Traditional formations but differing styles for the relegation haunted duo who still don't have a win between them
With so many managers determined to dominate possession with the use of three central midfielders, Premier League matches featuring two proper strike partnerships have become increasingly rare. But with Jamie Mackie operating just behind Djibril Cissé, plus Jason Roberts and Noel Hunt working the channels at the other end, this was effectively a clash between two 4-4-2s.
Despite the similarity in formations, Queens Park Rangers and Reading played completely different styles of football. Brian McDermott's side started strongly with a somewhat basic, traditional gameplan – they fielded two tricky wingers, spread the play wide and attacked directly. Their two forwards drifted into wide positions, finding space in behind the QPR full-backs, and won corners when trying to beat centre-backs on the outside. Reading appealed ferociously whenever the ball crossed the byline after a tackle, suggesting a particular keenness to win corners – and with good reason. Mark Hughes's side were disorganised when defending dead-ball situations, and floated deliveries towards the debutant Sean Morrison consistently caused problems.
In contrast to Reading's combination of width and set-pieces, QPR were attempting to play intricate, technical football; Mackie dragged Kaspars Gorkss out of position and Cissé also dropped unusually deep. In combination with the movement of Junior Hoilett and Adel Taarabt inside from the flanks, QPR were overloading Reading's midfield duo, and getting men between the lines to shoot from the edge of the box. Samba Diakité contributed to this, sliding forward unnoticed from a central midfield position and dribbling forward ambitiously, leaving Esteban Granero to protect the defence. The majority of QPR's shots were from central positions, around 25 yards from goal – mainly from Taarabt, who had eight attempts, but Granero also went close from a couple of free-kicks after rash Reading tackles, when QPR's attackers had slipped into the space behind the midfield.
Interestingly, Tottenham also encountered problems in that zone against QPR a couple of months ago. André Villas-Boas's solution was to push his defence higher in the second half, minimising the space between defence and midfield, but Spurs were facing Bobby Zamora that day. That was harder with the threat of Cissé's pace in behind, so Gorkss and Morrison defended deep and often had to charge towards the edge of the box to block shots.
Morrison's aerial prowess had a key impact at both ends. He won two consecutive headers in the move that lead to Gorkss's goal, and was first to the majority of Júlio César's goal-kicks – the Brazilian eventually started to spray the ball wide, but should have realised sooner that Cissé was winning nothing in the air. Morrison did miss a header for Cissé's goal, possibly the only time the Frenchman outfoxed him in the game, but deserves to retain his place for next week's home fixture with Norwich – a game Reading really must win.
At the other end, it was interesting to see the left-footed Anton Ferdinand playing to the right of the centre-back pairing, and right-footed Ryan Nelsen to the left. Their opposite numbers weren't technically impressive but moved the ball swiftly forward – not once did Gorkss and Morrison exchange passes, and the central midfielders Jay Tabb and Mikele Leigertwood rarely passed the ball backwards. Reading do not use possession to control the tempo, only to attack – explaining why they have the joint-lowest average possession this season alongside Stoke, but have attempted the joint-most crosses with Manchester United.
Substitutions had little impact – McDermott replaced both his wingers, and while the pacy Jimmy Kébé had a couple of bright moments down the right, he was less effective when Hughes replaced the tired left-back Armand Traoré with Nedum Onuoha.
With both clubs still looking for their first league victory, neither manager will have been particularly pleased with a point – QPR's dominance in open play was cancelled out by Reading's threat from set-pieces, and neither made significant tactical changes to alter the pattern of the game.
For the second consecutive weekend – following a fine first-half performance on the break against Everton – Liverpool looked significantly more dangerous when they attacked directly at speed, rather than when focusing upon interminable passing sequences.
Luis Suarez's superb goal owed much to immaculate close control rather than a tactical plan, and it's unlikely that many goals will arise from long Jose Enrique passes this season. But the point remains – Suarez thrives when he receives direct passes into space, rather than when forced to battle multiple defenders packing the penalty box. The pace of Suso and Raheem Sterling also caused problems, while Steven Gerrard played a couple of excellent long diagonal balls in behind the defence.
Gerrard criticised Everton for playing direct football last weekend, comments he later retracted. Yet Enrique's chip down the line was not dissimilar from the type of passes Leighton Baines regularly plays, and Liverpool might benefit from more immediate passing moves – they lack incisive passers, yet have plenty of driving midfielders and quick attackers. Rodgers must play to Liverpool's strengths.
Robin van Persie acknowledged his growing partnership with Wayne Rooney following the 2-1 victory over Arsenal, describing them both as 'No9-and-a-halves' – somewhere between deep-lying forward and goalscorer. But the most impressive thing about their performances on Saturday afternoon was their defensive discipline.
Rooney practically man-marked Mikel Arteta and prevented the Spaniard from starting Arsenal's passing moves. Van Persie, meanwhile, generally positioned himself close to Thomas Vermaelen, which meant Arsenal instead had to play out through Per Mertescker, a significantly weaker passer. United haven't looked entirely secure at the back this season, so the work rate of last season's Premier League top scorers proved particularly valuable, as Arsenal's passing was extremely slow.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net