Feature

Premier League weekend review: What we learned

12 Feb 2024
Man City v Everton

Alex Keble on the key talking points including how Man City eventually broke down a stubborn Everton

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After a thrilling weekend of Premier League goals and drama, Alex Keble looks at the key talking points and tactical lessons.

Guardiola's subs finally unlock Everton defence

Up until the hour-mark at Etihad Stadium, Everton, holding on at 0-0, had successfully blocked the middle of the pitch to keep Manchester City quiet. But Pep Guardiola’s bench always looked ominously strong, and so it proved.

Guardiola brought on Kyle Walker and Kevin De Bruyne in place of Manuel Akanji and Matheus Nunes, changed his team’s formation and flipped the script.

Akanji, inverting from right-back, and Nunes had both struggled to find fluency in possession in their respective central-midfield roles, slowing Man City’s passing and helping Everton’s stubborn mid-block keep their hosts at arm's length.

Guardiola saw it and fixed it.

The title race

Position Pos Club Played Pl GD Points Pts
1 Liverpool LIV 26 +38 60
2 Man City MCI 26 +33 59
3 Arsenal ARS 26 +39 58
View More

The double change meant Walker overlapping as a traditional right-back, in turn freeing Phil Foden to drift into the No 10 position having previously appeared stuck out on the right touchline.

It was a subtle change but a vital one. Foden saw a lot more of the ball, De Bruyne showed greater urgency than Nunes, and Everton’s central midfield became overwhelmed by City attackers.

The opening goal, City’s first shot on target of the match, came from a corner that was won as a consequence of Guardiola’s tactical change – and the fact that Dwight McNeil was off the pitch receiving treatment.

With Man City now outnumbering Everton in the middle, Foden got on the ball in space and fed the overlapping right-back - a move that was non-existent before the subs - who won the corner.

Haaland's goals v Everton
Villa's grip on Champions League spot is loosening

Aston Villa lost just three of their opening 18 Premier League matches this season but have now lost three of their last six, including consecutive defeats at Villa Park, where they had gone almost a full calendar year unbeaten.

On the surface, it looks as though the wheels have come off: eight points from seven matches is barely better than relegation form, and it has allowed Manchester United to move five points behind Villa.

But Villa are still in control of fifth spot - a potential UEFA Champions League place – and closer inspection suggests Unai Emery’s side will recover soon.

Race for Champions League

Position Pos Club Played Pl GD Points Pts
4 Aston Villa AVL 26 +21 52
5 Spurs TOT 25 +14 47
6 Man Utd MUN 26 0 44
7 Brighton BHA 26 +8 39

They were the better team for long periods on Sunday afternoon, while Jacob Ramsey and Alex Moreno – barely fit to play a minute together this season - interacted very well.

It should not be forgotten that Villa have been without their whole left side for most of the season, while throughout this tough spell Emery has been forced to field his fourth and fifth-choice centre-backs.

Villa’s grip on the Champions League places has loosened significantly. But there are mitigating factors at play, and once Pau Torres and Ezri Konsa are back Villa should turn things around.

White’s surprising role confuses West Ham

West Ham United’s joint-heaviest home defeat in their league history was, it goes without saying, a terrible performance in pretty much all areas. “For some reason we didn't look like we could defend today,” was David Moyes’s assessment.

But a more specific reason for the collapse was the confusion caused by Mikel Arteta’s surprise decision to invert Ben White into central midfield, for which West Ham’s 4-2-3-1 formation was not prepared.

Not for the first time this season, Arsenal relaxed into the occasion with an early set-piece goal.

The goalscoring corner was won thanks to the positional play of Kai Havertz, who got on the ball in an advanced area because West Ham, unsure of the formation facing them, were too busy squeezing White.

Instead of trusting the forward line to get on top of the Arsenal right-back, West Ham’s midfielders pushed onto him, leaving a big gap between defence and midfield which Havertz and Martin Odegaard happily frequented.

Arsenal West Ham Havertz

This happened again and again, making it easy for Arsenal to walk through the lines and wrap up the points before half-time.

Luton’s record against promoted sides could be their downfall

For all the optimism surrounding Luton Town, for all the four-goal hauls and surprise points against Premier League mainstays, they are still falling short in the crucial six-pointers at the bottom.

Luton have won just one of their four matches against fellow promoted sides, and that 3-2 victory at Sheffield United was hugely fortunate as two late own goals defied the xG (Expected Goals) score of 2.4 to 0.6 in the Blades’ favour.

Rob Edwards wasn’t so lucky on Saturday, and come the end of the season he might rue all those lost points against fellow relegation candidates.

The bottom six

Position Pos Club Played Pl GD Points Pts
15 Everton EVE 26 -6 25
16 Brentford BRE 26 -11 25
17 Nott'm Forest NFO 26 -14 24
18 Luton LUT 25 -16 20
19 Burnley BUR 26 -33 13
20 Sheffield Utd SHU 26 -44 13

Perhaps the problem is that Luton don’t have the element of surprise against Burnley and Sheff Utd, teams who know them so well from the Championship.

That would explain Chris Wilder’s tactics: gift Luton possession, pack the penalty box and watch as their endless crosses come to nothing.

Luton held 74 per cent possession, which is 13 per cent more than in any other match this season, and they attempted 43 crosses, their second-most of the campaign. More or less every single one was batted away. Sheff Utd won nine out of 12 headers in their own box.

Luton town crosses

Luton are simply better when allowed to play as the underdogs, which is why they find themselves in the strange position of looking forward to their next set of fixtures – Man Utd (H), Liverpool (A) and Villa (H) – more than they would a run of relegation six-pointers.

Brighton formation leaves Estupinan exposed

Tottenham Hotspur were by far the better team on Saturday, spending most of the match pressing high to create chances as Brighton’ & Hove Albion found it hard to get out of their own half.

Spurs had 63 per cent "field tilt", a statistic that shows their possession was higher up the pitch than Brighton's.

Roberto De Zerbi just couldn’t work out how to break Ange Posteglou’s press, whether funnelling the ball through Billy Gilmour and Pascal Gross in the first half or via long balls fired towards Kaoru Mitoma in the second half. No matter what he tried, Brighton were pinned.

Perhaps Brighton’s 4-2-3-1 was the wrong formation. The 3-4-3 used in recent weeks would have given De Zerbi an extra player in the first line, increasing Brighton’s passing options when under pressure in their own third.

But more importantly, a 3-4-3 would have helped defensively.

Both Spurs' goals resulted from positional errors from Pervis Estupinan, back in at left-back after Tariq Lamptey’s excellent performance at left wing-back against Crystal Palace.

Estupinan tracked the wrong player, leaving a hole in defence, ahead of Spurs' equaliser because he had been run ragged by Dejan Kulusevski and Pedro Porro all match and found himself overcompensating.

Sarr's goal v Brighton

For the winner, Estupinan was caught out again, ever so slightly behind the play and tucked in too close to the centre-backs, allowing substitute Brennan Johnson to score at the back post.

Johnson's goal v Brighton

Had De Zerbi stuck with the 3-4-3, Estupinan would have received additional support from a third centre-back, directly preventing both goals – and giving Estupinan the back-up he needed to perform better in his head-to-head with Kulusevski and Johnson.

Wolves predictably suffer with too much possession

Just as predicted in last week’s preview, Wolverhampton Wanderers struggled hosting a team who would gift them possession.

Gary O’Neil likes to play on the counter-attack and up until now he has been allowed to do so at Molineux.

Prior to Saturday’s defeat by Brentford, seven of Wolves’ 11 home matches had been against "Big Six" teams plus Villa and Newcastle United.

Wolves had won only one of the five matches when they held 55 per cent or more possession this season (D1 L3), and four of the seven when they held 40 per cent or less (D1 L2).

It should not have been a shock, then, to see Brentford steal a 2-0 win at Molineux by forcing Wolves to have 71 per cent possession, which is by a distance their highest share of the 2023/24 season.

Nor should it have been a surprise that Brentford twice scored by winning the ball high up the pitch - the first leading to the goalscoring corner, the second directly to Ivan Toney’s strike - catching out a Wolves side who don't often have to hold possession in their own third.

Toney's goal v Wolves

Brentford made six interceptions in the Wolves half, capitalising on the hosts’ awkwardness when seeing so much of the ball.

With plenty of lower-ranking clubs still to visit, Wolves need to get comfortable hogging possession and playing out from the back.

Kompany’s principles play into Liverpool's hands

The opposite is true of Burnley, who are arguably a little too comfortable when it comes to passing the ball around in their own third.

Vincent Kompany was pleased with the number of chances Burnley created, but Liverpool’s crucial second goal – scored seven minutes into the second half to calm the Anfield crowd – was the result of Burnley twice giving the ball away near their own penalty area.

Liverpool’s pressing is among the best in the world, and yet Kompany refused to adapt his usual approach, inevitably leading to chances for Jurgen Klopp’s side.

As the graphic below shows, Liverpool made three interceptions (red) and nine tackles (yellow) in the Burnley half.

Liverpool tackles v Burnley (H)

Burnley have now conceded 50 goals in 24 Premier League matches, the fastest they’ve reached that number in a top-flight season since 1929/30. Something has to change if the Clarets are to survive the drop.

Muniz brace means Fulham suddenly have options

For so much of the 2023/24 season Fulham have lacked a clinical goalscorer. Aleksandar Mitrovic’s summer departure hit them hard, as evidenced by the fact only Burnley and Sheff Utd’s top Premier League goalscorer has fewer than the five goals of the Cottagers' leading men Bobby De Cordova-Reid and Raul Jimenez.

But all of a sudden they have options. Armando Broja’s arrival on loan from Chelsea is a boost, and yet Fulham might not need him following Rodrigo Muniz’s brace on Saturday.

The 22-year-old, who scored his first Premier League goal in the 2-2 draw with Burnley the previous weekend, has hit form after a slow start to his Fulham career.

Muniz scored only two league goals on loan at Middlesbrough in 2022/23 and has struggled to get into the Fulham team this year - that is until Jimenez’s injury opened a window of opportunity.

With Broja breathing down his neck, Muniz deserves credit for rising to the challenge with two well-taken poacher’s goals in the victory over AFC Bournemouth. The No 9 spot is now his to lose.

Muniz's goals v Bournemouth
Set-piece goals hurt Forest again

Nottingham Forest could so easily have won this match. Their xG of 1.5 was significantly higher than Newcastle’s 0.5 thanks to some electric counter-attacking play through Anthony Elanga.

Had Taiwo Awoniyi converted his one-on-one when the score was 2-2, Forest would surely have gone on to win.

Instead, Nuno Espirito Santo’s side were undermined by their set-piece defending – yet again.

Two Newcastle goals were from set-plays, taking Forest to 18 goals conceded from dead-balls in the Premier League this season, more than any other club.

When embroiled in a relegation battle, defending corners and free-kicks is a basic skill you cannot afford to get wrong. On Saturday, it cost Forest points that would have given them at least a three-point buffer above the relegation zone. Instead, they are just two points clear.

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