Monday 19 February 2018 / 09:54 PM

BOX-TO-BOX: EPL MATCHDAY 24

Talking points and analysis from Week 24 of the Premier League

Back on track

After the unstoppable brilliance of their first 23 games, the most intriguing storyline heading into the week was how City would respond to their first slice of adversity after an unblemished start to the season. With ease would be an understatement, as the league leaders got right back to business, picking apart Newcastle in the meticulously unwavering manner we’ve come to expect from the league leaders.

Aguero’s performance in the 3-1 win — torturing Newcastle as per usual, netting a hat-trick — was another huge plus, the striker bouncing back from some uncharacteristic performances to put in a trademark effort in front of goal.

Leroy Sane’s infectious form again deserves a mention, particularly his stunning effort to set up Aguero’s final goal with a glorious run that saw him glide past three Newcastle defenders before serving up the ball on a platter. Continue to click on all cylinders like this, and the title is only a few wins away from being well secure at the Etihad.

Chelsea, remembering how to score goals

After an inexplicable run of three games without a goal, Chelsea rediscovered the net in emphatic fashion, blasting four past a hapless Brighton outfit in an encouraging offensive display, a timely reminder of their attacking firepower when they get it right.

In most of Conte preferred lineups, Hazard is the lone bright spark, depended upon to lift majority of the creative load and offer some offensive action for a team with a heavy defensive inclination. The presence of Willian changes the equation completely — no other player comes from the bench and has his fingertips all over his team’s performance. Their style of play changes, their pace and control are improved — all for the better.

Marvel at this piece of brilliance:

Maybe it took a scoreless run for Conte to finally realise what’s been obvious for most of the season: Hazard is a world-class footballer, but sending him out there alone will restrict both his and the team’s success. Add another talented attacker to complement him, and his contributions immediately skyrocket. As a result, the team will perform better. Their defence doesn’t need any more attention (tied first with only 16 goals conceded), but their attack stands to improve. The line-up change should make itself at this point.

With a nightmare schedule from late-Feburary through to April to navigate, Chelsea cannot afford another dip in form. Their next three fixtures — Bournemouth, Watford and West Brom — have to be wins.

Moody Gunners

Just like Chelsea, the Gunners came out focused on the job at hand and managed to get off to a hot start with a barrage of early goals. Whilst a strong start is usually ideal in settling the nerves, it galvanised Arsenal to reach levels we’ve seldom seen from them this season and they went on to douse in-form Palace 4-1.

Impressive in advanced areas as evidenced by their incredibly efficient four goals off only 16 total shots, the gap between the Gunners and the teams ahead of them on the table appear to be larger in points than it is in ability.

It’s becoming increasingly obvious that everything that Arsenal do is impacted by two factors — their confidence and their patience. When they take command and slowly construct possessions they look consistently dangerous. But too often, as they progress through the third and fourth waves of attack, they lose focus and lash out at goal, whether that’s a premature long shot or an overzealous attempt to knock the ball through the defence.

When they keep their build-up play calm, tidy and focused very few teams have the defensive fortitude to stop them. Patience is the name of the game. Under that scope, depending on Ozil — a player with a notoriously fragile temperament — as their lone star man going forward is a risky proposition. Liverpool perked up after Coutinho’s exit and Arsenal’s first go around without Sanchez was equally convincing. There’s something to watch there.

Fail to fire

It’s almost unfair to point out that even in stringing together 754 passes, the second-highest tally across all games, Liverpool couldn’t break down the worst team in the league and pick up three points, just one week after knocking off the team at the top playing historically good football. The urgency they showed late was needed much earlier, and the lack of time created a panic that inhibited their ability to grab the decisive goal.

Instead they sunk to a momentum-halting 1-0 loss to bottom-placed Swansea.

To say that Liverpool’s problems are as simple as ‘great attack, bad defence’ would be overlooking the evidence presented to us with more than half a season’s samples. That usually manifests itself in the 4-2 type bonanzas that Arsenal and United have put on time and time again, and elite attacking teams don’t fail to score in this scenario

The problem, which has been the case since at least Week 5, is striking a balance. It’s created by an offensive inclination that certainly restricts their consistency, but their inability to push forward and dominant against teams with no interest in moving up the field has nothing to do with either of those problems.

Which way your game-plan swings is best decided (and implemented) by the midfield, and Liverpool remain understaffed to the point that it hinges on the opponent, enough to find them easily unsettled by Swansea.

Another set piece goal does little to ease the pressure on their ever-struggling defence, especially when Van Dijk was responsible for the miscue. Top talent can’t immediately fix structural inadequacy, but that’s a conversation for another day.

The City win was an encouraging reminder of their ceiling, but it was far from the tide-changing victory we’d hoped. The search for consistency goes on.

The Burnley Bubble

Only Southampton (11) are on a longer winless run in the Premier League than Burnley, who are now seven games without a win.

Burnley have particularly struggled in fixtures where they’ve been tasked with setting the pace and spend more time in possession. They’ve cut their teeth on being a fortress at the back and withstanding waves of attack without conceding, but stepping into the next tier of teams means a new level of respect is shown by sides who accept their inferiority and game-plan against it. In Week 23 against Palace, who are particularly improved in that exact area and have been learning how to beat better teams all season, exposed that flaw.

But the wheels are coming off: their most recent match-up with United was a chance to get back to successfully playing the underdog role, but their lack of rhythm was a clear indicator they’ve taken a step back from where earlier in the season. Problem is, 48% possession and 14 shots (two more than United!) are way above their regular marks, only further escalating fear that a further slide might be coming.

Losing 1-0 to the second-best team in the league isn’t a major concern in isolation, but their place on the table feels artificially high — the bubble may be about to burst.

Watford in freefall

One win from 11 games was enough for Watford’s management to pull the pin on Marco Silva’s tenure after only eight months in charge. Sitting 10th on the table isn’t the worst of situations to find themselves in (although their 19th-ranked defence is alarming), but their losing run has shut the gap with the teams below them and relegation has become a problem for the first time this season.

The other teams who have changed coaches this year have all found it to bring about a positive change, and their upcoming run of games give them a great chance to turn things around before it’s too late. Currently bottom three on the form-guide, we’re about to see what this roster is made of.

Relegation madness

The top eight have separated and sorted themselves from the pack, Everton sits alone on an island at ninth, and everybody below them are in risk of falling into the battle for survival as only six points separate 10th and last place. The next few weeks will be massive in deciding who rides out the year in comfort and who is fighting for their Premier League lives.

Stray observations

– Huddersfield, after a 2-0 loss at the hand of Stoke, now fall to the 18th-ranked defensive record. What’s more worrying? Failing to score on the worst defence in the league. Grave concerns for Town with Liverpool and United their next two on the docket.

– Everton drew with West Brom, because of course they did.

– Hector Bellerin is criminally underused in Arsenal’s system. He is one of the best two-way players in the league and creates great looks any time he’s given the freedom to attack with the ball. Wegner needs to let him loose.

– Deli Alli continues his wayward form, and Eriksen’s absence really emphasised how important his contributions are — and in turn how minimally Alli is tasked each week. A draw against Southampton is inexcusable either way, but the way that it came about is most concerning.

– Even though I don’t have access to these types of stats, I’m willing to bet my life that Raheem Sterling leads the league in time spent on the turf. He must fall over at least three times a game.

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About the author

Brayden Issa

Brayden is a Sydney-based sports management student and sports fanatic, specialising in rugby league, basketball, football and cricket. He is concerned with everything related to professional sports performance and management.

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