Sir Alex Ferguson's midfield strategy dashed Alan Pardew's hopes a repeat of Newcastle's 3-0 win last January
In Newcastle's 3-0 victory over Manchester United at St James' Park back in January, Sir Alex Ferguson's side were overwhelmed in the centre of midfield. Newcastle's attacking threat mainly came from direct balls towards the strikers – but the way Cheik Tioté and Yohan Cabaye pressed, harried and overpowered Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs was so obvious that Ferguson persuaded Paul Scholes out of retirement three days later.
To avoid a repeat battering in the centre of the pitch, Ferguson continued with the midfield diamond he introduced at Cluj on Tuesday night, cramming four central players into that zone. Carrick played the holding role with Tom Cleverley to his left and Shinji Kagawa higher on the right. Wayne Rooney was behind Robin van Persie and Danny Welbeck, but consistently dropped deeper into midfield to help win the ball.
Alan Pardew went with a 4-4-2 system but Newcastle's problem was their attempt to replicate last season's pressing in a zone where they were outnumbered. Within the first couple of minutes it was clear Tioté and Cabaye were trying to close down Carrick and Cleverley when they got the ball, which in turn left Kagawa and Rooney free. Kagawa could be picked up by Jonas Gutiérrez moving narrower, but Rooney was given too much time with the centre-backs occupied by two strikers. United's early goals may have come from set pieces rather than via Rooney's creative threat between the lines, but the scoreline was a fair reflection of United's utter dominance of the ball.
Pardew immediately responded. He switched from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1 – putting Papiss Cissé wide on the right and moving Hatem Ben Arfa to the left. Usually he prefers to shift Demba Ba left when making this change, but with Ba in great recent form having hit Newcastle's previous five goals, he remained in his preferred position as the central striker. The 4-5-1 meant Newcastle had greater numbers in the centre of midfield, and possession was more evenly balanced: United had 78% of possession until their second goal, but this figure dropped to 51% after Newcastle's switch, and Manchester United took 40 minutes to have another shot.
Forcing Newcastle into a formation change represented a tactical triumph for Ferguson – the game was being played on his terms, centred around possession in midfield. If Newcastle wanted to be as direct as last season, they now had one fewer target for long balls and crosses – although they still looked most dangerous when testing David de Gea's aerial ability.
Newcastle started the second half strongly, particularly down their left. Kagawa is not used to defending, having grown accustomed to a free role at Borussia Dortmund – so Antonio Valencia was introduced to track the forward runs of the left-back Shane Ferguson. This meant United's diamond was abandoned in favour of a simpler 4-5-1, with Welbeck out on the left, plus Rooney and Cleverley ahead of Carrick in the centre.
After adapting and counter-adapting, both sides ended up playing a similar system from 60 minutes onwards – and, with no obvious area of strength for either side and Manchester United's determination to cool the tempo of the match through possession play, Newcastle failed to launch significant spells of pressure after Ferguson's formation switch.
Against Manchester City on Saturday afternoon, Martin O'Neill fielded two out-and-out wingers – Adam Johnson started on the right, James McClean on the left. Neither are reliable when the opposition have the ball, but defending was a big part of their job against City.
City took advantage of Sunderland's weaknesses down the flanks. Considering Roberto Mancini's sides do not play with great width – part of the reason Johnson was allowed to leave – it was rare to see City thrive so much in wide positions.
The key moments can be attributed to poor Sunderland play down the right. For the first goal, Johnson lost the ball high up the pitch and Sunderland conceded a free-kick that Aleksandar Kolarov scored from. For the second goal, McClean let Kolarov run past him to cross for Sergio Agüero. For the third, Kolarov was allowed to motor forward and won a free-kick from Craig Gardner, who deflected James Milner's free-kick into the net.
O'Neill didn't have obvious defensive options for the wide positions on the bench and if Sunderland are to remain tight away from home, Johnson and McClean will have to improve their concentration when out of possession.
A strange feature of Norwich's 4-1 defeat to Chelsea was how few fouls the Canaries committed – just three over the course of 90 minutes, a bizarrely low figure considering Chelsea enjoyed 69% of possession.
This figure was helped by the referee Anthony Taylor turning down appeals for two fouls on Eden Hazard inside the penalty box. Hazard won three penalties in his first month as a Premier League player, but is yet to win any since. "The first three penalties he got in the first few games were clear-cut," said Roberto Di Matteo. "But there were a few others where he didn't get them, so I wouldn't want the officials to have a prejudice against him."
Hazard has been criticised for diving, but his propensity for going to ground in the box might be more about his dribbling style – he seems to deliberately cut across defenders having dribbled past them, increasing the likelihood of contact.