Thore Haugstad picks out four key points from the weekend’s action, as new bosses continue to make the season kick-off interesting
Certain trends are already emerging after the second weekend of the Premier League season. A Paul Pogba-inspired Manchester United continued to show defensive strength under Jose Mourinho, while crosstown rivals Manchester City retained the unconventional 4-1-4-1 system conceived by Pep Guardiola.
1. Conte’s 4-2-4 wins it again
In pre-season, Conte appeared to contemplate whether to use 4-2-4 or 4-3-3. The Italian led Siena to Serie A with the former in 2011, and would have used it at Juventus too had his midfielders fitted the system.
Given that seven of Chelsea’s 13 attempts took place inside the final 17 minutes, Conte might want to use his favourite system from the start next time
The first weeks at Chelsea were no exception. But in the final friendly games, he switched to 4-3-3 and subsequently kept it for the first two league games. One can understand why: out of the central midfielders, only N’Golo Kante has the mobility to play in a hard-working midfield duo.
Despite such worries, however, Conte must surely be tempted to shelve the 4-3-3 by now. On the opening weekend against West Ham, the result was 1-1 when he introduced Michy Batshuayi for Oscar with five minutes left. The £33 million summer signing duly knocked down a long ball to Diego Costa, who fired home the winner to finish off a classic two-striker move.
At Watford on Saturday, a frustrated Chelsea side were 1-0 down on 73 minutes when Conte made the same switch. Given that Victor Moses had come on for Pedro two minutes earlier, Chelsea now had Moses and Hazard stretching play, plus two strikers in the box. Six minutes later, Hazard fired a shot, and Batshuayi was at hand to convert the rebound. Three minutes from full-time, Fabregas, another substitute, played a sumptuous through-ball for Costa who scored the winner.
The improvements were as dramatic as the turnaround itself. Even after the second goal, Batshuayi rattled the crossbar. Given that seven of Chelsea’s 13 attempts took place inside the final 17 minutes, Conte might want to use his favourite system from the start next time.
2. Role reversal at the Britannia
A Manchester City side expected to waltz through the Stoke defence actually relied on two set-pieces to go 2-0 up
The doubt harboured by Andy Gray about whether Lionel Messi could cut it on a cold night at Stoke has long become a symbol of the sometimes-brutal culture clash foreigners face in the Premier League. It now applies not just to Messi but all silky yet seemingly fragile players, as well as more elaborate styles of play. Chief of those styles is the Barcelona philosophy, and so Pep Guardiola’s visit to Stoke was billed as an intriguing test.
Yet there was one flaw with that portrayal: Gray’s quote had come in 2010, when Stoke really were horrible to face. Tony Pulis had made them superbly organised, physical and strong at set-pieces. Their transformation into a more attractive side under Mark Hughes has since been well documented, but it did them no favours here.
In fact, in some ways, the roles were reversed. A Manchester City side expected to waltz through the Stoke defence actually relied on two set-pieces to go 2-0 up: the penalty converted by Sergio Aguero was committed at a corner and, soon after, the tiny Argentine was allowed to head in a free-kick. Had that happened under Pulis, you’d suspect the squad would have been fined.
Manchester City didn’t offer a great deal from open play until the very end, when substitute Nolito scored twice to capitalise on Stoke’s desperation for a goal. Given that they also needed a penalty and an own goal to beat Sunderland at home a week earlier, one might conclude that Guardiola’s men have more room for improvement in the final third than results have suggested.
3. Pogba given attacking role
Amid Pogba’s return to United, one of the worries has been his new role. Mourinho has settled on a 4-2-3-1 system with Wayne Rooney behind the striker, which leaves only a double pivot role for the Frenchman – the exact position in which he struggled for France at the Euros. By contrast, he shone at Juventus as part of a midfield trio, in which an anchorman gave him licence to shoot, dribble and set up goals near the box.
On Friday, his debut allayed such fears. He did play deep next to Marouane Fellaini, but surged forward to dictate attacks and find solutions in the final third. At 2-0, when Southampton were forced further forward, he became even better, using the vast ceded spaces to skip past defenders. All in all he recorded four attempts at goal and completed nine out of 14 attempted dribbles – three times as many as anyone else on the pitch. Considering he wasn’t even fully fit, United could hardly have asked for a more promising (re)introduction.
4. Arsenal miss a proper striker
As their title rivals won, Arsenal drew 0-0 at Leicester to fall five points behind the leaders. One positive was how the returning Laurent Koscielny tightened the back line, but the absences further forward – Mesut Ozil, Olivier Giroud – were easy to notice. Particularly, Giroud would have been handy. Alexis Sanchez has now played two games as a makeshift lone striker without being involved in a single goal.
Whereas Arsenal put three past Liverpool despite Sanchez’s struggles, they produced few clear-cut chances here. Opportunities included an effort wide from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, a Santi Cazorla free-kick that went close and a weak finish from Theo Walcott – but for all that, only one shot hit the target from inside the box.
Sanchez offered little beyond some link-up play in wide areas and two shots; one blocked, another saved. Most fans will surely now hope Giroud returns to the starting line-up next weekend. The most optimistic ones might hope for a new striker too.