Premier League Discussion (Week 3)

I’m going to try and post one of these each week. This is the first, because I’ve finally had the time to watch at least two matches from each of the teams.

 

Tier One – Title Frontrunners

 

  1. Manchester City – They are the reigning champions with possibly the best returning team in European football. The unlucky draw against Wolverhampton is a blemish on their early season record, but it was no more ragged than similar performances by other top teams. And those teams do not have City’s long term track record or underlying performance metrics. If I was to predict the next three years, I would be comfortable asserting that City would garner the most overall acclaim in all competitions by a Premier League team. The questions are: Will they survive the disease of more? Will commitments to the World Cup and in Europe sap their strength as the season stretches out? The wiggle against Wolverhampton is a positive sign for the chances of the chasing pack.
  2. Liverpool – Since the 4-1 defeat at Wembley in October of last season against Spurs, Liverpool have the best defensive record in the Premier League. That record has only been better since Virgil van Dijk arrived and they have yet to concede this season with goalkeeper Alisson minding the sticks behind the big Dutchman. They have mutual buy-in by the team, the manager, and the fans and a successful counterpressing system that has given Guardiola and City trouble. That, and they have the most electric front three in Europe. The questions are: Will the occasional lack of midfield control and stability cost them? Will their squad, improved as it is, have enough in the tank to battle against City’s two deep list of quality players?

 

Tier Two – The Challengers

 

  1. Tottenham – Tottenham is intelligently managed, has excellent attacking players (Harry Kane is obviously the crown jewel, but very few teams would look down their noses of the Dele Alli-Eriksen-Son-Lucas Moura supporting quartet either) and is a title challenger when Kane is fit and firing and their thin squad is not in some way impacted by absences and injury. Lucas Moura completing his settling in process is a massive boon that would have gone some way to alleviate the attacking glitch they suffered when Kane when down the past two seasons with either short term injuries or fits of poor finishing form. However, Lucas’s addition to the list of attacking talents is countervailed by the loss of Son to the Asian Games. They struggle to break through counterpressing teams as evidenced by the rather tricky first half against Manchester United and their general poor form against other top teams under Pochettino. But they defend well, work hard as a team, and have enough firepower to be dangerous to anyone. Just ask Real Madrid last year.
  2. Chelsea – Chelsea look much more fluid and fun under Sarri, and Eden Hazard has been extremely dangerous while on the pitch. Alvaro Morata has been mildly reborn, which is an absolute necessity if they ever are going to score enough goals. This squad is still weirdly thin for a team wearing a Chelsea badge, probably due to Abramovich’s uncertain political and economic footing in Britain. And their defense has looked shambolic on the one occasion this season that they’ve been tested by an even mildly trying attack. Newcastle and Huddersfield will be among the bottom scorers in the league this year and even they mounted some xG (and actual G!) threat to the defense.

 

Tier Three – Outside Looking In

 

  1. Arsenal – Arsenal…Arsenal. I do not understand your squad. Granit Xhaka would prefer to play as a passer in a midfield three. Lucas Torreira could join him as the destroyer, with Aaron Ramsey the driver, getting into the box late to score goals and not given much defensive responsibility (a la Frank Lampard or Steven Gerrard). And that would make for a nice, balanced midfield three, probably with Torreira at the base. But then you have Mesut Ozil, their best and most frustrating player. He is a purely creative presence who is going to play essentially as a second forward off of the ball. So you need a solid midfield two behind him, usually, or you are playing him out wide where he is much less productive. And that two should probably be a destroyer and a controlling midfielder. Ok! Xhaka and Torreira fit the bill. But then you are leaving out the best of the three aforementioned midfielders, Aaron Ramsey. Damn. Ramsey and one of Xhaka/Torreira is likely to be unbalanced as a midfield double pivot behind Ozil – Ramsey tends to roam and push up to the box, leaving the defensive line massively exposed if he doesn’t have dedicated midfield support in the form of two relatively less adventurous players. Also, Torreira isn’t quite fit yet, so he can’t be counted on to start. Just to muddle the mixture, Guendouzi is a young, exciting, do-a-bit-of-everything sort of midfielder who has stood out for actually looking like he gives a damn and for not looking entirely out of place in his role in the team. *Cough* Xhaka *cough*. His situation reminds me weirdly of the early situation of fellow North Londoner Nabil Bentaleb under Tim Sherwood. I hope that Guendouzi proves more successful in adapting from his role as unexpected young midfield savior that is probably currently overhyped. Up front, their two best strikers are quick players with a very similar kind (if not quality) of game that would prefer to play in each other’s space. They can work together, but it is awkward. Aaaaaand…their defense is bad. But at least they aren’t being actively Mourinhoed!
  2. Manchester United – They are being Mourinhoed. The effects are a lot of criticism and misdirection of one’s own failures onto a team followed by a failure to acknowledge that the criticism ever occurred in the hope of dirtying the narrative. See Chelsea 2015 or Real Madrid 2012 or pretty much anything Donald Trump does. The depths to which this will undermine their confidence, team spirit, and performance will define the extent they fall down this chart. David de Gea appears short of confidence in a continuation from his trouble at the World Cup. Man, that should be scary, because that dude has been saving ~ 10 xG a season more than he should, making them look a much better team than their underlying metrics suggest that they are. Honestly, I wouldn’t trust this team to finish above 8th or 9th if I didn’t think that Mourinho will be fired in a matter of weeks and another manager brought in who can at least level out some of the dressing room animosity.

 

Tier Four – The Best of the Rest

 

  1. Leicester City – Demarai Gray has been a pleasant surprise and they retain some of the same ethos of the 2015 champions and Jamie Vardy.
  2. Everton – Richarlison has been excellent, providing sorely needed attacking dynamism to a one-paced team and Theo Walcott’s return to life among the living this week was a rather pleasant surprise. Gueye is an excellent ball-winner and Sigurdsson provides midfield goalscoring. One wonders if Leighton Baines and Phil Jagielka are getting a little leggy at the back, but apart from that, this looks like a competently managed side with enough talented players up front to grab points against just about anyone. They just need to avoid red cards, soft or no.
  3. Watford – Watford very strangely have three wins from three, including the wild cross that ended up in the back of the net to see off Palace. Roberto Pereyra looks a threat cutting in from the left and Doucoure is a strong presence in midfield. But this team appears to be performing right up against the limits of its rather constrained ability right now and it has yet to face a truly challenging opponent. There are teams further down this list with more potential, but right now Watford is outplaying them by hook and by crook. Honestly, they are probably going to drop into the next tier down, but I’m as susceptible to small sample size overcorrection as anyone.

 

Tier Five – Steady Eddies

 

  1. Bournemouth – You know what you are going to get with Bournemouth under Eddie Howe. They are going to play positive, passing football. Push up the field into a mid to high block with an energetic press. Have a bit of a struggle turning some of their skill on the ball into goals. Underperform at set pieces due to their relative lack of team height. And they’ll finish comfortably out of the relegation zone.
  2. Wolverhampton Wanderers – Wolves have wonderful ball playing quality in midfield. How rare is it for a freshly promoted squad to be able to call upon folks like Joao Moutinho or Rueben Neves? I enjoy watching the base of Wolves play, but it does seem as though they lack Premier League quality edge up front. Adama Traore induced some frustration in terms of misplaced passes, but also served as a major shot in the arm that scared the City backline. Perhaps he can provide some of the needed offensive pulse.
  3. Crystal Palace – They have Wilfried Zaha. He, Richarlison, and Jamie Vardy are probably the three best attacking players not possessed by the top six. They can be defensively organized and onerous against the top six. And they have a clear plan with the ball – inverted wingers cutting in allowing fullbacks forward for the overlap and a bunch of crosses. Unless Benteke (or someone else) provides a second goal threat, they are going to have a hard ceiling of right around here and could fall down the list. But if they can find that second offensive threat, they can climb up a tier.
  4. Brighton and Hove Albion – They have been wonderfully difficult to break down defensively and have weathered a really difficult first three matches of the season with three points to show from matches away to Liverpool and Watford and at home against Manchester United. They have the defensive solidity and the team ethos. Do they have the goals to push higher than this? Probably not.

 

Tier Six – Waltzing with Relegation

 

  1. Fulham – Alexandar Mitrovic gives them cutting edge up front that most of the teams in this section of the table are rightly jealous of. Ryan Sessegnon is still very young, very skilled, and capable of sublimity and utter quiet. Their defense looks dangerously porous.
  2. Burnley – Oh, Burnley. You reached so high, touched European football, and do not appear to have your usual Icelandish defensive demeanor or intensity (much like the actual Iceland national team did at the World Cup). There is not enough offensive firepower on this team to account for a defensive dip like this for the full season and one point from a rather generous Southampton – Watford – Fulham start isn’t going to cut it. Not when the sledding is going to get a lot rougher.
  3. Newcastle United – Newcastle’s opening fixtures are devilishly brutal. I mean, look at Tottenham (h), Cardiff (a), Chelsea (h), Man City (a), Arsenal (h), Crystal Palace (a), Leicester (h), United (a). All but Cardiff have better squads than Newcastle. The hardest games are at home, where even inspired effort may come up short (as it already has against Tottenham and Chelsea). They are defensively organized and have a competent midfield, but still don’t have enough punch up front. And there’s the whole Mike Ashley + end of Benitez’s contract fiasco. It is to Benitez’s credit that he has anti-Mourinhoed his squad and they have fought hard against this set of difficult circumstances. But it might not be enough.
  4. Southampton – Southampton are clawing against their fate so far. Creditable 2-1 losses against better equipped squads in Everton and Leicester mark the beginning of their season along with a reasonably creditable draw with Burnley. But the Saints have very little goalscoring punch. There is no room for error.
  5. West Ham United – It won’t always be as bad as going to Anfield and the Emirates inside the first three weeks and coming away with zero points. West Ham have much better offensive players than most of these relegation battling sides and a pretty clear team philosophy. I believe in Manuel Pellegrini. I think, ultimately, that West Ham will end up a tier (and very possibly even two) beyond this. But their defense has been very, very porous. And Wolverhampton, Everton, Chelsea, and United come next. They desperately need points from Wolverhampton or the season could feel like it is falling apart.

 

Tier Seven – The Forlorn Hope

 

  1. Huddersfield Town – Whew. Huddersfield are poor defensively and offensively. They look massively undermanned compared to their competition. They couldn’t punch through a ten man Cardiff to score a goal and were obliterated by Chelsea and Man City. It gets way, way harder than fighting ten man Cardiff.
  2. Cardiff City – Ditto Huddersfield. Only, they lost to Bournemouth, who are closer to this class than either Chelsea or City. And added an utterly toothless draw against ten man Newcastle to boot.

 

France 4-3 Argentina

France’s counterattacking speed was too much for Argentina in an entertaining, messy (but not necessarily Messi) affair.

France vs Argentina - Football tactics and formations

France

France played their familiar 4-4-2/4-3-3 hybrid system. When in the defensive phase, Griezmann and Giroud played as a strike pair and watched the centrebacks and passes into Mascherano. Matuidi, Kante, Pogba, and Mbappe dropped into a line of four midfielders and France defended in two relatively compact banks of four in a mid block. When France possessed the ball, Griezmann drifted wider, Matuidi pulled inside into his natural midfield position, and Mbappe pushed higher into the attacking line, with both fullbacks also bombing on, creating a positive 4-3-3 system.

Argentina

As thoroughly covered by Spielverlagerung here, Argentina had been attempting to get the best out of Messi by playing with two natural sources of width in Pavon and di Maria with a forward ahead to occupy the centrebacks. However, for this match, Messi was a false nine on his own and Pavon and di Maria still played as wingers stretching the play, rather than bursting into the space that Messi left behind when he drifted deep. They were toothless from open play with no players attempting runs into goalscoring positions until the introduction of Aguero in a strike role as they returned to their earlier system.

Mbappe

Quite simply, with the centrebacks concerned about Giroud and Griezmann and Mascherano being unable to keep up with Mbappe physically, the PSG man was utterly unstoppable. He burst through the entire Argentine defense to win the first penalty and could have won a second penalty in the first half before scoring twice in the second half, once off of a scuffed shot that the Argentine keeper Armani made a hash of at the near post, and once off of a lovely France move that flowed from one end of the pitch to the other.

Fullbacks

Another problem for Argentina was that di Maria and Pavon were failing to track the French fullbacks. In the second half when the game was still in the balance, both Hernandez and Pavard bombed forward unopposed, and in a perfect illustration of Argentina’s defensive indiscipline, Hernandez crossed from acres of space all the way across the pitch for Pavard to thump in France’s equalizer after a pair of relatively fluky Argentine goals (in tactical terms).

Aguero

The introduction of Aguero in the striker’s role immediately gave Argentina more punch, though it is understandable he was omitted initially in fear of being overrun in the midfield. His goal from a Messi looped cross both illustrated the virtue of the earlier Argentine system (Messi has an option ahead to pick out) and made the last minutes of extra time nervy and scrappy.

Conclusion

Argentina are rightfully out, having failed to cohesively meld their attacking players and having played too high a defensive line with little midfield pressure against Mbappe. France played very well on the counterattack, but one wonders if their lack of a tempo setting passing midfielder will be a problem against either Portugal or Uruguay, both of which will probably be happier to absorb pressure and hit on the counterattack themselves.

Uruguay 1 – 0 Egypt

Egypt vs Uruguay - Football tactics and formations

 

The major teamsheet news ahead of the match was that Egypt’s Mohamed Salah was fit enough for the bench, but would not start. In midfield, both teams played a set of busy, workmanlike players willing to run and tackle, but with little skill on the ball, which produced a very scrappy match.

Uruguay

Uruguay usually deal with their lack of team creativity by bypassing their midfield and hitting passes directly into the attack, where they possess two of the finest strikers in the world (and the two top scorers in their nation’s history) in Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. The pair have been dovetailing well together in the most recent qualifying matches and friendlies, with one staying centrally while the other drops deeper and wider or works the channels before connecting with his partner in the more dangerous central area. However, in the first half, both tended to sit in either channel at the same time spread very far apart. This neutralized the entire Egyptian back four with the left sided centreback and left back taking one dangerous striker and the right sided centreback and right back taking the other, but it also served to neutralize Uruguay’s own greatest asset. Facing four on two and spread relatively far apart and unable to combine, Uruguay’s two most dangerous players barely made a peep from open play in the first 45 minutes.

This surplus of attention given to Uruguay’s strike force should have allowed other Uruguayan players to shine, particularly Arrascuenda and Nandez, who should have been able to do damage with the time and space afforded to them. Instead, they were desperately, desperately poor. They neither used their freedom to push off the ball and try to combine with their isolated strikers nor tried to dribble decisively with the ball, instead preferring to play short passes between themselves, their holding midfielders, and their fullbacks, keeping the ball in nonthreatening areas before launching the ball hopefully at the two outnumbered strikers. Midway through the half, an utterly frustrated Diego Godin tried to show them how to their jobs, bursting forward out of the centre of defense on a mazy dribble, working his way all the way from one end of the pitch to the other before passing to Arrascuenda in a dangerous area, only to watch the winger scorn the chance with a donkey of a first touch that thumped the ball out of bounds. The Uruguayan wingers’ abject performance led them to be rightfully yanked off together at the 60 minute mark, at which point Uruguay began at last to pose a more reasonable threat to the opposition.

At that point, Uruguay’s strikers also began to show more understanding of space, with only one occupying the channels or dropping deeper at a time. Egypt began to bunker down in a low block of two banks of four to try and survive, where in the first half they had mostly managed to avoid falling back so close to their own goal.

Egypt

Egypt defended in a mid block in the first half, and their defensive organization was impressive, though to be fair it is difficult to know how much credit to give them when Uruguay were so incoherent. In attack, Mohsen used his height and physique to compete for long balls and tried to hold play up for Trezeguet and Said, while Warda hugged the touchline to stretch the play. Trezeguet and Said particularly impressed with their first touch and off the ball movement. As a whole, their attack linked well together and created some half chances and other good opportunities that fizzled to nothing. The problem was that their finishing was poor and they were unable to dribble past any of Uruguay’s excellent backline after creating one on one situations. One thinks that Salah could have helped with this.

Suarez

In one point each in the first half and the second, Suarez managed to wriggle free of close attention to work himself golden opportunities. In the first instance, his rasping effort from a tight angle with the goalkeeper beaten found only the side netting, and the failure to score seemed to affect his mental state. He was visibly frustrated with himself and was producing very poor first touches in and around the box, until finally a first touch more up to his usual standard produced the second real chance of the match. But instead of taking the shot in stride, Suarez hesitated, allowing the goalkeeper to intervene. Suarez’s poor play in critical moments and overall would have been the deciding factor in the match if not for

Set Pieces

Set pieces were becoming more and more of a factor as the match progressed. Suarez’s first chance had already come following loose Egyptian defending after a corner. Cavani then slammed a dipping free kick against the post after lazy foul just outside the box. Egypt’s tired legs and more passive defensive positioning closer to their own goal produced more and more fouls and free kicks in dangerous areas, until at the last minute, a wide free kick was met by a towering Jimenez header, and Egypt found themselves behind.

Salah

Having controlled the game relatively well until about the last 20 or 30 minutes, Egyptian manager Hector Cuper had not felt it necessary to risk the health of his country’s most dangerous player, instead using all three of his subs on like for like replacements of tiring players to try and freshen up his team’s legs. However, that decision seemed to come up snake eyes as the team was now chasing the game in extra time and could have used Salah’s quality when the game was extremely stretched prior to Jimenez’s goal or after it as the team were chasing an equalizer.

Conclusion

Uruguay produced enough good chances to win the game, but were very poor overall and do not look anything like a danger to progress very far in the tournament, even with Suarez and Cavani, unless they make tactical changes. Egypt were hard working and intelligent, but without Salah, they just don’t have enough firepower to make it out of this group, especially with Russia having thumped so many goals past Saudi Arabia already.

 

World Cup Preview: Russia

Russian sides have been various shades of interesting over the past decade. The group that they sent to the 2008 Euros had Yuri Zhirkov bombing forward from left back and Andrei Arshavin impishly darting around as a roaming second forward behind a more permanent central striker (in qualification, Pavel Pogrebnyak, and in the tournament itself Roman Pavlyuchenko). Igor Akinfeev was a young prodigy in goal. These were all genuinely talented players and the team as a whole defeated the Netherlands in a highly memorable game in the quarterfinals before losing to eventual champions Spain in the semis.

The 2012 Euro squad called on the core of the excellent Zenit St. Petersburg side of the time, including Aleksandr Kerzhakov up front and the fluid midfield of Igor Denisov, Konstanin Zyryanov, and Roman Shirokov behind. That team thrived on space and counterattacks. Kerzhakov was built more like a traditional winger than a front man and pulled wide into the channels and even all the way out to the flanks rather than waiting up front for service or dropping deeper to connect midfield to attack. This, in turn, opened up central areas for attacking midfielders to charge into, especially Shirokov and Alan Dzagoev, who was earmarked for bigger and better things after netting four goals at the tournament. Their utter destruction of the Czech Republic was one of the best displays by any team. Their loss to Greece, where they struggled to break down a more resolute side willing to play without the ball, one of the more abject. Both games were symbolic of their identity: Russia were usually tactically interesting, though struggled to break down defensive teams because of their reliance on the counterattack. The loss to Greece caused them to limp out of the tournament rather sadly, given the spectacular start.

The 2014 World Cup squad was basically the 2012 Euro squad with a little less fluidity and joy. They were more one paced, with fewer players capable of dribbling past an opponent or making quick darts to open up space. The 2012 team had been coached by the former Zenit head man Dick Advocaat. He and the majority of the team knew each other. They fit together. The attack was largely Zenit based and the defense was largely from CSKA Moscow. In 2014, the Zenit core was fractured. Getting older. Roman Shirokov, and his ability to make excellently timed goalscoring runs from deep, was missing due to injury. Advocaat had been replaced by highly priced Fabio Capello. Kerzhakov was just a little slower and less lively in his false nine role. Aleksandr Kokorin and Alexandr Samedov were less dangerous as the goalscoring wide players than Arshavin and Dzagoev had been in the Euro 2012 side. The team bowed out meekly at the group stage, looking rather similar to Japan. Decent quality on the ball – no cutting edge.

All of this is to say that this Russia side is in a similar vein, though it is also in a bit of a state of arrested development. There is no longer a club side like those previous Zenit teams to base the national team around. Akinfeev’s long promised move to a higher profile club outside Russia never materialized – the once young prodigy is now an old veteran. Alan Dzagoev never became a worldwide sensation. And so on and so forth. Russia may even very well trot out a near 40 year old at center back. They are still decently tactically interesting – largely in the way that they have attempted to make use of three relatively similar players in Alan Dzagoev, Aleksandr Golovin, and Alexei Miranchuk (filling in for the injured Aleksandr Kokorin) all in the same lineup. All are attacking midfielders that are skillful on the ball and all would prefer to operate in central areas of the pitch, because each is a little too slow to make a living out wide. In the friendlies leading up to the World Cup, Russia have settled on a  5-3-2 or 5-1-2-2 shape that is rigid in defense and fluid in attack and allows them to use all of their more offensive players close to their preferred positions. Fedor Smolov is a prolific striker up front who likes to run the channels and is more of a poacher than a target man or a false nine, making runs primarily to get himself into goalscoring positions (and only tangentially distracting the defense for the positive trio behind). Of that trio, Dzagoev and Golovin are given the responsibility of falling back into the midfield line to screen the defense and Miranchuk is given the responsibility of tracking the opposition’s holding midfielder before becoming a second forward when the team is in possession. Gazinsky will probably be the sole holding midfielder. The three central defenders will be functional and solid in the air but will be rather lacking in pace and occasionally understanding with each other, regardless of which three Russia end up settling on.

This Russia will want to counterattack. They may occasionally do so well, though the loss of Kokorin has hampered this aspect of their game in recent matches and left them more pedestrian. They will attempt to defend solidly (but might not be very good at it). They will be dangerous at set pieces. They will struggle to break down defensive opposition and be vulnerable to counterattacks behind their aging defense. They will almost certainly benefit from a few absurd refereeing decisions. And they just might make it out of the group stage.

Russia - Football tactics and formations

Key Players – Fedor Smolov. He has to continue his excellent national team goalscoring record and be the focal point of the attack.

Key Tactical Question – Will they allow their fullbacks/wingbacks to push forward more against the likes of Saudi Arabia and Egypt? Otherwise, the team will lack attacking width against sides that it wishes to break down and will fail in a similar manner to previous Russian teams.