English Premier League Tactical Review: 5 Things We Learned
Week 12 in the English Premier League threw up some interesting tactical talking points across 10 absorbing games.
What's changed at Arsenal this year, why can't Manchester United win comfortably and what did Andre Villas-Boas do that was so different this weekend?
That and more is covered in this week's tactical review.
Olivier Giroud Revolutionises Arsenal
Before the season started, I took a look at Arsenal's summer business and suggested the acquisition of Olivier Giroud could revolutionise the Gunners' attack.
He provides an aerial threat which has opened up new avenues to this primarily possession-based side, allowing full-backs and wingers to loft the ball into the area and hope for a threatening connection.
Last season, Robin van Persie was Arsenal's most prolific in this area, averaging 1.3 accurate crosses per game. That, of course, was a serious issue considering he played up front on his own—he was pretty much crossing to an out-of-position Alex Song.
This season sees Santi Cazorla take over the mantle, firing in 1.6 accurate crosses per game. That is, an increase on last season's production with an appropriate player doing the work.
Andre Villas-Boas' 10-Man Plan
This one was really, really interesting.
How many times have we seen teams drop back into a 4-4-1 shape after having a man sent off?
Two banks of four, seriously hard work for the lone striker and little to no creativity in the middle makes for a boring game for the neutrals, but Andre Villas-Boas had other ideas.
He went to three at the back by bringing Michael Dawson in, and dropped Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon to the left- and right-wing-back positions respectively.
This gave Tottenham more attacking outlets than a 10-man team usually boasts, and it worked due to Bale's phenomenal drive, stamina and ability to link the play.
Spurs lost the match by three goals, but AVB didn't let the Gunners settle the match early and presented a constant threat to the scoreboard.
Do Villa Believe in Themselves?
On paper, Aston Villa have fielded a 4-2-3-1 formation in four of the last six games.
Realistically, however, they've been playing in one of the deepest 4-4-1-1s you're likely to see in football.
Gabriel Agbonlahor and Andi Weimann—the team's "wingers" in this system—more or less function as wing-backs, level with the holding midfield duo of Ashley Westwood and Barry Bannan.
The question is, do the Villans believe in their own ability if they're lining up this defensively?
True, they've faced Manchester United and Manchester City in the last month, but they've executed similar strategies against Sunderland, Fulham and even Swindon Town at times.
What's Happened to Antonio Valencia?
What's happened to the Antonio Valencia that provided 13 assists in the English Premier League last season?
The Ecuadorian winger is no longer the direct, old-fashioned threat he used to be. He's started taking way too many touches on the ball and hesitating in wide positions.
He's currently making 1.5 accurate crosses per game, which is only good for 13th in the league. Compare his statistics with Leighton Baines, who's firing in 4.1 accurate crosses per game, and it's clear to see he's not the weapon Sir Alex Ferguson has become accustomed to.
Perhaps it's the attacking emergence of Rafael or the skilful set of feet Robin van Persie has that's stemming his effectiveness?
Hedge Your Bets
A strange thing happens when you have Robin van Persie in your team—you tend to pass to him and only him.
There's nothing wrong with trying to get your best player involved as often as possible. In fact, it would be downright stupid to ignore him if he's open. However, Manchester United are facing the distinct possibility of becoming more and more one-dimensional.
Without Wayne Rooney to play alongside or in tandem with him against Norwich, the Red Devils really struggled to get things moving in Norwich's box.
At least 10 passes were fired into RvP's feet in the final third this weekend, and it seems United's midfield duos are becoming more and more comfortable with making the easy pass to the Dutchman and expecting him to do something with it.
Stats via WhoScored?