After a thrilling weekend delivering drama from top to bottom in the Premier League, Alex Keble looks at the key talking points and tactical lessons.
Arsenal feeling the pressure?
Arsenal players must now feel the icy grip of Manchester City hands on their shoulders. If that seems too macabre an image, consider that City’s coldly clinical run-ins are as inevitable as death and taxes.
In their last four title-challenging seasons, ignoring their routine stroll in 2020/21, Man City have averaged 20.3 points from their final eight matches.
Hit that figure again and Arsenal will need 17 points – five wins, two draws – from their last seven fixtures.
As five Arsenal players put their hands on their knees at the final whistle, visibly winded and gasping for breath, Sunday’s post-mortem left the distinct impression that Mikel Arteta’s side will need to win at the Etihad Stadium next Wednesday, 26 April.
But it should also note that City’s infallibility is not normal, and that to hit 91 points – as Arsenal are on course to do – would be the joint-highest total in all but four of the 25 Premier League seasons prior to Man City’s first title under Pep Guardiola.
He has created a new order, a new landscape that demands near-perfection from would-be challengers.
Maybe that is why, for the second successive Sunday, Arsenal’s rhythm was undeniably shaken, their fluency interrupted.
West Ham United supporters will point to a surge in tenacity around the half-hour mark, perhaps best exemplified by Declan Rice’s high press on Thomas Partey, which saw the ball turned over and the hosts win a penalty.
Arsenal fans may use the same incident to draw attention to their own deficiencies.
Partey struggled by his usual high standards, contributing a season-low three combined tackles and interceptions, and a season-low three recoveries.
Perhaps it was because he lacked the usual metronomic midfield support of Oleksandr Zinchenko.
Kieran Tierney managed 67 touches. Even allowing for his 85th-minute substitution, that is considerably fewer than Zinchenko’s 119 touches the last time Arsenal held the same possession share of 70 per cent.
Whatever the reason for Partey’s relative lack of control, it was notable that substitute Jorginho managed 34 touches in 28 minutes, compared to Partey’s 50 in 70 minutes.
Arsenal needed calm, measured composure when leading 2-0, but instead they were ruffled by West Ham’s aggressive pursuit of the ball, with the hosts posting their joint fourth-highest combined tackling and intercepting number of the season (34).
The worry for Arsenal is that such brittleness at 2-0 will encourage future opponents, who, watching West Ham push on, may no longer fear the league leaders.
Guardiola unlocks Leicester defence with another tweak
On the one hand, Smith’s game plan was shredded by a freak disruption of a left-footed John Stones volley - yet even this can be explained by Guardiola’s tactical genius.
Another day, another subtle tactical intervention. Guardiola saw the Leicester blockade coming and opted to field Rodri alone at the base of midfield in front of a back three, freeing up another playmaker, Bernardo Silva, to join the attack.
The build-up that led to Man City’s first corner of the match, from which Stones scored, illustrates how the positioning of Mahrez and Silva gave the hosts an overwhelming central presence, releasing Jack Grealish to run at defenders with as many as three players - Aymeric Laporte, Kevin De Bruyne and Silva - supporting him.
Here below is another incident, moments before Grealish wins a free-kick from which, under pressure, Leicester concede the penalty that makes it 2-0.
Again, the sheer volume of narrow Man City attackers pins Leicester's back five into a shape that frees Grealish. Quite simply, Leicester could not cope.
It was a marked departure from Guardiola’s normal use of a full-back in central midfield and the 3-2-5 shape that ordinarily keeps Mahrez holding the width on the right.
On this occasion, that would have left City too light in the middle to deal with Leicester’s crowded 5-4-1 formation. It was typically smart and typically unpredictable: the secret to City’s relentless march.
Latest reshuffle leaves Chelsea confused
Brighton & Hove Albion's domination at Stamford Bridge brought sharply into focus the chasm between these two clubs - the Seagulls' careful consideration in transfer policy and coaching, versus the scattergun disruptions that have left Chelsea flailing in mid-table.
“It was the most deserving [defeat],” Frank Lampard reflected. “At the moment, we need to talk about performances more than defeats. We were well beaten. In the basics of football, Brighton are a really good team, but we were shot in tackles, fight and yards.”
A choice few stats: Brighton outshot Chelsea 26-8, with 12 of those attempts coming in the first half, a record for a visiting side at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea’s Expected Goals Against (xGA) figure of 2.9 was their highest of the season in all competitions, while their own Expected Goals (xG) tally of 0.5 was their fourth-lowest.
They produced their fewest shot-creating actions (13) since a 1-0 defeat to Arsenal in November and had just 43 per cent possession, their lowest share in a Premier League fixture since against Liverpool in August 2021 – 66 matches ago.
Lampard is not to blame for the mess he inherited, but attempts to seize control, to impose order on the chaos, have so far failed.
Inconsistency in team selection and tactical style is surely a factor. Across their three defeats in eight days under Lampard, Chelsea have used three distinct formations and averaged five personnel changes per match.
It gives the impression of a manager experimenting with an oversized squad that is craving structure, that needs the patterns of play which emerge when relationships are given time to build.
Case in point: Chelsea have used 18 different centre-back partnerships in the Premier League this season, four more than the next-highest, West Ham. After just two matches, Lampard is already responsible for two of those.
James emerges as Mitrovic replacement
Prior to Saturday’s 3-1 win at Everton, Fulham had won 35 points from 21 matches in which Aleksandar Mitrovic started and just four points from the eight in which he had not. Yet Marco Silva had a more specific reason for trying something different at Goodison Park - using Dan James’ pace to get behind Everton.
“We changed the profile of our No 9 to use James as a striker because we wanted to explore some things in their back line, in behind the two central defenders,” Silva told The Athletic following the match.
It certainly worked. Fulham’s victory was the first time since Mitrovic joined the club in 2018 that Fulham scored three goals in a Premier League match without him starting, and at their 35th attempt.
James, who assisted the first and scored the third, played a starring role.
He obviously could not mimic the style of the suspended Mitrovic and it will come as no surprise to learn James won zero of his six aerial duels, but his running into the channels helped stretch Everton out of shape, offering a new dimension to the Fulham attack.
He received eight progressive passes, almost double Mitrovic’s Premier League average of 4.5, and completed three progressive carries, far more than Mitrovic’s average of one.
James still had 36 touches of the ball, roughly the same as Mitrovic’s season average of 37, and more importantly he had a big hand in all three goals.
His clever backheel to assist Harrison Reed was superb centre-forward play, before in the second half his run into the channel dragged James Tarkowski out of position, ultimately allowing Harry Wilson to find space to score Fulham’s second. The icing on the cake was a coolly-taken third.
Howe fails to anticipate midfielders' movement
The sheer dominance of Aston Villa’s victory over Newcastle United was among the biggest shocks of the weekend, and for that we must both praise Unai Emery’s formation and criticise Eddie Howe’s inability to anticipate it.
Emery has used this system relatively consistently since his appointment and it was no surprise to see them both pop up in space, ready to influence the match.
Howe’s reaction was a little surprising. As the below "average position" graphics show, while Villa were predictably narrow via Ramsey (No 41) and McGinn (No 7), Newcastle not only sat in a flat 4-4-2 formation – leaving just Joelinton and Bruno Guimaraes to deal with all those Villa players - but they also left huge pockets of space between their defensive and midfield lines.
The fallout from this mismatch was clear in the build-up to the first two Villa goals. First, notice how much space Emiliano Buendia can find between the lines, partly because Joe Willock - trying to keep track of Ramsey - was not part of a midfield three.
The second goal below was even more indicative of the pattern of the match: McGinn is ready to pick up the ball in space because Newcastle’s two-man midfield are overwhelmed by Villa’s five.
There are a number of ways Howe might have chosen to fight Emery’s system but a flat midfield four, with the wide men Willock and Anthony Gordon not tracking Ramsey and McGinn when they move infield, was not one of them.
Perhaps hoping that by mirroring Villa’s formation he could block it, Howe instead destabilised his own team.
AFC Bournemouth’s bravery pays off
Gary O’Neil has surpassed the wildest expectations of every Premier League viewer, perhaps most of all his predecessor Scott Parker, who was sacked back in August shortly after telling the media his players were "not equipped to handle" the quality in the top flight.
It takes them to 33 points, six above the relegation zone and most likely in need of just one more win to stay up.
The key aspect, this weekend more than ever, is hard work and a brave approach to winning the ball back.
O’Neil’s side rank third in the Premier League for total pressures (5717), and although that’s not unexpected considering AFC Bournemouth are bottom of the league for average possession share (38.4 per cent), it’s surprising they rank 10th for pressures in the attacking third (1,222).
This is not a team who sit back. Indeed, as their form improves, AFC Bournemouth are becoming increasingly bold in this regard.
On Saturday they hit a season high of 18 interceptions, reflecting their assertiveness in hounding down the ball.
Tellingly, they kept the pressure on after going 2-1 up in the second half. And even after Spurs’ 88th-minute equaliser, AFC Bournemouth kept pushing, getting their reward with a counter-attacking goal deep into stoppage-time.