The Blues have been ravaged by injuries, but the first-year manager appears to have discovered a solution
1) Chelsea swarm Spurs thanks to Mount, Barkley, & Giroud partnership
Frank Lampard has just discovered the solution to Chelsea’s tactical problems. His 3-4-2-1 formation worked superbly against Tottenham, with Mason Mount and Ross Barkley excelling as tandem number 10s feeding off Olivier Giroud’s lay-offs. When the Frenchman stayed high to pin the centre-backs, the two playmakers came short; when Giroud dropped off, these two ran in behind, providing a longer through-ball option that stretched and exhausted the visitors.
The formation also meant Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic had plenty of players in central attacking midfield to hit with incisive vertical passes, a feature both they and Lampard enjoy. It meant Chelsea kept the pressure on and reached the final third at speed while ensuring they overwhelmed Spurs in the middle of the park. Their second goal was a great example: Giroud wins a header, Mount and Barkley exchange passes and Marcus Alonso gets space because the Spurs players are so distracted by the front three.
Chelsea’s pressing game, which boxed Tottenham in their own half, was significantly improved by the number of bodies in their midfield. Between the four of them they could pincer Harry Winks and Tanguy Ndombele, preventing these two from initiating a counter-attack. (Reece James also assisted in a slightly changed role, moving infield to both act as a wall for one-twos with the Chelsea number 10s and further screen against Tottenham counters.)
However, Chelsea were assisted by Tottenham’s unfamiliarity and discomfort in a flat 5-3-2, which meant the centre-backs had no wide passing option after possession was regained. Instead, they kept hitting Winks and Ndombele despite their suffocation.
2) Watford – and Hughes in particular – get carried away with their pressing game
For much of the first hour at Old Trafford, Watford looked dangerous, almost capitalising on sloppy passes in the Manchester United half as they cleverly set pressing traps. Nigel Pearson had clearly instructed his players to hold a midblock and leave the United centre-backs alone, only to trigger a pincer press as soon as the ball reached Nemanja Matic or Fred.
The idea made a lot of sense considering how stretched United are when in possession. Fred and Matic are regularly completely isolated from the defensive and attacking lines, which means winning the ball off either player creates a good counter-pressing chance. Coupled with the fact United weren’t playing with enough tempo to break Watford down, the Hornets’ approach looked good.
Too good, perhaps, because as the first half wore on Watford began to press too high and too often, overly encouraged by their early success. Will Hughes, in particular, started to race a long way from midfield to press United, chasing the ball recklessly, and, as a direct consequence, United were suddenly able to pass easily through an empty centre. Sure enough, after 10 minutes of this, one such move through a Hughes-less midfield led to the penalty and opening goal.
Pearson will have been disappointed by the indiscipline and Watford never really recovered.
3) Southampton’s narrow wingers target gaps in Villa’s 3-4-3
Dean Smith was rightly “embarrassed” by Aston Villa’s performance on Saturday, but aside from the vast difference in quality between the two sides there were distinct tactical reasons for Southampton’s dominance. Ralph Hasenhuttl appeared to have noticed that when Villa get pinned back their formation becomes a 5-2-3, meaning huge patches of grass open up on the outside of the two central midfielders.
It is in this zone that the Saints dominated. Playing an aggressive high-pressing game to set a tone that forced Villa’s wing-backs deep, the visitors got Stuart Armstrong and Moussa Djenepo on the ball as often as possible in the inside forward positions. These two ran the game (completing 12 dribbles and nine key passes between them) by darting infield into the pockets either side of the two-man Villa midfield.
The assertive overlapping runs of the Southampton full-backs stretched Villa wide and kept them in a back five, while the threat of Danny Ings and Shane Long prevented the centre-backs from coming out to meet Armstrong and Djenepo.
4) Exciting attacking features highlight Arteta & Ancelotti doing excellent jobs
Arsenal clung onto a narrow lead at the Emirates on Sunday but a high-scoring draw would have been a fairer result; both teams were flawed defensively but both displayed an attacking dynamism that ought to excite their respective fan bases.
For the hosts, what most stood out was the frequency of their through balls down the left channel. Nicolas Pepe and Bukayo Saka might have once again excelled on the wings, but it was the slide passes – and constant willing runners in behind – that contributed to the period of first-half pressure in which Arsenal scored twice in quick succession. Eddie Nketiah, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Hector Bellerin joined the two wingers in making intelligent arcing runs for Mesut Ozil and Dani Ceballos to find.
Everton threatened primarily on the counter-attack via Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, whose partnership is improving week on week under Carlo Ancelotti. They were supported by Gylfi Sigurdsson or Alex Iwobi alternating cutting inside from the flank, creating a hybrid 4-4-2/4-3-3 formation that looked to target the spaces behind Bellerin.
Both sides need new defenders – Shkodran Mustafi and Djibril Sidibe were frequently caught out – but both are developing complex attacking tactics that suggest a strong end to the season is likely.
5) Walker & Silva positioning key to Man City grinding Leicester down
Manchester City have often relied too heavily on crosses into the box this season, which is why it is important to note that their patient possession football at Leicester focused on moving the ball through the centre of the pitch. City gradually wore the hosts down, and although Leicester were compact and threatening on the counter, they were ultimately outplayed by classic Pep Guardiola football.
Bernardo Silva played a key role as an inverted left winger, dropping deeper than expected to join Ilkay Gundogan and Kevin De Bruyne in midfield to outnumber Leicester. De Bruyne flitted in the number 10 space like the player we saw in 2017-18, while Kyle Walker had his best game in a long time as an inverted right-back – again helping to cram the middle of the pitch with bodies.
Jamie Vardy and Kelechi Iheanacho unsurprisingly found a way to break behind the high City line, and yet City won by grinding their opponents into submission. Christian Fuchs struggled at times and it was his positional error that allowed Riyad Mahrez to play Gabriel Jesus in for a late winner. It was tired, sloppy defending; the sort that comes from being passed off the park for 90 minutes.