Four key tactical battles to look out for in the Premier League and FA Cup this weekend

Benteke's Villa could surprise Liverpool at Wembley on Sunday
Benteke's Villa could surprise Liverpool at Wembley on Sunday
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Alex Keble picks out four key tactical battles to look out for in this weekend's action, including how Jose Mourinho intends to stop Marouane Fellaini, and why Villa can win their FA Cup semi-final...

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1) Kurt Zouma v Marouane Fellaini
Saturday, 17:30
Live on Sky Sports 1

The persistence of Manchester United's Marouane Fellaini-centric attacks is startling: last weekend more than 65% of their offensive football came down their left side in a constant bombardment of Man City's right-back position - representing a continuation of a single-minded tactical approach that has dismantled team after team in the last two months.

But there is no way that Jose Mourinho will allow this to happen to his Chelsea team.

Louis van Gaal instructs his players to stroke long diagonal passes up to Fellaini in a high left-wing position, where the Belgian can dominate aerially and - doubling up positionally with Ashley Young - overload the right-back position to set Young free.

In order to counteract this approach Manuel Pellegrini instructed Yaya Toure to handcuff himself to Fellaini last weekend, and indeed for the first 15 minutes these players were never more than three yards away from one other.

However, as the match progressed Toure abandoned his defensive responsibilities in a snub that speaks volumes about his swaggering attitude and - perhaps - the levels of respect the Man City dressing room currently have for their manager.

Man United's Fellaini-as-second-left-winger strategy directly resulted in United's first two goals; Mourinho will expect far greater positional discipline and work ethic from his players, with Kurt Zouma the most likely choice to operate in a similar man-to-man defensive midfield role.

Zouma wins a phenomenal 77% of his aerial duels (20/26 this season), and has previously performed admirably as a defensive midfielder for Mourinho (most notably in the League Cup final, when he won 5/5 aerial battles). His role - to stop Fellaini from winning headers - will be simple, but arguably the most vital on the pitch. Elsewhere, Chelsea will need to ensure that their supporting midfielders are also close to this action zone to ensure they collect the second ball.

Van Gaal has made various improvements to the organisation and tactical fluidity of this United team, but Fellaini's aerial prowess remains the greatest threat. Chelsea - famed for cautious and effective tactics against the top teams - will be their sternest test to date.

Recommended Bet:
Back the draw at 12/5


2) Man City's infield runs v West Ham's central midfield three
Sunday, 13:30
Live on Sky Sports 1

Just two weeks ago this match seemed relatively insignificant, but since both managers are now fighting for their job in light of their respective slides down the Premier League table, victory at the Etihad is of paramount importance. This should be a nervy and scrappy affair which, with their superior strength and compact defensive shape, will help the Hammers.

The key tactical battle will be in central midfield where West Ham will almost certainly field three narrow defensive midfielders in Alex Song, Mark Noble, and Cheikhou Kouyate. Sam Allardyce has organised his defensive unit admirably, with the entire outfield ten compressed neatly into a small zone of the pitch; with these three midfielders sat just in front of the back four, Man City's favourite point of attack will be particularly crowded.

Given Yaya Toure's remarkably poor run of form and subsequent positional ill-discipline enormous creative pressure is currently placed upon the shoulders of David Silva. Against Manchester United last weekend Silva was restored to a left wing position that allows him to cut inside as James Milner vacates the central zone; it is a tactic that should play to West Ham's advantage - provided Milner's movement does not prove too much of a distraction.

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The inside track will be cut off to Silva, unless Milner's movement can pull one of those central three away.

Breaking forward on the counter will be particularly difficult for West Ham due to the injuries sustained by Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia, with only the latter in contention to start on Sunday. When considering a confidence-stricken West Ham have dropped seven points in the final few minutes of matches across the last four, holding out against City will not be easy.

Recommended bet:
Back Draw/Man City in the HT/FT market @ 14/5


3) Villa's aggressive tactics v Liverpool's passing
Sunday, 15:00
Live on BT Sport 1

Newcastle's surprisingly improved second-half performance against Liverpool last weekend further highlighted the necessity for high pressing tactics against Brendan Rodgers' side, after both Arsenal and Manchester United successfully stunted their rhythm in previous encounters.

With Tim Sherwood instigating an aggressive and confident approach at Aston Villa, pushing Liverpool onto the back foot will be key to progressing into the FA Cup final.

Despite the positional fluidity and high-tempo attacking passes that have characterised Liverpool's revival, Rodgers still instructs his team to pass the ball carefully out from the back with Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson expected to dictate the tempo from the base of midfield.

But in their two defeats to Arsenal and United, this system was deliberately obstructed; Henderson held a 70.8% pass success rate against Arsenal and 61% against Man United - down from a season average of 81.7%.

It surprised many to see Liverpool panic under pressure, but both of these teams dominated the game by forcing Liverpool into longer clearances and wayward passes. Even Newcastle managed something similar after pushing up in the second half; Henderson's pass completion dropped from 95% in the first half to 86% in the second, whilst Allen's fell from 78.5% to 64.0%.

Sherwood's remarkable self-belief as a manager has seen Villa attempt this style themselves, with Fabian Delph and Tom Cleverley harrassing high up the pitch, supported by strikers Christian Benteke and Gabby Agbonlahor.

Villa remain at the bottom of the table for tackles attempted (25 per match), but since Sherwood's arrival they have averaged 30 per game, including 50 attempts at White Hart Lane (21 coming from Villa's central midfield three).

Liverpool's high back line and possession-based approach should play right into Villa's hands; if they can unsettle those midfielders with high-tempo pressing and bypass Henderson by launching long balls onto Benteke's head, they stand every chance of reaching the final.

Recommended bet:
Back Villa to win at 24/5


4) McCarthy v Jones
Saturday, 15:00

A newly invigorated Everton side infused with speed and directness will certainly prove a stern test for Sean Dyche's Burnley, who desperately need to take points this weekend or risk being cut off below the dotted line.

Key to Everton's revival has been faster transitions between defence and attack as Roberto Martinez downscales his short-passing philosophy; with Aaron Lennon providing touchline-hugging width on the right, and Aroune Kone constantly moving into the left channel, their midfielders Ross Barkley and James McCarthy have been playing with greater directness and forward-moving intent.

Everton have collected ten points from their last four games thanks to this switch: they averaged 424 passes across these games with long balls constituting 18% of this total, down from a season average of 503 passes with 13% long balls.

However, it is unlikely that McCarthy will dominate central midfield with quite such consistency against a Burnley team with more tackles in midfield than any other (average 11 tackles per game between four main starting players). David Jones was exceptional against Arsenal last weekend, making five tackles and five interceptions from the base of midfield; similar work will be needed to prevent McCarthy and Barkley from spraying passes down the flanks and instigating those bursting attacks at goal.

Everton's wide players will be nullified if Burnley can break up their possession in central midfield, and considering Dyche's team have scored just once in their last six league games, winning defensive battles has never been more important.

Recommended bet:
Back home win/under 2.5 goals at 29/10


Alex Keble
For more tactical analysis, follow Alex on Twitter - @alexkeble

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