Premier League weekend review: What we learned

By Alex Keble 10 Apr 2023
Thiago Alcantara in action v Arsenal

Alex Keble sees where results were decided, such as the subs at Anfield and Bruno Fernandes's new role at Man Utd

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Following a thrilling weekend delivering drama from top to bottom in the Premier League, Alex Keble looks at the key talking points and tactical lessons.

Arteta fails to stem the tide

A remarkable match at Anfield saw Arsenal stroll into the sort of comfortable two-goal lead that looked set to rise to five or six, only for Liverpool to roar back to swarm the visitors once Mohamed Salah had clawed one back. 

It was a bizarre and enthralling contest defined to an unusual extent by momentum shifts - suggesting emotionality led the action - and yet ultimately Liverpool’s comeback was the consequence of Jurgen Klopp’s and Mikel Arteta’s in-game changes. 

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Arsenal’s dominant first 40 minutes was the result of them being afforded the opportunity to build their attacks with ease and, pressing high, disrupting Liverpool’s rhythm. 

Klopp’s decision to play Trent Alexander-Arnold in a central midfield position changed the choreography of Liverpool’s possession, seemingly making them more susceptible to Arsenal’s aggressive pressing, while Curtis Jones regularly pressed too high - stepping out of position to open up passing lanes for Arteta’s side, including in the run-up to the first goal (see below)

Liverpool Arsenal
Jones (circled in yellow) was the wrong side of Fabinho (circled in red) and was unable to block the pass to Saka in the build-up to the opener

But the crowd roared into life following an altercation between Granit Xhaka and Alexander-Arnold, and from this point on, Klopp helped his team wrestle control. 

As Liverpool pinned Arsenal back in the second half, Klopp brought on Thiago Alcantara for Jones to help maintain their territorial dominance. It worked. Thiago's 34 touches of the ball were more than anyone else during his 30 minutes on the field and he finished with the joint-highest pass accuracy (88.5 per cent).  

By contrast, Arteta made no changes until the 80th minute, when he withdrew Gabriel Jesus, whose excellent hold-up play had been vital in relieving pressure every now and then.  

Ultimately, the Arsenal manager was unable to stop his players from being pulled into the chaos; from attempting to counter-attack too quickly when they should have sought to slow the match down and regain some control. 

Tellingly, in the first 70 minutes, 61 per cent of Arsenal’s passes were forward, whereas in the final 20 minutes, 80 per cent were forward.

It meant Liverpool ended the match with an Expected Goals (xG) rating of 4.43, higher than the 4.08 in their 9-0 win over AFC Bournemouth and in the 7-0 victory against Man Utd (3.79). 

Lampard unable to lift Chelsea

“It's a big task managing Chelsea,” Frank Lampard said after his side’s 1-0 defeat at Wolves. “I didn't expect to solve everything in one day.” 

That is a fair reminder that Lampard cannot be expected to perform miracles with so little time on the training field since his appointment, and indeed the greatest challenging facing the Chelsea interim manager is getting his ideas across when the matches come thick and fast.  

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Nevertheless, Lampard will have hoped for a more urgent reaction from his players ahead of the UEFA Champions League tie against Real Madrid.

“You have to have more aggression in your game, more speed and more competitive duels which go your way,” he added. “It's not stinging criticism, I know there's a lot of talent there.” 

Clearly they need to improve their finishing, too. Chelsea have gone three Premier League matches without scoring, and on Saturday they hit the target with only one of their 13 shots.

This is the most they have ever had in an away match since 2003/04 while managing only one or fewer shots on target.  

But as Lampard alluded to, the problem goes deeper than that. Chelsea used a 4-3-3 formation for the first time since a 0-0 draw with Fulham in February as Lampard reinstated the system he most often used during his last stint at the club, but it failed to produce a more creative or attacking display. 

Chelsea’s xG of 1.1 was their lowest across the last seven matches in all competitions. 

Although defensively solid overall (Wolves only mustered a 0.6 xG), Chelsea were occasionally vulnerable down the flanks whenever the hosts managed to get behind Raheem Sterling and Joao Felix. The Chelsea wingers’ high starting positions often left too much space for their counterparts, including in the build-up to the winning goal. 

Wolves Chelsea 1
In the build-up to Nunes’s goal, Podence (red circle) and Nunes (yellow circle) were free because Sterling (green circle) and Joao Felix (not in picture) did not track back
Fernandes thriving in quarterback role 

Erik ten Hag has found an intriguing solution to playing without Casemiro and Christian Eriksen and, by deploying Bruno Fernandes in a new quarterback role, gave Manchester United the tactical advantage against Everton

In what was clearly a prepared tactic, Fernandes consistently picked up the ball deep in his own half before pinging long passes over the top of the Everton full-backs, finding the runs of Antony and Marcus Rashford with regularity.

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It led to United hitting a season-high 11 shots on target, and with more accurate finishing they would have put this contest to bed much earlier.

United failed to convert seven big chances (six in the first half), their joint-highest in a Premier League match.  

Fernandes' long passes
Fernandes' long passes v Everton (H)

Sean Dyche’s team got to grips with the strategy in the second half after Dyche substituted Ben Godfrey, who struggled with the ball sailing over him, and moved from an initial 4-4-2 to a 4-5-1 formation.

Now with an extra player in Alex Iwobi in central midfield, Everton had a spare man to rush out to meet Fernandes and stop those longer passes.

Coupled with a deeper defensive line, it ironed out the problems, hence why United outshot Everton 21-5 in the first half, only for Everton to outshoot United 6-3 in the second. 

But with 20 minutes remaining, a defensive error gave Man Utd the comfort of a second goal and the contest was over, perhaps leaving Dyche ruing his decision not to start with the same 4-5-1 used in all of his previous matches as Everton manager. 

Relentless Man City primed for run-in

Manchester City’s performance at Southampton was an ominous watch for Arsenal supporters. 

There is a distinct sense that Pep Guardiola’s side have moved through the gears, not only preparing for a relentless and machine-like final nine matches, but relishing the chance to do it.

See: Guardiola: I'm the happiest man when fighting for a title

“September, October, November I enjoy less,” Guardiola said after the match. “When we arrive in the last stages, fighting for the title, I’m the happiest man in the world. I love to be here.” 

And why wouldn’t he? City have won eight in a row in all competitions, scoring 21 goals across their last four, and are winning in a variety of different ways, too.

Whether it is crushing inferior opponents (such as beating Burnley 6-0), coming back from a goal down to defeat Liverpool 4-1, or in a 4-1 win at Southampton on Saturday, waiting patiently for the opening. 

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It took 45 minutes before Erling Haaland gave his team the lead, and from then on there was only ever going to be one winner. 

Haaland, who later added an outrageous bicycle kick, now has 30 Premier League goals this season and is on track to obliterate the record of 34 jointly held by Andrew Cole and Alan Shearer. 

Yet it was Jack Grealish, scorer of the second and creator of the third, who again stood out as the star player for Guardiola’s side. 

With 10 goal involvements in 15 Premier League matches since the World Cup, it is his confident, swaggering performances off the left that give the greatest indication City will not seize up in the title race. 

But looks can be deceiving. In his six previous years as City manager, Guardiola has dropped an average of 5.5 points across the final nine matches of a Premier League season. Only in 2018/19 did he win every single one of those nine and last year, locked in battle with Liverpool, Man City won six and drew three.  

The title might now be in Man City’s hands as well as Arsenal’s, but historical precedent suggests there will be twists and turns ahead. 

Wilson and Isak strike up partnership

Alexander Isak’s form had been keeping Callum Wilson out of the side but on Saturday, with Newcastle United 1-0 down at the break, Eddie Howe came up with a solution that might be the beginning of a new Premier League strike partnership. 

In the first half, Isak struggled to make an impact and appeared isolated alone up top, making Brentford good value for their lead. Thomas Frank’s side had more shots (six to Newcastle's two) and, but for a missed Ivan Toney penalty, would have been 2-0 up at the break. 

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Credit goes to Howe for making a bold change, moving to a 4-4-2 with Isak lurking just off Wilson, which instantly gave the Swede the help he needed to become a key player in the contest.

Isak went from 13 touches and five passes in the first half to 20 touches and 13 passes in the second, while both of his shots came in that second 45-minute period, including the winner, assisted by Wilson. 

Isak winner v Brentford
The build-up to Alexander Isak's winner v Brentford

Isak also had a hand in the equaliser, dropping deep to weave things together before Bruno Guimaraes and Kieran Trippier combined to release Joelinton behind the Brentford defence. 

It was a very smart tactical move from Howe, taking him to 100 Premier League points from 56 matches for Newcastle (28 wins, 16 draws and 12 defeats). Only Kevin Keegan has reached that total for the Magpies in fewer matches (51). 

Seagulls tactics let Son shine

Son Heung-min became the first Asian player to reach 100 Premier League goals courtesy of his 18th strike in the competition struck from outside the box. 

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Not many of the other 32 players to have reached triple figures can match Son’s showreel in terms of quality and variety.

He is one of only two players, alongside Harry Kane, to have scored at least 40 of the 100 with both feet. 

Son 100
Where Son has scored his 100 Premier League goals from

Son has been an outstanding servant for Tottenham Hotspur and a rare one at that - he is only the 19th player to reach 100 goals for a single club - but his form has notably dipped in 2022/23.

Speaking to the Evening Standard, Son said “more attention and more pressure” following last year’s Castrol Golden Boot win has been a factor, before explaining why he was back to his best on Saturday. 

“It was more a case of position and being able to make the runs I like,” he said. “Brighton played quite a high line, which gave me space to run in behind.” 

It is certainly true that Roberto De Zerbi’s side dominated possession, having 65 per cent, and, often leaving Pascal Gross and Moises Caicedo alone in central midfield as part of an aggressive 3-2-5, Spurs were able to play quick forward passes on the counter-attack to release Kane and Son between the lines, as much as behind the defence.

Spurs Brighton graphic
In the build-up to Kane’s winner, we see Kane and Son (both circled) finding space behind Brighton’s aggressive two-man midfield

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