Olympiakos press excellently, Manchester United lack of midfield quality exposed

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

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

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

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

Cleverley managed just 8 successful passes in the final third.

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

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

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.

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.

Organized United beat Arsenal in cagey contest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tactics recap: Manchester United 1-1 Shakhtar Donetsk

Manchester United picked up an away point in a 1-1 draw with Shakhtar Donetsk. It was a game in which both sides largely cancelled each other out.

Wayne Rooney missed out with an injury he’d picked up the day before in training. Without his favored withdrawn forward to play in the hole behind Robin Van Persie, David Moyes opted for more of a 4-3-3 shape than United’s usual 4-2-3-1 (or 4-4-1-1 if you prefer). Michael Carrick played the holding role while Tom Cleverley and Marouane Fellaini played the box-to-box shuttling roles to his left and right respectively.  Antonio Valencia was wide on the right, Danny Welbeck on the left of midfield.

Shakhtar lined up in a 4-2-3-1 so the midfield battle was 3 v. 3 and everyone had an obvious direct opponent. Cleverley and Fellaini picked up Shakhtar’s holding midfielders Fernando and Tomas Hubschman and Carrick picked up Shakhtar’s #10 Alex Teixeira. Both midfields were rather rigid and predictable in their movement and neither side was really able to dominate the midfield zone. Just 22% of Shakhtar’s attacks came through the middle third of the pitch (that is, if the pitch were cut lengthwise into thirds) and only 27% of United’s attacks came from the middle. Instead, both sides tended to build their attacks out wide with fullbacks overlapping the outside midfielders. 

Graphic via whoscored.com

Both sides scored slightly fortunate and remarkably similar goals. Welbeck opened the scoring after Fellaini received a pass on the right edge of the penalty box near the end line with his back to goal. He was able to spin off Hubschman and play a low ball across the six yard box. Center back Yaroslav Rakitskiy wasn’t able to get a clean clearance on the cross and Welbeck pounced to tuck it in from close range.

United didn’t go in search of a second after taking the lead. Instead they sat in a little deeper in their 4-1-4-1 defensive shape and looked to soak up pressure. Despite a few spells of sustained pressure from the home side, United kept their shape well and never looked terribly stretched at the back. However, they also didn’t look like creating their own opportunities on the break. The 4-1-4-1 shape meant United didn’t have anyone playing off of Van Persie to provide an outlet to spring a counter. Typically United would defend with a 4-4-1-1. Rooney would provide defensive pressure on the deepest midfielder then break into space to provide an outlet pass to quickly link play forward with Van Persie. Without him, Van Persie was isolated up front. 

Shakhtar left midfielder Taison snatched an equalizer in the 76th when Nemanja Vidic couldn’t react quickly enough to a low ball driven across the six yard box. It bounced off the defender’s legs and into the path of Taison to put away.
In the end you could maybe argue United were made to pay for their lack of attacking endeavor after they’d gone ahead but the away draw against a solid Shakhtar side at an imposing venue is hardly a terrible result. 

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 United 2-0 Crystal Palace

David Moyes picked up his first ever win at Old Trafford as Manchester United beat 10 man Crystal Palace 2-0. Kagisho Dikgacoi was sent off for Palace after being forced into a last ditch tackle on Ashley Young in first half stoppage time following a calamitous giveaway in front of the Palace penalty area by Mile Jedinak. The tackle resulted in a penalty though replays suggested the contact happened outside the box. Up to that point Palace had effectively frustrated United- Robin Van Persie's chest and volley off the woodwork from a great ball over the top by Rooney in the 39th minute was United's only gilt-edged opportunity of the half. Reduced to 10 men however, Palace couldn't get players high enough up the pitch to mount any sort of threat on David De Gea and it was job done for United by halftime.

Moyes made several personnel changes to the side that lost 1-0 two weekends ago at Anfield, though they used the normal 4-4-1-1 we've seen under Moyes. Fabio replaced Phil Jones at right back- his first appearance for United in over a year after spending last season on loan at QPR. Anderson replaced Tom Cleverley alongside Michael Carrick in the middle of midfield. Antonio Valencia was given the nod over Ryan Giggs on the right side of midfield and Wayne Rooney returned from a head gash injury to replace Danny Welbeck in the hole behind Van Persie.

Ian Holloway, who was watching from the bleachers while serving the second game of his two match ban, made one change to his Palace side that beat Sunderland 3-1 two weekends ago. Adrian Marriapa replaced Joel Ward at right back. Holloway also switched formations from a 4-4-1-1 to a 4-5-1/4-3-3. Jedinak sat just in front of the back four as the deepest of a center midfield three with Dikgacoi to his right and Jose Campana to his left. Dwight Gayle played wide on the left rather than behind Chamakh where he'd been used against Sunderland.

Starting XIs: Manchester United vs. Crystal Palace, 9/14/13
Prior to the sending off, the key tactical feature was Palace's defensive shape. The front three of Chamakh, Gayle and Puncheon would put pressure on United's back four higher up the field while Campana, Jedinak and Dikgacoi sat deeper in the middle as a compact midfield bank of three and would shift to whatever side of the field the ball was on. The two screen shots below are taken 6 seconds apart and show Palace's defensive rotation from the midfield and front 3.

Forward and midfield banks of three for Palace

The shape meant Palace were quite narrow defensively and left United's weak side wide midfielder in plenty of space to receive long crossfield passes. Ashley Young in particular found himself in acres of space on the left flank. Collecting the ball on the weak side allowed Young to take on Adrian Mariappa 1 v. 1 down the left side. When Young took the ball inside it allowed space for Evra to overlap. In the 19th minute Carrick hit a crossfield ball to Young wide on the left. He was able to beat Mariappa into the box but was then booked for a dive when there appeared to be minimal contact from Gabiddon's challenge. Although nothing came of it, the move showed Palace were most vulnerable when United were able to quickly switch the point of attack. The image below shows the moment just as Carrick is preparing to hit the diagonal ball to Young. Mariappa is tucked inside helping his center backs with the movement of Rooney and Van Persie. Puncheon is higher up the pitch in a narrow position to give Palace an extra body in the middle of midfield. For a player with Carrick's vision and passing ability it's an easy diagonal ball into Young.

Carrick switches point of attack to Young.
However, United were disappointing down the left and should have done more from that flank to trouble Palace. Young lacked the directness to run past the isolated Mariappa and get to the byline and too often his delivery from wide areas was poor. He managed just 2 successful take ons from 6 attempts down the left and none of his 8 crosses were successful. Although generally a right winger, this may have been an interesting game to see Wilfried Zaha play on the left as his ability to take on defenders could have been useful in getting passed Mariappa thereby forcing Gabiddon to step to ball and leave space in the box for runs from Rooney and Van Persie.

Disappointingly for the neutral observer, the direction of the game hinged on a lack of concentration from Jedinak (who had otherwise played quite well in the first half). His square pass to no one 25 yards from his own goal sent Young through on goal. Dikgacoi didn't have much of a choice but to lunge from behind and when he caught Young referee John Moss didn't had no option but to brandish the red. Van Persie dispatched the penalty and from there it was game over.

Down to 10, Palace played a 4-4-1, defending in two deep banks of four. With the extra man, United were easily able to keep possession high up the pitch. When Palace did win the ball back, they were so deep their only option for an outlet pass forward was a long and hopeful one into Chamakh. United could simply press the Palace fullbacks, forcing them to hit the long balls early into Chamakh that were comfortably dealt with by Vidic and Ferdinand. 

United were comfortable in the second half if not altogether inspiring. They still don't seem to have the balance quite right in midfield and the wide play hasn't been good enough all season. Rooney's second half free kick was genuinely world class but it may be a slight concern for United that they couldn't be more ruthless against a newly promoted side down to ten men at Old Trafford.

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.

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: Real Madrid 2-1 Manchester United (3-2 ag)

Sir Alex Ferguson's controversial decisions to start Ryan Giggs and Nani at right and left midfield respectively and bench Wayne Rooney looked to be paying dividends as Manchester United went into the locker room level with Real Madrid at 0-0 and looking the more dangerous of the two sides.

Madrid had created little in the opening 45 minutes. Ronaldo was uncharacteristically quiet and United looked dangerous every time they broke forward on the counter.

Ferguson opted for a 4-4-2, employing Danny Welbeck alongside Robin Van Persie up top. It was expected Tom Cleverley would replace the injured Phil Jones and play on the right side of center midfield to provide Rafael with defensive help on Ronaldo. However, it was Carrick who was fielded more towards the right with Cleverley on the left side of central midfield. Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra lined up across the back.

Jose Mourinho's side lined up just as they had in the first leg with the exception of Higuain in for Benzema at forward.

United defended fairly deep with two banks of four. Welbeck dropped in behind Van Persie and tracked Xabi Alonso, denying him from receiving passes from Verane and Sergio Ramos. United's defensive lines of four were compact but it was still surprising that Ozil, usually fantastic at finding pockets of space in between the seams, was having so much trouble receiving the ball in behind Cleverley and Carrick.

With Welbeck denying Xabi Alonso the opportunity to get on the ball and pick out forward passes from deep in midfield, Madrid's more advanced attackers dropped deeper and deeper to get on the ball. On separate occasions Ozil, Di Maria and Higuain dropped well behind United's midfield four to get on the ball. It was a testament to Ferguson's tactics and United's organization that those three gifted attackers were collecting the ball 45 yards from goal where they are obviously far less dangerous.

On the right side of the United defense, Giggs played deep and dropped in to help Rafael on Ronaldo whenever he could. Every time Rafael advanced forward when United were in possession, either Giggs or one of the center midfielders dropped in to fill the defensive hole in an effort to deny Ronaldo the space to counter.

Offensively, United looked to counter rapidly. Once they regained possession, Welbeck would sprint past Xabi Alonso and into the channels to spring counters. They looked to create overloads in wide areas and send crosses into the box.

Second Half
Although United's opener was largely due to an individual error from Varane, it highlighted their ability to make dangerous runs in behind the Madrid midfield and advance the ball forward at pace. Rafael broke forward down the right before finding Welbeck's late surging run into the box. Eventually the ball broke for Nani whose low cross was deflected by Ramos into his own net.

Nani's 56th minute red card turned the game on its head. United were forced to switch to a 4-4-1. Welbeck went wide left and Van Persie played alone up top. Recognizing he didn't need four at the back to deal only with Van Persie, Mourinho replaced right back Arbeloa with Luka Modric and switched to a 3-4-3. Madrid therefore had a 4 v. 2 advantage in the middle of midfield. Welbeck and Giggs tucked narrow to the inside to offer help in the central areas, conceding the left channel entirely to Coentrao.

Ferguson's men continued to defend in banks of four but, crucially, they no longer had Welbeck in the middle of the pitch to defend Madrid's deepest midfielder. Modric dropped deep alongside Xabi Alonso and both were given the time and space to pick out forward passes between gaps in the United midfield four. This allowed the likes of Kaka (who had replaced the injured Di Maria in the first half), Ozil, Ronaldo and Higuain to stay in more advanced areas and create overloads with the United back four.

The introduction of Modric was a smart if not obvious substitution for Mourinho to make after gaining a man advantage. With United's midfield retreating deeper and deeper the Croatian found the space just outside the 18 to unleash a fine strike for the equalizer. For the winner, he bisected the United midfield line with a ball through to Higuain. The Argentine would play a 1-2 with Ozil before driving a low ball across the face of goal for Ronaldo to tuck home.

Knowing United needed to score two goals to win the tie, Mourinho replaced Ozil with Pepe who slid in at right back. Higuain moved out to the right when Madrid were defending and Ronaldo stayed high up the pitch at center forward, knowing he'd have the space to run at Ferdinand and Vidic with United chasing the game. Mourinho's side began to defend quite deep and failed to control possession with their man advantage. They were on the back foot for most of the final 15 minutes and were only able to maintain their goal advantage due to a handful of fine saves from Diego Lopez.

Ferguson deserves credit for United's approach in this game. They were organized, compact and countered effectively. That United would have hung on and won were it not for Nani's red card was hardly a foregone conclusion but up to that point they had been the better side.

After the game Mourinho suggested the better team had lost. While he may well have simply been buttering up a club many expect him to manage when Ferguson retires, he doubtlessly would have been disappointed with his side's inability to create many genuine chances when the game was still 11 v. 11. Still, they deserve credit for getting the job done in a hostile atmosphere at Old Trafford.

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.

Defensive discipline on Arsenal's left will be key against United

In the opening stages of Manchester United's 3-2 league win over Chelsea, Alex Ferguson's side was able to get the ball in dangerous areas down the right side of the pitch. Both of their early goals came from moves down the right: the first a swift counterattacking move after Chelsea had conceded possession in midfield, the second when Rafael and Antonio Valencia combined down the flank, creating space for a Valencia cross into Robin Van Persie.

I wrote on Tuesday of how United's success in the games early stages owed much to Ferguson's decision to play a 4-4-1-1 with Valencia operating wide as a classic right winger. Chelsea's outside backs like to get forward and join in the attack. When they lose possession Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic are often high up the pitch, leaving them vulnerable to counters down the flanks. It was Rooney rather than Valencia who had drifted to the right to spring the counter on United's first goal but it resulted because Cole had gone forward to join in the Chelsea attack.

Chelsea are also vulnerable when the opposition outside backs get involved in the attack. Neither of Chelsea's wider attacking players in Juan Mata or Eden Hazard are quick to help in the defensive end. When the opposition outside backs advance past them, it often leaves Chelsea's own outside backs left to defend two men, particularly when the opposition is playing with a winger. On United's second goal, Hazard was guilty of allowing United right back Rafael to advance past him and receive the ball, leaving Cole to try to defend both Rafael and Valencia. Cole was forced to step to ball, allowing Rafeal to play an easy pass down the line for Valencia who had the time to pick out a perfect low cross for Van Persie.

Like Chelsea, Arsenal line up in a 4-2-3-1 and have in recent weeks been susceptible to opposition attacks from wide areas, particularly down Arsenal's left side. Since the injury to left back Kieran Gibbs, his replacement Andre Santos has been poor both positionally and when asked to defend in 1 v. 1 situations. Ferguson will have certainly taken notice of how Schalke ripped apart the left side of Arsenal's defense in their 2-0 Champions league win over the Gunners last Wednesday and may well choose to once again play with a traditional right winger to exploit this weakness. Opting for Valencia once again seems like a good choice. The Columbian is an excellent option on the wing against teams that play with very attacking full backs. He is defensively disciplined and has a tremendous work rate. He will diligently track the opposition full back on defense but his work rate also allows him to break past the full back into space when United win possession back and look to counter. Alternatively, given Santos' poor 1-on-1 defending, Ferguson could go with the out-of-favor Nani. Nani is less disciplined defensively but brings to the side an ability to beat the opposition off the dribble.

Regardless of which option Ferguson goes with, it will be crucial Arsenal show more defensive discipline on the left than they did against Schalke. Time and again the German side was able to get the ball to right midfielder Jefferson Farfan and right back Atsuto Uchida in far too much space on the wing. While Santos' positioning was poor, he was given little help by left midfielder Lukas Podolski in front of him who frequently allowed Uchida to make unmarked runs down the sideline, forcing Santos to leave Farfan and step to ball. The video below from the first half shows a clear example of this at 4:06. In this passage of play Podolski had drifted to the middle and was lazily half-pressing the Schalke center backs. Cazorla had slid left to fill Podolski's position. Santos had followed Farfan as he drifted towards the middle, opening up space down the right sideline. Cazorla completely switches off on Uchida, allowing the right back to make the run into space unmarked. Huntelaar's finishing was poor on this occasion but the video highlights what was a recurring problem for the Gunners. Understanding and communication between Santos and whoever is defending ahead of him on the left (most often Podolski) will be massively important for Arsenal against United. United's outside backs will get forward and they proved against Chelsea they can punish the opposition when given the chance to stretch its outside backs.


Ferguson may also look to frequently switch the point of attack from left to right with long diagonal balls to the right wing (perhaps we could see Paul Scholes in the side for his long passing ability). Switching the point of attack will force Santos into situations where he's left to defend the right winger 1-on-1, a battle Valencia (or Nani) are always likely to win. Santos will need to be more up for the task than he was against Schalke.

Both limiting the number of chances United have to counter and effectively dealing with the counter when United do get the chance to break will be the final key factor for Arsenal. To prevent the counter they obviously need to be diligent in possession, avoiding silly giveaways in the middle third of the field (Schalke's second goal came from a poor giveaway from Serge Gnabry in midfield). But United will inevitably get the chance to break and when they do its crucial Arsenal get their defensive transition right. Like Chelsea's outside backs, both Carl Jenkinson and Santos are called upon to join the attack and provide width high up the field. This of course leaves them exposed to counter attacks down the wings when they lose possession. However, unlike John Obi Mikel and Ramires at Chelsea, Arsenal won't have especially combative, ball winning holding midfielders in front of the back four to break up counterattacks (unless Wenger makes a surprising decision and starts Coquelin alongside Arteta). The center backs and holding midfielders will therefore have to be particularly aware of their defensive shape even when Arsenal are in possession.

With the Gunners in the midst of a rather unconvincing four game spell, they'll need to improve drastically on recent performances to have any shot of coming away from Old Trafford with a result. Shoring up the left side of the defense and preventing United's wide men from getting crosses into Van Persie will be crucial in ensuring the Gunners don't experience a repeat of last season's humiliating 8-2 defeat.

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.

Ranking the Premier League's most direct teams

“Direct football” or “long ball football” has mostly negative connotations in the modern era. It has become associated with a time in English football when pitches were more mud than grass, and the dominant attacking tactic was to launch high balls into lumbering center forwards to knock down in a 4-4-2 system. Indeed, it was England’s refusal to, until recently, replace direct play with the more fluid, short passing-based systems that were being used in continental Europe as early as the 1930s that has largely been blamed for its lack of success in international tournaments. Long ball football, so the reasoning goes, requires less individual technique and less sophisticated team movement off the ball. Simply whack a ball into a big center forward and hope he knocks it down into the path of a teammate close by or hit it over the top of the defense and hope a speedy forward can get on the end of it. It’s thought to be predictable and generally not the most effective way to use the ball.

In truth however, any assertion that direct play is unquestionably inferior to short passing because it requires less individual technique than dribbling by a defender or using a series of 15 tidy one touch passes to advance the ball 40 yards up the pitch is an incorrect one. Indeed, even in the modern game long passes have often proven to be an effective way to quickly break down an opposition defense. Long balls aren’t a problem in and of themselves. They can be used to stretch a defense and create valuable space between an opponents midfield and back four. Likewise a team can use them to exploit the speed or height and strength advantage an attacker has over opposition center backs. The problem with direct play is when it is overused and becomes the only method a side relies on to advance the ball. Only then does it become predictable and easy to defend. But the same thing can be said of Barcelona’s tiki taka. Relying too heavily on long spells of possession and quick short passes can allow the opposition to restrict the space the attacking side has to play in and deny the time on the ball creative players need to open up a defense.

Of course the most effective team tactics for any given side have to do with the strengths of its players and the players and tactics used by the opposition in any given game. This post will focus on how direct the 20 Barclay’s Premier League teams have been in the first two weeks of the season, the reasons some of them have had for playing direct (or indirect), and the results that different styles of play have produced for different clubs.

When I set out to judge how direct individual Premier League teams are, I first use the average number of long balls each team played per game as a measure of directness and rank teams based on that measure. Stoke City are nearly unanimously considered the most direct team in the Premier League. They’re big and strong, lacking in creative midfield players capable of clever short passing, and in Peter Crouch have a giant of a forward favored to win aerial challenges over just about anyone. However, the data show that after two games Stoke average the 12th most long balls in the league, a curious result given Stoke are considered the most direct team. Should we assume then that Stoke have drastically altered their playing style over the summer and become less reliant on the long ball? 

As it turns out, we should not. The long balls per game statistic doesn’t tell the whole story of how much a team relies on long passes, as it doesn’t take into account possession and the number of long balls a team plays relative to short passes. For example, team A may have 80% of possession against their opponent team B resulting in them playing 60 long balls and 600 short passes. Team B has 20% of possession while hitting 50 long balls and playing 200 short passes. In this example, team A plays 10 more long passes than team B. They are not the more direct team, however. Their advantage in number of long balls played is attributable to them dominating possession and playing more of every kind of pass. Relative to the number of short passes they play, team A is far less direct. They have a ratio of 10 short passes for every one long ball (600/60=10) whereas team B plays only 4 short passes for every long ball (200/50=4). We can use this same short passes to long ball ratio with data on Premier League teams to rank them in terms of directness. This measurement is shown in the table below. Teams at the top of the table have a higher ratio of short passes to long balls and are therefore less direct than those at the bottom.
Using this method, Stoke are indeed the most direct team in the Premier League after two weeks, playing just 3.48 short passes per long ball. By contrast, Arsenal have been the least direct team, playing 11.08 short passes for every one long ball. Neither of these facts are particularly surprising. While Tony Pulis has always focused on physicality and territory at Stoke, Arsene Wenger has molded a side of mostly creative, technical players who are often small in stature. Interestingly, both teams have struggled to find the net in their first two games. Arsenal have yet to score, registering two goalless draws, one of which was to Stoke last Sunday. Stoke have scored just once in their opening two games.

The sample size is too small to enable us to predict whether either team will struggle to score all season and there are obviously other factors besides how direct a team is that influence number of goals scored. In the case of Arsenal, one big factor may be the loss of Robin Van Persie and the lack chemistry between Arsenal’s three big attacking summer signings Olivier Giroud, Santi Cazorla, and Lukas Podolski.

The data produce some other interesting findings. Both Liverpool and Tottenham brought in new managers this summer. Brendan Rodgers and Andre Villas-Boas were expected to bring new styles of play to their respective teams. Rodgers likes to build the attack from the back with patient buildup play and linking a number of shorts passes. At Swansea last season, his team had the third highest average possession percentage behind the two Manchester clubs. Villas-Boas prefers a pressing game where players expend energy high up the field to win the ball back and then get their rest while patiently knocking the ball around in possession. Neither system relies heavily on the long ball. However, both teams are in the bottom half of the table in terms of short passes per long ball, suggesting they’ve relied on direct play more than most teams. Liverpool have played 5.96 short passes per long ball, while Tottenham have played 5.67.

The data also show that Everton and Newcastle, two teams that finished in the top 7 of the Premier League last season, are among the most direct teams thus far. Newcastle have played 5.07 short passes per long ball and Everton have played just 4.7. These numbers make sense when we consider the strengths of each team and who they’ve played in their opening fixtures. Everton started the season with a home game to Manchester United. United had three injured center backs in Chris Smalling, Johnny Evans, and Rio Ferdinand and were forced to play Michael Carrick out of position in the center of defense alongside Nemanja Vidic. In Marouane Fellaini, Everton had a tall, strong midfielder able to dominate Carrick in the air and knock balls down for his teammates. Everton tried to exploit this mismatch all evening, continually sending long balls towards the towering Belgian. The direct style worked as Everton emerged 1-0 winners. Newcastle’s frequent use of the long pass early in the season likely has to do with the fact that its forward pairing of Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse are full of pace and able to use their powerful running to get in behind the opposition back four. The Magpies have creative midfielders in Johann Cabaye and Hatem Ben-Arfa capable of getting the ball on the floor and playing, but the direct threat of the two Senegalese forwards gives their attack another dimension and they’ll likely continue to look long over the top for them this season.

Again, a sample size of two games doesn’t necessarily reflect how a team will play throughout an entire season, but if we look at data from last season we can get a good idea of how direct we’d expect teams to be in 2012-2013 (at least those teams that have kept the same managers). The figure below shows the same short passes per long ball statistic. Notice Stoke were also the most direct team last season. They also scored the fewest goals in the league with just 36. Another point of interest is that four of the teams that finished in the top six of the table last season--Manchester City (1), Arsenal (3), Chelsea (6) and Manchester United (2)--were among the five least direct teams. This isn’t terribly surprising since these are among the biggest, wealthiest clubs in the league and can afford to bring in the most technically gifted players suited to play in a short passing system. The only top six finisher among the league’s 10 most direct teams was Newcastle. Three of the bottom four finishers were among the four most direct teams--Blackburn, Bolton, and QPR. This almost certainly has to do with the inability of smaller clubs to purchase the most technically gifted players capable of playing a short passing game. 
The table may lead us to conclude that relying on short passes produces superior results to playing direct football. This is somewhat misleading. Clubs like Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, and Arsenal play less direct football in the Premier League because they have technically gifted players, and they gain a competitive advantage over most of their opponents by keeping the ball moving along the ground. It wouldn’t make any sense for Arsenal to set out launching long balls forward against Stoke City--they lose their competitive advantage doing that. But, it also doesn’t make sense for Stoke to try to tiki tika their way up the pitch against Arsenal--they don’t have the quality of players to do that. Their advantage over Arsenal is in their superior size and strength, so they play direct. In short, teams adopt styles that best utilize the strengths of their players and attack the weaknesses of their opposition. Not every team can have the quality of Europe’s top clubs and where there is a gap in talent between two sides, direct play will remain a tactic teams employ. 

Manchester United vs. Tottenham Hotspur, second half

Tottenham dominated most of the first half, and they continued to control the game in the opening period of the second half. Unfortunately for Spurs, Ashley Young scored goals in the 60th and 69th minutes against the run of play to give Manchester United a 3-0 lead. Young's first goal was a difficult volley into the far, lower corner. For his second goal, he received the ball from Evra with plenty of time to turn, took two touches, and then beautifully curled the ball into the far, upper corner of the goal. As nice a finish as the second goal was, Younès Kaboul stepped back rather than closing down Young, leaving Young a massive amount of space. Both goals were well taken, but very much against the run of play. The passing visualization below shows each team's passing in their attacking third from half time through the 69th minute (when Young scored United's third goal). Tottenham clearly continued to dominate in that opening period of the second half even as Manchester United scored their second and third goals.


After the third goal, United were content to pass the ball around their defensive third and the middle third of the field, and Tottenham--deflated from conceding 3 goals during a long spell in which they dominated--were content to let United pass the ball around. Jermaine Defoe scored a consolation goal in the 87th minute after a United defensive lapse, but it was of little consolation to Tottenham supporters. As the passing visualization below shows, United completed 148 total passes to Tottenham's 80 passes from the 70th minute (just after United's third goal) through the final whistle.


In the end, much like Arsenal vs. Liverpool, the team that took their chances secured 3 points, while the team that dominated the run of play left the match with nothing. The visualization below shows that United scored 3 goals from their 6 attempts, while Spurs managed only 1 goal from their 18 attempts.


Manchester United vs. Tottenham Hotspur, first half

Manchester United lead 1-0 on a Wayne Rooney goal headed from a corner just before the end of the half. Tottenham fans undoubtedly think that United are undeserving of a lead, especially after Adebayor's goal was called back for a hand ball. It was a very difficult decision for Martin Atkinson, as the ball clearly hit off Adebayor's arm (after deflecting off his stomach), but there didn't appear to be intent nor an advantage gained (the ball would have fell to Adebayor even if it hadn't hit his arm). Even so, Tottenham were the better side in the first half, as the figures below of passing in the attacking third indicate. The first 15 minutes of the half were relatively even, but Spurs dominated the remaining two-thirds of the first half.



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.

(Click to enlarge)

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).