Thursday, December 13, 2012

Preview: Newcastle vs. Manchester City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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