This was another fascinating weekend in the self acclaimed, “Best League in the World”. This article looks at 3 selected matches, with observations on tactics, team selections, and talking points going forward. And it’s LIVE.
A trip to The Britannia Stadium – enough to send Arsenal in to a fit of panic, as long throws and long balls rain down on their goal. Except it turned out nothing like that. Unfortunately for Tony Pulis, Rory Delap has reached the point where his general game is no longer good enough to merit a place in the side, long throws or not. Ryan Shotton took over those duties last season (and Salif Diao in some Europa League games), but neither were in the side here. Instead, the long throw duties went to 27 year old American Geoff Cameron, in the side in place of suspended Dean Whitehead. In general, his throws didn’t look to be of Delap standard, but having that string to his bow made him an attractive signing for Stoke. Without this weapon, Stoke’s wide players attempted a lot more 1v1’s (instead of their time old tactic of drawing throws off opposition fullbacks) and this didn’t generally bring much joy. Stoke didn’t win a corner all game, a sign of what good games the back four had for Arsenal. Laurent Koscielny’s injury for this particular game was a blessing in disguise. Had he been fit, either Per Mertesacker would’ve been left out, or Wenger would have had to shift Vermaelen out to left back – a decent choice usually in these type of games. Mertesacker and Vermaelen, with his excellent leap, dealt expertly with the aerial duels. A very good tactic used by Wenger, was to have Diaby acting as a front shield to Crouch on all set-pieces. In general, Crouch likes to take the ball down on his chest. With Diaby in the way, this wasn’t possible. Of course, Arsenal went a second game without registering a goal. This could be a major issue this season, unless midfield players start to take more risks and run beyond the centre forward. Giroud’s hold-up play was excellent, but he needed runners to knock the ball down to. Perhaps this is the reason Wenger recently said that he sees Giroud as the sort of striker who requires a partner. All in all, Arsenal were very comfortable. Facing 0 corners and only a couple of poor long throws played a big part in this. Wenger also deserves credit for his decision to maximize Diaby’s height both as a defensive front shield, and as a target on goalkicks. A tip for any youngster wanting to make it in the first team at Stoke? Work on your long throws. A better point for Stoke – who looked dead on their feet by the end – than it was for Arsenal.
This proved a comfortable win for Chelsea. With a 2-0 lead at half time, the second half was spent conserving energy. 3 league games in 6 days has been a tough ask for the players. Eden Hazard again proved the game’s best player. His decision making, even at 21, is what marks him out as a top player already. Rarely does he shoot when a pass is the better choice. Fernando Torres’ excellent display (a fine goal and a clever burst of speed to draw a penalty) is encouraging. As encouraging, is how hard he worked and how fit he looked. Touch wood, he is still injury free in 18 months at the club.
Reading too much in to the result, though, would be a mistake. Newcastle had a game 48 hours earlier in Greece, and although only Papiss Cissé and Vurnon Anita started both games, it meant they had little time to prepare for this game. Cheick Tioté’s calf injury also proved a major blow, as Anita struggled in parts as he adapts to a new league. This result, and the ease of the result, should settle Pardew’s mind on 451 in the big games away from home. Chelsea’s start is very encouraging. In many parts of the media, Roberto Di Matteo is regarded merely as a lucky manager, and there are still some Chelsea supporters who aren’t quite sure if he knows what he’s doing, or if he will be found out before long. I feel the opposite. Di Matteo is absolutely key, as he has realised before a lot of supporters, that having Hazard and Mata in the same team, means that there needs to be a balance in other areas to avoid the side becoming fragmented – the attackers left to attack, and the defenders to defend. Ryan Bertrand’s inclusion on the left side of midfield epitomizes this. This was his third start there in the last 4 matches under Di Matteo (going back to last season’s Champions League Final). His presence generally kept Ben Arfa quite, although he was still Newcastle’s best player. Later in the game, when Newcastle began getting Davide Santon forward from left back and causing Ivanovic to be left with 2 men, Di Matteo responded by bringing Ramires on to end that avenue of attack. People might call this “reactive” football, but it’s exactly what the side needs. He showed against Reading that he will throw caution to the wind when chasing games too. It will be fascinating to see how he approaches the big games. If Victor Moses wants to feature regularly, he should be sure not to neglect his defensive duties when he gets a chance.
This was a fascinating game for a variety of reasons. Firstly, Mancini used a 3412 formation. It could become his go-to formation for him in tougher games. However, it wasn’t suited here. Firstly, Liverpool played a 433 formation, meaning their two wide players – Raheem Sterling and Fabio Borini, were up against City’s wide centre backs for the most part. This isn’t a huge issue with Zabaleta at left centre back, but Kolo Toure looked uncomfortable in wide areas against the very impressive Sterling, on the other side. Of course, this formation allows City to match up in central midfield with 3 against the 3 of Liverpool, whilst still allowing them to have a 2 man strike force. They also have players suited to playing as wingbacks in Aleksander Kolarov and James Milner. However, regardless of the shape, Yaya Toure is required to drop deep to initiate attacks, as Nigel de Jong is not capable of this, and Kompany aside, City lack a ball playing central defender to help in this matter. The pursuit of Daniel Agger therefore makes sense. He would be ideally suited to playing on the left of a back 3. However, the obvious solution is to purchase a passing midfielder, comfortable in deep areas, freeing Yaya Toure up to break in to the box. In City’s crucial victories at Newcastle and Wolves last season, Mancini removed a forward in the second half for an additional central midfielder and pushed Yaya in to the support striker role he prefers. Immediately, he turned the game. It took only a few minutes here for a similar change to lead to a goal. Jack Rodwell replaces Nasri. Yaya moves forward to support the front 2. Goal.
As for Liverpool, this was an excellent display. The tempo was very high, with Luis Suarez and Borini pressing for their lives in attack, and Joe Allen moving the ball very quickly and accurately. Lucas’ thigh injury could not have come at a worse time for him. His place was already under severe threat from new loan signing Nuri Şahin, and this will now mean he returns from injury to find his place is taken by a player much better suited to Rodgers’ style of football. I don’t see it being an issue playing without a “real” defensive midfielder either. Rodgers had no issues using Allen and Leon Britton together in deeper roles for Swansea, and Şahin should further accelerate Rodgers’ style of play being implemented. It will be interesting to know what Rodgers made of Reina going long to Andy Carroll in the final minutes. People will point to it being a very good Plan B, but Rodgers does not want that temptation for his players. Even if Carroll could adapt to the pass-and-move football, it’s debatable whether the rest of the side could resist using the longer option when Carroll is on the field. The easiest solution to the long passes, is to remove the temptation in the first place. If a suitable offer arrives in the next few days, Carroll will be off.