Tuesday August 17th, 2010

Tactical notes from the first weekend of the Premier League season:

When Manchester United won the Champions League in 2008, it did so without a conventional striker, with Carlos Tevez dropping deep, Wayne Rooney playing either deep or wide left and Cristiano Ronaldo on the right. When Barcelona won the Champions League in 2009, it similarly had a very fluid front three, with Samuel Eto'o, Thierry Henry and Lionel Messi. In signing Dimitar Berbatov and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, respectively, two more orthodox strikers who can play with their back to goal, both took a step back from the avant garde. However, if Saturday was anything to go by, Manchester City, with a budget that means it can effectively buy whatever it needs to fit any formation or style of play, is looking at the riskiest but potentially most devastating way of playing there is.

Against Tottenham, City lined up in a 4-3-3, with Tevez flanked by David Silva and Shaun Wright-Phillips. It didn't work in the first half, partly because Wright-Phillips was terrible (is he really better than Craig Bellamy?), and partly because the passing of the midfield three -- Yaya Toure, Gareth Barry and Nigel De Jong -- was so poor. When United and Barcelona succeeded with their strikerless formation, they had in Ronaldo and Messi wide players scoring an unfathomable number of goals; Wright-Phillips will not do that, but Tevez might if he moves wide and Mario Balotelli slots in at center forward.

City's problem on Saturday, though, was less the front three than the midfield three. It may be that manager Roberto Mancini was deliberately setting out to play defensively and contain Tottenham and that he will adopt a more expansive approach in the future, but to field Toure, Barry and De Jong means that linking the midfield and forward lines becomes extremely difficult (neither Toure nor De Jong played a pass into the Tottenham box), particularly when the two fullbacks are as restrained as they were on Saturday.

And that, really, was the oddity of City on Saturday: the internal tension. United and Barcelona both facilitated the movement of their front three with breaks from midfield and fullback, while City essentially was a broken team, with a solid back seven and a fluid front three, which made it relatively easy to contain. Then again, Mancini may argue, his design at Tottenham was containment, and once his side had stopped giving the ball away readily as it did in the first half, when City survived only thanks to the heroics of Joe Hart in goal, that was achieved relatively comfortably.

As ever, when a midfield three meets a midfield four, the issue is whether the two central midfielders in the four can win enough possession to feed the wide players. In the first half, such was City's sloppiness that Luka Modric and Tom Huddlestone -- a boldly creative pairing on Tottenham's part -- were able to constantly slip balls wide to Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale. In the second, as City tightened up, it was a much more even contest.

Was it typical Roy Hodgson, or was it typical Liverpool? In the end, it was a bit of both. In its 1-1 draw with Arsenal on Sunday, Liverpool lined up in the 4-2-3-1 that has been its default for the past couple of seasons, but with the major difference that Steven Gerrard was used not behind the frontman but as one of the two holding players, with license to push on. Former manager Rafa Benitez never trusted him to be tactically disciplined enough to perform the role, but perhaps with Hodgson's relentless work on team shape in training, the 30-year-old can learn new tricks. Particularly in the second half, after the dismissal of Joe Cole, Gerrard was extremely disciplined.

If the use of Gerrard as a holder, though, suggested a more attacking outlook, the way the two wide players, Milan Jovanovic -- industrious and quietly impressive in his league debut -- and the ever-diligent Dirk Kuyt, dropped deep so that Liverpool's shape was often 4-4-1-1 was reminiscent of Fulham last season. Joe Cole's red card overshadowed things, but the game was similar to the second leg of the Barcelona-Internazionale Champions League semifinal last season, in that the sending off almost helped the more defensive side. Liverpool had been broadly outplayed in the opening 45 minutes, although Arsenal had struggled to turn possession into chances, and it was as though going down to 10 men clarified in its players' minds that their job was simply to stop Arsenal, with David Ngog's goal early in the second half coming as a bonus.

That they were able to do so until succumbing to Arsenal's first spell of sustained pressure in the final minutes is highly encouraging, but the real worry must be Cole, who was barely involved in the first half. As the Zonal Marking Web site pointed out, Samir Nasri, Arsenal's playmaker, made 25 passes to Cole's seven when both were on the field. Since emerging as a teenager at West Ham, Cole has been hailed as the great No. 10 who would save English football; now, at last, the 28-year-old has the platform, but he could hardly have made a worse start. The lunge at Laurent Koscielny that brought his red card was surely born of frustration at having made so little impact in the first half.

The 4-4-2 formation is becoming like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. Every time you think it's been killed off, it comes howling out of the bath to reassert that it is, still, very much alive. Its grip, of course, has slackened, and English football has certainly moved on from the days when any manager departing from 4-4-2 was seen as a tactical maverick. Nevertheless, over the weekend seven sides played 4-4-2 (and seven played 4-2-3-1).

Sunderland's game against Birmingham, a clash of two 4-4-2s, had the feel of a match from the '90s, all pace and power and newly signed foreign players looking bewildered. But Tottenham showed that 4-4-2 can still be a viable attacking formation at the highest level and that, played well, it can be exhilarating. Gareth Bale had an excellent first half against Manchester City, Aaron Lennon a very good second; played at a high tempo, this was traditional British football at its best, and it unsettled City.

The second half, as City settled and held the ball better, hinted at the problems the 4-4-2 may have, particularly in the Champions League, against sides capable of retaining possession. Then again, the pace with which Spurs play may trouble opponents as unaccustomed to such an onslaught in just the same way English teams did in the '80s.

Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.

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