Premier League Tactics Board: Analysing Man City, Chelsea and Norwich
With the dust settling on another frantic weekend of Premier League action, let's take a tactical look at England's top-tier action from Saturday and Sunday.
On the table, we dissect Manchester City's misfortunes at Villa Park, Chelsea's questionable midfield pairing at White Hart Lane and Norwich's perfect away plan at the Britannia Stadium.
Pellegrini's Masterclass Undone by Extremely Bad Luck
When the final whistle blew at Villa Park on Saturday afternoon, more than 40,000 Aston Villa fans leapt to their feet to celebrate a 3-2 victory over behemoths Manchester City.
Given how the game played out and the respective performances of each team, Manuel Pellegrini should be filing a claim for robbery: How in the world did Villa come out on top here?
City lined up with a 4-4-2 shell, committing men forward in batches to make it 4-2-4 or even 2-4-4 at times. Villa selected a 3-5-2 formation, with a lack of midfield presence and the form of the three centre-backs likely factors in the decision.
It immediately became a back five given the intense pressure City placed the hosts under, and it started to look unlikely that Paul Lambert's side would ever touch the ball in their opponents' third.
After testing both flanks with James Milner and Aleksandar Kolarov, Pellegrini sent Pablo Zabaleta overlapping on the right-hand side, allowing the Argentine to combine with Milner and double-team Antonio Luna.
They gained serious ground and worked some excellent positions, hitting the byline often and crossing dangerously into the box. Only Edin Dzeko's profligacy and Nathan Baker's bruising style prevented a landslide scoreline early on.
After dominating in every aspect, it will have disappointed Lambert that City's goal—just before halftime—came from a corner, with poor marking leaving Yaya Toure free to fire home.
The second half saw City switch and work the left-hand side, with Kolarov combining with Nasri to test Leandro Bacuna at right-wing-back. With Pellegrini unsatisfied with Nasri's contributions in the wide areas—the method the Chilean believed would stretch Villa and yield a goal—Milner was switched over and Jesus Navas was brought on.
The game plan from City, on the whole, was perfect.
Double-teaming both wing-backs took away Villa's width, forced them to go long, and the physicality of Yaya Toure stopped the likes of Fabian Delph waltzing through midfield and creating centrally.
City gave Villa one option: punt it to Libor Kozak and see if the Czech international can best Vincent Kompany one-on-one. For the most part, he couldn't.
The home side were on a platter, but the visitors could only score via set pieces; the defending was nothing short of dogged, and each man put in a phenomenal, committed shift.
Kompany put it brilliantly post-match, suggesting that if this game was played 10 times, City would win nine of them. Karim El Ahmadi's first equaliser was arguably offside, the second an incredible free kick and the third quite the bizarre moment.
Pellegrini set his team out to play against a 3-5-2 perfectly, he did everything right. City were better in every respect except the one that matters: the scoreline.
Sometimes, analysis, preparation and tactics only get you so far. You have to factor in that this is a game of football, and anything can happen. It's what makes it so exciting.
Stark Comparisons: Spurs and Chelsea's Midfield Duos
The London derby between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea finished 1-1 at White Hart Lane on Saturday, and while few conclusions can be drawn on the title prospects of either team, there is something to be said for the strength of their respective midfields.
Both sides lined up in a pretty standard 4-2-3-1 formation, with John Obi Mikel and Frank Lampard holding the midfield for the visitors and Mousa Dembele and Paulinho replicating for the hosts.
On paper, Spurs are stronger in that area. In reality, they are much stronger.
Dembele put in the sort of all-action performance every manager wants from his "shuttling" defensive midfielder—the box-to-box presence who breaks between the lines—while Lampard and Mikel left a lot to be desired.
Neither offered much surging forward, neither were comprehensively dominant in the defensive phase and neither completed a single forward dribble.
Chelsea were bested in midfield straight up. They were out-muscled and outgunned, and in some respects, they lacked the technique and physical ability to cope. Spurs were unable to turn that territorial win into three points, but it should serve as a warning to Jose Mourinho.
The Blues cannot take on the "big boys" in the Premier League or Europe without a figure like Ramires in the middle, and Mou correctly re-adapted his system at halftime to push the Brazilian back into a central role (he originally started on the right).
Paulino finished with seven tackles, and Dembele had eight successful forward surges—food for thought, Jose: Which of your crop can replicate this?
Crafting the Perfect Away Plan: Hughton's Tactical Acumen Shines in Stoke
Chris Hughton was under severe pressure this weekend, with the distinct possibility of him losing his job hanging over his head should he lose to Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium.
Norwich's away form had been dire in the run-up to the game, winning just one game on the road this side of Christmas—and even that was against a Manchester City side who had given up on the final day of last season.
A reformed Potters side under Mark Hughes represented a formidable test, but Hughton crafted a game plan that exposed Stoke's transitional nature and played to his own side's strengths.
Ricky van Wolfswinkel was a surprise selection given his lack of form and lack of size, but after 30 minutes of play, his selection reasons became rather clear.
Rather than play off a target man such as Gary Hooper or Johan Elmander, Norwich executed quick counterattacks down the right-hand side. Robert Snodgrass constantly attacked the space behind Erik Pieters, and with "The Wolf" distracting the centre-backs with his pace and movement, Snodgrass worked plenty of one-on-one situations.
The Dutchman also dropped rather deep and occupied Steven N'Zonzi at times, preventing the defensive midfielder from shuttling across to help deal with Snodgrass.
The good work started right from the back, and with Stoke still in two minds on playing style—knock it wide and lump it in or keep it on the deck and work an opening?—an opportunistic midfield duo of Leroy Fer and Alexander Tettey played aggressive football that led to turnovers.
Fer was then free to roam forward or execute cutting, scything passes forward to give Snodgrass the chance to stretch Hughes' side at the back. Boy, can that guy make a pass!
Elmander was brought on late to hold the ball up and relieve his side, with the counterattacking strategy draining van Wolfswinkel's energy and tiring Snodgrass out. Norwich held on, and Hughton considers it job done.
Tettey-Fer-Snodgrass was the combination that caused Stoke, but RvW's movement—in addition to the roaming presence of Martin Olsson that kept the other side of the formation honest—were major factors.
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