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Talking Tactics: Chelsea midfield rebounds; Fred offers hope; Spurs miss chance

On a weekend in which the Premier League's three best teams continued to avoid defeat, Manchester City overcame a giant hurdle at Wembley, and Arsenal's winning streak came to an end at Selhurst Park, the football itself felt trivial in light of events in Leicester.

The tenth round of matches were overshadowed on Saturday night by the tragic news that five people, including Leicester City owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, died in a helicopter crash outside the Leicester stadium.

But football is nothing if not relentless, and as matches continued on Sunday and Monday we were reminded of how important the sport is to communities, both in Leicester and around the country. Riyad Mahrez's tribute to Srivaddhanaprabha after his winning goal at Tottenham Hotspur was poignant.

Here are three things we learnt from the weekend action:

1) Spurs' inability to adapt to the conditions suggests Pochettino got his lineup wrong

The dreadful conditions of the Wembley pitch following Saturday's NFL match had a huge impact on the performance of both sides. The hardness of the surface made it very difficult for players to get the ball out from under their feet, while big chances were squandered at either end as a result of the bobbles. Manchester City dealt with the surface better, making Mauricio Pochettino's team selection look like a mistake.

The Argentine started Erik Lamela and Lucas Moura, in order to prioritise getting pace in behind City's high line, but Spurs were not direct enough to get Lucas into the game; difficulty controlling the ball meant it was tough to build a quick counter-attack, and so Spurs should have played longer aerial passes – like City did for the decisive opening goal. After the match John Stones revealed that Pep Guardiola had instructed his players to hit the flanks early with long balls.

Harry Winks and Dele Alli both made a difference when they came on, the former by controlling the tempo in spite of the pitch and the latter by flicking the ball up and lobbing passes forward. Their intelligence and close control would have been useful from the start, and could have swung the match the other way; Man City's back four looked vulnerable and error-prone throughout.

2) Howe's formation switch highlights the obviousness of Fulham's major flaws

Having conceded 28 goals in 10 matches Fulham seem destined for relegation under Slavisa Jokanovic unless he can patch up the glaring errors in his tactical setup, namely the defensive and midfield lines being too wide. Poor Kevin McDonald is left with far too much space to cover at the base of midfield, which is why opponents can so easily pass through the middle to victory.

Nevertheless Eddie Howe deserves praise for his unexpected switch to a Conte-esque 3-4-2-1 formation, with David Brooks and Ryan Fraser moving into inside forward positions behind Callum Wilson. The idea was to get his two playmakers on the ball in the spaces around McDonald – and it worked brilliantly. In the column of the pitch that lies between the width of the penalty area, Brooks and Fraser had 47 touches in the Fulham half, a huge increase from their combined 15 against Southampton the previous weekend.

McDonald, overstretched as usual, was eventually sent off for two bookable offenses, while Bournemouth's crucial second goal came via a counter-attack straight down the middle – as Fraser slipped in Brooks to score his third of the season. Here was proof of Howe's tactical flexibility and preparedness, but also of how easy it is for managers to spot the flaws in Fulham's system.

3) Fred's performance offers glimmer of hope for brighter future under Mourinho

The Brazilian midfielder Fred, signed for £52 million in the summer, had failed to make a notable impact at Old Trafford before an excellent performance against Everton on Sunday. He looks worth the money now.

Fred constantly looked for a positive action, either by turning on the ball and driving forward or quickly spreading the ball out wide for Anthony Martial, which helped lift the Old Trafford crowd – and then the players themselves, who were more composed and commanding than at any other point this season. They owe this result to Fred, leading by example and complimenting Paul Pogba with a more measured defensive performance than his team-mate.

Jose Mourinho's side have looked aimless this season, lacking in motivation but also struggling to show enough movement off the ball or tempo in their passing to attack consistently; Fred's ability to weave between the lines and assertively feed the ball into the forwards could reinvigorate United. However, it is worth noting that he is unlikely to have had such a big impact had Everton not pressed so frantically, making one or two clever touches enough for Fred to take four Everton players out of the game at once.

Best of the Week – Chelsea's midfield performance

The simplicity of Chelsea's 4-0 win at Burnley without Eden Hazard is very encouraging for Maurizio Sarri, not least because the midfield trio looked better than ever. N'Golo Kante has struggled to adapt to his new role on the right of a midfield three but on Sunday he made more passes (82) than in any other game this season, and the most key passes (three) since the 3-2 win at Arsenal in August.

Ross Barkley was even better than the Frenchman, scoring once and assisting twice with another confident, driving performance. No longer expected to hold a high starting position as his team's best creative outlet, Barkley is excelling in a system that allows him to break into the number ten space late in a move – thereby making his strength and speed potent weapons. Barkley now has three goals and three assists in his last three Chelsea matches, suggesting he was a bargain at £15 million in January.

Alex Keble
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Alex Keble

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