pragmatism.
However, his tactical decision to move Connor Wickham into a central attacking midfield position was contrary to these words; the former Ipswich striker roamed freely behind Steven Fletcher and Jermaine Defoe in a narrow 4-4-2 formation.
Wickham created several chances for Defoe, who should have scored when one-on-one just fifteen minutes into the match. However, overall this was a predictably scrappy affair that in terms of both style and organisation was not too dissimilar to the Gus Poyet era.
The speed of movement and directness of passing that Wickham possesses could be vital to Advocaat’s preferred tactical method, but having only spent three days with his new squad before Saturday’s game, we will not know the extent of his attacking boldness until after the international break.
Sunderland’s next match: Newcastle (h) This will, surely, be Sunderland’s season defining moment. With Newcastle looking more than beatable, Advocaat will be rewarded for showing some of the attacking bravery we have come to expect from him.
Recommended Bet: back Sunderland to win @ 29/20
For more tactical analysis, follow Alex on twitter – @alexkeble