There were contrasting fortunes for the Italian managers on a weekend where Chelsea and Manchester United lost ground on Manchester City and Arsenal. Many were surprised when Antonio Conte left it until the 84th minute to make substitutions in the home defeat to Liverpool, whereas Walter Mazzarri tweaked his defensive shape to stop United.
Elsewhere, Pep Guardiola used transitions and counter-attacks to make it five wins out of five in the league, while Ronald Koeman continued to tighten up the Everton defence.
1. Man City prevail through transitions and counter-pressing
Guardiola praised the way in which his players had worked without the ball
Guardiola has long been associated with possession football and elaborate passing, but the attacks that handed Manchester City their 4-0 win over Bournemouth did not feature many moves. The hosts actually struggled to break down the Cherries in established play, at least initially, encountering a tight 4-5-1 shape that put space in the final third at a premium. Only when the visitors tried to pass their way out and lost the ball did City create their best chances.
This is a cornerstone in the Guardiola method that is often overlooked and the Catalan tactician later praised the way in which his players had worked without the ball. They took the lead on 15 minutes when Fernandinho moved up to tackle Jack Wilshere on 20 yards. A lacklustre Wilshere responded by barging into Nolito and conceding a dangerous free-kick, which Kevin De Bruyne sent under the wall and into the net. Only a few minutes later, City won the ball 40 yards upfield to launch another transition that culminated in De Bruyne playing in Nolito for a poor miss.
When City added their second, it came from a pure counter-attack. They cleared a free-kick deep inside their own half and launched a blitzing move that saw De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Kelechi Iheanacho outplay a backtracking defence. Also for the third, in the 48th minute, the build-up was direct: a long punt by Nolito reached De Bruyne, who quickly played in Iheanacho, who again found Sterling. By that point City had made numerous tackles and ball recoveries in advanced positions.
2. Conte leaves his Plan B unused
Chelsea were resorting to long balls, and it was precisely one of these that Batshuayi had knocked down for Costa when the Brazil-born forward scored the winner against West Ham
There was a point in Chelsea’s 2-1 defeat on Friday when many expected the 4-2-4 to be wheeled out once more. The Blues had not played well but nonetheless scored through Diego Costa in the 61st minute and were pushing for another late goal, having secured dramatic wins against West Ham and Watford earlier this season.
But Conte didn’t make a single substitution until six minutes remained. By that stage Chelsea had created few clear chances, and little about that would change as Liverpool ran out winners.
One notable tweak Conte did make was to move Oscar closer to Costa, who had lacked service in the first half. But the striker received only six passes in the 28 minutes after his goal, and though Oscar did nod down a long ball to set up his only effort within that period, it would surely have been better to have the powerful presence of Michy Batshuayi next to him. Chelsea were resorting to long balls, and it was precisely one of these that Batshuayi had knocked down for Costa when the Brazil-born forward scored the winner against West Ham.
Batshuayi also hit the first of two late goals at Watford the week after, at which point it was worth considering whether Conte would stick to the 4-2-4 as a permanent solution. That the system was not even used on this occasion seemed, on the face of it, an odd decision.
3. Ighalo’s wide role fortifies Hornets
Mazzarri has long been known for his 3-5-2 system, but that does not preclude formational tweaks. Facing Manchester United at home, the former Napoli boss assigned Odion Ighalo a wide left role when Watford were defending and thus split up his two-striker partnership.
This is not a necessity when using this system – recall how Conte’s Italy successfully alternated between a 4-4-2 and 5-3-2 shape at the Euros – but Mazzarri evidently felt the defence needed more support against such a strong opponent. His judgement proved to be shrewd: Watford were able to switch between a 4-5-1 and 5-4-1 without being outnumbered in key areas, with Ighalo as a makeshift winger designed to help stop Antonio Valencia.
United did have some chances – Paul Pogba hit the crossbar, Zlatan Ibrahimovic should have converted an angled finish – but far from as many as Jose Mourinho would have wanted. Only after the Portuguese had replaced Valencia with Juan Mata on 61 minutes did the visitors reply to Etienne Capoue’s opener, but Watford kept the score at 1-1 until substitute Juan Camilo Zuniga struck seven minutes from full time. When Troy Deeney hammered home a stoppage-time penalty, it capped a triumph to savour for Mazzarri.
4. Settled defence underpins Everton win
Everton have been forced to improvise a little under Koeman – they have used a 3-5-2 and deployed a number of defenders – but the project now seems more settled. The system has changed to 4-2-3-1 and both Ashley Williams and Seamus Coleman have slotted into the backline next to Leighton Baines and Phil Jagielka. With Gareth Barry and Idrissa Gueye just ahead, the set-up looks more durable than that of Roberto Martinez.
The 3-1 win over Middlesbrough on Saturday would have been their third consecutive clean sheet in the league had the officials spotted a blatant foul by Alvaro Negredo on Maarten Stekelenburg that saw the Toffees go 1-0 down. The hosts struck back quickly anyway, and Boro ended the game without a shot on goal. In fact, only one of Boro’s efforts came from within the box.
The Everton display followed a 1-0 win over Stoke and 3-0 win over Sunderland, and though such opposition may be described as modest, they already look strengthened under Koeman.