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Premier League weekend review: What we learned

18 Sep 2023
Manchester United v Brighton & Hove Albion - Premier League

Alex Keble analyses key talking points including the fallout from Man Utd's loss to Brighton

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Following a weekend of Premier League drama, Alex Keble looks at the key talking points and tactical lessons including: 

- Man Utd's poor start
- Doku's starring role in City's win at West Ham
- How Postecoglou made Spurs "dare to do"
- Klopp's formation switch against Wolves
- How Emery's substitutions inspired Villa comeback

Man Utd make their worst ever start

Things aren't looking great for Manchester United, who were “dismantled” by Brighton & Hove Albion – in the words of Gary Neville – in a comprehensive win for the visitors that condemned United to their worst start in Premier League history.

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Injuries and absences have made things difficult for Erik ten Hag, and yet it was an unforced error to introduce a diamond 4-4-2 for this encounter. His players are not used to this system, and Brighton’s wide overloads make a narrow formation particularly risky.

It didn’t take long at Old Trafford before Brighton were easing through, finding space by going around the outside of United's shape. Brighton's centre-backs split wide to receive passes and carry the ball forward, while Simon Adingra and Kaoru Mitoma enjoyed time on the ball before cutting passes back inside, a move that led to the second and third goals.

A look at the two teams’ average positions illustrates how easy Man Utd made it. The first image shows Ten Hag’s very narrow formation, and the second shows how Brighton simply stretched wide in order to work around their opponent.

MW5-WWL-Man-Utd-ave-positions-v-Brighton
Brighton-ave-positions-v-Man-Utd

There is a real danger of things unravelling for Man Utd, who have conceded two or more goals in each of their last four Premier League matches, which is their longest ever run in a single season.

The boos that greeted the substitution of Rasmus Hojlund felt ominous. Ten Hag could do with a big result at Bayern Munich on Wednesday.

See: What's coming up this week

Doku stars after Pep's change unlocks West Ham

Jeremy Doku is a breath of fresh air for Manchester City, but he is also a return to the old ways.

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Since the arrival of Jack Grealish, Pep Guardiola has moved away from raw pace on the wings, with the likes of Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling departing in recent seasons. That pace used to be an important counter-point to the slower possession of Guardiola teams, and Doku showed at West Ham the value of that more traditional route to goal.

West Ham’s low block is very difficult to pick apart with delicate passing. Sometimes the best thing to do is isolate a full-back and run directly at them, which is what Doku did at the London Stadium throughout the 90 minutes.

He amassed more progressive carries and attempted take-ons than anyone else on the pitch, with 13 and nine respectively.

Positions of Doku's attempted take-ons
Doku take-ons v West Ham

Green dots = successful take-ons; red dots = unsuccessful

Vladimir Coufal had a difficult match, although West Ham managed to hold out until Guardiola’s second-half tactical switch.

Man City remained in a 3-2-5 throughout, but whereas in the first half Bernardo Silva sat deep alongside Rodri while Kyle Walker provided the width on the right, after the break Phil Foden was moved to the right wing, Walker inverted to join Rodri and Silva pushed up to play alongside Julian Alvarez.

This meant Silva was able to influence the match in more advanced positions while Man City had an extra forward - Foden over Walker - in the final third. It worked instantly, and as Guardiola’s side became more fluid in possession the chances kept coming until Silva, in his new position, scored the goal to put Man City in the lead.

But Doku deserves to take the headlines. The Belgian gave Guardiola the direct option needed to move around the West Ham shell and, scoring the opener, he was the player to break the hosts’ resistance.

Postecoglou effect lifts Spurs again

“The way we play, it’s not just that I believe it’s what gets you success,” Ange Postecoglou said after Tottenham’s victory over Sheffield United.

“It does, that’s what I believe and it has in my career. But it also says a lot about you as a football club when you play the game that way because it requires a fair bit of bravery, a fair bit of courage, a real relentlessness when you play that way, and I think that has to sort of marry with the image of the football club.”

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It is difficult to imagine Spurs believing in themselves - and applying consistent pressure in the search for two goals - under any of their previous three managers, and Postecoglou is right to suggest that expressive attacking football triggers self-belief.

But Spurs’ record-breaking comeback – no team have ever been trailing in the 98th minute and won, and Dejan Kulusevski’s winner at 99min 53sec is the latest in Premier League history – was also inspired by Postecoglou’s man management.

See: Spurs produce latest turnaround in Premier League history

During the international break Richarlison said he would seek out psychological help after going through a “turbulent time” over the last five months, and before Saturday’s game Postecoglou spoke publicly about the support the club would offer the Brazilian.

It is presumably a testament to the culture Postecoglou is creating that Richarlison scored the equaliser and assisted the winner after coming off the bench in the 80th minute.

See: Postecoglou: Richarlison should remember he's a great player

He helped make it four wins in a row for Spurs and kept them within two points of Man City ahead of the north London derby next weekend. Belief – among players and fans – has rarely been this high.

Going into the derby at Emirates Stadium, nobody at the club will fear the challenge of facing Arsenal. That’s the Postecoglou effect.

Klopp’s switch to 4-2-4 proves decisive

Liverpool have gone behind in three Premier League matches already this season and have won all three of them, which is a sign his team too often start sluggishly – but also that Jurgen Klopp now has the squad depth required to change a match.

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As is often the case with a 12:30 kick-off, Liverpool were slow off the mark. This allowed Wolves to deploy an aggressive midblock in which they surrounded the Reds' central midfielders and, arriving sharply to tackle and intercept in the middle third, prevent Liverpool from being able to build towards the penalty area.

In the first half Liverpool had just nine touches in the Wolves box and, 1-0 down, were kept at arm's length by some hard work in the Wolves midfield that blocked the middle and cut off the supply line to the Liverpool front three.

Liv 1st half v Wolves

Klopp solved the problem by being bold, fighting fire with fire by switching to a 4-2-4 formation that quickly pinned Wolves into a deep defensive shape, completely altering the pattern of play. Introducing Luis Diaz at half-time gave Liverpool a more direct threat on the left and scared Wolves into retreat.

Liv 2nd half v Wolves

The sheer number of bodies around the Wolves penalty area forced Cody Gakpo’s equaliser and, after Darwin Nunez and Harvey Elliott came on to turn the screw, a hasty long ball from Jose Sa backfired and led to Andy Robertson’s winner. Rushing a clearance in the vain hope of a counter-attack was a symptom of Wolves becoming agitated while under constant pressure.

It was a typically Klopp solution to a problem. Rather than make like-for-like changes or attempt more subtle tweaks to a tactic not working, the Liverpool manager went all-in for an attacking 4-2-4 that frightened Wolves into retreat.

Emery’s subs inspire Villa comeback

Not unlike the Liverpool match, Aston Villa’s dramatic comeback exemplified the newfound strength in depth in Unai Emery’s squad.

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The hosts had been a little toothless in the first half, managing just seven shots on goal despite holding 66 per cent possession, but they managed to play with greater urgency in the second period and increasingly forced Crystal Palace to sit deep – until the pressure paid off with those late, late goals.

Rarely does a manager get his subs so perfectly right. The equaliser was scored in the 87th minute by substitute Jhon Duran. The second goal, a penalty, was created by a sharp forward pass from substitute Youri Tielemans. The third was scored by substitute Leon Bailey.

Arguably Aston Villa have never had a squad with such depth in the Premier League era, and certainly it was the welcome boost of those substitutes that gave the hosts the extra momentum needed to prevent Palace from slowing things down.

But it was, of course, a testament to Villa’s character too, and on a weekend of late comebacks there is an argument to be made that the increased length of stoppage time is setting up emotional finishes that favour the side chasing a goal.

As Emery said after the match, "We were playing more with our hearts than with our minds in the last 20 minutes - and sometimes you need that.”

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