Mourinho gets tactical decisions wrong in fortunate West Brom draw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tactical Analysis: Juventus 2-2 Real Madrid

Juventus and Real Madrid played to a 2-2 draw in Turin this evening in Champions League Group B action.

Both sides had phases of dominance- Juventus controlled the tempo in the first half, earning slightly more possession and creating the much more dangerous scoring opportunities. In the second half Madrid controlled the play.

Both sides opted for 4-3-3 formations ( refers to Juve’s formation as a 4-1-4-1 in the graphic below- I’d call it 4-3-3). Xabi Alonso played in front of the back four for Carlo Ancelotti’s side having returned to the Real Madrid lineup Saturday after a lengthy groin injury. Khedira and Modric played the two shuttling roles. Sergio Ramos was given a rare start at right back ahead of Arbeloa with Pepe and Varane playing the center half spots. Iker Casillas was given the start in goal.

The only changes Antonio Conte made to the side that were beaten 2-1 by Real Madrid in match week three were to the left side of his defense. Bonucci replaced the red carded Chiellini at left center back while Asamoah was preferred to Ogbona at left back.

 First Half
 Juventus were dangerous down the left wing in the first half. Ronaldo started the game on the right flank but stayed high up the pitch with Benzema when Juventus were in possession. Xabi Alonso, Modric and Khedira kept a tight, narrow defensive shape in the middle and Bale dropped in to defend Juventus’s right flank. With Ronaldo keeping an advanced central position on defense, Juventus were left with space on the left touchline to drift into.

Tevez would drop into this space, forcing Ramos to move into a wide area to close him down and creating a gap between Ramos and his center back Varane. Pogba, who was excellent for Juventus in the first half, continually sprinted in behind Khedira and Real’s midfield line and into the gap between Ramos and Varane. Juventus’s opener came when Juve quickly switched the point of attack from right to left and took advantage of Pogba’s lung-bursting runs into that gap. Llorente received the ball in the middle and played it wide to Tevez. Ramos was forced to close him down towards the touchline. Pogba sprinted in behind the Real Madrid midfield and received a dangerous pass in the penalty area. In his effort to recover Varane dives in and commits a penalty. The screen shot below shows Llorente’s pass in flight to Tevez down the left channel. Notice Ramos being forced to close Tevez down in a wide position and Pogba bursting forward into the open space.

Pogba’s ability to find space behind Khedira to sprint into with the ball was dangerous throughout the half. On 28 minutes he was able to collect a crossfield pass from Vidal behind Khedira inside Juventus’s half. He drove forward toward Ramos who was left to defend Pogba and Tevez 1 v. 2 and slotted the ball wide to Tevez. With time and space, the Argentinian was able to stand up a beautiful ball to the back post for Marchisio who was denied by a world class save from Casillas.

Much of Juve’s dominance in the first half also had to do with the ease with which Pirlo was receiving the ball. Neither Khedira nor Modric stepped forward from their midfield line to press him and Benezema and Ronaldo didn’t drop in to deny passes into him. As a result, Pirlo was able to dictate the tempo and pick out dangerous penetrating passes forward. Pirlo completed 89 passes in the match- more than any other player.

Offensively in the first half, Real Madrid were at their most dangerous on the break. When they recovered possession, they looked to play quick outlet passes to Benzema checking back into midfield. Khedira did well on a number of occasions to quickly break forward and provide Benzema with an option to lay the ball off too. They would then look for Bale and Ronaldo breaking forward in behind the Juventus back four.

 Second Half
Whereas Ronaldo started the game on the right and move around freely in the opening 45 minutes, in the second half he maintained a position wide on the left. Presumably this was because Ancelotti wanted him to exploit the space behind Juventus’s right back Caceres. Throughout the game Caceres had been playing high up the pitch to provide width in attack and therefore leaving space in behind him. In the second half Real Madrid took advantage of that space. Ronaldo’s leveler was the result of a poor back pass from Caceres and not any tactical change. However, Real’s second was indeed a result of the tactical decision to have Ronaldo move into the space behind the right back. With Marcelo receiving the ball on the left wing, Ronaldo made a diagonal run into the left channel behind Caceres. He was spotted by Marcelo, collecting the ball on the flank and finding Bale making a run to the edge of the penalty area. Bale still had plenty to do and his finish was excellent but goal was the result of Real bypassing the Juve midfield by finding Ronaldo free in the left channel.

The big tactical weakness Ronaldo creates for Real Madrid when he’s employed on the left is his reluctance to track the opposition fullback. For Juventus’s equalizer, Caceres was able to receive the ball on the wing with Ronaldo nowhere near him. He had the time to have a look in the box and pick out a cross and found Llorente with a delicious outswinging cross. Varane probably deserves the bulk of the blame for the goal- his defending on Llorente was poor- but Cacares was given too much time and space and the wing to play the ball in. 

The 2-2 scoreline was probably a fair result though Iker Casillas was the busier of the two keepers. Real Madrid still don't look an entirely fluid side. In a 4-3-3 without a #10, their front three and midfield three at times looks disjointed. 

Juventus's drop off between the first half, when they were much the better side, and the early stages of the second half was surprising. They seemed shell shocked by Ronaldo's leveler and never really regained they form they showed in the first half. Copenhagen's win over Galatasaray in Group B's other game meant the draw wasn't a bad result in the end. Juve sit a point behind Copenhagen and Galatasaray in the battle for second and will play both of those sides in the final two fixtures. 

Tactical Analysis: Manchester City 3-1 Everton

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

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

There were essentially four key tactical features in this contest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tactics recap: Bayern Munich 3-1 Manchester City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Mourinho could accommodate both Oscar and Mata centrally in 4-3-3

There's been no shortage of controversy surrounding Jose Mourinho's decision to use Chelsea's back-to-back player of the year Juan Mata so sparingly at the start of this season. Mata has started just two of five league games. In Chelsea's three biggest fixtures to date- the league game away to Manchester United, the UEFA Super Cup with Bayern Munich and the home Champions League fixture with FC Basel- Mata has made just one substitute appearance. He didn't even feature on the substitutes bench in the weekend win over Fulham.

On the face of it, Mourinho's decision seems bemusing. Mata led the Premier League last season with 12 assists and also chipped in an impressive 12 goals. His ability to find pockets of space in the opposition defense and play a decisive final pass is unmatched in English football.

However, Mourinho has stated publicly that Oscar will be his first choice number 10 and has also hinted that until Mata adapts his game and is willing to do more yeoman's work tracking opposition fullbacks, he won't see much time wide on the right either. Throughout his managerial career, Mourinho has primarily built his sides'  around a solid, compact defensive shape and the ability to break quickly into space on the counter.

This is a style of play more suited to Oscar in the number 10 role. The young Brazilian's work rate and tackling ability enable him to drop in and relentlessly press the opposition holding midfielders when Chelsea are defending. His pace then allows him to sprint into space behind the holding midfielders to spring counters when Chelsea win the ball back. It's unique for a number 10 to do the kind of defensive work typically seen from Oscar. In the 2-0 win Saturday over Fulham he had 7 successful tackles, more than any other player. Incredibly, 5 of those were in the opposition's defensive half. It is that willingness and ability to win the ball back high up the pitch that Mourinho so highly values.

While Oscar doesn't possess Mata's vision and creativity on the ball, his off the ball movements are exceptional. His opening day goal against Hull City sums up his incredible energy and intelligent movement. He starts the move checking towards John Terry 45 yards from goal. Terry plays a long ball into the left channel for Eden Hazard to run into. Oscar turns and sprints 25 yards to the corner of the 18 yard box to provide an option for Hazard. Hazard cuts inside and finds Kevin De Bruyne at the top of the 18. The instant Hazard plays the pass to De Bruyne, Oscar makes a diagonal run to get on the shoulder of the last defender. The timing of the run is perfect and he's able to easily tap in De Bruyne's pass in behind. In the matter of a few seconds he provides a passing option three separate times despite the ball moving half the length of the pitch in that time.

However, for all of Oscar's fine defensive work and tireless movement, in the absence of Mata Chelsea have often lacked the type of incisive penetrating passes in the final third he is known for, particularly against teams that defend deep against them and force them to patiently pick their way through. Chelsea's performance against Basel and first half against Fulham are prime examples. With both of those sides sitting deep in banks of four, Chelsea saw plenty of the ball but didn't have anyone with the creativity to penetrate the lines with a pass.

It's important to note Oscar scored in both of those games. I wouldn't advocate replacing Oscar with Mata in the middle- he's too valuable on both sides of the ball. However, against teams likely to sit deep and force Chelsea to unlock a crowded defense, Mourinho could viably use both of them in a central role to accommodate both the movement and energy of Oscar and the creativity of Mata. The shape would be 4-3-3 with Mata and Oscar playing in advance of a single holding midfielder. I'd probably use John Obi Mikel over Ramires as the holder for his positional discipline and ability to break up counters. Ramires is a wonderful talent but his biggest attribute is his athleticism and ability to break through the opposition midfield into space with his pace and energy. Against teams that defend deep there isn't that space to burst into and too often he makes rash challenges to operate as a lone holder. In possession Oscar would play more of a box-to-box role with Mata positioning himself closer to the striker and getting into pockets of space between the lines. The shape would still accommodate two more of Chelsea's talented attacking midfielders on the two wings. Defensively, Oscar would drop in alongside Mikel to form a bank of four with the outside midfielders. Mata would defend higher up the field with the main striker. Oscar is more than capable of doing the necessary defensive work slightly further back in midfield. The shape provides defensive cover in midfield in Mikel, pace and energy in Oscar and creativity and vision in Mata without sacrificing a whole lot defensively.

If Mourinho is as special as he claims, he should be able to find a way to adjust his style of play to accommodate a player of Mata's ability rather than the other way around. A creative presence in the middle of the park is important against deep lying defenses and until Mourinho finds a way to include his most gifted creative player in these matches, Chelsea will continue to struggle.

Second half width key in Chelsea win over Fulham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Stark contrast between first and second half approach for Liverpool this season

Brendan Rodgers' possession philosophy is well known throughout English football. In 2010-2011, Rodgers guided Swansea to a Championship playoff victory, securing the Welsh side's first season in the top tier since 1983. The following Premier League season Swansea surprised many with their brand of fluid, possession-based football. Incredibly, they ended a successful 2011-12 campaign (they would finish 11th) third in the Premier League in average possession behind Arsenal and title winners Manchester City.

Rodgers went on to accept the managerial position at Liverpool in the spring of 2012 following the sacking of Kenny Dalglish. He worked quickly to implement his possession-focused style despite taking over a side more suited to getting the ball wide and hitting in crosses. Liverpool would jump from 7th in the league in average possession in Dalglish's final season to third in 2012-2013 under Rodgers.

It comes as a bit of a surprise then that after four games this season, Liverpool are averaging just 48% possession, good for 9th in the league. What is most startling about that statistic is the stark contrast in possession totals between the first and second halves of Liverpool's opening four games. In the opening stages of games Liverpool are playing as you would expect a Rodgers side to play- they're keeping possession and when they lose it they're pressing quickly high up the pitch to win it back. As a result, Liverpool have had at least 50% possession in the first half in all four games and are averaging 56% first half possession overall. They've by and large been battering their opponents in the opening 45 minutes. All 5 of Liverpool's goals this season have come in the first half and they've had the lead at halftime in all four games.

By contrast, Rodgers has taken a markedly different approach in the second half of games. They've focused less on retaining the ball and more on maintaining defensive shape, dropping much deeper and defending in banks of four in their own half. Whereas Liverpool have had at least 50% possession in the first half of every game, only once have they had over 50% in the second half- the opening win home to Stoke. They're averaging just 41% possession in the second halves of games.

*Stats via FourFourTwo Stats Zone iPhone app

The graphic below shows a comparison of Liverpool's tackles in the first and second half against Swansea and illustrates the change in their shape. In the first half the focus is on keeping the ball and pressing high up the pitch. Notice 4 of their 7 successful first half tackles occur in the attacking half of the field. In the second half they defend deep and all 9 of their successful tackles occur in their defensive half.

The stark contrast between first half and second half possession totals could be explained by the fact Liverpool have had the lead going into the second half in every game. It's natural for many managers to be more reactive and play more defensively when they have a second half lead to protect. However, in the past Rodgers has publicly spoken out against such an approach.

In the interview below from April 2012 (at 7:13), shortly before he took the Liverpool job, Rodgers spoke of the importance of protecting leads by keeping possession. He brings up an example early in Swansea's season of a game against leads. Swansea had a 2-0 lead going into the final five minutes. They began to hit the ball long and concede possession, thereby "inviting pressure" in the words of Rodgers. Wolves would go on to draw the game 2-2.

Rodgers goes on to explain how during the following week of training his side focused on relieving pressure by keeping hold of the ball. In the next game Swansea were faced with a similar situation leading Bolton 2-1 late on. He explains how this time his side was able to see out the win by keeping possession, stressing that "for ten minutes Bolton never got a kick of the ball."

Liverpool's second half possession figures suggest they are not looking to see out games by retaining possession. So does this indicate a change in footballing philosophy from Rodgers? That's a difficult question to answer after only four games but there are certainly a number of possible explanations as to why he's adopted a more pragmatic approach early on.

For starters, it's quite difficult to maintain the energy levels required to play a style based on possession and pressing for 90 minutes. Inevitably players tire in the second half making pressing more difficult. Defending deeper mitigates the risk of being caught on the break when players become too fatigued to press quickly.

Secondly, the attacking four players in Rodgers 4-2-3-1 formation are all quite young. He has used Coutinho, Victor Moses, Iago Aspas, Jordan Henderson and Daniel Sturridge in those four positions. Aside from Aspas, all of those players are 24 years old or younger and Aspas (26) is still adjusting to his first season in the Premier League. Perhaps Rodgers feels the relative lack of battle tested pros in attacking positions may result in possession given away cheaply too often and leave Liverpool exposed defensively.

Regardless of the reasoning, it'll be interesting to see if Rodgers sticks with this strategy of pressing and attacking relentlessly early on, then dropping deep once his side have gone ahead. It worked in their opening three fixtures- all 1-0 wins- but wasn't always terribly convincing. Too often goalkeeper Simon Mignolet was forced to bale them out with big saves. In the most recent 2-2 draw at Swansea, Liverpool had just 30% possession in the second half. This time they were unable to deal with the continuous pressure and conceded a second half equalizer.

Given that maintaining possession has been the central part of Rodgers' footballing philosophy, my guess is that as he'll want his side to control the second half of games better. However, the pressures of managing at a club as big as Liverpool in all likelihood have made Rodgers more flexible in his tactical approach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

5 questions to consider ahead of this weekend's Premier League fixtures

1. Will Ozil start? 
With Tomas Rosicky set to miss Arsenal's Saturday clash at Sunderland with a thigh injury he picked up on international duty with the Czech Republic, there's a strong chance Mesut Ozil will start in his first appearance for the Gunners. Wenger could alternatively opt to bring in Mathieu Flamini to play deeper in midfield alongside Aaron Ramsey and push Jack Wilshere into the #10 role. However, against a Sunderland side likely to set up defensively, the prospect of a center midfield trio with as much creativity and attacking ability as Ramsey, Wilshere and Ozil would likely appeal to Wenger. An attacking six of Ramsey, Wilshere, Ozil, Cazorla, Walcott and Giroud offers the prospect of some truly exciting attacking football. Sunderland's 5 goals against are tied for the worst in the Premier League and the atmosphere is a little stale around the Stadium of Light with Paolo Di Canio continuing to publicly call out his own players- they'll need to be organized and get a big boost from the home crowd to have a chance at getting something out of this one.

(UPDATE: Ozil missed Arsenal's training session today with an illness but will travel with the team to Sunderland. Per Mertesacker also missed with illness and will not travel). 

2. West Ham vs. Southampton: who will win out in clash of styles?
The intrigue of this game is that it pairs two sides with two very different playing styles. West Ham manager Sam Allardyce places far more emphasis on territory than possession. His side is 16th in the league in average possession with 44.4% and have been outpossessed in all three of their opening fixtures. Those stats are particularly startling given two of those games were at home to Cardiff and Stoke, a newly promoted side and a side infamous for its inability to retain the ball (they were also outpossessed at Newcastle in match week 2). West Ham are organized and difficult to break down defensively. They shuttle the ball into wide areas, cross early and often and look for knock downs. They've attacked through the middle of the pitch less than any team this season. The loss to injury of towering forward Andy Carroll and talented crossers Joe Cole and Stewart Downing will certainly hurt West Ham's ability to play their preferred style effectively. Mauricio Pochettino's Southampton side on the other hand currently sits third in the league in terms of average possession. They prefer a more patient, passing attack. The striking partnership of Dani Osvaldo and Rickie Lambert failed to produce a goal in Southampton's loss to Norwich two weekends ago so it'll be interesting to see if Pochettino goes with both those two up front again or decides to go with just one striker. In that loss at Norwich they struggled to defend the flanks which could provide West Ham opportunities to get crosses into the box to Modibo Maiga and Kevin Nolan. West Ham haven't won on their travels since March 2- with a depleted squad that's unlikely to change Sunday. Still, this should be an entertaining game for the clash of footballing philosophies on display.

3. Will Martinez be brave against Chelsea?
Roberto Martinez is a far more proactive manager than his predecessor at Everton David Moyes. Whereas Moyes tends to react to the strengths of each opposition and organize his squad accordingly, Martinez focuses more on his own team's approach. Martinez's Wigan side played Chelsea in the opening fixture of last season and he showed he was unafraid to play expansive, attacking football. Wigan finished the match with more possession but were picked apart twice on the counter in the opening 10 minutes and Chelsea held on for a fairly comfortable 2-0 win. Herein lies the crucial question with Martinez. His sides generally play a brand of football that is attractive on the eye but is he willing to adjust his style to achieve better results? So far his Everton side lead the league in possession yet have managed just three draws. While much of that can be blamed on players getting used to the new system and the lack of an in form striker, questions remain regarding whether Martinez can combine style with substance. If his side continue the trend of bossing possession Saturday against Chelsea, they'll have to be extremely cautious about being caught on the counter. The Blues have a gaggle of talented midfielders capable of reeking havoc on the break and in Jose Mourinho a manager more comfortable playing a counter-attacking style. New signings James McCarthy and Gareth Barry will provide options for Martinez in the middle of midfield after the departure of Marouane Fellaini but on loan striker Romelu Lukaku will be unavailable to play against his parent club. It'll also be interesting to see whether Willian and Samuel Eto'o get their first minutes for Chelsea.

4. Will Kagawa play?
Since the appointment of David Moyes at Manchester United, Shinji Kagawa has played just 7 minutes of competitive football after coming on as a late substitute in the community shield. Moyes has instead opted to use Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck in Kagawa's preferred role behind main striker Robin Van Persie. A 0-0 draw to Chelsea followed by a 1-0 defeat to Liverpool saw Manchester United fail to score in successive games for the first time since August 2007. The lack of offensive output has many wondering why Moyes has refused to field a player with the creative ability of Kagawa. Concerns over Kagawa's ability to defend have been suggested and against stronger sides like Chelsea and Liverpool perhaps Moyes wanted first and foremost to ensure his side had a strong defensive shape. This wouldn't be a huge surprise given Moyes has always been a fairly reactive, conservative manager. However, with newly promoted Crystal Palace coming to Old Trafford and Wayne Rooney sidelined with an injury, not giving Kagawa a shot would make little sense this weekend.
5. Can Liverpool continue unbeaten run?
Brendan Rodgers' side has shown tremendous character opening the season with three difficult wins- an away victory over Aston Villa sandwiched between home wins over Stoke and Manchester United. It's the first time Liverpool have opened a league campaign with three wins since the 1994-95 season. All three wins of those wins have ended in a 1-0 scoreline and the Reds have had to dig deep in each. These were the type of fixtures they were dropping points in last season, points they'll need to pick up to have chance at a top four finish this campaign. They're the only side yet to have conceded. Daniel Sturridge is starting to show his promise having netted all three game winners. Rodgers managed to strengthen his side on transfer deadline day adding French center back Mamadou Sakho and winger Victor Moses on loan from Chelsea. It took Liverpool until October 20 to reach 9 points last season so there's plenty of reason for optimism at Anfield this time around, particularly given the strong form they showed in the second half of last season.

In traveling to Swansea Monday night they'll face another talented opponent. The Swans owe much of their current 16th place standing to a difficult run of opening fixtures, having opened the season with a home loss to champions Manchester United before being beaten by Tottenham at White Hart Lane. They managed their first win of the campaign 2-0 over West Brom at the Hawthornes two weekends ago and will look to use that win and a boisterous home crowd to motivate them Monday night. The Welsh side did however manage just 6 home league wins last season- the 7th fewest in the league.

Pochettino's 4-3-1-2 creates chances but leaves Southampton unable to defend width of pitch

Not a new analysis but I just got around to watching Norwich vs. Southampton from last weekend and wanted to get a quick post on here about some interesting tactical developments, particularly from Southampton.

Both teams lined up in 4-4-2 formations. New Southampton signing Dani Osvaldo was given the nod up top alongside Lambert. Adam Lallana started down the left flank while James Ward-Prowse occupied the right midfield spot.

For Norwich, Johan Elmander was given the start alongside Ricky Van Wolfwinkel at forward. Leroy Fer and Bradley Johnson played center midfield. Nathan Redmond was on the left flank, Ryan Snodgrass on the right.

With both teams in 4-4-2 formations the battle in the middle of midfield was an even 2 v. 2. Norwich enjoyed the better of the play in the opening moments by attacking the flanks. On the left side they circulated the ball wide to Nathan Redmond who used his pace to run at left back Calum Chambers and cut inside onto his stronger right foot. Redmond cut inside on Chambers in the opening ten minutes and sent a shot just wide. On the right side, Johan Elmander would drift wide alongside Ryan Snodgrass to create overloads for Southampton right back Danny Fox.

At the other end of the pitch, Southampton struggled to get in any sort of rhythm in the attacking third. Osvaldo and Lambert didn't appear comfortable as playing part of a front two. Both players are strong holding up play but neither really has the pace to make penetrating runs in behind the defense. As a result, both seemed to make similar runs checking back to the ball in the early stages and Southampton lacked a penetrative threat.

With his side struggling to get going offensively, Saints boss Mauricio Pochettino made an extremely brave attacking switch in his side's shape. Adam Lallana moved from the left wing into the middle just behind Osvaldo and Lambert in a #10 role. Ward-Prowse tucked into a center midfield position to form a midfield three with Wanyama and Schneiderlin. Wanyama sat in front of the back four with Scheiderlin more advanced to his left, Ward-Prowse advanced to his right. The shape was therefore a narrow 4-3-1-2 as shown in the diagram below.

Fox and Chambers bombed forward to provide width in possession, effectively playing more as wingbacks in a 3-5-2 than fullbacks. It was an incredibly attacking shape, particularly given Southampton were the away side.

The change had an immediate impact offensively for Pochettino. Norwich were defending in two banks of four. They were happy to allow Wanyama to get on the ball in deep areas because he's not a skilled enough passer to cause problems playing penetrative forward passes. Johnson and Fer therefore picked up Ward-Prowse and Schneiderlin. Because Southampton were playing two up top, both Norwich center backs had to pick up a forward. This left Lallana with space in between the two lines of four to collect the ball and drive forward. Within a minute of making the switch, Lallana picked up the ball between the lines towards the right side of the pitch, cut in and took a shot 20 yards from goal. The shot struck Bradley Johnson's outstretched hand inside the area but Howard Webb failed to give what looked to be a clear penalty.

The additional man in midfield Pochettino's change created allowed Southampton to enjoy more possession and stretch Norwich in their defensive third.

However, defensively the change left the Saints vulnerable in wide areas. Their shape was 4-3-3 when Norwich were in possession. Lallana, Lambert and Osvaldo pressed the back four while Ward-Prowse, Schneiderlin and Wanayama formed a narrow midfield bank of three in behind them. With only three defending in midfield, Southampton couldn't cover the width of the pitch and Norwich were able to find their fullbacks and wide midfielders in space.

The photos and video below show where Southampton were vulnerable defensively. In the top image you can see their forward three and midfield three. Here, if Southampton are going to press Pablo Osvaldo needs to be closing down the easy pass for Fer into Bassong. He fails to do so and as a result their press is easily split.

Fer plays a simple ball back to Bassong. Osvaldo then elects to apply pressure to Bassong leaving an easy passing line for the center back to find the feet of Bradley Johnson. Bassong's simple ball into Johnson below has taken Lambert, Lallana and Osvaldo all out of the play. Johnson is able to receive the pass turn and play another easy ball forward into the feet of Fer, now leaving Schneiderlin out of position to defend Southampton's right wing.

Snodgrass tucks inside unmarked where he's spotted by Fer. With four easy passes Norwich have beaten Southampton's forward and midfield lines and are able to run at the back four with numbers (the video starts with Bassong's pass into Johnson). Snodgrass and Whittaker overload Fox 2 v. 1 down the right and Snodgrass is able to get a cross into the back post. Norwich should have earned a penalty from the move- Van Wolfswinkel's header at the back post was handled- but the move shows how difficult it was for Ward-Prowse, Wanayama and Schneiderlin to defend the width of the pitch.

The image below shows just how much of the pitch Southampton were forced to leave unoccupied by playing with a midfield line of three. Here Ward-Prowse is forced wide to pick up Redmond so that his right back Chambers can pick up the overlapping Norwich left back Javier Garrido. Wanyama slides in front of Elmander to block Redmond's passing lane there. Schneiderlin is trying to catch up with the play after having just gotten forward to provide an extra body in the attack. The entire center of pitch is free for either Norwich center midfielder to run into the space. In this move Johnson and Fer failed to do so but the space was there all afternoon when the ball shuffled into wide areas.

In the end, Norwich's goal would come at least partially as a result of Southampton's inability to defend the width of midfield. Fer was able to collect the ball on the right flank and play an easy crossfield ball into Redmond on the left wing. Redmond of course still had plenty to do after receiving the ball on the wing. His driving run inside and finish were sensational but had Southampton been defending with a midfield bank of four rather than three, Fer may well have been unable to get the ball into him in the first place (Fer's crossfield ball is at 25 seconds in the video below).

Arsenal attacking midfield options are scary good

Arsenal shattered their club record transfer fee yesterday, signing German playmaker Mesut Ozil for £42.5 million from Real Madrid. Although there were positions for Arsenal that probably could have used strengthening before attacking center midfield, the addition of arguably the best #10 in the world is hardly a bad bit of business. Sure they could use a tough tackling midfielder for more difficult away fixtures and another striker but I still believe that adding a world class player in a position where they're already strong is going to do more good in the long run than adding a lesser player in a position where they may be a bit thin.

If Wenger chooses to go with Cazorla, Walcott and Ozil for the three attacking midfield spots in Wenger's 4-2-3-1 as is expected, they'll be fielding three players that had 35 goals and 34 assists combined last season. To put that into perspective, Chelsea's excellent midfield trio of Oscar, Eden Hazard and Juan Mata combined for 10 fewer goals and 6 fewer assists in 2012-2013. When Lukas Podolski returns to fitness (German team doctors expect him to be out a full 3 months) they'll have the luxury of a player who chipped in 11 goals and 9 assists last season coming off the bench. Throw in the creativity of Thomas Rosicky off the bench and the option of playing Wilshere higher up the pitch when Arteta returns from injury and it's hard to imagine Arsenal failing to create a slew of goalscoring chances week in and week out.

Ozil's rate of return at Real Madrid last season was terrific despite falling out of favor with Jose Mourinho for much of the campaign. He had 13 assists, averaging one every 153 minutes of football he played. That rate was better than any of the Premier League's top assist providers and only topped in Spain by Andres Iniesta (16 total assists, one every 132 minutes).

Ozil's output of 3 key passes per game was also the highest rate in Spain. Equally impressive is Ozil's ability to create space for himself and teammates. In a piece from early 2012 tactics writer Michael Cox highlighted Ozil's impressive movement off the ball.
"When one of the opposing players realizes Ozil is free and moves toward him, Ozil recognizes he's now being tracked and replicates his opponent's movement to keep a good distance between himself and his marker. There's two effects of that. First, the other opposition players see he's being tracked by a teammate so don't bother picking him up, despite the fact that the defender is never in control of the situation. Second, the opponent becomes dragged out of position to leave a gap for someone else to exploit. It sounds simple enough on paper, but it's more difficult to combine this constant movement with the actual concept of playing football -- getting the ball, creating chances. He's not just playing tag."
Combined with Cazorla, another playmaker who's movement between the opposition defensive and midfield lines is exemplary, Arsenal should be remarkably fluid in the attacking third. Cazorla enjoys tucking inside when he plays on the left while Ozil is happy to drift into the flanks from a central position. Therefore we'll see both Ozil moving wide alongside Cazorla to create overloads in the channels and Cazorla moving infield to help Ozil unlock defenses around the top of the 18 yard box.

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.

Spurs win but 4-3-3 shape leaves Soldado isolated

For the second consecutive weekend Tottenham have emerged 1-0 winners thanks to a Roberto Soldado penalty. The penalty decision looked fortuitous- Andros Townsend appeared to dive rather than being clipped by Swansea's Jonjo Shelvey. However, Shelvey was fortunate not to have conceded a penalty earlier when he clipped Townsend near the edge of the penalty area. Replays showed Townsend was in the box when he'd been fouled but referee Neil Swarbrick gave a free kick just outside the area. Overall Spurs were much the better side and just about deserved the three points.

One concern for Andre Villas Boas however will be his side's inability to get the ball to their record signing Soldado. The Spanish striker received only 13 passes in the entire match, none of which were inside the box. His only shot attempt on the afternoon was the penalty he tucked home.

Soldado is excellent at holding onto the ball and bringing his midfielders into the game, however he is not the type of striker that is going to receive the ball 25 yards from goal, turn and run at center backs to create goals. Rather he's a lethal finisher in the box. Of his 24 goals last season for Valencia all were scored inside the penalty box. Seventeen were one touch goals and and five were penalties. In other words, 89% of his goals that were scored in the run of play were one touch goals in the box (you can see all his goals from last season in the video below). A potent penalty box striker obviously needs to be receiving the ball around the goal which is why the 0 passes received in the penalty area will be a concern for Villas Boas.

A big reason Soldado didn't get touches in the penalty area today is that Villas Boas played a 4-3-3 as opposed to the 4-2-3-1 he used in the opener at Crystal Palace when Soldado received 32 passes, 6 of which were in the box and had 4 shots. You can see a comparison of the passes Soldado received today's Swansea game versus last weekend's Crystal Palace game below.

The 4-2-3-1 meant Soldado had Gylfi Sigurdsson playing just off of him in the attacking midfield role. The presence of the central attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 does two things for the striker- he provides a link between the deeper lying midfielders and the striker so that the striker isn't isolated alone up top and he also gives the central defenders an extra man to worry about so they can't simply double team the striker.

Spurs 4-2-3-1 shape versus Crystal Palace

A 4-3-3 formation lacks that center attacking midfielder and instead uses one holding midfielder that sits deep just in front of the back four and two box-to-box shuttlers in front of him on either side. Today, Capoue played the holding midfield role with Paulinho and Dembele as the shuttlers. There was no attacking midfielder in the hole playing just off Soldado so Swansea's center backs were able concentrate solely on Soldado without worrying about being dragged out of position by the runs of an attacking midfielder. Spurs midfield three was physically much stronger and more powerful than Swansea's so they bossed the game in the center of midfield. However the absence of a #10 meant they struggled to find someone to link play with Soldado further up the pitch and he cut an isolated figure up top. Instead they looked to get the ball wide to the right and advance forward with Townsed and the overlapping Kyle Walker. Townsend was by far Spurs most dangerous player but Villas Boas would almost certainly prefer more chances falling to his £26 million pound #9 than from Townsend cutting in from the right. 

Liverpool grind out 1-0 win at Villa Park

After dominating the early proceedings at Villa Park, Liverpool managed to hang on to a 1-0 win over Aston Villa despite finding themselves under heavy pressure from the home side throughout the second half. Villa out-shot Liverpool 17 to 5 in the match and 11 to 1 in the second half yet were denied an equalizer thanks to some resolute defending from Liverpool and fine goalkeeping from Simon Mignolet. The Belgian keeper twice produced world class saves to deny his countryman Christian Benteke his fourth goal of the young season. Although Liverpool produced little going forward after the break it was the type of game they'd have failed to take maximum points from last season so you'd expect Brendan Rodgers to be pleased with his side's ability to grind out a result.

Liverpool bossed possession and controlled the territory in the opening half hour. They pressed high up the pitch when they lost possession and forced Villa to launch hopeful balls towards Benteke. These long balls rarely fell to their intended target and when they did the striker was too isolated to do anything with them. After 30 minutes Liverpool had outpassed Villa 269 to 97 and 59 to 14 in the attacking third. You can see below Villa completed just 50% of their passes into the final third in the opening half hour. The bulk of the failed attempts were hopeful longballs forced by Liverpool's pressing.

However, for all their attractive possession, they failed to create many genuine scoring opportunities. A critique against Brendan Rodgers is that his teams offer plenty of attractive passing and attacking movement without finding that penetrating ball to open up defenses. In his final season at Swansea, Rodgers' team finished with the third highest average possession total in the league (behind Arsenal and Manchester City) yet only five teams scored fewer goals in the campaign. Daniel Sturridge produced a fantastic solo effort in the 21st minute but it ended up being Liverpool's only shot on target in the game. Rodgers will be desperate to convert that ball domination into more scoring opportunities. Luis Suarez has that ability to create opportunities on his own out of nothing and if he stays at Anfield he'll certainly help the cause after serving out his suspension.

After taking the lead Liverpool stopped pressing and began to defend deeper in banks of four. This allowed Villa more time on the ball in their own defensive half. They were able to knock some passes around which seemed to help them grow in confidence and they finally threatened the Liverpool goal late in the half with Benteke turning in the books and producing a curling effort to Mignolet's back post. The Belgian keeper did excellent to stretch to his left and parry the ball away for a corner.

There was a bit of a role reversal in the second half. Liverpool continued to sit deeper in banks of four and looked to soak up pressure. Villa became a bit more direct knocking long balls directly into Benteke and getting into the channels for crosses. After struggling to advance the ball into Liverpool's defensive half in the opening 45 minutes, Villa managed 50 passes in the final third to Liverpool's 28 in the second half. They took 11 shots to Liverpool's 1. However, Liverpool deserve credit for dealing with the pressure defensively. In Benteke, Agbonlahor, Weimann, and Delph Villa have genuine attacking quality. Both Chelsea and Arsenal were unable to keep them off the board at home. For Liverpool to do so at Villa Park is a fine achievement and says a lot about the Agger-Toure center back partnership thus far.

Despite struggling to get a foothold in the second half, Liverpool have proven they can win difficult games away from home. In Villa they've beaten a team that beat Arsenal at the Emirates and deserved a point against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. The win today means they have 6 points as of August 24. It took them until October 20 to get up over the 5 point total last season. That in itself is reason for cautious optimism at Liverpool.

Tactical Analysis: Arsenal pick apart disjointed Fulham defense

Arsenal ran out comfortable 3-1 winners over Fulham at Craven Cottage to secure the Gunners' first win of the season and further ease some of the pressure that had mounted after their opening day defeat to Aston Villa. First half goals from Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski put Arsenal firmly in control. Podolski added his second in the 68th to make it 3-0 and put the contest beyond doubt. Darren Bent got a consolation goal for the home side in his first appearance with the Cottagers.

With Laurent Koscielny suspended Bacary Sagna slid in to center back and Carl Jenkinson started at right back. Arsene Wenger opted to rest Jack Wilshere and went with a midfield three of Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky. Ramsey sat in front of the center backs when Arsenal were in possession with Cazorla to his left and Rosicky to his right in more advanced positions. The formation was therefore more 4-3-3 than Arsenal's usual 4-2-3-1. Podolski played on the left of the front three with Walcott on the right.

Martin Jol made three changes to the side that beat Sunderland in the opening week. New signing Scott Parker replaced Derek Boateng in midfield. David Stockdale came in at goalkeeper in place of the injured Martin Stekelenburg and John Arne Riise was given the start at left back with Kieran Richardson also sidelined with an injury. Fulham's shape was their usual 4-4-1-1 with Patjim Kasami playing off Dimitar Berbatov up top.

The key for Arsenal in the first half was their domination in the center of the park. The 4-3-3 vs. 4-4-1 match up meant Arsenal had a man advantage in the middle of the park that led to Parker and Steve Sidwell simply being overrun in the middle. Fulham defended in two banks of four with Kasami and Berbatov higher up the pitch. Podolski tucked inside from the left giving Arsenal a further advantage in the middle. Both of Arsenal's first half goals came as a result of Parker and Sidwell having too much distance between the two of them and an overall lack of compactness in Fulham's defensive shape. This created loads of space for Arsenal's midfielders to move into.

The image below shows the buildup to Arsenal's opener. Sidwell pressures Cazorla in possession, Parker positions himself centrally just in front of the back four. Ramsey slides into the space to the left of Parker and in front of Riise, receives the pass in space and has plenty of time to turn and shoot before he's closed down. His shot is a weak one but falls to Giroud to tuck home. The issue here for Fulham is the amount of space Ramsey has to collect possession. Ideally in a 4-4-1-1 you'd want either Kasami or Berbatov working back to pressure Cazorla on the ball so that Sidwell can position himself side-by-side with Parker in front of the back four thereby preventing Arsenal's midfielders from easily collecting possession by sliding either side of Parker. There was a real disconnect defensively between Fulham's two center midfielders and two advanced attackers which forced Parker and Sidwell into chasing the ball in midfield while leaving at least one Arsenal midfielder unmarked.

Arsenal's second goal again came from poor defensive shape from Fulham. In the top image below you can see the large distances between Fulham players, leaving huge gaps for Arsenal to play in to. Parker is pressuring Cazorla on the left while Sidwell sits in the middle close to Rosicky. There is some 20 yards of space between the two. Fulham are neither pressing nor organizing into a compact shape at midfield which leaves Arsenal with time on the ball and the space in advanced positions to pick out forward passes. Here, Podolski simply tucks inside from the left and Mertesacker is easily able to play a pass into his feet. With the simplest of balls Arsenal have bisected the Fulham midfield. Podolski receives the pass, Sidwell slides over to close him down and that leaves Cazorla completely unmarked to burst forward through the middle. He's able to slide a ball through to Walcott whose shot can only be pushed by Stockdale into the feet of Podolski to slam home. It's Mertesacker's simple pass into Podolski that has Fulham completely out of position and scrambling to get pressure on the ball. If Fulham are going to press here they need the back four much higher up the pitch. If they aren't going to commit to the press everyone needs to drop off and Parker and Sidwell need to much closer together in the center of midfield.

Fulham neither pressing nor dropping in and getting compact. Too much space between Parker and Sidwell

Podolski easily able to tuck in and collect possession from Mertesacker. Fulham midfield bisected with one simple pass.
Arsenal's second half was professional. Whereas in the first half they defended with banks of four and looked to boss possession, in the second half they defended with a midfield bank of five, conceded some territory to Fulham and looked to hit them on the break. With Arsenal dropping deeper, Fulham had more of the ball in advanced areas than they did in the first half- they completed just 29 passes in the attacking third in the first half compared to 56 in the second half- but Arsenal's compact midfield five meant they were unable to find any decisive penetrating passes to trouble the defense. The Gunners ultimately did hit the home side on the break in the 68th to seal the win.

Overall Arsenal will be pleased with their performance. They dominated meaningful possession in the first half and were able to overrun Fulham in the middle of midfield. Comfortably in control by the end of the first half, they wisely didn't stretch themselves going forward in the second. Given their lack of true holding midfielder in the side, it would have been an unnecessary risk to continue pressing forward as they did in the first half and leave themselves exposed at the back.

Fulham made the game far too easy for Arsenal. They owe much of the loss to some abject defensive shape. They were far too disjointed and Jol will need to make sure Parker and Sidwell stay more compact in future fixtures.