Mourinho could accommodate both Oscar and Mata centrally in 4-3-3

There's been no shortage of controversy surrounding Jose Mourinho's decision to use Chelsea's back-to-back player of the year Juan Mata so sparingly at the start of this season. Mata has started just two of five league games. In Chelsea's three biggest fixtures to date- the league game away to Manchester United, the UEFA Super Cup with Bayern Munich and the home Champions League fixture with FC Basel- Mata has made just one substitute appearance. He didn't even feature on the substitutes bench in the weekend win over Fulham.

On the face of it, Mourinho's decision seems bemusing. Mata led the Premier League last season with 12 assists and also chipped in an impressive 12 goals. His ability to find pockets of space in the opposition defense and play a decisive final pass is unmatched in English football.

However, Mourinho has stated publicly that Oscar will be his first choice number 10 and has also hinted that until Mata adapts his game and is willing to do more yeoman's work tracking opposition fullbacks, he won't see much time wide on the right either. Throughout his managerial career, Mourinho has primarily built his sides'  around a solid, compact defensive shape and the ability to break quickly into space on the counter.

This is a style of play more suited to Oscar in the number 10 role. The young Brazilian's work rate and tackling ability enable him to drop in and relentlessly press the opposition holding midfielders when Chelsea are defending. His pace then allows him to sprint into space behind the holding midfielders to spring counters when Chelsea win the ball back. It's unique for a number 10 to do the kind of defensive work typically seen from Oscar. In the 2-0 win Saturday over Fulham he had 7 successful tackles, more than any other player. Incredibly, 5 of those were in the opposition's defensive half. It is that willingness and ability to win the ball back high up the pitch that Mourinho so highly values.


While Oscar doesn't possess Mata's vision and creativity on the ball, his off the ball movements are exceptional. His opening day goal against Hull City sums up his incredible energy and intelligent movement. He starts the move checking towards John Terry 45 yards from goal. Terry plays a long ball into the left channel for Eden Hazard to run into. Oscar turns and sprints 25 yards to the corner of the 18 yard box to provide an option for Hazard. Hazard cuts inside and finds Kevin De Bruyne at the top of the 18. The instant Hazard plays the pass to De Bruyne, Oscar makes a diagonal run to get on the shoulder of the last defender. The timing of the run is perfect and he's able to easily tap in De Bruyne's pass in behind. In the matter of a few seconds he provides a passing option three separate times despite the ball moving half the length of the pitch in that time.


However, for all of Oscar's fine defensive work and tireless movement, in the absence of Mata Chelsea have often lacked the type of incisive penetrating passes in the final third he is known for, particularly against teams that defend deep against them and force them to patiently pick their way through. Chelsea's performance against Basel and first half against Fulham are prime examples. With both of those sides sitting deep in banks of four, Chelsea saw plenty of the ball but didn't have anyone with the creativity to penetrate the lines with a pass.

It's important to note Oscar scored in both of those games. I wouldn't advocate replacing Oscar with Mata in the middle- he's too valuable on both sides of the ball. However, against teams likely to sit deep and force Chelsea to unlock a crowded defense, Mourinho could viably use both of them in a central role to accommodate both the movement and energy of Oscar and the creativity of Mata. The shape would be 4-3-3 with Mata and Oscar playing in advance of a single holding midfielder. I'd probably use John Obi Mikel over Ramires as the holder for his positional discipline and ability to break up counters. Ramires is a wonderful talent but his biggest attribute is his athleticism and ability to break through the opposition midfield into space with his pace and energy. Against teams that defend deep there isn't that space to burst into and too often he makes rash challenges to operate as a lone holder. In possession Oscar would play more of a box-to-box role with Mata positioning himself closer to the striker and getting into pockets of space between the lines. The shape would still accommodate two more of Chelsea's talented attacking midfielders on the two wings. Defensively, Oscar would drop in alongside Mikel to form a bank of four with the outside midfielders. Mata would defend higher up the field with the main striker. Oscar is more than capable of doing the necessary defensive work slightly further back in midfield. The shape provides defensive cover in midfield in Mikel, pace and energy in Oscar and creativity and vision in Mata without sacrificing a whole lot defensively.

If Mourinho is as special as he claims, he should be able to find a way to adjust his style of play to accommodate a player of Mata's ability rather than the other way around. A creative presence in the middle of the park is important against deep lying defenses and until Mourinho finds a way to include his most gifted creative player in these matches, Chelsea will continue to struggle.

Positives from defeat: Villa's compact defense and high line frustrated Chelsea

Despite losing 2-1 to Chelsea, Paul Lambert will take pride in another excellent Aston Villa performance this evening in a contest his side deserved a point from. Three crucial decisions from referee Kevin Friend went against Villa. With the score at 1-1, Branislav Ivanovic could have been sent off for an arm into the head of Christian Benteke. Moments later a powerful Ivanovic header from a Lampard free kick stood despite replays showing the Serbian defender was a fraction offside. In stoppage time a Villa header struck John Terry's hand which was in an unnatural position above his head.

Still, as gutted as Lambert will be about the unlucky defeat, he'll be able to draw on another overwhelmingly positive performance away to a top four side. He should be particularly pleased with his team's performance on the defensive side of the ball. Last season Villa finished with the third worst defensive record behind relegated clubs Wigan and Reading. They were famously beaten 8-0 in this fixture last season during a week that also saw them lose 4-0 to Spurs and 3-0 to Wigan. Although they've conceded in both of their first two games this campaign, the defense looks far less porous and allows them a platform on which to spring their explosive counterattacks.

Villa's solid defensive performance owed to their excellent team shape. They lined up in the same 4-3-3 formation used in the win over Arsenal. Defensively, it turned into a 4-1-4-1. Gabriel Agbonlahor, Fabian Delph, Karim El Ahmady and Andy Weimann formed a midfield bank of four with Ashley Westwood sitting in the middle of the park just in behind Delph and El Ahmady to form a central midfield triangle. That triangle moved as a unit and stayed very compact, taking away forward passing lanes for Chelsea. When the ball was played to Ramires on the right side of Chelsea's center midfield, Delph would apply token pressure and El Ahmady would drop in closer to Westwood on the weak side. When it was reversed to Lampard on the left, El Ahmady would step to ball and Delph would drop in on the weak side. This defensive movement did two very positive things for Villa. First, the token ball pressure meant Lampard and Ramires could freely play the ball horizontally to one another but didn't have the option to pick out a forward pass with a defender stepping directly to them. Secondly, Westwood, Delph and El Ahmady staying so compact ensured Villa had enough bodies in the middle of the park to block off passing lanes to Oscar sitting in the middle behind the striker and Mata and Hazard cutting inside. Chelsea play with three extremely fluid attacking midfielders that all like to drift inside and overload the middle of the park so the presence of three compact center midfielders made space difficult for the likes of Hazard, Mata and Oscar to find.

The screenshot below shows a good example of Villa's movement. Ramires is in possession for Chelsea. Delph applies token pressure to Ramires, simultaneously taking away the passing lane to Hazard. El Ahmady is in position to cut out any pass aimed at Mata cutting in from the left. Westwood is denying any pass forward into Oscar. Ramires ends up on the ball for a full 6 seconds looking for a forward passing option. One never opens up and he's forced to play a square pass to Lampard.


Hull City also played a 4-3-3 in their 2-0 defeat to Chelsea Saturday but it took a very different shape defensively and led to Steve Bruce's side being completely overrun. Unlike Lambert, Bruce had his two box-to-box midfielders Robbie Brady and Robert Koren both press Ramires and Lampard high up the field, leaving much more space between those two and the holding midfielder David Meyler. With Hazard tucking in from the left, Kevin de Bruyne tucking inside from the right and Oscar all occupying central areas high up the pitch, Meyler was overwhelmed and Chelsea controlled possession high up the pitch in dangerous areas. In the first half against Hull, Chelsea completed 81 passes in the attacking third. In the first half tonight against Villa they manged just 46.

Along with sharp defensive movement from the midfield, Villa also kept space very compact by holding a high defensive line and pressing relentlessly when Chelsea advanced the ball past the midfield line. As a result, Mourinho's side had very little space between the seams to operate and were therefore left to try to hit long balls over the top to Demba Ba. This evening Chelsea played 64 long balls and were caught offside 5 times compared to just 46 long balls against Hull and one offsides.

In Weimann, Agbonlahor and Benteke Villa have three explosive attackers capable of getting at opposition defenders on the break. Agbonlahor and Benteke combined for the first goal. Benteke and Weimann would have combined for two others were it not for some brilliant goalkeeping from Petr Cech. If Lambert's side can continue to keep things tight defensively, Villa will be a very difficult team to beat.

Thoughts, tactical analysis: USA 2-2 Russia

I've been left scratching my head after the US's 2-2 draw with Russia as to how my assessment of the USMNT performance could differ so much from American soccer journalists and pundits. The overwhelming sentiment on Twitter and from game commentator Taylor Twellman has been that the US back four was poor and that the draw hides what were serious deficiencies in this evening's performance, particularly at the back.

I'm hardly an eternal USMNT optimist and am willing to accept we stole a draw we hardly deserved. But I can't get on board with the idea this was an overwhelmingly bad performance from the US and one that hints at an ominous World Cup qualifying campaign ahead. Consider the context in which this game was played. Russia's entire starting lineup consisted of domestic-based players meaning they obviously faced far less travel time. This is a big deal in a midweek game in which players are forced to play for their club teams at the weekend and then immediately hop on a plane to join their national teams. The travel is exhausting, particularly on the back of a weekend game. The bulk of the US team today consisted of players based in Western Europe but also included MLS and Mexican league players- the travel was extensive for all involved.

Travel time aside let's also consider the opponent. Russia currently sit 9th in the FIFA World Rankings and in Fabio Capello they are led by a manager who has won multiple domestic titles in Spain and Italy and hoisted the Champions League trophy as manager of AC Milan. He's unbeaten in his first six games with Russia. They've gotten off to a perfect 4-0 start in their UEFA World Cup qualifying group including a win over Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal. This was no feeble opponent the US were up against. Away from home it was always going to be an extremely difficult fixture to get a result from.

Defense
The US back four has come under the harshest criticism from American soccer journalists after the draw. US Soccer Daily (@USsoccerDaily) tweeted after the game, "Big questions in the back." SI's Grant Wahl echoed that sentiment stating "questions about the U.S. back line will remain." Twellman continued to reiterate throughout the broadcast that Tim Howard was the only thing preventing the score from being 4-1 or 5-1 to Russia.

That the US had a few problems defensively was clear. Howard indeed had to make key stops and Russia certainly created more dangerous goal scoring opportunities. However, the bulk of the defensive issues occurred high up the field with the US midfield and forwards and I'd argue the back four was more impressive today than they had been against Antigua and Barbuda or Guatemala.

The US played a 4-3-3 with Danny Williams in midfield just in front of the back four and Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones in front of him playing as more box to box midfielders. Jozy Altidore played center forward and was flanked by Joshua Gatt and Herculez Gomez on the outsides. The US's five most advanced players (Altidore, Gatt, Gomez, Jones and Bradley) rarely seemed to be on the same page as to whether they were going to press the ball high up the field or collectively drop deep. Often half seemed to be pressingg while the other half were dropping so that the US defense was stretched vertically when they needed to be compact to make the field small for Russia. This opened up big pockets of space in the middle of midfield for Russia to collect the ball in and run towards the back four.

Another big problem for the US defensively, particularly in the middle of the second half, occurred when the US gave the ball away after the center midfield triangle of Williams, Jones and Bradley all advanced forward to support the three forwards. This created a big pocket of space between Williams and center backs Clarence Goodsen and Geoff Cameron for Russia to play an outlet ball into and counter, leaving the back four exposed. Too often it was lackluster defensive shape or cheap giveaways from the midfield and forwards that left the back four scrambling to stop Russian players whose movement off the ball had eluded the US midfield. Given the difficult situations the back four were frequently put under, I thought they did a decent job slowing down the Russian attack. Yes Tim Howard had to make some good stops but that's nearly always going to be the case against strong sides like Russia away from home. It's telling that the only Russian goals came from a silly giveaway by Danny Williams and another mental error when Maurice Edu and Goodsen switched off on a quick Russia restart. In the run of play the back four looked up for the challenge and it was the defensive shape of the midfielders and forwards that was the biggest defensive concern.

Attack
One of the concerns with a 4-3-3 is that, unlike a 4-2-3-1, there is no attacking central midfield player that plays just off the striker to connect midfield and attack. In the first half, Russia's willingness to get numbers behind the ball forced Jones and Bradley to check back deep to receive the ball. With Gomez and Gatt both operating in wider areas there was a large gap between the midfield center midfield three and Altidore. Therefore the only way to advance the ball forward was either through long balls into Altidore or hopeful balls over the top into the corner for Gomez or, more often, Gatt. The problem with the long passes hit into Altidore was that when he was able to control them and the hold the ball, he was isolated and there was no one for him to lay the ball off to.

In the second half the US did a better job of linking midfield and attack by getting players into the space between the Russian center backs and center midfielders. Gatt and Gomez at times both tucked inside into these pockets of space but most often it was Jones linking defense to offense with his powerful bursts forward from midfield. Jones' decision-making and game awareness can be frustrating but his work rate and ability to advance past opposition center midfields both off the ball and with the dribble make him a handful to deal with. Although he's not in the same class as Yaya Toure or Abou Diaby, he possesses the same trait that makes these two so difficult for the opposition to deal with- the ability to singlehandedly link to defense to offense by bypassing the opposition central midfield with powerful vertical runs. Michael Bradley has received all the plaudits for his play in midfield but it was Jones ability to usher the ball into the attacking third that allowed the US to play higher up the pitch and enabled Bradley to get in positions where he could use his creativity and quality on the ball. Jones deserves more credit for what was one of his stronger games in recent memory for the US.

4-3-3 vs 4-2-3-1
4-3-3 formations like the one used by the US today use one deep lying holding midfielder with two other midfielders that do more shuttling up and down the field. 4-2-3-1 formations use two holding midfielders (one tends to advance higher up the field when in possession) and one attacking midfielder that sits off of the center forward. 4-3-3's can be especially vulnerable to counterattacks, particularly when a team likes to get its outside backs forward. When a team in a 4-3-3 loses possession it's often left with only its one holding midfielder and two center backs to slow down the counter. It's impossible for the holding midfielder to cover the entire width of the pitch so opposition players easily move into space either side of him to receive the ball where they can then turn and run at the center backs. The extra holding midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 makes it easier to defend the width of the pitch on the counter- with two players rather than one in front of the center backs it makes it more difficult for the opposition to slide into pockets of space in the midfield and turn.

With Danny Williams operating as the loan holder in a 4-3-3, Russia were able to frequently collect outlet passes on either side of him and counter when the US lost possession. Had this been a competitive fixture against a side as strong as Russia, Jurgen Klinsmann would have almost certainly opted for two holding midfielders (4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1) rather than just the one to mitigate the threat of counterattacks. However, he almost certainly opted for the 4-3-3 with preparation for next year's crucial World Cup qualifiers in mind. With the exception of Mexico, the US's opponents in the CONCACAF hexagonal will get numbers behind the ball and defend deep. It makes little sense for Klinsmann to use two holding midfielders in these games where it will be important the US to get bodies forward to trouble crowded opposition defenses. Today's game was therefore probably one example where Klinsmann played a lineup with future opponents in mind rather than creating a reactive lineup to the opponent at hand.

Klinsmann's 3-man central midfield has given USMNT defense needed strengthening

The jury still seems to be out on whether the USA are showing enough signs of progress under Jurgen Klinsmann to suggest the 48-year-old German is the man to lead the team to a successful 2014 World Cup run. Historic away wins under Klinsmann over Mexico and Italy hint at a team on the rise, yet a puzzling loss to Jamaica in a World Cup qualifier in July, controversial roster selections and an underwhelming goal-scoring record have raised doubts among some American supporters about his ability to effectively manage the national team.

A number of the concerns surrounding Klinsmann's first year and a half on the job are reasonable. Four losses from his opening six games wasn't the impression he would have expected to make. The US have not packed enough of a punch in front of goal. In Klinsmann's 18 games in charge, they have scored more than one goal only three times and have averaged just 1.17 goals per game. He got his tactics wrong in the 2-1 loss to Jamaica, putting the US in a precarious position in World Cup qualification. We voiced our frustration on this blog about his decision in that game to leave Clint Dempsey high up the field just behind forwards Jozy Altidore and Herculez Gomez, leaving the three man midfield of Kyle Beckerman, Jermaine Jones, and Maurice Edu stretched to cover the width of the pitch against a Jamaica side playing with two wingers. His most recent decision to leave Altidore off the roster for the upcoming qualifiers and his hesitation to select Michael Bradley to the squad early in his reign raised questions about his team selection.

However, despite what many see as a disappointing first 15 months on the job, it's important to consider the type of soccer the national team was playing prior to Klinsmann's arrival and how it has changed since. Under Bob Bradley the US were an undisciplined side tactically, particularly defensively. From January 2010 until he was sacked in July 2011, Bradley's team played nine teams ranked in the top 30 of the FIFA World Rankings. They drew three of those and lost the other six. In those nine games, they conceded an average of 2.2 goals per game. Klinsmann has faced seven sides ranked in the top 30 and won 2, drawn 1 and lost 3. During those games, the US have conceded 1.2 goals per game, a full goal improvement over Bradley. The US are nowhere close to being able to match the technique of Europe and South America's best sides. In order for the US to compete with them they need to be organized and have great defensive shape.  Klinsmann's biggest contribution the national team thus far has been to improve that defensive shape by introducing more modern formations, specifically formations that use a three-man central midfield and provide more adequate cover for the back four.

Bradley's default formation was either a traditional 4-4-2 (I use traditional to mean a 4-4-2 with two center midfielders and two wide midfielders) or a 4-4-1-1 with a withdrawn forward behind a #9 striker. Both of these systems use only two center midfielders, and typically Bradley would play one of either Maurice Edu, Ricardo Clark, or Jose Torres alongside his son Michael. Played well, 4-4-1-1s and 4-4-2s can be fine formations, and there were games throughout Bradley's tenure where the US looked strong playing them. However, he showed an inability to change these formations and move to ones with three-man center midfields when the tactics of the opposition dictated that he should have.

One of the biggest problems that can arise defensively for a team using a 4-4-2 is the gap of space that often opens up between the two center midfielders and the back four. In a 4-4-2 the center midfielders are responsible for getting tight on the opposition center midfielders. If they're forced to push high up the field to do this, it can create dangerous pockets of space in front of the back four for opposition attackers to move in to. Opponents who receive the ball in these areas have time to turn and dribble at the back four. This forces the center backs to make a decision to either contain the dribbler and continue to back up or to step out and try to win a tackle. If they continue to contain they run the risk of allowing the man in possession to get into a dangerous shooting position. But if one center back steps it allows the opposition to play dangerous through balls into the space left vacated by the stepping center back. I've labeled this gap "problem area" in the diagram below. One way to minimize these gaps between center mids and center backs is to push the back four high up the field towards the center midfielders. However, holding a high defensive line comes with its own risks. High lines are susceptible to balls over the top or slipped in behind the back four, particularly when your center backs lack pace to keep up with opposition forwards. They also require an intelligent back four that knows when to collectively step forward to put the opposition offsides. With high defensive lines, the problem area therefore tends to become the space between the back four and goalkeeper.


The USA's performance at the 2010 World Cup offered a perfect illustration of a 4-4-2's defensive shortcomings in the center of the pitch. The US played a 4-4-2 in every game with Jozy Altidore paired with either Herculez Gomez or Robbie Findley at forward, Bradley in the center of midfield alongside either Edu, Torres, or Clark and Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey occupying the wide areas. All three goals the US conceded in group play resulted from an opposition player making a dangerous run into the gap between the back four and midfield, leaving the US defense out of position. In the opening game against England, Wayne Rooney dropped back from his forward position into this gap (video below). Not wanting to allow the dangerous Rooney to get the ball in this space and turn, center back Oguchi Onyewu felt the need to step out of his position in the back four and track Rooney. This opened up a huge amount of space between the US's other center back, Jay DeMerit, and left back Carlos Bocanegra for an England player to burst into, something Steven Gerrard was all too happy to do. Rooney never touched the ball but his incisive movement had done the damage. Lampard's pass found its way to Emile Heskey who laid it through for Gerrard to comfortably tuck home. Clark, Bradley's partner in central midfield that day, often gets blamed for the goal and indeed he failed to track the run of Gerrard. However, the defensive system was more to blame than Clark. As a center midfielder you're used to passing off forward runs to your center backs. He did a poor job of reading the situation, but the gap in defense should have never opened up. Even if he'd tracked Gerrard from the outset, the England midfielder still may have beat him in a foot race into the space.


England were also lined up in a 4-4-2 that day. Had Bradley gone with three central midfielders, the US would have had a spare man in the center of the park to sit just in front of the back four. That would have allowed Onyewu to pass Rooney off to the spare midfielder rather than getting himself out of position by tracking him. The gap would have never opened up for Rooney to run into, and that goal would likely have never happened.

In the US's second game against Slovenia, Clark was replaced with Torres but the US kept it's 4-4-2 shape. Again, they were made to pay for allowing the opposition to get into pockets of space between DeMerit and Onyewu at center back and Bradley and Torres in the middle of the pitch. In the video below (at 1:09), Valter Birsa drifts unmarked into a 20-yard gap in front of the back four. He receives the ball, turns and shoots before DeMerit or Onyewu are able to step. His finish was incredible, but the amount of space he was given to drift into was criminal and a product of the US's flat, four-man midfield.


Slovenia's second goal again came from an opposition player drifting into the problem gap. Forward Milivoje Novakovic drifts away from the US center backs to receive the ball in the gap where he can turn and slip it through for his forward partner Ljubijankic. The bulk of the blame for this goal, however, falls on Onyewu for his woeful positioning. The other three defenders had done their job pushing forward to close the gap and make the defense more compact. Onyewu was likely positioned so deep because he was worried about his lack of pace being exposed with a ball played in behind him. He wanted to keep Ljubikankic in front of him rather than on his shoulder.

Less than a year on from the World Cup, Bradley hadn't learned his lesson. In a friendly with Spain, he fielded a 4-4-2 against a Spanish side lined up in a 4-3-3 with a world class central midfield trio of Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, and Santi Cazorla. Outmanned in the midfield, the US were subsequently picked apart 4-0. That two of the four goals were scored by Cazorla, an attacking midfielder who makes a living finding pockets of space between defense and midfield, is no surprise.

The obvious key defensive feature of three-man central midfields is that they provide an extra layer of defensive depth in midfield. The extra midfielder can fill the most dangerous areas of space in front of the back four. Incredibly, even after the World Cup and the battering from Spain, Bradley refused to accept his side was often being overrun in midfield. In the end it would cost him his job as he again fielded a 4-4-2 against Mexico in the Gold Cup final. El Tri's first and third goals came from players receiving the ball unmarked in gaps in the middle of the field. (You can see the goals here at 2:30 and 4:28.)

Klinsmann would have certainly recognized the reasons behind the US's rather porous defense under Bradley. He has experimented with a number of different formations, 4-4-2 included, and has said he picks his formations based on the strengths of the players he has available and the style of play of the opposition. In other words, he is flexible and likes his teams to be able to play a number of different styles. But one feature that has been fairly consistent in Klinsmann's lineups is a three-man central midfield. Whether a 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 or diamond 4-4-2, he has shown that he likes to have one center midfielder available to sit in gaps just in front of the back four to prevent the opposition from receiving the ball in these dangerous areas. It has worked to shore up the defense. The US have conceded more than one goal in only three games under Klinsmann. Of the four goals conceded in this World Cup qualifying round, three have come from free kicks. The difficulty the US have had creating genuine goal-scoring opportunities against weaker CONCACAF opposition has been frustrating, but that phase of the game will come as players like Landon Donovan recover from injury.

Jurgen Klinsmann has made the US a more sophisticated side to match up against, and that will have its benefits in the long run.

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.


The modern football sweeper

"The fishing fleet lies dark against the sun-washed sea. Along the Tyrrhenian waterfront, a stressed football manager, unable to sleep, takes an early-morning walk. Oblivious to the shrieking of the gulls and the haggling of the dockside mongers, he strides on, asking himself again and again how he can get the best out of his side, ponders how he can strengthen a defence that, for all his best efforts, remains damagingly porous. As he paces the harbour, churning the problem over and over in his head, a boat catches his eye. The fishermen haul in one net, swollen with fish, and then behind it, another: the reserve net. This is his eureka moment. Some fish inevitably slip the first net, but they are caught by the second; he realises that what his side needs is a reserve defender operating behind the main defense to catch those forwards who slip through. That manager was Gipo Viani, his team was Salernitana, and his invention was catenaccio."
-Excerpt from Jonathan Wilson's Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics on the development of catenaccio, the system made famous by Helenio Herrera at Inter Milan in the 1960s. The system employed a libero, or sweeper, who sat in behind a line of man marking defenders to provide cover and focused on counter attacking with long balls out of the back. In Herrera's version, the libero played behind four man marking defenders (in other versions the libero sat behind three defenders), creating a five man defense in a 5-3-2 formation. Inter would win three Italian league titles, two European Cups and two Intercontinental Cups under Herrera.

Herrera's version of catenaccio ultimately fell out of favor after Inter were beaten 2-0 by Ajax in the final of the 1972 European Cup. Inter's rigid four man markers were drug all over the field by the fluid movement of Ajax's total football and, subsequently, zonal defending became the norm in professional football.

While man marking is a thing of the past and no top level teams use a traditional libero, certain teams have employed systems that, if not directly influenced by catenaccio, have stemmed from the need to address the same concerns catenaccio was attempting to address: particularly the need to have a free man at the back to provide cover. Juventus's current 3-5-2 system is quite similar to Hererra's 1-4-3-2 catennacio. Both used three central defenders. Although Juventus's three central defenders are more fluid and there is no designated libero to sit deep, the idea is to allow two to pick up attackers moving into their zone while one can drop slightly deeper and provide cover, the same philosophy behind Herrera's system (although Herrera's two center backs marked men rather than zones). Three central defenders allow Juventus's full backs to push higher up the field into attacking positions when in possession, operating as what we call wing backs. Again, this is something Hererra was doing in the 1960s. With ample cover in the center of defense, he would allow left back Giacinto Facchetti license to push on and join in the attack.

Michael Cox has written in his Zonal Marking blog of teams using a more modern version of a sweeper whose positioning is different to that of the traditional deep lying sweeper. He suggests the modern version of a sweeper is a defensive center midfielder that plays in front of a four man defense with attacking outside backs. When his team is in possession, this holding midfielder drops into the center of defense while the two center backs move wide on either side of him, forming a back three. This gives the two outside backs the freedom to push into the attacking third without leaving only two center backs to defend any counters that may spring. Barcelona have used this system to great effect with Sergio Busquets dropping between center backs Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique, allowing Dani Alves and Erica Abidal (now Jordi Alba) to get into very attacking positions. I highly recommend this article from Cox if you want a more detailed explanation on the use of this more modern sweeper system. Jonathan Wilson also wrote a fascinating piece on this subject for the Guardian back in 2010 that you can see here. 

Although both Barcelona and Juventus's systems represent modern day versions of sweeper systems, they're quite different in style and philosophy. The defense in Juventus's 3-5-2 sits deeps, invites the opposition to get forward, then looks to spring quick counters. Barcelona's defense makes the field compact by holding a very high line while the 6 attacking players press the ball. Their attack is focused on ball retention and dominating possession. Both employ three at the back with fullbacks providing width high up the field when in possession, but they differ in where on the field they like to do their defending and the importance placed on keeping the ball. These two teams offer a stark example of how systems fairly similar in defensive shape can be quite different in practice.