Tactical Analysis: PSG 1-1 Guingamp

PSG narrowly avoided a second straight defeat in all competitions at Guingamp after Alex leveled the score at 1-1 with an 87th minute header from a corner. The visitors dominated possession with 74% but couldn't move the ball quickly enough to trouble Guingamp. For their part, Guingamp were incredibly well organized defensively- as they have been all season. They've conceded just 20 league goals. Only PSG, Monaco and Lille have conceded fewer. Their problem has been at the other end of the pitch. Coming into this game they had failed to score in 4 straight Ligue 1 games and only Sochaux and Ajaccio have registered fewer goals this season.

Laurent Blanc was without Thiago Silva (although he travelled), Lavezzi, Jallet and Rabio. He started in his usual 4-3-3 formation but it quickly became a 4-3-1-2 midfield diamond with Pastore playing just off the forward pairing of Cavani and Ibrahimovic. Thiago Motta, Matuidi and Verratti made up the midfield three. Marquinhos filled in for Thiago Silva alonside Alex.

Jocelyn Gourvennec opted for a 4-4-2. Alioui partnered Yatabare up front. Diallo and Mathis played in the center of midfield with Atik on the right wing and Giresse on the left. Dos Santos, Sorbon, Kerbrat and Pereira made up the back four.

PSG Narrow
PSG started the game in their standard 4-3-3 with Pastore on the left and Cavani on the right but quickly made the switch to the diamond 4-3-1-2. The move seemed to make perfect sense. Guingamp defended with two banks of four so were already outnumbered in the middle of midfield 2 vs. 3. Diallo picked up Matuidi and Mathis picked up Verratti. Thiago Motta was generally left free for PSG deeper in midfield. Switching to two up top meant both Guingamp center backs would be occupied marking Cavani and Ibrahimovic while both their center midfielders were occupied marking Matuidi and Verratti. Blanc's thinking then must have been that Guingamp wouldn't have a spare player in the middle to mark Pastore and he would therefore be left free between Guingamp's defensive and midfield lines to link play forward.

Although it was easy to imagine Blanc's thinking in making the change, its application was unsuccessful for two reasons. Firstly, Pastore's movement between the lines was poor and he was poor when he did get on the ball. Secondly, Guingamp did an excellent job keeping their defensive and midfield lines compact and not allowing much space between the lines.

The midfield diamond also meant PSG were extremely narrow. This allowed the Guingamp fullbacks to play incredibly narrow themselves without the threat of any balls being played in behind them in the channels. The two wingers Atik and Giresse were remarkably disciplined in tracking the forward runs of Maxwell and Van Der Wiel from their fullback positions. As a result, PSG had no wide threat whatsoever so all of their attacking moves had to go through a crowded center of the pitch. The narrow positioning of Guingamp's fullbacks meant one could step out deny Pastore (or Cavani or Ibrahimovic dropping in to receive the ball between the lines) the ability to turn and they'd still have three players left at the back to defend Ibrahimovic and Cavani.

The graphic below shows Guingamp's defensive interceptions and tackles. Notice the number of tackles they were able to make in central areas just outside their own 18 yard box as PSG continued to try to attack through the middle.

Guingamp Direct
Offensively there was nothing subtle to Guingamp's approach. In fact it was one of the most direct performances I've seen in any league in recent memory. They looked to hit long balls early into the attacking third toward Yatabare or to get it wide and play diagonal balls into the box from deep areas. The graphic below shows their attacking third passes for the game- the bulk of which were long balls played from their own half. They were always going to be most likely to score from set pieces and took their chance in the 84th when Yatabare dispatched an Alioui. Troublingly for PSG, the last three goals they've conceded have come from set piece situations after they were beaten 2-1 by Montpelier in the Coupe de France with Montpelier's goals coming from set pieces.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Di Canio's 4-4-2 allows Arsenal to overwhelm Sunderland in midfield

Paolo Di Canio's decision to field a 4-4-2 enabled Arsenal to overwhelm Sunderland in the middle of midfield and were it not for some wasteful finishing from the Gunners in the first half they'd have had the game won by halftime.

Di Canio played both Jozy Altidore and Steven Fletcher up front while David Vaughan and Ki Sung-Yueng played a two man center midfield. Arsene Wenger played his normal 4-2-3-1 which meant Arsenal had a man advantage in the middle of the pitch. Mathieu Flamini was the deepest of the three center midfielders with Aaron Ramsey operating as a box-to-box shuttler and Mesut Ozil in the hole behind Olivier Giroud. With Santi Cazorla out with an ankle injury, Jack Wilshere played on the left side of Arsenal's attacking midfield three.

After Arsenal's 1-0 win in the North London Derby, Michael Cox highlighted how Cazorla had tucked inside from his starting position on the left, in effect playing as a fourth center midfielder. With Tottenham employing a 4-3-3, Cazorla tucking inside gave Arsenal a 4 v. 3 advantage in the center of the pitch. Against Tottenham's physically imposing midfield trio of Moussa Dembele, Paulinho and Etienne Capoue, the extra man in midfield enabled Arsenal to compete in central areas.

Yesterday Arsenal used a similar strategy, this time with Wilshere tucking in from the left. But rather than competing 4 v. 3 as they had against Tottenham's imposing center midfielders, they were 4 v. 2 against Vaughan and Ki, two players with nowhere near the athleticism of Dembele, Paulinho and Capoue.

Passes received by Jack Wilshere vs. Sunderland. He started on the left but was given the freedom to come inside to flood the middle of the pitch
Arsenal were therefore able to overwhelm Sunderland in the middle of the park. Flamini, Ramsey, Ozil and Wilshere were simply able to pass around Vaughan and Ki, allowing Arsenal to keep possession high up the pitch. Ozil and Ramsey received deserved praise for their excellent performances but Sunderland's two man midfield made it easy for them to find the space to pick out penetrating passes. By halftime Arsenal had completed 92 passes in the attacking third to Sunderland's 22.

Overall Passing Statistics: Sunderland vs. Arsenal
It should have been job done for Arsenal by halftime but Walcott missed two 1 v. 1 chances to make it 2-0. They would almost prove costly. Laurent Koscielny's needless 48th minute challenge on Adam Johnson in the box allowed halftime substitute Craig Gardner to level from the spot. Arsenal continued to control possession high up the pitch in the second half but, chasing a winner, the game became more open and Sunderland had their opportunities on the break. Had Walcott taken one of his first half chances Arsenal could have been more cautious in the second half and looked to play on the break as they've done this season after taking leads. Ramsey would provide a stunning game winner but the contest turned out to be a bit tighter than it should have been. Sunderland were right to feel aggrieved when referee Martin Atkinson failed to allow an advantage that led to what appeared to be a Sunderland equalizer.

Still, on the balance of play Arsenal were much the better team and looked comfortable for most of the contest. Ozil's performance suggested he won't need much transitioning into the squad or life in the Premier League and Ramsey looks to be developing into a top class box-to-box midfielder.

Future opponents of Arsenal should take note of just how much they can dominate a game when up against just two opposition center midfielders. With their gifted passers and tendency to flood the middle of the park, a 4-4-2 is unlikely to be a winning strategy against this Arsenal side.

Manchester City 3-1 Newcastle: Pardew goes 4-4-2, leaves Y. Toure free

The main tactical feature of this game was Alan Pardew's decision to set out in a 4-4-2 rather than a 4-3-3. This was a bit of a surprise. Pardew tends to be quite concerned about being outnumbered in midfield and nearly always lines up with as many center midfielders as the opposition. Knowing Roberto Mancini would line up in what is basically a 4-2-3-1, with Aguero behind main striker Tevez, Nasri and David Silva drifting in very narrow from the wings and Toure and Garcia occupying the holding midfield roles, it seemed likely Pardew would opt for for the additional body in midfield provided by the 4-3-3 to better allow his team to compete in the center of the pitch.

However, given Newcastle's recent problems offering Ba support high up the field, it's easy to understand Pardew's thinking. I mentioned several times over the last week how direct Newcastle have become in the absence of Yohan Cabaye- Newcastle's most creative center midfielder and one capable of linking defense to offense through the center of the park. Hatem Ben Arfa did an excellent job in the second half of the game with Fulham tucking inside from his position on the right wing to provide that link but with Ben Arfa also out with an injury it was always likely Newcastle would have to play their fair share of long balls forward out of the back. Had Ba been the loan center forward in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 he'd have been isolated after receiving those long balls and would have had the difficult task of holding the ball up until his midfielders could join the attack.  By pairing Cisse alongside him as a front two, Ba either had a passing option or could flick long balls on to Cisse running in behind.

Defensively, Pardew's 4-4-2 meant at least one of Manchester City's holding midfielders was left free to receive passes in deeper midfield areas. Had he gone with a 4-3-3 the midfields would have matched up evenly: Gutierrez would have likely picked up Toure, Anita would have picked up Garcia and Tiote would have tracked Aguero in the space just in front of the back four. Instead Pardew paired the defensive-minded James Perch alongside Tiote and both sat in deep to protect the back four and prevent City's four creative attacking players from receiving the ball in pockets of space between the seams. This meant Garcia and Toure were free to receive the ball deep in midfield but this wasn't a huge concern to Newcastle- their plan was to form two compact banks of four between the ball and their goal and force City to try to patiently break them down.

Again, Pardew's reasoning for playing two deep center midfielders and leaving Garcia and Toure free near midfield was sound. He was trying to keep the defense compact and deny City space between the seams where Aguero, Silva and Nasri thrive. Secondly, had he gone with a 4-3-3, Gutierrez would have been responsible for joining the attack from his shuttling left center midfield position and then running back defensively to track Toure. Anytime Toure was able to break past him with one of his trademark powerful runs from midfield, Newcastle wouldn't have had the spare holding midfielder to pick him up. The hope was the holding midfield pairing of Perch and Tiote would keep the defense more compact and deny Toure the space to dribble forward from midfield. In effect, Pardew was betting Toure was more likely to be dangerous dribbling in behind the Newcastle midfielders than he was receiving passes in space deep in midfield and looking for a penetrating pass in behind the defense.

However, on 10 minutes Toure would prove otherwise. He received the ball near midfield and, with no one closing him down, had time to pick his head up and play a perfectly weighted, curling through ball to Nasri in behind the Newcastle defense (certainly one of the passes of the season thus far). Nasri did brilliantly himself to unselfishly lay the ball off for Aguero to tuck away into an empty net. Following the goal, Manchester City began to stamp their authority on the game with Toure, Tevez, Aguero, Silva and Nasri combining some tidy passes around the penalty area to create a few good goal scoring chances. The amount of space Newcastle's 4-4-2 was affording Toure was becoming an increasing problem. Their back four was getting deeper and deeper as the half progressed. With Perch and Tiote continuing to help the back four pick up the runs of Nasri, Silva, Tevez and Aguero, Toure was allowed to receive the ball in more advanced positions. Shortly after City's opener Toure received a pass 25 yards from goal and was again able to slip it behind the defense to Nasri. Nasri's pass across the face of goal just eluded Tevez at the back post but it was becoming clear Toure was more then capable of ripping Newcastle apart with his passing. At that point it appeared that if Pardew didn't make the change to a three man central midfield and find someone to stick tight to Toure, City would put 4 or 5 in. Garcia headed in their second on 38 minutes and the Manchester side went into the dressing room up 2-0.

Newcastle's approach throughout the game was fairly consistent. They played plenty of direct balls into Cisse and Ba, looking to use the height and power of the two Senegalese forwards to overwhelm Nastisic and Kolo Toure. They looked to get the ball wide to either the outside midfielders or outside backs and hit early crosses into the box. They played an incredible 41 crosses, 30 more than City. After being dominated in the first half the Magpies were much more threatening in the second. Their approach was unsophisticated- they continued playing long balls and crosses into their forwards and looked to win corners and set pieces where they could allow their two center backs to get forward into the box. However, they also did a much better job putting pressure on City higher up the field and winning the ball back quickly. After Ba's header made it 2-1 they looked capable of adding an equalizer. That hope quickly diminished however when Toure added a third for City.

In the end Newcastle could be proud of the spirit they showed in the second half but the better team won this game. Pardew's decision to play a 4-4-2 made life uncomfortable for City's center backs at one end of the pitch but also gave Yaya Toure far too much time and space at the other. In the end he was the game's key player.

Wigan vs. Newcastle: tactics preview

Alan Pardew was given fits last season by Roberto Martinez's 3-4-3 formation in Newcastle's 4-0 defeat to Wigan in late April.

Pardew opted to start the game in a 4-3-3 which meant they defended very narrow in midfield. When in possession, Wigan's wing backs Beausejour and Boyce advanced past Newcastle's wide forwards Ba and Ben Arfa. With Newcastle playing a center midfield three, Beausejour and Boyce were able to drive forward down the wings unmarked from their wing back positions. This left Newcastle's outside backs to defend 1 v 2 on the wings against Wigan's wing backs and outside forwards (Moses and Maloney). Wigan were able to exploit the spare man in wide areas to great effect.
April 28 2012: Wigan 4-0 Newcastle

Pardew has certainly learned from his mistake last season and today will set his team up a 4-4-2 that won't allow Wigan to have a numerical advantage on the wings. The 4-4-2 versus 3-4-3 match up is an interesting one. Both teams will have one extra center back to provide cover (2 Newcastle center backs versus 1 Wigan forward, 3 Wigan center backs versus 2 Newcastle forwards) and be even in the other areas of the pitch.

Today's formations will look something like this, Wigan 3-4-3 (blue) versus Newcastle 4-4-2 (red).

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.