Premier League Tactical Preview: Barkley v Elneny and other key battles

Benitez's tactical knowledge has already helped solidify Newcastle's back four.
Benitez's tactical knowledge has already helped solidify Newcastle's back four.
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Alex Keble returns with his regular analysis of four key tactical battles ahead of the weekend action in the Premier League, including why Benitez's tactical nous can scupper Sunderland, and how Barkley could overwhelm Elneny...

"As in the tight marking on Jamie Vardy, Newcastle will need to show discipline to keep Defoe quiet; Benitez is an excellent tactician, and it would be unwise to bet against him finding a way to nullify the former England striker."

Newcastle v Sunderland

Benitez tighter defence v Defoe & M'Vila
Sunday, 13:30,
Live on Sky Sports 1

Rafael Benitez's impact on Newcastle was immediately felt on Monday night as the away side looked considerably tighter, more compact, and more disciplined. They lost the match from a scrappy set-piece scenario but aside from this momentary lapse Newcastle were more defensively robust than at any other point this season; they will need to perform with similar solidity to prevent Yann M'Vila and Jermain Defoe from tearing through the middle.

Newcastle made 26 tackles, up from a season average of 20.7, and sat in a very narrow formation that restricted space for Jamie Vardy. He was unable to make runs in between the centre-backs, whilst Riyad Mahrez was largely ineffective when drifting into central attacking positions. One of the main reasons for this was Jonjo Shelvey dropping into a deeper central midfield role, constricting his creativity but helping to stunt Leicester's passing.


Sunderland's biggest threat in recent weeks has been M'Vila, a strong and talented central midfielder that excels in bursting through the middle of the pitch. He has linked up with Defoe very well this season, helping thread passes through to the 33-year-old as he lurks around the penalty area. As in the tight marking on Jamie Vardy, Newcastle will need to show discipline to keep Defoe quiet; Benitez is an excellent tactician, and it would be unwise to bet against him finding a way to nullify the former England striker.

Recommended Bet
Back Newcastle to win at 23/20

Man City v Man Utd

City's tracking back v United's wingers
Sunday, 16:00,
Live on Sky Sports 1

Man City's dreadful record against the top seven clubs (three points from ten games, joint worst with Villa) is largely thanks to the sharp divide between their attack and defence; Manuel Pellegrini allows his front four to remain high up the field, using largely "luxury" players who do not track back effectively. Kevin de Bruyne and Raheem Sterling often jog listlessly back from attack when opponents counter, and the top teams are able to exploit this by cantering down the wings. This should favour Anthony Martial and Memphis Depay.

In a bid to save his job, Louis van Gaal has upped the tempo of his side by allowing Juan Mata to distribute the ball into wide areas with greater urgency. As a result, United's wingers are being released into counter-attacking space more often - and thus are well set up to exploit Man City's weakness on the flanks. Given that Pablo Zabaleta is struggling for form, Depay in particular might find joy in a one-on-one situation down United's left (where 41% of their attacks are based, more than any other Premier League club).

However, Pellegrini may put Fernandinho on the right wing and instruct him to stay narrow, thus firming up Depay's side of the pitch whilst becoming part of a central midfield three when necessary. If so, then United will simply switch wings and it will be Martial (or Jesse Lingard) looking to dominate the space behind Raheem Sterling.

Recommended Bet
Back United to win at 4/1

Southampton v Liverpool

Van Dijk v Firmino
Sunday, 13:30

Southampton's Dutch centre-back has been instrumental to his team's successes this season and whilst his defensive work against Roberto Firmino is an obvious battle to watch out for this weekend, the reverse is also true; Van Dijk's long passing is an important feature of Ronald Koeman's tactics. Liverpool must press high and hard to prevent being overrun.

The furious gegenpress Jurgen Klopp's arrival promised has yet to become fully operational, but the early signs are positive. Firmino, Adam Lallana, and Philippe Coutinho make 5.4 tackles per match between them, and this weekend it is the highest forward, Firmino, whose work will be needed most. Van Dijk attempts 6.6 long balls per match as part of Saints' surprisingly direct tactics (they attempt the third most long passes, the most crosses, and the third most aerial duels in the division).


Since Graziano Pelle is back on form after ending a 13 match goal drought with a brace on Saturday, Firmino's ability to stamp out the long balls at source will be crucial; a high pressing approach is vulnerable to more direct, sweeping football that prioritises transitional speed over possession.

Recommended Bet
Back the draw at 23/10

Everton v Arsenal

Barkley v Elneny
Saturday, 12:45,
Live on BT Sport 1

Roberto Martinez may be coming under pressure at Everton but few would argue that his nurturing of Ross Barkley has been an impressive feature of his management. The English playmaker continued his superb season with two assists against Chelsea in the FA Cup last weekend. It was a powerful performance that epitomised his unique ability to surge through central midfield and dominate the opposition defensive midfield zone; with Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, and Santi Cazorla all unavailable for Arsenal, they could be overwhelmed by Barkley's furious playing style.

Having somewhat drifted through games since his return from injury Francis Coquelin was back to his best against Watford (six tackles, three interceptions) but his new partner, Mohamed Elneny, still looks uncomfortable in a fast paced division. He has only made one tackle in the two league matches he has featured in so far, and although his tactical positioning is disciplined and instinctively intellinget, both Spurs and Watford found it all too easy to dribble round him and find space in that attacking midfield zone; Christian Eriksen (five key passes) and Troy Deeney (three key passes) were dominant figures over the last fortnight.

Barkley will be confident he can control this zoning with similar ease, especially considering Arsenal's only victory in the last seven games has come against Hull City. Goodison Park is hardly the ideal venue for Elneny to settle into a rhythm at Arsenal.

Recommended Bet
Back Everton to win at 13/8

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