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.

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.

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.

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.

Mourinho gets tactical decisions wrong in fortunate West Brom draw

Jose Mourinho escaped with his Premier League home unbeaten record in tact thanks to a controversial penalty deep in the final seconds of stoppage time that gave Chelsea a 2-2 draw with West Brom. Ramires went to ground after minimal contact from Steven Reid but referee Andre Marriner pointed to the spot for a Chelsea penalty to the dismay of West Brom's players. Eden Hazard coolly slotted the ensuing spot kick to earn Chelsea the point.

Following last weekend's 2-0 defeat at Newcastle, Mourinho expressed frustration with his players saying he "made 11 mistakes" in selecting the squad. The players deserve their share of criticism for a flat performance this afternoon but Mourinho should also come under scrutiny for a questionable squad selection and a second half change to 4-4-2 that left Chelsea stretched in midfield and was largely responsible for West Brom's go ahead goal.

Steve Clarke's side were incredibly well organized, defending in compact, narrow banks of four. Claudio Yakob and Youssouf Mulumbu did an excellent job shielding the back four in their defensive midfield roles and Chelsea's attacking midfield trio of Hazard, Oscar and Willian found little space between the lines to receive passes.

With West Brom defending narrow to limit the ability of Chelsea's attacking midfielders to play quick passing combinations through the middle, the space for Chelsea was on the wings. Hazard and Willian tucked inside from their outside attacking midfield roles, opening space for the fullbacks to advance down the touchline. Cesar Azpilicueta retained a deep position at left back but right back Branislav Ivanovic was encouraged to push forward and was always free on the right wing in the attacking half. Chelsea needed a right back capable of playing dangerous balls into the penalty area. Time and again Ivanovic got the ball in advanced areas on the right only to hit weak crosses into the penalty area that failed to get past the first defender. Mourinho's insistence on using Ivanovic at right back in league games seems curious. He's no doubt a solid defensive full back and his aerial ability is useful on both attacking and defensive set pieces but he's poor going forward. Azpilicueta is a more mobile right back with a better delivery from wide areas. This was a contest built for a solid attacking full back and Ivanovic simply didn't offer enough going forward. Perhaps Mourinho consistently selects Ivanovic so he can easily transition to a three center back formation if Chelsea go behind (which he did today) but Azpilicueta would have been the better right back choice today.

Mourinho's decision to once again leave Juan Mata on the bench was a curious one as well. It's no secret that under Clarke West Brom defend deep and are compact and very well organized. It requires creativity and clever movement into little pockets of space to break them down, two areas where Mata is excellent. Hazard and Willian are both fine players but they are at their best when they have open space to run into. Mata is built for games when space in the attacking third is at a premium and a special final ball is required to unlock the opposition defense.

Mourinho was most disappointing in his ill-advised decision to replace Frank Lampard with Demba Ba with the score even at 1-1 and move from 4-2-3-1 to 4-4-2. The change was meant to be a proactive one to get Chelsea a game winner but ultimately cost them a goal. Lampard had been poor and needed to come off but the formation change left Chelsea far too stretched in the middle of midfield. Oscar dropped in alongside Ramires in the middle of the pitch and both players moved forward in possession to help in the attacking third. This meant that when Chelsea gave away possession there was no one sitting deep in midfield to protect the center backs and West Brom had plenty of space to break into quickly. For West Brom's second, Ivanovic gave the ball away too cheaply. Oscar and Ramires were in advanced positions at the time and were forced to make recovery runs. West Brom broke forward quickly. Oscar was forced wide to the left to pick up Shane Long. Ramires was unable to recover in the middle which left Sessegnon unmarked 22 yards from goal. Petr Cech should have parried away Sessegnon's rather tame effort but the goal likely would never have happened had Chelsea still had three center midfielders on the pitch.

For me, Oscar and Ramires are too fluid a midfield pairing in a 4-4-2 system and can therefore cause Chelsea to get too stretched. I think if you're going to move to that formation you have to choose one of them to do the box to box running and be paired alongside John Obi Mikel, a true holding midfielder that will protect the back four.

Down 2-1 Mourinho was forced into moving into an attacking 3-5-2, bringing on Mikel for Azpilicueta and replacing Oscar with Mata. Chelsea would ultimately get their equalizer but had Mourinho made better tactical decisions they'd have never been in a position where they needed the fortuitous penalty to salvage a point.

Both Arsenal and Chelsea exploit oppositon outside back in Champions League wins

Both Arsenal and Chelsea played some sparkling football on their way to comfortable Champions League wins Tuesday evening.

Arsenal dominated a Napoli side that currently sits second in Serie A and came into the evening unbeaten in all competitions this season. Goals from Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud in the opening quarter of an hour shell shocked the Italians who appeared at a loss for how to deal with the blistering tempo with which Arsenal started the contest. Up 2-0, Arsenal never looked like losing the control they'd asserted from the opening whistle. Their second half was professional and efficient- they sat deeper to ensure the game didn't become stretched and cautiously chose when to break forward on the counter. As a result, Napoli saw more of the ball than they had in the first half but never really looked like troubling Arsenal in the final third.

While Chelsea certainly had the easier of the two fixtures, their 4-0 away win to Steaua Bucharest was nevertheless impressive. The Romanian side's organization was extremely poor- when they got forward they left huge gaps in front of the back four that Chelsea were easily able to transition into when they won the ball back. Ramires netted twice from runs deep in midfield either side of a Steau own goal and Frank Lampard closed out the scoring with a vintage Lampard goal from just outside the 18.

The most interesting tactical feature of both contests was the rather peculiar use of width seen from both Arsenal and Chelsea. These are two sides known for frequently having both wide midfielders tuck into central areas and looking to break through the opposition defense by overloading the middle of the pitch.

At Chelsea, Jose Mourinho tends to use right footed players on the left wing and left footed players on the right wing so they can tuck into central areas and shoot on their stronger foot. In Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, Willian, Andre Schurrle, Kevin De Bruyne and Willian, Chelsea have a slew of these inverted wingers that prefer to tuck inside from wide areas rather than take the ball to the end line and whip in crosses. As a result, Chelsea's play often tends to be quite narrow.

Similarly, Arsenal tend to use players on the left of their midfield that drift in field to offer an extra body in the middle of the pitch. The clearest example of this style is their 1-0 win over Tottenham earlier this season when Santi Cazorla drifted inside from the left to overload Spurs' holding midfielder Etienne Capoue. Cazorla has been out with an ankle injury since the Tottenham fixture and has been replaced by Jack Wilshere who also plays very narrow on the left. Theo Walcott is typically used on the right side of midfield. Although his blistering pace and the fact he's a right footed player used on the right wing are typical attributes of a more traditional winger, he often tucks inside high up the pitch to get on the shoulder of the last defender and make runs in behind the defense. In this role he's more of a second striker than an out and out wide player.

Walcott was also unavailable for the Napoli game due to injury as were wide midfielders Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lukas Podolski who both have long term injuries. As a result, Arsene Wenger's only natural wide player available was Serge Gnabry, an 18 year-old whose only Champions League experience is a cameo off the bench last season against Schalke. While Gnabry has played well in recent weeks in both the Premier League and League Cup, Wenger opted not to risk playing an inexperienced teenager in such a big match up. As a result, he was forced to field five different players whose main positions are in the center of midfield.

Mathieu Flamini and Mikel Arteta played the holding roles. Mesut Ozil played centrally behind the striker. Aaron Ramsey played to the right of midfield, Tomas Rosicky on the left. Without any natural wide midfielders on the pitch, it was fair to expect Arsenal would look to overload the middle of the pitch in the attacking third and try to unlock Napoli with tight passing combinations near the top of the box. Napoli certainly looked as though this is what they expected- they defended in two very narrow banks of four and conceded the channels. Surprisingly, Arsenal were more than happy to take advantage of the space they were given out wide and continually looked to overload Napoli left back Juan Zuniga.

Ozil and Giroud both drifted towards Ramsey into Zuniga's zone on the right flank, forcing the Napoli left back into 1 v. 2 situations which created easy opportunities to play 1-2's around him. Sagna overlapped Ramsey intelligently meaning Arsenal consistently had a spare man open on the right channel. The Gunner's opening goal highlighted their intelligent movement down the right. Sagna received the ball on the flank. Ramsey checked back towards him on the touchline, forcing Zuniga into a wide position high up the pitch and thereby opening up space for Giroud in behind Zuniga in the channel. Giroud's wide run forced Napoli center back Miguel Britos into a wide position. He controlled Sagna's floated pass excellently with his chest. Ramsey burst in behind Zuniga with an overlapping run around the outside, dribbled towards the front post then cut it back for an unmarked Ozil to slam home at the top of the box.

For Arsenal's second, they managed to pin Napoli in on a throw in deep in the visiting side's left defensive corner of the pitch. Flamini won the ball and it fell for Giroud on the right channel. This time it was Ozil making the overlapping run past Zuniga. Giroud laid it off for Ozil then spun off his defender towards the six yard box. Ozil dribbled to the end line then cut the ball back for Giroud to finish easily at the front post.

By the final whistle, fifty percent of Arsenal's attacking moves came down the right third of the pitch. In comparison, 41% of their attacks have occurred down the right third in the Premier League this season.

Similarly, Chelsea's goals came from exploiting one of the wings. Their attacks however came down the left channel. Schurrle was given the start on the left and was instructed to keep a wide position near the touch line. Mata mostly played centrally in the #10 role with Oscar just to the right of him in a very narrow position though the two interchanged frequently. Chelsea's strategy was clear from the off- get the ball wide into Schurrle so that he could exploit the defensive weakness of Steaua's right back Daniel Georgievski. Georgievski's 1 v. 1 defending was woeful and time and again Schurrle was able to blow past him off the dribble, forcing Steaua center back Lukasz Szukala away from the Chelsea penalty area where the Blues were making dangerous runs from midfield.

For their opener, Chelsea broke quickly down the left through Schurrle who was able to easily skip around Georgievski's laughably feeble attempt at a tackle before playing the ball into the box for Eto'o. Eto'o mishit his shot but it fell kindly for Ramires who was making one of his usual lung bursting runs from deep in midfield. Chelsea's second was the result of a quick counter off a Steaua free kick. Mata provided a quick outlet pass for Ashley Cole and then played Eto'o in behind the Steau defense. His effort was saved but Georgievski put it into his own net as he was sprinting back to cover. The own goal would certainly have been embarrassing but was one rare example of the Steaua right back being unlucky rather than just bad.

In the 55th Chelsea again attacked down the left through Schurrle and again exposed Georgievski. This time he tried to close down Schurrle on the touchline near midfield. The German midfielder easily turned him and once again was free down the left channel. Schurrle played Oscar at the top of the box where he spotted Ramires making an overlapping run to his right. Ramires finished the move off with a powerful strike over the goalkeeper's arms.

Whereas Arsenal's strategy was to constantly move bodies in to the one of the channels to overload the opposition outside back and play quick 1-2's around him, Chelsea's was to clear out one of the channels to leave Schurrle with plenty of space to run at a fullback he could consistently beat with ease. In the end both strategies achieved what they were supposed to and resulted in a positive day for English clubs in the Champion's League.

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.

Second half width key in Chelsea win over Fulham

In the opening 45 minutes of Chelsea's 2-0 home win Saturday over Fulham, Jose Mourinho's side looked predictable and short on ideas. Under Martin Jol, Fulham set out to defend deep in compact banks of four and play on the counter, a strategy that will be taken by the bulk of opposing sides that will visit Stamford Bridge this season.

Jol's side deserves credit for their first half performance. Center midfielders Scott Parker and Steve Sidwell were disciplined and stayed tight to their center backs, allowing little space in between the lines where Chelsea's gifted attacking midfielders thrive.

However, Chelsea's overreliance on cutting back in towards the middle of the pitch when they got the ball in wide areas made Fulham's defensive duties too easy. Time and again Eden Hazard and Andre Schurrle received the ball in wide positions and looked to cut inside rather than beat their defender to the end line and hit a ball across the face of goal. Mourinho has always liked his wide players to be able to cut into the middle and shoot which is why he tends to to use right footed players on the left wing and left footed players on the right wing. In the first half on Saturday Hazard, Schurrle and Oscar rotated between the three attacking midfield positions but all three looked to bring the ball inside when they received it on the flanks.

While having players that can cut inside and either have a shot or combine for short passing combinations is often quite useful, it tends to be a more effective strategy when the game is open and there is space in the middle of the pitch for wide players to cut into. With Fulham defending deep and quite narrow, there simply wasn't this space for Hazard and particularly Schurrle to drift into. Every time they attempted to cut inside Parker and Sidwell were there to meet them and force a speculative short pass in a very tight area. 

In the second half Chelsea didn't rotate the attacking midfield three. Schurrle played on the left, Hazard the right and Oscar through the middle. Both Schurrle and Hazard maintained much wider positions than they had in the first half. Schurrle in particular hugged the left touch line throughout the second half. By stretching the play laterally, Chelsea forced Fulham to defend the width of the pitch and created wider gaps in their defensive and midfield lines of four.

Schurrle's wide positioning forced Fulham right back Sascha Reither into a decision- if he drifted wide towards Schurrle he became disconnected from his center back Brede Hangeland and left space in behind him for Samuel Eto'o to drift into. If he stayed tight with Hangeland it meant leaving Schurrle with space in the channel. On Chelsea's opening goal, Reither opted for the second option, staying tight with Hangeland to help out on Eto'o. As a result, Hazard was able to play a simple pass to an unmarked Schurrle on the left channel (shown below). For the first time in the game Schurrle gets to the end line rather than cutting inside and strikes a ball towards the front post. Fulham keeper David Stockdale should have dealt with it before Oscar was able to tuck it home. Still, Chelsea's use of width had left Fulham more stretched defensively than they'd been at any point in the first half.

Reither helps with Eto'o, allowing Schurrle space down the channel
A few minutes later Reither was again forced into a decision on where to position himself when Schurrle drifted to the touch line. This time he moved into a wider position to get tighter to the German winger. As a result, Eto'o (just to the right of the screen grab shown below) was able to run into the space behind Reither down the left channel and collect a long pass from Mikel. The move only resulted in a scuffed Chelsea shot but the Blues were suddenly finding more pockets of space in the final third as they began stretching Fulham laterally.

This time Reither stays tighter to Schurrle on touchline, allows Eto'o space to drift in behind and receive long pass from Mikel
 I don't mean to advocate that wide midfielders should always stay in the channels and look to get to the end line to hit crosses into the box. Yesterday I posted on how Manchester United's use of two out and out wingers in Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia made them far too predictable and unable to create chances through the middle in their heavy derby defeat Sunday to Manchester City. Rather I'm suggesting that variety and balance are the keys to creating scoring chances. Manchester City provide a good example of attacking balance in their derby win. Nasri tucked inside to provide 3 v. 2 overloads for City in central areas while Jesus Navas stayed wide on the right to provide width. Chelsea seemed closer to finding that balance in the second half against Fulham but still clearly have work to do.

Manchester United 0-0 Chelsea: Spoils shared in cagey affair; Rooney speculation put to bed?

Chelsea and Manchester United played out a cautious 0-0 draw in David Moyes' first league game at Old Trafford. Moyes' side had the better of the chances but with both teams reluctant to leave themselves exposed on the break, a draw seemed an inevitability.

In truth, the most intriguing part of the contest was probably the team sheets. With Wayne Rooney's future still uncertain, Moyes made a major statement by giving the England international the start against a Chelsea team he'd asked to be transferred to. Moyes appears to have every intention of keeping his wantaway forward and that Rooney looked United's brightest player will only add to the likelihood he stays at United.

Perhaps Jose Mourinho was trying to send a message of his own to Rooney with his team selection. The Chelsea manager opted to play without a true striker and instead employed Andre Schurrle furthest up the pitch with Eden Hazard, Oscar and Kevin De Bruyne as the three attacking midfielders. It seems unlikely the Chelsea boss would use such a big fixture as an opportunity to signal to Rooney that he'd be the first choice striker at Chelsea but with Mourinho you can't rule out the possibility.

In his post match interview he said the decision was a tactical one and that he had thought the mobility of playing four attacking midfielders would cause United more problems than playing with a point man up top. Whatever his reasoning, he appears resigned to Rooney staying put after telling reporters he can't see the forward leaving after the outpouring of support he got from United fans this evening.

I had written a post late last week suggesting the arrival of Willian could have serious implications for Juan Mata's playing time and there will be further speculation today about the Spaniard's future under Mourinho after he couldn't get a starting position in a starting lineup that featured four attacking midfielders. Mourinho did rubbish questions speculating on the future of Mata after the game, telling reporters he's suffering from a knock and wasn't going anywhere. However, he started against Aston Villa midweek and didn't appear to be suffering from any injury.

Quick thoughts on tactics
  • Chelsea defended fairly deep and appeared to be looking to break quickly on the counter with their four pacey, energetic attacking midfielders De Bruyne, Hazard, Oscar and Schurrle. However, without a target striker they lacked a focal point in attack and an outlet forward when they won the ball back in midfield. They were also hurt by some untidy passing when they had chances to advance the ball forward quickly.
  • United haven't changed much about their style under Moyes. They still play 4-4-1-1 and use plenty of width. Today, with Chelsea defending compact and narrow, United's best route into the final third was through the channels. Phil Jones and Patrice Evra overlapped Antonio Valencia and Danny Welbeck. The final ball was often lacking however and Moyes introduced Ashley Young to provide a better delivery in from wide areas. 
  • Chelsea were well set up to deal with crosses sent in from the channels. Centerbacks John Terry and Gary Cahill are far more comfortable sitting deep and heading away balls whipped into the box than when opposition players are running in behind them. Chelsea were forced into making a few important blocks but overall they weren't really troubled.

Pending Willian purchase could be ominous sign for Mata

Chelsea have agreed to a £30 million deal for Willian pending a work permit hearing. The Brazilian ads to a roster already filled with a wealth of attacking midfield options. The Brazilian played on the left side of a 4-2-3-1 formation at Shakhtar Donetsk, who advanced from the group stages of last season's Champions League at Chelsea's expense, before moving in January to Anzhi Makhachkala. If the deal goes through he joins Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Juan Mata, Andre Schurrle, Oscar and Victor Moses in competing for the three attacking midfield spots Mourinho will generally play in either a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation.

So what would Willian's arrival mean for the attacking midfielders already on the books at Chelsea? In a preseason press conference Mourinho stated how important it was for him to have depth in the attacking midfield spots.
"We will have Schurrle, De Bruyne, Mata, Oscar, Hazard and Moses for these three positions and so we have more options than Chelsea had in the last year. These are crucial positions for me. I like these players to play with high intensity so to have five players for three positions is, I think brilliant for me."
He actually named six players, Willian will be the seventh. With Chelsea once again competing on several fronts this season and Mourinho's desire for depth in those positions, there will be plenty of squad rotation so most of those seven will likely play significant minutes.

If there is an odd man out it is almost certainly Victor Moses. He's the only one of the seven that can't also play centrally in behind the striker. Although he's the only true out and out winger of the bunch, Hazard and Schurrle both have the pace to beat opponents 1 v 1 in the channels and get balls into the box if Chelsea need to play with more width and they're also more dynamic coming inside. Mourinho prefers his wide attackers to have the versatility to come inside and combine short passes with the central attacker and forward. Oscar, Schrurrle, Hazard, Mata, De Bruyne and Willian are all more suited to pinching inside from the wings than Moses. I'd be surprised if the Nigerian wasn't sold or loaned out before the end of the transfer window.

Based on the first two games of the season, it appears Mourinho prefers Oscar in the central role, although Chelsea are very fluid and at different times against Aston Villa Hazard played off the forward in the middle. Interestingly, Mata was the third attacking midfield starter that game and spent all his time on the left or right flank. Mata has been Chelsea's best player by some distance the last two seasons playing in the #10 role. For all Mourinho's assurances Mata is part of his plans, it does not appear those plans include playing Mata in his favored position just off the striker. The diminutive Spaniard looked out of sorts in his wide role against Villa and as a big fan of his, I fear he is not suited for Mourinho's style and won't have near the impact he did the previous two seasons. He was subbed off for Schurrle in the 65th minute and my suspicion is that Mourinho prefers De Bruyne and Schurrle to partner with Oscar and Hazard over Mata.

It'll be also be interesting to see how the move impacts Hazard given both his and Willian's main position is on the left side of a front 3. I'd expect Hazard and Oscar to finish the season with the most appearances of the seven but it's difficult to predict where exactly everyone will play. Regardless, Mourinho has an enviable array of attacking midfielders and his most difficult task may be keeping them all happy.

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.

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

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

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

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

Premier League predictions: Chelsea champions; Spurs to pip Arsenal for 4th

Predicting the top five finishers in the 2013-2014 edition of the Barclay's Premier League...

1.     Chelsea
Like both Manchester clubs, Chelsea will enter the 2013-2014 Premier League season with a new manager. Unlike at United and City, the new manager is also the old manager and is immensely popular at the club. Mourinho’s incredible achievements in his first spell as Chelsea boss mean he’ll be looked at with less skepticism from the supporters and media than either David Moyes or Manuel Pelligrini and should therefore allow the squad to go about their business with minimal distraction. For the first time since the sacking of Carlo Ancelotti, there’s been a sense of calm confidence surrounding the club in the buildup to the campaign. While I believe Manchester City’s summer transfers have given them the most talented squad, I expect it to take them some time to get used to playing with one another and to adjust to Pellegrini. Likewise there will be a learning curve for Pellegrini in his first season in England. Chelsea’s first 11 will look similar to last season so they should already have a decent chemistry that should translate to a fast start. New signings Marco van Ginkel and Andre Schurrle, along with Kevin De Bruyne, Michael Essien and Romelu Lukaku returning from loan will make Chelsea a deeper side and provide Mourinho the squad rotation options to navigate a busy fixture list. If Chelsea fail to pry Wayne Rooney away from Moyes at United, the striker position could still be a question mark. Lukaku was fantastic in his loan spell at West Brom last season but I’m still not certain he’s ready to be the main option up front for an entire season while Demba Ba and Fernando Torres failed to impress in 2012-2013.

2.     Manchester City
New signings Fernandinho, Jesus Navas, Alvaro Negredo and Stevan Jovetic will give City a new look this season as all four are expected to receive significant minutes. Jovetic and Negredo have been brought in to provide goals for a City team that managed just 66 last season, tied with Tottenham for fewest among top 6 teams and 20 less than their Manchester rivals. Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko will provide competition for what will likely be two forward starting spots. Finding the best partnership will be an important early task for Pellegrini. For me Fernandinho and Navas are the more important of the two signings. Navas represents a significant improvement over James Milner and the inconsistent Samir Nasri down the right hand side. Fernandinho impressed with Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League season and is an improvement on Gareth Barry. Like Toure he is mobile and enjoys breaking through the midfield with the dribble. One concern though is that a Toure-Fernandinho pairing could become too fluid if both advance forward and fail to protect the back four from counters. City’s league position will likely depend on how quick of a start they get off to. If they stumble early as they adjust to new players and a new manager the gap may well become too big for them to bridge in the second half of the season. If they get off to a flying start they certainly have the talent and depth to win the title.

3.     Manchester United
Managing the weight of expectations that comes from replacing arguably football’s greatest ever manager after 26 successful years is not an enviable task, even if it means the opportunity to coach a club with the history, support and resources of Manchester United. How quickly Moyes manages that pressure and convinces supporters he’s up to the task will go a long way in determining the near future for United. So far he’s had a difficult time navigating the transfer market as United have failed to land targets Thiago Alcantara and Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona and Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines from Moyes old side Everton. It is the failure to land Alcantara and Fabregas that will hurt United the most. Although I rate Shinji Kagawa highly and Michael Carrick is consistently solid, I don’t think Anderson or Tom Cleverley are good enough and feel United have a weaker midfield than Chelsea and City. Moyes inexperience chasing trophies and lack of squad depth relative to their closest competitors mean United finish outside the top two for the first time since 2004-2005.

4.     Tottenham
For a couple of years now folks have been predicting Spurs will pip Arsenal yet it hasn’t happened. But with Spurs making some excellent summer signings in midfielders Paulinho and Ettiene Capoue, winger Nacer Chadli and forward Roberto Soldado, and Arsenal failing to secure a major signing, Spurs are in a better position to make that happen than last year even if Gareth Bale makes a big money move to Real Madrid. Between Paulinho, Chapoue, Moussa Dembmele, Sandro, Lewis Holtby, Tom Huddlestone and Scott Parker, Tottenham have tremendous depth in the middle of the park and Soldado will provide more ruthless finishing in the box than Jermaine Defoe or Emanuel Adebayor managed last season. They could lack depth at the back however. With the excellent Jan Vertonghen set to miss Spurs opening fixture at Crystal Palace, Younes Kaboul will likely get his first start in almost a year. A lengthy injury to Michael Dawson or Vertonghen could see Spurs Champions League aspirations thrown off course.

5.     Arsenal
Having gotten some 60-70 players off their books this closed season and signed just one, Arsenal’s squad is looking a little thin to start the season. Injuries to Abou Diaby, Tomas Vermaelen and Nacho Monreal have compounded that problem while it also looks like Mikel Arteta is set to miss the opener Saturday to Villa with an injury. Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud struggled to have a big impact in their first season at the Emirates.* While only Manchester United and Chelsea scored more goals than Arsenal last season, the Gunners scored fewer goals against top five opposition than City, United, Chelsea and Spurs. More importantly, their results were poor against top five opposition where they managed just 5 points in eight matches. By contrast, Spurs finished with 11, United with 12, and Chelsea and City both with 14. Having only added 20 year-old Yaya Sanogo this closed season- a player unlikely to feature much anytime soon- it’s difficult to see how Arsenal will avoid a further dip this time around.


Tactical Analysis: Chelsea 3-0 Fulham

Chelsea cruised to a comfortable 3-0 over a tame Fulham side at Craven Cottage to overtake Arsenal for third place. David Luiz opened the scoring with a blistering effort from 40 yards out in the 30th minute before John Terry scored with his head either side of halftime. It was an efficient performance from the away side, if not an especially mesmerizing one.

Chelsea lined up with Ivanovic, Luiz, Terry and Bertrand across the back four in the Blues' 4-2-3-1. Lampard and Ramires occupied the holding roles while Mata played in his normal central attacking midfield position. Hazard and Moses played on the flanks.

Fulham played a 4-4-1. Reither, Senderos, Hangeland and Riise made up the back four. Enoh and Karagounis played in the middle of midfield with Bryan Ruiz on the right wing and Emanuelson on the left. Berbatov played in the hole off of center forward Petric.

The Blues struggled to carve out any meaningful possession in the attacking third in the opening half hour. Fulham defended in two deep banks of four with Berbatov just in front of the midfield four applying pressure to either Ramires or Lampard, depending on who dropped deepest. Fulham's deep, compact shape made it difficult for the likes of Mata, Hazard and Torres to find space between the seams. As a result Chelsea completed plenty of passes in the final third in the first 30 minutes (more than half the passes they completed in the final third occurred in the opening half hour) but they were balls played horizontally in front of the Fulham defense that weren't especially dangerous.

With Chelsea struggling to find gaps in the Cottagers' defense, the home side would have been happy to take their chances allowing Luiz to shoot speculatively from 40 yards out. However, they were made to pay for their deep defending. With Berbatov picking up Chelsea's deepest midfielder, Petric was left to defend Terry and Luiz 1 v. 2. This allowed the Brazilian to advance into Chelsea's attacking half with time and space on the ball. On 30 minutes he took advantage, collecting a pass from Eden Hazard before unleashing an absolute pile driver into the top corner. Had Fulham defended higher up the pitch he wouldn't have been in a position to take the shot. Of course, defending higher may have also led to the more frightening situations of Chelsea finding space between the lines or in behind the back four.

Chelsea doubled their lead 13 minutes later through John Terry. The Blues' captain had stayed up after Fulham failed to fully clear the danger from a Chelsea corner. The ball ultimately came to Mata on the left sideline and the Spaniard whipped in a perfect cross for Terry to nod home at the back post. The defending from Fulham was poor. Terry was able to slip between Reither and Senderos at the back post. Senderos perhaps could have done more to win the header but he wasn't helped by his right back who should have done better to track the run. Chelsea were in a comfortable 2-0 position without ever really getting out of first gear in the opening half.

Offensively for Fulham, Berbatov looked for space in between the Chelsea lines but for the most part Lampard and Ramires did a good job tracking his movement and denying passes into his feet. As a result he began to drop into deeper areas to get on the ball and the gap between Petric and the rest of the Fulham squad became bigger.

Commentator Ian Wright criticized Petric throughout the match for not making the proper runs back towards the ball but I disagreed. Had Petric continually checked back into midfield for the ball Fulham would have lacked any type of threat behind the Chelsea back four. By staying on the shoulders of Chelsea's center backs, Petric was looking to stretch the opposition and create space in the gaps for Berbatov. Had he continually checked back into midfield for the ball he would have been moving into the same spaces Berbatov was trying to occupy and Fulham would have lacked any threat of a ball played behind the Chelsea defense. The Blues tend to be comfortable defending when they're able to keep everything in front of them. They have much more trouble with balls played in behind.

Fulham's problem going forward seemed to be an inability to get enough players around the ball in the attacking third to create dangerous passing sequences. They were disjointed in the final third and lacked the movement and final ball to break down Chelsea.

In the end it wasn't a particularly exciting match. Fulham never looked like mounting a comeback and with the game secured Chelsea were happy to cruise away with three valuable points

Tactical Analysis: Swansea 2-0 Chelsea

Two dreadful errors from Branislav Ivanovic gifted Michu and Danny Graham goals as Swansea emerged 2-0 winners in the first leg of the League Cup semifinal. Chelsea had 64% of the possession and 24 shots to Swansea's 5. Despite dominating the run of play, Rafa Benitez's side were left frustrated by Swansea's deep, compact defending. They were guilty of squandering some decent chances in the first half but created few meaningful opportunities in the second after Swansea had gone a goal up.

Both coaches selected strong starting lineups. Benitez selected Oscar on the right over Victor Moses and Fernando Torres was given the start at forward over Demba Ba.

Michael Laudrup started Michu at center forward with Jonathan De Guzman operating as the attacking center midfielder.

Swansea's approach was cautious from the outset, defending deep with all 11 men behind the ball. Routledge and Hernandez dropped either side of Ki and Britton to form a midfield bank of four. Michu dropped alongside De Guzman and the two picked up Chelsea's deeper lying midfielders Ramires and David Luiz. Ivanovic and Cahill were left free and given time on the ball.

In the opening stages Chelsea's three attacking midfielders were able to find space between the seams and create meaningful goalscoring opportunities with quick combinations around the 18. Mata was guilty of squandering two decent chances and Ramires probably should have made Swansea keeper Gerhard Tremmel work harder after he'd done well to burst into the box with a powerful dribbling move from midfield.

The Blues were most dangerous when they won the ball back in their defensive third and looked to transition forward quickly while Swansea were out of position. Once the Welsh side had time to recover into their defensive shape, Chelsea struggled to break them down.

As he tends to do, Torres continued to drop into the midfield and wide to the channels to get on the ball. No one seems to refer to him as a false 9 but in fact that's how he plays. While his movement into deeper and wide positions offers Chelsea an extra forward passing option and allows them to create overloads, it also leaves no one higher up the pitch to trouble the opposition center backs. They can simply sit in and pick up any runs into the box by Chelsea's attacking midfield trio (I wrote about this in detail on Monday).

As the second half wore on Swansea continued sitting deep and left De Guzman and Michu to try to hold the ball up and create an attacking threat on their own. Azpilicueta and Cole pushed forward and looked to overlap Oscar and Hazard as Chelsea chased on equalizer. However, Hernandez and Routledge diligently tracked the Chelsea outside backs. As a result, Chelsea often looked to attack through the middle- David Luiz and Ramires played higher up the pitch as the game wore on- however, Swansea were too compact and too deep for Chelsea to find any gaps to slip balls in behind.

Laudrup brought on Dwight Tiendalli, a fullback, for Wayne Routledge in the 62nd minute. Tiendalli slid in at right back, Angel Rangel pushed forward to right midfield, and Hernandez moved to left midfield. The substitution was made to shore up the right side of Laudrup's defense and prevent Cole and Hazard from creating overloads down that sideline. Throughout the first half Hazard and Cole had combined well to get into dangerous positions down the left. Rangel, a right back used to getting up and down the sideline, tracked the movement of Ashley Cole while Triendalli stuck with Hazard. Cole was unable to make overlapping runs into space following the substitution.

Chelsea introduced Frank Lampard for Ramires in the 71st. In the 81st and 83rd minutes he brought on Ba and Marko Marin for Torres and Oscar, substitutions he should have made earlier. Prior to Ba and Marin coming on Chelsea's attacks were far too narrow- their combination passing was never going to break down such a crowded defense and they needed to become more direct by getting the ball wide and hitting crosses. Ba's aerial threat and physical strength provided the more direct threat Chelsea needed in the final third. Within seconds of his introduction he dangerously flicked a long ball from Ivanovic goalward and moments later got on the end of cross from Marin. It was particularly surprising Benitez waited so long to bring on Ba given Swansea's center backs Chico Flores and Ashley Williams have difficulties against more physically imposing forwards.

Laudrup made his final substitution in the 83rd minute, bringing on Danny Graham for Michu. Graham pounced on Ivanovic's blind back pass to put the game away in the second minute of added time.

Swansea defended deep and were well organized at the back, particularly in the second half. They created little but deserve credit for keeping a full strength Chelsea squad off the score sheet at Stamford Bridge.

The game could have ended differently for Chelsea had they taken one of their early chances but as the game wore on and they were forced to break through a packed defense they were short on ideas. Their attacks were too narrow and prior to the introduction of Ba they lacked someone with the physical presence in the box to get a scrappy goal.

FA Cup tactics recap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rafa's rigid tactics have left Chelsea compact at the back but predictable in attack

Chelsea never looked like a side that would struggle to create meaningful goal scoring chances under Roberto Di Matteo. In his 21 competitive games in charge this season, the Blues failed to score just twice. However, their adventurous attacking also left them vulnerable at the other end of the field. In Di Matteo’s final 10 games in charge the Blues failed to register a single clean sheet. His failure to balance defense and offense would ultimately cost him his job (albeit controversially). Di Matteo’s replacement Rafa Benitez has also failed to find a balance in his first two games in charge although his problems are the opposite of his predecessor’s- Chelsea have yet to concede under the Spaniard but have also failed to register a goal themselves. The very different problems the team has faced under the two managers in large part has to do with the differing roles the three attacking midfielders (typically Hazard, Mata and Oscar under Di Matteo) have been asked to fulfill under the two.

Under Di Matteo, Oscar, Mata and Hazard were given the freedom to interchange positions and drift freely into pockets of space where they felt they could be dangerous. It wasn’t abnormal to see Mata drift from his left midfield position to receive a pass on the right wing. The positioning of the midfield three was extremely flexible and this positional freedom going forward allowed them to create awkward overloads for opposition defenses in certain areas of the pitch. Defenders didn’t have a real reference point of where the three would be on the pitch at any given time- their movement was fluid, unpredictable and therefore quite difficult to defend.

The down side to this offensive flexibility was that it often left the defense dangerously exposed, particularly on the counter. While the freedom of Oscar, Mata and Hazard to interchange positions could be a nightmare for opposing defenses, it also meant the three were often out of position defensively when Chelsea conceded possession. With Mata and Hazard frequently tucking inside from wide starting positions and the outside backs pushing forward to provide width, Chelsea were extremely vulnerable to counterattacks down the flanks. Hazard and Mata also rarely tracked the opposition fullbacks when they made runs forward. This often left Branislav Ivanovic and Ashley Cole overloaded defensively on the wings where they were forced to try to defend both the opposition outside midfielder and fullback (Manchester United took advantage of this for their second goal at Stamford in their 3-2 league win). Games under Di Matteo were therefore generally very open affairs.

Life under Rafa Benitez, a manager known for his cautious pragmatism, has looked very different for Chelsea. Two uneventful goalless draws in the Spaniard’s first two games in charge indicate how concerned he was with the team’s defensive positioning. The key tactical change he has introduced is more rigid positioning for the three attacking midfielders. Like Di Matteo, he has opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation, however the attacking midfield three under Benitez have been asked to retain a more rigid shape- we’ve rarely seen them adjusting positions. Oscar has stayed central with Hazard on his right and Mata (Man City) or Betrand (Fulham) on his left. With the attacking midfielders retaining a rigid offensive shape in this system, it’s easier for them to recover into a proper defensive shape when Chelsea concede possession. The outside midfielders are asked to quickly retreat alongside the two holding midfielders when Chelsea lose possession, creating a deep lying midfield bank of four. The more compact, deeper defensive shape has certainly limited the space Chelsea’s opponents have to play in and made them a more difficult team to break down.

However, the newfound defensive solidity has come at the expense of the fluid attacking play seen under Di Matteo. With the attacking midfield three asked to retain their positions going forward, Chelsea have looked static and predictable. We’re no longer seeing Mata and Hazard drift across the field to create confusing overloads for defenders. The two are at their best when they can get around the edge of the box and combine for short combinations of passes. When asked to retain wider positions they can become isolated and can’t use their vision and creativity to best effect. Under Benitez the Blues have seemed flat and void of ideas.

It was no secret that Roman Abramovich demanded his side play with more attacking flair heading into this season. It’s ironic that Di Matteo’s willingness to acquiesce to Abramovich and play the more adventurous attacking game the owner wanted ultimately created the poor defensive displays that would cost him his job. Benitez will also be under a great deal of pressure to bring an entertaining brand of football to Stamford Bridge. In order to achieve that he’ll need to eventually loosen the shackles on his three creative attacking midfielders.

Ferguson's reactive tactics exploit defensive weaknesses of Chelsea's 4-2-3-1; could do the same to Arsenal

After Manchester United's relatively successful experimentation with a narrow diamond midfield this season (see Michael Cox analysis of their 3-0 win over Newcastle), Sir Alex Ferguson opted for his more traditional 4-4-1-1 shape against Chelsea with two true wide players in Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia.

His decision to go with width against Chelsea wasn't a particularly difficult one. Ferguson knew full well that his counterpart Roberto Di Matteo would go with the 4-2-3-1 system- with Oscar, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard forming the attacking midfield three- that Chelsea had enjoyed success using in the league this season. Since Chelsea used the formation for the first time in a 2-2 Champions League draw against Juventus, they have employed the same attacking midfield three behind Torres in every Premier League game. Ferguson had plenty of chances to scout the formation and would have had little difficulty recognizing its weaknesses.

Chelsea's 4-2-3-1 formation has two main weakness. The first weakness is its vulnerability to counter attacks (particularly down the flanks). When Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic push forward to help the attack, space opens up in wide areas for the opposition to quickly move into on the break. The second weakness is its tendency to leave Cole and Ivanovic without cover in wide defensive areas. Neither Mata nor Hazard are especially keen defenders. Hazard is particularly guilty of failing to offer defensive cover to his outside backs. Against teams that play with narrower midfields this isn't always a huge problem because John Obi Mikel and Ramires provide cover for the back four in the center of the pitch in their deep lying midfield positions. However, against teams with wingers the problem becomes more apparent. With Mata and Hazard staying high up the pitch, space often opens up for opposition outside backs to advance past them unchecked. When the opposition outside back receives the ball, it leaves Chelsea's own outside back overloaded and forces him to try to defend two players. He's forced to step to ball, leaving the winger unmarked with the time and space to receive the ball and play dangerous crosses into the box.

That United's two early goals came from exploiting these two Chelsea weaknesses suggests Ferguson got his tactics about right. The first goal came when United were able to nick possession in midfield and counter quickly down the right. The second came when United right back Rafael was able to receive the ball behind Hazard, creating a 2 v. 1 advantage with Valencia down the right wing for United. Cole was forced to leave Valencia unmarked and step to Rafael. The Brazilian played a simple ball wide to Valencia who had the time to pick out Van Persie's run in the box (I unfortunately can't embed the video but you can watch the goal on YouTube here). Had Hazard been more diligent in his defensive responsibilities, Rafael would have never received the ball as high up the pitch as he did.

It should be interesting to see how United line up against Arsenal this weekend. Like Chelsea, the Gunners have almost exclusively played a 4-2-3-1 this season and therefore face some of the same defensive problems as Chelsea (although Lucas Podolski and Aaron Ramsey seem to do a slightly better job of protecting their outside backs than Mata and Hazard). Will Ferguson once again opt for a 4-4-1-1 and try to exploit space on the wings? Since Arsenal have been forced to play Andre Santos at left back for the injured Kieran Gibbs, they have looked very vulnerable to attacks down the opponent's right side. It would be surprising if Ferguson didn't again opt for a right winger to exploit the shaky Santos.

Chelsea's and Arsenal's continued use of a 4-2-3-1 indicates the players are comfortable in that system and with each game they play in that system they'll continue to develop a better understanding of one another and become more fluid. However, it also makes them predictable for clever, adaptable managers like Ferguson who are happy to play reactive football. The Scotsman is comfortable playing any number of different formations and styles based on the strengths and weaknesses of his opponent. More often than not, when he knows how the opposition is going to set out to play, he can implement a strategy that gives United a very good chance of winning games. I'm not suggesting Arsenal and Chelsea should alter their formations from time to time in the same manner as Ferguson. Playing Ferguson's more reactive style has its own draw backs, mainly that by adapting your formation to your opponent you aren't able to develop a fluid, consistent system of your own and sometimes even managers with the pedigree of SAF simply get the tactics wrong. United's 1-0 defeat to City at the end of last season that effectively handed the league title over to City is a good example. Ferguson set out with Park Ji Sung as the most advanced midfielder behind Rooney in a 4-5-1 in a set up designed to attack on the counter. Park was forced to track Yaya Toure's runs forward, leaving Rooney isolated up top. United rarely threatened after going a goal behind. However, more reactive managers do have the distinct advantage of arranging their teams to mitigate the most dangerous elements of an opponents system and exploit the weakest ones.

It should also be mentioned that Ferguson's tactics against Chelsea were hardly flawless. After going up 2-0, Chelsea were much the better side until being reduced to 10 (then 9) men. During this stretch of the game Chelsea out passed United 220 to 156 and United were continually troubled by Chelsea's numerical superiority in the center of midfield. Perhaps Ferguson would have been wise to replace Young with someone like Anderson who would have allowed United to better compete in the center of midfield after going up by two goals.

Premier League Net Passing 2012-2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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