NYRB comfortable in 1-0 win over poor DC United

Dax MacCarty's 72nd minute goal from a Sacha Kljestan free kick gave the New York Red Bulls a 1-0 win over DC United at RFK in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals. In the end it was a fair result. DC United were extremely poor and NYRB looked comfortably in control throughout. The away side rode their luck however. Second half substitute Ronald Zubar, on after starting center back Damien Parrinelle suffered what looked to be a bad knee injury, should have been sent off for a horror challenge on DC's Markus Halsti.

This was a battle between two very different systems. Jesse Marsch's NYRB operated in a modern 4-2-3-1 and attacked in numbers with fluid movement. Sacha Kljestan moved from side to side from his #10 role to create overloads and they got attacking players into the box to attack crosses.

D.C United played with an extremely rigid, functional 4-4-2 akin to what you might see from a Tony Pulis coached side. They defended deep in two banks of four and left the bulk of the attacking up to the front two pair of Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola. Perry Kitchen and Haltsi were tasked with shielding the back four in the middle of midfield but neither are the type of player to provide the creativity to transition into attack. In a 4-4-2 you often need that creative link play to come from the wide midfielders but Chris Rolfe and Nick DeLeon spent the bulk of the first 45 minutes defending deep in their own half. As a result DC United rarely had an outlet ball to transition into attack other than knocking it long towards Espindola and Saborio.

As the game progressed, NYRB took more and more control of possession with their man advantage in midfield. DC were pinned deep in their own half and when they won back possession they couldn't get players up the pitch quick enough to support Saborio and Espindola who were left to attack 2 v. 4 or 2 v. 5.

It's difficult to see a way back for DC. NYRB will boss the second leg even more at home and it's difficult to see where goals will come for Ben Olsen's side.

Ozil, Silva excel in #10 role in Sunday's games

The popularity of the 4-2-3-1 formation over the last few seasons has led to the reemergence of the classic #10 or trequartista role. In the mid to late 2000s the European game had become dominated by the 4-3-3 with teams employing an extremely defensive holding midfielder (Claude Makelele the obvious example) flanked on either side by two energetic and generally very athletic shuttling, box-to-box midfielders. Teams would look to overpower one another in the middle of midfield by playing three strong, physically imposing players. For example, the Chelsea side that won back-to-back titles in 2004-2005 and 2005-2006 played with a midfield triangle of Makelele at the base with Frank Lampard and Tiago or Michael Essien just in front.

The 4-3-3 doesn't allow for the classic central attacking playmaker that sits just in behind the striker. The 4-2-3-1 has allowed teams to maintain defensive balance with two holding midfielders shielding the back four while allowing one attacking player to stay further up the pitch, move into tight pockets of space and use their creativity to provide the final ball to create scoring chances.

Sunday afternoon saw two excellent central attacking midfield performances within the 4-2-3-1 framework from Arsenal's Mesut Ozil and Manchester City's David Silva. Both players got into dangerous positions between the opposition midfield and defensive lines and created loads of chances for the other attacking players.

Inside the first 30 seconds of Manchester City's comfortable 3-0 win over Chelsea, Silva collected the ball in midfield, spun Cesc Fabregas and provided a perfectly weighted through ball that put Sergio Aguero clean through on goal. The Argentinian was denied an opener by Asmir Begavic in the Chelsea goal but the immediate danger posed by Silva and Aguero was a sign of things to come.

Ozil's impact in Arsenal's 2-1 at Crystal Palace was also felt early on. In the 7th minute Arsenal sprung a counter attack from a Palace free kick. Ozil put Alexiz Sanchez through on goal with an excellent pass but Sanchez's first touch was poor.

Ultimately both Silva and Ozil would get the assists their performances deserved and made nuisances of themselves throughout. Silva was involved in the build up for City's first and assisted the second and third. Ozil assisted Olivier Giroud for Arsenal's opener and nearly added a second assist with a clever ball to Aaron Ramsey at the front post in the 37th minute.

Silva created 3 chances of which City converted two, Ozil created an impressive 5 chances.

The most impressive aspect of Ozil's performance was his efficiency with the ball. He completed 54 of 55 total passes and a remarkable 37 of 38 passes in the final third of the pitch. The only player to complete more final third passes in the opening two weeks is, unsurprisingly, Silva who completed 45 in City's easy 3-0 win over West Brom (Ozil also managed 37 attacking third passes in the defeat to West Ham).

Ozil has been accused of disappearing from games in his first two seasons at Arsenal. On occasions that criticism has been fair but often he's unfairly criticized by pundits confusing what can appear to be a languid playing style with a lack of effort. He's certainly not Alexis Sanchez whose style of play, all direct sprints forward with the ball and attempts at defense-splitting penetrating passes, tends to give the impression he's working harder. But a side needs balance- two Alexis style players likely wouldn't be an ideal set up for Arsenal. Sanchez is a brilliant player, certainly Arsenal's best last season, but in attempting mazey dribbles and defense-splitting passes he at times gives possession away too easily. It's important to have those Alexis type players willing to take risks in the final third to create chances but it's also important to have a player like Ozil who will circulate possession and be extremely efficient with the ball. Last seaosn Ozil had an overall pass success rate of 88.3%, an incredible percentage for an attacking midfielder, compared to just 76.8% for Sanchez. For comparison Chelsea's Edenz hazard, who plays the same position as Sanchez, had a pass success rate of 86.8%.

(Two Ozil type players in the same attacking midfield three likely wouldn't provide enough directness and goal scoring ability; again it's all about getting the balance right).

Silva seems to have benefited from the arrival of Raheem Sterling from Liverpool. Last season Manuel Pellegrini tended to opt for a 4-4-2 formation which meant Silva was deployed on the wing. He was still effective in coming inside from a wide starting position and creating chances but it also meant he had to do some defensive work tracking the opposition fullback meaning he was pulled further from the opposition goal and forced to use up energy in tracking back defensively. The arrival of Sterling has seen City switch to a 4-2-3-1 with Sterling on the left channel and Silva in the #10 role. He no longer has to track the opposition right back and can maintain a position further up the pitch where he can provide an immediate outlet ball when City recover possession.

The 4-2-3-1 has been great in allowing a framework for such technically gifted, creative players to take center stage, literally, and dictate attacking play. They allow their respective team's to play highly entertaining, attacking football. We saw two expert performances in this role from Silva and Ozil Sunday. Manchester City are better endowed at striker to take advantage of their excellent trequartista but Olivier Giroud's improved performance this weekend and a strong end to last season for Theo Walcott could be enough to convert more of the chances created by Ozil into goals.

Rodgers starts in 4-2-3-1 then makes changes

4-2-3-1 has been the popular formation in the Premier League the last few seasons but one that Brendan Rodgers did not use during his side's surprising second place finish last season. Rodgers has stated he prefers 4-3-3 with a single holding midfielder and two runners over 4-2-3-1 because it allows for more vertical passing options. He's stated that in 4-2-3-1 the two holding midfielders can often end up playing too many harmless side to side passes to one another. You can hear Rodgers explain in the video below.

One of the big pluses with 4-2-3-1 of course is that two deep lying holders provide better cover for the back four than one. When Liverpool played 4-3-3 or a diamond 4-4-2 last season, Steven Gerrard operated as the lone holder. Gerrard is a fantastic player but isn't always positionally disciplined and at 34 isn't as mobile as he once was. As a result, Liverpool's defense was often left too exposed. They scored a remarkable 101 goals but conceded 50, 13 more than the Manchester City side that would beat them to the title and 23 more than Chelsea. Their capitulation at Selhurst Park after going 3-0 up in the penultimate game of the season, a game that would end 3-3 and all but give City the title, summed up Liverpool's biggest problem in an otherwise great season- they were incredibly fluid and could score with ease but struggled to change their approach and tighten things up when circumstances dictated they should do so.

Perhaps as a result of his side's openness last season, Rodgers opted for a 4-2-3-1 today with Lucas and Gerrard holding in front of the back four. Liverpool were certainly more solid and compact defensively. They did not get as stretched on the counter and Southampton didn't create much the opening 45 minutes. However, they also offered far less penetrative passing than we saw last season. When Liverpool play 4-3-3 (or 4-1-4-1 if you prefer) and Gerrard gets the ball in deep areas he generally has 4 midfielders in front of him to play forward passes into- the two shuttling center midfielders, Coutinho and Allan likely candidates, and the two wide midfielders (Figure 2). As a result Liverpool play more vertically, get forward more quickly and have more players in the attacking third. In the 4-2-3-1, Lucas sits alongside Gerrard, leaving him with only 3 midfielders higher up the pitch to play forward passes into- the #10 (Coutinho today) and the two wide midfielders (Sterling and Henderson today). When the opposition defends in banks of four as Southampton did today, having three attacking midfielders in advance of Gerrard rather than the four we see in a 4-3-3 makes it easier to defend- Southampton's midfield bank of 4 has a 4 v. 3 advantage in the midfield zone (Figure 1). As a result, Liverpool played a lot of sideways passes between the holding midfielders and center backs and struggled to funnel the ball into the attacking third at pace.

Figure 1:  Three advanced midfielders for Gerrard to pass to with Liverpool in 4-2-3-1 formation. Opposition has 2 v. 1 advantage on Coutinho in Liverpool's attacking midfield zone.

Figure 1: Three advanced midfielders for Gerrard to pass to with Liverpool in 4-2-3-1 formation. Opposition has 2 v. 1 advantage on Coutinho in Liverpool's attacking midfield zone.

Figure 2:  Four advanced midfielders for Gerrard to pass to with Liverpool in a 4-3-3 formation. Attacking midfield zone is now 2 v. 2. Wanyama and Schneiderlin each have a direct opponent.

Figure 2: Four advanced midfielders for Gerrard to pass to with Liverpool in a 4-3-3 formation. Attacking midfield zone is now 2 v. 2. Wanyama and Schneiderlin each have a direct opponent.

After Southampton equalized, Rodgers switched to his more attacking 4-3-3 shape replacing Lucas with Joe Allen. Although the shape gives Liverpool more attacking thrust, immediately we saw some of the same defensive problems Liverpool were faced with when they played that formation last season. Gerrard was left to shield the back four on his own and almost immediately Liverpool conceded possession with Gerrard out of position towards the left wing. With no one patrolling the center of the park for Liverpool, James Ward-Prowse got the ball in acres of space in the middle of the pitch and was able to drive uncontested at the Liverpool center backs. The 19 year old Southampton midfielder made the wrong choice in trying to shoot from 25 yards out with better passing options on either side of him but a more experienced side will punish Rodgers' side for allowing themselves to become that open.

Rodgers then replaced Coutinho with Rickie Lambert and moved to 4-4-2. With Allen higher up the pitch than Gerrard Liverpool were even more open and Southampton continued to threaten. Liverpool got the winner however, more as a result of some good fortune and hesitant Southampton defending then Rodgers' tactical changes. Lambert appeared to handle the ball on the sideline in the build up to Liverpool's goal then Southampton failed to deal with the second ball after Clyne initially headed clear a Henderson cross. Sterling nodded Clyne's header towards an unmarked Sturridge at the back post for a tap in.

Incredibly, with his side continuing to look stretched defensively in midfield, Rodgers elected not to use his third sub to bring on a third central midfielder for Sturridge or Sterling. Emre Can seemed like the obvious choice. Instead Sterling, Sturridge and Lambert all stayed high up the pitch and Liverpool defended with a midfield three of Gerrard, Allen and Henderson. Southampton continued to be dangerous and Liverpool were fortunate to escape with the three points. Morgan Schneiderlin rattled the crossbar for Southampton and Shane Long missed an open net with a follow up header.

Rodgers is an excellent manager, adept at changing systems while still getting his sides to play fluid, coherent football. However, his decisions today seemed strange. At home against a side gutted by players departing on summer transfers, you'd have thought he'd be a bit more adventurous with his team selection and gone with a 4-3-3 from the outset. Yet when the circumstances of the match dictated he should make cautious changes, he did not.