Alex Keble reviews the bank holiday Premier League football, highlighting the postive and negatives.
Van Dijk’s instructions show the value of leadership
After some naive comments from Graeme Souness and Roy Keane went viral last week - both pundits suggested that tactics were overrated, instead championing running around a bit and, you know, getting to the ball first - it was interesting to see Virgil van Dijk put in such an old-school performance against Newcastle United on Saturday.
He was a bit off the mark tactically, often losing battles with Solomon Rondon or misjudging his attempted tackles, but overall had an influence on this game that spoke to the era of personality and psychology that both Keane and Souness have been alluding to. First, he rose to head Liverpool into the lead from a corner, a no-nonsense goal that captain-material centre-backs tend to get in crucial, nervy matches like this one.
But equally important was his bellowed instruction to Xherdan Shaqiri to take the free-kick that led to Divock Origi’s winning goal. Shaqiri had been looking a little meek after so many months out of the first team, but after Van Dijk screamed for a good 30 seconds at the Switzerland international he sheepishly jogged over and, without even explaining himself to Trent Alexander-Arnold, whipped in a brilliant ball.
It was the sort of leadership from Van Dijk that may indeed be a little underrated in the modern game, and is certainly absent at Chelsea, Manchester United, and Arsenal.
Fredericks’ performance highlights Pellegrini’s achievements at West Ham
Throughout a quietly impressive transitional year at West Ham, Manuel Pellegrini has, one step at a time, solved a number of problems to create a decent first 11 that now has the chance of a top ten finish next Sunday. The journey has been a long and interesting one: Pellegrini began the campaign attempting to play attractive possession football but quickly adapted to a deep-lying, counter-attacking approach.
From here, he solved their central midfield issue by placing Declan Rice in the heart of the team, and then proceeded to improve the tactical work of Mark Noble alongside him. He recalled Robert Snodgrass to the side to great effect, then created a solid centre-back partnership between Issa Diop and Fabian Balbuena, and now, finally, he has solved their issue at right-back.
Ryan Fredericks was excellent against Southampton, winning ten aerial duels with Shane Long to stump Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side. The 26-year-old, signed from Fulham in the summer, looks very assured in possession and impressively kept Spurs quiet the weekend before in a 1-0 win for West Ham at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. West Ham could hardly have asked for a better first year under Pellegrini.
Wolves (almost) secure seventh place and Europa League football (probably)
Nuno Esperito Santo’s Wolves have impressed everyone this year, and yet for a while it looked as though they might miss out on seventh. Things began to fall apart after their FA Cup semi-final defeat to Watford, but a run of three successive wins – against Arsenal, Watford, and Fulham – has sealed their place in the top seven. This is as good a time as any to assess their campaign and look at where they go next.
What is most unusual about Wolves finishing seventh is their remarkable tactical consistency. They spent the first half of the season in a 3-4-3, and when this became too porous switched it slightly to a 3-5-2, with Leander Dendoncker replacing Helder Costa in a starting 11 that never seems to change. Santo plays the same formation, the same players, and the same style of football every week.
They have been brilliant, of course, but Santo will need to add variety next season to move to the next step. The formation does not seem well suited to breaking down stubborn opponents who are happy to concede the majority of possession, hence Wolves’ superb record against big six clubs and average record against everyone else. Solve this conundrum, and Wolves can challenge for the Champions League.
Bournemouth’s inept display reveals the PL’s tactical split
Nathan Ake’s late winner was entirely undeserved for Bournemouth, who put in one of the worst ever top-flight performances against nine men. After Juan Foyth’s sending off the Cherries were oddly lifeless, unable to turn their numerical advantage into clear goalscoring opportunities. However, their difficulties should not have come as a surprise.
The Premier League has never before seen such a clear split between possession sides and those willing to sit deep and wait for opportunities to counter. It is a tactical divide that has developed out of the widening financial disparity between the top teams and the rest, and what it means is weaker teams do not know what to do when forced to hold the majority of possession.
With Spurs down to nine, the two teams' usual roles were reversed; the visitors sat deep and the hosts were invited on. But Eddie Howe’s team have no idea what to do in this scenario, hence the aimlessness and ambling possession that almost led to a shock 0-0.
Oddly enough, referee Craig Pawson badly disrupted Bournemouth’s game plan by sending off two opposition players.
Laughable top four battle makes for miserable watching
Over the last four rounds of Premier League matches, the teams ranked between third and sixth have recorded victories only twice. It has not been a top four race so much as a slow, pitiful death march. Ordinarily developing crises and big six collapses make for captivating viewing, but on this occasion the sheer scale of ordinariness has actually made it pretty mundane.
Arsenal’s problems are largely to do with creativity in midfield, a situation that is only going to get worse now Aaron Ramsey is leaving, while Chelsea look incapable of absorbing Maurizio Sarri’s methods. Manchester United need to improve their fitness and sign some more tactically intelligent players. Spurs need to improve their fitness and sign some players – any players.
Chelsea’s first-half performance shows the scale of the summer rebuild
They might have won 3-0 but Chelsea’s first half performance against Watford was dreadful, and had it not been for two excellent crosses from Eden Hazard – who surely won’t be at the club next season – this would have been another humiliating day for Sarri. They have tactical problems all over the pitch, and despite a probable third place finish and Europa League final Chelsea are nowhere near the level Sarri expects.
In defence, Troy Deeney’s aerial dominance shows Chelsea need some leadership at the back (a new version of outgoing Gary Cahill). In midfield, Mateo Kovacic again looked off the pace, his poor contribution this season suggesting the club are in the market for a new playmaker. And in attack, Gonzalo Higuain’s poor movement made Chelsea lifeless; he never runs the channels and is far too slow on the turn, which led to static possession for Sarri’s side on Sunday.
They have a huge rebuilding job to do, and not enough money to pull it off.