Crystal Palace v Tottenham
Live on BT Sport 1
Patrick Vieira is definitely changing Crystal Palace’s tactics. Compared to last season their possession average has risen from 42.9% to 47.8% while their shot count has gone up from 6.7 to 9.2 per game. Palace are passing out from the back more often, looking to keep the ball on the floor, and holding a higher defensive line for more expressive football; the percentage of their passes that are classified as long has gone down from 14.5% to 12.8%, while they are averaging 66.2 more passes per game this season.
But this is not the best way to face Nuno Esperito Santo’s Tottenham, who are clearly moving in the opposite direction compared to the Mauricio Pochettino blueprint that was picked up by Ryan Mason. Spurs want to sit a little deeper in their narrow 4-3-3, focusing on counter-attacks through a quick front three, and seemed unsure of themselves when forced to hold the majority of possession against Watford.
Spurs will enjoy Palace’s openness, then, who will likely struggle as much as they did in the 3-0 defeat to Chelsea. The new centre-back partnership of Joachim Anderson and Marc Guehi needs time to gel, which should ensure the quick and narrow Spurs front three can combine on the break – exposing the cracks in Vieira’s formation as he gets his team up to speed.
Leicester City v Man City
In Leicester’s 5-2 win at the Etihad last season they managed to take advantage of Man City’s soft and passive central midfield, the waning energy of the press, and their high defensive line. That was partly just classic counter-attacking play as Jamie Vardy and Harvey Barnes were released into space between the lines, but the secret weapon for Brendan Rodgers was passing riskily under pressure at the back – evading that first wave and opening up the pitch.
Man City were at a very low point back then, and by November had won 101 points from their previous 50 games because of the above mentioned issues. But have they really improved since then? The slow possession football of the pandemic has become less relevant now that fans are back, and Pep Guardiola has done nothing to patch up central midfield or increase the coherence of the press.
The 1-0 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur on the first weekend of the season was a case in point: a strong counter-attacking team willing to sit back and wait for chances to break can cause City serious damage. Rodgers has the template, the players, and the historic success to deny the visitors three points.
Chelsea v Aston Villa
Live on Sky Sports Premier League
Aston Villa’s 2-1 victory over Chelsea in May was slightly fortunate (they were outshot 23 to 6) but Dean Smith deserves credit for the strength of the defensive setup that frustrated Thomas Tuchel’s side. Sat in a very deep and non-confrontational 4-5-1, Villa held just 29% possession as they forced Chelsea into harmless wide areas; a 3-4-2-1 isn’t the most proficient against an ultra-narrow defensive shell.
Villa may be able to repeat the trick at Stamford Bridge, not least because Danny Ings and new signing Leon Bailey can offer Villa more counter-attacking speed than they possessed last season. Along with the benefits of their new set-piece coach, Smith’s side will cause a threat on rare occasions they can enter the final third.
Reece James’s suspension also means Chelsea are weaker in the wing-back positions, without an obvious threat to cause overloads as they did against Arsenal and Crystal Palace. More importantly, Chelsea appear to have started relatively slowly, pressing with less intensity than we have come to expect from a Tuchel team; their PPDA is 18.77, the second highest in the division. Should they play slowly on Saturday, Villa can hold their ground.
Leeds v Liverpool
Live on Sky Sports Premier League
The only two meetings between Jurgen Klopp and Marcelo Bielsa have been superb, end-to-end games but both have been dominated by Liverpool. Leeds’ tendency to sprint directly forward in huge numbers, overloading the flanks and emptying midfield in the process, means they can put Liverpool’s high line under serious pressure – but it also leaves them incredibly vulnerable on the counter.
We saw this in Manchester United’s 5-1 win on the opening weekend, when Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes took advantage of the hopelessly-large amounts of space that appear in the middle and final thirds once a Leeds attack breaks down. Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, and Diogo Jota will have lots of fun here, armed with Klopp’s intelligent tactic for exploiting Bielsa’s man-to-man press; his players make dummy runs against Leeds, feigning to go one way then quickly turning the other to pull the defenders out of position.
Leeds might get on the score sheet, of course, and all eyes are on Daniel James – the perfect Bielsa player. Last year James was in the 96th percentile among right wingers for disrupting opposition moves, per Smarter Scout, and 26th in the Premier League for pressures per 90, per FBref. His hard pressing, and his pace in behind, could cause problems behind Andrew Robertson.