Manchester United started their Premier League campaign with a 1-0 defeat at Everton, where Marouane Fellaini was allowed to roam across the pitch, exploiting the absences in United's backline, and thriving in aerial duels against the makeshift centre-back Michael Carrick.
Sir Alex Ferguson was able to select a more orthodox defensive quartet here but still had a plan for stopping Fellaini. It involved Phil Jones, who has become Ferguson's go-to man for specific defensive tasks against particularly dangerous opponents. Last month, for example, he was deployed in a right-sided defensive midfield position to help Rafael da Silva cope with Gareth Bale, and it was no surprise Ferguson summoned Jones to take care of Fellaini.
His versatility and determination has made him a trusty foot solider – and just as the likes of John O'Shea, Darren Fletcher and Park Ji-sung have played valuable roles for Ferguson by flitting between functional roles and performing astutely in big games, Jones might play a significant part in United's trip to Madrid on Wednesday evening. Jones was man-of-the-match on his Premier League debut when marking Didier Drogba three years ago, and he is one of few Premier League players who can boast the bravery and aerial prowess – as well as the mobility to play in midfield – to stop Fellaini.
The extreme nature of his man-marking job is rarely seen in a modern Premier League game – Jones followed Fellaini wherever he went, leaving United's centre-backs to focus on Victor Anichebe. In itself, the ploy worked superbly. Whereas Fellaini had been the dominant player at Goodison, he was on the periphery of this match, often marked so tightly that Everton didn't even attempt to find him.
Whereas defensive players usually concentrate on remaining goalside of opponents, in certain situations – when Fellaini was high up the pitch – Jones was content to get in front of his opponent. A key feature of Fellaini's game is his ability to bring the ball down on his chest, shield the ball from his opponents, and play in onrushing midfielders. Jones's brave positioning prevented this and Fellaini's chest control was barely noticeable.
However, allowing one of their central midfielders to be dragged out of position had problematic knock-on consequences for United's overall shape; Jones's inevitable tendency to leave his central midfield zone unattended left Tom Cleverley isolated against Darron Gibson and Leon Osman.
Everton found too much space in the centre of the pitch, and dominated possession in the first half. With Antonio Valencia tracking Leighton Baines determinedly on the right, Ryan Giggs was forced to move infield from his left-sided position, which left Phil Neville free to attack from right-back. This was hardly a disastrous situation for United: allowing Neville time on the ball was obviously preferable to allowing Fellaini to dominate, and coercing Everton into attacking down the right, rather than their favoured left, was another way of harming the away side's attacking capabilities.
Nevertheless, Ferguson was sufficiently concerned by United's weakness on that side that he moved Wayne Rooney across to become a left-sided midfielder after half an hour, meaning a switch to a 4-1-4-1 system, from their initial 4-4-2. Jones was forced off in the second half because of a slight injury, which again pitted Fellaini against Carrick. But the Belgian's influence on the game was no more obvious, and Moyes eventually brought him deeper into midfield, attempting to get him more involved. However, United rarely appeared troubled – they cleverly cooled the tempo and killed the game with unambitious ball retention, allowing them to conserve energy ahead of the midweek meeting with Cristiano Ronaldo and co.
Bale central to Tottenham's philosophy
André Villas-Boas started Gareth Bale on the left in Tottenham's 2-1 win over Newcastle on Saturday afternoon, but ended up moving him into a central position for the second half. The Welshman found his space restricted by the presence of Jonás Gutiérrez, who doubled up with the right-back Mathieu Debuchy and restricted the space Bale could work in, pinning him close to the touchline.
But his central role saw Bale become the key player, running with the ball directly towards goal. "He's enjoying his football through the middle," Villas-Boas said after the match. "Today we started as we finished the game at West Brom, with Bale on the left. We gave him the same freedom … obviously when the player feels good about the position, he enjoys it more, and he was able to provide that second goal with his individual brilliance."
Bale seems happier when allowed to play in the middle, but perhaps more important is the positioning of the opponents – he's superb on the counter-attack when allowed space to break into, but hasn't yet become consistently dangerous against deeper defences.
Deputy Sagna shines at the back
Laurent Koscielny's injury in the warm-up forced Arsène Wenger to improvise ahead of Arsenal's 1-0 win at Sunderland, with Carl Jenkinson coming into the side and Bacary Sagna deployed at centre-back, a position he'd never played before.
Jenkinson struggled, and was second off for two bookable offences after an hour (incidentally, he's only received four bookings in his Premier League career, but both have been 'doubles', having been dismissed at Old Trafford last season) but Sagna was magnificent in the centre of defence. The Frenchman made an incredible number of clearances, and used his impressive leap to beat much taller players to the ball.
Sagna has struggled in his favoured position of right-back in recent weeks, making Saturday's display all the more impressive. Perhaps he was inspired by the different challenge of playing in the centre, but Wenger will hope the Frenchman continues his good form when he returns to his usual position next weekend.