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Tactical Preview: Spurs – Liverpool

Spurs and Liverpool are arguably the most exciting teams in the Premier League in terms of youth and raw energy involving their overall play. The key to their success, however, is based around their intent to press the opposition when they don’t possess the ball.

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Projected Starting XI’s

Both sides have been built by young managers that encourage high-pressing from the front and prefer to win possession in the opposition’s half, opposed to sitting deep and playing on the counter-attack. Although there are slight variances between the styles of pressing, the decision to defend in this manner is ground-breaking by Premier League standards.

In truth, neither side has been impressive breaking down deep defensive lines, so here, the route to goal may stem from a defensive mistake via pressing. Liverpool failed to score against Burnley last week despite monopolizing over 80% possession, while Spurs have encountered issues against Everton and Crystal Palace thus far.

With Hugo Lloris and Moussa Dembele out indefinitely, Michael Vorm and Victor Wanyama will deputize in their positions. The major personnel issue Pochettino faces is whether to persist with Vincent Janssen upfront ahead of Harry Kane, or recall Dele Alli. It’s likely the latter will occur with Kane returning to a centre-forward role, and Alli making late runs beyond the Liverpool defence, and aiming to create chances for last year’s golden boot winner.

From a tactical perspective, Spurs simply miss Dembele’s presence in midfield. Wanyama and Eric Dier offer similar traits ahead of the back four, and though the former scored the winner last week, Spurs currently lack dynamism and additional penetration throughout the final third. Kane is generally a slow starter, though his Euro 2016 performances may suggest otherwise, while Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela have yet to consistently pose a threat in attacking zones.

Nonetheless, there appears to be a general obsession with playing through the middle this season. Kyle Walker and Danny Rose present a genuine offensive threat in wide areas, but oddly Spurs aren’t utilizing their width, despite it leading to Lamela’s equalizer at Everton, whilst possibly maximizing Kane’s aerial threat around the box.

Liverpool, on the other hand, may also rejig the attack that failed to trouble newly promoted Burnley side. That XI witnessed Daniel Sturridge start from the right-hand side and Roberto Firmino from a central position, which ultimately poses several questions for Klopp. Sturridge’s game is all about working the channels and running off the last defender’s shoulder, so he could thrive against a Spurs high-line.

“The first thing is I don’t want to play Daniel as a wide player but of course he can start there and play there but in the decisive moments he needs to be involved in all the finishing situations,” said Klopp.

“When a striker plays in the centre it makes no sense so you have to change positions. Daniel is a very smart player in hiding himself in positions where it is not easy to defend and it is very often in a wing position. When he is not involved any more in defending you need a smart striker who takes the centre-half and moves them into a position where they don’t feel comfortable. It is only a starting position for the next offensive move for my team.”

However, Klopp could turn to Sadio Mane’s pace and ability to break from the right or centrally, here, which would also torment Pochettino’s defence. Firmino is unlikely to be dropped, and his ability to play with his back to goal to invite forward runners could see Mane start from the right, and Sturridge dropped.

Klopp’s attacking players will also be forced to do their defensive duties, whether it being pressing from the front, or tracking runs. Rose and Walker are possibly the most attack-minded full-backs in the league, and will aim to break past Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mane whenever the opportunity presents itself. This is undoubtedly a match-defining battle considering James Milner is likely to fill in as a make-shift left back, and his positioning along with Nathaniel Clyne’s could be exposed.

While Spurs’ powerful double-pivot of Wanyama and Dier hardly offers penetration from deep, it does give license to Rose and Walker to venture forward to ensure they attack with six men. It also enables Spurs to squeeze from the front, and given the case Liverpool bypasses the initial press, Wanyama and Dier would be available to sweep up.

Spurs have enough of an aerial threat to pose issues via crosses from wide areas and set-pieces, and until their front four shows a glimpse of last year’s form, this may be their key route to goal besides forcing mistakes through pressing. Liverpool have often relied on Coutinho’s brilliance when they struggled from open play, but this is a game that suits their strengths.

Pochettino’s men will aim to dictate the tempo, and assuming they don’t sit a few yards deeper, Klopp’s side possess the intricate passing, pace, and powerful running from both midfielders and attackers to harm Spurs’ high-line. With both team’s aiming to overcome profligacy around the penalty box, it will be interesting to see how long they persist with pressing in advanced areas.

Where last year’s match was cagey and resulted in the two sides negating the opposition’s threat, it’s unlikely that we’ll witness another score-less draw given the evolution of both sides since Klopp’s debut. Nonetheless, Liverpool’s defensive and possible match-up issues suggest this may be the day Spurs finally locate last year’s groove.

 
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Posted by on August 26, 2016 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Klopp and Pochettino need to solve their pressing warriors’ attacking dilemmas

The current tactical resurgence surfacing throughout the traditional Premier League top sides was expected following the arrival of some of the world’s best football managers.

Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola have already injected key elements that contributed to their respected sides’ underachievement last year. However, the stylistic shift currently taking place in England’s top division gained prominence last season.

Prior to Leicester City’s triumph, the past three title winners Chelsea, Manchester City, and Manchester United were generally powerful sides that dominated possession, and were equally solid maintaining a deep defensive block when required. While that may not apply to Manchester City from a defensive perspective – a key reason as to why City was unable to sustain their success – they did possess the power to overwhelm inferior opposition.

This weekend’s lunchtime kickoff between Liverpool and Spurs welcomes a different brand of football that’s replicated across the continent. Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino enjoyed success at previous clubs outside of the Premier League, and their footballing philosophy is ground-breaking to a league that’s been criticized for losing its tactical nous.

Klopp began his Liverpool career at White Hart Lane with a vision of bringing the Reds back amongst the elite sides in England, but on his return to North London the German’s philosophy has provided doubt amongst supporters. Liverpool’s growth was displayed in spurts last season, often producing their best performances when forced to play reactive, whilst receiving space to exploit in the opposition’s half.

Klopp has often referred to ‘gegenpressing’ as the best play-maker: the defensive method where Liverpool swarm the ball in packs once they lose possession. It’s very successful when executed cohesively, often flustering opponents into mistakes, and enabling Klopp’s side to retain possession.

“The best moment to win the ball is immediately after your team just lost it,” Klopp has said. “The opponent is still looking for orientation where to pass the ball. He will have taken his eyes off the game to make his tackle or interception and he will have expended energy. Both make him vulnerable.”

Liverpool’s 4-1 demolition of then-champions, Manchester City, appeared to be a turning point in the club’s season: Klopp finally had his players on the same wavelength in regards to his philosophy and they were such demands with devastating efficiency. Although it didn’t drive Liverpool into the top four or prevent a second half collapse in the Europa League final, the breathtaking performance at the Etihad provided optimism.

Likewise, Spurs press in a different manner, as their intent to win the ball close to the opposition’s box is vivid. More importantly, they clog spaces to limit passing lanes, and the defensive high-line remains high to compress space. Essentially, Liverpool’s pressing is better suited to negate counter-attacks, but both approaches can equally go wrong if it’s not a joint-effort.

“It is a different style of pressing,” said Pochettino ahead of Klopp’s Liverpool debut last season. “If you analyze Dortmund, it’s not similar to how we played at Southampton. Our pressing was to the opposing goalkeeper, whereas Dortmund played with a medium block. You can’t compare Klopp’s style with my style, we are different. I’m not saying one is better than the other, just that we are different.

“It depends on your ideas, your culture, how you see the philosophy, your football,” continued Pochettino. “I prefer to press high and we believe we can press the keeper. Another manager believes it is better to stay with a medium block or play deep and go on the counterattack. This is how you feel and believe, and how you develop your style.”

Therefore, the one glaring issue that can unfold when two teams adopt similar defensive schemes is the possibility of cancelling each other out. Spurs’ buildup play is generally decent, but Liverpool’s first half display at the Emirates suggests they may encounter some issues. More so, while both sides are competent out of possession, their early season attacking deficiencies are concerning.

Pochettino was partially guilty for overexerting his players throughout last season’s campaign, and it’s uncertain as to whether they’ve fully recovered – this specifically applies to Harry Kane and Dele Alli, however, Kane generally takes a few games before he identifies his goal-scoring rhythm. But while Spurs have evolved into a slick passing proactive side, this season, they’ve found it challenging to create chances within the final third.

At Everton, they were simply out-worked and out-pressed during the first half: Kane was staved for service, while the attacking players were clearly shunted out by Gareth Barry and Idrissa Gueye. However, Vincent Janssen’s arrival tilted the match in Spurs favour, as they quickly switched to a 4-4-2 and equalized through Erik Lamela’s header from a Kyle Walker cross.

Janssen was rewarded with a start in last weekend’s win over Crystal Palace, pushing Kane into a withdrawn role, but once again, from an attacking sense, Spurs were dull. Nevertheless, majority of their best moves were created in wide areas, and Victor Wanyama’s winner stemmed from a clever Lamela corner, that saw Kane direct his near post header to the Kenyan.

Spurs’ attack evidently lacks width, and it’s odd that they aren’t pushing the full-backs forward with two defensive-minded holders sitting in midfield. They play clever intricate passes in central zones, but against two organized sides that adopted deep, narrow shapes – Everton and Palace – majority of their attacks were cut out.

The other concern with Spurs’ attack rests in the pairing of Wanyama and Dier. Both men are powerful specimens capable of breaking up play and possess adequate distribution skills, but they simply lack the dynamism and penetrating forward runs Moussa Dembele offers from deep.

Spurs can afford to field one holding midfielder against sides that prefer to adopt a low defensive block, and although Wanyama nicked the winner against Palace, the Kenyan’s attacking threat from open play is sporadic. While it’s nearly certain Dembele will return to the starting XI when match-fit, the Wanyama – Dier partnership is better suited for the Champions League and against top opposition, which is why they may strive against Liverpool’s tricky attackers.

On the other hand, Klopp’s issue is more complex: Christian Benteke has been sold, and neither Divock Origi, nor Daniel Sturridge have impressed in a central role – the latter started from the right at Burnley and offered little. Klopp has often trusted Roberto Firmino in a central role, where he drops deep to invite forward runs, and makes outward runs into half-spaces to combine with teammates in tight spaces. Nevertheless, the contrast between Liverpool’s two league matches summarizes last year’s problems.

When the Reds are offered space in midfield and behind the back-line they can press, bully, and out-play nearly every team in the league – Arsenal’s makeshift XI frustrated Klopp’s men in the opening half, but when they tired, Liverpool were dominant over a 20-minute period and scored four goals. Arsenal pushed men forwards in the final 20-minutes with attempts of inspiring a comeback, and though Liverpool broke into key positions in transitions, they still conceded two goals in that span, thus enduring a nervy conclusion to the match.

Meanwhile, last week’s trip to Turf Moor, showcased a dull Reds attack that failed to unlock an organized Burnley side. Firmino was forced to drop into deeper positions, Georginio Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana couldn’t locate space to make penetrative runs into the box, Philippe Coutinho was forced into taking several ambitious shots from distance due to his poor passing around the final third, whereas Jordan Henderson was unable to breakup Burnley’s quick transitions that led to both goals.

Klopp has reiterated his gripe with luring players to Anfield, but with a full pre-season under his belt a certain level of consistency is expected. The intricate passing combinations, fluid movement, and Coutinho wonder-goals are brilliant when Liverpool’s gegenpressing is effective, but converting territorial dominance into goal-scoring chances is preventing the Reds from moving forward as a club.

Klopp and Pochettino have bucked the trend of defending in the Premier League, yet oddly, their main issue to start the season is a lack balance in the final third. With players still to return from injury and pre-season, perhaps this is a minor blip, but Saturday’s clash at White Hart Lane presents the ideal opportunity to build confidence in open play.

Neither side is expected to sit deep, as it’s illogical to expect 90 minutes of full-octane pressing, and given the progress displayed by both clubs over the past few months this match is expected to represent the tactical shift within the league. But where Spurs narrow play requires width to stretch the opposition, Klopp must identify the ideal balance to accommodate his new signings in a fairly direct 4-3-3.

In a league that’s most recently been criticized for a lack of organization and defensive structure, a match featuring some of the best young talent in the league may rest on whether they can maximize their creativity and goal-scoring threat around the box.

 
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Posted by on August 26, 2016 in EPL, Published Work

 

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BPL Notebook Matchday 2: Top Clubs make statement, last year’s achievers suffer from goal drought, same ol’ Liverpool?

It felt like an eternity since Old Trafford was filled with such excitement. The last three seasons have been slightly excruciating for Manchester United supporters, but it appears that Jose Mourinho is ready to put the days of underachievement behind the club.

Similar to the other top clubs vying for the title, United is still a work in progress, but Mourinho’s ability of preparing his sides to earn results is pivotal. As a whole, they weren’t spectacular, but the back four was flawless once again, and marquee signings Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic rose to the occasion.

Where many have failed to live up to the United bill – whilst crumbling at the pressure surrounding Old Trafford – Pogba and Ibrahimovic have taken a step towards justifying their summer transfers. Some said Ibrahimovic was too old, but he’s now notched the Community Shield winner, and was the goal-scoring hero on Southampton’s visit to Old Trafford.

Frankly, Ibrahimovic’s goal presented a sigh of relief, considering Southampton were in full control prior. A midfield trio of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Steven Davis and substitute Jordy Clasie were dictating the tempo of the match with ease, as United constantly conceded possession, but the away side lacked any threat around the box.

Dusan Tadic drifted into clever positions but failed to create chances for his teammates, whereas the striker partnership of Shane Long and Nathan Redmond were underwhelming. Full-backs Matt Targett and Cedric’s crosses didn’t connect with the former – he clearly lacks the pace to get past opponents – whereas the latter constantly dropped into midfield or to the right flank to run at players.

The away side were getting into dangerous positions but were unable to get behind the United defence, thus highlighting the significance of Sadio Mane and Graziano Pelle’s departure. The contrast between the two sides attacking options were vivid when you assess their best chances – Long quickly scuffed a low shot at David De Gea despite breaking free into the United box, while Ibrahimovic towered over Jose Fonte to nod a powerful header past the keeper.

It was Ibrahimovic’s first clear-cut chance of the night, and he comfortably slotted a penalty kick won by Luke Shaw in the second half to double United’s lead. Pogba, on the other hand, completed a full 90 minutes in midfield, and appeared unfazed by his massive transfer fee. Ander Herrera’s passing in United’s opener suggested he may play a key role in Mourinho’s XI, but Pogba completely tarnished that notion.

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The Frenchman’s first touch of the match may have indicated otherwise – a poor pass that resulted in a quick Southampton counter-attack. But Pogba nonchalantly evaded challenges with his powerful dribbling, and his clever chipped pass towards Juan Mata in half space nearly resulted in a highlight reel Ibrahimovic goal.

United’s midfield offered the power that’s been non-existent in recent years: Marouane Fellaini and Pogba are aerially competent, and are more than capable of shrugging off opponents when required. When Pogba sat deeper and passed with precision, and when surging forward with the ball he represented the link between defence and attack.

In Pogba and Ibrahimovic, Mourinho has addressed issues the club have ignored for years – with the former it simply involved power and dynamism in midfield. Likewise, United haven’t possessed a clinical penalty box finisher since Robin van Persie’s debut season at the club. That year United won the title, and if Ibrahimovic maintains his current form, history may repeat itself.

Analysis

Guardiola’s City swiftly takes shape

Sergio Aguero has been Manchester City’s saviour from the moment he moved to England, but Pep Guardiola’s attempt to reduce the heavy reliance on individualism is slowly coming to fruition.

Aguero added another two league goals to his tally – taking his weekly total to five – but City’s significant improvement from their opening weekend display was collective. City were dominant in the first half, stifling Mark Hughes’ Stoke City attempt to build attacks from the back and quickly retaining possession near the hosts’ box.

Even with Fernandinho pressed out of the match, City were still relatively fluid going forward. Nicolas Otamendi’s passing out the back was positive, Raheem Sterling’s dribbling troubled defenders, and Kevin De Bruyne constantly darted through the right channel to deliver quality crosses into the box.

Perhaps City’s midweek trip to Romania resulted in fatigue to a fairly unchanged squad, but going two goals ahead merited the away side’s declined passing tempo. Bojan’s second half penalty kept the score-line close, but Guardiola’s men were untested throughout. Late counter-attacks witnessed substitutes Kelechi Iheanacho and Nolito increase City’s lead, but in fairness, their first half performance – a combination of mesmeric passing, intelligent movement, and intense pressing – away from the Etihad was an upgrade to previous displays under Manuel Pellegrini and Roberto Mancini.

It may be worrying that City aren’t scoring or creating enough goals from open play, and Guardiola will be aiming to improve that area swiftly.  Guardiola’s philosophy should improve various elements of City’s game on a weekly basis, but while Spaniard attempts to fix their slight issue in possession, his side still appears better suited in counter-attacking scenarios.

Conte’s system alteration proves decisive

They saved it for late yet again, and Conte’s bold changes can be identified as the catalyst behind Chelsea’s perfect start to the season. Still opting to field his side in a hardworking 4-3-3 system, Chelsea’s subdued attack provided minimal scares for Walter Mazzarri’s Watford outfit.

Chelsea pressed well from the front to fluster Watford’s back-line – out of possession they kept Watford at bay – but one of the main issues the Blues currently experience is the lack of creativity and penetration from central areas. Nemanja Matic and Oscar offer tenacious work-rate, positional discipline, and physicality in midfield, but their passing is mediocre, which explains why Chelsea’s buildup play is somewhat lethargic. Much credit goes to N’Golo Kante who ensured Chelsea weren’t exposed in midfield, whilst maintaining the Blues’ passing rhythm once possession was regained.

It doesn’t help that Pedro Rodriguez offensive threat from the right is scarce, while Branislav Ivanovic has transformed into a liability on both ends. To make matters worse, a stunning strike from Etienne Capoue – Watford’s first legitimate chance of the game – put the hosts ahead with little over a half hour remaining.

Nevertheless, a switch from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-4 following the introduction of Victor Moses, Michy Batshuayi and Cesc Fabregas tipped the balance. Fabregas played ahead of Kante, Batshuayi offered an additional penalty box presence, while Hazard maintained width on the right as Moses attacked defenders from the left.

Watford’s decision to sit deeper to preserve their lead benefitted Conte’s side, and a simple Batshuayi tap-in – stemming from goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes failure to hold Hazard’s shot from distance – served as an equalizer. Minutes later, Fabregas recovered possession and instantly clipped a pass behind the Watford defence for Costa to run onto and notch his second winning goal of the season. It was a vintage move between the two Spaniards often utilized during Chelsea’s title-winning run two seasons ago, and another piece of evidence highlighting Conte’s astute mid-game tweaks.

It’s no secret Conte prefers to play with two strikers upfront, but the current squad at his disposal is better suited in a 4-3-3 to maintain a compact defensive structure. However, Fabregas’ creativity and a promising Batshuayi – Costa partnership may turn the Italian manager’s head.

New season, same Liverpool?

If Liverpool’s win over Arsenal at the Emirates was a statement to their league rivals and potential title contenders, then a loss at Burnley quickly erased any fear Jurgen Klopp’s men were aiming to impose. A loss away to Burnley showcased the issues Liverpool have suffered in recent years: they perform well against the top teams, but severely underachieve when given the onus to break down inferior opposition.

Saturday’s loss at Turf Moor was no different, and Klopp would be highly disappointed that both goals conceded were via moves his teams are renowned for. Nathaniel Clyne succumbed to Burnley’s high pressing, and his loose pass resulted in a terrific Sam Vokes finish. Later in the half, newly-acquired midfielder, Steven Defour, charged through midfield and played in Andre Gray to double Burnley’s lead.

Apart from the goals, the hosts broke into Liverpool’s half twice, via Gray’s pace, but failed to test Reds keeper, Simon Mignolet. Therefore, Liverpool struggled to get behind Burnley’s low-defensive block, and didn’t receive quality service from wide areas to trouble the hosts’ back-line.

The weird feat regarding Liverpool’s XI was the decision to start Daniel Sturridge from the right. Sturridge was often seen dropping near the half-way line to pick up the ball, but he rarely posed a scare in Burnley’s half. Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana combined occasionally in left half space, but the former continuously struck audacious shots from distance wide of the net.

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The main contrast in Liverpool’s two matches was the amount of space the opposition presented. Klopp’s men comfortably exploited an expansive Arsenal side last week, but here, Burnley remained deep and clogged central space – at times they had a six-man defence with George Boyd and Scott Arfield aligned with the back four to complete defensive duties – thus forcing the Reds to shoot from distance.

Liverpool must maintain a level of consistency in both results and performances if they intend on securing a top-four finish this season.

Arsenal & Leicester continue to struggle in front of goal

This wasn’t the tight, cautious encounter often expected between two top-sides, despite last year’s champions and runner-ups recorded the first score-less draw of the season. Arsenal and Leicester remain win-less to start the season, which isn’t ideal considering many tip both sides to miss out on the top four this season.

From an offensive view, Arsenal’s buildup was slightly improved via Granit Xhaka’s passing, but the Gunners remained underwhelming in the final third. Alexis Sanchez’s occasionally linked play upfront but was fairly anonymous, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s powerful running served as the away side’s sole goal-scoring threat.

Leicester offered better structure in their home opener with Shinji Okazaki applying pressure to Xhaka from deep, while the inclusion of Nampalys Mendy ensured central areas were protected. But Leicester’s issue upfront is dissimilar to Arsenal’s – to be frank, Claudio Ranieri’s attack is fairly predictable.

Danny Drinkwater’s diagonals and quick Kasper Schmeichel releases into the channel for Jamie Vardy are being coped with, and though Riyad Mahrez’s trickery still bamboozles defenders, finishing in the final third has been wayward – an issue Vardy is equally suffering from as well. Hull City and Arsenal have maintained deeper defensive lines to limit Leicester’s counter-attacking threat, and the champions still look unconvincing when they dominate possession.

Arsenal, on the other hand, simply miss Olivier Giroud’s presence in the box. While many Arsenal supporters would prefer a better centre-forward, at the moment, the Gunners issues derive from a non-existent penalty box threat.

Giroud remains an underrated Premier League striker, but his ability to bring runners into play, and attack crosses into the box is invaluable at the Emirates. Theo Walcott struggles to time his runs beyond the defence, and despite Alexis’ wonderful skill-set, he’s been ineffective as a lone striker.

With little over a week remaining in the transfer window, you would expect both managers to address their attacking issues, but with few options available in the transfer market, they may have to rely on applying minimal tactical tweaks to their starting XI.

Sunderland require plan B upfront.

Cristhian Stuani scored two wonderful goals Sunday afternoon to hand Middlesbrough their first win of the season, but it’s difficult to overlook Sunderland’s issues upfront. A long-distance screamer and a wonderful passing move punished the Black Cats, following a dominant first half display from the away side, but Sunderland sparked a promising second half fight-back.

Jeremain Lens replaced Paddy McNair, and moved within close proximity of Jermain Defoe at half-time, while Lynden Gooch slotted into midfield alongside Steven Pienaar. Lens’ presence offered additional pressure to Middlesbrough’s defence and his ability to play with his back to goal forced Aitor Karanka’s men towards their penalty box.

Sunderland found joy down the left flank where they exposed Stuani’s – a forward by trade – reluctance to track Patrick van Aanholt’s adventurous runs forward, which further ignited a brief turnaround. Duncan Watmore and Steven Pienaar combined with the advancing full-back throughout the second half, as the hosts’ goal stemmed through this route of attack when Van Aanholt charged into the box to tap in a rebound from Watmore’s initial shot.

Following Brad Guzan inability to hold onto Adnan Januzaj’s shot minutes later, Sunderland’s attack failed to create another clear-cut chance. Middlesbrough created second half openings through Alvaro Negredo’s hold-up play at half, and here, Sunderland may have flourished with a natural target-man alongside Defoe.

Look no further than Defoe’s equalizer against Manchester City to witness the threat the Sunderland striker offers, but with minimal space available behind the opposing back-line, the England international’s threat remains scarce. Likewise, if Sunderland experience extensive spells without possession, Defoe playing off a striker would prove beneficial.

Moyes’ men won’t receive many opportunities to dominate games, but the current state of his attacking quartet doesn’t suggest Sunderland will score enough goals to survive this season.

West Ham injury issues halts growth

It took Harry Arter’s senseless foul on Cheikhou Kouyate – which resulted in the Bournemouth midfielder’s dismissal – for Slaven Bilic’s men to look threatening in the final third and claim their first win of the season. West Ham were poor against Chelsea, and were equally underwhelming against a much weaker Bournemouth side at home.

Bournemouth’s full-backs remained high, and West Ham’s decision to drop off into a 4-5-1 enabled Arter and Andrew Surman time and space to play forward passes into wide positions. The away side’s attack suffered, however, due to Jordon Ibe drifting centrally into congested areas only to be dispossessed, while Callum Wilson was out-muscled by West Ham centre-backs Winston Reid, and James Collins. West Ham’s attacking threat was also unconvincing, but they found some joy via Gokhan Tore first half display, where he dominated full-back, Charlie Daniels poor positioning at left-back.

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Neither side offered a substantial goal-threat in the second half, but Arter’s dismissal shifted the balance of the match. Bournemouth shifted to a narrow 4-4-1, but were ultimately undone by West Ham’s width. Unsurprisingly, it was Tore picking up Mikhail Antonio’s over-hit cross and providing a better delivery for the unmarked Englishman to nod past Artur Boruc.

Injuries to Sofiane Feghouli, Andre Ayew and Manuel Lanzini are evidently responsible for West Ham’s torpid attack, but Dimitri Payet’s influence is clearly missed at London Stadium. Without Payet, West Ham are deprived of creativity, a genuine set-piece specialist, and penetrative passing in the final third.

Payet’s return should see West Ham shift to a 4-2-3-1 that offers the Frenchman freedom to dictate play between the lines. At the moment, they simply lack guile and the element of unpredictability in attacking zones that was responsible for their success last season. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Bilic was counting down the days until his injured players return, as West Ham’s overall attacking play has been average.

Results: Manchester United 2-0 Southampton, Stoke City 1-4 Manchester City, Watford 1-2 Chelsea, Crystal Palace 0-1 Spurs, West Brom 1-2 Everton, Burnley 2-0 Liverpool, Swansea City 0-2 Hull City, Leicester 0-0 Arsenal, Sunderland 1-2 Middlesbrough, West Ham 1-0 Bournemouth

Weekend Stats

  • Michail Antonio has scored a joint-high seven headed goals in the Premier League since the start of 2015-16 (level with Giroud).
  • Patrick van Aanholt (4) has scored more Premier League goals in 2016 than any other defender
  • Leicester’s unbeaten run at home now stands at 16 Premier League games (W10 D6), since losing to Arsenal in September 2015.
  • Since returning to the Premier League, Cesc Fabregas has more assists than any other player (26)
  • Sergio Aguero is the top scoring player in the Premier League so far in 2016 (18 goals in 19 games)
 
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Posted by on August 22, 2016 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Tactical Preview: Leicester City – Arsenal

Neither Leicester City or Arsenal were pleased with their opening weekend results, as last year’s champions and runners-up suffered defeats.

Arsenal’s makeshift defence were easily exploited by a dynamic Liverpool attack, whereas the champions have yet to fill N’Golo Kante’s void in midfield. However, the nature of this match should favour a Leicester side that prefers to sit deep and launch quick counter-attacks.

Last weekend, Claudio Ranieri’s men struggled to break down newly promoted Hull City, whereas Andy King struggled to provide adequate protection for the back-line alongside Danny Drinkwater. This shouldn’t be an issue against a Gunners side who largely dominate possession, thus enabling Leicester to maintain a low defensive block.

Oddly, Arsenal completed a league double over the champions last season with two contrasting performances: the initial showdown witnessed Arsene Wenger’s men fluster Leicester on the counter-attack, whereas Ranieri’s men conceded a late lead during last year’s run-in at the Emirates following a Danny Simpson dismissal.

In terms of shape, neither side has abandoned their philosophy. The key talking points rest around whether Wenger will welcome back key figures who returned to training camp late due to international duty. Laurent Koscielny appears certain to add experience to a back-line that self-destructed last weekend, but Olivier Giroud and Mesut Ozil’s return remains unknown.

The Gunners could slot Santi Cazorla into his preferred no.10 role, but Giroud’s absence upfront appears to be a bigger blow at the moment. For all of Alexis Sanchez’s countless attacking qualities, his impact as the main striker is fairly subdued. Theo Walcott’s pace upfront is also an option if Arsenal intended on playing on the break, as he flourished ahead of Alexis in last season’s 5-2 win at the King Power Stadium.

But if Alexis starts upfront, Wenger would likely field Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the flanks, thus offering pace and direct running in wide areas. With that being said, the other major decision Wenger must make regards is midfield pairing. Rushing Ozil back to the XI could see Santi Cazorla return to the deeper role the Spaniard thrived in last season, but Granit Xhaka’s big money summer signing should merit his first start for the club.

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Projected starting XI.

Last week, Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin offered grit and protection of the back four, but Xhaka offers ball-winning skills, and a source of creativity from deep. Surely Wenger will be wary of Leicester’s transitional threat, but he’s certainly deprived of genuine passers if Ozil is unable to start – to be frank, Xhaka offers a two-way threat in a deeper role.

Ranieri’s men should be relishing their first home game of the season, and the Italian manager’s main decision is probably based around the ideal strike partner for Jamie Vardy. Shinji Okazaki’s work-rate and discipline would be significant in preventing Xhaka from freely distributing the ball from deeper positions, but Ahmed Musa’s pace alongside Vardy would torment Arsenal’s back-line.

Both Musa and Vardy displayed their willingness to charge into the channels to receive long diagonals at Hull last weekend, which is why Koscielny’s return and cautious positioning from the Arsenal full-backs is required. Despite winning a penalty last weekend, Demarai Gray struggled to impress, which could see Musa also utilized on the right.

Ranieri, however, would likely prefer discipline from the opposite flank of Mahrez, who drifted centrally aiming to take on defenders and occasionally combining with Danny Drinkwater, last week. This opens up the possibility of last season’s consistent performer, Marc Albrighton returning to the XI.

Leicester also looked particularly feeble in central areas, where Andy King filled the void of N’Golo Kante in midfield. King doesn’t possess the ball-winning skills of Kante, and against an Arsenal side containing multiple technically gifted players in advanced zones, Ranieri would be wise to find a new partner alongside Drinkwater.

Similar to Xhaka, Nampalys Mendy is being eased into the Premier League, but King’s exploited defensive deficiencies should see the Frenchman partner Drinkwater in midfield. Although Mendy doesn’t offer Kante’s dynamism and running, he still boasts the necessary physical presence, ball-winning skills and additional protection Leicester lacked last weekend – it’s no coincidence Wes Morgan endured one of his worst performances for the club over the past 12 months.

Ultimately, the match hinges on whether Arsenal aim to dictate the tempo of the match, but Musa and Vardy’s threat upfront may force Wenger’s men to be cautious, here. Offensive transitions will be key, but both managers will aim to address their issues at the back, and a lack of defensive discipline across the pitch.

 
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Posted by on August 19, 2016 in Published Work

 

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Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City quickly taking shape as they embrace a new indentity

We’re not even two weeks into the new Premier League season and Pep Guardiola is the main topic of discussion.

In whom many regard as the most coveted manager in the sport, this shouldn’t be a surprise given the global media attention the Premier League receives. However, the attention and pressure surrounding Guardiola is larger than his passion for the game – not only must he win, but he must do so playing entertaining football Frankly, the willingness to break boundaries, evolve the players at his disposal, and the determination to play proactive possession football are one of the many caveats that makes Guardiola likeable.

With that being said, Guardiola is human, and like many managers has his flaws – particularly his man management skills have been questioned over the years. The sudden decision to drop Joe Hart and Yaya Toure have also been closely assessed, and though it’s a logical decision from a manager aiming to guide City amongst Europe’s elite, it’s been quite controversial.

Guardiola’s success as a manager is unprecedented, revolutionizing two historically great clubs in Barcelona and Bayern Munich. He took the world by storm with the former, revolving his team around intelligent ball-playing midfielders, whilst transforming Lionel Messi into one of the finest players this sport has ever seen. Barcelona utilized lengthy spells of possession and intense high-pressing as their primary defensive method, but going forward, they constantly overloaded flanks and quickly shifted the route of attack until space was available to penetrate.

His move to Bayern was less appreciated considering they won the treble the year prior, but even then, Guardiola completely altered their style of play. The German powerhouse still possessed excellent midfielders, but his attack was based around the wing play of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery. His final seasons at Bayern saw an all-rounder centre-forward in Robert Lewandowski lead the attack, and Arturo Vidal offer verticality combined with combative tackling, which completely differs from the side he built at the Camp Nou.

It’s evident that Guardiola’s appointment at the Etihad is the trickiest of his short career. Here’s a man who worked with genuine world-class players in every position at his previous clubs, whereas at City, only David Silva, Sergio Aguero, and possibly Kevin De Bruyne are in that category.

More so, in terms of structure and a constructive footballing philosophy, City can be considered a broken team lacking technically adequate footballers. It’s been the same core since the turn of the decade, operating mostly in a 4-4-2, thus relying on their superior talent to somewhat dominate a league that’s drastically declined.

Guardiola’s arrival – along with a few other notable managers – changes the general scheme of the league. Certainly the top clubs in Spain and Germany have the best players at their disposal, but the Premier League now has the best managers. And with most of the top teams generally at the same stage of their development, the value of a tactically astute manager can’t be overlooked.

Therefore, Guardiola is aware that there’s minimal margin for error, regardless of the amount of time and patience the City board offers.

“It’s the right moment to come here and prove myself,” stated Guardiola earlier this summer. “I want to play the way I want. But wherever you go you have to adapt to the quality of the players. We have to find each other as soon as possible.

“What we want is so simple. When the opposition have the ball to get it back, when we have it to move it as quickly as possible, to create the most chances as possible.”

The contrast between City’s two competitive games is stark, but the shift in styles is evident. City now adopt a 4-1-4-1 with Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva in deeper positions, whereas it appears Sergio Aguero will primarily operate as a lone striker. Aguero’s not an all-rounder like Lionel Messi or Robert Lewandowski, and it will be interesting to see how Guardiola intends on maximize the Argentine’s devastating finishing.

The midfield trio of Silva and De Bruyne ahead of Fernandinho is equally intriguing. Fernandinho splits the centre-backs to offer protection, but also play penetrative passes into his midfield partners. But the Brazilian is renowned for his dynamism rather than his passing, and though he’s capable of deputizing in this position, Guardiola’s buildup play may encounter slight issues until Ilkay Gundogan is match fit.

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Manchester City’s 4-1-4-1 transitions into a 2-3-2-3 or a 3-2-2-3 depending on Fernandinho’s positioning when they attack. Essentially, Guardiola’s men attack with five players and defend with five.

Silva and De Bruyne, on the other hand, have freedom to join what is often a five-man attack in possession, but the creative midfielders receive passes in deeper positions rather than between the lines. Although this may not be a permanent role for Silva in the bigger games – Guardiola may prefer a physical presence centrally, and Silva in a wide possession similar to Andres Iniesta during his tenure at Barcelona – the combination with the wide players has been positive. It’s notable that Raheem Sterling assisted Silva’s opener against Steaua midweek, whereas De Bruyne created Nolito’s goal.

But the abundance of wide players at Guardiola’s disposal suggests he may once again build his side around the likes of Leroy Sane, Raheem Sterling, Nolito and Jesus Navas. The quartet offers Guardiola a good balance of experience and youth along with direct crossers and wide forwards. Suddenly, last year’s underachievers Sterling and Navas are showcasing signs of improvement, the former has won two penalties and both men have been involved in goals thus far.

One of the key elements in City’s late win over Sunderland witnessed Guardiola replace Nolito with Navas, thus pushing Sterling to the left in generic 4-4-2. The alteration resulted in Sterling and Navas hugging the touchline and running at defenders to offer a source of creativity from wide areas. City’s winner also stemmed from Navas’ dart down the right and a low cross into the box that was redirected past Vito Mannone.

Still, the main talking point regarding City’s season opener against Sunderland was the positioning of full-backs Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna. The full-backs adopted more central positions in half-spaces to help City dominate the centre, whilst ensuring David Moyes’ men could launch breaks through midfield.

Apart from an exceptional out-side the foot pass from Clichy in the opening half, the duo wasn’t comfortable receiving the ball facing their goal, and often played passes backwards, rather than offer penetration in the final third.  City’s passing was slow and patient throughout, thus making it easy for Moyes’ men to remain compact when shifting from flank-to-flank as a unit.

Tuesday’s Champions League playoff clash at Steaua witnessed Guardiola start Nicolas Otamendi alongside new signing John Stones, thus pushing Aleksandar Kolarov to left-back – he started at centre-back against Sunderland – and Pablo Zabaleta at right-back. Kolarov and Zabaleta were more assured in possession in central positions, while Otamendi’s passing and familiarity with the position was an upgrade to the former’s display last weekend.

Coincidentally, Zabaleta played a super pass into half space from a central position for the advancing Kolarov, which awarded City a penalty that Aguero subsequently missed – this is was a prime example of what Guardiola expects from his full-backs: incisive passing from central positions, and advanced running into dangerous areas.

“It’s not time to change a lot because I don’t want to confuse my players but I have to say, I am impressed the most that they are so intelligent,” said Guardiola.

“The way we played in Bucharest was a high, high level. We did it so quickly. That’s because of the intelligence and quality of the players.

In fairness, the hosts were in complete shambles out of possession, and City easily bypassed the opposition with their swift passing combinations – a trait that was also nonexistent on Guardiola’s debut, but vividly displayed via Aguero’s combination with Nolito prior to his second goal against Steaua.

Likewise, there was a distinct understanding in their positioning, highlighting Guardiola’s demand of proper positional balance: when the full-backs were narrow, the wide players attacked the opposing defenders, and if the wide players moved centrally, City’s full-backs could charge forward.

Guardiola’s men were nearly flawless on the night, but their trip to the Britannia Stadium should provide an accurate indicator of City’s progress. Stoke have transitioned into a proactive side under Mark Hughes, as there’s more variety to their game than simple long punts up the field, whilst acquiring young technically gifted attack minded players.

The Potters’ recent success against City is key, and even without Xherdan Shaqiri, the counter-attacking threat of Mame Biram Diouf, Marko Arnautovic, Bojan should really test Guardiola’s men in transition. On the other hand, they’re more than capable of maintaining possession, and Hughes’ side can bypass City’s possible high-press it would be interesting to see how the away side copes.

A change in shape, variety in defensive structure, and improved performances from last season’s outcasts illustrates Guardiola’s influence at the Etihad thus far is headed in the right direction. Ultimately, Guardiola wants to build a flexible side capable of mid-game formation changes, yet his current dilemma is a simple as certain City players struggling to complete five-yard passes and receiving possession in tight spaces. Only time and more work on the training ground will improve the understanding of Guardiola’s approach, but for now, Guardiola must identify what style of play benefits his side.

The current squad at Guardiola’s disposal indicates City are better suited to play on the counter-attack, and in his first domestic away fixture against a Stoke City side capable of retaining possession, it’s a logical prospect despite the Spaniard’s fixation with territorial dominance.

Nevertheless, Guardiola’s presence in a league suffering from a tactical and structural rut is exciting. His aim to buck trends and develop a footballing culture could reap rewards sooner than expected.

 
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Posted by on August 19, 2016 in Published Work

 

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BPL Notebook Matchday 1: Debutant managers set their mark

 

Weekend in 200 words or less

And so it begins. Leicester City stole the hearts of fans a few months ago, producing one of the great underdog stories of any sport. It was a truly remarkable moment, but equally a much required wake up call for the supposed elite clubs in England.

Leicester made a statement, but last year’s underachievers fired back with a response. The three previous champions of the past decade all hired top class managers with hopes of altering their identity and goals set by the club. Now the Premier League may still play second fiddle to the Bundesliga and La Liga in terms of personnel, but what the league now offers in return is astonishing.

A league that’s witnessed their best clubs exposed constantly in Europe welcomes the continent’s elite managers, whom aim to tactically enhance their lopsided clubs. It’s a step in the right direction, and with the league currently balanced, the arrivals of these foreign managers suggests this may be the greatest domestic club season ever.

Stunned Champions miss Kante’s grit

The fairy tale that took the Premier League by storm last season initially hit a speed bump, Saturday afternoon. Claudio Ranieri’s men were humbled by new-boys Hull City, courtesy of two wonder goals from Robert Snodgrass and Abel Hernandez. Leicester haven’t regressed over night, and frankly they still possess several star performers and traits that were essential to last season’s success.

Danny Drinkwater’s long diagonals, Riyad Mahrez’s ability to use both feet to evade defenders with his trickery, and Jamie Vardy’s pace combined with his willingness to chase after every loose ball were evident on the day, but Leicester were unable to combine all three traits in one move. Certainly not every team or individual player will hit top form on opening day, but Leicester’s loss illustrated that they’re now the hunted, opposed to the hunters.

Saturday afternoon, Leicester missed their most integral hunter, N’Golo Kante, who completed a move to Stamford Bridge earlier this summer. The champions’ back-line, specifically Wes Morgan and Danny Simpson were constantly exposed, and Andy King is renowned for his late runs into the box rather than his ball-winning skills – this was on display minutes prior to Snodgrass’ winner, when Hull City midfielder, Sam Clucas, easily bypassed King in transition.

Kante was the engine in Leicester’s midfield, harrying opponents and regaining possession in central areas to ignite possible transitional attacks. The French international’s dynamism and ball-winning skills were non-existent at the KC Stadium, and Ranieri’s side were sporadically out-muscled and out-worked in midfield.

Shinji Okazaki injected guile to Leicester’s attack, whereas Ahmed Musa’s speed and direct play enables Ranieri the option to field the Nigerian in any attacking position. Still, Leicester struggled to break down a motivated Hull City outfit containing 13 fit players, which could set the precedent for what could be a difficult season for the champions.

Ranieri will hope Nampalys Mendy could be the combative, forever-running force Leicester require in midfield, as it’s impossible to overlook Kante’s impact.

Koeman outwits Pochettino despite Spurs’ late comeback

Spurs’ collapse during last year’s run-in was supposed to be a lesson for the future, but for over an hour at Everton, one could question whether they carried their form over to the new Premier League campaign. In fairness, Ronald Koeman’s debut at Goodison Park saw the Toffee’s adopt a 3-4-2-1 without Romelu Lukaku, meaning Gerard Deulofeu played ahead of Ross Barkley and Kevin Mirallas.

The system successfully stifled Spurs in the opening half: Harry Kane was isolated upfront, the attacking trio couldn’t find space between the lines due to adequate protection from Gareth Barry and Idrissa Gueye, whereas the advanced positioning of the full-backs saw Deulofeu constantly charge laterally into vacant space within the channels.

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Victor Wanyama enjoyed a positive debut in a Spurs uniform, but alongside Eric Dier, Pochettino’s side lacked creativity and penetration from midfield, and therefore struggled to build out the back. To be frank, Everton desperately missed Lukaku’s finishing, here, as Deulofeu constantly found himself in goal-scoring positions – Spurs centre-backs struggled throughout – but clearly displayed he must improve his productivity in the box.

The hosts’ profligacy served as a lifeline to the away side, but Pochettino deserves massive credit for altering his system to a 4-4-2 when Koeman’s men tired, pushing Vincent Janssen alongside Kane. Lamela’s equalizer came shortly after Pochettino’s change, as he got ahead of Mason Holgate to nod Kyle Walker’s cross past Joel Robles.

Everton continued to pose a threat on the counter, but with fewer men breaking forward due to lengthy spells out of possession, Spurs’ back-line were never troubled. Still, the hosts’ performance was positive despite dropping points, Koeman’s tactical prowess should provide optimism at Goodison Park – they should have won the game by half-time.

Pep’s City require time to hit peak form

All the pressure is on Pep Guardiola to transform Manchester City into a super power, and even though he may be capable of doing so, it wasn’t going to transpire over night. City required a late Paddy McNair own goal to defeat Sunderland, and though Guardiola’s side has encountered problems against the Black Cats in the past, many City supporters and neutrals expected more.

The hosts were always going to dominate possession for majority of the match, but their passing tempo was languid throughout, thus explaining why they failed to create chances in the final third. Guardiola’s attempt to stamp his identity into this City side, but the Spaniard also requires time to adjust to the league, and complete his summer clear-out.

John Stones and Nolito featured in a City XI that was initially a 4-1-4-1, and though there were brief spells displaying slick passing combinations and rapid counter-pressing, City’s difficulties ensure Guardiola’s men are still a work in progress. Aleksandar Kolarov’s role at centre-back was interesting, whereas Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy – natural full-backs – adopted central half-spaces to ensure City dominated the midfield zone.

However, neither full-back, in particular, Sagna, looked comfortable receiving the ball with their back towards the opposing goal, and they failed to consistently offer any sort of incision or proactive passing in Sunderland’s half. Fernandinho’s passing from a pivot role was mediocre, and until new signings arrive it’s evident Ilkay Gundogan will be a significant figure in Pep’s set-up.

Raheem Sterling’s threat was scarce until he moved to the left hand side for a brief period, whereas Nolito showcased glimpses of what he offers from the left. Then there’s Aguero. The Argentine has been the cornerstone for the club in recent seasons, but unlike former strikers Guardiola has managed, Aguero’s predominantly an excellent finisher that is deprived of an all-round game.

Guardiola was also responsible for a late winner following a tactical change that saw Jesus Navas and Raheem Sterling run at the opposition from wide areas. Where Barcelona was strictly about possession, and Bayern’s direct style resulted in several isolation phases in wide areas, Guardiola will seek a style suitable to the personnel at his disposal.

City will improve with every passing week and it’s only a matter of time before they begin firing on all cylinders.

Mourinho’s United take shape in tidy manner

Of all the performances this weekend, United’s 3-1 win at Bournemouth was probably the most convincing. Although, Mourinho’s men required a bit of fortune to take the lead in the first half via Juan Mata, United were hardly troubled throughout.

While United’s attacking play is still unsettled – Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s partnership is slowly improving – it was United’s back six that were thoroughly impressive. This isn’t much of a surprise considering the Red Devils hoisted the joint best defensive record in the league, but now each player is fulfilling their roles to a tee.

Ander Herrera was tidy in possession and pulled strings from deep with a combination of short and long passes. Meanwhile, Marouane Fellaini physical presence and work-rate has been beneficial in a slightly more advanced role.

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Antonio Valencia’s advanced surges from right back have also been decisive: The Ecuadorian created the Community Shield winner, and over the weekend combined with Juan Mata to double United’s lead. Eric Bailly and Daley Blind both produced another powerful performance, with the latter’s passing playing a significant role in United building from the back, whilst easily breaking up play around the box

From a defensive aspect United were superb, and clinically took the chances that were presented to them. It was the ideal Mourinho display based around a solid defensive shape, and devastating efficiency in the final third.

More so, considering United’s depth and Mourinho’s familiarity with the league, it’s difficult to raise an argument as to why any other side should pip the Red Devils for the title. With Henrikh Mkhitaryan or Paul Pogba yet to feature, United could get even better over the next few weeks and may be the team to beat this season.

Conte’s Chelsea clasp to the Italian’s beat

In terms of personnel, there was one change to the Chelsea XI that started last year’s campaign at Stamford Bridge. N’Golo Kante’s arrival to Stamford Bridge forced Cesc Fabregas to the bench, but more importantly Conte’s decision to deploy a 4-3-3 resulted in an improved defensive shape.

Oscar and Nemanja Matic broke into tackles in midfield, with Kante patrolling space ahead of the back four. Likewise, Chelsea’s defensive line remained closer to goal and was within close proximity of the midfield band. There’s no doubt Chelsea missed Cesc Fabregas’ range of passing and creativity from deeper positions, but his tactical and positional deficiencies couldn’t be compromised, here.

Nonetheless, Chelsea’s attack was limp. Diego Costa comfortably dropped deep into pockets of space to receive the ball, but solely ran towards goal at every opportunity. And where Willian’s form hasn’t been great since pre-season, Eden Hazard often slowed down the attack due to limited support in wide areas.

Despite the occasional clever combinations amongst Chelsea teammates, their best chances stemmed via swift transitions – Cesar Azpilicueta dispossessing Antonio and driving towards goal saw the West Ham defender concede a silly penalty. James Collins equalized from the sole chance West Ham created throughout, as Slaven Bilic’s men were extremely poor throughout, albeit chief creator, Dimitri Payet, making a substitute cameo.

Conte gambled in the final 15 minutes by replacing Oscar, Hazard and Willian, to move to a 4-4-2 with Michy Batshuayi and Costa upfront. The Italian manager’s previous tenures have been based around two strikers constantly linking play upfront – one drops deep to lay the ball off to a midfield player, while the other forward charges beyond the defence.

Chelsea’s winner saw Batshuayi nod Matic’s lofted ball into the path of Costa – who wasn’t closed down by Collins – and the Spanish international fired the low winner past Adrian. Unless the Blues attack the transfer market and bolster the current squad, this is what we could expect from Conte’s side.

Without European football, you can’t exclude the Blues from the title race as Conte’s side will be organized defensively and extremely tough to beat.

Results: Hull City 2-1 Leicester City, Swansea City 1-0 Burnley, Crystal Palace 0-1 West Bromwich Albion, Spurs 1-1 Everton, Middlesborough 1-1 Stoke City, Southampton 1-1 Watford, Manchester City 2-1 Sunderland, Bournemouth 1-3 Manchester United, Arsenal 3-4 Liverpool, Chelsea 2-1 West Ham

Weekend Stats

  • Diego Costa scored from outside the box in the league for the first time since 15th February 2014.
  • Liverpool have scored more goals (43) than any other Premier League team in 2016.
  • Jermain Defoe has now scored 9 goals against Manchester City, he has only scored more against Aston Villa & Wigan (10 each).
  • Ross Barkley has now scored in 3 of Everton’s last 4 opening day matches in the Premier League.
  • Leicester are the first reigning champions to lose their opening match of the season in the Premier League era.
 
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Posted by on August 16, 2016 in EPL Notebook, Published Work

 

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Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho architects second half goal-fest at the Emirates

Arsenal’s lack of personnel in defence may have been a concern prior to kickoff, but Arsene Wenger’s men were rarely tested for large portions of the first half.

Without Laurent Koscielny, Gabriel, and Per Mertesacker, Arsenal were forced to field a partnership between new signing Rob Holding and Calum Chambers. This could explain why Wenger opted for a defensive-minded midfield pairing of Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin to protect the make-shift back four, rather than handing Granit Xhaka his Gunners debut.

The duo ensured Liverpool’s attacking trio and Georginio Wijnaldum were forced to receive passes in tight areas, which ultimately constrained the away side’s attack. In return, Arsenal’s buildup play suffered as they lacked the creativity and passing range from deep that they would receive had Xhaka or Santi Cazorla operated in that zone. Still, Liverpool’s sole attacking threat in the opening half stemmed through Sadio Mane’s pace in transition and capitalizing on poor Arsenal passes out the back, opposed to exploiting space between the lines.

Klopp’s men were constantly harried in possession, meanwhile without the ball, they didn’t display the dynamic pressing they’ve become renowned for during the Liverpool manager’s reign. Therefore, Wenger’s men enjoyed the better spell of possession, despite experiencing a similar issue circulating the ball towards the attacking players.

Apart from a brief spell where Theo Walcott exploited Liverpool’s main weakness – Alberto Moreno’s positional intelligence – Arsenal’s buildup play was equally subdued. Aaron Ramsey drifted into pockets of space to link play, but the hosts lacked Giroud’s presence upfront and genuine passers in midfield.

Despite the sloppy play from both sides which should be expected in the opening weeks, the pattern of the match wasn’t surprising. Ramsey was able to float into space as Liverpool didn’t field a natural holding midfielder, while the narrow positioning from Klopp’s attacking players was negated due to Wenger’s decision to deploy two destroyers ahead of his make-shift back four.

 

Ultimately the defining feat of the match involved Philippe Coutinho – a popular Brazilian player that is highly rated based on the goals he scores rather than his overall performances. Here, however, Coutinho’s performance merited the plaudits he often receives, leaving Arsenal shell-shocked in the process.

“It looked like after half an hour with 1-0 for Arsenal — it’s very warm and it’s the first game — that it’s not a Liverpool day. But then we strike back and that’s very, very important,” Klopp said.

“It showed we can score goals. We can always score goals, and we can defend much better — that’s what we have to do.

Coutinho’s downfall in around the final third is his inability to make the right decisions or complete incisive passes around the box, but his efficiency at the Emirates was fairly promising. The late first half stoppage time equalizer was a sensational free-kick that provided a lifeline for the Reds who failed to test Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Cech in the opening half.

Arsenal’s energy levels declined significantly in the second half, which allowed Liverpool time to retain possession and constantly combine in the hosts’ half. First it was Coutinho’s no-look flick pass that enabled Wijnaldum to charge into half space to locate Lallana’s onrushing surge into the box to put Liverpool ahead. Minutes later, a lengthy Liverpool passing move saw Coutinho make a clever dart into the box to direct Nathaniel Clyne’s cross past Cech.

The simplicity in Liverpool’s move was down to improved interchanging movement along with Arsenal failing to replicate the work-rate showcased in the first half to close down ball carriers. An exceptional individual goal from new signing Mane appeared to put the game out of reach, but Wenger’s substitutions nearly ignited a three-goal comeback.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain provided improved dynamism and direct running, which equally resulted in an individual slalom similar to Mane’s that decreased Liverpool’s lead. Then, Cazorla replaced the injured Ramsey and delivered a pacy curling free-kick with 15 minutes remaining to identify an equalizer.

Xhaka’s brief cameo displayed his passing range from deep, but Arsenal were still vulnerable in transition as they pushed men forward in search of a late goal. The worry for Klopp, however, was the near late collapse of a three-goal lead. You expect Liverpool’s pressing and energy levels to improve throughout the season, and though they finally exploited Arsenal’s unconvincing make-shift back four, Klopp’s men must sustain their defensive work-rate and mental discipline throughout 90 minutes.

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Even when Liverpool haven’t played well over the past few years, the Reds could still rely on a Coutinho wonder-goal. However, Liverpool’s win at the Emirates was the complete performance that saw the Brazilian score twice and create another. If Coutinho can consistently replicate performances of this nature on a weekly basis, it would not only merit his current status, but present Liverpool with a legitimate chance in challenging for a top-four spot this season.

 
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Posted by on August 15, 2016 in EPL, Published Work

 

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