Premier League bold predictions for Boxing Day: Chelsea revive title push; Lacazette fires up Arsenal


There are few better combinations in sport than Premier League and Boxing Day, the festive feast of football that rarely disappoints. Already, however, two games have been wrenched off the schedule with others in doubt. Here are some of the things to keep an eye on in the games that are happening and a look at what might have been.

Norwich vs. Arsenal: Lacazette revs up Gunners’ press

The challenge for Mikel Arteta when selecting Alexandre Lacazette is that his Frenchman can lurch between devastating and disappointing when so little changes about the way in which he goes about his business. At his best he is a free-roaming menace across the pitch. At his worst he is a free-roaming menace across the pitch. 

At times the difference can simply be whether his center backs actually follow him, as Leeds did in such disastrous fashion last week, leaving huge tracts of space in behind for Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka to exploit. When things backfire, as they did against Everton, Lacazette can do not that much different but become a non-entity in the game, drifting so deep in that he ended the game with as many touches in the right back spot as in the penalty area. Happily for Arteta and Arsenal games like the former have been the norm over the last fortnight with Lacazette occupying at least something approximating the positions they would want their center forward to be in.

Lacazette’s touch maps against Everton, where he struggled, and in an excellent display against Leeds point to the fact that he can do similar things (dropping deep into the left channel) but have wildly different levels of involvements in and impact on the game
TruMedia

In part that has been because of the work Arsenal are doing without the ball. Under Arteta the Gunners’ defensive identity has been rather fluid; in one game they can slip into a rather deep block before bursting out of the traps to harass center backs in the following match. On occasions their defensive plan can be imposed on them by opponents — Arsenal simply are not a good enough team to defend the way they want against the very best the Premier League has to offer — but in general they seem to have an identity crisis brought on by a frontline that has younger players for whom pressing comes naturally and others, such as Nicolas Pepe, who are altogether more reluctant to chase the ball. 

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There is no unifying off-ball (or indeed on-ball) approach around which this attack has been built. It is for that reason that the Gunners rank 12th in the Premier League in terms of passes per defensive action, a key pressing metric, this season, the same as last. That comparative position can veer wildly from game to game however. With Lacazette leading the line, Arsenal are starting to develop a consistent approach from the front onwards.

For all his issues doing some of the things more naturally associated with center forwards — Arsenal’s current captain averages a shot every 64.2 minutes, a tally bettered by 102 Premier League players including Gunners left back Nuno Tavares — Lacazette is exceptional without the ball at his feet. According to FB-Reference he ranks in the 92nd percentile of forwards for interceptions across the big five leagues whilst his pressure stats have also increased significantly of late, the 30 he attempted against Leeds was his highest tally since New Year’s Day 2020. Over the last 365 days he is in the 95th percentile of strikers in terms of pressure success rate (31.1 percent).

In this current setup Lacazette is far from alone in relishing the hard yards. He now leads a more youthful frontline that is more than comfortable with carrying out Arteta’s preferred defensive approach, a front footed style that aims to win the ball back as near to the opposition goal as possible. It has worked, most notably in a 2-0 win over West Ham where Lacazette and Gabriel Martinelli combined to win nine tackles and carry out 14 successful pressures.

“That’s what I demand them to do,” Arteta told CBS Sports after that match. “If we are to play the way that we want and I want, those players have to be able to do that consistently in every single action. That’s why it facilitates everything that happens in behind, because that process is done at the right moment, with the right rhythm and intensity. I’m really pleased with that.”

It has been happening with regularity. Even against Southampton, where Lacazette’s number of pressures was far lower than it has been in the last two games, he was making life more difficult for defenders. On this occasion he and Martin Odegaard determined that the best way to deal with the ball at defenders’ feet was to block off their passing lanes and shepherd the center backs into spots from which it was easier to force bad passes, as they do here.

Arsenal’s pressing, led by Lacazette, forces Jack Stephens into a nervy punt into touch
Wyscout/Premier League

There is an impressive synchronicity to the way Arsenal pushed Jack Stephens into a spot he did not want to be, at least by the Gunners’ relatively low standards as a pressing outfit. With Odegaard blocking off the infield pass and Martinelli bursting into shot to block off the pass to Tino Livramento. Lacazette is keeping pressure on the ball carrier whilst blocking the midfield lane to James Ward-Prowse, leaving Stephens with precious few options but to kick for touch. For many clubs this is standard fare, rather less so for Arsenal prior to the last three games.

How long will it last? If this approach is entirely reliant on Lacazette to conduct the press then perhaps not that long; a player who frequently fades in the second half of games may struggle if he has to play every game over the festive period. But against Norwich after a decent amount of rest, Arsenal should be able to keep the game where they want it.

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea: Blues reengage title bid

Such are the standards being set at the top of the Premier League it is fair to wonder if recent weeks have been critical to Chelsea’s title hopes. Their numbers depleted first by injuries in midfield and then a COVID-19 outbreak, the Blues have picked up just five points from four matches in December, losing to West Ham and dropping further points against Everton and Wolves. 

When Manchester City have dropped 10 points all season so far this festive floundering could be enough to end Chelsea’s bid for top spot. But it may be too soon to call it off just yet. After all Pep Guardiola’s side have tricky fixtures between Boxing Day and Jan. 1 whilst the west Londoners get to face both Liverpool and City early next month. That could be the moment they slip firmly out of the title race or establish themselves as prime contenders.

It is not as if Tuchel’s side is playing badly, especially given the injuries and absences the Blues have battled of late. Prior to that draw with Wolves, a match Chelsea asked to be postponed due to seven positive COVID cases in the squad, the Blues were making chances and winning the battle for territory and shots. The ball was not quite going into the net, as Tuchel explained last week: “In this space where we are, it’s tricky because I don’t see where we played a bad game at West Ham and I refuse to analyze the Everton match from the result.

“if you look at results in football you can be misled, horribly misled. This is a big danger, a big risk to put the maximum focus on the results because they are not going your way. This can lead to frustration, this can lead maybe to the same behavior as if you would play bad and I don’t want to end up there so I still encourage the team to go and do it again, and believe.”

Discount the Wolves game and Chelsea have for the most part put up high expected goals (xG) returns and with the exception of a three game wobble that saw them concede eight to West Ham, Zenit and Leeds the defense has looked perfectly adequate against the lofty standards they have set under Tuchel.

Meanwhile the cavalry might be emerging on the horizon. Romelu Lukaku and Callum Hudson-Odoi have tested negative and are expected to be available for Boxing Day’s trip to Aston Villa; the firepower they offer will be needed against Steven Gerrard’s side, who have tightened up significantly at the back since he joined them from Rangers. There are question marks at Stamford Bridge as to how effectively Lukaku has been integrated into Chelsea’s attack — too often his teammates feed him with his back to goal and trust him to do the rest — but he is surely a better option than an out of position Christian Pulisic.

Chelsea have not been as bad lately as their results might suggest. With their COVID-19 outbreak potentially easing and their squad growing stronger (Mateo Kovacic, Jorginho and even N’Golo Kante were able to feature in Wednesday’s EFL Cup win over Brentford) it is perhaps too soon to write them out of the title race. 

Wolves vs. Watford: Well, you didn’t miss much

Yes, look, I know this is supposed to be predicting games that are happening but such is the confusion engulfing the Premier League due to the omicron variant that if we’re waiting until we know what games are actually happening before publishing, this piece is probably going live at 10:30 a.m. ET on Boxing Day. And look, this Wolves bit was written anyway…

Remember the freewheeling wonders that was Wolves at the start of the season? Hwang Hee Chan was scoring goals for fun, Adama Traore was putting up take on numbers that eclipsed half of Premier League teams. They might have lost four of their first five games but Bruno Lage’s side were exceptionally fun to watch, logging a tally of 9.19 xG that was bettered only by Liverpool and Manchester City. Some degree of regression to the mean seemed inevitable but, well, not this much.

In their last 13 games Wolves have put together shots worth 0.44 xG more. Yes in far more than twice as many matches they have put together about the same quality of chances as they did in five games. Only twice have they put together more than 1.5xG in a game, on five occasions they have failed to reach 0.3. Traore is no longer guaranteed his spot on the team sheet although when he does get a run at defenders he seems to be as effective at beating them as he was back in the summer, the issue is rather that his personal xG has fallen off a very high, very steep cliff. Hwang simply isn’t getting shots whilst Raul Jimenez understandably does not look the same dominant figure he was before his head injury. Lage insists “the goals will come” but if the chances don’t then it is hard to believe him.

The two faces of Wolves in the Premier League

xG per game

1.8

0.7

Shots per game

16.4

7.4

Expected assists per game

1.0

0.5

Adama Traore xG+xA per 90 minutes

0.49

0.19

Goal difference

-3

2

Points

3

22

All of this might have you thinking Wolves are slipping towards the relegation zone. Quite the opposite, since that fifth game and Wolves’ swift reversion to the attritional football of their former manager Nuno Espirito Santo they have become a point gathering machine. Their 1.7 points per game since September 21 is the league’s fifth best return, grinding out points against Chelsea and West Ham whilst making Manchester City and Liverpool work exceedingly hard for their wins. It may not last; in that same period only Newcastle have a worse xG difference and the likes of Norwich and Brighton have had by far the better of the chances in defeat to Lage’s side.

Meanwhile all Watford needed to do was just stem the bleeding after seven defeats and two wins since appointing Claudio Ranieri, one suspects they would not have been a thrillingly attack-minded side on their trip to Molineux. Not then a match that any neutral should be too disappointed to see struck from the fixture calendar.





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