Jurgen Klopp wasn’t caught out by Manchester City’s tactical changes, Aston Villa deserved more against Chelsea and Aleksandar Mitrovic is carrying Fulham. Here’s 5 lessons we learned from the Premier League weekend…
1) Guardiola’s unusual tactics stumped by Liverpool conservatism
Pep Guardiola made a surprising decision with his initial setup on Sunday but not as surprising as his opposite number Jurgen Klopp. Manchester City deployed a 3-2 shape in defence and central midfield, with Bernardo Silva alongside Rodri as sixes; Kevin de Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan ahead of them; and Phil Foden and Joao Cancelo operating as wing-backs.
Presumably the idea was that the 3-2 would create multiple options to evade the first wave of the Liverpool press, with Foden and Cancelo then enjoying utilising the huge spaces that have developed in the Liverpool system this season in front of – or behind – their full-backs. But in the end he didn’t need to worry about pinning the Liverpool full-backs or wriggling away from the press, because Klopp sat his team in a defensive 4-4-2 as if they were relegation candidates.
Consequently the match became stale as Man City slowly moved the ball around, the two sixes man-marked by Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah and the two tens man-marked by Thiago Alcantara and Fabinho. Guardiola, furious at his team for not speeding the game up and taking advantage of counter-attacking opportunities, made the decision to open things up in the second half, for better or worse…
2) Silva-Gundogan switch rips the game open
By swapping Silva with Gundogan at half-time, Guardiola dramatically increased the pressure down Liverpool’s right – their weak point all season – by having Silva join Foden high on that side of the pitch. With Gundogan also roaming forward, City had effectively moved back to their usual shape, which meant a greater attacking threat – but also a less table defensive structure up against the Liverpool counters.
Firmino started to find lots of space around Rodri, picking up the ball to turn and set his fellow forwards away behind Man City’s high line. This created the stretched game that was always likely to favour Liverpool, especially because they could break without their full-backs – thus still not risking their own defensive safety. Ultimately, Klopp’s low block had stopped Erling Haaland from finding space and then lured City into a trap.
No matter how it might have looked or felt, an inferiority complex setting in, Klopp’s cautious approach is a new template for this rivalry.
3) James absence is a headache for Potter
Reece James has become the most important Chelsea player, his running of that right flank crucial to how Graham Potter wants to play, and in his absence the new manager needs to find a way to adapt. James, out for at least six weeks, was sorely missed at Villa Park as Aston Villa dominated the game and were very unlucky not to win.
Steven Gerrard’s side had 47.5% possession inside Chelsea’s third in the opening 45 minutes, when Raheem Sterling struggled in the right wing-back position. He needs a lot more coaching before he can be relied upon here. Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Cesar Azpilicueta were both deployed at right wing-back at various points in the match but Potter could never quite get control of that side.
This was partly because Aston Villa finally found the right combination up front. After playing Philippe Coutinho and Emiliano Buendia together recently, Gerrard dropped both to opt for a quicker and more dynamic trio of Ollie Watkins, Danny Ings, and Leon Bailey. Their speed and directness allowed Villa to run the game, pushing the back three into uncomfortable positions as Villa targeted Sterling’s side.
4) Fulham lack attacking quality to cover usual defensive flaws
An entertaining 2-2 draw at Craven Cottage was further evidence that Marco Silva’s Fulham has perhaps too many flaws to survive, despite a strong start to the campaign. Bournemouth scored twice on the counter-attack and, while Fulham dominated the match, that vulnerability at the back has been a big feature of the hosts’ season and of Silva’s career. He just cannot create a structure that stops opposition breaks.
Going forward, Fulham were toothless in the first half because Daniel James and Neeskens Kebano lacked quality in possession, which meant Andreas Pereira was often isolated once Fulham reached the final third. Things improved with a double substitution that put Tom Cairney into left-centre midfield, where his ingenuity in possession pushed Bournemouth back, but still Fulham just couldn’t fashion good chances as Willian and Harry Wilson did little as substitutes.
The upshot is that Fulham do not have the quality, aside from Aleksandar Mitrovic, to score enough goals to cover up for the huge defensive problems Silva has. They are only four points off the bottom three. A descent looks likely.
5) Interior full-backs create stalemate at Leicester
There isn’t much to say about Leicester City’s 0-0 draw with Crystal Palace because nothing much happened, although it is interesting to note that both managers deployed their full-backs as screens against the counter-attack. James Justin, Timothy Castagne, Tyrick Mitchell, and Joel Ward all – at various points – moved into central midfield to block the path for the opposition in the clearest sign yet that ‘interior full-backs’ have gone mainstream.
This is a very good way of ensuring there is not space in central areas for the other team to break, which was unsurprisingly a big priority for both managers given that Leicester and Palace are strongest in the transitions. As transitional football becomes the most common method of attack in the Premier League, we have started to see the long-term solution emerge.
Consequently we might get a few more of these kinds of 0-0s this season; with full-backs used to negate counters, the game becomes restrictively congested in the middle, lacking overlapping full-backs to stretch the shape.