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May 11, 2014

Tactics Board: Nasri central to City success

MANCHESTER CITY 2-0 WEST HAM

Samir Nasri started the season on the bench for Manchester City and ended it with a goal that helped them clinch the Premier League title. His touch map in City's 2-0 victory against West Ham on Sunday shows why he won his place back and how great an influence he exerted.

The Frenchman was initially dropped for Jesus Navas, an out-and-out winger. Nasri operates more in the inside-right channel, as the cluster of dots 15-20 yards infield shows. Indeed, his goal comes from the sort of position he occupied regularly. Coming infield allowed Nasri to get involved more, and he had 121 touches against West Ham, a total topped only by Yaya Toure. He also delivered 16 crosses, many of them from a narrower position.

With David Silva having a similar interpretation of a wide man’s duties, the real width in the City side often comes from the full-backs. Pablo Zabaleta and Aleksandar Kolarov combined for 13 assists this season, and the Argentine helped provide the first two goals in Wednesday’s 4-0 win over Aston Villa. Zabaleta has helped ensure City often do not need Navas. LIVERPOOL 2-1 NEWCASTLE

Brendan Rodgers’ tactical tinkering has produced many a benefit for Liverpool this season. His use of a diamond has allowed them to field two strikers without being outnumbered in the centre of the midfield.

As Newcastle led in the first half at Anfield, however, Liverpool discovered the downside of the diamond: It leaves a side more open on the flanks and affords the full-backs less protection than other formations. Rodgers actually had Jordan Henderson, the midfielder most suited to playing on the sides, available again to play on the right for Liverpool, but Newcastle’s left-sided pair of Massadio Haidara and Yoan Gouffran still caused problems.

Gouffran stayed wide, and when he got in the space outside and behind Henderson, it sometimes meant Steven Gerrard was dragged across from his position at the base of the midfield. Martin Skrtel’s own goal came from a Gouffran cross when Gerrard could not quite track him.

The Liverpool captain’s first-half touch map illustrates that, while he was rarely on the left, time and again he had to come across to the right. The 33-year-old is often described as a quarterback in his new role, but in this game Liverpool needed a hugely mobile defensive midfielder. Given Gerrard’s reinvention, his touch map from October’s game against Newcastle makes for an interesting comparison.

SOUTHAMPTON 1-1 MANCHESTER UNITED

Nemanja Vidic’s 300th and last Manchester United game ended with the Serb bloodied from a clash with Rickie Lambert, perhaps fortunate not to have conceded a penalty, and having made the most clearances of any player on the pitch.

A map of his defensive contributions for the season -- tackles, interceptions and clearances -- highlights that he remains an outstanding penalty-area defender. Vidic, playing as United’s left-sided centre-back, has specialised at dealing with any threat that enters his zone: In particular, he meets opponents’ crosses. In his final season at Old Trafford, he won 72 percent of aerial duels. His problems tended to come further forward, when he was exposed against pace and knew there was open space behind him. When the ball entered the United box, however, Vidic was often excellent.

CARDIFF 1-2 CHELSEA

Ashley Cole has definitely played his final game for England. He may have made his last appearance for Chelsea, too. The 33-year-old, who is out of contract in the summer, captained his club at Cardiff.

His touch map indicates what sort of left-back he is now. The majority of his touches came in his own half, and while he did get into the Cardiff box, comparatively few came in the final third.

For much of his career, Cole has been regarded as an attacking left-back, but the job description has changed in recent years as a younger generation has emerged, often better at going forward than going back -- partly because, if the centre of the pitch is congested, the only room available is on the sides. Cole, who delivered only two crosses against Cardiff, seems more conservative than some of the dynamic youngsters. It may suit Jose Mourinho -- Cesar Azpilicueta, who has taken the Englishman’s place for much of the season, is not the most adventurous either -- but the bolder Luke Shaw moved ahead of the veteran in the World Cup thinking.