Premier League Tactical Review – Matchday 4

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Matchday 4 of the 2021-22 Premier League season will forever be remembered as the day Cristiano Ronaldo made his return to Manchester United, and scored a brace in his first match back. But many more BIG things happened this weekend, including Crystal Palace thumping table toppers Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal picking up a big win in their relegation six-pointer against Norwich, and City continuing their impressive clean sheet run with a 1-0 win over Leicester. Here is our tactical review of Matchday 4.

man united 4-1 newcastle

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The headline of the day was all about Cristiano Ronaldo and his return to Manchester United, but it was a fabulous performance from the Red Devils all ends up and one that definitely brings hope for their title chances this season.

Manchester United kept the bulk of the possession, but made attempts to be more progressive than the slow possession approach of some early matches in 2020-21. Matic constantly looked to play incisive vertical passes forward into the path of Portuguese duo Ronaldo and Bruno, as did Paul Pogba, which should be expected of the Frenchman given his range.

As United’s fullbacks romped forward, Sancho and Greenwood tucked inside, drawing Newcastle United’s wing-backs with them and opening up more space out wide for Shaw and Wan-Bissaka. Ronaldo found it difficult to overcome the intense tracking of Newcastle’s three centre-halves, but found enough space to hammer home two great goals by being in the right place at the right time. Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka were particularly key from an attacking perspective, with Shaw looking to run with the ball at speed, and Wan-Bissaka looking to deliver from wide. Shaw’s delivery from set-pieces was also excellent, and found the noggin of Varane and Maguire more than a few times. Varane and Maguire themselves were fairly progressive out from the back, often carrying the ball into the opposition’s half in the quest for vertical passes rather than each other.

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Newcastle on the other hand defended resolutely in their 5-4-1 compact system, with the midfield three in particular putting in a tireless effort to compact central areas and limit the movement of Bruno, Pogba and Sancho inside. After winning the ball they often looked instantly to Allan Saint-Maximin, who would carry the ball at speed and work his trickery until others were able to join. Joe Willock and Miguel Almiron were the two most likely to reach him in time to help connect, but Manchester United’s back-line were almost always up to the task in stopping these breaks. Other than a rush of blood to the head from Maguire, when Shaw was already out of position, United hardly put a foot wrong on the evening. That one mistake led to Javi Manquillo grabbing his first ever Newcastle goal, but it wasn’t enough. United simply kept on working, kept on probing, and eventually found the back of the net three more times to win the match.

crystal palace 3-0 tottenham

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After weeks of succeeding with narrow 1-0 wins in a 4-3-3 formation, Nuno Espirito Santo decided change was needed. To be fair to Nuno, without the injured Heung-Min Son and Steven Bergwijn, change likely was needed. But unfortunately the Portuguese manager adapted in the completely wrong way, and Crystal Palace, yes Crystal Palace, tore them to shreds.

Nuno’s team set up in a 4-3-1-2 (4-4-2 diamond) formation. If you want to see some of the complications of this formation, all you have to do is watch Rose’s Borussia Dortmund or read one of our analyses of them this season. For Spurs in this shape, Dele Alli played at the top of the diamond rather than as part of a midfield three, as Harry Winks entered the fold in his stead. Lucas Moura, normally a winger, played up top with Kane and showed some bright moments of dribbling and trickery. But the main problem with this system – Tottenham had no mechanisms for natural width in attack, and no balance between the two sides.

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Sergio Reguilon tried to get forward on the left, but Tottenham’s attempts to use his movement were highly ineffective. Right-sidedness was completely non-existent, especially with Alli and Kane both hovering around spaces on the left. In theory, that could have been a good thing for Spurs. It could have created overloads for them to use in the wide areas, and exposed Palace’s right-side (the side without Zaha to worry about on the break). But instead, this just over-complicated things for Spurs, and limited their ability to progress properly in possession. Reguilon simply didn’t know where Alli and Kane wanted to be – a clear testament to the fact that the two of them didn’t really know either. With Hojbjerg now their most attack-minded midfielder pushing up with the front three, Tottenham really struggled to keep the ball in Palace’s third, let alone anywhere else on the pitch. They had some decent moments of passing around when playing out from the back, but it was far too patient and possessive rather than progressive.

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Then comes the fact that they were often easily exposed by Palace in transition. Palace are one of the better counter attacking teams in the league, so they too deserve some credit here. Their verticality, and willingness to engage their front three early on, were absolute essentials to breaking Tottenham down. But Spurs only made life more difficult for themselves. Oliver Skipp was often caught too high and out of position, where the likes of Gallagher, Edouard and Benteke were often able to exploit. Tanganga’s red card only compounded this issue, and Luka Milivojevic came on around that time to also help spray adventurous passes forward. The Serbian midfielder made some excellent switches of play that completely exposed Tottenham in transition, which is a strategy Spurs could have done with themselves when it came to diagonals into the path of Reguilon.

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Odsonne Edouard was an obvious standout after coming on and scoring two goals. His movement in and around Tottenham’s defense was impeccable, and he made himself a nuisance for both Joe Rodon and Ben Davies through the use of his raw strength and power. But the real star of the day was Conor Gallagher – who fulfilled an important role pushing up from Vieira’s midfield line. The Chelsea loanee made an immense impact at both ends of the pitch. He was fantastic in transition in helping Palace’s already resolute defensive structures, but he was also right up there with Benteke/Edouard as part of the first line of pressure in a 4-4-2 block. That made his attacking role all the easier, as he played almost like a second striker. He didn’t just join the attack and make late runs into the box like last season at West Brom, he was actively involved in staying high and playing passes around the penalty area. When he was deeper on the field, he was always looking to either pass the ball forward, or run forward himself. This verticality really helped unravel Tottenham’s slow defense, and gave them an additional threat to their Zaha reliant structures. The 21-year-old midfielder even assisted Edouard’s second goal, with an excellent display of La Pausa, killing the game off at 3-0. In the end, it was an incredible win for Crystal Palace, and one that takes Tottenham from first down to fifth.

leicester 0-1 manchester city

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Leicester City’s achieved some big wins over Manchester City in recent years, and the Foxes have at times been a bit of a bogie team for Pep Guardiola and co. But Guardiola found no difficulty in achieving dominance over the Foxes on Matchday 4, with the match playing out exactly as you’d expect from both sides. City dominated the possession and controlled the tempo of the match, with Leicester adding their own flare to the fire on the break.

As expected, Brendan Rodgers’ side counter attacked at pace, particularly looking to expose City’s inverted fullbacks in the wide areas through the movement of Jamie Vardy out wide, or the pace and power of Harvey Barnes. They looked to get Tielemans on the ball whenever they could in helping break quickly, given the Belgian’s adeptness at picking out passes from range. Vardy also often operated in between Dias/Laporte and looked for the gaps in which he could run in behind. In doing this, he even scored a goal within seconds of Ndidi winning the ball back for the Foxes early in the second half. Unfortunately, it was chopped offside by a matter of millimeters.

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Defensively, Rodgers’ men defended resolutely and with a willingness to throw their bodies in front of anything that came their way. Jannik Vestergaard had an excellent debut, showcasing his strong aerial presence and solid positioning. Soyuncu also exhibited his strength and do or die attitude throughout, and Ndidi completely limited the movements of Ferran Torres and Gabriel Jesus. The Foxes blocked with a variety of 4-4-2 structures, that floated toward either a 4-2-3-1 or 4-2-4 in different moments. Maddison’s main task was to stop Rodri from receiving the ball, but Ndidi and Tielemans were more concerned with City’s front three than the two other midfielders – Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva. This proved to be a fatal mistake, as the two midfield men completely bossed the game. Gundogan created 4 chances through his excellent passing in behind Leicester’s back-line, and Silva was the one who scored the conclusive goal…not to mention the three chances he created himself. Bernardo was key in general through the creation of left-sided triangles between himself, Grealish and the always active Joao Cancelo. This was something Tielemans and Castagne massively struggled to cope with, and in the end a major reason for City’s go-ahead goal and subsequent victory.

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Manchester City were also just fantastic in possession as they have been throughout this season, helping to keep Leicester’s attacks to a minimum. While Dias and Laporte ended the match with the most touches, City were quick and incisive with their passes, just like Leicester. They played swiftly and creatively, and flooded the box in numbers upon progressing into the Foxes’ third. This gave the Sky Blues a 2-3-5 or 4-1-5 shape throughout the match, where they were able to hit Leicester with a variety of different mechanisms. They could play their fancy connections down the left, hit balls over the top to Torres in space, get Gundogan on the ball to split Leicester’s defense apart, play measured one-touch passes, or find Grealish to work his magic in tight spaces. Then out of possession, as quickly as Leicester tried to break, City were also usually up for the task themselves. We all know at this point how quick Kyle Walker is at getting back and recovering possession, but their press really is a collective effort right from the very front. It’s much more about cutting off passing lanes with whomever is closest to the ball at the time, and it’s adjustable and flexible, rather than stagnant and pragmatic. As ever, it was a perfect mix of patience and quickness, of verticality and switching play, and of resilience both in and out of possession. Leicester should just be happy they kept the score down to just a single goal, and City should be pleased themselves as they now move into third.

chelsea 3-0 aston villa

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Chelsea have been in full flow ever since Thomas Tuchel took charge, and they showcased exactly why on Saturday night with a massive 3-0 win over Aston Villa. Tuchel made the conscious decision to rest several players for the match, bringing in the likes of Trevoh Chalobah, Saul Niguez and Callum Hudson-Odoi into the team. Every decision he made paid off, and aided the exuberance of Romelu Lukaku up top. Along with the big man up top, Mateo Kovacic was exceptional both in and out of possession, pressing like his heart depended on it, and showcasing that sort of progressiveness and verticality toward Lukaku that we cried out for on Futbol Masterminds a couple weeks ago.

The Blues kept the bulk of the possession in their 3-4-2-1 formation, easily maintaining control over Villa and their 5-3-2 coping mechanism. Despite all their dominance, they were best when able to explode and hit Villa on the break, particularly off the back of mistakes. This is where Lukaku’s movement is most able to shine, given the fact that opposition defenders have less time to react to his movement during quick counter attacks. When a player like Kovacic (or even Azpilicueta) is breaking at speed, they only provide an extra distraction for the Belgian to gain half a yard and then hammer the ball into the back of the net. That’s exactly what happened, as the big man grabbed two of their three goals, and Kovacic grabbed the other off the back of some exceptional pressing.

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Aston Villa were beaten and bruised all ends up by the Blues, but they weren’t utterly terrible and hopeless. Dean Smith’s team created quite a few chances of their own, and Mendy was forced into making six saves. Mendy has proven himself to be an excellent goalkeeper since his arrival last year, but Villa’s ability to finish off chances just really wasn’t present on the day. Their vertical approach to life on the break ended up making them highly predictable, and without any mechanisms for width in behind Hudson-Odoi and Alonso. Through a range of free kicks, corners and open play, they still, quite confusingly, managed to cross the ball 30 times in the match. This was highly ineffective in troubling Chelsea’s aerially dominant back-line and the sound positioning and judgement of Mendy. They desperately missed the trickery of Buendia, Traore or Bailey, who could have taken defenders on 1v1. Simultaneously, they made life more difficult for themselves in starting attacks due to their defensive shape and the presence of five defenders. In the end, Chelsea claimed an easy victory, with Romelu Lukaku scoring his first ever goals at Stamford Bridge.

more to follow!

So there it is! Our tactical review for Matchday 4 in the Premier League! Be sure to check out more from our Tactics section and follow on Twitter @mastermindsite! Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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