SecondStriker
Milan 0-0 Barca: Goalless in Milano

Preview

Both sides stuck to their usual formations and mentality. Barca playing their fluid 4-3-3, with Andres Iniesta partnering Sanchez and Messi up front, Seydou Keita a surprise inclusion in midfield aside Sergio Busquets and Xavi Hernandez, with Carles Puyol deputising at left back. Milan stuck to their narrower 4-3-1-2 shape, with Kevin Prince Boateng fit to return, playing behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho. Massimo Ambrosini took the injured Mark van Bommel’s place in the defensive midfield role, flanked by the industrious Antonio Nocerino and the ageless Clarence Seeforf. Barca were not too badly hit by injuries but Milan missed their best defender, Thiago Silva, at the heart of their defence.

1st Half

Barca deployed their usual pass and move style, but with an obvious right sided bias. This made sense for several reasons, one of which was that Seedorf is not able to offer his full back as much protection as the much more energetic Nocerino on the right of the Milan midfield, and another is that Milan’s narrow style is vulnerable to effective wing play. With Dani Alves as attacking as ever from right back, and Alexis Sanchez playing as a right footed right winger (not often Barca’s style), it made sense to attack down that side. Couple this with the fact that Antonini is not a brilliant player, and that Puyol was the unnatural left back, and the tactic was an obvious one to deploy.

Milan’s gameplan was similarly clear, although they did not target a particular player. Because they had home advantage, they knew the pressure was on them to score while remaining tight at the back. For the first ten minutes, they applied very heavy pressure to Barca, hoping to force and error and create a chance for themselves. This almost worked, with Boateng’s powerful effort being blocked and Robinho horribly mishitting an easy volley from just a few yards out.

This tactic did not work though, and since Milan have quite a high average age in their team, they knew that continuing to press heavily would not be possible for the whole match, and reverted to their usual tactic (particularly against top sides) - counter attacking. They were without Ignazio Abate, who is very useful for fast breaks, but Nocerino, Boateng and Seedorf combined on a number of occasions to hit Barca on the break, with Ibrahimovic missing a very decent chance one on one with Valdes.

Counter attacking against Barca is risky though, you have to invite them to attack you and bring players forward, which they were only too happy to do. Sanchez and Messi were particularly dangerous, as Sanchez and Alves overloaded Antonini at left back and Messi’s quick feet were often too much for Nesta and Mexes. One moments of controversy happened with a Barca attack, as Sanchez was brought down by Abbiati in the box and bizarrely, not awarded a penalty. Messi also managed a goal from a Sanchez cross, but was clearly offside.

Milan’s plan worked in the first half though, a few excellent saves and some luck saw them to the break at half time. They played very narrowly even in defence, knowing that Barca are uncomfortable when they have to cross the ball. This proved to be true, Barca crosses were awkward and Messi was far too small to outjump Nesta and/or Mexes. Messi likes to drop deep as well though, and Ambrosini was tasked with dealing with him when he did so. On these occasions he decided to tackle hard, and was lucky to escape a yellow card, but he did appear to be achieving his aim of winding up Messi. The crowd also endeavoured to play their part.

The only other incident of note was a Barca counter attack, Sanchez broke clear but as he shot, Antonini managed to catch him up and perform a stunning sliding block in his own box. Goalless at the break.

2nd Half

The second half wasnt as exciting as the first, but still an interesting battle nonetheless. After 5 minutes Robinho appeared to be injured and was replaced by Stephan El Shaarawy. It may have been a tactical move as Robinho was playing poorly but both play the second striker role so it was not of much interest tactically. Neither team appeared to change it’s tactics for the second half, but Milan played significantly further forward, chasing a win to take to Spain, and Barca retreated slightly, knowing that if they didnt lose it would be a good result.

No team really dominated the half, the midfields simply battled for the ball, then the teams took turns to counter attack. Barca passed the ball better, but Milan tackled better. Both were dangerous on the counter attack but neither teams talisman (Messi and Ibrahimovic) had a particularly good game. Ibrahimovic looked disinterested and off form, and was nowhere near his usual high standard of play. Messi on the other hand, while dangerous, was nullified by 3 different players.

The first was Alessandro Nesta, who he spent the majority of the game playing directly against. Nesta is a veteran, but he used every bit of his experience to shackle Messi (just as he did in the group stages), frustrating him on several occasions and knowing when to pick up a professional foul for the team. Part of Messi’s game though, is dropping deep into midfield to receive the ball and assist with the build up. When he did so, Massimo Ambrosini was tasked with dealing with him, and he too did about as well as you’re likely to see a player when faced with Messi. He knew exactly how much he could get away with, fouling Messi a number of times to knock him off his game, while throwing himself into tackles and blocks to help neutralise him. When Messi did beat these two, he was faced with Christian Abbiati in goal, who made a number of excellent saves when faced with a one on one.

Some more subs were made to attempt to change the game, but neither manager made too many risks. Tello replaced Iniesta, so Barca had a natural winger on both sides and could attack both full backs, instead of simply attacking Antonini down the right all game. Tello added a new dimension to Barca’s play, but wasted a good chance when he should have passed to Messi, and couldnt beat Antonini to a loose ball which would otherwise have been an open goal.

Milan made two changes. The first was Boateng coming off for Urby Emanuelson. Boateng was probably not fit to continue, having just returned from injury, and Emanuelson is the most similar player to him in the Milan squad (highly energetic, links midfield to attack). He is an inferior player though, and horribly miscontrolled a decent chance for Milan. The second change was probably enforced as well, left back Djamel Mesbah replacing the excellent Alessandro Nesta. This meant a defensive reshuffle, but Milan would hold out for a clean sheet.

Barca then replaced Sanchez with Pedro, which again was not of great interest as both are similar players, but Pedro was less inclined to cross the ball into the box, which hadnt worked all night thanks to Mexes and Nesta’s height advantage over Messi.

In the final 15 minutes, Milan tried much more simple, direct, long balls, hoping to catch Barca out at the back with Ibrahimovic’s height. He had a poor game though, and Pique was only too happy to clear the majority of the hopeful long balls. The game ended 0-0.

Conclusion

0-0, but by no means a dull game. Both sides will feel they should have scored in the first half (Barca’s penalty call, Robinho’s terrible miss), but neither was desperate to score at the end and were not unhappy with the final result. Going into the second leg, Barca’s failure to score an away goal means that the result on the night will decide the tie, and a score draw will favour Milan. Both sides played well, and neither Allegri nor Guardiola really came out on top. Had Ibrahimovic or Messi been at their best, this could have been a very different game.

Newcastle’s Exciting 4-3-3

At the weekend Newcastle United gave arguably their most convincing performance of an already wonderful season, a 3-1 victory away at West Bromwich Albion. This was in no small part to very clever tactics by Alan Pardew. This season he has generally stuck to 4-4-2, occasionally experimenting with 4-4-1-1 and 4-2-3-1 in attempts to accommodate Hatem Ben Arfa in his starting eleven. This was the first time they had played a more orthodox 4-3-3 though, and the signs were very positive. I’m going to analyse each area of the team, starting with the trio of attackers.

Attack

Papiss Cisse, Demba Ba and Hatem Ben Arfa all played from the start, with Ben Arfa on the right of Cisse, and Ba slightly to the left. The first point to make is that there are very few formations that could fit each of these 3 players in their preferred positions, but moving Ba into a wide left role was the best compromise in this case. Ba is in a minor goal drought, (with Cisse having taken the reigns,) but he is certainly no goal poacher, and has more than enough technical ability to play in a more reserved midfield/winger role.

Ba had a good game, despite not being directly involved in any of the three goals. He has excellent close control and is a decent dribbler, particularly for a player of his build and size. He has played with Ben Arfa several times for Newcastle, and Cisse on occasional when the two have been on international duty for Senegal, so the chemistry was clear to see. The best example was in their third goal, Ba played a clever flick to Ben Arfa, who picked out a dangerous ball for Cisse, who scored (Ba slipped in an attempt to reach the ball).

Cisse thrived in this system though, he is a natural “number 9” and one of the best finishers in the game at the moment. His goal record at struggling Freiburg speaks for itself, so he was always going to score with the likes of Ben Arfa and Cabaye in the supply line. For the first goal, he showed brilliant awareness and positioning to get on the end of a Ben Arfa low pass into the box, although both made it very easy for the other.

Ben Arfa has a wealth of experience in a wide right role in this formation as well, and he picked up the man of the match award after a scintillating display. This system and line up allowed Newcastle to break with pace, which they have never been able to do this season (before the weekend they had managed just one goal from a counter attack). They were a constant danger on Sunday though; Ba is no slouch but Cisse and Ben Arfa are lightning quick, and West Brom simply couldnt handle the fluidity and pace of the attack. This was summed up in the second goal, Ben Arfa, Cabaye and Cisse combining beautifully with one touch passing and moving to hit West Brom and leave themselves with a 3 v 2 on goal. Cisse layed the ball off for Ben Arfa, who was allowed onto his favoured left foot to finish calmly past Foster.

Midfield

The midfield was more unorthodox though. Traditionally, a 4-3-3’s midfield will contain a ‘tackler’ to break up play, a ‘passer’ who will dictate the tempo of the game and an ‘attacker’, who will link up with the forwards. Newcastle named Danny Guthrie, Yohan Cabaye and Jonas Gutierrez in theirs, which is 2 ‘passers’ and one natural winger.

It’s fair to say that Guthrie is least industrious of the trio, so for the majority of the game he played central, and deep, and was given the role of dictating play, so he acted as the passer. This is reflected in the statistics, as he was the game’s second top passer, with 51 successful passes and an 86% success rate (via WhoScored).

As mentioned, Cabaye and Gutierrez cover a lot of ground (two of the highest in the league for distance covered per game), which helped Newcastle control the midfield, and allowed Ba and Ben Arfa a little less defensive responsibility. Cabaye was the more attacking minded, and was involved in counter attacks, while trying to play through balls to the stikers, so he acted as the ‘attacker’ of the trio. A notable positive was that he’s played the majority of his career at Lille in a similar formation, so he knew his duties. He didnt get a direct assist but played the role fairly well, and Newcastle did not miss the extra man they should have in midfield.

This left Gutierrez, as the ‘tackler’, in theory. As you’ll usually see him as a flamboyant winger, this appears an odd decision, but his work rate is outstanding and is one of the most defensive wingers in the league (if not most), so much so that he is able to play at full back as well. He did not break up play much, but was tied highest in the team for tackles and interceptions, including defenders. He was able to cover the full backs very well as well, as he is used to doing, which was important at the end when Davide Santon and Shane Ferguson were both caught upfield on the left and he got across to cover.

Defence

Finally, the defence. Newcastle chose to start Davide Santon on the bench, favouring James Perch at left back. Again, perhaps an odd call on the face of it, but Perch is far more defensively minded than Santon, which was important seeing as Demba Ba was not interesting in tracking back too much, and meant Perch was never caught upfield (as Santon often is). Perch is also in a good spell of form at the moment and the decision to keep him in the team will have upped his confidence, no doubt.

Fabricio Coloccini and Mike Williamson started in central defence, with Simpson wide on the right. In the first half there wasnt much to comment on the defence as they kept a clean sheet and werent overworked. Coloccini though, had to go off at half time due to injury, meaning Perch moved to centre back and Santon took his place at left back. West Brom began to pressure Newcastle more, but that was perhaps to be expected anyway, as the home side who will have no doubt been told to improve their second half performance by an angry Hodgson at half time.

West Brom’s goal came from a simple long ball, which Williamson failed to deal with and actually knocked it out of goalkeeper Tim Krul’s path. Krul was not blameless either though, a more vocal goalkeeper would have screamed instructions to him and Williamson’s gesture implied he had received no call. Coloccini’s presence may have changed things, he is quicker and calmer on the ball than Williamson, and the ball was played into the area he usually operates on (the left).

That aside though, Williamson had a decent game, making 2 good blocks, while Perch continued his good form and showed he is comfortable in 4 positions (defensive midfield, and anywhere across the back 4). Simpson had a quiet game, which is usually an indication that a defender has had a good game, and Santon’s positioning appeared to have improved, as he wasnt quite so keen to get forward.

Conclusion

Newcastle were outstanding, and with their injured players back in the side this formation could be a revelation for them, it’s versatile, quick and gets the best out of their best players.

How Barca Play Without Pressure

Not a proper match report, just some thoughts on Barca’s play tonight. Although the tie was technically not over, Leverkusen were resigned to defeat over two legs before the game started, having lost the home leg 3-1, Barca were now at home and barring a 2 goal defeat, would progress.

Despite this, they named a full strength team (excluding injuries). The team featured SIX midfielders, crammed into their standard 4-3-3 set up. Guardiola is happy to replace any injured strikers or defenders with a midfielder, simply because it helps them keep the ball even better than they would usually. Mascherano played at centre back again (his primary position at Barca now), Adriano played left back (also plays there the majority of the time) and Iniesta was on the left of the attack.

Team (4-3-3): Valdes; Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Adriano (Muniesa); Xavi (Keita), Busquets, Fabregas; Pedro, Messi, Iniesta (Tello)

1st Half

Generally speaking, only one tactic is really effective against Barca and that is heavily pressing and closing down. Leverkusen did this well initially, almost forcing an error from Alves early on. They directed much of their attention at out-of-sorts Pique (sent off in his last Liga game), who had a poor first half - misplacing easy passes, missing a very easy free header from a set piece at 0-0, and failing to deal with several high balls.

Leverkusen tired though, probably due to the fixture pile up, and this game being away and midweek. The tempo slowed down as both teams realised the result of the game was, for all intents and purposes, decided. Barca still had to overcome a few minor tactical difficulties to take control though. The first of which is that because of Adriano’s inclusion, Barca had 2 very attacking full backs who were keen to get forward, but when they received the ball they wanted to cross it into the box, which didnt suit Messi (or Barca) at all. He became slightly isolated in the opening 20 minutes.

Another small issue is the signing of Fabregas. Talented as he is, he prospered in a free role at Arsenal, but because Barca play a more conventional 4-3-3, he has to play in a deeper position for Barca, which he is clearly getting used to, given how much time he spends high up the pitch. Barca even used a 3-4-3 formation this season to help ease him in, because in this formation he could play a more advanced number 10 role at the tip of the midfield diamond.

The first goal came from nothing, really. Barca under slight pressure at the back, a hopeful long ball over the defence released Messi, who on this occasion decided to expertly chip the keeper, rather than dribbling around him. 1-0 after 25 minutes, and Leverkusen’s morale drops further.

Barca stopped playing wide, with Iniesta in particular beginning to cut inside more often. Just as he does this, Barca score their second. Iniesta plays an inside pass to Messi, who then beats 3 men and puts the ball into the bottom corner. This was the last major action of the first half.

2nd Half

Barca started the second half very strongly, camped in Leverkusen half for the first 20 minutes. During which came the goal glut which killed the game.

 - [49 mins] Messi completes his hatrick. Fabregas chips ball over defence, Messi holds off defender and chips keeper again. With his weak foot.

 - [55 mins] Tello scores. Fabregas through pass, cuts inside and curls past/under keeper.

 - [58 mins] Messi scores. Defender and goalkeeper errors, Messi capitalises. 

 - [62 mins] Tello scores. More score updates than normal notes at this point.

During that busy spell, Iniesta was subbed off for Tello, who made his European debut. This was not really a tactical change, they were merely resting Iniesta because his services were no longer required and this was the perfect opportunity to give an excellent prospect more game time. Tello is also a more attacking player than Iniesta, which was probably part of the reason for the sudden goal glut.

Another change was Xavi coming off for Keita. This was also just to rest a key player, although Keita sits deeper than Xavi, so Fabregas could play his more natural role (discussed earlier) without worrying about defending so much.

At this point it was 6-0, in case you’d lost count, so the tactics became less and less relevant as Barca slowed the pace hugely so as not to tire players out. Leverkusen were also terribly demoralised, so at this point the game was more like a training match for Barca, though they still did not stop looking for goals.

Adriano was then subbed off for Muniesa. At this point the subs were almost irrelevant but it was nice to see another young prospect given minutes with the first team.

Messi went on to score an incredible 5th goal in the 85th minute, the first player in Champions League history to do so, and the first time he has done so in his career to date, in any competition. A great effort from the edge of the box.

Incredibly, Tello came very close to a hatrick in the dying minutes, but the scoreline remained a mere 10-1 on aggregate as his effort was saved. Leverkusen though, did manage to pull one back. In the 90th minute Bellarabi scored a lovely goal after a neat one-two in Barca’s box, but it was barely even a consolation

Conclusion

How do Barca play without pressure? Well this was a remarkable game, as they won 7-1 against a team who had progressed from the Champions League group stage, and at no point did they look like they needed to give 100%. They slaughtered Leverkusen without getting out of first gear, Messi with FIVE goals, Tello with two on his debut. The league might be Madrid’s but on this showing Barca have to be CL favourites.

Not an amazing tactical battle but I’ve already written this, so hope you enjoyed reading it.

Milan 4-0 Arsenal: Game Over?

1st Half

Arsenal were very poor. They started fairly strongly but had no real invention up front. Rosicky naturally cut inside but barring an early effort was anonymous for the first period. Walcott on the other side was out of ideas and struggled to get past Antonini (despite him making number of errors), even during a good start for Arsenal. The good start didnt last long, after about 15 minutes the balance shifted and Milan took control of the game, meaning Arsenal were the team who had to worry about exposed full backs.

Milan were forced into an early change, Seedorf being replaced by Emanuelson. This was actually not a bad move, he has much more energy and running in him than Seedorf, covered Antonini well and had more pace to hit Arsenal with, despite lacking Seedorf’s technical ability. The first goal went to Milan, as Kevin Prince Boateng found himself with far too much space in the box and hit an astounding volley over Szczesny, and in off the underside of the bar [15 mins].

The reason he had so much space is the intelligent play of Milan’s front three. Ibrahimovic, Robinho and Boateng all drift a lot from their starting position, leaving Arsenal defenders and midfielders unsure as to who should be marking them. They would move into the wide areas, with plenty of space thanks to Milan’s narrow setup, leaving space in the centre for runners from midfield, particularly Nocerino. Robinho and Boateng’s pace and trickery, combined with Ibrahimovic’s power and fantastic passing, were a nightmare for Arsenal.

This was epitomised with the second goal. Ibrahimovic beat Sagna (and the offside trap) on the left, ran into the box and played a perfect pass onto Robinho’s head. Even he couldnt miss, heading in from 7 yards [38 mins].

Arsenal had perhaps expected to dominate play, but their choice of players teamed with the poor pitch conditions forced them to play more narrowly - straight into Milan’s hands. Barring a couple of hopeful through-balls, they created virtually nothing, leaving van Persie feeding off scraps in the opening 45 minutes.

Another enforced change didnt do them any favours either, Koscielny forced off for the error prone Djourou. Ibrahimovic turned him and played in Antonini of all people, who nearly snuck the ball past Szczesny.

2nd Half

Arsene Wenger made the first tactical substitution of the match, Thierry Henry replacing Theo Walcott. This meant Aaron Ramsey was fielded wide on the right, and Henry and van Persie took turns to spearhead the attack in a 4-2-3-1. To their credit, they started the 2nd half well but just 4 minutes in Robinho scored again. Ibrahimovic was inbetween the Arsenal defence and midfield and had plenty of time to find the right pass, before Robinho rifled home a good effort from the edge of the box [49 mins].

At 3-0, Milan slowed the game down, content with a 3 goal lead but still taking whatever opportunities they could to hit Arsenal on the counter attack. This was Arsenal’s best spell, with van Persie being denied by a very good Abbiati save from a volley, and Arsenal had control of the match for 15-20 minutes, despite conceding the 3rd goal in that time. They defended Milan’s counter attacks very poorly though, from a corner a 3 v 2 situatuon arose and Luca Antonini again found himself one on one, but scuffed his effort wide. The fact that Milan’s left back managed to have this much space typifies how much space was afforded to them, and how poorly Arsenal defended against a team with some positional fluidity (players being allowed to drift out of position).

Then another tactical substitution for the Gunners, as Oxlade-Chamberlain replaced Kieran Gibbs. After a significant defensive shuffle, (Vermaelen to left back, Song to centre back, Ramsey to centre midfield and Chamberlain right wing,) Arsenal retained their shape. A more simple substition would have been Ramsey off for Chamberlain but perhaps Gibbs wasnt fit enough for 90 minutes on his return from injury.

Similarly, Kevin Prince Boateng was returning from a lay off and made way for Massimo Ambrosini, perhaps a necessary sub but still he was replaced by a more defensive minded player, highlighting Milan’s desire to protect their lead (an away goal would have given Arsenal a good chance at this point.) Emanuelson moved forward slightly to accomodate the change, but often tracked back on the left to assist Antonini in nullifying Chamberlain.

Between 60 and 70 minutes, Arsenal relinquished their control of the game slightly and the game became more end to end, but the mentality of the sides were still different. Despite the fact that one away goal at this point would have massively changed the tie though, Arsenal still didnt appear to be as attacking as they perhaps should have.

In the end though it wouldn’t matter, as Djourou gave away a penalty after a clumsy foul on Ibrahimovic, who denied Robinho a hattrick by converting it himself [79 mins]. This effectively signaled the end of the tie, and Arsenal were visibly demoralised, perhaps showing as Rosicky hit an attempt on goal out for a throw in.

With 7 minutes remaining, Pato replaced Robinho, not tactical, merely bringing Pato on following an injury, and allowing Robinho his own ovation from the San Siro. In the closing stages, Abbiati pulled off another fantastic save to well and truly deny Arsenal any hope, and every single cross into the box was dealt with by Thiago Silva, who had a very good game.

Conclusion

The tie is effectively over, barring a 4 goal turnaround at the Emirates, but even 1 away goal for Milan would then require 6 from Arsenal. As for this game, Arsenal didnt show up until after half time, when it was too little, too late. A lack of invention and cutting edge, while Ibrahimovic ran the show for Milan, setting up 3 and scoring 1 himself. A man of the match performance.

Sorry for the errors, Phillipe Mexes starts, not Nesta. Marginally more pace to deal with van Persie?

Team News and pre game thoughts

Arsenal: Szczesny; Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs; Song, Arteta, Ramsey; Walcott, van Persie, Rosicky

Kieran Gibbs starts, so Arsenal finally have 4 defenders in their recognised roles, and arent forced into playing Djourou. Gibbs will offer more going forward than Vermaelen would, and this line up features arguably their best central defence pairing. Vermaelen tries to intercept passes to forward players while Koscielny is more a sweeper. They will both have their hands full tonight with Ibrahimovic, provided he ends his characteristic of disappearing in Champions League games. Tomas Rosicky is a surprise inclusion on the left wing ahead of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, but given the state of Milan’s pitch (wide areas in awful condition, probably tactical), he may be a wise choice as he will naturally drift into the centre of the pitch.

Milan: Abbiati; Abate, Nesta, Silva, Antonini; Seedorf, van Bommel, Nocerino; Boateng; Ibrahimovic, Robinho

Luca Antonini is a surprise inclusion at left back, probably Milan’s weakest option in the position. Despite the awful pitch conditions in the wide areas, Walcott will have a field day here. Robinho’s wastefulness in front of goal as a centre forward means the goals will most likely be coming from Ibrahimovic, or possibly Boateng, who makes a welcome return to the side.

As mentioned, the pitch at the San Siro is in very poor state out wide and this is almost certainly a tactical move by Milan. It’s no coincidence that their weakness is Arsenal’s strength - wide areas. The state of the pitch will force Arsenal to play narrow, which will play into Milan’s hands. Mark van Bommel and Antonio Nocerino will be breaking up play, and Seedorf the primary playmaker.

The key battle tonight is potentially van Persie v Thiago Silva. One of the most in-form strikers in the world against one of the best centre backs in the world. If Milan are to use their home advantage, Silva will have to nullify van Persie’s threat.

Latest reports suggest that Milan will start new signing Mesbah as left back ahead of Antonini, and that Kevin Prince Boateng will return the the side (at the expense of Emanuelson). Others suggest that Kieran Gibbs will in fact start from the beginning for Arsenal. This would mean Vermaelen moves to centre back and Arsenal would have two attacking full backs and two wingers running at Milan’s exposed full backs.

These changes would make Milan more solid at the back but allow Arsenal more chance of exploiting the weaknesses of their narrow formations. Stronger line ups but perhaps fewer goals. Boateng is a very important player for Milan too, his energetic style is very different to Seedorf’s more natural playing of the playmaker role, so it will be interesting to see how Song handles him.

Milan-Arsenal Preview

Full match report to follow tomorrow night. Predicted line ups:

Arsenal (4-3-3*): Szczesny; Sagna, Koscielny, Djourou, Vermaelen; Song, Arteta, Ramsey; Oxlade-Chamberlain, van Persie, Walcott

*It’s debatable whether Arsenal’s formation is a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1, as Aaron Ramsey plays ahead of Song and Arteta (Fabregas’s old role).

Alex Song plays as the deepest midfielder, but likes to venture forward, a freedom afforded to him by Mikel Arteta’s ability to cover. Sagna’s recent return is a welcome one, as young midfielders and centre backs had been forced to cover him previously, which lead to a lot of goals conceded by their inexperience in the role. Thomas Vermaelen is likely to continue to deputise at left back though - while Kieran Gibbs is fit again it’s unlikely he will play from the start. In the event Gibbs does play, the Arsenal defence will be far more solid, as more players will be in their natural positions and Djourou will not be started.

Robin van Persie is the focal point of the attack, supported by Theo Walcott and Chamberlain either side of him (Gervinho unlikely to be available after playing in the AFCON final on Sunday). Henry is also available but his age is catching up with him and may struggle to last 90 minutes, so has started most of his games on the bench during his loan spell.

Milan (4-3-1-2): Abbiati; Abate, Nesta, Silva, Antonini; Nocerino, van Bommel, Emanuelson; Seedorf; Ibrahimovic, Robinho

Milan’s line up is usually predicted correctly by Italian newspaper La Gazzetta, so I have used their mock line up (they rotate a lot so it’s difficult to guess). Of the back 5, four are first choice. Christian Abbiati, Ignazio Abate, Alessandro Nesta and Thiago Silva are all undisputed starters, while Antonini is one of 4 options at left back, none of which stand out like the rest of the back four and represents a clear weakness in their defence.

In midfield, the team could not look much more different to that of a few years ago. Trading skill and technique for craft and energy, Milan will be tough to break down but lack creativity. Mark van Bommel is effective in his old age, but lacks pace, he will probably be tracking Ramsey for a lot of the game. Either side of him are Antonio Nocerino, a big hit thanks to his work rate and occasional goals, and Urby Emanuelson, something of a misfit who has played left back, central midfield and trequartista.

Clarence Seedorf is predicted to start in the link role between attack and midfield, and will be responsible for the majority of the supply to Ibrahimovic and Robinho. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is having a fantastic season, the teams leading scorer and in the form of his life. He will lead the line and cause any number of problems for the defence, alongside Robinho in a more central role than he had played in his time in the Premier League. Perhaps wasted there though, as he is becoming fairly well known for his awful finishing - repeatedly missing very easy chances.

Prediction: 2-2

Both teams have a fairly obvious weak link. Ibrahimovic is likely to give Djourou in particular a torrid time, but Walcott and Chamberlain will easily deal with Luca Antonini at left back for Milan. As for the midfield battle, Milan’s industrious tacklers will look to shackle Arsenal’s playmakers, but the 4 v 3 battle in their favour means Seedorf may find himself with a lot of space between the lines.

Hoping for, and expecting, a very good game.

Appalling refereeing, a red card, penalty and very nearly a remarkable comeback, City-United had it all. A fantastic game, and the second half was so entertaining because Mancini made 2 very bold changes.

At half time and with Kompany sent off, City’s defence were a shambles and while Savic/Zabaleta for Silva/Johnson may appear negative, it was in fact a brilliant tactical move. The change left City with a 3-4-1-1, the proper use of wing backs makes it akin to playing with 2 extra men and while United dominated possession, the move was the best City could really have done. 2 goals and some good chances, but it was not their day.

Tottenham 1-1 Chelsea: Spoils Shared in London Derby

Tottenham (4-5-1): Friedel; Walker, King, Gallas, Assou-Ekotto; van der Vaart, Modric, Sandro, Parker, Bale; Adebayor.

Chelsea (4-3-3): Cech; Bosingwa, Ivanovic, Terry, Cole; Meireles, Mikel, Ramires; Sturridge, Drogba, Mata.

Tottenham played a lopsided 4-5-1, Gareth Bale providing the only wide threat as Rafael van der Vaart spent the majority of the game cutting inside to the centre of midfield. This meant two things: firstly, Tottenham dominated first half possession as they had 4 players in the centre of midfield compared to Chelsea’s 3. It also gave Ashley Cole plenty of space to attack down his left side as van der Vaart made little attempt to track his runs.

The first goal though, came from Bale as he simply beat Jose Bosingwa for pace and drilled a low cross into the box. Cech should have done better (clearly still uncomfortable putting his head near swinging boots) and Adebayor was on hand to capitalise, bundling a close range effort in.

The equaliser also came in the first half, Cole on another run down the left combined with Didier Drogba and after the referee ignored handball appeals on Cole (which did have some merit), he floated a nice ball across goal which Daniel Sturridge got on the end of after losing his marker (Assou-Ekotto) at the back post.

That was to be the last goal but both managers made changes after the break, some forced. Chelsea were forced to withdraw Ivanovic due to injury and he was replaced with Feirerra, with Bosingwa rather boldly being moved to centre back. For Spurs they removed the ineffective van der Vaart for Roman Pavlyuchenko, using two big strikers to attempt to exploit Chelsea’s makeshift defensive pairing and switching to 4-4-2, Modric wide on the right. Defoe was injured though, so whether or not it was a tactical move is debateable, as Pavlyuchenko was Spurs’ next fit striker.

What this also did was give Chelsea more dominance in central midfield as it became 2 v 3 in Chelsea’s favour and Modric did a better job tracking Cole than van der Vaart had. Chelsea also withdrew John Obi Mikel to injury, replacing him with Oriol Romeu, who has impressed this season and distributes the ball better than Mikel.

The second half was very end to end, good chances spurned by both sides and a fantastic block by under fire John Terry denied Spurs a last minute winner, as had the linesman previously for a dubious offside call on Adebayor. Both sides will be satisfied with the result, but on another day either side could have won it, and it was an excellent game to watch.