Tactical review: How Conte embarrassed Jose; Arsenal denied by Boro; Spurs' stalemate
In a footballing world where flair is celebrated and the art of defending often forgotten, the tactical review salutes a handful of fine defensive displays from the Premier League weekend.
Middlesbrough stifled Arsenal in a 0-0 draw at the Emirates, Chelsea hammered Manchester United 4-0, while Southampton held Manchester City to a 1-1 draw. Clean sheets were also kept by Bournemouth and Tottenham, who locked horns in a high-octane encounter.
1. Boro bus frustrates Arsenal
Aitor Karanka has dismissed suggestions that Middlesbrough tend to ‘park the bus’ but, whatever the Basque may say, Boro are undeniably cautious having crawled up from the Championship thanks to the tightest defence in the second tier. Yet that is nothing to be ashamed about. At the Emirates, Jose Mourinho’s former assistant organised his side with admirable efficiency.
Boro kept five toiling midfielders close to the backline and defended deep, which made particular sense against a forward line featuring Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Theo Walcott. No member of the trio found much space in behind the defence nor between the lines. At half-time, the Gooners were yet to produce a clear-cut chance.
In fact, they were lucky not to have conceded. Karanka supplemented his gritty defence with fleet-footed ex-Barcelona B winger Adama Traore, who at one point snatched an Alvaro Negredo flick ahead of a hesitant Laurent Koscielny only to be denied by Petr Cech, who also stopped Negredo’s subsequent effort. Later in the half, Adama crossed for Gaston Ramirez who headed straight at Cech. At that point, Ramirez had already smacked a free-kick into the woodwork.
The pattern continued in the second half. Adama launched two counter-attacks that were only stopped by another fine Cech save and a last-ditch Koscielny tackle. By full-time Arsenal had enjoyed 75% possession, but Boro had won the shot statistic 11-10. That denoted a counter-attacking display that featured 32 successful clearances, eight blocked crosses and 20 successful tackles – of which only two took place inside Arsenal’s half. As a former centre-back, Karanka will have been delighted.
2. Compact Chelsea stop United
Unlike Karanka, Antonio Conte was a midfielder in his playing career, but you don’t become the captain and heartbeat of a serial-winning Juventus side without knowing how a defence is organised. The Chelsea boss has worked on making his team more compact in recent weeks, and that was evident in the 4-0 win against United that started with Pedro punishing a defensive lapse to make it 1-0 within 30 seconds.
The early goal put Chelsea in the driving seat. After Gary Cahill struck from a corner, Eden Hazard and N’Golo Kanté added two more as United took risks in search of an equaliser, which left Mourinho to trace the origin of the defeat back to the first error.
There was truth to that observation, but it did not cast adequate light on Chelsea’s defending. They stayed deep and kept distances between the lines that were close to perfect, with neither Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic nor Marouane Fellaini finding space in key positions. So compact were Chelsea that United hardly completed a pass inside the final 25 yards in the first half. Pogba managed only two in this zone – both went backwards. Indeed, Chelsea didn’t even need to make a tackle in central areas.
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3. Saints diamond slows down City
In Manchester, Southampton boss Claude Puel used his 4-4-2 diamond to secure a 1-1 draw, just as Ronald Koeman had done a week earlier with Everton. One difference was that the Saints have this as their default system, with Nathan Redmond and Charlie Austin up front and Dusan Tadic just behind. With all three dropping down to protect their three central midfielders, the visitors shielded their centre-backs well.
This was crucial, because Pep Guardiola retained the 3-2-2-3(ish) system in which Ilkay Gundogan and Fernandinho dictate the tempo behind Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva. City’s four central midfielder thus created few chances against a well-drilled defence. In fact, the hosts failed to record an attempt on target in the first half for the first time under Guardiola.
By that stage a John Stones error had gifted away the opener, prompting Guardiola to take off De Bruyne for Kelechi Iheanacho. City then created more and equalised when Leroy Sané crossed for Iheanacho, but the Saints defence stayed staunch amid a flurry of tackles designed to disrupt Guardiola’s plans. Most of City’s efforts were either blocked or launched from far out. Guardiola finished the game with just two defenders, but was left to bemoan slow build-up play.
4. Fervent Cherries tame Spurs
By the south coast, Bournemouth and Spurs played out a different kind of draw. Unlike some of the aforementioned sides, both pressed high and aggressively to cut off their opponent quickly. This was defending from the front and, while Spurs are known for their endurance, the Cherries were similarly impressive; they closed down coherently and gave Spurs little time on the ball.
There was thus a sense of both sides cancelling each other out: 24 attempts were fired, but only five hit the target. The only one from Bournemouth was a close-range effort from Charlie Daniels that Hugo Lloris somehow diverted away via the crossbar. “We spoke about the game beforehand and it was how we expected it to be against an energetic team,” Mauricio Pochettino said. “It was tough for us at the start of the game because they pushed us a lot, but we conceded only one chance and Hugo was fantastic again.”
Yet Spurs did not create much either, perhaps bar an Erik Lamela drive that hit the woodwork. “Our gameplan was to disrupt their rhythm and their normal way of playing,” said Eddie Howe. Though neither manager left with three points, both sounded reasonably pleased. Even the more adventurous tacticians know the value of a well-earned clean sheet.