Two months ago Manchester United were crowned Premier League champions for the 20th time. The Red Devils won the league by a remarkable 11 points, cruising through the best team’s England had to offer, at the expense of rivals, Manchester City. Over the next few months, I’ll be sharing my tactical insights on the Premier League every week – so as we embark on a new season, one that’s being tipped as potentially being the best of the Premier League era, it’s only right that we sit back, fasten our seat belts and enjoy the ride.
Manuel Pellegrini enjoyed his debut in the Premier League as Manchester City comfortably dispatched of Newcastle. It was the dawn of a new era, as City has parted ways with several negative influences in the dressing room. Pellegrini’s side operated in a 4-4-2, which often looked like a 4-2-2-2, but provided balance in all aspects of their attack.
City displayed nifty combination plays, intricate passing and most importantly width – thus leading to a positive atmosphere at the Ethiad Stadium. Spaniard’s David Silva and Jesus Navas operated on the flanks, both producing quality performances – Navas provided the width City often lacked during Mancini’s tenure, while Silva drifted infield to receive balls between the lines, played key passes in the final third and combined well with Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero, which led to City’s opening goal.
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Aguero and Dzeko combined on numerous occasions throughout the match, and it led to Aguero’s goal in the 22nd minute, when Vincent Kompany intercepted a pass, and played a forward pass to the Bosnian striker, who back heeled the ball to Aguero and the Argentinian striker calmly slotted his shot past Tim Krul. More so, Dzeko had one of his best games at the Ethiad Stadium, despite not being on the score sheet. The Bosnian striker dropped deep to link play with the midfield, ran the channels throughout the match and was unfortunate not to find the back of the net.
For what it’s worth, Newcastle rarely tested Joe Hart, and with them already missing Yohan Cabaye due to transfer speculation, things got worse when Steven Taylor was harshly sent off for an aerial challenge on Aguero. Cisse was an isolated figure, Ben Arfa showed glimpses of magic, while the midfield duo of Cheick Tiote and Moussa Sissoko was woeful offensively and defensively.
There was always concern that Yaya Toure and marquee-signing Fernandinho would be unable to find a balance in midfield, but the duo displayed that they’re capable of forming the best midfield in the Premier League. Fernandinho shined in his Premier League debut – he adds another physical presence in the middle, a proficient passer, has the tactical awareness to shield the back four and he made several well-timed interceptions and tackles. The Brazilian also has the ability to make powerful runs forward, but his inclusion in the side will allow Toure to get into advance positions and vice-versa.
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It was a fantastic performance by Pellegrini’s men, as they’ve fully responded to results from the other legitimate title contender’s, and demonstrated why they’re favourites to lift the title in May.
The champions kicked off their title defence at the Liberty Stadium with a tenacious 4-1 victory. Robin van Persie continued to impress, with two wonderful goals, while Danny Welbeck matched last season’s goal tally.
Swansea dominated possession throughout the match, but Michael Laudrup’s men didn’t make an impact in the final third. Jonjo Shelvey’s debut was tarnished because of their production in key areas – despite finding space between the lines to receive the ball – penetration was non-existent in the final third.
In the span of two minutes, United doubled their lead courtesy of strikes from van Persie and Welbeck – the first goal displaying van Persie’s ability to link play and improvisation, while the second highlighted that width is still a key component in United’s attack.
Laudrup shifted his side into a 4-4-2 in the second half, introducing Wilfried Bony and Pablo Hernandez, which saw Swansea improve significantly. Bony and Michu took turns dropping between the lines to link play, while Hernandez’s movement allowed Rangel to push forward from right back. Despite improving in the second half and creating better chances, United looked comfortable defending deep, with their only problem being the amount of space between the midfield and defence.
In the 60th minute, want away striker Wayne Rooney made an appearance, and he contributed to both United’s goals in the second half. His off the ball run to drag defenders out of position allowed van Persie space to get into a great position and score his second of the night – and the Englishman found space between the lines to receive a pass, and played a lovely ball for Welbeck to end the game.
United should not be overlooked as title contenders, albeit possessing a frail midfield, as they still possess a strong core, but keeping Rooney is pivotal to their success domestically this season.
Unity has been assembled at Stamford Bridge with the return of Jose Mourinho, and it was evident in the atmosphere in Chelsea’s opener against Hull City. Fans were in unison when expressing their love for the Portuguese manager and their Russian owner Roman Abramovich.
Chelsea started the match positively earning a penalty shot in the 6th minute, when Allan McGregor clipped Fernando Torres in the box – thus leading to Frank Lampard stepping up to the spot, but McGregor made an exceptional save to deny the England international. The Blues continued to run rampant on the visitors and received their opener seven minutes later when Kevin De Bruyne played a nifty pass for Oscar to slip past McGregor.
Oscar started the match in the no.10 role, and showcased why it may become a permanent role for the Brazilian throughout the season. Oscar’s ability to find pockets of space to receive the ball is pivotal, as it opens up space for Eden Hazard, De Bruyne and Torres to exploit. The Brazilian’s tactical awareness is exceptional, and unlike Juan Mata he’s able to form a midfield three and close down deep-lying playmakers on the defensive end. There’s no question Mata will play a vital role in Chelsea’s season, but it may be from a wider position, whereas Oscar can make a huge difference against the top sides in England and Europe playing as a no.10.
Chelsea added to their lead in the 25th minute when Frank Lampard rifled a 35-yard free kick past McGregor to make up for his missed penalty. The Blues were in cruise control – Oscar’s movement was pulling defenders out of space, De Bruyne was attacking the space provided, and even Torres looked sharper on the ball.
Steve Bruce’s side improved in the second half, once Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore entered the match. To be fair, Chelsea dropped off, sitting deeper and looking to break on the counter, but Mourinho’s double-pivot was unable to control the tempo of the match. Huddlestone’s forward passes got Bruce’s men into better positions, while Hull’s midfield began to get behind Ramires and Lampard.
The Lampard and Ramires duo succeeded in the first half, but when Chelsea focused on shutting up shop, their flaws were exposed. They’re unable to control the tempo of the game, vulnerable to quick counter-attacks, and it limits Ramires’ attacking threat going forward. Once again this pivot failed to inspire, even against one of the weaker sides in the league, which should worry most Chelsea supporters.
But, most importantly, it was a positive return to the Premier League for Mourinho, and he’ll be looking to improve as Chelsea have fixtures against Aston Villa and Manchester United in the next eight days, which should test the depth of the squad.
With the Luis Suarez situation being the main talk at Anfield in the transfer window, many have overlooked the work Brendan Rodgers has done in the off-season. Anfield said goodbye to the likes of Stewart Downing, Jonjo Shelvey, Pepe Reina and Jamie Carragher, and introduced Iago Aspas, Kolo Toure and have Daniel Sturridge and Phillipe Coutinho from January.
One of the main problems the Reds encountered last season was their production in the final third, especially at home. This weekend at Anfield, Rodgers’ men looked destined to repeat last season’s failures, as they ran into a hot goalkeeper in Asmir Begovic, who made several vital saves to keep the match close. But in the 33rd minute, Daniel Sturridge was allowed an ample amount of space in the final third to unleash a fantastic strike past the Stoke City goalkeeper.
One of the key feats in the match was the fluidity and movement of Aspas, Sturridge and Coutinho. Their pace frightened the Stoke back four and they drifted into key spaces around the pitch to drag defenders out of position – their interchanging was positive, which allowed them to create numerous chances in the final third. Coutinho had himself an exceptional first half, drifting centrally to receive the ball, and the Brazilian played in several incisive passes in the final third, but Liverpool was unable to increase their lead.
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Jordan Henderson also had an excellent outing on the right of an attacking three. Without the ball he tucked into midfield to help Liverpool compete in midfield, but he surged forward whenever the opportunity was presented – having a few shots saved by Begovic and hitting the post in the second half.
Mark Hughes Stoke City debut was quite disappointing – to be fair, it will take time to implement his philosophy, but Stoke was dire. The midfield was dull, with most of the play going through an isolated Peter Crouch, and they were unable to create any chances. But in the 87th minute, they received a gift, as Daniel Agger conceded a silly penalty for a handball. Jonathan Walters stepped to the spot, but had his spot kick saved by new signing Simon Mignolet.
Liverpool start the season off with three points, and look to have formed a devastating attacking line that will cause many teams problems – this without their talisman Suarez.
Arsenal stumble at the Emirates
The Emirates Stadium was filled with jeers when Anthony Taylor blew the final whistle in Arsenal’s opening day defeat to Aston Villa. Arsenal supporters were angered at Taylor’s officiating throughout the match, but were left heartbroken when Antonio Luna fired his shot past Wojciech Szczesny in the 85th minute, to give Villa a 3-1 lead.
It was a dream start for the Gunners, as Olivier Giroud opened the scoring when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played in a delightful ball for the Frenchman to direct past American goalkeeper Brad Guzan. An Arsenal onslaught looked evident, but the Gunners failed to build on their lead. Thomas Rosicky had a quiet first half, Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey were making safe passes and Giroud was doing well to connect with the midfield, but there were no runners playing off of him. Oxlade-Chamberlain was one of Arsenal’s influential men in the first half drifting from the left flank infield to receive the ball and attempt to link play with Giroud – but Wenger’s men were unable to increase their lead.
Once again Wenger aligned his side in a stagnant 4-2-3-1 and failed to make any tactical alterations throughout the match. When Villa was in possession, Giroud and Rosicky were not ordered to press the Villa backline, allowing Paul Lambert’s men to build from the back. Arsenal kept a high line, but their attempt to press the midfield was lackadaisical and Villa was able to find pockets of space between the lines – a fine example was Gabriel Agbonlahor’s individual run that won Aston Villa a penalty, and should’ve led to a Szczesny sending off.
Villa came to life after Benteke’s equalizer, as they dropped into a 4-5-1 without the ball – their wide men tracked back efficiently, which prevented overloads and the Arsenal fullbacks from pushing forward, while the midfield three of Fabian Delph, Ashley Westwood and Karim El Ahmadi kept Wilshere and Ramsey quiet in the final third.
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Wenger, who was forced to make an early substitution for Kieran Gibbs, was hit with another injury worry as Santi Cazorla replaced Chamberlain at half time. Cazorla played behind Giroud, pushing Rosicky to the right and Walcott to the left. Wenger’s men continued to pour on the pressure, and it was Rosicky who began to thrive, nearly giving the Gunners the lead on a few occasions. But Guzan made several saves in the second half to deny Arsenal from taking the lead.
In the 61st minute, Guzan’s saves looked to have paid off as Laurent Koscielny was booked for a desperate challenge on Agbonlahor in the box to hand Villa their second penalty of the match. Benteke converted his spot kick giving Villa the lead, and in the 67th minute things got worse, as Koscielny received a second booking, reducing the Gunners to ten men.
Arsenal continued to push for an equalizer and lacked balance going forward – ultimately it was Wilshere and Ramsey who failed to control the tempo of the match and Wenger’s men began to be exposed on the counter-attack. Lambert urged his men to sit deeper and break when possible, and in the 85th minute Premier League debutant Luna produced a wonderful finish at the near post, to hand the visitors all three points.
For what it’s worth, let’s step away from Arsenal needing to spend, because that’s inevitable – at this point they need at minimum three top class players to be title contenders. It also looks like they will spend, but it will be another late desperation buy at the end of the transfer window.
“We were on the market before the game and it is the same after the game,” Wenger said.
What is interesting is the other comments Wenger made in his post-match presser.
“It’s a big disappointment because we started well and suddenly everything went against us. Even at 10 men we had chances to come back to 2-2,” Wenger added. We could have won the game, there were a lot of positives in our game. That is what we have to focus on,” he said.
The French manager is tempted to blame the referee for their poor result, but it’s Wenger who should be held accountable. He continues to display that he’s tactically inept – he was unable to motivate his players to play at a high level in a home opener, and when Arsenal was struggling against a side that flirted with relegation last season, he failed to react.
We’ve come to understand that the players aren’t good enough, which is why Arsenal supporters are adamant on signing new players, but how much longer can they ignore the assessment of their manager.
Unlike their London rivals and the two Manchester clubs, Arsenal lack depth – and for the first time in Wenger’s tenure, Arsenal are in legitimate danger of missing out on Europe’s elite competition this season and in the future.
Roberto Soldado’s second half penalty was enough to earn Spurs a hard fought victory against Ian Halloway’s Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. Andre Villas-Boas was still without Gareth Bale, but he was able to field summer signings Paulinho, Soldado, Nacer Chadli and Etienne Capoue.
Spurs started the match positively, often looking to overload the right side. Paulinho, Kyle Walker and Aaron Lennon worked several combination plays down that flank, but the superb Dean Moxey either cut them out or the delivery was mediocre.
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Spurs dominated possession in the first half, but their ball circulation was slow, and they were unable to find gaps in Palace’s backline, which sat deep in their third. Mile Jedinak played a major role in Palace’s midfield, working hard to break up play and keeping the midfield organized.
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Luckily for Spurs, their constant attempt to penetrate the right flank paid off, as Lennon took on Moxey for the umpteenth time, and his cross hit the Palace defender’s hand, and Spurs were awarded a penalty.
It was Soldado that stepped up to the spot and converted the coolest of penalties past Speroni. Soldado showed glimpses of his talents in his debut – often dropping deep to link play, and his movement allowed him to get into great positions, but the Spaniard didn’t receive quality service. Soldado, known for his proficient poaching, rarely received the balls in the 18-yard box, which forced him to focus on linking play, and creating chances for his teammates.
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Palace had their fair share of chances in the final 30 minutes, as Villas-Boas men dropped into a 4-4-1-1, looking to break on the counter. Halloway introduced Marouane Chamakh, Jonathan Williams and Kevin Phillips to give Palace an attacking thrust – the home side was direct with their play, and began to create chances out of desperation. In the 89th minute, Palace received their best chance through Kagisho Dikgacoi, but Hugo Lloris made two vital stops to preserve all three points.
Three goals in ten minutes was the main talking point at Carrow Road, as Ricky van Wolfswinkel earned the Canaries a valuable point at home. Chris Hughton’s men were pegged in their box for large portions of the match, but there were three distinct elements to their attack.
Nathan Redmond’s ability to skip past defenders with ease was pivotal, but the Norwich winger was left with the task of tracking Seamus Coleman’s runs and was responsible for Everton’s second goal. Steven Whittaker’s forward runs from right back were positive, and led to the home sides opening goal, as the Norwich fullback followed up on his shot that hit the post, and tapped the ball into the net. Finally van Wolfswinkel’s constant runs into the channels caused Phil Jagielka and Silvain Distin several problems.
It was fitting to see the Norwich trio combine exceptionally for van Wolfswinkel’s equalizing goal – Redmond glided into a central position and played a ball out wide to Whittaker, and the fullback delivered a cross to van Wolfswinkel who cleverly directed the ball past Tim Howard.
Marouane Fellaini started the match in the double pivot alongside Leon Osman opposed to playing behind the striker, and we were able to witness a different side to the Belgians game. He dropped deep between the centrebacks to receive the ball, often dictating the tempo of the match and playing positive passes across the pitch. There were a few rare occasions when Fellaini did surge forward looking to connect with the attackers ahead of him, but for the most part he displayed his ability to play in a deeper role.
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Another bright spot for Martinez was the performance of Ross Barkley – the 19-year-old that was praised by the Everton manager post-match, was constant threat to Chris Hughton’s men. He was receiving the ball between the lines, taking on defenders at will, and spreading key passes in the final third – and he capped off his impressive outing with an exceptional goal from 21 yards out.
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Despite all the possession the Toffee’s maintained, they were dull in the final third, besides Barkley’s threat – Coleman and Leighton Baines had fairly quiet games and once again Nikica Jelavic struggled up top. As for Norwich, there were a few positives to take from this result, as they look to finish in the top-half of the table this season
Other Results: Sunderland 0-1 Fulham, West Bromwich Albion 0-1 Southampton, West Ham United 2-0 Cardiff City
Goal of the week
@InfostradaLive provided all the stats used in this recap