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TALKING TACTICS: Man Utd showing cracks; Cleverly exposes Arsenal's frailties; Hodgson shocks Chelsea;

The Premier League's return was certainly a triumphant one, serving up arguably the best day of action of 2017/18 on Saturday as Crystal Palace shocked the champions, Liverpool and Manchester United played chess at Anfield, and Manchester City put seven past a helpless Stoke City.

Here are three things we learnt from the weekend action:

1) Crystal Palace's improvised strikers prove Hodgson's tactical intelligence

Without the injured Christian Benteke, Palace lack a strong fulcrum to launch their counter-attacks, but Roy Hodgson found a solution to this issue by fielding his two wingers as centre-forwards in a 4-4-2 formation. It was an unusual tactical decision that could have left the hosts too lightweight up front, but instead a highly organised team performance earned Palace a deserved three points.

The game-plan was obvious enough. Wilfired Zaha and Andros Townsend were given licence to roam into the channels and provide a quick out-ball on the breakaway, but both were instructed to stay close together in order to link up in the spaces around Chelsea's back three. It worked time and time again, not least because the midfielders behind them played with aggression and purpose.

Luka Milivojevic's five tackles represents the work-rate of Hodgson's side, but more impressive was their compressed overall shape. Two weeks of training has clearly improved their togetherness; this win, characterised by such an interesting tactical decision up front, was evidence that Hodgson has the attributes to take Palace out of the bottom three.

2) Static attackers undermine United, who must improve next time out

Although Jose Mourinho loves to stifle his key rivals away from home, Manchester United's tactical setup on Saturday suggested he wanted a stronger attacking performance from his team. A high line and quick distribution forward in the opening 45 minutes was undermined by some sluggish movement from Romelu Lukaku and his closest ally, Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

These two players had just 66 touches between them, which gradually wore United down and forced them to become increasingly defensive. Mourinho admitted after the game that he was waiting for Jurgen Klopp to become more attacking as the game developed, but United could have done a lot more during the first hour.

It was a poor overall performance from United's more creative players, re-opening the arguments surrounding Lukaku's contribution outside of the box.

3) Tom Cleverley's excellent performance highlights the qualities Arsenal lack

Having struggled for so long at Everton it is easy to forget just how good Cleverley performed as an Aston Villa player, particularly during Tim Sherwood's spell in charge when attacking midfielders were afforded the freedom to roam around the pitch. The tenacity of his performance, which ultimately saw him grab the winner, was indicative of what Arsenal are missing from their own midfield.

Granit Xhaka's unwillingness to track Cleverley ahead of the goal spoke volumes, particularly since Watford won loose balls no fewer than three times in the build up to the goal, but this was by no means an isolated incident.

His incisive distribution and energetic movement allowed Watford to gradually control the match on a familiar day for Gunners fans. Tellingly, the English midfielder made four tackles and two interceptions while Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny made four tackles and zero interceptions between them.

Best of the Week – Kevin de Bruyne

The Belgium international was irrepressible at the Etihad on Saturday, proving why he is surely the best player in the Premier League right now and clear favourite to win PFA Player of the Year. More important than his assists, however, is the consistency with which he finds a Manchester City runner.

City make so many impressive runs off the ball partly because they know their hard work will not go to waste. The likes of Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus never stop moving because they know De Bruyne will find them eventually.

Worst of the Week – Everton

The most damning aspect of Everton's performance at Brighton was their total predictability. Despite struggling badly throughout the campaign without any natural width or pace in the side, Ronald Koeman played the same rigidly narrow 4-2-2-2 formation that saw his side lose 1-0 at home to Burnley before the international break.

Koeman had two weeks to work with his players, and spend plenty of time with those on the outskirts of the first eleven, many of whom did not go on international duty, and yet the result of the fortnight was simply more of the same. Everton were flat throughout the 90 minutes, easily stifled by Brighton's narrow defensive shape and were fortunate to escape with a point.

Alex Keble
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Alex Keble

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