Pardew Dilemma: when to pair Ba, Cisse in 4-4-2

In Newcastle's 3-0 defeat to Manchester United this weekend, Alan Pardew opted for a 4-4-2 with Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba paired at center forward, Cheick Tiote and Yohan Cabaye in the center of midfield, Jonas Guitierrez at left midfield and Hatem Ben Arfa on the right. The game would ultimately highlight one of the major problems that can arise when fielding a 4-4-2 with only two central midfielders- the tendency to get overrun in the center of the park against a team fielding more than two central midfielders. Manchester United fielded a 4-4-2 as well but they opted for a narrow diamond with Wayne Rooney at attacking midfield, Michael Carrick playing the holding role, and Tom Cleverley and Shinji Kagawa getting up and down the pitch as "shuttlers." Outnumbered 2 vs. 4 in the middle of the park, Newcastle couldn't compete for the ball in midfield and Manchester United dominated possession and went up 2-0 within 15 minutes.

After the game there were some interesting comments from Newcastle supporters on various discussion boards about whether they are a better side playing a 4-4-2 with Cisse and Ba alongside one another as center forwards or playing with Cisse as a lone center forward with Ba occupying a role on the left in either a 4-3-3, 4-5-1 or 4-2-3-1 as they did at times last season. Using Ba on the left in any of the latter three formations allows Newcastle to play three central midfielders rather than the two of their traditional 4-4-2. This should enable Newcastle to compete better in midfield against teams playing more than two central midfielders. However, it also means opposition center backs only have one center forward to worry about (typically Cisse). They can mark the forward with one center back while the other tucks in to provide cover. In a 4-4-2, both center backs are occupied by strikers and therefore don't have the luxury of another center back providing cover if a defensive mistake is made.

Which system is better for Pardew's side depends largely on the quality and formation of the opposition. Against opponents who line up in a 4-4-2, I fancy Cabaye and Tiote's chances to win the midfield battle and, in those circumstances, think it's usually a fine strategy for Newcastle to also field a 4-4-2. In a 2 v. 2 central midfield battle, Tiote and Cabaye will usually be able to get on the ball and pick out Cisse and Ba who are big, powerful and good finishers capable of giving any center back pairing in the league fits. However, against teams that play with a third center midfielder, it becomes really difficult for Cabaye and Tiote to compete for possession and find opportunities to knock balls into the two forwards.

To provide a brief comparison, in games in which Ba and Cisse have been on the field together as a center forward pairing in a 4-4-2, Newcastle score an average of 1.06 goals and concede an average of 1.3 goals (note: I only included goals scored and goals conceded that occurred when both men were on the field; goals for and against that occurred after one or both had been substituted were not included). In games in which Cisse plays center forward and Ba plays on the left in either a 4-3-3, 4-5-1 or 4-2-3-1, Newcastle score an average of 1.2 goals and concede an average of 1.2 goals. This very basic comparison suggests Newcastle have been slightly better offensively and defensively in formations with Cisse in the middle and Ba on the left than in a 4-4-2. Of course, without accounting for other very important factors like the quality of Newcastle's opponent and the formation of their opponent, we can't say with any certainty that the reason for the differences in performance comes down to formation. In the near future I'll try to provide a game-by-game analysis of how Newcastle's formations have fared against different opposition formations to get a better of idea when Pardew should be pairing Ba and Cisse in a 4-4-2 and when he should play one wide in a system with three center midfielders.