Premier Analysis: It's all about the wings (and long balls)
As Michael Cox pointed out in this weekend's preview, Wolves would surely be put to the sword by Manchester United if they didn't improve at winning the ball back. As it turned out they did defend statistically much better than in the match against Sunderland, with 10 successful tackles and 16 interceptions. They also clocked up 49% possession Ã¢ÂÂ a healthy total for visitors to Old Trafford.
Yet the champions put them to the sword regardless, as they reacted to their midweek disappointment in style. Antonio Valencia returned at the weekend and displayed all the creativity lacking in Basel, as he generated five goalscoring chances and left the pitch with a hat-trick of assists. Wayne Rooney was similarly fired up, individually clocking up 10 shots, all of which were on target and two of which ended up in the back of the net.
Newcastle's early-season success has been built on the solid foundations of an unchanged back four, but this weekend saw the enforced replacement of Fabricio Coloccini and Steven Taylor. Norwich tested this new lineup to breaking point by sending in cross after cross towards Steve Morison and Grant Holt, and to their credit Newcastle were able to handle these crosses from open play very well.
However, set pieces were another matter and ultimately Newcastle's downfall as they conceded three goals from restarts Ã¢ÂÂ the first two from corners, the clinching fourth from a free-kick. All four goals were free headers (albeit the first was blocked on the line and ricocheted in), as Norwich players were consistently given free headers in the penalty area. It looks like Pardew has a lot of work to do on the training ground to get this new look back-line up to scratch at marking from set pieces.
Down the road at Sunderland, Martin O'Neill is already implementing his tactical ideas. The Mackems' first win in six owed plenty to a terrible second-half Blackburn display and some favourable refereeing decisions, but there was also a definite change in approach.
In the four years O'Neill spent at Aston Villa, only Liverpool and Man United made more crosses from open play than the Clarets Ã¢ÂÂ and the plan was repeated as Sunderland peppered the Blackburn box with a startling 57 crosses. That's 40 more than they attempted a week ago at Wolves, and more than any other Premier League side has racked up since Liverpool's 72 against Stoke in September 2008.
That game at Anfield ended 0-0 and Sunderland could have ended up equally frustrated: Christopher Samba's man of the match performance indicates how unsuccessful this tactic was as it effectively played into Blackburn's hands.
Despite this Sunderland racked up 23 shots at goal, albeit only finding the target with five Ã¢ÂÂ and four of those after the hour mark as Blackburn completely ceded possession to their hosts. Yakubu was supposed to be an out-ball for Blackburn, but he only touched the ball four times in the last half an hour, completing a single pass.
It's not the first time Yakubu has had minimal input Ã¢ÂÂ last week's Stats Zone review noted how against Swansea he only had seven second-half touches and scored twice. Nevertheless, at Sunderland he would surely have been replaced by Jason Roberts had Steve Kean not needed to use up his substitutes due to injuries. Blackburn were effectively playing with 10 men and the Sunderland goals seemed inevitable.
Mind you, Rovers don't help themselves when it comes to retaining possession. Any goal kick or free kick in their half is taken by Paul Robinson and launched into the opponent's half. He made 29 such attempts this weekend, of which only four were successful. When the pressure is on, surely consistently gifting possession away in this manner is something that Kean needs to change.
With Rory Delap benched and apparently no towels on the sidelines, it was left to Ryan Shotton to deliver the long throws onto Stoke's specifically shrunken pitch. The tactic was still successful, as one of his attempts was flicked on to Matthew Etherington who found himself free at the far post to tap in for the second time in the match.
Tottenham should feel aggrieved at some of the refereeing decisions which went against them, but they suffered from a lack of penetration throughout; most of the shots Thomas Sorensen had to deal with were from range. In fact, Etherington had the same number of shots on target from inside the area as the entire Spurs team, and that includes Emmanuel Adebayor's penalty.
It was certainly a surprise that Rafael van der Vaart remained on the pitch until the 88th minute, as he is known for hitting a wall at around the hour mark. Typically enough he offered nothing in Stoke's third of the pitch after the 75th minute, even as Spurs were chasing the game. Perhaps a fresh pair of legs would have made the difference?