Following a weekend of Premier League drama, Alex Keble looks at the key talking points and tactical lessons including:
- Title race more competitive following City's dropped points
- How O'Neil's changes condemned Spurs to another loss
- Ward-Prowse's set-pieces save the day for West Ham
- Bournemouth take advantage of disappointing Newcastle
- Struggles continue for promoted sides despite improvements
Man City’s dropped points hint at a competitive title race
The 4-4 draw at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, defined by Pep Guardiola’s inability to control Chelsea, means Manchester City now have one point fewer than they had at this stage last season – and just three wins from their last six matches in the competition.
With Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa in their next three matches after the international break, Man City’s patchy form (by their standards), potentially comes at a bad time for them, opening up things at the top.
Only three points separate the top four as we approach the third stage of the competition, and although Spurs are suffering a bit of a comedown, Arsenal and Liverpool appear to be capable of going toe-to-toe with City this year.
Liverpool, with six wins from six and a goal difference of +15, are enjoying their best-ever start to a Premier League season at Anfield.
Teams are simply being blown away, the latest, Brentford, falling to the hard work and tenacity of Darwin Nunez, who provided Mohamed Salah with the opener. Jurgen Klopp only needs minor tweaks to Liverpool’s system away from home to inspire a fourth 90+ points tally under his management.
Arsenal might be four points worse off than they were this time last season, but injuries largely explain their drop-off.
Oleksandr Zinchenko was one of their biggest losses. His metronomic presence in central midfield, inverting from left-back, was crucial for Arsenal last season – and was again in the 3-1 defeat of Burnley.
As well as scoring the winner, he had more touches (116) and made more passes (94) than any player on the pitch.
Arsenal’s next three matches are all against teams in the bottom half. Liverpool, after their trip to Etihad Stadium, have three in a row against bottom-half clubs.
By mid-December, then, there is a decent chance Man City will have been knocked off top spot.
O’Neil’s two changes force Spurs into unlikely retreat
A late comeback at Molineux condemned a weakened Spurs to their second defeat in six days and ended Ange Postecoglou's honeymoon period.
Wolves began in a flat 5-3-2 formation that aimed, somewhat predictably, at shutting down the central column of the pitch to deny Spurs space in the final third – but it didn’t quite work.
Those Wolves midfielders had too much width to cover and Spurs were consistently able to attack on the outside of them, most notably in the build-up to the opener. With Jean-Ricner Bellegarde scrambling across to cover the right, the Wolves three inevitably left space on the other side.
Although Wolves gradually settled and got a grip on their own system, this issue persisted throughout the match until O’Neil made the first of two formation changes to turn the tide.
First, he brought on striker Sasa Kalajdzic and moved to a 3-4-3, a shape that meant Wolves could press aggressively from the front and, ironically after Monday night’s wild high line, push the visitors back.
Perhaps Spurs were tired, perhaps they were ground down by Wolves’ excellent pressing, or maybe their makeshift back four retreated through fear after Monday’s 4-1 defeat, but whatever the reason it gave Wolves a foothold.
Sensing the pressure building, in the 87th minute O’Neil changed again, this time to a brave 4-2-4 formation with Pablo Sarabia joining their three other forwards.
In his new position on the centre-left of that four, Matheus Cunha was able to pop up in more creative positions in the half-spaces, leading directly to the equaliser as he crossed the ball for Sarabia, arriving unseen due to the distraction of Kalajdzic.
Can you watch a goal 'too many' times? 🤔 pic.twitter.com/4gJhN7aQ6v— Wolves (@Wolves) November 12, 2023
In the dying moments, Mario Lemina popped up unmarked in the box, again because of the sheer weight of attacking numbers in the penalty area.
Not for the first time this season it was a tactical masterclass from O’Neil, who corrected his initial formation error with two courageous attacking moves that shrank Spurs – and their title hopes.
Ward-Prowse set-pieces give West Ham timely boost
Four consecutive Premier League matches without victory had cranked up the pressure on David Moyes, so when Anthony Elanga gave Nottingham Forest the lead on the hour mark, it looked as though five on the trot was coming.
More than the three points, and more than ending that winless streak, those goals are important in finally signalling lift-off for Ward-Prowse and Moyes: for the set-piece specialist and the set-piece specialist.
Last season West Ham scored 11 non-penalty set-piece goals, amounting to 26 per cent of their Premier League goal total. Prior to this weekend, and despite the addition of Ward-Prowse, they had scored only two non-penalty set-piece goals (11 per cent of their total).
The Forest win ought to signal the beginning of something special. Since the start of the 2020/21 season, Ward-Prowse has 17 dead-ball assists, with Aaron Cresswell the only other player in the Premier League to hit double figures in that time (10).
And since arriving at West Ham, Soucek has scored 23 Premier League goals, 11 of which have come from set-plays.
Soucek's goal v Nott'm Forest
Tomáš Souček scores the winner 😍 pic.twitter.com/Helot83kCM— West Ham United (@WestHam) November 12, 2023
For the first time in the Premier League, Ward-Prowse and Soucek combined for the winner on Sunday afternoon. It won’t be the last.
Laboured Newcastle suffer Bournemouth’s snappy challenges
It appears UEFA Champions League football is taking its toll on Newcastle United. That is the logical conclusion to draw from their increasingly patchy form (three wins in eight in all competitions), an injury list that keeps getting longer, and the lethargic performance that saw AFC Bournemouth win 2-0 at Vitality Stadium on Saturday.
All those injuries meant Newcastle couldn’t find their natural rhythm on the south coast and, looking jaded for long periods of the match, they were particularly vulnerable to Andoni Iraola’s brand of hard pressing from the front.
Bournemouth committed 10 fouls to Newcastle’s four, completed 13 high turnovers, their joint-highest tally of the season, and achieved a season-best tally of 27 attempted tackles, 18 of which were successful.
In fact, 65 per cent of Bournemouth’s attempted challenges were successful, which is by a considerable distance the most of any team against Newcastle (Wolves, on 45 per cent, are second).
In other words, Newcastle were uncharacteristically susceptible to hard-tackling and assertive front-foot football, unable to apply an equal opposite force.
Dominic Solanke was, unsurprisingly, the man to capitalise on this. He scored his fifth and sixth goals of the season to take his share of Bournemouth’s total to a league-high 55 per cent and in the process, lifting his team three points clear of the bottom three.
After such a worrying start suddenly Iraola has two wins from two at home, and with Sheffield United, Crystal Palace, and Luton Town in the next five, Bournemouth have a chance to put some daylight between them and the promoted clubs.
Promoted sides ostracised at the bottom
As we predicted, the Blades were able to frustrate Brighton and extend the Seagulls’ winless run to six by following what is now a well-known anti-Roberto De Zerbi template: sit deep, deny space in the final third, and refuse to be baited forward.
It was a commendable point for Sheff Utd, and yet they still ended the weekend further away from 17th than they started it. Worrying, too, that their top goalscorer this season is ‘own goal’, with three of their 10.
Similarly Luton put in a good show at Old Trafford, with just one lapse moment in defence seeing them fall to defeat, and yet it was nevertheless the fourth consecutive match in which they conceded an xG above 2.0.
In fact, Luton have conceded at least once in all 12 of their matches so far, with Leicester City in 1994 the only other team to have waited longer for their first-ever clean sheet in the competition.
Over at Emirates Stadium, Burnley were by no means embarrassed, and remained competitive until Zinchenko’s 74th minute goal put the match beyond them.
But herein lies the problem. Even on a weekend when performances from the promoted clubs were relatively strong, they collected only one point between them and fell further into their own three-team mini-league at the bottom.
Excluding matches against each other, the promoted clubs have won two out of 34 Premier League matches so far.