A few thoughts on Liverpool 3-2 Manchester City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tactical Analysis: Manchester City 3-1 Everton

Manchester City avoided a third consecutive defeat with a fairly comfortable 3-1 win over Everton at the Etihad. Everton were in the normal 4-2-3-1 we've seen under Roberto Martinez. He made just one change to the side that beat Newcastle 3-2 on Monday. Gareth Barry was inelligible to play against his parent club so Leon Osman dropped from left midfield into Barry's holding role alongside James McCarthy. Steven Naismith was brought in on the left wing.

Manuel Pellegrini opted for a similar 4-4-2 shape to the one they used in the heavy midweek Champions League defeat against Bayern Munich though he made several personnel changes. Pablo Zabaleta and Alexander Kolarov replaced Micah Richards and Gael Clichy at the fullback positions. Joleon Lescott replaced Matija Nastasic in the center of defense though the Serbian center back had to replace an injured Vincent Kompany in the 34th minute. David Silva was fit enough to be given the start on the left and replaced Samir Nasri. James Milner replaced Jesus Navas on the right wing. Alvaro Negredo was given the start up front alongside Aguero over Edin Dzeko.

There were essentially four key tactical features in this contest.

1. Game stretched early
With Manchester City once again using two forwards, Everton had a 3 v. 2 advantage in midfield. City had been made to pay by Bayern Wednesday evening for opting to play a two forward system and leaving themselves a man down in the middle of the pitch. However, in that game the two forwards Aguero and Dzeko did very little tracking back to deny passes to Bayern's deepest midfielder Philip Lahm. As a result, Bayern always had a man free in midfield to offer a passing option and were able to boss possession.

Pelligrini looked to combat the inferior numbers in midfield today by having Aguero drop off when Everton were in possession and pick up their deepest midfielder, usually McCarthy. This enabled City to match up evenly in midfield on the defensive side. Although Everton enjoyed some decent early spells of possession, City weren't being made to chase shadows in the manner they were Wednesday.

The game's dangerous opportunities early on came mainly as a result of the game being stretched. As they have done all season, Everton had Coleman and Baines bomb forward from their outside back positions. While this gave them opportunities to overlap and receive the ball in wide areas high up the pitch, it also meant there was space for Manchester City to break into the channels when they won the ball back. Aguero would sprint in behind the Everton fullbacks when City recovered possession and collect long balls into the channels.

At the other end, Everton also had plenty of space to break into on the counter. When City were in possession, Yaya Toure was playing much higher up than Fernandinho to provide a link forward. City's fullbacks were also pushing up the pitch to provide width. As a result, there wasn't much defensive cover in front of Kompany and Lescott when Everton won the ball back. Lukaku would drop off the City center backs into the big spaces in midfield then use his strength to hold the ball up while Barkley, Naismith and Mirallas broke forward. With both teams looking to be proactive and getting plenty of bodies forward, there was loads of space for both on the break.

Everton's opener however was not the result of play being stretched but rather a really clever piece of movement from Lukaku. The Belgian striker was on Lescott's back shoulder and took a few quick steps back towards midfield like he was checking in between the lines to receive a pass with his back to goal. Lescott bit on the movement and took a step forward to follow him- Lukaku then spun off of him and made a run in behind. Jagielka found him with a ball over the top for the goal.

2. Silva tucks inside
As he always does, David Silva tucked in field from his starting left position, looking to find space in between the Everton defensive and midfield lines to link up play into the strikers. He did so excellently for City's equalizer, drifting away from Coleman on the left just between Everton's holding midfielders and center backs 30 yards from goal. Fernandinho picked him out where he cushioned a touch for Toure. Toure found Negredo peeling off around the right shoulder of Coleman for the goal.

Silva tucks in between the lines on Manchester City's equalizer
Silva completed an incredible 41 passes in the attacking third, 29 more than Everton's leader in attacking third passes Ross Barkley.

Silva also provided an outlet to spring counter attacks. He didn't track Coleman deep into City's defensive half when the Everton right back made runs forward and instead drifted into space so that when City won the ball back they had a quick passing option forward. For City's second he was behind the play that was developing with Everton in possession. Mirallas gave the ball away cheaply to Milner who was able to find Silva drifting in the center of midfield. Silva made a bursting run forward then played a ball through for Aguero to tuck home.

City forwards deny balls into McCarthy and Osman
Whereas in the Champions League defeat Wednesday City's forwards did little work tracking back defensively, Aguero and Negredo quietly performed their defensive duties well here today. Their work won't show up in tackle or interception statistics but was nonetheless important.

What the forward duo did well was drop in the space between Everton's center backs and holding midfielders to deny entry passes into McCarthy and Osman. City were content to let Distin and Jagielka have the ball at center back in the second half. They dropped their defensive lines deeper and put ten men behind the ball. It was the job of Negredo and Aguero to cut off the passing lanes into Everton's deep lying midfielders who seek to control the tempo of the game. They performed the job excellently- Osman and McCarthy received just 66 passes combined. By comparison, City's two holding midfielders received 95.

Keeping the ball away from Osman and McCarthy forced Barkley to drop deep into midfield to provide an extra passing option where he was far less dangerous and not close enough to Lukaku to link play forward. Only 12 of Barkley's 41 passes were in the attacking third because he was consistently forced to drop back to provide a passing option for the center backs.

Barkley's dropping deep would have been less of an issue had Gareth Barry been available for selection, allowing Osman to start on the left. When Osman plays wide he can tuck inside to provide that link with the striker. However, Everton in Mirallas and Naismith, Everton were playing with two outside midfielders that stay in wider areas and aren't particularly clever with movement in field.

City were good value for their win. After Everton's opener they controlled the midfield and the movement of Negredo and Aguero caused problems running in behind Everton's back four.

Everton missed Gareth Barry whose positional awareness would likely have denied David Silva some of the space between the lines he enjoyed.

Tactics recap: Bayern Munich 3-1 Manchester City

For 80 minutes Wednesday evening Manchester City were so thoroughly outclassed by Bayern Munich it was difficult to believe they had a squad of European football’s most expensive and indeed most talented players. 

So comprehensive was the German side’s dominance that the home crowd applauded Bayern right winger Arjen Robben when he was substituted in the 78th minute.
After suffering a shocking 3-2 defeat to Aston Villa at the weekend in which a series of mistakes cost City a game they had controlled with ease, Wednesday evening’s contest was an entirely different story. Bayern hardly gave City a whiff of the ball, let alone any meaningful goal scoring chances. Although Alvaro Negredo struck late for City and David Silva nearly made it 3-2 with a free kick off the bar, the final 3-1 scoreline did not accurately reflect Bayern’s superiority.

Early this week Michael Cox wrote a piece for Soccernet stressing that City’s two league defeats to Cardiff and Villa were largely a product of lapses in concentration and avoidable mistakes. 

Silly individual errors certainly played their part last night. Joe Hart should have kept out Franck Ribery’s opener, Gael Clichy fell asleep and allowed Thomas Muller to get in behind the back four for the second and Fernandinho gave away possession in midfield far too easily for Bayern’s third. But equally as crucial as City’s individual errors was the way Manuel Pellegrini set his side out to play.

It’s no secret that Pep Guardiola-coached sides generally play a 4-3-3 with three talented passing center midfielders and look to dominate possession. Yesterday Guardiola used Philipp Lahm in front of the back four with Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger higher up the pitch to Lahm’s left and right respectively. To compete in midfield and not allow Bayern to comfortably retain the ball, City needed to match Bayern’s three center midfielders with three of their own. Instead, Pellegrini opted for more of a 4-4-2 shape. Defensively, Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero stayed high up the pitch closer to the Bayern center backs and did little tracking back. This left their two center midfielders Yaya Toure and Fernandinho outnumbered 3 v. 2 in the central midfield zone. They generally picked up the two more advanced Bayern center midfielders, meaning one was always spare to drop off and collect passes without being closed down. This enabled Bayern to comfortably keep the ball and dictate the tempo. As a result City spent the bulk of the contest chasing Bayern in their defensive half without getting anywhere near the ball.  When they were able to win it back, Aguero and Dzeko were too high up the pitch to provide an outlet to spring counters. Bayern pressed quickly and relentlessly and forced City into knocking desperate long balls out of the back that simply gave possession right back to the visitors.

Aguero was substituted for David Silva in the 70th minute and City switched to a 4-2-3-1.  The change to three center midfielders coincided with City’s strongest spell of the game. Silva worked the space between the Bayern lines and provided a link to Negredo (who had come on to replace Dzeko) that City had lacked when they were in a 4-4-2. In Aguero’s 70 minutes on the pitch he had just 8 passes. In Silva’s 20 minutes he had 18. 

David Silva passes versus Bayern Munich via FourFourTwo (red= unsuccessful pass, blue= successful, light blue= chance created, yellow= assist)

Sergio Aguero passes versus Bayern Munich
Silva provided the pass for Negredo’s goal and also provided the ball through for Toure that led to Jerome Boateng making a cynical last ditch tackle and being sent off.  That’s not to say Aguero was to blame for the defeat and shouldn’t have been involved. In fact his pace could have been the biggest threat in behind the high line Bayern were playing. But he needed to playing alongside a creative midfielder with the positional awareness to drift into pockets of space and play through balls for him in behind the defense rather than alongside a #9. Had City gone with a 4-2-3-1 from the outside they’d have been better able to compete in the center midfield zone and we may have seen a much closer affair.

Match commentator Gary Neville went as far as saying that if Pellegrini were an English manager he’d have been called naïve for sticking with the 4-4-2 for so long. A stinging indictment, but one that’s difficult to argue with on the basis of last night’s performance.

Tactical Analysis: Machester City 4-1 Manchester United

Looking back over the team sheets following Manchester City's 4-1 dismantling yesterday of Manchester United, I wondered if I should have been feeling as surprised as I was. There was a marked gulf in individual talent between the two sides, made all the more pronounced by Robin Van Persie's injury absence. Under Sir Alex Ferguson, United were nearly always better than the sum of their parts, largely because of SAF's ability to adjust his tactics to the opposition at hand. That may well yet happen under David Moyes but it isn't the case now. On Sunday City exposed United for what they were- a squad of good players up against a squad of mostly great ones.

Kompany closes down Rooney
City were much more dynamic in midfield and dominated as a result. Both teams played 4-4-2 with a withdrawn forward- Rooney for United and Aguero for City- playing off a more advanced #9- Welbeck and Negredo. As a result of both squads playing with two forwards, the battle in the middle of midfield was 2 v. 2- Fernandinho and Toure vs. Carrick and Fellaini. Both pairs of center midfielders would step towards one another defensively, leaving space between the lines in behind them.

In just the second minute of play Rooney was able to exploit this space, dropping off the City center backs and collecting a pass from Carrick with loads of room in front of him to run at the defense. He powered forward and slipped a menacing ball through to Welbeck but a poor first touch and slip let him down. You can see Rooney in space between the lines as the pass is being played to him by Carrick in the image below.

Fernandinho and Toure step towards Carrick and Fellaini- Rooney with too much space between the seams early on.
After allowing Rooney in that much space between the lines, City adapted their defensive shape, opting to have Kompany follow Rooney's runs into midfield and deny him the time to turn with the ball. The strategy was meant to prevent the England forward from collecting possession with the space to run at the defense and play penetrating balls through to Welbeck. At one point Kompany tracked Rooney 15 yards into United's half of the field.

While the strategy helped City in making Rooney less of a threat in the midfield gaps, it should have also opened up space for Welbeck to make diagonal runs into the space left open by Kompany's tracking. In the screen shot below, you can see the space in behind Kompany for Welbeck to make the diagonal run into. However, he fails to adequately react to Kompany's positioning and make the correct run. It's the type of run you'd almost certainly see Van Persie making.

Welbeck needs to be making the diagonal run in behind indicated by the yellow arrow when Kompany steps out to close down Rooney.
Nasri tucks inside
They key offensively for City was the positioning of Samir Nasri. He continually tucked inside from a starting position on the left- a role typically played by the injured David Silva. Nasri's movement into central areas achieved two things for City. Because the center midfield battle was 2 v. 2, it gave City a 3 v. 2 advantage in the middle of pitch and allowed them to control possession high up the field. It also opened up space for Aleksander Kolarov to overlap down the left wing from his fullback position.

City's opener came when Nasri collected possession down the left, ran at Chris Smalling and bought Kolarov enough time to make the overlapping run around the outside. Valencia's tracking of Kolarov was surprisingly poor and the Serbian left back was able to cross unimpeded for Aguero to tuck home.

Nasri was again involved for City's third goal. He again collected possession on the left and carried the ball in field. Kolarov made an overlapping run, forcing Smalling to follow him into a wide position and opening up space for Negredo to make a diagonal run towards the near post. Nasri picked him out with a well weighted pass before Negredo turned Vidic and crossed for Aguero to tap in. Fellaini should have either tracked the deep run of Aguero or given a shout to Ferdinand that Aguero was bursting in behind him.

City's fourth goal summed up both their own ruthlessness in the final third and United's incompetency in the same area. At one end of the pitch Ashley Young cheaply gave away possession on the edge of City's penalty area after Evra had gotten forward to overlap. Negredo was able to dart into the space down the right channel left vacated by Evra and collect an outlet pass from Kompany. He proceeded to dribble 60 yards to the end line unchallenged before playing a perfectly looped cross for Nasri to volley in.

United lack creativity
With Rooney being pressed by Kompany, United desperately lacked creativity elsewhere. They could have used a wide player like Nasri to tuck inside from the channels and provide an extra creative passer in the middle of the pitch. Young and Valencia are both out and out wingers that like to maintain wide positions and deliver crosses. United had probably set up to counter down the channels, as they had in big away fixtures last season, but the strategy simply wasn't working. With both Young and Valencia in the game, there's not enough creativity on the pitch to get in any sort of attacking rhythm when the counter isn't on. Moyes of course does have an incredibly creative attacking midfielder he could use wide on the left in Shinji Kagawa. Moyes used the Japanese international in United's midweek Champions League fixture home to Bayer Leverkusen and probably got it wrong not using him again here.

In the end 4-1 was no less than City deserved. While Rooney was excellent, Kompany's close tracking of him meant he had fewer opportunities to run at the defense and cause problems. United lacked anyone else to link play forward to Welbeck. A lack of creativity has been a recurring theme for Moyes' side at the start of the season. Kagawa may be the answer but doesn't seem to be a player Moyes trusts yet.

City were impressive in their ability to stretch the United defense and create overloads. Nasri's eagerness to tuck inside gave City a man advantage in central areas and allowed Kolarov to press forward dangerously down the left.

Tactical Analysis: Manchester City 4-0 Newcastle

Manchester City scored twice in each half to run out comfortable 4-0 winners over Newcastle in an impressive performance at the Etihad. David Silva and Sergio Aguero each found the net before Newcastle’s Steven Taylor was sent off just before halftime for a forearm swing into the back of Aguero. Yaya Toure added a sublime freekick early in the second half and substitute Samir Nasri closed out the scoring in the 75th.

There were three major tactical features of the game: David Silva’s ability to create overloads and find gaps coming inside from the left, the refreshing width provided by Jesus Navas on the right flank, and the partnership and clever movement of Aguero and Edin Dzeko.

Manuel Pelligrini set his side out in a similar 4-2-2-2 formation to the one typically used by Roberto Mancini, the man he replaced. Clichy, Lescott, Kompany and Zabaleta made up the back four. Toure and new signing Fernandinho made up the center midfield, occupying the space in front of the back four. David Silva frequently tucked inside from a starting position on the left, as he did under Mancini, while Jesus Navas stayed wide on the right to provide width. Aguero and Dzeko were given starts up top over newcomers Stevan Jovetic and Alvaro Negredo.

Newcastle did not include French midfielder Johan Cabaye in the squad after Arsenal had a £10 million bid rejected for him earlier in the day. They lined up in something of a hybrid 4-3-3/4-4-2. The midfield three was made up of Jonas Gutierrez, Cheick Tiote and Moussa Sissoko. Hatem Ben Arfa started on the right of a front three. Yoan Gouffran was on the left with Papiss Cisse as the main striker. In possession Ben Arfa would frequently drop deep on the right flank while Gutierrez would drift wider to the left. Gouffran would tuck inside close to Cisse making the shape more of a 4-4-2. Defensively they formed two banks of four with Ben Arfa dropping in alongside the midfield three and Cisse and Gouffran staying higher up the pitch. 

Click for larger image

David Silva’s Movement:
David Silva’s movement is always a handful for opposing defenses. He’s tremendous at reading the runs of his fellow attackers, finding space between the seams and creating overloads for opposition defenders. For instance, when Aguero drops into midfield and is picked up by the opposition holding midfielder, Silva will drift infield alongside Aguero to create a 1 v. 2 situation for the holding midfielder to defend (Figure 1). When Aguero drifts wide and is picked up by the opposing left back, Silva will tuck just inside and create 1 v. 2 situations for the left back (figure 2). 

Figure 1

Figure 2
He’ll also drift into the space between the opposition right-sided center midfielder and right midfielder/forward, where he can collect passes from the two deeper lying midfielders and have the space to run at the defense. He was incredibly dangerous in this space last night, collecting possession from Fernandinho in the gap between Sissoko and Ben Arfa. City’s opener came from this type of movement. The image below shows Silva tucking inside of Ben Arfa where he’s able to receive a pass from Fernandinho and has the space to turn and dribble at the defense. He releases a pass to Dzeko on the left side of the box whose deflected pass across the face of goal falls for Silva to head home.  Identical movement from Silva in the 29th allowed him to release Dzeko through on goal again but the Bosnian striker was unable to finish. 

Navas provides width:
For much of last season Maninci employed Samir Nasri on the right. Like Silva, Nasri enjoys tucking infield from wide areas. When the two played together City could often therefore become a bit narrow. In Jesus Navas, Pelligrini has a true right-sided winger capable of providing width and stretching the defense laterally. This gives City a bit more balance going forward- they can through the middle with Silva tucking inside or down the wing with Navas hugging the touchline. The graphics below compare where Silva and Navas received passes yesterday. Nearly every pass Navas received was down the right channel whereas Silva moved freely around the pitch to create overloads. Navas had a shaky start but was excellent in the second half, combining well with Zabaleta and whipping in some dangerous crosses.

Click for larger image

Movement of Aguero and Dzeko:
The final major defining feature of this game was the partnership between Aguero and Dzeko. When playing with two forwards it is obviously important both understand the off-ball movement of one another. One of the major strengths of a two forward system is that against a team playing four at the back, both opposition center backs have to pick up a forward so neither is left free to provide cover.

One way teams using two forwards like to take advantage of the lack of a spare center back for the opposition is to put both forwards on the shoulder of each of the center backs. One forward then checks into midfield, drawing one of the center backs with him. The other forward will then make a diagonal run into the space that becomes available. The figure below shows an example. Here, Dzeko checks into midfield for the ball, forcing Coloccini to step out of line with the rest of the back four to close him down. This opens up space in behind for Aguero to make a diagonal run into. 

In fact, the example illustrates the forward movement City used to score their second goal. Dzeko checked into midfield for a pass from Kompany, forcing Coloccini to follow him. Rather than step forward to force Aguero into an offside position, Taylor follows his diagonal run in behind but doesn’t have the pace to keep. Dzeko provides a clever flick and Aguero is one on one with Krul to tuck it home. Below you can see a screenshot of the buildup. Coloccini steps out to Dzeko just as Aguero begins his diagonal run in behind.

Although Dzeko was guilty several times of wasting his own goal scoring chances, his movement with Aguero was clever and he deserves credit for setting up the first two goals and generally stretching Taylor and Coloccini around the field in the first half. 

Pellegrini will be pleased with what was a dominant performance in all facets. I didn't discuss it in any detail above but Fernandinho and Toure formed a powerful and formidable midfield pairing capable of both breaking up attacks from the opposition and springing into the attacking third to offer extra options. Fernandinho completed the second most passes in the attacking third of any player behind Silva. 

Tacticially it wasn't an especially different look from Pellegrini although the inclusion of Navas added width City frequently lacked last season. 

It's difficult to judge Alan Pardew's side after such a difficult opening fixture in which they played half of it with ten men. They have plenty of power in midfield but were desperately missing the technical ability of Cabaye and could struggle to break teams down if he ends up departing for Arsenal. Ben Arfa looked to be the only player capable of providing any creativity in a lineup full of strength and power. 

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.


Three at the back for City wrong decision against Everton

I tweeted Saturday during Everton's 2-0 win over Man City how surprised I was Roberto Mancini opted for a narrow 3-4-2-1 formation against an Everton side that attacks primarily down the wings and wanted to mention it here.

Plenty has already been written about Mancini's decision- Richard Jolly wrote an interesting piece on it at Soccernet- so I'll be brief.

Mancini has experimented with three at the back on a few occasions this year with little success. This is a formation primarily used by Italian sides in modern football so it's not a huge surprise City's Italian manager would look to use the formation from time to time.

Three at the back tends to be best suited for when the opposition is playing with two forwards. Two of the center backs can stick tight with the opposition forwards and the third can provide cover in behind. Athletic Bilbao manager Marcelo Bielsa nearly always plays with one more center back than the opposition has forwards so there is always a spare man to provide cover (in other words three center backs against two forwards, two center backs against one forward). Everton only plays with one forward which meant City's three center backs, Zabaleta, Kolo Toure and Nastasic, were all in relatively narrow areas with only one direct opposition- Victor Anichebe. One center back could stick tight with Anichebe, another could provide cover but the third wasn't needed and meant City were outmanned elsewhere- in this case on the wings.

Everton are a team that are very good attacking from wide areas. Only Reading attacks through the middle less than the Toffees. Mirallas and Peinaar tuck in field from their wide midfield positions and open up space on the wings for the fullbacks to overlap into. Baines is of course a very good attacking fullback but on Saturday Everton also had Seamus Coleman on the other side- another quick fullback that likes to get forward. City's wingbacks Kolarov and Milner were left to defend Everton's wide midfielders and outside backs 1 v. 2. Time and again Everton were able to use their man advantage on the wings to advance the ball forward and take City's wingbacks out of the picture. It was little surprise when Leon Osman's opener came from a ball from Coleman after he'd advanced unmarked down the wing and Mancini quickly switched to four at the back.

It was surprising to see Mancini go with such a narrow lineup against a team that loves to attack from the wings. Footage from the game appeared to show Mancini and David Platt arguing on the sideline- you wonder how much of that had to do with the formation.

Redknapp's defensive 4-1-4-1 denies space in seams, frustrates City

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QPR put in a disciplined performance to secure a valuable point in a 0-0 draw with Manchester City at Loftus Road. The defending champions saw plenty of the ball, finishing the game with 69% of the possession, yet were frustrated by a compact Rangers defense in the final third.

With Matija Nastasic and Vincent Kompany both unavailable with injuries and Kolo Toure away at the African Nations Cup, Joleon Lescott was City's only available center back. Roberto Mancini therefore had the option of playing Gael Clichy and Pablo Zabaleta either side of Lescott in a back three or dropping Javi Garcia to center back. Manchester City haven't looked particularly comfortable when they've used a back three this season so Mancini opted for the latter. James Milner dropped alongside Gareth Barry in the middle of midfield and Samir Nasri played on the right.

Harry Redknapp played a 4-5-1. Stephane M'Bia, Shaun Derry and Esteban Granero played in midfield with Granero the most advanced of the three. Adel Taarabt was responsible for tracking Zabaleta down the left flank when City were in possession but broke centrally just in behind Loic Remy when QPR were on the ball. Jamie Mackie wasn't even on the bench amid rumors he'll be headed to Stoke so Fabio da Silva played on the right side of midfield.

Redknapp has a reputation for not being terribly concerned with tactics but QPR's approach this evening illustrated he's more an able tactician than he lets on. He was understandably concerned with the ability of Aguero, Dzeko, Tevez and Nasri to find pockets of space in between the seams of defenses and therefore set out to mitigate space between the lines with a compact defensive shape. QPR would then look to break quickly on the counter. Sitting deep and countering is a strategy plenty of teams have attempted to use against Manchester City, however the positioning Redknapp had his players take was slightly different than most.

Most teams looking to defend deep and then play on the counter will drop the wide midfielders alongside two holding midfielders defensively to form a bank of four. An attacking center midfielder and the striker will then play higher up the pitch tracking either the opposition holding midfielders or center backs. The defensive shape then is effectively a 4-4-1-1. The problem here is that defending in two flat banks of four creates, a defensive one and a midfield one, creates space between the lines for opposition playmakers to drift into and collect the ball.

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Rather than having Derry and M'Bia play side by side defensively and leaving Granero higher up the pitch, Redknapp had Granero drop alongside M'bia to form a midfield bank of four. Derry then dropped off and sat just in front of his two center backs, checking any run a City player tried to make between the seams. Rather than 4-4-1-1, QPR's defensive shape was 4-1-4-1. The strategy worked well defensively. QPR allowed Barry and Milner to drop in behind the midfield four to collect the ball. Neither of the City holding midfielders are particularly creative passers and both played mostly horizontal balls in this area. Higher up the pitch, City's four attacking players struggled to find space and were closed down quickly when they got on the ball.

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Another key factor to QPR's defensive performance was the work Taarabt and Fabio did tracking City's outside backs when they looked to make forward runs down the flanks. Nasri and particularly David Silva like to play narrow from their wide starting positions, forcing the opposition outside backs in field and leaving space down the flanks for Zabaleta and Clichy to overlap into. Taarabt and Fabio both put in disciplined shifts, rarely losing track of City's fullbacks when they broke forward.

The obvious problem with defending in the 4-1-4-1 formation, as opposed to 4-4-1-1, is that when possession is won back you don't have a central attacking midfielder drifting into space behind the opposition holding midfielders to spring counter attacks. As a result the loan striker can become isolated and is forced to hold the ball up long enough for his midfielders to break forward. This was at times the case for QPR today- Remy was frequently left to chase balls knocked in the corners for him. However, Redknapp did set up a fairly effective strategy for counterattacking. When QPR won the ball back, Taarabt would look to quickly break in field from the left behind Barry and Milner. When he got possession in these areas Remy would sit on the shoulder of Garcia or Lescott and look to use his pace to get in behind. Much has been said about Taarabt's attitude and work rate but he worked tirelessly today combining his well known skill with endless running. He nearly created a goal in the first half with a ball to Remy in behind Garcia and nearly scored himself after a brilliant individual run but was denied by an impressive Joe Hart save.

Preview: Manchester City vs. Arsenal

Manchester City head to the Emirates to face Arsenal Sunday, albeit with about 900 fewer supporters than expected as they voice their displeasure over the 62 pound ticket prices Arsenal will be charging for this 'Category A' fixture.

Since Sheikh Mansour's takeover of Manchester City the storylines that have surrounded this fixture have been intriguing- a clash between the nouveau riche Manchester City, who in recent seasons have lured the likes of Samir Nasri, Emanuel Adebayor and Gael Clichy away from Arsenal with higher wages, and Arsenal, the poster child for football clubs living within their means. However, their recent clashes at the Emirates have not lived up to their Category A status.

As Michael Cox wrote in his column for Soccernet today, Roberto Mancini has taken a very cautious approach to this fixture over the last few seasons, resulting in cagey, dull contests. Mancini has visited Arsenal in the league three times since taking over at City in 2009. The first two of those contests ended 0-0; Arsenal edged out a 1-0 win last season (City haven't registered a league goal at Arsenal since the 2006-2007 season). City sat deep and employed three defensive minded midfielders for most of those three games.

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The absence of Yaya Toure, on international duty with the Ivory Coast at the Africa Cup of Nations, means Mancini will be forced to use two defensive minded holding midfielders in Javier Garcia and Gareth Barry, raising concerns among neutrals that Mancini will again be tempted into trying to make this a cautious contest. Samir Nasri is serving the final game of a three match suspension so James Milner is likely to start on the right wing. Sergio Aguero will miss out with a hamstring injury- Carlos Tevez will play just off of Edin Dzeko.

There are more questions surrounding Arsene Wenger's selections, particularly who he'll start at forward and on the right wing. Olivier Giroud picked up a slight knock against Swansea last weekend so there's a good chance Wenger will continue with Walcott through the middle. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played 70 minutes for the under-21's Wednesday, suggesting we could see Aaron Ramsey take his place on the right. 

City Cautious Approach
Arsenal are a more dangerous side when games become open. Oxlade-Chamberlain, Podolski and Walcott thrive in games when there is enough space to use their pace to get in behind the opposition defense. There's a good chance that in the early stages, playing away from home and with key attacking players absent, Mancini will retain his cautious approach at the Emirates and maintain a compact defense to prevent the game from opening up too much. City won't have the attacking thrust of Toure through the middle and James Milner is more trusty foot soldier than creative attacker on the right: City will therefore only have 3 truly attack minded players on the field- Tevez, Dzeko and Silva. Mancini may feel his hand is forced into playing more defensive. The fact the Gunners have struggled to break down deep, compact defenses this season may offer further incentive to play deeper.

If Wenger anticipates City defending deep it may be a smart move for him to go with Ramsey on the right (I can imagine Gunners fans exiting my post now, but hear me out). David Silva will be playing a narrow left-sided position for City. Defensively, he'll be responsible for tracking the forward runs of Bacary Sagna but he doesn't have the engine or tackling ability of James Milner on the other side of the pitch (who will track Gibbs). In all likelihood Sagna will get chances to get in behind Silva when Arsenal are in possession. Whereas Oxlade-Chamberlain would keep a wide position, Ramsey will tuck inside from the right to give Arsenal an extra body to compete in the middle, drawing Clichy in towards his center backs. This will create space for Sagna to make overlapping runs near the touchline and collect the ball in space on the wing. If Clichy doesn't follow Ramsey in field, Arsenal will be able to overload Barry and Garcia in front of the City back four with Ramsey, Wilshere and Cazorla.

Of course, the danger of getting Sagna in possession high up the pitch is that it leaves space for City to counter down the left when they retain possession. As Arsenal's outside backs join the attack, we could see Tevez floating in space behind them on either channel where he'll look to spring counters through direct balls out to the wings. Dezeko's winner at WBA show that his movement can be deadly on the counter. Arteta will therefore have to remain focused on Tevez's positioning.

Arsenal Approach
It'll be interesting to see how Wenger chooses to defend. Yaya Toure often provides the link from defense to offense for City with either forward passes or his powerful vertical runs with the ball. Neither Barry nor Garcia possess the same ability to make forward passes and they certainly can't match Toure's powerful dribbling. We may therefore see City struggle to advance the ball into the final third. Wenger may elect to drop his wingers alongside Wilshere and Arteta defensively to provide a midfield bank of four and limit space in between the seams for the likes of Tevez and Silva to move into and provide a passing option. With few easy forward passing options we could see City frustrated into playing horizontal balls in the midfield between Garcia, Barry and the center backs. It's difficult to imagine Wenger being quite this pragmatic at home however.

If the Gunners choose instead to press they may force City into knocking long balls in towards Dzeko from the back but they also run the risk of leaving Tevez space to get on the ball and run at the back four. In all likelihood Arsenal will do some combination of dropping in deep and pressing. 

Whereas City's lineup often includes five prominent attacking threats, absences mean they'll only have three Sunday- David Silva, Tevez and Dzeko. Mancini is always cautious in this fixture to begin with- without Toure and Aguero he has an even greater incentive to be pragmatic once again. I'd expect another cagey, low scoring affair. I hope I'm proven wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preview: Newcastle vs. Manchester City

Both sides come into this game struggling to find form. Newcastle have won just one in their last ten while Manchester City have won one in their last six.

City will be missing Alexander Kolarov and Micah Richards due to injury while Gareth Barry is suspended. James Milner, Vincent Kompany and Jack Rodwell are all listed as doubtful with Milner the most likely of the three to be available.

Yohan Cabaye, Steven Taylor, Ryan Taylor and Dan Gosling remain injured for Newcastle. Gabriel Obertan may be fit enough to make the subs bench.

Last Season's Tactical Battle
Manchester City picked up a massive 2-0 win on their last visit to St. James Park in the penultimate game of their title-winning campaign last season. It was a tense game fought largely in a crowded center of the pitch. Roberto Mancini started that game with Aguero, Nasri, David Silva and Tevez as an attacking four. Tevez was the striker with Aguero playing in the seams just behind him, Silva in a narrow position on the left and Nasri narrow on the right. Newcastle were in a 4-3-3 so as City advanced the ball towards the attacking third the game became extremely narrow. With Newcastle's powerful holding midfielder Cheik Tiote sitting in deep to protect his back four, the four diminutive City attackers struggled to find space in the middle of the pitch to string together dangerous passing combinations.

After 60 minutes the score was still level at 0-0. Remember, at this time City were level on points with Manchester United and were in pole position to win the title only because of their superior goal difference. They needed the three points from this fixture to beat their neighbors to the title. Chasing a win, Roberto Mancini made what at the time seemed a bizarre tactical change. Barry and Yaya Toure had started the game as a deep lying holding midfield pair in front of the back four. On 62 minutes Mancini replaced Nasri, a creative attacking player, with a third holding midfielder, Nigel De Jong. He pushed Toure high up the pitch alongside Aguero while De Jong sat alongside Barry in front of the back four. Toure's powerful physical presence in a more advanced role allowed City to dominate Newcastle higher up the pitch. In the 70th minute he played a 1-2 with Aguero just outside the penalty area and struck a curling right foot shot into the net. He added a second from a counter attack in the 89th to secure the win. A week later City clinched the title.

More of the same this season?
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Saturday's match may well have some similar features to the one last season. In all likelihood, Alan Pardew will again field a 3-man central midfield to prevent his side from being dominated in the center of the park. We could again see Nasri and David Silva in narrow positions to the right and left of Aguero respectively for City with Tevez at center forward. With Silva and Nasri tucking in towards the middle and Newcastle fielding a center midfield triangle, we could once again see play become condensed into a crowded center of the pitch as City advance the ball into the attacking third.

The midfields will match up fairly evenly if the sides play their expected formations and lineup as shown in the diagram. Tiote will pick up Aguero (or whoever plays off the main striker), Gutierrez will pick up Garcia and Anita will pick up Y. Toure. As Nasri and Silva drift infield, Newcastle's outside backs, Santon and Simpson, will have to follow their runs which will open space on the flanks for City's fullbacks to overlap into. If City are able to consistently keep possession high up the pitch and give their fullbacks time to push forward, it'll force Newcastle's outside attacking players (Cisse and Ben Arfa in the diagram) to track their runs. If their outside attackers are consistently forced to track back, the Magpies will struggle to transition forward when they do regain possession and will be forced to hit long direct balls into an isolated Demba Ba.

If Pardew is concerned about providing protection for his outside backs he may opt for more of a 4-5-1 than a 4-3-3, employing more defensive wide midfielders to track the forward runs of City's fullbacks. This formation would likely see Sylvain Marveaux replace Gutierrez on the left side of the center midfield triangle, Guttierez move to the left wing, Ben Arfa shuffle across to his more natural right wing and Cisse would be relegated to the bench. While this formation will better protect Newcastle's fullbacks, it'll likely exacerbate the problem of leaving Ba isolated up the field. 

If Mancini expects his fullbacks to have opportunities to get in possession high up the pitch on the flanks he may opt for Dzeko as the main striker to provide an aerial threat for crosses in from the wings. If he feels he needs to move Y. Toure into an attacking position as the game progresses while still retaining two deep holding midfielders as he did last season, he could bring on James Milner to sit alongside Garcia.

Newcastle Desperately Missing Cabaye
Last season, Cabaye was the creative presence in Newcastle's midfield three. In his absence they've struggled to link defense to offense through the midfield and have instead resorted to hitting long balls from the back towards Ba. Without this creative presence in the center of midfield tomorrow, Newcastle will once again likely hit their fair share of long balls (they're the most direct team in the Premier League this season) into Ba. The Senegalese forward will have to be effective in his hold up play to allow the midfield time to get forward. If he struggles to hold the ball up Newcastle will spend the bulk of the game pinned into their own half.

In the second half of their 2-1 defeat to Fulham, Newcastle moved to a 4-4-2. Ben Arfa was moved to right wing but he played incredibly narrow, moving centrally just behind the two center forwards almost as a #10. He did an excellent job linking play with the forwards and Newcastle enjoyed their best spell of the game after making this change. Ben Arfa netted an equalizer drifting in from the right before being subbed off. Perhaps Pardew will again look for the creative French midfielder to tuck inside to provide Newcastle with some creativity and an extra body to compete in the center of midfield.

More on net passing

Last week I discussed how we should interpret the net passing statistic and whether it's related to a team's performance. In that post, I analyzed the points per game earned by each of the big six clubs within various levels of net passing. Points per game is an important performance metric, as points ultimately determine each team's place in the table. In addition to points per game, another useful performance metric is goal difference. One advantage of goal difference is that it is more fine-grained than points per game. Whether a team wins 1-0 or 7-0 they still earn three points. Goal difference, however, allows for variation within wins and losses. The continuous nature of goal difference also lends itself to statistical analysis.

The figures below plot net passing against goal difference for each of the members of the big six (the bivariate regression is estimated using OLS). For clubs that rely on passing and possession to build goals, we would expect a positive relationship between net passing and goal difference. In other words, we would expect that as a team completes more and more passes than an opponent, the team's goal difference increases. For teams that rely more on a counter-attacking style of play, we would not expect a discernible relationship between net passing and goal difference.

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For Manchester City and Liverpool, net passing explains less than 1 percent of the variation in goal difference (R2=0.005 and R2=0.002, respectively). Net passing explains about 5 percent of the variation in goal difference for Manchester United and Chelsea (R2=0.048 and R2=0.054, respectively). For the North London clubs, however, net passing explains considerably more of the variation in goal difference. Remarkably, about 35 percent of the variation in Tottenham's goal difference is explained by net passing  (R2=0.345), and nearly 40 percent of the variation in Arsenal's goal difference is explained by net passing  (R2=0.396). Not surprisingly, the coefficient on net passing is statistically significant only in the Arsenal and Tottenham models (p<0.01). For Arsenal, each additional 100 passes completed more than the opposing team is associated with nearly a 1 goal increase in goal difference. An increase of the same size in net passing for Tottenham is associated with a 0.6 goal increase in goal difference.

In sum, there is a strong relationship between net passing and goal difference for Arsenal and Tottenham, a weak relationship for Manchester United and Chelsea, and no apparent relationship for Manchester City and Liverpool.

Interpreting the net passing statistic

I use a statistic that I refer to as "net passing" quite often in my analysis on this blog. Net passing is simply the number of passes completed by a team net of the number of passes completed by their opponent. The purpose of such a statistic is to provide a simple description of one aspect of the game: passing. Depending on a team's style of play and tactical approach, net passing may or may not be predictive of actual match outcomes. For example, some teams depend on possession and passing to break down an opposing team's defense. On the other hand, some teams play deeper and generate scoring opportunities on the counter attack. Playing on the counter attack requires much fewer passes, and consequently, net passing is probably not very predictive of performance for these teams. The figures below show the average points per game for each of the big six clubs by the level of net passing (as of game week 23).

(Click on figures to enlarge)

The light blue bars in the figures above indicate that the points per game statistic is based on only one or two games. As a result of such a small sample, these statistics are not very reliable. Manchester City have a high points per game irrespective of their net passing. Somewhat surprisingly, they have not dropped any points in games in which their opponents have out-passed them, and they have collected the fewest points per game from games in which they completed at least 301 more passes than opposing teams. Manchester United have collected on average only 1.33 points per game from those in which they were out-passed, while they have been markedly more effective in games in which they have a positive value for net passing. Remarkably, they have out-passed opponents by a margin greater than 200 passes on only two occasions. Tottenham also have a much higher points per game when they out-pass opponents, and the pattern appears more pronounced than that of Manchester United. Chelsea have averaged a respectable 1.6 points per game in games in which they were out-passed or completed 100 or fewer passes more than opposing teams. The incredibly low 0.25 points per game for the net passing category of 101-200 serves as an important reminder that statistics can yield strange results, especially when estimated from small sample sizes. Net passing seems to be quite predictive of Arsenal's performance, which is perhaps not surprising given Arsenal's style of play. Finally, there is little variation in points per game across net passing levels for Liverpool (ignoring the >300 category, which is based on only two games).