Premier League Tactical Preview: Lukaku v Williams and other key battles

Without Mane, Klopp's Liverpool could be set for another tough game against Burnley.
Without Mane, Klopp's Liverpool could be set for another tough game against Burnley.
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Alex Keble returns for his weekly tactical blog, picking out four key battles ahead of the weekend Premier League action...

"United have attempted more crosses (27 per match) than any other Premier League team this season. As the hosts launch countless balls into the penalty area, Romelu Lukaku’s individual dual with Ashley Williams will become the defining feature at Old Trafford."

Crystal Palace v Southampton

Benteke v Romeu
Saturday, 12:30, Live on Sky Sports 1

Mauricio Pellegrino is a flexible tactician renowned for creating controlled teams that champion cohesiveness over individualism. Consequently, while the Southampton players are struggling to learn his methods there will be little room for creativity but plenty of teething problems - which helps to explain why they rank second in the league for unsuccessful touches (14.5 per match) and have failed to score in three of their four league matches. Fortunately, a tightly synchronised defence will be Saints' most important attribute when they visit Selhurst Park on Saturday.

Roy Hodgson, ever the pragmatist, will reinstate an Allardyce-esque direct, counter-attacking brand of football that revolves around launching long balls to Christian Benteke, who will either release Andros Townsend with a flick-on or cause enough trouble to ensure the ball sticks. Success for the hosts depends upon Yohan Cabaye and Townsend picking up the second balls around the Belgian.

It should come as no surprise that Southampton's standout performer so far this season is Oriol Romeu, an intelligent footballer whose positional expertise makes him naturally attuned to Pellegrino's methods. Romeu must either win his aerial duels with Benteke or, if this task is left to the centre-backs, ensure he collects the loose balls before Palace can pounce. His ability to control the defensive midfield zone could settle this one, but on Hodgson's debut the brute force of Benteke should be too much for him.

Recommended Bet
Back Palace to win at 2/1

Liverpool v Burnley

Oxlade-Chamberlain & Can v Burnley's defensive line
Saturday, 15:00

Liverpool often appear stilted when asked to create goalscoring opportunities against deep-lying opponents, and with Sadio Mane absent through suspension Liverpool fans may fear a repeat of last season's 2-0 defeat at Turf Moor. Burnley's instinct to stand off their opponents - they are in the bottom five for tackles and interceptions this season despite averaging 45% possession - is the perfect tactic to nullify a Liverpool team that lacks attackers who are willing to make runs in behind.

Mohamed Salah is arguably the only player who will do this on Saturday because Mane's replacement, Daniel Sturridge, likes to come short and drift out to the left. Burnley should find it fairly easy to keep a clean sheet, then, as Liverpool's midfielders and forwards repeatedly play the ball back and forth in front of that deep and compact 4-5-1.

To avoid frustration, Liverpool need to clip passes into the box from in front of the back four; a difficult task that will require excellent distribution from Emre Can and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to find the arcing runs of Salah. Only this action will make Burnley fearful and pull them out of position, but with just one target it is more likely Liverpool will huff and puff to no avail.

Recommended Bet
Back double chance Burnley/draw at 3/1

Chelsea v Arsenal

Fabregas v Xhaka & Ramsey
Sunday, 13:30, Live on Sky Sports 1

Antonio Conte versus Arsene Wenger is a serious mismatch. The Chelsea boss will use his tactical expertise to expose his opponent's weaknesses, while Arsenal's manager will fail to anticipate any such thinking and use the same strategy as he always does. The result should be Cesc Fabregas dominating from attacking midfield as Chelsea lure the Gunners into their trap.

Arsenal are at their most vulnerable when confronted with an early press, which often causes their central midfielders to roam frantically around the pitch, in turn exposing the back three and leading to complete tactical confusion. Chelsea's N'Golo Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko will get in their opponents faces early on, but - crucially - Chelsea will not try and pin Arsenal back. Instead, they will play quick vertical passes (rather than recycle possession to allow Wenger's team to gradually retreat) and will only press in the middle third and beyond, which will invite the Arsenal team to play expansively.

This should allow them to weaken Arsenal's resolve while surreptitiously encouraging that infamous gap to open up between Granit Xhaka/Aaron Ramsey and the back three. When this happens, look out for Cesc Fabregas suddenly moving into the number ten position - where he will find plenty of space to weave his magic.

Recommended Bet
Back Chelsea to win at 4/5

Manchester United v Everton

Lukaku v Williams
Sunday, 16:00, Live on Sky Sports 1

Everton's lacklustre recent performances against Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea, who used very different methods in their respective victories, make the hosts firm favourites here. Paul Pogba's injury means United will struggle to find fluency through the middle of the pitch, and so it is Spurs' model that Jose Mourinho will look to follow.

Everton's natural narrowness led Spurs to attempt 17 crosses last weekend, and all three of their goals came from whipped balls into the box. United will undoubtedly try something similar as Antonio Valencia ventures forward on the right and Henrikh Mkhitaryan floats out wide. The mere sight of Idrissa Gueye and Morgan Schneiderlin will probably keep the Armenian, and whoever partners him, out of that zone.

Mourinho has been instructing his players to do this all season; United have attempted more crosses (27 per match) than any other Premier League team this season. As the hosts launch countless balls into the penalty area, Romelu Lukaku's individual dual with Ashley Williams will become the defining feature at Old Trafford. Over 90 minutes, and having been constantly fed, the Belgian will surely come out on top.

Recommended Bet
Back Lukaku to score two or more at 4/1

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