Newcastle United‘s 1-0 victory over Manchester United has catapulted Rafa Benitez’s side up the table and heaped pressure onto West Bromwich Albion, Southampton, and Crystal Palace, all of which lost their games this weekend.
Here are three things we learned from the weekend action:
1) Excellent Diame & Shelvey suggest Newcastle’s difficult run-in is a blessing in disguise
Another timid Man Utd performance grabbed the headlines amid growing concerns Jose Mourinho is ill-suited to a job of such magnitude, but Newcastle’s defensive performance – led by Mohamed Diame and Jonjo Shelvey – should not be overlooked. Their low block and defensive organisation typified Rafa Benitez’s tactical coaching, pointing to a strong final 11 games for the Magpies.
Between them Diame and Shelvey completed 94 passes, created five chances, won six tackles and made six interceptions. They remained close together to create a compact midfield that Paul Pogba was unable to penetrate, displaying a calmness on the ball and positional intelligence off it to outclass Mourinho’s side.
Diame’s and Shelvey’s performances perfectly exemplified why Benitez’s side are better when facing strong opposition. His Championship-quality team struggle when forced to confront the opposition and become more expansive, but with Newcastle sitting deep and playing unapologetically defensive football the roles of both players are simplified (and the area they had to cover is smaller). Consequently, the difficulty of Newcastle’s run-in (they are still to play Liverpool, Spurs, Chelsea, and Arsenal) makes survival more likely, not less.
2) Tottenham’s second-half crossing highlights Pochettino’s in-game tactical tweaks
Tottenham Hotspur struggled to break down a surprisingly defensive Arsenal on Saturday afternoon as Arsene Wenger packed the midfield with bodies and instructed his players to back off. Mauricio Pochettino tends to filter attacks through the centre of the pitch regardless of the opposition, and so the Gunners’ three-man midfield – led by Mohamed Elneny, who sat between the two lines – frustrated the visitors throughout the opening 45 minutes.
Pochettino made a vital switch in the second half to combat this problem. Having noticed the space afforded to Spurs when 35 yards from goal, he instructed his players to start clipping early crosses into the box. The home side peppered Arsenal‘s goal, quickly scoring the winner via a Ben Davies ball from deep. Harry Kane should have added a second just a few minutes later when Kieran Tripper crossed from a similar angle.
This match was defined by Moussa Dembele’s outstanding performance from central midfield and the disconnection between Arsenal‘s front three, but the winning goal was the result of Pochettino’s tactical note, proving once again that he is among the best managers in Europe.
3) Mooy’s return leads to a revival of the August version of Huddersfield Town
David Wagner deserves great credit for dropping Aaron Mooy to the bench for last week’s visit to Old Trafford. The Australian seemed reinvigorated by this threat to his first-team place during Sunday’s 4-1 win over Bournemouth, running the show with Steve Mounie to help resuscitate the Terriers.
Ever since Huddersfield’s poor run of form began in mid-December they have gradually stopped pressing high, allowing their nervousness to erode the Wagner philosophy and becoming easy to break down as a result. Mooy’s return, coupled with excellent aggressive performances from Jonathan Hogg and Alex Pritchard, saw Huddersfield once again press high and show bravery in their approach.
Mooy’s crossing was particularly important. He found Mounie on four occasions, setting up the second goal and pushing Eddie Howe’s side back into their own third. The Australian was superb throughout, combining with Mounie just as he did on the opening day of the season when Huddersfield beat Crystal Palace 3-0.
Best of the Week – Kevin de Bruyne
Manchester City‘s 5-1 victory over Leicester City might be the first time in Premier League history that the scorer of four goals wasn’t the best player on the pitch. Sergio Aguero’s clinical finishing was certainly impressive, but the real star was Belgium’s Kevin de Bruyne.
His hat-trick of assists included two phenomenal low crosses that rank among the best passes of the 2017/18 season. If City fulfil their potential this season and finish with the treble De Bruyne will surely become the first player to break Cristiano Ronaldo‘s and Leo Messi’s duopoly of the Ballon d’Or.
Worst of the Week – Puel’s half-time formation change
Leicester City weren’t at their best in the first half of their match at the Etihad, but having entered the dressing room at 1-1 Claude Puel should not have made such a drastic tactical change at half time. He took off Adrien Silva and replaced him with Danny Simpson, moving from a 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2. Within nine minutes Man City had scored twice to put the game beyond Leicester’s reach.
Puel’s change took a body out of central midfield, which proved crucial as De Bruyne began to dominate between the lines. His one-two with Raheem Sterling before the second goal was a very simple move in which Matty James got caught in two minds as the England international shifted a couple of yards into the gap between defence and midfield. Had Leicester still been playing with three central midfielders, this goal – and several other chances after it – would not have happened.