For the first time in Premier League history the title, the Champions League, the Europa League, and relegation are all on the line on the final day of the season. Incredibly, eight of the ten matches have something riding on them.
The division has never gone to the wire quite like this before, and even after Everton’s heroic comeback against Crystal Palace on Thursday evening sealed their survival there is almost too much to keep track of on Sunday.
Here’s a look at the tactical battles that will define the key matches.
Wolves are on a run on six games without a win, scoring just four goals in that time; this is a team badly lacking in creative drive, struggling to adapt to life without the pace of Adama Traore and looking increasingly ponderous under Bruno Lage. It is an entirely different proposition for Liverpool than the narrow 1-0 win in the reverse fixture.
Manchester City’s recent 5-1 win at Wolves gives a better indication of how this match will go. Pep Guardiola’s side easily dominated the half-spaces thanks to Wolves’ lacklustre use of a midfield two, with the wing-backs forced deep to create a 5-2-2-1 shape that gave City all the room they needed to build through the lines and make chances in precisely the areas Luis Diaz and Mohamed Salah will operate.
Liverpool will get their job done, then, and Man City may not. Aston Villa’s defensive shape has been ropey for a little while now and there is a very high chance Guardiola’s side will calmly dispatch of them using their usual rhythms; the error-prone Tyrone Mings leads a back line that likes to play out from the back and makes mistakes when doing so, allowing Man City to pen them in and grind them down.
However, injuries in the Man City defence give Villa hope. Danny Ings and Ollie Watkins will work together to break behind the high defensive line, while a narrow midfield diamond could block Man City’s traditional creative routes. If Villa can stay compact and relatively deep, then nerves could get to the hosts as their football is slowed right down.
Everton’s survival means they won’t be feeling any pressure at the Emirates, which probably makes the job even harder for Arsenal. Throughout Frank Lampard’s time at Everton he has excelled when forced to sit very deep and counter-attack, such as in the wins over Chelsea and Manchester United. Arsenal will not enjoy this approach.
Newcastle United found it easy to counter-attack against an Arsenal side missing Thoma Partey’s ability to shut down the breaks at source, because with Mohamed Elneny at the base Arsenal are too flat-footed to play so expansively against a team with pace on the counter. Demarai Gray, key to the win against Palace, can dribble through the lines as Allan Saint-Maximin did.
But even a win for Arsenal almost certainly won’t make a difference to the top-four race. Norwich City have been in complete freefall for a very long time now, and are quite frankly nowhere near good enough to be playing at this level. They have won five matches all season, and have only taken two points from their 19 matches against teams in the top ten... and those were two 0-0 draws against 10th-placed Brighton.
Dean Smith continues to play in a too-expansive system, perhaps deciding not to implement a more defensive philosophy in case it disturbs their patterns ahead of a Championship campaign next season. Their 4-1-4-1 is incredibly disconnected, with enormous amounts of space appearing in a stretched system that neither presses collectively nor drops; Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son will get plenty of chances to enact Antonio Conte’s choreographed attacking transitions.
Brentford enjoy playing teams like Leeds United, who may have calmed down somewhat from the Marcelo Bielsa era but continue to look highly vulnerable to opposition counter-attacks, such is the furious one-man pressing we often see from the top of the pitch. Consequently Brentford’s directness is well-suited to the game; longer balls forward to Ivan Toney should drop in areas with disproportionately few Leeds bodies.
Assuming that Brentford are able to out-muscle their opponents, which the form guide and Thomas Frank’s tactical intelligence suggests they will, then the game will probably be decided from the resulting set pieces. Brentford are third for set-pieces scored with 15, while Leeds have conceded 18, the second most in the division. Christian Eriksen’s deliveries should be enough to send Leeds down.
Under Mike Jackson, Burnley are playing more short passes and attempting considerably fewer long balls and crosses. The idea is to get the ball down and play out from the back, but after some initial success the tactic is starting to look ill-suited to the Burnley squad. Newcastle United will be happy with Burnley coming onto them, and with Saint-Maximin lurking on the break the match is likely to be settled by his battle with Dwight McNeil – back in form having been moved over to the right wing by Jackson.
McNeil’s commitment forward, coupled with more aggressive play from the Burnley full-backs under Jackson, gives Saint-Maximin and Newcastle the edge. Defeats for both of the relegation candidates is a distinct possibility.