Alex Keble offers tactical analysis of four key battles to look out for in this weekend’s Premier League action, including how Alex Song can stop Arsenal and why Michael Carrick’s return could foil Harry Kane…
Liverpool’s high pressing v Jonjo Shelvey
Live on Sky Sports 1
Monday night’s encounter between Liverpool and Swansea brings together two of the league’s most elegant footballing sides, and since Liverpool favour a high pressing attacking game whilst Swansea are quick on the counter, this should be an excellent game of football.
The chief area of interest here is whether Swansea – without the injured Gylfi Sigurdsson (8 assists) – can successfully initiate counter-attacks when confronted with Liverpool’s high pressing.
Since switching to a 3-4-3, Liverpool have developed into a Dortmund-esque high pressing team, with their flitting movement and seamless fluidity in possession instigated by an ability to win the ball back deep in the opposition half. It is their tackling proficiency (21 per match is the fourth highest in the division) that creates space in the final third for Raheem Sterling, Philippe Coutinho, and Daniel Sturridge to flourish.
Swansea’s main challenge will be to distribute the ball to the wings quickly and accurately, despite being harassed by Liverpool players. It will take a top-quality, instinctive passer of the ball to achieve this; fortunately, Swansea’s stand-in playmaker Jonjo Shelvey could be just the man they need to relieve pressure on their defence.
Across the five league matches in which Sigurdsson has not featured, Shelvey has averaged 2.7 key passes, 6 crosses, and 0.22 assists. Not only is this a significant increase from from his season average (1 key pass, 0.6 crosses, 0.1 assists), but it also matches Sigurdsson’s contribution of 2.5 key passes, 1.2 crosses, and 0.35 assists per match.
In each of these games it was a frequent occurrence to see Shelvey spray the ball neatly into wide areas, which should be effective against a Liverpool side who, in the first half against Southampton, were frequently torn apart by long passes into the channels.
Without full-backs in the team, Liverpool are vulnerable to quick counters that catch out their high defensive line. If Swansea are to win this match, they will need Shelvey on top form.
Back over 3.5 goals at 27/10
Arsenal’s narrowness v Alex Song
On the surface this fixture looks like an easy Arsenal victory. West Ham have not won in six matches and are without a victory on the road since early December, whilst Arsenal have won each of their last four Premier League games and enter this one buoyed by an impressive victory at Old Trafford.
However, when looking a little deeper it becomes evident that, in terms of West Ham’s narrow defensive set-up and their goalscoring threat from crosses, they possess many of the attributes necessary to overcome Arsene Wenger’s side.
In their last away match – a 2-2 draw at Spurs – West Ham were very unfortunate not to emerge victorious, after Sam Allardyce cleverly nullified Tottenham’s centrally focused attacks by sitting three defensive midfielders in deep, narrow positions.
The vast majority of Tottenham’s activity in the final third takes place in the middle, where inverted wingers drift in-field and Harry Kane drops deep to link up with a central attacking midfielder. Alex Song, Mark Noble, and Cheickhou Kouyate collectively made ten tackles and six interceptions on that day, muscling Moussa Dembele ( who had only 34 touches) out of the game and significantly stifling Spurs’ distribution to Harry Kane (2 shots on target).
Arsenal play in a relatively similar style, with 32% of their attacks coming down the middle (league’s highest). With Santi Cazorla’s central dribbling and Alexis Sanchez’s cutting inside the primary sources of attack, fielding these three again could – with a bit of luck – be enough to stifle them.
Meanwhile at the other end Arsenal’s terrible defensive record from crosses – 19 conceded in the league, 63% of their total goals against – could worsen against a side who look to cross the ball as frequently as possible.
West Ham complete more crosses (6.1 per match) than any other team in the league, and in Stewart Downing possess the division’s most frequent crosser (2.6 per match). It comes as no surprise that they have scored the most headed goals (14), and that set-piece goals represent a higher percentage of their total amount scored (33%) than any other.
Arsenal are still clear favourites for this tie, but if Song and company produce their best from defensive midfield, and if Downing’s crosses can find their target, we could be in for a shock result.
Back the draw @ 19/5
Scott Sinclair v Adam Johnson
A desperate scrap for points is developing among the league’s bottom five clubs, and as ominous visions of Championship football emerge with greater clarity for both Sunderland and Aston Villa, it is creativity – born from attacking bravery – that both of these sides crave.
Villa’s back-to-back victories over West Brom offer tentative signs of long-term progression, and having crept out of the relegation zone last week an attacking edge is on its way back. This match will be settled by which winger shows the greater bravery, and greater skill, when their team is pushing forward.
Scott Sinclair, so recently considered one of the most promising young talents in English football, offered glimpses of his former self last weekend, completing seven dribbles and scoring the second goal. His driving run, turn, and finish conveyed a boldness of attacking intent that has been frighteningly absent from Villa Park in recent years.
It is a different story for Adam Johnson, who remains the only creative-minded player Gus Poyet is prepared to field despite Inter Milan’s Ricardo Alvarez warming the bench (his average two dribbles per match is the highest in the Sunderland squad). Johnson is struggling to forge a decisive partnership with new signing Jermain Defoe, who has been largely anonymous since a goal at Swansea left pundits hailing him as the signing of the window.
This will not be a pretty game, and with few clear-cut chances likely (Sunderland and Villa have the worst shots on target record in the Premier League) the game will rest on which team’s playmaker has the better day.
With just one point separating two sides hovering above the drop zone, a nervy game is to be expected. Many managers may be tempted to play for a draw, but this is a time for managers – as well as players – to show courage in the face of danger, and with Tim Sherwood at the helm it is Villa who are moreNell likely to, rightly, gamble for three points.
Back Villa to win @ 5/2
Michael Carrick v Harry Kane
Live on Sky Sports 1
Considering the jittery nature of their error-strewn defensive display against Arsenal last weekend, Manchester United should be very nervous of Spurs’ high pressing system, and the unstoppable machine that is Harry Kane.
Spurs, like Liverpool, focus on pressing hard in key attacking areas in order to pressurise the opposition into conceding possession, and since United’s defence are struggling terribly with their manager’s desire to play short passing football, this could be very successful on Sunday. The return of Michael Carrick, whose calmness and composure should help organise this defence, is timely.
Manchester United have earned 27 points from the 13 league fixtures in which Carrick has featured (2.08 points per match), and 26 points in the 15 games without him (1.77 per match). If you extend these points averages across the 28 games played so far, United would sit level with Man City in 2nd with Carrick ever-present, and 8th without him.
Alongside the defensive solidity he offers by sitting in front of the centre-backs and organising those around him, Carrick’s main function is his intelligent, composed distribution; his clever passes under pressure both relieves his team-mates of the attacking onslaught and initiates the counter-attack.
This role goes largely unnoticed, but is invaluable to any short-passing side and an integral part of any approach against high pressing opposition such as Tottenham.
Of course, a lack of match fitness could mean that his distribution is slower than usual; if he cannot prevent his side from being caught in possession or making sloppy passes, then Spurs – through Harry Kane – will certainly pounce. As ever, a lot rests on Michael Carrick’s shoulders.
Bet on any time goalscorer Harry Kane @ 2/1
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