EPL Gameweek 33: Man Utd 2-0 Chelsea

José Mourinho came into this match looking to avoid a third defeat of the season against his former side. League leaders Chelsea, meanwhile, hoped to reestablish their seven-point advantage over London rivals, Tottenham.

What developed over the 90-minutes was a perfect implementation of the Portuguese manager’s defensively controlled tactics as they kept their top four hopes alive.

Line-ups
Zlatan Ibrahimovic was dropped as Mourinho set his side up in a similar way to their F.A. Cup defeat at Stamford Bridge last month.

Antonio Conte was without his first-choice keeper after Thibaut Courtois injured his ankle during a reported basketball commercial event. Asmir Begovic stepped in for the Belgium number one.

Marcos Alonso was unable to participate due to illness and pulled out during the warm-up. It ended a run of 25-consecutive league appearances which went as far as back as the loss at Arsenal that triggered the successful formation change. As a result, Kurt Zouma came into the side while the versatile Cesar Azpilicueta initially started in Alonso’s place.

Formation
Man Utd’s approach was fixated on a stubborn block with Matteo Darmian playing an auxiliary centre-back and man-marking Pedro. Alongside the Italian defender were Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo who kept Diego Costa quiet and frustrated. Captain for the day, Ashley Young, then dropped into a left-wing-back position when out of possession to cover Victor Moses down the right while Antonio Valencia did the same on the opposite flank. That left a two vs two in the middle between Pogba and Marouane Fellaini and Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic.

This led to a toothless attacking display by the league leaders who failed to manage a single shot on target.

When the home side had the ball, they exploited the channels behind Chelsea’s wing-backs, isolating the wider centre-backs when possible. The pace of Jesse Lingard and more noticeably, Marcus Rashford, enabled this option as Ibrahimovic – who prefers the ball to feet and crosses into the box – sat on the bench.

This troubled a Chelsea side clearly disjointed by Alonso’s absence, which was to be expected given the consistency of their wing-backs’ presence in the starting line-up since September. It was little coincidence that Chelsea’s recent defeat at home to Crystal Palace occurred when Moses was unavailable. The Blues’ current squad doesn’t provide cover for what are specialist positions and this will be a priority over the summer.

Man-marking Hazard
The greatest tactical move by Mourinho was putting Ander Herrera on Eden Hazard. Chelsea’s most dangerous player and one of the favourites for the PFA Players’ Player of the Year, was reduced to one of his quietest games of the season as Herrera followed the Belgian playmaker all over the pitch.

Hazard’s lack of tactical intelligence was highlighted as he failed to drag Herrera out to the wings for a prolonged amount of time or tightly support Diego Costa upfront. Graeme Souness on Sky rightly pointed out that Hazard should have tried to get Herrera yellow carded as soon as possible to put him on the back foot. But the Spaniard was able to hold out until the 73rd minute before he was cautioned as Hazard didn’t attempt a single take on during the game.

By that point, Man Utd were two-goals to the good and Chelsea looked devoid of ideas. Both goals were largely down to man of the match, Herrera, who first benefitted from an unseen handball before playing one of the passes of the season for Rashford to score a 7th minute opener. The former Athletic Bilbao midfielder scored his first Premier League goal in 14 months via a deflection off Zouma Just a few minutes into the second-period.

The above table shows Hazard’s stats against the top seven sides this season. Sunday’s loss at Old Trafford was only the third time in the 11 games that he failed to attempt a shot on goal – the other two came against Liverpool.

Hazard’s only assist was provided via the winning of a free-kick which David Luiz scored from during the 1-1 draw at Anfield. But his goal return of seven in 11 has been impressive.

However, Herrera really did a number on Hazard as he struggled to have any impact in the final third.

Pogba v Kante
In a pre-match interview, almost as defensive as Mourinho’s line-up, Paul Pogba tried to justify his peformances this season, which have been average at best, by comparing himself to Kante. The world record transfer cited the praise Kante has been receiving despite scoring far fewer goals from midfield while Pogba has a queue of critics jumping on his every mistake.

Previously, the Frenchman has shown little to no care about the criticisms he’s received as he appears confident and unflustered by the pressures such a high price tag carries. This response was inconsistent with his past demeanour and totally misguided.

Any football fan who watches both players regularly will know they have very different roles. Kante is a destroyer in midfield who retrieves possession for his side before starting off the counter-attacks. He essentially does the work of two players such is his timing and energy. Pogba, on the other hand, is a more attack-minded player who has great athleticism and an eye for the spectacular in the final third.

The table below compares each player over the season in terms of defensive and attacking duties. Their ranking in brackets are based on players with a total number of appearances greater than the league’s average.

Statistics gathered from whoscored.com.

As expected, Kante excels in the defensive tasks while his French compatriot enjoys more success further forwards. Chelsea’s midfielder has an 88.8% pass completion compared to Pogba’s 85.2% which is influenced by the former Juventus midfielder playing further up the pitch. This is supported by his 1.9 key passes per game with Kante managing just 0.6 and Pogba can feel slightly aggrieved that his teammates haven’t helped rack up more assists.

But it’s unwise to start defending himself to the media when he is quite clearly failing to match his Serie A performances in recent seasons. That’s not to say he can’t, but keeping as low a profile as a human emoji can is the better approach than comparing yourself to one of the six PFA Players’ Player of the Year nominations.

Summary
This win has at least made the title race marginally more interesting, although the four-point lead and more favourable fixtures still leaves Chelsea as big favourites. But the manner of this defeat and their issues triggered by Man Utd’s set-up coupled with a missing wing-back will give future opponents food for thought.

The once sturdy backline has now gone 10 league games without a clean sheet while Costa is going through a dry patch at the other end with no goals in his last five appearances. Conte looked slightly deflated on the touchline and will need to get his side back on track. This weekend’s F.A. Cup semi-final against title challengers, Tottenham, could really have a psychological impact on both teams.

Mourinho’s tactical victory would have given him great pleasure as he prepares for the second-leg quarter-final tie against Anderlecht at Old Trafford on Thursday. These three-points were a must following results elsewhere in the top four battle but the Europa League still looks a more likely route to Europe’s elite competition for the Red Devils.

EPL Results (Gameweek 33):
Tottenham 4-0 Bournemouth
Crystal Palace 2-2 Leicester
Everton 3-1 Burnley
Stoke 3-1 Hull
Sunderland 2-2 West Ham
Watford 1-0 Swansea
Southampton 0-3 Man City
West Brom 0-1 Liverpool
Man Utd 2-0 Chelsea
Middlesbrough 1-2 Arsenal

EPL Gameweek 32: Everton 4-2 Leicester

This weekend’s game of the week came at Goodison Park where two attacking sides exchanged blows during a high-tempo opening quarter. Ronald Koeman saw a disciplined display by his young side towards the latter stages of a match which delivered a valuable three-points.

Leicester City, meanwhile, went into this match with less pressure following the five consecutive league wins that pulled them away from the relegation zone.

Line-ups
Everton welcomed back January signing, Morgan Schneiderlin, following his two-game injury lay-off, which allowed Tom Davies to form a midfield three along with Idrissa Gueye.

The Toffees were, however, without the suspended Ashley Williams after his red card during the draw at Old Trafford last Tuesday.

As a result, Matthew Pennington partnered Phil Jagielka in defence as the hosts set-up in a 4-3-2-1 formation.

Craig Shakespeare clearly had the Champions League on his mind as he replaced half of his starting outfield players from the midweek win over Sunderland. Danny Simpson, Christian Fuchs, Wilfred Ndidi, Riyad Mahrez and Shinji Okazaki were all rested ahead of their trip to the Spanish capital for their quarter-final tie against Atletico Madrid on Wednesday.

Frantic opening
With only 30 seconds played, Davies scored his second Premier League goal to give Everton a very early lead. It was the joint-fastest goal of the season, assisted by Kevin Mirallas’ impressive run.

The Belgian capitalised on Leicester’s lapse in concentration as versatile Daniel Amartey was pulled way out of position. Referee, Robert Madley, played advantage as Davies beat Kasper Schmeichel at his near-post.

Amartey followed Mirallas across the pitch which opened up plenty of space for Davies to penetrate and ultimately score from.

But Leicester were level just a few minutes later as Islam Slimani slotted his shot between Joel Robels’ legs following Demarai Gray’s quick counter.

It was all triggered by a turnover of possession in their defensive third with Leighton Baines caught up field in support. Holding midfielder, Schneiderlin, jumped into a tackle on Gray which allowed the former Birmingham winger to attack Everton’s backline at pace with Jamie Vardy and Slimani in support.

Schneiderin (centre, yellow) shouldn’t have committed himself as it left Pennington and Jagielka exposed to a 3v2 situation.

Baines (yellow) was unable to track back having been caught up field, which allowed Slimani to score from an inside-right position.

The visitors completed the turnaround by the 10-minute mark as Marc Albrighton whipped a cross-come-shot into the far top corner. There were question marks again over Robles who misjudged the flight of the set-piece as he stepped forwards expecting a cross into the crowded penalty area.

Barkley
A quarter of the game in and the hosts equalised through star striker, Romelu Lukaku. Ross Barkley drifted out to the right-wing and produced a cross of real quality which Lukaku gratefully headed home.

Both players involved in the goal were criticised following their performances in the Merseyside Derby last week. Lukaku also received an ear-bashing from Williams as he failed to retain possession or exploit decent openings that would have doubled Everton’s advantage against Man Utd.

Barkley, meanwhile, produced a man of the match performance that saw him rank second for take-ons (four), attacking third passes (23/28) and overall pass completion (89.2%), which was marginally bettered by Gueye’s 89.6%.

Leicester on set-pieces
Five-minutes before half-time saw Everton turn the game on its head. Jagielka met Mirallas’ corner and headed beyond Schmeichel from close-range as Yohan Benalouane failed miserably in marking the scorer.

This was the third time this season a Premier League match had five goals in the first-half, each one finishing 4-2 (Crystal Palace v Liverpool, Hull v Middlesbrough and Everton v Leicester).

With over half an hour remaining, Jagielka again was first to a Mirallas corner which Lukaku eventually swept into the corner. The former Chelsea forward’s brace means he’s now four clear of Harry Kane in the league’s scoring charts and one ahead of Middlesbrough’s season total.

But Shakespeare will be particularly concerned with Leicester’s defending from corners, especially as they’ll be up against an Atletico side who thrive on set-pieces.

However, despite scoring from three of their 14 attempted crosses during the entire game, Everton only put the ball into the box on two occasions in the second-half.

Despite the success of the first-half, Everton attempted far fewer crosses in the second.

Shakespeare’s impact
Unsurprisingly, the decision to sack Claudio Ranieri – who had led Leicester to a miraculous title win last season – raised a number of sentimental eyebrows. But the Thai owners’ difficult decision has been vindicated as Leicester and Shakespeare have earned 15 from a possible 18-points.

Below are two tables comparing the last six league games of Ranieri’s tenure with the first six of Shakespeare’s:

As you can see, there’s been a marked improvement in the average number of goals per game since the change in late-February, and that’s been helped by a 50% increase in shots per game.

The number of goals conceded has nearly halved despite a very similar amount of shots against per game, which brings into question the quality of those opportunities since Shakespeare took charge.

Two other areas of difference are the number of successful tackles and ball possession. Ranieri’s last half-a-dozen matches saw Leicester have 5% less of the ball and succeed with five fewer tackles compared to their most recent league fixtures.

Granted, the fixtures themselves would have an influence on the above stats, e.g. Man Utd and Chelsea at home for Ranieri would naturally result in far less possession. But there were signs that Leicester’s struggles were due to a combination of new personnel, a slightly altered approach as opponents became familiar with their previous tactics, and additional fixtures.

The table below shows Leicester’s rediscovered form has them much closer to last season’s averages:

One player who has appeared to benefit from the managerial change is Vardy. Leicester’s top scorer has unearthed his ruthless streak to quash any thoughts that he’s a one-season-wonder. The England international has achieved an impressive five goals and three assists in his last six league appearances, which is the exact same stats he managed during his first 22 appearances under Ranieri.

Summary
Leicester will be hoping to dust themselves down having won the previous six matches under Shakespeare, but there are clear areas for improvement before what is one of the biggest games in the club’s history. Their aim should be to at least remain in that tie after the first-leg, much like they did at Sevilla in the previous round.

Koeman, meanwhile, needed this win having seen his side perform poorly at Anfield and then miss out on a great win in the dying moments against Man Utd. That probably explains the reduced attacking ambition (one shot and one cross) once his side got that two-goal cushion.

Coupled with West Brom’s home defeat to Southampton, seventh appears all but sealed and the Toffees can now look forwards as they try to catch Man Utd and Arsenal.

Given the resources available, being the best of the rest outside of the top six will be an achievement in Koeman’s first season. The Dutchman will hope to maintain that momentum into the summer transfer market and following season as question marks remain over the futures of Barkley and Lukaku.

EPL Results (Gameweek 32):
Tottenham 4-0 Watford

Man City 3-1 Hull
Middlesbrough 0-0 Burnley
Stoke 1-2 Liverpool
West Brom 0-1 Southampton
West Ham 1-0 Swansea
Bournemouth 1-3 Chelsea
Sunderland 0-3 Man Utd
Everton 4-2 Leicester
Crystal Palace 3-0 Arsenal

EPL Gameweek 31: Chelsea 2-1 Man City

Premier League logoChelsea bounced back from their surprise defeat to Crystal Palace with a vital victory over rivals Man City. This tightly contested fixture saw goalkeeping errors cancel each other out as Eden Hazard just about made the difference to edge his side closer to the title.

For Pep Guardiola, this, along with the draw at Arsenal on Sunday, would have reaffirmed his thinking that his squad needs a lot of work. His defence continues to lack consistency, preventing the Citizens from joining Europe’s elite.

Line-ups
For the second consecutive match, Chelsea saw a change in personnel within their back-six due to Victor Moses’ injury. Prior to last Saturday’s loss, Antonio Conte’s side enjoyed a 22-league-game-streak without any alterations to their defence.

This time, the Italian manager opted for a more defensive adjustment with Pedro returning to his natural position and César Azpilicueta filling in at right-wing-back. That saw Kurt Zouma make his first league start of the season as one of the three central defenders.

Pep Guardiola continued with Jesús Navas as an unconventional right-back, while like Zouma, Fabian Delph made his first start of the season in place of Raheem Sterling. The former Aston Villa midfielder only misplaced six passes out of 103 (93.2% pass completion), five of which were in the attacking third.

There was also the long-awaited return of Vincent Kompany who was making his first league appearance since the 2-1 win at Palace in mid-November.

line-ups

Chelsea had a more defensive line-up than the Crystal Palace game while Costa (not Hazard) led the line.

Goalkeeping errors
For all the attacking quality that was on display, the first two goals were the outcome of goalkeeping mistakes.

Hazard’s 10th minute opener was the result of Willy Caballero’s lapse in concentration as the Belgian’s tame side-footed effort took a slight deflection off international teammate Kompany. Caballero claimed to have been slightly unsighted but his reactions, or lack thereof, suggested he should have done better.

Just over quarter of an hour later, Man City were level as Silva and Sergio Aguero capitalised on an uncharacteristic mistake by Thibaut Courtois. Belgium’s number one under hit a chipped pass which went straight to Silva who saw his driven effort parried into Aguero’s path for an easy tap-in.

But with 35 minutes played, Chelsea restored their lead after Fernandinho brought down Pedro in the area. Caballero temporarily redeemed himself having saved Hazard’s penalty but the Argentinian goalkeeper couldn’t prevent the rebound.

Possession v Control
This fixture saw Chelsea finish with their lowest possession at home this season (39.5%). As a result, only Eden Hazard reached double-figures (10) for attacking third passes. Half as many as Man City’s left-back, Gaël Clichy.

David Silva created six chances, three in each half. Although, in the second half, two of them were from set-pieces following the introduction of Nemanja Matic for Zouma at half-time. This restricted the spaces between Chelsea’s defence and midfield.

Silva was encouraged further forwards by the midfield duo of Delph and Fernandinho. Delph finished with a game high 11 ball recoveries as well as the most tackles (four out of six) and joint-top interceptions (four) and fouls suffered (four).

kante-v-delph

Of those who attempted more than 25 passes, only Kante with 95.1% from his 41 attempted, had a better pass completion than Delph.

But aside from the goal, Courtois was only really tested soon after Aguero’s equaliser when he rushed out to close down Leroy Sané’s clipped attempt.

In the second-half, City did come close via a couple of crosses. First with Kompany looping header landing on the bar and then his centre-back partner, John Stones, getting slightly ahead of the ball when a corner reached him six-yards from goal in injury-time.

attacking-third-passes-comp

A lot of Man City’s attacking third passes were in the deep wide areas as Chelsea sat back in preparation for their counter-attacks.

Hazardous for City
The 2014/15 Players’ Player and Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year has enjoyed another successful campaign having struggled to repeat his form during Mourinho’s final months in charge last season. Hazard’s brace on Wednesday brought his total to 13 league goals, just one shy of the tally he achieved when Chelsea won the title two seasons ago.

Guardiola and his side will be happy to see the back of Hazard who also scored the third at The Etihad to seal their 3-1 victory in early-December.

Once again, he was an influential figure having finished second for chances created (3), take ons (3/4) and fouls suffered (3). He also claimed the joint-most interceptions (4) and third highest recoveries (7), highlighting the forward’s defensive side to his game.

hazard-v-hazard

Hazard had both a defensive and attacking impact during both games against City this season.

Etihad v Stamford Bridge
Chelsea ran out victorious in both fixtures this season, yet it would be fair to argue that Guardiola’s City were the better side on each occasion. But their failure to convert chances and ball possession into wins has been symbolic throughout the Spanish manager’s debut season in England.

The table below compares the two matches which highlights how efficiently Chelsea operate compared to their possession-based opponents:

mci-v-che-comp-che-v-mci

There are plenty of similarities to be drawn from the above comparison, including:
– Possession stats nearly identical.
– Passes in general and the attacking third very much alike.
– Man City creating more chances and attempting more shots than Chelsea.
– Man City attempting far more crosses without great success.

But the key difference is seen in both sides’ conversion rates. Chelsea are comfortably in the double figures while Man City barely got above 7%. This is in part due to the quality of opportunities with Chelsea enjoying easier chances on the counter-attack. They relinquish the ball which encourages City to commit more players during attacks and therefore have more players out of position once possession is turned over. This was particularly evident at The Etihad with all three goals created from long-direct passes.

Guardiola will need to address this issue as his side is likely to remain top of the possession charts in future seasons. Their vulnerability to counter-attacks is an issue which an ageing defence is struggling to overcome – see Romelu Lukaku’s equaliser for Everton at The Etihad.

Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp once stated, “If you aren’t an option, then you should be protection.” The former Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich managers could both do with drilling that mentality into their current teams.

Summary
Whilst Man City managed to have double the amount of shots on goal than Chelsea concede on average, their defensive frailties continue to hinder any progress under Guardiola. Their next match is at home to a rejuvenated Hull City, which won’t be easy given the impressive impact Marco Silva has had since arriving in January.

Conte, on the other hand, has enjoyed a great first season at Chelsea which has been helped by very few injuries to his first-team. In Hazard, the Italian manager has one of the season’s best performers whose contributions to their success have been enhanced by the tireless efforts of N’Golo Kante in central midfield. That has allowed Hazard the freedom to take on opponents as he ranks second in the league for dribbles per game (4.4).

Chelsea travel to Bournemouth – who secured a late draw at Anfield on Wednesday – seeking the first three of the 18-points they need to guarantee a fifth Premier League title in 12 years. Based on the efficiency of their performances this season, The Blues will do it with two-games to spare.

Statszone Key smallEPL Results (Gameweek 31):
Burnley 1-0 Stoke
Leicester 2-0 Sunderland
Watford 2-0 West Brom
Man Utd 1-1 Everton
Arsenal 3-0 West Ham
Hull 4-2 Middlesbrough
Southampton 3-1 Crystal Palace
Swansea 1-3 Tottenham
Chelsea 2-1 Man City
Liverpool 2-2 Bournemouth

EPL Gameweek 30: Liverpool 3-1 Everton

Premier League logoIt was April Fools’ and the Merseyside Derby conjured up one nomination following Ronald Koeman’s surprisingly “proud” assessment of his team’s performance as Everton failed to win at Anfield for the 17th consecutive season.

Both sides came into this match in good form with seventh placed Everton accumulating the most league points in 2017. Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, meanwhile, were in better spirits having drawn at Man City and beaten Arsenal ahead of the international break.

Line-ups
Key players for both sides were unavailable due to injuries suffered during those internationals.

Klopp had to decide who he should use to replace Adam Lallana. Dropping Philippe Coutinho and bringing Divock Origi into the frontline was one option, but the German manager instead utilised the experience of Lucas Leiva so not to disrupt his fluid forwards.

Everton were without the unfortunate Seamus Coleman as well as Irish compatriot James McCarthy. Ramiro Funes Mori and January signing Morgan Schneiderlin was also out injured as Koeman opted for a 3-4-3 formation.

The Toffees used a similar approach during their emphatic home win against Man City. But on that day, they started Gareth Barry, Kevin Mirallas as well as the aforementioned Coleman Funes Mori. But due to the injuries, Everton lacked the balance and experience with Mirallas a notable exclusion while Matthew Pennington, Mason Holgate, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Tom Davies all made their first Derby starts.

As a result, Koeman selected his youngest starting 11 since arriving at Everton in the summer and it undeniably showed.

line-ups

Between the lines
Davies and Idrissa Gueye were exposed by the formation as Ross Barkley and Calvert-Lewin found themselves in no man’s land failing to support the isolated Romelu Lukaku or help cut out the penetrating passes to Liverpool’s forwards.

Sadio Mané and Coutinho were able to receive the ball between Everton’s midfield and back-three far too easily which led to the opening goal.

Mané and false nine Roberto Firmino were able to exchange passes under little pressure before the Senegalese wideman dribbled towards Everton’s penalty area. As the defenders backed off with Coutinho providing a decoy run, Mané drilled a left-footed strike through Pennington’s legs and into the far corner past a static Joel Robles in goal.

Attacking threats
The visitors only looked dangerous from a couple of corners with Phil Jagielka first heading over and then helping the ball on from which Pennington – who hadn’t played a single minute of first-team football this season – equalised.

Liverpool looked most dangerous when man of the match, Coutinho, had possession. The Brazilian put on the sort of performance that preceded the ankle injury he suffered against Sunderland in late-November.

The playmaker restored his side’s lead just after the half-hour mark and only a couple of minutes after Pennington’s goal as he first beat Gueye and then cut inside Everton’s scorer to curl beyond a helpless Robles.

Everton nearly equalised almost immediately after the break, once again via a set-piece. This time it was the other centre-back, Ashley Williams, who got on the end of Barkley’s free-kick but failed to cushion it back across goal and away from Simon Mignolet’s grasp.

Despite returning from international duty on Thursday night by private jet with teammate Firmino, Coutinho looked sharp and provided the assist for Divock Origi’s 60th minute goal. The forward had only been on the pitch for a few minutes after replacing the injured Mané and his shot deceived Robles who wrongly tried to pre-empt where the effort was going.

coutinho-v-barkley

Coutinho was far more influential than Everton’s playmaker, Barkley, who could easily have been sent off in the first-half with another poor challenge in a Merseyside Derby.

take-ons-comp

The number of take-ons by Liverpool were predominantly on the left which was not only where Coutinho lined up, but also Pennington.

From then on, Liverpool managed the game both in and out of possession, as they created opportunities on the counter. Holgate did force Mignolet into a good reactive save following his deflective strike towards goal but Everton and the league’s top scorer, Lukaku, did little to suggest they were capable of creating a nervy finish.

Summary
Reflecting on the Derby, Koeman should have deployed a 3-5-2 with a deeper defence as the ageing Williams and Jagielka lack the sufficient pace to chase Liverpool’s attacking but narrow trio. Pulling back and tightening the wing-backs would frustrate the hosts and encourage their full-backs, James Milner and Nathaniel Clyne, further forwards to provide the width. This would then leave Liverpool’s centre-backs and holding midfielder, Lucas, more exposed which Lukaku and Mirallas – who should have started ahead of the inexperienced Calvert-Lewin – could exploit with their speed and power.

There was a clear change in Everton’s attacking approach a few weeks ago at Tottenham when Mirallas was introduced and the Belgian nearly pulled a goal back after dribbling across Liverpool’s area.

Koeman could then put the peripheral and inconsistent Barkley into a midfield three from which Davies has played his best football since breaking into the first-team.

Klopp on the other hand was vindicated in his selection of Lucas who helped nullify Lukaku’s impact. The Brazilian also finished top for completed passes and tackles.

The Reds will be delighted to once again enjoy bragging rights on Merseyside but the victory was tainted by the potential loss of another key player to injury. It looks like they’ll need to address their issues against those lower down the table without Lallana and now possibly Mané. Their lack of squad depth was exposed during his absence in January when he was representing Senegal at the African Cup of Nations. But that blow has since been softened slightly by Arsenal and Man Utd both dropping points over the weekend as the race for the top four continues.

Lukaku vs Top Six
There’s been plenty of speculation regarding the future of the former Chelsea forward, including a possible return to Antonio Conte’s side. But this fixture raised questions over his impact against the top teams as he failed to have a single attempt at goal.

lukaku-v-liv

Lukaku was restricted to just one attempt at goal over the two games against Liverpool this season.

Below is Lukaku’s goal return against the current top six since he arrived at Goodison Park in 2013:

lukaku-at-eve-v-top-6

Over the course of nearly four seasons, he’s managed a return of one goal every four and a half appearances.

But any critics should take into account Lukaku’s age and the consistency of supply he’s receiving compared to the forwards at those top six sides.

It is, however, right to liken him to Didier Drogba because of his size, power and goal tally. But the Ivorian was a late bloomer who wasn’t occupying defences and scoring goals in the Premier League until he arrived from Marseille at the age of 26.

Lukaku turns 24 next month and is likely to enjoy far better service against the top teams once he regularly plays for one. Everton are the best of the rest at the moment but there is still a gulf between them and the sides above which often results in less possession, support and ultimately chances.

lukaku-v-drogba

The table above shows Lukaku has a better rate than Drogba despite playing in a less dominant team and still being at least several years shy of his peak level. He may not be so prolific in the bigger games, leading to suggestions he’s a flat track bully, but the expected move in the summer should prove it’s too soon to judge.

Top 7 Head-to-Head
Much has been made of Liverpool’s form amongst the top six but that’s improved even further when Everton are included as top-four outsiders.

top-7-head-to-head

Having played all six teams both times, Liverpool can look forward to what should be an easier fixture list for their remaining eight matches. Their return of 26 points is far better than any of their rivals and only Chelsea can get to within a point if they beat Man City (home), Man Utd (away) and Everton (away).

Liverpool’s struggles to consistently defeat those further down the table is an easier problem to resolve than failing to beat their nearest rivals. Arsenal’s situation is alarming with just one win against their fellow top four challengers – at home to Chelsea in September – this season, which suggests they, along with Everton, will end up with Europa League qualification.

Statszone Key smallEPL Results (Gameweek 30):
Liverpool 3-1 Everton
Burnley 0-2 Tottenham
Chelsea 1-2 Crystal Palace
Hull 2-1 West Ham
Leicester 2-0 Stoke
Man Utd 0-0 West Brom
Watford 1-0 Sunderland
Southampton 0-0 Bournemouth
Swansea 0-0 Middlesbrough
Arsenal 2–2 Man City

EPL Race for the Top Four

Premier League logoWho is going to finish in the top four this season appears to be the closest battle with Chelsea looking imperious and the current bottom three struggling to escape the drop. But with less than two months of the campaign remaining, which of the challengers are best positioned to gain that big financial windfall? 

A closer look at each side’s remaining fixtures, current injury lists and outstanding commitments should provide a better assessment of who’s best placed to qualify for next season’s Champions League.

The Candidates
Chelsea – Phenomenally consistent in Antonio Conte’s first season in charge. A winning streak of 13 on the bounce saw the Stamford Bridge side create a gap between them and the chasers at the top of the table, which has since been extended to 10-points. 

Tottenham – Proving last season wasn’t just a flash in the pan with another strong campaign under Mauricio Pochettino despite a lack of impact from their summer signings. Spurs will be looking to have another shot at the Champions League following this season’s disappointing attempt that prematurely ended at the group stage.

Man City – Pep Guardiola’s 10 wins in all competitions at the start of the season gave a sense of hope and expectation that diminished after some stuttering results, particularly at home. A seven-game unbeaten run in the league has repositioned City amongst the top three, a point ahead of Liverpool with a game in hand.

Liverpool – Jürgen Klopp’s men were seen as Chelsea’s biggest rivals at the turn of the year but a dour turn in form has seen the Reds fall off the pace. Although, one loss in their last five appears to have somewhat steadied the ship.

Man Utd – The big money signings and appointment of José Mourinho brought the X-factor back to Old Trafford. But United have drawn too many matches and continue to be chasing despite an impressive 18-game unbeaten run.

Arsenal – There’s turmoil at the Emirates with an increasing number of supporters calling for Arsène Wenger to leave the club he’s served for over 20 years. Constantly finishing in the top four but failing to mount a serious title challenge in years has seen many a protest against the Frenchman which has started to transfer onto the field. The Gunners seem out of ammunition having lost four of the last five league matches.

Everton – Outsiders for a top four push, Ronald Koeman has enjoyed a solid first season with the league’s top scorer, Romelu Lukaku leading the line. The Toffees overcame a patchy set of results from late-September to mid-December with one defeat in their last 12 as they remain on the tails of the top six.

Remaining Fixtures
Below is a closer look at each of the candidates’ fixture lists with each game allocated one of four categories dependent on that team’s current position in the league. 

remaining-fixtures

Of course, some of this is subjective but it gives a clearer visual as to which candidate has the easier run in. Man Utd for example have to play five out of the six fellow candidates, the last three of which are away from home.

Everton and Arsenal are next in terms of matches against the top sides with four fixtures against their nearest rivals. Meanwhile, Liverpool, only have the Merseyside derby this weekend before embarking on a final eight-game streak which doesn’t include any of the top seven.

On paper at least, it doesn’t bode well for the chasing trio of Man Utd, Arsenal and Everton who will be looking to displace the current occupants of fourth spot, Liverpool.

Aside from The Reds, Tottenham’s run-in appears favourable, with their two rival matches taking place at White Hart Lane where Spurs are on a club-record run of 10 league wins in a row. Three of their remaining six away matches are at relegation battlers while one of the harder contests will be Saturday’s trip to Burnley’s fortress, Turf Moor.

The next two matches for Guardiola’s City could solidify or jeopardise their position in the top three with a trip to leaders Chelsea following this Sunday’s visit to the Emirates.

There’s a strong case to argue that those in grey (mid-table sides) are a preferred opposition as they have little to play for. Given the current league standings, it’s hard for any team to break into the top-seven, with eighth-placed West Brom seven-points shy of Everton. Whereas the relegation fight is really just between the current bottom five following Leicester’s return to form under Craig Shakespeare.

One team that’s slipping towards the relegation zone is Watford, who have managed just two wins from their last 13 league matches. Only Man Utd and Arsenal don’t have to play the Hornets before the end of this campaign which could ensure a nervous finish for Walter Mazzarri.

Corresponding results
Should results reflect the first round of fixtures, Chelsea would storm to the title by finishing just shy of 100-points, a full 19 clear of second-placed Tottenham. There would be no change to the current positions despite Man Utd and Arsenal having two-games in hand on Liverpool. 

But taking the average points per game so far and multiplying that by the number of remaining fixtures sees Liverpool and Man Utd separated by only 0.19 points. Again, the positions don’t change but this at least emphasises how one slip can make all the difference. Something those from the red half of Merseyside will attest.

corresponding-fixtures

Manchester at home
The two Manchester sides were tipped to challenge for the title following the high-profile appointments of two of the game’s most successful managers along with some lavish summer spending. But one of the reasons that has failed to materialise is their respective home forms which upon reflection are far from impressive. 

man-city-and-utd-home-form

Reflecting as far back as Sir Alex Ferguson’s final campaign, demonstrates their struggles to convert home matches into home wins. As it stands, Man City are averaging fewer points than any of the previous four seasons at the Etihad. The Citizens can only match their lowest number of wins if they manage to win all of their remaining five matches. This is in part due to Guardiola’s men not killing games off when in control. Three noticeable examples came against Everton, Chelsea and Tottenham, all of which are challenging at the top end of the league.

The Red Devils, meanwhile, are registering a home form only worsened by David Moyes’ post-Ferguson stint as manager during the 2013/14 which coincided with the club’s lowest Premier League finish. Like their neighbours, Mourinho has bemoaned his side’s luck having failed to convert their dominance into victories against the likes of Burnley, Stoke, Hull and Bournemouth.

Below shows a table which highlights just how far United and City are behind compared to their top-seven rivals. The two lowest scorers have accumulated the two lowest average points per home game.

top-7-home-form

To achieve a top-four finish, both sides will need to adopt a more ruthless approach to hosting their opponents who more often than not leave Manchester with at least a point.

Injuries & Commitments
A club’s season can be rocked by the sudden loss of a player through injury. So far, Conte has had very few disruptions to his Chelsea side, particularly in terms of fitness. Tottenham have recently lost top scorer Harry Kane for a short spell on the sidelines but the England international is expected to return soon.

Gabriel Jesus’ arrival at Man City got everyone excited as the Brazilian temporarily kept Sergio Aguero out of the side until he broke his metatarsal in February. But such is City’s squad depth, Jesus’ absence has hardly been noticed. 

Liverpool showed the lack of quality within their first-team when top scorer Sadio Mané went to represent Senegal in the African Cup of Nations in January. But with no further commitments beyond the league, Klopp’s side should benefit from extended time on the training field. They’ll just need Henderson, and now Lallana, to return to action sooner rather than later.

At Old Trafford, Mourinho has been dealt a number of minor injuries. The additional fixtures in the Europa League and F.A. Cup will see his deep squad fully tested as they could potentially play double the number of matches Liverpool have (18 to nine).

Wenger often has to deal with an injury crisis at the Emirates but the current list isn’t too destructive. Santi Cazorla has spent the vast majority of the season on the sidelines while Petr Cech’s recent injury prior to the international break shouldn’t rule out the former Chelsea keeper for too long.

Everton have probably been hit the hardest due to their naturally smaller squad and the caliber of players missing. Record signing Yannick Bolasie suffered a knee injury earlier in the season but Seamus Coleman’s recent leg-break against Wales could play a vital role in the Toffees good form slowing down.

injuries-and-commitments

Info gathered from physioroom.com

Summary
As exciting as it could potentially be with high pressures on every team during each game, particularly those from second to sixth, the current top four looks the most likely outcome. 

At the moment, Man Utd appear to be the biggest challengers but will probably fall short due to their poor home form and a challenging set of remaining fixtures, which could increase thanks to success in other competitions. Success that via the Europa League could actually provide their easiest pathway to next season’s Champions League.

Liverpool are the most vulnerable amongst the top four, but their fixture list and lack of extra commitments should put them in a strong position to claim Champions League qualification for only the second time since 2009. However, the Reds have already shown how their form can suddenly plummet, and they’ve struggled against teams further down the table since December, which could provide a small opening for United and possibly a resurgent Arsenal.

What we know for sure is that there are plenty of teams looking to take advantage of any dropped points from now until the 21st May. With 11 games between the top four candidates still remaining, there will be plenty of opportunities for them to exploit.

EPL Gameweek 29: Man City 1-1 Liverpool

Premier League logoThe race to qualify for next season’s Champions League provided Man City with an opportunity to respond to last Wednesday’s elimination from the same competition. Manager, Pep Guardiola, said he failed to convince his players that attack was the best approach and it wasn’t until the second-half that they started to play with more conviction. That ploy extended to virtually the entirety of this entertaining contest as both sides tried to outpunch one another. 

Line-ups
Fernandinho deputised at right-back as Yaya Touré returned to form an attacking 4-1-4-1 formation. The creativity of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne in centre midfield would adjust Liverpool’s midfield from a staggered three to a more structured two-one. 

Liverpool’s only change from last week’s win at home to Burnley was the return of Roberto Firmino as Divock Origi dropped to the bench. The Brazilian is a firm favourite of Jürgen Klopp’s, largely due to his pressing and movement which has seen him rank among the top strikers in Europe for chances created, tackles, sprints and distance covered.

With Guardiola’s teams preferring to play out from the back, Klopp and co looked to selectively deploy the famous gegenpress and claim a fifth straight league win against the blue side of Manchester.

line-ups

Sparring to Swinging
There were similarities to the Manchester derby in September. That game saw Man City come flying out of the blocks with the contest opening up as time passed until both sides showed clear signs of fatigue by the end. 

The key difference on Sunday was that City couldn’t find a breakthrough nor test Simon Mignolet in goal. The Citizens saw many dangerous low-crosses get cleared to safety, once via a foul that wasn’t easy to see during real-time.

Liverpool grew into the contest and began to test Willy Caballero in goal through Firmino and Adam Lallana.

But it was the second half that saw some serious exchanging of swings. Triggered by James Milner’s opener from a correctly awarded penalty just five-minutes into the half, both teams provided the epitome of end-to-end football by exploiting each other’s spaces at speed.

Managers’ adjustments
Klopp’s men were picky with their press, but it was Guardiola key changes that changed the tie. The Spaniard had no choice but to replace the legless Touré on 65 minutes as he essentially reduced the hosts to 10-men. But it was shifting the out of form De Bruyne to the right-wing that provided City with a second wind. This enabled the Belgian to do what he’s arguably best at and supply dangerous crosses from wide.

It was his teasing ball into the box from which Aguero equalised, five-minutes after Touré was replaced. De Bruyne’s first touch allowed him to release the cross before Milner could close down the angle.

Big opportunities
In the first-period, both sides had claims for a penalty with City’s the more convincing, while Liverpool found the target with their efforts. Joel Matip was denied a goal by John Stones’ last-ditch block as the Reds gained a stronger foothold in the game. 

The second-half saw Caballero deny Firmino what would have doubled the visitors advantage. With the scores level, Aguero stumbled at the wrong moment before De Bruyne struck the outside of the post while Lallana missed a golden chance to cap a fine move and take the lead with 10-minutes remaining.

There was still time for Sterling to lift the ball wide of Mignolet’s goal and Aguero to side-foot a far-post volley over the target in the dying moments as both sides squandered clear chances.

chances-created

attempts

Strong performers
Two of the more impressive displays came from Man City’s Stones and Liverpool’s Emre Can. Both attacks did well until the finish but these players stood out for different reasons.

Stones had the second most passes (65/69) in the match but best pass completion (94.2%). He was joint-second for interceptions (two) and top for blocks, preventing two dangerous attempts at goal.

During the post-match press conference, Guardiola was hailing the cojones shown by the former Everton defender as he often received balls deep in his half to help create space for the pivot (Touré) in midfield.

The only blemish in his performance was the under hit back pass that allowed Mané to beat Ottamendi. 

mci-pass-from-back-v-liv-press

Stones and Ottamendi stood either side of the area while Touré or De Bruyne came short. This put pressure on their ball skills with Liverpool’s four ready to pounce.

Can completed the most passes for his side (34/41) while also finishing joint-second for interceptions. The German suffered the joint-third most fouls (three) and provided the diagonal ball from which Firmino was fouled for the penalty.

stones-and-can

Corresponding fixture comparison
Most notably, there were far more attempts at goal at the Etihad stadium than Anfield. While the total on New Year’s Eve was just 14, both teams managed 13 each on Sunday. Only some wasteful finishing saw the game finish with just two goals. 

In terms of possession and number of passes, there’s little difference between both games. However, the pass completion did improve the second time around.

Liverpool had a similar approach in both matches which went against their season average of 588.3 passes per game and 57.9% possession, both of which are only second to Man City (593 and 60.7%).

Playing over 200 passes fewer than usual meant Klopp’s men attacked at a faster pace which was evident in the second-half. This tactic requires patience without the ball rather than in possession as the Reds have experienced against the likes of Burnley.

comparison-tableSummary
City, and in particular, Touré, looked dead on their feet as Liverpool went in search of a second. But Guardiola’s substitution and rotation of players boosted his side who finished stronger despite continuing to leave gaps behind their defence. 

Given the quality and quantity of chances/opportunities, the draw was a fair result. Neither side deserved to lose after committing such effort in pursuit of victory.

After the international break, the big games don’t stop as Man City travel to Arsenal while Liverpool prepare for a Merseyside derby at home to seventh-placed, Everton. Let’s hope the race for the top four will be as exhilarating as this encounter.

Statszone Key smallEPL Results (Gameweek 29):
West Brom 3-1 Arsenal
Crystal Palace 1-0 Watford
Everton 4-0 Hull
Stoke 1-2 Chelsea
Sunderland 0-0 Burnley
West Ham 2-3 Leicester
Bournemouth 2-0 Swansea
Middlesbrough 1-3 Man Utd
Tottenham 2-1 Southampton
Man City 1-1 Liverpool

EPL Gameweek 28: Bournemouth 3-2 West Ham

Premier League logoTwo of the league’s most porous defences faced each other at the Vitality Stadium as Bournemouth hosted West Ham. Both sides are also bottom of the table for tackles per game (Bournemouth – 15.3, West Ham – 14.6). It therefore came as no surprise that there were plenty of goals and opportunities, with an injury-time winner deciding this topsy-turvy encounter to give Eddie Howe’s men their first win of 2017.

Line-ups
Bournemouth were without Andrew Surman or Tyrone Mings following the eventful draw at Old Trafford last week. Dan Gosling and Simon Francis replaced the suspended duo in midfield and defence respectively.

Michail Antonio returned from his suspension which saw Robert Snodgrass drop to the bench as the only change from the Hammers’ 2-1 defeat at home to Chelsea last Monday.

line-ups

Aerial presence not exploited
Antonio and Andy Carroll up front should have seen the visitors bombard their opponents with crosses into the box. But having started arguably their strongest crosser on the bench in Snodgrass, the visitors’ success rate of 13.6% fell way short of Bournemouth’s 41.2%.

crosses

West Ham failed to provide decent service to Antonio, and particularly Carroll.

In fact, in just over half an hour, Snodgrass – who replaced captain Mark Noble – attempted six crosses (four from corners) which was three times as many as Sofiane Feghouli managed during his 58 minutes. The Algerian was part of a double substitution along with Noble that also saw André Ayew introduced to provide a greater attacking threat with Slaven Bilic’s side trailing to 2-1.

Another area for reconsideration might be restoring Cheik Kouyaté to midfield. The former Anderlecht player is currently playing out of position at right-back, a problem position for Slaven Bilic. But his replacement, Sam Byram – who is a natural right-back, provided the assist for Ayew’s equaliser within five minutes of coming on and may be worth an extended run in the side.

That goal started with the pass of the game by Pedro Obiang as he brilliantly-weighted his through ball behind Bournemouth’s defence.

Quality of chances
Partly influenced by the successful crosses, Bournemouth managed nearly double the attempts West Ham racked up from inside the penalty area (17 to nine).

shots-inside-area

West Ham conceded too many chances inside their area which only emphasises Fonte’s difficult start at his new club. Since the Portuguese’s debut, West Ham have leaked 13 goals in six games and failed to keep a single clean sheet.

Admittedly, two of those were poorly taken penalties as Josh King and Benik Afobe ensured Bournemouth made Premier League history by being the first team to miss two spot-kicks in the first-half.

Both penalties were won via runs from the left with King’s miss occurring just a minute before Antonio’s opener following an uncharacteristically sloppy pass by Harry Arter.

Later in the half, King was inches away from tapping in Charlie Daniels’ driven cross while Feghouli saw his slightly deflected effort prevented from going in by the outstretched leg of last week’s hero, Artur Boruc.

But the second period saw both keepers called into action as predictably the defensive units in front of them failed to restrict the attacks.

Comeback King
King would atone for his 9th minute penalty miss with Bournemouth’s second Premier League hat-trick. The first was Callum Wilson’s last season which was also against West Ham.

His first was a well-taken finish following a neat bit of skill that deceived José Fonte.

The other goals were smart positional play by the Norwegian with his second particularly highlighting West Ham’s defensive issues whether or not the ball struck Afobe’s arm in the process.

king-v-king

Above is a comparison between King’s performances against West Ham both home and away. The former Blackburn attacker is becoming increasingly influential for Howe’s side.

Howe looks to have found an ideal position for King as the 25-year-old matures into a threatening attacker through a combination of speed and skill. Following his hat-trick on Saturday, of the top 10 scorers (King being joint 10th on 11), only Fernando Llorente, Sergio Aguero and Harry Kane have better minutes per goal ratios.

Summary
For Bilic and his Hammers, this campaign is in danger of petering out as they find themselves nine-points off the relegation zone and seven shy of West Brom in eighth. Having enjoyed such a successful season last year, the expectation is that they should regularly finish in the top 10. That’s more than possible, but only if they play to their strengths which includes personnel in their natural positons.

This was a massive win and relief for Howe made only possible by the team’s mentality. Despite being without a couple of key players, Bournemouth managed to bounce back from the double blow of West Ham’s opener, missing a second penalty and conceding an equaliser with 10-minutes remaining. This victory should trigger an upturn in the kind of form that has deserted the south-coast side since surrendering a three-goal lead against Arsenal at the start of the year. Confirm survival and invest wisely this summer, particularly in defence, and the Cherries could be popping up the table and establishing themselves as a Premier League side.

Statszone Key smallEPL Results (Gameweek 28):
Bournemouth 3-2 West Ham
Crystal Palace P-P Tottenham
Everton 3-0 West Brom
Hull 2-1 Swanea
Middlesbrough P-P Sunderland
Arsenal P-P Leicester
Southampton P-P Man Utd
Liverpool 2-1 Burnley
Chelsea P-P Watford

EPL Gameweek 27: Tottenham 3-2 Everton

Premier League logoThis tie at White Hart Lane was presented as the battle between in-form forwards, Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku.

By the end, however, it was more of a tactical loss for Ronald Koeman as his conservative starting 11 struggled to cope with their superior opponents during the first hour.

Line-ups
Mauricio Pochettino arguably had his strongest side out for this game, minus Danny Rose who continues to be absent through injury.

Koeman opted for Gareth Barry in place of Adele Lookman as the only change from last week’s victory over Sunderland. The lack of Lookman or Kevin Mirallas would leave Lukaku somewhat isolated which prevented the Toffees from imposing themselves on Spurs’ defence.

line-ups

Defensive set-up
Given that Tottenham were going into this game as strong favourites and on an eight-game winning streak, it was understandable that Koeman went for a midfield trio that was predominantly defensively minded.

The opening 20-minutes provided little goalmouth action with the home side restricted to just three long-range efforts, all of which were blocked. Everton, meanwhile, showed little ambition as they failed to muster a single attempt at Hugo Lloris’ goal.

But then Kane tried his luck from distance and was rewarded with the opening goal of the game. Question marks were raised over Joel Robles’ attempt to save the dipping drive while Barry should have closed down the striker sooner.

Kane was then denied a second by Robles while Christian Eriksen saw his low effort roll wide of the far-post and Victor Wanyama hit the post. Tottenham had their tails up while Everton struggled to get up field.

Second half
The positives of being just a goal behind at the break soon vanished when Robles inexplicably rolled the ball to Morgan Schneiderlin with Mousa Dembele and Dele Alli closing in. The former Man Utd midfielder tried to shift the ball a couple of yards to Ashley Williams which saw Alli pounce and in-turn, play Kane in on goal down the inside left-channel. The England international showed the sort of composure you’d expect from a forward in peak form. His brace made it 14 goals in 12 appearances this calendar year.

Koeman relented and threw caution to the wind on 64 minutes with Mirallas and James McCarthy replacing Tom Davies and Barry respectively. From then on, Everton managed the same number of attempts at goal as Spurs (six) which was just two shy of the blues’ match total.

Amongst those six attempts were both of the away side’s goals. First, Lukaku pulled one back to ensure a nervy last 10-minutes. Then, Everton’s third substitute, Ener Valencia, scored an immediate consolation in injury-time after Alli caught the defence sleeping to all but seal a deserved victory for Tottenham.

attempts

Territory and Passes
An indication of Everton’s cautious set-up, saw over 100 passes in their defensive third attempted (87.7% completion), a similar amount to what they tried in the attacking equivalent (59.4%).

Tottenham, meanwhile, attempted more than two-and-a-half times their 61 defensive third passes (98.4% completion) in the final third (66.7%). This subsequently led to more than double the number of chances created in comparison to the visitors (15 to seven).

defensive-third-passes

attacking-third-passes

Koeman’s tatics were contradicting as they set-up with a defensively minded midfield three only to have a large amount of possession in their defensive third but lack any outlet aside from Lukaku on the break. Everton would have been better off without so much of the ball in favour of a pacey option like Mirallas or Lookman once possession was regained.

Summary
The outcome wasn’t a surprise but the result did flatter Everton. Although, all three goals conceded could and should have been avoided. But the difference in their performance once Mirallas and McCarthy came on – albeit against a side two-nil to the good – suggests Koeman has the tools to carry out a more expansive and braver approach in future away matches against the top six.

everton-v-top-6-table

As the table shows, the Goodison Park side have enjoyed strong performances at home but struggled away to those who currently sit above them. In order to close that gap, Koeman shouldn’t ignore a more bullish tactic that won’t leave one of the league’s best strikers without sufficient support.

Lukaku did well considering Kane was always going to be in a stronger position to have a greater influence on proceedings. The Belgian’s strike saw him become the club’s all-time leading Premier League scorer (61).

Despite having the joint-meanest defence in the league, it’s Tottenham’s consistency in front of goal that has seen a marked improvement. Fifteen of the last 20 competitive fixtures have yielded at least two goals which is a complete reversal of their first 20 that saw just five games where two or more goals were scored.

Whilst Pochettino will be frustrated by the concession of two late goals he can take plenty of positives from a generally commanding performance, which saw Spurs achieve their longest winning streak at home. The club are exceeding expectations in terms of their financial resources but the next challenge will be to build on the foundations of the last two seasons where they’ll have to start recruiting players of a higher caliber.

Statszone Key smallEPL Results (Gameweek 27):
Man Utd 1-1 Bournemouth
Leicester 3-1 Hull
Stoke 2-0 Middlesbrough
Swansea 3-2 Burnley
Watford 3-4 Southampton
West Brom 0-2 Crystal Palace
Liverpool 3-1 Arsenal
Tottenham 3-2 Everton
Sunderland 0-2 Man City
West Ham 1-2 Chelsea

EPL Gameweek 26: West Brom 2-1 Bournemouth

Premier League logoTony Pulis’ West Brom hosted Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth on Saturday with the Cherries winless in 2017.

A clash of styles was expected at The Hawthorns with West Brom’s direct tactics against Bournemouth’s more possession-based approach.

It was an entertaining opening quarter where all three goals were scored, while the remaining three-quarters provided a conflict of function over form.

Line-ups
There was just one change for the home side with Jonny Evans replacing the injured Matt Phillips. The former QPR winger has been in fine form this season but his absence saw Chris Brunt move further forwards and Evans slot in alongside Gareth McAuley.

Howe replaced Jordan Ibe and Simon Francis with Marc Pugh and Tyrone Mings. For the third game in a row, Junior Stanislas found himself on the bench as Bournemouth looked to arrest the slump that has seen them bottom of the form table for 2017.

line-ups

2017-form-table

Goals
The visitors got off to a great start when Ryan Fraser was brought down in the area by Allan Nyom. Joshua King converted the 5th minute penalty to put his side in front. King’s seventh of the campaign also ensured Pulis’ side didn’t improve on their five clean sheets in the league this season (26 games).

But just five minutes later, Craig Dawson saw his shot from distance take a helpful deflection off Charlie Daniels to equalise. Howe would have hoped/expected his side to have closed the right-back down sooner.

By the 21st minute, West Brom had turned the game on its head and taken the lead following an error by Artur Boruc. The Polish keeper is vulnerable to a blunder and isn’t the first Bournemouth player this season to see an individual mistake punished. Boruc’s premature attempt at punching clear Brunt’s corner saw the ball bounce towards his goal with McAuley on hand to tap home. The Northern Ireland centre-back is now joint-top scorer with Salomon Rondon on seven for the season!

It was West Brom’s sixth goal from a corner this season which puts them top, twice as many as joint-second placed sides Middlesbrough and West Ham. Unsurprisingly, the Baggies are also top for goals from set-pieces (16) and percentage of shots in the six-yard box (9%).

setpiece-goals

Data gathered from Whoscored.com

Function over Form
As expected, this game saw one team play the percentages and the other play the ball. Unfortunately for Bournemouth, the percentages were inevitably far more efficient and that’s a credit to how well Pulis drills his teams.

A look at the passes in the respective defensive, middle and attacking thirds shows where West Brom’s priorities lie. They look to get the ball forwards and quickly whilst Bournemouth are happy to retain possession at the back in search of new penetrative options.

defense-third

middle-third

attack-third

The home side’s efficiency is clear in their ratio of passes to attempts at goal. For West Brom, they averaged 16.5 passes per attempt (215:13) while Bournemouth were 46.3 (556:12).

It’s no wonder West Brom average the least amount of possession in the league (40.6%) and the third worst success rate of passes (70.1%). Furthermore, they average the fewest attempted short passes per game (239) while aside from the top six, only Southampton attempt more than Bournemouth’s 403.

In terms of action zones, only Hull see a greater percentage of the game played in their defensive third (33%) than West Brom (31%). Pulis’ willingness to embrace instead of change ensures his side are competitive, which has seen West Brom not lose to any team outside of the top six since the corresponding fixture against Bournemouth on September 10th.

This relinquish of territory saw West Brom rack up nearly four times as many interceptions as the visitors (19 to five) with Bournemouth’s attacks often ending before they reached the penalty area.

interceptions

As a result, Bournemouth struggled to create any clear chances with only long-range efforts finding the target aside from the penalty.

Another indication of the Baggies direct approach can be found in their throw-ins. The graphic below might remind readers of Sunday League football but there’s clearly a place for territorial advancement in the professional game.

throws

What may surprise some is the fact both teams attempted a similar number of crosses. West Brom succeeded with three from 23 while their opponents managed eight from 24. But the Cherries enjoyed more than double the hosts’ possession which naturally provides further crossing opportunities.

However, playing against a side so strong in the air makes it difficult to convert said crosses with only Mings’ header from distance in injury-time truly testing Ben Foster.

crosses

Summary
Bournemouth were unlucky to have conceded the equaliser in the manner that they did but Steve Cook was lucky to avoid a red card following a challenge on Rondon after Mings’ under hit back pass.

The Cherries are suffering from being too soft and easy to play against at the moment which is in stark contrast to Pulis and his men. On average, Bournemouth earn the most fouls (13.2) and commit the least (9.8) in the league. The issue with a manager being admirably strong-minded about his team’s style of play is that only through an improvement of form will this terrible run come to an end. It’s clear, however, that they need to at least tighten up in defence. Avoiding the individual errors is vital, particularly when you consider they’ve conceded three or more goals in nine of their last 15 games.

bou-last-15-games

West Brom, meanwhile, are enjoying a great season. They’re just nine-points shy of their Premier League best (49) with 12 games still to play and that’s largely due to the experience of Pulis and the way he sets his team up. It will be interesting to see if the former Stoke manager is backed in the transfer market to the levels he was expecting last summer should they finish where they currently sit (8th). Then we might see the introduction of a little more form to their function.

Statszone Key smallEPL Results (Gameweek 26):
Chelsea 3-1 Swansea
Crystal Palace 1-0 Middlesbrough
Everton 2-0 Sunderland
Hull 1-1 Burnley
West Brom 2-1 Bournemouth
Watford 1-1 West Ham
Tottenham 4-0 Stoke
Leicester 3-1 Liverpool

EPL Gameweek 25: Liverpool 2-0 Tottenham

Premier League logoTottenham travelled to Anfield on the back of an 11-game unbeaten run while their hosts, Liverpool, had yet to win a league match in 2017 (zero from five). That form has helleen Spurs earn 11-points more than the Reds, converting a seven-point deficit on New Year’s Day into a four-point lead prior to kick-off.

Jurgen Klopp was hoping his side could use the match against one of their top four challengers as a springboard for the remainder of the season. Meanwhile, Mauricio Pochettino’s men looked to close the gap on leaders Chelsea to six-points before the Blues travelled to Burnley’s fortress, Turf Moor.

What was built-up as a clash between two sides who deploy similar styles of play certainly lived up to its billing, especially in the first-half and particularly for one team.

Line-ups
The home side were once again without Dejan Lovren so Lucas remained in the side as centre-back while Georginio Wijnaldum replaced the out of form Emre Can in midfield.

This fixture saw Liverpool’s attacking quartet of Philip Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mané and Adam Lallana start a home game for the first time since the 6-1 hammering of Watford over three-months ago.

Tottenham were without Danny Rose and Jan Vertonghen due to injuries so just like their win at home to Middlesbrough last week, Pochettino opted for a back-four with Eric Dier alongside Toby Alderweireld and Ben Davies in the left-back position.

line-ups

keyPressing the Pressers
Tottenham got a taste of their own medicine as Liverpool pressed aggressively forcing mistakes and disrupting their opponent’s shape.

Players such as Roberto Firmino, Adam Lallana and Wijnaldum were catching Spurs on their heels and quickly turning over possession. This resulted in all kinds of space behind Tottenham’s staggered backline, particularly down the flanks as Davies, and especially Kyle Walker, would start to push forwards only to see their teammates dispossessed without notice.

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In the build-up to Mané’s opening goal, Liverpool showed a greater desire than their opponents. Lallana had already nicked the ball from Victor Wanyama before Firmino showed great anticipation to get ahead of Alderwiereld (as shown above). This selfless play by the Brazilian pulled the defender out of position and allowed Wijnaldum to slip a well-weighted pass for Mané whose devastating pace exploited Spurs’ staggered defence.

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The second (see above), which arrived only a couple of minutes later, was once again down to a combination of desire, anticipation and intelligent running.

Mané and Firmino were quick on to Dier’s slightly heavy touch as they squeezed possession from the England international. Davies had to cover the space which saw Mané – encouraged by Firmino – pick out Lallana’s deep run. After Lloris had denied both Lallana and Firmino, Mané was on hand to volley home and galvanise an already energetic crowd.

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Images gathered from Le Sports then edited

Moments later, Walker lacked the necessary composure to deal with three Liverpool players in close quarters. The full-back should have played a pass to Dier but instead opted for a long-ball towards Lloris. The miscued attempt put Davies under all kinds of unwanted pressure as Mané accelerated past the Welshman, only to be denied a quick fire hat-trick by Lloris’ inner thigh.

The Senegalese international was giving his marker a torrid time and was again denied by Lloris from the resulting corner to make it four attempts, four on target and two goals in just seven-minutes.

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Mané was especially effective during the opening half an hour compared to the remaining 60-minutes.

Constrict and Contain
Much to the delight of Klopp and captain, Henderson, Liverpool were able to display a different side to their game in the second-half as they kept Tottenham at arm’s length, protecting their two-goal advantage.

There was a complete reversal in possession between both halves with Liverpool going from 54% in the first to 46% in the second.

But the visitors didn’t discourage a high-press as they attempted 96 passes (83.3% completion) in their defensive third compared to Liverpool’s 39 (92.3% completion).

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That led to the Reds swarming Spurs, resulting in a total of eight attempts on target in the opening 45-minutes. The most any Tottenham side has conceded since Opta began in 2003/04.

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Tottenham, meanwhile, could only muster two on target. One of those was an effort from Son having broken the defensive line only to be thwarted by Simon Mignolet. With Liverpool dominating and two-goals to the good, that chance could easily have flipped the momentum on its head and tested Liverpool’s resolve.

Midfield/Attack comparison
Where Liverpool prospered most was in the productivity of their midfield and attack compared to Tottenham’s. The tables below show stats for the respective midfields and attacks of both sides:

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What is clear is just how much more effective Liverpool’s half-dozen were compared to Tottenham’s. Wijnaldum stands out for his passing, ball recoveries and tackles, while the only chance he created led to Mané’s first.

The total number of passes in the attacking third also indicates Liverpool’s territorial dominance with more than double the successful attempts of their opponents, which equated to more than twice as many shots at goal.

Kane
While one forward was doing selfless work, nearly scoring a rebound which led to the second goal and acting as the trigger to most of the pressing, the other was…not.

Just a glance at their respective dashboards from the game will show how quiet and isolated Kane was compared to Firmino. Tottenham’s top scorer didn’t even have an attempt on goal and perhaps let his frustrations get the better of him with his first booking of the campaign on 67-minutes. In fact, six of the seven bookings came during a more disjointed second-half.

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Not only did Kane fail to shoot on goal, he also failed to create a single opportunity thanks to Matip and Lucas’ defensive work.

So far, the England forward has had less of an impact in the big games this season. Since breaking into the Spurs team during the 2014/15, Kane has only failed to attempt a shot at goal or create a chance on three occasions against those in the current top six. All three have occurred during this campaign (Liverpool home and away as well as Chelsea at home). For a full breakdown, open this PDF.

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Based on the table above, Kane is half as effective this season compared to last in terms of goals and assists. However, with home games against Man Utd and Arsenal still to come, there’s every chance his return will improve, particularly as his goals per game at home since 14/15 is 0.55 compared to 0.38 away. Although, it’s more likely to improve via the Arsenal game than it is against Man Utd as shown below.

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Noticeably, Kane enjoys playing against North-London rivals, Arsenal, the most and Man Utd the least. Only Man City at home 13/14 (6) saw Kane surpass his average number of shots against Arsenal (5.25) while only Chelsea at home 13/14 (2) saw Kane surpass his average number of goals against the Gunners (1.25).

Summary
Liverpool thoroughly deserved this win and that will hurt Pochettino. The Argentinian manager has only won one game away to the top six rivals since arriving from Southampton in 2014. This match wasn’t lost due to two, albeit very good players, being unavailable through injury. Nor was it because of a return to their most common formation (4-2-3-1). The loss exposed a weakness in mentality from a side who appeared shellshocked after Liverpool’s blistering start.

Spurs need more goals against the big sides with just nine in eight so far and five different scorers. Kane’s form in those matches is a contributing factor which is why the club will need stronger reinforcements this summer than they managed last. Although, Alli’s tally of four from those nine shouldn’t go unnoticed.

Klopp on the other hand will be delighted with a masterclass in gegenpressing during the first-period. He’ll expect his side to build on this victory with a two-week break until they travel to wounded Foxes, Leicester. During that time, Tottenham have four games (two in the Europa League and one in both the FA Cup and League). It’s this advantage in preparation time coupled with Mané’s return that could see Liverpool finish in the top four for only the second time in seven years.

Statszone Key smallEPL Results (Gameweek 25):
Arsenal 2-0 Hull
Man Utd 2-0 Watford
Middlesbrough 0-0 Everton
Stoke 1-0 Crystal Palace
Sunderland 0-4 Southampton
West Ham 2-2 West Brom
Liverpool 2-0 Tottenham
Burnley 1-1 Chelsea
Swansea 2-0 Leicester
Bournemouth 0-2 Man City