Premier League Tactical Preview: Mahrez v Kirchhoff 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 Alex Iwobi is the key to unlocking West Ham's stubborn defence and how Danny Rose can hurt Man United...
"Iwobi and Welbeck have begun to forge an excellent understanding on Arsenal's left thanks to their quick feet and acute tactical intelligence; both players are excellent at navigating intricate spaces, as exemplified by their neat build-up play down the left against Watford."
West Ham's suffocating shape v Iwobi & Welbeck
Saturday, 12:45, Live on BT Sport 1
The tactical pattern of this game should closely mimic the reverse fixture in August, when West Ham's narrow and tightly compressed defensive unit suffocated Arsenal's attackers in a famous 2-0 victory for the visitors. The Hammers' subsequent successes against Spurs, Man City, and Liverpool proved that this was no one off; Slaven Bilic's defensive coaching deserves detailed analysis ahead of this one, where the exciting new partnership of Danny Welbeck and Alex Iwobi will be tasked with twisting and gliding through the claret and blue shirts.
West Ham have averaged 38.5% possession from their four victories against fellow top seven sides, a statistic that reflects their patience and defensive resolve. Bilic instructs his players to press aggressively in their own half, playing in a compact shell that minimises space between the defence and attack; it is a highly organised approach reminiscent of Atletico's famous system, focusing on cutting off passing lines and forcing the opponent into harmless wide areas. Arsenal, who build towards goal with short passing and rarely enjoy exploiting the flanks, should struggle to create chances - just as they did in August.
However, there is one key difference between that match and Saturday's meeting. Iwobi and Welbeck have begun to forge an excellent understanding on Arsenal's left thanks to their quick feet and acute tactical intelligence; both players are excellent at navigating intricate spaces, as exemplified by their neat build-up play down the left against Watford. Coupled with their agile dribbling, both of these players are perfectly suited to pierce West Ham's armour.
Back Alex Iwobi to score any time at 12/5
Danny Rose v United's bizarrely lopsided formation
Sunday, 16:00, Live on Sky Sports 1
As the title race and relegation battle take precedence in the final months of the season the media have drifted away from the identity crisis at Manchester United, but a run of five goals in seven games and some inexplicable tactical choices deserves our attention. With Jesse Lingard playing in central midfield United look sloppy down their right flank - where Danny Rose and Christian Eriksen have been so dangerous of late.
Back-to-back clean sheets have papered over the cracks at Old Trafford but neither Everton nor Manchester City played particularly well in those two games. But against Liverpool in the Europa League - a team whose aggressive pressing and quick transitions in the final third closely mimic Tottenham's tactics - they were easily ruffled. In the second leg Philippe Coutinho scored a counter-attacking goal down United's right thanks to Van Gaal's bizarrely left-focused attacks (41%, highest in division). Lingard looked uncomfortable in an unusual attacking midfield spot and Juan Mata naturally drifted into the centre from right wing, leaving United under-staffed on Coutinho's flank.
This will most likely happen again at White Hart Lane. Rose has been in exceptional form this season having been given licence to attack freely down the left. He combined menacingly with Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen against Liverpool, and should find plenty of space in the final third against United - whose full-backs will be forced inside due to Spurs' narrow attacking midfielders. It will be a congested match with few clear cut chances, but when Spurs win the ball in the United half and look for a quick counter-attack Rose will be relatively unopposed as he hurtles down the wing.
Back Spurs to win at 10/11
Kirchhoff v Mahrez
Sunday, 13:30, Live on Sky Sports 1
Sam Allardyce is a tactically astute manager and never afraid to show the opposition respect; Sunderland will sit deep and invite the league leaders onto them this weekend in an attempt to stifle Leicester's preferred tactical system. Claudio Ranieri will thus be relying upon the trickery of Riyad Mahrez to break down a stubborn defensive block that has conceded just two goals in their last three games - thanks largely to the superb work of Jan Kirchhoff.
Kirchhoff already averages more tackles (3.8) and interceptions (2.6) than any of his team-mates and has dominated central midfield ever since joining the club in January. His eight tackles against Newcastle stunted Andros Townsend as he tried to cut inside from the right (like Mahrez), whilst his five interceptions and eight clearances at Southampton prevented Sadio Mane and Steven Davis from having much impact. Combining his intelligent reading of the game with elegant distribution to the wings, Kirchhoff is the key to Sunderland's fight against relegation.
As Sunderland retreat into a narrow 4-5-1 shape on Saturday, Leicester will struggle to break through the lines whilst Marc Albrighton's crossing, usually such an invaluable outlet, will be mostly ineffective against Sunderland's giant defenders. As Mahrez cuts inside, look out for Kirchhoff moving across to shut out the space; their head-to-head will be a fascinating - and ultimately vital - tactical battle.
Back the draw at 11/5
Palace crosses v Klose
Given that a Norwich victory will draw them level on points with Crystal Palace expect a cagey, scrappy, and ultimately tight relegation six pointer at Selhurst Park. Both of these teams specialise from set-pieces and crossing into the box, making Timm Klose the most important player on the pitch.
Palace attempt more crosses than any other team (26 per game) and 50% of all of their goals this season have come from set-pieces (including four of their last five). Since Yannick Bolasie's form continues to stutter this is quickly becoming their only route to goal; Timm Klose, a player who has helped Norwich win seven points from their last three matches with an incredible 43 clearances, will undoubtedly define Palace's success in this match.
He may just hold the key at the other end as well. His headed goal against Newcastle was Norwich fans' first glimpse at his aerial prowess (4.2 won per match, most in the squad) and given Robbie Brady's phenomenal dead ball ability these two could form a valuable partnership across the last few weeks of the season. Set-pieces - at both ends - are likely to settle this one.
Back under 2.5 goals at 4/6