In the season of giving, Manchester United have gone tight. This is a very different team to the one which was conceding 15 or more shots in every game no matter the opposition – even Bolton managed 22. United won 5-0 at the Reebok but they're no longer so carefree: they've scored a single goal in each of the last seven Premier League matches.
Although that includes the infamous 6-1 home defeat by Man City, the champions would have won their latest five matches 1-0 but for Newcastle's controversial penalty equaliser last weekend. Demba Ba's spot-kick was one of only eight attempts Newcastle made (to their hosts' 28) and this weekend Aston Villa were also restricted to eight shots – two on target.
There's no real magic to it: quite simply, Nemanja Vidic has returned. Paired with Jonny Evans in the first post-derby league game (a 1-0 win at Everton), the Serbian has been alongside Rio Ferdinand ever since and the presence of United's first-choice centre-back pairing makes an enormous difference.
It's unfair to compare Vidic's performance with Evans against City, considering the Ulsterman's red card, but useful to study it alongside Evans at Liverpool. The green diamonds are interceptions: at Villa Park Vidic made seven compared to Evan's three at Anfield. The circles are clearances, and again Vidic leads considerably with 19 to 12 (of which Vidic headed 14 to Evans' seven). Finally, the upward arrows are aerial duels, and as you'd expect Vidic dominates: at Villa he won seven of eight duels, while at Anfield Evans only attempted one (and lost it).
If Vidic and United are denying their opponents chances, their neighbours Man City are certainly taking theirs: they have been the most clinical side in the Premier League this season, scoring with 23% of attempts. That means they were slightly under par in Saturday's 5-1 win over Norwich, when they racked up 26 attempts (of which 10 were on target and 10 blocked).
Even without Carlos Tevez, Roberto Mancini is blessed with six gifted attackers fighting for four places: although neither Edin Dzeko nor David Silva scored, John Ruddy was beaten by Sergio Aguero, Samir Nasri and subs Mario Balotelli and Adam Johnson. But the dominant force on Saturday was the other goalscorer, Yaya Toure – as the Player Influence screen amusingly demonstrates.
As Norwich sat deep, the Ivorian relentlessly recycled the ball for City's stellar attackers to seek penetration. Toure attempted 124 passes, more than any Premier League player since Xabi Alonso's 128 on Boxing Day 2008. Of his 124, Toure completed 118; only 17 went backward, with 67 forward (61 completed) and 40 (all completed) square; and only one was longer than 40 yards.
Also making an impression is Chelsea's Juan Mata, who has now assisted seven goals in his last nine Premier League appearances. As @DWesterling noted with a screenshare recording the Spaniard's 37 successful passes out of 38, "Juan Mata var briljant idag" – "was brilliant today". Perhaps less predictably, the game's top tackler was Yohan Cabaye with seven out of seven successful challenges.
The scoreline certainly flattered Chelsea; although they had 22 attempts to Newcastle's 17, the hosts were banging on the door with 52.7% possession and 54.9% territory. John Terry topped the blocks list and Branislav Ivanovic the clearances as Newcastle had the top five players with passes ending in the attacking third – a list headed by Danny Guthrie, followed by Gabriel Obertan, Cabaye, Peter Lovenkrands and Ryan Taylor – but Mata, next on the list, completed all 12 of his final-third passes as the visitors showed clinical efficiency.
At the risk of setting off the internet's Nonsense Klaxon, another efficient team is Blackburn. As Michael Cox predicted in last Friday's blog, Swansea had more of the ball at Ewood Park with 68.4% possession and 618 passes completed out of 695 to Rovers' 238 out of 323, but came away with a 4-2 defeat. In other words, in the biggest blow yet to Brendan Rodgers' possession obsession, Blackburn scored every 59.5 completed passes, Swansea every 309.
Efficient on the ball, Steve Kean's team were dogged without it, making 28 interceptions to Swansea's 5, and restricting Swansea to just 4 completed crosses out of 21 (compared to Rovers' 4/8). The Swans' 68.4% possession was the third-highest this season by a losing Premier League side, and they were the only top-flight team not to be caught offside this weekend.
The epitome of efficiency was Yakubu, who became only the second player (after Dimitar Berbatov) to score four for two different Premier League clubs, and now has a 41% success rate with shots this season. As @MikeMcCarthy pointed out via a screenshare, Yakubu only touched the ball seven times in the second half – and scored twice.
Down the road at Wigan, Arsenal were combining Swansea's passing with Blackburn's precision – and four-goal return. The Gunners completed 606 of 679 passes (Wigan managed 283 of 338) and scored with four of their seven efforts on target; through Thomas Vermaelen they even scored from a corner, for the first time in 179 flag-kicks.
Just 4% of Arsenal's passes were long, and they also only had to make eight clearances all game – a lower number than any other team has needed this season except Sunderland – also against Wigan.
No team makes a little go a long way quite like Stoke, who regularly concede the majority of possession but come away with the points. Such was the case yet again at Everton, who had 67.3% of the ball but failed to record a shot on target – for the first time in the league since the May 2009 – as Stoke racked up a startling 65 clearances (with Everton's 25 making a nice round one per minute for the suffering Goodison fans).
Up the other end, with one of just six touches Stoke had in the opposition penalty area, Robert Huth scored the only goal of the game after a Matthew Etherington corner. No other Premier League team scores more than half its goals from set pieces: the Potters have scored 71%.
Finally, a fairly random statburst from Opta, the lovely folks whose data powers Stats Zone and whose Twitter feed is a must-follow:
"the game's top tackler was Yohan Cabaye with seven out of seven successful challenges."
Please can you inform me as how someone who had given away penalty can have seven out of seven successful tackles??
West Brom main problem is character, they are too "nice" and need some more killer instinct www.football-bear.com
The weekend's top-flight action analysed by Nick Govier , the Editor of enthusiastic Stat Zone converts
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