A busy round of midweek fixtures saw all 20 Premier League teams play over Tuesday and Wednesday, with Manchester City and Liverpool maintaining their impressive starts to the 2018-19 season.
Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea came unstuck at Wolves, however, while Manchester United and Arsenal played out a draw as both sides matched eachother up with three-at-the-back defensive systems.
So from Diogo Dalot’s struggles against Sead Kolasinac to Pep Guardiola’s Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva masterstroke – Goal looks at five tactical lessons we learned from the latest set of matches…
Dalot struggles almost cost Man Utd
A low quality game of football defined by tiredness, injuries, and errors was tough to analyse from a tactical perspective; both Arsenal and Manchester United struggled for fluency, largely cancelling each other out by mirroring formations.
However, one key battle that could have won the match was between Sead Kolasinac and Diogo Dalot, with the young right-back’s performance highlighted the problems of playing with three at the back in a defence-first system.
Unlike Mourinho with Dalot, Unai Emery’s attacking urgency ensures Kolasinac is constantly looking to overlap. The Bosnia & Herzegovina international bossed that flank at Old Trafford, taking more touches in the penalty area (11) than any other player on the pitch and playing a ball across goal from behind Dalot on no less than six separate occasions.
The Portuguese was totally lost, trapped, without support, between closing down Alexi Iwobi (and later Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang), or dropping back to follow Kolasinac.
Dalot’s problems highlight why Mourinho’s use of a back three rarely works. So defensive are his instincts – and so rarely do his teams press – that the three inevitably becomes a five, which means big pockets of space opening up on the outside of the central midfielders.
As illustrated in the graphic below, when a defensive mentality leaves the the wing-backs unsure of where to position themselves the middle line of four becomes a two, creating an opportunity for overloads. Tiredness meant Arsenal could not take full advantage on this occasion, although their first goal did come from a corner won via Kolasinac.
Mkhitaryan must stop hiding
With both United and Arsenal fielding two central midfielders and three at the back, there was far more space in the middle of the park than normally seen in a Premier League match.
The visitors certainly were not at their best after an exhausting North London Derby just three days previously, but it did look as though they were cranking up for another second half blitz… until Aaron Ramsey’s injury meant Henrikh Mkhitaryan came on at the break.
The Armenia international is playing poorly this season, and while all players go through difficult patches, Mkhitaryan’s now threatens to engulf the remainder of his career.
The main reason seems to be that the 29-year-old is hiding, deliberately ensuring he is unavailable in order to minimise scrutiny or errors. It is vital that players show for the ball when confidence is low, because it is only by re-learning/trusting their own skills that sportspeople can emerge from a slump.
Instead, Mkhitaryan was a ghost, often waiting until he was no longer in space before putting his arms out and tentatively calling for the ball. The result was a limp second-half performance from Arsenal.
Mahrez & Bernardo Silva torment Watford
Of all the unusual tactical innovations we’ve seen from Pep Guardiola since he arrived in England, his use of Bernardo Silva is perhaps the most surprising to date.
For a while now Silva has, though nominally in central midfield, drifted more to the right, but tasked with breaking down a narrow Watford 4-2-2-2, Guardiola told the Portuguese to go all the way out to the wing. Manchester City effectively played with two right wingers on Tuesday night.
Riyad Mahrez was undoubtedly the standout player at Vicarage Road, but his influence was thanks to Silva’s wonderful movement alongside him; together, they frequently swapped between being inside and outside the Watford left-back, exchanging passes a total of 25 times in the match.
Looking at the heat maps, Silva was functioning as an inverted winger and Mahrez a traditional winger – with Kyle Walker providing additional support to overwhelm the hosts.
City’s astonishing possession dominance allows them to overload cetain areas of the pitch without losing defensive balance, and Watford’s left winger is perhaps at fault for the ease with which Mahrez and Silva slipped each other into the box on the right.
Roberto Pereyra was strangely positioned higher than his fellow midfielders, creating a gap for Silva to drift into, while Abdoulaye Doucoure never came to terms with the concept of two right wingers. Who can blame him?!
How Wolves stunned Chelsea with tactical tweak
Throughout a dominant first-half performance it looked as though Chelsea were set to win by a comfortable margin against Wolves, with a mixture of excellent goalkeeping and a bit of luck keeping the score down to 1-0 as the sides went into the break.
Wolves might have been relatively organised in a 3-4-3 shape, but the defence was too deep and their positioning too rigid, allowing Eden Hazard and Ruben Loftus-Cheek to pierce through them.
Nuno Espirito Santo deserves credit for reacting to this by pushing his side up the pitch and bravely confronting the visitors, when most managers in his position would have allowed his players to continue retreating into a protective shell. Wolves notably pressed higher in the second 45, disrupting Chelsea’s rhythm by chasing down the ball and holding firm with a high defensive line.
They attempted nine tackles and picked up one yellow card in the first half, and 14 tackles and four yellows in the second. More tellingly, Wolves made 20 interceptions in the opening 45 minutes and just six in the second; interceptions tend to be made by teams cautiously blocking lines, rather than hurling themselves into challenges.
The change initially meant Chelsea could easily manouvre around them and clip balls over the high back line, but Wolves were not deterred, eventually turning the game on its head.
Morgan Gibbs-White was particularly impressive, weaving through the middle of the pitch with a self-assurance that lifted his team-mates; he set up the first goal single-handedly, and the resultant upturn in confidence led to the second four minutes later.
Gross helps inspire Brighton win – in just 28 minutes!
You know a manager’s tactical alteration has had a huge impact on a match when the player in question only needs 28 minutes to shape the entire game!
For Brighton’s 2-1 win at Huddersfield, Pascal Gross was dropped from a No.10 position to a central midfield role, meaning the Seagulls shifted from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3, and the German stayed in that area for the visit of Crystal Palace… until Shane Duffy’s red card meant he had to be sacrificed for centre-back Leon Balogun.
By that point the pattern of the match had already been set, and when the substitute Balogun scored 25 seconds after coming on Brighton had the game sewn up. In a short cameo, Gross’s influence in deeper positions had taken control of the match to effectively put his side into an unassailable 2-0 lead.
At Huddersfield he had 101 touches of the ball and attempted 86 passes, his highest of the season so far, which meant Brighton could get a proper foothold in midfield. Gross managed 25 touches and 21 passes in 28 minutes against Palace; he was on course to achieve similar levels to the weekend only with fewer touches per pass, reflecting the speed and fluency he adds to the centre of the pitch.
Gross played a clever ball in the final third to set up Jose Izquierdo to earn the penalty that opened the scoring, and although this was made from the No.10 position he was, crucially, able to arrive late from central midfield, explaining why Palace’s narrow midfield couldn’t track him.