Alex Keble runs through the best and worst of the tactical decisions from the weekend's latest round of Premier League games.
A Big Six break-up is back on
Leicester City’s meek defeat at Old Trafford last weekend seemed to suggest the Big Six didn’t have as much to worry about as first thought, but neutrals can take comfort from a string of results that hint at a significant shuffling of the pack come May.
It was Leicester who impressed most, their 2-1 win against Tottenham a sign that their performance against Manchester United was just a blip. James Maddison put in his best display of the season in front of Gareth Southgate, a couple of mazy runs through the Spurs defence showing a more direct and assertive side to his game. Some poor decision-making in recent matches had seen his progress stall – but an emphatic winner on Saturday ought to set that straight.
West Ham’s 2-0 victory over Man Utd has catapulted them into top-six contention, too, leaving Manuel Pellegrini’s side with 11 points from six matches – and just two points off second. We know how good West Ham are defensively, and so the biggest challenge was always going to be improving their chance creation. While Pablo Fornals still looks sheepish, Sebastien Haller was again impressive and Andriy Yarmolenko has replaced the powerful attacking instincts lost when Marco Arnautovic left.
Chelsea are on the up as Liverpool show vulnerabilities
Finally Chelsea showed a little defensive resolve, undone only by two set-pieces in a match they should have at least drawn. They sat off Liverpool, repeating their Super Cup tactics, and the result was a considerably more compressed off-the-ball shape that meant the visitors could not counter through the centre - as Sheffield United and Leicester have at Stamford Bridge this season.
N’Golo Kante’s return certainly helped Chelsea maintain defensive solidity before they gradually gained the upper hand territorially. Rather than naively rush out of the blocks only to tire as they usually do, Chelsea grew into the game and forced Liverpool back into their own third for the final 20 minutes. Only poor finishing from Mason Mount got in the way of an impressive comeback.
If things are coming together for Frank Lampard, Liverpool fans will worry their vulnerabilities are being exposed for the first time. Jurgen Klopp’s 4-3-3 inevitably leaves big spaces on the flanks for opponents to exploit should they hold enough of the ball to push Liverpool back, which is why Fernando Alonso had such a positive influence from the bench. Next time, Klopp will need to adapt sooner, switching to a back three earlier than the 91st minute.
Messy Arsenal will keep producing entertaining games
They certainly aren’t boring. Arsenal were twice behind to Aston Villa only to win 3-2 with ten men in a bonkers football match that showed off all of Arsenal’s positive and negative traits under Unai Emery. In midfield they were utterly passive, underestimating Villa’s pace on the flanks and simply watching as Jack Grealish repeatedly glided through. A more proactive team (Dean Smith’s retreated too quickly) would have scored another couple of goals.
But then going forward Arsenal always seem to find the net, thanks mostly to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. He and Pepe were surprisingly well connected after Ainsley Maitland-Niles received red, running the channels effectively and swarming the Villa back four. It was more breathless, nerve-wracking stuff for the Arsenal fans, and six games in there is no clearer sign of a long-term tactical identity. The Gunners will remain maddeningly entertaining throughout the 2019/20 season.
A full-blown crisis looms for Man Utd
In their post-match analysis on Sky Sports Jose Mourinho and Roy Keane were almost lost for words trying to identify what is wrong at Man Utd and how it can be fixed. The mess at the club is truly extraordinary; they are failing in every department and the squad is astonishingly poor despite £600 million net being spent since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. They were truly dreadful at the London Stadium.
Without energy or purpose, it won’t be long before heads drop – particularly now the media narrative has firmly been established as one of impending crisis for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his players. Nobody wants to outright blame the manager – United are rotten to the core – but nevertheless Solskjaer is clearly out of his depth.
They now have eight points from six matches, which isn’t far off relegation form, and a tricky set of fixtures means they could conceivably lose three of their next four league games: Arsenal (h), Newcastle (a), Liverpool (h), and Norwich (a). If that was to happen Solskjaer would surely be out and United would be back to square one – yet again.
Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.
Two more problems with VAR emerge as technology takes centre stage
Four goals were overturned by VAR this weekend, a record so far in the Premier League, and although occasionally we saw the benefits of the system overall we learnt of two more reasons to be upset by the introduction of video technology.
First, goals for Leicester and Liverpool shortly after their opponents had an effort chalked off suggest a huge psychological shift takes place when VAR overturns a decision. The emotional release of scoring a goal, followed so swiftly by disappointment, is a complex chain of events for a footballer to recover from. It seems doubly unfair that marginal calls deny a team a goal and then ruffle them so much they become more vulnerable at the other end.
Second, the rulings on offside are utterly farcical. The technology simply isn’t good enough yet to be making judgements in cases where players are offside by a matter of millimetres; the frame-rate of the videos means we cannot know precisely when the ball leaves the assisters foot, meaning it is only accurate to an estimated 30cms. Consequently the freeze-frame that showed Son Heung-Min’s shoulder to be ahead of the defender is null and void; it is unreliable data, and as such makes a complete mockery of VAR’s implementation.
Get rid of VAR, change the offside law, or introduce ‘clear and obvious’ to the use of VAR for offsides. We cannot go on like this.
European football takes its toll for the first time this season
Six of the ten Premier League matches this weekend involved a team who played in midweek and it was immediately obvious who had travelled and who had rested. Tottenham, after drawing 2-2 at Olympiacos, looked shattered in defeat to Leicester. Man Utd, Wolves, and Arsenal were all well below their best after gruelling Thursday night matches.
Even Liverpool, lucky to win, seemed exhausted in the final 20 minutes at Chelsea. The only club who bucked the trend were Man City, who benefitted from facing a Watford side clearly deeply scarred by their 6-0 defeat in last season’s FA Cup final.
Here is another argument for why the Big Six could be broken up. Leicester and West Ham – plus Everton if they can sort themselves out – will all benefit from resting in European weeks.
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