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TALKING TACTICS: Man Utd boss Mourinho shows growth; Chelsea defence back to their best; Spurs lacking creativity

The second round of Premier League fixtures didn't quite live up to the extraordinary goals tally of the opening weekend, but nevertheless this was a very interesting weekend tactically; August is always the best month for spotting new trends developing across the Premier League.

Here are three things we learnt from the action:


1) Mourinho shows he has turned a corner by fielding two roaming playmakers away from home

Manchester United's new-found ability to dominate games has largely been attributed to Nemanja Matic's commanding presence in midfield and the Serbian's effect on Paul Pogba, but in fact it is a tactical recalibration by Jose Mourinho – from cautious and rigid to bold and creative – that has made the biggest difference.

For the second successive match Mourinho fielded both Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata, ostensibly playing in central attacking midfield and right wing respectively. But neither player stuck to their base position in the 4-2-3-1, instead drifting across the breadth of the pitch at will; unlike the rigid demarcations of the previous campaign (when United were too cautious moving forward), Mourinho is now giving two creative players free roles in attack.

Mikhtaryan's and Mata's combined 121 touches of the ball were scattered from right to left as the two moved fluidly, gradually stretching a well-drilled Swansea City and creating pockets of space for one another. Perhaps the addition of the trustworthy Matic has relaxed Mourinho, but whatever the cause he is clearly allowing his attackers more freedom this season.


2) Newcastle United must become less conservative to avoid relegation

Premier League fans who remember Liverpool's low-scoring Champions League nights a decade ago and those 0-0 slogs against Jose Mourinho's Chelsea won't be surprised to see Rafael Benitez take a defence-first approach this season. But if Newcastle are to survive they must show more bravery and attacking intent than they did at Huddersfield on Sunday.

Using a narrow 4-4-1-1, Benitez attempted to nullify the effectiveness of David Wagner's press by sitting deep and absorbing pressure, and although there is logic to this strategy it is far too negative against a fellow newly-promoted side. Huddersfield gradually wore the visitors down, and as a nervous Newcastle retreated and tired (they only made nine interceptions all game) the excellent Aaron Mooey turned the screw.

Ayoze Perez and Dwight Gayle showed neither the strength nor the guile needed to battle for possession and take the Magpies up the pitch, which was unsurprising given their slight builds and relatively poor build-up play. For the second successive match Christian Atsu was Newcastle's only creative outlet, but he managed just two key passes and two dribbles. Benitez must take risks or Newcastle won't survive at this level.


3) Chelsea's determined defensive tactics suggest they could win the top seven mini-league

The Premier League now has seven top teams, which means one third of all games (12 in total) this season for those title contenders will be against each other; the top seven mini-league will probably decide which club lifts the title in May, and our first 'big seven' match of the campaign suggests Chelsea will come out on top.

In a desperately defensive 5-3-1-1, Antonio Conte essentially played with four central midfielders to support the three centre-backs, squeezing out all the space in the middle of the pitch. Only once in 90 minutes did they lose concentration (when David Luiz was caught ball watching and Christian Eriksen found a yard of space on the half hour mark) and fully deserved their win.

N'Golo Kante and Bakayoko both showed impressive energy levels, constantly closing off passing lines to restrict Spurs' options to suggest their partnership will be fruitful in the long term for Conte. There is plenty of work ahead, but the spirit on display – and astute tactics from the manager – quells any fears of another Mourinho-esque collapse.


Best of the Week – Harry Maguire

Leicester City's new centre back has started superbly, proving a bargain at £8 million. His defensive skills were apparent during Hull City's valiant attempt to escape relegation in the 2016/17 season, but what perhaps went under the radar were his attacking attributes.

Maguire is excellent at anticipating a pass and surging onto the ball before bursting through the first line and laying a pass out wide. On Saturday, this sped up Leicester's counter-attacks significantly and saw Riyad Mahrez get on the ball a lot more; he made two key passes and four dribbles on what was his best performance for some time.

Even during the Foxes' title-winning season, when their counter-attacking football was at its peak, they didn't have a defender in this mould. Maguire will fit in well with Craig Shakespeare's tactics.


Worst of the Week – Spurs' attacking pattern

Chelsea were able to nullify Tottenham's attacks largely because they are so easy to predict. Conte packed the middle of the pitch with bodies safe in the knowledge that, come what may, Mauricio Pochettino would try and play through the centre.

Spurs must learn to make their attacking patterns more varied for games such as this, and although the absence of Danny Rose and Kyle Walker haven't helped, Pochettino should take a portion of the blame. He needs to sign a more chaotic and unpredictable attacker, such as Wilfried Zaha, to mix things up in stodgy and narrow matches.

Alex Keble
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Alex Keble

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