After a weekend of Premier League drama, Alex Keble looks at the key talking points and tactical lessons including:
- Villa's surprise title bid
- Pochettino's anger at Chelsea display
- Iraola's wing rotation pays off
- Mainoo's midfield magic for Man Utd
- Luton plunder precious points
Emery corrects mistake with super-sub Tielemans
Aston Villa are two points off the top of the Premier League table and sit within the top four after 13 matches played for the first time since December 2009.
They needed a touch of luck to condemn Tottenham Hotspur to their third consecutive top-flight defeat on Sunday, surviving waves of pressure in the first half in particular, but Emery still takes the plaudits for his smart changes after the break.
Within five minutes of kick-off it was clear he had got this one wrong. Emery started Matty Cash on the right wing and Ezri Konsa at right-back, bringing a shaky-looking Diego Carlos into central defence and instructing Boubacar Kamara not to drop into the back line as he normally does.
This substantial reshuffle at the back left Villa confused.
Having Cash playing on the flank rather than having an extra central midfielder meant Villa had nobody dipping infield to receive the ball from the centre-backs, while Spurs' hard press resulted in Konsa, Carlos and Cash getting stuck, unable to pass through the lines.
Villa’s average positions in the first half, shown in the graphic below, captures the problem. Notice how the front is disconnected from the back, and see the ring of space around Villa’s two central midfielders.
But Emery, ever the problem-solver, made a double change at the start of the second half and instantly fixed things. Youri Tielemans and Leon Bailey came on for Cash and Moussa Diaby, as Villa moved to a 4-3-3 with Tielemans the central attacking midfielder.
Emery's side now had a connecting player in the middle, offering a passing option for those under-pressure defenders. Sure enough, the visitors got a foothold in the game, before Ollie Watkins scored the winner – assisted by a Tielemans pass.
Tielemans sets up Watkins winner
Tielemans and Watkins combining to take us into the top four! 🤝 pic.twitter.com/IajS7v1Sgo— Aston Villa (@AVFCOfficial) November 26, 2023
Even when Emery’s meticulous preparations go wrong, he has the nous to correct any errors and drag Villa back in front. That is why they are now above Spurs in the table and why, even with Man City and Arsenal to come in their next two home matches, supporters expect this form to continue.
Villa, quite rightly, fear no one.
Pochettino furious as Chelsea sleepwalk back into trouble
The 4-4 draw with Man City felt like a significant moment in the Pochettino project, especially after the 4-1 win at Spurs the week before, and yet all of a sudden we find Chelsea 12 points outside the top four and carrying a record of one win in five Premier League matches.
The 4-1 defeat at Newcastle United was, without a doubt, Chelsea’s worst performance of the season, as their manager acknowledged.
“We didn't show that we were playing for something important,” Pochettino said after the match.
“It was really easy in the way that we conceded, and the way that we were so soft in every single challenge. That's what makes me angry and disappointed.
"We talk about being a young team and we have to learn, but I think these type of games make me very, very, very, very, very angry because it's about showing your personality and character.”
Pochettino’s fury is a high-risk tactic. He had been patient and forgiving of his side’s up-and-down form up until now. Not any more.
Pochettino is ready to crack the whip - but a “no more Mr Nice Guy” approach is high-risk. It will either galvanise the players or it won't.
Performances anything like as tepid or soft as the second 45 minutes at St James' Park and the Blues will fall further behind in their bid to return to Europe next season. Pochettino’s gamble had better work.
Iraola has found the right combination of wingers
Andoni Iraola always trusted that his ideas would click once AFC Bournemouth got through their tough opening fixtures - and that is precisely what has happened. After failing to win any of their first nine Premier League matches the Cherries have won three of their last four.
The secret to their success is Iraola’s use of swarming, position-swapping wingers in support of Dominic Solanke, and Bournemouth have gone up a gear since the manager discovered a new combination in that front four.
Following the 2-0 win against Newcastle before the international break, Iraola stuck with Antoine Semenyo, Justin Kluivert and Marcus Tavernier for Saturday's trip to Sheffield United, who were torn apart by the Bournemouth wingers.
The most impressive aspect of their interplay is the ease with which the three players can swap positions, Semenyo and Tavernier cutting in from the flanks while Kluivert – starting as the No 10 - flits from left to right.
To illustrate that positional rotation, Semenyo, supposedly the right winger, pre-assisted the third goal by helping switch the play from a central position as Bournemouth countered.
Meanwhile Kluivert, who became the first player to score in each of the "Big Six" European leagues, turns out to have been the missing link. He helped overwhelm a timid Sheff Utd defence as Bournemouth accrued an Expected Goals (xG) total of 2.7 - their highest of the season.
Kluivert's historic goal v Sheff Utd
By packing the team with direct dribblers, Iraola’s tactical philosophy – pressing hard and running directly at goal when the ball is won back – is finally coming to fruition. Bournemouth rank third in the Premier League for attempted and successful take-ons with 297 and 140 respectively, behind only Spurs and Wolverhampton Wanderers.
It’s a sequence that should see the Cherries rise further clear of the bottom three.
Teenager Mainoo dazzles in Man Utd midfield
It’s important not to put pressure on such young shoulders and not to overly hype an 18-year-old who must be given time, patience and space to develop at his own pace; to make mistakes, to take backwards steps, to play his football under the radar for a while longer yet.
That is especially true when it comes to a teenager who, looking remarkably composed and effortlessly self-assured on his full Manchester United debut, has immediately got supporters hoping he will solve the club’s midfield issues.
But at the risk of adding to the unnecessary pressure that could become a burden, Kobbie Mainoo deserves acclaim for his performance in the 3-0 victory over Everton on Sunday.
Mainoo ran the game from start to finish. His 82.6 per cent pass completion rate was the highest on the pitch, while his 61 touches were only seven short of the game’s best despite him being substituted after 71 minutes.
He also completed both the most carries of any outfield player, with 33, and the highest number of take-ons, with two.
More importantly than the stats, Mainoo made a crucial contribution in clearing a Dwight McNeil shot off the line with the score at 1-0.
A commanding, press-evading and forward-thinking central midfielder is exactly what Man Utd have been crying out for this season, especially in the absence of Casemiro, and with Mason Mount joining Christian Eriksen on the treatment table.
“He did a great job,” enthused Erik ten Hag. “Now he has to build on this.”
That is true. But equally Ten Hag and Man Utd must make sure they protect Mainoo from the intense glare of the spotlight – and also avoid the temptation to assume he is the answer to all their problems.
Luton put Palace in danger with first home win
Finally, they’ve done it. Luton Town have won at Kenilworth Road for the first time in the Premier League, and the first time in the top flight since April 1992.
In doing so, they ended a six-match run without a league win and, pushing their points total up to a respectable nine from 13 matches, moved a full four points clear of the relegation zone.
Breaking that duck, feeling the good vibes on home soil and proving they can not only compete at this level but experience daylight outside the bottom three - this was a hugely significant weekend for Luton.
It was almost as big for Crystal Palace. A fast start to the 2023/24 season has somewhat hidden from view their recent poor form, but Roy Hodgson’s side have now lost four of their last five Premier League matches – as many as in their previous 18.
There is still a healthy 10-point gap between themselves and Sheff Utd in 18th spot, but if anyone is to drop down from the middle tier into the relegation scrap it looks likely to be Palace.
Eberechi Eze and Cheick Doucoure both sustained injuries at Kenilworth Road, the latter of which Hodgson has described as "serious", which isn’t exactly what Hodgson needed ahead of a winter schedule that includes fixtures against Liverpool, Man City, Brighton, Chelsea and Arsenal within an eight-match run in December and January.
Before that, the Eagles visit West Ham and then host Bournemouth. Failure to win either of those matches and Palace face the prospect of an incoming crisis.