Premier League Tactical Preview: Liverpool to pull clear of Man City again
Alex Keble looks ahead to the 26th round of Premier League matches, arguing that Man City are likely to drop points against Chelsea on Sunday...
"Chelsea's counter-attacks could be highly effective against City's under-stocked central midfield, if Kante can find Higuain."
Fulham v Man Utd
Live on BT Sport 1
Fulham's form shows no sign of improving, primarily because Alfie Mawson's absence through injury means Claudio Ranieri feels the need to play three centre-backs, which in turn makes their already-weak central midfield even softer. In a 3-4-3 formation, Jean Michael Seri and Calum Chambers will surely be overrun by a Man Utd side that attack predominantly through the middle of the pitch.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has given prominence to the United players who are particularly intelligent in their positioning in order to create natural positional fluidity in the half-spaces; Jesse Lingard, Ander Herrera, and Paul Pogba have been particularly impressive since the Norwegian's arrival. Lingard tends to drift in from the right, weaving through the opposition central midfielders to link with his fellow attackers via quick one-touch passing.
It is exactly the tactical approach that most threatens Fulham. Seri made one interception and zero tackles in the 2-1 defeat to Spurs, reflecting his inability to cope with the speed of transitions in the Premier League. His battle with Lingard will only go one way, while Chambers will be distracted by Pogba's movement to the left of centre. That means huge spaces centrally for Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial to occupy.
Liverpool v Bournemouth
Liverpool have won just two of their last six matches in all competitions and are feeling the pressure after Manchester City went top on Wednesday evening, so Jurgen Klopp will be relieved that this weekend's opponents haven't won an away match since October 27. In fact, prior to Bournemouth's bizarre 4-0 victory against Chelsea they had lost their previous four league games against Big Six clubs by an aggregate of 16-2, including a 4-0 defeat at Dean Court to Liverpool.
What characterised those four losses was the speed of the opposition forwards (by contrast, Chelsea have looked stale and predictable in the final third). There's nothing wrong with Bournemouth's defensive shape, it's just that Steve Cook and Charlie Daniels lack speed, agility, and acceleration. Consequently slide passes in between the full-backs and centre-backs too easily cut them open.
Heung-Min Son, Rashford, and Mohamed Salah all scored or assisted at least twice in recent matches against Bournemouth, each benefiting from simple through balls behind the Bournemouth defence. At Anfield, one of liverpool's most prominent sources of attack is clipped passes over the defence from around the 40 yard mark that aim to find Salah or Sadio Mane as they run from deep. With Fabinho and Xherdan Shaqiri looking for the pass, Bournemouth are in trouble. Injuries to David Brooks and Callum Wilson make the task even more ominous.
Spurs v Leicester
Live on Sky Sports Premier League
Tottenham have relied on late goals to keep within touching distance of Liverpool and Man City in recent weeks, grinding down deep-lying opponents gradually while Harry Kane and Dele Alli are out of action. They can make a real statement on Sunday by beating a team who took points from the two Premier League front-runners - and in Christian Eriksen they have the right player to do it.
Nampalys Mendy continues to disappoint in the Leicester midfield; Claude Puel's desire to play careful possession football explains Mendy's continued inclusion despite the midfielder's very poor defensive play. He was all over the place during the first 20 minutes against Man Utd, when Solskjaer's team could have scored two or three, and Mendy finished the match with zero tackles and one interception completed.
Eriksen was moved back into a number 10 role against Newcastle after spending much of the season in a deeper position, and the Denmark international completed six key passes despite Newcastle's narrowness and solid defending in the middle of the park. Leicester and Mendy will not put up anything like the same resistance, meaning Eriksen can be the match winner for the hosts.
Man City v Chelsea
Live on Sky Sports Premier League
It should be a frenetic, fascinating contest at the Etihad on Sunday as Maurizio Sarri's Chelsea look to outmanoeuvre the Man City press and hit their opponents on the break, just as they did in December. Man City have slowed down of late, which means Pep Guardiola's team are unlikely to pin Chelsea like they did in the first half at Stamford Bridge, handing a rejuvenated Chelsea the chance to build on last weekend's 5-0 win.
If you can evade the first wave of the City press, there are big gaps in midfield to be exploited; David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne will start in midfield, which means space left behind both players for the breaking Ross Barkley and N'Golo Kante. It was Kante's forward movements that made the difference last time, primarily because Kyle Walker tucks inside to become a third centre-back on the other side of the pitch, thus closing that channel. Onto their third-choice left-back in Aymeric Laporte, City are weakened in the area in which Kante will roam.
Gonzalo Higuain's ability to drop short to link the play - before suddenly darting in behind - is what makes him ideal for the verticality of Sarri-ball. Consequently Chelsea's counter-attacks could be highly effective against City's under-stocked central midfield, if Kante can find Higuain. There is enough hesitancy among the City players this month to suggest Kante and Higuain can highlight the hosts' defensive vulnerabilities.