Lambert's way to make diamond sparkle

Posted by Richard Jolly

Diamonds are not forever, but they occur frequently in Paul Lambert’s management. The Scot is one of the most tactically flexible coaches around and played 4-2-3-1 in the Capital One Cup win at Manchester City, but he often reverts to the system he used for most of Norwich’s promotion season and at times last year: 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond.

Its main advantage is that it allows a side to play two strikers without being outnumbered in the centre of midfield, though the downside can be a lack of width. In a game notable for a goal from the forward Lambert omitted, Darren Bent, the way he set his side up provided another reminder of Norwich. The attackers seemed to be given similar instructions.

When Grant Holt partnered Steve Morison in attack in this formation at Carrow Road, the Englishman was the more static figure in attack, the Wales international running and roaming around him. For Villa, Christian Benteke was the target man with Gabriel Agbonlahor orbiting around him. It was telling that Villa’s first two fine crosses came from Agbonlahor, heading out wide while Benteke played more centrally.

With their differing attributes - the Belgian’s aerial ability, the Englishman’s sheer speed - they provided an alternative to Bent, who has enough of an all-round game to play as a lone striker but is neither as big as Benteke nor as quick as Agbonlahor. Arguably their main advantage on this occasion, however, was occupying the Albion defence to help free up space for the man at the tip of the midfield diamond, Brett Holman.

The Australian had a series of first-half shots, two bringing fine saves from Ben Foster, and in effect ensured that Villa had an attacking trio. But if all Lambert’s front three were prominent, the statistics illustrated the case for Bent: Holman had five shots, two on target, Benteke six, all off target, and Agbonlahor none at all.

Agbonlahor has not scored in the Premier League since November, while Benteke has one goal in his brief career in England. Bent, who scored with a typical piece of penalty-box opportunism after replacing Benteke, now has 150. For Lambert, it was a game to outline his attacking dilemma: does he prioritise the players that suit the system or the specialist scorer?

EVERTON 3-1 SOUTHAMPTON

Six games played, 18 goals conceded: at the current rate, Southampton are on course to let in 114 goals this season. Obviously that is unlikely, and the fixture list is one cause of their problems: Fifteen of those goals have been scored by Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal and Everton, all in the top seven.

What the concessions at Goodison Park do suggest is that Saints’ difficulties are partly in their setup, but have rather more to do with individual failings, whether in defence or midfield, and that they are troubled by fine movement.

For the first, Everton right-back Seamus Coleman made an overlapping run without the ball, forcing left-back Nathaniel Clyne to follow him. With Adam Lallana, the left-sided midfielder, slower to get back, that gave Kevin Mirallas room to cross. Both of Nigel Adkins’ central defenders went with sole striker Nikica Jelavic to the edge of the six-yard box. But when the ball broke 10 yards out, Leon Osman had advanced beyond the Southampton central midfielders to form the second line of the attack and scored.

The second was the worst of all defensively. The move began with Mirallas in possession, 80 yards from the Southampton goal. He had only Jelavic and Marouane Fellaini ahead of him, along with eight Saints. But the three central midfielders were all taken out by a one-two between Mirallas, bursting forward past them, and Fellaini, standing still. As with Osman’s goal, it was a sign none was a designated defensive midfielder charged with sitting deeper than the others.

Then one central defender, Maya Yoshida, was sucked towards the ball while the other, Jose Fonte, dropped off. It was an awful attempt at an offside trap, jagged rather than a smooth, straight line, compounded by the high defensive positions adopted by a comparatively slow back four.

Jelavic then made a favourite run of his, peeling off the right shoulder of the right-sided central defender, Fonte, and inside the right-back, Frazer Richardson. Mirallas found Jelavic with his pass, and Fonte was not quick enough to catch the Croat.

Everton’s third goal, Jelavic’s second, indicated that Southampton, in trying to defend the width of the penalty box, allowed David Moyes’ men too much space on the flanks. It came from the second phase of an attack. In the first, Richardson unaccountably allowed Leighton Baines 10 yards of space in which to cross from the left. Jelavic met it with a header and almost scored.

When the ball was cleared to the opposite flank, left-back Nathaniel Clyne was tucked in, shadowing Fellaini, leaving midfielders Lallana and Gaston Ramirez as the widest men. Coleman went between both rather too easily. Even then, however, Saints had seven outfield players in their penalty box and Everton only had two men in goalscoring positions: Mirallas and Jelavic, both unmarked.

Both centre-backs were in position, but with no one to mark. But when Evertonians strayed into other players’ zones - the right back and the central midfielders’ respectively - they weren’t picked up either. Indeed, while a full-back should move infield when the attack is on the opposite wing, Richardson came in too far and Jelavic made a looping run behind him and past the far post to head in. All in all, it was a classic case of getting players back in numbers without doing anything to stop the opposition scoring.

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