FourFourTwo's new signing Michael Cox – editor of ZonalMarking.net – starts his regular Premier League preview by concentrating on the weekend's two big games, using the Stats Zone app from FFT and Opta...
This week’s main attraction, Manchester United v Chelsea, has been the title-deciding fixture in the previous two campaigns.
In 2009/10 Carlo Ancelotti surprisingly left out Didier Drogba and introduced him late on for Chelsea’s crucial second goal, and last season Javier Hernandez’s strike after 36 seconds put United on the way to their 19th title. This season’s fixture, coming so early in the season, won’t decide the title either way – but it is Andre Villas-Boas’ first real test as Chelsea boss.
Sir Alex Ferguson won the battle back in May by using his two wide players intelligently. Park Ji-Sung played a narrow role on the left and helped United battle in the centre, whilst on the opposite flank Antonio Valencia had a superb game up against Ashley Cole, constantly skinning him down the right wing.
Nevertheless, neither Park nor Valencia has started a league game yet this season for United – both made their first start of the season in the midweek Champions League draw with Valencia.
Ferguson will be reluctant to leave out either Ashley Young or Nani, who have both started the season in great form – but he knows the value of stopping Cole advancing down the left. I’d expect Young and Nani to start the game, but Valencia will probably be used late on if United need to protect a lead.
Amongst all the positives about United’s start to the campaign, they have looked a little suspect defensively – partly, of course, because of their injury problems at the back.
Still, it’s surprising to learn that they’ve allowed more shots this season than any other Premier League team so far, a statistic probably attributable to their opponents' feeling that new goalkeeper David De Gea is suspect from long-range shots. The stats from their previous game against Bolton show that, despite United’s clean sheet, Bolton had plenty of attempts.
It's notable how many of those shots came from a position on the edge of the ‘D’, and Chelsea may try to exploit United’s weakness between the lines of defence and midfield. The attack-minded combination of Tom Cleverley and Anderson has sometimes left them a little weak in that zone, though the likely return of Michael Carrick in place of the injured Cleverley should give the defence extra protection.
Chelsea will fancy their chances in that zone, however, and the man to watch here is Juan Mata, who likes to slip into positions on the edge of the box and create. His passing chart from his previous game against Sunderland shows how he moves infield from his left-sided starting position.
The undercard for Sunday’s main event is an exciting game at White Hart Lane, where Tottenham welcome Liverpool. The fixture last season saw an open, enjoyable match between two 4-4-2 teams, with Tottenham winning the points late on.
Spurs’ attacking options have changed since then, however. Last season Rafael van der Vaart started just behind Peter Crouch, but with the Dutchman unlikely to be fit and Crouch now at Stoke, Harry Redknapp will probably use Emmanuel Adebayor and Jermain Defoe, in a classic ‘big man / little man’ combination.
The passing screens from the duo’s first game together, last weekend at Wolves, shows an interesting pattern to their positioning. You might expect Adebayor to remain in a central position and challenge for high balls, while Defoe scuttles around on the flanks – but it was the opposite: Defoe stayed central, Adebayor worked the channels.
It will be a good test for Liverpool’s defence, although they come into the game in good form – despite losing 1-0 to Stoke last weekend, they had an impressively high ratio of completed tackles, especially considering the physical nature of the opposition.
Michael Cox is the editor of Zonal Marking.
Stats Zone, the app from FourFourTwo powered by data from Opta, is available now at the iTunes App Store.
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