Alex Keble assesses four tactical battles in the opening weekend of the Premier League season and predicts Tottenham can snatch at least a point from Manchester City...
"Nuno Espirito Santo might not be the kind of manager Tottenham fans want, but he is the right tactician for games like this one."
Tottenham v Man City
Live on Sky Sports Main Event
Nuno Espirito Santo might not be the kind of manager Tottenham fans want, but he is the right tactician for games like this one. His Wolves team beat Man City twice in 2019 by sitting fairly deep, cramming the half-spaces with defensive bodies to stunt Pep Guardiola's side, before counter-attacking quickly in behind the high defensive line. It was a simple approach that utilised Adama Traore's pace and the long-ball distribution of Ruben Neves.
A front three of Heung-Min Son, Lucas Moura, and Steven Bergwijn could help Nuno repeat the trick on his Spurs debut. Certainly the tactical pattern of the game will be Man City hogging possession while Tottenham wait for chances to break, and without Kevin de Bruyne on the pitch that could have the desired effect; City are likely to start the season a little slowly.
The biggest question is over Dele Alli, who has started in a hybrid role in pre-season as Nuno shifts between a 4-3-3 off the ball and a 4-2-3-1 on the ball (with Dele the ten). If he can be the link man on the counter, stealing into gaps around Rodri to set the quick front three away, then Spurs can win at least a point.
Chelsea v Crystal Palace
Patrick Vieira's Nice were a confused mess towards the end as the manager seemingly picked formations and team selections at random. His philosophy is quick, possession-based attacking football but he only appears to coach it in a vague way. Crystal Palace, risking everything for a dramatic rebuild, need precision - not outlines.
Their new signings are all very promising but young and inexperienced; Palace are likely to go down, their flying full-backs and aggressive style leaving far too many gaps for opponents. That should start at Stamford Bridge where an easy home win is to be expected as Thomas Tuchel's side hit the ground running.
A win is almost guaranteed, and they ought to do it with a clean sheet. Eberichi Eze's injury piles pressure onto Wilfried Zaha, who is unlikely to get any joy against a very solid Chelsea back three. Palace will quickly be forced into territorial retreat, and under Vieira they won't be doing much training on counter-attacking from deep positions.
Man Utd v Leeds
Live on BT Sport 1
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needs to mount a title challenge this season or his job will be under scrutiny. He will have been at the club for three-and-a-half years by the end of the campaign and, without a trophy so far, his net spend is higher than any other team in the division. He will be hoping the addition of Rafael Varane and Jadon Sancho fills the gaps... but United are not ready to challenge unless a new central midfielder is signed.
Solskjaer is expected to play a 4-3-3 this season with Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba playing as eights either side of Nemanja Matic, which is far too attacking when facing a team as explosive and hard-pressing as Leeds United. Matic could easily get caught by all those third-man runs and gut-busting breaks through the lines from Marcelo Bielsa's ultra-vertical side. Leeds have a good chance of scoring a couple of goals at Old Trafford.
But United are still favourites, even without Marcus Rashford and Edinson Cavani. Sancho is a huge signing and Leeds, with their aggressively attacking full-backs, will struggle to contain him. In a game played at breakneck speed the tactical pattern should be relatively similar to the last time the sides met in Manchester - which ended in a 6-2 win for the hosts.
Over 2.5 goals is the selection for the Bet Builder.
Watford v Aston Villa
Xisco took Watford into the Premier League thanks to a surge in form from Christmas onwards, which wasn't the most difficult thing to do considering Watford's quality relative to the rest of the Championship. His desire to play direct attacking football will need to be tempered for the top tier and, to be blunt, his track record does not suggest Xisco will be able to adapt quickly enough to a new division.
A weak squad relies upon Ismaila Sarr and youngster Joao Pedro, whose directness from the wings led to 22 goals last season. Aston Villa, however, shouldn't be particularly vulnerable to that given their defensive strength in 2020/21, and buoyed by some exciting new signings Dean Smith can anticipate an exciting start to the campaign.
Leon Bailey's injury makes it even more likely Smith will trial his new 4-4-2, a formation he is reportedly set to play this season now there are two quality strikers at the club. Ollie Watkins and Danny Ings will start against a Watford centre-back partnership that isn't up to much, and with Emiliano Buendia causing trouble on the left there should be plenty of chances inside the penalty area for Villa's new striker.
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