Metronomic Meireles, differing defences, Swansea's weak link

ZonalMarking.net's Michael Cox uses the StatsZone app – from FFT and Opta, available now – to preview the big weekend fixtures... 

Liverpool's trip to Chelsea inevitably means much of the focus will be on Fernando Torres facing his old club. But another Liverpool old boy playing in blue will be Raul Meireles, fresh from a good performance in Portugal’s 6-2 thrashing of Bosnia in the Euro 2012 playoff.

Meireles scored the winner for the visitors in this fixture back in February, when Kenny Dalglish showed great tactical acumen by switching to a back five with a diamond in midfield and Dirk Kuyt upfront, reacting to Chelsea’s brief experiment with a 4-3-1-2, when they were trying to fit Torres, Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka in the same side.

In that game, Meireles played high up the pitch at the tip of the diamond, in close support of Kuyt. Indeed, he was something of utility man at Liverpool, playing in various different positions, and often featured on either flank.

He rarely played in the position Andre Villas-Boas has earmarked for him, however – deep in midfield ahead of the back four, helping to circulate the ball in midfield. The two diagrams below show how much the positions of his passes has changed; in this fixture last year he generally played passes in the opposition half, now he plays in a much deeper zone. If he features in that role again, it will be interesting to see whether Dalglish instructs one of his players to get tight.

The Manchester City v Newcastle game sees the Premier League’s two unbeaten sides coming together, as well as its best two defences. From 11 games so far, Newcastle have conceded only eight goals, Manchester City just ten.

Explore the stats further, however, and you see a completely different pattern in how the two sides defend. Despite being the best two defences, the sides are at opposite ends of the ‘tackles per game’ table. Newcastle make the joint most tackles in the league, 21.5 per game, whilst City make the least, just 15.9 per game. It goes to show that there’s no ‘correct’ way of defending – City are less reactive than Newcastle, but Newcastle have conceded fewer goals.

The difference is summed up in the below diagram from both sides’ trips to QPR, both in the frequency of the tackles, and the positioning – Newcastle’s occur in the centre of the pitch in front of their penalty area, whilst City’s are usually on the flanks.

On the subject of winning the ball back, Monday night’s clash between Tottenham and Aston Villa brings together two defensive midfielders who are statistically best at their favoured method of gaining possession.

Tottenham’s Scott Parker has made more tackles than any other player in the league at 5.9, just ahead of Liverpool’s Lucas Leiva, whilst Villa’s Stilian Petrov has made the most interceptions at 3.9 per game.

It will be interesting to see the contrast in styles on Monday night – the below diagram shows that Petrov comes up high to intercept the ball, whereas Parker generally wins it ahead of his back four.

Swansea take on Manchester United in Saturday’s late afternoon kick-off, and will be keen to put on a show – it’s the first live televised fixture from the Liberty Stadium this season.

Swansea’s passing statistics are incredible for a Premier League newcomer. They have the fourth-highest average possession and the fourth-highest pass completion rate in the league, and their commitment to short, neat football is as admirable as it has been successful.

The below diagram shows two of their best passers. Swansea often play out from the back through Spanish right-back Angel Rangel, who has completed more passes per game than any other Swans player. Leon Britton, meanwhile, has the highest pass completion rate in the league at 93.6%, just ahead of Samir Nasri.

An interesting feature of the game might be the battles in the air, though – Swansea win the fewest aerial duels in the Premier League at 4.7 per game, while United win the second fewest but are way clear at 7.9 per game. With Nemanja Vidic back in the side, perhaps that will rise – starting, perhap, at the Liberty Stadium.

Stats Zone, the app from FourFourTwo powered by data from Opta, is available now at the iTunes App Store  

Topics