Premier League weekend preview: what to look out for

17 Aug 2023
Guardiola, Howe

Alex Keble on if City can lay down a marker against Newcastle and why Spurs will relish Man Utd test

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Alex Keble analyses where the weekend's matches could be won and lost, including:
- Did Wolves show Spurs how to attack Man Utd?
- Tonali to test Man City
- Iraola will relish Anfield battle
- What Aston Villa must do to bounce back

United’s missing midfield can ignite Postecoglou revolution

Manchester United were fortunate to beat Wolverhampton Wanderers 1-0 on Monday night, when the visitors’ hard running and quick-fire counter-attacks tore through United’s surprisingly passive midfield three. Tottenham Hotspur pose a similar threat and, in front of an excitable home crowd welcoming the new manager, they are unlikely to be as profligate as Wolves were.

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Wolves were very direct and keen to dribble through the lines, attempting 35 take-ons, completing 22, more than any other Premier League team last weekend. Second on that list, attempting 28 and completing 16, were Spurs.

Gary O’Neil and Ange Postecoglou have very different styles, but in this regard they are similar. The Spurs head coach expects his team to push forward in high numbers and go straight for the jugular, hence all those take-ons against a deep-lying Brentford, and hence why they ranked fourth last weekend for progressive carries (28), behind only Arsenal, Brighton and Hove Albion and Wolves.

United’s meandering display on Monday might simply had been a bad day at the office, but it might also be explained by Erik ten Hag’s desire to turn the dial this season and begin to introduce some of the more complicated elements of his tactics.

Man Utd pushed higher and pressed harder against Wolves than they would have done last season. They recorded a passes per defensive action (PPDA) of 7.4, considerably lower than their 2022/23 average of 12.3, and they managed 18 high turnovers, double their 2022/23 average of 8.7.

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Even from such a small sample size it’s obvious that Ten Hag wants more Ajax-like football from his team this season, yet this high press proved disorganised and risky, giving Wolves the opportunity to dribble out into space.

In the below example, Man Utd commit so many bodies to the high press that just one pass to Matheus Cunha, and one dribble past Lisandro Martinez, leads to a three on two:

Man Utd Wolves 1
Man Utd Wolves 2

Postecoglou will be looking forward to this. His use of inverted full-backs gives Spurs a numerical advantage in central midfield, which is precisely where United looked open and disconnected, plus Yves Bissouma looks reborn as a weaving No 6. Only Wolves’ Matheus Nunes completed more take-ons than Bissouma’s five last weekend.

With Richarlison, Son Heung-min, and James Maddison all looking to race into the final third at speed, Man Utd fans need to hope Ten Hag has found a way to reconfigure that high press to prevent Mason Mount, Casemiro, and Bruno Fernandes from being overrun again.

Tonali-led intensity will test whether Man City have lost their edge

Just how vulnerable are Manchester City without Riyad Mahrez and Kevin De Bruyne? That is the big question over the next few months as Pep Guardiola attempts to navigate another summer of transfer upheaval without his main creative force.

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However, arguably a more urgent question is to what extent their difficulties in the first half against Burnley were symptomatic of a wider problem. Some critics have wondered whether last season's Treble will lead to a comedown of sorts this year, and there was certainly something in the misplaced passes and slow start against Burnley that hinted as much.

We will have an answer by Saturday evening. Newcastle United’s explosive start against Aston Villa showed that motivation under Eddie Howe remains high, and that the additions of the tenacious Sandro Tonali and sharp-dribbling Harvey Barnes will continue Newcastle’s driving, transition-focused football.

They will happily take the game to Man City, testing whether apathy has crept in at the Etihad with rapid counter-attacks and, most likely, a defensive system inspired by Burnley.

Howe will have taken notes. Burnley’s man-to-man pressing system in open play was effective up until Erling Haaland’s second goal in the 36th minute, which somewhat killed the match, and Newcastle’s superior attackers can take advantage in a way Burnley could not.

The following image captures what Burnley did all half: a man-to-man system that, boldly pushing tight to the Man City players, shut down passing angles and forced the visitors into misplaced passes. Just seconds after the below, Burnley pinched the ball and stormed into the penalty area.

Burnley Man City

Newcastle should follow suit in the hope of opening up the game and creating moments for fast transitions, just like the ones we saw in the 3-3 draw between the two sides last season. That day, Allan Saint-Maximin and Joelinton were the players running off the back of the City midfield.

On Saturday it will be Tonali and Barnes. Man City will need to raise their game if they are to cope.

See: Tonali's dream debut shows how he can drive Newcastle forward

Liverpool’s midfield to be tested by Iraola

Liverpool’s attempts to replace Fabinho at the base of midfield are widely known, and anyone who watched their 1-1 draw with Chelsea last weekend will have understood why. Jurgen Klopp’s side were pinned back, holding just over 35 per cent possession as Conor Gallagher, Enzo Fernandez, and Carney Chukwuemeka overwhelmed a midfield that lacked defensive bite.

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AFC Bournemouth will take a fairly similar approach. New manager Andoni Iraola is a Marcelo Bielsa disciple just like Mauricio Pochettino, his teams pressing frantically and snapping at the heels of the opposition. This could catch out a Liverpool midfield that was too decompressed against Chelsea.

To illustrate just how much Bournemouth have changed over the summer, against West Ham Bournemouth’s PPDA was 6.9, the third-lowest in the Premier League and less than half their 2022/23 season average of 15.7.

They also attempted the third most take-ons (24), another indicator of a Bielsa-like desire to run straight at the heart of the opposition.

Liverpool might not like this kind of energy and urgency, not with such big gaps between their midfield players. This is a tougher opening home fixture than it might appear on paper – and a serious test of Liverpool’s ability to control matches without a No 6.

Villa need to bounce back after Newcastle disaster

Aston Villa didn’t actually play particularly poorly at Newcastle but it was the kind of result that can get under the skin and potentially derail a season.

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It was certainly a shock to the system: Villa haven’t lost by a four-goal margin in the season opener since a 4-0 defeat to Man Utd in 1985/86.

It goes without saying they need to recover quickly, and after shipping five to Newcastle and losing Tyrone Mings to a serious injury, there is relief to be facing Everton, surely the worst finishers in the division.

Following on from the theme of last season, Sean Dyche’s side failed to score against Fulham from an Expected Goals (xG) of 2.73, with Neal Maupay guilty of missing some good chances.

See: How Emery can get Villa's balance right against Everton

However, Dominic Calvert-Lewin is set to return this weekend, which is worrying news for Villa fans who saw Pau Torres look uncomfortable on his debut at St James' Park.

Not that Villa will look much like they did in the opener. Unai Emery is likely to replace Leon Bailey with Youri Tielemans and instruct his two wider midfielders to tuck inside, creating the box-shaped midfield that so often helped Villa control matches last season.

With a firmer foothold in this contest, that should turn everybody’s attention to home debutant Moussa Diaby’s battle with former Villa man Ashley Young. Their head-to-head will surely go in the favour of the faster and younger player, providing Villa with a route to recovery from the damaging defeat on Matchday 1.

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