Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
1) 5-3-2, the counter-attacking formation-du-jour
Ever the tactical trendsetter, Chelsea’s Antonio Conte has done it again. Last season’s switch to 3-4-2-1, that inspired a title-grabbing 13-game winning run, was shamelessly copycatted across the Premier Division; most notably by London rivals Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur.
Now the Italian’s new ‘big game’ blueprint has been nicked too. Conte’s 5-3-1-1, that bested Spurs in August and Atletico Madrid last month, was employed by no fewer than five sides this weekend; including Chelsea’s hosts Bournemouth.
More suited to playing on the back-foot than 3-4-2-1, with an extra central-midfielder denying space to opposition inside-forwards, 5-3-1-1’s rise to prominence makes sense. One also benefits from the added bonus of two strikers to run the channels on the break — as reaped by dedicated mimics Spurs against both Dortmund and Liverpool in recent weeks.
Sounds perfect, right? And, yet, the evidence on show this past weekend points to the following conclusion: it’s pretty close, as long as you are playing against a back-four.
Against a back-three, with its handy surplus central-defender, the advantage of playing with two strikers is significantly reduced, if not entirely eroded. Opposition wing-backs are free to bomb on and pin back their wide counterparts, pushing the enemy deeper and deeper until, eventually, its packed centre can no longer hold.
This was Swansea’s experience at Arsenal, where the Swans’ only two chances — Sam Clucas’ goal and Jordan Ayew’s missed sitter — stemmed from individual Gunner errors. Left wing-back Sead Kolasinac’s freedom to advance eventually overwhelmed Paul Clement’s dogged and compact 5-3-2 unit.
So too Bournemouth, at home to Conte’s champions, where Eddie Howe was forced to remove one striker — Jermaine Defoe — as early as the 47th-minute, in order to get a handle on Chelsea’s wing-backs.
Even Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham had a ‘mare with the system that served them so well in the very recent past. Harry Kane and Son Heung-min certainly made hay in behind the advanced full-backs of Jurgen Klopp’s current and former clubs. But the spare centre-back afforded to Manchester United by José Mourinho’s similarly careful 3-4-1-2 selection rendered the Korean’s Dele Alli-assisted efforts fruitless.
Elsewhere, Slaven Bilic’s typically ill-prepared West Ham United rabble, also lined out in a rough 5-3-2 approximation, twice punished Crystal Palace’s rather unfortunate back-four. The customary narrowness that Roy Hodgson demands from his 4-4-2 cost Palace the first, mind you, gifting wing-back Aaron Cresswell the freedom to cross for Chicharito. The latter’s strike-partner, Andre Ayew, also troubled the scorers.
Finally, over at the Hawthorns, Tony Pulis’ West Bromwich Albion, all but toothless in a 4-1-4-1 over the last fortnight, enjoyed a surprising amount of joy against Manchester City. Keeping faith with the second-half 5-3-2 that showed promise against Southampton almost paid a rich dividend for the former Stoke City boss.
Pitching both Salomon Rondon and Jay Rodriguez against City centre-backs John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi proved a masterstroke as Pep Guardiola’s league leaders twice fell victim to Gareth Barry’s simple lofted through-balls. Stones and Otamendi were culpable, in turn, for both concessions. Ultimately, only the incredible combination-play that Guardiola engenders — suckering Albion in on one flank, before spreading the play — proved Pulis’ undoing.
2) Klopp blueprint continues to flop against passive opposition
Unbeaten against their top-six rivals last season, Liverpool’s inability to break down deep-lying minnows ultimately proved their undoing. And, ten games in to the current season, not much has changed — save that Jurgen Klopp’s side are now starting to lose to the big boys too.
Little wonder then that half-time murmurs of discontent were audible at Anfield on Saturday, after Liverpool translated a 78% possession-share into precisely zero clear-cut chances to break ultra-defensive Huddersfield Town’s resistance.
Mohamed Salah, arch-chance-waster, did miss a penalty, of course. But even that was gifted by a mad tug from right-back Tommy Smith, the same player that inadvertently set up Daniel Sturridge’s fortuitous opener.
Unlike Guardiola, whose charges pass opponents into submission on one flank, before quickly switching the play, Klopp’s players show no signs of sitting under a similar learning tree. Final-third combination play is slow and laboured, with Liverpool only looking quick and dangerous at transitions, immediately after the ball has been won.
Which is, of course, in keeping with the German’s stated philosophy — that winning the ball high up the pitch is the best number-10 of all!
Despite their wildly differing overall approaches, Klopp shares something in common with Mourinho in this regard. Both prefer to let their forwards improvise, focusing instead on coaching players to force errors from the opposition.
All well and good against big sides with attacking ambition; not so much against David Wagner’s newly-promoted underdogs, who risked nothing and attempted only one shot throughout the entire game — and none from open-play!
An eventual 3-0 victory here was not quite as fortunate as August’s 1-0 win over a then-hapless Palace. But it follows hot on the heels of failing to defeat other defensive sides like Burnley and Newcastle United. Just another chronic problem, unsolved throughout Klopp’s tenure, to add to the ever-growing list.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112