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.
Pros and cons of Postecoglou’s system laid bare
An end-to-end 2-2 draw was the perfect introduction to Ange Postecoglou football. Tottenham Hotspur fans should prepare for a season of entertaining and high-scoring matches, witnessing the pros and cons of playing gung-ho football.
The most obvious thing to note was the aggressive attacking play. Spurs attempted the most take-ons (26) across the Premier League this weekend and had the most attacking-third touches (344) as they looked to swarm Brentford.
But there are downsides to Postecoglou’s unique approach and Thomas Frank knew exactly how to exploit them. The new Spurs manager famously deploys both of his full-backs in central midfield, inevitably leaving space for opponents to counter-attack down those vacated flanks – which is exactly what Brentford did with long balls into the channels.
Brentford switched the play more than any other team in the Premier League this weekend (seven), finding the most joy releasing Rico Henry down the left. He repeatedly got behind Emerson Royal, leading to the penalty concession for Bryan Mbeumo’s goal and then leading directly to Yoane Wissa's strike nine minutes later.
Spurs also struggled for fluency in attack, largely because Son Heung-min looked isolated stuck out on the left. Postecoglou expects his wingers to hug the touchline and provide all the width, but Brentford’s use of a back five meant Son and Dejan Kulusevski were often drowned out.
Brentford helpfully provided a template for Spurs' future opponents: a back five keeps the wingers away from the penalty area, while quick counter-attacks launched down the wings can exploit the spaces left open by those inverted full-backs.
New signings provide Arteta with tactical flexibility
Mikel Arteta played a surprise back three for Arsenal’s opening match against Nottingham Forest and, despite a late wobble onset by a superb cameo from Anthony Elanga, it was an excellent way to pin back the visitors.
We are well versed in Forest’s defensive approach against the top teams and this match was no different: in a 5-2-3 formation, Steve Cooper crowded the penalty box in an attempt to force Arsenal into harmless sideways possession.
Anticipating the problem, Arteta went for an all-out attacking formation. His 3-1-3-3 used a diamond shape in the middle of the pitch with Kai Havertz at the tip, Thomas Partey (inverting from right-back) at the base, and Declan Rice and Martin Odegaard shuttling up and down either side.
When you factor in the outside centre-back (Ben White or Jurrien Timber) overlapping, it gave Arsenal as many as seven players in the final third, allowing them to double up on Forest’s wing-backs in wide areas as well as outnumber them centrally.
Onlookers might have been concerned by the lack of clear goalscoring opportunities for Arsenal but they had total control of possession (78.3 per cent) and territory, calmly waiting for gaps to appear.
Arsenal let the game drift at 2-0, switching off at an attacking corner to let substitutes Elanga and Taiwo Awoniyi suddenly redefine the narrative of the second half, but overall Arteta’s new formation was a success – and a sign of the newfound variety and flexibility in his team.
Everton profligacy a serious concern
The same old problem reoccurred for Everton.
They were the division’s second-lowest goalscorers last season with 34 goals, which, scored from an Expected Goals (xG) of 45.2, gave them the worst goals to xG differential (-13.2) in the Premier League.
In other words, the problem wasn’t creating chances. It was putting them away.
Everton’s 1-0 defeat to Fulham was depressingly familiar for supporters. They had the third-most shots of any Premier League team this weekend, with 19, and produced an xG of 2.7, but still drew a blank, with Neal Maupay and Alex Iwobi missing their best chances.
“Some of the breakaways, some of the moments, some of the quality of chances were excellent,” Sean Dyche said after the match. “There's a real strong sign there today, a strong sign of a good outfit there that is creating lots of chances and a lot of good things, so we've got to maintain the belief in that.”
Dyche is right. It is better that Everton are missing good chances than not creating those chances at all, and yet with Dominic Calvert-Lewin still injured and Everton reportedly struggling to bring in a new striker, their inability to find the back of the net is hugely concerning.
Chelsea and Liverpool show why they want Caicedo and Lavia
It looks like this is going to be a fun year at the top. After Arsenal and Spurs showed their commitment to attacking football, Chelsea and Liverpool played out a wild 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge to indicate why it is so good to have Mauricio Pochettino back in the Premier League.
Up until Mohamed Salah’s disallowed goal around the half-hour mark, Chelsea had been blown away.
Chelsea held 64.9 per cent possession, the most in any Premier League match against Liverpool since such records began in 2003/04. That astonishing statistic highlights just how well Pochettino’s 3-4-3 worked – and just how badly Liverpool missed having Fabinho at the base of midfield.
Alexis Mac Allister was graceful, for the first half-hour at least, but Liverpool were too easily overwhelmed without someone to break up the play and stop turnovers of possession leading to counter-attacks.
Chelsea were not much better in this regard. They failed to control the ball 26 times, more than any team at the weekend bar Crystal Palace, hence the frantic nature of this contest.
By the final whistle, Cody Gakpo’s difficulty coping with his role as a No 8 and Liverpool’s decompression between the lines had allowed Chelsea to wrestle control, but there was enough chaos – enough frenetic football – to show why Moises Caicedo and Romeo Lavia are being targeted by both clubs.
Defensive stats comparison (per 90)
Foden must seize chance in De Bruyne's absence
Ordinarily a 3-0 victory on the opening night of the new Premier League season would indicate all is right with the world. But Manchester City supporters might not feel that way after a surprisingly tough opening 30 minutes against Burnley and with Kevin De Bruyne’s hamstring injury flaring up again.
Burnley’s man-to-man press was initially effective in shutting Man City down, although ultimately the visitors’ willingness to play longer balls over the top solved the conundrum (Ederson hit 16 long balls, more than double his 2022/23 average of 7.96 per match).
The De Bruyne injury is a much bigger worry, especially after City lost Riyad Mahrez this summer.
De Bruyne contributed 23 goals and assists in the Premier League last season and topped the Man City charts for shot-creating actions, with 6.54 per match. The player second on that list, with 5.45 per 90, was Mahrez.
Phil Foden was third with 4.83 per 90, and it is widely believed the 23-year-old needs to step up this season after a slightly disappointing 2022/23 in which he started only 22 Premier League matches.
Foden skill v Burnley
Previously restricted by Jack Grealish, Foden may be given the opportunity to play in a more central position, where his capacity to play on the half-turn in congested areas makes him an ideal stand-in for De Bruyne.
But reported Man City interest in West Ham United’s Lucas Paqueta and Crystal Palace winger Michael Olise suggests Pep Guardiola may not see Foden in a central attacking midfield position. Foden may not have long to prove his manager wrong.