Arsenal and Tottenham won't challenge for the title – Tactical lessons from the Premier League weekend

The north London rivals played out an absorbing but chaotic 2-2 draw at the Emirates on Sunday that exposed both sides’ issues at full-back

The Premier League is already taking a predictable and familiar shape, with Liverpool and Manchester City leading the way going into the international break, after routine wins last weekend.

As the latest round of action underlined, the top two’s supposed title rivals have been left with plenty to ponder over the next fortnight.

However, Everton, at least, have grounds for optimism, as they might just have the signing of the season on their books…

1) Full-backs show why Arsenal & Spurs won’t challenge for title

Arsenal played Pierre-Emerick Aubayemang, Nicolas Pepe, and Alexandre Lacazette together with a workmanlike trio of midfielders behind in a 4-3-3 shape, closely resembling the tactical approach of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. However, Arsenal’s Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Sead Kolasinac are not good enough for this system to work fluently.

Liverpool’s front three tuck infield, drawing the defence narrow for overlapping full-backs to find space, whereas Arsenal’s full-backs were unable to capitalise when a similar tactical pattern developed on Sunday.
Neither Maitland-Niles nor Kolasinac shone, forcing the hosts to frequently attempt to funnel through a crowded central column. At the other end, they struggled to defend against Son Heung-Min and were regularly outpaced on the counter-attack.

Tottenham’s full-backs were no better. Davinson Sanchez was completely out of his depth and Danny Rose looks a shadow of his former self, repeatedly beaten by Pepe.

In the modern game full-backs are vital to attacks, their width an antidote to congested central midfields. Arsenal and Spurs badly lack quality here, explaining why neither can come close to Man City or Liverpool this season.

2) Azpilicueta & Chelsea exposed by Sheffield United’s 3-5-2

A sluggish start for Sheffield United – Chris Wilder’s men nervously backed off, and suffered from stilted touches in midfield – allowed Chelsea to ease into a 2-0 lead at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.

But once the visitors settled down, they were able to expose now-familiar tactical problems in Frank Lampard’s side. Sheffield United’s 3-5-2 was the ideal formation to overwork Chelsea’s midfield and target their weakest defender, Cesar Azpilicueta.

Chelsea’s expansive shape has left gaping holes in central midfield all season, and particularly in the second half, when frantic pressing has left the likes of Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho too tired to keep up with the play.

With Mason Mount inevitably pushing high up the pitch against United, the visitors’ three-man midfield overwhelmed the hosts, gradually leading to a dominance of the play.

Wilder targeted Azpilicueta’s side, Enda Stevens attacking aggressively along with Jack O’Connell. Both goals came from Azpilicueta mistakes, the Spaniard evidently confused by the overlapping centre-back O’Connell creating a two-on-one against him.

United deserve credit for not sitting deep at Stamford Bridge, bravely pushing the centre-backs forward and, via long balls into the channels, putting the error-prone Azpilicueta under pressure.

3) Southampton should have beaten average Man Utd

If it had not been for Southampton’s ill-advised attempts to press high in the first 15 minutes at St. Mary’s, they would have defeated Manchester United in the Saturday lunchtime kick-off.

Premier League matches almost always begin frantically – a high press deployed by both sides until the match finally settles into a pattern – but after Crystal Palace’s win at Old Trafford last weekend, the Saints should have held off on their usual approach.

By pressing high, they exposed themselves to the pace of the Man Utd counter-attack. Their four-man midfield was bypassed on several occasions to reveal a rapidly-retreating back four that was elongating the pitch for Juan Mata, Daniel James, and Marcus Rashford to comfortably roam in the No.10 space. United’s goal was the result of a simple pass taking out half the Saints team, forcing the hosts’ defence to back off James as he fired into the top corner.

Lesson learned, Southampton dropped into a rigid 4-4-2 that limited space for the visitors’ pacey front line – finally copying the Palace template. From here, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was largely stumped and Southampton deservedly won a point, even if Paul Pogba eventually began to dictate the tempo once moved into the No.10 role.

The normal rules don’t apply when facing Solskjaer’s side. Deny United space from the outset, and they look distinctly average.

4) Norwich won’t beat the drop unless they change away approach

Pundits were full of praise for Norwich’s positivity at Anfield on the opening day of the season despite ultimately falling to a heavy defeat. The theory going that if you’re to lose anyway, you may as well go down swinging.

However, the Canaries’ 2-0 loss at West Ham cannot be interpreted the same way. Daniel Farke’s side need points on their travels; to collect some, they will need to change their approach.

Plenty of Premier League clubs prefer to play on the counter-attack, meaning the likes of Crystal Palace, Wolves, and West Ham – to name but three – often find away matches easier to win.

Norwich’s boldness, then, leaves them far too vulnerable, playing into the hands of their hosts. It might feel good to hold the majority of possession at the London Stadium, but it is a naive approach.

West Ham continually countered down the flanks, taking advantage of the wide-open Norwich formation to devastating effect, with the opening goal an excellent case in point. Andriy Yarmolenko and Felipe Anderson eased through the Norwich defence, offering the hosts the kind of breakaway move they are usually denied on home soil.

Norwich must adopt a more conservative, compact approach in away matches if they are to beat the drop.

5) Delph could prove signing of the season

After witnessing a dreadful performance from his midfielders against Aston Villa last weekend, Everton manager Marco Silva brought Fabien Delph into the fold on Sunday and the Toffees were transformed.

The former Villa man was superb both on the ball and off it, his athleticism in making recovery tackles and intelligence in possession ensuring the hosts controlled Wolves. Delph even provided Andre Gomes with the confidence to improve his performance level.

Delph made more tackles (four), interceptions (three), and passes (62) than any other player on the pitch, remarkably making Everton’s two-man midfield look like it had the numerical advantage over Wolves’ three.

Everton held 59 per cent possession, and while the goals largely came through Lucas Digne – either making errors against Adam Traore or crossing at the other end – it was Delph’s control of midfield that gave the hosts the confidence to twice retake the lead.

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Picked up for around £10 million ($12m) from Man City, Delph could prove to be the signing of the season.

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