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.
Arsenal’s drop-off highlights lack of squad depth
A third consecutive draw, this time courtesy of a disastrous first 15 minutes against rock-bottom Southampton, has expanded Arsenal’s mini-wobble into a run that threatens to envelope half of the 2022/23 season.
Zooming out, Mikel Arteta’s side have won seven of their last 13 matches and collected only 25 points. This is a points-per-match record of 1.92 that would provide 73 over a whole season.
In other words, since the halfway point of the season, Arsenal have regressed to their 2021/22 form.
This is not just about bad luck or wasteful moments, either.
Arsenal have continued to score at about the same rate: 2.46 goals per match, compared with 2.36 across their first 19. But the underlying numbers show a drop-off in their defending:
|First 19 matches||Last 13 matches|
|Goals conceded (per 90)||14 (0.78)||17 (1.31)|
|xG against (per 90)||16.83 (0.94)||16.83 (1.30)|
|Shots on target (per 90)||8.7 (3.0)||9.3 (3.9)|
The simplest explanation is that Arsenal are worse without William Saliba in the side, although this is as much to do with his on-the-ball work as his traditional defending.
Rob Holding’s pass accuracy of 85.5 per cent is notably lower than Saliba’s 91.0 per cent. Holding attempts more than twice as many long passes - 11.7 per match, compared with Saliba’s 5.4, reflecting the Frenchman’s superior composure and line-breaking qualities.
This has made Arsenal less able to control matches, calmly evade the opposition press, or keep teams penned in for long periods, hence their deterioration over the last three fixtures, in particular.
It might even explain why Aaron Ramsdale avoided the simple passing option out to Holding in the opening minute, instead of seeking to break the lines himself, which led to the opener.
Arsenal’s loss of fluency and measured possession without Saliba forms part of a wider trend that highlights their lack of squad depth.
Arteta’s side are yet to drop a single Premier League point this season with his preferred 11 and have come unstuck many times when just one component part is removed.
They were more disjointed, and vulnerable to being caught in the transition, when,
a) Albert Sambi Lokonga held the base of midfield in a 3-1 defeat to Manchester United in September;
b) Oleksandr Zinchenko was absent in the 1-1 draw with Southampton in October and the 2-2 draw with West Ham United in April;
c) the more static Eddie Nketiah replaced Gabriel Jesus in February's 1-0 defeat to Everton and 1-1 draw with Brentford.
With reports suggesting Saliba may not play again before the end of the season, Arsenal must find a way to adapt, starting with Wednesday’s trip to Manchester City, which now looks like a must-win match.
Spurs’ chaotic defence a nadir
A clumsy season is bending towards catastrophe for Tottenham Hotspur, who now have their third head coach in the space of a month after sacking Cristian Stellini on Monday and putting Ryan Mason in charge.
You could argue whether blame for Sunday's capitulation at Newcastle United ultimately lies with the succession of poor decisions – from transfers to managerial appointments – that have led to this point.
The decision to promote Antonio Conte’s assistant Stellini and keep a tactical model that was faltering looks flawed and has now been abandoned.
Stellini's attempt at a completely new strategy at St James' Park also did not work.
Not since January 2022, or 50 Premier League matches ago, had Spurs lined up with a back four – and it showed.
The players seemed unsure of how to play in the 4-2-3-1 formation. Worse still, they had apparently been instructed to deploy a high defensive line but without the requisite pressing.
You cannot have one without the other, or else the opposition have the time and space to clip passes over the top of the defensive line, as Newcastle did for the second and fourth goals.
However, just as important was the disorganisation where a zigzag defensive line formed helplessly as the home side poured forward.
It’s no wonder they struggled to track Newcastle runners or cover the gaps across the back four. It looked a formation and strategy that was alien to most of the squad.
Spurs have now conceded nine goals in their last two matches, hardly an ideal way to enter a week in which they face Manchester United, buoyed by their progression to the FA Cup final, and Liverpool, who have scored nine in their last two matches.
As he reflects on his departure, Stellini may well feel he was stuck between a rock and a hard place: fans wanted an end to the conservative football, but his first attempt to move towards a more attacking set-up was a disaster.
Liverpool set-piece precision shows they remain invaluable
In the modern pursuit of tactical perfection in open play, as the concepts of pressing traps, transitions and half-spaces become common parlance, sometimes the traditional routes to goal can be overlooked by analysts.
All managers recognise the simple value of a good set-piece, but it says a lot about our perceptions of the great tacticians that someone like Jurgen Klopp is very rarely praised for consistently coaching attacking set-pieces so well.
Over the past five seasons, Liverpool have been right up there with the division’s best.
Liverpool set-piece goals by season
|Season||Set-piece goals (excl penalties)||Rank|
After the match, Jota revealed they had been focusing on this area in particular.
“It’s always hard when you need to attack a low block with a lot of defenders and a lot of people around,” he said. “We knew that set-pieces could be a real advantage for us today.”
Liverpool’s quality during the Klopp era has frequently forced worried opponents to sit deep and Forest’s low block at Anfield was an extreme example.
Steve Cooper’s side held just 20 per cent and Liverpool’s 80 per cent was their highest in a Premier League match this season.
When there are that many players crowding the area, it is inevitably difficult to create chances in open play, while the likelihood of fouls and corner concessions increases. That’s why Liverpool work so hard on the uglier, and less tactical, side of the game.
It certainly wasn’t the prettiest win, but at this stage of the season that hardly matters.
Liverpool have now won consecutive Premier League matches and, having only claimed three wins in a row once before this season, must finally put a sequence together if they are to qualify for the UEFA Europa League.
But they’ll need a different method to beat West Ham on Wednesday. The Hammers have conceded only three goals from set-pieces, the fewest in the Premier League.
Everton sink but Calvert-Lewin offers hope
Everton dropped back into the bottom three this weekend with a 0-0 draw against Crystal Palace that extended their winless run to five, yet Sean Dyche has every right to feel optimistic about his team’s chances across the final six matches.
For starters, Everton kept their first away clean sheet since October and against a Palace side who had scored nine goals in their last three.
It was deserved, too, with Everton’s 0.5 xGA (Expected Goals Against) their joint-lowest in a match this season and lowest away from Goodison Park.
With the defensive side improving, Everton fans will hope the return of Dominic Calvert-Lewin inspires the full implementation of Dyche-ball.
Calvert-Lewin won six aerial duels, his joint-most this season, while Everton won a season-record 35 aerial duels thanks in part to their increased long-ball game: they attempted 83 in total, their second most in a Dyche-led Everton match this campaign.
It almost led to a winner.
Everton’s best chance came from a long Jordan Pickford clearance and Alex Iwobi winning the second ball after Calvert-Lewin’s aerial challenge. Iwobi slipped a pass back to Calvert-Lewin, who fired just wide. Had it gone in, it would have been the archetypal Dyche winner and an archetypal Dyche 1-0 win.
Buendia finally thriving
Nevertheless, Unai Emery’s triple substitution in the 67th minute completely changed the rhythm of the match. Villa, now with John McGinn controlling central midfield, held 70 per cent possession, outshooting Brentford 8-2 from that point on.
Villa’s best player, and not for the first time in recent weeks, was Emiliano Buendia, who after a slow start to his Villa career has found his feet under the tutelage of Emery.
On Saturday, he hit a season high for shot-creating actions (eight), progressive carries (four), and take-ons (four), as well as providing the assist for Douglas Luiz.
Over the last two years, Buendia, has often looked a little too lightweight to cope with opposition pressure when receiving the ball between the lines as a No 10, but that has changed thanks to the detail of Emery’s coaching.
Buendia tends to take possession in larger areas of space these days, giving him an extra second to find the composure – and strength – to shield the ball and thread a pass.
All of a sudden, he is fulfilling the promise he showed in the Championship season that preceded his transfer to Villa, when Buendia amassed 15 goals and 15 assists for Norwich City.
Even when Villa don’t win, there is something fresh to say about the Emery revolution. European football back at Villa Park looks increasingly likely.