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Tactical Preview: Manchester United – Liverpool

Something has to give in this weekend’s big clash between Manchester United and Liverpool at Old Trafford. The former is one of the in-form Premier League teams with nine consecutive wins, whereas Liverpool is coming off a draw at Sunderland and a Capital One Cup semi-final first leg defeat at Southampton.

United have improved since the two teams drew 0-0 at Anfield this season, but it’s difficult to believe Mourinho will stray away from his successful approach that night. Mourinho’s “big game mantra” is built around defensive organization and efficient finishing when chances arise, and though successfully attacking the Reds would be ground-breaking, the Portuguese manager can’t afford to drop three points.

At Anfield, United were fairly direct with their play by avoiding passes from the back, which prevented Liverpool from gegenpressing and winning the ball in advanced positions. Ironically, United’s high pressing stifled Liverpool’s buildup play in the opening half and were combative in midfield throughout.

There shouldn’t be many changes, here, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s fitness issues means the Swede may not lead the line ahead of Paul Pogba. Marcus Rashford or Anthony Martial are the likely replacements upfront, offering genuine pace behind the Liverpool aggressive high-line.

Marouane Fellaini performed well at Anfield, and though Mourinho would typically opt for the Belgian’s physicality in central areas, Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera have developed a great partnership at the base of midfield. However, Mourinho may be concerned about Carrick coping with Liverpool’s intense pressing.

Carrick is accustomed to having ample time on the ball to dictate the game’s tempo, but Klopp will likely instruct his players to apply the pressure once the 35-year-old gains possession. This may lead to Herrera dropping deeper as well to alleviate pressure off Carrick, or witness the Spaniard attempt to help United build from deep despite potential pressure from the visitors.

The other decision Mourinho must make involves his wide personnel. Ashley Young performed well in a defensive winger role at Anfield and could merit another start, but it appears Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Martial will drift centrally from the flanks. The other possible option behind the striker is Jesse Lingard, who is often utilized in bigger games due to his discipline and ability to carry out instructions.

They can all fulfill defensive duties diligently, but equally pose a transitional threat when United regain possession. Juan Mata will likely be excluded because he lacks the aforementioned traits, but is a reliable impact sub off the bench if United require guile in the final third. Martial and Rashford possesses similar traits, and if Ibrahimovic starts upfront, one of the youngsters could start from the left, while the other is utilized as an impact sub.

Marcos Rojo’s fitness issues puts the Argentine’s place in the XI in jeopardy, meaning Chris Smalling and Phil Jones should start at centre-back. Meanwhile, Matteo Darmian and Antonio Valencia should retain their spots as full-backs, despite the former possibly encountering issues against the attack-minded Nathaniel Clyne.

Liverpool, however, aren’t blessed with United’s depth, and Klopp shouldn’t have many big decisions to make. Sadio Mane’s absence due to African Cup of Nation’s duty deprives Liverpool of pace upfront, but the return of Philippe Coutinho balances out Klopp’s fortunes.

Divock Origi could return to the XI to replace Daniel Sturridge following an ineffective performance at Southampton. Nonetheless, Klopp may be better off without a natural centre-forward with Roberto Firmino upfront, whilst the returning Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana operating from the flanks.

That would mean Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum would start ahead of Jordan Henderson if deemed match-fit. But if Henderson is unavailable, Klopp will likely start Origi, and opt for Wijnaldum and Lallana ahead of Can. Joel Matip is set to return and could re-form his partnership with Dejan Lovren at centre-back, whereas Simon Mignolet is expected to start in goal.

With so many physical midfielders and both managers keen on heavy pressing, this could be another scrappy encounter with few chances. Liverpool’s approach is intriguing, nonetheless, especially if Mourinho attempts to replicate the defensive template set at Anfield.

Klopp’s Liverpool, however, have displayed their ability to remain compact and defend deep for lengthy spells, and they may be equally patient, and aim to combine quick passes to break on the counter. Still, it will be interesting to see how United cope with Liverpool’s interchanging movement and Lallana’s late charges into the box – especially if Carrick starts at the base of United’s midfield.

United are slight favourites based on overall form between the two clubs, depth, and numerous game-changers off the bench. Both sides attempt to play quite narrow with the wide players drifting in-field, but Liverpool’s movement, cohesion and understanding of constant positional interchanging suggests United’s back-line should endure a few problems.

The first goal should open things up and determine the tempo of the match, but that depends on whether Liverpool can unlock United’s sturdy defence, and whether the hosts will push men forward to create ample chances. Despite several goal-scorers throughout both XI’s, this could be another tactical battle built around defensive organization and discipline.

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2017 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Tactical Preview: Everton – Manchester City

Ronald Koeman deserved massive credit for his mid-game tactical changes that earned Everton a point at the Etihad earlier this season, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the Toffees approached the return fixture in a similar manner. Where Koeman’s attempt to go 3v3 against City’s defence back-fired, a half-time switch to a midfield diamond ensured Everton battled in central areas and ignited swift counter-attacks when Guardiola’s men lost possession.

Everton have been fairly inconsistent in recent months and still appear to be better suited on the counter-attack. With that being said, it’s possible Everton may stray away from a back three, here – due to injuries – to deploy a 4-5-1 or 4-3-1-2 against City to prevent Pep Guardiola’s side from possessing a numerical advantage in midfield.

Koeman will be missing Idrissa Gueye and James McCarthy in midfield, depriving the Toffees of dynamism and ball-winning skills in the centre of the park. Therefore, a midfield trio of Gareth Barry, Ross Barkley and new signing Morgan Schneiderlin is likely.

Barkley’s performance against Liverpool a month ago was woeful, and against creative dynamos like Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, Koeman’s midfield trio require discipline. Schneiderlin, on the other hand, was the Premier League’s best midfielder during the 2014/2015 and Koeman will hope the Frenchman can quickly come close to replicating those levels.

Upfront, Romelu Lukaku poses Everton’s main threat with 18 goals in all competitions, along with his physical advantage over both John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi. Lukaku’s role as a pure poacher hasn’t been successful under Koeman, and using the Belgian as an outlet to ignite counters – by dropping deep or making charging diagonal runs into the channels – will be crucial against a feeble City back-line.

Yannick Bolasie’s pace and power will also be missed, thus leaving Koeman with three options in wide areas. Kevin Mirallas and Gerard Deulofeu’s dribbling and direct goal-threat is expected to be Koeman’s first choice option alongside Lukaku, with Valencia providing an aerial threat in the box if Everton are forced to chase the game late on.

There shouldn’t be much change in Everton’s back-line, either, considering their main attacking ploy still based around the adventurous positioning of full-backs Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines. Funes Mori and Ashley Williams haven’t proved to be a reliable centre-back partnership, nor has Joel Robles endured his best weeks as Everton keeper, placing additional pressure on the midfield trio to clog space between the lines.

For once, City’s XI is quite close to picking itself following a 5-0 thrashing of West Ham in the FA Cup. With Fernandinho still serving a suspension, combined with Everton’s threat on the counter, Fernando and Yaya Toure are expected to form the midfield duo in a possible 4-2-3-1.

Sergio Aguero will start upfront with David Silva likely in the no.10 role, given De Bruyne and Sterling are more reliable sources for defensive coverage ahead of the full-backs to negate the threat of Baines and Coleman. The other option would be to have Silva play slightly ahead of Toure in midfield, with De Bruyne moving behind Aguero, and Jesus Navas playing on the opposite flank.

Guardiola will be wary of Everton’s threat in wide areas, and this may lead to Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna starting at full-back. Pablo Zabaleta has been underwhelming from the right, and for all of Aleksandar Kolarov’s attacking productivity from the left, the Serbian defender remains a liability from a defensive perspective.

The Toffees will attempt to make this a slow-burning, scrappy encounter from the start, but the key to their success rests heavily on whether their midfield can contain the movement of Silva and De Bruyne in the final third. Likewise, the same can be said for City who are still vulnerable defending swift transitional attacks, as the pace and strength of Lukaku will also prove crucial.

Elsewhere, the battle in wide areas will also be decisive. City will aim to peg the Everton full-backs into their half through territorial dominance and counter-pressing, but their wide attacking players must also track back to prevent potential overloads and service into Lukaku.

City’s profligate spot-kicks prevented a win at the Etihad, but assuming Everton avoid a combative approach throughout the pitch, there should be goals at Goodison Park. Neither side has proven to be defensively sound without the ball and lack competent protection ahead of their unconvincing back-lines.

As simplistic as this may sound, the more efficient side within the final third should triumph, which makes Guardiola’s men favourites ahead of kick-off, barring a defensive meltdown. But Koeman’s tactical acumen shouldn’t be underestimated, and this could be another tactical spectacle in what’s been a truly intriguing Premier League season.

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2017 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Liverpool and Manchester United’s rivalry regains prominence under Klopp and Mourinho

England’s most glorified rivalry is gaining prominent interest this season. Liverpool against Manchester United has been an underwhelming spectacle throughout the Premier League era, but the current table standing, prior history amongst the managers, and United’s signings over the summer provides optimism.

Jurgen Klopp and Jose Mourinho are considered two of the greatest football managers in the modern game, and their presence has equally improved the overall standard of the Premier League from a tactical perspective. It’s also important that they’re managing the two most successful clubs in England, who combine for 38 league titles between each other. That is mainly why Klopp and Mourinho’s appointments were pivotal at both clubs – for one, the rivalry has lacked gusto over the years, whereas neither club is meeting the standards expected by supporters.

Oddly enough, from a geographical and historical sense, although Liverpool and Manchester United is considered the biggest game of the Premier League campaign, the rivalry’s surprisingly lacked memorable matches domestically and in Europe. Part of it is down to Liverpool’s inability to lack a proper title challenge during the Sir Alex Ferguson era, with only a sole 4-1 win at Old Trafford in the 2008/2009 season coming close to a monumental fixture – yet that only put the Reds four points – playing one more game than the Red Devils – behind the eventual title winners.

Despite being the two most successful clubs in England, the other factor that’s deprived the rivalry of genuine excitement is that both enjoyed their dominance in different eras. United’s most intense football rivalries have come against the likes of Blackburn, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City, whereas apart from the Patrice Evra – Luis Suarez racism scandal, this matchup has been irrelevant to the title race.

In truth, United claiming 20 league titles, and their quest for two more European crowns – they currently have three to Liverpool’s five – are the sole reasons why the rivalry’s excitement remains. It’s developed into more of a fixture built around pride and bragging rights opposed to a derby defined by title-winning moments like El Clasico, O Classico (Porto – Benfica) or what Der Klassiker (Bayern Munich – Borussia Dortmund) is slowly transitioning into.

However, the current state of the Premier League witnesses both sides separated by a handful of points, in what could be the most thrilling title race of this era. Where Liverpool has finished second twice in the past decade, United’s status as yearly title contender’s has drastically declined since Ferguson’s sudden retirement. United never replaced Ferguson with a true winner of his mould, whereas Liverpool lacked a tactical proficient manager with concepts suited for the modern game – more so, in European competitions – like Klopp.

Liverpool have struggled to maintain a top four status in the post-Rafa Benitez era, whereas United were floating around the same level of mediocrity without Ferguson. This is truly fitting considering both managers were pivotal in English football’s dominance on Europe in the past decade. Klopp and Mourinho, however, provide a new tale in the quest for English supremacy both domestically as well as in Europe.

More so, the two managers play a huge factor in this regard, but for contrasting reasons. Louis van Gaal spent extensive money on a youthful core for the future, but it always felt that top players were still required to mount a title challenge. Liverpool, on the other hand, lacked a cult hero, but also a manager with a distinct football philosophy to move away from the underwhelming spells of Roy Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish, and Brendan Rodgers – albeit the latter was inches away from doing the unthinkable courtesy in a similar environment that Klopp currently enjoys.

Another positive component, here, is previous meetings between the two managers during their respected tenures at Real Madrid and Dortmund. Mourinho’s tactics have been classified as outdated in recent seasons due to the difficulty he’s encountered on the domestic and continental stage. While a sole victory against Jurgen Klopp in seven meetings suggests the notion could be true, United’s display in a 0-0 draw at Anfield earlier this season proves otherwise.

That night, Mourinho’s United were fairly reactive, but their approach was superb: avoiding passes in defensive areas to limit Liverpool’s gegenpressing, whilst pressing high and forcing the Reds into mistakes in their half. It was one of the rare moments at Anfield this season where Klopp’s high-scoring Reds were perplexed, and although David De Gea was forced into two world-class saves, Zlatan Ibrahimovic missed arguably the best chance of the game.

It was the standard Mourinho “big match performance” – defensively solid to ensure a result is obtained opposed to risking a loss to a title rival. It ultimately epitomizes what United supporters have subconsciously desired in recent seasons. Surely, attractive football is appreciated, but the short-term nature of the sport values trophies and wins on a higher scale – an aspect of coaching that defines Mourinho’s career.

United have only lost one domestic match since that night, with Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic rediscovering their best form, whereas the return of Michael Carrick enables the former and Ander Herrera to perform at their optimum best in midfield. United weren’t necessarily playing poorly prior to that result, but as of late their level of play is more expansive and vividly showcases a side full of confidence.

With United sitting a mere five points behind second placed Liverpool ahead of Sunday’s kick-off, and a possible Capital One Cup final showdown awaiting, it appears that tide is turning in this historic rivalry. Klopp’s Liverpool, though out-of-form, have overachieved with the absence of European football, whereas despite a slow-start to the season, Mourinho’s United is finally playing to the high standards many expected the club to maintain subsequent to Ferguson’s departure.

In short, both clubs appear to be headed in the right direction. Mourinho has added – and will continue to do so in the upcoming transfer windows – top class players to provide the perfect balance of youth and experience in his team. And it’s likely that the Portuguese manager will receive the time and patience to build his preferred side to challenge on both fronts.

Elsewhere, a full pre-season with the Reds enabled Klopp to properly instill his methodology, and though major signings weren’t made, the German is displaying his ability to maximize the talent at his disposal. Financial limitations and the strength of their rivals will always put Klopp at a disadvantage, meaning identifying players suited to his system – along with the improvement of his young core – is the ideal route to sustaining long-term success.

Short of a top class all-rounder forward, Liverpool have been at their best with Roberto Firmino dropping deep to encourage runners forward, and making inwards runs into the channels to combine with teammates around the box. Klopp has favoured Divock Origi in recent weeks due to injuries and may rely on Belgian’s growth during his tenure, but the Reds’ fluid, interchanging football is fully maximized with Firmino operating as the focal point of the attack.

Although four months remain in the current Premier League season, Sunday’s matchup holds huge merit on the title race and the improving state of English football’s most prestigious rivalry. A United win would pull Liverpool into a scrap for a top four spot and build on the Red Devils’ current winning streak. Yet, from a tactical viewpoint, it presents Klopp with the task of overcoming United’s powerful side away from Anfield.

Following years of criticism regarding the stagnation throughout the top Premier League sides, it appears that the bigger games are slowly delivering more than sole exciting, attack-minded matches. In what could be the greatest era in Premier League history, it’s fitting that England’s most famous clubs can finally deliver a potential ‘classic’ based  purely on football terms.

 
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Posted by on January 13, 2017 in Published Work

 

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Christian Eriksen’s guile sparks Spurs past Conte’s imperious Chelsea

Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs have developed a knack of producing their finest performances against top Premier League opponents at White Hart Lane. Spurs’ first half display against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City set the bar this season, but ending Chelsea’s 13-game winning streak may hold higher value given the Blues’ dominance since their 3-0 defeat at Arsenal a few months ago.

Where other managers have adjusted their shape with hopes of halting Chelsea’s remarkable form, Pochettino’s move to a 3-4-2-1 felt natural considering he’s utilized the system on a few occasions – most recently in Spurs win over Watford a fortnight ago. Spurs obliterated Watford based on extremely poor defensive play from the hosts so it was difficult to truly assess the system’s value, and the decision to replicate the league leaders’ default system aimed to man-mark across the pitch.

The recurring issue involving two sides adopting identical systems is that it often produces uneventful, cagey battles. With the midfield zone containing physical ball-winning midfielders opposed to creative no.10’s ensured this was expected to be a scrappy affair between two well-drilled units.

In central areas, Moussa Dembele and Victor Wanyama harried N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic when they pushed forward, so the midfield duos were often restricted to safe passes from deeper positions. However, the midfielders were effective in various manners – Kante and Matic were protecting space in central areas to clog space that Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen preferred to receive possession. Meanwhile, Dembele flourished when he dribbled past opponents in the left channel, while Wanyama sat deep attempting to thwart Hazard’s threat in transition.

Elsewhere, Spurs’ possession dominance combined with Chelsea’s reluctance to press high witnessed Danny Rose and Kyle Walker maintain advanced positions to peg Chelsea wing-backs Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses into their half. Chelsea’s best spell in the initial meeting at Stamford Bridge involved Moses eventually pushing forward beyond Eriksen towards the Spurs box, which is why the switch to a 3-4-2-1 was a logical move, here. Therefore, the two sides created dangerous attacking moves in contrasting manners.

In the opening phase of the match, Chelsea’s long diagonals into wide positions exploited Spurs’ high defensive line with Hazard’s wasting a quality chance via Matic’s reverse pass from midfield. Chelsea’s swift counter-attacks amongst the front three easily bypassed Spurs midfield, but the away side’s inability to complete the final pass around the box was pivotal to their downfall.

From a defensive aspect Chelsea were far more reserved. Conte’s men maintained their base 5-4-1 and retreated into their half to negate Spurs’ clever movement and intricate passing between the lines. The away side only pushed forward as a unit when passes were played back to Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris with hopes of building attacks from deep.

Spurs, on the other hand, struggled to find space between the lines, and heavily relied on their energetic organized pressing to breach the Chelsea back-line. Prior to Alli’s opener, Spurs received two openings in a minute span that epitomized their identity under Pochettino: Wanyama intercepting a pass into Hazard and Eriksen subsequently picking up a loose Kante pass in midfield, but both men guided their efforts wide.

The key element to Spurs defensive instructions involved Alli and Eriksen tucking in centrally to prevent Kante and Matic from receiving possession in the midfield zone. Chelsea were often forced to play long balls into the channels for Costa, or have Hazard drop extremely deep to receive the ball in a midfield zone, but the Blues encountered difficulties finding a natural rhythm in possession.

Although Alli will dominate headlines for the game-winning brace, the key man, here, was Eriksen. Eriksen, in truth, is an extremely misunderstood footballer under Pochettino. Once believed to develop into a creative dynamo, the Dane now represents a functional attacker capable of playing throughout the midfield.

But where other key players struggled to perform in congested areas, Eriksen varied his movement to receive possession and play key passes throughout. Alli often aided Kane in pressing from the front, but when the Spurs striker pulled Luiz out of position, the former attempted to charge behind the Chelsea back-line.

This was the ideal movement required to pull Conte’s back-three out of position – Kane dropped deep, Alli charging behind and Eriksen forcing Cahill away from the six-yard box – and was evident in the buildup to both goals, though a collective defensive breakdown was the catalyst for the opener. Walker’s pull back to Eriksen attracted four defenders to the ball, but Luiz’s attempt to play offside, and Cahill’s intent to join three teammates to close down the Dane, enabled Alli to tower over Cesar Azpilicueta to freely nod a well weighed cross past Thibaut Courtois.

Despite a positive Chelsea onslaught to start the second half – Spurs retreated into their base shape, keen to play on the counter – Spurs secured maximum points in a similar manner. Walker’s advanced positioning, along with Eriksen floating deeper in the right channel, led to another superb cross into the box that provided another example of Alli’s fine heading ability over the diminutive Azpilicueta. Though Chelsea were better positioned for Alli’s second, isolating Azpilicueta and exploiting his lack of height at centre-back was a clever – though far from innovative – ploy from Pochettino.

Chelsea were forced to chase the remainder of the match, but a lack of sharp and precise passing ensured Spurs coped well defensively. Conte received plenty of deserved praise for reinvigorating Chelsea’s season, but clever movement, patience and perhaps Cahill’s early booking – bypassed by Eriksen following a poor header and virtually halting his aggressive tight marking on the Dane – resulted in Spurs’ trident attack outwitting a resolute Blues back-line.

Nevertheless, similar to Spurs’ defeat over City earlier this season, this doesn’t appear to be a reliable template in consistently defeating Conte’s Chelsea side. Poor performances from key players combined with various sides’ inability to replicate Spurs pressing and energy levels over extensive periods, suggests Chelsea should rarely encounter sustained vulnerable periods of this nature.

However, although this serves as a great reminder that Chelsea’s road to another league title is far from over, it equally highlights that an efficient tactical scheme will be required to overwhelm Conte’s diligent regime.

 
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Posted by on January 5, 2017 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Tactical Preview: Liverpool – Manchester City

Manchester City’s trip to Anfield sets up the final big match of the year, with Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp’s tactical rivalry holding vital significance to the current title race. Liverpool currently sit one point ahead of Guardiola’s men prior to kick-off, but a Chelsea win against Stoke could shift this into a match neither side can afford to lose.

The main talking point ahead of the match is the return of Sergio Aguero from a four-game suspension. City has operated without a natural striker for majority of the Argentine’s suspension – losing once in that time span –  but it’s unlikely Kevin De Bruyne or Nolito start upfront here. Aguero’s pace and ruthless finishing around the box could harm an unconvincing Reds back-line.

Nonetheless, City have coped well without Aguero, but as per usual, Guardiola’s shape isn’t certain here. Considering Liverpool often play in a 4-3-3, there’s a good chance City match the hosts in midfield and play in a 4-1-4-1 with Fernandinho at the base. Ilkay Gundogan’s injury means he could go 4-3-3 as well with a combative midfield trio of Fernandinho, Fernando and Yaya Toure, but given Liverpool’s efficient pressing, the former is probably Guardiola’s best option.

With that being said, Guardiola may still opt for additional protection ahead of the back four and shift to a 4-2-3-1 with Fernando in a deeper role opposed to David Silva alongside Fernandinho. Upfront, Raheem Sterling should retain his spot on the left in what will be a pivotal battle against the adventurous Nathaniel Clyne, whereas De Bruyne’s counter-attacking ability and exceptional crossing may force James Milner to be cautious from left-back.

Guardiola also has issues at the back where John Stones’ availability is uncertain after limping off the field at Hull a fortnight ago. Aleksandar Kolarov would join Nicolas Otamendi in midfield, while Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy are expected to operate as full-backs.

Liverpool, on the other hand, are still without Philippe Coutinho, but the Reds have fared well without their Brazilian star. Normally, Klopp would lean towards potential squad rotation, but he’s named an unchanged XI for the past few games and it’s unlikely he’ll tinker here. Daniel Sturridge and Emre Can would potentially fill in if required, but Klopp’s sole change hinges on Joel Matip’s fitness.

The front trio of Divock Origi, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane should start upfront, and Guardiola must fear Mane’s pace against Clichy. More so, the interchanging movement of the front three could exploit City’s shaky back-line, which further emphasizes the significance of Guardiola’s midfield decision-making.

Adam Lallana, Liverpool’s most in-form player, also poses a threat in this regard via late runs into the box. Georginio Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson will operate from deeper zones with the former pushing forward when possible, but Liverpool’s main threat comes from the right. Mane can drift inwards to encourage Clyne forward, whereas if Firmino tucks in, the Senegalese winger maintains width to isolate full-backs.

Essentially Liverpool’s cohesion and enhanced understanding of Klopp’s system could fluster a Manchester City side still attempting to reach optimum form. But the other key battle involves how City cope with Liverpool’s gegenpressing.

Everton and Stoke attempted to bypass Liverpool’s press via long direct balls into the centre-forward, a ploy that Guardiola utilized during his time at Bayern Munich, which witnessed Javi Martinez operated as an advanced midfielder behind Mario Mandzukic. Guardiola can persist with this approach by placing Fernandinho or Yaya Toure closer to Aguero to ensure City can retain possession if Aguero is unable to win aerial duels upfront.

Elsewhere, City’s high-pressing could also prove beneficial considering Guardiola’s men have looked less assured when forced to defend over extensive periods. Liverpool’s ability playing out the back can be exploited with cohesive pressing, and work-rate efficiency from both sides will be decisive.

Nevertheless, neither side have displayed defensive solidity throughout the season, and there should be goals here. Liverpool’s movement in the final third and the understanding of covering positions may overwhelm City’s defence, but Klopp must also worry about the space invaders Silva and De Bruyne between the lines activity between the lines as they represent Aguero’s main supply lines.

Liverpool’s dominant home form tips them as slight favourites here, but a returning Aguero, along with City’s form attackers suggests this could be a potential Premier League classic.

 
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Posted by on December 31, 2016 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City need more versatility from Sergio Aguero

Manchester City and Liverpool’s final match of the calendar has the potential of becoming a legitimate Premier League classic. Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola meet for the first time on Premier League soil, with the final result having huge implications on the current title race.

The former was expected to dominate the league under Guardiola’s guidance, whereas the latter’s non-involvement from European competitions suggested there would be more time for Klopp to apply his philosophy at Anfield to mount a proper title challenge. Nevertheless, both sides have fallen behind Antonio Conte’s Chelsea, and though we’re only approaching the half-way mark of the current campaign, a New Years Eve defeat would inflict a severe blow towards title aspirations.

Oddly enough, apart from the managerial rivalry formed in the Bundesliga between Guardiola and Klopp, the main pre-match talking point involves the absence of Liverpool star Philippe Coutinho. The Brazilian’s injury is a disservice to Klopp’s Liverpool given his positive start to the season and ability to score highlight reel goals, but Guardiola being able to call upon a returning Sergio Aguero has flown under the radar.

For all of Aguero’s brilliance, the Argentine still appears to be an undervalued asset to the Premier League. Despite possessing the best scoring rate and notching the most important goal in Premier League history, one can argue that Aguero still isn’t a genuine household name to the average football follower.

Aguero has recorded 13 goals in 17 appearances this season, and it’s difficult to debate that his tally wouldn’t be greater if the Argentine didn’t miss seven-league games due to suspension. Scoring goals in patches, along with joining the league during his peak years definitely plays into Aguero’s favour, but City winning two of three potential league titles when the Argentine has scored over 20 league goals illustrates his significance to the club.

Yet, in ways, City’s success and Aguero’s individualism coincide with the club’s inability to evolve into an elite superpower. That, along with injuries is possibly one of the few reasons Aguero has never featured in a PFA team of the year XI and why his terrific goal tally – averaging a return of 0.69 league goals per game over six campaigns – was often overshadowed by the brilliance of Luis Suarez and Robin van Persie.

Where Suarez and Van Persie appeared capable of playing in various roles and offering more to their side’s buildup play, Aguero simply represents a devastating finisher, rather than an elite all-rounder. In a side built around individual brilliance and catering to their best players’ strengths, previous managers Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini always catered to maximizing the Argentine’s goal threat in the final third.

During Mancini’s spell, City operated in a 4-4-2 with two narrow wide men in David Silva and Samir Nasri moving centrally to provide incisive passes behind the defence, while the full-back maintained width and pushed forward to deliver crosses into the box. Meanwhile, Edin Dzeko’s movement into deeper positions witnessed Aguero constantly sprint behind the opposition defence into goal scoring positions.

Manuel Pellegrini rarely tinkered with City’s default formation during his tenure, but in his final season, the departure of Dzeko, combined with the arrivals of Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne witnessed City shift to a 4-2-3-1. Far from a drastic stylistic move, apart from the wide attackers operating as traditional wingers – more so Jesus Navas than Sterling – Silva or De Bruyne were positioned within close proximity of Aguero, thus providing a reliable source of creativity to the Argentine.

More so, Aguero’s role in Guardiola’s version of a 4-1-4-1 or 3-2-2-3 isn’t as dependent on partnerships, and there was always a fear that the 28-year-old would struggle in the Spaniard’s set-up. Guardiola’s methodical build-up play witnesses Aguero spend extensive periods without a touch of the ball, and the nature of the Argentine’s goals offers further evidence that he’s capable of finishing with either foot whilst posing a competent aerial threat for a diminutive striker. In short, all of Aguero’s 10 league goals stemmed within 20-yards of the opposition’s net.

And though the fear that City’s limited strike options could halt a title challenge if Aguero were unavailable, Guardiola’s men have only lost one league match during the Argentine’s combined seven game absence due to suspension. City’s current league position doesn’t do Guardiola justice, but the shift into a collective unit has decreased the reliance on Aguero’s goals, which further puts the Argentine’s future at the Etihad in question.

The biggest task Guardiola and Aguero face is the former has worked with all-rounders in Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski during Barcelona and Bayern’s peak form under the Spaniard. Aguero, on the other hand, was never challenged to improve his work-rate out of possession or offer more than simply goals to City’s attack.

De Bruyne, Nolito and Raheem Sterling have featured upfront when Kelechi Iheanacho wasn’t called upon, and though City often lacked a penalty box threat around the box, Guardiola’s men still found ways to record maximum points. Elsewhere, 19-year-old Gabriel Jesus’s arrival could elevate City’s high-pressing, though adapting to the frenetic pace and physical nature of the Premier League could require time. Even when you assess the teams aiming to challenge for the title, the first choice centre-forwards all possess various attacking traits.

Arsenal and Liverpool have transitioned between no.9’s capable of linking play and all-rounders in Roberto Firmino and Alexis Sanchez that drop deeper and vary positions to encourage runners forward. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Harry Kane are also accustomed to playing deeper to influence the match from a no.10 role, whereas Diego Costa’s linkup play with his back to goal and willingness to utilize his power to bully opponents and run the channels has been pivotal to Chelsea’s success.

Still, Aguero remains the most ruthless finisher in the league, and it will be interesting to see whether Guardiola will stray away from his preference of a natural all-rounder upfront. Against a defensively inadequate Liverpool side vulnerable to direct football when they attempt to counter-press, Aguero, as in most cases, represents the main attacking threat at Anfield this weekend.

“We have played them [Manchester City] already and he was involved and I always thought that he is quite a talented boy, I never made a secret of it,” said Klopp.

“Now he [Aguero] is back in the team with a lot of other really good players that makes life not easier for us. But we knew it before and even when he is not playing they are an outstanding team.”

Aguero may have displayed glimpses of improved work-rate this season, but that may not be enough to be the focal point of Guardiola’s long-term plans. With City’s defence far from reliable, Guardiola’s best attempt at claiming the Premier League title may rest in Aguero’s efficient poaching abilities.

But even then, Aguero may not receive the recognition he deserves until he fully evolves his all-round game.

 
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Posted by on December 30, 2016 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Koeman’s Everton can’t rely on improvisation to overcome Klopp’s cohesive Liverpool

The significance of Ashley William’s late winner against Arsenal can’t be overlooked. In terms of the current title race, the Gunners fell further behind league leaders Chelsea, but Williams’ goal granted Everton their second win in 11 outings.

A bright start under Ronald Koeman hinted that Everton could possibly challenge for a European spot this season, and though they aren’t the defensively incompetent side often featured under Roberto Martinez, there’s still a sense of underachievement surfacing around Goodison Park.

The fear of further regression loomed with a difficult December schedule, but positive results against Manchester United and Arsenal alleviated pressure on the Dutchman – especially since both results witnessed the Toffees come from behind to earn results.

“How we played after 20 minutes, there was aggression in midfield and I think James McCarthy played fantastically,” said Koeman following the Arsenal result.

“When you have one win out of 10 games it starts with commitment, working hard, being aggressive and you get the support and you get the win finally.”

Perhaps that vividly describes Everton’s approach under Koeman that appears to be predominantly based around wing-play, but the football displayed at Goodison Park in recent weeks offered improved energy and work-rate. But Everton’s away performances against big clubs this season have been contrasting – at Chelsea a switch to a back three saw the Blues disassemble Koeman’s men, whereas at City, the Dutchman adjusted to a back-four at half-time to nick a second half equalizer at the Etihad.

With that being said, there’s been a certain degree of luck associated with Everton’s positive form in these matches. City’s poor penalty taking – denied twice by Marten Stekelenburg from the spot – along with Mesut Ozil’s profligacy and Ander Herrera striking the woodwork enabled timely second half resurgences, which suggests Koeman’s men simply aren’t performing to the level expected at Goodison.

A pragmatic, yet organized David Moyes Everton often frustrated the top sides, but fear of further progression witnessed the duo part ways. Roberto Martinez, on the other hand, instilled a proactive possession based system that lacked penetration in the final third, and equally saw the Merseyside club experience the defensive issues that led to Wigan’s relegation.

A Monday night Liverpool visit presents another sturdy test this month, considering Jurgen Klopp’s men are the best attacking side in the country. More so, the contrast between the two sides is stark despite both conceding 20 league goals this season – which further highlights the defensive issues both sides possess. Liverpool, though, have recorded twice as many goals, and there’s a clear juxtaposition regarding the Reds’ buildup.

Neither club are blessed with legitimate world-class players in their XI, but Klopp’s year long-tenure has provided his current side time to understand his methodology. ‘Gegenpressing’ is the significant trait associated with Klopp, but in possession, the Reds are capable of breaking down the opposition with swift combination play around the box.

Frankly, it’s difficult to defend against Liverpool because of the constant movement between their attacking quintet. Jordan Henderson sits at the base of the midfield and spreads the play, but the remaining attackers tend to overload central areas to encourage the full-backs forward to provide width.

Where this would present a problem for most teams due to congestion, Liverpool counter the issue by ensuring a teammate’s natural position is covered. For instance, Liverpool’s three goals at Middlesbrough displayed the Reds’ spatial coverage. Sadio Mane drifted centrally for the opener to encourage right-back Nathaniel Clyne forward which is basic football instincts.

The insurance goal, however, witnessed Adam Lallana make a diagonal run into right half space due to Mane’s deeper movement to combine with Georginio Wijnaldum thus resulting in the England international to square the ball across goal for a Divock Origi tap in. The third goal involved a role reversal between Mane and Origi with the former dropping into midfield to receive the ball and the latter darting into the right channel, as another Lallana late run into the box increased Liverpool’s lead.

Out of possession they vary their pressing, but going forward the constant interchanging of movement and spatial coverage provides evidence that Klopp’s approach is being executed at Anfield. Very little can be said about Everton, though, which is the main worry regarding Koeman’s side.

Relying on individual brilliance doesn’t represent a sustainable long-term approach, and the best sides in the world often follow a clear attacking module. There’s been a huge emphasis on crosses into the box, which could explain the summer arrival of Yannick Bolasie – a powerful tricky dribbler – whereas Ross Barkley has been much better in a midfield trio than a no.10 role behind the striker.

But where Everton were at least possessed the identity of a counter-attacking side that finished efficiently around the box, under Martinez during his final season at Goodison, there’s a been a bit of uncertainty around the opposition’s box this season. Still lacking a player capable of unlocking organized back-lines with incisive final passes and inconsistent quality from wide areas has left Romelu Lukaku isolated upfront.

From a defensive perspective, Everton are susceptible to crosses into the box and the centre-back options have been unreliable. Though this could be a league-wide issue unravelling at most clubs, the fact that Koeman’s men struggle in the attacking third insists they can’t turn to outscoring their opponents like Klopp’s Liverpool can.

Given it’s Koeman initial season at Goodison Park, patience may be required before we see results. But basic defensive errors, failure to add guile in deeper and advanced midfield positions, and limiting the involvement of their best attacking players certainly questions Koeman’s long-term plan.

Everton simply represent a side built around wide direct attacks and sheer dynamism in midfield, but the lack of cohesion and collective organization separates them from a Liverpool side carrying out Klopp’s philosophy with devastating efficiency. Ultimately, that alone, can be the decisive factor that prevents Everton from a potential Merseyside derby triumph.

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2016 in Published Work

 

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