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Premier League weekend review: What we learned

26 Feb 2024
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Alex Keble on the key talking points including how Man Utd failed to control space against Fulham

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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.

Familiar midfield decompression undermines Man Utd

There was nothing particularly new about Manchester United's performance in defeat to Fulham this weekend. The difference compared to recent United matches was that Fulham took their chances, commendably pushing hard for the winner deep into stoppage time.

Alex Iwobi's goal was the second latest winner ever scored against Man Utd in the Premier League, and the latest on record scored by the visiting team at Old Trafford.

These moments are rare, then, but the reason for United’s late collapse is anything but.

Throughout the 2023/24 campaign, Man Utd have struggled to compress space between the lines - when the forwards begin to press, the defence and midfield often fail to push up too, creating space between them.

In the build-up to the corner from which Fulham scored the opener, note how Man Utd’s midfield three are spaced far apart, and how much room it creates for Timothy Castagne to stride into.

Fulham first goal

This happened throughout the match, several times before the opener and many more times after, eventually directly leading to the late winner.

There should not be this much midfield space, as indicated below, nor should Scott McTominay get caught so far ahead of the play immediately after a throw-in.

Iwobi goal

Man Utd have now lost eight times at home in all competitions this season, just one shy of the club record set in 1973/74. They are also eight points short of a top four place. 

Erik ten Hag needs to sort out their pressing structure if he is to turn things around.

Wolves enter race for Europe in remarkable season

It’s easy to forget that Wolverhampton Wanderers were widely tipped for relegation at the start of the season.

When Julen Lopetegui left just a few days before the 2023/24 campaign began, and after Ruben Neves’ earlier departure, many thought that would be the end of Wolves’ Premier League stay.

By the time Gary O’Neil was announced as Lopetegui’s successor, and when it became clear Matheus Nunes would soon be leaving, there weren’t many pundits left who gave Wolves a chance.

But victory over Sheffield United at Molineux on Sunday, their third win in four, has lifted Wolves up to eighth place – and into the race for Europe.

“We didn’t expect to be pushing for Europe but if other people want to talk about that it’s fine,” O’Neil said after the victory, hardly playing down his team’s chances.

And why should he? Liverpool's victory in the EFL Cup final increases the likelihood that eighth will be rewarded with Europa Conference League football next season. Yet Wolves might aim higher still.

They are only one point behind Brighton & Hove Albion in seventh place, and six points behind Man Utd in sixth. O’Neil has worked wonders. It would be unwise to bet against him taking Wolves to even greater heights.

Race for Europe

Position Pos Club Played Pl GD Points Pts
6 Newcastle NEW 32 +17 50
7 Man Utd MUN 32 -1 50
8 West Ham WHU 34 -9 48
9 Chelsea CHE 31 +9 47
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Glasner’s winning start gives Palace fans new hope

This was not the most graceful and attacking Crystal Palace performance you will ever see, which is to be expected while Eberechi Eze and Michael Olise are out. It was not the most formidable opposition, either.

But there was plenty about the performance to make Oliver Glasner happy and to signal that Palace supporters can start to hope again after months of stagnation.

Palace were notably more expansive than they have been under Roy Hodgson this season with Jefferson Lerma and Jordan Ayew particularly, revelling in the freedom afforded to them in Glasner’s 3-4-2-1 formation.

It led to the team’s biggest win of 2023/24 in all competitions and their highest Expected Goals (xG), 2.4, which is a testament to the progressive football that Glasner brings, a quality that also shone through in his team selection.

Matheus Franca and Naouirou Ahamada were both given significant minutes, coming off the bench for the final half hour, which was again good news for those Palace fans wanting greater faith shown in their young players.

There will be tougher days ahead, and yet with an eight-point gap to Luton Town in 18th place, Palace have plenty of time and breathing space to learn Glasner’s methods.

Tweaked role for Odegaard exploits Newcastle’s problems

A lesser-known quality Mikel Arteta shares with his old mentor Pep Guardiola is the ability to tweak little things here and there, enough to keep opponents on their toes and find new ways to create chances, even if, to the casual observer, he appears to pick the same team and same formation each week.

The 4-1 victory over Newcastle United was the perfect example.

“Today we were so aggressive, Jorginho and Declan Rice were good at threading between the lines – that was the difference,” Arsenal captain Martin Odegaard said.

“We have been playing a few different ways, and I have been dropping a bit more, [but] Jorginho and Declan have done that today. I played a little higher up.”

Odegaard’s interview proves this was a deliberate tactical move from Arteta, who presumably noted Newcastle’s softness through central midfield and decided to pack this area.

Throughout the campaign Eddie Howe's side have struggled to defend against teams who create chances predominantly through the middle. 

Only Luton, Sheffield United, and Aston Villa have allowed more through-balls against them than Newcastle’s 56, while only the current top four and Brighton have allowed fewer successful crosses than Newcastle’s 39.

It was a big problem at the Emirates, where Arsenal scored twice in each half for the seventh successive Premier League match, a new competition record.

This move, which ended in the corner from which Arsenal scored the opening goal, shows how narrowly Arsenal played. Note the high positions of Odegaard and Rice circled below.

Arsenal first goal

Odegaard had only 40 touches of the ball, down from a Premier League season average of 68.7, staying high up the pitch in order to occupy the Newcastle defenders.

Rice, usually the deepest midfielder, was also given license to charge forward as a No 8, overwhelming Newcastle and exploiting their main weakness.

Bailey is superb as Villa target Forest’s left side

Putting aside Villa’s sudden collapse either side of half-time against Nottingham Forest, when goals cut the lead from 3-0 to 3-2, this was a clear tactical victory for Unai Emery in a match the hosts dominated for considerable periods.

Emery had an obvious plan for how to hurt Forest, namely put Moussa Niakhate – the centre-back covering at left-back – under pressure as often as possible.

John McGinn ran midfield and Douglas Luiz roamed forward from the left of centre, pulling the encounter one way so that Villa could play long diagonal switches out to Leon Bailey, which isolated Niakhate one-on-one with Villa’s in-form winger.

It led directly to the first two goals and could have had Villa 5-0 up long before Niakhate got Forest back into the contest just before the break.

For the opener, McGinn’s turn opened up the pitch as Danilo, distracted by Youri Tielemans, leaves a big hole into which Bailey runs, losing Niakhate:

Villa first goal

Give Bailey the ball - not a bad idea given his phenomenal performances over the last couple of months. He has amassed nine goal involvements, scoring five goals and assisting four, in his last 13 Premier League appearances, a run that stretches back to the beginning of December.

Bailey, whose signing in the summer of 2021 was seen as a coup at the time, is finally finding his feet at Villa Park.

Foden stars again in a central role

Phil Foden is quietly having his best-ever Premier League season.

After scoring the winning goal at AFC Bournemouth on Saturday, Foden now has 16 goals in all competitions, already his joint-most in a single campaign.

But even putting the goal to one side, Foden was everywhere. 

Phil Foden touch map v Bournemouth

No player created more chances (4), had more shots (4), or won possession more times (9) than Foden, who is excelling in a more central role recently.

Here, Foden was selected as one of the No 8s with Kevin De Bruyne left on the bench, and not for the first time this season Guardiola’s side did not miss the Belgian.

Granted, this wasn’t the most impressive of Man City’s recent wins, and indeed some supporters may be concerned about Erling Haaland's drought, or the fact that City have scored only once in each of their last three Premier League matches.

But the wins keep piling up, and in fact across all competitions Man City have now won 14 away matches this season, one more already than they did in the whole of their treble-winning 2022/23 campaign. Things are ticking along just fine.

The title race

Position Pos Club Played Pl GD Points Pts
1 Arsenal ARS 33 +51 74
2 Liverpool LIV 33 +43 74
3 Man City MCI 32 +44 73
Everton’s winless run continues in a match with no winners

This was a draw that suited nobody. 

Brighton have dropped to ninth in the Premier League table after winning only two of their last seven matches, and Billy Gilmour’s suspension will be a big loss to Roberto De Zerbi.

Everton, meanwhile, must recover from the crushing blow of a 95th minute equaliser scored against them, a goal that prevented Sean Dyche's side from ending what had been an eight-match winless run.

It is now nine without a victory, the last one coming on 16 December against Burnley.

As ever, they couldn’t take their chances. Dominic Calvert-Lewin glanced a header wide from six yards out while Abdoulaye Doucoure's shot was cleared off the line. 

Everton have under-performed against their xG by 10.0 goals this season, by far the most in the Premier League, and it’s easy to see why.

Nevertheless, it would have been a well-earned win and huge morale boost had Everton held on. Instead, the danger of relegation grows. 

The relegation battle

Position Pos Club Played Pl GD Points Pts
15 Brentford BRE 34 -7 35
16 Everton EVE 33 -14 30
17 Nott'm Forest NFO 34 -18 26
18 Luton LUT 34 -28 25

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