Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Tactical Analysis: Fulham 2-1 Newcastle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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