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Talking tactics: Aston Villa sparks exciting finale; Jose shows Man Utd the way; Keita surprise

The last week of Premier League football has set up one of the most exciting final days of the season in years.

Aston Villa's unexpected victory over Arsenal on Wednesday night has put them in the driving seat at the bottom, while Leicester City's defeat to Tottenham Hotspur made their head-to-head with Manchester United the only important game in the race for the top four.

Elsewhere, clubs have already begun preparing for the 2020/21 season, with Naby Keita coming to the fore at Liverpool and Arsenal getting rewarded for taking risks under Mikel Arteta.

Here are three tactical things we learnt from the last seven days of football:


1) ASTON VILLA MAKE USE OF VIDEO CONFERENCING TO BOOST SURVIVAL HOPES

Dean Smith revealed after Aston Villa's 1-0 victory over Arsenal that the club had made use of video conference calls during lockdown to work on their defensive tactics, a novel way to improve that has yielded brilliant results. They are now within touching distance of safety after moving to a deeper and more compressed defensive shape.

Douglas Luiz and Ezri Konsa are the two most improved individuals in the system, the former sweeping up in midfield to stop Villa from becoming penned in and the latter proving to be an even better defender than Tyrone Mings. That Villa were relatively comfortable for the final ten minutes against Arsenal, when previously they would drop too deep and concede late goals, was testament to the quality of these two players in particular.

Prior to the lockdown, Villa managed to record an expected goals against (xGA) of below one on just two occasions in 28 Premier League matches. Since the restart, they have achieved this in six of their nine games. To have solidified the team's defensive shape through distanced team meetings is a remarkable tactical innovation.


2) KEITA'S ASSERTIVE MIDFIELD PERFORMANCE GIVES LIVERPOOL NEW DIRECTION

Having won 18 of their first 19 Premier League games this season, Liverpool's huge lead at the top of the table has hidden a slightly worrying drop-off in performance levels in 2020. Jurgen Klopp's side have won just six of their last 14 matches in all competitions and of the 10 games in 2020 prior to that run, half were won by a single goal. Liverpool are slowing down.

Having decided against signing Timo Werner, Liverpool fans will be hoping current squad players can shake things up and refresh the side, because Klopp will need a new tactical dimension for the 2020/21 season if they are to retain the title. Fortunately, Naby Keita's performance against Chelsea in midweek is cause for optimism.

Even before his explosive opening goal Keita was flitting cleverly into spaces between the lines, receiving the ball on the half-turn and piercing through Chelsea's soft centre. That assertiveness, and dribbling ability in tight central areas, is precisely why Keita was signed to replace Philippe Coutinho – who was playing as a number eight by the end of his Liverpool career.


3) MOURINHO TACTICS FOR BEATING LEICESTER SUGGESTS MAN UTD WILL WIN DECIDER

Jose Mourinho had a very specific tactical plan to make use of Leicester's injuries to Caglar Soyuncu, Ben Chilwell, and Ricardo Pereira. "We decided to take away from them where they can hurt us, which is basically behind us," he said in his post-match press conference. "We took away from them our defensive depth by making our defensive block a little bit lower than we normally do[…]Then we gave the ball to them, to their back three because we wanted them to bring the ball and we wanted them to feel quite comfortable leaving their comfort zone."

Leicester's defenders were encouraged forward on the ball by Spurs' humble shape, only for this to open space for Harry Kane, Heung-Min Son, and Lucas Moura to hit on the counter-attack. That's exactly what they did, bursting down the wings on the outsides of Leicester's three-man defence, scoring all of their goals from three-on-three breaks.

That's a serious problem for Brendan Rodgers given that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer likes to sit deep, absorb pressure, and hit on the counter-attack against other big clubs. Given that Mourinho made his approach explicit in the press conference, there is no reason for the Norwegian to have missed it: Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, and Mason Greenwood can end Leicester's top four hopes.


BEST OF THE WEEK – Arsenal's risk-taking against Manchester City

The most important tactical dimension of Arsenal's FA Cup semi-final win over Man City at the weekend was their high pressing, a brave approach that managed to entirely disrupt the rhythm of Pep Guardiola's side. Granit Xhaka in particular raced a long way from his base position to remain tight to Kevin de Bruyne has he dropped deep in an attempt to control the tempo, and as a result City never really got going.

At the other end, Arsenal were equally brave in passing out from the back, which encouraged City forward to then create space in behind once Mikel Arteta's side had outmanoeuvred the press. This led directly to the opening goal, a high-risk, high-reward strategy that emphasises just how much the Arsenal players are buying into their new manager's methods.


WORST OF THE WEEK – Solskjaer's failure to make tactical subs

Man Utd looked exhausted throughout the 1-1 draw with West Ham, which can easily be explained by the fact Solskjaer has played more or less the same 11 twice a week for the last five weeks. What is more worrying for United fans is that their manager made just one tactical substitution, replacing Rashford with Odion Ighalo in the 85th minute.

Clearly he does not trust his squad players, suggesting United will need to sign several high-profile players over the summer if they are to push on to the next level. With the same team playing every week, there is simply no way Man Utd can challenge for the title next season.

Alex Keble
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Alex Keble

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