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Talking tactics: Liverpool must buy; Inverted Man Utd fullbacks; Hasenhuttl set for elite

Manchester City are one league defeat short of their joint worst return since the first season of the Abu Dhabi era.

They are clearly in need of reinforcements this summer, and yet judging by Aston Villa's strong showing earlier on Sunday Liverpool are also in danger of falling back slightly. That can only be good news for neutrals, because with Manchester United in sensational form and Chelsea on a spending spree we could be treated to a four-way title challenge in 2020/21.

Elsewhere, Arsenal's improvements continued with a defensively sound performance against Wolverhampton Wanderers, while Newcastle United's 2-2 draw with West Ham showed that Steve Bruce is trying desperately to impress the potential new owners with daring attacking football.

Here are three tactical talking points from the weekend:


1) STRONG VILLA SHOWING SUGGESTS LIVERPOOL WILL NEED TO ADAPT NEXT SEASON

Up until Sadio Mane's 70th minute opener, Aston Villa looked genuinely capable of taking one – or perhaps even three – points from Anfield. Liverpool are arguably struggling to motivate themselves for these remaining games, and certainly Jurgen Klopp's rotation has disrupted their rhythm, but nevertheless the signs on Sunday were that teams have begun to work out how to play Liverpool.

Klopp needs to find some new solutions before the start of next season. Villa found it far too easy to counter-attack, assertively pushing forward in numbers when the opportunity arose and looking to hit the channels behind Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold as soon as possible. Every Villa player looked to launch a long pass into these spaces when the ball broke to them, and – crucially - the consistency of space in these zones meant they could do it without looking, so it didn't matter how fast Liverpool counter-pressed.

On several occasions Villa found themselves four on three in the Liverpool half but were unable to capitalise. The more examples of this we get, the more opponents will analyse videos and copy the strategy. Liverpool's current system needs tweaking, otherwise in 2020/21 they will see a lot more instances like Watford's 3-0 win in March.


2) INVERTED POSITIONING OF AWB AND SHAW BEGS TACTICAL QUESTION ABOUT NEW MAN UTD

The most interesting part of Manchester United's 5-2 win over Bournemouth was how Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka frequently dropped into central midfield to help overwhelm the visitors and build through the middle of the park, either connecting with Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba or helping Nemanja Matic to shield the midfield.

For several games in succession, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side have had new tactical elements… but this one is particularly intriguing and unexpected. Either the United manager has been working tirelessly to educate himself tactically during lockdown or, having given them freedom, the confidence boost of playing well has led to the players improvising their own positional play that instinctively follows modern trends.

Inverted full-backs are very much in vogue, but we have not seen them used by Solskjaer before. Is he dramatically improving his tactical management, or are his players simply enjoying their freedom and solving problems in the match? United's performances over the final five games of the season should give us an answer.


3) A NEW SAKA ROLE AND ARSENAL'S HIGH PRESS EXPLAINS STRONG DEFENSIVE RECORD

Arsenal have conceded just once in their last four games and 11 Premier League goals in the calendar year, the third fewest behind Man Utd and Man City, both on 10. That impressive record has a lot to do with the organisation of Mikel Arteta's possession football, which ensures the pitch rarely becomes stretched and matches are defined by quiet control. But more importantly, Arsenal's defensive record is testament to the high press the new manager has implemented.

Arsenal completed 29 tackles against Wolves on Saturday, and David Luiz was the only one of 16 outfield players who failed to make a single one. Arteta has his forwards leading the press together and the central midfield follow up closely behind, targeting specific Wolves midfielders to squeeze them out of the game. It is a notable improvement on Unai Emery's efforts.

The 2-0 win on Saturday was partly thanks to Bukayo Saka playing in yet another new role, this time on the right wing of a 3-4-3. However, he regularly dropped deep to become a spare man on the right of midfield, allowing the other two forwards to shift across and form a 3-5-2. Wolves couldn't keep track of the hybrid formation, which is becoming a familiar story for Arsenal under Arteta.


BEST OF THE WEEK - Southampton's organisation suggests Hasenhuttl will go to the top

Southampton might have been a little bit lucky to beat Manchester City, given Pep Guardiola's side recorded a 3.4 xG at St. Mary's, but Ralph Hasenhuttl's side earned their victory with remarkably organised defending. Every player knows their role perfectly, with the team seamlessly slipping between a hard press and a tight defensive blockade.

The upshot is that Hasenhuttl looks destined for the top of the game. His tactical and coaching skills are superior to most managers in the league, including a couple of those in the 'Big Six'. After Jose Mourinho's takedown of his own players for lacking desire last week, Daniel Levy might soon be wishing he had once again poached a Southampton manager.


WORST OF THE WEEK – Steve Bruce's difficult position at Newcastle

It wasn't the best result for Newcastle at the weekend, but one has to feel sorry for their manager Steve Bruce. He has done a superb job this season, and yet the impending takeover is highly likely to mean the end of his tenure. Saudi Arabia will want glamorous attacking football, not the defensive brand for which Bruce is famous. Judging by recent team selections, Bruce knows that.

He chose a very attacking system for the 2-2 draw with West Ham, complete with four forwards, just one defensive midfielder, and two flying full-backs. Newcastle are consequently scoring freely, but on Sunday they were far too open to the counter-attack.

Alex Keble
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Alex Keble

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