As the English top flight pauses for a couple of weeks, GOAL takes a tactical look at all of the key battles between now and the end of the season
A three-week break from Premier League action provides a welcome breather in what has been an unusually chaotic season.
Winter is nearly over and the pandemic, we hope, has done its worst, so when the action returns in February there should be a clear schedule just in time for the 'business end' of the campaign.
The table itself is pretty hard to read at the moment, not only because there is such a disparity between the number of games clubs have played but because we have had a lot of managerial changes.
With that in mind, and with most clubs now in a settled pattern for the next few months, here's a prediction, based on tactical analysis, of how the 2021-22 Premier League season will end...
The title: Elliott & Thiago give Liverpool hope
Manchester City may be nine points clear, but the lead is more precarious than it looks.
With Liverpool playing City in mid-March, Jurgen Klopp's side just need to out-perform their rivals by three points in the eight games before then to arrive at the Etihad with the opportunity to pull level at the top.
For that to happen, we need a few tactical sidenotes to become more prominent. For Man City, their 1-1 draw with Southampton on Saturday was further evidence that they can be made to look sluggish.
A deeper block, that gives the centre-backs time on the ball but surrounds Rodri, can force City into stale possession, particularly because they lack a centre-forward to make penetrative runs in behind.
Jack Grealish's deployment as a false nine ensured that everything was in front of the Southampton defenders, simplifying their jobs.
The same thing happened in the reverse fixture, and also to some extent in City's one-goal wins against West Ham, Aston Villa, Brentford, and Wolves. A bit more luck, and all four of these teams could have taken a point, changing the whole shape of the title battle.
For Liverpool's part, they need to stay injury-free. Thiago Alcantara's press-resistant possession and pinpoint passing in the opposition half is essential to Liverpool remaining in control of matches.
They are vulnerable to counterattacks without him, as evidenced by the fact they have won 28 points from 11 league games with Thiago this season, and 20 points from 11 league games without him.
Should he and Fabinho have a consistent run in the team, then Liverpool can put together the kind of winning streak they need.
Add to that Harvey Elliot's anticipated return in February – his ability to link the midfield and attack gave them a whole new dimension at the start of the season – and just maybe the 2021-22 title race isn't over.
Top Four: Conte key to Spurs pipping United and Arsenal
Chelsea's win against Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United's against West Ham has confirmed that the Premier League has a straight three-horse race for the fourth Champions League spot.
All three of Man Utd, Spurs and Arsenal are in various states of transition and all have glaring tactical flaws, but of the three Antonio Conte's side possess the discipline to come out on top.
Putting aside the baffling use of a defensive 4-4-2 at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, an experiment Conte will surely abandon when action resumes next month, Tottenham have quickly adopted some of the core principles of the Italian's tactical philosophy.
Most notably, they have taken on an urgency in possession and solid defensive compression when the ball is lost, making Tottenham surprisingly tough to beat.
However, they lack creativity, largely because right wing-back Emerson Royal cannot take advantage of being the free man in attack (Conte deliberately pulls play over to one side before suddenly switching to an unmarked wing-back on the other side).
The absence of a Cesc Fabregas or Christian Eriksen in the midfield two also means Spurs are too flat when attempting to build through the lines.
Nevertheless, they are in a stronger shape than Man Utd, with Ralf Rangnick dialling down his own tactical preferences week by week.
He was right to abandon the 4-2-2-2, a shape too square for a side forced to dominate possession, and the move to a more conventional 4-2-3-1 has steadied the ship.
But that comes at the cost of individualism again taking precedence at Old Trafford. That is not a recipe for consistent form across the final three months of the season.
Arsenal are similarly prone to moments of madness, to performances that lurch backwards, and indeed have followed a five-game winning streak through December with a five-game winless run.
In Mikel Arteta’s defence, this hasn’t been a tactical flaw but rather a lack of bodies, and when play resumes in February, Arsenal should be back to full strength.
This season, full strength means playing an intelligent and positionally-fluid 4-3-3 formation that closely mimics Pep Guardiola.
Their first-half performance in the 2-1 defeat to Manchester City was the best example yet of what a confrontational and tactically disciplined Arsenal can look like, with Thomas Partey and Martin Odegaard emerging as the linchpins of the side.
However, the way Arsenal collapsed in the second half showed Arteta’s tactical coaching is undermined by self-doubt, by a psychological brittleness that takes hold as soon as Arsenal have one or two key absences.
For that reason, Conte’s Spurs are likely to grind their way to more points.
Relegation: Norwich might just surprise everyone
Watford had just started to understand the necessity of a conservative off-the-ball shape, had just started to show humility by camping deeper and counter-attacking with some success through their talented wingers, when they decided to sack their manager. Xisco was unlucky to go when he did. His replacement Claudio Ranieri failed spectacularly.
That original model is about to be reinstated as Roy Hodgson prepares to take over and install his usual defensive 4-4-2 formation.
There is perhaps enough quality in attack to make it work, although Hodgson has a far weaker central midfield than the powerful one he built at Crystal Palace.
Certainly, Hodgson’s surprise appointment would appear to be the final straw for Burnley, who look out of ideas.
Weakened by the loss of Chris Wood and having so many games packed into the final few months, Sean Dyche surely won’t get them out of trouble this time.
But both clubs will probably go down, and out of the four battling against the drop perhaps Norwich City are the most likely to get out of trouble.
Their back-to-back wins in January were characterised by a stark tactical shift from manager Dean Smith, who moved away from Norwich’s woefully expansive possession system to a deep line and frustration tactics.
It is exactly the change in strategy we saw from Smith towards the end of the 2019-20 season at Aston Villa, an ultra-defensive move that won seven points from the final three matches.
He has the experience to pull this off, especially considering Newcastle United are unlikely to miraculously improve their defensive structure under Eddie Howe, whose Bournemouth team always conceded a lot of goals.
Even signing the likes of Aaron Ramsey or Dele Alli probably won’t be enough. What Newcastle need even more than new signings is a tactical system that balances their adventurous instincts with compression between the lines.
Howe never managed that at Bournemouth. His Newcastle team will remain vulnerable through to May.
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