Going direct will help Walcott beat the Blues, Ba to get the chance to end drought

ZonalMarking.net's Michael Cox uses the StatsZone app – from FFT & Opta, available now – to preview the best of this weekend's Premier League action...

The most interesting battle of the weekend’s opening Premier League fixture between Arsenal and Chelsea at the Emirates will be Ashley Cole’s tussle with Theo Walcott. The two were teammates for a brief spell at Arsenal, although never played in the same side, and it’s always an interesting battle of pace and positioning when the pair go head-to-head.

Walcott often gets the better of Cole – last season he starred in a 3-1 Arsenal win at the Emirates by constantly breaking in behind the left-back, and in Arsenal’s 5-3 win at Stamford Bridge earlier this season, Walcott was a real force on the right flank by exploiting the high line Chelsea were then playing under Andre Villas-Boas.

It’s interesting to note that almost all of Walcott’s passes in that match were backwards – rarely did he play the ball into the middle of the pitch. This shows how tightly Cole was tracking him when Walcott got a ball into feet – his only option was a first time pass the way he was facing. Walcott only tried three dribbles in the game, and all three were successful – the key is Arsenal feeding him the ball in a position where he can attack directly.

On Saturday, Roy Hodgson returns to Anfield for the first time since being dismissed as Liverpool manager early last year. Kenny Dalglish, his successor, predicts he’ll get a warm ovation from The Kop, despite widespread dissent at his style of playing during his brief spell in charge.

One of the key problems during Hodgson’s reign was Liverpool’s narrowness. Hodgson always orders his sides to defend with two narrow banks of four, with the wingers generally breaking directly towards goal, rather than hugging the touchlines. That was summed up with how rarely Liverpool crossed the ball when he was in charge – in stark contrast to their current status as the Premier League’s most frequent crossers.

In their last home game against Aston Villa, they crossed the ball 48 times in the match, including corners – more than once every two minutes.

Compared to the equivalent fixture from Hodgson’s time in charge, where they crossed only 15 times, it’s a noticeable difference – although Hodgson would prefer to point out the difference in result.

The reverse fixture between Newcastle and Stoke saw Demba Ba confirm his place as one of the league’s deadliest strikers, helping himself to a hat-trick in a 3-1 away win at the Britannia Stadium at the end of October.

But Ba’s reputation has been dented slightly since then, partly thanks to the arrival of his fellow Senegalese forward Papiss Cisse, who has taken over Ba’s mantle as Newcastle’s main striker. Alan Pardew has re-jigged his side, and often Ba is now played out on the left in a 4-5-1 system and has not scored in his last nine outings for the Magpies.

But whether upfront alongside Cisse (as against Bolton) or out on the left (away at Swansea), Ba still manages to pick up the ball in central positions – the graphic of his passes received at the Liberty Stadium doesn’t suggest that he is playing in a wide role. The key difference is how close to goal he picks up the ball, though, and with Newcastle sure to dominate possession against Stoke, he should be able to get into goalscoring positions more readily.

Manchester United struggled to find a reliable midfield combination at the start of the season, but the return of Paul Scholes and the consistency of Michael Carrick means they’re ending it with a partnership that retains the ball as efficiently as any side in the league.

The passing graphics from last weekend’s comfortable win over Aston Villa shows the difference in the two players’ passing – Carrick tries more ambitious forward passes, and the angle of his balls are generally more diagonal towards the flanks. Scholes, more reliable with his distribution, plays a much higher percentage of short square passes.

The two will get another chance to showcase their ball retention skills at home to Everton this weekend. David Moyes is likely to tell his players to stand off and sit deep, and it will be interesting to see how United try to break Everton down.

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