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TALKING TACTICS - MIDWEEK: Puel proves attacking nous; Aguero must leave Man City; Arnautovic thrives under Moyes;

Leicester City's fourth consecutive Premier League victory moved Claude Puel's side to within five points of the top four on a relatively uneventful midweek round of matches. Tiredness has clearly begun to affect the quality of matches, with just 11 goals in total – and one goal or fewer in half of the games.

Very little changed at the top end, but a lacklustre draw for Liverpool has increased the voices of dissent while a win for Burnley put them temporarily in the top four. Elsewhere, Wayne Rooney's eighth league goal of the campaign ensured Sam Allardyce's good start continued.

Here are three things we learnt from the midweek action:


1) Puel's free-form tactics & unusual player positions prove he isn't the defensive coach Southampton thought he was

Leicester's thumping 4-1 victory at Southampton showcased the renewed confidence inside the Foxes' dressing room of late, but their fluidity in attack is not entirely thanks to an upturn in confidence. Claude Puel, a pragmatic manager happy to adapt to a situation rather than force a style onto his squad, has handed these players the creative freedom they crave. The Frenchman deserves credit for reinstating the menacingly direct - but ultimately unshackled - methods of Claudio Ranieri while broadly changing the formation and style of the team's build-up play.

Demarai Gray was rested for the trip to St. Mary's to be replaced by left-back Ben Chilwell, and although he didn't create many chances for his team-mates the extra defensive body on that side of the pitch helped nullify Dusan Tadic - while allowing Leicester's front three to stay high up the pitch. This led to numerous counter-attacking opportunities in the first half as Southampton pressed too aggressively onto the Foxes midfield.

Puel wasn't much liked by the Southampton fans, who accused him of playing dull football during his season in charge. But having taken the club to a League Cup final, after previously winning the French title with Monaco and reaching the Champions League semi-final with Lyon, Puel is proving that you shouldn't judge a manager by a single year in England.



2) Hodgson has made Palace – and particularly Zaha - hungry again

Crystal Palace were poor for 87 minutes against Watford on Tuesday evening but emerged victorious thanks to two moments of brilliance from Wilfried Zaha on a wild, physical game of football in south London. Flying challenges and brave attempts to win second balls defined this contest, suggesting that Roy Hodgson has inspired the sort of hunger and desire that Palace will need in their fight against the drop.

Zaha in particular looks like a real leader. He first assisted by cutting inside from the left and shooting, with Bakary Sako scoring the rebound, and then went on the outside of Adrian Mariappa to cross for the winner two minutes later. His composure and intelligence in both instances was indicative of a new-found self-belief; clearly Zaha has grown a thick skin after that difficult six-month spell at Manchester United in 2013.

The Ivorian winger won the last-gasp penalty that Christian Benteke missed last weekend and scored coolly in the 96th minute against West Ham United back in November. Both Zaha and his Palace team-mates look ready to fight for their lives.



3) Sergio Aguero is a clear anomaly in Guardiola's almost perfect team

Manchester City's scintillating performance at Swansea City was largely defined by the brilliance of David Silva, but amid such wonderful passing from Pep Guardiola's team one player stood out for the wrong reasons. Sergio Aguero's late goal was a wonderful solo effort, but rather than prove his importance to the side it actually reinforced Pep's view of the Argentine. Head down and ignoring those around him, Aguero's strike was indicative of his wider performance.

Time and again he didn't notice the runs of his team-mates or simply refused to make the simple pass, instead waiting for something more immediately meaningful to open up. The result was some ultra-fluid patterns of play suddenly disrupted by the one player seemingly stuck in his mould.

Aguero is a wonderful footballer who could seamlessly fit in at almost any club in the world, but Guardiola demands something very specific from a centre-forward. After 18 months under the Catalan, it is clear Aguero will never be comfortable at City in their current incarnation.



Best of the Week – Marco Arnautovic's free role

West Ham United were unlucky not to leave the London Stadium will all three points on Wednesday night after Javier Hernandez hit the crossbar in the final minute of the 90. It would have been richly deserved given their defensive resilience and commendable attempts to counter-attack through the middle via the bullish play of Michail Antonio and Marko Arnautovic.

Arnautovic was undoubtedly the best player on the pitch, floating wherever he liked behind Antonio in a 3-4-2-1 formation that mimicked how Antonio Conte got the most out of Eden Hazard last season. Freed from defensive responsibility, Arnautovic - a highly skilled but totally undisciplined footballer - was allowed to play to his strengths.

David Moyes deserves credit for working out how to use the club's record signing; since he drifts naturally to the left, West Ham have been fielding two left-sided defenders (Aaron Cresswell and Arthur Masuaku) to compensate.



Worst of the Week – Swansea's gap between defence and midfield

There isn't a right or wrong way to play against Manchester City. The depth of attacking talent in their first 11 means sitting deep and pressing high are equally ineffective, but when Guardiola's side visit there is one basic defensive tactic all teams must adhere to. Swansea left an enormous gap between defence and midfield for the entirety of the first half, which allowed Kevin de Bruyne and Silva to easily dominate in their favourite zone of the pitch.

In recent training sessions Paul Clement will no doubt have worked on ensuring Swansea maintain a compressed shape. Consequently, their failure to do so on Wednesday might indicate the players have stopped listening to their coach, or that confidence is just too low to take information on board. Either way, Clement isn't likely to last much longer.

Alex Keble
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Alex Keble

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