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Arsenal 1-2 Manchester United: United take advantage when Arsenal’s pressing fizzles out

Courtesy of Flickr/Tsutomu Takasu

Courtesy of Flickr/Tsutomu Takasu

Manchester United claimed their first away win of the season in a tense, slow burning showdown at the Emirates Stadium.

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With United’s long list of sidelined players, Louis van Gaal reverted to a back three with Tyler Blackett, Chris Smalling and Paddy McNair forming a centre-back trio.

Arsene Wenger was also coping with defensive issues, but the Arsenal manager stuck with his preferred 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 shape as Alexis Sanchez, Danny Welbeck and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain led the frontline.

Arsenal dominated possession for large portions of the match, but with a bit of fortune and clinical finishing, United enjoyed a comfortable victory over Wenger’s side.

Pattern

In recent years Manchester United – Arsenal fixtures have followed similar patterns – Arsenal dominate possession, whereas United contain their threat and prevail without producing remarkable performances.

Van Gaal’s decision to revert back to a 3-4-1-2 – the system he implemented with Holland at the World Cup – ensured that the match was likely to follow this theme. Various subplots and definitive factors altered with personnel over the years, but the general pattern highlighted United’s ability to exploit Arsenal’s physical and mental frailties.

However, Wenger’s inaugural clash with Van Gaal as United manager was similar to Sir Alex Ferguson’s final match against Arsenal. Arsenal’s pressing posed several issues for United, but the Gunners were unable to sustain that tempo for the entire match.

Arsenal press

The key feature in the opening half, though, was Arsenal’s pressing. Recently, Arsenal have dropped into their 4-1-4-1 shape and opted to press in midfield, but considering Van Gaal reverted to a back three, Wenger instructed his attacking trio to close down United’s centre backs.

Arsenal’s pressure forced David De Gea and his centre-backs into nervy clearances, but it also placed the home side into key positions to take the lead. First, Oxlade-Chamberlain dispossessed Luke Shaw and Welbeck picked up the loose ball and fired a shot at De Gea. Then, Alexis’ pressure forced De Gea into a poor clearance, thus leading to Welbeck sliding in Wilshere free on goal. However, the United keeper comfortably stopped the England international’s tame effort.

United found it difficult to play through midfield for large portions of the first half, as Arsenal’s pressure forced Van Gaal’s men into daft mistakes, and they also conceded possession cheaply in key areas. Had Wenger’s side maintained their pressing throughout the match, and converted the numerous first half chances into goals, perhaps the result may have been different.

United approach

Where Arsenal focused on energetically pressing higher up the pitch, United stuck to a variation of the man-marking that was effective against Chelsea, and key to Holland’s success at the World Cup. For the most part, Arsenal always held a man advantage in midfield with Alexis and Oxlade-Chamberlain moving into central areas, thus explaining why Arsenal bypassed United’s midfield on a few occasions.

Still, Blackett and McNair followed Arsenal’s wide players when they dropped deeper into midfield, Wayne Rooney contained Mikel Arteta’s threat from deep positions, while Di Maria and Van Persie cut off the passing lanes to the full backs.

United’s lack of numbers in midfield and defenders being caught out of position left the away side vulnerable, and from an attacking perspective, their productivity in wide areas was severely underwhelming in the opening half. Van Gaal’s men lacked the creativity to unlock Arsenal’s back four, and similar to Holland at the World Cup, United resorted to sideways passes and hopeless crosses into the box when they surged into advanced areas.

Although United’s defensive approach impeded Arsenal’s buildup play from the back, whilst attempting to limit Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sanchez’s threat, the away side was fairly average on both ends of the field prior to the opener. More so, it’s difficult to determine whether the approach was successful – United was bypassed in midfield on several occasions, and their attack was considerably underwhelming

Fellaini – Oxlade-Chamberlain

Neither side was enjoyed a consistent spell of success from open play, and it was no coincidence that the star performers in the first half offered contrasting elements of directness. Both sides were comfortable when they packed players ahead of the ball, but they displayed signs of vulnerability on the break, and direct attacks.

Fellaini operated in advanced positions in midfield, and apart from Di Maria’s wonderful run from half that nearly resulted in a Rooney opener, the Belgian utilized his physical and aerial presence to steer United into key areas. The Belgian was always free to receive the ball in mixed positions on the right, and he towered over Nacho Monreal, Kieran Gibbs and Mikel Arteta to link play by chesting and nodding the ball down to his teammates.

fellaini arsenal

Equally, Fellaini was influential breaking up play in midfield – making key tackles around his box – and igniting swift counters on the break. He combined with Di Maria on two occasions in the match, and his second half ball to the Argentine was pivotal to Rooney’s winner.

Oxlade-Chamberlain, on the other hand, relied on his powerful running to evade challenges and steer Arsenal forward.

 Ox united

  • 8th min: Oxlade-Chamberlain powered past Rooney down the right flank, but Welbeck nodded his venomous cross over the net.
  • 21st min: Sanchez dropped deeper to receive the ball and instantly played a lovely pass behind the defence to Oxlade-Chamberlain, but De Gea quickly moved off his line to cut of the Arsenal winger’s shooting angle to make a key save.
  • 41st min: Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sanchez combine to ignite a quick Arsenal counter, but Smalling comfortably dealt with Welbeck’s cross into the box.
  • 48th min: Arteta dispossessed Van Persie and quickly played a pass to Oxlade-Chamberlain, and the Arsenal wide man delivered an exceptional ball into the left channel for Welbeck, but De Gea stopped the 23-year-old’s shot.
  • 62nd min: Oxlade Chamberlain flew past Michael Carrick and delivered a lofted cross into the box but Sanchez tamely nodded the ball at De Gea.

It was evident that Oxlade-Chamberlain was Arsenal’s most proactive player against United through the various methods of direct attacking utilized to torment the away side’s defence.

1-0

Although many will classify United’s opening goal as fortuitous, it’s key to note that it was one of the few times Arsenal cheaply conceded possession in their own half.

Ramsey’s tame header not only enabled Rooney to recover the ball in Arsenal’s third, but presented an opportunity for the away side to attack with numbers. Fellaini freely attacked space towards the back post, while both wingbacks stormed into Arsenal’s box. It was a goal made by the wing-backs – that rarely pushed forward prior to the goal – as Young’s cross and Valencia’s powerful strike pushed United into the lead.

Well-worked moves from open play were scarce at the Emirates, which further exemplifies the significance of Ramsey’s lapse, and United’s clinical finishing.

United go 5-4-1/sit deep

In regards to United’s shape, Gibbs’ own goal ultimately led to an immediate Van Gaal alteration. The Dutchman was aware that Arsenal were forced to push forward, which explains why he was keen to push his side deeper than usual.

United transitioned into a 5-4-1 with Van Persie moving to the flank with Di Maria, while Rooney persisted with his pressure on Arteta. Without Mesut Ozil, or any other through ball specialists, Arsenal’s buildup play was laboured and predictable. Likewise, as Arsenal pushed more men forward, Fellaini, Rooney and Di Maria received ample space to exploit on the counter.

Wenger’s decision to introduce Olivier Giroud pushed Arsenal to a 4-1-3-2 as they continuously pushed for a goal, but the tactical alteration lead to three breaks stemmed by Di Maria, ultimately leading to Rooney’s winner. Van Gaal’s decision to move players into wide areas was logical following the opener, as Arsenal offered no offensive threat in open play, whereas United possessed players capable of exploiting space on the break.

Conclusion

The easy thing to do here is blame Wenger for another disappointing result against a top rival – and although the scrutiny is merited, it’s difficult to solely place the blame on the Arsenal manager.

 arsenal shots united shots

Arsenal’s pressing was effective in the opening half, with only extremely poor finishing preventing the Gunners from building a commanding lead. Likewise, Arsenal prevented United from testing Wojciech Szczesny, as Rooney’s 84th minute goal was their lone recorded shot on target.

Van Gaal didn’t outwit Wenger, as his three-man defensive system still remains flat from an attacking perspective, but here, a defensive mistake from Ramsey and Gibbs sealed their fate. Nevertheless, Arsenal’s pressing decreased in the second half, thus preventing Wenger’s side from winning the ball higher up the pitch and creating legitimate chances to win the game.

 
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Posted by on November 24, 2014 in Match Recaps

 

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Bayern Munich 0-2 Borussia Dortmund

Courtesy of Flickr/Dirk Vorderstraße

Courtesy of Flickr/Dirk Vorderstraße

Borussia Dortmund’s swift counter-attacks and energetic pressing played an integral role in their convincing victory over reigning Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich. 

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Pep Guardiola’s 3-4-3 missed a few World Cup stars with only Thomas Muller and Manuel Neuer in Bayern’s XI. Xherdan Shaqiri, Robert Lewandowski and Muller started upfront; Juan Bernat and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg operated as wingbacks, while Sebastian Rode and Gianluca Gaudino formed a midfield duo.

Ciro Immobile and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang spearheaded Jurgen Klopp’s 4-3-1-2 with Jonas Hofmann sitting behind the strike duo. Sebastian Kehl, Oliver Kirch and Henrikh Mkhitaryan formed a midfield trio.

Although both sides fielded weaker XI’s, the football philosophies remained the same, as Klopp outwitted Guardiola to guide Dortmund to their second consecutive German Supercup.

3-4-3 vs. 4-3-1-2

One of the main talking points prior to kickoff was Guardiola’s decision to field a three-man defence. Bayern’s aim was to push the wingbacks into advanced positions and hold a numerical advantage in their third as they intended on building attacks from the back.

Klopp’s system, however, handed Dortmund the advantage in central areas. The main man, though, was Hofmann, who pushed high to make up the numbers when Bayern tried to play out of the back, but quickly dropped deeper to overload the midfield zone.

Kehl was equally the spare man in midfield as he didn’t have to track a no.10, his freedom in central areas saw Dortmund easily bypassed Bayern’s pressing.

Dortmund Press 

Dortmund’s pressing has been a recurring theme in previous encounters, as Klopp’s men tend to start the match well, but fade away in the latter stages. Here, Guardiola and Klopp encouraged their attackers to press the opposition’s defence on goal kicks, and both sides failed to build play from the back.

Dortmund’s pressing, though, disrupted Bayern’s passing tempo, which prevented Guardiola’s side from controlling the match. Rode and Gaudino occasionally dropped deeper to help Bayern bypass Dortmund’s pressing, but Mkhitaryan and Kirch tracked the midfield duo’s movement, forcing Guardiola’s side to concede possession. Klopp’s side nearly took the lead in the ninth minute when Dortmund’s pressure forced David Alaba into poor pass that ricocheted off Aubameyang and into Immobile, but the Italian fired his shot wide.

Dortmund’s effective pressing also forced the champions to play direct football. Muller and Lewandowski couldn’t link play or turn past the impressive Sokratis and Matthias Ginter, who quickly closed down the forwards when they received the ball. Equally, Lukasz Piszczek and Marcel Schmelzer pegged the Bayern wingbacks into their half.

In the first half, Bayern recorded a sole shot on target which illustrated Dortmund’s efficient pressing.

Wasteful Shaqiri

While Dortmund’s pressing was deemed effective, Bayern occasionally moved into key areas in the final third, but the German champions failed to test goalkeeper Mitchell Langerak.

Shaqiri created a great chance to take the lead two minutes into the match, when he cleverly turned Piszczek and ran towards goal, but the Swiss attacker fired his shot directly at Langerak. That was Bayern’s sole chance of the half, but Shaqiri’s movement guided the 22-year-old into the final third on a few occasions.

However, Shaqiri’s final ball was too short, while his deliveries from wide areas and decision-making around the box was dire.

Dortmund break

Dortmund’s best moves were been orchestrated in transition, but unlike Bayern, there was variety in their attack.

The first element was Kirch’s off the ball running. Kirch’s movement into half-space led to a shot that Neuer pushed aside; he also combined with Aubameyang with intricate passing around the box and a lofted long ball that saw the attacker outpace Dante, thus leading to Kehl and Hofmann firing powerful shots at Neuer.

Kirch was also the catalyst in Hoffman’s dominance in transition, as his passes ignited attacks that saw the Dortmund midfielder exploit pockets of space with his pace. Hofmann flourished in advanced areas due to Bayern’s lack of a natural holding midfielder, as the 22-year-old exploited Gaudino’s defensive limitations and his inexperience at this level.

  • 14th min: Kirch slides to win a 50/50 challenge against Rode and Dortmund breaks through Hofmann, who has acres of space to run into and he spreads the ball wide to Aubameyang, but the attacker’s cross was cleared by Javi Martinez.
  • 22nd min: 1-0 Mkhitaryan. Dortmund takes the lead, as their pressure and willingness to target Gaudino were key elements in the build up. Immobile’s pressure saw Neuer’s clearance fall to Piszczek, and the right back nodded the ball into Mkhitaryan in a pocket of space. The Armenian winger ran past Gaudino and surged towards goal, before he slid a pass to Aubameyang that was poorly cleared by Alaba, and Neuer could only watch Mkhitaryan fire the loose ball into the net.
  • 25th min: Lewandowski lost possession in midfield following a challenge with Mkhitaryan, thus leading to Kehl and Kirch bypassing Bayern’s pressure and the latter found Hofmann between the lines. Hofmann slid a pass into Aubameyang in right half-space, but Neuer stopped the Dortmund attacker’s shot.
  • 31st min: Piszczek combined with Kirch and the former’s pass connected with Hofmann, who made a run behind Gaudino into the box, but Boateng blocked his shot and the Dortmund right back fired the loose ball over the net.
  • 43rd min: Hofmann outmuscled Rode in midfield to win possession, and he effortlessly ran past Gaudino, and played a pass to Mkhitaryan that forced Hojbjerg to clip the midfielder and earn a booking. 

Somehow, Dortmund only carried a one-goal lead into the break, but the countless chances created in transition showcased their dominance.

Guardiola tinkers

Guardiola reacted immediately at half time, introducing Phillip Lahm for Thomas Muller as Bayern transitioned into a 3-5-1-1, with Shaqiri operating as the chief playmaker. Lahm’s introduction was logical as Bayern now had a natural defensive player ahead of the back three to limit Hofmann’s threat.

Shaqiri’s central role also gave Bayern the advantage in midfield, and they came within inches of an equalizer in the opening minutes of the second half. Lahm found Shaqiri between the lines, but the Swiss midfielder’s through ball to Lewandowski was heavy, and the Polish striker could only poke his effort at Langerak.

Dortmund limited their energetic pressing in the second half, allowing Lahm time to string passes together, and although the 31-year-old connected with his teammates in advanced positions, the lack of quality in the final third hindered Bayern’s attack. Mario Gotze was also involved in the second half, but the former Dortmund player failed to lift his side’s performance.

Dortmund focus on wide areas

Klopp’s side, however, directed their attack into wide areas in the second half, as substitute left back Erik Durm constantly exploited space behind Hojbjerg, which eventually led to a Lahm booking.

Immobile, Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang attacked the space behind the advanced Hojbjerg in transition, as Guardiola’s side were consistently caught on the counter, pushing men forward to snag an equalizer. The issue Bayern encountered following their switch to a 3-5-1-1 involved Gaudino and Rode allowing the full backs to attack vacant space in the channels and isolate their wingbacks.

Dortmund doubled their lead in this manner as Piszczek was allowed to surge into the final third; the Polish full back overloaded Bernat with Aubameyang before playing a great cross from the byline to the onrushing attacker, who snuck behind Lahm and out-jumped Jerome Boateng to nod the ball past Neuer.

Langerak made a key save from an Alaba free kick to preserve his clean sheet, as Bayern provided no response for Dortmund’s dominance.

Conclusion

Dortmund’s dynamic pressing was no secret heading into the match, and it played a significant role in the outcome as it disrupted Bayern’s attack. Guardiola’s side encountered difficulties moving up the pitch as a unit, and without a holding midfielder, Dortmund successfully overloaded central areas, as Hofmann and Mkhitaryan terrorized Gaudino. 

While very little can be taken from this result, due to both sides missing several first-team players, Dortmund was undoubtedly the better side over 90 minutes, showcasing their adaptability, variety in attack, and disciplined pressing. 

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2014 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Premier League Preview: Chelsea

Courtesy of Flickr/In Mou We Trust

Courtesy of Flickr/In Mou We Trust

Many questioned Jose Mourinho’s vocal dismissal of Chelsea’s title hopes following their impressive 1-0 triumph over Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium last February. 

“The title race is between two horses and a little horse that needs milk and needs to learn how to jump,” Mourinho said. 

“Maybe next season we can race.”

The Portuguese manager was aware that his side could grasp the title from the self-proclaimed two-horses, but he also knew that his striker profligacy, along with the vast inexperience throughout his squad wouldn’t suffice.

In recent years, Chelsea’s involvement in continental competitions has been successful, but they were irrelevant in their domestic title races, falling behind both Manchester clubs. Roman Abramovich invested well in young talents such as Eden Hazard and Oscar, but there were significant holes throughout the squad that were exposed on a weekly basis.

Mourinho rightly claimed that his side was in transition, utilizing last season as a primitive guideline both psychologically and physically on what it takes to be an elite side in Europe. In that time he had to stray away from the flashy football that Chelsea’s creative players and supporters enjoyed in the opening months of last season, along with offloading fan favourites Juan Mata and David Luiz.

It was part of the evolution.

The combination of entertaining football and results didn’t mesh at Stamford Bridge, thus forcing Mourinho to revert back to his meticulous counter-attacking approach.

“We are going in one direction and the right direction, but it is quite frustrating. Football is about getting results and it’s quite frustrating, as we may have to take a step back in order to be more consistent at the back,” Mourinho stated following a loss to Stoke City.

“It’s something I don’t want to do, to play more counter-attacking, but I’m giving it serious thought. If I want to win 1-0 I think I can as I think it is one of the easiest things in football. It is not so difficult, as you don’t give players the chance to express themselves.”

Chelsea conceded nine goals in the 23 league matches subsequent to those comments, comfortably defeating every team in the top seven. In the end, the lack of a top-class striker proved costly, as they failed to break down inferior opposition, losing games in the latter stages of the season against Aston Villa, Sunderland, and Crystal Palace.

Chelsea finished four points behind champions Manchester City, and crashed out of the Champions League at the semi-final stage, but Mourinho was pleased with the progress upon his return.

Mourinho’s Chelsea, though, enters this season as the bookies favourite, and history makes it difficult to bet against the Blues. 

The Portuguese manager’s sides tend to peak during his second season, as his players become accustomed to his philosophy, thus allowing them to carry out his instructions with precipitous efficiency. During Mourinho’s career, Porto won the European Cup, Chelsea retained their Premier League crown, Inter Milan won the treble, and Real Madrid broke records as they dethroned Barcelona.

The Chelsea board’s proactive nature in the transfer market steers Mourinho in pole position to achieve his second season success.

Sales of Romelu Lukaku, Demba Ba, and Kevin De Bruyne, along with the departures of club legends Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole have paved the way for Mourinho to introduce world-class players in Cesc Fabregas, Filipe Luis, and Diego Costa. Didier Drogba will also make an emphatic return to Stamford Bridge, while Thibaut Courtois’ successful loan spell at Atlético Madrid provides Petr Cech with legitimate competition for a starting role.

Stylistically, there isn’t much variation in Chelsea’s system. The Blues may occasionally lack ideas when they dominate possession, but they’re extremely organized without the ball, terrorizing teams in transition with swift counter-attacks.

Chelsea will alter from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3 throughout the season, and play a three-man defence when they desperately need a goal. Deploying Fernando Torres out wide has been the significant tactical change — similar to Samuel Eto’o’s role at Inter — with Torres sporadically varying his movement into central areas. While Torres playing on the flanks may not be one of Mourinho’s preferred moves, it’s an option the Portuguese manager can utilize.

Chelsea’s strength lies in the attacking midfield department, as they now possess two players in each position.

This desperately helps Oscar, as his form dwindled towards the end of last season due to exhaustion. Equally, while Eden Hazard enjoyed his best campaign at the club, scoring 14 league goals, the arrival of Costa and Fabregas should decrease the massive attacking load placed on his shoulders last season. Mourinho will hope both men will take the next step and discover a level of consistency, with Hazard in particular scoring more goals, as the duo enters their third season in the Premier League.

Equally, the likes of Mohamed Salah, Andre Schurrle and Willian are expected to have adapted to Mourinho’s philosophy and the rigorous strains of the Premier League. Salah and Willian’s work ethic and pace down the flanks offer balance, while World Cup winner Schurrle will be eager to add more goals to his resume and cement a place in the starting XI.

Ultimately, Mourinho targeted the areas that required improvement, and acquired world-class personnel to fill them. Gary Cahill and John Terry formed the best centre-back partnership last year, as the Blues carried the best defensive record, conceding 27 league goals.

Luis, arguably the best left-back in Spain last season, offers Mourinho leeway at the full-back position, and ensures that Branislav Ivanovic can step in for Terry when required and Cesar Azpilicueta can play in his preferred right-back position. Courtois, on the other hand, is arguably the best goalkeeper in the world at the tender age of 22, which immediately improves Chelsea’s sturdy back-line.

With Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas favored to form Chelsea’s double-pivot, what appeared to be a weak point in the Blues starting XI since their last title triumph, now looks quite frightening. 

Matic arrived in January last season, providing the strength, passing, and reliability at the base of a feeble midfield to impede the opposition’s attacks. Likewise, Fabregas’ familiarity with the league should see him settle quickly, and his direct style of play should create and tally goals.

The Spaniard’s passing range also ensures Chelsea can control games in midfield, along with orchestrating attacks from deeper positions. Chelsea can also rely on reliable midfielders in Ramires and John Obi Mikel as adequate cover, while 21-year-old Marco van Ginkel has returned to full fitness — after enduring a season ending knee ligament injury — producing positive preseason performances alongside Matic and Fabregas.

Costa, however, has been the big positive in preseason, scoring two quality goals and displaying through his work ethic and individual ability why Mourinho was keen on luring the 25-year-old to Stamford Bridge. Although Costa has only endured one prolific season at the highest-level scoring 36 goals in 44 appearances, it’s key to note that he’s yet to enter his peak years and Mourinho is more than capable of maximizing the striker’s talents.

The main worries around Costa is his tendency to drift out of games when teams sit deeper, and many fear that he may not be the man to solve Chelsea’s issues against inferior opposition as his aerial threat isn’t established. Blues supporters also fear the possibility of Costa sustaining a long-term injury, as only 36-year-old Drogba and Torres serve as replacements. With weeks remaining in the transfer window, Mourinho may be poised to make one final move for a striker, as Marko Marin and Victor Moses are likely to be deemed surplus to requirements.

Still, Costa doesn’t need to score 30 goals a season to push this Chelsea side over the hump, and his ability to link play with the midfield and charge powerfully into the channels is one of the various reasons why he’s the ideal counter-attacking striker.

In truth, Chelsea’s summer activity, along with their rivals’ failure to significantly improve their starting XI or squad, merits the Blues as title favourites.

They bolstered their imperious defence with a fine left back and one of the best goalies in the game, the young creative midfielders’ evolution combined with Fabregas’ world-class talent should form a stellar midfield, and they now possess a legitimate goalscorer.

It’s taken Chelsea nearly five years to assemble a squad capable of challenging on both domestic and European fronts, and with the depth the Blues possess, they should be in the hunt for all four trophies available.

The squad at Mourinho’s disposal is built to keep his second season folklore alive.

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2014 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Premier League Preview: Arsenal

Courtesy of Flickr/Ronnie Macdonald

Courtesy of Flickr/Ronnie Macdonald

What a difference a year makes.

Arsenal supporters were sweating profusely with the Premier League season swiftly approaching, as Yaya Sanogo and Mathieu Flamini were the only players brought into the club on free transfers.

In search of a trophy and a world-class player, Gunners supporters were forced to watch their league rivals bolster their squad, while they quickly refreshed their twitter page, with hopes of a transfer announcement on the official Arsenal feed.

However, the boos that echoed throughout the Emirates Stadium following Arsenal’s opening day loss to Aston Villa last season were quickly forgotten.

There’s a new vibe around the Emirates this time around, as they secured Champions League football for another season and ended their lengthy trophy drought by claiming the FA Cup in May.

The animosity’s transitioned into glee, and the fact that Wenger completed four signings before August signals a change in direction.

The swagger in his step along with the smile that warmed many hearts during his first decade in England has returned.

The positivity floating around the Emirates derives from winning trophies, but now Arsenal faces another stern task.

How will they build on last season’s success?

It’s been awhile since the incessant banter surrounding a trophy drought, the urgency to acquire a world-class player, or the chances of remaining in the top four haven’t dominated Arsenal’s preseason discussion, which serves as a victory in itself.

Arsenal has kept the core of their squad at the Emirates, and Wenger expertly utilized his time in Brazil to poach some of the World Cup’s key performers.

David Ospina and Mathieu Debuchy are straight replacements for the departed Lukasz Fabianski and Bacary Sagna, Joel Campbell’s successful World Cup has rewarded him with a return to the Emirates — opposed to another loan move — while Callum Chambers is a versatile defender for the future.

Wenger, however, won over the fans with the addition of another world-class signing in Alexis Sanchez. There was doubt surfacing around North London regarding Wenger’s ability to attract world-class talent, but following the signings of Ozil and Sanchez, the Frenchman has put those claims to rest. Equally, he’s learned from his mistake with Ozil’s transfer last year, and appears to have a concrete plan on how to utilize the vibrant Chilean attacker.

Sanchez is an exceptional talent that has undergone several positional changes over recent years, and his versatility provides Wenger with variety in attack. Last season, Arsenal solely relied on Olivier Giroud, as Yaya Sanogo wasn’t — and still isn’t — ready to lead the line on a consistent basis, and Sanchez’s arrival provides Wenger with substantial flexibility upfront.

Giroud lacks mobility and pace, but he prefers to play with his back to goal and link play with on rushing runners. Sanchez, on the other hand, offers a contrasting element of attack as he’s a diminutive pacy attacker that charges towards goal.

The Chilean’s physique is misleading, though, as he’s capable of shrugging off defenders to link play and his admirable work-rate sees him successfully challenge and win aerial duels. The one odd feat about Sanchez is that he tends to miss the easy chances, but is capable of providing moments of sheer brilliance.

Sanchez and Giroud would form the perfect strike partnership with their contrasting styles, but it’s likely that Giroud will start the season as the main striker, with Sanchez playing on the right until Theo Walcott returns from injury.

Arsenal’s attack improves with the signing of Sanchez, but Aaron Ramsey’s fitness is also a key factor this season.

Ramsey was indubitably the best midfielder in the country prior to his injury last winter, and his form towards the end of last season — that included a cracking volley against Norwich and the game-winning goal in the FA Cup final — has been carried into preseason. Although Arsenal’s preseason results varied — two one-goal defeats and a convincing win over Benfica — Ramsey offered the creativity, tackling and running that has seen him transition into an exceptional all-rounder.

Wenger, however, must get the best out of Ramsey’s teammates, who have stagnated since their arrival at the club. Jack Wilshere has been considerably mediocre over the past few seasons, Santi Cazorla has failed to replicate his form from his first season at the Emirates, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott need to remain fit.

This could explain the arrival of fitness expert Shad Forsythe, as Wenger hopes to decrease the injuries that occur throughout his squad, but the English trio must also incorporate a level of consistency to their game.

Likewise, Ozil’s second season in England should see him reach the levels that many expected to see with runners in Sanchez, Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain available.

The main concern, though, lies within their options at the defensive midfield position with Flamini and Mikel Arteta protecting the back-line. The former displayed his inability to provide adequate cover over the course of the season, while Arteta — who in fairness isn’t a natural holding midfielder — is exposed on a weekly basis on the counter-attack and against top-class play-makers.

The defence is equally questionable as they capitulated in the second half of last season. Although there’s adequate cover in the fullback positions, Kieran Gibbs has yet to improve, while the verdict will be out on whether Debuchy can eclipse the quality that Sagna offered on both ends of the field.

Similarly, Thomas Vermaelen’s move to Barcelona ensures that the arrival of an experienced centre-back is now a priority. Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker formed one of the sturdiest centre-back partnerships last season, but it would be inane to solely rely on the duo and Chambers.

Stylistically, Arsenal is likely to add a hint of directness with their possession-based system, despite their counter-attacking approach in preseason. Arsenal possess the quality to steamroll past inferior opposition in the Premier League, but their record away from home against the top-sides must improve. Away from the Emirates, Wenger’s side was battered against the teams that finished in the top five, along with falling short against Manchester United at Old Trafford.

Of the teams that finished in the top-eight, Arsenal only enjoyed victories over Spurs, and Liverpool at the Emirates, which illustrates required improvement against the top-sides in the Premier League.

Nevertheless, Arsenal is a better side this year, and while European supremacy is still beyond them, they’re inching closer towards legitimately challenging for the title. Domestic cup competitions appear to be the likely source of more silverware this season, but they possess a squad capable of pushing Chelsea and Manchester City to the finish line.

More so, if Wenger intends on lifting his first Premier League title in over a decade, he will need improved performances throughout his squad and the arrival of a top-class defensive midfielder and centre-back.

Arsenal is arguably two moves away from an unforgettable season, but even if they fail to bolster those areas, anything less than a third place finish should be classified as a disappointment.

It’s time for the Gunners to push forward.

 
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Posted by on August 10, 2014 in EPL, Premier League

 

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Premier League Preview: Manchester City

Courtesy of WikiCommons/Soccer.ru

Courtesy of WikiCommons/Soccer.ru

Manchester City never does it the easy way.

Despite being the best side in the league during their two Premier League triumphs this decade, the boys from the Etihad have stumbled across the finishing line opposed to cruising to silverware like the great teams before them.

During Roberto Mancini’s tenure, City benefitted from United’s slip-ups against Wigan and Everton, before Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero scored stoppage time goals to defeat relegation battling QPR to win the Premier League in the most controversial manner.

Then in the latter stages of last season –– despite only being top of the league for 14 days of the season –– after a crushing defeat at Anfield against Liverpool, Chelsea and Crystal Palace subsequently took points off the Reds that led to another late revival in May.

However, lodged between City’s narrow title triumphs was a disappointing season that saw a considerably frail Manchester United side top their rivals by 11 points to reclaim the league title. City’s attempt to build a dynasty failed miserably, and their poor activity in the transfer market played a significant factor.

Mancini didn’t get the required pieces –– Javi Martinez, Robin van Persie, Daniele De Rossi and Eden Hazard –– and was handed Jack Rodwell, Scott Sinclair, Javi Garcia, Maicon and Matija Nastasic, with only the latter featuring regularly in the starting XI. City had only won the league on goal difference, which explains why the signing of a legitimate world-class striker in van Persie catapulted United back to glory, while City’s development stagnated.

The arrival of Manuel Pellegrini saw City recruit experienced players around the continent –– Jesus Navas, Alvaro Negredo, Fernandinho and Stevan Jovetic –– to fill the voids within their squad, but winning the title on the final day of the season against rivals that were in transitional periods calls for improvement.

However, City’s transfer activity this summer has been limited due to their Financial Fair Play irregularities. While Diego Costa, Ander Herrera, and Alexis Sanchez have joined their title rivals, City has introduced Fernando, Willy Caballero, Bacary Sagna and Frank Lampard on-loan, with Porto centre-back Eliaquim Mangala expected to join the reigning champions.

Pellegrini’s squad doesn’t need major changes, but increased quality would not only separate City from those attempting to make a title push, but increase their chances of competing against Europe’s elite in the Champions League.

Sagna and Caballero provide adequate cover and increase competition for Pablo Zabaleta and Joe Hart, while Lampard’s arrival is merely a wise ploy to keep him fit ahead of New York City FC’s inaugural season and meet the required five home-grown player quota in the Champions League.

This leaves £12m Fernando as City’s sole significant purchase, with the champions finally replacing the tenacious Nigel de Jong. Fernando is a quality footballer that can sit at the base of the midfield and break up play with his physicality and positional intelligence, while Fernandinho and Yaya Toure offer attacking impetus in central areas. His signing also offers Pellegrini flexibility to stray away from his preferred 4-4-2 and potentially dabble with a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 in big games.

Fernando’s arrival is significant because with Yaya Toure turning 31-years-old last May, Pellegrini will be eager to deploy the Ivorian higher up the pitch and decrease his defensive duties. City’s midfield remains their strong point with a veteran core of players, led by the impeccable David Silva. Toure’s 20 goals received plaudits last year, but Silva was their best player.

Look no further than Silva’s standout performances against the best sides in the Premier League last season. Silva constantly found spaces between the lines to provide delicate through-balls to his teammates, while his willingness to drift laterally from flank-to-flank to create overloads played a significant role in City’s dominance on the left side of the pitch. Silva’s goal or assist tally don’t represent his overall excellence, as he’s usually the catalyst in City’s best moves, averaging a league high 3.6 key passes and 0.6 accurate through-balls per game.

Pellegrini’s midfield should suffice for another season, but the main worry for City lies both in defence and attack.

The fullback positions appear to be solidified, but it’s the centre-back area that looks particularly feeble. Vincent Kompany has declined significantly since City’s first title triumph, and like partner Martin Demichelis –– who will turn 34 next season –– is extremely vulnerable when positioned higher up the pitch. City has desperately required a top-class defender alongside Kompany over the past few seasons, and while Mangala has the potential to become an elite European centre-back, his arrival doesn’t guarantee immediate defensive solidity.

The one positive Pellegrini can take from preseason –– along with no injuries sustained or issues within the locker room –– is the form of Jovetic. City operated in a 4-4-2 throughout their USA tour, with Jovetic forming an imperious strike force with Dzeko. Jovetic scored five goals at the Guinness International Champions Cup, but more impressive was his overall linkup play. Jovetic operated behind the main striker and dropped deep to link play with the midfield, his various strike partners, and created space for runners to exploit.

Nonetheless, there was never an issue regarding the quality of City’s attacking quartet. Pellegrini’s main concern was in regards to their fitness levels. With Alvaro Negredo sidelined for approximately two months with a broken foot, along with Sergio Aguero and Jovetic’s recurring injuries, only Dzeko serves as a reliable option.

Aguero, in particular, was stellar last season scoring 32 goals in 36 appearances in all competitions, despite suffering numerous injuries. Aguero scored against every side in the top seven excluding Liverpool –– he was sidelined for the home fixture, and played a bit part role in the return showdown at Anfield after returning from injury –– further exemplifying his importance to City’s title challenge.

When available, Aguero is undoubtedly the best striker in the league, and his fitness plays a significant factor in City’s title hopes.

While no club has retained the Premier League since the turn of the decade, City is equipped to be the first.

But with Chelsea adding the missing pieces to their squad, the fitness of City’s strikers and the arrival of a top-class centre-back will play a vital role in whether Pellegrini’s side becomes the third team to retain the Premier League title.

City is definitely a more complete side in their second title defence of the decade, but shades of their 2012-2013 season hovers around the Etihad.

 
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Posted by on August 10, 2014 in EPL, Premier League

 

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Premier League Preview: Manchester United

Courtesy of Flickr/Hasegawa Takashi

Courtesy of Flickr/Hasegawa Takashi

Individual failure at the World Cup was the greatest thing to happen to Manchester United this summer.

Amongst the constant banter regarding Arturo Vidal’s future, United was back to business at the Guinness International Champions Cup. The Red Devils were undefeated in four matches at the pre-season tournament, including victories over European champions Real Madrid and rivals Liverpool.

Silverware was a distant fantasy throughout David Moyes’ tenure, as the Scotsman only has a Community Shield triumph against Championship side Wigan last season, with United finishing in seventh place; a club low in the Premier League era. The World Cup didn’t provide a change of fortune for the United players, as only the likes of Javier Hernandez, Marouane Fellaini, and Adnan Januzaj –– with Hernandez and Januzaj playing a bit-part role in Brazil –– progressed past the group-stage.

Juan Mata and David de Gea were forced to watch Holland and Chile blitz Spain, Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck couldn’t lift a youthful English side past Italy or Uruguay, Antonio Valencia’s Ecuador lacked quality on both ends, and neither Shinji Kagawa nor Nani could serve as a catalyst for their respected nations when it mattered. Then there was Robin van Persie, who vastly declined subsequent to Holland’s opening match, but captained a side that came within spot-kicks of returning to the World Cup final.

Holland left Brazil unbeaten, claiming victories against Spain, Chile and Brazil, and their success was down to Louis van Gaal’s tactical tinkering. Van Gaal, the antithesis of Moyes, didn’t receive time to reflect on a successful World Cup campaign, though, as he was handed the responsibility to make amends for United’s disappointing season.

And in little under a month we’re beginning to see United take shape.

The drive to impress van Gaal and win football games has been displayed in the discipline and work ethic both on and off the ball. In what was undoubtedly a forgettable spell at Old Trafford, the hunger that United lacked under Moyes was evident.

The contrast between Moyes and van Gaal is vast. From the experience at the highest level, to their football philosophy, and the level of confidence and arrogance that both men possess, van Gaal appears to be a significant upgrade. He’s won league titles in three different countries, and failing to feature in the World Cup final has left a fire under his belly to become a champion once again.

In fairness, preseason results are irrelevant; it’s an opportunity to see what combinations work, improve fitness, and assess the squad at your disposal. Still, the hunger, and increased signs of improvement –– although United couldn’t get any worse –– have given fans a sense of optimism as we approach opening weekend.

Majority of van Gaal’s success, however, was achieved in the previous millennium, where he was handed time and patience to instill his philosophy. Van Gaal may not receive that luxury at Old Trafford, so his intent on winning the fans over and claiming silverware –– regardless of its significance –– was integral.

The departures of veteran’s Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, and Patrice Evra marks the dawn of a new era at Old Trafford, and van Gaal’s preference to work with younger players should lead to a smoother transition. The days of the traditional 4-4-2, and United’s persistence to solely play down the wings under Moyes is of the past, as stylistically, van Gaal is administering a different approach that offers variety in attack.

By no means is van Gaal a tactical genius. Frankly, the Dutchman is similar to Jose Mourinho, as he ensures his players stick to their tasks with devastating efficiency. Van Gaal, though, may be methodical like his Portuguese rival, but he’ll provide United with flexibility. He’ll alter from a three-man to a four-man defence, as he prefers to have a spare man in defence to retain possession, but also withhold a numerical advantage out of possession.

While Moyes’ decisions were often peculiar and heavily questioned, van Gaal displayed his ability to alter games on the fly. A change to a 4-3-3 against Mexico led to Arjen Robben’s dominance, and the decision to call upon Tim Krul in a penalty shootout is one of the standout storylines at the World Cup.

Equally, apart from the personnel, there’s very little separating Holland’s approach at the World Cup to United’s displays in pre-season. The swift transitional attacks, high-pressing and defensive line, along with the man marking in midfield has been evident.

The young English duo of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones will get their chance to mature and prove their worth alongside one of United’s most consistent performers over the past few seasons in Jonny Evans.

Their athleticism will enable United to play a high-line –– an option that proved suicidal with Ferdinand and Vidic in the XI –– and although the risk of the opposition exploiting space behind the trio is likely, United’s chances of winning the ball in advanced positions will increase. Smalling’s performances in preseason, however, has forced van Gaal into the transfer market as he searches for a versatile centre-back, but stellar displays in Brazil from Dirk Kuyt and Ron Vlaar should serve as a sign of optimism for Red Devils fans.

The arrival of Ander Herrera provides United with the dynamism and penetration from central areas that they’ve severely lacked in recent years. Van Gaal also appears capable of resurrecting careers at the Theatre of Dreams. Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia have solidified their roles as adequate replacements for Luke Shaw and Rafael at the wingback position, with the former scoring goals and creating quality chances on both flanks.

Equally, Darren Fletcher’s transition into a deep-lying passer led to a few man-of-the match performances that could see him feature sporadically this season if he can cope with the pace of a competitive match.

The highpoint from United’s tour across the United States was the production from the front three. Danny Welbeck’s tactical discipline remains one of the England international’s key traits, but Rooney and Mata –– players that have been chastised over their defensive work in big games –– were equally impressive in and out of possession.

Rooney’s tendency to impress when his position is under threat is unsurprising, but whether the 28-year-old and van Gaal can maintain a fruitful relationship, along with his maintaining his fitness levels throughout the season is up in the air.

Mata, on the other hand, is now playing in his preferred no.10 role in van Gaal’s 3-4-1-2. Not only does the Spaniard receive the space to offer creativity, but van Gaal’s direct style has seen Mata’s verticality reap rewards as he’s playing at the level that saw the 26-year-old transition into a world-class player at Chelsea.

If Mata, van Persie and Rooney can fire on all cylinders, and still have Welbeck, Javier Hernandez and the pace of Adnan Januzaj and Wilfried Zaha available, it’s evident that United’s strength lies in their attack.

Still, claiming the Premier League in the first season will be a stern challenge for van Gaal, considering the competition that awaits the Dutchman. Majority of the teams that finished ahead of the Red Devils have improved over the summer, while United have a month to sort out there issues in midfield and defence.

Ultimately, United lack the depth of Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City in midfield and defence. For instance, if Herrera were to get injured, Tom Cleverley or Marouane Fellaini –– conservative sideways passers –– would slot into midfield. Despite Fletcher’s impressive preseason, it’s key to note that he’s an unreliable option due to his health and fitness conditions.

Likewise, if Jones, Smalling or Evans were unavailable, van Gaal would be forced to turn to his academy players. This isn’t necessarily a bad option, but not an issue a Premier League title winner would be forced into.

This was never a job destined to be fixed in one season, and not only is a place in the top four an attainable goal, but it should also be deemed a success if they finish in a Champions League spot. United has a relatively manageable schedule until October, along with no European competition burden, so the possibility of replicating Liverpool’s success of last season isn’t too farfetched.

However, it would take something special to overtake the complete squads that Chelsea and Manchester City possess.

Considering the timing, van Gaal and United appear to be the perfect match, as the Red Devils aim to return amongst the Premier League’s elite sides.

 
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Posted by on August 10, 2014 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Premier League Preview: Liverpool

Courtesy of Flickr/Dean Jones

Courtesy of Flickr/Dean Jones

The atmosphere around Selhurst Park escalated quickly.

Brendan Rodgers stood emotionless on the touchline, with his hands in his pockets, mystified at the scenes that transpired before his eyes.

Liverpool’s season spiraled downwards in 10 minutes, as the Reds conceded a three-goal lead against Crystal Palace. Scenes that may never leave the minds of some of the most confident players in world football. Daniel Sturridge stared blankly into the sky, while Luis Suarez was on the floor hiding his face under his shirt in a pool of tears, as captain Steven Gerrard –– who committed an inexcusable error by slipping on the ball, which gift-wrapped a goal for Demba Ba a week prior, in another monumental game against Chelsea –– consoled the Uruguayan star down the tunnel.

“The players are devastated, really,” Rodgers said. “The last 12 minutes we did not defend at all with any cohesion. It was a crazy spell where we’ll need to be better in the future.”

Liverpool squandered a golden opportunity to claim their first Premier League title, and they may not receive a second chance in the upcoming years. The luxury of missing out on European football played a factor as the Reds played a minimum of 10 games less than the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City. There was also a hint of overachievement following the extraordinary partnership of Suarez and Sturridge.

Rodgers, however, will have to cope without the Uruguayan star after he completed a move to Barcelona this summer. Although, at times, Suarez’s actions were deplorable, his production on the field transformed the striker into a cult hero. Suarez tallied 82 goals in three and a half seasons at Anfield, with the final two years being his most impressive, hitting the 30 goal mark twice.

The loss of a genuine world-class player would hamper any side, and Suarez’s departure is no different. And while it’s considerably easy to make comparisons with Spurs after the sale of Gareth Bale, it’s unlikely that Rodgers’ side will capitulate in the same manner as the North London club.

Liverpool is a cohesive unit that didn’t solely rely on Suarez’s individual brilliance, and they have spent close to £90m on personnel that should cover their lack of depth. Rodgers’ starting XI may be weaker than last year, but there’s a sense of familiarity whereas Spurs shoved several new signings into their squad with no initial plan.

Frankly, under Andre Villas-Boas’ first season at White Hart Lane, Spurs lacked a genuine game plan as they relied heavily on Bale’s brilliance in a free role.

Rodgers, however, is an intelligent young manager that showcased his tactical flexibility last season, as he risked the natural balance of the side to fit Suarez and Sturridge into his XI. It’s unlikely that he will encounter similar issues with the players brought in this summer, and it also appears that Liverpool will predominantly operate in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1.

The arrival of Adam Lallana offers Liverpool a legitimate play-maker, capable of operating in the no.10 role, or drifting laterally into space between the lines from the flanks. Likewise, Lazar Markovic’s pace, power, and tactical discipline can see the Serbian winger develop into a key player for the Reds as the season progresses.

Rodgers’ experiment with a 4-4-2 diamond against Manchester City in preseason failed, as Liverpool’s fullbacks were consistently isolated, and they lacked natural width going forward. This further exemplifies that the likelihood of a Rickie Lambert and Sturridge partnership is unlikely to occur on a consistent basis.

One of the glaring issues involving Liverpool’s preseason campaign was the difficulty they encountered in the final third. While Liverpool only lost once in their opening seven games last season during Suarez’s suspension –– which in fairness is an extremely small sample size –– it must be noted that the Reds averaged 1.5 goals per game.

Now there is insurmountable pressure surrounding Sturridge to replicate last year’s form and tally 20 Premier League goals as the sole striker upfront. The 24-year-old who prefers to operate in the channels and off the shoulder of the last defender may struggle to replicate last year’s success, and there’s fear that the options available may not suffice.

Loic Remy’s failed medical leaves Rodgers with Rickie Lambert and Fabio Borini at his disposal, with the latter expected to seal a permanent move with Sunderland. Lambert’s move was fairly logical considering his familiarity with Lallana and several English teammates within the squad. Lambert is a proven goalscorer in England, but more importantly he links play well and can guide runners such as Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson –– players Rodgers hopes will add goals to their arsenal –– into goal-scoring positions.

Both players scored fantastic goals in their preseason friendly against Manchester City, and Rodgers stated the importance of Henderson improving in front of goal.

“That’s the objective for Jordan [to get more goals],” Rodgers offered.

“The finish he produced to get the equalizer, he does that day in, day out in training. He’s a player that is so fit and strong, and he’s such a team player – he does a lot of unselfish work. This year we’re asking him to get more into the box.”

However, despite the additions of Dejan Lovren and young powerful midfielder Emre Can, there are still a few concerns within the squad. Who will step up to the plate to score goals? Gerrard’s defensive deficiencies as the sole-pivot are still an issue, while the back four still lacks leadership despite Lovren’s arrival.

Rodgers has provided depth at the full-back position, but Liverpool struggled to close out games last season, often dropping deep into their box and relying on poor finishing from the opposition and Simon Mignolet’s heroics. Only Spurs conceded more goals than Liverpool in the top eight, and with the Reds’ woes in front of goal, Rodgers will hope Lovren is the missing piece to a sturdy back-line.

With little under a month remaining in the transfer window, Liverpool have done a great job in using the funds from Suarez’s sale to revamp their squad.

The improvement of Henderson, Philippe Coutinho and Sterling, along with Gerrard’s rotation, and the adaptation of the newcomers will define Liverpool’s season, but Rodgers is certainly ahead of schedule.

Liverpool will find it difficult to challenge for the title with the inclusion of the Champions League, while title rivals Chelsea and Manchester City have improved significantly.

Rodgers may need a year or two to relive the heights of last season, but he’s made the right moves that should see Liverpool battle for a spot in the top four, as the Reds prepare to go again.

 
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Posted by on August 10, 2014 in EPL, Published Work

 

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