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BPL Notebook Matchday 6: Antonio Conte’s Chelsea receive a humbling reality check

Welcome to the Premier League, Antonio Conte, the honeymoon is officially over.

Three wins from the opening three games presented room for optimism, but Conte’s Blues remain win-less in league play since the international break. The talks of a possible title challenge have halted, and fears of last year’s nightmare sits in the minds of Chelsea fans across the world, and most certainly the players.

Can you blame them?

Apart from the departure of Jose Mourinho and the summer signing of N’Golo Kante, Chelsea’s XI is identical to last year’s side that produced the worst title defence in Premier League history with a tenth place finish. Very little has changed in personnel, and Conte’s task of returning this group of players into champions appears to be an insurmountable task.

Where Mourinho failed, Conte is now asked to succeed. David Luiz, Michy Batshuayi and Kante’s arrivals wouldn’t be classified as a great transfer window when compared to their title rivals, but a combination of athleticism, dynamism and youth doesn’t hurt a Chelsea side that psychologically crumbled during tribulation last year.

The Blues were convincing winners against a travelling Bournemouth side, and late goals against West Ham and Watford suggested that during the rough times Conte was capable of altering his tactics to gain a result. Where pre-season title favourites Manchester City and Manchester United were also perfect, Chelsea were keeping pace via the rejuvenated Diego Costa and a remarkable ball winner in Kante, who effortlessly protected the back-four.

Oddly enough, Chelsea produced their best performance of the season en route to their first blip of the season. The Blues flabbergasted Swansea at the Liberty Stadium for lengthy spells of their 2-2 draw, but several spurned opportunities from Eden Hazard and Diego Costa proved costly – despite the latter scoring two goals and earning a point from a losing position.

Thibaut Courtois conceding a penalty tipped the momentum in Swansea’s favour, but Gary Cahill’s mental lapse – despite being fouled in the process – gifted Leroy Fer a goal that’s practically inflicted a blow to Chelsea’s back-line. Perhaps John Terry’s injury shouldn’t be downplayed, but though the Chelsea’s captain’s absence deprives Conte an organizing leader at the back, it isn’t a legitimate excuse for the Blues’ current woes.

Liverpool and Arsenal were always going to provide a fair assessment of Chelsea’s progress under Conte, and the most in-form teams in the league – apart from Manchester City – comfortably dominated the West London side in every aspect. Liverpool came to Stamford Bridge and overloaded central areas to produce arguably the best first half performance of the season – to be frank, 2-1 was flattered Conte’s side.

More so, the manner in which Chelsea defended and conceded was shocking. They sat deep in a 4-5-1 and were reluctant to apply pressure in midfield. Jordan Henderson controlled the match from a deeper position – scoring an unbelievable goal in the process – whereas the attacking quartet constantly interchanged positions to overwhelm Nemanja Matic and Kante. Still, Dejan Lovren’s opener illustrated the issues Chelsea still encounter at the back: Coutinho’s whipped ball into the box met three unmarked Liverpool players at the far post, and the Croatian’s inch-perfect side-foot volley flew past Courtois.

The Blues were no better at the Emirates, but once again, a defensive individual mistake proved decisive. Alexis Sanchez nicked possession from Cahill, and charged into a 1v1 break with Courtois, before chipping the ball over the Belgian keeper. Chelsea trailed within the opening 10 minutes and shortly afterwards Arsenal inflicted further damage.

This time it was Hazard who failed to fulfill his defensive duties, as Hector Bellerin charged beyond the Belgian to receive Alex Iwobi’s pass in half space and the Arsenal right-back’s low cross met an unmarked Walcott to double the Gunners’ lead. A terrific counter-attack inspired by Mesut Ozil bamboozled Kante and witnessed the German combine with Alexis to put the match out of reach.

“We started this game in a bad way, and from the first minute” said Conte.

“This is very strange because Arsenal against Chelsea is a massive game,” he continued, “and when we play this type of game against a very good team like Arsenal, you must stay concentrated from the first minute and this today did not happen.”

Nonetheless, Conte’s men persisted on sitting off the opposition with neither Cesc Fabregas – who played 120 minutes midweek and probably shouldn’t have started despite scoring two goals – and Matic eager to press Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin. This was equally further evidence that Fabregas shouldn’t operate as a shuttler in Chelsea’s midfield trio, as Oscar’s tenacity and work-rate was dearly missed.

Chelsea were outclassed for the second consecutive week, and though they moved into key positions via Hazard and Willian, Conte’s men lacked an end product in the final third. Diego Costa was positive in spurts, but Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny’s intent to tightly mark and freely foul the Spanish international limited the Chelsea’s striker’s threat.

Fabregas failed to link midfield and attack with his rushed forward passes, and additional poor outings from Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic are also responsible for Chelsea’s stagnation – it’s simply worrying that David Luiz has been Chelsea’s best defensive player over the past two weeks. Another underwhelming transfer window has placed a Chelsea manager in a difficult predicament as the current crop of defenders and midfielders simply aren’t good enough.

The verdict is out on this Chelsea side, and the issues are much bigger than the manager. John Terry and Kurt Zouma’s eventual return should boost the Blues back-line, but Conte’s determination to lure Leonardo Bonucci and Kalidou Koulibaly over the summer suddenly makes sense.

Chelsea aren’t in a crisis, and a top four finish still remains attainable given the talent in the squad, but individual mistakes and poor defensive work ethic from Hazard and Fabregas won’t do Conte any favours. We may not see the best from this Chelsea side until Conte brings in his own players, but for once, Roman Abramovich mustn’t’ allow mediocre displays seal the fate of another top manager.

Rooney-less United make statement

The most convincing Manchester United victory during the briefly lived Jose Mourinho era involved another brutal defeat for the reigning Premier League champions and the Red Devils captain watching from the bench. United claimed maximum points within the opening 45 minutes by capitalizing on Leicester’s poor set-piece defending by scoring four goals in quick succession.

Although Leicester failed to pose a significant threat on both ends, the quick combination passes and constant overloads on both flanks were positive improvements to United’s open-play buildup. Paul Pogba enjoyed his best game in a United shirt, scoring his first goal since joining the club, and stepping into free space – with Leicester defenders reluctant to press the Frenchman – to test Ron-Robert Zieler on a few occasions.

United scored four goals in 20 minutes, and while their overall play was mesmerizing at times – the second goal witnessed every United player touch the ball prior to Juan Mata’s superb finish – it’s key to note that they exploited Leicester’s set-piece defending deficiencies. It was a Mourinho-esque win, and though the Portuguese manager downplayed his pleasure, it’s a step in the right direction.

Daley Blind’s set-piece deliveries were crucial, Antonio Valencia continues to impress with his offensive mindset at right-back, and though Ander Herrera isn’t an ideal partner for Pogba in a midfield two, the Spaniard’s tenacity, ball retention skills and incisive passing will help United unravel deep defensive lines.

Ranieri’s switch to a 4-1-4-1 prevented United from increasing their lead, as his midfield applied improved pressure in central areas, but the match was won by half-time. United were much sharper and fluid when they pushed men forward, and the constant overloads in attacking zones was refreshing.

Though Rooney can still play a role in United’s title aspirations, perhaps this was evidence that Mourinho’s best XI doesn’t require his captain.

City overcome adversity at the Liberty Stadium

Manchester City maintained their perfect start to the Pep Guardiola era, and once again the Spaniard offered a variation of a 4-1-4-1 that posed issues for Swansea. However, the hosts weren’t completely outplayed here, and relied on Fernando Llorente’s aerial threat to unease City’s centre-back partnership and the diminutive Claudio Bravo.

Llorente capitalized on Bacary Sagna’s slip to smash a superb effort past Bravo, but his hold up play and physical presence pegged City’s centre-backs deeper into their half. The Spaniard was an evident reference point for the Swansea attack, but the hosts failed to maximize the striker’s aerial threat throughout the 90 minutes.

Nevertheless, Guardiola’s tactical tweaks also played a decisive role in the final outcome. Raheem Sterling maintained width on the left, while Sagna pushed higher up the pitch on the right to ensure City stretched the pitch. Aleksandar Kolarov slipped into a narrow position – basically forming a back three – when Fernandinho pushed forward, and Sagna’s wide role enabled Kevin De Bruyne to receive passes in pockets of space between the lines.

It was Sagna’s cross that led to Aguero’s opener, and frankly De Bruyne’s rare profligate passing and finishing around the box prevented a City onslaught. Yet even when Swansea appeared capable of a possible fight-back with their high-pressing, Guardiola tinkered with his side’s shape by moving De Bruyne central and pushing David Silva to the left.

De Bruyne grew in prominence following the alteration, and began to receive service behind Leon Britton before charging towards the Swansea goal. The Belgian won the penalty that led to Aguero’s winner, and Sterling’s impressive counter-attacking run ensured City remain perfect under Guardiola.

There was general interest regarding Guardiola’s approach without Nolito, and with De Bruyne now likely to be sidelined for a few weeks, the Spaniard will be tasked with identifying another successful attacking solution. Still, despite being only six games into the season, it’s difficult to declare anyone other than City as title favourites.

Time to take Klopp’s Liverpool seriously after steamrolling Hull City?

The pressure was on Liverpool to build on their terrific performance at Stamford Bridge against Mike Phelan’s travelling Hull City side, and Jurgen Klopp’s men passed their test with flying colours. Their passing and movement was fluid, the pressing was cohesive, and the finishing around the box was ruthlessly efficient.

The Reds are beginning to look like a Klopp side.

From the opening whistle, Hull City dropped into a 4-5-1 with the midfield and defensive bank within close proximity to limit space between the lines. But Abel Hernandez’s inability to get close to Jordan Henderson allowed the Liverpool captain the freedom to dictate the tempo of the match from deeper positions. With Hull dropping deeper towards their box, Hernandez was equally isolated upfront, and the away side were unable to launch counter-attacks due to Liverpool’s dynamic gegenpressing.

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James Milner constantly stormed beyond Robert Snodgrass and was a useful outlet at left-back, meanwhile the Hull midfield couldn’t cope with Liverpool’s attacking quartet’s movement between the lines. Liverpool players continuously popped up into space at the edge of the box for pull-backs, whereas Lallana operated in half-spaces and Firmino occasionally drifted wide to encourage forward runs.

Ultimately, Ahmed Elmohamady’s dismissal for a handball on the goal-line sealed Hull’s fate. They became a 4-5-0 with no real outlet upfront, and were forced to cope with Liverpool’s relentless attack throughout. At the moment, there may not be a team in better form than Klopp’s Reds, and if they can maintain performance levels of this quality, they will be a difficult team to beat this season.

Son pushing for permanent starting role at Spurs

Sometimes injuries can be a blessing in disguise. Son Heung-min is justifying that notion and was once again the catalyst in a Spurs victory. With Eric Dier and Moussa Dembele unavailable, Son slid into the Spurs attacking trio, while Dele Alli operated alongside Christian Eriksen ahead of Victor Wanyama.

Although Moussa Sissoko struggled from the right, Middlesbrough’s midfield couldn’t cope with Eriksen or Alli’s movement in the final third, whereas Son’s penetrative runs from the left provided guile. Spurs’ opener displayed their attacking approach vividly: Victor Janssen pegged the hosts’ centre-backs deep with his back-to-goal holdup play, which attracted Adam Clayton to the ball, thus enabling Son to run onto his layoff and place his shot past Victor Valdes.

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Son’s second was even better as the South Korean international evaded two challenges near the edge of the box and curled an unstoppable into the far post to double Spurs’ lead. Spurs were dominant in the opening period, combining their intense pressing to deprive the hosts an outlet forward, while their quick passing flustered Aitor Karanka’s men.

Middlesbrough failed to cope with Spurs’ pressing and constantly conceded possession in their half. On the other hand, Gaston Ramirez was comfortably negated by the presence of Victor Wanyama ahead of the back four. The second half introduction of Adama Traore was promising but his poor final ball negated the substitute’s overall threat.

Ben Gibson’s second half goal provided the host’s a lifeline, yet their intention to push forward for a winner left vacant space for Eriksen and Alli to exploit, but similar to Traore, their production in the final third was underwhelming. Still, the several absentees missing didn’t affect Spurs balance from an attacking sense, as Son presents Mauricio Pochettino with future selection issues.

Tadic developing into the main man at St. Mary’s

The summer departures of Ronald Koeman, Graziano Pelle and Sadio Mane put Southampton’s future in jeopardy. Their main goal-scorer, best player, and top manager moved onto new challenges, leaving many to question whether Claude Puel could bring success to the Saints.

Southampton’s trip to West Ham showcased both sides’ limitations around the box during the opening 40 minutes, but the two best performers of the match combined to steer the away side into the lead with the game’s first shot on target. Tadic’s outwards run into the left channel saw Ryan Bertrand run beyond Antonio to receive the Serbian’s pass, and subsequently assist Charlie Austin’s opener.

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It was a brilliant move that highlighted Bertrand’s threat from left-back due to Antonio’s lack of discipline, and Tadic’s guile in a free role behind Austin and Nathan Redmond. West Ham, however, were dismal going forward: Dimitri Payet failed to influence the match from the right, while Simone Zaza was isolated upfront.

Bilic’s attempt at a comeback resulted in Sofiane Feghouli replacing Miguel Lanzini and pushing Payet into a central role. Nonetheless, Antonio’s movement to the opposite flank created space for Cedric Soares to exploit throughout the second half. Tadic and Soares combined in the box minutes into the second half but an impressive Adrian save kept West Ham alive.

As the match wore on, Bilic’s men also succumbed to Southampton’s counter-pressing which inevitably led to Tadic’s goal. Cheikhou Kouyate was dispossessed near his box and Redmond’s pass into Austin saw the striker initially play in the advancing Tadic, who coolly rounded Adrian and doubled Southampton’s lead.

Puel’s approach worked brilliantly as Southampton outworked and outplayed the hosts courtesy of getting the full-backs beyond Antonio and Tadic’s ability to receive the ball behind the West Ham midfield on numerous occasions. With competent passers and diligent frontmen leading the line, Tadic may finally receive the freedom to maximize his creative talent.

Results

Manchester United 4-1 Leicester City, Bournemouth 1-0 Everton, Stoke City 1-1 West Brom, Middlesbrough 1-2 Spurs, Liverpool 5-1 Hull City, Swansea City 1-3 Manchester City, Sunderland 2-3 Crystal Palace, Arsenal 0-3 Chelsea, West Ham 0-3 Southampton, Burnley 2-0 Watford

Weekend Stats

  • Dimitri Payet has had more shots (15) in the Premier League without scoring than any other player so far this season.
  • Since his debut (Aug 2014), Charlie Austin has scored as many Premier League goals as Wayne Rooney (21), despite playing 20 games fewer.
  • Alexis Sanchez’s scored 47 goals in his 100 appearances for Arsenal one fewer than Thierry Henry (48) in his first 100 appearances for the club.
  • Son Heung-Min has already equaled his Premier League goal tally from 2015-16 in just three appearances this season (4).
  • Since the start of 2015-16, James Milner has been involved in 20 league goals for Liverpool (8 goals, 12 assists).

Stats provided by OPTA

 
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Posted by on September 27, 2016 in Published Work

 

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Cesc Fabregas’ tactical stagnation results in Chelsea conundrum

Chelsea’s 2014-2015 title triumph was heavily associated with Jose Mourinho’s efficient summer transfer activity. What was supposed to be a shift from the initial squad Mourinho built a decade prior challenged the Portuguese manager to build a dynasty around young, technically gifted players.

Mourinho’s main signings that summer, though, addressed some of the personnel issues Chelsea encountered subsequent to the Special One’s initial sacking. Thibaut Courtois was maturing into one of the best goalkeepers in the world, rather than the aging and error-prone Petr Cech. Filipe Luis was the best left-back in La Liga and was expected to be the left-back to continue in Ashley Cole’s footsteps and possibly enable Cesar Azpilicueta to play in his preferred right-back position.

But the biggest transfers simply catered to the biggest fears regarding the undergoing evolution at Stamford Bridge. Replacing Didier Drogba was difficult – to an extent that he returned as a third striker that season – but the club took one of many risks on Diego Costa: a key figure in Atletico Madrid’s title-winning campaign the year prior, who enjoyed his first top-class season.

Costa’s a powerful all-round striker that willingly worked through the channels, whilst combining his poacher’s instinct and pace to run beyond the defence to notch 20 league goals in his debut campaign. Stylistically, the Spanish international fit the mould of a centre-forward capable of dominating English football and easily settling into a Chelsea side that required his presence.

Cesc Fabregas, on the other hand, was the antithesis: more interestingly, he developed into one the top midfielders in the Premier League during his spell with rivals Arsenal as a youngster. Where Chelsea’s midfield of the past was physical and direct, often bullying Fabregas in central areas, the Spaniard represented a slimmer, yet technical craftsman that was capable of connecting passes from deep, or the final pass around the box to create legitimate goal-scoring chances for his teammates.

If the decision to acquire Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar didn’t highlight the stylistic shift at Stamford Bridge, Fabregas move from Barcelona did. Still, Fabregas’ familiarity with the league ensured it was less of a risk for Chelsea, and his ability to dictate matches from deep was pivotal to the Blues success subsequent to his arrival.

Although a role in a deeper midfield position was beneficial to Fabregas due to his positional versatility in central areas, the Spaniard also suffers from tactical indiscipline. Perhaps his rapid growth at Arsenal overshadowed these issues, but to be frank, Arsenal’s lack of discipline prevented Arsene Wenger’s side from challenging on a domestic and continental front in recent years.

Despite previously playing a deep role in a midfield two, Fabregas’ best seasons for Arsenal witnessed the Spaniard playing in an advanced position – 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 – with defensive minded players like Alex Song and Abou Diaby operating ahead of the back four. Fabregas’ recorded a team high 15 league goals and the most assists during his final season at the Emirates thus proving his threat closer to goal.

Likewise, something similar occurred during his final season at Barcelona under Tata Martino’s direct approach. Barcelona were renowned for their patient buildup and extensive spells of ball possession, but Martino was eager to add a quick, but direct element to their game which Fabregas preferred.

“This coach [Martino] lets me play the way that suits my qualities and I’m very comfortable, very happy,” Fabregas told FourFourTwo magazine following Martino’s arrival.

“On the first day – well, not the first day, but maybe the third or fourth, early on – he called me over and told me: “I want you to be the player you were at Arsenal.” And I thought: “Wow!”, because I’d always felt so good at Arsenal, so important. I’m not the No.10 exactly because things aren’t so clearly defined positionally as with Pep [Guardiola] and Tito [Vilanova], who were very focused on that. When we attack, Tata likes things to be a little more anarchic – just a little – which means that with the ball you can move away from a set position without any problems.”

Ultimately, Fabregas’ joy regarding the positional freedom he received at Arsenal and under Martino has led to his downfall at top-sides with elite managers. Fabregas’ move to Barcelona was specifically based around helping Guardiola evolve the Catalan side, opposed to the Spaniard becoming Xavi’s successor.

Sergio Busquets cemented his role at the pivot, Xavi offered similar passing and tempo-setting traits further up the pitch, while Fabregas couldn’t connect midfield and attack with his dribbling like Andres Iniesta. Nonetheless, Fabregas’ ability to locate space between the lines and goal-scoring threat around the box provided the perfect outlet to create space for the wide players and Lionel Messi, along with making late runs into the box to score goals.

Guardiola’s shift to a 3-4-3 saw Fabregas shuttle forward, and continuously interchange positions with Lionel Messi upfront. When Messi dropped deep into midfield, Fabregas received space to charge into the box, which explains why only his final season at Arsenal offered a higher goal and assist return.

But Barcelona struggled to maintain the incredible levels that led to their historic league and European title triumphs, and Fabregas received ample criticism due to willingness to instantly play forward passes. Guardiola’s teams are often maligned for their use of possession, but they heavily rely on positional and tactical structure in both phases, and Fabregas was a liability in that respect.

“We like the fact that he [Fabregas] is so mobile, but it has to be done sensibly. In the end, there is a ball and people who move, but they should move to where they need to be. We do not have a remote control to direct them from the bench,” said Guardiola.

The second half of the 2014/2015 campaign at Chelsea presented a similar challenge for the Spaniard who started the season superbly. With Nemanja Matic suffering from fatigue due to lack of squad rotation, Chelsea were being exposed and overrun in midfield zones when Fabregas pushed forward to link play.

Opposing teams located the Chelsea midfield as a weak point and targeted Fabregas’ lack of mobility and inability to maintain his position ahead of the back four, thus virtually exposing Matic. Mourinho swiftly reverted back to a 4-3-3 and a deeper defensive block, which led to a string of slow-burning one goal victories, as the freedom Fabregas and the attacking Chelsea players received was quickly sacrificed for silverware.

Guardiola and Mourinho encountered difficulties maximizing the Spaniard’s strengths due to his tactical limitations, and playing to his strengths didn’t provide silverware at the Emirates, so it’s unsurprising that Fabregas is currently fighting for a starting spot under Antonio Conte. In the past, Conte’s teams have been built to attack and renowned for their high-octane pressing, but the Italian is a pragmatist that instantly identified the personnel issues in the Chelsea side he inherited.

Chelsea sit deeper under Conte, and rely on Matic and Oscar to press opponents and maintain the side’s structure ahead of N’Golo Kante. The Blues’ transitional vulnerability has decreased and they have become much harder to breakdown, with majority of the goals conceded have been via individual mistakes and wonder-goals.

Nonetheless, Fabregas’ is definitely missed from an attacking perspective. Chelsea struggle to build attacks from deeper positions – which ultimately led to the deadline day purchase of David Luiz – and creativity is non-existent in the middle third of the field. Oscar and Matic’s pressing can create swift transitional breaks, but Conte’s side remain unconvincing when the opposition freely concedes possession.

While many had suggested Fabregas could slightly play the deep-lying playmaker role Andrea Pirlo revolutionized at Juventus, Chelsea simply don’t have the midfield shuttlers or competent defenders behind the Spaniard to provide such freedom.

“Cesc is in my plans and in Chelsea’s plans,” said Conte. “In my opinion he’s improving a lot on many aspects, above all the defensive situations. If he continues in this way, it’ll be very difficult for me to choose my midfield. But I want this from a player, putting many doubts in my mind over choosing someone else. I’m very clear with my players: when a player deserves to play, I put him in the team.”

But Fabregas’ influence in Diego Costa’s winner at Watford, along with his two goals at Leicester in Chelsea’s midweek Capital One Cup win over Leicester, mounts pressure on Conte’s decision to start the Spaniard. However, the latter scenario involved Fabregas struggling throughout the match until Conte pushed him behind Costa and relinquished the Spaniard’s defensive duties.

Fabregas’ versatility could see Conte experiment with the Spaniard in an advanced role, but until he improves in the defensive phase – in terms of positioning, work-rate and concentration – he doesn’t merit a spot in the Chelsea XI. It appears to be a recurring issue throughout the Spaniard’s career, but it’s the key issue that’s deprived Fabregas from excelling at the biggest clubs in the world.

Throughout the span of Fabregas’ career, the 29-year-old has experienced significant changes – elite managers, proactive and reactive philosophies, and positions – but nothing is more intriguing than this upcoming showdown against Wenger’s Arsenal. It’s been five years since the Spaniard and Arsenal manager have parted ways, but with the former desperately fighting for a place in the XI and the latter still unable to mount a legitimate title challenge, it appears that very little has changed.

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2016 in Published Work

 

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Tactical Preview: Chelsea – Liverpool

Liverpool’s trip to Stamford Bridge features two sides that may remain optimistic about a potential title challenge this season.

Neither side were active in last year’s title race but without European football to focus on Jurgen Klopp and Antonio Conte will have enough time to solely prepare for league fixtures. Essentially Klopp and Conte are similar: two managers popularizing a brand of football to win domestic trophies abroad and now being asked to guide their current side back to prominence.

Where the verdict is still out on whether Conte’s Chelsea can compete against the better sides in the league, Klopp’s men have developed a habit of doing so. The Reds already dispatched of last year’s runner-ups Arsenal and Leicester City – scoring four goals on each occasion – but a trip to Chelsea should pose a different test. Conte’s arrival now witnesses a team that now possesses the organization and discipline that went missing last year, combined with a legitimate counter-attacking threat in transition.

“I think Liverpool are a really good team,” said Conte. “They play with high intensity, they bring many players in offensive situations, they are very good.”

“We must pay great attention tomorrow because we know they are very strong.”

Liverpool’s major decision rests on whether to start Daniel Sturridge upfront. The striker’s pace posed several issues for Leicester last weekend, but Klopp’s big game XI’s have often featured Roberto Firmino in a central role. The Brazilian’s movement pressing is integral to Klopp’s set-up, but likewise, his outside runs into the channels to create space, and willingness to drop deep and play quick intricate passes encourages forward runners into the box.

Sadio Mane’s pace and willingness to track back should merit a start on the right, whereas Philippe Coutinho may return to the XI on the left. Coutinho remains an interesting proposition that constantly intends on shooting from distance opposed to influencing his side’s buildup play within the final third, but similar to Firmino, Klopp turns to the Brazilian in the big games.

Therefore, it’s unlikely Sturridge will still start upfront, with Firmino drifting infield from the left hand side, and attempt to find space goal-side of N’Golo Kante. Klopp will also be hoping to recall one of his centre-backs following Lucas’ error that resulted in Jamie Vardy’s goal last week. While the Brazilian already lacks height, it’s evident Conte would encourage Costa to exploit his defensive deficiencies and unfamiliarity with the position.

On the other hand, though the midfield trio excelled thus far, this could be one area of concern for a Reds side yet to face an opposing group with proficient ball-winning traits. Liverpool lack that type of player in their midfield, opting to field Jordan Henderson as the deepest midfielder, along with Lallana’s creativity and Georginio Wijnaldum’s verticality and late runs into the box.

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Projected Starting XI’s

However, Conte’s Chelsea eradicated last year’s issues in midfield by moving to a 4-1-4-1 with Nemanja Matic and Oscar pressing the opposition midfielders while Kante sits deeper to protect the back four. Liverpool’s midfield will face their first stern test in terms of pressing across the pitch, and they may have to revert to a more cautious shape to encourage the Blues forward and play on the counter.

In attack, Chelsea aren’t expected to make any changes: Eden Hazard and Willian should feature on the flanks, with the latter possibly providing a greater threat if Coutinho operates from the left due to his unwillingness to track. That would leave makeshift left-back James Milner vulnerable against the speedy Brazilian and the high possibility of Branislav Ivanovic surging forward on the overlap. On the opposite flank, Hazard has displayed signs that he’s rediscovering his best form and Nathaniel Clyne will likely adopt cautious positions in fear of the Belgian’s threat behind him.

Meanwhile, Costa is the joint-leading goal-scorer in the league, and may finally relish a battle against a Liverpool defence lacking a physically imposing centre-back following Martin Skrtel’s departure. Klopp should be able to feature his preferred centre-back partnership with Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren, but they lack familiarity and natural aggression, thus making Costa’s presence their most difficult task to date.

“[He’s] world class,” Klopp said of Costa. “The best thing I can say, if other supporters love you then that’s not a good sign!”

“But he’s a real warrior on the pitch and he uses his body all the time. That’s a quality and what you need to know.

The major change in Chelsea’s XI will see the debut of David Luiz for the injured John Terry. Kante’s arrival at Stamford Bridge was beneficial to preserving the aging back-line, and Conte will hope Luiz’s indiscipline and constant habit of making mistakes will be protected until he fully adjusts into the Italian’s methodology.

However, Mane’s pace and the positional intelligence of Firmino could bamboozle the Brazilian and inconsistent Cahill. Nonetheless, if Conte’s men can cope with Liverpool’s first phase of aggressive gegenpressing, Luiz’s ball-playing skills will be an instant improvement to Chelsea’s build-up play from deeper positions.

Two contrasting styles consisting of a cagey midfield battle presents an interesting spectacle. Neither back-line, though, is sturdy or reliable, but Chelsea’s Kante could make the difference whereas Henderson could be overrun. Both sides have been wasteful in the final third this season, and this may simply rest on efficiency in the final third and which outfit can overcome the opposition’s dissimilar pressing schemes.

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

 

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PSG 1-1 Arsenal

Alexis Sanchez and David Ospina’s heroic performances earned Arsenal a valuable point against a superior Paris Saint-Germain side.

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Arsene Wenger recalled Alexis back to the XI following a 2-1 victory over Southampton on the weekend. Alex Iwobi replaced the injured Theo Walcott meaning Olivier Giroud started the match from the bench.

Unai Emery’s 4-3-3 featured Angel Di Maria and Blaise Matuidi flanking Edinson Cavani. Meanwhile Marco Verratti and Adrien Rabiot operated as shuttlers ahead of Gregory Krychowiak.

PSG dominance was showcased over extensive periods of this match, but their profligate finishing combined with Arsenal’s resilience provided an entertaining draw.

1-0

It’s difficult to assess the significance of an early goal. Many tend to believe that it gives the superior team the onus to either increase their lead by exploiting the oppositions nerves, or provides the luxury to maintain a compact defensive shape and break on the counter. But the simplicity over PSG’s opener, here, was alarming.

PSG took the lead within the opening minute through a simple passing move where Serge Aurier stormed past Iwobi, and Di Maria’s movement pulled Laurent Koscielny out of position, thus enabling Cavani to attack the right-back’s cross at the near post. Perhaps the early goal highlights Arsenal’s lack of preparation, but surprisingly it didn’t alter the general pattern of the match.

It would be foolish for Wenger’s men to chase a game after falling behind in the opening 45 seconds, but the French side were less eager to swarm the Gunners higher up the pitch. However, the goal presented Wenger’s men with a stylistic dilemma as to whether they should persist with their initial approach – the XI suggested they intended to play on the counter – or push men forward away from home.

Arsenal’s attacking issue

The decision to field Alexis as a central forward has been quite interesting solely based on the notion that his all-round talent should transcend in central areas. This season, however, the Chilean’s difficulties as the lone striker is evident, which is partially down to his style and Wenger’s approach.

PSG’s centre-backs were pleased to see Alexis drop into midfield in search of possession – if Ozil was deeper Krychowiak would pick him up, or else Marquinhos would step forward and tightly mark the Arsenal forward. Alexis was an isolated figure throughout the first half, yet when he did receive the ball en route to goal, the wide players nor Ozil attempted to charge behind the PSG defence to offer a goal threat.

Ozil was often marked out of the match by Krychowiak and when he moved to the left, Verratti shifted to ensure Arsenal couldn’t create overloads. Iwobi and Oxlade-Chamberlain solely posed a threat when they carried the ball in transition, but rarely threatened during spells of possession. And while the full-backs rarely surged forward to offer width, both Monreal and Hector Bellerin lacked a focal point to deliver crosses to within the box.

With their key attackers struggling to find space in the final third, and the double-pivot swarmed in possession, the away side created few chances from open play. There were no aerial targets in the box which explains minimal crosses from the wide players, and PSG’s narrow defensive shape easily coped with Arsenal’s attempt to play quick intricate passes in central areas to bypass their back-line.

Aurier dominates right aids PSG

Although PSG monopolized more possession than the Gunners, neither side truly posed danger to the opposition from open play in the first half – a worry for Arsenal who scored both goals over the weekend via set-pieces. Rabiot and Verratti harried Cazorla and Coquelin out of possession, and then cycled the ball into wide areas opposed to playing penetrative passes beyond the Arsenal back-line.

This wasn’t necessarily an issues for PSG as they outmuscled and out-passed the Gunners in midfield, but their possession superiority suggested perhaps Emery’s men could have been more adventurous in the opposition’s half. Despite PSG’s inability to maintain Emery’s demanding energy levels to press and regain possession in Arsenal’s half, the French side cleverly combined and created overloads in wide areas.

Ultimately, the key player throughout was Aurier. The Ivorian created Cavani’s opener, yet he also surged into space behind Iwobi to constantly provide an outlet from the right flank. The Arsenal youngster failed to track Aurier’s running from right-back, and his first involvement subsequent to the opening goal was a quality cross through the six-yard box that forced Shkodran Mustafi to clear his lines for a corner.

Wenger’s attempt to fix the issue resulted in Oxlade-Chamberlain and Iwobi swapping flanks, yet Aurier’s threat persisted against the former and Nacho Monreal. The first attempt rolled into the side netting, whereas David Ospina was quick off his line to keep Arsenal in the match.

Aurier was undoubtedly one of PSG’s few goal-scoring outlets, here, as the right-back he drifted into key areas in the final third on several occasions and was unfortunate not to increase the French side’s lead.

Cavani

Where Aurier was the game’s key player, Cavani was heavily involved in the overall outcome. The summer departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic presented the opportunity for the Uruguayan to play in his preferred central role, but Cavani’s developed a habit of squandering great big game chances during his spell in Paris.

For the most part, Cavani’s performance, here, was peculiar: where his movement was exceptional, the finishing was woeful. The Uruguayan played off the back-line’s last shoulder to receive lofted balls from midfield. Wenger’s defence were poorly organized and easily pulled out of position which proved beneficial to the hosts.

First, Verratti shrugged off Coquelin’s challenge before his reverse ball was deflected into the path of Cavani who rounded David Ospina, but guided his shot wide of the net. Cavani then made a quick diagonal dart between Bellerin and Mustafi to chest down Di Maria’s chipped pass over the top, but he failed to make contact.

Cavani broke past Koscielny twice in the final 20 minutes of the match, but the keeper was quick off his line to deny the PSG striker from point blank range. In truth, Cavani’s profligacy in the final third proved costly, and it’s difficult to determine the current issue with the striker.

The best forwards in the world execute in 1v1 situations with the keeper, and though Cavani was once capable of doing so, his current issues in front of goal is plaguing PSG’s growth during this transitional period. Many strikers can learn from the movement that flustered the Arsenal back-line, but the finishing was surely forgettable.

Wenger makes personnel changes/Substitutes

Wenger’s substitution was evidently a key facet, here, and it may have been inspired by Alexis creating Arsenal’s best chance – the Chilean dropped into a pocket of space in the left channel, but his reverse ball into Oxlade-Chamberlain resulted in a last-ditch Thiago Silva tackle. Wenger subsequently brought on Giroud for Oxlade-Chamberlain and than Granit Xhaka for Coquelin, meaning Alexis moved to the left.

Xhaka’s physical stature and ball retention helped the Gunners sustain possession in PSG’s half, whereas Giroud presented a threat to the PSG centre-backs and kept them within the box when they retreated into their deeper second half base shape. More so, the minor alterations benefitted Alexis who freely occupied pockets of space on the left before charging forward to play reverse passes to advanced runners.

Alexis’ movement into this zone, along with his ability to shrug off Krychowiak’s challenge was pivotal to his equalizer. The Chilean dispossessed Motta and ignited a break down the left shortly afterwards that should have won the match for the Gunners, but Iwobi was denied a historic match-winner.

Aurier’s constant involvement during the first 70 minutes was superb, but as the match wore on, the right-back’s reluctance to track back into position also provided space for Alexis to exploit on the counter. With the Gunners pushing for a winner, Motta equally struggled to cope with their pressing, whereas Pastore’s introduction saw the Argentine create Cavani’s final chance that Ospina palmed away.

Furthermore, Wenger’s changes shifted the balance of match in the second half and it was fitting that Ozil and Alexis were involved in the equalizer considering the initial set-up limited their influence. Alexis offered penetration and intelligent movement, which thus led to runners springing beyond the Chilean to provide service, whilst providing space to run at defenders from deep.

Conclusion

Although this is the group-stage round, sometimes a bit of fortune is required to gain results in Europe. Arsenal were nowhere near the best in Paris, but they displayed the resilience and fight that’s consistently been missing within Wenger’s side.

It must be said that Wenger’s decision to leave Xhaka and Giroud on the bench was odd, but he deserves credit for making the required changes to gain ascendancy. The defence still lacks familiarity, a Cazorla-Coquelin midfield is possibly to light to function as a midfield duo in Europe, whereas Giroud remains integral to Wenger’s setup. Still, this was Arsenal’s toughest match of the group and Wenger will take the point and aim to locate the correct balance throughout the XI.

Emery must be wondering how his side didn’t record maximum points following their dominant display throughout the opening 70 minutes. Ultimately matches between the best sides are defined by small margins, as the combination of Ospina’s heroics and Cavani’s poor finishing provided Arsenal a lifeline to nick a point. It appears Emery will persist with the 4-3-3 that’s been successful in recent years, but with no top class replacement available, the PSG manager must get Cavani back to his ruthless best.

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2016 in Published Work

 

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BPL Notebook Matchday 4: Guardiola’s supremacy over Mourinho ensures Manchester’s blue

Manchester is blue.

The hype surrounding another chapter of the Jose Mourinho vs. Pep Guardiola rivalry was poised, but like several past encounters, the latter was filled with smiles at the final whistle.

They said he couldn’t do it at Stoke – albeit not being a cold Tuesday night – but Guardiola’s City mesmerized the Potters over lengthy spells. And at Old Trafford, they weren’t favourites. Despite the sensational passing moves, rejuvenated underachievers such as Raheem Sterling, and the weekly growth and understanding of Guardiola’s philosophy, City weren’t supposed to be this good in September.

Mourinho’s experience may still be the x-factor that guides Manchester United to another Premier League title, but Guardiola’s City displayed that they’re still the team to beat. Frankly, Mourinho’s past achievements and United’s stability was a non-factor – put simply, this was another outing where Guardiola out-coached his Portuguese rival.

If we base the result on performances this season, the result isn’t too surprising. United were unbeaten like City, but apart from the solid displays from the rarely tested back-line, Mourinho’s men were average. Though City showcased signs of vulnerability, their progress as a unit was evident with every game.

The first half performance at Old Trafford was their best yet, leaving Mourinho and his troops flabbergasted. City’s passing was breathtaking, the midfield was dominant, and when they pushed men forward there was an intended route to goal. Nolito and Raheem Sterling positioned themselves on the touch-line to maintain width, with the latter constantly running across Luke Shaw – it was clear Guardiola highlighted the left-back’s positioning as weakness in the United XI.

But more so, United were unable to cope with City’s counter-pressing, and their sloppy passing ensured Guardiola’s men constantly retained possession. The midfield duo of Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini’s positional awareness were exploited this season on a few occasions, and here, against genuine world-class stars in Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, United suffered profoundly.

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Neither Pogba, nor Fellaini competently tracked City’s creative dynamos and it was unsurprising that De Bruyne, in particular, was involved in both goals. The Belgian easily received various passes in pockets of space behind Fellaini, and was unmarked when he poked the ball behind Daley Blind in the buildup to City’s opener. Kelechi Iheanacho’s winner witnessed Sterling easily drift past Pogba, whereas the City striker found space behind Fellaini to receive a pass that subsequently resulted in a simple tap in.

Tactically speaking, Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1 is largely associated with Rooney’s inclusion in the XI, but even the United captain failed to negate Fernandinho’s passing from deep positions. In the past, Mourinho has often flipped his midfield to transition into a 4-3-3, which in truth, appears to be the ideal system for United – yet the Portuguese manager was reluctant to offer his defence proper protection and deploy Pogba in his preferred position.

The decision to retreat into two banks of four without pressing the centre-backs equally proved costly. Where John Stones may have been expected to be the catalyst from deep, Nicolas Otamendi was efficient on both ends of the field – the Argentine constantly located De Bruyne between the lines, and made several key interventions around the City box.

In many ways, the Guardiola – Mourinho spectacle spoiled the general viewer: even when the latter attempted to fix his initial error by shifting into a 4-3-3 to introduce Ander Herrera and Marcus Rashford, the former quickly negated United’s eight-minute spell of improvement by summoning Fernando for Iheanacho. Now City were effectively operating with De Bruyne playing through the channel, and Leroy Sane’s debut cameo ensured Guardiola could rely on a tricky wide player from the right.

United received opportunities to equalize via Rashford’s pace and Ibrahimovic’s aerial threat, while Pogba and Fellaini appeared comfortable in advanced positions, but the away side still posed several threats on the counter-attack. Even Mourinho’s traditional last-ditch substitution – replacing a defender for a striker and moving to back three – that welcomed Anthony Martial was countered by the arrival of Pablo Zabaleta, which saw Fernando drop into defence with City transitioning into a 5-4-1.

Guardiola simply had an answer for every option Mourinho relied on with hopes of salvaging a result. Perhaps this is a wakeup call for Mourinho and the Old Trafford faithful that believe they’re clear-cut favourites to return to the summit in May, as the big name signings, Mourinho’s experience, and stable core barely harmed City.

Oddly enough, while all the banter regarding Mourinho’s system change is focused around Rooney, the United captain produced one of his better performances in recent time. Rooney created Ibrahimovic’s fortuitous goal, and constantly charged forward to provide his teammates service in key areas.

Nevertheless, the dilemma with fitting Rooney into the XI sacrifices key facets that could make the difference between a title-winning team and top-four challengers, which suggests Mourinho must address his formation issue sooner rather than later. Like every manager in the league, Guardiola’s spent big this summer, but he represents a veteran Premier League manager opposed to a man attempting to find his way.

A true student of the game that always identifying various methods to defeat an opponent in the finest manner. Once doubters that the Spaniard solely required the best talent the sport has to offer will vanish quickly, as true greatness shines regardless of the circumstances.

Full-time celebrations featured the City players joining together in a group huddle and their manager congratulating the players individually for their impressive performance. Where Mourinho and his troops suffered that long walk towards the Old Trafford tunnel in defeat, the scenes on the pitch captured a significant moment in Manchester history.

For the first time since the Abu Dhabi Group United Group took over the club, City finally appear to be a team.

And that’s what makes Guardiola great.

Swansea punish Conte’s profligate Chelsea

It would be very difficult to identify how Chelsea didn’t maintain their 100% record to start the season at the Liberty Stadium. The Blues were dominant for majority of the match but failure to build on Diego Costa’s 18th minute opener proved costly.

Chelsea’s discipline out of possession has been one of the few factors that have improved under Antonio Conte, and here, they comfortably coped with Swansea’s three-man backline. Oscar and Nemanja Matic harried Leroy Fer and Ki Sung-yeung out of possession while N’Golo Kante’s consistency ahead of the back-line has been a revelation.

The away side persisted with sitting off Swansea’s centre-backs, and they also avoided pressing Jack Cork in deeper positions, yet the hosts were unable to pose a threat from open play. However, several wasted opportunities from Hazard and Costa kept Francisco Guidolin’s men in the match, and two defensive errors from Thibaut Courtois and Gary Cahill – the latter was actually fouled despite is mental lapse – witnessed the Swans score two goals in two minutes.

Although Costa walked a tightrope throughout, he remained a constant goal threat by dropping into space behind Cork, and running towards goal. Once again, the Blues required Conte’s timely substitutions to earn a point, though, as the Italian turned to Victor Moses and Cesc Fabregas. The latter ignited two Chelsea moves in a three-minute span, thus resulting in Costa’s acrobatic equalizer.

Top teams tend to struggle in the initial match following the international break – due to the vast amount of players travelling around the world to compete – but this was about Chelsea’s poor finishing opposed to fatigue. Guidolin’s formation switch prior to half-time did lead to a slight improvement in the home side’s overall play, but they still failed to create quality chances apart from that freakish two-minute spell.

In a title race consisting of the best managers in the world, Conte is aware that his Chelsea side can’t afford to concede points due to mental/defensive lapses within their half. Although Costa’s start to the season provides room for optimism, Conte requires goal contributions from the likes of Hazard, Oscar and Willian to mount a legitimate title challenge.

Liverpool’s cruise past Leicester with sheer speed

Liverpool may not lift the Premier League title in May, but similar to a Chelsea side playing no part in European competitions, the Reds should be a difficult outfit to overcome. Despite Jurgen Klopp’s side possessing a few weak areas going forward, on their day, Liverpool can compete with the best sides in the league.

The Reds weren’t keen on applying their energetic press from the front due to Leicester’s threat on the counter, which therefore witnessed the champions struggle to cope with the hosts’ pace upfront. Klopp’s men dropped into a 4-5-1 out of possession and occasionally attempted to squeeze when the opportunity presented itself, whereas Claudio Ranieri instructed the champions to prevent Liverpool from playing out the back.

Still, Leicester’s main issue revolves around Kante’s departure leaving a massive hole in midfield, and Ranieri relying on their main strengths from last season. Liverpool instantly exploited Daniel Amartey’s positional indiscipline in central areas through Firmino, who drifted from the left flank into pockets of space behind the midfielder to test Kasper Schmeichel.

Minutes later, the Reds exposed Leicester weak points – Riyad Mahrez’s unwillingness to track full-backs, and space behind Amartey – to open the scoring as James Milner received a pass behind the Leicester winger and located Firmino between the lines, as the Brazilian ran across the edge of the box to beat Schmeichel.

Meanwhile, Sadio Mane and Daniel Sturridge’s inclusion in the XI offered pace, which could explain why Liverpool were reluctant to press from the front. The former doubled the Reds’ lead but it stemmed from Sturridge breaking beyond the Leicester centre-backs, while Henderson and Firmino combined in central areas.

Ranieri’s side encounter difficulties breaking down opponents due to the lack of a creative passer, Mahrez’s poor form, and the fact that teams have now designed defensive methods to cope with Vardy’s pace and runs into the channels. Lucas Leiva succumbed to Leicester’s high pressing to provide the away side a lifeline, but apart from one moment of brilliance between Vardy and Mahrez, the Foxes failed to pose a threat in the final third.

Firmino was the catalyst behind Liverpool’s key moves throughout, and his influence improved when he moved into a central position following Sturridge’s departure. The Brazilian’s outside runs into half-space led to key chances for Henderson and Mane, and when the latter rounded an onrushing Schmeichel, Firmino coolly doubled his goal tally.

While Leicester’s inability to evolve this summer currently coincides with their issues, Klopp’s astutely outwitted Ranieri. Firmino’s movement, the decision to retreat into their base shape, and the speed of Sturridge and Mane were the key elements to the perfect performance. Often capable of raising their level against the superior sides in the league, the Reds must identify ways to replicate performances of this stature on a weekly basis.

Southampton frontman woes surface at the Emirates

Another positive away display against a top side saw Southampton drop points against an uninspiring Arsenal side. Failure to replace Mane and Graziano Pelle lingered throughout the Southampton XI to start the season. They were highly impressive at Old Trafford, and here, once again, the Saints failed to capitalize on a positive performance.

The overall pattern of the match was predictable, yet extremely tame with all three goals created via set-pieces. Arsenal dominated possession with debutant Lucas Perez’s penalty box presence fairly non-existent, and Southampton’s narrow 4-5-1 limiting space within central areas. Unfortunately for the Saints, they lack a centre-forward capable of holding up play, nor were they capable of putting together enough passes to mount counter attacks.

Likewise, Arsenal’s buildup play was extremely frustrating: the crosses from wide areas were over-hit, while Mesut Ozil endured a quiet outing by his standards. Claude Puel’s decision to introduce Shane Long pushed Redmond to the right and Tadic upfront, thus ultimately leading to the former squandering two 1v1 chances with Petr Cech from point-blank range.

Alexis Sanchez and Olivier Giroud were summoned shortly after the hour mark, but besides the contentious penalty call for Jose Fonte’s slight pull on the latter, neither attacker influenced the match. Perhaps the decision to award Arsenal a stoppage time penalty was harsh, but this was further evidence that justifies the notion that Southampton desperately require a goal-scorer upfront.

The midfield is young and talented and the back-line remains solid, but Puel’s men will struggle to win games if they don’t address their inadequacies upfront.

Everton newcomers make their mark in Lukaku goal-fest

Ronald Koeman’s appointment at Goodison Park went under the radar, but his influence on a Toffee side that underachieved last season is gaining prominence. Romelu Lukaku’s 11-minute hat-trick will rightly dominate headlines, but Idrissa Gueye and Yannick Bolasie’s direct dominance was the catalyst behind Everton’s triumph at the Stadium of Light.

David Moyes’ Sunderland adopted a deep defensive block to fluster an Everton side still deprived of a genuine creator in advanced positions, and courageously coped with the away side’s first half territorial dominance. Ross Barkley barely found space to exploit beyond Jan Kirchhoff, Bolasie’s role from the right meant he could only deliver crosses into the box, whereas Lukaku was unable to roll his defender around the box to test the keeper.

The one evident change in Everton’s overall game is the direct power and dribbling from Bolasie on the flanks and Gueye’s dynamism in midfield. Sunderland couldn’t cope with either player in their respected position, and when Koeman opted to replace Barkley for Gerard Deulofeu, and swap Bolasie to his preferred left flank, the Black Cats were overwhelmed by Everton’s pace.

Bolasie’s threat from the left persisted in the opening 15 minutes of the second half, but a rapid second half counter involved Gueye clipping a far post cross for Lukaku to nod Everton into the lead. Gueye also contributed to Lukaku’s quick snapshot off the crossbar prior to Bolasie driving past Javier Manquillo to create the Belgian’s second goal from a far post cross.

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Mirallas and Deulofeu combined to complete Lukaku’s hat-trick, but Everton played to last year’s strengths by breaking swiftly on the counter-attack. Nonetheless, Bolasie’s presence and ability to evade challenges, create chances and score goals, along with Gueye’s drive in central areas, offers an additional element to Everton’s game.

With 20 minutes to spare Everton comfortably humbled their former manager in a devastating manner. Lukaku offers Koeman the non-existent goal-threat witnessed in Everton’s opening three games, but in terms of penetration – without a creative passer around the final third – Gueye and Bolasie’s direct play may suffice.

Results

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

Weekend Stats

  • Ronald Koeman is the 1st Everton boss since Thomas McIntosh in 1919 to win his first two competitive away games in charge of the Toffees.
  • Romelu Lukaku recorded the first hat-trick of the 2016/2017 Premier League season, and it was the 12th quickest scored in the division’s history (11 mins, 37 secs).
  • Thibaut Courtois has received more red cards (2) & given away more penalties (3) than any other GK in the PL since August 2015.
  • Liverpool have scored more Premier League goals in 2016 than any other team (50).
  • Harry Kane has become the fourth Spurs player to score 50 Premier League goals (after Sheringham, Defoe and Keane).
  • Jose Mourinho has won just one of his last ten meetings with Pep Guardiola. (drawn four and lost five).
 
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Posted by on September 13, 2016 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Tactical Preview: Manchester United – Manchester City

The 172nd Manchester derby is set to be most highly anticipated spectacle of the current Premier League season. Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho will compete in their first competitive match in nearly four years, and appear to be title contenders following their unbeaten start to the season.

Mourinho’s record against Guardiola is unconvincing, but a tilt at Old Trafford with a stable squad places United as slight favourites prior to kick-off. Nevertheless, this is still a battle between football’s chief pragmatist and the modern-day innovator in Guardiola. United is expected to congest central areas, hold a deep-line, and break when the opportunity is presented, whereas Guardiola’s City will dominate possession with hopes of breaking down Mourinho’s sturdy back-line.

The main talking point, however, involves Guardiola’s replacement for the suspended Sergio Aguero.

“Sergio is an important player for us but we knew seven or eight days ago he was not going to be able to play and we would need to use other players,” said Guardiola. “I am a new guy here and I have to learn how things work, but you can be sure I learn quick. I take note of what happened and store it for the future.”

Kelechi Iheanacho is the suitable fill-in, but the City manager has various options to choose from upfront. Nolito is a direct runner that would drift across the front-line, aiming to receive possession and run at defenders, while Silva can operate as a false-nine, encourage runners beyond United’s back-line, though ensuring City dominate central areas.

Raheem Sterling, on the other hand, serves as an interesting tactical prospect. Sterling’s tactical intelligence is unprecedented at a young age, and his past experience in a central role witnessed the England international drop deep to pick up the ball to run at defenders, stretch the opposing back-line with quick sprints into the channel, and his ability to find open space within the penalty box.

Ironically, Sterling’s main weakness is his finishing, but the 21-year-old’s rejuvenated form under Guardiola has reassured his threat in the final third. City’s won several penalties this season via Sterling’s dribbling and pace, while his poacher finishing around the box illustrates the rapid improvement in comparison to last season.

Claudio Bravo is expected to make his City debut, which will improve the away side’s distribution and overall buildup play out the back. However, United’s aerial threat via set-pieces and crosses from wide areas could fluster the diminutive Chilean.

Leroy Sane and Ilkay Gundogan are also fit for selection which would result in a rejig of the XI’s Guardiola has selected thus far. Still, if Guardiola opts to start without a recognized striker, United’s back-line will face a stern test against the speed from either Sane, Jesus Navas, Nolito or Sterling.

In truth, Mourinho’s main concern rests in protecting space between the lines against Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. Guardiola has fielded both men in deeper central roles, with license to charge into the box or towards the channels to create overloads in wide areas. With the full-backs adopting narrow positions in half space, and Fernandinho or Gundogan sitting deep, both De Bruyne and Silva will receive ample space to create in key areas.

Gundogan’s debut would improve City’s aim to dictate the tempo from deep, and if Guardiola opts to field Silva as a false-nine, Fernandinho would finally receive the opportunity to play in his preferred box-to-box role without fear of covering space for the languid Yaya Toure. More so, Gundogan’s inclusion would test Wayne Rooney’s tactical resolve as he’d be forced to press the German throughout, which has proved a difficult task for the United captain in recent years.

This is undoubtedly a troubling prospect for United’s midfield, as they’ve looked unconvincing in protecting these zones. Their narrow win at Hull witnessed Adama Diomande easily drift into pockets of space behind the United midfield to receive possession and charge towards goal. When Southampton traveled to Old Trafford, United’s midfield also endured spells where they couldn’t cope with the passing of Jordi Clasie, Steven Davis and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, and solely benefited from their lack of a goal-threat around the box.

Here, and specifically in big matches, Mourinho has been renowned for flipping his 4-2-3-1 into a 4-3-3 and sacrificing a central midfielder, which means Rooney would be omitted. Rooney’s tactical discipline has been exposed in the past, and though he’s capable of game-defining moments whilst simultaneously producing average performances, Mourinho can’t afford to be overrun in midfield.

This is suited for Morgan Schneiderlin’s physical presence and ball-winning skills or Ander Herrera’s slick passing and tenacity in midfield to offer protection ahead of what should be an unchanged back-line. Perhaps a slightly advanced role would enable Pogba to finally flourish in a United shirt, and his combinations with Ibrahimovic in prior matches have been promising.

With that being said, Mourinho may also be tempted to start Marcus Rashford and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, assuming the latter is fit to participate from the start.

“He [Mkhitaryan] is available,” said Mourinho. “I’m not saying he’s ready to play 90 minutes but he’s ready to try to help us.”

The duo offers tactical discipline, while possessing excellent pace and dribbling skills to pose a threat via swift counter-attacks in transition. Martial’s slow start to the season puts his selection in jeopardy, but he still offers a similar goal threat against City’s unconvincing full-backs, who are expected to adopt fairly high positions.

Similar to the Ferguson era, United will pack the midfield and keep their defensive lines compact out of possession, before quickly scurrying forward with numbers on the counter. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s dislike for Guardiola is definitely motivation, but his ability to operate as a creator to get runners such as Pogba, Mkhitaryan, Rashford or Martial forward could be decisive. Likewise, Ibrahimovic’s aerial threat flustered every opponent United’s encountered thus far, and he’ll relish individual duels against Nicolas Otamendi or John Stones.

As expected, neither side has been overly convincing to start the season, and while the pattern of the match is predictable, this could be an extremely cautious showdown. City will dominate possession and aim to bypass United’s high-pressing in the early stages of the match, but Guardiola’s extensive ball retention has been a form of defence in high-profile away matches during his career.

It wouldn’t be far-fetched to see both managers play for a draw, yet here, the personnel decisions upfront should determine how the two sides approach the match.

 
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Posted by on September 9, 2016 in Published Work

 

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Guardiola and Mourinho’s renewed rivalry comes too soon to make stark assessment

So here we are again.

Another chapter between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho is set to unfold, yet it’s surreal that even a four-year break couldn’t rid the highly anticipated tension between the two managers.

This is the first time the two managers will be in opposing dugouts in a competitive match since Real Madrid clinched La Liga in 2012, yet it feels as if nothing has changed. That final match at the Camp Nou represents the sole time Guardiola hasn’t claimed a domestic title, but more importantly it signified a key moment in their managerial careers.

Initially it appeared Guardiola had lost the war – Mourinho was league champion, whereas the constant battle with the then-Madrid manager pushed the Spaniard into a year sabbatical to get away from his true passion. Yet, Mourinho failed to capitalize on Guardiola’s departure, and was subsequently dethroned by 15 points to Tito Vilanova’s Barcelona, thus resulting in Mourinho being fired for the first time in his career.

Since then, neither manager has been able to return to a Champions League final, and have equally been considered underachievers for their work at Bayern Munich and Chelsea. At Bayern, Pep was unable to guide the German champions to another European crown, whereas despite guiding Chelsea to the summit in England, Mourinho’s main goal was to build a dynasty – the Blues endured the worst title defence in Premier League history, finishing tenth, and the Portuguese manager was sacked in December.

More so, Manchester was supposed to serve as a therapeutic reinvigorating challenge for Guardiola. An opportunity to prove the cynics wrong – to build a team requiring evolution in nearly every position and transform them into an elite European side that produces breathtaking football. It was a challenge that threatened the other Premier League giants, specifically Manchester United who were spiralling downwards under Louis van Gaal.

Similar to Real Madrid at the turn of the decade, United required a solution to not only challenge Guardiola, but in the process regain their annual title challenger status. Ultimately, they turned to Mourinho: a man who craved the job since Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement, and who already crippled Guardiola’s mindset in their previous battles in Spain.

Their El Clasico battles sparked attention worldwide – it helped that the two best players of our generation combatted against each other in their prime – but to Guardiola’s dislike, these encounters are vividly remembered for the off-the-field/media hype opposed to the football itself – in truth, the quality of the games were generally poor.

There’s a growing feat that similar football displays may occur in Manchester, and for both managers, that’s not an ideal prospect. The Manchester Derby may not generate media attention equivalent to El Clasico, but the rivalry and hatred amongst both clubs and supporters is parallel.

Still, the upcoming chapter in the Guardiola and Mourinho tale supersedes anything ever witnessed in the history of the derby. It’s bigger than Wayne Rooney’s acrobatic winner at Old Trafford, Michael Owen’s stoppage time winner in the 2009 seven goal-thriller and the Vincent Kompany goal that guided City to their first Premier League title in the modern era.

This is football idealism vs. the ultimate pragmatist, proactive battling reactive, attractive possession oriented football aiming to solve a well-drilled organized defence. The contrasting styles of football, and off-the field managerial antics and preferences doesn’t alter the fact that both men crave success.

And while it’s normal for attention to be placed on two of the sought out managers in the sport, their first showdown in over four years lacks significance from a footballing perspective. Guardiola remains keen on having his players drilled into his football philosophy and lifestyle, whereas Mourinho’s pragmatism doesn’t conflict with his care for his players and vice-versa, and though both have evident flaws, they’re aim to win is perceived via dissimilar methods.

Past wars in Spain didn’t benefit either manager, and frankly another attempt by Mourinho to replicate an archaic method of draining his counterpart through the media would likely backfire. With Jurgen Klopp, Antonio Conte, Arsene Wenger and Mauricio Pochettino around, Mourinho doesn’t have the time to reignite an individual war with Guardiola. It won’t work.

The decision to bring Zlatan Ibrahimovic to the Premier League, however, insists that psychological battle with Guardiola may continue. Guardiola’s relationship with Ibrahimovic deteriorated quickly when they were both at Barcelona in 2010-2011, and the possibility of the Swede finally gaining revenge on his former manager hints that Mourinho’s hostile approach may continue at Old Trafford.

It’s success or failure for Mourinho, and though he’s finally at a club that provides patience, stability and long-term support, the Portuguese manager would be unable to cope finishing behind Guardiola. Similarly, Guardiola’s massive overhaul at the Etihad suggests Mourinho is in the ideal position to inflict the first blow, raise the pressure on the Spaniard, and win now.

Likewise, United’s joint best defensive record benefitted Mourinho prior to his arrival, but he’s yet to identify the proper balance in attacking positions. Mourinho has yet to alter his starting XI, and reliance on the individual brilliance of Ibrahimovic, and a late winner from Marcus Rashford indicates United are far from the finished product.

They’re not the powerful, never say die Chelsea that perplexed English sides with the introduction of the 4-3-3. The brilliance of Wesley Sneijder behind lethal strikers, whilst ahead of physically imposing midfielders and centre-backs doesn’t compare. And the relentlessly slick counter-attacking machine that steamrolled teams at the Santiago Bernabeu – and effectively halted Guardiola’s tenure at Barcelona – would be difficult to replicate without a Cristiano Ronaldo-esque threat upfront.

Mourinho’s United are capable of developing into a direct, transitional nightmare for opponents in the future – look no further than Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Marcus Rashford’s cameo at Hull two weeks ago for evidence – but reliance and faith in Rooney and Ibrahimovic, the former in particular, stagnates an immediate stylistic alteration.

City, on the other hand, also have to hand debuts to several summer signings, whilst continually building towards perfecting Guardiola’s ideology. The false full-backs, instant counter-pressing, and insistence to quickly cycle through possession requires time, but clearly suggests City’s peak form awaits, despite impressive spells of dominance in previous league matches.

The ball-playing wizards consisting of Xavi, Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, or the sheer greatness of Lionel Messi aren’t at Guardiola’s disposal at the Etihad. Arjen Robben’s threat, combined with the tactical and positional universality of Philip Lahm, David Alaba and Thomas Muller can’t be relied on either.

Even though, Guardiola has successfully revolutionized the manner in which Barcelona and Bayern Munich effectively ply their trade, the Spaniard’s workload at City is undoubtedly his biggest challenge. A broken model built around individualism and possessing the most talented squad is the antithesis of a Guardiola side, and the pressure to build a cohesively flexible unit and claim silverware poses an arduous challenge.

Nevertheless, the most fitting aspect involving the two sides is that they’re generally at the same level of development. Though United are generally built to win the league this year, Guardiola’s talent base can suffice while they adapt to his well-detailed tactical scheme.

The football plot lines are also interesting. How will Guardiola replace the suspended Sergio Aguero? Will Mourinho finally drop Wayne Rooney for an additional midfielder to ensure United aren’t overrun in midfield? Is this the ideal match for debutants such as Ilkay Gundogan, Leroy Sane or Claudio Bravo to start?

Saturday’s derby should provide a brief example of what could be the most thrilling title race in the league’s history, but the most anticipated match of the season must display improved growth opposed to resuming fireworks. The tactical ideologues for both managers have been questioned following recent failures, and though the possibility of a cagey and cautious encounter is expected, the platform presented to make a statement is available.

Titles aren’t won, nor are philosophies fully integrated in September, but avoiding defeat will be imperative, here. Both managers have experienced memorable nights in Manchester, but now they aim to conquer a city that is big enough for one true winner. Failure is no longer an option and the pressure is on both managers to make an immediate impact, but where media rants and touch-line quarrels dominated headlines, this new chapter has to be about the football.

An identity crisis looms throughout Manchester, and though Saturday’s derby will provide more answers, the dawn of a new era emerging throughout the Premier League will slowly transition into a global spectacle. All eyes will be on Old Trafford, the ‘Theatre of Dreams’, where ironically, one can be prematurely crushed.

Something has to give.

 
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Posted by on September 9, 2016 in EPL, Published Work

 

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