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TALKING TACTICS: Arsenal defensive woes continue; Relegation battle takes shape; Aguero learning new tricks;

Arsenal were plunged further into crisis on a crucial weekend in the race for European qualification, with Burnley's win over Everton and Chelsea's defeat at Manchester City reshaping the battle for the top four – and the top six. Sean Dyche's team are now just five points behind Arsenal in the table.

At the bottom end, wins for Brighton and Swansea City significantly boosted their chances of Premier League survival after none of the other sides in the bottom 11 collected three points. West Brom are all but down, but the other two places looks set to be decided on the final day of the season.

Here are three tactical things we learnt from the weekend action:



1) Sean Dyche's switch to two strikers shows us how a "large-n-large" partnership can work

Burnley turned the game on its head in the second half of their match against Everton on Saturday thanks almost entirely to Sean Dyche's half-time tactical switch. He brought Chris Wood on for Jeff Hendrick and moved to a 4-4-2, which meant Burnley had an unusual "large-n-large" strike partnership. The system completely bamboozled Sam Allardyce's side.

Burnley persistently slid low passes between the full-back and centre-back, taking advantage of the visitors' high line and taking Everton by surprise – probably because the two big men up front were both comfortable functioning like the "little man" in the traditional partnership. It was one of these slide passes that led to the equaliser for Ashley Barnes, while the tactic also earned Burnley a corner for the winner.

Dyche's unique take on centre-forward partnerships symbolised so much about the club. Challenging expectations, Barnes and Wood functioned equally as complete forwards at Turf Moor, displaying tactical skills that only come from hard work, constant running, and simply wanting it more than your opponent.



2) Swansea teach us the value of practicing your set pieces

Carlos Carvalhal has dramatically improved Swansea since taking charge in late December, and while the style of football has changed slightly it has mostly been a case of creating a sturdier defence and restoring confidence to their attacking play. In fact, most pundits have been unable to identity what exactly Carvalhal has done to win eight of his 15 matches in charge.

The Swans gave an emphatic answer on Saturday with two goals directly from corners and another from the penalty spot. This brought their set-piece tally up to nine for the season, with two thirds of these coming in the nine league games under Carvalhal (they netted three from the first 20 in the Premier League).

Practicing set-pieces on the training ground is paying dividends for Swansea, who have used these added goals to regain confidence and play with swagger again. It is the single biggest change in their approach – and an important lesson to all those clubs fighting relegation in the months ahead.



3) Brighton will need greater defensive aggression to survive the drop

It might seem harsh to criticise Brighton after such a superb victory against Arsenal on Saturday, but with so many big games left (they face both Manchester clubs, Tottenham, and Liverpool in the run-in) Chris Hughton must change his defensive approach. Despite attacking superbly throughout the first half, the hosts almost lost their lead due to their cautious defensive positioning that invited pressure.

Before the win on Saturday against a truly hapless Arsenal, Brighton had lost all seven of their league games against the top six – and by an aggregate score of 18-1, reflecting their inability to work out how to defend properly in these fixtures. The main problem is that Brighton do not show aggression in confronting their opponents, instead standing right off and inviting them to enter the final third unchallenged.

Swarming the penalty box with two banks of four just doesn't work against the big clubs; it almost didn't work against Arsenal, who nearly drew at the Amex when they should have been swept away. Hughton must be more courageous in these fixtures, or else Brighton could be thumped in the big games and go down on goal difference.



Best of the Week – Sergio Aguero

Manchester City's Argentine striker looked set for the exit just a couple of months ago, but in recent weeks Sergio Aguero has suddenly transformed into exactly the sort of striker Pep Guardiola wants him to be. It has taken the 29-year-old a long time to adapt, but his link-up play and intelligence when dropping off has improved dramatically in 2018 – which should ensure he remains in the side for the foreseeable future.

Getting this stubborn old-fashioned striker to adapt his game is arguably Guardiola's biggest individual achievement at Man City. Against Chelsea, 24 of Aguero's 32 touches (75%) were outside the box and he created as many chances (four) as Kevin de Bruyne. His best moment was a clever no-look reverse pass through to David Silva, who crossed for his namesake to grab the winner.



Worst of the Week – Arsenal's defending

The Gunners' first-half performance was quite possibly the worst since Arsene Wenger arrived at the club, betraying a sense of existential crisis that suggests the Frenchman can no longer inspire his players. Reports of a tearful team meeting in the week, with the coaching reportedly criticised by the players, seemed accurate given how bereft the side looked.

Not only did they consistently give the ball away in dangerous areas, but their total lack of conviction meant several players were out of position for both Brighton goals. Sadly, it looks increasingly likely that Wenger's tenure will end with a whimper, not a flourish.

Alex Keble
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Alex Keble

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