Alex Keble praises the patience of the Saints and Mourinho’s tactics, but hits out at Norwich’s naivety in his latest Premier League review.
Ralph Hasenhuttl might have played down the ‘revenge’ angle in his post-match interview but there is no doubt Southampton’s 2-1 victory at Leicester City was a hugely important symbolic moment for the club and him personally. A wrong has been righted; a line drawn under that dark day in October when Brendan Rodgers’ men beat Saints 9-0.
Southampton are on a six-game unbeaten run in all competitions and are now seven points clear of the drop zone, needing just four more wins in the final 16 Premier League matches to hit the magic 40-point mark. Huge credit goes to Hasenhuttl for finding a 4-4-2 system that works, and for getting the best out of unstoppable goalscorer Danny Ings.
But credit, too, to the Southampton board – who could easily have sacked the manager when the team lost three in a row immediately after the 9-0. In an age of short-termism, where the concept of a new manager is overhyped, Saints have shown the value of placing trust in a manager.
Frank Lampard has certainly endured a difficult winter, but it looks as though the clouds are lifting and Chelsea are returning to their best form. Tottenham’s resurgence has waned, too, making a top four finish increasingly likely for Lampard’s exciting young side.
Burnley are very accommodating opponents for the Big Six, of course, but nevertheless Chelsea were clinical in dispatching of the visitors on Saturday afternoon. They were pleasingly gung-ho in their tactics, with Reese James pouring forward from right-back in what was his best career performance to date while Ross Barkley and Mason Mount advanced together from midfield.
A first league goal for Callum Hudson-Odoi was the icing on the cake; the sort of moment that gets everyone believing the sun is shining on the club again. In a sport defined as much by psychology as tactics or ability, that feeling is priceless.
Although Liverpool were deserved winners in north London Jose Mourinho largely got his tactics right, using an interesting hybrid 4-2-3-1/5-4-1 for much of the game before switching to a more progressive shape for the final 20 minute that created a tense end-to-end finale.
Starting with a deep block and attempting to counter-attack, before going for broke late on, was the correct strategy to try to stifle Liverpool. Had Giovani Lo Celso not missed that late sitter we would be praising a hard-fought 1-1 draw.
Serge Aurier played as a deeper right midfielder, dropping into a flat back five when appropriate but regularly shifting up and down to change the Spurs formation. It showed the complexity and thoughtfulness of Mourinho’s tenure so far, which despite passive individual performances has been more innovative than expected.
Spurs fans might not have appreciated the initial negativity, but as neutrals we can at least feel assured that Mourinho is not going to play achingly dull football in every Big Six match, like he did as Manchester United manager.
In the 3-1 defeat to Man Utd at Carrow Road in October Norwich City were guilty of playing far too expansively despite all evidence suggesting the best way to nullify Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s quick forwards is to sit deep and concede possession. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford ran riot, easily cutting through the lines and beating the Norwich defenders one-on-one.
Exactly the same thing happened on Saturday as Norwich were beaten 4-0 by United. It was a carbon copy of the reverse fixture, only this time Solskjaer’s side were slightly more clinical in front of goal with Mason Greenwood adding a fourth.
The defeat emphasises Daniel Farke’s biggest problem this season. He is determined to play a progressive style of football no matter the opponent - and no matter how many times they are found to be defensively porous. Norwich’s relegation is all but certain.
Aston Villa were pretty atrocious in the late game on Sunday. The most important factor in their defeat was the lack of defensive work done by strikers Jack Grealish and Anwar El Ghazi in Dean Smith’s 3-5-2, because this allowed Man City’s centre-backs to feed an unmarked Rodri as often as they liked.
The Spaniard dictated the tempo, pinning back a Villa side who – without attackers pressing from the front – always looked like they were waiting for the inevitable. But Grealish and El Ghazi got away without criticism because there was a much easier target: new signing Danny Drinkwater, who looked extremely rusty, making multiple errors leading to City goals.
It was hardly surprising given Drinkwater has played just once in the league since March 2018. Smith really shouldn’t have thrown him into such a high-profile contest so soon after his arrival in B6.
There was some logic in Eddie Howe’s decision to pick Nathan Ake at left-back. His direct opponent was Ismaili Sarr, Watford’s record signing who is much improved since Nigel Pearson’s arrival, but with confidence still shaky and the pace of English football still a problem for the young winger Ake looked a formidable opponent.
Instead, Ake was caught too far ahead of Sarr for the first and third Watford goals, while for the second he simply let Sarr run past him, passing the buck to an exposed Steve Cook. Howe’s move badly backfired, a sign first that Ake didn’t quite know how to play in the role and second that he was given the wrong instructions. Why, when Watford’s threat was clearly down the flanks, did Howe instruct Ake to go forward and join in Bournemouth’s attacks?