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Interesting nuggets from EPL opening day

|| Who catches the eye, and why? ||

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Mark Thompson

Aug 13 2019

7 mins read

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The opening weekend of the Premier League season is like Christmas. Although, as Mike Goodman points out, it coming so soon after a lot of transfers were finalised means that it’s sometimes a bit of an anti-climax:

But across the league as a whole there are some nice little presents waiting under the mid-August tree for us. This week I’ll unwrap a few of them, shake them and poke them, and then discard them for the next shiny thing:

  • Sheffield United’s overlapping centre-backs
  • Frank Lampard’s Chelsea
  • Rodri

These will be nuggets and tidbits of analysis, rather than the definitive piece of analysis you’ll read on them; this is a newsletter after all. But here we go with Premier League Christmas.

Sheffield United and their over/under-lapping centre-backs

‘Overlapping centre-backs’ is a strange thing to be the only thing you know about a team you’ve never watched, but that will have been the experience of a lot of people (including me) heading into Sheffield United’s opener against Bournemouth.

For an in-depth look, check this video out, but to be brief, the Blades play a 3-5-2 in which the wider centre-backs sometimes push forward when their team has the ball. On one side, one centre-back will make an over- or under-lapping run, while the other will sit back. Here’s right side-back Chris Basham (superb name) in the opening minute.

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And, seconds later, this is what the middle centre-back (foreground) and left side-back (background) are doing.

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Across the whole game, here are where the two side-backs received passes, per the (ever-marvellous) StatsZone app. One thing to take note of isn’t just the passes that they received in wing-back-type positions, but the ones they got in central midfield as well.

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That’s because, in practice, the centre-backs don’t just operate as extra wide options, but extra options full stop. Take this — Basham again, chesting the ball down fairly high up the pitch.

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Instead of backpedalling straight after landing, he kind of hung around in midfield, before making a run forward again.

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In defence, they were a regular back three, and they’ll have to stay like that more often in the Premier League than the Championship.

I guess using the back three like this, swinging to become a back two in possession, is an interesting way to use that extra body. They have to be decent on the ball, but they cause a decent amount of disruption just by making those runs that Basham makes above.

It was catching, too. Here’s Nathan Ake getting in on the underlapping centre-back action later in the game.

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Copycats, the lot of ‘em.

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Frank Lampard’s Chelsea

Manchester United and Chelsea rounded off the weekend with a pretty damn fun match to watch. The quality of the two teams wasn’t really good enough to turn it into a dull ‘tactical battle’, but featured players good enough to take advantage of the space that appeared around them.

It was a pretty open game in the middle of the pitch. On Manchester United’s side, this was partly because their centre-backs are not the types to push up in a very high line behind an advanced midfield.

Chelsea were kind of the same. Anthony Martial here receives an outball as United clear their lines, and there’s not a defender in sight of him.

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A fairly aggressive high block/press combined with defenders not following Martial when he dropped seemed to be something of a theme. Below, the Frenchman has dropped to provide an option for Aaron Wan-Bissaka, and he immediately hands the ball over to Paul Pogba to spring an attack.

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A commitment to counterpressing may be something that Lampard wants to work on, because it was a problem at times during pre-season and an issue in the lead-up to United’s second goal. The below still takes place immediately after Harry Maguire has poked the ball away from Tammy Abraham. Scott McTominay has the ball at his feet, head up, and Jorginho is sprinting to try and make up 5-10 yards.

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McTominay plays the easy pass to Marcus Rashford and, with Mateo Kovacic struggling to make up the ground laterally from his deeper position as LCM, Chelsea have no-one challenging the Englishman for about half the length of the pitch.

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Will this be a problem for Lampard’s team going forward and, if so, for how long? Will it all get better when N’golo Kante has recovered fully from injury? It was kind of hard to tell in his cameo late in this game. If he slotted into the deeper role of the CM2 then that might work, helping to clean up all of the mess that happens when Jorginho makes bad pressing decisions.

We will see.

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Rodri

Rodri — or, to give him his full name, The New Fernandinho. Kind of.

That’s certainly the position on the pitch that he’s slotted into, and the general role — defensive presence and useful ball-circulator — that he’s been asked to fill in the side. He’s, like, a foot taller too [edit: five inches].

But he also looked kind of clumsy defensively. The moment early on in the game where his pocket was pinched by Manuel Lanzini led to the Argentine falling over in the box and claiming for a penalty. Now, the moment when Lanzini actually fell over was a dive that arguably should have been punished with a yellow (the man just decides to fall across Rodri’s legs), but in making up the ground, Rodri bumped into the West Ham player in a way that really could have sent him tumbling.

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Opta ‘credited’ him with three fouls (some of which were ‘tactical’* fouls) and 2/3 successful tackles in the match, but watching the match back there were a number of other moments that could’ve been classed as a failed tackle.

*cynical challenges I wish to be burned out of the game.

This, for example, was not classed as either a failed tackle or a foul. The ball can (just) be seen on its way to Declan Rice in central midfield, an easy pass from Jack Wilshere(#19).

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This was also not classed as a failed tackle, despite clearly being an attempt at a tackle from a defensive midfielder who leaves a gaping space behind him.

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He’s young and getting used to the team and if Manchester City bought him then I’m sure he’ll be fine. He’s also pretty handy on the ball (despite having his pocket pinched twice during the game). As well as being a generally fine-enough presence in possession, he helped moves progress by playing not-entirely-obvious balls through West Ham defensive players, like this one below, about to play it through for Sterling to run onto.

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I’ll be honest, I don’t know a lot about Rodri. Didn’t know him at Atletico, and have only really seen him in the Community Shield and this match against West Ham. Have only really properly watched him, paid close attention to him, for this newsletter, so I’m not going to make any big statements about him.

That said, I’m going to be really interested to see how he does in the next couple of weeks. That said, again, City have an incredibly easy league schedule coming up (cup competitions don’t seem to be drawn yet).

After Tottenham next week, they face: Bournemouth (A), Brighton (H), Norwich (A), Watford (H), Everton (A), Wolves (H), Crystal Palace (A), Aston Villa (H), Southampton (H).

Don’t be surprised if City are top of the league by November 9 (when they face Liverpool at Anfield).

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