Another big win for Manchester United confirmed the gulf in class between the top and bottom ends of the Premier League table on a weekend largely defined by consolidation. However, wins for West Ham United and Stoke City eased the pressure on their respective managers, while a constrictive match at Stamford Bridge saw Manchester City steal a march on their title rivals.
Here are three things we learnt from the weekend action:
It is a sure sign of desperation when Premier League managers begin to play an old-fashioned 4-4-2 formation; the “back to basics” element of this switch usually means all other options have been exhausted and a hit-and-hope approach is now in operation. For Slaven Bilic and Ronald Koeman, it is difficult to interpret their tactical decisions this weekend in any other way.
West Ham’s 4-4-2 included a little-and-large partnership of Andy Carroll and Javier Hernandez up front, which led to aimless long-ball football that lacked cohesion in all areas of the pitch. It was a real slog for the home side, who were very fortunate to escape with a victory. Everton similarly lacked rhythm or direction, using the unwanted Oumar Niasse alongside Dominic Calvin-Lewis in a bizarre – and predictably fruitless – striker partnership.
4-4-2 can be a very useful tactic in the modern game, but it should never be used on a whim or as a trial-and-error method of getting out of a rut. For both Koeman and Bilic, it looks as though their days as Premier League managers are numbered.
2) Inverted full-backs return to hand Guardiola control of central midfield
Manchester City‘s narrow victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge was characterised by their complete dominance of central midfield, and although this was partially thanks to the absence of Alvaro Morata and Victor Moses, it was also because Pep Guardiola used Fabian Delph as an inverted full-back.
The former Aston Villa player built on his excellent midweek showing against Shakhtar Donetsk with another stellar display, once again floating infield to help Fernandinho in central areas. This meant City constantly had a man over in the middle; Delph and the Brazilian were relentlessly moving into the spaces and laying off simple passes, which made things very difficult for the Chelsea midfield.
The only goal of the game came through the centre as Kevin de Bruyne sneaked between the lines, but such a move would not have been possible without the work of City’s deeper midfielders. N’Golo Kante and Tiemouoe Bakayoko were visibly tired by this stage of the game.
3) Huddersfield’s bold tactics are coming unstuck – and could see them plummet down the table
David Wagner likes to use a high-pressing system that constricts space for the opposition all over the pitch, but despite keeping four clean sheets in their first six league matches the Terriers were wrong to deploy these tactics for the visit of Tottenham Hotspur. It was naïve for Wagner to assume he could match Spurs, and in fact betrayed a tactical stubbornness that could see Huddersfield fall down the table over the coming months.
Throughout the first 45 minutes the hosts’ back four pushed extremely high, with the full-backs deep inside the Tottenham half and the centre-backs 20 yards apart from each other. This allowed Harry Kane to wander in between them and await the simple through ball; he was twice put through on goal before eventually scoring the opener in the ninth minute.
It was a remarkably expansive formation from Wagner that completely missed the most obvious strengths of his opponents. Unless they learnt to adapt their defensive model, Huddersfield will quickly be found out – and will return to the Championship in May.
Best of the Week – Rashford & Young partnership
Crystal Palace weren’t the most difficult opponents on Saturday, but nevertheless the assertiveness and directness of Manchester United‘s two left-sided players was impressive to watch – and characterised the dramatic improvements made by Jose Mourinho over the summer.
His side were guilty of being too lethargic throughout the 2016/17 season, particularly at Old Trafford, largely because their football was too safe. But at Old Trafford this weekend Ashley Young and Marcus Rashford constantly looked to isolate defenders and drive to the byline; Rashford grabbed two assists while Young finished with one, as well as earning the free-kick for Fellaini’s second goal.
Worst of the Week – Brighton’s nerves
Chris Hughton’s side eventually showed bravery against Arsenal and were competitive, but tentative starts to both halves cost them the game. Perhaps overawed by the occasion, Brighton were incredibly deep for the opening ten minutes at the Emirates, using a 6-4-0 formation to sit no more than 25 yards from their own goal.
This invited pressure as Arsenal took pot-shots from the edge of the box, leading to Nacho Monreal‘s scrappy opening goal. Brighton cannot afford to start matches so nervously if they are to finish outside the bottom three this season.