Premier League Tactical Preview: Van Dijk v Morgan and other key battles
Alex Keble returns with his regular analysis of four key tactical battles ahead of the weekend action in the Premier League, including why Spurs' pressing should be successful against Liverpool, and how Watford can beat Arsenal...
"The slower-minded style of Liverpool's Rodgers-signed players - who are too contemplative for Klopp's furious approach - makes them vulnerable to such aggressive tackling. Against the league's top five tacklers they have won just eight points from seven games."
Liverpool's careless defenders v Spurs' high press
Saturday, 17:30, Live on Sky Sports 1
As Jurgen Klopp attempts to speed up Liverpool's transitional play after the conservative style drilled by his predecessor, an unsurprising side effect has caused them problems. Liverpool's defenders are consistently struggling to pass with urgency, causing plenty of mistakes at the back - particularly against high pressing teams like Tottenham.
Klopp's team are dispossessed more times (15 per match) than any other team and make the most defensive errors (27 this season) in the division, as exemplified in the 3-2 defeat to Southampton when Ronald Koeman's side twice scored after nicking possession deep in the Liverpool half. The slower-minded style of Liverpool's Rodgers-signed players - who are too contemplative for Klopp's furious approach - makes them vulnerable to such aggressive tackling. Against the league's top five tacklers (statistically, this is Leicester, Watford, Spurs, Sunderland, and Newcastle - all behind Liverpool) they have won just eight points from seven games.
Mauricio Pochettino's narrow attacking trio look to win the ball back quickly when losing it in the opposition half, and this should prove effective on Sunday. They commit the third most fouls in the Premier League (12.2 per game) and in Dele Alli (2.1 tackles, 1.9 interceptions per game) possess an attacking midfielder that will put the home side under significant pressure. The game will most likely be won in moments when Spurs pounce upon red shirts that are still learning how to move the ball quickly and confidently out of defence.
Back Spurs to win at 19/10
Timm Klose v Jonjo Shelvey
The relegation six-pointer at Carrow Road could be worth over £100 million to the victor, making it arguably one of the biggest games in recent Premier League history. Both sides appear to be on the verge of an upturn in form, but this one should be a tense, scrappy affair with few clear-cut chances. Since both defensive lines will be deep (neither can afford to lose), this match may be swung by one moment of creativity; Timm Klose must keep his defence organised against the threaded passes of Jonjo Shelvey.
Since his arrival from Wolfsburg in January Klose has significantly solidified what was the division's worst defence. He may have taken a few games to settle but the Swiss international has been instrumental in Norwich's run of three successive clean sheets. Klose amassed 12 clearances in the 0-0 draw with Man City and 17 in the 1-0 win over West Brom, and already ranks first for interceptions (2.6 per match) and clearances (10.6) in the Norwich squad.
Norwich are considerably more compact, organised, and focused with Klose at the heart of defence, but remain vulnerable to a through pass - largely because their full-backs love to roam forward. Shelvey (1.7 key passes per game) already has three assists for Newcastle, but under Rafael Benitez's charge should be given even more licence to play these kinds of passes.
The 1-1 draw with Sunderland saw Newcastle attempt a patient, short-passing game that revolved around calm distribution between Shelvey and Georginio Wijnaldum (111 passes between them, up from a season average of 90.1); in such a style, opportunities to split the Norwich back line will present themselves regularly. It will take a commanding performance from Klose to stamp them out.
Back the draw at 2/1
Morgan v Van Dijk
Sunday, 13:30, Live on Sky Sports 1
Southampton's long ball style and physical approach to attacking - largely through the centre of the pitch - will make for a hard fought battle on Sunday, given Leicester's brand of sweeping crosses and direct counter-attacks is so similar. This is one for the centre-backs; a test to determine which of Virgil van Dijk and Wes Morgan can claim to be the best defender in the country right now.
Ronald Koeman's side attempt the second most crosses (24 per match) and the fourth most accurate long balls, whilst winning more headers (19.5 per match) than any team bar West Brom. Their tactical set-up is centred on Graziano Pelle's aerial ability and driving runs from Sadio Mane that exploit the speed of Southampton's movement of the ball. As such Morgan's own aerial prowess (2.6 per match) will be a vital weapon, as Leicester sit deep to absorb those long balls forward.
This pattern will be mimicked closely at the other end. Leicester win the fourth most aerial duels (19.2 per match) and attempt the third most long balls (72.1 per match). Van Dijk, with 5.1 headers won per game, tops the charts amongst defenders; he will be challenging Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki for the ball as Marc Albrighton - increasingly important now that Riyad Mahrez is so tightly marked - fizzes crosses into the box. The best defender on the day will most likely be on the winning side.
Back under 1.5 goals at 9/5
Coquelin v Deeney
This match will most likely follow a very similar tactical pattern to Watford's 2-1 victory over Arsenal in the FA Cup a fortnight ago. That day, Arsenal dominated possession (71%) and squandered countless chances only to concede twice to a ruthless Watford side. Given that Arsenal's dominance and mode of attack is easy to predict, the key point of interest here is how effectively Troy Deeney can instigate the counter-attack.
Deeney's strength and tireless work ethic have contributed enormously to Watford's successful Premier League season. Although technically operating as a striker in a 4-4-2 formation, Deeney largely drops off and lurks in the half space between the opposition lines of defence and midfield. This is particularly useful in games when they play mostly without possession; Deeney bullies defenders by dropping short, holding up the ball, and gaining territory for his team-mates.
Consequently it is Francis Coquelin that must mark the Englishman tightly. Coquelin is most comfortable when marking zonally, cutting off passing lines and preventing the ball from reaching the forwards. However, it is important on Saturday that he stays tight to Deeney and combats him directly; failure to track his movement could prove costly for Arsenal once again.
Back Deeney to score any time at 13/5