Tiote and Cabaye find the perfect balance as Newcastle look to repeat history

ZonalMarking.net's Michael Cox uses FourFourTwo's StatsZone app – now FREE – to analyse Newcastle's ever-impressive central midfield partnership ahead the weekend's visit of Manchester United...

Cheick Tiote and Yohan Cabaye quickly formed a solid midfield partnership last season, but their quality was particularly obvious during the stunning 3-0 win over Manchester United earlier this year – Newcastle fans will hope for a similar performance this Sunday in the same fixture.

In that game back in January, Sir Alex Ferguson played Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick together in the midfield – a technically proficient combination, but one that is always vulnerable to frantic matches when the opposition press energetically. Alan Pardew was open and honest about his tactics after the game. “We won today because we controlled the game in terms of what we wanted to do,” he said. “We wouldn’t let them play, I thought we took a bit of a gamble in terms of a high press on them, and then physically and aerially we had an advantage, and we capitalised on that.”

Shola Ameobi and Demba Ba stayed high up the pitch, with Pardew trusting Tiote and Cabaye to press Giggs and Carrick. They were magnificent both individually and as a partnership, and highlighted Manchester United’s lack of battling players in the centre of the pitch.

Their roles that day were typical of their performances throughout last season. As the graphic below demonstrates, Tiote stayed in deep positions and kept his distribution neat and tidy, while Cabaye moved into attacking zones and played more ambitious balls. That’s a standard combination – one player to sit, the other to attack, and it worked brilliantly for Newcastle.

The best proof of the combination’s effectiveness is that neither player is as comfortable when alongside another partner, because their job changes. For example, look at when Newcastle used James Perch as the holding player against Norwich – his passing is reliable but even simpler than Tiote’s – as a result, Cabaye has to drop deeper and become more involved in the play. He hits a huge number of wayward passes into the box, partly because he was receiving the ball in deeper positions, so his incisive balls and searching passes are more difficult to complete.

The next week, Pardew fielded Tiote alongside youngster Gael Bigirimana against Reading. This partnership completely changed the role of the former – Tiote is usually about short sideways passes, but he felt the need to become more of a playmaker. His assist for Demba Ba’s volley justified his longer passes, but overall too many were wayward, handing possession back to Reading cheaply.

This week’s Europa League win over Bordeaux saw Tiote and Cabaye reunited, and they were back in their traditional roles during Newcastle’s comfortable 3-0 victory. Tiote focused on circulating the ball rather than hitting long passes, allowing Cabaye to play a more advanced role – although with Newcastle ahead from the 15th minute, the Frenchman focused upon retaining possession. The old team was back together, playing in their best roles.

Pardew will remember how Newcastle successfully nullified Manchester United’s passing quality in midfield in the 3-0 – but Ferguson will adapt too. Last time he played two strikers – Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov – who offered little support to their midfield. This time, Ferguson will get extra bodies into the centre of the pitch to compete with Newcastle’s energy.

Pardew is fortunate to have the weapons to play either 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 with the same eleven players. Demba Ba can play either as a striker or on the left, while a versatile player like Jonas Gutierrez or Vurnon Anita can play either wide or in the centre of midfield accordingly.

This tactical battle should be very different to the 3-0 of nine months ago – but Cabaye and Tiote’s partnership will remain crucial.

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