Following a weekend of Premier League drama, Alex Keble looks at the key talking points and tactical lessons including:
- Emery's tactical prowess against Brighton
- Man Utd too reliant on Fernandes
- Rodri's absence felt by Man City at Wolves
- Set-pieces key to historic Luton win
- Arsenal in fine form ahead of City clash
Emery masterplan befuddles Brighton
Aston Villa’s 6-1 victory over Brighton & Hove Albion was an emphatic declaration of intent that extended Villa’s run of Premier League home wins to 10 and leaves them just one point outside the top four.
It was also a definitive demonstration of Unai Emery’s tactical prowess and the rewards that can be won from his bold high-wire act.
John McGinn told TNT Sports afterwards: “I was thinking this morning when the manager did the tactics meeting that it's either going to be 6-1 to us or 6-1 to them, and thankfully it was 6-1 to us.”
McGinn also divulged some of the details of Emery’s plan, suggesting Villa were told to play to their strengths by releasing "speed demons" Ollie Watkins and Moussa Diaby in midfield transitions, from which Villa scored four of their six goals.
More revealing still, McGinn made the inspiration clear: “We watched West Ham [United] do it."
In a 3-1 win back in August, David Moyes showed that the best way to stop Brighton is to refuse to be baited into pressing their defenders, instead blocking off passes into central midfield before snapping into challenges in the central third. From there, quick transitional attacks can be launched.
Brighton would eventually work their way up to the halfway line, but without speed and without breaking any of Villa’s lines, as the two images below show.
Negating Brighton’s on-the-ball preferences, Emery also refused to play into the visitors’ hands even when his team had possession. Emiliano Martinez repeatedly kicked long, with his pass accuracy dropping from a Premier League average of 86.0 per cent to just 48.8 per cent on Saturday, in order to target Watkins and isolate Brighton defenders.
It is probably this aspect – the ceding of control with direct football – that caused McGinn’s pre-match fears of a 6-1 defeat. But instead, everything clicked as Villa moved above Brighton in the table and, just maybe, began the process of replacing Roberto De Zerbi’s side as the new neutrals’ favourite.
Both teams have started the campaign superbly and yet at this juncture, Villa appear the more likely to sustain a push for UEFA Champions League places as Brighton’s defensive concerns go up a notch.
They are without a clean sheet in 11 matches and have now conceded more goals, with 14, than every Premier League club except for the three without a win this season.
Dealing with transitions – opponents sprinting behind the defence after winning possession – has become a lot more difficult since Moises Caicedo’s departure.
Over-reliance on Fernandes behind Man Utd’s worst start
With nine points and a -4 goal difference, this is officially Manchester United’s worst ever opening seven matches of a Premier League season. An awkward start has become a genuinely alarming one.
“We are often in the right position in the final part,” Erik ten Hag said after the match. “We get into the right spot and then you have to make the right decisions to create more. I think we created many occasions in front of the goal but we had to net and we didn’t. We can only blame ourselves.”
Profligate finishing only partly explains the poor start. Yes, Man Utd’s seven goals from seven matches is a significant underperformance against their xG (Expedted Goals) total of 11.6, but this xG number is still only the 11th-best in the Premier League.
United are also mid-table for total number of shots on target, with 29, and goals scored, with seven.
After failing to score in the defeat to Crystal Palace on Saturday, which meant consecutive home league defeats for the first time since 2021, it is time to question whether such reliance on Bruno Fernandes is sustainable.
The club captain is by far Man Utd’s most creative player – and the burden appears to be too great. He has made 21 key passes this season, 13 more than United’s next-best player, Marcus Rashford.
Similarly Fernandes’s 23 passes into the penalty area are more than double second-placed Rashford's, while his 46 crosses are more than three times the second-best United player Diogo Dalot.
Palace deserve huge credit for the win, and Roy Hodgson in particular for becoming the first manager to go five consecutive matches unbeaten at Old Trafford.
But the bigger story here is Man Utd's continuing decline. Ten Hag needs new solutions to avoid a crisis.
Rodri’s absence felt at both ends
Watching Wolverhampton Wanderers' front three of Pedro Neto, Matheus Cunha and Hwang Hee-chan bursting forward on Saturday, it was immediately obvious that Manchester City missed their linchpin Rodri.
As at Man Utd on the opening day, Wolves were efficient and direct in carrying the ball into Man City territory whenever possible, most notably ahead of Hwang’s goal (his fourth of the season) when Neto dribbled half the length of the pitch.
But what was perhaps overlooked in the build-up to Man City’s three Rodri-less matches was the attacking contribution they were about to lose.
He is City’s most important player in moving the ball into the final third and creating chances, topping the club charts this season for shot-creating actions (33), passes into the final third (72), progressive passes (58) and carries (474).
That explains why Man City managed an xG total of just 0.9, their lowest of the season to date.
Man City's shots against Wolves
Green line = miss; red = saved; yellow = goal; black = blocked
There might be a deeper problem than that for the champions. Wolves, who held firm with 32 per cent possession, have provided a template for others to follow, highlighting in the process Man City’s lack of squad depth compared to recent years.
When Grealish was introduced for the final 10 minutes, it meant moving Jeremy Doku out to the right, where he managed just 10 touches of the ball.
That ought to give hope to the chasing pack that Man City can be caught this season.
But we shouldn’t rule out Saturday’s defeat being almost entirely because of Rodri’s suspension. Since his Premier League debut in August 2019, City have lost five out of 15 matches without him, compared with just five out of the last 67 in which he has featured.
Luton set-pieces provide historic first win
Finally, Luton Town have their first ever Premier League victory, 31 years after they helped form the competition only to be relegated from the old First Division before the new dawn began.
He is right to highlight the importance of relieving that pressure, because the longer Luton went without a victory, the more likely it would be that heads would drop and the Premier League challenge would begin to feel insurmountable.
Instead, Luton are out of the relegation zone, quicker to their first win than the other promoted clubs and in good spirits ahead of a crucial six-pointer against Burnley on Tuesday evening.
It is all thanks to their set-piece work on the training ground, which builds on their impressive record from last season, when 26 per cent of their Championship goals, 16 in total, came directly this way - a figure that does not include goals that result from the second phase of a free-kick or corner.
Luton scored their first two non-penalty set-piece goals of the season at Goodison Park, the second in particular a well-worked routine that gave Carlton Morris his third Premier League goal.
He is the first player to score at least three in six matches for a promoted side since Teemu Pukki for Norwich City in 2019/20.
Morris's winner v Everton
Everton, meanwhile, have now conceded four set-piece goals, the joint-most in the Premier League this season. More importantly, the momentum that they had built with back-to-back wins over the previous week has dissipated.
Here was a sudden reversion to type as Everton scored only once from an xG of 2.9 – another dramatic underachievement – to give Sean Dyche’s side the unwanted record of four defeats from their first four home matches in 2023/24.
Only once before in their history have Everton done that, way back in 1958/59. The pressure is back on. The home match against AFC Bournemouth next Saturday feels, once again, like a must-win contest.
Perfect day for Arsenal tees up City showdown
The result at Vitality Stadium made it three wins and three clean sheets from three matches on the road this season, with the Gunners doing so for the first time in the club’s history.
Last year’s title challenge was arguably built on their excellent away record - their 39 points on the road was a competition-high - so Arteta will be delighted by the way his side have simply kept going.
🎶 Four-nil to The Arsenal 🎶— Arsenal (@Arsenal) September 30, 2023
All the best bits from Bournemouth 👇 pic.twitter.com/Bn67vPEJX0
In fact, performances are beginning to look more and more like the first half of last season, when Arsenal claimed 50 points from the opening 19 Premier League matches.
After Man City’s defeat they are now in a position to beat Guardiola’s side next weekend and move to the top of the table for the first time since 29 April.
The Gunners haven’t beaten City (excluding August's penalty shoot-out win in the FA Community Shield) since an FA Cup semi-final in July 2020, and they lost 3-1 and 4-1 last season. But crucially, ahead of both of those league matches Arsenal were in poor form.
This time, it is Man City who will head to north London on the back of a defeat and Arsenal who are revving up.