Premier League Tactics Corner: Aston Villa-Newcastle United & Tottenham Hotspur-QPR


In this week’s edition of Premier League Tactics Corner, we dive into Newcastle’s use of Emmanuel Riviere and Queens Park Rangers’ three-back system.

Holding It Up

Aston Villa did not put a shot on target in Saturday’s early game against Newcastle United, and the Magpies should have walked away victorious had their finishing been clinical. But as seen in this t-shirt, ‘the beauty is in the struggle’.

We often look at goals and comment or rave about a player’s technical ability. There are articles aplenty across the Internet that gouge at the lovely skill of strikers, and critics always take to social media to nag one if it’s in the midst of a drought. Forwards have one job that is not appreciated as much, simply because it is not sexy, and that is hold up play.

Newcastle’s summer signing Emmanuel Riviere is the most important piece of its build up play.

For some quick background on him, Riviere played for Monaco last season and scored 10 goals in 19 appearances coupled with a pair of assists. That isn’t too bad for a player that came on as a sub 11 of those 19 times. Assuming he stays clear of the medical treatment room, this will be the first season since 2010-11, where he’ll be one of the main men. In addition, he is not going to get off many shots. Pre-Newcastle, the most shots per game he averaged was 1.9, which also came in 2010-11, his last season with Saint Etienne. So aside from that, what drew Alan Pardew to him?

It’s this…


Riviere is excellent at finding space where he can get on the ball and deliver a short lay-off pass to a teammate. When analysts talk about getting others involved in the buildup, the above and below clips are exactly what they’re talking about. Riviere is an outlet for the defense and that is what makes him so interesting. Think of Newcastle’s attacking movement as a ladder. He is a rung on it and once he gets the ball and lays it off, everyone else can climb up it with him.

Here’s an example. Newcastle start an attack in the GIF below when Riviere holds off Philippe Senderos.


By the end of that minute, he is used as a pivot for Darryl Janmaat at the top of the 18-yard box. He can hold up and lay-off anywhere on the pitch.


It’s textbook stuff, but once the new signings start to gel with Riviere, especially Remy Cabella, Newcastle will have a solid attack. Riviere only found Cabella once against Villa, though he did hit five sideways passes to Yoan Gouffran.

Winless in its first two, Pardew’s men will rue the points dropped against Villa, but the club seems to be headed in the right direction.

Redknapp’s Regret

Three Premier League teams have adopted a back three this season. One is familiar with the system, as Steve Bruce has worked with it for a few years at Hull City, while the other two are not. There has been a lot of scrutiny of Louis van Gaal’s system at Manchester United, even though Harry Redknapp is employing his own version of the three-back formation at Queens Park Rangers.

After a disastrous first half against Tottenham, in which his side went down 3-0, he opted for a four-back system. The reason was different from van Gaal’s switch last week, though, as Spurs’ attacking four were interchanging and QPR often had a line of five marking one person at most. In transition, the defense was atrocious and the effort and communication was not there.

Before we look at the goals though, QPR can make this system work. The most important piece of the system is the wing-backs, and Redknapp has those. He signed Mauricio Isla to play on the right and has Armand Traore for the left. The former is perfect for the system, while the latter has experience playing at both left-back and left wing, so one would think he could become a good fit.

QPR has a healthy mix in midfield, as Leroy Fer is capable of providing a bit of creativity and Joey Barton, as volatile and reckless as he may be, is willing to run like a mad man across the pitch to win back possession – see the nine turnovers he created on Sunday. Up front Loic Remy is the only piece of attack with value though, as Matthew Phillips is still a raw talent.

While the pieces seem to be there, going forward, the decision-making needs to be faster. The 3-5-2 is not a system for tiki-taka, but one for rapid attacks. The ball needs to be worked into the feet of the wing-back or the forward players immediately, otherwise, the team is forced to fire long balls forward.

QPR can be successful though, and they showed it here. With seven players pushed up so high, it gives the team an opportunity to win the ball higher up the field and frustrate the opposition in possession. If an opposing player can work his way into the middle, one of the midfielders can cut out play, as Barton does below.


It works again later in the match, as Jordan Mutch wins the ball, before slipping in attack.


And here too, when Isla is sent down the right.


Redknapp’s biggest problem is that the back three though, because they look out of sorts, especially when the game is in transition, as seen in this sequence leading to Nacer Chadli’s first of the game.


As Spurs rush down the pitch, Chadli and Nabil Bentaleb make direct forward runs as Emmanuel Adebayor strolls down the left. Steven Caulker and Rio Ferdinand communicate, though the latter calls the former off the ball too late. Nevertheless, the two can get into position, but Richard Dunne looks lost. Not only does he look lost in the system, but just abandoned in general, as if he can’t even believe he’s playing in a Premier League match. His hands are by his side too, but the defending is even more shocking, because this attack is not developing at breakneck speed. When Chadli gets near the six-yard box, Dunne is too deep and his desperate kick misses the Belgian, allowing the Spurs man to finish with ease.

Here’s Dunne again, a couple of minutes after the goal. He juts into the GIF tracking a Christian Eriksen run. After the Dane gets into the box though, just watch Dunne get sucked too deep. He then switches off and tries to figure out where he is supposed to be.


A similar sequence happens on the third Spurs goal. To be fair, there is a lot going on in the transition from attack to defense and Tottenham’s interchanging movement is really clever and of course, the ball from Erik Lamela sublime.

To start the sequence, Dunne has stepped forward. It’s not a bad decision from him, until he’s wrong-sided by a clever roll from the Argentine. Once he is beaten though, Dunne follows Lamela and does not get back into position. Now, if he is shoulder to shoulder with Lamela, he should stay with him, but because he has lost the man and has cover, Dunne should head back to mark a runner, while Ferdinand or Caulker challenge the dribbler. Instead, Dunne ball-watches, as Chadli slips Isla to get on the end of the lofted cross.


Redknapp removed Dunne at the break, whether that was out of punishment, or because Nedum Onuoha is his preferred right-back and the manager panicked to change the system, is unclear.

QPR should have turned the match into a training exercise, though, instead of abandoning the system. There was no way the team was going to avenge the deficit, so it makes little sense to go into damage control mode. Playing shadow football in training is one thing, but there is no better way for players to learn a system than in a match.

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