The weekend action served a reminder of the many interpretations of defending in football. Antonio Conte set up Chelsea in a cautious 3-4-2-1 system that repelled Hull in a 2-0 win; at White Hart Lane, Tottenham pressed Manchester City into errors, while Sean Dyche’s rearguard approach long frustrated Arsenal at Turf Moor.
Struggling Stoke did not defend at all at times, but still left Old Trafford with a point thanks to Paul Pogba squandering chances.
1. Conte’s back three plugs the leak
As a former Juventus coach whose defence conceded 0.59 goals per game over three league seasons, Conte must have been left disgusted by the defending in the 2-1 defeat to Liverpool and 3-0 debacle at Arsenal. The solution he had vowed to find turned out to be a return to the back three used with Juve and the Italian national team. But instead of replicating the 3-5-2, Conte deployed two central midfielders and two playmakers behind a lone striker.
That meant a 3-4-2-1 which became 5-4-1 without the ball, with widemen Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses practically attacking as wingers and defending as full-backs. The presence of an extra centre-back steadied David Luiz and Gary Cahill, and it also helped that Cesar Azpilicueta replaced Branislav Ivanovic. Provided with added protection from Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante, who made 13 ball recoveries, Chelsea largely limited Hull to long shots and free-kicks: the hosts didn’t have a single unblocked shot from within 20 yards of goal.
On the flip side, Chelsea were tame for long spells and went in at half-time without an attempt on target. Their first big chance came from a disastrous pass from Jake Livermore, and it was another misplaced delivery that started the move from which Willian curled in the opener. No matter though. This time, the defence was top priority. “We can play with three at the back or four, it depends on the game, but I think this is a good way,” Conte said. “Today I’m very happy because we finished with a clean sheet after conceding two and three goals in our last games.”
2. Spurs pressing overwhelms Man City
Considering Mauricio Pochettino instructed his Espanyol side to press Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona when the two met back in La Liga, the Argentine was never going to veer from his approach when facing a nascent City project. The Spurs boss unleashed his players at City like a pack of wolves, having stuffed his midfield with the energy of Erik Lamela, Christian Eriksen, Moussa Sissoko, Dele Alli and Victor Wanyama.
Guardiola surprised by including Fernando alongside Fernandinho and David Silva, which was hardly going to help City pass their way past the fervent pressing. With Kevin De Bruyne out injured, Spurs managed to disrupt their build-up play and cut off the supply line to Sergio Aguero. The opener came after Wanyama had tackled Fernandinho inside the City half, enabling Danny Rose to produce a cross converted unwittingly by Aleksandar Kolarov.
Indeed, so aggressive were Spurs that they committed 20 fouls – twice as many as City – and, even after Alli had added a second goal, the visitors kept struggling to play their way out. City did not find their rhythm until the last 20 minutes, by which time it was too late.
3. Pogba retains adventurous role
There is a saying that strikers needn’t worry about missed shots as long as they keep getting the chances. That might have been scant consolation for Jose Mourinho after the 1-1 draw at home to Stoke, but at least Pogba demonstrated the kind of appetite that led him to score 23 goals in his last three Serie A campaigns for Juventus.
Whether by instinct or design, Pogba seems more dangerous in each game. Particularly in the two most recent league fixtures, in which Ander Herrera and Juan Mata have started alongside him in midfield, the Frenchman has spent a lot of time lurking outside the box and attacking it when opportunity allowed. Among the many chances United missed on Sunday, Pogba got the best ones: he ran onto Jesse Lingard’s through ball only to fire wide, steered a corner just off target and planted a headed effort onto the crossbar in stoppage time.
Four of the five passes he received inside the box resulted in attempts at goal. Adding to that, he set up four attempts for others, including one that Zlatan Ibrahimovic should have buried. Ironically, Pogba’s only goal involvement so far has come irrespective of positioning – a header from a corner against Leicester – but if he maintains his current rate of 3.5 attempts and 1.8 key passes per game, it will take scandalous wastefulness for him not to add to his tally soon.
4. Defeated Dyche outsmarts Wenger
For those who were yet to see Burnley this season, it won’t have taken much of their game on Sunday to realise how they beat Liverpool by having 20 per cent possession. Facing an in-form Arsenal side, their manager Dyche used a defensive 4-5-1 system in which nine players formed a solid block just outside the box. Only lone striker Sam Vokes was not positioned 20 yards away from his own goal.
Though Arsenal had half-chances, Burnley managed to condense space and block shots and crosses. So deep did the Clarets defend that you wonder whether Dyche has been studying videos of Atletico Madrid stopping the big teams. At the start of stoppage time, Arsenal had only recorded two shots on target; the rest had been blocked or fired wide. This was not down to roughhouse tactics either: Burnley committed one foul inside their own half all game.
If anything, Burnley could have nicked it through dangerous headers from Vokes and Michael Keane. Yet as it was, Laurent Koscielny’s unseen handball gave Arsenal the winner in stoppage time. “They defended very well, they were very well organised in a very intelligent way,” said Arsene Wenger, who could only be grateful for such a present on his 20th anniversary.