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Aug 18, 2012

Tactics Board

Newcastle 2-1 Tottenham

Andre Villas-Boas is fascinated by tactics. Hatem Ben Arfa seems to ignore them. Newcastle's win against Tottenham can seem a triumph of free spirit against control freak, but it gave an inkling of how the Portuguese's Spurs will set up and the Frenchman's impact - positive and negative - on United's shape.

At Chelsea, Villas-Boas became indelibly associated with his infamously high defensive line. At Spurs, there seems to have been an amendment to the blueprint, hinting Villas-Boas is not as inflexible.

While there was a surprise selection, with Jan Vertonghen only on the bench, the most significant element was the defence's positioning. Centre-backs William Gallas and Younes Kaboul often stood 10 yards behind the half-way line, whereas their Chelsea counterparts were urged to advance further last year. Tellingly, no Newcastle chances came from passes in behind the Tottenham defence. In another difference, while his Chelsea played 4-3-3, Villas-Boas' Spurs have been configured in a 4-2-3-1 system throughout pre-season.

While it can be a fluid formation, this is very much a four-tiered team. The twin anchormen, Sandro and Jake Livermore were the pivotal players in linking the back four with the trio of attacking midfielders. In the first half, before Newcastle changed tactics to add another central midfielder, they limited the space between the lines and gave their side a platform to get on top.

Meanwhile, while it was a new-look Spurs, United had fielded a starting line-up without a summer signing but one distinct alteration. Having played 4-3-3 at the end of last season, they began by reverting to 4-4-2, despite fielding the same six players in midfield and attack. It is an indication that there is no one system that suits all.

Demba Ba, who had sacrificed himself on the left wing when they played 4-3-3, was back in his favoured role as a striker in 4-4-2. The man to suffer initially was Ben Arfa, pushed out to the right wing, though he is far from a conventional winger. When he first made an impact, it was by moving into his preferred territory of the centre of the pitch. It had the extra advantage of adding unpredictability; Sandro was promptly cautioned for halting one slaloming solo run illegally. Another resulted in Ba shooting just wide. Take a freeze frame of Newcastle's positions at that point and, with Papiss Demba Cisse in the middle, their shape resembled 4-3-3.

Perhaps it influenced what happened next because Alan Pardew formalised a change back to 4-3-3. Thereafter, all three goals could be attributed to Ben Arfa's roaming. In the first half, he made Newcastle asymmetrical. Jonas Gutierrez, who provides much more tactical discipline, played as an orthodox left winger, directly in front of Davide Santon. In both halves, right-back Danny Simpson had to provide width in attack on his flank.

When Newcastle led, it was Simpson who advanced into the area Ben Arfa - whether in a four-man midfield or three-man forward line - chose not to occupy often and crossed and, after Kyle Walker failed to clear, Ba scored. That showed the merit of isolating a larger centre forward against a full-back at the far post and, while he endured a goal drought in that role last season, of using Ba in a wider role, though more inside-left than outside-left.

Yet Ben Arfa's reluctance to defend meant Simpson had to deal with Gareth Bale or, after a change of wings, Aaron Lennon on his own. When Spurs levelled, Jermain Defoe scoring at the second attempt from Lennon's cross, it was after the England international jinked away from a static Ben Arfa, who did not attempt a challenge. The better part of his game came when, materialising on the left wing, he induced a foul from Lennon and Rafael van der Vaart and converted the resulting penalty. Everything revolved around him and it illustrated that Pardew's challenge is to find a shape where Ben Arfa's talent enables him to win matches and his wanderlust does not result in Newcastle losing them.

West Brom 3-0 Liverpool

Liverpool's past 3, Liverpool's present 0: the scoreline continued a theme. During Steve Clarke's 16 months at Anfield, Liverpool beat his old club Chelsea four times in five attempts and, on his bow as West Bromwich Albion manager, he defeated his former employers.

While Liverpool have a different set-up under Brendan Rodgers and although the result can be attributed to a world-class goal by Zoltan Gera and the dismissal of Daniel Agger, inside knowledge could have contributed to another Clarke triumph.

Four players were key tactically for Albion: holding midfielders Youssouf Mulumbu and Claudio Yacob, the more advanced James Morrison and striker Shane Long. While, as expected, Liverpool had the majority of possession, Mulumbu and Yacob ensured Albion did not waste the ball when they got it back: their pass completion rates, of 95% and 96% respectively.

There is a logic to playing three central midfielders against a Rodgers team, to go like for like, and to play two of them deep to patrol the area where Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez can exert most influence. The Uruguayan was not kept quiet - he had eight shots, the most of the day in the division and troubled the centre backs - but he was often forced wider because Mulumbu and Yacob remained in the zone in front of the Jonas Olsson and Gareth McAuley.

But Long and Morrison formed the first barrier to Liverpool. Morrison often positioned himself on Joe Allen; when he didn't, Long, the sole striker, dropped into midfield. While Agger is an excellent passer in his own right, Albion decided it was safer to leave Liverpool's central defenders unmarked. When the visitors were down to ten men, Long was freed to hassle the defence again and promptly dispossessed Martin Skrtel to win the penalty Peter Odemwingie scored.

It was a reward for Clarke who had several options in attack - Long, Odemwingie, substitutes Marc-Antoine Fortune and Romelu Lukaku - and picked the most industrious one to lead the line. Defence was his best form of attack.

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