We look at key talking points including Jeremy Doku’s stunning show and the implications of Sheff Utd’s first win.
After a weekend of Premier League drama, Alex Keble looks at the key talking points and tactical lessons including:
– Dazzling Doku against Bournemouth
– Nunez’s wastefulness epitomises Liverpool
– Man Utd benefit from Fulham’s blunt attack
– Villa and Brighton come unstuck against bottom-half teams
– Sheff Utd’s huge victory
Doku carries Man City to top spot
After a four-week absence Manchester City have moved back to the top of the Premier League for 48 hours at least, their 6-1 victory over AFC Bournemouth marking the beginning of a near-perfect weekend for them in which Arsenal and Liverpool dropped points.
Bournemouth, who fell into the bottom three in defeat, were always likely to be roundly beaten at the Etihad but nevertheless this was a notable win because it signals the arrival of City’s latest attacking star.
At 21 years and 161 days Jeremy Doku became the youngest player in Premier League history to get five goal involvements in a match and the youngest to get four assists. It was an outrageous performance of efficiency, menace, and for-the-throat direct running.
Doku gives City an element they have lacked since Raheem Sterling’s departure in 2022: a player willing to take on a defender and dribble in straight lines towards goal.
It’s a quality that used to mean so much to Pep Guardiola teams as a counterpoint to all the possession and low-tempo control; a moment of acceleration to break through a stubborn low block.
Doku’s four assists and goal v AFC Bournemouth
Now City have that ability once again, and in Doku they are blessed with one of the world’s best dribblers and ball carriers. FBRef’s scouting report, which compares his stats to every attacker in the “Big Five” leagues over the last 365 days, puts Doku in the 99th percentile for progressive carries (8.06 per match) and successful take-ons (6.23).
Indeed, his ball carrying in the Premier League in 2023/24 has been frankly ridiculous, as highlighted in the graph below.
It gives Man City a new creative element and should help Erling Haaland (another direct player more at ease moving at high speed) even if on this occasion the Norwegian didn’t manage to get on the scoresheet.
More importantly, Guardiola has a new in-form attacker ready to lead ahead of a crucial run of games for City, who face Chelsea (A), Liverpool (H), Tottenham Hotspur (H), and Aston Villa (A) in their next four Premier League matches
Nunez finishing a problem for Liverpool
Not for the first time – this season or last – Darwin Nunez frustrated Liverpool fans. Nunez is a raging bull of a footballer who tears around the pitch causing chaos, but despite the many positives to his game, he remains erratic in front of goal.
Nunez took nine shots in the 1-1 draw at Luton Town, the most by a Liverpool player in a match without scoring since Roberto Firmino against Manchester United in December 2018.
He epitomised Liverpool’s wastefulness with a shocking miss from six yards in the 70th minute at a time when an opener for Jurgen Klopp’s side would surely have led to three points.
By the end, Liverpool had racked up an Expected Goals (xG) of 2.6 from 24 shots, suggesting they did everything required to win – except put away their chances.
However, Liverpool didn’t look likely to score until Klopp brought on Harvey Elliott in the 66th minute and moved into a considerably wider formation.
Before then, the visitors’ attacking lines were far too narrow to trouble such a compact shell of Luton defenders, hence why three of their six shots on target (plus Darwin’s glaring miss) came in those final 20 minutes.
The introduction of Luis Diaz for Ryan Gravenberch in the 84th minute completed the transformation into a very wide 4-2-4, in which Elliott and Diaz now held width to assist the Liverpool full-backs in stretching Luton out of position.
To illustrate the point, look at the difference between Liverpool’s average positions in the first half versus the average positions in the second half of the 11 players who ended the match.
The tactical switch and injection of width was vindicated with a spell of late pressure, followed by Elliot coming in off the right to assist for Diaz’s equaliser.
But with Liverpool unable to score the winner, ultimately Klopp paid the price for not anticipating the difficulties and not deploying a wider formation from the outset.
Man Utd benefit from Fulham’s blunt attack
A surprising error from Joao Palhinha gifted Bruno Fernandes the winning goal for Man Utd in what was a sleepy,
frustrating and low-quality game on Saturday.
The win has eased the pressure on Erik ten Hag a little, although nobody watching could spin this as a turning point for United. Fulham could just as easily have won and 0-0 would have been a fairer reflection.
Not for the first time this season, the opposition at Craven Cottage benefitted from Fulham’s difficulty scoring goals without Aleksandar Mitrovic. Only 11.1 per cent of Fulham’s shots went on target, their lowest percentage of the season to date, with Alex Iwobi, Willian, and Harry Wilson all firing wildly.
Rodrigo Muniz struggled to hold the ball up throughout the match and looked unconvincing in the penalty area, as did Carlos Vinicius and Raul Jimenez during their stints on the field.
This is not a new problem for Marco Silva. Fulham’s eight goals are the second-fewest in the Premier League, while only Burnley, Luton, and Sheffield United have had fewer shots on target this season than Fulham’s 37.
Perhaps most damning of all, rock-bottom Sheff Utd are the only side to have shot fewer times from inside the penalty area than Fulham’s 71 efforts.
With just one win in the last six and sliding towards the bottom three, it looks like Fulham will need a new striker in January to avoid being sucked into a relegation battle.
Brighton & Villa suffering from greater respect
Brighton & Hove Albion are now winless in five Premier League matches, while Villa, after an unconvincing display in last weekend’s 3-1 victory over Luton, produced an almost carbon-copy performance in the 2-0 defeat at Nottingham Forest.
Both neutrals’ favourites are showing signs of a slight decline. In both cases it’s because opponents are no longer underestimating them.
Ever since Everton’s 5-1 win at the Amex last season clubs have looked to copy Sean Dyche’s template by refusing to be baited into pressing Brighton and, sitting deep, simply waiting for chances to counter-attack.
Unsurprisingly Dyche used the same model on Saturday, and although Everton weren’t as clinical on the break they did restrict Brighton to their lowest xG of the season (0.7) while holding less possession at 21 per cent, than anyone else has against them.
Forest did something very similar to beat Villa. Steve Cooper’s side sat deep – allowing Villa’s centre-backs to hold as much possession as they wanted – only to snap sharply into challenges once the ball was fed into Douglas Luiz or John McGinn.
After winning it back, Forest would then launch route-one long balls over the top of Villa’s high line for Anthony Elanga and Taiwo Awoniyi to chase. It worked perfectly, and despite Forest scoring from their only two shots on target they deserved their win for a well-executed game plan.
Villa and Brighton are going to have to get used to this. No longer flying under the radar, these two clubs are being treated with respect – and caution.
The press-baiting tactics of Roberto De Zerbi and Unai Emery will be less and less effective as the season goes on, and indeed their respective upcoming fixtures are likely to be defined by more low blocks and frustrating afternoons.
Villa have Fulham at home this weekend while Brighton host Sheffield United. On paper they look easy matches, but counter-intuitively the clubs near the bottom are the ones who pose the biggest threat.