Alex Keble assesses the tactical battles in the weekend's Premier League and FA Cup games, predicting Chelsea will end Man City's hopes of a quadruple...
"If Chelsea’s forwards can interact with the same high tempo, then long balls over the top can unlock a tight game, swinging it in Tuchel’s favour."
Chelsea v Manchester City
Live on BBC One
Thomas Tuchel has closely followed Pep Guardiola's tactical template for pandemic football; having arrived at Chelsea renowned for constantly tinkering with his tactics, Tuchel is repeatedly deploying the same formation that seeks to control these chaotic matches with slow possession football. With both Chelsea and Manchester City playing like this, the first FA Cup semi-final probably won't be very entertaining.
Neither manager will instruct his team to press, instead preferring a relatively tame approach that follows the pattern of 'Big Six' matches throughout this season. However, in Chelsea's 1-0 victory over Liverpool in March, Tuchel did change his tactics slightly in order to get behind Jurgen Klopp's high line, and he may repeat that strategy on Saturday. Chelsea consistently hit longer passes forward, taking a direct approach by looking for the runs of Timo Werner much earlier than usual.
Man City's defensive line could be similarly caught by this strategy, particularly if Kai Havertz picks up where he left off in the Crystal Palace match. If Chelsea's forwards can interact with the same high tempo, then long balls over the top can unlock a tight game, swinging it in Tuchel's favour.
Arsenal v Fulham
Live on Sky Sports Main Event
Arsenal were in scintillating form in the Europa League on Thursday night, and as usual it was the direct dribbling of their young forwards that defined the contest. Mikel Arteta continues to look a little lost, his tactics changing from game to game, and yet whenever Arsenal show up it is when these youngsters simply do their own thing - running straight at the heart of the opposition.
Fulham are highly vulnerable to this kind of direct football, mainly because Scott Parker's team is unusually porous between the lines. Their desire to play a possession game sees them expand high and wide, creating problems in the transitions when the opponent snatches the ball and rushes through the gaps.
Bukayo Saka, Nicolas Pepe, and Emile Smith Rowe can combine in these moments, improvising to find a way through Fulham without any particularly detailed instruction from the dugout. Fulham have lost three in a row and their heads have dropped. That is all the invitation Arsenal's creative players need to run straight through them.
Leicester City v Southampton
Live on BT Sport 1
Southampton looked hopeless in their 3-0 defeat to West Brom, a game characterised by unexpected lapses in concentration from the centre-backs and poor positional play from both full-backs. As we have seen throughout this season, when Ralph Hasenhuttl's side are in poor form they are capable of spectacular collapse, largely because an aggressive 4-4-2 becomes porous if the energy levels drop.
Leicester's 3-4-1-2 formation is the perfect system to exploit all the holes in Southampton's back four. Jamie Vardy and Kelechi Iheanacho, making runs on the outsides of the two centre-backs, will likely cause all sorts of damage and pull the Southampton back four out of position. If the West Brom forwards can do it, then no doubt Leicester's strikers can compound Saints' problems.
James Maddison's return only makes things more one sided. He will be eager to make amends following his Covid-19 protocol breach, and from the number 10 position will have two runners to pick out. With Southampton in poor form, and with the memories of a 9-0 defeat still relatively fresh, here is a chance for Vardy to finally start scoring again.
Leeds v Liverpool
Live on Sky Sports Main Event
The reverse fixture on the opening day of the season wasn't quite the game people remember. It might have finished 4-3 to Liverpool but it was actually very one-sided, with Leeds somehow scoring three goals from a 0.27 xG. Jurgen Klopp's side are far more vulnerable now, however, and their passive central midfield and attacking mentality will play into Leeds' hands.
Marcelo Bielsa only oversees chaotic games when the opponent allows themselves to be drawn in, which Liverpool will surely do. Their marauding full-backs will provide plenty of counter-attacking opportunities for in-form wingers Jack Harrison and Rafinha, and Leeds will not hesitate in playing long balls over the top of Liverpool's shaky defence in order to get these two into the game.
Leeds should easily get those long balls off, such is the meekness of the Liverpool press at the moment. They look passive through midfield, which will also allow the hosts to play their aggressive, vertical one-twos through the park. This will in turn ensure we have a genuine end-to-end game, and clearly there is enough firepower in the Liverpool front line to take advantage of the ensuing carnage. There will be plenty of goals.
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