Mancini could up the tempo to win midfield battle in FA Cup derby

We are part of The Trust Project What is it?'s Michael Cox uses the StatsZone app – from FFT and Opta, available now – to preview the best of the weekend's FA Cup action...     

Newcastle United versus Blackburn Rovers is one of only two all-Premier League ties in this weekend’s FA Cup Third Round, and it’s a repeat of one of the most one-sided Premier League fixtures of the season, played back in September.

Although Newcastle only won the game 3-1, they recorded seven times as many shots as Blackburn. That said, their shooting accuracy left a lot to be desired, with only four of their 21 shots testing Paul Robinson, who had a poor game. They’ll have to be more ruthless in front of goal against Blackburn’s on-form reserve goalkeeper Mark Bunn, who has turned in excellent displays at both Anfield and Old Trafford in the past fortnight, to help his club to four unexpected Premier League points.

It will come as no surprise that two of Newcastle’s three goals in that game were scored by Demba Ba, but this cup tie marks the beginning of Alan Pardew’s time without the Senegalese striker. He’s scored 58% of his club’s league goals this season, a higher percentage than any other player in the league.

Wolverhampton Wanderers’ short trip to Birmingham City at Saturday lunchtime sees a return to St Andrew’s for centre-back Roger Johnson, who left the club after their relegation last season.

Johnson had a good campaign despite that relegation, but has been disappointing at Wolves. He’s also had a run-in with the club’s fans, labelling them “a disgrace” and “disgusting” after sections of the support cheered Mick McCarthy’s decision to substitute Karl Henry against Newcastle.

Johnson’s positioning seems less assured this season. Last year he was always in the right place to head the ball away inside the penalty box, but this season he’s much less of a force. In last weekend’s game against Chelsea, for example, he didn’t make any successful clearances – in the corresponding fixture in 2010/11, he made seven.

The main event of the weekend, though, is clearly the Manchester derby. A highly-charged match in any circumstances, this tie is given extra spice by the fact these sides are first and second in the league, and because it’s the first derby after Manchester City’s incredible 6-1 win at Old Trafford in October.

A main feature of that game was the positioning and movement of City’s two wide players, David Silva and James Milner. On paper, Silva was on the left and Milner was on the right, but they took it in turns to move to the opposite side. As the graphic shows, Milner got an assist from the left – the first goal, for Mario Balotelli – while Silva played plenty of passes from the right.

But this wasn’t a simple case of them switching sides – they made diagonal runs across the pitch, one at a time, to combine, helping to create 2 v 1 situations against United full-backs. Roberto Mancini would love to be able to do that again, but with both Yaya Toure and Gareth Barry unavailable, Milner may have to be used in the centre of midfield on Sunday.

Manchester United are also without one of their key central midfielders, as Darren Fletcher remains out of contention with long-tem illness. He was United’s best performer in that 6-1 defeat, completing more interceptions than any other player, and also scoring a fine goal.

United were noticeably overrun in the centre of midfield during the 3-0 defeat to Newcastle in midweek, and with the benefit of an extra day’s rest and home advantage, Mancini may attempt to make this a fast-paced, fierce midfield battle. If that’s to be the case, United will miss Fletcher’s tenacity.

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