Sunday 21 January 2018 / 11:56 AM

BOX-TO-BOX: EPL MATCHDAY 16 & 17

Talking points and analysis from Matchday 16 with an eye on the upcoming mid-week fixtures

The Headline

City stride ahead

After talking about them in comparison to one another all season, there were lofty expectations set for the latest instalment of the Manchester derby, and it did not fail to deliver. With Mourinho known for his tentativeness in these fixtures and Guardiola with plenty of incentive to follow suit, we were fortunate enough to have both managers play to win.

And both teams resembled their usual self – City were dominant on the ball, constant, calculated and dangerous going forward and purposeful in defence; United were flashy, lethal but ultimately without a stable path to victory and a heavy talent reliance.

Mourninho’s decision to go with all three of Martial, Lingaard and Rashford behind Lukaku wasn’t without merit: in the absence of Pogba, he was almost forced to try something unorthodox. But playing essentially four forwards left their midfield understaffed, and with Matic having his hands full attempting to track either Silva or De Bruyne, they lacked creative control through the middle. From the opposite perspective, attempting to hollow out the midfield and dare City’s backline to move forward was ultimately unsuccessful in nullifying their offence, even when we were treated to far too much of Otamendi surging down the field.

City still, despite dominating proceedings, didn’t generate many clear chances and were only able to net off two unusual set-piece situations. The same could be said for United, who only found their way back into the match off an unlikely double error — Otamendi missing a point-blank header before Delph missed the ball that landed at the feet of Rashford. Aside from that, they failed to get a look at goal until late, when only some brilliant, De Gea-esque keeping from Ederson stood between them and the draw. The effect that the snowy weather had on the style of the game cannot be understated.

United were right to try and play City physically, and whilst their formation tended more towards counterattack than build-up play, maybe the most important takeaway is that City’s style absolutely holds up against the best of the best — maybe not at the dizzying, unstoppable heights of the previous two months, but still enough to pick up the most important win of their season to date. Their huge 11-point buffer puts them in the driver’s seat to cruise towards the title.

Week 16 Winners and Losers

Winner: Hammer time

West Ham’s first win in over two months was always going to be a huge moment in their season, but the effects of their gallant 1-0 prevail over Chelsea may have a more significant and dire consequence for the team on the losing end.

Whilst the Chelsea perspective is the more immediate one, take nothing away from the Hammers and their excellent perfomance. Their best 90 minutes for the entire year came with a host of important, breakthrough perfomances: Arnautovic played his best game in a West Ham jersey, seemingly overcoming his early-season struggles; Michael Antonio was Lukaku-esque through the first two-thirds of the game, then dropped deep and marked Victor Moses fighting through fatigue in a hearty display; their defensive-five looked sensational — Zabaleta and Masuaku have found a home on either flank and centre-halves Reid and Cresswell were the most important players on the field.

For the first time this season West Ham have a core to construct a team around, and with a route to escape the relegation zone, all of sudden there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Winner: The Kane and Son partnership

Let’s get this out of the way first: Harry Kane’s miss was a shocker. In the end it didn’t matter, but chances that clean are tough to come by, especially landing at the feet of the most potent finisher in football. Had the game been closer, that would have been a tough pill to swallow.

But even in the perceived lowlight, there is evidence of the lethality of this growing combination:

Spurs’ swirling attack frequently invites these types of arcing runs, but Son Heung Min accelerates back toward goal with an extra zip no one else on the team offers. His real value lies in the combination of these skills: his pace adds an element of dynamism, but he possesses the vision and touch necessary to keep the offence functioning as intended.

Here, those two skills intersect perfectly: his speed creates a passing lane that would otherwise be unavailable and allows him to attack a backtracking defence. With the attention elsewhere, Kane slips behind and Son finds him with a perfectly-weighted pass. Out of what appears to be thin air, Kane finds himself one-on-one with the keeper with space to work — 99.9 times out of a hundred Kane buries that in the net.

Don’t let the miss distract you, this is proof of a deadly duo that is integral in rejigging a stagnant attack. Pochettino moved from a 3-4-2-1 to a 4-2-3-1 in the past few games in hope of generating better opportunities, and incorporating more of this action for Son is one of the driving forces behind the tweak.

Son’s other contributions — an assist for Eriksen and a goal of his own off a perfectly-timed run — might have been flashier, but it’s this type of versatility that stands to improve Tottenham the most.

Loser: Sadio Mane, playmaker

Mane is an incredibly dangerous attacking weapon, but if you send the ball his way, don’t expect it back. We’ve seen his lack of vision on a few too many occasions this year, and against Everton he was up to his old tricks again:

There is no reason for that not to end in a goal, and with the score finishing as it did, this is painful to watch. The Reds’ attack failed to fire despite all of the ball (79.4%), and the Countinho-Firminho-Salah frontline put up five goals in their last outing — Mane might find himself a long shot to get a crack at the starting spot against West Brom on Thursday.

Winner: Olivier Giroud, poacher

Whether you’re a fan of his or not, there’s no denying that Giroud is a reliable option to have up your sleeve when you need some last-ditch magic. Saved Arsenal from what would’ve been a crushing defeat with what’s become his trademark play — the late-game header. He’s now scored four goals in as many games, and with Lacazette struggling for consistency, might find himself with some extra game-time as Wenger looks for some reliable scoring.

Loser: Hugo Lloris

Threw his clean sheet away with a reactionary lunge at the ball that left the goal completely unprotected. If you’re going to leave your line you have to make contact with the ball. He didn’t get close, and the result is always a goal. Lloris is a terrific keeper, but he is prone to some rash decision-making that clouds his otherwise great ability.

Matt Ryan Watch

Things had been so quiet at the back for Brighton recently that this segment had been left on ice for a while. Brighton were uncharacteristically leaky in a 2-0 loss to Huddersfield on Saturday, bringing the action back to Ryan.

A fine save early to deny a thunderous Steve Mounie volley was quickly undone by a corner that was poorly defended and left the Aussie on an island. His following involvement was a conceded goal off some unfortunately poor work, missing a point-blank stop that could have prevented the goal. Ryan bounced right back, with some terrific work to deny Tom Ince from about a foot from goal, fearlessly meeting a low cross with his chest before collecting the deflection, then naturally taking off on attack. His resilient efforts prevented the scoreline from ballooning out, and more than made up for his opening error.

Considering their next game is Tottenham, expect Ryan to be plenty involved.

Looking ahead

The midweek Matchday 17 fixtures are shaping to be a dividing point in the season, the slate of games featuring a host of match-ups pitting higher-performing teams against bottom-half battlers. After recently failing to pick up full points, contending hopefuls United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea will all be out for retribution and cannot afford to leave anything but a victory, with each of their opponents currently ranked outside the top 10.

City will look to consolidate their commanding lead when they attempt to chase a record 16th straight win against former boogie team Swansea. With a small buffer separating teams sitting second to sixth and a logjam at both the Europa and above-relegation zones, the swing of these results will have significant effects on the makeup of the table moving forward.

Parting shots

• Stoke have now lost their last four matches against Tottenham by a combined scoreline of 17-1,
the first time in top-flight history anyone has lost four games in a row by four or more goals.

• Quietly, Palace have now gone unbeaten in their last five games. Madness.

• Fernandinho and Lingaard going back and forth throughout the Derby was one of the best individual battles of the year.

• We need more Willian. Chelsea’s attack simply looks far more dangerous and varied when he is on the pitch.

• Am I the only one who thinks Kyle Walker looks just a little like Drake?

• Watford have not beat Burnley at home in 13 years, and The Clarets have only conceded three times at Turf Moor all season — visiting teams need to come ready for a fight.

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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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