Man City v Wolves
Live on BT Sport 1
West Ham were unlucky to lose to Man City on Saturday, ‘winning’ the xG battle 1.93 – 0.76 thanks to their deep-lying defensive structure and a flat 5-3-2 shape that managed to shut down central midfield while leaving the wing-backs to get tight to the City wingers. For all the positional rotation in City performances, it should come as no surprise that what is essentially a 3-2-5 formation is best nullified by its man-for-man inverse, a 5-3-2.
This is surely an approach Wolves will copy, with Nuno Esperito Santo favouring a reactive approach to big games. He should deploy a 5-3-2 formation with Leander Dendoncker coming into central midfield and Pedro Neto as one of the front two – a more defensive system than when Neto played central midfield in Wolves’ 3-1 defeat to City earlier this season.
Man City will not find it easy to break through the stubborn defensive shell, and yet in Joao Cancelo – rested at the weekend – they have a line-breaking playmaker who shows up in unexpected positions. He is the key to breaking the deadlock in what should be a tight game at the Etihad.
Crystal Palace v Man Utd
Live on Sky Sports Premier League
Roy Hodgson is happy to concede 75% possession in these games, using an ultra-defensive 4-4-2 to frustrate Manchester United and reduce them to aimless passing in the middle third of the pitch. But the system only works if Wilfried Zaha can lead the counter-attacks, and in his absence Palace will surely be penned in for too long to cope with the pressure.
Zaha starred in the 3-1 win at Old Trafford, plus Palace benefitted from catching United cold near the start of the season. This time, Bruno Fernandes should be able come up with a moment of magic. He will have the freedom to come short for the ball and, in front of the two banks of Palace four, spray intelligent passes forward that put the hosts under pressure.
However, much depends on how brave Roy Hodgson is with his team selection. If he starts Christian Benteke alongside Jean-Philippe Mateta (dropped against Brighton despite scoring in the previous match) and returns Eberichi Eze to the left wing, then Palace have a fighting chance of breaking down the flanks. The most likely outcome is a low-scoring win for the visitors.
Fulham v Tottenham
Live on BT Sport 1
Spurs were much improved against Burnley, although that was largely because Sean Dyche’s side were, as usual, hopelessly porous – stretching the pitch wide and long in a decompressed formation that made no sense given how much Jose Mourinho likes to counter-attack. Nevertheless Tottenham will take heart from their performance in a very attacking line-up, with Gareth Bale in particular shining.
Bale benefitted from Mourinho’s improvisational approach to attacking tactics, dropping intelligently off the right wing into central spaces as he quickly worked out where Burnley were vulnerable. This kind of trust in the players to find solutions works well against the likes of Burnley, but Fulham’s compressed lines should see Bale once again look a little lost.
Fulham have conceded one goal in their last five Premier League games, and in the last three months only Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United, and Leicester City have beaten them. Scott Parker will not give Bale any space, and without detailed instruction from Mourinho that ought to mean another dull, lifeless display from Tottenham.
Liverpool v Chelsea
Live on Sky Sports Main Event
Liverpool will apply a high press in this game just as Manchester United did at the weekend, not least because Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s approach was surprisingly effective in finding new flaws in Thomas Tuchel’s 3-4-2-1. The formation, which isn’t the most creative, is at least well-structured when dominating possession, but it didn’t look right on Sunday.
United’s pressing pinned it into a 5-2-2-1, and with the front three trapped behind the Man Utd midfield that only left two central midfielders and a flat back five to pass the ball out. It was an awkward shape, compressing the contest into a congested midfield battle that inevitably ended in a 0-0 score line. Liverpool are just as confrontational, and consequently Thursday’s game should follow the same pattern – especially given both managers will be happy with a point.
Then again, Liverpool’s midfield lacks fluidity or defensive strength without Fabinho and Jordan Henderson. It is possible that Chelsea’s inside forwards Mason Mount and Hakim Ziyech will get on the ball in dangerous spaces as Tuchel’s formation outnumbers Jurgen Klopp’s team 4-3 in the middle of the park. However, with so much positional discipline in both teams, and with both looking tired and keen not to lose, another drab 0-0 beckons.