Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
1) Sorry Swans’ goalless run is no surprise
Pity poor Paul Clement. Try as he might, this well-traveled coach cannot salvage his employers’ disastrous transfer policy. And boy has he tried.
Saturday’s deadlock with Bournemouth, a complete footballing non-event, produced Swansea City’s third consecutive league blank. Clement tried a diamond system, a third different configuration in as many games. And, predictably, it was no more effective than the 4-3-3 that fell to Brighton, or the 4-4-2 bested by Burnley.
Defeat at Turf Moor, in which former Swan Jack Cork bagged the opener, prompted a revealing admission from Clement. The Wandsworth native strongly implied that Cork’s release was not his call. “That was the business that was decided to be done,” garbled Clement. “I like Jack a lot.”
Renato Sanches, crowbarred in on the left of midfield at Burnley, has failed spectacularly to replace Cork’s drive. His performance at the tip of Saturday’s diamond, the system in which he won Euro 2016 with Portugal, was nowhere near the required standard.
Then again, the Bayern loanee is hardly surrounded by world-beaters. Nine goals and 13 assists, in the shape of Gylfi Sigurdsson, decamped to Everton in August with no replacement forthcoming. The £45 million received in return was frittered away; Sam Clucas, at £15 million looks particularly egregious.
Four strikers, of wildly varying pedigree, walked out the Liberty Stadium door too: Marvin Emnes, Borja Baston, Bafetimbi Gomis and, crucially, Fernando Llorente. Perma-crocked prodigal son Wilfried Bony and a green-as-grass Tammy Abraham have combined with Jordan ‘What Does He Actually Do?’ Ayew to little effect in their steads.
Of course, the service available to them — such as it is — has been puny. Tom Carroll, once compared to Luka Modric at former club Tottenham, tops the creativity charts with a paltry 1.3 key passes and 1.3 accurate crosses per game.
This is a 25-year-old, perma-potentialed, central-midfielder, who can pass the ball very well and do not much else — a water-carrier, in Eric Cantona’s famously damning parlance. And he’s Clement’s most craftful player; by a mile. What’s an Ancelotti apostle to do, exactly?
October’s League Cup defeat to Manchester United, in which left-back Martin Olsson was injured, really summed up the mess Swansea’s American owners have left the 45-year-old in. With no other left-back in the squad, Clement was forced to switch to a back-three for the trip to Arsenal.
Clucas, a barely competent Premier League central-midfielder became an auxiliary left-wing-back. Roque Mesa, the £11m Spanish bust that Joshua King danced around this Saturday, still failed to get an engine-room look-in.
Long-balls to Bony looked promising against Bournemouth, and Abraham may form an effective old-style big/little partnership with the Ivorian upon his return. But Swansea again managed only one shot on target, as against Burnley, with Leroy Fer missing a late sitter to snatch a win. A familiar story: no side has scored fewer than the Swans’ current tally of seven league goals.
Indeed, Swansea have only managed 1.8 shots on target per game so far; a figure that not only easily outstrips all 19 Premier League peers, but is unmatched at this stage of the season over the last eight years. Given all of the above, does that really surprise you?
2) Conte’s Plan A still a potent threat to any back-four
Jurgen Klopp desperately wanted to make a change, but referee Michael Oliver apparently had other ideas. Minutes later, Chelsea’s Willian wiped out Liverpool’s lead in fortuitous circumstances. It was surely the weekend’s saddest, and most well-worn, tale.
Traditional media had little to say about the change itself, however; the change Klopp eventually enacted anyway. In the final minute, the German switched to Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3, mirroring the system his Italian counterpart had himself turned to in minute 77. Tiemoue Bakayoko, one of three central-midfielders in Conte’s 3-5-1-1, was sacrificed at that point in favour of Pedro.
Chelsea were therefore then attacking with five — three forwards and two wing-backs — against Liverpool’s four defenders. This, of course, was the precise overload that drove the Pensioners to league glory last season, forcing even the likes of Arsene Wenger to adapt accordingly.
Klopp, arguably just as much of a dogmatist as Wenger, also wanted to (belatedly) adapt. Perhaps the glorious 81st-minute back-post chance Davide Zappacosta created for fellow wing-back Marcos Alonso made his mind up. It is after all, extremely hard to mark that spare man at the back-post with only four defenders.
Although quite why Klopp needed to bring on forwards Sadio Mané and Adam Lallana to form a back-three is anyone’s guess. Quite a lot of what the teeth-grinding odd-ball does is difficult to rationalise though, isn’t it?
Newcastle United also fell spectacularly victim to that very same 3-4-3-inspired overload just a couple of hours prior, mind you. Rafa Benitez’s compact 4-4-2 proved no match for Watford’s always-free left-wing-back Marvin Zeegelaar, who capped a star debut turn against West Ham with another virtuoso performance.
Benitez may learn from Burnley, whose wide midfielders assiduously followed Arsenal’s wing-backs to form a quasi-back-six in the defensive-phase. Alas, that Sunday lesson arrived one day too late, and Zeegelaar had the run of St James’ Park — creating two goals and a sitter for Abdoulaye Doucouré.
Matt Ritchie failed to track the Dutchman, and DeAndre Yedlin understandably failed to leave his mooring to press either; a recipe for disaster. Much easier to just employ a back-three oneself, and match that free wing-back with one of one’s own; which is why half the league has followed Chelsea’s example over the last year!
Although 3-5-1-1 may have replaced it in his affections of late, there is clearly still life in the Plan A Conte so successfully popularised.
3) Guardiola’s throwback wide-play puts stodgy rivals in the shade
Sure, there was a large chunk of fortune about Raheem Sterling’s late winner against Huddersfield. But Manchester City, whose final-third wizardry bewitched the Terriers’ all-out-defence, deserved it.
Notwithstanding Fabian Delph’s poor positioning, Huddersfield’s corner-kick opener was comedically lucky. In fact, David Wagner’s unbelievably negative 4-5-1 failed to manage a single shot on target of their own; Nicolas Otamendi had to provide one for them!
More importantly, City still managed to create quality chances against Wagner’s blanket defence, with Sergio Aguero missing two big ones, and Gabriel Jesus also culpable late on. The throwback touchline-hugging of Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sané created space for the likes of David Silva and Fernandinho to thread the necessary key passes.
Which is more than can be said for two of Pep Guardiola’s supposed rivals, Manchester United and Tottenham, whose stodgy displays against similarly reserved opposition invited deserved derision.
For the second consecutive game, José Mourinho blamed his decision to field “too many attackers” for his side’s underperformance. United were certainly inert against Chris Hughton’s Brighton, bedecked in the same blanket 4-5-1 that capitulated against Arsenal in October. We’re beginning to see why Norwich City fans were far from keen on Hughton’s approach to big fish; let them off the hook, basically.
Marcus Rashford’s failed stint as a second-striker lasted all of 20 minutes, with the toothless hosts showing no signs of breaking Brighton down. A fortunate set-piece goal rescued the three points, just as a dead-ball proved decisive against a superior Newcastle side a week earlier.
United now have eight set-piece goals to their name, and if ponderous final-third combination-play like this continues, Mourinho badly needs that superiority to last along with it.
The Portuguese is well known for a laissez-faire coaching attitude to that area of the pitch. Fair enough, but at least field a player capable of stretching a massed defence. Rashford fared little better in one-on-one battle on the right, while Anthony Martial ran inside into blind-alleys — as per usual — on the opposite flank.
It was a similar story over at Wembley, where Mauricio Pochettinho bizarrely stuck with a midfield diamond (within a 3-5-1-1) for the visit of Gary Megson’s centre-packing West Bromwich Albion. Further packing the midfield, against a side fielding three centre-backs and three central-midfielders, makes little sense. That too failed to last until half-time, with the Argentinian promptly moving Eric Dier up into midfield on the half-hour-mark.
The subsequent 4-2-3-1, with Son Heung-Min tormenting auxiliary wing-back Matt Phillips on the left, showed positive signs, but Spurs were still held to a damaging draw. If only the Scotsman had been targeted from the start. Instead an off-colour Ben Davies limply provided the left-sided width for the opening half-hour.
At least Kieran Trippier fared better on the other side, completing five crosses and robbing James McClean in the lead-up to Harry Kane’s equaliser. Relying on wing-backs, or full-backs, to provide width is clearly nowhere near as effective as Guardiola’s more traditional approach, however. Perhaps the humble winger is about to come right back into fashion.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112
And you can also catch Sunday’s in-depth look at Arsenal’s last-gasp Turf Moor victory here.