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Hapless Man Utd display highlights Pogba's importance: Tactical lessons from the Premier League weekend

14:00 GMT+3 23/12/2019
Paul Pogba Watford vs Manchester United 2019-20
The France World Cup winner made a surprise return following injury and illness but his presence alone was not enough to prevent his side slipping up

Manchester United are too predictable and need Paul Pogba to stay fit.

Chelsea reinforced their spot in the Premier League's top four as Frank Lampard outwitted his former leader Jose Mourinho in a masterful tactical performance.

Manchester City put in their best performance of the season against an overwhelmed Leicester City.

Goal  breaks down how the key coaching decisions impacted the weekend's action...

1) Another hapless Man Utd performance highlights Pogba’s importance

There wasn’t much new about Manchester United’s defeat at bottom club Watford, but as the pattern of their matches becomes ever more predictable, surely it is time the board question whether Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is capable of steering the club in the right direction.

A damning statistic - under the Norwegian United have won 73 per cent of the Premier League games in which they have had less than 50% possession and 36% of those they have held more than 50%.

It isn’t hard to work out what tactics to deploy against them. Watford inevitably sat deep and absorbed pressure in a simple 4-5-1 formation, with Nigel Pearson’s defensive coaching over the last week paying dividends as the hosts easily shut down Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial.

Counterattacking quickly down both flanks, Watford then took advantage of Rashford and Daniel James’s high starting positions; Ismaila Sarr and Gerard Deulofeu were a constant threat.

If there is a lesson for United it is that Pogba must start every game from now until the end of the season, no matter how undisciplined his positioning can be and no matter how much Fred is improving.

In the 26 minutes Pogba was on the pitch United had 10 shots compared with seven in the first 64.

His long-range through balls and clipped passes in behind stretched the defence, giving Solskjaer’s pacey forwards a chance to stretch their legs even against deep-lying opponents.

2) City switch the play superbly but Rodgers fails to respond to Mahrez threat

Manchester City produced arguably their best performance of the season so far on Saturday courtesy of high-energy possession football that used a numerical advantage in central midfield to quickly move the ball from one flank to the other.

Leicester City were dragged too far to the right, and when Man City switched the play, Riyad Mahrez was left completely unmarked.

The Algerian dominated the match, scoring the first and playing an important role in the second and third goals thanks to his manager’s tactics.

Pep Guardiola’s use of a 4-2-3-1 with Bernardo Silva deep alongside Ilkay Gundogan ensured City had numerous short-passing options in the middle of the park, particularly with Kyle Walker inverting into central midfield and Kevin De Bruyne staying narrower than he has on many occasions this season.

Leicester were suffocated, and - passing with a good tempo - City took advantage of the visitors’ failure to either press high or drop deep.

By hovering somewhere in between, Leicester were too open, although things could have been different had Brendan Rodgers given Harvey Barnes instruction from the touchline.

Barnes didn’t help Ben Chilwell enough, tucking too far inside to give Mahrez acres of space.

There were plenty of warning signs before Mahrez scored the opener, by which point Barnes should have been doubling up with Chilwell on that side.

For the second, Mahrez passed to Raheem Sterling, who was fouled in the box, and for the third De Bruyne dribbled freely down the right because Chilwell was pulled out of position - over-occupied by Mahrez’s movement.

3) Dreadful 0-0 highlights similar tactical goals for Ancelotti & Arteta

The draw between Everton and Arsenal at Goodison Park on Saturday lunchtime was arguably the worst game of the Premier League so far this season.

Both teams were absolutely hopeless, a lack of movement betraying the absence of tactical coaching and the constant misplaced passes highlighting the low confidence in both camps.

There was perhaps some dignity in Everton sitting deep and holding Arsenal at arm’s length, but aside from Dominic Calvert-Lewin, nobody gave a good account of themselves.

Mikel Arteta and Carlo Ancelotti, watching from the stands, will have noted similar issues. Everton and Arsenal need a clear tactical identity that can be visibly seen by increasingly impatient supporters and need to find a way to sew together a hesitant back four with pressing forwards.

Neither team has a coherent midfield shape because of this basic discrepancy between the roles of defenders and attackers.

Arsenal were peculiarly deep, nervously backing off and consequently unable to move the ball through midfield when they won possession back, while Everton followed suit (albeit more understandably given the supposed gulf in quality between the sides).

Arteta and Ancelotti need to find a way of restoring confidence so their teams can deploy a high line again.

4) Lampard uses back five & long diagonals to outfox Mourinho

There was more than a little Jose Mourinho in the way Frank Lampard masterminded victory at Tottenham on Sunday evening.

Shifting to an unexpected 3-4-2-1, the Chelsea manager’s defensive shape expertly nullified Tottenham’s 3-2-5 and, in the first half, the visitors’ long diagonal passes into the channels successfully took advantage of Spurs’ issues in the full-back positions. Adapting to the opposition and isolating key weaknesses is pure Mourinho.

With five at the back Chelsea always had a free centre-back to step up and meet Lucas Moura or Dele Alli as they dropped off the front line.

Playing five also meant the line was wide enough to ensure Cesar Azpilicueta could sit on Heung-Min Son, preventing Spurs from playing long balls out to their winger.

Not having Son as an out-ball was particularly problematic because Moussa Sissoko and Eric Dier offered little through the middle, with Willian and Mason Mount – playing as inside forwards – blocking off the passing lines.

Spurs were consequently dull in possession, leading to sloppy mistakes and allowing a hungrier Chelsea to swarm them.

The crucial opening goal, a Willian strike from a corner, was the result of a long diagonal down the left – the sixth or seventh in the opening 12 minutes.

With each one Lampard applauded, and each time Chelsea got closer to scoring. This was truly a tactical victory over his former boss.

5) Southampton full-backs target Villa’s continual weakness on the flanks

Ralph Hasenhuttl couldn’t have asked for a better chance to end his side’s poor form given that Southampton’s usual tactics - a 4-4-2 aimed at quick breaks exclusively down the flanks - are primed for success against this hopelessly porous Aston Villa side.

We covered some of Villa’s flaws last week, but here was a whole new set of issues for Dean Smith’s side. His 4-3-3 is recklessly open, an attacking strategy that increasingly looks too naive for this level.

Douglas Luiz was expected to run the entire right side of the pitch on Saturday (Anwar el Ghazi never tracks back) and simply could not.

Conor Hourihane played in such an advanced role that Marvelous Nakamba was left alone in the middle; and, most importantly, both full-backs were much too far forward.

Southampton’s full-backs Cedric Soares and Ryan Bertrand did well to push forward on the counter, making things particularly difficult for a centre-back partnership left to deal with an entire half of the pitch.

The visitors deserve credit for overwhelming the flanks, where Villa are weakest, and yet it was hardly rocket science.

Villa will be relegated unless Smith makes big changes.