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@theweekend: Vidić Returns, Swanselona, Dynamic Dembélé, & WBA-LIV

October 31, 2011

Our weekly dose of chalkboard analysis from the Premier League at the weekend…

Everton 0-1 Man Utd : Rio dropped and Roo drops deeper…

After conceding six goals to local rivals Manchester City last weekend, Sir Alex Ferguson was able to recall Nemanja Vidić to his defence at the expense of Rio Ferdinand. Vidić’s leadership qualities and superior defensive play shone through as United recorded only their second league clean sheet since the 5-0 drubbing of Bolton in early September. This was most noticeable when it came to clearances, with Vidić attempting 10 (6 successful) against Everton on Saturday, a vast improvement on Ferdinand’s 1 from 5 against City…

The other big talking point of course was Fergie’s decision to play Wayne Rooney in midfield (see passing heatmap). ‘That was a surprise,’ admitted Everton manager David Moyes afterwards. In fairness to Rooney, he is one of the few forwards who have the aptitude to adapt to such an alien role, and he performed with aplomb – completing a respectable 48 passes at 84% accuracy, as well as winning all four of his attempted tackles. However, United were regularly denied his all-too-often devastating presence in the opposition area, as evinced in his passing heatmap. Against the Toffees 32% of his passes were in the final third, whereas in the 2-0 win over Norwich earlier this month the comparative figure stood at sizeable 52%. Similarly, Rooney made 35% of his passes in his own half against Everton, and just 14% against Norwich…

Consequently, United mustered just four attempts on target all afternoon, although ultimately that was just enough to see them to the three points. Given the previous weekend’s frustrations, perhaps Fergie got this one right?…

Chelsea 3-5 Arsenal : Van the Man, Koscielny and Super Santos…

Arsenal’s Chelsea-based tormentor-in-chief through recent seasons has been Didier Drogba, but with the Ivorian suspended it was left to the misfiring Fernando Torres to lead the Chelsea line*. His returns: a meagre one shot on target. Meanwhile, his opposite number (Robin van Persie) bagged a hatrick as Arsenal ran riot, Chelsea conceding five league goals at Stamford Bridge for ‘the first time since December 1989.’ Back to Torres vs. van Persie, and that is now a staggering ‘28 goals in 27 Premier League games in 2011’ for the (bargain) £2.75m Dutchman. ‘I feel I can score every time I go out on to the pitch,’ says van Persie; whether £50m Torres feels the same way remains to be seen. Regardless, in a breathlessly open match such as this, an in-form quality striker such as RvP can certainly make the difference…

Elsewhere there were a couple of unlikely heroes for the Gunners, and both, surprisingly, were in defence. Firstly, whilst John Terry embarrassingly indulged in a spot of face-planting, Laurent Koscielny’s went about reading the game with aplomb. He was superb at snuffing out danger at the source and reading the intentions of his opponents, undoubtedly highlighted by the game-high 8 interceptions he made (which was more than Terry, Branislav Ivanović and Ashley Cole combined incidentally). Secondly, left-back André Santos not only scored a goal but attempted a remarkable 16 tackles, winning 9 of them – more than any other player in the league at the weekend. Excellent defence from Arsenal, eh – who would have thought it?!…

*We do willingly concede that Torres has started to look more like his old potent self lately…

Swansea 3-1 Bolton : Swansea pass the pants off Bolton…

Central to Swansea’s victory this weekend was another sensational passing performance. A Barcelona-esque 656 passes found their target (from 722 attempted, 90% accuracy) as the Swans patiently passed their way around the Trotters. In the middle, two men stood out – Leon Britton (67 passes) and Joe Allen (84 passes). Astonishingly, there was just one misplaced pass between them all afternoon. Indeed, Britton’s 67 successful passes were ‘the most by a player with 100% accuracy in the last six PL seasons,’ which is quite some feat…

As if to underline Swansea’s control on proceedings, they attempted more than twice as many passes as Bolton (253/327, 77% accuracy). Coupling such possessional dominance with the left-sided trickery of Scott Sinclair and the raiding runs of Àngel Rangel down the right, it is little wonder that the chances and the goals were to follow. The Swans enjoyed 23 attempts on the Bolton goal, of which only 6 were ‘off target’. Bolton themselves mustered just 3 ‘on target’ attempts in the ninety minutes. Even their goal was an own goal…

Wigan 0-2 Fulham : “If you don’t score then you don’t get the points”…

As Martin Jol alluded to afterwards, football is sometimes all about taking your chances: ‘if you don’t score then you don’t get the points,’ he put it succinctly. Wigan had 19 shots at the weekend and failed to find the net once, with a combination of woodwork, fine saves, and inaccurate finishing – none more galling than Gary Caldwell’s wasted unmarked header from 6 yards – helping the Cottagers to a clean sheet and rare away victory. By contrast, Fulham had just 6 attempts, scored twice and took all three points…

The result was harsh on Wigan who for large parts were the better team, as suggested by manager Roberto Martínez afterwards: ‘From a tactical and technical point of view, it will be difficult to explain the result.’ Indeed, prior to Fulham’s opener on 42’, Wigan had looked the more likely to score. However, by virtue of the fact that a deserved Wigan goal had not arrived, their players pushed further up the pitch in search of the opener – Latics right-back Emmerson Boyce made almost 40% of his passes in the final third in the opening 42 minutes; by comparison, Fulham right-back Zdeněk Grygera’s figure was just 15%. Consequently Wigan became increasingly vulnerable to quick counter attacks, as Danny Murphy, Bobby Zamora and Clint Dempsey so ruthlessly exploited just shy of the break…

In the second half it was much of the same. Wigan dominated once more but just could not find the goal they both needed and deserved – Charles N’Zogbia’s effectiveness in the final third is undoubtedly being missed. Fulham’s late second goal came about in much the same way that Bolton’s goals came two weeks ago against Wigan – a misplaced pass in defence (Maynor Figueroa) was seized on by Steve Sidwell, before Moussa Dembélé ghosted forwards and finished tidily from the edge of the area. Worrying times for Wigan…

Martin Jol deserves some credit for engineering the three points however, not least for a narrow defensive set-up (as evinced by how central their interceptions were, see below) which ultimately resulted in a clean sheet, whilst also bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Roy Hodgson reign of a few years ago…

Jol also opted to hand Moussa Dembélé a free-roaming ‘advanced midfield position,’ a consequence of which was striker Andy Johnson being accomodated on the right flank. Although Johnson’s effectiveness in such a role is as yet unproven (one can expect his goal-scoring chances to reduce), it did appear to somewhat suit Dembélé who was ‘terrific’ according to Jol, bagging a late goal to cap an energetic display that saw him involved across the DW turf in the modest play Fulham that had…

West Brom 0-2 Liverpool : Dalglish sets up deep, Agger excels…

A couple of quick observations from the West Brom-Liverpool game, aside from the obvious ‘Luis Suárez was excellent’ comment. Firstly, Kenny Dalglish opted to allow his defence to sit deep at the Hawthorns, perhaps hoping to minimise the threat posed by Peter Odemwingie, whose ‘pace and direct approach’ was ‘pivotal’ in West Brom’s 2-1 triumph in this fixture last season. Liverpool’s “depth” is highlighted by how far up the pitch Odemwingie was able to recieve and use the ball (see below left). Territorial advantage perhaps, but the weapon of his pace was greatly inhibited. Ignoring kick-offs and re-starts, Odemwingie almost exclusively operated on the fringe of the Liverpool area, but seldom inside. This forms the second observation, a hugely impressive defensive performance by Daniel Agger, who won 6 of 7 tackles, made 7 clearances (5 successful), 1 block and 2 interceptions, and went a long way to shackling Odemwingie and earning the Reds three points…

Tottenham 3-1 QPR : Great Scott…

Scott Parker prompted comparisons with Spurs legend Dave Mackay after another imperious display for Tottenham at the weekend. Parker’s endeavour was a fine foil for the creative instincts of Gareth Bale & co., whilst his surety (and frequency) of pass ensures that he is far more than just a tough-tackling midfielder. Manager Harry Redknapp praised his performance as ‘just amazing, I haven’t seen many displays like that.’ Parker completed a game-high 60 passes (90% accuracy) as he went about covering every blade of grass, perhaps epitomised by attempting 12 tackles (6 successful) across wide swathes of the White Hart Lane turf…

Two interesting observations. Firstly, without Jermain Defoe’s pace up front, Spurs surprisingly opted to hit the ball long to Emmanuel Adebayor on a number of occasions, with the Togolese facing a number of aerial challenges over the ninety minutes (see below left). Secondly, given the prowess of left-winger Gareth Bale and the general left-sidedness of influential playmaker Luka Modrić, it was perhaps surprising to see the frequency and preference with which Spurs looked to move the ball to the right-flank, and in particular to young right-back Kyle Walker (see below right). Then again, it might well speak volumes for Walker’s prowess as a flourishing young full-back…

One For The Road : Swansea and Blackburn Antithetical Approach to Football…

Since their arrival in the Premier League, Swansea have been almost universally praised for a footballing ethos centred on keeping the ball on the deck and passing it. Over and over and over. They are, by all accounts, the antithesis of Blackburn, who for many seasons have been chastised for their unwillingness (or inability!) to play passing football, instead preferring the more direct long-ball route. In their respective games, these two contrasting approaches were very much in evidence over the weekend, perhaps epitomised by comparing the distribution patterns of goalkeepers Michel Vorm (Swansea) and Paul Robinson (Blackburn), and also in the passing chalkboards of centre-backs Swansea’s Ashley Williams (112 passes at 92%) and Blackburn’s Gaël Givet (9 passes at 60%). Call me a footballing purist perhaps, but I know which approach I prefer…

Next time out, Newcastle-Everton and Fulham-Tottenham fixtures catch the eye, whilst fellow strugglers Wolves and Wigan meet at Molineux…

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