Arsenal exposed as fabulous Foden lifts Man City – Tactical lessons from the Premier League weekend

Liverpool remain on top of the Premier League but behind them the jockeying for positions continues, with Manchester City getting back on the horse in thrilling fashion with victory over Arsenal.

The race for the top four is hotting up as Chelsea again slipped up at home while Tottenham took advantage of another disappointing Manchester United result to move into fifth.

Goal breaks down how the key coaching decisions impacted the weekend’s action…

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1) Foden and De Bruyne expose Arsenal’s timid midfield

Pep Guardiola made some crucial changes to his attaching set-up against Arsenal on Sunday in order to make the most of the Gunners’ frailties, namely by packing central midfield with technical players who could cut through the middle.

Where in previous weeks Man City – with just one midfielder at the base and Kevin De Bruyne leaning out to the right – have struggled to build momentum, here they were like the City of old.

That was partly because Rodri and Ilkay Gundogan played side by side in midfield, enjoying simplified roles thanks to the chaotic nature of Arsenal’s press.

As ever, the home side hunted in small packs and seemingly at random, allowing graceful technicians like Rodri to slip passes through the gaps and take multiple Arsenal players out of the game. It happened throughout the first half and led directly to the second goal.

But as important was Guardiola’s use of Phil Foden on the left wing.

PIC: Foden passes vs Arsenal

He drifted infield to link with De Bruyne, who was notably narrower than in recent weeks, to create a formidable quartet of midfield players looking to dominate the large spaces that invariably open between the Arsenal midfield and defence.

Foden to De Bruyne led to the third goal, while the opener saw Fernandinho more or less walk straight through the middle of the pitch. Arsenal are too passive, and Guardiola had just the system to make the most of it.

2) Ferguson’s forward-thinking Everton play into Man Utd’s hands

Duncan Ferguson’s tall tale during the build-up to Sunday’s clash at Old Trafford – suggesting Everton would play with a 3-5-2, not 4-4-2 – tells us the interim Everton manager wants to be seen as a tactical thinker, and indeed after the game he spoke at length about wishing he had switched to a 4-5-1 earlier in the game.

Ferguson’s very attacking line-up, with several players in unfamiliar roles, also emphasises his desire to audition for the job as a tactician, not a motivator.

On the whole, though, he got this one wrong.

Early on Everton sat too high up the pitch, meaning they were unable to compress space between the lines enough to prevent Manchester United from launching long balls in behind for Daniel James or Anthony Martial. The visitors were lucky none of these chances ended in a goal.

However, they grew into the game thanks to excellent hold-up performances from Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who took down long balls and won lots of set-pieces to drag Everton up the pitch.

But in the second half they began to get overrun, which was always the risk with a two-man central midfield and attackers on both flanks.

Alex Iwobi never looked comfortable in defensive positions, dropping too deep alongside his right-back through fear of Marcus Rashford’s pace, and indeed it was his stepping off of James that led to Mason Greenwood’s equaliser.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had thrown Greenwood on to match Everton’s 4-4-2, and with eight attacking players on the pitch it was little wonder United began to look the stronger side; make it open, and the better players will win out. Ferguson changed to a 4-5-1 with Iwobi in midfield and the game petered out but, as he said himself after the game, the switch came too late.

3) Mourinho’s Spurs already unrecognisable from Pochettino era

Wolves average 50 per cent possession at home while Tottenham average 50% away. Against ‘Big Six’ clubs, Wolves have held 36.6% of the ball – before Sunday’s defeat, that is.

Jose Mourinho’s side were on the back foot for long periods at Molineux, and although it was not always comfortable, the territorial make-up of this match tells us how fast Spurs are changing. Wolves held 58%, Tottenham 42%.

Opta calculate possession by the split of total passes made by the two sides, not by how long they actually hold the ball, which is why Spurs’ figure was so low on Sunday. Their passing is generally much longer now than it was under Mauricio Pochettino, plus when counterattacks are prioritised then individuals dribble as opposed to simple passes between defenders that allow the shape to reform.

It would have been unthinkable under Pochettino to be playing like this, but already Mourinho has got some of his core ideas across. 

Tottenham attempted 24 dribbles, up by around 30% on Pochettino games this season, and just 25% of Spurs’ total tackles on Sunday were in the Wolves half. Not a single one was in the final 35 yards of the pitch.

4) Chelsea’s impatience causing downturn in results

By now, every Premier League manager knows how to stop Chelsea. Bournemouth’s performance almost exactly followed the template created by Everton last weekend; a deep-lying 4-4-2 with long-ball counters.

Chelsea, again, could not work out how to carve open such a stubborn resistance.

It is partly down to impatience. Last week N’Golo Kante and Mason Mount failed to come short for the ball, leaving the centre-backs with no option to work through the Everton midfield, and while that was still a problem this week things got worse.

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Chelsea’s defenders failed to feed Jorginho, instead punting long aimless balls forward (61 in total, up from a season average of 50).

Frank Lampard’s instructions to get the ball into the final third as quickly as possible are proving counter-productive when matches grind to a halt. Chelsea need to patiently work around the defensive shell, slowly tiring the opposition out before upping the tempo and switching the play.

5) Villa not playing to their strengths with predictable shape

The most frustrating aspect of Aston Villa’s poor run of form recently is the consistency of their approach.

Dean Smith always plays a 4-3-3 and the patterns – from pressing, to defensive positioning, to attacking lines – are always the same. Opponents have begun to suss Villa out, surrounding Jack Grealish and getting tight to John McGinn. By nullifying these two, Villa look lost.

Sheffield United’s tactics are similarly easy to read, and yet nobody has quite worked out what to do yet.

Their overlapping centre-backs help the Blades overload one wing at a time, switching the play and then exchanging short passes around the opposition full-back. Villa did not have a robust enough defensive shape to deal with the tactic, while Grealish’s unusually wide position on the left rendered him ineffective on the break.

Smith needs to shake things up. Perhaps an Antonio Conte-style 3-4-2-1, with narrow inside forwards rather than wingers, would suit this team.

Three centre-backs would mean greater strength in a weak area for Villa; Matt Targett and Frederic Guilbert are stronger attacking than defending; Grealish needs to move back to the centre; and Wesley is crying out for closer support.

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