Alex Keble runs through the best and worst tactical decisions from the weekend's round of Premier League games, including David Martin's heroics.
Goalkeeping heroics from David Martin… and Allison
West Ham’s 33-year-old debutant David Martin sank to his knees on the final whistle at Stamford Bridge, overawed after keeping a clean sheet and helping to secure three vital points for his boyhood club.
The most heart-warming sight of the weekend - aside from the ball boy lunching with the Spurs team before their win over Bournemouth – was Martin tearfully embracing his dad Alvin, who spent 20 years as a West Ham player.
He wasn’t the only goalkeeper to warm the cockles this weekend, mind. Alisson might be banned from the Merseyside derby in midweek but it’s hard not to feel nostalgic about his red card against Brighton, a rare sight since a law change in 2016 that meant accidental last-man fouls in the box were no longer red card offenses.
There’s something wistfully romantic about a goalie getting sent off, throwing his gloves to the ground as a miffed outfielder is sacrificed for the number two.
Rodgers’ clever Iheanacho substitution
Managers always get credit when substitutes score winning goals; it’s an easy, and often lazy, bit of tactical analysis that tends to make it into every newspaper headline. But Brendan Rodgers’ introduction of Kelechi Iheanacho, who turned the game on its head with a goal and an assist, involved an unexpected tactical switch and thus deserves particular attention.
Leicester moved to a lopsided 4-3-1-2 when Iheanacho came on to partner Jamie Vardy up front. The Nigerian played much closer to Vardy than right-sided forward Ayoze Perez had done, essentially meaning the Foxes played without a right winger for the final 30 minutes. Now with four players in a square through the middle (James Maddison and Youri Tielemans played as number tens behind the two strikers) Leicester overwhelmed Everton’s previously-solid two-man midfield.
They also aimed to get Iheanacho and Vardy in behind whenever possible, playing 27 long balls in the final 30 minutes compared to 36 in the first hour. Rodgers dramatically shook up the contest, breaking the match out of its claustrophobic pattern.
Grealish’s brilliant performance highlights everything Man Utd lack
There was a fairly significant media backlash following Jack Grealish’s exclusion from the England squad for the most recent set of internationals, suggesting the tide has turned and pundits are now ready to trust Grealish is the real deal. And he really is.
Another commanding performance on Sunday at Old Trafford, was capped with a superb goal to give Aston Villa the lead, although it was his ball-carrying ability that once again stood out.
Grealish’s flair, dribbling, and leadership exemplify all the traits this static and nervous Manchester United team lack. He would be an excellent signing, although at this rate anyone attempting to buy Grealish could find they’re up against the world’s elite clubs.
Ljungberg’s litany of errors
‘Brave’ might be the best word to describe Freddie Ljungberg’s debut game as Arsenal interim manager.
It was brave to attempt a high-pressing system with a squad famously unable to press under Unai Emery; it was brave to play such an attacking 4-3-1-2 given how passive Arsenal have been in the transitions; and it was brave to give prominent roles to Shkodran Mustafi, Granit Xhaka, and Mesut Ozil. Brave - and naïve.
Norwich easily counter-attacked through a light central midfield and down empty flanks. Callum Chambers in particular struggled to get back, highlighting Ljungberg’s over-emphasis on attacking football, and yet it was Mustafi’s shockingly poor performance that really stood out.
The hosts should have scored five or six. Ljungberg cannot take so many risks with this Arsenal team.
Another clumsy Man City performance
There are many small issues with Man City’s team at the moment that, when added up, suggest we might be coming to the end of this cycle.
On Saturday, Newcastle’s narrow 5-4-1 too easily stunted them creatively, partly because Kevin de Bruyne didn’t spend enough time centrally to link the play but primarily because Pep Guardiola’s full-backs do not overlap.
Kyle Walker played as a central midfielder when City had the ball, leaving Riyad Mahrez isolated against the Newcastle left wing-backs, while Benjamin Mendy nervously stayed deeper than Raheem Sterling, making mostly simple passes.
Without width Newcastle were never stretched across the pitch, and without high-temp interchanges in midfield City could not break through Steve Bruce’s defence.
Watford sacking yet another manager
Quique Sanches Flores has been sacked by Watford after just ten games in charge of the club, making his the third shortest reign in Premier League history behind Les Reed’s infamous seven-match spell at Charlton in 2006 and Frank de Boer’s four-game tenure at Crystal Palace in 2017.
Unlike those two cases, Flores’s second spell at Watford will not be remembered.
He cannot be blamed for this mess. This one is entirely on the owners, who should never have sacked Javi Gracia. The Spaniard still had the support of his players when dismissed back in September and statistics suggested Watford’s form was just bad luck; they would have turned it around, but by changing so drastically and installing a defensive coach Watford dug their own graves.
They will almost certainly go down now.