A few thoughts on Liverpool 3-2 Manchester City

Liverpool's midfield diamond overwhelmed Fernandinho and Toure early
Brendan Rodgers set out in a diamond 4-4-2 with Steven Gerrard sitting in front of the back four flanked by Jordan Henderson and Coutinho with Raheem Sterling at the top of the diamond behind Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez. Manuel Pellegrini opted for a 4-2-3-1 with Fernandinho and Yaya Toure playing the holding roles behind attacking midfielders David Silva, Samir Nasri and Jesus Navas.

City's three attacking midfielders and striker Edin Dzeko stayed high up the pitch defensively. Nasri and Navas marked Liverpool's fullbacks Glen Johnson and John Falanagan respectively. Dzeko and Silva would pressure Liverpool's center backs and Gerrard who would drop in between his center backs in possession. This meant that further up the pitch Toure and Fernandinho were outmanned 3 v. 2 in central areas (see graphic below). They were left to defend Coutinho, Henderson, Sterling and at times Suarez dropping off into midfield. Liverpool therefore always had a man free to receive a pass and were able to comfortably pass through the two City holding midfielders. Liverpool dominated the opening half hour and City were fortunate to be down just the two goals.


 City have been susceptible to the counter all season. Toure and Fernandinho are more powerful midfield shuttlers than truly defensive midfielders and at times have left City's back four exposed when the opposition breaks quickly. Today Liverpool produced dangerous counter after dangerous counter in the opening 30 minutes. The outstanding Sterling broke quickly from midfield to join Sturridge and Suarez on the break and Henderson arrived with late energetic runs at the edge of the box. Toure's early injury was no doubt a blow for City but the subsequent introduction of Javi Garcia, a truly defensive minded midfielder, actually provided the City back four with a bit more protection when Liverpool broke forward.

Milner's introduction changed the game for City
The introduction of James Milner for Navas in the 50th minute may not have had the feel of an inspiring attacking change to many but Milner's qualities too often go unnoticed and he changed the complexion of the game today. His clever movement from sideline to sideline and positioning was crucial in creating overloads for the Liverpool defense. Whereas Navas predictably stayed wide on the right and looked to get to the endline and cross, Milner varied his movements across the width of the pitch and put Liverpool defenders into uncomfortable decisions. He played a terrific 1-2 with Fernandinho before assisting to Silva for City's opener. He then drifted across to the left side of the pitch to create an overload with Silva and Nasri for the City equalizer.

Kompany's blunder the decider
Vincent Kompany provided one of the deciding moments in City's 2011-2012 league winning campaign when he scored the decisive goal in a 1-0 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford late in the season. His error for Coutinho's game winner today may well end up costing his side the title this season. At 2-2 City looked like the only side capable of producing a winner. Aguero and Silva had just combined for a narrow miss and Liverpool were on the back foot when Kompany's shanked clearance fell for Coutinho in the box. The Brazilian did brilliantly to curl his effort into the corner but it was a dreadful mistake from the City captain.

Tactical Analysis: Fulham 1-0 Norwich

Fulham scrapped their way to a 1-0 win over Norwich at Craven Cottage pulling to within 2 points of their rivals on the day in the race for survival. This was a contest fought hard in midfield with desperately little quality in the attacking third from both sides. It was therefore no surprise it was decided by a set piece.

Both managers started with interesting formations. Neil Adams opted for a diamond 4-4-2 in his first game in charge of Norwich after Chris Hughton's sacking. Bradley Johnson played in front of the back of the back four with Johnny Howson and Leroy Fer narrow to his left and right respectively. Robert Snodgrass played at the top of the diamond behind a front two of Nathan Redmond and Ricky Van Wolfswinkel.

Felix Magath set out with a 3-5-1-1 with Brede Hangeland, Fernando Amorebieta and Johnny Heitinga operating as a back three. Sasha Reither and Kieran Richardson played as wing backs. Mahamadou Diarra played at the base of midfield just in front of the three center backs with Steve Sidwell to his right and Lewis Holtby to his left. Patjim Kasami played off of Hugo Rodallega up front.

Norwich dominated the early proceedings. The midfield diamond meant they had four players in the middle of midfield versus Fulham's three and therefore had a free man to provide a passing option and were able to control possession.

One of the more interesting tactical features of the opening stages occurred down Norwich's attacking left flank. The diamond 4-4-2 vs. 3-5-1-1 match up meant both sides were playing with only one wide player on each side of the pitch. For Fulham it was the wing backs Riether and Richardson, for Norwich it was the fullbacks Steven Whittaker and Martin Olsson. With Norwich playing narrow, Reither didn't have a direct wide midfielder to mark. As a result he would tuck inside to help even up the numbers in the middle of midfield. However, this left Olsson with the space to bomb down the left wing unmarked for Norwich (see graphic below). Olsson provided several decent deliveries into the box in the first half. In the 28th minute he found himself again able to advance unmarked down the left wing and provided a low driven cross for van Wolfswinkel that forced David Stockdale into a world class save.

Fulham 3-5-2. Reither tucks inside to provide extra protection in midfield. Olsson takes advantage of space on the left wing.
Recognizing his side were on the back foot and that Olsson would continue to pose a real threat, Magath changed the home side's shape to 4-5-1. Reither dropped back to left fullback position, Amorebieta slid over to right back. Richardson played as a left midfielder while Kasami moved from his withdrawn forward position to right midfield. The change meant that Reither would have cover from Olsson late runs down the wing as Kasami was tasked with tracking the Norwich fullback when he advanced forward. Reither could tuck inside to offer defensive support in narrow areas knowing Olsson wouldn't be on his own out wide.

Fulham 4-5-1. Fulham go to 4 at back and Kasami moves to right. Provides help on Olsson but leaves Rodallega isolated
While the change may have partially mitigated the threat of Olsson it also meant Fulham had no one close to Rodallega when they won the ball back and the Colombian striker was isolated up front. They couldn't find an outlet ball to spring attacks when they regained possession and were left hitting hopeful long balls into Rodallega. Richardson's bursts with the ball down the left channel were Fulham's only means of transitioning from midfield into the attacking third. As it turned out one of these runs from Richardson would be enough for the three points. On 39 minutes he bit Whittaker for pace down the wing and forced the Fulham left back into a late challenge resulting in a free kick. Rodallega tucked in Sidwell's flicked on header at the front post.

The Cottagers stuck with the 4-5-1 formation in the second half, seemingly content to hold on to their lead. Ashkan Dejagah replaced Kasami on the right wing after Kasami switched off and allowed Olsson in behind. Norwich then made two like-for-like subs- Gary Hooper replaced the out of sorts van Wolfswinkel and Wes Hoolahan came on in midfield for Leroy Fer. Magath signaled his intent to tighten up and keep the 1-0 lead in the 69th minute when he replaced Holtby for the more defensive and tough tackling Scott Parker. The move proved to be a wise one as Parker battled in midfield and used his fresh legs to break forward and provide late runs to the edge of the area in attack.

Adams brought on the 19 year old winger Josh Murphy for the final 10 minutes, replacing Howson. They moved to a 4-4-1-1 with Murphy and Redmond playing on the wings and Snodgrass playing just off Hooper. The changes didn't provide Norwich with any more attacking impetus. Magath replaced the exhausted Diarra with William Kvist in the 85th and the home side was able to fairly comfortably see out the win.

In the end this game was predictably scrappy given both sides' struggles in the league and uncomfortable positions at the bottom of the table. Both sides were sloppy and lacking in quality in the final third. A set piece was a fitting way for this one to be decided.

Willian and Schurrle pressing exceptional as Chelsea breeze past Stoke

Chelsea cruised to a comfortable 3-0 win over Stoke City with goals from Mohamed Salah, Frank Lampard and Willian. The sleepy atmosphere inside Stamford Bridge reflected a contest in which Stoke offered no real threat despite Jose Mourinho's side being far from at their best.

As expected, Stoke defended with deep, compact banks of four. At times this season Chelsea have struggled when they've been forced to be proactive against sides looking to defend deep (although more so away from home than at the Bridge). Their defeats this season have come against Stoke, Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, Everton and Newcastle. In each of those defeats they had more possession than their opponent, averaging over 60% possession per game. They were scoreless in 4 of those 5 defeats. Contrast that with their two massive wins over Manchester City where they were able to play the more reactive style they're comfortable with sitting deep and breaking quickly on the counter. In those two contests they averaged just 40% possession.

Mourinho has placed much of the blame for Chelsea's struggles to score against deep defending sides on his strikers, suggesting that in those contests when space in the final third is tight you need a striker that can get into good positions in the box and poach goals. With Samuel Eto'o still sidelined with a hamstring injury Mourinho was forced to go with Fernando Torres up front in Chelsea's favored 4-2-3-1 formation. The Spaniard's performance did little to ease Mourinho's concerns about his striking options.

Despite his goal scoring troubles, I'm usually impressed with Torres's work rate, movement and link up play. While those attributes certainly are no substitute for goals from a center forward, they do bring something meaningful to the side. Today however, Torres was unusually lethargic. Perhaps some of this had to do with Mourinho's tactical instruction. Whereas Torres often drifts into the channels to offer a passing option forward, he stayed central today on the shoulders of the Stoke center backs. The reasoning may have been to leave that space between the Stoke defensive and midfield lines for the three attacking midfielders to move into. Whatever the case, he'll have been disappointed to have blown an opportunity to impress his manager after Mourinho opted to forgo playing a striker altogether in Chelsea's 3-1 Champions League defeat at PSG Wednesday.

The star performers for the Blues, as has so often been the case this season, were the attacking midfielders. Salah, Schurrle and Willian (and Hazard after his second half introduction) were brilliant and Chelsea's success stemmed from their defensive pressing. They worked tirelessly to win the ball back high up the pitch in Stoke's defensive half which led to dangerous Chelsea counters. The three combined for 8 tackles and 6 interceptions- 6 of the tackles and 4 of the interceptions occurred in Stoke's defensive half.

Willian's pressing in the middle of the pitch in particular was highly impressive. In the first 5 minutes of the contest he won two tackles high up the pitch to spring dangerous Chelsea counters. He completed 4 tackles and an interception on the afternoon. He's a player capable of putting in a tremendous amount of work on the defensive side of the ball and then sprinting in behind the opposition midfield on the counter as we saw for his expertly taken curling second half strike. Andre Schurrle provided 4 interceptions. The demands Mourinho puts on his attacking midfielders to put in a defensive shift is well known and he'll have few complaints about the performance of Willian, Schurrle and Salah today.


Chelsea's midfield pressing aside this wasn't an especially interesting game tactically. Stoke striker Peter Crouch doesn't offer much of a threat running in behind the defense so Chelsea held a fairly high defensive line, keeping him away from the penalty box where he is a real threat with his height. Their pressure in midfield didn't allow Stoke the time to find an out ball when they won possession deep in their own area. As a result Chelsea won possession back in midfield and then patiently retained possession, looking for gaps in Stoke's crowded defense.

Diamond 4-4-2 not viable option for USMNT in Brazil

The United States controlled the battle in midfield and created meaningful scoring chances in the first half largely because of the partnership between Michael Bradley and Kyle Beckerman in the middle of midfield. The deep lying positions Beckerman takes up and his strong defensive positioning allow Bradley a platform to push into advanced areas in the final third where he offers an intelligence in possession and vision no other USMNT player has. The formation was labeled a diamond 4-4-2 with Bradley operating at the top of the diamond as a #10 off the two forwards Clint Dempsey and Chris Wondolowski. Playing a #10 off a front two is an incredibly attacking formation. Its positives are that it allows a side to get plenty of players forward, creating numerous passing options in the final third and getting players into the box to get on the end of crosses.

Against Mexico in the first half last night the Bradley-Beckerman midfield pairing created a nice balance. Mexico's defensive shape was far less compact than it needed to be and Bradley was easily able to move into dangerous pockets of space between the lines. Throughout the half he was given the space to comfortably receive possession in threatening areas in front of the Mexico defense and pick out penetrating passes forward. His delayed runs into the box were also a huge problem for Mexico. With the US playing two forwards, both Mexico center backs had a direct opponent to mark (ie Mexico didn't have a spare center back to sit in and offer cover). This meant that when Bradley burst in behind Mexico's midfielders, there was no spare center back to pick up his run. The US's second goal came from one of these runs. When the US conceded possession, Mexico wasn't able to transition forward quickly enough to
overwhelm the space in front of the US back 4 patrolled by Beckerman.

The negatives of a formation that employs a #10 behind two forwards is that it sacrafices a deep lying midfielder for the advanced #10. This can leave a team too thin in the middle of the pitch when they lose possession with only the single holding midfielder positioned to slow down counterattacks. This creates an open contest which against an effective counter attacking team will nearly always be costly. Mexico weren't able to transition from defense to offense quickly enough in the opening 45 minutes to exploit the space behind the US's advanced attackers but a strong counter attacking side like Germany or Portugal certainly would have. As impressive as the US looked in possession in the first half last night, the diamond 4-4-2 we saw is not a viable option for the team in Brazil. The US will have to play two holding midfielders in a double pivot. Playing a single holding midfielder in a diamond simply asks too much defensively of that player- most likely Beckerman- in slowing counter attacks. Germany is probably the strongest side in the world at transitioning rapidly from defense to offense. They showed in the 2010 World Cup against Argentina if given open space to break into on the counter they can be deadly. Since then their squad has gotten even more talented. Likewise, Cristian Ronaldo will destroy a defense if he's allowed to receive the ball in space and sprint at an opposition back four.

When the US has played a double pivot it has mostly consisted of Bradley and Jermaine Jones. This partnership has had its own problems. Too often the communication between the two players of who is staying deep and who is pushing forward hasn't been good enough. As a result at times they'll both get sucked high up the pitch, leaving no cover for the back four. For me, the solution is to employ a double pivot 4-2-3-1 but with Beckerman as one of the two holders alongside Jones with Bradley in a more advanced #10 role. Jones and Beckerman (two unfairly derided players) compliment each other well. Beckerman is positionally disciplined and reads the game intelligently. His weakness is a lack of pace and athleticism. Jones brings that pace, athleticism and bite in the tackle. His main weakness is his often suspect positioning which would become less of an issue with Beckerman providing cover alongside him. The big question of course is what do you do with Dempsey if Bradley is playing behind the main striker. Dempsey is capable of the spectacular and can turn a game on its head in an instant and therefore needs to be on the field. However, for me he's not a gifted enough distributor to play in the #10 role. Too often his passes force his intended target too far wide or force his target to slow their run up to receive an underhit ball. I'd prefer him starting in a wide position and tucking inside where he can run at the opposition fullback.

A three man midfield of Beckerman, Jones and Bradley gives the US a nice mix of positional discipline, energy and athleticism, and technique and vision. Playing with two up front and a #10 was certainly entertaining last night but not a realistic system to play in Brazil.

Olympiakos press excellently, Manchester United lack of midfield quality exposed

Manchester United slumped to an embarrassing 2-0 Champions League defeat at Olympiakos in the first leg of their round of 16 tie. The win puts the Greek champions in a solid position to advance to their first Champions League quarterfinal since 1999- the only other time they've achieved that feat.

What will be so concerning for David Moyes's side is that the scoreline was an accurate reflection of the contest- United were dominated by a side that recently sold its leading scorer Kostas Mitroglou to Fulham and whose second leading scorer Javier Saviola was out with an injury.

United's lack of midfield creativity was exposed yet again. Juan Mata is cup tied with Chelsea and therefore ineligible so Moyes opted for two natural wingers in Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia in the wide midfield positions in his 4-2-3-1. Unlike a number of modern wide players that often tuck inside to receive passes between the lines, Young and Valencia keep wide positions and tend to receive the ball near the touch lines. This was an issue for United today because Olympiakos pressed excellently in midfield. Olympiakos also played a 4-2-3-1 so the battle was 3 v. 3 in midfield. Alejandro Dominguez and Giannis Maniatis pressed United's two holding midfielders Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley while Delvin Ndinga sat just in front of the back four and checked the runs of Wayne Rooney- who was playing the #10 off of Robin Van Persie- between the lines. With Young and Valencia maintaining wide positions, it made Ndinga's job tracking the movement of Rooney less difficult than it should have been because he only ever had Rooney to worry about in central areas. Had a player like Shinji Kagawa started on the left he'd have tucked in field towards Rooney to allow United to overload the midfield in Ndinga's central zone.

With Ndinga being allowed to closely track Rooney without having to worry about Young or Valencia tucking inside to receive possession either side of him, United had no forward passing options when they had the ball in deep positions. The pressing of Dominguez and Mantiatis on Cleverley and Carrick forced the two United holding midfielders into making hurried decisions- they could either go backwards or loft hopeful straight balls into the final third. Much has been made about the lack of quality in the middle of midfield for United and this performance will do little to silence those assertions- Carrick got on the ball plenty but wasn't able to dictate the pace of the game and Cleverley made too many poor passes and was dispossessed too frequently. Carrick completed 89 passes but only 12 of those were into the attacking third.


Cleverley managed just 8 successful passes in the final third.


While these numbers are unimpressive, they weren't helped by United's static shape. Rooney was frequently the only pass for them to aim a forward pass to in the middle of the pitch. With Rooney tightly checked ny Ndinga however, he was frequently forced to drop in deep alongside the two holding midfielders in order to get on the ball, leaving United with no one to link play into Van Persie.

Olympiakos won't get enough credit for how well they pressed in midfield but it shouldn't have been quite so easy for them. Moyes certainly needs to spend money on a deeper midfielder to pair with Carrick but he's also making questionable tactical decisions. The inclusion of Kagawa would have made United more dynamic in the final third. He's good at tucking in from the flanks and positioning himself in dagerous pockets of space and has the quality to unlock a defense with his final ball. United were simply too rigid with Young and Valencia in the squad and were made to pay.

Dealing with Busquets will be key if Manchester City hope to dictate tempo

For most of his first season in charge at Manchester City, Manuel Pellegrini has played a 4-4-2 formation, typically employing two of Edin Dzeko, Alvaro Negredo and Segio Aguero up front. More often than not the system has worked to devastating effect. City have scored a remarkable 68 league goals including 6 against Spurs at the Etihad, 5 against Spurs away, 4 against Manchester United and 6 against Arsenal.

However, at times the shape has left City too stretched in the middle of midfield. The most obvious example of Pellegrini's side being made to pay for playing 4-4-2 was in their home Champions League clash in early October against Bayern Munich. Bayern are of course managed by Pep Guardiola- the man who more or less introduced the world to tiki taka possession based football. Guardiola played his standard 4-3-3 that evening meaning Bayern had a 3 v. 2 advantage in the midfield. In order to nullify that advantage, City needed a forward to drop in defensively and pick up Bayern's deepest lying midfielder Philip Lahm. It didn't happen. Aguero partnered Dzeko up front and both stayed high up the pitch when Bayern were in possession. Lahm was always left as the spare man to offer an easy passing option. With the spare midfielder Bayern were able to control possession and dictate the tempo of the game. The score ended 3-1 to Bayern after City made a late flourish in the final quarter of an hour but for 75 minutes it was as one sided a game as you're likely to see between two such expensively assembled sides. Bayern finished the game with 66% possession.

 When Barcelona visit the Etihad this evening, City will be up against a side whose footballing philosophy and personnel are largely attributable to Guardiola. Although current manager Tato Martino is less dogmatic about controlling possession than Guardiola, Barcelona still play a 4-3-3 system centered around ball retention. It's a system that is remarkably similar to the one City faced against Bayern. Therefore it will be vital that Pellegrini learned from that heavy defeat.

Sergio Busquets will play the an almost identical role to Lahm for Barcelona, sitting just in front of his two center backs when Barca are in possession and providing a passing option at all times. He's a remarkably intelligent player and skilled passer- if City allow him to get on the ball without applying any pressure, he'll allow Barca to control possession and dictate tempo.

Pellegrini has a few tactical options in dealing with Busquets. With Sergio Aguero set to miss out due to injury he could opt to partner Stefan Jovetic alongside Negredo in a 4-4-2. Jovetic is an energetic and hardworking player unafraid to put in a defensive shift. He has the work rate and athleticism to drop in and mark Busquets when Barca are in possession, then run past him to join in the attack.

Alternatively, City could play a 4-2-3-1. The obvious lineup with this formation would be David Silva in the #10 role with Fernandinho and Yaya Toure playing a double pivot. While Silva's link up play is excellent in the center attacking midfield role, I don't think that lineup solves the problem of dealing with Busquets when Barca are in possession. Silva is not the type of player that can use his strength and energy to press an opposition deep lying midfielder out of the game- vital if City are to prevent Barca from getting into an attacking rhythm. For me, the better option would be to employ Javi Garcia beside Fernandinho as a double pivot and play Toure high up the pitch in the #10 role. This would mean Toure would be directly matched up against Busquets in midfield. Physically the Ivorian is a nightmare matchup for Busquets- he's faster, more powerful and more athletic. His powerful dribbling high up the pitch could cause all sorts of problems for Barca. Defensively, a midfield trio of Toure, Fernandinho and Javi Garcia is quite a powerful and athletic one. If they stayed compact Barcelona would struggle to find the pockets of space in midfield to play their characteristic quick penetrative passes.

Unlike his predecessor Roberto Mancini, Pellegrini hasn't used Toure in the #10 role so it's unlikely we'll see him there today. However, from a tactical standpoint it might be the right move.

Regardless of how City lineup it'll be vital they don't allow Barca's three man central midfield to boss the game the way Bayern were able to do. The amount of space and time on the ball Busquets is afforded will likely dictate how much possession Barca has and whether they're able to control the tempo of the match. It'll be important for City to unsettle Barca and not allow them to play the type of game they want.

Some thoughts on Newcastle 0-3 Sunderland

Sunderland's third consecutive Tyne-Wear derby win

Gus Poyet was without Lee Cattermole through injury so brought in new signing Leon Bridcutt to anchor the midfield in Sunderland's standard 4-3-3. Jack Colback and Ki played the shuttling box-to-box roles in the middle of midfield.

Alan Pardew played a 4-2-3-1 in Newcastle's first match since the official departure of Yohan Cababye to PSG. Vurnon Anita and Cheick Tiote played at the base of midfield with Tiote sitting deeper in midfield when Newcastle were in possession. Hatem Ben Arfa started in the #10 role off of striker Shola Ameobi. Sammy Ameobi played on the left side of the attacking midfield three, Moussa Sissoko played on the right. Steven Taylor continued to fill in at center back alongside Mike Williamson for the injured Fabricio Coloccini.


The 4-3-3 vs. 4-2-3-1 matchup meant each side's three center midfielders had an obvious direct opponent. Colback lined up with Anita, Ki with Tiote and Bridcutt with Ben Arfa. Sunderland defended with a 4-1-4-1 shape- Bridcutt sat just in front of the back four and tracked the movement of Ben Arfa between the lines. Newcastle defended with two banks of four with Ben Arfa staying high up the pitch alongside Shola Ameobi when Sunderland were in possession. In effect Sunderland defended with 5 across the midfield, Newcastle with 4. The extra defender in midfield meant Sunderland were able to crowd the center of the pitch and limit the space for Ben Arfa in the gaps. However, it also meant Altidore was isolated up front when Poyet's side won the ball back. The American therefore had an important responsibility to provide the initial outlet pass forward and to hold the ball up long enough to bring his midfielders into play. Although Altidore's hold up play hasn't always been strong enough this season, he performed the task excellently today, challenging Newcastle's center backs and winning fouls. Had he not been as strong keeping the ball and allowed Newcastle to quickly win the ball back, Sunderland would have pinned deep in their own half for large portions of the half.

The Sunderland midfield trio was excellent. Bridcutt slowed slowed counters and fouled intelligently when it was necessary while Ki and Colback pressed Tiote and Anita and midfield, denying them time to pick their heads up and find penetrating passes forward. In attack, Ki and Colback were able to sprint in behind the two deep Newcastle midfielders on the break. Colback in particular had a terrific game on both sides of the ball. He showed a tireless work rate to close down the ball in midfield then break forward to join in attacks when Sunderland recovered the ball. He sprinted in behind Anita in midfield to set up Sunderland's second goal. For the third he tackled the ball from Tiote then burst forward in front of Borini to receive a pass and finish the move on his own. He pressed high up the field in the second half to win a tackle just outside Newcastle's penalty area to set up Altidore with a 1 v. 1 with Tim Krul but the striker couldn't finish. Colback finished the game with an impressive 4 tackles and 3 interceptions.

 Newcastle introduced Luuk De Jong for Sammy Ameobi at halftime and went to 4-4-2. They played a bit more direct and looked to get on the end of Ameobi knock downs. Defensively they pressed higher up the pitch and the contest became more stretched. Sunderland looked a consistent threat on the counter, taking advantage of space in behind the two Newcastle midfielders when they broke forward.

Newcastle desperately missed the creativity Cabaye brings to midfield. The've failed to score in their first two games without the Frenchman. Newcastle's other center midfield options Sissoko, Tiote, Anita and Marveaux all rely more on their physical attributes than technique and creativity. Ben Arfa is a creative and technical player who can play as a #10 but he's less consistent than Cabaye and, for all his flair, he often fails to provide substance.

Tactical Analysis: Real Madrid 2-0 Granada

Second half goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema lifted Real Madrid to a 2-0 home win over Granada and to the top of the La Liga table for at least a day.

It took some time for Carlo Ancelotti's side to get going. Granada organized themselves well defensively and Real Madrid didn't play at a quick enough pace in the opening half to find a breakthrough. Granada offered nothing going forward however and it always felt as though the home side would find a winner.

Both sides played 4-3-3. Ancelotti made no changes to the side that beat Real Betis 5-0 in their last league outing. Angel Di Maria and Luka Modric played in front of Xabi Alonso in the middle of midfield. Gareth Bale and Ronaldo took up their usual spot on the right and left wings respectively with Benzema at striker.


Lucas Alcaraz was missing Fran Rico in midfield due to yellow card accumulation. He was replaced by Mohammed Fatau on the right side of Granda's central midfield triangle (whoscored.com's lineups graphic below incorrectly shows Fatau in the center of Granada's midfield triangle- it was Iturra who played there).


Granada defended in a deep 4-1-4-1 shape. Recio and Fatau picked up Modric and Di Maria in Granada's midfield bank of four. With Real Madrid playing without a #10, Granada's holding midfielder Manuel Iturra didn't have a direct opponent to mark. He was able to sit just in front of the back four and provide defensive support when Bale and Ronaldo tucked inside from the channels or when Modric and Di Maria were able to break past their markers. Iturra was Granada's key defensive player. He had 6 tackles and 3 interceptions in the match, tops among Granada players in both categories. His tackles were in key areas just outside of his side's own penalty box.


With Granada crowding the middle of the pitch, Real Madrid tried to overload the channels in the opening half and get to the end line to cut balls back across the face of goal. Di Maria would drift toward Ronaldo on the left wing while Marcelo would make overlapping runs from his left back position, leaving Granada's right back Allan Nyom outnumbered. However the home side weren't quite able to make anything of balls hit into the box from wider areas. Benzema hit the crossbar from a Di Maria cross on the left channel but was offside. Ronaldo struck a wonderful overhead kick from a Modric cross on the right side of the penalty area but Granada goalkeeper Roberto made a world class reaction save. Despite those two decent chances, Ancelotti's side were unimpressive in the first half. The lack of space they were being afforded in the middle of the pitch was causing frustration. Each time Ronaldo dribbled inside from the left he was met quickly by Iturra before he could find the space to get at the Granada center backs. Twice the Ballon D'or winner dribbled inside only to be met by Iturra and forced into speculative shots that were well off target.

Second Half
Jese replaced Bale at right forward in a like for like halftime substitution. With Di Maria playing in left center midfield, Real Madrid's shape can be quite flexible. Di Maria is a natural wide player and can therefore slot into a position wide on the left, allowing Ronaldo to take a more central position alongside Benzema in a formation akin to 4-4-2. This is what Ancelotti's side did in the second half. Ronaldo provided another target through the middle. His movement in central zones made Real Madrid less rigid and predictable than they'd been in the first half and put La Liga's leading scorer in more dangerous positions in front of goal. The graphic below shows a comparison of Real Madrid's attacking third passes in the first and second half. In the second half they were more successfully able to offer some penetrating passes through the middle in large part because Ronaldo was giving Granada an extra body to worry about in central areas around the box. He would get Real Madrid's opener after receiving a Modric pass in a central area just inside the 18.


After Ronaldo's opener the home side were comfortable. Granada rarely got anywhere near Diego Lopez's goal. A swift 1-2 between Marcelo and Ronaldo set up Benzema for an easy tap in to put the game beyond the doubt.

Luka Modric
Modric's performance was noteworthy. His incisive passing and control in tight areas are remarkable. He completed 92% of his passes and completed 26 passes in the attacking third- level with Ronaldo for most in the game.

Tactical Analysis: West Brom 1-1 Everton

Diego Lugano headed in a second half equalizer to give Pepe Mel a 1-1 draw with Everton in his first game as West Brom manager. Lugano was an unlikely hero- he had been largely responsible for Everton's opener after his slow reaction to a Romelu Lukaku flicked header left Kevin Mirallas through on goal to finish with ease.

It was a strange contest with few clear cut scoring opportunities. Everton were a far cry from the energetic, attacking side they've become known for under Roberto Martinez and West Brom didn't have the quality in the attacking third to offer a consistent goal scoring threat.

Martinez went with his usual 4-2-3-1. Ross Barkley remains sidelined with a broken toe and Steven Pienaar missed out with a groin injury so Martinez had to do some shuffling with his three attacking midfielders. Kevin Mirallas played through the middle, Leon Osman played on the left and Brian Oviedo on the right.

Mel opted for a 4-4-2 in his first game in charge. Matej Vydra partnered Nicolas Anelka up front. James Morrison was chosen ahead of Youssuf Mulumbu to partner Claudio Yacob in the middle of midfield. They were flanked by Christ Brunt on the left and Zoltan Gera on the right. Gareth McAuley was unable to recover in time from a hamstring injury and was replaced by Lugano at center back.


Probably the most interesting tactical feature of the first half was West Brom's pressing in midfield. They defended in banks of four. Morrison and Yacob would immediately close down Gareth Barry and James McCarthy when they received the ball in deep positions in midfield. Behind them, Olsson and Lugano would stick tight to the backs of Lukaku and Mirallas and follow them when they tried to drop off into midfield to find space. The midfield pressing limited the amount of time Barry and McCarthy had on the ball and forced them into making backwards and sideways passes. They struggled to play penetrating passes into the front four and as a result the pace of Everton's passing moves was much slower than we're used to seeing.


That Everton's goal came from an uncharacteristically direct move was in part due to West Brom's pressing. Martinez's side had been struggling to transition from the midfield to the attacking third when Sylvain Distin bypassed the midfield altogether and clipped a long ball into Lukaku making a diagonal run. Here, West Brom's tactics hurt them. Because Morrison and Yacob were pressing Barry and McCarthy in midfield, it meant neither were available to pick up the #10 Mirallas in between the lines. As a result, one of the two West Brom center backs had to step out and stick tight to him rather than tucking in and providing cover on Lukaku. The screen shots below show the sequence leading up to the goal. Lugano steps forward to get tight on the back of Mirallas while Olsson marks Lukaku (image 1). Lukaku makes a diagonal run in behind Lugano, forcing Olsson away from his left center back position towards the right channel, leaving an ocean of space through the middle of the pitch (image 2). Lukaku flicks a header on into that space and Mirallas spins off Lugano and beats him in behind for pace. Without a spare center back to provide cover it was an easy finish for Mirallas.

Image 1: Lugano and Olsson tight to Mirallas and Lukaku
Image 2: Olsson forced to track Lukaku's run towards right channel, Mirallas sprints into space left open in behind
West Brom's primary attacking approach in the first half was through the channels. Both Everton fullbacks Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines are encouraged to provide width high up the pitch when Everton are in possession, thus leaving space in behind them for the opposition to counter into. Anelka would quickly drift wide into this space when West Brom won the ball back and receive outlet passes in the channels. He'd look for Vydra or one of the midfielders breaking forward but too often West Brom's passing was sloppy on the break and they couldn't take advantage of some favorable positions in wide areas.

Mel changes to 4-2-3-1
They key to West Brom getting back in the game was Mel's change in shape to 4-2-3-1 after he introduced Mulumbu for Gera in the 60th minute. Mulumbu played in midfield alongside Yacob, allowing Morrison to move into an advanced #10 position behind Victor Anichebe who had come on at half for Vydra. Anelka moved to the right wing. The shift to three in central midfield allowed West Brom to more comfortably keep possession in attacking areas. Morrison provided the link forward that had been missing when the shape was 4-4-2. West Brom had completed 56 passes in the attacking third in the first hour of play before the change. They completed 45 attacking third passes in the 30 minutes after it, a spell that saw them get an equalizer and close out the contest looking the more likely to find a winner.


Conclusion
The 1-1 result was fair as neither side did enough to win this. Despite looking less than their best Everton were the better side in the first half. West Brom improved in the second half and Mel deserves credit for the impact his switch from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1 had on the balance of play.

United's defensive lapses result in comfortable Chelsea win

With Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie sidelined with injuries, it was always going to be important Manchester United limited defensive errors in order to have a shot at getting a result at Chelsea. Moyes would have expected goals to be tough to come by on the road against a team led by Jose Mourinho- a manager who is historically cautious in big games. Going behind would force United to open themselves up to get back in the contest against a Chelsea side comfortable defending for long stretches of time and playing on the counter. That Chelsea's second and third goals were the result of criminally poor defending from corner kicks meant the home side never really had to kick into their highest gear and play particularly well.

Moyes' side started brightly, particularly attacking down the channels. The fullbacks Evra and Rafael overlapped Young and Valencia well forcing Chelsea's wide attackers Hazard and Willian to defend deep in their own half. Januzaj drifted towards the left channel from his starting #10 position to create overloads on Ivanovic. Although United were unable to translate their early pressure into genuinely threatening opportunities, they were at least keeping Chelsea's dangerous attacking midfielders pinned into their own half.


Samuel Eto'o's opener came against the run of play and took a fortunate deflection. It was certainly a blow to the visitors but wasn't reflective of poor play from United. Chelsea asserted a bit more control after taking the lead but United showed attacking endeavor of their own creating a few decent half chances that indicated the contest was far from over. On 28 minutes Evra put a shot just wide of Cech's front post. Moments later Januzaj beat David Luiz to the end line but his cut back just eluded Welbeck lurking in the box. Then in the 38th Januzaj found Welbeck free 8 yards from goal but Azpilicueta did just enough to put him off, the shot rolling tamely into Cech's arms.

The game hinged on United's shockingly poor defending from a 45th minute Chelsea corner. Welbeck dealt with the initial ball in but it fell to Ramires outside the penalty area. United's players stepped forward collectively- as they should- but none actually bothered to check the Chelsea runners. Ramires played an easy ball to an unmarked Gary Cahill on the right edge of the box whose ball across the face of goal was easily poked in by Eto'o. Rafael was in the best position to step towards Cahill but inexplicably drifts into a more central area at the crucial moment.

From there it was game over. Chelsea were able to keep a compact organized shape at the back and attack with their front four, leaving Luiz and Ramires to sit in front of the back four and prevent United from countering. Chelsea under Mourinho have traditionally been excellent at protecting leads. United didn't have the creativity or quality in the attacking third to offer a serious threat. When Chelsea's third came from another display of poor set piece defending, any shred of doubt was lifted as to who the points were going to.

The result will of course increase pressure on Moyes. What he'll find so frustrating is that his thin squad didn't play badly for long stretches. Mistakes meant Chelsea didn't have to work as hard for the points as they probably should have based on the balance of play.

On the other side, Mourinho will be well pleased. He got three goals from a striker and his side were professional and ruthless. This had the hint of a Mourinho game under his first spell in charge at the club and his side are looking increasingly difficult to beat at the right time of the season.

First half 4-4-2 leaves Liverpool too stretched in midfield

Brendan Rodgers's decision to play a 4-4-2 in Liverpool's 2-2 draw with Aston Villa this afternoon was an interesting one. Rodgers would have been well aware Paul Lambert's Villa nearly always play with three in the middle of midfield so would have known his team would be outmanned in that area.

From the opening whistle Liverpool were stretched in the midfield zone. Jordan Henderson partnered Steven Gerrard at center midfield. The two tried to get forward in possession to offer support in attacking areas. However, when Liverpool lost possession, they were out of position to offer protection for the back four and Villa were able to break uncontested through the middle.

Villa set out in a 4-1-2-1-2 shape with Andy Weimann playing at the top of the diamond just behind the front two of Christian Benteke and Gabriel Agbonlahor. Ashley Westwood sat just in front of the back four with Karim El Ahmadi and Fabian Delph on either side of him as box to box runners. The diamond midfield meant Gerrard and Henderson were often outnumbered 2 v. 4 in the middle of the pitch. When Villa won the ball back they were able to play easy outlet passes into Weimann or Benteke dropping in off the Liverpool center backs. They would then look to play penetrating balls to Agbonlahor running in the channels in the space behind Liverpool's advanced fullbacks. For Villa's opener Benteke provided the outlet pass for Delph and found Agbonlahor racing down the left sideline. Agbonlahor found Weimann in the box with a well weighted ball in for the goal.

Starting XI's: Liverpool 4-4-2; Villa 4-1-2-1-2
Liverpool's 4-4-2 shape also wasn't offering enough going forward. Although Coutinho tried to tuck inside from a starting left position to link play with the two forwards, it was easy for Villa to defend. Delph and El Ahmadi could apply pressure to Gerrard and Henderson while Westwood sat in the space between the lines to check Coutinho's runs inside or Suarez and Sturridge dropping in off the center backs. As a result, Liverpool struggled to get into the same sort of passing high up the pitch they're used to at Anfield.

Rodgers recognized the weakness of having just two center midfielders on and made an important change at halftime by bringing on Lucas. Rather than subbing off one of his center forwards in order to add Lucas as a third midfielder, Rodgers instead took off Coutinho. Lucas sat in front of the back four, providing both protection for the back four when Villa countered and an extra passing option in midfield. Replacing a left sided attacking midfielder with a center midfielder meant Liverpool ran the risk of not having an attacker in advanced areas wide on the left. Their solution for this problem was clever. Aly Cissokho switched from a left fullback to a much more advanced left wing back. With Raheem Sterling providing natural attacking width on the right, Glen Johnson was able to sit deeper alongside Martin Skrtel and Kolo Toure as part of a back three. Liverpool's shape in possession was therefore more or less a slightly titled 3-5-2. Defensively Cissokho would drop back in to form a back four.

Liverpool shape in second half when in possession
The introduction of Lucas allowed Liverpool to assert more control on the game and left them less vulnerable on the counter. The Brazilian was forced off with an injury in the 66th minute and was replaced in a like-for-like sub with Joe Allen. Allen didn't offer quite the same sturdy platform for Gerrard and Henderson to get forward that Lucas did and at times Liverpool looked uncertain at the back. The game surprisingly fizzled out a bit after Gerrard equalized from the penalty spot. Villa deserve credit for not allowing the home side to take control of the contest after that goal.

Tactical Analysis: Sunderland 2-2 Southampton

Sunderland clawed their way back to earn a 2-2 draw after falling two goals behind in a first half dominated by the visiting Saints. Mauricio Pochettino's side controlled the tempo in the opening half with nearly 70% possession and created a slew of decent chances. However, despite being far less fluid than the visitors in the final third, Sunderland fought back in the second half by pressing Southampton further up the pitch and hurrying them in possession.

Pochettino used a sort of fusion 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 with Steven Davis playing deeper and more narrow than a typical right sided attacking midfielder. Adam Lallana was in the #10 spot behind Rickie Lambert. Victor Wanyama was unable to recover from a calf injury in time so Jack Cork was given the nod alongside Morgan Schneiderlin in midfield.

Gus Poyet opted for his standard 4-3-3. Lee Cattermole sat in front of the back four with Seb Larsson and Ki on either side of him as midfield shuttlers. Jozy Altidore was given the start at striker ahead of Steven Fletcher.


From the start of the match Sunderland defended in a 4-1-4-1 shape with Cattermole sitting in between the defensive and midfield four tracking the movement of Lallana in between the lines. The key to Southampton's first half possession dominance was the positioning of Steven Davis. Although he was listed as the right sided player in Southampton's attacking midfield three, he actually took up a deep and narrow position alongside Schneiderlin and Cork. This meant that when Ki and Larsson tried to press Cork and Schneiderlin respectively, Southampton always had Davis free in midfield to receive a pass and as a result Southampton were able to keep attacking moves going without being forced into hitting long hopeful balls forward. The graphic below shows where Davis received passes in the first half and all of his first half passes. Noticed he received passes throughout the deep midfield zone as Southampton's spare midfielder, not just on the right side.


Southampton's goals were a result of their possession dominance. Sunderland were pinned in their own half and when they did win the ball back they were too deep to find an outlet ball and maintain a bit of possession of their own. With all three Sunderland midfielders and the two wide forwards forced to defend deep in their own half, the only option was to lump the ball long towards Altidore when they won possession. He was an isolated figure up front and needed to hold the ball up long enough to bring the midfield runners into play. It was always going to be a difficult and thankless task but the American didn't perform it well enough given his size and strength. Too often his first touch and passing accuracy let him down. He completed just 2 of 9 passes in the attacking third in the first half.

For the opener the Black Cats failed to clear their lines in their own penalty area as they defended frantically. The ball fell for Jay Rodriguez at the top of the box and he dispatched his effort brilliantly. Rodriguez probably should have doubled his tally moments later when Lambert played him through but Vitto Mannone saved his effort towards the back post. When the Saints eventually did get their second through an excellently taken Jose Fonte volley off a corner the lead was no more than they deserved.

Pochettino therefore would have been bitterly disappointed to have conceded so quickly after on Sunderland's only sniff of a chance in the first half (they finished the half with just two shots, the goal the only one on target). Johnson did well to spot Borini's diagonal outside to inside run. Calum Chambers appeared to have done well to recover into a good position to get a block on but Borini cut his shot back across goal into the far corner.

The goal appeared to ignite Poyet's side and the home crowd going into the second half. Although Southampton created dangerous opportunities on the break in the opening 15 minutes of the half, Sunderland offered more of a threat themselves going forward. The key to Sunderland getting back into the contest was their work rate in pressing Southampton in midfield. The visitors didn't enjoy the same time on the ball that they did in the first half and as a result lost possession deeper in midfield. By winning the ball back higher up the pitch, Sunderland had the advantage of both having more players in positions to get forward and Southampton having less time to recover into a decent defensive shape. The additions of Jack Colback and Craig Gardner in the midfield in place of Cattermole and Larsson gave Poyet's side some fresh legs and added energy. The graphics below shows Sunderland winning tackles and interceptions in much more advanced areas in the second half.

Sunderland tackles: first half (left) vs. second half (right)

Sunderland interceptions: first half (left) vs. second half (right)
Johnson's equalizer probably should have been saved by Arthur Boruc but it came at a time when Sunderland were on the ascendency thanks to their pressing.

The contest could roughly be described as one between two very different styles of play. Sunderland's focus was on organization, work rate and quick vertical moves forward while Southampton emphasized possession and patient build up from the back. The visitors were more fluid in attack- their play in the first half was highly impressive- but Poyet's side deserve credit for the commitment they showed after going behind. Whether passion and work rate will be enough to keep them in the Premier League remains to be seen.

Liverpool beat Stoke in wild contest defined by errors

Liverpool moved back into the top four with a 5-3 win over Stoke in a game that was shockingly sloppy but entertaining. Team tactics played a minor role- the defining feature of the contest was individual errors. Four of the game's goals could be blamed at least partially on individual mistakes- Liverpool's second was the result of errors from Mark Wilson and Ryan Shawcross, Stoke's second came from a poor giveaway by Jordan Henderson, Liverpool's third came from a Wilson giveaway and Stoke's third came after a poor touch from Steven Gerrard gifted Marko Arnautovic possession down the left wing. A fifth goal resulted from an unfortunate Shawcross own goal from an Aly Cissokho shot that was going well wide.

The most obvious tactical features were Stoke's pressing in midfield and their attacks down the channels that culminated in crosses into the box. In the first half Charlie Adam drifted to the right from his #10 role and Stoke looked to overload Cissokho with Adam, Jonathan Walters and Geoff Cameron overlapping from his right back spot. The graphic below shows how heavily Stoke favored attacks down the right in the opening half. The left side of the screen shows Stoke's attacking third passes, the right side shows crosses.


It was interesting then that the home side's opener came from a rare foray down the left when Arnautovic provided a well weighted cross into Peter Crouch from the left wing.

Stoke looked to press Liverpool in midfield quickly closing down Gerrard and Lucas when they got the ball in deep positions. At the beginning of the first half Liverpool seemed to be dealing comfortably with the pressure- they found spaces between the Stoke lines to play balls into Coutinho and Henderson, easily bypassing the Stoke midfield. However, as the half wore on the visitors became increasingly sloppy in possession, a fact Brendan Rodgers will likely be especially frustrated by. At 2-0 up his side had the opportunity to take control of the game and dictate the tempo. Instead they were put off by Stoke's pressing and the match became frantic. Too often Liverpool gave away possession high up the field, allowing Stoke to break forward at an underprotected defense. The graphic below shows Stoke's 17 interceptions, 7 of which occurred in Liverpool's defensive half and the bulk of which occurred in the middle third of the pitch. By comparison Liverpool's interceptions occurred in deeper areas. They had just 2 interceptions in the attacking half, one of which resulted in Sterling winning a penalty.


When in possession Stoke looked to get the ball into the channels and hit crosses into the box towards Crouch. They won 11 corners and played a remarkable 51 crosses.  

Rodgers' side was at its most dangerous on the break, particularly after the introduction of Daniel Sturridge. With Sturridge on, Liverpool had three players in Sturridge, Henderson and Raheem Sterling with the energy and pace to be dangerous on the break. For Liverpool's fourth Sturridge received an outlet pass and was able to break through the middle at pace on the counter before cleverly laying off to Suarez to tuck home. Those two players would ultimately prove the difference makers in the contest as they combined yet again for Liverpool's fifth, this time with Suarez turning provider on the break for Sturridge.

In the end this was a stereotypical English game. It was low on technical quality and poise on the ball, high on energy and commitment. The match tape won't be used by youth coaches as an example of polished, intelligent football but it did make for an entertaining spectacle for those of us that can appreciate a sloppy goalfest every now and then.

Tactical Analysis: Chelsea 2-0 Hull City

Chelsea managed to overcome a well organized Hull City side with second half strikes from Eden Hazard and Fernando Torres after Steve Bruce's side had frustrated the visiting Blues throughout the first half.

Bruce went with the 3-5-1-1 formation he's opted for most of the season with Ahmed Elmohamady and Maynor Figueroa operating as wing backs. George Boyd played a withdrawn forward role in behind Yannick Sagbo.Tom Huddlestone, David Meyler and Jake Livermore made up the midfield three.


Defensively, Hull's shape was almost a 4-5-1 despite the fact they lined up with three central defenders. Boyd would drop in on the left side of midfield to pick up Cesar Azpilicueta with Figueroa sitting in behind more as a traditional left back. On the other side Elmohamady defended higher up the pitch on Ashley Cole as part of the midfield bank of five. Behind him James Chester would close down the right flank from his right center back spot if any balls got in behind Elmohamady. The graphic below roughly shows Hull's shape.


Coming up against a midfield bank of five and three narrow center backs in behind them, Chelsea found it incredibly difficult to get any sort of penetration through the middle of the pitch. Mourinho played his normal 4-2-3-1 with David Luiz and Ramires as the double pivot and Oscar in the #10 role. Hulls shape was good and there weren't gaps available for Luiz and Ramires to play balls through the Hull midfield into Oscar and Hazard and Willian tucking inside from the wings. As a result, Chelsea were unable to get at the three Hull center backs. The screen shot below shows how compact Hull were and how crowded the center of the pitch was for Chelsea. All 11 Hull players are in the defensive half and the midfield five are working hard to deny Chelsea space in between the lines.


On a few occasions Luiz looked to bypass the Hull midfield with balls over the top into the channels but the three center backs were usually able to deal with them comfortably.

When Chelsea's opener finally arrived it was a result of brilliant build up play from the Blues and an excellent finish from Hazard rather than a loss of defensive shape from City. Ashley Cole got into an advanced narrow position, rare for him under Mourinho, and played a clever flick onto Hazard at the edge of the box. He was able to create enough space for himself to fire low past McGregor into the right corner of the net.

After the goal Hull ultimately shifted to a 4-4-2 but never really troubled Chelsea. With the home side forced to take a more adventurous approach, Chelsea had more opportunities to transition forward quickly on the counter. Torres sealed the win for Chelsea in the 87th from a two pass Chelsea move on the break.

Deep line, 2 man midfield leave Spurs too open in defeat to Arsenal

During his spells at both Chelsea and Tottenham, Andre Villas Boas was rather unyielding in his use of a high defensive line despite not having the ideal personnel to suit such a system. In late October 2011, Villas Boas's Chelsea were ripped apart 5-3 by Arsenal as the Gunners were continually able to run onto the ball in space behind Chelsea's high line. Chelsea's center backs that afternoon were Branislav Ivanovic and John Terry, two defenders more comfortable defending deep and dealing with crosses into the box than playing high and making recovery runs when balls are played in behind them.

Early in this season Arsenal again made Villas Boas pay for his stubborn insistence on a high line, this time as Spurs boss, in a 1-0 league win at the Emirates. In that contest Theo Walcott tucked in to a narrow position from the right and continually ran in behind the high line of Jan Vertonghen and Michael Dawson. The high line was once again at least partly at fault for the heavy winter defeats to Manchester City (6-0) and Liverpool (5-0) that would ultimately cost Villas Boas his job.

It comes as little surprise then that Villas Boas's replacement Tim Sherwood has adopted a deeper defensive line to keep the opposition from getting in behind his back four, a strategy he stuck with in Saturday's FA Cup tie with Arsenal. Spurs captain and center back Michael Dawson is particularly ill-suited to play a high line and with Theo Walcott employed as the striker for the Gunners, a deeper line meant fewer opportunities for Arsenal's pacey England international to get on the end of through balls and run at Hugo Lloris 1 v 1.

While the deeper positioning may have mitigated the danger behind Spurs back four, it left far too much space between the midfield and defensive lines for Arsenal to exploit. These large gaps between defense and midfield could have been at least partly remedied while still sticking with a deep defensive line in one of two ways: Sherwood could have opted away from the 4-4-2 he's gone with since taking over and pulled a striker in place of a third center midfielder or, having decided to use a 4-4-2, he could have gone with a positionally disciplined, physical holding midfielder. With Sandro unavailable the obvious choice was Etienne Capoue.

As it turned out Sherwood went with Nabil Bentaleb and Moussa Dembele. Both players shuttled high up the pitch when Spurs were in possession, leaving large gaps between themselves and their center backs. Without a third center midfielder to plug the space by sitting deeper in front of the back four, Arsenal were able to quickly transition on the break into the huge amounts of space behind Bentaleb and Dembele and run at center backs Dawson and Chiriches.

Whether you play a high line or a deep one it's crucial that your defensive shape is compact and you leave minimal space between the lines. If Spurs were going to play a deeper line, their central midfielders needed to play deeper as well. This is particularly important against a team like Arsenal who boast a wealth of players skilled at playing in pockets of space between the lines. In this contest Tomas Rosicky, playing the #10 role, and Santi Cazorla and Serge Gnabry, tucking inside from the channels, were all able to collect the ball in space behind the Tottenham midfielders.

The two screen shots below show the buildup to Cazorla's opener. The first image shows the gap between Bentaleb, Spurs deeper center midfielder, and the center backs just prior to Bacary Sagna's simple penetrating ball into Gnabry in space between the lines (the ball is at Sagna's feet in the image who is hidden behind the Macclesfield v. Sheffield Wednesday score). Keep in mind Arsenal are not quickly countering here with Spurs racing to get back- they've had the ball for 8 seconds at this point, giving Bentaleb and Dembele time to get closer to their center backs.


This next image shows Gnabry receiving Sagna's pass. Gnabry is able to comfortably receive the ball in the vast space between Tottenham's defense and midfield while Bentaleb is completely taken out of the play with the Sagna's pass. Gnabry sprints inside forcing both Chiriches and Dawson to step and lays a pass wide to the left for Cazorla to finish. Had Spurs been more compact with a holding midfielder in front of the center backs, that holding midfielder could have stepped to Gnabry, allowing Dawson to check Cazorla's run inside.


The opening goal wasn't an isolated incident of Spurs leaving too much space in front of the back four. Prior to that Rosicky twice found himself in space behind the Spurs midfield and played penetrating passes into Walcott to set up dangerous opportunities. Chiriches made a last ditch block on the first one and Lloris stood his ground well at the front post on the second but Tottenham's weakness was obvious (you can see both chances in the highlights below).


The screen shot below shows another example. The gap here between Chiriches-Dawson and Dembele-Bentaleb is startling. Both Wilshere and Rosicky are in dangerous positions to receive the ball between the lines and cause the center backs problems. On this occasion Wilshere took a poor first touch and conceded possession but the goal would come shortly after.


Playing 4-4-2 against Arsenal is always going to be a substantial risk. Arsene Wenger's side are quite good at tucking their wide attacking midfielders inside and overwhelming the opposition in central areas. With Arsenal playing a 4-2-3-1 in this game and Cazorla often coming inside from the left, Arsenal at times had a 4 v. 2 advantage in the middle of midfield. If 4-4-2 was likely to work for Spurs, Sherwood needed his side to defend in tight, compact banks of four with one of either Soldado or Adebayor dropping in to put pressure on Arsenal's double pivot midfielders Wilshere and Mikel Arteta. As it played out, it was often Dembele and Bentaleb pressing Arsenal's two deep midfielders high in midfield, leaving space behind for the likes of Rosicky, Cazorla and Gnabry.

Many had questioned Sherwood's tactical acumen when he was appointed Spurs manager for the season. The sound defeat Saturday and his denial afterwards that his side were overwhelmed in midfield, or that they were even using a 4-4-2, will do little to quell those opinions.

Manchester United lack invention in final third; Mourinho gets subs wrong

Johan Cabaye's second half winner handed Manchester United a second successive home league defeat for the first time since 2002 and earned Newcastle their first win at Old Trafford since 1972. It is David Moyes third home defeat of the season. Manchester United have scored just 8 goals at Old Trafford, fewer home goals than both West Brom and bottom of the table Sunderland.

The problems today against Newcastle were familiar ones. Moyes' side lacked the invention and quality in the final third to break down an organized opponent.

With Wayne Rooney missing due to yellow card accumulation, Moyes opted for a 4-4-2 with a front pairing of Robin Van Persie and Javier Hernandez. Tom Cleverley and Phil Jones played in the middle of midfield with Nani on the left wing and Adnan Januzaj on the right.

Alan Pardew opted for a 4-2-3-1 giving Newcastle a man advantage in midfield. The visitors were able to use that advantage to control the game in the middle of the park. With Cheikh Tiote and Vurnon Anita protecting the back four, Manchester United's forays into the final third occurred in the channels and mainly throught Januzaj down the right. Newcastle's center backs Mike Williamson and Fabricio Coloccini dealt with balls into the box from wide areas excellently and deserve a credit for their positioning.

Manchester United's inability to link play forward through the middle had plenty to do with the absence of Rooney. Van Persie lacked Rooney's energy and determination to get on the ball in the withdrawn striker role. Van Persie also lacks Rooney's directness dribbling through midfield. He attempted just one take on in the match. Playing Van Persie in the withdrawn role also meant he rarely found himself in the box where he's at his most dangerous. He didn't manage a single attempt on goal, an incredible stat for last season's Premier League leading goal scorer, and completed just 7 passes in the attacking third.


In the middle of midfield Jones and Cleverley didn't have particularly bad games. Indeed Jones was at times excellent with his defensive positioning and ability to protect the back four. However, both players are limited in what they can contribute in the attack and couldn't have been expected to provide the impetus or creativity going forward to create chances. As a result their roles in possession mainly involved funneling the ball into wide areas where the outside backs would look to overlap Nani and Januzaj tucking inside- another factor that contributed to their inability to vary their attacking approach and penetrate Newcastle through the middle of the pitch. You can see in the graphic below the number of horizontal passes into wide areas both Manchester United center midfielders made.


The extra midfielder also allowed Newcastle to control possession. They ended the contest with 54% possession, a slight but significant edge given they were an inferior team in terms of talent playing at the home of the league champions. Their goal was perhaps a bit opportunistic but Pardew's side deserves immense credit for their organization. The three center midfielders Anita, Tiote and Cabaye were all commanding in the middle of the pitch and the back four organized itself with aplomb. The performances of Debuchy and Williamson in particular deserve recognition. Debuchy was a menace getting forward from his right back position but he also had the pace and energy to make recovery runs.

Mourinho's move to 4-4-2 costly again
Stoke City shocked Chelsea with a 3-2 home win after being completely overrun for the first 40 minutes. For the third time this week Jose Mourinho's side allowed an opposition corner to bounce in the box without getting a touch on it and each time they were made to pay with a goal. John O'Shea and Phil Bardsley were able to tuck in from close range Wednesday for Sunderland, today Crouch scored in a similar fashion for Stoke. The inability to deal with set pieces will be a huge concern for Mourinho as it made the Sunderland contest more uncomfortable at the end than it should have been and shifted the momentum today against a Stoke side that was well and truly out of the game.

Not for the first time this season Mourinho was guilty of making questionable substitutions chasing a win with the game level. At 2-2 he brought on Frank Lampard for John Obi Mikel and Samuel Eto'o for Andre Schurrle and switched from 4-2-3-1 to 4-4-2. He made a similar switch to 4-4-2 at home to West Brom with the score level at 1-1. As was the case in that earlier contest, the switch was meant to be a positive one but had adverse effects. By taking a man out of midfield Chelsea lost some of the possession dominance they'd been enjoying and found it more difficult to link play into the strikers. It also left them stretched on the break when they lost possession and were hit with a sucker punch just as they were in the West Brom game. The decision to remove Schurrle was particularly strange. He'd scored twice and hit the woodwork and generally seemed to be making a nuisance of himself whereas Juan Mata had had a quiet afternoon. This time around they didn't the Blues didn't have a suspect penalty to bail them out.

Tactical Analysis: Sunderland 3-4 Chelsea

Chelsea rode a world class performance from Eden Hazard to a 4-3 win over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light. This was a highly entertaining but strange contest. That it produced 7 goals is more a reflection of Hazard's individual class and some poor defending from both sides than of a frantic end to end game. The 7 total goals game from just 8 total shots on target.

Jose Mourinho set Chelsea out in a 4-2-3-1 with Ramires and Lampard anchoring midfield. Hazard was on the left of the attacking midfield three while Willian and Juan Mata rotated between the right side and the #10 spot. Cesar Azpilicueta was again given the nod over Ashley Cole at left back.

Gus Poyet opted for a 4-3-3. Ki sat just in front of the back four in midfield while Jack Colback and Craig Gardner played the midfield shuttling roles. Fabio Borini was on the left side of the front three, Emanuele Giaccherini was on the right and Jozy Altidore was given the nod as the lone striker.

The 4-2-3-1 vs. 4-3-3 matchup meant that each side's center midfielders had a direct opponent. Gardner was matched up against Lampard, Colback against Ramires and Ki against Mata or Willian depending on who was playing as the center attacking midfielder at the time. Both sides stuck to these matchups defensively. When Chelsea were in possession Gardner and Colback stepped out to press Lampard and Ramires respectively while Ki sat in behind picking up the attacking center midfielder, giving Sunderland a 4-1-4-1 defensive shape.

Sunderland defend 4-1-4-1
 Defensively, the triangle was flipped for Chelsea so that their shape off the ball was 4-4-1-1. Ramires and Lampard picked up the more advanced Colback and Gardner while Willian stayed tight to the deeper lying Ki.

Chelsea defend 4-4-1-1.
The formations meant neither side had a spare holding midfielder. Ki was 1 v. 1 with Willian, Lampard and Ramires were 2 v. 2 with Gardner and Colback. With both sets of holding midfielders occupied marking an opponent, this opened up space for both teams' wide attacking players to tuck inside in the space between the outside backs and the holding midfielders. The figure below shows the danger areas where Borini and Giaccherini could drift into to find space in front of Chelsea's back four. By drifting into these areas, they forced Chelsea's outside backs into a difficult decision. If Ivanovic and Azpilicueta allowed them to drift in field unmarked, they'd have space to receive the ball in an incredibly dangerous area between Chelsea's defensive lines. If instead Ivanovic and Azpilicueta followed them in to the center of the pitch, it opened up space down the flank for overlapping runs from Sunderland's own outside backs.

Space between the lines for Sunderland wide forwards.
Sunderland's goal to make it 2-2 was a great example of Azpilicueta being forced into making the latter decision. Giaccherini drifted in to a dangerous position in field between the defensive lines and Azpilicueta was dragged inside to mark him. Bardsley made an overlapping run down the wing into the now vacant space forcing Hazard into a tackle that went out of play for a corner Sunderland would subsequently score from. Below is a screen grab of the build up leading to the corner.

Build up to Sunderland's second goal.
Similarly, Sunderland's lack of a spare holding midfielder created opportunities for Chelsea's wide men to be dangerous drifting from the channels into more narrow positions. With Ki matched up directly with Willian, Hazard and Mata could drift inside to create 1 v. 3 overloads on Ki as shown in the graphic below.

Chelsea look to overload key.
The key then for Sunderland was to keep their midfield triangle and the two center backs very compact so that the space in the middle of the pitch was too congested for Chelsea to be dangerous. They did a decent job of this task. Aside from Chelsea's goal that stemmed from a corner, the visitors managed 5 other shots, none of which were on target and 4 of which were speculative efforts outside the 18.

With Sunderland doing well to keep the space compact through the middle, Hazard made a subtle change to his positioning. Rather than tucking inside to receive the ball, he stayed in wide areas and looked to take on Bardsley and dribble in field when he got the ball in the channels and shoot with his stronger right foot. This was the key tactical feature of the game. Again, the fact Sunderland did not have a spare holding midfielder was important. Because Ki had his own man marking responsibility he could not slide over to the right to offer Bardsley support when Hazard began making his move inside. Twice Hazard scored by running past Bardsley inside and getting the space to take on a shot. For the first goal he was able to beat the Sunderland right back with the dribble, for the second he performed a 1-2 with Lampard.



The other key feature of the contest was Chelsea's surprising inability to clear their lines from set pieces. All three of Sunderland's goals stemmed from dead ball scenarios. Altidore's opener came when the Blues failed to clear a Dossena free kick. More troubling, the Black Cats second and third goals resulted when Chelsea allowed cornersto bounce inside of 12 yards.

Palace win in stereotypical Pulis fashion

Tony Pulis picked up his first home win as Crystal Palace eked out a 1-0 win over West Ham in a match lacking quality from both sides. West Ham were wasteful in front of goal and need to find goals quickly if they're to avoid a relegation battle. The goalless defeat means they've now failed to score in 8 of 14 league games.

The win pulled Palace out of the bottom spot in the table but was hardly a performance that should assure fans better days are forthcoming. They lacked composure and technical ability on the ball and created too few chances.

Sam Allardyce opted for a 4-3-3 shape with Mark Noble sitting in front of the back four and Ravel Morrison and Kevin Nolan in more advanced areas. Mohamed Diame was used wide on the left and Carlton Cole was given the start as the lone striker.

Pulis set Palace out in a 4-4-2. Cameron Jerome and Marouane Chamakh were partnered up front with Chamakh playing slightly withdrawn.


From the opening whistle West Ham used their man advantage in midfield to control possession. Palace sat in deep and looked to play outlet passes to Chamakh on the break. There were a few occasions when the counter was on for the home side but their first half passing was woeful.

Palace were arguably playing too deep. Carlton Cole is a striker that is most dangerous when he's able to play in and around the penalty box, winning headers and knocking the ball down for Nolan. His mediocre pace means he's not much of a threat running in behind the center backs. The deep defensive line meant he was allowed to position himself around the box where West Ham were able to hit in crosses. With Nolan and Diame both playing in advanced positions for the Hammers as well, Allardyce's side were a real threat on crosses. Diame should have hit the target with a first half header and twice Nolan got on the end of dangerous crosses at the back post only to be flagged for offside.

By defending higher up the pitch, Palace would have pushed Nolan and Cole further from goal where they are far less of a threat. With Cole, Diame and Downing playing the three forward positions, the only real threat in behind would have been Morrison bursting forward from the midfield.

In the end Palace got the 3 points so it's probably unfair to be too critical of the system. Still, aside from the first half goal that came entirely against the run of play from a rare Palace corner and a second half missed breakaway from Jerome, they created almost nothing and were dreadfully poor in possession. They benefited from West Ham's wastefulness and lack of a goal scorer but it's hard to see how they'll avoid relegation if they don't find a way to be more threatening in the attack. West Ham are 13th in the Premier League in average possession with 46.4% yet had 62% of the ball as the away side at Selhurst Park this evening. Possession of course doesn't guarantee wins but with Palace second from bottom Pulis's knack for collecting draws may not be enough to ensure survival. One would think they'll eventually need to be more proactive in looking to win games.

Then again Pulis has never been relegated despite his sides consistently clawing their way to ugly points in the manner Palace did today. If they manage to stay up playing like they did today it will be the most Tony Pulis-like campaign Tony Pulis has ever led.


Tactical Analysis: Juventus 3-0 Napoli

Juventus controlled the game in the first half and rarely looked seriously threatened in the second after dropping deep to protect their one goal advantage. The score suggests the match was more one-sided than it actually was- Andrea Pirlo and Paul Pogba's second half goals were the result of individual brilliance and were not indicative of any Juve dominance at that point in the game- but Juve created the much more dangerous scoring opportunities and were deserving winners.

Rafa Benitez fielded his normal 4-2-3-1 and made three changes to his side that beat Marseille 3-2 in midweek Champions League action. Behrami replaced Dzemaili alongside Inler in the second holding midfield role while Hamsik returned to his center attacking midfield role in place of Pandev. Insigne played on the left ahead of Mertens.

Juventus returned to their usual Serie A 3-5-2 formation after Antonio Conte opted for a 4-3-3 in their 2-2 Champions League draw Tuesday against Real Madrid.


Tevez's movement
With Vidal and Pogba operating as shuttlers in front of Pirlo in Juventus's center midfield triangle, both Napoli holding midfielders had a direct opponent when defending. Inler was more or less matched up directly with Pogba, Behrami with Vidal. Juventus were also playing with two forwards, meaning both Napoli center backs also had an opponent to mark. In effect, Napoli didn't have a spare man defensively in the middle of the pitch to provide cover- it was 4 v. 4 in this area.

Under Conte Juventus have been tremendous at using clever movement to pull the opposition out of position defensively. That Napoli didn't have a spare player centrally in defense to offer support when their shape broke down was always likely to give them difficulties. To compensate for that lack of cover through the middle, Benitez had his two fullbacks tuck in to narrow positions close to the center backs to offer them support.

From the outset, Juve's wing backs were able to exploit this narrow positioning from Napoli's fullbacks. Isla and Asamoah found plenty of space in advanced areas down the channels. In the first 45 seconds, with Napoli left back Armero tucking inside, Isla received the ball in space on the right wing. He had the time to pick out a pass for Pogba at the top of the box to volley. Pepe Reina made a fine save to parry Pogba's volleyed effort out of play but Juventus scored from the resulting corner.

Juventus played 15 crosses from wide areas in the opening half. With the 6'2" Pogba darting into the box alongside 6'5" Llorente it was a useful strategy. The home side nearly doubled their advantage in the 8th minute when Pirlo weighted a cross on the left wing to Pogba at the back post. The French midfielder picked out Bonucci, who had come forward for a corner, with a header across the 6 yard box but Reina denied the center back's effort with a world class save.

The central 4 v. 4 battle between Llorente, Tevez, Pogba and Vidal for Juventus and Fernandez, Albiol, Inler and Behrami for Napoli also opened up space between Napoli's defensive and midfield lines for Tevez to drop into and exploit. With Inler and Behrami directly matched up with Pogba and Vidal respectively, Napoli's center backs couldn't pass Tevez off to one of the two holding midfielders when he dropped off because Inler and Behrami were both already occupied. As a result, the center backs had to make a choice. They could leave their defensive line and track Tevez's runs into midfield. The downside of this option is that it would leave a gap in the defense for either Vidal or Pogba to burst into (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Alternatively, they could retain their defensive shape and allow Tevez to drop off into space between the lines without being tracked. The downside of this option is that if Tevez receives the ball in space between the lines and is allowed to turn and run at the back four he's incredibly dangerous (Figure 2).

Figure 2
Juventus were able to create the scenarios depicted in both Figure 1 and Figure 2 in the first half. When Fernandez tracked Tevez's runs into midfield, Pogba would sprint past Inler into the space Tevez's run had created. When the center backs didn't track Tevez's runs he was allowed to collect the ball in space between the lines and cause problems with his powerful direct running.

Pirlo asserts control high up pitch
Napoli's first half struggles also were attributable to how deep they defended in the opening 45 minutes. Their defensive shape was 4-4-2 and their two highest players, Higuain and Hamsik, positioned themselves well within their own defensive half. As a result Juventus's three center backs were able to push all the way into the attacking half. With Inler and Behrami occupied with Pogba and Vidal, Pirlo was usually the free man in midfield. Pirlo's ability to control a game and pick out dangerous penetrating passes is no secret. With Napoli defending so deep, he was able to get on the ball in advanced areas. Despite being Juventus's deepest midfielder, he played more passes in the attacking third than any other player in the match. Allowing a player of his passing ability to control the game that high up the pitch is always likely to cause problems. The graphic below shows how high up the pitch Pirlo was receiving the ball in the first half and his attacking third passes for the 90 minutes.


Second Half
Napoli defended much higher up the pitch in the second half which combined with Juve dropping in to protect their goal advantage resulted in the visitors enjoying much more of the ball in the second half. However, despite outpossessing Juve significantly Napoli were unable to create many really strong scoring chances. Juventus took on a 5-3-2 defensive shape with the wing backs dropping back level with the three centerbacks. Napoli passed the ball sideways in the attacking half but couldn't get any penetrating balls into the final third. The individual brilliance of Pirlo and Pogba ensured Juventus walked away with the three points to jump ahead of Napoli in the Serie A table.


Organized United beat Arsenal in cagey contest

Robin Van Persie's first half header from a Wayne Rooney corner consigned Arsenal to their first league defeat since their opening day home loss to Aston Villa and closed the gap between the two sides to 5 points.

It was a contest with plenty of passion and organization from both sides but one that produced few genuine goal scoring opportunities or instances of stylish football. That the match ended with more yellow cards (5) than attempts on target (4) is indicative of the hard fought battles happening in midfield and lack of ideas in the final third. In truth the quality in possession was poor from both sides and it wasn't an especially entertaining contest.

Both sides opted for two central midfielders used to sitting just in front of the back four and defended in their own halves with compact banks of four. Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini played the holding midfield positions in Arsenal's 4-2-3-1 while Michael Carrick and Phil Jones played deep in midfield in United's 4-4-1-1. It was a sign both sides were concerned with the threat the opposition's attacking players posed in the seams between midfield and the back four. Both Arsene Wenger and David Moyes had the option of playing more of a box-to-box shuttler alongside a holder for a more attacking, proactive approach but chose the more cautious option. In Wenger's case he could have played Aaron Ramsey alongside either Arteta or Flamini. Moyes could have opted for Tom Cleverley alongside Carrick.

Manchester United looked slightly more dangerous in the opening exchanges enjoying more possession higher up the field than Arsenal. They advanced the ball into the attacking third mainly down the channels with both Rooney and Van Persie drifting into wide areas to create overloads for Arsenal's fullbacks and looked to get crosses in the box from these wide areas. They played 17 first half crosses to Arsenal's 8.


In this sense it was very much like a classic Alex Ferguson vs. Wenger contest from recent seasons. Manchester United used the width of the pitch while Arsenal looked to crowd the middle of midfield. Manchester United's goal came when Rooney drifted to the left flank and whipped in an excellent cross towards Van Persie that Vermaelen did well to clear for a corner. The two United forwards then of course combined for the opener on the ensuing corner.

Wenger's midfield trio of Ramsey, Ozil and Santi Cazorla was quite fluid. Both Ramsey and Cazorla tuck inside from their wide starting positions and the three frequently interchange positions. Usually this allows Arsenal to overload the opposition holding midfielders and control the game with possession. However, today the Gunners were unusually sloppy in possession and struggled to retain the ball. The positional interchanging of the three attacking midfielders is fine when Arsenal are bossing possession high up the pitch but can create big problems defensively when they're struggling to keep hold of the ball. It meant that when Arsenal turned the ball over, Cazorla, Ozil and Ramsey were frequently not in areas of the pitch where they could quickly recover into their proper defensive shape. Patrice Evra in particular was able to take advantage of Ramsey's narrow attacking position when United won the ball back, bombing down the left sideline into space.

Moyes was always a cautious manager when he had limited resources at Everton and has maintained that cautious approach at Manchester United in big games. After taking the lead United were careful not to get stretched, committing fewer bodies forward and maintaining a solid defensive shape. They defended in deep banks of four in the second half and despite three attacking substitutions from Arsenal, United's impressive defensive organization limited the away side's ability to find the space in the attacking third to create meaningful chances. United completed just 30 passes in the final third in the second half, illustrating that Moyes is more confident holding on to a one goal lead with an organized defensive approach than he is seeking out a second goal to kill the game off.


In the end that approach made for a less exciting encounter than many neutrals would have hoped but United will be unconcerned. Their third straight league win means that despite a rocky start to the campaign, they're now just 5 points off their league leading opponents today and are starting to find form.