There were few shocks in round 17 of the Premier League season with the bookies’ favourites winning in eight of the nine matches played; it’s that time of year when the league table settles down and clubs become more predictable.
Chelsea‘s 11th straight win saw them move seven points clear at the top of the table before Liverpool‘s game against Everton on Monday night, Manchester United collected a vital three points in the West Midlands, and Manchester City came from behind to put a serious dent in Arsenal‘s title hopes.
Here are three things we learnt from the weekend action.
1) Pogba’s value becomes apparent as Man United put fear back into their opponents
Playing with fluidity, or at a high tempo, is still eluding United but an upturn in results has at least put fear back into the opposition. Sir Alex Ferguson‘s greatest success was ensuring teams were constantly in retreat, handing his side a psychological advantage that translated into attacking dominance.
There was a hint of this attitude on Saturday, and as West Brom sat deep, Paul Pogba‘s real value became clear.
Creating chances against defensive systems can be difficult, but the Frenchman has a rare ability to clip the ball into the box from a very flat angle. His curled crosses from the middle of the pitch are finding Zlatan Ibrahimovic with increasing consistency, and in the first half, Tony Pulis’ team struggled to keep him quiet.
Few other players in the United squad can conjure a goalscoring opportunity from the central spaces that are left open in front of two lines of four. Pogba’s directness and acute passing ability ensured that the Baggies’ midfielders had to come out of their shell to confront the 23-year-old, which in turn opened up room for his United teammates.
2) Arsenal fail to learn lessons from others, suggesting Wenger is not adapting as much as we thought
After years of stubbornly continuing with the same tactical identity things have finally changed – or at least that’s what we thought until their second-half collapse on Sunday.
The best way to counteract Pep Guardiola is now well established in the Premier League. An aggressive, high pressing approach is the only way to prevent Man City from suffocating you with long periods of possession, and yet Wenger did not attempt any such system at the Etihad.
City dominated the second half as Arsenal nervously retreated, allowing their opponents to recycle possession until they eventually found a gap to exploit. Wenger’s continuation of his big-game tactics (sit deep and hit on the counter) blatantly ignored the growing trend, suggesting that he isn’t as adaptive as we had hoped.
3) Fabregas can help stabilise Chelsea as things get tougher for Conte
Chelsea‘s third consecutive 1-0 victory will slightly concern Antonio Conte, whose team are looking increasingly jaded and disjointed as their winning streak continues. With teams gradually learning how to cope with his 3-4-2-1 formation, it is surely time to freshens things up and re-energise the starting 11.
Cesc Fabregas will be very useful in the weeks to come. Things were beginning to get uncomfortable for Chelsea before the Spaniard entered the pitch in the 64th minute, but his calm distribution of the ball helped stabilise others around him. It was an excellent substitution that quickly killed the game.
He is perhaps someone Chelsea will call upon frequently in the new year. An over-reliance on Eden Hazard and Diego Costa in the final third has seen the goals dry up this month, while opposition defences have begun working out how to limit the influence of Chelsea‘s wing-backs – leaving them a little bit stale and uncontrolled against Crystal Palace, Sunderland, and West Brom.
Fabregas is the solution to these problems.
Best of the Week – Claudio Ranieri
Ranieri has been guilty of some poor tactical decisions this season and his insistence on continuing with a 4-4-2 formation has cost his side dearly in 2016/17, but the Italian’s substitutions at Stoke City on Saturday afternoon were spot on.
Gray’s width and speed suddenly put Stoke on the back foot for the final 20 minutes, while Ulloa’s aerial power moved Leicester up the pitch; he won more headers in the final 20 minutes (three) than Islam Slimani managed in the first 70 (two).
Worst of the Week – Swansea City
It looks increasingly unlikely that Bob Bradley can arrest Swansea’s decline.
Another lacklustre performance on Saturday has put them in serious trouble, and it was the nature of their collapse that is most worrying. After initially outplaying the home side, Swansea fell apart once they went a goal down.
Once again, it was central midfield that was the biggest problem area for the Swans; Leon Britton and Jay Fulton made one tackle and two interceptions between them all match. The decision to fire Francesco Guidolin looks worse every week.