Premier League: Three tactical talking points from Matchday 12

Alan O’Brien 

1) Set-pieces may keep Manchester United in the hunt

Two seasons have passed since Manchester United last racked up a respectable goal-tally from set-pieces. The total of 12 amassed during Louis Van Gaal’s debut season was middling. What followed — two consecutive sevens, twice placing United second-last — was not.

José Mourinho’s apparent obsession with adding more height to United’s ranks is almost certainly a nod to that historical weakness. Mourinho’s sides traditionally look most dangerous with space to break into, but eroding massed defences often looks a tall order (no pun intended). Scoring first through a set-piece is therefore a godsend, as it forces the opposition to open up.

Way back in August, United were huffing and puffing at a resolute Swansea City until Eric Bailly notched from a corner. The visitors eventually ran out 4-0 winners, by continually punishing Paul Clement’s stretched cohort on the counter-attack.

On Saturday evening, at home to a then-superior Newcastle United, it was Chris Smalling who nodded United ahead just before half-time. Rafa Benitez’s defence failed to deal with the second-phase of a corner, undoing all their earlier good work. They would go on to concede a further two goals, as United struck four for the seventh time this season.

Mourinho was far from satisfied with his side’s “balance”, however, expressing some post-match regret at fielding Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford together. Both started in wide areas, but the latter swapped with number-10 Juan Mata in the second-half, to restore what Mourinho dubbed a second “point-of-contact with the midfield.”

Indeed, Martial allowed DeAndre Yedlin to run off him for Dwight Gayle’s opener. And United’s central midfield, with Paul Pogba newly-restored, also looked brittle. Isaac Hayden was permitted a golden chance to restore parity, that was ultimately wasted.

At least Mourinho has finally found the right oil for Old Trafford’s set-piece machine. United have already equaled last season’s tally of seven, a division-high tally. Memories of Leicester City’s title run-in, throughout which the Foxes handed themselves the counter-attacking keys with some early set-piece goals, persist.

Eight points behind the noisy neighbours already, and still drawing blanks against well-organised top sides, continued dead-ball success might be Mourinho’s best chance of staying in touch.

2) Depleted City defence exorcise Leicester demons

Just under a year ago, in December of 2016, Manchester City went to Leicester and demonstrated exactly why they would not win the league.

Characterised by jamming square defensive pegs in round holes, Pep Guardiola’s debut season arguably reached its nadir at the home of the then-champions, with a shambolic 4-2 defeat.

Claudio Ranieri’s front-two of Jamie Vardy and Islam Slimani enjoyed themselves up against Guardiola’s error-strewn back-three; comprised of John Stones, and full-backs Bacary Sagna and Aleksandr Kolarov.

That was also the last time we saw the Spaniard’s kamikaze 3-2-4-1 formation, and he deserves great credit for adapting to English football so quickly in the interim.

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Starting shapes: Leicester City 4-2 Manchester City (December 10, 2016)

His City side were fortunate on Saturday though, as they should have been reduced to ten-men in the opening minutes. Vincent Kompany, long an immobile liability, marked his return to the side by getting too tight to Vardy and hauling him down.

In for the suspended Nicolas Otamendi, the physically-compromised Belgian has yet to shake his tendency to rush towards the ball. What a shame Claude Puel opted for a 4-1-4-1 shape, rather than test Kompany — and a much-improved Stones — two-on-two.

Puel’s infamous reserve, that eventually saw him jettisoned from Southampton, was rendered all the more maddening when Stones departed through injury. Elaquim Mangala deputised, and may continue to do so while Stones is hamstrung — if Kompany pays appropriately for his performance here.

City have already struggled against two strikers on occasion this season. Recall how Tony Pulis’ abject West Bromwich Albion bagged two goals from Gareth Barry’s simple lofted through-balls. This may be why Guardiola has returned to his abandoned gambit of tucking the full-backs in, in recent weeks; so they can more quickly recover their regular defensive positions, and close the channels.

Regardless, it is unlikely next week’s visit to Huddersfield Town will trouble Otamendi and co. The looming December 10 visit to Old Trafford will be City’s next real test.

3) Unlucky Crystal Palace far superior to nearest rivals

Will Hughes’ virtuoso performance in the inside-right pocket for Watford is grabbing the headlines today, but a similar untelevised turn from a fellow countryman was equally impressive.

Only Eden Hazard has completed more dribbles-per-game than Crystal Palace’s Ruben Loftus-Cheek this season. The 21-year-old was integral to both of his side’s goals against Everton on Saturday, continually drifting into the channel between Michael Keane and Leighton Baines.

Although Oumar Niasse’s penalty-winning dive was certainly a contributory factor, it is still baffling that Palace failed to beat the Toffees. Were it not for that fateful decision, and Scott Dann’s catastrophic error-in-possession, Roy Hodgson’s side would surely have converted their 68% share of the ball into victory.

Instead, they have now followed up their surprise win over Chelsea with a four-game winless run; all of which saw Palace perform better than the opposition in their new-look, narrow, 4-4-2.

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Ruben-Loftus Cheek, second only to Chelsea’s Eden Hazard in the Premier League dribbling stakes (Credit: WhoScored.com)

Everton, meanwhile, are actually getting worse under David Unsworth. All at sea in a shapeless 4-5-1 approximation, they attempted a hilarious 47 tackles, 26 of which were fouls.

At least they were trying though, which is more than can be said for the Premier League’s laziest side West Ham United. Newly-paired with undertaker-cum-manager David Moyes, the Hammers looked every inch the team that sit bottom of the league for both sprints and distance covered.

Moyes requesting his defence to squeeze up behind that lead-swinging midfield didn’t help much either, mind. With little pressure on the ball, through-passes were always on for Marco Silva’s unmolested central-midfield pairing; Abdoulaye Doucouré and Tom Cleverley finished the game with 192 attempted passes between them.

Paul Clement’s decision-making, away to high-flying Burnley, was far from hot either. The league’s second-lowest scorers employed a wide-open 4-4-2, crowbarring the off-form Renato Sanchez into the team on the left of midfield. Leroy Fer and an out-of-his-depth Sam Clucas were overrun in the centre, allowing ex-Swan Jack Cork a free run at the opener.

Elsewhere, West Brom proved that even Pulis’ usual strengths had deserted him, by conceding a comedic set-piece goal to Chelsea’s unmarked Marcos Alonso. And Mauricio Pellegrino’s rigid Southampton side again failed to hit a single shot on target against Mo Salah’s Liverpool.

In that context, Hodgson’s Eagles will surely pull themselves off the foot of the Premier League table soon. Although, contrary to the former England boss’ publicly stated views, reintegrating Christian Benteke may not help matters.

The towering Belgian missed a huge chance to win it on Saturday, his sixth spurned big-chance in only seven appearances. Perhaps the surprisingly-effective strike-partnership that Wilfried Zaha has formed with Andros Townsend deserves more time to bear fruit.

Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter:  

And you can also catch Saturday’s in-depth look at Arsenal’s North London Derby victory here.

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