Premier League bold predictions: Set pieces save Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as Manchester United face Spurs

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This weekend’s Premier League games bring with them a host of intriguing clashes, not least the battle between two beleaguered managers as Ole Gunnar Solksjaer and Nuno Espirito Santo face off at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. That’s where we’ll begin this week’s bold-prediction lookahead:

Tottenham vs. Manchester United: Set pieces are Spurs’ undoing

Spurs must be delighted to be welcoming Manchester United to north London. There are few opponents who could so emphatically put their difficulties in the shade because while things could be going an awful lot better for Nuno, his difficulties are nothing just yet on the travails faced by Solskjaer. In the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s 5-0 defeat to Liverpool, the sack seemed inevitable. It still does. But he has been given this trip to Tottenham Hotspur Stadium to pull out of his nosedive.

It rather feels like Solskjaer’s best-case scenario right now is to find himself trapped in the footballing version of the Terminator franchise: Forever forestalling Judgement Day, never quite getting to a future that does not end in apocalypse. It may just be a matter of when, not if, it all ends in tears, but there are reasons for the United boss to hope he might be extend his reign into November.

If nothing else, Tottenham have proven to be extremely hospitable defensively. They have allowed opponents’ shots worth a combined 14.31 expected goals (xG) in nine Premier League games this season, the sixth-worst tally in the top flight, inferior even to United after their drubbing at Liverpool’s hands. At the other end, Spurs are hardly ripping apart teams — good news for Solskjaer at a time when his backline has all the structural integrity of a bubble — and have registered 9.17xG for their chances. They might be sitting sixth in the table but only five teams have a worse xG difference.

Crucially, Spurs’ vulnerabilities feed right into what United can do well. They are one of three teams who have already conceded two goals from opposition set plays this season, according to Opta, and one could reasonably bump that number up to three considering Eric Dier turned one of Newcastle’s into his own net just under a fortnight ago. Then there are a host of goals conceded because they cannot fully clear initial deliveries into the box, be it Antonio Rudiger’s third for Chelsea last month or the spectacular goal Ziga Kous scored for NS Mura in the Europa Conference League.

This is not an issue that Nuno has imported to Spurs, who let in five goals from set pieces in last season’s Premier League while allowing the most shots on Hugo Lloris’ goal, but it does not seem to be one he has addressed. Some of the explanations for this are simple. Aaron Cresswell will provide assists from corners and Thiago Silva will provide goals because they are both excellent exponents of that.

Equally, it is fair to question Tottenham’s organization at the back when they are letting the ball bounce off a West Ham set piece for Michail Antonio to tap in, or when Dele Alli is failing to beat Thiago Silva to a delivery when he has two inches size advantage over the Chelsea center back. Whether that is an issue of organization or effort is hard to say, but it has been apparent for long enough now that it ought to have been rectified.

Nuno probably ought not to turn to Solskjaer for advice on defending set pieces — United are equally underwhelming — but he will know that the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Harry Maguire and Edinson Cavani can be terrors from the dead ball. Since the start of 2020-21, no team has had more shots off set pieces than the Red Devils. Keep that record up at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and they may get the win that Solskjaer so desperately needs.

Leicester vs. Arsenal: Strike duo cuts through Foxes defense

It is Mikel Arteta’s good fortune that having found a system that worked ideally for Arsenal last time out against Aston Villa, he has the ideal excuse to deploy it again in the next Premier League game. A three-man defense had been shaping up to be the Gunners’ kryptonite this season. It was easy to see why.

Be it Martin Odegaard, Emile Smith Rowe or both, whenever those players were placed as the No. 10 in a 4-2-3-1 or free eights in a 4-3-3, their tendency was to move deeper to collect the ball. Possession was built slowly and often by the time the ball reached the final third the three-man defensive unit flanked by wingbacks could just stand there, challenging Arsenal to slip a long through ball into Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

Adding Alexandre Lacazette into the side brought an immediate impact on and off the ball. Without it, the Frenchman was as energetic as anyone in Arsenal’s aggressive press, twice winning possession back for his side in the Villa half (he should have had three to his name but his bullying of Ezri Konsa in the visitors box was harshly judged to be a foul when the defender had his hands all over Lacazette’s shirt).

When Arsenal had possession he was still dropping deep, not quite a second center forward in a 4-4-2 but certainly not a classical No. 10 either. Every time he moved away from the tip of the attack, it was with a purpose, whether that was to drag a center back with him or so he could make a later, more dangerous run into the box as he does in this passage of play below.

Aubameyang pulls the Aston Villa defense away to make space for Lacazette to attack
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It helps that he has an exceptional understanding with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang when they play through the middle together, a partnership that has not really been given the opportunity to flourish since the latter days of Unai Emery’s first season in charge. In that image above, the angle opens up for Lacazette to attack precisely because Aubameyang curls his run away and drags Axel Tuanzebe with him. On that occasion, the space for the pass did not quite open up for Emile Smith Rowe but if it had these two veteran strikers seemed poised to pounce.

Against Leicester, Arsenal will face a similar system even if the defense will probably not be as disorganised as Villa’s was, although take Jonny Evans out of the equation and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be. The Foxes might look to exploit a numerical advantage in central midfield, but without Wilfried Ndidi, it does not seem a given that Youri Tielemans and James Maddison will be able to impose their will on the dynamic pairing of Thomas Partey and Albert Sambi Lokonga. 

It should probably be treated as a given that Jamie Vardy will score against Arsenal — he has 11 goals and an assist in 13 games against them — but the Gunners might just have the firepower to win anyway.

Aston Villa vs. West Ham: Antonio outshoots Ings

It is hardly the boldest of assessments to point out how excellent Michail Antonio is. It has been widely noted how pivotal he is to West Ham’s revival, and yet despite that, the 31-year-old still seems to be a little underrated, treated as a curio of a former right back rather than one of the Premier League’s elite forwards. He ought to be positioned among the latter. Since the start of David Moyes’ reign, he is the joint sixth-highest scorer in the top flight, level with the man he will face off against on Sunday: Aston Villa’s Danny Ings.

Notably, however, Antonio’s xG from that period is far greater than Ings. From 144 shots, the West Ham striker has 30.13 xG, Ings’ tally is 18.85xG off 116 shots. One might make a case for the former Southampton forward as therefore being the superior striking option, but while he may have a case for being the better pure finisher (something buttressed by his penchant for spectacular finishing), there is no more valuable trait in a striker than getting into positions to shoot. And Antonio does that. A lot. Put it this way, if both players were to regress toward the mean based on the chances they have found themselves with, it would be the West Ham man with a notably greater goal tally.

History would suggest that Ings will not add to his goal return against the Hammers defense. In nine games against them, he is yet to score and has lost eight of them. Of late, it has not even been a case of bad luck in front of goal, in the three seasons prior to this one he averaged a shot every 101 minutes against West Ham, who have the sort of sizeable center back corps that can pose a challenge for him.


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As for Antonio, even if he does not score himself, he could well have a direct hand in West Ham’s goals. Since the turn of the year, only Paul Pogba (10) betters his tally of eight assists, a welcome tally to go alongside his 13 goals (Harry Kane and Mohamed Salah are the only ones ahead of him in that particular category. A statistic like goal contributions is supposed to favor wide forwards and attacking midfielders like Salah and Bruno Fernandes, yet it is Antonio right behind the former across the Premier League in 2021. Notably many of those assists reflect the composure in front of a goal of an elite striker, drawing the attention of defenders and the goalkeeper before rolling the ball square to an onrushing midfielder.

It is one of those simple things extremely well executed that is becoming a hallmark of Moyes’ West Ham side, who might just be the fourth-best team in England. Certainly, having one of the league’s best strikers buttresses that claim. It sounds like a fairly bold prediction to say the Hammers should comfortably win against Villa. Maybe it shouldn’t be.



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