Alex Keble runs through the best and worst tactical decisions from the weekend's round of Premier League games, including Jose Mourinho's first game in charge at Tottenham.
Spurs already look like a Mourinho team
Tottenham’s win at West Ham wasn’t as comfortable as it might have been, the late concessions betraying ‘fatigue’ and ‘old emotions’ according to the new manager, but Jose Mourinho will be delighted with his team’s overall performance. Using a double pivot in midfield that wasn’t allowed to move forward, instructing the full-backs to stay deep to create a six-man defensive blockade, and giving the front four licence to attack, Tottenham looked like a typical Mourinho team.
The Portuguese splits player roles into attacking or defending, and clearly Spurs benefitted from the simplicity of the six-four method used at the London Stadium. He also preached quick verticality in the final third, hence Harry Winks’ piercing distribution to a rejuvenated Dele Alli in the hole, and hence the frequency with which the front four would make runs on the shoulder of the last defender.
At its best, Mourinho football is risk-averse at the back but very creative going forward – and that’s exactly what we saw on Saturday. This team has just the right players, and is just the right status, for Mourinho’s siege-mentality, counter-attacking approach to be successful.
Man City & Chelsea both impressive in absorbing contest
Chelsea were superb for 25 minutes at the Etihad, and had they managed to score a second goal in that period would in all likelihood have won the match, triggering talk of a title challenge. Matteo Kovacic and Jorginho combined wonderfully in midfield as N’Golo Kante surprisingly played in a more advanced role, and together these three worked through the first wave of the Man City press to expose huge gaps in the defensive midfield zone. City can be got at, and Chelsea were bold in doing so.
But the hosts were ultimately just as impressive as Frank Lampard’s team. City maintained their high line and gradually suffocated Chelsea, with Kevin de Bruyne sitting deeper in the second half once the hosts had twice caught Chelsea struggling, yet again, in the transition from attack to defence.
The game fizzled out after Lampard’s subs didn’t work (Mason Mount coming on isolated Jorginho at the base, meaning they could no longer build forward, while Michy Batshuayi badly underperformed), but overall this was a high-octane, high-quality game that proved Chelsea are on track to become title challengers from next season.
Pukki and Cantwell return to form
Norwich won’t play an easier away game all season (and indeed victory at Goodison Park shouldn’t change our view of their survival chances), but nevertheless it was an impressive performance defined by strong showings from Todd Cantwell and Teemu Pukki. These two were standout performers during the first few weeks of the season when Norwich were bright, and having subsequently faded it was a joy to see them back to their best.
Cantwell in particular played with great character, his purposefulness on the ball proving infectious in arguably Norwich’s most lively performance since August; he thoroughly deserved his opening goal, helping the Canaries to their first away win of the season. A more attacking role for Kenny McLean also played a big part, the Scotsman playing five key passes and winning 12 headers. His knock-downs were crucial in setting Cantwell and Pukki on their way.
A weird Man Utd performance shows why Pochettino should be in charge
In the end, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s switch to a gung-ho 4-2-4 with Marcus Rashford dropping into the number 10 space paid dividends and Sheffield United folded, allowing Manchester United to escape with a point. But for 70 minutes Man Utd were disastrously poor, their weird performance somehow topped by an even weirder final score.
Why, when Sheff Utd are so strong in central midfield and central defence, did Solskjaer only pick two midfielders and then play a narrow front three? It looked as though he wanted his team to play through the congested central column, hence the forwards staying within the width of the Sheff Utd centre-backs, and yet he didn’t have enough bodies in central midfield to actually find the attackers.
It made no sense whatsoever, and it was no surprise that Andreas Pereira and Fred couldn’t find anyone to pass to. The sceptre of Mauricio Pochettino will loom large for the rest of the season; four days after he became available, Solskjaer offered the kind of tactically confused performance that highlights exactly why the club needs someone like Pochettino in the door.
Perhaps the worst Arsenal performance under Emery...
Southampton outshot Arsenal by 21 to 12. That’s the only statistic needed to show Unai Emery is on borrowed time at the Emirates, and that Arsenal’s tactics have gone from confusing to non-existent. The 3-4-1-2 deployed from the outset made little sense and Southampton, pressing high in a 4-4-2, were able to continually win the ball high up the pitch and have a shot at goal. Arsenal’s isolated wing-backs had no idea what to do, repeatedly being forced into conservative passes that left the hosts looking completely aimless.
At half-time Emery switched to 4-2-3-1 and things improved for 15 minutes, only for Southampton to adjust and reassert their authority. There are no leaders in this Arsenal team, while their attacking movements don’t appear to have been very specifically coached. The players amble around the pitch disconnected and seemingly disinterested – a situation that isn’t helped by the manager’s anxious formation changes two or three times every match.
Silva & Pellegrini could be gone this week
Sometimes one manager change begins a domino effect, as if being reminded of the manager bounce effect suddenly changes the atmosphere in Premier League boardroom meetings. Mourinho bringing Spurs their first away win since January might hasten the demise of Marco Silva and Manuel Pellegrini, two managers hanging by a thread after defeats this weekend.
A Michail Antonio-inspired late comeback may give Pellegrini another week, but surely Silva’s time is up. Everton look like a team that has stopped listening to the manager, playing without tempo or an obvious game plan, and with an incredibly difficult next five matches there is every chance the club will be in the relegation zone at Christmas. Something has to change, even if that means bringing David Moyes back for a few months.