Tactical Analysis: Manchester City 3-1 Everton

Manchester City avoided a third consecutive defeat with a fairly comfortable 3-1 win over Everton at the Etihad. Everton were in the normal 4-2-3-1 we've seen under Roberto Martinez. He made just one change to the side that beat Newcastle 3-2 on Monday. Gareth Barry was inelligible to play against his parent club so Leon Osman dropped from left midfield into Barry's holding role alongside James McCarthy. Steven Naismith was brought in on the left wing.

Manuel Pellegrini opted for a similar 4-4-2 shape to the one they used in the heavy midweek Champions League defeat against Bayern Munich though he made several personnel changes. Pablo Zabaleta and Alexander Kolarov replaced Micah Richards and Gael Clichy at the fullback positions. Joleon Lescott replaced Matija Nastasic in the center of defense though the Serbian center back had to replace an injured Vincent Kompany in the 34th minute. David Silva was fit enough to be given the start on the left and replaced Samir Nasri. James Milner replaced Jesus Navas on the right wing. Alvaro Negredo was given the start up front alongside Aguero over Edin Dzeko.

There were essentially four key tactical features in this contest.

1. Game stretched early
With Manchester City once again using two forwards, Everton had a 3 v. 2 advantage in midfield. City had been made to pay by Bayern Wednesday evening for opting to play a two forward system and leaving themselves a man down in the middle of the pitch. However, in that game the two forwards Aguero and Dzeko did very little tracking back to deny passes to Bayern's deepest midfielder Philip Lahm. As a result, Bayern always had a man free in midfield to offer a passing option and were able to boss possession.

Pelligrini looked to combat the inferior numbers in midfield today by having Aguero drop off when Everton were in possession and pick up their deepest midfielder, usually McCarthy. This enabled City to match up evenly in midfield on the defensive side. Although Everton enjoyed some decent early spells of possession, City weren't being made to chase shadows in the manner they were Wednesday.

The game's dangerous opportunities early on came mainly as a result of the game being stretched. As they have done all season, Everton had Coleman and Baines bomb forward from their outside back positions. While this gave them opportunities to overlap and receive the ball in wide areas high up the pitch, it also meant there was space for Manchester City to break into the channels when they won the ball back. Aguero would sprint in behind the Everton fullbacks when City recovered possession and collect long balls into the channels.

At the other end, Everton also had plenty of space to break into on the counter. When City were in possession, Yaya Toure was playing much higher up than Fernandinho to provide a link forward. City's fullbacks were also pushing up the pitch to provide width. As a result, there wasn't much defensive cover in front of Kompany and Lescott when Everton won the ball back. Lukaku would drop off the City center backs into the big spaces in midfield then use his strength to hold the ball up while Barkley, Naismith and Mirallas broke forward. With both teams looking to be proactive and getting plenty of bodies forward, there was loads of space for both on the break.

Everton's opener however was not the result of play being stretched but rather a really clever piece of movement from Lukaku. The Belgian striker was on Lescott's back shoulder and took a few quick steps back towards midfield like he was checking in between the lines to receive a pass with his back to goal. Lescott bit on the movement and took a step forward to follow him- Lukaku then spun off of him and made a run in behind. Jagielka found him with a ball over the top for the goal.

2. Silva tucks inside
As he always does, David Silva tucked in field from his starting left position, looking to find space in between the Everton defensive and midfield lines to link up play into the strikers. He did so excellently for City's equalizer, drifting away from Coleman on the left just between Everton's holding midfielders and center backs 30 yards from goal. Fernandinho picked him out where he cushioned a touch for Toure. Toure found Negredo peeling off around the right shoulder of Coleman for the goal.

Silva tucks in between the lines on Manchester City's equalizer
Silva completed an incredible 41 passes in the attacking third, 29 more than Everton's leader in attacking third passes Ross Barkley.

Silva also provided an outlet to spring counter attacks. He didn't track Coleman deep into City's defensive half when the Everton right back made runs forward and instead drifted into space so that when City won the ball back they had a quick passing option forward. For City's second he was behind the play that was developing with Everton in possession. Mirallas gave the ball away cheaply to Milner who was able to find Silva drifting in the center of midfield. Silva made a bursting run forward then played a ball through for Aguero to tuck home.

City forwards deny balls into McCarthy and Osman
Whereas in the Champions League defeat Wednesday City's forwards did little work tracking back defensively, Aguero and Negredo quietly performed their defensive duties well here today. Their work won't show up in tackle or interception statistics but was nonetheless important.

What the forward duo did well was drop in the space between Everton's center backs and holding midfielders to deny entry passes into McCarthy and Osman. City were content to let Distin and Jagielka have the ball at center back in the second half. They dropped their defensive lines deeper and put ten men behind the ball. It was the job of Negredo and Aguero to cut off the passing lanes into Everton's deep lying midfielders who seek to control the tempo of the game. They performed the job excellently- Osman and McCarthy received just 66 passes combined. By comparison, City's two holding midfielders received 95.

Keeping the ball away from Osman and McCarthy forced Barkley to drop deep into midfield to provide an extra passing option where he was far less dangerous and not close enough to Lukaku to link play forward. Only 12 of Barkley's 41 passes were in the attacking third because he was consistently forced to drop back to provide a passing option for the center backs.

Barkley's dropping deep would have been less of an issue had Gareth Barry been available for selection, allowing Osman to start on the left. When Osman plays wide he can tuck inside to provide that link with the striker. However, Everton in Mirallas and Naismith, Everton were playing with two outside midfielders that stay in wider areas and aren't particularly clever with movement in field.

City were good value for their win. After Everton's opener they controlled the midfield and the movement of Negredo and Aguero caused problems running in behind Everton's back four.

Everton missed Gareth Barry whose positional awareness would likely have denied David Silva some of the space between the lines he enjoyed.

5 questions to consider ahead of this weekend's Premier League fixtures

1. Will Ozil start? 
With Tomas Rosicky set to miss Arsenal's Saturday clash at Sunderland with a thigh injury he picked up on international duty with the Czech Republic, there's a strong chance Mesut Ozil will start in his first appearance for the Gunners. Wenger could alternatively opt to bring in Mathieu Flamini to play deeper in midfield alongside Aaron Ramsey and push Jack Wilshere into the #10 role. However, against a Sunderland side likely to set up defensively, the prospect of a center midfield trio with as much creativity and attacking ability as Ramsey, Wilshere and Ozil would likely appeal to Wenger. An attacking six of Ramsey, Wilshere, Ozil, Cazorla, Walcott and Giroud offers the prospect of some truly exciting attacking football. Sunderland's 5 goals against are tied for the worst in the Premier League and the atmosphere is a little stale around the Stadium of Light with Paolo Di Canio continuing to publicly call out his own players- they'll need to be organized and get a big boost from the home crowd to have a chance at getting something out of this one.

(UPDATE: Ozil missed Arsenal's training session today with an illness but will travel with the team to Sunderland. Per Mertesacker also missed with illness and will not travel). 

2. West Ham vs. Southampton: who will win out in clash of styles?
The intrigue of this game is that it pairs two sides with two very different playing styles. West Ham manager Sam Allardyce places far more emphasis on territory than possession. His side is 16th in the league in average possession with 44.4% and have been outpossessed in all three of their opening fixtures. Those stats are particularly startling given two of those games were at home to Cardiff and Stoke, a newly promoted side and a side infamous for its inability to retain the ball (they were also outpossessed at Newcastle in match week 2). West Ham are organized and difficult to break down defensively. They shuttle the ball into wide areas, cross early and often and look for knock downs. They've attacked through the middle of the pitch less than any team this season. The loss to injury of towering forward Andy Carroll and talented crossers Joe Cole and Stewart Downing will certainly hurt West Ham's ability to play their preferred style effectively. Mauricio Pochettino's Southampton side on the other hand currently sits third in the league in terms of average possession. They prefer a more patient, passing attack. The striking partnership of Dani Osvaldo and Rickie Lambert failed to produce a goal in Southampton's loss to Norwich two weekends ago so it'll be interesting to see if Pochettino goes with both those two up front again or decides to go with just one striker. In that loss at Norwich they struggled to defend the flanks which could provide West Ham opportunities to get crosses into the box to Modibo Maiga and Kevin Nolan. West Ham haven't won on their travels since March 2- with a depleted squad that's unlikely to change Sunday. Still, this should be an entertaining game for the clash of footballing philosophies on display.

3. Will Martinez be brave against Chelsea?
Roberto Martinez is a far more proactive manager than his predecessor at Everton David Moyes. Whereas Moyes tends to react to the strengths of each opposition and organize his squad accordingly, Martinez focuses more on his own team's approach. Martinez's Wigan side played Chelsea in the opening fixture of last season and he showed he was unafraid to play expansive, attacking football. Wigan finished the match with more possession but were picked apart twice on the counter in the opening 10 minutes and Chelsea held on for a fairly comfortable 2-0 win. Herein lies the crucial question with Martinez. His sides generally play a brand of football that is attractive on the eye but is he willing to adjust his style to achieve better results? So far his Everton side lead the league in possession yet have managed just three draws. While much of that can be blamed on players getting used to the new system and the lack of an in form striker, questions remain regarding whether Martinez can combine style with substance. If his side continue the trend of bossing possession Saturday against Chelsea, they'll have to be extremely cautious about being caught on the counter. The Blues have a gaggle of talented midfielders capable of reeking havoc on the break and in Jose Mourinho a manager more comfortable playing a counter-attacking style. New signings James McCarthy and Gareth Barry will provide options for Martinez in the middle of midfield after the departure of Marouane Fellaini but on loan striker Romelu Lukaku will be unavailable to play against his parent club. It'll also be interesting to see whether Willian and Samuel Eto'o get their first minutes for Chelsea.

4. Will Kagawa play?
Since the appointment of David Moyes at Manchester United, Shinji Kagawa has played just 7 minutes of competitive football after coming on as a late substitute in the community shield. Moyes has instead opted to use Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck in Kagawa's preferred role behind main striker Robin Van Persie. A 0-0 draw to Chelsea followed by a 1-0 defeat to Liverpool saw Manchester United fail to score in successive games for the first time since August 2007. The lack of offensive output has many wondering why Moyes has refused to field a player with the creative ability of Kagawa. Concerns over Kagawa's ability to defend have been suggested and against stronger sides like Chelsea and Liverpool perhaps Moyes wanted first and foremost to ensure his side had a strong defensive shape. This wouldn't be a huge surprise given Moyes has always been a fairly reactive, conservative manager. However, with newly promoted Crystal Palace coming to Old Trafford and Wayne Rooney sidelined with an injury, not giving Kagawa a shot would make little sense this weekend.
5. Can Liverpool continue unbeaten run?
Brendan Rodgers' side has shown tremendous character opening the season with three difficult wins- an away victory over Aston Villa sandwiched between home wins over Stoke and Manchester United. It's the first time Liverpool have opened a league campaign with three wins since the 1994-95 season. All three wins of those wins have ended in a 1-0 scoreline and the Reds have had to dig deep in each. These were the type of fixtures they were dropping points in last season, points they'll need to pick up to have chance at a top four finish this campaign. They're the only side yet to have conceded. Daniel Sturridge is starting to show his promise having netted all three game winners. Rodgers managed to strengthen his side on transfer deadline day adding French center back Mamadou Sakho and winger Victor Moses on loan from Chelsea. It took Liverpool until October 20 to reach 9 points last season so there's plenty of reason for optimism at Anfield this time around, particularly given the strong form they showed in the second half of last season.

In traveling to Swansea Monday night they'll face another talented opponent. The Swans owe much of their current 16th place standing to a difficult run of opening fixtures, having opened the season with a home loss to champions Manchester United before being beaten by Tottenham at White Hart Lane. They managed their first win of the campaign 2-0 over West Brom at the Hawthornes two weekends ago and will look to use that win and a boisterous home crowd to motivate them Monday night. The Welsh side did however manage just 6 home league wins last season- the 7th fewest in the league.

Tactical Analysis: Manchester City 4-0 Newcastle

Manchester City scored twice in each half to run out comfortable 4-0 winners over Newcastle in an impressive performance at the Etihad. David Silva and Sergio Aguero each found the net before Newcastle’s Steven Taylor was sent off just before halftime for a forearm swing into the back of Aguero. Yaya Toure added a sublime freekick early in the second half and substitute Samir Nasri closed out the scoring in the 75th.

There were three major tactical features of the game: David Silva’s ability to create overloads and find gaps coming inside from the left, the refreshing width provided by Jesus Navas on the right flank, and the partnership and clever movement of Aguero and Edin Dzeko.

Manuel Pelligrini set his side out in a similar 4-2-2-2 formation to the one typically used by Roberto Mancini, the man he replaced. Clichy, Lescott, Kompany and Zabaleta made up the back four. Toure and new signing Fernandinho made up the center midfield, occupying the space in front of the back four. David Silva frequently tucked inside from a starting position on the left, as he did under Mancini, while Jesus Navas stayed wide on the right to provide width. Aguero and Dzeko were given starts up top over newcomers Stevan Jovetic and Alvaro Negredo.

Newcastle did not include French midfielder Johan Cabaye in the squad after Arsenal had a £10 million bid rejected for him earlier in the day. They lined up in something of a hybrid 4-3-3/4-4-2. The midfield three was made up of Jonas Gutierrez, Cheick Tiote and Moussa Sissoko. Hatem Ben Arfa started on the right of a front three. Yoan Gouffran was on the left with Papiss Cisse as the main striker. In possession Ben Arfa would frequently drop deep on the right flank while Gutierrez would drift wider to the left. Gouffran would tuck inside close to Cisse making the shape more of a 4-4-2. Defensively they formed two banks of four with Ben Arfa dropping in alongside the midfield three and Cisse and Gouffran staying higher up the pitch. 

Click for larger image

David Silva’s Movement:
David Silva’s movement is always a handful for opposing defenses. He’s tremendous at reading the runs of his fellow attackers, finding space between the seams and creating overloads for opposition defenders. For instance, when Aguero drops into midfield and is picked up by the opposition holding midfielder, Silva will drift infield alongside Aguero to create a 1 v. 2 situation for the holding midfielder to defend (Figure 1). When Aguero drifts wide and is picked up by the opposing left back, Silva will tuck just inside and create 1 v. 2 situations for the left back (figure 2). 

Figure 1

Figure 2
He’ll also drift into the space between the opposition right-sided center midfielder and right midfielder/forward, where he can collect passes from the two deeper lying midfielders and have the space to run at the defense. He was incredibly dangerous in this space last night, collecting possession from Fernandinho in the gap between Sissoko and Ben Arfa. City’s opener came from this type of movement. The image below shows Silva tucking inside of Ben Arfa where he’s able to receive a pass from Fernandinho and has the space to turn and dribble at the defense. He releases a pass to Dzeko on the left side of the box whose deflected pass across the face of goal falls for Silva to head home.  Identical movement from Silva in the 29th allowed him to release Dzeko through on goal again but the Bosnian striker was unable to finish. 

Navas provides width:
For much of last season Maninci employed Samir Nasri on the right. Like Silva, Nasri enjoys tucking infield from wide areas. When the two played together City could often therefore become a bit narrow. In Jesus Navas, Pelligrini has a true right-sided winger capable of providing width and stretching the defense laterally. This gives City a bit more balance going forward- they can through the middle with Silva tucking inside or down the wing with Navas hugging the touchline. The graphics below compare where Silva and Navas received passes yesterday. Nearly every pass Navas received was down the right channel whereas Silva moved freely around the pitch to create overloads. Navas had a shaky start but was excellent in the second half, combining well with Zabaleta and whipping in some dangerous crosses.

Click for larger image

Movement of Aguero and Dzeko:
The final major defining feature of this game was the partnership between Aguero and Dzeko. When playing with two forwards it is obviously important both understand the off-ball movement of one another. One of the major strengths of a two forward system is that against a team playing four at the back, both opposition center backs have to pick up a forward so neither is left free to provide cover.

One way teams using two forwards like to take advantage of the lack of a spare center back for the opposition is to put both forwards on the shoulder of each of the center backs. One forward then checks into midfield, drawing one of the center backs with him. The other forward will then make a diagonal run into the space that becomes available. The figure below shows an example. Here, Dzeko checks into midfield for the ball, forcing Coloccini to step out of line with the rest of the back four to close him down. This opens up space in behind for Aguero to make a diagonal run into. 

In fact, the example illustrates the forward movement City used to score their second goal. Dzeko checked into midfield for a pass from Kompany, forcing Coloccini to follow him. Rather than step forward to force Aguero into an offside position, Taylor follows his diagonal run in behind but doesn’t have the pace to keep. Dzeko provides a clever flick and Aguero is one on one with Krul to tuck it home. Below you can see a screenshot of the buildup. Coloccini steps out to Dzeko just as Aguero begins his diagonal run in behind.

Although Dzeko was guilty several times of wasting his own goal scoring chances, his movement with Aguero was clever and he deserves credit for setting up the first two goals and generally stretching Taylor and Coloccini around the field in the first half. 

Pellegrini will be pleased with what was a dominant performance in all facets. I didn't discuss it in any detail above but Fernandinho and Toure formed a powerful and formidable midfield pairing capable of both breaking up attacks from the opposition and springing into the attacking third to offer extra options. Fernandinho completed the second most passes in the attacking third of any player behind Silva. 

Tacticially it wasn't an especially different look from Pellegrini although the inclusion of Navas added width City frequently lacked last season. 

It's difficult to judge Alan Pardew's side after such a difficult opening fixture in which they played half of it with ten men. They have plenty of power in midfield but were desperately missing the technical ability of Cabaye and could struggle to break teams down if he ends up departing for Arsenal. Ben Arfa looked to be the only player capable of providing any creativity in a lineup full of strength and power. 

Are Wenger's tactics to blame for poor Arsenal showing against top 5 opposition?

The two tables below show how last season’s top five Premier League teams fared against one another and how they fared against the other 15 teams.

Despite amassing fewer points against top five opposition than Manchester City or Chelsea, Manchester United cruised to the title 11 points clear of their nearest competitor thanks to consistent form against the bottom 15 teams. Likewise, Arsenal managed just one win over top five opposition, amassing 6 points fewer than Spurs, yet were able edge their North London rivals to the final Champions League spot because of their ability to beat teams they were expected to beat. In fact, only United had a better record against teams outside the top 5.

Arsenal’s failure to collect points against top sides is interesting. A critique of Arsene Wenger is that he plays the same style against every opponent and doesn’t alter tactics based on the opposition (this isn’t entirely fair but Wenger pays far less attention to tactics than Rafa Benitez at Chelsea, AVB at Spurs, Sir Alex at Man United and Roberto Mancini at City did). Arsenal’s strong record against weaker opponents and poor record against top five opponents suggests they’re able to win games when they have superior talent but struggle when the opposition is equally gifted or better. Tactics employed are often the difference when top sides with similar levels of talent match up with one another so Wenger’s less than fastidious approach to preparing for the unique strengths of each individual opponent could be costing Arsenal valuable points. Wenger is undoubtedly a great man manager and one of the best developers of players the game has known but it would be interesting to see how Arsenal would fare for a season with a more astute tactician in charge (Wenger’s transfer dealings are a subject for another blog post).  

Thoughts on Gary Neville's suggested foreign player quota in Premier League

In recent seasons much has been made of the influx of foreign players into the Premier League. Last season foreign players made up 62% of Premier League squads. The top five teams from 2012-2013 have so far brought in 13 new players during the summer transfer window- none have been from a Home Nations country. Those five teams have sold or loaned 16 British players. Of those 16 only Steven Caulker moved to another Premier League side.

As sides continue to spend money on non-British players, opportunities for young British footballers to ply their trade at the top of the domestic league have diminished and there is a growing sentiment that, as a result, British national teams are falling behind their continental counterparts. This summer England's under 21 and under 20 sides were eliminated in the group stages of the U-21 European Championship and U-20 World Cup respectively without having won a game in either competition.

Early this week Gary Neville suggested a quota system on foreign players needs to be introduced in the Premier League. The former Manchester United and England right back said,
"When I came through in the mid-1990s there was a rule where only a limited number of foreign players could be included in a team during European competition. We benefited from that because, as young British players, we got opportunities. We need to get back something of that ilk - where each team has three or four players from the home countries at the start of every match. My chances of making it as a pro footballer at the age of 18 in 2013 would be a lot less than 20 years ago. A talented 18-year-old today has to hope he's at the right club with the right manager who believes in young players. But it's become so short-term."
Neville's comment on the short-termism of modern English football was an especially astute one. With the financial pressures at stake of avoiding relegation and qualifying for European competition, there are incentives for club owners to invest in foreign talent that can come in and immediately have an impact on a club's league position. Likewise, there are incentives for managers to play foreign players with more experience than domestic ones. In today's Premier League, a manager's job security depends on how they perform in the short term. Developing young British players takes time- a luxury Premier League managers are rarely given. If an established foreign midfielder gives a side a better shot at avoiding relegation than a young British one, of course a manager is going to field the foreign player. Both owners and managers are simply responding to the incentives in front of them and it is young British players who are losing out. If rules aren't put in place guaranteeing playing time for British players, owners and managers aren't going to voluntarily change their behavior.

Neville's suggested quota system of 3 to 4 players from home countries starting every match is one way to ensure the involvement of British players in the Premier League. I think 3 to 4 players is a decent number to ensure more young British players are coming up through the ranks and getting their shot. If the quota was upped to 5 or 6 British players to start every match, I think you run the risk of significantly watering down the competition. World class foreigners raise the level of the competition and force British players to improve in order to compete. Playing in the Premier League won't do young players any good if the quality of the competition is significantly diminished by the departure of world class foreign players. 

The chart below shows the number of Premier League minutes played by English players under the age of 25 for each team in the 2012-2013 season (I did not include Northern Irish, Scottish or Welsh players in the chart). Unsurprisingly, Paul Lambert's youthful Aston Villa side led the league with 12,091 minutes played by English players 24 years or younger. Arsene Wenger gave more minutes to English players under 25 than any other top five manager- unsurprising given his long and relatively secure tenure at Arsenal has provided him the time to develop young players.

What are your thoughts? Should the Premier League establish a quota system on the number of foreign players? Would it help the development of young English players and improve the English national team?

Premier League Wage vs. Position Table

Premier League wage vs. position table. In their book Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Syzmanski determine that something like 85% of the variation in league table position can be explained by the differences in wages. The table above indeed shows a strong correlation between league Position and wage bill. The top three wage bill spenders currently sit top three in the league (Chelsea is now a point ahead of Tottenham). The top 6 teams in the league table also make up the top 6 in wage bills.

(via 101 Great Goals)

Premier Leauge: Points dropped from winning positions table and points won from losing positions table

The table below ranks Premier League teams by points gained from losing positions. In other words, if a team was losing at any point in a given match and went on to tie that match, they'd earn one point from a losing position. If they won the match they'd earn 3 points from a losing position. Liverpool and Swansea have played 27 games. The other 18 teams have played 26.

The following table ranks teams by the number of points dropped from winning positions. In other words if a team was winning at any given point in a match and went on to draw, they'd drop 2 points from that match. If they lost the match they'd obviously drop all 3 points. Note that individual matches can show up both as points won from losing positions and points dropped from winning positions. For instance, in their recent match with Manchester City, Liverpool went down to an early goal, rallied back to take a 2-1 lead, then conceded a late goal to draw 2-2. Therefore they earned 1 point from a losing position and dropped 2 points from a winning position.

Preview: Newcastle vs. Manchester City

Both sides come into this game struggling to find form. Newcastle have won just one in their last ten while Manchester City have won one in their last six.

City will be missing Alexander Kolarov and Micah Richards due to injury while Gareth Barry is suspended. James Milner, Vincent Kompany and Jack Rodwell are all listed as doubtful with Milner the most likely of the three to be available.

Yohan Cabaye, Steven Taylor, Ryan Taylor and Dan Gosling remain injured for Newcastle. Gabriel Obertan may be fit enough to make the subs bench.

Last Season's Tactical Battle
Manchester City picked up a massive 2-0 win on their last visit to St. James Park in the penultimate game of their title-winning campaign last season. It was a tense game fought largely in a crowded center of the pitch. Roberto Mancini started that game with Aguero, Nasri, David Silva and Tevez as an attacking four. Tevez was the striker with Aguero playing in the seams just behind him, Silva in a narrow position on the left and Nasri narrow on the right. Newcastle were in a 4-3-3 so as City advanced the ball towards the attacking third the game became extremely narrow. With Newcastle's powerful holding midfielder Cheik Tiote sitting in deep to protect his back four, the four diminutive City attackers struggled to find space in the middle of the pitch to string together dangerous passing combinations.

After 60 minutes the score was still level at 0-0. Remember, at this time City were level on points with Manchester United and were in pole position to win the title only because of their superior goal difference. They needed the three points from this fixture to beat their neighbors to the title. Chasing a win, Roberto Mancini made what at the time seemed a bizarre tactical change. Barry and Yaya Toure had started the game as a deep lying holding midfield pair in front of the back four. On 62 minutes Mancini replaced Nasri, a creative attacking player, with a third holding midfielder, Nigel De Jong. He pushed Toure high up the pitch alongside Aguero while De Jong sat alongside Barry in front of the back four. Toure's powerful physical presence in a more advanced role allowed City to dominate Newcastle higher up the pitch. In the 70th minute he played a 1-2 with Aguero just outside the penalty area and struck a curling right foot shot into the net. He added a second from a counter attack in the 89th to secure the win. A week later City clinched the title.

More of the same this season?
Click on diagram for a larger image
Saturday's match may well have some similar features to the one last season. In all likelihood, Alan Pardew will again field a 3-man central midfield to prevent his side from being dominated in the center of the park. We could again see Nasri and David Silva in narrow positions to the right and left of Aguero respectively for City with Tevez at center forward. With Silva and Nasri tucking in towards the middle and Newcastle fielding a center midfield triangle, we could once again see play become condensed into a crowded center of the pitch as City advance the ball into the attacking third.

The midfields will match up fairly evenly if the sides play their expected formations and lineup as shown in the diagram. Tiote will pick up Aguero (or whoever plays off the main striker), Gutierrez will pick up Garcia and Anita will pick up Y. Toure. As Nasri and Silva drift infield, Newcastle's outside backs, Santon and Simpson, will have to follow their runs which will open space on the flanks for City's fullbacks to overlap into. If City are able to consistently keep possession high up the pitch and give their fullbacks time to push forward, it'll force Newcastle's outside attacking players (Cisse and Ben Arfa in the diagram) to track their runs. If their outside attackers are consistently forced to track back, the Magpies will struggle to transition forward when they do regain possession and will be forced to hit long direct balls into an isolated Demba Ba.

If Pardew is concerned about providing protection for his outside backs he may opt for more of a 4-5-1 than a 4-3-3, employing more defensive wide midfielders to track the forward runs of City's fullbacks. This formation would likely see Sylvain Marveaux replace Gutierrez on the left side of the center midfield triangle, Guttierez move to the left wing, Ben Arfa shuffle across to his more natural right wing and Cisse would be relegated to the bench. While this formation will better protect Newcastle's fullbacks, it'll likely exacerbate the problem of leaving Ba isolated up the field. 

If Mancini expects his fullbacks to have opportunities to get in possession high up the pitch on the flanks he may opt for Dzeko as the main striker to provide an aerial threat for crosses in from the wings. If he feels he needs to move Y. Toure into an attacking position as the game progresses while still retaining two deep holding midfielders as he did last season, he could bring on James Milner to sit alongside Garcia.

Newcastle Desperately Missing Cabaye
Last season, Cabaye was the creative presence in Newcastle's midfield three. In his absence they've struggled to link defense to offense through the midfield and have instead resorted to hitting long balls from the back towards Ba. Without this creative presence in the center of midfield tomorrow, Newcastle will once again likely hit their fair share of long balls (they're the most direct team in the Premier League this season) into Ba. The Senegalese forward will have to be effective in his hold up play to allow the midfield time to get forward. If he struggles to hold the ball up Newcastle will spend the bulk of the game pinned into their own half.

In the second half of their 2-1 defeat to Fulham, Newcastle moved to a 4-4-2. Ben Arfa was moved to right wing but he played incredibly narrow, moving centrally just behind the two center forwards almost as a #10. He did an excellent job linking play with the forwards and Newcastle enjoyed their best spell of the game after making this change. Ben Arfa netted an equalizer drifting in from the right before being subbed off. Perhaps Pardew will again look for the creative French midfielder to tuck inside to provide Newcastle with some creativity and an extra body to compete in the center of midfield.

Tactical Analysis: Fulham 2-1 Newcastle

Hugo Rodallega's second half header gave Fulham a 2-1 win over Newcastle after two earlier deflected goals from Steve Sidwell and Hatem Ben Arfa had put the two teams level at 1-1.

Ben Arfa returned from injury for the Magpies and started the game as the left-sided attacking player in a 4-3-3. Jonas Gutierrez and Vurnon Anita played in front of Chiek Tiote in the middle of midfield and Papiss Cisse was again used as a right forward. Alan Pardew's defense was as expected.

Martin Jol selected Rodallega over Mladen Petric to pair with Berbatov at forward in Fulham's 4-4-2.

The tactical development of the game can be broken into three phases that were brought about by tactical and personnel changes from Pardew. In the first phase Newcastle started the game in a 4-3-3 yet were getting dominated in terms of possession despite having an extra midfielder and created few goalscoring opportunities of their own. In the second phase Pardew switched to a 4-4-2 with Ba and Cisse paired up top after Ba had become isolated in the 4-3-3. In the third phase Newcastle were chasing an equalizer and brought on Shola Ameobi to replace Ben Arfa and moved to what was basically three center forwards and began hitting everything long into the box for Ameobi, Ba and Cisse.

Newcastle start in 4-3-3
Newcastle's 4-3-3 meant they had a man advantage in midfield yet they were dominated in this zone. Offensively, Anita was usually picked up by Baird while Sidwell looked after Guttierez. With Berbatov and Rodallega generally staying high up the pitch for Fulham, Tiote was left free in deeper positions in midfield. However, the Ivorian is obviously more combative ball winner than creative passer in his holding midfield role and failed to play any penetrating passes into the final third when he got on the ball. His primary concern was maintaining a position where he could help his center backs slow down Fulham counterattacks when Newcastle lost possession. This was understandable but it also meant Newcastle's extra man in midfield didn't give them an advantage in the final third.

Baird and Sidwell did an excellent job for Fulham sitting in front of the back four and reading passing lanes and intercepting passes. Baird had 8 interceptions, more than twice as many as any player on the field.

Pardew is desperately missing the creativity of Yohan Cabaye in an advanced midfield position. Anita did well circulating the ball but isn't an especially dynamic player and Gutierrez is better on the left wing where he can run at defenders and whip in crosses. Without Cabaye's creative passing in midfield, Newcastle continue to struggle to link the midfield with Ba and have too often resorted to knocking longballs towards the Senegalese forward (this table I produced last week shows Newcastle plays a larger percentage of longballs than any other team).

Fulham's attack largely revolved around two strategies. Firstly,  Dimitar Berbatov dropped off into midfield to collect the ball and direct the Cottagers' moves forward. Secondly, with Newcastle's fullbacks getting into advanced positions, Fulham looked to counter attack down the channels with Rodallega often floating out wide to receive direct passes and break forward quickly. Berbatov did an excellent job getting his two wingers involved early on. Rodallega played more advanced and looked to create overloads for Newcastle's fullbacks by floating into the channels. Sidwell sprinted forward from midfield to join the attack. Fulham's first goal came when Rodallega drifted behind Santon on the right wing, forcing Coloccini out of central defense to follow him all the way to the right touchline. Rodallega slipped a pass towards the end line through to Duff who was able to cut the ball back and find Sidwell at the top of the box for the finish.

Pardew switches to 4-4-2
With Newcastle struggling to get players close enough to Ba for him to have a meaningful passing option, Pardew switched to a 4-4-2 around the 28th minute. Cisse moved alongside Ba up top. Ben Arfa switched to his more comfortable right midfield position and Gutierrez moved from the middle to his natural place on the left wing. Anita played in advance of Tiote in the middle of midfield.

Much has been made about the fact Ba and Cisse have never scored in the same game when both were on the pitch. However, the move to two up top seemed to make sense given Ba had been so isolated in the opening 28 minutes. Newcastle may have been concerned about becoming even more direct with only Anita and Tiote in the middle of midfield. However, Ben Arfa crucially began to tuck into the middle of the pitch from his right-sided position, playing almost as a #10, while Danny Simpson advanced from right back to provide width. Ben Arfa's movement into the middle gave Baird and Sidwell another defensive responsibility. They now had to track the movement of both Ben Arfa moving infield and Anita shuffling forward, meaning one of them was no longer spare to track runs of either Cisse or Ba back into midfield. As a result, Ba began to find space to drop off in between the seams, receive passes, turn and play through balls for Cisse in behind the defense. and the game became very even. A move in which Ba dropped off in front of the Newcastle center backs and slipped Cisse through on goal highlighted the Magpies new offensive potency (though Cisse had strayed into an offsides position and had hit the woodwork anyway). Ben Arfa was excellent providing the link between Newcastle's defense and the two forwards and was Newcastle's key player in the second half. His goal took a fortunate deflection but came when he had tucked inside and received a pass from Simpson on the right.

While Newcastle looked more dangerous after moving to a 4-4-2, Ba and Cisse still seem uncomfortable playing together as a center forward pair. Whereas Berbatov and Rodellega played 17 passes to one another, Ba and Cisse combined for just 5.

Fulham continued to try to counter into the flanks. Martin Jol made what would prove to be a key substitution in the 63rd minute, bringing on Ashkan Dejagah to replace Kacaniklic. Duff switched to the left and Dejagah occupied the right wing. With his first touches of the game, Dejagah was brought down on the right at the edge of the penalty area. Rodallega powerfully headed home the resulting Duff free kick.

Ben Arfa replaced
Trailing 2-1, Pardew replaced Ben Arfa with Shola Ameobi in the 71st, a move that presumably came down to a lack of match fitness for the Frenchman given he had been Newcastle's brightest player. Ameobi moved into the center of what was basically a center forward three for Newcastle with Ba slightly to the left and Cisse slightly to the right. Gutierrez stayed wide on the left while Simpson played very high up the pitch on the right as more of a right midfielder (Newcastle were basically in a flat 3-4-3). They looked to get the ball wide to Gutierrez and Simpson to play early crosses in towards the back post for the three towering forwards to attack. You wont witness a clearer example of route 1 football in a top flight European league. Hangeland and Hughes defended admirably at the center of the Fulham defense. Newcastle attempted 10 crosses after Ameobi's introduction but only one was successful.

Fulham's counterattacks were impressive. The combination of Berbatov's skillful buildup play and Rodallega's hard running worked to great effect. Newcastle were most dangerous when Ben Arfa drifted in space in the middle of the pitch and used his creativity to link with the forwards. Without a creative passer in the middle of midfield they become too direct. Pardew will therefore be desperate to have Cabaye back in the side.

Ranking the Premier League's most direct teams (revisited)

In a post very early in the Barclay's Premier League season I presented a table ranking the league's teams according to how direct they played. The metric I used for these rankings was the number of short passes a team played per one long ball. The fewer short passes a team played per long ball, the more direct they were. I used this metric rather than the simpler long balls per game because long balls per game doesn't tell the complete story of how direct a team is. Teams with very low average possession statistics have less of the ball and are therefore likely to play a fewer number of all types of passes. For example, Stoke play the 11th most long balls per game but few would argue they are just the 11th most direct team in the league. They nearly always have less of the ball than their opponent and therefore play fewer total passes, both long and short.

In the table below I rank the teams by how direct they play after nearly four months of the season but this time around I've used a slightly different metric than short passes per long ball. Here I use the percent of total passes a team plays that are long balls. Total passes a team plays includes short passes, long balls, crosses and through balls [in other words my calculation was long balls/(long balls+short passes+crosses+through balls)*100]. According to this metric Newcastle are the most direct team in the league with 18.27% of their passes being long balls. Arsenal are the least direct- only 8.52% of their passes are long balls.

This table ranks Barclay's Premier League teams by the percent of passes each play that are long balls. Data courtest of whoscored.com

Premier League Net Passing 2012-2013

In February, Dan wrote two excellent pieces explaining the net passing statistic and how the relationship between net passing and goal difference for an individual team can shine light on the importance that team places on dominating possession (we prefer using the net passing metric over possession percentage because it is more fine grained). Net passing is simply the number of passes a team completes over the course of a game less the number their opponent completes. If team B completes more passes in a game than than team A, team A's net passing for the game is negative.

For teams whose tactics are largely centered around ball retention and patient buildup play we expect a strong positive relationship between net passing and goal difference. In other words, as net passing increases for these teams we would expect to see goal difference increase positively.

For teams who prefer to play primarily on the counter, outpossessing the opponent is unimportant. Counterattacking teams want their opponent to have possession and to commit numbers forward so they can break quickly while the opposition is out of position. Counterattacks require fewer passes than slow buildup play from the back. Therefore, for primarily counterattacking teams, we expect no discernible relationship between net passing and goal difference.

Of course, many top level sides use both counterattacking and possession styles based on factors like the style of play of the opposition and whether the game is played at a club's home stadium or an away ground. For instance, we'd expect Manchester United to boss possession in a league game against Stoke at Old Trafford and have a positive net passing value (which they did last Saturday). However, in a Champions League game against Barcelona at the Nou Camp, we'd expect them to keep a compact defensive shape, allow Barca to have the bulk of possession and then look to quickly counter and therefore have a negative net passing value. For these sides, we'd expect a weaker relationship between net passing and goal difference.

Premier League Net Passing 2012-2013
The bar chart below shows the average net passing for each of the Premier League's 20 teams after eight games (Reading and Sunderland have played only seven games). Teams are listed from left to right according to their position in the league table (Chelsea currently sit atop the table while QPR are last). Manchester City, a side with very technical players capable of short intricate passes, have the highest net passing value. They are outpassing their opponents by an average of 231 passes per game. Stoke City, a team that focuses more on physical strength and territory than possession, have the lowest net passing value. They are being outpassed by an average of 226 passes per game.

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I'm also including this graph of passes completed per game for anyone interested.

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Net Passing and League Standing Relationship
While Dan looked at the relationship between net passing and points per game for individual teams, I wanted to look at the relationship between net passing and league standing for all 20 Premier League teams to determine the explanatory power of net passing on league position. If we believed that net passing was the only factor that determined whether a team won or lost a game, we'd expect the team with the highest net passing value to be in first place in the league and the team with the lowest net passing value to be in last. The bars in the net passing bar graph above would get progressively shorter as we moved right from the first place team to the last.

Clearly this is not the case. Manchester City have the highest net passing value yet they are only third in the league. QPR have a positive net passing value but are in last place. Liverpool have the fourth highest net passing value in the league but are still in the bottom half of the table while West Brom and West Ham are 6th and 7th respectively despite having substantial negative net passing values.

The graph shows what we're all well aware of- there are more factors that determine the winner of a soccer game than simply who passes the ball more. For example, in Manchester United's two defeats this season to Everton and Tottenham they outpassed their rivals by 818 passes. Arsenal completed 414 more passes than Norwich last Saturday but were beaten 1-0. Teams have to convert possession into goal scoring opportunities and then have to finish those opportunities. For a number of reasons, it often makes sense for certain teams to employ tactics that aren't focused on ball retention and allow the opposition to control the bulk of possession- it doesn't necessarily mean these teams will finish in the bottom of the league because they have a low net passing value.

The bar graph is interesting however in that it shows of the ten teams that have positive net passing values, seven of them are in the top half of the table. Of the ten with negative net passing values, seven are in the bottom half of the table. That there are more teams with positive net passing values in the top half of the league suggests there may be a relationship between net passing and league position.

To determine exactly what the explanatory power of net passing on league position is, I plotted league position versus net passing for each of the 20 Premier League teams below. Teams higher up on the y axis are in the bottom half of the league standings and teams further to the left on the x axis have higher negative net passing values. If we believe that higher net passing values improve a team's league standing, we'd expect our trend line to slope down and to the right (indicating that as net passing increases, league position gets closer to first place). Indeed, the trend line is negative. The r^2 value of 0.229 tells us that net passing explains about 23% of the variation in league standing. So although net passing clearly isn't the only factor that determines the winner of a game, it does seem to play a part in determining league position.

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The negative slope makes sense. Controlling possession and outpassing your opponent requires a team to have players that are technically gifted (good control and passing ability). Having a lot of technically gifted players also makes a team more likely to win games. Manchester United will always boss possession against a team like Stoke because their players are more technically talented and more often than not they'll beat Stoke because they have superior talent. Because of the superior talent required to play a possession game, it makes sense that top teams also generally have high net passing values.

The analysis however does not determine the subtle difference of whether top teams are top teams because they dominate passing or whether they dominate passing because they are top teams (for a team like Arsenal with a strong emphasis on ball retention regardless of the opponent my guess is the former, for a more tactically more flexible team like Manchester United I'd guess the latter).

Sample Size Issues
The significance of this analysis is limited by the small number of games played in the Premier League thus far. Eighteen teams have played only eight games and two have played only seven. Teams have also not played the same schedules as one another which will also influence net passing and league position. For example, West Ham has only played three games against teams currently in the top half of the table (and lost two) while seven of QPR's eight games have been against teams in the top half. Would QPR and West Ham's net passing and league position look different if their schedules had been swapped? More than likely they would. It would be interesting to do this analysis for the whole of last season. A project for the future perhaps.

Preview: Arsenal vs. West Ham

Possible Lineups:
Arsenal will line up in their usual 4-2-3-1. With Diaby out due to a hamstring injury, we may see Ramsey slide back from an attacking right-sided position to a central position alongside Arteta. Coquellin was given the start alongside Arteta in the Champions League in midweek but against a West Ham side that lacks a strong creative presence in the center of midfield, Arteta should be fine occupying the holding midfield role on his own. Ramsey will provide more going forward than Coquellin. Despite a run of relatively unimpressive performances, Oxlade-Chamberlain will likely be given the start on the right. With Andy Carroll expected to be given the nod at center forward for West Ham, expect Per Mertesacker to replace Koscielny to provide some height at the back.

Expect West Ham to line up in a 4-2-3-1 that operates more as a 4-5-1 when Arsenal are in possession, with the two wingers dropping back alongside Diame and Noble to form two banks of four. Jarvis looked lively on the left wing in West Ham's 2-1 win over QPR Monday but, against Arsenal, Sam Allardyce may opt for the more defensive Matthew Taylor. O'Brien and Reid both picked up knocks in the QPR game. Reid is expected to play while O'Brien's status is less certain- we could see George McCartney replace him at left back. Andy Carroll is expected to be given the start after he returned from a hamstring injury Monday.

West Ham
  • O'Brien (McCartney) and Demel will likely be fairly reluctant to join in the attack when in possession so as not to leave spaces behind them for Podolski and Oxlade-Chamberlain to counter into.
  • Diame, Nolan and Noble will all look to shuffe the ball into wide areas to the wingers Vaz Te or Jarvis (if he plays). They'll try to either hit an early ball into Carroll towards the back post or take on the Arsenal outside backs and then cross. When West Ham do look for Carroll at the back post, he'll have the option of either going for goal himself or knocking the ball down. Nolan will look to get close to him to win the second ball.
  • West Ham's back four will play long balls directly into Carroll. When they took this direct route Monday with Carlton Cole at forward, Jarvis would cut in from the left wing and run behind Cole to get on the end of a flicked header. 
  • The Hammers will try to win as many free kicks as possible. They'll hoof the ball in towards Carroll from set pieces anywhere on the field and look to get on the end of his knock downs.
  • The Gunners should dominate possession the center of midfield.
  • West Ham will likely play a 4-5-1 in defense with the wingers dropping back to form a bank of four with Diame and Noble. Jenkinson and Gibbs should be brave with their offensive positioning, getting into advanced positions and pushing the West Ham wingers deep into their own half. This will leave Carroll isolated when West Ham do recover possession. They'll be forced to knock it long towards Carroll and hope he can hold possession until the midfield transitions forward.
  • With Gervinho at center forward, Arsenal will be very flexible in the center of the park. Look for Cazorla, Gervinho and Ramsey to find pockets of space in between the lines to get on the ball. They'll play short combinations of passes and look for seams in the back four to get in behind. They could find it difficult against a crowded back four.
  • Arsenal have to improve their set piece defending. Three of the four goals they've conceded in the Premier League have come from set pieces and in West Ham they're facing an opponent who thrives at scoring from deadball situations. Koscielny was largely responsible for the two goals conceded to Chelsea last weekend and in all likelihood he'll be replaced by the taller Mertesacker to provide some height. However, despite his 6'6" frame, Mertesacker's aerial ability has at times been suspect. He'll have to be diligent in aerial challenges with Carroll.

Recap: West Ham 2-1 QPR

West Ham scored twice from lofted crosses to the back post to secure a win in a gritty game lacking in technical quality.

Combined, the two sides completed just 504 passes, the third fewest in a Premier League game this season (Reading vs. Stoke produced a remarkably low 369 completed passes and Norwich vs. QPR had just 455 completed passes).

West Ham lined up in a 4-5-1 with Carlton Cole given the start at forward. Andy Carroll returned to the substitutes bench after being sidelined with a hamstring injury. QPR employed a 4-4-2 with Djibril Cisse and Bobby Zamora at forward. Shaun Wright Phillips played right wing and Ji Sung Park operated on the left but slightly more narrow.

Central Midfield Zone

West Ham's 4-5-1 gave them a man advantage in the center of midfield and they used their numerical superiority to completely prevent QPR's two central midfielders, Esteban Granero and Alejandro Faurlin, from getting on the ball. With virtually no presence in the center of midfield, QPR struggled to link play between defense and attack and were forced too often to hit hopeful long balls to the corners for Cisse and Zamora. Faurlin and Granero completed just 46 and 35 passes respectively, fairly low numbers for center midfielders. Combined they completed only 20 passes in the attacking third. It was apparent within 25 minutes that QPR needed an extra man in the center of midfield to allow them to get some possession and build play through the midfield. However, Mark Hughes stuck with just the two center midfielders for the whole first half and QPR continued to struggle to develop any rhythm in their play.

West Ham's Crossing and Direct Play
Despite their numerical advantage in the center of midfield, West Ham showed little interest in using the extra man to control possession. They looked to get the ball in wide areas to wingers Matthew Jarvis and Ricardo Vaz Te to send crosses into the box or knock the ball long into Cole for him to flick on. The midfield trio of Kevin Nolan, Mark Noble and Mohamed Diame completed just 26, 46 and 22 passes respectively. When they did get the ball they looked to shuffle it to Vaz Te and Jarvis. As is so often the case at West Ham, Cole was often an isolated figure up front but he did well to hold the ball up and flick on aerial challenges. When the Hammers played the ball long out of the back, Jarvis would tuck in and run behind Cole for the flick. It was pretty rudimentary stuff but QPR never looked comfortable defending crosses into the box.

Sam Allardyce was forced to make two like-for-like substitutions in the first half when Winston Reid and Joey O'Brien had to exit due to injury for West Ham. James Tomkins replaced Reid and George McCartney replaced O'Brien.

After 56 minutes Hughes finally addressed the need for extra bodies in the center of midfield and replaced Wright-Phillips with Samba Diakite and Park with Adel Taarabt. Diakite played in the middle, forming a central midfield trio with Fuarlin and Granero. Taarabt played narrow on the left but cut into the middle frequently and seemed to be given free reign to move into positions to get on the ball. The change in shape paid immediate dividends for QPR. Diakite provided an extra body in the midfield and some powerful runs forward while Taarabt gave QPR some creativity and urgency in the final third. Immediately the home sign began to control the play and were finally able to effectively transition the ball from the defensive third to attack. Taarabt's goal was a bit of individual brilliance but he was able to cut in from the left and take the shot because West Ham's center midfielders were occupied elsewhere.

With his side clinging to a 2-1 lead and being overrun in the center of the park, Allardyce would have been wise to use his final substitution to pull either Jarvis or Vaz Te for a player that could compete and win balls in the center of midfield. Yossi Benayoun and Gary O'Neil were the only two midfielders on the West Ham subs bench so O'Neil probably would have been the preferred choice. However, Allardyce elected to go with another like-for-like sub, replacing Cole with Carroll.

Just three minutes after Carroll's introduction, Diakite picked up a second yellow for QPR. Their brief spell of midfield dominance ended and West Ham were able to see out the 2-1 win.

This was a game of rather poor quality but an entertaining one to watch develop nonetheless. Against a relatively combative West Ham center midfield three, Hughes should have moved away from his 4-4-2 with wingers earlier to get an extra body in the center of midfield. He ultimately made the right substitutions but why he waited 11 minutes into the second half when it was painfully obvious QPR had no midfield presence is a mystery. 

Preview: Arsenal vs. Chelsea

Possible Lineup :

Both sides will likely start in their normal 4-2-3-1 formations. Aaron Ramsey was brought into the Arsenal lineup last weekend against Manchester City on the right although his positioning was quite narrow, creating what was effectively a four man central midfield for Arsenal. This enabled Arsenal to control possession in the middle of the park in an impressive 1-1 draw at the Etihad and Wenger may look to stick with the young Welshman Saturday. Width will come from Podolski on the left and when Arsenal look to break it will likely be through him and Cazorla. Vermaelen is expected to be back in the side after illness sidelined him last weekend. Koscielny therefore will likely be relegated back to the bench despite a goal and an overall impressive performance at Manchester City.

Chelsea's starting XI is a bit more difficult to predict. Roberto Di Matteo has preferred Oscar in the center attacking midfield role in Chelsea's last two games, a 1-0 win over Stoke and a 2-2 Champions League draw with Juventus. Oscar was brought into the side against Juventus to defend Andrea Pirlo in his deep lying creative midfield role. Pirlo is tremendous at dictating the tempo of games and getting defenses out of position with his passing- by tasking Oscar with man marking him, RDM was looking to unsettle Juventus and prevent them from getting into any type of offensive rhythm. In Mikel Arteta, Arsenal have a creative deep lying midfielder similarly gifted at dictating the tempo of games. RDM may well use a similar strategy as he did against Juventus, unsettling Arsenal by using Oscar to keep him off the ball. If Oscar does get the nod at center attacking midfield, expect Hazard and Mata to play on either side of him. They'll drift inside and switch sides frequently. Given Hazard's dribbling ability and the relative inexperience of Arsenal right back Carl Jenkinson, look for Hazard to start on the left and try to take on Jenksinson with the dribble.

  1. If Ramsey starts on the right and drifts towards the center, as he did against Manchester city, it could cause Chelsea some serious problems in midfield. It would give Arsenal a 4 v. 3 advantage in the middle of the park (Arteta, Diaby, Cazorla, Ramsey vs. Mikel, Lampard, Oscar). Mikel would likely stay close to Cazorla, Lampard would have to keep an eye on Ramsey and more than likely Oscar will stay close to Arteta to take away Arsenal's deep lying creative threat and the person who dictates tempo for the Gunners. Therefore we could see Diaby unaccounted for meaning he'll have the space to make those powerful runs forward with the ball. The numerical advantage would also suggest Arsenal could boss the midfield and dominate possession.
  2. How adventurous Ivanovic is getting forward could be another key factor. He enjoys joining in the attack but isn't particularly quick to recover when Chelsea lose possession. Therefore Chelsea can at times be susceptible to counters down the right side (last season's Champions League away defeat to Napoli is a good example). With Lucas Podolski occupying the left side for Arsenal, the Gunners have a player who tracks back and defends well but also has the pace to get in behind the opposition right back when Arsenal win possession (Arsenal's first goal against Liverpool is a perfect example). If Ivanovic is adventurous and plays high up the pitch, expect Podolski to enjoy plenty of room down the left to sprint into. If I were RDM I'd be a bit cautious with the Serbian's positioning.
  3. If Chelsea do play deep and allow Arsenal to control possession, do Arsenal have the ability to unlock a crowded defense? So far draws to Sunderland and Stoke, Arsenal's two opponents that defended deep with two banks of four, suggest they do not. Without a ruthless finisher like Van Persie could struggle to turn dominant possession into goals.
  4. Chelsea would be wise to play Hazard on the left. While Arsenal's right sided defenders Mertesacker and Jenkinson have had solid starts to the season, neither player instills the confidence in their one v. one defending ability to deal with someone as quick and clever with the dribble as Hazard. He could give those two fits. 
  5. Chelsea looked desperately short of ideas last weekend when Stoke played them deep and kept their defense compact in the center of the pitch. Both Mata and Hazard like to come inside to get on the ball when they occupy wide roles so the Blues can become a bit narrow and a bit one dimensional. There's virtually no chance Arsenal will sit deep and allow the Blues to take the game to them at home (in all likelihood it'll be the other way around) but the Gunners should take note of how much Chelsea have struggled under RDM when they're forced to take the game to the opponent. They're more dangerous on the break and Arsenal should look to force them to slowly build attacks from the back.
  6. Too often this season Chelsea have given the ball away cheaply and left their back four exposed to counters (John Obi Mikel's giveaway that led to Juventus's second goal in the Champions League is an obvious example). It's crucial that when Mikel and Lampard advance up the field Chelsea keep hold of the ball or Cazorla will have a field day breaking into space behind the two holding midfielders.

Links, 9/27/12 Edition

  • Michael Cox: Why the hate for zonal marking?
    •  "The chief criticism of defending zonally is that no one takes responsibility, an argument that misses the point entirely. Ex-coaches who persist with this line of debate are actually adopting quite a cowardly approach -- "No one takes responsibility" is a synonym for "There's no player I can blame." Ironically, it also demonstrates that they're unwilling to take responsibility themselves."
  • Chris Rowland: Football and Finance, Liverpool and the top six
    • " I hope I have been able to show a number of things. First, a realisation of just how catastrophically wrong things went in the years ’09/10 – ’10/11. Liverpool had turned into a club who changed managers on a yearly basis, wasted vast sums on a phantom stadium which couldn’t possibly be financed, had begun the trend of decreased transfer spending and swapped it for vast ineffective wage inflation, relying on player sales to break even."
  • Jonathan Wilson: The question: How troubling is Liverpool's start
    • Already there has been a marked improvement in pass completion, up from 80.9% to 86%, and from 73.24% to 78.9% in the opposition half. To put that into context, last year's figures were the best for Liverpool over a full season since Opta began collating data in 2006-07.The problem is all too familiar. Last season Liverpool converted only 9.13% of their chances, the lowest figure since Opta began producing its reports. It had been 13.59% the previous season but then Liverpool managed just 11.4 shots per game. When Liverpool finished second in 2008-09, they had 15.1 shots per game and converted 13.46% of their chances. But if 9.13% looked bad, this season's figure is far worse: a meagre 5.97%.

Everton 3-0 Swansea: Everton attack down left and exploit Fellaini's aerial ability

Everton used Marauane Fellaini's height advantage on dead balls and attacked almost entirely down the left through Leighton Baines and Steven Peinaar in a dominant 3-0 win over Swansea at Liberty Stadium.

David Moyes' side set out in a 4-4-1-1 with Victor Anichebe getting the start at center forward for the injured Nikica Jelavic with Fellaini tucked in behind him. Swansea played their normal 4-2-3-1 with Pablo Hernandez given the start on the right over Nathan Dyer and Leon Britton left on the subs bench.

Everton Press
Defensively, Everton pressed the Swansea back four with Anichebe, Peinaar, Fellaini, and right midfielder Kevin Mirallas. Leon Osman and Phil Neville sat deeper in the center of the midfield closer to the Toffees' back four. This created a gap between the four players pressing and the two holding midfielders but it wasn't space Swansea was able to exploit. The high pressing of Everton's four most advanced players prevented Swansea from settling into any sort of a rhythm in the attacking third of the field. The Swans completed 322 passes in the game, just 29 fewer than Everton, but only 69 of those were in the attacking third (21%). Everton were happy to allow the Swansea back four to pass the ball sideways amongst themselves and the Welsh side rarely looked like penetrating into the attacking third.

Everton Attack
Going forward, Everton focused its attack on the left side of the pitch where Baines and Peinaar combined throughout the afternoon with some tidy interchanges. The two accounted for the second and fourth most pass combinations in the game- there were 15 Baines to Peinaar combinations and 14 Peinaar to Baines combinations. Often Anichebe would drift to the left as well, overloading the right side of the Swansea defense while Fellaini would move into the center of the box, offering a dangerous physical presence to feed the ball into. The graphic below shows Everton's passes in the final third. Notice the number of those that occurred down the left hand side.

Interestingly, Everton's one goal that didn't result from a set piece came from a rare counter down the right flank. Fellaini won the ball deep in his own half and found an outlet pass to Peinaar who had drifted to the opposite side of the field. The South African found Mirallas bursting through the middle and the Belgian tucked it home.

Moyes also clearly set out to exploit Fellaini's height on set pieces, as he did in their season opening win over Manchester United. Any free kick the Toffees earned within 50 yards of the goal they'd get numbers into the box and lump it to the back post for Fellaini. Swansea had a miserable time dealing with the tall Belgian all afternoon and the tactic bore fruit for Everton in the 22nd minute when Fellaini won a high dead ball at the back post and flicked on for Anichebe who finished from 6 yards out to open the scoring. Replays showed Fellaini had clearly handled the ball into the path of Anichebe but the defending was poor from Ashley Williams to allow Fellaini to get the initial touch with his chest. The Belgian would go on to score himself in the 82nd minute, heading in another set piece from the left side at the front post.

Everton's four man high press prevented Swansea from getting any sort of meaningful possession in the attacking third. Swansea were entirely unable to cope with Baines and Peinaar down Everton's left side and failed to deal with aerial challenges with Fellaini. In the end the home side was fortunate it was only 3-0 as Anichebe was guilty of missing a couple of very good opportunities. Moyes will be thrilled with his side's performance as they continue their uncharacteristically bright start to the season. 

Ranking the Premier League's most direct teams

“Direct football” or “long ball football” has mostly negative connotations in the modern era. It has become associated with a time in English football when pitches were more mud than grass, and the dominant attacking tactic was to launch high balls into lumbering center forwards to knock down in a 4-4-2 system. Indeed, it was England’s refusal to, until recently, replace direct play with the more fluid, short passing-based systems that were being used in continental Europe as early as the 1930s that has largely been blamed for its lack of success in international tournaments. Long ball football, so the reasoning goes, requires less individual technique and less sophisticated team movement off the ball. Simply whack a ball into a big center forward and hope he knocks it down into the path of a teammate close by or hit it over the top of the defense and hope a speedy forward can get on the end of it. It’s thought to be predictable and generally not the most effective way to use the ball.

In truth however, any assertion that direct play is unquestionably inferior to short passing because it requires less individual technique than dribbling by a defender or using a series of 15 tidy one touch passes to advance the ball 40 yards up the pitch is an incorrect one. Indeed, even in the modern game long passes have often proven to be an effective way to quickly break down an opposition defense. Long balls aren’t a problem in and of themselves. They can be used to stretch a defense and create valuable space between an opponents midfield and back four. Likewise a team can use them to exploit the speed or height and strength advantage an attacker has over opposition center backs. The problem with direct play is when it is overused and becomes the only method a side relies on to advance the ball. Only then does it become predictable and easy to defend. But the same thing can be said of Barcelona’s tiki taka. Relying too heavily on long spells of possession and quick short passes can allow the opposition to restrict the space the attacking side has to play in and deny the time on the ball creative players need to open up a defense.

Of course the most effective team tactics for any given side have to do with the strengths of its players and the players and tactics used by the opposition in any given game. This post will focus on how direct the 20 Barclay’s Premier League teams have been in the first two weeks of the season, the reasons some of them have had for playing direct (or indirect), and the results that different styles of play have produced for different clubs.

When I set out to judge how direct individual Premier League teams are, I first use the average number of long balls each team played per game as a measure of directness and rank teams based on that measure. Stoke City are nearly unanimously considered the most direct team in the Premier League. They’re big and strong, lacking in creative midfield players capable of clever short passing, and in Peter Crouch have a giant of a forward favored to win aerial challenges over just about anyone. However, the data show that after two games Stoke average the 12th most long balls in the league, a curious result given Stoke are considered the most direct team. Should we assume then that Stoke have drastically altered their playing style over the summer and become less reliant on the long ball? 

As it turns out, we should not. The long balls per game statistic doesn’t tell the whole story of how much a team relies on long passes, as it doesn’t take into account possession and the number of long balls a team plays relative to short passes. For example, team A may have 80% of possession against their opponent team B resulting in them playing 60 long balls and 600 short passes. Team B has 20% of possession while hitting 50 long balls and playing 200 short passes. In this example, team A plays 10 more long passes than team B. They are not the more direct team, however. Their advantage in number of long balls played is attributable to them dominating possession and playing more of every kind of pass. Relative to the number of short passes they play, team A is far less direct. They have a ratio of 10 short passes for every one long ball (600/60=10) whereas team B plays only 4 short passes for every long ball (200/50=4). We can use this same short passes to long ball ratio with data on Premier League teams to rank them in terms of directness. This measurement is shown in the table below. Teams at the top of the table have a higher ratio of short passes to long balls and are therefore less direct than those at the bottom.
Using this method, Stoke are indeed the most direct team in the Premier League after two weeks, playing just 3.48 short passes per long ball. By contrast, Arsenal have been the least direct team, playing 11.08 short passes for every one long ball. Neither of these facts are particularly surprising. While Tony Pulis has always focused on physicality and territory at Stoke, Arsene Wenger has molded a side of mostly creative, technical players who are often small in stature. Interestingly, both teams have struggled to find the net in their first two games. Arsenal have yet to score, registering two goalless draws, one of which was to Stoke last Sunday. Stoke have scored just once in their opening two games.

The sample size is too small to enable us to predict whether either team will struggle to score all season and there are obviously other factors besides how direct a team is that influence number of goals scored. In the case of Arsenal, one big factor may be the loss of Robin Van Persie and the lack chemistry between Arsenal’s three big attacking summer signings Olivier Giroud, Santi Cazorla, and Lukas Podolski.

The data produce some other interesting findings. Both Liverpool and Tottenham brought in new managers this summer. Brendan Rodgers and Andre Villas-Boas were expected to bring new styles of play to their respective teams. Rodgers likes to build the attack from the back with patient buildup play and linking a number of shorts passes. At Swansea last season, his team had the third highest average possession percentage behind the two Manchester clubs. Villas-Boas prefers a pressing game where players expend energy high up the field to win the ball back and then get their rest while patiently knocking the ball around in possession. Neither system relies heavily on the long ball. However, both teams are in the bottom half of the table in terms of short passes per long ball, suggesting they’ve relied on direct play more than most teams. Liverpool have played 5.96 short passes per long ball, while Tottenham have played 5.67.

The data also show that Everton and Newcastle, two teams that finished in the top 7 of the Premier League last season, are among the most direct teams thus far. Newcastle have played 5.07 short passes per long ball and Everton have played just 4.7. These numbers make sense when we consider the strengths of each team and who they’ve played in their opening fixtures. Everton started the season with a home game to Manchester United. United had three injured center backs in Chris Smalling, Johnny Evans, and Rio Ferdinand and were forced to play Michael Carrick out of position in the center of defense alongside Nemanja Vidic. In Marouane Fellaini, Everton had a tall, strong midfielder able to dominate Carrick in the air and knock balls down for his teammates. Everton tried to exploit this mismatch all evening, continually sending long balls towards the towering Belgian. The direct style worked as Everton emerged 1-0 winners. Newcastle’s frequent use of the long pass early in the season likely has to do with the fact that its forward pairing of Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse are full of pace and able to use their powerful running to get in behind the opposition back four. The Magpies have creative midfielders in Johann Cabaye and Hatem Ben-Arfa capable of getting the ball on the floor and playing, but the direct threat of the two Senegalese forwards gives their attack another dimension and they’ll likely continue to look long over the top for them this season.

Again, a sample size of two games doesn’t necessarily reflect how a team will play throughout an entire season, but if we look at data from last season we can get a good idea of how direct we’d expect teams to be in 2012-2013 (at least those teams that have kept the same managers). The figure below shows the same short passes per long ball statistic. Notice Stoke were also the most direct team last season. They also scored the fewest goals in the league with just 36. Another point of interest is that four of the teams that finished in the top six of the table last season--Manchester City (1), Arsenal (3), Chelsea (6) and Manchester United (2)--were among the five least direct teams. This isn’t terribly surprising since these are among the biggest, wealthiest clubs in the league and can afford to bring in the most technically gifted players suited to play in a short passing system. The only top six finisher among the league’s 10 most direct teams was Newcastle. Three of the bottom four finishers were among the four most direct teams--Blackburn, Bolton, and QPR. This almost certainly has to do with the inability of smaller clubs to purchase the most technically gifted players capable of playing a short passing game. 
The table may lead us to conclude that relying on short passes produces superior results to playing direct football. This is somewhat misleading. Clubs like Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, and Arsenal play less direct football in the Premier League because they have technically gifted players, and they gain a competitive advantage over most of their opponents by keeping the ball moving along the ground. It wouldn’t make any sense for Arsenal to set out launching long balls forward against Stoke City--they lose their competitive advantage doing that. But, it also doesn’t make sense for Stoke to try to tiki tika their way up the pitch against Arsenal--they don’t have the quality of players to do that. Their advantage over Arsenal is in their superior size and strength, so they play direct. In short, teams adopt styles that best utilize the strengths of their players and attack the weaknesses of their opposition. Not every team can have the quality of Europe’s top clubs and where there is a gap in talent between two sides, direct play will remain a tactic teams employ. 

Recap: Chelsea 4-2 Reading

Despite another impressive performance from new signing Eden Hazard, Chelsea struggled mightily to break down Reading's crowded defense and were extremely fortunate to emerge 4-2 winners. Just as they often did last year, Chelsea found it difficult to create meaningful goalscoring opportunities when the opposition allowed them to have the bulk of possession and forced them to patiently pick apart seams against two defensive banks of four. The Blues finished the game with just under 72% of possession but only had 7 shots on goal. Four of those shots were goals but the first was a penalty, the second came off a serious goalkeeping blunder, the third was clearly offsides, and the fourth came late when Reading's keeper had gone forward to attack a corner kick.

Chelsea's problem in breaking down compact defenses last season was largely due to the fact Juan Mata was the only creative passer in the Chelsea attack. As I mentioned in my preview to this game in the previous post, the strength's of their other advanced midfielders/wide forwards in the 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 systems last season- Kalou, Sturridge and Ramires- were mainly pace and the ability to advance the ball forward with the dribble. None of the three are exceptional passers. Chelsea's deeper lying midfielders last season, Meireles, Mikel and Lampard, were not of the deep lying creator mold of a Luka Modric, Xabi Alonso, or Andrea Pirlo. Meireles is a hardworking ball winner, Mikel is a very defensive holding player, and Lampard keeps the ball moving and makes well timed runs into the box but none are known for springing attacks with their clever passing. Thus, Chelsea were left with Mata as the sole player with the creativity to cut apart a defense with a vertical pass. As a result, against compact defenses Chelsea would play horizontal balls in midfield all afternoon without ever posing much of a penetrative threat. It was methodical, predictable and easy to defend.

Hazard is a player capable of penetrating the center of compact defenses both with the dribble and with creative forward passes. He brings to the side a directness they lacked in the center of the park last season. He's not content simply keeping the ball moving from side to side but instead likes to go to goal and attack vertically. He proved incredibly effective yesterday, getting into dangerous pockets of space between the seams of the Reading defense and completing 38 of 41 attempted passes in the attacking third (two of which were assists, see the figure below).  Just as they had at Wigan Sunday, Hazard and Mata interchanged between central and wide positions, with Mata given the freedom to come infield to collect the ball. The pair combined for the two highest pass combinations of the match with 18 Hazard to Mata combinations and 18 Mata to Hazard combinations.

With Hazard and Mata orchestrating moves forward Chelsea's struggles yesterday, unlike last season, had less to do with an absence of creativity and more to do with a lack of pace in their ball movement. At 72%, Chelsea had Barcelona-like possession stats but unlike Barcelona, who rapidly move the ball from player to player, they seemed too often to take an extra unnecessary touch, allowing Reading to comfortably rotate their defensive shape. They were also uncharacteristically loose in possession, Ramires particularly guilty of some untidy first touches and passes. Hazard was exceptional in possession but once he got rid of the ball the pace of Chelsea's movement stalled. As the second half progressed with Chelsea trailing 2-1, everything went through Hazard and Mata, with the Spaniard continuing to get in central positions in an effort to get on the ball more. As a result their shape became a bit narrow with the Blues trying to force the ball through the crowded center of Reading's defense. The figure below shows Juan Mata's second half passes in the attacking third. Notice how many of these passes came from central areas, specifically ones just outside the 18 yard box. The two were dangerous on the ball in these crowded pockets of space but Chelsea were struggling to stretch the Reading defense laterally by making threatening runs from wide areas.

The introduction of Sturridge gave the Blues needed width on the right and a new point from which to attack. Prior to his introduction Chelsea's only point of attack was through the middle and thus the center of Reading's defense was able to stay compact and simply check the runs and close the passing lanes of Torres, Mata and Hazard. With Chelsea offering little threat from the right, left back Ian Harte was able to pinch inside and provide additional cover through the middle. Sturridge's introduction forced Harte to defend wider on the right, leaving one less defender to provide cover in the box. Immediately Sturridge was able to use his pace to get around the much slower left back and cut in towards the front post. The threat of him cutting inside from the right left Reading's center backs with an additional concern- not only did they have to check runs coming from the center, an area Chelsea were trying to overload with Mata, Hazard, Lampard and Oscar, they also had to worry about shifting to provide cover for Harte if he were beaten by Sturridge on the outside. Although Sturridge was not involved directly in the third goal, it started when Chelsea had shifted Reading's defense to the right and quickly switched the point of attack to the left allowing Ashley Cole the space to make an unchecked run from left back into Reading's weak side defense.

If yesterday proved anything for Chelsea, it was that their new look attacking outfit will almost certainly experience some hiccups as the players take time to get used to one another. Their key playmaker in Hazard has been involved in only three competitive matches with the squad and Fernando Torres, the only true center forward at the club with whom they'll rely on heavily for goals, was very much a peripheral figure at the club last season. However, there have been hints of what could prove to be a bright future at Stamford Bridge as well, particularly from Hazard and Mata. The two have shown a good understanding of one another in the first two league fixtures and their ability to interchange positions and overload different areas of the field should cause serious matchup issues for opposition defenses. Against teams that pack the defense as Reading did yesterday, Chelsea will need to offer a point of attack from wide areas as Mata and Hazard both move centrally to try to use their combination passing. Wide threats will stretch the opposition defense and allow the two creative players the space to play clever through balls as they did for Chelsea's game-winning third goal yesterday.

Reading will offer Chelsea different challenge than Wigan

Chelsea's rather comfortable 2-0 win in their opening fixture at Wigan offered a display of the pragmatic efficiency the club has become associated with in the years since Jose Mourinho's arrival. After snatching both goals in the opening 7 minutes, the Blues were content to sit deep, absorb pressure with a compact defense and very cautiously move forward. Wigan had 52 percent of the possession, controlled 58 percent of the territory, and completed 113 passes in the final third to Chelsea's 44. Frank Lampard led Chelsea with 8 passes in the final third--7 Wigan players had as many or more passes in the final third. Despite dominating many of the offensive statistics, the Latics rarely looked like threatening Petr Cech's goal, and throughout the 90 minutes the result never appeared to be in doubt. It was hardly the kind of Barcelona-esque, stylish possession-based performance Roman Abramovich wants from Chelsea but the win was as easy they come.

In many ways the possession-based attacking philosophy of Wigan under Roberto Martinez plays directly into what proved to be Chelsea's strengths late last season--sitting deep and drawing opposition midfielders and full backs forward, then regaining possession and countering into the space they left vacated. Chelsea were much less comfortable when forced to unlock compact defenses with tidy possession and clever buildup play. Even against superior opposition Wigan are not a team that sits back and defends in banks of four with ten men behind the ball. Indeed, they used the same brave 3-4-3 formation Sunday that they used during their terrific late season run last year. They like to get on the ball and get numbers into the opposition half (evidenced by their dominance of passes in the final third). Inevitably that leaves them vulnerable to quick counter attacks which proved to be Wigan's undoing Sunday.

In the second minute Wigan advanced the ball into the attacking third through an impressive interchange of passes between right wing back Anderson Boyce and right forward Victor Moses down the sideline. Boyce then played the ball to Franco Di Santo about 24 yards from goal in the middle of the pitch. Shaun Maloney had drifted centrally from his left forward position, forcing right back Branislav Ivanovic to track his run for Chelsea. Maloney's clever movement left acres of space down the left flank for Maynor Figueroa to run into from his left wing back position. The movement was impressive from the Latics, but Di Santo was caught in possession before he could find Figueroa, leaving both wing backs high up the field and out of defensive position. Ivanovic collected the ball at Chelsea's 18, played a short pass to Juan Mata and took off into the space left vacated by Figeueroa. Two passes later and Eden Hazard had turned away from Ivan Ramis brilliantly, leaving Wigan's other two center backs hopelessly exposed. He found Ivanovic to his right who tucked the finish away coolly. Wigan had been undone in the blink of an eye by four quick passes. The buildup that led to Hazard winning the penalty that made it 2-0 was similar. Figueroa advanced to the touchline before hitting a poor cross directly to Cech. Cech quickly rolled the ball to Lampard who was left with acres of space down the middle to dribble into. Hazard drifted right into the space left empty by Figueroa's attacking run. He received a pass from Lampard, advanced the ball into the box and was ultimately hacked down by Ramis. Two quick counter attacks had effectively killed the game off inside 10 minutes.

Reading at Stamford Bridge will likely offer Chelsea a very different kind of challenge. Whereas Wigan bravely attacked with numbers and left themselves susceptible to the counter, Reading is expected to get bodies behind the ball and get into a compact defensive shape before looking to spring counterattacks of their own. Under Brian McDermott, Reading are an extremely organized outfit and conceded the fewest goals in the Championship last season. Chelsea will be forced to patiently keep possession and provide the creativity to unlock a crowded defense, something they struggled with at times last season. The addition of Hazard should certainly help in this regard. Last season Chelsea's wide outside forward and attacking midfield options were mainly Mata, Daniel Sturridge, Salomon Kalou and Ramires. Of those four, only Mata is known for his creative passing ability. Kalou, Ramires, and Sturridge are known for their pace and ability to advance the ball with the dribble but aren't especially technical players. Their skill sets mean they are more suited to playing a counter attacking style where they can run at defenders with pace rather than one centered around patient buildup play. Hazard is a player with good technique who brings both the ability to beat opponents off the dribble and to unlock them with a clever pass. Having two technical players behind Torres should make Chelsea a more threatening and unpredictable side when they come up against crowded defenses. The positioning and movement of those two today should be one of the more intriguing tactical elements of the match.

It will be interesting to see if Roberto Di Matteo's team sheet is influenced by the fact that Chelsea play three games in the opening seven days of the season. They face a strong Newcastle side at the Bridge Saturday. It's possible Di Matteo could opt to rest a usual starter or two in the hopes they'll be able to defeat an inferior Reading side today without a first choice 11. Look for Reading to try to frustrate Chelsea by limiting their space to move the ball in the attacking third and crowding the box. If Chelsea get an early goal they should cruise.

Thoughts: Arsenal 0-0 Sunderland

Arsenal failed to make their 70% possession count as Sunderland put in a gritty defensive performance to emerge from the Emirates with a deserved 0-0 draw. It was a pretty straightforward tactical battle; Sunderland defended with two lines of four to restrict the space Arsenal had to play in while the Gunners controlled possession and looked to use quick passing to find gaps in the defense. Here are some of the more interesting developments and observations I noticed.
  • The Wearsiders were content to get all 11 men behind the ball and force Arsenal to patiently pick them apart. They looked to counter through Sessegnon, McClean and Campbell and did so with some success early on. However, as the game wore on Arsenal closed off their outlet pass and Sunderland offered little going forward the final 65 minutes of the game. 
  • With Sunderland dropping deep in two banks of four to restrict the space Arsenal had to play in, it was important for the Gunners to find space in between the lines to unlock the compact defense. New signing Santi Cazorla did this with considerable success early on in the match, moving into pockets of space between the Sunderland back four and midfield. However, Lee Cattermole began getting tight on Cazorla and the Spanish midfielder found it more difficult to find the time for a cutting pass as the game went on. He still found ways to get on the ball, often coming deeper to receive it. He played a brilliant ball to put fellow new signing Olivier Giroud through on goal but the Frenchman, who had recently come on to replace Podolski at center forward, scuffed his effort wide. 
  • Despite starting as the loan center forward, Podolski often came very deep into the midfield to receive the ball. It’s understandable why he was doing this since the the central areas around the box were so crowded. However, it left Arsenal looking like they were playing a 4-6-0. The problem with that was Arsenal didn’t have anyone to stretch the Sunderland defense vertically and create space for Cazorla between the Sunderland back four and midfield. Giroud stayed closer to the Sunderland center backs which created more space for Cazorla and second half substitute Aaron Ramsey to float into. Ramsey got a decent look at goal from 18 yards out but his effort was extremely poor.
  • In the first half Arsenal looked more dangerous when they were able to win possession from the Sunderland midfield and break quickly towards goal with 3 or 4 passes. They struggled when Sunderland were able to get all 10 men behind the ball. I thought at halftime it might be a good idea for Arsenal to concede some possession to the Sunderland midfield and press a little deeper towards the midfield line, the thinking being that they could push Sunderland out of their defensive shell opening up space behind the Black Cats’ midfield to counter into with speed. Indeed, Arsenal seemed to use this strategy and the game opened up very slightly in the middle stages of the second half. However, when Arsenal were able to break they were missing the final ball or and the presence of a poaching center forward in the box to put the ball in the net.