Some thoughts on Newcastle 0-3 Sunderland

Sunderland's third consecutive Tyne-Wear derby win

Gus Poyet was without Lee Cattermole through injury so brought in new signing Leon Bridcutt to anchor the midfield in Sunderland's standard 4-3-3. Jack Colback and Ki played the shuttling box-to-box roles in the middle of midfield.

Alan Pardew played a 4-2-3-1 in Newcastle's first match since the official departure of Yohan Cababye to PSG. Vurnon Anita and Cheick Tiote played at the base of midfield with Tiote sitting deeper in midfield when Newcastle were in possession. Hatem Ben Arfa started in the #10 role off of striker Shola Ameobi. Sammy Ameobi played on the left side of the attacking midfield three, Moussa Sissoko played on the right. Steven Taylor continued to fill in at center back alongside Mike Williamson for the injured Fabricio Coloccini.

The 4-3-3 vs. 4-2-3-1 matchup meant each side's three center midfielders had an obvious direct opponent. Colback lined up with Anita, Ki with Tiote and Bridcutt with Ben Arfa. Sunderland defended with a 4-1-4-1 shape- Bridcutt sat just in front of the back four and tracked the movement of Ben Arfa between the lines. Newcastle defended with two banks of four with Ben Arfa staying high up the pitch alongside Shola Ameobi when Sunderland were in possession. In effect Sunderland defended with 5 across the midfield, Newcastle with 4. The extra defender in midfield meant Sunderland were able to crowd the center of the pitch and limit the space for Ben Arfa in the gaps. However, it also meant Altidore was isolated up front when Poyet's side won the ball back. The American therefore had an important responsibility to provide the initial outlet pass forward and to hold the ball up long enough to bring his midfielders into play. Although Altidore's hold up play hasn't always been strong enough this season, he performed the task excellently today, challenging Newcastle's center backs and winning fouls. Had he not been as strong keeping the ball and allowed Newcastle to quickly win the ball back, Sunderland would have pinned deep in their own half for large portions of the half.

The Sunderland midfield trio was excellent. Bridcutt slowed slowed counters and fouled intelligently when it was necessary while Ki and Colback pressed Tiote and Anita and midfield, denying them time to pick their heads up and find penetrating passes forward. In attack, Ki and Colback were able to sprint in behind the two deep Newcastle midfielders on the break. Colback in particular had a terrific game on both sides of the ball. He showed a tireless work rate to close down the ball in midfield then break forward to join in attacks when Sunderland recovered the ball. He sprinted in behind Anita in midfield to set up Sunderland's second goal. For the third he tackled the ball from Tiote then burst forward in front of Borini to receive a pass and finish the move on his own. He pressed high up the field in the second half to win a tackle just outside Newcastle's penalty area to set up Altidore with a 1 v. 1 with Tim Krul but the striker couldn't finish. Colback finished the game with an impressive 4 tackles and 3 interceptions.

 Newcastle introduced Luuk De Jong for Sammy Ameobi at halftime and went to 4-4-2. They played a bit more direct and looked to get on the end of Ameobi knock downs. Defensively they pressed higher up the pitch and the contest became more stretched. Sunderland looked a consistent threat on the counter, taking advantage of space in behind the two Newcastle midfielders when they broke forward.

Newcastle desperately missed the creativity Cabaye brings to midfield. The've failed to score in their first two games without the Frenchman. Newcastle's other center midfield options Sissoko, Tiote, Anita and Marveaux all rely more on their physical attributes than technique and creativity. Ben Arfa is a creative and technical player who can play as a #10 but he's less consistent than Cabaye and, for all his flair, he often fails to provide substance.

Manchester United lack invention in final third; Mourinho gets subs wrong

Johan Cabaye's second half winner handed Manchester United a second successive home league defeat for the first time since 2002 and earned Newcastle their first win at Old Trafford since 1972. It is David Moyes third home defeat of the season. Manchester United have scored just 8 goals at Old Trafford, fewer home goals than both West Brom and bottom of the table Sunderland.

The problems today against Newcastle were familiar ones. Moyes' side lacked the invention and quality in the final third to break down an organized opponent.

With Wayne Rooney missing due to yellow card accumulation, Moyes opted for a 4-4-2 with a front pairing of Robin Van Persie and Javier Hernandez. Tom Cleverley and Phil Jones played in the middle of midfield with Nani on the left wing and Adnan Januzaj on the right.

Alan Pardew opted for a 4-2-3-1 giving Newcastle a man advantage in midfield. The visitors were able to use that advantage to control the game in the middle of the park. With Cheikh Tiote and Vurnon Anita protecting the back four, Manchester United's forays into the final third occurred in the channels and mainly throught Januzaj down the right. Newcastle's center backs Mike Williamson and Fabricio Coloccini dealt with balls into the box from wide areas excellently and deserve a credit for their positioning.

Manchester United's inability to link play forward through the middle had plenty to do with the absence of Rooney. Van Persie lacked Rooney's energy and determination to get on the ball in the withdrawn striker role. Van Persie also lacks Rooney's directness dribbling through midfield. He attempted just one take on in the match. Playing Van Persie in the withdrawn role also meant he rarely found himself in the box where he's at his most dangerous. He didn't manage a single attempt on goal, an incredible stat for last season's Premier League leading goal scorer, and completed just 7 passes in the attacking third.

In the middle of midfield Jones and Cleverley didn't have particularly bad games. Indeed Jones was at times excellent with his defensive positioning and ability to protect the back four. However, both players are limited in what they can contribute in the attack and couldn't have been expected to provide the impetus or creativity going forward to create chances. As a result their roles in possession mainly involved funneling the ball into wide areas where the outside backs would look to overlap Nani and Januzaj tucking inside- another factor that contributed to their inability to vary their attacking approach and penetrate Newcastle through the middle of the pitch. You can see in the graphic below the number of horizontal passes into wide areas both Manchester United center midfielders made.

The extra midfielder also allowed Newcastle to control possession. They ended the contest with 54% possession, a slight but significant edge given they were an inferior team in terms of talent playing at the home of the league champions. Their goal was perhaps a bit opportunistic but Pardew's side deserves immense credit for their organization. The three center midfielders Anita, Tiote and Cabaye were all commanding in the middle of the pitch and the back four organized itself with aplomb. The performances of Debuchy and Williamson in particular deserve recognition. Debuchy was a menace getting forward from his right back position but he also had the pace and energy to make recovery runs.

Mourinho's move to 4-4-2 costly again
Stoke City shocked Chelsea with a 3-2 home win after being completely overrun for the first 40 minutes. For the third time this week Jose Mourinho's side allowed an opposition corner to bounce in the box without getting a touch on it and each time they were made to pay with a goal. John O'Shea and Phil Bardsley were able to tuck in from close range Wednesday for Sunderland, today Crouch scored in a similar fashion for Stoke. The inability to deal with set pieces will be a huge concern for Mourinho as it made the Sunderland contest more uncomfortable at the end than it should have been and shifted the momentum today against a Stoke side that was well and truly out of the game.

Not for the first time this season Mourinho was guilty of making questionable substitutions chasing a win with the game level. At 2-2 he brought on Frank Lampard for John Obi Mikel and Samuel Eto'o for Andre Schurrle and switched from 4-2-3-1 to 4-4-2. He made a similar switch to 4-4-2 at home to West Brom with the score level at 1-1. As was the case in that earlier contest, the switch was meant to be a positive one but had adverse effects. By taking a man out of midfield Chelsea lost some of the possession dominance they'd been enjoying and found it more difficult to link play into the strikers. It also left them stretched on the break when they lost possession and were hit with a sucker punch just as they were in the West Brom game. The decision to remove Schurrle was particularly strange. He'd scored twice and hit the woodwork and generally seemed to be making a nuisance of himself whereas Juan Mata had had a quiet afternoon. This time around they didn't the Blues didn't have a suspect penalty to bail them out.

Tactical Analysis: Everton 3-2 Newcastle

After producing a dominant first half display, Everton held off a second half Newcastle comeback to run out 3-2 winners at Goodison Park. Romelu Lukaku put in the type of shift that will have Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho questioning why he loaned out the young Belgian striker, scoring twice and assisting Ross Barkley in the opening 45 minutes to give Everton a 3-0 going into the break. Half time substitute Johan Cabaye drew one back for the visitors with a fine strike in the 51st minute. Loic Remy tacked on a second in the 89th to make for a tense finish but the home side were able to hold on.

Roberto Martinez made several changes to the side that earned a dramatic 3-2 win over West Ham the last time out in the league. Lukaku replaced Nikica Jelavic up front. James McCarthy won his first start alongside Gareth Barry in the double pivot. Leon Osman was used further up the pitch in a left attacking midfield role meaning Steven Naismith was relegated to a spot on the bench.

Alan Pardew tends to use either 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 formations but today it was more of a 4-2-3-1. Vernon Anita and Cheik Tiote played deep in midfield with Moussa Sissoko operating behind striker Loic Remy in a central attacking midfield role. Hatem Ben Arfa usually starts on the right side of midfield but was used on the left. Yoan Gouffran played on the right. Pardew presumably used Gouffran on the right because he thought he’d do a better job tracking Leighton Baines’ runs forward. The back four was unchanged from the side that lost 3-2 to Hull last weekend.

Newcastle fail to deal with Howard long balls
There were a number of interesting tactical features that impacted this match but both of Lukaku’s goals had more to do with poor defending from Newcastle than any overarching tactical feature. Lukaku’s goals were however quite interesting because they were uncharacteristic of a Roberto Martinez coached side. Martinez encourages his sides to build attacks patiently from the back and therefore prefers his goalkeepers role the ball out to ensure possession is kept rather than launching hopeful long balls forward. But both of Lukaku’s goals stemmed from balls played long by Howard. For Lukaku’s opener, Coloccini failed to adequately deal with Howard’s long clearance- the Newcastle center back headed it directly into the path of Mirallas who dribbled down the right wing before cutting back for Lukaku to finish.  Coloccini was again partially at fault for Lukaku’s second. The Argentine allowed Howard’s long ball forward to run past him and into the path of Lukaku. Krul should have been closer to the edge of his box to collect the ball before Lukaku could get on the end of it but failed to do so. Lukaku’s second goal in particular isn’t one you’d expect Everton to score many more of this season but shows what a direct threat the powerful Belgian can be in the rare occasions Everton do play long out of the back.

Baines and Coleman overload Newcastle fullbacks
Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman operated more as wing backs (as has consistently been the case under Martinez) and pushed high up the pitch in possession. They looked to overlap Osman and Mirallas tucking inside from their wide midfield positions. The effects of this advanced positioning were twofold.  When Gouffran and Ben Arfa failed to track their forays forward, it left the Newcastle fullbacks to defend 1 v. 2 down the flanks. Everton combined well down the flanks all evening, particularly on the left where Baines and Osman combined for 23 passes. When Gouffran and Ben Arfa did track the runs of Baines and Coleman, it pushed the two Newcastle wide men deep into their own defensive half. When Newcastle won the ball back they couldn’t get back into the attacking third of the pitch quickly enough to provide support for Sissoko and Remy.

Newcastle could have exploited the space in behind Everton’s advanced fullbacks on the counter. However, they couldn’t find a quick outlet pass forward on which to spring those counters.

Osman and Barkley overload Anita
Another key element of the first half that ties in to Everton’s wide play was Osman’s tendency to tuck inside to a narrow position on the left. Not only did this provide space for Baines to overlap on the outside, it also gave Everton a man advantage in central areas. For the most part the matchup in the middle of the pitch was Sissoko on Barry, Tiote on McCarthy and Anita slightly deeper checking the movement of Barkley. Osman’s movement into the middle gave Everton a 4 v. 3 advantage. He tucked inside towards Barkley to create overloads on Anita. This opened up dangerous space for Barkley between the seams because Anita had to leave him and step to ball when Osman was in possession. Osman played 17 passes to Barkley, Everton’s highest pass combination.

Newcaste lack creativity through the middle
The most obvious tactical feature of the opening half was Newcastle’s lack of creativity in the middle of midfield. Anita, Tiote and Sissoko are known more for their physical attributes and energy than their expansive passing. Anita and Tiote played almost completely level with one another when Newcastle were in possession, hitting passes side to side without threatening to penetrate Everton’s midfield bank of four with vertical balls. Everton were content to let them have possession deep in midfield, confident they didn’t have the ability to play forward passes that would split their compact banks of four. Because both Anita and Tiote were sitting deep and not threatening to move into advanced positions themselves, Barry and McCarthy only had to worry about defending Sissoko between the lines. With a 2 v. 1 advantage in Newcastle’s more advanced area of midfield, it was easy for Everton to cope comfortably. Sissoko received 22 passes in the first half. Almost none of them were in dangerous areas in the center of the pitch. He was able to complete just 4 passes in the attacking third in the first half.

Newcastle’s three center midfielders combined for just 15 passes in the attacking third in the first half, a reflection of both how poor their vertical passing was and how impotent the entire squad was moving off the ball. 

Pardew's subs 
Pardew’s second half changes made a big difference and Newcastle nearly ended up getting something out of a game that looked a lost cause at halftime. While he deserves credit for the way his substitutions altered the contest, questions still must be asked of how he got the starting 11 so wrong in the first place. He replaced Ben Arfa with Cabaye at halftime and brought on Michael Williamson for Yanga-Mbiwa. Cabaye played centrally in the #10 role, Sissoko moved wide to the right and Gouffran switched sides to the left. Cabaye’s movement between the lines was better than Sissoko had shown in the first half and he provided a quality on the ball Newcastle had lacked. Within three minutes of his introduction Cabaye bisected Everton’s midfield line with a clever pass through to Sissoko. Sissoko dummied the pass intelligently for the overlapping Debuchy but the right back’s delivery into the box was poor. Moments later Cabaye would have Newcastle on the score sheet. He moved towards the left channel to collect a pass from Gouffran and dispatched a terrific strike into the top far corner from 25 yards out.

Pardew replaced Anita with Papiss Cisse in the 69th and moved to a 4-4-2. Cisse went up top alongside Remy and Cabaye dropped to more of a box-to-box role with Tiote. Newcastle became much more direct, looking to either get the ball wide and cross towards the two forwards or play it long early into the forwards and try to get on the end of second balls. The more physical, direct style made Everton uncomfortable but they managed to keep the away side from getting a second until the 89th minute. Cabaye played a ball from the left flank towards the back post. Debuchy rose well and provided a knock down for Remy to tuck home. Remy nearly equalized with a 20 yard volley moments later when Everton again struggled to deal with a series of hopeful balls hit into the box but the home side were just able to hold on for the 3 points.  

Martinez may be unhappy with his side’s inability to keep the ball in the second half when Newcastle switched to 4-4-2. The change meant Everton had a 3 v. 2 advantage in midfield so they should have been able to boss possession. With the score at 3-1, too often they looked to break quickly on the counter in search of a fourth goal, making the game more stretched than was necessary. The counter was often on because Newcastle were pushing numbers forward but at that stage of the game, with a two goal advantage, they should have looked to slow the pace of the game down in possession from time to time.

Everton were good value for their lead in the first half. They worked the channels excellently through the overlapping runs of Baines and Coleman. Lukaku and Barkley were a constant threat around the penalty box. Both are very direct players that are sure to make life difficult for Premier League defenses. Perhaps had they done a better job slowing the tempo of the match in the second half they'd have won more comfortably. Still, this was another positive performance for Martinez. Three wins from three have his side sitting fourth in the table.

Newcastle will feel all three goals they conceded were avoidable. Two came from Coloccini mistakes, the third from an aimless pass forward from Yanga-Mbiwa. With Cabaye on the bench n the first half, they were avoid of ideas in the attacking third. They tried to take on a more direct approach in switching to 4-4-2 in the second half to make up for the shortage of midfield creativity. It nearly ended up getting them a draw on the evening but they'll have to improve their link up play in the attacking third moving forward.

Tactical Analysis: Manchester City 4-0 Newcastle

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

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

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

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

Click for larger image

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

Figure 1

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

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

Click for larger image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Arsenal 7-3 Newcastle

Theo Walcott bagged a hat trick as Arsenal hit Newcastle with four unanswered goals in the final 20 minutes to give the Gunners a wild 7-3 win. Had Olivier Giroud's late header off the woodwork been a few inches lower, it would have tied the record of 11 for most goals in a Premier League match (Portsmouth beat Reading 7-4 in September of 2007).

It was a match that typified the first half of the 2012-2013 Barclay's Premier League season- plenty of action and drama but desperately lacking in convincing team performances and tactical intelligence. That 10 goals were produced was a shock given the rather dismal performance of both sides in the first 45 minutes- the scoreline is more a reflection of silly mistakes and perhaps fatigue than any scintillating team display. With both teams fielding three man central midfields and getting numbers behind the ball defensively, neither side was able to dominate the midfield in the opening 45 minutes and the game was played at a remarkably slow pace by Premier League standards.

Team tactics played virtually no role in the game and there was very little tactical development over the course of 90 minutes. There was some fine finishing on display, with Walcott in particular deserving of praise for an excellent performance, but lapses in concentration on defense were largely responsible for the bulk of goals. With the scoreline at 3-3, all 6 goals could be blamed on silly errors (footytube highlights here):

  • 1-0 Arsenal. Danny Simpson pushes forward from his right fullback position to join a Newcastle attack. The Magpies lose possession. Arsenal look to counter quickly through Podolski who had burst into the space behind Simpson. Cazorla hits a pass behind Podolski forcing him to turn around and put his back to goal to retrieve the ball. This allows Simpson time to recover. But rather than pressing Podolski and forcing him to go backwards, he continues to retreat towards his own goal, allowing the German winger the space to turn, lift his head and slot a through ball to Walcott.
  • 1-1. Bacary Sagna makes a silly foul on Papiss Cisse in a dangerous area just outside the box.
  • 2-1 Arsenal. A horribly underthrown throw in from Danny Simpson falls to the head of Podolski- he's able to play his header forward to Cazorla whose pass to Oxlade-Chamberlain is finished off well by the Arsenal teenager. I realize it sounds like I'm looking for someone to blame pinning the goal on a throw in but watch the highlights at 2:18: it really is a dreadful throw in that gets nowhere near a Newcastle player.
  • 2-2. Sylvain Marveaux is 40 yards from goal when Obertan collects the ball on the left wing in the build up to Newcastle's second goal. He makes a casual run towards the back post as Obertan dribbles at Sagna. Not a single Arsenal player notices his run in the entire sequence and he's allowed to tap in the simplest of goals unmarked at the back post.
  • 3-2 Arsenal. Tiote is carelessly nicked of possession by Wilshere in midfield leading to an Arsenal counter that ends in Podolski's tap in header. Wilshere did excellently to close in on the Ivorian midfielder but Tiote got his first touch stuck under his feet leaving him unable to get rid of the ball before Wilshere could pounce.
  • 3-3. Marveaux bursts forward with the ball from midfield. Sagna and Wilshere have the chance to double team for Arsenal at the 18. The two fail to communicate and both back off allowing Marveaux to pick his head up and play a clever ball to Ba at the back post with the outside of his foot. Gibbs was guilty of ball watching and switching off on Ba.
Arsenal's fourth was the first goal of the game that had more to do with the team shape of the attacking team than mistakes by the defensive team. Throughout the second half Podolski had been tucking inside on the left, forcing Danny Simpson to track him into the middle of the box and leaving space for Gibbs to overlap in the channel.  On the fourth, Podolski mad a run into the center of the box. Simpson followed and Gibbs dutifully made the overlapping run into space and provided the cut back for Walcott to smash home.

Arsenal's fifth, sixth and seventh goals came when the game had become very open. That Walcott had a hand in all three was no surprise. His pace and ability to run in behind defense is suited for open games, something he stated himself in the post match interview. He turned provider for Olivier Giroud for the fifth and sixth goals and finished off his hat trick in style with a slaloming run into the box for the seventh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preview: Newcastle vs. Manchester City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tactical Analysis: Fulham 2-1 Newcastle

Hugo Rodallega's second half header gave Fulham a 2-1 win over Newcastle after two earlier deflected goals from Steve Sidwell and Hatem Ben Arfa had put the two teams level at 1-1.

Ben Arfa returned from injury for the Magpies and started the game as the left-sided attacking player in a 4-3-3. Jonas Gutierrez and Vurnon Anita played in front of Chiek Tiote in the middle of midfield and Papiss Cisse was again used as a right forward. Alan Pardew's defense was as expected.

Martin Jol selected Rodallega over Mladen Petric to pair with Berbatov at forward in Fulham's 4-4-2.

The tactical development of the game can be broken into three phases that were brought about by tactical and personnel changes from Pardew. In the first phase Newcastle started the game in a 4-3-3 yet were getting dominated in terms of possession despite having an extra midfielder and created few goalscoring opportunities of their own. In the second phase Pardew switched to a 4-4-2 with Ba and Cisse paired up top after Ba had become isolated in the 4-3-3. In the third phase Newcastle were chasing an equalizer and brought on Shola Ameobi to replace Ben Arfa and moved to what was basically three center forwards and began hitting everything long into the box for Ameobi, Ba and Cisse.

Newcastle start in 4-3-3
Newcastle's 4-3-3 meant they had a man advantage in midfield yet they were dominated in this zone. Offensively, Anita was usually picked up by Baird while Sidwell looked after Guttierez. With Berbatov and Rodallega generally staying high up the pitch for Fulham, Tiote was left free in deeper positions in midfield. However, the Ivorian is obviously more combative ball winner than creative passer in his holding midfield role and failed to play any penetrating passes into the final third when he got on the ball. His primary concern was maintaining a position where he could help his center backs slow down Fulham counterattacks when Newcastle lost possession. This was understandable but it also meant Newcastle's extra man in midfield didn't give them an advantage in the final third.

Baird and Sidwell did an excellent job for Fulham sitting in front of the back four and reading passing lanes and intercepting passes. Baird had 8 interceptions, more than twice as many as any player on the field.

Pardew is desperately missing the creativity of Yohan Cabaye in an advanced midfield position. Anita did well circulating the ball but isn't an especially dynamic player and Gutierrez is better on the left wing where he can run at defenders and whip in crosses. Without Cabaye's creative passing in midfield, Newcastle continue to struggle to link the midfield with Ba and have too often resorted to knocking longballs towards the Senegalese forward (this table I produced last week shows Newcastle plays a larger percentage of longballs than any other team).

Fulham's attack largely revolved around two strategies. Firstly,  Dimitar Berbatov dropped off into midfield to collect the ball and direct the Cottagers' moves forward. Secondly, with Newcastle's fullbacks getting into advanced positions, Fulham looked to counter attack down the channels with Rodallega often floating out wide to receive direct passes and break forward quickly. Berbatov did an excellent job getting his two wingers involved early on. Rodallega played more advanced and looked to create overloads for Newcastle's fullbacks by floating into the channels. Sidwell sprinted forward from midfield to join the attack. Fulham's first goal came when Rodallega drifted behind Santon on the right wing, forcing Coloccini out of central defense to follow him all the way to the right touchline. Rodallega slipped a pass towards the end line through to Duff who was able to cut the ball back and find Sidwell at the top of the box for the finish.

Pardew switches to 4-4-2
With Newcastle struggling to get players close enough to Ba for him to have a meaningful passing option, Pardew switched to a 4-4-2 around the 28th minute. Cisse moved alongside Ba up top. Ben Arfa switched to his more comfortable right midfield position and Gutierrez moved from the middle to his natural place on the left wing. Anita played in advance of Tiote in the middle of midfield.

Much has been made about the fact Ba and Cisse have never scored in the same game when both were on the pitch. However, the move to two up top seemed to make sense given Ba had been so isolated in the opening 28 minutes. Newcastle may have been concerned about becoming even more direct with only Anita and Tiote in the middle of midfield. However, Ben Arfa crucially began to tuck into the middle of the pitch from his right-sided position, playing almost as a #10, while Danny Simpson advanced from right back to provide width. Ben Arfa's movement into the middle gave Baird and Sidwell another defensive responsibility. They now had to track the movement of both Ben Arfa moving infield and Anita shuffling forward, meaning one of them was no longer spare to track runs of either Cisse or Ba back into midfield. As a result, Ba began to find space to drop off in between the seams, receive passes, turn and play through balls for Cisse in behind the defense. and the game became very even. A move in which Ba dropped off in front of the Newcastle center backs and slipped Cisse through on goal highlighted the Magpies new offensive potency (though Cisse had strayed into an offsides position and had hit the woodwork anyway). Ben Arfa was excellent providing the link between Newcastle's defense and the two forwards and was Newcastle's key player in the second half. His goal took a fortunate deflection but came when he had tucked inside and received a pass from Simpson on the right.

While Newcastle looked more dangerous after moving to a 4-4-2, Ba and Cisse still seem uncomfortable playing together as a center forward pair. Whereas Berbatov and Rodellega played 17 passes to one another, Ba and Cisse combined for just 5.

Fulham continued to try to counter into the flanks. Martin Jol made what would prove to be a key substitution in the 63rd minute, bringing on Ashkan Dejagah to replace Kacaniklic. Duff switched to the left and Dejagah occupied the right wing. With his first touches of the game, Dejagah was brought down on the right at the edge of the penalty area. Rodallega powerfully headed home the resulting Duff free kick.

Ben Arfa replaced
Trailing 2-1, Pardew replaced Ben Arfa with Shola Ameobi in the 71st, a move that presumably came down to a lack of match fitness for the Frenchman given he had been Newcastle's brightest player. Ameobi moved into the center of what was basically a center forward three for Newcastle with Ba slightly to the left and Cisse slightly to the right. Gutierrez stayed wide on the left while Simpson played very high up the pitch on the right as more of a right midfielder (Newcastle were basically in a flat 3-4-3). They looked to get the ball wide to Gutierrez and Simpson to play early crosses in towards the back post for the three towering forwards to attack. You wont witness a clearer example of route 1 football in a top flight European league. Hangeland and Hughes defended admirably at the center of the Fulham defense. Newcastle attempted 10 crosses after Ameobi's introduction but only one was successful.

Fulham's counterattacks were impressive. The combination of Berbatov's skillful buildup play and Rodallega's hard running worked to great effect. Newcastle were most dangerous when Ben Arfa drifted in space in the middle of the pitch and used his creativity to link with the forwards. Without a creative passer in the middle of midfield they become too direct. Pardew will therefore be desperate to have Cabaye back in the side.

Ranking the Premier League's most direct teams (revisited)

In a post very early in the Barclay's Premier League season I presented a table ranking the league's teams according to how direct they played. The metric I used for these rankings was the number of short passes a team played per one long ball. The fewer short passes a team played per long ball, the more direct they were. I used this metric rather than the simpler long balls per game because long balls per game doesn't tell the complete story of how direct a team is. Teams with very low average possession statistics have less of the ball and are therefore likely to play a fewer number of all types of passes. For example, Stoke play the 11th most long balls per game but few would argue they are just the 11th most direct team in the league. They nearly always have less of the ball than their opponent and therefore play fewer total passes, both long and short.

In the table below I rank the teams by how direct they play after nearly four months of the season but this time around I've used a slightly different metric than short passes per long ball. Here I use the percent of total passes a team plays that are long balls. Total passes a team plays includes short passes, long balls, crosses and through balls [in other words my calculation was long balls/(long balls+short passes+crosses+through balls)*100]. According to this metric Newcastle are the most direct team in the league with 18.27% of their passes being long balls. Arsenal are the least direct- only 8.52% of their passes are long balls.

This table ranks Barclay's Premier League teams by the percent of passes each play that are long balls. Data courtest of

Tactical Analysis: Newcastle 2-0 Wigan

Maynor Figueroa's 12th minute red card for a last ditch tackle on Papiss Cisse was the key factor in Wigan's 3-0 loss at Newcastle. Ba scored the resulting penalty to put the Magpies up 1-0 and from there they were relatively comfortable for the remainder of the game.

Prior to Figueroa's sending off the game looked like it would provide an interesting tactical battle. When these teams met at the end of April last season, Alan Pardew's side were at a loss for how to defend Roberto Martinez's unconventional 3-4-3 formation and were soundly beaten 4-0. Wigan's 3-4-3 employs two wing backs and two wide forwards. They look to push the wing backs up towards the wide forwards and overload the opposition full back in wide areas (see post below). In the 4-0 defeat Pardew played a 4-3-3 with three central midfielders. Wigan's wing backs (Emmerson Boyce and Jean Beausejour on that day) pushed beyond Newcastle's wide forwards when in possession, creating 2 v. 1 situations with the wide forwards on the flanks in the attacking third. Newcastle's three central midfielders were unable to shift to wider areas and pick up Boyce and Beausejour and Wigan therefore dominated play on the wings.

Given how thoroughly outplayed Pardew's team was in that fixture, it was surprising to see him once again line up in a 4-3-3 for today's game. He must have certainly thought the extra man in the center of the park would allow his side to boss possession down the middle but would have also been concerned the formation would once again give Wigan's wing backs Beausejour and Ronnie Stam space down the wings. To combat this threat Pardew played Jonas Gutierrez fairly deep on the left. The Argentine operated more as a left midfielder than forward and dropped deep to track the runs of Stam when Wigan were in possession. Cisse played narrower and more advanced on the right, looking to get close to Ba. Early on when the game was still 11 v. 11, Wigan looked like they might once again enjoy some success down the left with Cisse failing to track the runs forward of Beausejour.

The red card and resulting penalty changed the entire complexion of the game. In the first few minutes following Figueroa's sending off, Wigan didn't change anything and tried to play a back two of Gary Caldwell and Boyce with Beausejour and Stam continuing on as wing backs in what was effectively a 2-4-3. Martinez was trying to bring on holding midfielder James McArthur for Jordi Gomez but before he could make that sub Ba had added a second after a galloping run forward from Davide Santon whose well struck shot Ali Al-Habsi only parried into the path of Ba.

With the introduction of McArthur, Beausejour was dropped back alongside Caldwell and Boyce to form a back three. David Jones moved to left midfield while McArthur slotted in alongside James McCarthy in the center of midfield. Aroune Kone and Franco di Santo played as forwards in what was now a 3-4-2. Without two wide forwards, Wigan no longer had the ability to create the overloads in wide areas their game is based around. Newcastle had plenty of bodies to deal with any threat down the middle of the field and although Wigan showed some decent passing displays in the second half, the Magpies' goal never really look threatened.

Newcastle certainly enjoyed the extra man in midfield, comfortably controlling possession in that area and at times springing attacks from some excellent dribbling by Sylvain Marveaux. The second half was a rather quiet affair. Pardew's side sat a little deeper and had plenty of bodies in the middle of the field when Wigan tried to cross. Stam and Kone were at times able to work passing combinations and find space to cross down the right but with Di Santo the only target in the box they never really looked like scoring.

Wigan vs. Newcastle: tactics preview

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

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

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

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

Pardew Dilemma: when to pair Ba, Cisse in 4-4-2

In Newcastle's 3-0 defeat to Manchester United this weekend, Alan Pardew opted for a 4-4-2 with Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba paired at center forward, Cheick Tiote and Yohan Cabaye in the center of midfield, Jonas Guitierrez at left midfield and Hatem Ben Arfa on the right. The game would ultimately highlight one of the major problems that can arise when fielding a 4-4-2 with only two central midfielders- the tendency to get overrun in the center of the park against a team fielding more than two central midfielders. Manchester United fielded a 4-4-2 as well but they opted for a narrow diamond with Wayne Rooney at attacking midfield, Michael Carrick playing the holding role, and Tom Cleverley and Shinji Kagawa getting up and down the pitch as "shuttlers." Outnumbered 2 vs. 4 in the middle of the park, Newcastle couldn't compete for the ball in midfield and Manchester United dominated possession and went up 2-0 within 15 minutes.

After the game there were some interesting comments from Newcastle supporters on various discussion boards about whether they are a better side playing a 4-4-2 with Cisse and Ba alongside one another as center forwards or playing with Cisse as a lone center forward with Ba occupying a role on the left in either a 4-3-3, 4-5-1 or 4-2-3-1 as they did at times last season. Using Ba on the left in any of the latter three formations allows Newcastle to play three central midfielders rather than the two of their traditional 4-4-2. This should enable Newcastle to compete better in midfield against teams playing more than two central midfielders. However, it also means opposition center backs only have one center forward to worry about (typically Cisse). They can mark the forward with one center back while the other tucks in to provide cover. In a 4-4-2, both center backs are occupied by strikers and therefore don't have the luxury of another center back providing cover if a defensive mistake is made.

Which system is better for Pardew's side depends largely on the quality and formation of the opposition. Against opponents who line up in a 4-4-2, I fancy Cabaye and Tiote's chances to win the midfield battle and, in those circumstances, think it's usually a fine strategy for Newcastle to also field a 4-4-2. In a 2 v. 2 central midfield battle, Tiote and Cabaye will usually be able to get on the ball and pick out Cisse and Ba who are big, powerful and good finishers capable of giving any center back pairing in the league fits. However, against teams that play with a third center midfielder, it becomes really difficult for Cabaye and Tiote to compete for possession and find opportunities to knock balls into the two forwards.

To provide a brief comparison, in games in which Ba and Cisse have been on the field together as a center forward pairing in a 4-4-2, Newcastle score an average of 1.06 goals and concede an average of 1.3 goals (note: I only included goals scored and goals conceded that occurred when both men were on the field; goals for and against that occurred after one or both had been substituted were not included). In games in which Cisse plays center forward and Ba plays on the left in either a 4-3-3, 4-5-1 or 4-2-3-1, Newcastle score an average of 1.2 goals and concede an average of 1.2 goals. This very basic comparison suggests Newcastle have been slightly better offensively and defensively in formations with Cisse in the middle and Ba on the left than in a 4-4-2. Of course, without accounting for other very important factors like the quality of Newcastle's opponent and the formation of their opponent, we can't say with any certainty that the reason for the differences in performance comes down to formation. In the near future I'll try to provide a game-by-game analysis of how Newcastle's formations have fared against different opposition formations to get a better of idea when Pardew should be pairing Ba and Cisse in a 4-4-2 and when he should play one wide in a system with three center midfielders.

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.