After a weekend of Premier League drama, Alex Keble looks at 10 talking points and tactical lessons:
- Elliott inspires Liverpool's turnaround
- Wilder's revival under way at Sheff Utd
- McGinn leads by example for Villa
- Man Utd unable to handle Bournemouth press
- Man City lack conviction despite ending winless run
- Trafford the hero in Burnley draw with Brighton
- Pressure remains on Cooper despite point at Wolves
- Spurs pick apart fatigued Newcastle
- Everton close in on Chelsea
- Five-star Fulham in rampant form
Elliott introduction inspires turnaround
If anyone is wondering why so many pundits still doubt Liverpool’s title credentials this season there’s a simple statistic that explains it: Liverpool have won four Premier League matches in 2023/24 after conceding the first goal, which is both more than any other team and more than the three managed in the whole of last season.
The perennial question hanging over Liverpool is whether these comeback victories are the mark of potential champions or a symptom of loose and unfocused football that will ultimately undermine their challenge.
That is why there are doubts, buts and caveats even after Harvey Elliott’s brilliant late winner at Selhurst Park lifted Liverpool to the top of the table for the first time since September 2021.
Maybe arriving at the summit will inspire Liverpool to consolidate and strike the fear into opponents that’s needed for them to start coolly dominating matches as they did in their title-winning 2019/20 season.
He took off Dominik Szoboszlai and Darwin Nunez to bring on Curtis Jones, who assisted the equaliser, and Elliott, who scored the winner, moving Mohamed Salah up front in the process, from which position the Egyptian scored the first and created the second.
Elliott changed the match from the right side of central midfield, drifting forward into the half-spaces superbly to overload Palace.
His line-breaking dribble and match-winning shot was a perfect example of the direct playmaking qualities he adds off the bench. Elliott ranks second in the Liverpool squad for progressive carries, with 4.12 per 90, and fourth for expected assists, with 0.26 per 90.
He also drew the foul that got Jordan Ayew sent off shortly before the game flipped, again resulting from a carry up the field.
With super-subs like Elliott on the bench, Liverpool can afford to concede the first goal and still pick up three points - for now.
Wilder gets crucial first win with resilient defensive display
The era of the firefighter manager has long gone. There once was a time when a grizzled back-to-basics type would be parachuted in to fix the defence and grind out the wins needed to survive, but the near-universal trend towards stylish progressive football has ended that period of history.
Chris Wilder is as close as the modern Premier League will get to a "Big Sam" [Allardyce] appointment. Wilder’s tactics are more sophisticated than those playing-the-percentages firefighters of old, but at the beginning of his second stint at Sheffield United he has firmed up the defence in the old-fashioned way.
The Blades were considerably improved at the back on Saturday, shuffling across in a compact shape that minimised space between the lines and throwing themselves in front of everything Brentford had.
It was their first clean sheet of the season and we all know how vital those are to clubs scrapping for points near the bottom. More than that, Sheff Utd conceded their fewest shots in a match this season, with 10, recorded their lowest tally for Expected Goals Against (xGA), with 0.6, and won their highest share of aerial duels, with 60.5 per cent.
But as if to prove Wilder isn’t just a simple firefighter, he sprung a surprise with a 4-1-4-1 formation at Bramall Lane despite picking the same XI that lined up in a 3-5-2 for the 2-0 defeat to Liverpool in midweek.
The clever twist was that, when the Blades were in possession, makeshift wingers Cameron Archer and James McAtee came infield to join William Osula in a narrow front three, confounding the Brentford defenders.
Archer created four of his team’s nine attempts on target, which is more than any Sheff Utd player has managed in the Premier League since August 2019, while McAtee’s stunning winner came from that inside-right position.
With that, the Wilder revival is up and running. The Blades are now just one point behind 18th-placed Luton Town, who happen to be their next visitors at Bramall Lane on Boxing Day.
McGinn stars as Villa set club record at home
Aston Villa have set a new club record of 15 Premier League home wins on the trot and, in doing so, have announced their arrival as outsiders to win the title.
That might sound a little farfetched. It certainly does to captain John McGinn, who has said he is banning the “T-word” at training.
But if performances and results hold through the Christmas period McGinn won’t be able to enforce that rule for long.
He was the standout player against Arsenal on Saturday evening, once again driving Villa forward by sneaking into unmarked central positions from his right-wing starting spot.
His winning goal was his fourth of the campaign, which is already a career-best return in the competition, but more impressive was McGinn’s capacity to dribble through the Arsenal midfield and spread the play.
He tops the Villa charts this season for through balls (eight), progressive passes (89) and successful take-ons (33). Indeed, across the Premier League only Jeremy Doku and Matheus Cunha have completed more take-ons than McGinn.
He is the shining example of Unai Emery’s team and the power of coaching: McGinn is one of nine players who started both victories against Arsenal and Manchester City who were at the club when Steven Gerrard was manager.
Iraola’s press is too much for Man Utd midfield
AFC Bournemouth’s hard pressing under Andoni Iraola has finally clicked. Manchester United were not the first team to come unstuck against it, given the Cherries have picked up 13 points from their last five Premier League matches, but they were nevertheless surprisingly ill-prepared for the tactic.
Bournemouth’s pressing is led by a fluid front four who hold narrow starting positions in the hope of winning possession high up the pitch and racing into the final third, and consequently there were simply too many bodies around Amrabat for him to cope on his own.
The first Bournemouth goal was the direct result of the away side winning the ball in the United half as Lewis Cook nicked in ahead of Scott McTominay and, catching Amrabat on his heels, assisted Dominic Solanke.
The football IQ from Illia Zabarnyi and Marcos Senesi is top 🧠 pic.twitter.com/ONTxwNkTu9— AFC Bournemouth 🍒 (@afcbournemouth) December 10, 2023
That set the tone, and Bournemouth were helped by United’s confusion in central midfield, where McTominay, Bruno Fernandes, and Amrabat seemed to switch positions or roam freely, looking far too far apart from one another as a direct Iraola side burst through the middle.
The build-up to the second goal was a great example of this. Note how many Bournemouth bodies are swarming the middle as Amrabat, the highest of the United three, chases a lost cause.
Bournemouth managed twice as many interceptions as Man Utd, winning that battle 14-7, reflecting their superior energy levels and tactical dexterity in what was another step backwards for Ten Hag.
Guardiola seeks control but City remain unconvincing
Clearly worried by the four-match winless run that preceded the trip to Kenilworth Road, Pep Guardiola installed Mateo Kovacic into central midfield for this one, but it had little impact on Manchester City’s capacity to control proceedings.
Ross Barkley wriggled away from the Man City midfield far too easily to spring the counter-attack that led to Luton’s opener, and on the hour-mark it looked as though this would be yet another disappointing day for the champions.
They deserve credit for the turnaround, of course, but Guardiola will be concerned that his team have fallen 1-0 down in three successive Premier League matches for the first time since November 2019 – and that their xG was just 1.6, which is the fifth-lowest Luton have faced this season.
Guardiola will know Man City need to be better. A home match against Crystal Palace, followed by a trip to the FIFA Club World Cup in Saudi Arabia, should allow for a reset.
Trafford heroics frustrate Brighton yet again
The former Man City player was Burnley’s biggest summer signing but he has struggled to make the impact many had anticipated – until now.
Trafford made 10 saves - his highest total of the season so far - and while many of them were excellent he saved the best until last, a double stop in injury time that preserved a vital point for Vincent Kompany.
Brighton amassed a post-shot Expected Goals figure of 4.0, meaning the quality of the visitors’ shooting was such that the average Premier League goalkeeper would have conceded four times this match.
It was borderline world-class form, of the kind Burnley will require from Trafford if they are to get anything this weekend against a Fulham side who have won 5-0 in consecutive matches.
Cooper changes formation but remains under pressure
Steve Cooper rang the changes for the trip to Wolverhampton Wanderers and although he won a valuable point at a difficult away ground, halting a four-match losing streak in the process, the result won’t have been enough to relieve any pressure on the Nottingham Forest head coach.
Forest made seven changes to their starting XI, the most by any team in the Premier League this season and evidence that Cooper was furious after the 5-0 defeat at Fulham in midweek.
He also went to a back five, which is a similar defensive move to the one he enacted towards the end of 2022/23, when a shift from 4-3-2-1 to 3-4-3 triggered a run of 11 points from the final six matches.
Cooper needs a similar reaction this month to save his job. A point at Wolves is a decent start at least.
Son and Richarlison switch sinks exhausted Newcastle
Ange Postecoglou has always said he will not change his tactical approach, no matter the opponent and no matter his team’s form, but that does not mean he won’t tinker with the formation and team selection.
That’s exactly what he did on Sunday to overcome an exhausted-looking Newcastle United who simply weren’t at the races.
It was too easy for Spurs to win the second balls, dribble through the lines and generally outwit a team apparently struggling with the extra UEFA Champions League matches this season, plus their injury list.
Richarlison was happier sticking to a simplified centre-forward game, scoring as many goals as in his previous 39 matches with his brace, while Son, who scored a penalty and assisted two goals, enjoyed running directly at the tired right-back Kieran Trippier.
Everton’s three in a row closes gap to Chelsea
That is some turnaround from Sean Dyche, who has Everton playing in a coherent and cohesive manner – which is more than can be said of Chelsea, who have lost their last three away matches in a row for the first time since December 2020.
At what point will Mauricio Pochettino start feeling the heat? After yet another big-spending summer Chelsea have a meagre 19 points from their first 16 matches, which is only four more than at the same stage in 2015/16 and that disastrous title defence under Jose Mourinho.
Such is their proximity to crisis, Everton are now only six points behind them – despite having been docked 10 points.
Rampant Fulham have found a new rhythm
Fulham have scored three or more goals in four consecutive top-flight league matches for just the third time in their history and have won back-to-back fixtures 5-0.
It is an incredible turnaround considering they had managed just 10 goals in their first 12 matches, the joint-fewest in the league at that stage.
Fulham now have 26 goals, the joint eighth-most.
Raul Jimenez’s return to form is the big difference. He has scored in consecutive matches for the first time since October 2020, and his 22nd-minute opener against West Ham United was a fine header to get Fulham started.
Jimenez will be looking forward to facing a jaded Newcastle next weekend.