Sunday, 17 March 2013

Wigan Athletic 2-1 Newcastle United: Newcastle Punished for Lack of Concentration in Wide Areas

Team Lineups:

Wigan (most likely a 3-4-3): Robles, Scharner, Figueroa, Alcaraz, Boyce (Captain), McCarthy, Gomez, Beausejour, McManaman, Kone, Maloney

Bench: Al Habsi, Stam, Caldwell, Henriquez, McArthur, Golobart, Di Santo

Newcastle (most likely a 4-2-3-1): Elliot, Debuchy, Taylor, Yanga-Mbiwa, Santon, Gutierrez (Captain), Tiote, Marveaux, Sissoko, Gouffran, Cisse

Bench: Harper, Haidara, Perch, Anita, Gosling, Obertan, Shola Ameobi

A few observations during the build up:
  • Wigan are very fluid in their 3-4-3 formation and are surprisingly good at keeping possession when they want to. Their style is similar to their game against Newcastle last season, a game Wigan won 4-0. Although a number of names have changed, Wigan find themselves in a similar position to last season (and the season before that, and the one before that etc).
  • Everton play a strict 4-4-1-1, which can go some way to explaining why Wigan performed so resoundingly against them. With an added midfielder, Newcastle's 4-2-3-1 means that Wigan should have less space to keep possession and may struggle to play their game as fluidly. Nevertheless, their confidence is high.
  • It is needless to say that Kone and Maloney are Wigan's key threats. Kone is fast, energetic and skillful, although he may struggle to find service. Maloney is direct and extremely technically gifted.
  • Boyce and Beausejour will attack the wide areas whenever they can. Newcastle need to ensure the wide areas are well covered. Gutierrez would have been perfect for this, however he is needed elsewhere. Debuchy and Santon must be extremely careful not to get caught out of position when they go forward.
  • If Wigan continue to play three at the back or with wing backs, there will be a lot of space for wide players (Gouffran and Marveaux) to exploit. Gouffran is the quickest and most direct, so I expect him to do the most damage on the counter attack. 
  • If Wigan are more compact towards the end of the game, Marveaux is likely to do more damage, as his intricate through balls and excellent crossing against Stoke and Anzhi have shown.
  • Tiote played extremely poorly against Anzhi and must focus on his ball retention and passing to have a positive effect on the game today.
  • Gutierrez will play where Cabaye usually does, as a central midfielder next to Tiote. Considering this is not his natural position, he looked accomplished in that role on thursday night. It's also interesting that he has been given the captain's armband today, considering he hasn't performed well this season. 
  • Sissoko looked tired against Anzhi, so if he hasn't rested sufficiently he may only have a limited impact against Wigan in his role as a powerhouse trequartista. If he is feeling fresh, I can see him being the one to break the deadlock.
Pre-match prediction: 2-1 Newcastle

Newcastle's Early Pressing

Initially, Wigan appeared to be struggling with Newcastle's high pressure, with a few long balls and passes going astray at the beginning. The pressing subsided for Newcastle within 25 minutes of the first half. Towards the end of the first half Newcastle were being pulled around in midfield by Wigan's passing game and looked to be tiring. However, being a goal down Newcastle did resume the pressure early in the second half second half to good effect, although for certain spells in the second half Newcastle could no longer chase the game and Wigan began to play passing triangles. 

Wigan's First Goal

Prior to the first goal, Shaun Maloney skipped past Haidara with ease on the right before pulling the ball back into the penalty area. Santon had also experienced difficulty in getting back into position when on the left hand side as Emerson Boyce beat him down the line. These were obvious warnings of Wigan's intentions. Despite this, Wigan again exploited Newcastle's frailties as MacManaman made the same run, but instead crossed to the far post where fellow full back Santon was caught out of position facing his own goal. Santon subsequently made a hash of his panicked clearance, leaving Beausejour with little option but to freely pass the ball into the net. 

The wingbacks combined well here and Newcastle's full backs did not stay disciplined. Gouffran did not help out Haidara in the same manner Gutierrez would have. After the goal Newcastle continued to ignore the danger on the right as MacManaman continually attempted to repeat his assist before being substituted.

Newcastle's Injury Problems

Debuchy and his replacement Haidara had to come off within the first half an hour due to injuries. Haidara is looking in serious trouble over the long term. MacManaman's studs up challenge on Haidara's knee probably should have been a red card. This meant that Alan Pardew had minimal opportunity to make changes later on in the game. Nonetheless Newcastle fielded a squad capable of winning the game and by their high standards should not use these injuries as an excuse for losing. Newcastle had to move Gutierrez to left back and James Perch into midfield. Rather than Perch (a more natural defender) coming into right back and Santon moving back to left back, Pardew recognised that he could not have his left hand side exposed again and so moved ultra-defensively minded Gutierrez there. Little threat came down the Newcastle's left hand side thereafter, yet Santon was repeatedly being caught out of possession at right back by Beausejour in the first half.

Half time conclusions: 
  • Newcastle had not fashioned a clearcut chance. Wigan had dangerous counter attacks and crosses from the right hand side.
  • Wigan were defensively disciplined.
  • Lapses in concentration from Haidara and Santon left Newcastle 1-0 down.
  • Wigan moving the ball around with increasing ease as Newcastle tire in their pressing.
  • Wigan struggling to deal with balls in the air largely coming from Tiote. Newcastle could not however find themselves in a position to cross the ball.
  • Sissoko was restrained in his counter attacks because of tiredness Wigan's ability to regroup quickly.
  • Marveaux is likely to be important in the second half when play slows down. He will be lookng to thread a through ball or cross to Cisse as his set pieces deliveries have been dangerous so far.
  • Key area: Wigan's wide right. MacManaman punished Haidara for repeatedly allowing crosses to come in and Santon for being caught out of position.
  • Top performer of the first half: A tie between Shaun Maloney and Arouna Kone
The Change:

Ameobi came on for Gouffran, initially in what I thought would involve going to 4-4-2 and looking to batter wigan in the air. In fact, Newcastle changed to 3-5-2 with Gutierrez and Santon operating as wing backs when in possession. When off the ball Newcastle switched to 4-4-2. Marveaux moved to the No. 10 role and Santon out wide. Sissoko moved wide.

As a result of the change, Wigan appeared immediately more pressured with two strikers, two wing backs and a trequartista in Marveaux to contend with at the same time. Santon immediately scored after this change was made. Marveaux linked up nicely with Ameobi who had the fresh eyes to spread the ball to Santon, who placed his shot in the bottom left corner as Wigan defenders began to back off. This was one of Pardew's most immediate and effective changes since he joined Newcastle. From there on Newcastle sought to attack for the win.

The Final Goal

However, Newcastle's impetus faded towards the final minutes of the game as Wigan reassumed their passing game and excellent counter attacking. The goal itself came from a goalmouth scramble from a set piece. There is not a great deal to analyse there apart from the sliced clearances and likely handball. Conceding a goal from a set piece at this stage is arguably down to a lapse in concentration, as appeals for handball (although legitimate claims) left the likes of Perch unable to clear the ball properly and other defenders unable to win the second ball after the Figueroa's handball.

Increasing influence between the lines of both teams, particularly Marveaux:

In the first half, Marveaux found it hard to get the ball and come deep to collect it. This meant there were less players to play the ball forward to, and sometimes meant passes were intercepted by Kone. However after Pardew's changes Marveaux moved into the centre attacking midfield role as Sissoko continued to wane. Marveaux still came deep to collect the ball, but only to start counter attacks himself with through balls over the top of Wigan's defence leading to a half chance for Cisse and involvement of Ameobi at the later stages. But Marveaux started to provide more than just these through balls, intricate play began to emerge as in one move, two brilliant passes to Cisse led to a blown chance and showed signs of Wigan beginning to budge. Soon after, Marveaux began embarking on fantastic runs through the middle as the game became stretched but his ball was heavy to Gouffran. Marveaux's deliveries were also dangerous, and Newcastle came close to scoring from a corner for the first time in a season and a half when Taylor's header was saved by Robles.

Equally the threat in these areas became ever more potent for Wigan, as they found it easy to play the ball between the lines to Maloney. It also led to some frustrated challenged from Tiote. Tiote played reasonably well but found it hard to shut Maloney, Kone and even Gomez down, who all found themselves between Newcastle's defence and midfield due to Wigan's fluid formation. Tiote tired and was often caught in possession in the later stages, leading to early shots for Maloney from the edge of the area and several fouls, including a free kick on target. This forced corners that Wigan managed to capitalise from later. 

The Effectiveness of Kone and Maloney

Arouna Kone and Shaun Maloney were excellent today, both individually and as a partnership. They were particularly useful as Newcastle pushed on for an equaliser, attempting and succeeding with several 1-2s whilst forcing a couple of important saves from Rob Elliot, despite being outnumbered by Newcastle defenders. 

There were certain instances towards the end of the first half where Newcastle were continually keeping possession in their own half and the energy of the two meant that Kone could rob the ball from them and relieve any pressure Wigan were under. Wigan stuck men behind the ball and countered exceptionally, often via Kone, when newcastle were sloppy in possession. On one occasion Gutierrez had to desperately block a shot as James McArthur was released for a one on one chance.  

Yanga-Mbiwa especially struggled to contain the energy of Arouna Kone, conceding several free kicks from an early stage when Kone was going nowhere with the ball and Wigan were looking to relieve the pressure. Yanga-Mbiwa did not recycle possession as effectively as previous games, most likely due to the threat of Kone's energy.

Tiote's Improvement

Tiote's performance improved significantly in comparison to thursday, it had to in all honesty. He completed 67 of his 76 passes, twice as many as any other Newcastle player and a sizeable amount of those passes were long balls over the top of the Wigan defence. An example of this was when Tiote lofted the ball to Debuchy to score a phantom goal. However, Tiote's ball retention was less impressive. There were several instances where he was caught in possession by Arouna Kone and Shaun Maloney, and at one point vented his frustrations immediately fouling Kone after losing the ball. He fashioned the best chance for Newcastle of the first half with one of his through balls over the top landing to Cisse after the Wigan defenders struggled to deal with the ball in the air

The Influence (or lack of influence) of Moussa Sissoko

Sissoko again looked tired today in similar fashion to thursday night. As a result of this and the compactness of the Wigan defence, Sissoko struggled to have any significant impact in the game. He showed signs of promise in the first 5 minutes with a run down the right hand side and a flashing cross but Cisse was positioned elsewhere. There were occasions where he burst away with lots of green in front of him but his heavy touch let him down. He did see a curved effort go wide in the second half, but that was due to Wigan again struggling in the air. Wigan covered Sissoko's counter attacks superbly and he could not break through a well-organised back three where the wing backs showed more discipline to get back than Newcastle's. Sissoko's passing also became more sloppy as the game progressed, especially in final third to Gouffran and Marveaux.

Disappointing Gouffran

Gouffran on the other hand had a very limited impact in a game where he should have been at his best. He made two key mistakes when Newcastle had the chance to break: he either cut inside onto his right foot or slowed down to hold the ball up. As mentioned in the build up, Wigan's main weakness is being exploited in the wide areas on the counter attack. Gouffran would in theory be perfect for this, as he is a wide attacking midfielder with furious pace. However by cutting inside he was playing into the hands of the three organised centre backs, who then had a good chance to block or intercept any shot or pass that came their way. By not fully utilising the width of the pitch the wing backs went unpunished when caught out of positon.

Given his role as counter attacker, by holding the ball up and allowing team mates to come into play meant that Wigan could regroup easily, and meant that what he was offering nothing unique in the game. It also meant that any subsequent cross could be dealt with by Wigan's centre backs in a 3 v 1 against Cisse on the counter attack, a battle Cisse was unlikely to ever win on his own. Gouffran's most effective moment was when he broke with Sissoko and forced a corner in the first half. Once it became apparent that his pressing was not paying off he became visibly agitated and was eventually substituted for Ameobi.

Alan Pardew's Opinion:

"It was an awful tackle by Callum McManaman...I have got a boy going to hospital and that’s a worse feeling than losing.” “It looked a bad tackle but I didn’t realise how bad until it filtered through to us.

We had a game we want to forget because nothing went for us. It was almost a calamity of decisions for us. We felt we should have had a corner in the build-up to their goal. But I can’t fault my players, we’ll have to patch ourselves up and get on with it. I felt we should have had a handball in their winning goal. Everybody appeals for handball and in that split second is the difference between us clearing the ball and not."
Roberto Martinez's Opinion:
"Three points at this stage of the season is huge. We went through a period where we have to score a second goal otherwise it becomes difficult. But I could not be prouder of the character - especially at this stage of the season. Without scoring the second goal when we were leading 1-0, we found a way to win.

The character was magnificent. They were very strong with good individual players who are a real threat. I don't feel we have had any luck whatsoever this season and the way we work I think we deserved that luck. We had so many opportunities and we couldn't find the final pass so we made it difficult, but we found a way to win and that pleased me."

Overall conclusions:
  • Newcastle's full backs needed to be more disciplined against Wigan's marauding wing backs 
  • Pardew's switch to 3-5-2 almost paid off, Santon looked reasonably effective as a wing back. Marveaux was also used to good effect in the No. 10 role as Sissoko tired.
  • The goalscorers were much less unlikely than they seemed at the time.
  • Wigan probably deserved to nick the points, although the manner in which they did was cruel.
  • Refereeing decisions went against Newcastle today, and the result may have been different had Newcastle's 2 fullbacks not been injured within the first 30 minutes. Yet they did not deserve to win the game even if refereeing decisions went in their favour. 
  • Kone and Maloney have formed a highly underrated partnership.
  • Macmanaman's challenge may have been the beginning of the end of Haidara.
  • Key area: Wigan's right hand side, and between Newcastle and Wigan's back line and midfield in the second half.
  • Top performer of the second half: Shaun Maloney
  • Man of the match: Shaun Maloney

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

The Rise of the Powerhouse Trequartista

Over the past two seasons there has been a notable trend that has not been present since Ruud Gullit’s time at AC Milan, the tall and powerful attacking midfielder.

This development can be contrasted with the situation 5-15 years ago, the age of the powerful defensive midfielder. This was personified by the likes of Patrick Vieira and Edgar Davids, who used their speed and power to intercept passes, with the simple technical task of recycling possession to a teammate once they have to ball to start a new counter attack. There will of course always be demand for such players due to their obvious suitability to the role, explaining why players like Sergio Busquets currently hold down this position for world-class teams such as Barcelona.

The transition currently taking place can be normatively explained in light of Barcelona. Over the past 5 years, teams across Europe have decided to follow trend-setters Barcelona by retaining possession and playing the ball out from the back, with the emphasis upon controlling games and waiting for the opposition to make mistakes due to tiredness. This has of course led to unprecedented success of Guardiola’s Barcelona, and has meant other teams, initially La Liga sides, had to adapt to be more organised in order to restrict the threat of being progressively sliced open through tika-taka football. The use of inverted wide midfielders also sprouted from Barcelona’s influence: an Andres Iniesta figure who can thread a pass through the eye of a needle is currently preferable to a Keith Gillespie of yesteryear, who can fly down the wing and deliver a deadly cross. That trend is alone worth writing about.

As the more advanced teams loosely followed the passing style of Barcelona, less technical sides have countered this problem by defending using two banks of four. Such tactics are personified by the current Sunderland squad led by Martin O’Neill and England manager Roy Hodgson during the European Championships. Chelsea’s champions league semi-final performance against Barcelona themselves provides a perfect example of this system used during a single game. Although a very good team with excellent players, they knew they were no match for Barcelona’s intense passing game and rightly decided not to fight fire with fire. All of these teams were aware at the time that the best way to maximise their potential and get a result from games against more technical opponents was to find themselves difficult to break down. To their credit this has worked reasonably well, particularly for Chelsea who went on to win the Champions League that season.

Defensive organisation as rigorous as this has encouraged another trend. It has also led to the use of small, technical defensive midfielders. These players are seen as an ideal counterbalance to the threat of intricate through balls and small, skilful attackers, whilst being technically gifted. It is now more important than ever that these holding midfielders possess strong technical ability, in order to deal with the increasingly common use of high pressure put upon teams with possession of the ball in their own half. Having smaller, more talented holding midfielder means that teams find it easier to distribute the ball quickly and accurately from the back. Xabi Alonso of Real Madrid, Mikel Arteta of Arsenal and Lucas Leiva of Liverpool are all useful examples of how the top teams have adapted to these changing trends in European football. These players are all currently seen as indispensible by the respective clubs, and for good reason.

However, as a result of such strict organisation and the adoption of smaller holding midfielders, a new type of player has re-emerged – the use of powerful attacking midfielders. This new generation of playmaker has been deployed behind the strikers in order to quickly blast through smaller and more organised opposition with minimal fuss. They are particularly useful when counter-attacks are needed to finish a team off, as they often have the leg span to outpace tired defenders. At 6 ft. 2, Moussa Sissoko’s sensational performance against Chelsea affirmed this new trend at the weekend. His two goals on the counter attack, clever through balls to Papiss Cisse and his expeditious, powerful runs shifted the balance of play almost single handedly. Sissoko was seen at his very best in two particular moves against Chelsea from either wing. He tore past world-class full back Ashley Cole on the right hand side to release a shot and force a corner kick, and feinted his way past an equally powerful Branislav Ivanovic on the left hand side to release another shot on target, albeit a tame one on that occasion. It is no surprise then that Alan Pardew admitted after the game that Newcastle would not have won against Aston Villa or Chelsea had it not been for his new star player.

Yet players such as Sissoko have not only came to the fore over the past month, they have been on the rise since at least the start of last season. The use of fast, powerful attacking midfielders have been used elsewhere to great success. A recent example is the superb Miguel Michu, who has scored 16 goals in 29 games in all competitions and is 6 ft. 1. Michu was so successful in the number 10 role behind the likes of Danny Graham that he has now replaced Graham as their key centre forward in order to maximise his goal-scoring threat. Within the Premier League there is also Mourane Fellani of Everton, who is having his most productive season to date with 10 goals in 20 league games, playing behind Nikita Jelavic and/or Victor Anichebe and stands at a towering 6 ft. 4 ½. Both Michu and Fellani have also proved the usefulness of their size when making late runs into the box and scoring headed goals regularly.

Yaya Toure (current African Footballer of the Year) could also easily be categorised as a product of this trend at 6 ft. 3, although Roberto Mancini does not always use him in this way. He excelled in this position however against a defensively well-organised Newcastle United last season that Manchester City had struggled to break down for the best part of an hour – two Yaya Toure goals later after Mancini switched Toure into the number 10 role and City were in with a chance of claiming the Premier League title for the first time.

Moreover, as powerhouse attacking midfielders are a relatively developing trend in football, their valuations have not yet inflated – Sissoko and Michu both cost within the region of £2 million. At a hefty £24 million Yaya Toure is rightly seen as a more expensive example, but he was used predominantly by Barcelona as an effective defensive midfielder at the time. Overall the rise of the powerhouse trequartista could be the first step that leads to a shift away from some of the more technical elements of football developed by Barcelona towards a more direct and physical style of play across European football.

By Ian Mckie.