In week seven, the big story was doubtless Tottenham’s 2-0 smashing of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. That said, there were other intriguing storylines as well. Liverpool and Arsenal picked up lucky wins despite underwhelming performances against opponents likely to find themselves in relegation battles at season’s end. Manchester United did rather the opposite, drawing against Stoke despite bossing the Potters for much of the game. Meanwhile, Chelsea picked up a comfortable win against Hull in a game whose outcome was never really in doubt.

Expected Goal Results

Spurs thrash Manchester City

The most surprising result of the weekend came in the biggest game of the weekend. Thanks to one of the best midfield performances you could ever hope to see, Tottenham dominated Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, winning 2-0 in a game whose scoreline could very easily have been even worse for the Citizens.

Victor Wanyama played a key role for Spurs for a couple reasons.

  • First, he covered a remarkable amount of ground just inside the defensive half, shielding the back line and breaking up play effectively.
  • Second, Wanyama seems to cover more ground than Spurs’ other defensive midfielder, Eric Dier. This means that the team can often get away with playing him in a single pivot 4-3-3 system (with two very aggressive central midfielders) as opposed to playing him in a double pivot 4-2-3-1 alongside a more conservatively positioned midfield partner. This, in turn, allows Spurs to play five exciting attacking players and to feel more secure pushing numbers forward.

It’s the second piece that is essential to what Spurs did at the weekend. Setting up in a City-like 4-1-4-1 system with Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli as the midfielders and Erik Lamela and Mousa Sissoko on the wings, Spurs were able to play an extremely physical, rugged XI that gave City a lot of trouble defensively but that still featured enough technical skill and attacking talent to be capable of consistently (!) passing through the Manchester City press.

What is especially striking about the win is how Spurs played down the flanks to beat City. Typically when Mousa Dembele is in the squad the Spurs attack is more down the middle and is largely funneled through Dembele. But with Wanyama at the base in a single pivot and Alli and Eriksen in more free roles ahead of him, the attack came largely down the flanks. Here is Tottenham’s passing map in their win against Sunderland, the lone match in which Dembele has featured in the league this season:

Now, here is Tottenham against City with the Wanyama-Eriksen-Alli trio:

In the second chart you’ll note that there are no passes between the two center backs and no passes between the center backs and Wanyama. (NOTE: Technically a line is only drawn for three passes between two players, so this doesn’t mean there were literally zero passes between these players.)

All of the initial ball movement is happening down the flanks until the ball gets into the attacking third, at which point it is being funneled to Eriksen who, often, is then immediately pushing the ball to center forward Heung-Min Son.

I’ll have more to say about this on Cartilage Free Captain later this week, but the main point I want to make for now is not simply that Spurs took the game to England’s wealthiest and theoretically best-managed side. That’s obvious to anyone who watched. The point I’m interested in making is how Wanyama has allowed an already flexible Tottenham squad to become even more multi-faceted. Dembele Spurs and Wanyama Spurs both press aggressively and grind teams down. But Dembele Spurs methodically play the ball through the middle and use sustained high possession to wear out the opposition. The Wanyama Spurs we saw on Sunday were faster, far more frenetic, and used fast, direct attacking down the flanks to break down the City defense.

It would over-state the point slightly to say that this is almost two different teams, but the playing styles are dramatically different. And that Spurs can look so good in both systems is a testament to the exemplary work of Mauricio Pochettino.

The finishing fairy abandoned Everton.

Through seven games, Ronald Koeman’s Everton is one of the surprise packages of the season. Koeman has turned this Everton team into something closer to the Toffees side of Roberto Martinez’s first season. That year the Toffees benefited from improved attacking talent (through the additions of Romelu Lukaku and Gerard Deulofeu) but were still defensively sturdy as the legacy of the Moyes years sustained them for a season.

This Everton squad looks to similarly combine sublime attacking talent with a defensively solid team that doesn’t give up cheap goals and is more than capable of consistently winning 1-0. That said, the problem with teams that play that way is that it is, somewhat ironically, a high-risk way of playing. If you say “We’re going to produce 3-5 good chances a game, we’ll limit the opponent to 1-2, and expect the odds to work out in our favor most of the time,” then you’re tacitly committing yourself to results like this weekend’s draw or the defeat to Bournemouth earlier this year. Koeman’s Everton has been a pleasant surprise and they likely will be in or around the top six throughout the entire season. But if they cannot figure out how to create high-quality chances with greater consistency, they won’t be able to chase down the more dynamic teams perched above them in the table.

Swansea City was able to get at Liverpool.

The big question with Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool is if they are defensively solid enough to maintain a top four chase over a 38 match league campaign. The early returns suggested that Klopp’s strategy of simply playing a ton of really fast players and telling them to run around and create chaos might actually work better than expected. Certainly they had strong early-season performances against a number of top sides.

That said, the fact remains that their midfield trio is a box-to-box midfielder flanked by two attacking midfielders and their back four includes a converted do-everything midfielder at left back and a center half who has looked mostly bad since joining Liverpool from Southampton.

This weekend was the first time this season that a team was able to consistently create high-quality scoring chances against Liverpool. As it happened, Swansea’s record signing Borja Baston wasted all the good looks at goal he was given and Liverpool escaped with a 2-1 victory. However, if Liverpool’s defense continues to struggle in this way—and many onlookers have been expecting a performance like this for awhile—we may see Klopp’s men begin to slip down the table.

 

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