Short on days, but never short on drama, February 2016 left fantasy managers with much to ponder after yet more shock results in a season that has bemused even the most well-informed of pundits.
Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe augments his lead at the summit, but Mauricio Pochettino is now in hot pursuit, with his young team achieving consistency at a crucial time and establishing Tottenham as a genuine title contender. Strangely, so too is Sunderland manager Sam Allardyce, though his team remains firmly in the relegation fight.
GW24 – EDDIE HOWE v CRYSTAL PALACE
2nd February 2016
Bournemouth’s double salvo came before any changes from the bench, but it is worth remembering that the Cherries held out for more than 30 minutes with the 2-1 scoreline in their favour.
Once again, the counter-attacking 4-1-4-1 formation typically utilised by Howe proved to be the decisive factor. By the 76th minute both centre halves, Simon Francis and Steve Cook, had received cautions – yet they marshalled the remainder of the game well without the luxury of resorting to aggressive tactics.
Key Player: Arthur Boruc
Tip: It is rare that one manager will have used his three substitutions, with the opposing manager having made none. However, when this happens, be sure to give priority to players on the latter team as stamina counts for everything in the later game weeks.
GW25 – CLAUDIO RANIERI v MAN CITY
6th February 2016
The dream of Premier League glory remains very much alive with Leicester City, and anything less than a Champions League berth will now come as a huge disappointment, especially when one considers the paucity of 5th placed Manchester United’s resources due to a spate of injuries.
An ambitious 4-4-2 took Manchester City by surprise, leading to Leicester making an excellent start through Robert Huth, with the German veteran giving the Foxes a 1-0 lead after just three minutes.
For Manchester City, Fabian Delph and Raheem Sterling are the left-sided partnership for transitions from defence to attack, but their working relationship has still not reached its full potential. Naturally, Ranieri’s managerial experience enabled him to exploit this weakness to the fullest extent, giving Riyad Mahrez a golden opportunity to rule the midfield with an iron fist.
Key Player: Riyad Mahrez
Tip: A single in-form player full of confidence, versus a partnership with a chequered history, is bound to win the zonal duel on most occasions. Take a look at the FLIP sports statistics and data to see which partnerships across the field have (or have not) been effective this season.
GW26 – SAM ALLARDYCE v MAN UTD
13th February 2016
Should Sunderland mount yet another successful survival campaign, then this result will arguably be the one on which the Wearsiders look back this summer.
Anthony Martial’s strike on 39 minutes cancelled out Wabhi Khazri’s early opener, and with the score remaining level past the hour mark, Sam Allardyce was forced to ring the changes. A simple swap was all it took for Sunderland players to assert themselves afresh, with Fabio Borini replacing the aging Jermain Defoe in attack.
With Sunderland growing in confidence, there could only be one outcome, though it arrived in an anticlimactic way with an own goal by David de Gea proving decisive.
Key Player: Fabio Borini
GW27 – LOUIS VAN GAAL v ARSENAL
28th February 2016
Naturally eager to atone for his side’s Stadium of Light fright, van Gaal adopted a more balanced formation for the visit of title-chasing Arsenal.
Back in October, Arsenal destroyed United 3-0 with a performance that must amount to the most devastating example of counter attacking football this season, with the Red Devils making nothing of the enormous degree of possession they enjoyed that day.
For United, the last match of February yielded a perfect reversal of roles, with van Gaal’s men emerging victorious from a game which saw the home side take just 39% of the possession.
Key Players: Morgan Schneiderlin & Marcus Rashford
Tip: Occasionally, an unknown quantity can thrive in a high-stakes match. With no inhibitions, Rashford performed impeccably. Although an injury crisis of United’s magnitude is rare, consider investing in young talent for traditional ‘rivalry games’ when the opportunity arises.
Title image credit: Laurence Griffiths (Getty Images)