Alex Keble assesses four tactical battles ahead of this weekend's Premier League games, with a bet from each game building a fourfold that pays out at around 55/1...
"Unless Ronaldo changes his ways it will allow Liverpool’s energetic and fine-tuned central midfield to get on the ball and cut through the hosts’ shape."
Crystal Palace v Newcastle
Newcastle have been caught between tactical systems for too long, but now Graeme Jones is in sole control he will implement a more adventurous attacking approach as he auditions for a chance to lead the team through their relegation battle. The upshot of that is a Championship-standard squad, built to play backs-to-the-wall defensive football, struggling to play progressively.
Jones does not have the ball-playing centre-backs required to pass out from the back, the speed in the team to play with a high line, or the talent in midfield to cope with large spaces between the lines as they spread out to play attacking possession football. It should mean the far better coached team, Crystal Palace, can comfortably win the midfield battle before charging in behind an expansive Newcastle defence.
Patrick Vieira is doing an excellent job at Palace, deploying a system in which Conor Gallagher, James McArthur, and Checkhou Kouyate snap into a press once the ball is in the middle third. From here, they will get the returning Wilfried Zaha and Jordan Ayew exploding behind Newcastle's hazardous line.
Brentford v Leicester City
Leicester City were much improved by moving back to a 3-5-2 formation, which Brendan Rodgers clearly should never have abandoned this season. All of a sudden they are more assured in all areas of the pitch, most notably with Youri Tielemans now able to feed a vertical pass through to James Maddison, who, alone in the ten space, is more comfortable in a free role and with two strikers to hit.
Rodgers' side ought to play explosive attacking football on Sunday, especially with Brentford pouring so many bodies forward on the attack. Their use of long balls to hit Ivan Toney and Bryan Mbeumo always ruffles feathers, but on this occasion the visitors have strength on the counter - and a two-on-three once they break - to create an end-to-end game.
The match will likely be decided by the runs of those two sets of strikers, both of which will have space on the outside of the three centre-backs to run into. The hosts might just edge it, having a more combative central midfield, but whatever the outcome there will surely be goals at Griffin Park.
West Ham v Tottenham
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Tottenham are incredibly up and down at the moment, one week able to progress the ball neatly through the lines and the next looking hopelessly reliant on individualism. Which of the two versions of Nuno Espirito Santo's team will show up depends on the quality of the opposition, and so West Ham - who are set up primarily to target opposition weaknesses and react to them - are in a strong position here.
David Moyes will deploy a fairly low block, knowing that Spurs can become a bit confused and hesitant when required to play fluidly through midfield, with focus on ensuring Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek quickly move the ball into wide areas for Michail Antonio on the break. Spurs have looked ropey in the full-back positions all season, and so Antonio ought to find joy when the Hammers break.
However, Kurt Zouma struggled with the physicality of the Brentford forwards in a 2-1 defeat in West Ham's last home game, and he is the main player tasked with tracking Heung-Min Son and Harry Kane. Their partnership is cranking up again, suggesting both teams will score despite West Ham's slight advantage.
Man Utd v Liverpool
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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can usually rely on a big derby game like this to get him out of trouble. That's because United can sit deep, absorb pressure in compact lines, and break forward with improvised counter-attacks when they play the elite teams. It's an easy system to coach and one Solskjaer can do, whereas playing expansive football and coaching the tactical intriacies of build-up play is beyond him.
However, Cristiano Ronaldo threatens to dismantle the one tactical thing his manager gets right. In the 4-2 defeat to Leicester City, Rodgers' centre-backs easily passed through Ronaldo to Tielemans, who essentially walked through midfield to help Maddison create chances. Ronaldo's disinterest in pressing, or even cutting off the passing lanes into midfield, means United's low block can be bypassed with one straight pass.
Leicester were the first big team United have played since Ronaldo's arrival and the result was a total collapse of the tactical system. It is a disastrous situation for United, and unless Ronaldo changes his ways it will allow Liverpool's energetic and fine-tuned central midfield to get on the ball and cut through the hosts' shape. Among forwards who have played at least three games Ronaldo is bottom of the league for presses, with 17, which is more than half the next-lowest player on the list. Liverpool should dominate.
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