Feature

Premier League weekend review: What we learned

By Alex Keble 9 Oct 2023
Raheem Sterling

Alex Keble analyses the key talking points including Sterling's starring role in Chelsea's win

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

- Sterling takes centre stage in Chelsea win
- McTominay's late show saves Man Utd
- How Postecoglou's changes helped Spurs overcome Luton
- Brighton punish Liverpool for tactical switch
- Why Bournemouth must adapt for first victory

Sterling catches fire in crucial Chelsea win

If ever this young and inexperienced Chelsea team needed its most senior attacker to come to life, this was the moment.

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Mauricio Pochettino desperately needed to build on last Monday's 2-0 victory at Fulham to ensure Chelsea had some momentum before a tough run of fixtures, and thanks to the brilliance of Raheem Sterling, Chelsea now feel in a completely different place.

They have won consecutive away Premier League matches for the first time since October 2022; have won from behind in an away contest for the first time in over a year; and have scored four goals for the first time in 71 matches.

It was an emphatic victory, one to blow away the cobwebs and reset Pochettino’s project. Implausibly, Chelsea are only six points off the top four. It’s a long old season and there is plenty of time for things to come together for them.

After Saturday’s win, you get the feeling Sterling will play a big part in whatever follows. His cross forced the own goal that gave Chelsea their equaliser, and then he won the penalty from which Chelsea took the lead, before later scoring himself and playing a crucial role in setting up the fourth goal.

Sterling's performance v Burnley

Sterling was everywhere, showing seniority and leadership in driving repeatedly at the Burnley defence. He topped the charts for progressive carries (six), attempted take-ons (seven), shot-creating actions (four), attacking-third touches (24), and shots (three).

Sterling, who was overlooked again for national team selection by Gareth Southgate last week, has sent a message to his team-mates and to England. He is ready to lead this side forward and ensure that Chelsea – far better than their results this season – finally start putting their chances away.

McTominay rescues United after Ten Hag throws the kitchen sink

Scott McTominay has provided a stunning moment of magic at Old Trafford, but will it kick-start the club’s season or does a last-gasp comeback against Brentford merely paper over the cracks?

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For a club once famous for winning in "Fergie Time", it might be surprising to learn that 92:46 is the latest Manchester United have ever been trailing in a Premier League match in which they’ve gone on to win.

See: How McTominay’s heroics rank in late Premier League turnarounds

That should highlight the sheer implausibility of United snatching the three points, and indeed despite Erik ten Hag’s tactical substitutions paying dividends, the disappointment of the first 93 minutes is hard to ignore.

Ten Hag set his team up in a system that never looked likely to work. His 4-2-3-1 had both full-backs regularly inverting into central areas, which, along with Bruno Fernandes inevitably drifting infield from his starting right-wing position, meant Man Utd were incredibly narrow against what was always going to be a congested Brentford defence.

Man Utd formation image

However, Ten Hag did shift things in the second half with a series of changes that ultimately amounted to throwing the kitchen sink at it.

By the time McTominay came on, United were in a 4-2-4, with Fernandes and Christian Eriksen as the two midfielders and Antony and Alejandro Garnacho as wide wingers, completely changing the shape of their attack.

See: Ten Hag: McTominay's goals must be turning point for Man Utd

Sure enough, it was movement straight down Brentford’s right wing that earned the corner for McTominay’s equaliser.

But there is no getting past how labored United looked for most of this match. They have now conceded the opening goal in four consecutive Premier League matches at Old Trafford. Ten Hag got away with one here.

Smart game management makes Spurs worthy leaders

The last time Tottenham Hotspur amassed as many as 20 points from their first eight matches of a league season was 1960/61 – the year of their famous First Division and FA Cup double.

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Nobody is getting carried away just yet, although with each passing week, Ange Postecoglou’s side look more assured, showing a variety of different ways to win.

See: Van de Ven goal sends 10-man Spurs top after beating Luton

They had to dig deep at Kenilworth Road on Saturday after Yves Bissouma’s first-half red card, winning ugly for the first time under their new head coach. It was the sort of scrappy, hard-fought victory that we sometimes label "the mark of champions".

It had already proven to be a tough test before Bissouma was dismissed, a sticky pitch making it difficult for Spurs to enact the kind of slick passing we have come to expect this season.

Once down to 10 men, Luton Town began to push higher up the pitch and look to gain some territory, but Postecoglou held them off with a series of smart changes.

First he tightened up midfield by replacing Richarlison with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and instructing his players to be more direct in their play: Spurs attempted 12 long balls in the first half and 37 in the second half.

Then, with 20 minutes remaining, Postecoglou made the bold decision to remove Son Heung-min and James Maddison – a defence-minded double change he has made on three separate occasions this season.

After that move, Spurs easily shut down the contest in a compact and deep-lying 5-3-1. That is hardly the all-action, ultra-attacking Postecoglou we have come to know – which is exactly why it felt like such an important victory.

If Spurs are to challenge for the Premier League title they will need wins like these; points collected in matches that appear to be turning against them.

Liverpool punished for surprise tactical retreat

It is rare that a manager changes his tactical set-up at half-time – and even rarer when his team is winning the match and looking the more comfortable of the two teams.

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Liverpool were 2-1 up against Brighton & Hove Albion at the break, and while it was far from the perfect away performance, Jurgen Klopp did look on course to beat Roberto De Zerbi for the first time in four meetings.

The visitors had more possession, with 54 per cent, and had restricted Brighton to just one shot on target.

They had done so by copying Aston Villa’s strategy in their 6-1 win in Matchweek 7. Liverpool lined up in a diamond 4-4-2 formation, with Mohamed Salah and Darwin Nunez supported just behind by Dominik Szoboszlai, mimicking the shape of the three Villa used to disrupts Brighton’s passing out from the back.

Szoboszlai hounded the ball, Virgil van Dijk stepped out of defence, and the narrow diamond 4-4-2 blockaded the middle.

Liverpool diamond formation v BHA

What’s more, both of Liverpool’s goals came from the unusual narrowness of their forward line. The first was a quick transition only possible because Liverpool’s players all occupied central areas.

Liverpool first goal v Brighton

The second goal was a penalty, won specifically because of that Villa-influenced pressing, as Szoboszlai forced the error inside the Brighton penalty area.

But at half-time Klopp decided to reinstate a more traditional 4-3-3. Salah moved out to the right and Ryan Gravenberch, on as a substitute, operating as a No 8 with Szoboszlai.

Liverpool still pressed Brighton from goal-kicks in the Villa-like diamond shape, but by then spreading wide, they never found fluency in the second half and the hosts deserved their equaliser.

It’s unclear why Klopp thought the initial system wasn’t working. It had been, and after the change, Brighton were able to grow into the match.

Bournemouth must adapt in pursuit of first win

For the first time in the club’s history, AFC Bournemouth have failed to win any of their first eight Premier League matches, a record that is bound to put Andoni Iraola under pressure no matter how optimistic fans remain that his high-pressing football will change the club’s DNA.

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So far, his attempts to introduce progressive tactics have backfired. Bournemouth continue to struggle to pass the ball safely out from the back, and opponents are finding it too easy to press them and win possession in dangerous areas – as Everton showed on Saturday.

The match hinged on that opening goal, scored by James Garner after a slip from Illia Zabarnyi. This was not an isolated incident, and in fact it reflects a growing tendency for opposition managers to put the Bournemouth defenders under pressure, expecting a mistake.

The ultimate proof of that is an Everton side low on confidence and managed by Sean Dyche pressing high – something we almost never see.

Bournemouth have made more errors leading to shots than any other team in the Premier League, with seven. They have also been tackled in their own third 25 times, more than anyone else.

If Iraola’s revolution is to work, he needs to start making some adaptations. The pressure – on him, but also on his defenders – is only going to grow.

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