Welcome back, club football.
The first international break for approximately four months gave fans something other than this season’s crazy Premier League title race to talk about, but now we move headlong into the homestretch.
Seven or eight games remain on every team’s fixture list, and the going is about to get really tough. There’s nowhere to hide; you either front up and embrace the pressure or wilt in the face of it and fall away.
For many, the title race is being contested by just two teams: Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur. They’ve proved by far the most reliable teams in the division this season and have been capable of winning games in several manners.
But Arsenal aren’t that far off the pace. While they’re hardly neck and neck with the top two—11 points behind league-leading Leicester and six behind Spurs in second—you can’t rule them out. This weekend is the ideal chance for them to close the gap and increase the pressure from below. Why? Because the Foxes and the Lilywhites could both easily drop points this time out.
Southampton Have the Personnel to Contain Leicester City
The 2-2 draw Leicester City and Southampton played out back in October, and more specifically the manner in which it occurred, stands an apt summation of both teams' seasons: Southampton put themselves into an excellent position to win but stumbled, while Leicester showed guts and determination to strike back and level things late on.
This early point in the season had not yet revealed the Foxes as title contenders; at the time, we merely muttered over how bright a start they were enjoying. Still, the fundamentals were there. The late goal to equalise was a product of Riyad Mahrez, who drifted inside to influence the game more, threading a delightful ball in behind for Jamie Vardy to finish off. It was classic Leicester.
Up until that point, Saints had defended well and set their defensive line at the right height, identifying Vardy’s speed on the shoulder as a serious threat. A late lapse, though, cost them—just like it has many a team this season. The Foxes seemingly always create three or four clear-cut chances no matter how deep you defend.
Ahead of this return fixture, Ronald Koeman has a big decision to make: should he revert to 3-5-2 and play a deep, cagey game? He has the personnel to do it, and given Leicester play with two strikers who are incredibly difficult to handle one-on-one, a spare man could be a godsend.
It's surprising how few teams in the Premier League have tried a three-man back line against the Foxes (or in general; the formation has been alarmingly absent in England’s top division this season).
Maintaining a three vs. two advantage can be the most effective way of dealing with a strike combo—as Marcelo Bielsa has taught and preached—as two can man-mark and one can sweep, dropping into the space and covering. Having that insurance in case Vardy outguns his man—a distinct possibility—is key.
Southampton tried the 3-5-2 before Christmas to disastrous effect, struggling to score or build play while lining up in it, and their nadir came in a dismal 1-0 loss to Crystal Palace. They were cracked open defensively and put together absolutely nothing in attack despite the presence of stars both from the start and off the bench.
But Koeman persisted, trying it again after the festive period, and it finally stuck. The solidity it brought was a major factor in their remarkable run of six games without conceding—though returning goalkeeper Fraser Forster had a big say too—and the run was only broken by a Cesc Fabregas cross that dribbled freakishly into the net.
With Ryan Bertrand switched inside to LCB and Virgil van Dijk as the aggressor in the central role, Saints have the right blend of speed and power to pull off the three-man line and deal with Shinji Okazaki’s movement and Vardy’s runs in behind.
It’s tough to construct midfields that are strong and aggressive enough to deal with N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater, but a combination of Jordy Clasie, Victor Wanyama and Oriol Romeu has a chance.
If Koeman wants to spoil the King Power party, he has all the tools at his disposal to do so, but he’ll need to go back to the 3-5-2 a second time this season, as they’ve recently migrated back toward a four-man line. The Dutchman has shown a willingness to tailor a game plan for an opposition before, and if he does again, the Foxes’ three-game winning streak could be snapped.
Tottenham Hotspur Could Trip at Anfield
This match stands a repeat of Jurgen Klopp’s Premier League debut, in which the two sides played out a 0-0 draw at White Hart Lane in October. It was a game that flicked between frenetic and stale in 20-minute spells, as both sides presented high-energy approaches that, for obvious reasons, could not be maintained for a full 90.
Saturday will produce a similar spectacle. Both sides are more in tune with their managers’ philosophies, carrying them out on the pitch far better than they did when they last met, but the fact they will both try to assert themselves as the dominant force will lead to a fair amount of toing and froing.
In the first fixture, two players stood out: Mamadou Sakho and Mousa Dembele. The latter had been drafted in because of injuries and, to everyone’s surprise, produced a dogged, committed, physical performance in midfield, tracking runners with aplomb and ruining the Reds’ rhythm.
The away end spent most of the afternoon chanting “Sakho! Sakho! Sakho!” in an effort to ensure Klopp knew how they felt about a man former manager Brendan Rodgers refused to trust—despite being far-and-away the best central defender at the club.
That those two saw the most action in that game (Dembele registered a whopping nine tackles and six interceptions, per WhoScored.com) speaks volumes of the battle the two sides engaged in. The midfield was a compressed war zone, with no player able to create space to dribble and no space between the lines appearing.
Tottenham, in particular, play narrow and then push Danny Rose and Kyle Walker right up along the flanks to provide width, asking Eric Dier to plug the gaps alongside Dembele. That forces Dele Alli and whoever plays on the right inside near Christian Eriksen’s zone, creating a mass of white shirts inside the middle third of the pitch.
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Liverpool will pack that zone too, and they’ll play players who are just as mobile and aggressive as Spurs’ are. Emre Can and Jordan Henderson will relish the fight, and if Roberto Firmino is passed fit, he’ll join the fray to devastating effect.
There are few teams physical and robust enough to stem the tide against Spurs, but Liverpool are one. They’re a bit Jekyll and Hyde, so you never know quite what to expect. But if they turn up, this could well be a setback for Mauricio Pochettino and his men.
Which Opens the Door...
It’s hypothetical, of course, but Arsenal, who face a Watford side who have essentially given up on their turf, will be looking at the upcoming fixtures and knowing this is a big chance to vault back into the title race.
Despite losing to the Hornets recently in the FA Cup at the Emirates Stadium, they’ll be heavy favourites here—Quique Sanchez Flores’ men will understandably have one eye on their forthcoming FA Cup semi-final—and a clinical, professional victory is expected.
If that coincides with dropped points for both sides above them, the Gunners will no longer be on the fringes of the title race; they’ll be thrust right back into the thick of it.