Leicester’s back three v Sunderland’s back three
Two teams fighting for Premier League survival cross paths on Saturday, in what is likely to be a swirling end-to-end encounter featuring a ‘hoof-and-run’ zeal.
Dick Advocaat’s successive victories have been characterised by a simplification of Sunderland’s tactical strategy, as long balls are hurled towards a narrow front three in the hope that something will stick. Against Everton, they held just 27% possession and completed a startling 141 passes (62% successful) – 78 less than the average amount for the league’s lowliest passers, Crystal Palace. Advocaat’s tactical adaptation is commendable, even if it is too ugly to represent a cohesive long-term strategy.
If Sunderland are to prevent Nigel Pearson’s careering 3-5-2 from dominating, they must work hard to ensure that Darren Fletcher, Jermain Defoe, and Connor Wickham are not isolated man-to-man with Leicester’s powerful centre-back trio. In their last match against Southampton, they made 12 interceptions and 21 clearances as part of another impressive clean sheet.
To prevent an all-too-easy nullification of Sunderland’s primary attacking weapons, they will be relying upon support from the ever-impressive Jordi Gomez. Gomez managed more touches of the ball than any other Sunderland player in his last two appearances (average 51), scoring once and assisting twice in that time.
His intricate in-field passing and flitting movement on the left will be vital; with a solitary point separating the two teams, Advocaat’s ability to tactically untangle Leicester’s back three could be of monumental importance.
Back Leicester to win at 17/10
Hull’s wing-backs v Spurs wingers
Despite slumping to a devastating defeat against Burnley last weekend, Hull can take heart from the nature of Tottenham’s insipid 3-0 loss at Stoke ahead of this clash at White Hart Lane. With Mauricio Pochettino’s side sleep-walking towards their summer holidays, the quality in Hull’s wing-backs could expose Tottenham’s sloppy, half-hearted defending.
Two of Stoke’s goals (and numerous other attacks) were initiated down the flanks, where Erik Lamela and Nacer Chadli were conspicuously absent (four tackles and three interceptions between them). Attackers failing to track back is a sure sign of a season winding down, and with Ahmed Elmohamady and Robbie Brady in such good form, it could be decisive on Saturday.
Some 74% of Hull’s attacks come down the wings, and against Burnley, Elmohamady and Brady had more touches of the ball (81 and 76 respectively) than any other player on the pitch, attempting 22 crosses between them. This follows from a familiar pattern for Steve Bruce’s side, who have regularly relied upon these two for creative inspiration.
Unless Lamela and Chadli work harder to follow their movements, these two will whip plenty of excellent crosses into the box. Since all three of Stoke’s goals came from superior aerial ability and cataclysmic individual errors from Spurs defenders, the signs are looking good for Hull fans.
Back Hull to win at 18/5
Jack Cork v David Silva
Live on Sky Sports 1
The Swansea v Man City clash may be devoid of narrative interest at this late stage of the season, but it is worth taking a closer look at Swans’ rising star, Jack Cork.
Cork’s potential was never in question, but a serious of unfortunate injuries has led to a somewhat stilted career to date. However, the 24-year-old former Chelsea academy player has finally found his feet at new club Swansea, whose short-passing style has allowed Cork’s best qualities to flourish.
Since his arrival in January, Cork has averaged 3.3 interceptions and 2.4 tackles per game, whilst calmly controlling possession from the base of midfield (57 passes per match, 85% pass accuracy). What’s more, Cork made 29 interceptions across his last four matches, culminating in a commanding display against Arsenal that made Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla look stagnant.
After four successive excellent performances, his match-up with David Silva should provide us with further evidence of his progress, and potential.
Back the draw at 29/10
Marouane Fellaini v Aaron Ramsay
Live on Sky Sports 1
Considering the unhappy disruption a Champions League qualifier brings (not to mention the chance of losing it), this match is arguably the only important top half fixture that remains in the 2014/15 Premier League season.
Both teams have looked particularly sluggish in recent weeks, perhaps feeling the yawning trickle down effects of a monotonous May that has offered little in the way of excitement. A key tactical characteristic for both sides has been an absence of width, although the attacking openness favoured by both should provide far more opportunity for expansive football than has been afforded in recent games.
For United, the Fellaini-centric approach of long diagonals into the left wing channel – with Ashley Young supporting – might make a welcome return, in a right-back position that remains defensively awkward for Arsene Wenger. Hector Bellerin has impressed of late, but remains prone to positional errors.
Considering the attacking overload in this area, Arsene Wenger will need to instruct Aaron Ramsay to take a more conservative approach to the game. However, hoping to avoid a repeat of their spluttering defeat against Swansea on Monday night, this will be a difficult balancing act.
Ramsay has been a key component of Arsenal’s good form, operating in a complexly transitioning right wing role by providing support centrally during extended periods of pressure, and sticking to the touchline when on the counter. His positional play will play a big part in whether or not Fellaini is allowed to dominate, as he did so effortlessly in early Spring.
Back over 2.5 goals at 3/4
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