Premier League: Five tactical talking points from Matchweek 9

Alan O’Brien 

1) Klopp suffers the fate of his former employers

Wembley has witnessed Mauricio Pochettino’s counter-attacking 5-3-1-1 system before. On September 13 of this year, Tottenham Hotspur, configured in that very shape, absolutely destroyed Peter Bosz’s gung-ho Borussia Dortmund in the channels. On Sunday, Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp, once of the Dortmund parish, met the very same fate.

Once again Son Heung-min and Harry Kane dutifully, and fruitfully, ran the space in behind the always-advanced visiting full-backs. Once again the exposed visiting centre-backs failed to cope; for Dortmund’s Sokratis, read Liverpool’s deer-in-headlights Dejan Lovren.

And for Dortmund’s Nuri Sahin, the playmaking sitting player in Bosz’s 4-3-3, read Jordan Henderson. Like Steven Gerrard before him, Henderson — for all his talents — provides scant protection for the players behind him. That his central midfield colleagues are almost always committed to the press does not help either.

That is not to excuse the likes of Joel Matip and Simon Mignolet, whose pathetic half-clearances saw Liverpool again concede two from set-pieces; another Klopp Achilles heel.

Salah’s goal aside, Liverpool’s disappointing combination-play again looked unlikely to break down a low-blocking opposition unit. Shoddy in the defence of set-pieces, structurally unsound, and blunt against defensive sides, what exactly is Klopp bringing to the table? The German’s famed ability to ‘counter the counter’ seems to be failing him now too, after all.

2) Clueless Koeman rightly shown the door

Ronald Koeman, like Marco Silva before him, matched Arsenal’s shape on Sunday. But the result, and its consequences for his employment status, were far less favourable.

Koeman’s policy (or is it Steve Walsh’s policy?) of signing all the number-10s has certainly rendered Everton an inert, slow-moving, excuse for an attacking force. Trying to crowbar in as many technically-gifted central attackers to his side as possible sees the Toffees sitting bottom in the dribbles-per-game stakes.

Dribbles

Everton sitting rock-bottom of the successful dribbles-per-game table (Credit: WhoScored.com)

But the Dutchman’s obsession with fielding two limited ball-winners together, in Morgan Schneiderlin and Idrissa Gueye, hasn’t helped his side’s attacking fortunes either. How frustrating then, for weary Everton fans, that this policy would be abandoned just when it was most required.

Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, both restored to the number-10 roles in Arsene Wenger’s 3-4-2-1, absolutely destroyed the pairing of Gueye, and new partner Nikola Vlasic. Vlasic, an attacking midfielder (no!) by trade, was particularly exposed, shifted wide at half-time to accommodate Koeman’s half-baked solution to the problem.

Moving then to a box-midfield, harnessing 18-year-old Tom Davies with Gueye, unsurprisingly failed to stop the Ozil/Sanchez axis, who combined for the former’s 53rd-minute headed winner.

Ashley Williams, a busted flush if ever there was one, was the centre-back sacrificed to facilitate this ineffective switch from 3-4-2-1 to 4-2-2-2. The inept Dutchman has ultimately paid for the shocking recruitment enacted under his watch with his job.

3) Conte cleverly exploits Richarlison’s rawness

Antonio Conte must have been dismayed at the manner in which Marco Silva’s Watford matched his side for large periods of Saturday’s Stamford Bridge bout.

Victors over Arsenal in Matchweek 8, the Hornets’ late triumph only materialised after Silva abandoned the 3-4-2-1 formation in which his players clearly looked uncomfortable.

The Portuguese manager, therefore, deserves credit for persevering, and again mirroring the opposition’s shape. Aside from Pedro’s long-range stunner, and Cesc Fabregas’ inexplicably-chipped sitter, Chelsea were largely nullified throughout an even first-half.

Credit then, also, to Conte for adapting so quickly, and realising that one of Silva’s biggest strengths is also a marked weakness. Much post-match chat centred around the two huge chances Richarlison missed either side of Roberto Pereyra’s goal, but few identified the damage the Brazilian engendered in his own-half.

Fielded on the left of a front-three, Richarlison struggled to track wing-back Cesar Azpilicueta for 68 minutes, resulting in several dangerous right-wing crosses. Sensing an opportunity, Conte shifted Azpilicueta to the left, moving Pedro into his fellow Spaniard’s former role. Willian was sprung from the bench to play just ahead.

The resultant overload foisted upon Jose Holebas almost immediately benefited Michy Batshuayi, who equalised from a Pedro cross. Richarlison did not even come close to closing down the former Barcelona forward’s delivery.

Silva responded by stripping all defensive responsibilities from his profligate South American, moving him up top. Tom Cleverley was asked to track Pedro, but he too was caught out of position when Willian’s centre crafted Azpilicueta’s back-post winner.

Richarlison has already had a direct hand in five Premier League goals, winning countless free-kicks along the way. But he is very much a frustrating work-in-progress; completing one out five dribbles, and hitting one of out six shots on target, here.

4) Chasing a lead has never been Mourinho’s forte

No side managed by José Mourinho has ever rebounded from two goals down to win a Premier League game. The Portuguese manager’s reputation was, quite literally, built on a preternatural  ability to prepare for — and counter — the opposition. The kind of rapid final-third combination-play necessary to break a Huddersfield down, however, has always seemed like an afterthought.

Gifted two first-half goals by the carelessness of Juan Mata and Victor Lindelof, the Terriers, in truth, always looked comfortable. Manchester United managed to release just nine shots on Jonas Lossl’s goal; by way of comparison, Swansea City, who also fell two goals behind against Leicester City, attempted nineteen.

Xg

The expected goals (xG) tally from Huddersfield 2-1 Manchester United. The latter’s nine shots on goal are dotted in orange; the Terriers’ five in blue. (Credit: Understat)

In fairness to Mourinho, injury to Marouane Fellaini did rob him of a natural late penalty-area focal-point. But reliance on the Belgian’s aerial talents underlines exactly how far removed United are from the devastation Manchester City recently wreaked on deep-lying opponents in Stoke City and Burnley.

The movement and guile exhibited by the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva, and Leroy Sané are worlds away from the still-invisible talents of Jesse Lingard; he of five assists in 58 Premier League appearances.

That half of United’s 22-goal tally was racked up after the 75th minute, by breaking against teams throwing caution to the wind, is no coincidence.

5) Pulis enters a brave new world of tactical flexibility

Fielding a spare man at the back, to ensure cover against the opposition attack, is not a new concept in football. But by Premier League standards, it most certainly is.

Recall how fortunate Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City were, way back at the beginning of September, to weather Liverpool’s early storm.

Although a five-goal route ensued, after Sadio Mané’s controversial dismissal, only Mohamed Salah’s characteristic wastefulness spared City punishment for Guardiola’s insane decision to match Klopp’s front-three man-for-man. Nicolas Otamendi was particularly exposed in the right-channel up against the speedy Egyptian.

This principle is not so important for sides employing reactive strategies, as Spurs demonstrated on Sunday, but if you want to press, defensive cover is an absolute must.

Remarkable scenes, then, on Saturday, when Mr. Negative himself, Tony Pulis, availed of Gareth Barry’s 56th-minute injury to introduce a much-needed third centre-back against Southampton. Mauricio Pellegrino’s surprise choice of a two-striker diamond had already seen West Bromwich Albion’s overloaded defence live a charmed life.

Southampton

Southampton’s 4-3-1-2 starting shape that faced West Bromwich Albion on Saturday.

One can hardly call Pulis progressive, obviously. He has, after all, fielded all three of Barry, Jake Livermore, and Grzegorz Krychowiak together in central midfield for two successive games now.

But the former Stoke boss’ second-half switch did temporarily stem the tide before Sofiane Boufal’s late solo worldie. And the move from 4-1-4-1 to 3-5-2 produced a rare attacking dividend too, in the form of Albion’s only real chance of the game.

It was the Saints’ centre-backs’ turn to feel overloaded, as Jay Rodriguez ran in behind Maya Yoshida to spurn Krychowiak’s through-ball. Virgil Van Dijk had rushed forward to compete in the air with Rodriguez’s partner, Salomon Rondon.

It was a similar story over at Pulis’ old stomping grounds, where Mark Hughes’ admission that his back-three is not working forced Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe into action. Peter Crouch’s arrival as the Potters’ second-striker prompted Howe to immediately spring Steve Cook to play as a third centre-back.

It’s the very kind of tactical flexibility that inspired Otto Rehhagel’s Greece to European Championship glory in 2004, and it’s become a recurring theme this season. Expect to see more of it.

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