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5 Lessons from Prem weekend: Nuno (almost) had Spurs stun Chelsea; Man Utd need Matic; Pep faces rethink

Nuno forced Thomas Tuchel into a dramatic change at Chelsea, Nemanja Matic found a pass to win the game for Manchester United and Dean Smith bamboozled Everton with a Matty Cash change. Here's five key lessons from the Premier League weekend:


1) Nuno's interesting first-half formation interrupted by Tuchel masterclass

Chelse's 3-0 win at Tottenham on Sunday was the most interesting tactical battle of the season so far. The hosts controlled the first half thanks to Nuno Esperito Santo's bold 4-3-3 formation, in which Dele Alli and Tanguy Ndombele played as free eights either side of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg. The key to their early success was Harry Kane (starting from the left) and Giovanni Lo Celso both dropping into the middle to overcrowd this area and confuse Chelsea's two-man midfield.

With Chelsea's defenders dragged backwards by the runs of Heung-Min Son as Jorginho and Matteo Kovacic dropped onto Kane and Lo Celso, Dele and Ndombele were free to run the game; for the first time this season Spurs progressed the ball confidently through the lines, as inside forwards Kai Havertz and Mason Mount looked confused - unable to work out how to cut off the passing lanes.

Thomas Tuchel took all of this in and made a dramatic half-time switch to change the shape of the contest. He changed from 3-4-3 to 3-5-2, subbing Mount for N'Golo Kante, and dropped Chelsea into a slightly deeper and more compact shape. Immediately Chelsea grabbed hold of central midfield, blunting Spurs' possession through the middle, while Kante's driving forward runs led directly to the first two goals. It helps having the best central midfielder in the world on the bench, but nevertheless Tuchel deserves huge credit for reading the game so well.

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2) Guardiola's autumnal problems re-emerge against Saints

There was always a concern that Manchester City's deficiencies from Autumn last year would re-emerge now that Premier League football is returning to its pre-pandemic level of intensity. A year ago many wondered if the Pep Guardiola era was coming to an end as they sat eighth in the table and had amassed 101 points from their previous 50 games. The problem was a soft central midfield and a declining press, with an ageing squad suddenly looking too decompressed to stop counter-attacks.

That's exactly what happened in the 0-0 draw with Southampton. They were strangely lackadaisical in possession, easily stunted by Southampton's usual narrowness and hard-working press in the central third of the pitch as Jack Grealish - scurrying to the byline - was their only real attacking outlet. At times, it was like watching Aston Villa last season.

On another day Southampton would have won this game. They found it far too easy to pass through midfield, playing vertical balls through the zone Fernandinho was unable to hold down thanks to the lack of intensity or coherence in the City press. It was a carbon copy of Man City performances through the 2019/20 season, only with even more sloppy defensive mistakes. With ten points from five games, City are suddenly on the precipice of a damaging start to the season.


3) Smith's substitute corrects initial formation error

It should concern Aston Villa supporters that Dean Smith decided to stick with the 3-5-2 formation used against Chelsea for the visit of Newcastle United. The system had worked well at Stamford Bridge despite the 3-0 result, but it made no sense to keep it in place for a completely different tactical game against a Rafael Benitez side. Predictably, Everton sat deep and easily frustrated Villa in the first half because the hosts had no creativity; two defensive wing-backs, two strikers, and nobody on the pitch who can create chances.

But if Smith displayed a tactical deficiency at the outset he made up for it with a substitution that turned the game on its head. In the 61st minute Leon Bailey was introduced for Matt Targett and Villa switched to an interesting lopsided 4-3-3; Bailey occupied the left flank and both strikers remained central, with Matty Cash, nominally now a right-back, was given licence to get forward on the other side while Tyrone Mings held the fort as a defensive left-back.

Everton were bamboozled by the switch, Benitez's back four getting drawn too tight to Danny Ings and Ollie Watkins to track the movement of the substitute Bailey or Cash, arriving from deep. The right-back scored the first before Bailey assisted and scored the other two.

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4) Matic & Lingard save another confusing Man Utd performance

This was yet another confusing Manchester United performance. Mark Noble's penalty miss saved them in the end in another 90 minutes without obvious direction, in which Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's team drifted about in a semi-coherent formation waiting for the opportunities to arrive. Through Cristiano Ronaldo and then Jesse Lingard, they did, but the defining feature of this match was the total absence of a game plan.

Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes, and Ronaldo played in free roles, wandering wherever they pleased and consequently often bunching awkwardly together. Man Utd rarely found a way to break through West Ham's defensive shape, although the talent of Ronaldo in particular did force the issue several times in the second half. He was unlucky not to win two penalties.

And yet here was another example of Solskjaer's individualism and broad-strokes management proving fruitful; perhaps Man Utd really can go far this season with vibes alone, winning even contests through sheer force of talent.

It is worth noting their winner, scored brilliantly by Jesse Lingard, was the result of an excellent line-cutting forward pass from another substitute Nemanja Matic. If Solskjaer cannot coach the detailed tactical plan to unlock a compact defence, he at least needs to start Matic - the one defensive midfielder who can play progressive passes.

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5) Norwich too adventurous once again and already look relegated

This game went exactly as you might expect. Norwich City are far too adventurous, always looking to play on the front foot and leaving huge open patches of grass between their players in the pursuit of that goal, while Watford like to keep things tight and then spring down the flanks on the counter. It was no surprise, then, that Xisco's side simply broke down the two wings to create chances - scoring three times from this method as Ismaili Sarr and Emmanuel Dennis dominated.

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Norwich already look relegated, no less naive than they were two years ago as Daniel Farke made it 15 consecutive Premier League defeats on Saturday. Zero points from five games and heavily beaten by a relegation rival; this is going to be a very long year for their supporters.


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Alex Keble
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Alex Keble

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