Premier League weekend review: What we learned

By Alex Keble 25 Sep 2023
Chelsea FC v Aston Villa - Premier League

Alex Keble analyses key talking points including why there was another disappointing result for Chelsea

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

- Time for Pochettino to worry?
- Familiar story for Moyes
- Safety first for Guardiola after Rodri red
- Ten Hag goes on the defence at Burnley
- Record-breaking win for Newcastle

Pochettino approaching crisis point at Chelsea

Yet another match with encouraging signs. Yet another match without a goal. Chelsea have now drawn a blank in three consecutive Premier League outings and as the unwanted records begin to fall, it is only a matter of time before Mauricio Pochettino starts to feel the pressure.

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Chelsea have won just one of their opening six Premier League matches for the first time since 2000/01, by which point then-manager Gianluca Vialli had been sacked.

Nobody is talking that way about Pochettino, whose project demands time and patience, but it would be understandable if the Argentinian was beginning to wonder.

His predecessor Graham Potter first felt the heat after a five-match winless run between October and November, while Thomas Tuchel was sacked six matches into the season with Chelsea on 10 points. At the same stage this season, Pochettino’s team have half that number.

Their final two Premier League matches before the second international break are pivotal. Saturday's trip to west London rivals Fulham is a must-win for obvious reasons, but there is more than just pride on the line, before the visit to Burnley offers the chance of six points from six to relieve some pressure.

After that, Chelsea have a tough run all the way until early December. Anything less than two wins before the next break will mean entering that seven-match sequence practically in relegation form.

Chelsea's next 10 fixtures
Date Opponent Date Opponent
27 Sep Brighton (H) EFL Cup 6 Nov Spurs (A)
2 Oct Fulham (A) 12 Nov Man City (H)
7 Oct Burnley (A) 25 Nov Newcastle (A)
21 Oct Arsenal (H) 2 Dec Brighton (H)
28 Oct Brentford (H) 6 Dec Man Utd (A)

At the moment, there are plenty of signs of encouragement in Chelsea matches to suggest they can turn a corner, the most significant of which is the fact that they have recorded a higher xG (Expected Goals) total than their opponents in all six Premier League matches under Pochettino.

But this is a results business, and heads will surely drop unless their fortunes change prior to the two-week break in October.

Familiar story for retreating Moyes

West Ham United's 3-1 defeat at Anfield was nothing new for David Moyes. He has not won a single one of his last 72 Premier League visits to the traditional "big four" of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United, and has now lost 13 league matches in a row at Anfield.

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But that wasn’t the only familiar thing about this one. West Ham have a growing tendency to get deeper and deeper as matches go on, trading a more aggressive and confrontational approach for a cowering defensive blockade in the second half.

Here was a classic example – and almost a carbon copy of the defeat to Manchester City a week earlier.

In the first half, West Ham rarely let Liverpool settle on the ball, and when the ball was won back the visitors were able to find space behind Jurgen Klopp’s central midfield. But in the second half, they went into classic Moyes retreat mode, and either through fear or tactical error hunched on the edge of their own box.

Inviting pressure, Liverpool’s confidence in possession grew, until Alexis Mac Allister found far too much space in front of the defensive shell to pick out a pass for Darwin Nunez, who made it 2-1.

Darwin Nunez goal v West Ham

The exact same thing happened against Man City eight days ago, when West Ham – a goal up at half-time – appeared to alter their game plan in the second period as Moyes went into retreat. It is a worrying pattern for the Hammers, who have conceded two goals in first halves this season and eight in second halves.

One of two things needs to happen. Either Moyes must be braver in matches and stick to the initial plan or, if the withdrawal is not deliberate, he must find a way to give his players the energy – both physical and psychological – to stick to the task at hand.

Rodri loss triggers unusual Guardiola reaction

At half-time at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday, Man City were in complete and predictable control. Phil Foden’s opener, which finished off a 46-pass move (City’s longest passing sequence leading to a goal on record) and Erling Haaland’s header seemingly put the match to bed within 15 minutes.

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See: Who have scored after longest passing moves?

At that point, the story of the match was Pep Guardiola’s use of Kyle Walker as a traditional full-back, tasked with getting chalk on his boots on the right flank as Jeremy Doku did the same thing on the left. The plan was to use old-school winger play to stretch the Nottingham Forest shell apart.

Walker’s assist vindicated the decision, before some lovely link-play between Julian Alvarez and Foden created the space for Matheus Nunes to assist the second goal.

Man City's 46 passes for Foden goal

But Rodri’s red card 27 seconds into the second half changed the dynamic of the match. And while there is no reason to criticise Guardiola for what happened next - Man City were comfortable winners after all - it was certainly a surprising tactical reaction.

See: Guardiola: Rodri must control his emotions

He moved to a 5-3-1 formation and instructed his players to sit deep in their own half, a sight we have never seen from a Guardiola side. For 45 minutes we lived in the Upside Down: Forest held 69 per cent possession and outshot Man City 9-1. Did Pep really need to invite so much pressure, already 2-0 up?

But Man City got through it easily enough, which might not be the case over the next three matches; Rodri gets a three-match suspension for violent conduct, serving the first of them in the EFL Cup and then missing Premier League trips to Wolverhampton Wanderers and Arsenal.

Kalvin Phillips has very big shoes to fill. Rodri, arguably Man City’s most important player, might have just handed Liverpool a chance to move to the top of the table over the next few weeks.

Ten Hag goes on the defensive

A brilliant volley from Bruno Fernandes was enough to win Man Utd three points in a gritty, low-quality match at Turf Moor that few will remember – and yet these are the kind of hard-fought wins managers love.

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“Last year we had the most clean sheets in the Premier League,” Erik ten Hag said after the match. “We were disciplined and followed the rules. When we do that, it’s difficult to play against Manchester United.”

That might be true, but it may worry United supporters that their team got a result by abandoning the high-pressing tactics Ten Hag has been working (ineffectively) to implement this season and moving to a reactive, counter-attacking approach that surely cannot be sustained long-term.

United held 39 per cent possession, their lowest share of the season to date, and they took just 11 shots, one more than against Arsenal at the beginning of the month. Burnley were encouraged to dominate the ball as Man Utd sat back and looked only to break quickly, playing very much like the inferior team.

To illustrate the point, look at the respective "possession winning lines" from Man Utd’s last two matches. We would not have expected United to be four metres deeper against Burnley.

Possession winning lines v BHA
Possession winning lines v BUR

It was a pragmatic move from Ten Hag to say the least, and certainly not a template for future Man Utd performances.

Dyche rewarded for sticking to the plan

There was nothing particularly unusual or different about the way Everton approached their visit to Brentford. It was, in fact, more of the same as Everton played in their conservative 4-5-1 system and waited for chances to counter-attack.

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It is that consistency that has given Sean Dyche his first win of the season. After their 3-1 victory, he spoke about conversations he had had with the players during the week, showing them they were winning the battles for xG and reassuring them that performances were not matching results.

“A few things came out,” Dyche said, per The Athletic. "Players are funny and the media is so powerful that you almost start going along with it. I said, ‘It’s us that changes the story, no excuses.'

“Then there was that idea of finding professional enjoyment. The confusion of playing well and not getting results is tough. We’ve had lots of tough moments before this and I told them that’s where you grow.”

Perhaps playing with renewed confidence, Everton found the back of the net more times than in their previous five matches combined, the most important goal being Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s strike late on.

It was his first of the season and the first scored by an Everton striker in the Premier League.

This should give Calvert-Lewin – and Everton more generally - momentum ahead of two crucial matches against Luton Town and AFC Bournemouth, both at Goodison Park. All of a sudden, Everton have a chance to put their bad start behind them.

Record-breaking win for Newcastle

After an inconsistent start to the campaign, Eddie Howe might be pleased most of all with the clean sheet at Sheffield United on Sunday, Newcastle United’s third in a row in all competitions. That is the basis of Howe’s football.

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At the same time his side scored eight, recording Newcastle’s biggest-ever away win in the league, and their largest overall since an 8-0 victory against coincidentally another Sheffield club, Wednesday, in September 1999.

See: Newcastle join list of biggest wins in Premier League history

It also took Newcastle’s total up to 16 goals from six Premier League matches, their highest number at this stage of the seasons since Kevin Keegan’s team scored 22 in 1994/95. They only kept one clean sheet in that run almost 30 years ago. Howe’s side are now up to two.

As for Sheff Utd - who have never before been 3-0 down so early in a Premier League match (after 35 minutes) - it was in the second half that a tactical mistake led to a record-breaking collapse.

Paul Heckingbottom decided to switch from a back five to a back four at half-time, making an attacking move when he perhaps ought to have plumped for damage limitation. The move backfired, and for that error Heckingbottom might pay a big price.

Reports linking Chris Wilder with a return are only going to grow after results like that.

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