FA Cup tactics recap

Chelsea 5-1 Southampton: Ba gives Blues more direct threat in final third
Chelsea bounced back from their shock league defeat Wednesday to QPR to run away 5-1 winners at St. Mary's in Demba Ba's debut outing. It took the Senegalese striker just 35 minutes to get on the score sheet at his new club and he added a second at the hour mark.

Ba's movement in the penalty area was excellent and his performance illustrated how he'll enable Chelsea to be more direct and use more width in the final third than they do with Fernando Torres in the lineup.

Torres is not the type of striker that remains in the box and gets himself into dangerous positions to poach goals: rather he likes to move into positions where he can become involved in the buildup play. He tends to either drop into midfield or float into the channels to receive the ball. Because Chelsea always play with only one center forward, Torres's movement back into midfield and into wide areas means the Blues are often left with no one to pounce on balls played into the penalty area. 

When he drops between the lines to get on the ball, Chelsea's play tends to become quite narrow. Their wide midfielders pinch in field to offer passing options and look for quick combinations down the middle. When he floats into the channels he's often able to create overloads for the opposition outside backs but it also leaves Chelsea with too few players in the box to attack balls played in from wide areas.

Ba offered a different option Saturday. He tended to stay in central areas high up the pitch alongside Southampton's center backs, rarely dropping back into the space occupied by Mata. This allowed Mata more space in between the seams to get on the ball and use his creativity to pick apart the Southampton defense. Moses and Hazard were able to stay in wider areas and Mata moved from flank to flank from his central attacking midfield position to create overloads in the channels. Because Ba remained in and around the penalty area, Chelsea always had at least one person to aim balls in the box to when they got the ball in wider areas in the attacking third.

Ba offers Chelsea a physical presence in the box and his aerial ability will allow them to play with more width and send more crosses into the box. His instincts and movement in the penalty area are excellent, highlighted most clearly by the near post run he made on his second goal. Just moments later he demonstrated his clever movement in the box once again as he peeled off to the back post to receive a cross from Hazard (or was it Mata/Cole/Moses???). His headed effort was saved but the move showcased a direct threat Chelsea hadn't shown all season.

West Ham 2-2 Manchester United: United struggle in final third against powerful Hammers midfield
Alex Ferguson fielded a lopsided 4-3-1-2 and Manchester United struggled to dictate play in the final third. Tom Cleverley and Paul Scholes played center midfield and Shinji Kagawa was employed higher up the field as the link man behind the front two pairing of Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez. Rafael was used at right midfield meaning Manchester United had more numbers on the right side of the pitch than the left.

Early on Ferguson's side were able to take advantage of overloads down the right, causing matchup problems for West Ham's left back Daniel Potts. Smalling pushed on down the touchline from right back while Rafael tucked inside. Hernandez made diagonal runs into the right channel leaving West Ham to defend 2 v. 3 down that flank. Unsurprisingly the Red Devils' opener came from a well worked one-two down the right between Hernandez and Rafael.

The opener seemed to wake Allardyce's side up and minutes later they drew level in very West Ham-like fashion: a free kick ultimately fell to Joe Cole on the left flank who whipped in a fine cross for James Collins to head home.

With the scores level, West Ham used their work rate and physical strength in midfield to frustrate Ferguson's side. The game closely resembled West Ham's 3-1 league win over Chelsea early in December when the Hammers physically battered Chelsea's diminutive attacking midfielders. The likes of Eden Hazard and Juan Mata were simply overpowered in the Blue's attacking third leaving Chelsea unable to link defense to offense and create meaningful scoring chances.

Kagawa had a similar experience Saturday. Playing as the link man behind Welbeck and Hernandez, he was unable to find the space to get any kind of meaningful touches on the ball. When he was able to get in possession he was quickly closed down and bullied off the ball by the likes of Alou Diarra and Jack Collison.

The experiences of Chelsea and Manchester United suggest using a player with physical strength in possession to play the attacking midfield role is perhaps a better bet against West Ham than a smaller creative player. Had Wayne Rooney been fit he would have been able to use his strength and power to get the ball in tight pockets of space, keep possession and win free kicks.

Ultimately, as they so often do, Fergie's substitutions made the difference as Ryan Giggs provided an incredible ball over the top to Van Persie whose first touch and finish highlighted why he's the best striker in the Premier League.

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.

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

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

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

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

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