Premier League weekend review: What we learned

18 Dec 2023
Aston Villa v Brentford

Alex Keble analyses key talking points including how Emery masterminded Villa's turnaround

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

- How Emery masterminded Villa's turnaround
- Palmer's crucial role to get Chelsea past Sheff Utd
- Palace prove bravery can pay off against Man City
- Dyche gives Kompany a lesson in Burnley-ball
- Arsenal underline improvements from last season
- Ten Hag channels inner Mourinho to frustrate Liverpool
- Why Bissouma absence is a big blow for Spurs
- How Moyes has unleashed Kudus and Paqueta
- Miley shines in classic Howe victory

Emery’s risky tactical changes pay off

Aston Villa have won 25 Premier League matches in 2023, their most top-flight wins in a calendar year in their entire history.

Beat Sheffield United at Villa Park on Friday evening and they go top of the Premier League. It is a position nobody realistically expects them to hold onto, and yet it is wins like the one at Brentford that leave you wondering if Villa’s 150-year anniversary will be unforgettable.

Ben Mee’s red card completely changed the pattern of the match, forcing Brentford into a nervous retreat and emboldening Villa players who had run out of ideas, but the visitors’ comeback was also a tactical victory for Unai Emery.

For the first hour, Villa badly missed Douglas Luiz’s controlling presence at the base of midfield and John McGinn’s ability to ghost infield, on the blind side, off the wing. Without these two elements, Emery’s side just couldn’t connect the lines in the central column of the pitch.

Two wild formation switches would change all that.

First, Leon Bailey and Jhon Duran came on and Villa, entirely out of character, switched to a 3-4-3 formation to mirror Brentford’s shape.

Ten minutes later Bailey, in a new right wing-back position, crossed for left wing-back Alex Moreno to equalise, justifying Emery’s tactical gamble.

There was more to come. Four minutes later Pau Torres was withdrawn for Nicolo Zaniolo and Villa played in a 2-4-4: a box-shaped midfield of Boubacar Kamara, McGinn, Leander Dendoncker and Zaniolo; Bailey and Moreno either side of a front two; and Ezri Konsa and Diego Carlos entirely alone at the back.

Ollie Watkins forced in the winner from a corner that was won by a driving run down the left from Zaniolo, who was effectively in a free role. It summed up the wild tactical roll of the dice Emery had made.

Another win for Villa. Another in-game correction from Emery. Another match in which Villa’s deep bench came to the rescue, and another victory without being at their best. These are all signs of genuine title challengers.

The title race

Position Pos Club Played Pl GD Points Pts
1 Man City MCI 38 +62 91
2 Arsenal ARS 38 +62 89
3 Liverpool LIV 38 +45 82
4 Aston Villa AVL 38 +15 68
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Pochettino’s half-time switch confuses Sheff Utd

We can leave it to Mauricio Pochettino to explain how Chelsea recovered from a slow first half to beat Sheffield United.

“In the first half it was a little bit frustrating because we didn’t find a way to break the low block,” Pochettino said after.

“In the second half we fixed different positions and we started to find better possibilities with the ball and stretch their line.

“We swapped [Raheem] Sterling and [Cole] Palmer, and the positions of our full-back and the midfield also. In the first half we didn’t give the possibility to Cole or the team to really find better positions on the pitch. That is why we changed.”

Chris Wilder’s deep 4-1-4-1 had been predictably stubborn, and yet Cameron Archer, playing out of position on the left wing, looked a little uncomfortable – which is why Palmer was shifted into this zone to help Sterling put him under pressure.

Moving from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2, with Sterling tight to Nicolas Jackson but free to interact with now-right winger Palmer, Chelsea found gaps around Archer and punished positional errors that crept in as the Blades struggled to adapt.

Palmer scored the first goal and assisted the second, regularly finding space behind Archer, as he does here to set up Sterling’s goal.

Sterling goal

The 21-year-old has now netted and assisted in the same Premier League match on three occasions this season.

His nine goal contributions - six goals and three assists - are the most among Chelsea players, and he also tops the club rankings for shot-creating actions, with 4.67 per 90 minutes.

With just three Premier League starts to his name before joining Chelsea this summer, Palmer has come of age faster than anyone expected.

Palace fightback will inspire others to take Man City on

Manchester City have won just four of their last 11 Premier League matches, and of all their dropped points this result might have hurt the most.

The 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace was the first time since April 2018 that Man City let a two-goal lead slip at the Etihad Stadium. They had won each of the previous 68 matches when in that position.

There was a time when teams feared going to Man City to such an extent they would sit back and wait to be beaten. Now, thanks to Palace, even at 2-0 down there will be justification for attacking bravery and self-belief.

Part of Man City’s problem is that their cloak of invincibility has fallen. They have kept just one clean sheet in 11 Premier League matches and therefore opponents are starting to take them on, counter-attacking in numbers and confronting City’s midfield higher up the pitch.

Pep Guardiola will be grateful for the chance to reset in Saudi Arabia at the FIFA Club World Cup.

His players need a break to clear their minds, although it does mean City could be 10 points off the top by the time they face Everton on 27 December.

Before the weekend, pundits were predicting Man City’s easier schedule up until March would see the ship stabilised. After Palace’s unlikely comeback, all that is thrown into doubt.

Dyche gives Kompany a lesson in Burnley-ball

Sean Dyche’s Everton powered their way past Burnley on Saturday evening using precisely the tactical elements that defined his old Burnley team - and that have been eradicated by Vincent Kompany.

Everton had just 38 per cent of the ball but won regardless, staying compact and pressing infrequently from within Dyche’s conservative system to win their eighth match of the campaign - each victory achieved with less than 50 per cent possession.

Defensive resilience and a cautious midblock are Dyche trademarks that are especially effective against open, possession-centric sides like Kompany’s Burnley.

The same can be said of his use of set-pieces. Both Everton goals were scored from such situations, taking their season tally to 10, the joint-most in the Premier League.

Burnley, meanwhile, have conceded the joint-most goals from set-pieces with eight. They are soft in all the ways where they were strong in the old regime.

Arsenal’s routine win hints at a strong winter

While Liverpool and Man City continue to show more vulnerability than in their previous title-challenging campaigns, Arsenal are beginning to look the most stable and secure of the three.

That is partly thanks to a relatively clean bill of health. Mikel Arteta named an unchanged starting XI in the Premier League for the first time this season, inspiring a comfortable 2-0 victory over Brighton & Hove Albion that felt as smooth and self-assured as Arsenal’s performances in the first half of 2022/23.

Gabriel Jesus’s return to the No 9 role continues to sew things together. He has now been directly involved in 14 goals in 15 Premier League starts for Arsenal at Emirates Stadium, scoring nine and assisting five.

After a slow start, Kai Havertz is also proving his worth as one of the two free No 8s, the position Arteta always intended for him, scoring his fourth goal in seven appearances on Sunday.

Havertz and Jesus are raising Arsenal’s attacking game, but arguably more important is their improvement at the back.

Arteta’s side have conceded the joint-fewest goals in the league, with 15, letting in only 0.88 goals per match compared to 1.13 last season.

Here was their 11th clean sheet of the season in all competitions, and perhaps their best yet.

Arsenal became the first team to stop Brighton from scoring since 18 February, 32 matches ago. If that wasn’t impressive enough, Brighton couldn’t muster a single shot in the first half.

Ten Hag channels Mourinho as Liverpool falter

In the 7-0 destruction at Anfield last season, it was Liverpool’s use of Cody Gakpo as a "false nine"  in what amounted to a diamond 4-4-2 formation that overwhelmed Manchester United in central midfield.

It was surprising, then, that Darwin Nunez was given the nod for this one – and not at all surprising that his presence meant Liverpool’s midfield and attacking lines were too disconnected, as reflected in the graphic below.

Liv average formation v MUN

Liverpool never really got going and struggled to play the ball through the lines with enough speed to unsettle a Man Utd team who were more negative than the Reds had anticipated.

“There was only one team trying to win the game,” Liverpool captain Virgil van Dijk said afterwards, sharing his frustration.

He might have a point. Erik ten Hag channelled his inner Jose Mourinho at Anfield, emulating how the former United manager had drawn 0-0 there in October 2017 and, to a certain extent, how Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had secured a similar result at Anfield in January 2021.

It may have been backs-to-the-wall for a Man Utd side who rarely mustered a counter-attack, but they dug deep to hold out for an impressive point considering their injury list.

MUN formation v Liverpool

Ten Hag showed a tactical humility that the situation demanded. Van Dijk might not have liked it, but it was a well-earned draw.

Bissouma loss undermines comfortable Spurs win

Tottenham Hotspur were heading for a routine win at Nottingham Forest on Friday, before Yves Bissouma’s straight red card caused yet another selection headache for Ange Postecoglou.

Bissouma will be suspended for four matches as it was his second red of the campaign. He is therefore ruled out until the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) begins in January. It could mean that Bissouma does not wear a Spurs shirt again until February.

He is an almighty loss. Bissouma, whose absence was felt in the recent 2-1 defeat to Aston Villa, has attempted 50 tackles, made 20 interceptions and won 69 per cent of his aerial duels - all team-leading totals for a Spurs player.

It was that kind of impact that laid the foundations for Spurs' recent 4-1 win over Newcastle.

Yves Bissouma tackles
Kudus and Paqueta are transforming Moyes’s football

West Ham United have won four of their last six Premier League matches, rising above Brighton over the weekend. They are now six points from fifth place, which could be a UEFA Champions League spot for next season.

They have crept up the table thanks in no small part to the performances of Mohammed Kudus, who scored a brace against Wolverhampton Wanderers, and Lucas Paqueta, who on Sunday became only the second Brazilian after Roberto Firmino to record a hat-trick of Premier League assists.

David Moyes has given both players licence to roam, filling in wherever they can find space.

It is transforming West Ham's football, adding spark to a sometimes stodgy shape and bridging the gap between the pragmatic approach that always defines Moyes's teams and the more dynamic style preferred by supporters.

Paqueta touch map v Wolves

“There’s a bit of leeway we have to give [Paqueta],” Moyes said, acknowledging the need to help West Ham evolve.

“As I’ve got a bit older I’ve realised when [players] have that talent, you have to let them flourish.”

Newcastle get the Howe-patented victory they needed

For a while it looked as though this match would be defined by two more Newcastle United players hobbling off with soft tissue injuries - and Fulham's Raul Jimenez receiving a straight red card - all within the first 36 minutes.

But Lewis Miley stole the headlines. At 17 years and 229 days, he became the youngest Newcastle player ever to score in the Premier League, and the competition’s youngest goalscorer since Federico Macheda in April 2009.

It was a well-taken goal from a typical Howe-esque move as Bruno Guimaraes drove forward to put Miley clean through on goal.

Miley's goal v Fulham

Hard-battling midfielders and explosive attacking movements in straight lines: it was classic Howe’s Newcastle, and timely at that.

Back-to-back defeats and elimination from the UEFA Champions League had raised concerns that the Magpies were exhausted, so Howe needed a match - and result - like this.

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