Newcastle and Manchester City both go into Saturday''s lunchtime clash at St James' Park desperate for a win.
Neither side has been in the best form of late; City losing 2-3 at home to Manchester United last weekend, while Newcastle have struggled to balance the demands of Premier League and Europa League football, falling down the table into 14th Newcastle having lost seven games already this season whilst City have struggled to win games, drawing six in total this season.
As such, despite their defeat against United, City go into the game as favourites (1.65) to win, with a draw available at 3.90 and a home win at outside odds of 5.00.
City will go with the same 4-2-3-1 they used against United. This has been their main formation this season, other than the rare flirtation with a back three. Meanwhile, Mario Balotelli is set be dropped, with Tevez likely to come in for him. Other than that there are not a lot of options for City with regards to their three attacking midfielders. Samir Nasri was poor against United but will probably get a stay of execution, simply because the alternatives, like Scott Sinclair, are not at the level required.
Newcastle will name the same team that lost against Fulham. They lack quality from the bench, so rotation isn't really an option for them. It might be a consideration to leave Cisse out in favour of a more natural wide player, but I doubt that Pardew will do that just yet.
It has been well documented of late how Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse have struggled to score goals in the same team. The two individual strikers both possess obvious quality, but translating this to a coherent on pitch partnership has been problematic and led to tactical flaws that have been exposed in the league.
This season it has been Ba who has been in the goals, scoring ten times, his fellow countryman Cisse on the other hand, has struggled, netting just twice. This is almost a role reversal of last season, when Ba dried up after January yet Cisse scored 13 goals in 14 games before May.
The above diagram is the 'average positions' of Newcastle players against Fulham. Newcastle set up in this game as a 4-3-3, with Cisse (9) and Ben Arfa (10) flanking Ba (19). As we can see in this diagram though, Ba, Cisse and Ben Arfa are all clustered together centrally, which is one of the issues that arises from the Ba/Cisse partnership.
As the side do not play a conventional 4-4-2, one of the strikers has to hang wide. Cisse is not a wide man and thus comes close to Ba to operate as a centre forward. Cisse is just not comfortable in a wide support role, but really wants to be the main focal point of the attacks, which at the moment Ba is. This unbalances the Newcastle side, leaving them without width but also leaving them vulnerable in full-back areas, as Cisse and Ben Arfa cannot adequately support their own full-backs defensively after transition if they are attacking centrally.
Manchester City's own striking problems
Having spent considerable sums of money bringing in four 'top class’ strikers, one would have expected goals to come freely, but City’s forwards have been struggling in recent weeks. Balotelli only has one goal to his name this season, while most of Dzeko's goals come from the bench. Tevez and Aguero have also found goals hard to come by, meaning Mancini is constantly rotating his four strikers attempting to find a perfect balance.
The problem was evident against United last week, as neither of City’s scorers, Yaya Toure a midfielder and Zabaleta, a defender, were strikers. It is almost certain that Balotelli will be left out, with his manager's patience wearing thin. Tevez, on the other hand, may be recalled to the fold to partner Aguero, the two of them looked bright when linking up together against United in the second half and are statistically City's best strike partnership.
Expect a relative lack of width
As noted above, Newcastle's Ba/Cisse striking conundrum poses problems for Alan Pardew tactically, as it restricts their width. The front three as stated are very narrow, meaning the full-backs have to provide width. Santon does this from the left, but not being a natural left footer also makes him inclined to cut inside, whilst Simpson does an adequate job from the right.
This is shown on the diagram above where number 3 (Santon) and 5 (Simpson) are Newcastle's widest players. One player who will have a key role in this regard is Gutierrez, who plays the role of a centre-mid and a wide player at the same time. He operates on the left of a centre midfield trio and will look to get down the flanks when Newcastle are in possession. His heat map from the 2-1 defeat at Fulham demonstrates this role he plays:
City also suffer from a lack of width. Against United we saw them get picked off on the counter-attack down the flanks, the Red Devils scoring two of their goals down City’s right and left respectively.
Both full-backs for City receive little protection in these areas as Silva and Nasri often move centrally. If we observe Silva's heat map from the defeat against United he does get into wide areas but his play is not concentrated down a particular flank, he drifts around more, unlike say Valencia at United, who was completely concentrating his play on the right flank:
This also means that the full-backs for City, like at Newcastle, are tasked with providing the width. With the quality City have at full-back they may chose to attack really aggressively in this area, whilst Silva and Nasri get involved centrally, this could open up a lot of space. If not, we'll see a very narrow game of football with Newcastle adopting a more direct approach.
City need to bounce back after their defeat against United. Losing at the Etihad will have made the wound all the more severe and Mancini's men are now six points off the top. With United home against Sunderland we'd expect them to pick up three points, so City can ill-afford to fall further behind.
Newcastle on the other hand are down in 14th position and will want to get a big result against the Champions to spark some sort of resurgence.
I'd thus expect a fairly narrow game of football with both sides rarely using conventional wingers. The flair players like Silva and Ben Arfa will tend to float around the pitch, rather than hugging to the touchline as traditional wingers would.
This means that the full-backs for both sides will need to work hard to provide width, which could see a goal coming from out wide, especially if a full-back is caught out of position. Much attention will also be on the strikers, who except for Demba Ba, have had goal scoring problems of late.