Premier League weekend review: What we learned

21 Aug 2023

Alex Keble analyses the key talking points including Spurs' new dawn, Chelsea's reliance on a 19-year-old and McGinn's magic

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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.

- Postecoglou's bright new dawn
- How a 19-year-old is key Pochettino’s tactics
- The importance of McGinn to Villa
- Why more crossing will lift Forest
- Why Brighton are rolling on 

Postecoglou brings fun back to Spurs

Four years of frozen, oppressive, numbing football are over. The sun has returned and Tottenham Hotspur are thawing.

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That might sound like an overreaction to Spurs’ first victory of the Ange Postecoglou era, but the light and giddy atmosphere inside the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium encouraged hyperbole.

What a difference a new head coach, with a positive and progressive attitude, can make.

Football is only partially about the glory of winning things. It’s also about joy and hope, two emotions that fans felt were in short supply at Spurs since Mauricio Pochettino left in 2019 and a succession of reactive tacticians hesitated in attack.

You cannot accuse Postecoglou of conservatism, for better and for worse.

Manchester United had 14 shots in the first half on Saturday, their highest figure in an away match since October 2008 and racked up an Expected Goals (xG) of 2.1.

Had they put away one of their chances - the Bruno Fernandes header being the most gilt-edged - the mood in north London would have been completely different.

Instead, the Spurs fans were on their feet, dazzled by the speed and ferocity of their team’s attacks as Postecoglou - in typical fashion - invited his players to pour into the final third.

The all-important opening goal was a perfect example. As the images below show, Casemiro failed to spot Pape Sarr’s charge to the back post because, frankly, you don’t expect an innocuous situation to end, five seconds later, with six attackers in the penalty area all needing tracking.

Spurs v Man Utd goal 1
Spurs v Man Utd goal 1a

Yves Bissouma and Sarr were exceptional once again, leading the charge with driving runs through the lines that lifted the crowd and put Spurs on the front foot.

They top the charts so far this season for passes into the final third, with 107, while only Chelsea have completed more progressive carries than Spurs' 56.

Supporters can look forward to more days like these. Postecoglou is unbeaten in his last 49 home league matches across spells at Yokohoma F. Marinos, Celtic, and now Spurs.

Maintaining that record in the Premier League is self-evidently a much bigger challenge, but momentum – and good vibes – go a long way in football.

Pochettino’s intricate plans crumble without Chukwuemeka

After another summer of spending, nobody would have expected Carney Chukwuemeka to hold such a prominent position in the Chelsea team. Yet two matches into the season and already the 19-year-old looks the star of Pochettino’s new system.

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His brilliantly taken goal at West Ham United has put the teenager on the map, but even more impressive, was his intelligent movement as the centrepiece of Pochettino’s swirling hybrid formation, one which is difficult to describe in the usual format.

The easiest way to think of it is a 3-4-2-1 - with Chukwuemeka and Raheem Sterling sitting either side of Nicolas Jackson – that morphs into a 4-2-3-1 when the opposition has the ball.

But Ben Chilwell is never really in a left wing-back position, Levi Colwill often comes out of the back three to support the left flank, and Chukwuemeka flits between roles as an eight, 10, and a left winger.

Chukwumeka touch map

The formation slips through your fingers, dissolving into a scurrying web of dots every time you try to count up the lines.

This, of course, is by design, highlighting Pochettino’s desire to confound the opposition defence, but also highlighting the extent to which the Chelsea head coach wants his players to improvise, dribble, and fill in for one another, a notable point of difference to position-based coaches like Pep Guardiola.

Chelsea were in control - dominant and attacking with menace - in the first half, but Chukwuemeka’s enforced half-time substitution precipitated the collapse of those complicated patterns of play.

Mykhailo Mudryk struggled in the Chukwuemeka role and was promptly shifted out to the left, at which point Pochettino’s formation became a far simpler, wide 3-4-3 with Sterling and Mudryk looking to burst around the outside of West Ham’s 10-man shell.

Certainly Nayef Aguerd’s red card focused West Ham into a hunched defensive shape, but had Chukwuemeka still been on, you would have backed Chelsea to bamboozle the hosts until gaps appeared.

Instead, West Ham held firm for a smash-and-grab win courtesy of two assists from debutant James Ward-Prowse.

For all their new signings, Chelsea were reliant on one young player filling multiple roles on the pitch, but unfortunately he was pictured on crutches afterwards. 

McGinn leads Villa’s control of central midfield

“When we see John McGinn pressing and working hard, it just gives us all a little boost. To have him on our team is a privilege.”

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Ezri Konsa’s assessment captures the mood of every Aston Villa fan after a thumping 4-0 victory over Everton restored their pride and cancelled out the defeat at Newcastle United a week earlier.

McGinn is well and truly back to his barging, pivoting, dribbling best – and he has the tactical acumen of Unai Emery to thank.

Everton’s 4-4-1-1 was made to look passive by Emery’s more sophisticated formation, which completely overwhelmed the visitors by crowding central midfield.

McGinn came in off the left and Moussa Diaby dropped off the front to make a box-shape midfield (as part of a 3-2-5) that easily floated in the spaces in front and behind of Idrissa Gueye and Amadou Onana.

The build-up to Villa’s opener, scored by McGinn, offers a textbook example of what happened. Everton had no idea how to keep track of McGinn and Diaby while also getting tight to Boubacar Kamara and Douglas Luiz.

Look at how much space the two of them found in between the lines.

Aston Villa v Everton Diaby

Still, Emery only provided the tactical framework. McGinn deserves the credit for an exceptional performance twisting and turning through the Everton team.

He attempted four dribbles, completed four progressive carries, made nine progressive passes, and completed four passes into the penalty area, topping the chart in all four metrics.

As Konsa suggests, McGinn set the tone and the rest followed, blowing Everton away and leaving Sean Dyche to ruminate over another damaging loss.

This is the first time the Toffees have lost their opening two league matches without scoring a goal since 1955/56.

Next week’s home match against Wolverhampton Wanderers, another team on zero points, has taken on huge significance.

They dare not lose that.

Forest must learn to cross more often

Considering Nottingham Forest are among the Premier League’s most direct teams, it is surprising how infrequently they attempt one of the sport’s simplest and most traditional routes to goal.

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Judging by Friday’s match, they really ought to cross the ball more often.

Serge Aurier assisted two goals via crosses from the right, the first setting up Taiwo Awoniyi, and the second assisting Chris Wood for a dramatic 89th-minute winner.

We don’t see it often enough. Last season Forest ranked 17th for crosses attempted, with 13.9 per match.

Adjusting for their relatively low average possession share, Forest were below the likes of Brentford, Newcastle, Fulham, Everton, and West Ham for crosses per attempted pass (25.8).

That seems even stranger when you consider that 18.3 per cent of all Forest’s attempted passes are long - only Luton Town have a higher figure - and that Everton are the only club with attack zones more focused down the wings than Forest’s 78 per cent.

Perhaps Steve Cooper is already on the way to correcting that, hence the 21 attempted crosses against Sheffield United, leading to two headed goals – one third of their entire outlay of six in the Premier League last season.

Nott'm forest crosses

Key: green = successful crosses, red = unsuccessful crosses

Awoniyi’s aerial prowess, coupled with having target man Wood on the bench, ought to encourage Forest to be a little less precise in the final third and a little more open to swinging hopeful balls into the box.

That can start at Old Trafford next weekend. Only West Ham and Fulham have faced more crosses than Man Utd's 39 so far this season. 

While United have won only 45.9 per cent of their aerial duels thus far, Forest have won 61 per cent.

Brilliant Brighton are impervious to loss

Experience told us Brighton & Hove Albion would cope with the loss of Alexis Mac Allister, Moises Caicedo, and Robert Sanchez. But to excel like this – to blow teams away and climb to the summit of the Premier League table – is just ridiculous even by their high standards.

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Brighton top the charts for xG, with 6.2, and goals, with eight, having obliterated first Luton and then Wolves.

And while these two provided hardly the most difficult start to the campaign, it is notable that Roberto De Zerbi’s side have looked so elegant and composed in possession-dominant games after losing their two star midfielders.

Far more eye-catchingly, Brighton look phenomenal in the final third.

Kaoru Mitoma’s sensational opener (his first in 13 matches) set them on their way.

Then three goals in 10 second-half minutes meant Brighton had scored eight goals in their opening two fixtures for the first time since 1999/2000, when they were in the fourth tier.

A brace for Solly March took him to 15 goal contributions in the last 19 matches, while a goal and an assist for Pervis Estupinan made it three goal contributions already this season – more than any other Premier League defender.

Brighton's explosive start could continue on Saturday when they host West Ham, who will gift De Zerbi’s side the vast majority of possession – and who have conceded 3.8 xG in two Premier League matches so far.

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