Premier League Tactical Preview: Rooney v Kante 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 Fabregas could gift victory for Spurs and how Rooney's match-up with Kante could decide the title...
"Kante’s ability to cut these out and stifle Rooney’s influence should decide the match, particularly given that Leicester can expect to find joy down the flanks if Kante can wriggle away and release Schlupp for the counter."
Rooney v Kante
Sunday, 14:05, Live on Sky Sports 1
Manchester United's tactical system leaves them vulnerable to the classic Leicester City counter-attack and even if Jamie Vardy is absent the pace of Jeffrey Schlupp will cause Louis van Gaal problems. Daley Blind is likely to be out-muscled by Leonardo Ulloa, who will act as a fulcrum and help release Schlupp in behind the inexperience Timothy Fosu-Mensah.
However, none of this will happen unless Leicester can break up United's possession football and break free of a claustrophobic midfield; as such, N'Golo Kante's battle in the right-centre space with Wayne Rooney is the pivot upon which this game will swing.
Kante's defensive genius needs little introduction; benefiting from an ultra-narrow formation that limits the size of his defensive circle, Kante's best skill is anticipating the next pass and cutting it out (4.2 interceptions per match). Equally important is the composure with which he then distributes the ball out of a congested area of the pitch, releasing his team-mates for the counter-attack.
These attributes have never been more important than they will be on Sunday. Firstly because United attack via intricate, low tempo short passing in the midfield third in which Kante is most effective, and secondly because Rooney will act as the fulcrum from left-centre attacking midfield. Rooney's role will be to sew the lines together with his movement and help stretch Leicester's narrow 4-4-2 formation with long, side-to-side passes (in order to create gaps for the forwards to run into).
Kante's ability to cut these out and stifle Rooney's influence should decide the match, particularly given that Leicester can expect to find joy down the flanks if Kante can wriggle away and release Schlupp for the counter.
Back Leicester to win at 13/5
Townsend v Bolasie
Two tactically similar sides clash at St. James' Park on Saturday in a game that will define Newcastle's survival chances. Both teams prefer to sit back in well organised lines of four and launch counter-attacks down the flanks, which should create a fricative match of few chances. However, Andros Townsend's defensive weaknesses (coupled with his propensity to cut inside when in possession) could leave Newcastle open for a Yannick Bolasie-inspired counter. Recent performances would suggest that their head-to-head will settle this match.
Townsend vacating the right wing to dribble more centrally creates the only notable hole in Rafael Benitez's commendably robust 4-5-1 system. During periods of sustained Newcastle pressure this will vacate space for Bolasie - who plays as a central attacking midfielder but typically lurks on whichever flank has the most space - to receive long passes over the top.
Townsend (two tackles, 0.7 interceptions per match) struggles to recover when this move occurs and right-back Vernon Anita - naturally a midfield player - needs support against a pacey winger. Liverpool's second goal last weekend came from Alberto Moreno besting Anita on that flank (where Townsend missed seven of his nine attempted tackles), whilst Southampton's Sadio Mane created two chances on the outside of Anita at the beginning of April. An in-form Bolasie will surely get the better of Anita if Townsend allows him to burst forward one-on-one.
Back double chance draw or away at 10/11
Fabregas v Eriksen & Alli
Monday, 20:00, Live on Sky Sports 1
Tottenham struggled to break down West Brom on Monday night because of their relentless pursuit of intricate build-up in central areas via the constant fluid movement of Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen, and Harry Kane; the Baggies were disciplined enough to stay tight and deny them space. Chelsea may be capable of similar defending, although it entirely depends upon which version of Cesc Fabregas shows up and whether Spurs can cope without Alli.
The Spaniard was sensational against Bournemouth last weekend (91 passes, three assists) but had another torrid game against Man City six days earlier; he missed seven of his ten attempted tackles and failed to make a single tackle or interception in the defensive midfield zone. Fabregas makes a decent amount of tackles (2.6 per game) but in truth these are usually recovery challenges that indicate he is caught out of position. Tellingly, he averages an appalling 0.7 interceptions per game - and made none at all in the reverse fixture against Tottenham.
This is because he is very poor positionally, often drifting out of his zone and almost never correctly anticipating his opponents' movement. Sergio Aguero's first goal against Man City came from a simple pass into the D that Fabregas should have read and intercepted; it is very easy to imagine Eriksen, Lamela, and Kane dance and weave around him in similar areas on Monday night.
Back Spurs to win at 6/4
Stoke's centre-backs v Borini & Defoe
Stoke City are in free-fall after conceding 12 goals in their last three games and although Sunderland do not possess the firepower of Spurs, Liverpool, or Man City they will fancy their chances up against such a shaky central defensive partnership - particularly since Fabio Borini has been interlinking well with Jermain Defoe in recent weeks.
At Man City, Ryan Shawcross and Philipp Wollschield were woefully out of sync. Man City's Kelechi Iheanacho found space in between them on numerous occasions, with the Stoke captain conceding a clumsy penalty ahead of the second goal and failing to track the Nigerian for the third.
Defoe is superb at finding space in the six yard box, whilst Borini has excelled recently making diagonal runs to the far post from the wing. If these two players are at the top of their game this weekend they should easily find space around this listless Stoke defence; Shawcross and Wollschield cannot afford to ball watch like the Norwich City defenders did a fortnight ago.
Back Sunderland to win at 9/5