The title favourites all won on the third weekend of the Premier League season, though they did so in various ways.
Chelsea steamrolled Burnley while Arsenal took their first three points thanks to Alexis Sanchez figuring out the false nine role at Watford. Manchester United sank Hull with smart substitutions, Tottenham’s defenders secured a draw with Liverpool and Manchester City pierced West Ham’s five-man defence...
1. Defenders rescue stuttering Spurs
On a day when the forwards disappointed, Tottenham were bailed out by their back four. A dynamic Liverpool side were unlucky not to be 2-0 up on the hour mark at White Hart Lane. Mauricio Pochettino had introduced Vincent Janssen alongside Harry Kane after Kyle Walker had gone off ill on 28 minutes, but even with two strikers plus Dele Alli on the pitch, the hosts created little.
Rarely have Spurs looked so tame up front. Kane and Alli rarely got near the box, and Kane completed only six out of 19 attempted passes in his deeper role. To say the forwards were misfiring would be wrong, because they didn’t fire at all: Kane and Janssen recorded no attempts whatsoever; Alli had one blocked and another sliced wide with his left foot.
Then the defenders stepped up. As Liverpool dropped deeper, Spurs pushed forward full-backs Danny Rose and Eric Dier, the latter having filled in for Walker. Particularly crucial was the link between Toby Alderweireld and Dier down the right: the Belgian stopper found Dier nine times, often in advanced positions. One pass set up a cross that Christian Eriksen fired over; another was a lofted ball that led to the cross from which Rose scored, via a flick from Erik Lamela. Three defenders had a hand in the equaliser.
On separate occasions, Alderweireld went close from two set-pieces and produced a last-ditch tackle to deny Liverpool a late winner. Pochettino, a former centre-back, could hardly have wanted more from his all-action back four.
2. Wenger gets Alexis firing
Sanchez had little luck in the first two weeks as Arsenal’s false nine. Filling in for Olivier Giroud, who lacked match fitness, the Chilean was not involved in a single goal despite Arsenal putting three past Liverpool, and the position didn’t really seem to suit him.
At Watford, Arsene Wenger appeared to play him a bit wider, even if designated left winger Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain took up similar positions. One reason might have been that Watford played a muscular back three of Younes Kaboul, Sebastian Prodl and Christian Kabasele; rather than getting kicked out of the game, Sanchez could attack the box at pace from deeper areas.
Whatever the thinking was, it worked. The return of Mesut Ozil also helped. On an early occasion, when the German playmaker got the ball, Oxlade-Chamberlain drifted inside to occupy Kaboul, the right-sided centre-back, while Sanchez snuck behind in customary fashion. The job to track him went to right-wing-back Nordin Amrabat, who fouled him to commit a penalty scored by Santi Cazorla.
The chances kept coming – and most involved Sanchez on the left. He slipped a pass to Cazorla, who nearly scored. He played a one-two with Ozil to test Heurelho Gomes. He sprinted into the box to convert Theo Walcott’s cross. When he reappeared on the left to swing in a delivery that Ozil steered past Gomes, Arsenal were three up and in firm control.
3. Mourinho uses bench to full effect
Before the weekend, Jose Mourinho explained he had not used Marcus Rashford in the league because United were yet to chase a late goal. That changed at Hull, when the hosts had defended heroically for an hour at 0-0. Forced into action, Mourinho removed Anthony Martial and Juan Mata for Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Rashford.
The dynamics changed. Wayne Rooney went out to the left wing, Mkhitaryan out right and Rashford up front with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as 4-2-3-1 became 4-4-2. The substitutes both added something: Mkhitaryan had four attempts and one surging run down the middle, whereas the fleet-footed Rashford troubled backtracking defenders and nearly placed a finish into the far corner. United recorded 15 attempts in the final 30 minutes, having mustered 14 in the first hour.
In stoppage time, Rooney dribbled down the left to set up Rashford’s winner. Some had felt Rooney had been lucky not to get subbed, given his poor showing until then, and Mourinho later said he would have had no problem doing so. “But I was just reading the game,” the tactician added, “and feeling that playing with the two strikers, Marcus and Zlatan, I needed Mkhitaryan and Rooney just inside because the full-backs were the ones playing really wide on the touchline.”
He got that one right.
4. Bilic tries a back five
At City, Slaven Bilic experimented with a back five to repel Pep Guardiola’s formidable attack. It could have looked like 3-5-2 on paper, but West Ham dropped down the wing-backs and pulled Enner Valencia into midfield to make it 5-4-1. With City playing 4-1-4-1, the idea might have been to let the two outside centre-backs close down central midfielders David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne whenever they surged forward. But the two playmakers instead found lots of space between the lines and ended up running the game.
Silva shone in particular. He wriggled free to run at the defence for the opener, and was also involved when De Bruyne, who delivered the free-kick for Fernandinho’s 2-0 header, side-footed a deflected shot off target. Perhaps the Hammers would have struggled no matter what system Bilic had chosen, so good were City. Either way, by the time Bilic reverted to a back four to chase a second equaliser, the hosts should have been out of sight. As it was, Silva popped up to assist Raheem Sterling for 3-1 late on.
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