Premier League Tactical Preview: Rooney v Surman 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, looking at some of the big games in the battle for the top four...
"Bournemouth's attack-minded and possession-based game has earned them commendable points this season, but it is consistently unsuccessful against more technically gifted outfits that utilise a similar system; their combined score-line from matches against the division's top four for possession held reads 4-22."
Rooney v Surman
Sunday, 15:00, Live on Sky Sports 1
Somewhat predictably, Bournemouth's season has petered out since a trio of victories in March secured their Premier League safety, with Eddie Howe's side picking up just four points from their last seven matches. The visitors' attack-minded and possession-based game has earned them commendable points this season, but it is consistently unsuccessful against more technically gifted outfits that utilise a similar system; their combined score-line from matches against the division's top four for possession held reads 4-22.
And there is a clear pattern that might explain why. Across those seven matches, the opposition central attacking midfielder has scored eight goals - netting at least once on every occasion except for one game: Bournemouth's 2-1 win against Man United, when Juan Mata struggled to make an impact.
The main reason for this is that Bournemouth's pursuit of aesthetic control in central midfield means that they do not field a defensive destroyer, and since all of the top teams utilise inverted wingers in order to increase short-passing options in central areas this becomes problematic when Raheem Sterling, Mesut Ozil, or Christian Eriksen are the opponent. Bournemouth's deepest midfielder, Drew Surman, averaged just 1.3 tackles and 2.6 interceptions across these seven games.
His worst showing was in fact against United (one tackle, on interception), but he got away with it thanks to Mata's poor performance. He will not be so lucky this time. Mata's inability to create chances has partly been caused by the width and directness of wingers Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial, neither of whom link-up with the Spaniard often enough. But in recent weeks Wayne Rooney has been reintroduced to attacking midfield, supported by Mata drifting in from the right. They should comfortably overwhelm Bournemouth in this area on Sunday.
Back United to win and over 2.5 goals at 10/11
Payet v Butland-less Stoke
Sunday, 15:00, Live on Sky Sports 3
Stoke City are in free-fall having earned just two points from their last six games, a run of form that coincides exactly with Jack Butland's absence from the first team. Since England's number two (who averages 3.3 saves per match, the most in the Premier League) has been injured Stoke have conceded 17 goals, or 2.83 per match - up from an average of 1.19 per match with Butland in goal.
One reason for this is that Butland is an excellent organiser of his defenders. West Ham's set-piece ability, Dimitri Payet's crossing, and their propensity to score from long range all suggest that Stoke's Jakob Haugaard could be in for a difficult afternoon.
West Ham have scored the second most set pieces in the Premier League (16) and the fourth most goals from outside the box (10). Payet's superb free-kicks help explain these statistics, and indeed his remarkable crossing ability (2.8 successful per match, the division's highest) will surely cause havoc in such a haphazard back four. As Stoke's season peters out and West Ham go for a Europa League spot, there is a good cahnce the Hammers will end the season strongly.
Back West Ham to win at 11/10
Ayew v Man City carelessness
Sunday, 15:00, Live on Sky Sports 2
Swansea's mini-revival has secured Francesco Guidolin's job and given them the platform they need to beat Man City on the final day of the season. The main reason for their upturn in form is a new counter-attacking speed found in the relationship between Modou Barrow, Jordan Aye, and Wayne Routledge; this could hurt an oft-careless Man City.
Three of their four goals against West Ham last weekend came directly from counter-attacks, the first two the result of winning the ball within the Hammers' half. Man City are the second most dispossessed team in the division (14.9 per match), and have become yet more vulnerable since switching to a 4-4-2 formation. They often look light in midfield, which causes big gaps to emerge when they give the ball away sloppily in their own half; having conceded six goals in their last two games, including an opening goal against Arsenal that was caused by a needless defensive error, the away side are in a vulnerable state.
Barrow and Routledge could find plenty of joy bursting down the flanks whilst both Man City wingers and forwards watch on, particularly given that Backary Sagna and Gael Clichy are slowing with age and Vincent Kompany is absent.
Back double chance Swansea/draw at 6/4
Sanchez v Gueye
Aston Villa's reversion to a 3-5-2 formation looks considerably more comfortable than any of their previous tactical incarnations. A back three will force Arsenal to work extremely hard to work the ball into the box, and with Mesut Ozil recovering from injury Alexis Sachez will be the main source of inspiration. This will be a backs-to-the-wall performance from Villa, whose defenders will be too preoccupied with Olivier Giroud and Alex Iwobi to track Sanchez's late runs.
Idrissa Gueye, then, is Villa's most important player on Sunday. Gueye has had an exceptional season at Villa Park, flitting around the pitch with a tireless defensive energy unseen in Birmingham since the days of Stan Petrov. He was sounded out by Leicester City as an alternative option to N'Golo Kante last summer, and it is easy to see why; Gueye averages more interceptions (4.1 per match) than any other player in the Premier League and more tackles (4.2 per match) than any bar Kante.
Sanchez's floating movement from the right wing is difficult to mark, but in a three-man midfield Gueye will have licence to follow the Chilean playmaker wherever he goes. Their head-to-head could be the difference between an Arsenal win and a frustrating 0-0.
Back the draw at 13/2