Alex Keble returns with his early look at the weekend's key Premier League battles, this week previewing games between Man United and Aston Villa, Swansea and Hull, Newcastle and Sunderland and Everton and Southampton...
"Curtis Davies – strong, quick, and powerful in the air – will need to be in imperious form to nullify Bony."
Man Utd wing backs v Villa resolute defending
A stagnant melancholy lingers around Villa Park these days, their fans witnessing the same patterns of play week in, week out: an inept attacking record (characterised by a lack of incisive, intelligent passing from their strikers-cum-wingers) that is counterbalanced by a (sometimes) exceptional defensive solidity.
Villa's defence has gelled superbly this season, and the reintroduction of Jores Okore (2.4 tackles, 2.8 interception per match) has only strengthened an already powerful back line. Against Man Utd's confusing and menacing 3-5-2 formation, however, they will be given their sternest test yet.
In last weekend's derby, Liverpool were dazed - baffled, even - by Antonio Valencia's and Ashley Young's positional play.
The primary advantage to this tactical oddity is that, by occupying neither a traditional full-back or winger role, the opposition struggles to understand how to mark the wing-backs. Against Liverpool, the confusion this created allowed Valencia to burst forward with gusto (four dribbles, two key passes), running from positions too deep to mark, and dribbling infield at unconventional angles.
Valencia frequently received passes in positions that Liverpool couldn't react to. At other times, such as in the build up to the opening goal, Liverpool sent too many players to mark him and became confused at the back.
Against Aston Villa, they may not enjoy the same success. Sitting deep in a 4-5 defensive formation, Villa are extremely well drilled, pressing as a unit and rarely conceding space in behind. Considering United's propensity to move the ball in central areas before relying upon their wing-backs to split the defence, how they cope with Villa's narrow defending will be very interesting to see.
United's strikers will be expected to run the channels, while Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata will need to drift across the pitch to support Young and Valencia in attack; the main drawback of 3-5-2 is the risk of isolation in wide areas.
It will take some courage and determination to break Villa down, but considering their phenomenal run of form, expect United to make it eventually.
Back Draw/Man United in the Half Time/Full Time market at 10/3
Wilfried Bony v Curtis Davies
Hull City's listless slide into the relegation zone last weekend has triggered an upswing in media attraction surrounding Steve Bruce's future. With his job on the line, and considering Hull's creative vacuum, Bruce will be relying upon his dependable yet depleted defence to hold firm against Wilfried Bony and company.
Despite conceding 16.1 shots per match this season (second highest in the division) and conceding 23 goals, Hull's defenders have been in admirable form this season; led by commanding performances by Curtis Davies and Michael Dawson, Hull have made more interceptions than any other club (18.9 per match) and more tackles than any club in the bottom half (20.7).
In truth, their 'goals against' statistics reflect wider tactical and technical issues, as exemplified by their woeful possession (42.3% average,third lowest in division) and 'shots on goal' record (9.2 average, lowest in division).
Injecting some creative impetus into a lacklustre unit consisting primarily of hard-working, technically inferior footballers is a priority; 6.1 dribbles and 6.8 key passes per game is - by some distance - the worst record in the Premier League.
Until their creativity issues are resolved, Hull must rely upon their key strength - compact defending - to grind out results. Utilising a 3-5-2 formation, Bruce's side revert to a flat five when required to absorb pressure, and considering Swansea's controlling style and technical precision, this will be a recurring feature of the contest.
Unfortunately, both the excellent Mohamed Diame (four tackles per match) and Michael Dawson are injured; Curtis Davies - strong, quick, and powerful in the air - will need to be in imperious form to nullify Bony.
Expect deep defensive lines and dogged work from Hull, but also expect their creative void to inspire Swansea to a dominance in possession that will see them through.
Back a Swansea win at 29/20
Lee Cattermole v Cheick Tiote
Live on Sky Sports 1
With both teams boasting a recent record of defensive sturdiness to compliment gritty, muscular midfield performances, the Tyne-Wear derby will be a fiercely close battle. The match could be decided by which defensive midfielder uses their strength more effectively, both in terms of dominating the ball in their respective areas of the pitch, and in distributing it into wide areas.
Considering attractive football and technical quality has been in short supply for both clubs, the immense physicality of these teams will make this a powerful, brutal war of attrition. The crucial battle will be between two exceptionally strong, dominant players: Lee Cattermole (2.7 tackles, 2.5 interceptions per match) and Cheick Tiote (3.1 tackles, 2.8 interceptions).
Undoubtedly, their ability to break down the opposition will have an impact, but what is often overlooked - in both of these players - is the importance of their calm distribution of the ball.
Cattermole (38.7 passes, 83.5% pass accuracy) and Tiote (64 passes, 81.6% passing accuracy) play crucial roles in feeding passes to their winger and instigating attacks, consistently spraying the ball out wide as one of their primary jobs in midfield. With 76% of Sunderland's and Newcastle's attacks coming down the wings - joint highest in the division - the importance of this job cannot be overstated.
Newcastle's width can be explained by their propensity to charge forward on the counter-attack, where Gabriel Obertan and Moussa Sissoko stretch their legs on the touchline. Sunderland, on the other hand, look to build from the back with quick distribution out wide, where Seb Larsson and Jordi Gomez - roaming from central areas - provide support to the wingers.
This game will be packed with heavy tackles and a constant wrestle for possession; somebody will have to take control of this match, and - both in defending and passing - it will be either Tiote or Cattermole. Given their recent run of form, Tiote stands a better chance of success.
Back Newcastle to win at 19/20
Leighton Baines v Nathaniel Clyne
There are significant similarities between Everton and Southampton, both stylistically and tactically, and despite their differing levels of achievement this season they will most likely end the season with a similar points total.
Both sides have a propensity to play short passing, possession based football that revolves around high pressing and constant movement of an attacking trio that sits behind the centre forward. Since their mirror-image formations could cancel each other out, the match may be decided by the head-to-head of in form full-backs Leighton Baines and Nathaniel Clyne.
Supporting a meandering front line - whose short passing and neat interchanges often narrow the pitch - Southampton and Everton expect their full-backs to fly up the wings, adding directness and pace to attacks. There is nobody better at this than Clyne and Baines, who will be tracking each other's movements this weekend, wrestling for ground on the same touchline.
Baines' six assists and 2.4 key passes per game are testament to his quality, but Clyne's contribution is not so easily captured in statistics. This is largely because his speed and athleticism rarely lead directly to a goal, but instead instigate the initial point of incision; 65% of Southampton's goals this season have heavily involved Clyne at some point during the move.
Both players will be attempting to attack and defend one another at St. Mary's on Saturday; it will be a very intriguing battle for superiority.
Back The Draw at 5/2
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Alex Keble 2014/15 P/L