After an exciting weekend featuring 29 goals across just seven matches, Alex Keble looks at the key talking points and tactical lessons.
Given the task of building a coherent team from a big squad of talent, Graham Potter will be thankful for any player who picks himself.
Joao Felix is undroppable and unplayable, a beautiful footballer emerging from the club's new signings as Chelsea’s most elegant footballer - and arguably their most important while Potter looks to convince the doubters.
This is the Joao Felix we saw at Benfica, the gliding forward who earned a nine-figure move in 2019 but made the wrong one, heading to Atletico Madrid, only to have his wings clipped by the conservative coach Diego Simeone.
Now at the more expansive and expressive Chelsea, he is beginning to flourish, dancing between the lines to give purpose to their possession and give Potter’s neat triangles a cutting edge.
Joao Felix popped up everywhere, ghosting into space to provide Enzo Fernandez with the forward pass he needed to inject some urgency into Chelsea’s play and, on the half-turn, driving elegantly into the final third.
Most significantly, he scored the opener in the 2-2 draw with Everton before his perfectly weighted through-ball to Reece James led directly to the penalty and Chelsea’s second goal.
A first goal on home soil for Joao Felix! 🙌 pic.twitter.com/d47M8UaYPe— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) March 18, 2023
Potter’s possession-based football can be a little sideways at times, hence the tally of 21 goals from his 21 Premier League matches in charge, because he likes his forwards to come towards the ball.
It helps enormously, then, that in Joao Felix he has one of the most disruptive and active No 9s around. At Chelsea, his touches per 90 (50.7), carries per 90 (32.3) and progressive passes per 90 (4.56) are higher than what he ever achieved at Atletico.
According to Antonio Conte, analysis of why and how Tottenham Hotspur let a 3-1 lead slip at St Mary’s should focus on “selfish” players who “don’t want to play under stress”.
His extraordinary press conference has taken the focus, distracting from the intricacies of his team’s performance.
“Tottenham's story is this - 20 years there is this owner and they never won something. Why?” Conte said. “There are 10 games to go and some people think we can fight. Fight for what with this spirit, this attitude, this commitment? What? For seventh, eighth, 10th place? We are 11 players that go into the pitch. I see selfish players, I see players that don't want to help each other and don't put their heart.”
His theory will be questioned by Spurs supporters who feel the Italian’s defensive tactics have invited pressure and inspired the passivity that Conte interprets as a lack of spirit.
Given those complaints, it is ironic that Spurs’ 3-3 draw with Southampton was among their most attacking and fun performances of the campaign, right up until they fell into a deep formation after scoring their third.
Wing-backs Pedro Porro (No 23) and Ivan Perisic (No 14) sat high up the pitch for the first 75 minutes, for better and for worse. Both players scored a goal and Porro was heavily involved in the other, playing a neat pass to Dejan Kulusevski that highlighted the Spaniard’s forward-thinking intent.
On the flip side, the pair's advanced positioning gave Southampton numerous chances to counter-attack, hence their Expected Goals (xG) tally of 2.4, a season-high for Saints and the joint-highest for a team against Spurs in the Premier League in 2022/23.
That weakness was most damaging just after the break when Che Adams equalised courtesy of a pass threaded through the large gap between Perisic and Clement Lenglet.
Even better in slow motion ✨ pic.twitter.com/FYjncZ0SDP— Southampton FC (@SouthamptonFC) March 19, 2023
Spurs went 3-1 up but the wing-backs then suddenly became pinned, the fun stopped, and for the final 15 minutes Southampton enjoyed 66 per cent possession. The north Londoners managed just four touches in the opposition half in this period.
Whether it was because of tactical intervention or, as Conte suggests, a lack of team spirit, Spurs lost this match by hunching in their own third, shutting down an open game and limiting the influence of Perisic and Porro, both of whom spent the final 15 minutes shuffling across as part of a permanent back five.
Crystal Palace have not played a team below them in the table since 31 December – incidentally, the last time they won a match. Yet despite their poor form and tough fixture list, Patrick Vieira’s side remained relatively solid at the back, conceding just nine goals in their final 10 matches under the Frenchman.
The problem in Sunday's 4-1 defeat to Arsenal was an ambitious 4-2-3-1 formation deployed by caretaker manager Patrick McCarthy, who sat his team in a very narrow system with Wilfried Zaha advanced on the left wing.
Arsenal usually prefer to build down this side through Martin Odegaard and Bukayo Saka, so Zaha’s relative lack of tracking-back compared with Michael Olise on the other side, coupled with the narrow starting positions of the Palace wingers, allowed the home side to create numerous chances out wide.
The first graphic here shows how Arsenal prioritised attacks down the right, while the second graphic shows the combinations between Saka and Odegaard, and the third shows the average position of Zaha (Palace's No 11), too high and narrow.
Arsenal’s first goal was the perfect example of the problem as they built down the right side and fired across to an unmarked Gabriel Martinelli on the left.
Saka then slipped the wrong side of Zaha to receive a pass from Ben White and score the crucial second goal. From that point, Arsenal were cruising.
Come for the finish, stay for the celebration 🥶 pic.twitter.com/0BdcHYdA6x— Arsenal (@Arsenal) March 20, 2023
Eight of Palace’s final 10 matches are against teams below them in the table, so a more attacking perspective from McCarthy could prove fruitful further down the line. Are we likely to find out?
If reports of Roy Hodgson's return to Selhurst Park are true, it would bring back defensive caution in a deep-lying 4-4-2 formation, his hallmark for the last decade.
Comparing Hodgson’s final season at Palace in 2020/21 to Vieira’s only full season at the club in 2021/22 reveals the vast differences between the two men.
Considering how the fixture list has fallen, it is possible Palace need someone to take an approach more like Vieira's, or even McCarthy's, than they need a pragmatist like Hodgson.
Nottingham Forest’s experiment with a new formation was symptomatic of the two competing sides of Steve Cooper’s brain: a bold attacking line-up placed in a deep defensive shape.
Newcastle United’s 2-1 victory could have been far worse for the hosts who, caught between distinct identities, struggled to adapt to using just two central midfielders for the first time since a 4-0 defeat to Leicester City back in October.
For long periods Forest’s unusual midfield configuration did the trick. Their two central midfielders Ryan Yates and Jonjo Shelvey dropped deep and went man-to-man on the advancing Newcastle midfielders, preventing the visitors from creating much centrally.
Eddie Howe’s team find it tough to break down a low block, preferring instead to play in the transition.
It was a simple defence-first idea where Forest sat deep in their half, stuck tight to their men, and challenged aggressively for the ball before pumping it up to that battering-ram front four of Emmanuel Dennis, Morgan Gibbs-White, Brennan Johnson and Andre Ayew.
As a result of this combative approach, Forest committed their joint-most fouls in a league match this season, with 17.
The problem was the marriage of this idea with an adventurous forward line. Dennis struggled to get back and help defensively, allowing Newcastle to hit Forest’s left flank again and again, leading directly to the first goal and the overturned second.
Without adequate support from Dennis, Renan Lodi was overwhelmed by Jacob Murphy, Kieran Trippier, and the intelligently overlapping Sean Longstaff.
But it would be harsh to blame Dennis. Forest almost always deploy three men in midfield, usually in a 4-3-2-1 system, which allows for one midfielder to move wide and help the full-back. Not so in such an attack-minded 4-2-3-1, hence Newcastle’s ability to overload this wing throughout.
The issue was exacerbated by the hosts’ desire to attack in numbers, which served to stretch their formation until, back six separated from front four, it was too decompressed to cope – another consequence of two competing angels sat on Cooper’s shoulders.
“Today is maybe the best 90 minutes we played here since I arrived,” Unai Emery said after Aston Villa’s 3-0 win over AFC Bournemouth. “We controlled the game with the ball.”
"Control" is a buzzword with many different meanings in football, but irrespective of a manager’s tactical preference, all of them crave it.
For Emery the word perhaps has a particularly unusual definition, because although he wants Aston Villa to control possession the primary aim is not to dominate territory like a Pep Guardiola team. Instead, he wants to encourage the other side to press on to Villa so that his players can quickly spin behind and enter the final third at speed.
That is why two of Villa’s three goals came from what looked like counters, despite Emery’s praise for Villa’s control.
The first stemmed from a sharp drive forward from Douglas Luiz, while the second resulted from a long ball up to Ollie Watkins and a flick-on to Jacob Ramsey.
Douglas Luiz. ⭐ pic.twitter.com/xPmWWfuna8— Aston Villa (@AVFCOfficial) March 20, 2023
This approach gives Villa the best of both worlds: the sucker-punch of quick breaks but also calm authority over proceedings, with the latter informed by Emery’s use of Ramsey on the left side. Cutting inside, he helps form a box-shape of central midfielders along with Emiliano Buendia, John McGinn and Douglas Luiz.
The payoff is huge, with Villa averaging 1.87 points per match under Emery. Since his arrival in late October, only Manchester City and Arsenal have won more points than Villa's 26 from 14 matches.