The Red Devils proved against Tottenham that they can win in a number of different ways, while Arsenal’s lack of creativity was highlighted once again
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s dream start to life as Manchester United boss continued with a sixth successive victory, and his 1-0 win over Tottenham at Wembley was undoubtedly the best of the lot; it was a patient, nuanced tactical performance that proved the Norwegian is more than just an uplifting presence in the dressing room.
Elsewhere on a pretty uninspiring weekend of Premier League football, Arsenal’s attacking difficulties continued in a 1-0 defeat at West Ham, while Ralph Hasenhuttl produced a tactical surprise as his Southampton side beat Leicester City at the King Power Stadium.
Here, Goal takes a look at five tactical things you might not have noticed from the top-flight action:
Ozil-less Arsenal cannot afford Aubameyang and Lacazette luxury
Having scored just two goals in their last three away league matches, it is increasingly obvious that Arsenal lack guile without Mesut Ozil.
West Ham’s narrow defensive blockade was always going to prove difficult to break down, and despite early promise from the visitors – Alex Iwobi drifted neatly in from the left for the first 20 minutes – they were completely blunt. Iwobi had nobody to link with, and in a bare No. 10 spot it was Matteo Guendouzi constantly probing. That should not happen.
The solution will not be easy to find, but certainly Unai Emery needs to shuffle the pack.
The standout lesson from Saturday’s game was that Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang cannot play together in stubborn, claustrophobic away matches. Both players flirt on the periphery, waiting for others to come short and prise an opening in the final third.
Consequently Arsenal held plenty of aimless possession in midfield without posing any serious threat at the London Stadium. Credit should go to West Ham and Declan Rice in particular – he made more ball recoveries (11) than any other player on the pitch – but it is becoming far too easy to blunt Emery’s side.
Aubameyang’s passes vs Westham
Man Utd highlight Sissoko’s importance to Spurs
Moussa Sissoko’s importance to Tottenham has increased dramatically now that Mousa Dembele and Victor Wanyama are regular absentees; his energy drives Spurs forward, mopping up the loose balls and ensuring Spurs’ possession is constantly evolving.
A lot of Sissoko’s work is not caught by the cameras. He shuttles around intelligently in his own half to create space for the pass, often dropping into right-back on Sunday in order to offer the centre-backs an out-ball when Kieran Trippier was marauding forward.
It is easy to miss Sissoko’s work, but not this time: Manchester United scored their winner within minutes of Sissoko leaving the field with a hamstring injury.
It was technically an unforced error from Trippier (his third of the match, incidentally) but he only attempted an awkward longer pass because he had no shorter option.
The giant Sissoko-shaped hole to his left prevented Trippier from doing something simple, and within seconds Marcus Rashford found the target.
Solskjaer proves he’s more than just an attacking coach
It was not the goal-fest many had anticipated prior to kick-off, and while David de Gea deserves most of the plaudits for a heroic performance, United showed a resilience and defensive intelligence that is testament to Solskjaer’s good work on the training field.
Following the gruelling Christmas schedule, Solskjaer has had two weeks to work with his players and things are already beginning to click. Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic were superb together, squeezing out the space between midfield and defence in unison where there had previously been problems.
Solskjaer and his players felt the rhythm of the match superbly. United had begun with a high line but excellent compression between the lines (a big shift from the low block deployed by Jose Mourinho) ended in a hunched shape with Romelu Lukaku as target man.
Most importantly, Luke Shaw and Ashley Young rarely got forward, which came as a big surprise given the importance Solskjaer had previously placed on attacking full-backs.
Spurs’ best moments came on the counter – a symptom of United’s growing influence once Spurs switched to an open 4-4-2 – which gave validation to Solskjaer’s decision to deploy conservative tactics throughout. His substitutions also proved effective, with Son Heung-Min’s growing influence on the left wing tempered after Diogo Dalot’s introduction.
Shaw’s touches vs Spurs
Young’s touches vs Spurs
Hasenhuttl highlights best way to beat Leicester
After going down to 10 men on the stroke of half-time, Southampton’s 2-1 win at Leicester has gone down as a backs-to-the-wall victory for the visitors, and yet this interpretation fails to appreciate that Southampton’s second-half strategy was no different from the first.
Ralph Hasenhuttl instructed his players to sit deeper than usual and engage Leicester predominantly in their own half.
“The first half showed we had a very good match plan, with our counter-attacks and deep-ball wins,” he said after the game. “We forced the mistakes of the opponent. We stayed in this shape [in the second half] and defended very deep.”
Hasenhuttl deliberately abandoned his usual high-pressing system in order to coax Leicester forward and then spring forward on the counter-attack, as they did for both goals. Saints attempted just three tackles in the opposition half across the entire opening 45 minutes.
Hasenhuttl evidently reasoned that Leicester are blunt when allowed to play Claude Puel’s prosaic possession football and useful only when reverting to their old counter-attacking methods. The fact that Hasenhuttl knew this, and dramatically altered his tactics accordingly, suggests the Premier League have found out how to beat Puel.
Lookman proves his worth to Silva’s Everton
Ademola Lookman has rarely been given the opportunity to impress under Marco Silva and is yet to enjoy a run in the first team as an Everton player, despite some excellent performances at RB Leipzig in the 2017-18 season.
On only his second league start of the campaign against Bournemouth, Lookman grabbed his second assist – a neat cutback to Dominic Calvert-Lewin in the dying moments to give Everton a two-goal cushion.
Lookman’s performance may have been patchy, but Everton were at their most dangerous when he was on the ball, dribbling at the Bournemouth defence to offer a direct presence that Theo Walcott increasingly lacks.
Lookman completed four dribbles, more than Walcott has managed in any of his 24 games this season.
As Silva continues his search for a winning formula, surely it is time Lookman is bedded into the first XI.