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Sep 1, 2012

Tactics Board

MANCHESTER CITY 3-1 QPR

Premier League pitches are 105m x 68m. When Manchester City enter the final third, however, they are only really 44 yards wide. Opponents often defend the width of the penalty box against Roberto Mancini's side, reasoning they won't head for the touchline.

That formed part of Mark Hughes' gameplan. While it seemed an attacking move when QPR selected two strikers - and indeed both played a part in their goal, scored by Bobby Zamora - they dropped so deep that at times both were within 35 yards of their own goal. It made for a compact outfield ten with the full-backs narrow and the forwards in what were basically midfielders' positions. It also meant they ceded both territory and possession to City, who were on the ball for 65% of the first half. With no pressure on centre-backs Joleon Lescott and Vincent Kompany, they were rarely likely to give the ball away. Indeed, they finished the game with completion rates of 99% and 94% respectively.

And yet while Rangers converged in a comparatively small zone, so did City. One first-half David Silva shot, saved by Robert Green, was revealing because five of their players - the Spaniard, Samir Nasri, Carlos Tevez, Edin Dzeko and Pablo Zabaleta - were on or close to the six-yard line. They are happy playing in confined areas. Even though their third goal stemmed from a shot from Edin Dzeko that went in off Carlos Tevez, their positions were significant: around five yards apart with Yaya Toure, who had supplied the Bosnian, a similar distance from him, creating a triangle.

City's system is often called 4-2-3-1. In many respects, it is 4-4-2 without the ball and 4-2-2-2 with it. It leaves a reliance on the full-backs to supply the width. Besides their frequency, what is increasingly notable about Zabaleta's raids forward, however, is that he is equally willing to go inside or outside the opposing full-back. Indeed, while the Argentine went outside Fabio da Silva when he hit the bar, he was still sufficiently close in to shoot.

The consequence is that while other clubs' crosses come from the touchline, City's sometimes come from central areas. Their second goal, scored by Dzeko, followed a ball from the byline from Tevez, much nearer the post than the corner flag.

Arguably City have had more width away from the Etihad Stadium, where, both in the Community Shield and in the Premier League at Anfield, they have played 3-4-1-2 with James Milner and Aleksandar Kolarov as wing-backs, giving them a higher starting position than the full-backs used at home. Another change has been in midfield: Jack Rodwell has started both home games whereas the departed destroyer Nigel de Jong began at Villa Park and Anfield. He is now gone and it remains to be seen if the system survives on their travels.

WIGAN 2-2 STOKE

Imitation was the sincerest form of flattery. It was also Stoke's way back into the match as they aped Wigan's shape. Initially they were firmly in the ascendant, playing a fluent 3-4-1-2 against Stoke's rather rigid 4-4-2. Often Wigan's spare man was Shaun Maloney, playing between the lines while Stoke's central midfield duo of Glenn Whelan and Geoff Cameron were more concerned with James McArthur and James McCarthy. When Dean Whitehead came in from the right to become a third central midfielder, Jean Beausejour was freer and he was Wigan's major attacking outlet. Either way, it suited Roberto Martinez's side.

After 35 minutes, and with right-back Andy Wilkinson injured, manager Tony Pulis removed him, brought on Charlie Adam and played 3-5-2. It changed the game, but both second-half goals said something about Stoke's system.

Wigan's second was also a consequence of a slight tweak to their formation. At the end of last season, they played 3-4-2-1 with Victor Moses and Shaun Maloney behind Franco Di Santo. Now, with Moses gone, a second striker has come in, Arouna Kone. One consequence is that Di Santo can roam deeper and wider. He was near the right touchline when he fed Kone, who escaped Marc Wilson - shifted from left-back to the left of three central defenders - and, because Stoke's trio at the back were in a line, rather than with a sweeper, sprint clear, before setting up Di Santo to score.

Stoke's second equaliser - the first came from the penalty spot - followed a cross from Jonathan Walters, then deployed as an emergency left wing-back. Indeed, none of Stoke's wing-backs were naturals for the position. When Pulis switched system, winger Michael Kightly became the left wing-back. It was a gamble but his reasoning may have been that Wigan's right wing-back, Emmerson Boyce, is a defender first and foremost. However, Boyce was actually an attacking threat against both systems, having chances to score in each half, before being subdued by his final opponent.

When Kightly went off, the versatile Walters, who had been the support striker, took over as a wing-back. Powering forward, he went in behind Boyce when the Wigan man advanced and looked to combine with the left striker, Cameron Jerome, against the right-sided centre-back, Ivan Ramis, which almost produced a winner. In effect, Walters played like a left winger and Stoke were without a left-back, but it worked.

On the other flank, meanwhile, a turning point came when Beausejour went off injured. Wigan's end-of-season rally last season owed much to their formation - they were the only team in the division regularly playing with three at the back - but that, in turn, owed much to Beausejour. Because results were less spectacular, it attracted rather less attention when, before the Chilean's arrival, they played 3-4-3 for much of last November and December. Then David Jones was the left wing-back but he is essentially a left-footed central midfielder, less likely to run with the ball or go outside opponents.

And when Beausejour departed, Jones took over. He was up against Cameron, shifted from centre midfield to right wing-back, and Wigan had less impact on that side. The combination of the change of shape and the loss of Beausejour negated Athletic on their left while Pulis' tinkering eventually put Stoke on top on Wigan's right.

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