Alex Keble returns with his regular analysis of four key tactical battles ahead of the weekend action in the Premier League, including how Everton can beat Man Utd, and why Allardyce could make a winning start…
Barkley v Schweinsteiger
Everton v Man Utd
Bastian Schweinsteiger has found adjusting to the tempo of the Premier League more difficult than many had presumed, most notably by pressing disjointedly and exposing his team-mates in Manchester United’s last two games. A trip to Goodison Park, where Ross Barkley and Romelu Lukaku storm through the centre of the pitch, is a worrying prospect for Louis van Gaal.
Arsenal’s 3-0 victory a fortnight ago was in part due to the sluggishness and disorganisation of United’s midfield. Michael Carrick and Schweinsteiger were too slow for such a high tempo match, and failed to synchronise effectively; at times the two players could be found stood in a line, at others leaving 30 yards between each other. A very similar situation occurred against Wolfsburg four days earlier, but United’s 2-1 victory hid the problem from the media’s glare.
In the opening twenty minutes against Arsenal, Schweinsteiger’s high press created space for Arsenal to create all three of their goals.
Roberto Martinez is a fastidious tactician who tweaks his strategy to exploit opponents’ deficits, but this week Everton’s usual trick – charging through the middle via Barkley and Lukaku – will suffice. 30% of Everton’s attacks come through the centre of the pitch (fourth highest in division), and 49.6% of their key passes are from central zones (compared with 16.9% from the left flank and 30.9% from the right flank).
Everton are at their most lethal when gaining possession within the opponents’ half and bursting towards goal with the counter-attacking power of Barkley and Lukaku, who have scored or assisted 10 of their 12 league goals to date. Since it is likely that large gaps will persist in United’s midfield, and van Gaal’s team are dispossessed 15.8 times per match (most in the division), it seems plausible that Everton will give Schweinsteiger yet another awkward afternoon.
Loftus Cheek v Grealish
Chelsea v Villa
While the media have fixated on Jose Mourinho’s crumbling dynasty at Stamford Bridge, Tim Sherwood’s Aston Villa have gradually sunk into the mire and, almost unnoticed, are now deep in crisis; the Villa board have reportedly given Sherwood two matches to save his job.
As Villa’s confidence shrinks they are increasingly reverting to long ball football, but this may prove a useful tactic against Chelsea; Villa have won more aerial duels (22.4 per match) than any other club, with Rudy Gestede second in the table behind Christian Benteke (6.5 aerials won per match). Meanwhile, Chelsea have looked vulnerable in recent weeks in this area. Porto opened the scoring in their 2-1 victory with a headed goal from a corner, and Southampton equalised in Chelsea’s last match via a Grazianno Pelle knock-down.
In order for Villa to exploit their aerial advantage, however, they must first outmanoeuvre Chelsea’s midfield. Finally giving up on the woefully frail Fabregas/Matic partnership, Mourinho has found both Ramires and John Obi Mikel to be inadequate replacements. It is now widely expected that Ruben Loftus Cheek will be given a chance to impress.
Defensively, Mikel’s performance against Everton and Fabregas’s against Newcastle were simply not good enough.
Loftus-Cheek will be tasked with man-marking Villa’s chief playmaker Jack Grealish. If Grealish can break free from his marker with regularity then the overlapping Jordan Amavi will be presented with opportunities to swing the ball into Villa’s giant striker.
A lot rests on the head-to-head battle between these two exciting young English midfielders; the better performer could lead his team to victory, and may just trigger the departure of the opposing team’s manager.
Back over 3.5 goals at 6/4
Lens v Brunt
West Brom v Sunderland
The appointment of Sam Allardyce may not be the most exciting but his trademark brand of direct football may be perfectly suited to the personnel currently at Sunderland. A quick start seems vital for a side already deeply immersed in a relegation battle and a trip to West Brom, who have conceded eight goals in their last three games, is the ideal place to snatch three points.
There is a rugged simplicity to the individualised roles of Allardyce football. Whether managing a Jay-Jay Okocha led 4-2-3-1 at Bolton or an Andy Carroll focused 4-5-1 at West Ham, the basic formula has remained largely consistent: Allardyce relies upon a strong and feisty fulcrum in attack, tireless and defensive-minded central midfielders, and pace on the wings.
Even last season, when a diamond 4-4-2 led many to believe West Ham had evolved, they ended the campaign having made the 16th most short passes and winning the 5th most aerial duels. Fortunately for Allardyce, the Sunderland squad is already littered with powerful and highly specialised players.
Expect tireless figures like Jordi Gomez and Sebastian Larsson to flourish, and for Allardyce to perfectly understand how to give Adam Johnson and Jeremain Lens space to attack the full-backs directly (largely by using Steven Fletcher as a target man).
Lens will be of particular importance on Saturday, thanks to the increasing vulnerability of converted left-back Chris Brunt. Each of the last five goals West Brom have conceded have come via directness and trickery from opposition wingers (four crosses from out wide and a penalty earned by Yannick Bolasie). Managers are increasingly realising that Tony Pulis’s slow defence can be cracked by direct speed in wide areas. Lens, averaging 1.8 dribbles and 1.3 key passes per match this season, could be the key to victory.
Back Sunderland to win at 10/3
Mane v Leicester’s midfield
Southampton v Leicester
The hoof-and-rush kamikaze football of Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester has been a breath of fresh air in the Premier League, but as the 5-2 defeat to Arsenal indicated, their frantic end-to-end battles will not always end in a sweeping Leicester victory. Southampton’s considerable counter-attacking threat could see them outscore their visitors.
Only three teams have conceded more than Leicester’s 17, and seven of these goals have been from counter-attacks; as the strikers and wingers stream forward on the offensive Leicester’s opponents regularly find enormous pockets of space between defence and midfield to exploit.
Ronald Koeman’s Southampton rank third for accurate long passes, largely because they frequently aim long, diagonal balls towards their fulcrum Graziano Pelle when a counter-attacking opportunity arises.
More often than not it is Sadio Mane, tearing through the centre, who orchestrates these attacks after a calculated pass from the under-appreciated Steven Davis (43 passes, 2.1 key passes per match). It is easy to see why Leicester City’s gung-ho approach could leave them vulnerable to Mane’s bursts and Davis’s excellent exploitation of space. Expect another high scoring game.
Back over 3.5 goals at 2/1