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Tactical Preview: Manchester City – Chelsea

The Premier League’s two key managerial acquisitions this summer, Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte, face off in this weekend’s big clash at the Etihad Stadium. The stark contrast between Guardiola and Conte’s philosophy is vivid, and with both sides vying to mount a title challenge, this clash has all the ingredients of a potential Premier League classic.

Matches of this stature tend to be cautious considering most managers prefer to avoid defeat against title rivals, but City have failed to record a domestic win since the Manchester Derby, and will be desperate to make a statement here. Frankly, Chelsea’s form hints that the pressure will be on Guardiola to end their seven-game winning streak.

Chelsea are the Premier League’s form team following a tactical switch to a 3-4-2-1, and it would be surprising to see Conte stray away from the successful system. Diego Costa has often struggled against the sheer physicality of Manchester City centre-backs Vincent Kompany and Eliaquim Mangala, but with both men unavailable – the former injured and the later on loan –the Chelsea striker should fancy his chances running at John Stones rather than Nicolas Otamendi.

Though the Blues have been fairly convincing in Conte’s 3-4-2-1, last weekend’s clash with Spurs posed the league leaders a few issues, despite their impressive fight back. It was always uncertain as to whether Chelsea could cope with intense high pressure, and for large spells of the first half against Spurs, the Blues struggled to push into the opposing half as a unit.

City are likely to replicate Spurs’ pressing but in an intelligent manner: where Mauricio Pochettino’s men constantly pressed and tired before half-time, City will likely aim to fluster the Blues in spurts. But where Chelsea’s shape is all but certain to be a 3-4-2-1, Guardiola’s unpredictability makes it difficult to determine how the Spaniard will approach the match.

However, Eden Hazard and Pedro’s resurgence poses a similar threat. The former operating in an inside-left role may force a centre-back or Fernandinho to keep tabs on the Belgian, whereas Pedro’s movement beyond the defence could force Claudio Bravo off his line on several occasions.

Between the 3-2-2-3 and the 4-1-4-1, it’s possible we may see a hybrid of the two. Guardiola should offer a hint of caution going forward, but he may instruct full-backs, Aleksandar Kolarov and Bacary Sagna to sit in half-spaces to help negate potential counter-attacks with Ilkay Gundogan or Fernandinho splitting the centre-backs when necessary.

In the past Guardiola preferred to control bigger matches with ball retention, and considering Chelsea has yet to sort out issues with their midfield two when opposing sides overload central areas suggests the City manager could sacrifice a winger for a ball-player. Gundogan and Fernandinho will likely start in midfield with David Silva, but Raheem Sterling’s fitness remains pivotal, nonetheless.

Conte’s wing-backs are integral to their success and Guardiola is forced to make a major decision regarding his shape. Nolito and Sterling possess the work-ethic to track the forward movement of Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses, yet if City dominate possession, as expected, he may aim to quickly shift balls to the wide players to peg the Chelsea wing-backs deeper.

The pairing of N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic are vast improvements to a Chelsea side that were feeble in midfield last season, but once again, here, they face a difficult task coping with intelligent space invaders in Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva. Ilkay Gundogan and Silva could operate centrally if Guardiola opts for 4-1-4-1, which would enable De Bruyne to serve as a counter-attacking threat behind the Chelsea wing-backs.

Upfront, Sergio Aguero should lead the line following two goals at Burnley, but unlike previous meetings against Chelsea, he faces a 1v3 disadvantage upfront. Aguero’s pace and movement would likely be a threat to David Luiz and Gary Cahill, but now, they have an additional spare man in Cesar Azpilicueta to sweep up danger. This may see Aguero’s main involvement based around linking play when he drops deep or moves towards the flank, whilst poaching loose balls within the 18-yard box.

On the other hand, Guardiola will be tasked with limiting David Luiz’s productivity from deep areas – the Brazilian is the chief playmaker in Conte’s 3-4-2-1 and his influence was limited against Spurs when Chelsea endured pressure from Pochettino’ men. Therefore, Guardiola is expected to instruct his wide players and Aguero to quickly close down Chelsea’s centre-back trio.

Ultimately, Guardiola’s system should define the tempo and the pattern of the match. With no one yet to identify a ploy capable of nullifying Chelsea’s threats, surely pressure will be on his midfield duo to keep Pedro and Hazard quiet, whilst preventing the wing-backs from pushing forward.

Likewise, Conte’s received a week to manage heavy cohesive high-pressing, but last week’s switch to a narrow 5-4-1 negated Spurs’ superiority in central areas, and he may follow suit here. City’s technically gifted creators and direct wide threats pose a serious threat to the Blues away from home, and if Conte’s men fail to start the match with the intensity the Italian demands, then their seven-game winning streak will be under severe threat.

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2016 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Yaya Toure can still play a role for Guardiola’s Manchester City

Yaya Toure’s future at Manchester City was under significant threat following the announcement of Pep Guardiola’s appointment. With the Ivorian’s performances under heavy scrutiny throughout last year’s campaign, along with Guardiola deeming Toure as surplus to requirement during their time at Barcelona, the possibility of deja-vu wasn’t farfetched.

Yet, with the Christmas period vastly approaching, Toure – following a public apology to the club and fans – has returned to the first team with vigour. Two goals at Selhurst Park earned City maximum points, and a standout display in a scrappy match with Burnley has kept City on pace for a proper title challenge.

Though Toure has played an integral role in City’s success this decade, the evolution of the squad has clearly exposed his defensive deficiencies. A player of Toure’s stature, built on strength and heavy running, was always expected to experience a decline towards his early 30’s, but City were reluctant to bolster their options in midfield until Guardiola’s arrival.

Toure and Guardiola’s relationship is mysterious, but the decision to utilize a young Sergio Busquets as his sole pivot at Barcelona didn’t bode well with the media or the Ivorian’s camp. Still, where Guardiola’s Barcelona are now classified as the best club team of our generation, Toure dominated the middle of the park in English football and guided City amongst the division’s elite.

Toure, however, is a difficult player to incorporate into a cohesive side: you can’t play the Ivorian as a sole pivot because he doesn’t possess the work-rate or defensive awareness to protect the back four.

“I’m here to take decisions. Maybe I make mistakes, but I have to take decisions and I respect that all the people cannot agree with me. That happened,” the Spaniard said.

“I spoke in the last month, many times with Yaya because he was my player with Barcelona, I know him very well. So I know how he is like a player.” “As a player there is no doubt — if there was a doubt he would not be here. He is another guy to compete with our midfield players and increase our level.”

On the other hand, Toure struggled in a 4-2-3-1 during the Manuel Pellegrini era because Fernandinho was also an identical box-to-box midfielder and equally lacked the discipline to protect the centre of the pitch when required. From a statistical perspective, Toure may have appeared to be playing well – scoring 20 league goals when City won the double during the 2013/2014 campaign – but in truth, he was partially responsible for the club’s structural issues out of possession.

Likewise, Toure’s best spell at the Etihad was when he played ahead of Nigel de Jong and Gareth Barry, two ball-winners that sat ahead of the back four, therefore providing the City star freedom to push forward. Though it took City’s limitations under Pellegrini to showcase Toure’s current state as a footballer, it’s difficult to dispute that he may solely be useful in two roles.

This however isn’t an issue to Guardiola, who often doesn’t receive credit for being an astute pragmatist. The tiki-taka football played at Barcelona suited the demands of the players that grew up in La Masia, whilst adding direct players in wide positions to provide penetration.

Though Guardiola’s Bayern dominated possession in most games, the German side’s approach was the antithesis of Pep’s Barca. At Bayern, Guardiola’s side revolved around the wing play between the rampaging full-backs and wingers Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery: when the latter was unavailable, Douglas Costa eventual arrival strengthened Bayern’s dominance in wide areas.

Pep’s possession and dynamic counter-pressing guided City back to domestic prominence, shifting between a 4-1-4-1 and 4-2-3-1. David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne have been fielded as deep central midfielders, Aleksandar Kolarov as a centre-back, and full-backs positioned in half spaced to negate counter-attacks have been introduced during Guardiola’s brief stint at City thus far.

But City haven’t been flawless under Guardiola, and several draws have led many to believe the creative, yet frail offensive-minded players required another dimension to their attack. Roughly, this is where Toure’s physical stature has proved beneficial as both a no.6 and a no.10 ahead of Fernandinho and Fernando.

Toure’s production in the final third still remains significant to a City side that can be guilty of being overelaborate. Where his goals won the game at Palace, it was the nifty intricate combinations plays around the box with Nolito that created openings against a sturdy Burnley back-line.

In footballing terms, Toure is the ideal midfielder to be appreciated, and equally thrive in the Premier League. A goal-scoring, powerful specimen that is eager to carry the ball forward, yet capable of simultaneously shrugging off challenges. However, the better teams in the league now rely on heavy pressing, hard-running and defensive organization, all areas that have prevented Toure from maintaining his world-class status following Roberto Mancini’s departure.

Incidentally, Toure’s situation is fairly similar to Cesc Fabregas’ conundrum since leaving the Emirates. Moving into a free attacking role under Arsene Wenger, Fabregas didn’t develop the tactical discipline to be effective throughout midfield. At Barcelona he often played on the flank or interchanged with Lionel Messi at the main centre-forward, because his productivity from deeper positions – specifically when the opposition applied midfield pressure – concerned Guardiola of the Spaniard’s anarchic style.

“Cesc’s anarchy is good for us. He moves down the right and the left; he is physically very strong with a lot of vision and high work rate,” Guardiola said.

“We like the fact that he 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.”

Ultimately, Fabregas failed to solidify a role in the Barcelona midfield and his move to Chelsea pushed him into a double-pivot alongside Nemanja Matic. While Fabregas’ first half of Chelsea’s title-winning campaign was impressive, performance levels decreased significantly once sides began pressing the Spaniard when he received possession.

But where Guardiola’s constant tactical evolution has led to Toure’s recall, Conte simply doesn’t trust Fabregas’ lack of mobility to protect the back four or break up play in midfield. Therefore, apart from brief cameo appearances where his passing range proved crucial in the latter stages of matches, Fabregas is forced to improve his dynamism and work-rate to feature in Conte’s XI.

Conte and Guardiola are seemingly contrasting managers, but with Chelsea being the most in-form team in the league, the latter may be forced into making a few personnel decisions ahead of the Blues’ trip to the Etihad this weekend. Although Chelsea displayed signs of improvement in a 3-4-2-1 rejig following losses to Liverpool and Arsenal several weeks ago, Guardiola may aim to identify one of their few notable weaknesses in central areas.

N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic’s ball-winning skills offer a solid base in the midfield zone, but last week’s win over Spurs also showcased their susceptibility to midfield overloads. It’s also possible that Guardiola will attempt to match Chelsea for power in midfield as they also pose a slight advantage in that regard.

Guardiola is likely to prefer control through possession rather than sheer power at home, so the likelihood of Ilkay Gundogan and Fernandinho in midfield over Toure is the harsh reality the Ivorian will have to accept at the age of 33. It’s possible that Toure would be better suited in away games against physical opponents that prefer to disrupt opposed to pushing forward to attack Guardiola’s men.

More so, the Guardiola-Toure saga will be intriguing to assess over the course of the season because the added flexibility required from the former suggests Toure would have to adapt his game to solidify a role in the City XI. The days of the rampaging runs, breathtaking goals, and precise passing variations have influenced this club like no other, and though Toure’s best days may have passed, the Ivorian still holds a key role in City’s title quest.

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2016 in EPL, Published Work

 

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TFC’s set-piece execution overwhelms Biello’s Montreal Impact

Toronto FC leaned towards training ground execution to avenge last year’s MLS playoff exit to rivals Montreal Impact with an emphatic 5-2 victory at BMO Field. If Gregg Vanney didn’t receive plaudits for TFC improvement this season, then this two-legged fixture ensures that he should have very few critics going forward.

Falling to a three goal deficit with nearly half and hour remaining at Olympic Stadium should have placed Mauro Biello’s Impact within touching distance of an MLS Cup appearance, but Vanney’s tactical shifts – moving from a 3-5-2 to a 3-4-2-1, and then finally to a 3-4-1-2 – resulted in two away goals from Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. Though Vanney’s alterations ignited a response, identifying a ploy to avoid a similar first half outcome at BMO Field presented a test of his tactical acumen.

Opposed to straying away from the 3-5-2, Vanney’s sole change involved Will Johnson moving into midfield ahead of Jonathan Osorio. Biello, on the other hand, named the same starting XI for the fifth consecutive match, which heavily relies on the counter-attacking threat of the wide players, and the midfield trio’s ability to protect the centre of the pitch.

One of the issues TFC encountered from open play last week was their intent to simply dump balls into Altidore. Although the American international can operate as genuine target-man upfront, Altidore can simply be classified as an all-rounder at this level if you exclude his play-making skills.

Where Sebastian Giovinco once again dominated headlines throughout the regular season, Altidore was arguably the most impactful TFC player during the latter stages of the season and this current playoff run. With so much attention emphasized on negating Giovinco’s threat upfront, Altidore received additional space around the final third to influence the match.

Altidore quickly imposed his authority on the match within the opening six minutes, as Clint Irwin’s basic punt saw TFC striker shrug off Laurent Ciman and Victor Cabrera only to see Marco Donadel’s last-ditch recovering tackle prevent Giovinco from a potential opener. Ciman was subsequently booked for hauling down Altidore, and therefore it was unsurprising to see the American’s surging run into the box earn the corner that led to Armando Cooper’s equalizer.

The other aspect of Altidore’s impressive performance was the American’s work-rate out of possession. There were moments when the American tracked runs near the TFC box to help the hosts regain possession and charge forward. It was refreshing to see Altidore find ways to contribute on both ends given that the two sides were so familiar with the opposition that they often negated threats from open play.

Johnson was selected to offer improved protection of the back four to cope with Montreal’s threat on the counter. Meanwhile, Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow were cautious with their positioning, which also limited the away side’s threat down the flanks. However, despite Vanney’s minor adjustments, Matteo Mancosu still held off defenders and drove towards goal to create Dominic Oduro’s opener, subsequent to Patrice Bernier dispossessing Bradley at the halfway line.

Although Montreal increased their lead via another counter-attack, TFC still failed to bypass the away side’s narrow positioning ahead of the box. Frankly, TFC’s productivity from open play was tedious, as they were unable to provide a legitimate solution to the Impact’s shape. Nonetheless, Vanney’s alternative rested in training ground set-piece work: a day prior, the Reds reportedly spent additional time fine-tuning set-piece procedures.

The Impact back-line were shaky from the opening whistle, and here, they simply couldn’t cope with TFC’s aerial threats. TFC regained the lead in an eight-minute spell that witnessed Nick Hagglund and Jozy Altidore rise above their marker to connect with Giovinco’s corners – the former’s header was cleared off the line only for the rebound to be converted by Cooper.

Oddly enough, when TFC opted to retreat in their half, Biello’s wide-men easily equalized. Following an uneventful opening half, Oduro and Piatti adopted narrow shapes, and were within close proximity of the midfielders to receive service and run at the TFC defence. Piatti and substitute Venegas combined for the equalizer, thus forcing Vanney to react.

Vanney summoned Johnson for Tosaint Ricketts and moved to a 3-4-3 with Giovinco moving to the left flank – the front three were interchanging throughout; Giovinco moved laterally across the final third with Altidore and Ricketts predominantly in the box – and risked being exploited on the counter against the Impact’s deep defensive line.

Oduro and Piatti may have spurned quality chances in transition, but the Impact remained susceptible to crosses in the box. Hagglund put TFC ahead from another corner kick, whereas a piece of individual brilliance rom Altidore to evade two Impact players nearly won the game. As the Impact tired, it was only logical that TFC kept flooding the box, and it was fitting that substitute Benoit Cheyrou – introduced for the injured Giovinco – and Ricketts converted deliveries from six-yards out.

Perhaps Vanney’s preference to persist with TFC’s base shape never resulted in success, but mid game fine-tuning proved decisive, nonetheless. Giovinco’s minimal influence over both legs illustrates the overall depth of the side, but equally highlighted Altidore’s significance to the club.

Defensive solidity is commonly associated with a title-winner, and though TFC were poor in that respect, Vanney’s attention-to-detail and tactical prowess witnessed the Reds manager utilize width and set-piece efficiency to overcome set-backs. On recent evidence, even if the opposition identifies a solution to limit Giovinco’s threat, TFC possess the resilience, and ample goal-scoring options to win games.

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2016 in Published Work

 

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BPL Notebook Matchday 13: Projected title contenders overcome difficult roadblocks

Chelsea maintained their seven game winning-streak Saturday afternoon at the expense of rivals Spurs, handing Mauricio Pochettino’s men their first loss of the Premier League campaign.

The result ensures the Blues will travel to Manchester City next week as league leaders, but as expected Antonio Conte’s men endured a few issues to start the match. Within the opening 10 minutes, Christian Eriksen’s impressive opener forced Chelsea’s hands, but worryingly enough, Spurs were equally dominant in terms of their overall play.

Spurs inconsistent form prior to kickoff was slightly downplayed, but Pochettino’s men were still the best defensive team in the league, due to an energetic press that was perfectly executed against Manchester City earlier this season. However, though Spurs were undoubtedly the better side then, they endured dodgy moments when they were unable to sustain their energy levels.

What was key about the performance, in particular, was their efficient finishing in the final third. At Stamford Bridge, Pochettino’s men struggled to get behind the Chelsea defence despite negating their ability to build attacks from the back. Eden Hazard and Diego Costa were starved for service, and for large portions of the first half, Conte’s men were overrun in midfield.

Dele Alli and Harry Kane were capable of receiving intricate passes in pockets of space, with the former’s movement playing a critical role to Eriksen’s opener. Meanwhile, Kyle Walker’s pace and strength exposed Marcos Alonso’s deficiencies in a wide defensive role. But it was only until the half hour mark where Chelsea began to grow into the match.

Similar to their emphatic victory over City, Pochettino’s men began to concede space once their pressing decreased. Suddenly Victor Moses was an open outlet on the right, whereas Hazard and Costa found space to carry the ball into, albeit limited support from their teammates. Though Chelsea were presented space as the half progressed, a short spell that involved Hazard cutting off a poor Hugo Lloris pass, followed by Pedro’s incredible equalizer shifted the momentum into the hosts’ favour.

The problems Spurs encountered towards the conclusion of the first half continued at the start of the second. Hazard was constantly fouled with his back to goal, whereas Costa worked diligently through the channels, but it was Moses’ pluck to charge past Son that proved decisive.

Alonso and Moses’ proactive advanced positioning occurred subsequent to Spurs’ dominance within the first half hour, which was always the worry with Son and Eriksen operating in wide areas. Pochettino’s men simply failed to remain compact out of possession, and you can argue that they didn’t really have a plan B once energy levels decreased.

More so, this is the concern with Spurs. Still showing signs of fatigue from last season, apart from the signing of Wanyama, Pochettino’s XI hasn’t improved significantly. Therefore, the onus is on players to exceed last year’s form, and with Spurs’ overall approach largely based on running, it simply doesn’t appear to be attainable.

On the other hand, Conte deserves credit for reinvigorating his side: Chelsea’s shape didn’t change in the second half, but they closed down ball-carriers and open spaces quicker, and Alonso and Moses provided the width to stretch Spurs’ 4-4-2 throughout. Elsewhere, they equally managed the remainder of the match superbly once they went ahead.

The Blues reverted to a 5-4-1 out of possession with Hazard and Pedro maintaining narrow wide positions to ensure Spurs couldn’t overload central areas. Apart from slight defensive mistakes and Nkoudou easing past substitute Branislav Ivanovic, Spurs failed to trouble an organized Chelsea outfit.

Had this been a year ago, Chelsea may have encountered difficulties closing out a tight match, but there’s a sense of revitalization, belief, and hunger under Conte. Although the performance wasn’t comparable to previous home triumphs during this seven game stretch, champions often find ways to win matches when struggling to reach top form.

If anything, this was an audition for a flexible City side that will have alternative approaches apart from Guardiola’s traditional high pressing. It’s possibly still to early to claim title contender’s status, but overcoming multiple formations and Spurs’ heavy pressing suggests the Blues are heading in the right direction.

Ozil – Sanchez growing partnership overshadows difficult afternoon

Alexis Sanchez’s opener hinted that three points would be a formality, yet this was a difficult outing for Arsene Wenger’s men. Sanchez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s pace earned two members of the Bournemouth back four bookings within the opening 10 minutes as Arsenal’s attacking quartet was built on pace and Mesut Ozil’s creativity.

This was the ideal set up for Ozil to thrive in, yet the wide players were uninspiring following the opener, and the midfield pairing of Mohamed Elneny and Granit Xhaka struggled on both ends. Defensively, Bournemouth’s midfield trio easily bypassed the Arsenal duo en route to goal, and Joshua King simply dropped into space between the lines to combine with teammates.

From an offensive perspective, Arsenal simply lacked the control Santi Cazorla, or Mikel Arteta once provided with a mixture of short and long passes to retain possession. At times the match was end to end, and Arsenal weren’t assured on both ends of the field.

With that being said, Wenger at the very least would be pleased to see his best players doing their utmost best to salvage a result. Interestingly, Alexi’s varied positions witnessed the Chilean dropping deeper to supply penetrative passes for Ozil making runs beyond the Bournemouth back-line.

Though the two Arsenal marquee signings were rarely on the same wavelength, the desperation to create plays and surge their teammates forward was fascinating. Arsenal improved significantly in the second half when Bournemouth retreated in their half opposed to pressing.

Bournemouth was forced to chased the game following Theo Walcott’s winner, which ultimately benefitted a speedy Arsenal attack. Likewise, Sanchez doubled Arsenal’s lead and secured three points in stoppage time following a swift break featuring a well-weighed Ozil pass to ignite the move.

Wenger’s side have made a knack of earning results albeit not playing their best football, and a developed partnership with Alexis striving in a centre-forward role ahead of Ozil in his optimum position could prove decisive if the Gunners intend on mounting a proper title challenge.

Yaya Toure staking role in Guardiola’s City system

He did it again. Yaya Toure wasn’t on the score sheet this week, but the Ivorian played a positive role in a narrow win against a resilient Burnley side. Guardiola named the powerful midfield trio that featured in majority of City’s game’s last season, but Toure was involved in several dangerous moves because he was positioned closer to Sergio Aguero and free of defensive duties.

Although a brace at Crystal Palace placed Toure back in the headlines, here, he showcased what he has left to offer. Fernandinho and Fernando remained deeper in fear of the Burnley counter-attack, whereas Toure predominantly linked play with Nolito, who drifted into pockets of space in central areas.

Sergio Aguero poached both goals but his involvement from open play was scare. Raheem Sterling operated in a wide position on the right, but oddly hesitated when he received the ball in key areas and was considerably ineffective in the final third. But Toure rolled back the clock with his quick incisive combinations and powerful sprints towards goal.

Now, Toure might not feature in the City XI every week, but there was a glaring issue regarding their predictability from open play and the fear of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne being overrun in midfield. It’s the dimension City lacked in the early stages of the season, and the new dimension to a fine-tuned flexible unit presents various ways to win in the near future.

Guardiola will always be associated to the possession-based tiki-taka football that revolutionized the sport during his time at Barcelona, but his spell at Bayern proved the Spaniard can adapt to the cultural strengths that define a domestic league. In Toure, Guardiola may still require the Ivorian’s power, precision, and finishing ability around the penalty box, which further justifies his significance to the squad.

Injury-hit Liverpool encounter near scare against Moyes’ Sunderland

Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool fell to second place when they failed to score at Southampton, and they appeared destined to suffer the same fate against a resolute Sunderland outfit. Moyes aligned his men to disrupt and destroy, but the hosts were dominant for extensive periods throughout.

For all of Liverpool’s patient build up and clever interchanging movement, the hosts rarely got behind the opposition’s defence. Resorting to long distance shots and poor set-piece execution kept the score-line leveled, while Sunderland were pegged so deep into their half that launching counters was nearly impossible with Defoe isolated upfront.

The second half followed a similar tempo, but Patrick van Aanholt’s inability to play a final pass and Duncan Watmore couldn’t score despite rounding Liverpool keeper Loris Karius. Coutinho’s early departure and the absence of Adam Lallana deprived the Reds of genuine guile and creativity in the final third, as several crosses through the six-yard box went astray.

Substitute Divock Origi’s individual brilliance won the game, but there’s a fear that Liverpool will struggle to break down opposing teams that replicate Sunderland’s approach. Perhaps Origi or Daniel Sturridge’s presence will be useful to poach goals without two creative cogs in Klopp’s successful system, and in truth, being forced to identify a plan B or C could reap rewards long-term.

Mourinho and United’s issues persist at Old Trafford

It’s now come to a point where Manchester United’s results represent the Premier League’s main mystery. Is it simply bad luck? Or do the players and possibly Mourinho need to be held accountable for consistently dropping points?

This isn’t a Mourinho team we’ve been accustomed to falling in love with over the years. There’s been few significant individual improvements from the players that survived the Louis van Gaal era. Elsewhere, Mourinho’s father-esque mantra often associated with his most successful teams is non-existence.

Once again, United conceded within the opening 90 seconds against West Ham, yet they rallied well subsequent to the goal. Phil Jones was superb at the back, while the midfield pairing of Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba occupied half spaces and circulated possession in a tidy manner.

Youngsters Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford received glorious chances to put United ahead but spurned their opportunities, and though Antonio Valencia constantly motored past Dmitri Payet, the Ecuadorian’s crosses didn’t harm the West Ham back-line.

Mourinho’s decision to omit Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Wayne Rooney following positive midweek Europa League performances perturbed United supporters, but the Red Devils weren’t poor, here. The worry, however, rests in United ensuring their positive displays earn the club maximum points on a weekly basis.

Nevertheless, Mourinho will continue to be scrutinized for every United hiccup, but it’s reached the point where the Portuguese manager and the players come together and mount a legitimate top four challenge. At the moment, though, even that goal appears insurmountable.

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

 
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Posted by on November 29, 2016 in EPL Notebook, Published Work

 

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Chelsea’s new system faces potential halt against energetic Spurs

What a difference a few weeks make. Ask Antonio Conte’s Chelsea side and they’ll provide a detailed summary.

Consecutive losses to Liverpool and Arsenal left many questioning Conte’s merit as an elite manager, whilst declaring the Blues out of the title race before it really began. Now, they sit top of the Premier League, scoring 17 goals and recording six clean sheets in that span, yet all it took was a simple tactical shift following the arrival of David Luiz and Marcos Alonso.

Chelsea now look like a well-equipped machine with all the tools capable of mounting a legitimate title challenge, and finally stepping away from the Jose Mourinho aura that’s incessantly floated around West London for over a decade. Unlike the Portuguese manager’s initial departure – where the Blues failed to find a new identity – Conte has stamped his philosophy at Stamford Bridge in a fair manner.

But the significant feat in Conte’s brief success in England was his overall approach to the situation. Roman Abramovich’s rash decisions to freely sack managers based on the club’s form was no secret to the Italian, yet he still carried forward in a pragmatic manner.

Avoiding the mistake of attempting to make initial drastic alterations like Andre Villas-Boas and Filipe Luiz Scolari, two foreign managers that were hired based on success abroad was wise. Also, Conte couldn’t rely on Mourinho’s failed approach like previous managers, so the Italian simply offered the players a chance to prove their worth in a defensive-oriented 4-1-4-1 heavily based around structure.

The Blues simply didn’t possess the personnel to operate in the 4-2-4 Conte previously deployed prior to his appointment at Juventus. Moreover, Conte also didn’t have the centre-back options to accommodate the 3-5-2 that was successful during his tenure in Turin. A 4-1-4-1, on the other hand, was logical because the Blues simply didn’t have a No.10 that could dominate or win games in a free role.

Interestingly, this was the default Chelsea system till the turn of the decade due to the abundance of top-class central midfielders at Stamford Bridge. Carlo Ancelotti attempted to stray away from the system with some success with a 4-4-2 diamond and eventually the 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree system, but Conte doesn’t possess similar quality midfielders.

This has to do with the West London clubs brief obsession with diminutive technically gifted players following their Champions League triumph. Chelsea moved to a 4-2-3-1 and were slowly playing captivating football but were retrospectively feeble in central areas, lacking a creative cog and ball-winner to protect the back four.

Although Chelsea enjoyed a perfect start to the Conte era, the performances weren’t convincing, as the Blues struggled to create chances from open play. Ultimately, individual lapses and a peculiar defensive approach – sitting off technically gifted dynamic sides and not applying pressure in their own half – left many questioning the quality of current crop of players and Conte’s ability to succeed overseas.

Consecutive dropped points could serve as in indicator that change was required, and it was certainly beneficial that injuries in key areas enabled Conte’s system alteration without dissent. Two of last season’s major underachievers Cesc Fabregas and Branislav Ivanovic were eased out of the XI, and though John Terry started the season well, at some point this season Conte would have to consider a future without the Chelsea captain.

Conte tried it their way and Chelsea were played off the park by potential title rivals Liverpool and Arsenal, and more worryingly conceded eight goal in three games. With Terry and Ivanovic injured, and Fabregas failing to impress like many Chelsea supporters hoped he would against former club Arsenal, Conte’s switch to a 3-4-2-1 was not only logical, but desperately required.

Frankly, late deadline day signings were possibly acquired specifically for this system. Marcos Alonso was one of Serie A’s standout defenders in a left wing-back role for Fiorentina last season, whereas David Luiz impact with and out of possession is significant.

Luiz’s most recent display against Middlesborough striker Alvaro Negredo displayed astute defending and the aggression that’s not associated with the Brazilian. Likewise, the 29-year-old’s proficient passing typifies the defender as deep-lying playmaker from centre-back, as he consistently builds plays with long diagonals into the channel – this is also essential due to Fabregas’ exclusion deprived the XI of a genuine ball-player in deep zones.

More so, Chelsea’s 3-4-2-1 frees Eden Hazard of lengthy defensive duties – now he roams into central positions from the left, drifts into space in the channels, and is beginning to shoot more, which is significant to his world-class form. Pedro Rodriguez is also familiar with coming off the right flank and utilizing his speed to break beyond the defence in a three-man attack.

The midfield duo consisting of N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic is built around dynamism and quickly regaining possession, thus providing the Blues with the solid base they’ve lacked in recent years. Meanwhile, Diego Costa’s rediscovered the goal-scoring form that widely regards the Spanish international as one of the best strikers in the sport.

“Diego is a very good player,” Conte said. “It’s important for me, for his teammates, to see that in every game, Diego works a lot with the ball and without the ball. He’s an example for all. And I want to continue this way.

“If he continues to score, I’ll be very happy. But I’ll be happier to see this commitment, this work-rate during training and in games, to work with the team with and without the ball. If all the players are able to think in this way, it’s fantastic and we’ll be a good team, a very tough team to play.

But possibly the most fascinating aspect of Conte’s shift is their current run of clean sheets. Once proving to be a pair prone to mistakes, Luiz and Gary Cahill have been near flawless, and Cesar Azpilicueta has adapted superbly to an exterior centre-back role. Elsewhere, Alonso and Moses offer proper balance at wing-back: Moses is a tricky dribbler, while Alonso’s crosses from the left are consistently dangerous.

Modern day Premier League teams predominantly utilize three-man defences as a reactive system to the opposition, but Conte’s Chelsea are currently bucking the trend. Coincidentally, this week’s MLS East final showcased the potential risk in wide areas when playing a back-three, yet even in this respect, Luiz and Azpilicueta’s recovery runs negate this threat. But similar to the last time Chelsea were defeated in the league, upcoming fixtures against Spurs and Manchester City will provide proper tests.

Evidently, Chelsea improved in every area subsequent to the formation switch, but their performances are equally reminiscent of a genuine title contender. Conte’s men have comfortably dispatched of Everton, Leicester, and Manchester United at home, whereas their away wins at Hull, Southampton and Middlesborough were professional and tidy, thoroughly displayed defensively solidity and togetherness.

In particular, this weekend’s derby with the former should be cagey following Chelsea’s late recovery which put an end to Spurs’ title run at the conclusion of last season. Mauricio Pochettino’s men can match Chelsea’s strength in midfield with Moussa Dembele and Victor Wanyama, congest the box with Vincent Janssen’s presence, or even rely on the intricate passing and vertical threat of Son Heung-min, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen. Still, it will be interesting to see how the Spurs manager attempts to halt the Blues’ fine form.

“It’s a good challenge for us to go and play them at the moment,” said Pochettino. “They are in very good form. They have a great manager that I know very well and they have great players too,”

“It’s an advantage not being involved in European competition or the cups now. They have time to train and develop their philosophy. They are, not only in England but in Europe, the team most in form today.”

Spurs haven’t been overly-impressive domestically, but still remain the sole unbeaten side in the league, aiming to disrupt the sharp passing Chelsea displayed in recent weeks. Still, injury woes at the back, the suspension of Danny Rose, and favourable battles in Spurs’ third suggests the Blues are favourites t build on their flawless streak. Similar to in-game substitutions or the appointment of a new manager, teams tend to improve following change, further justifying the fascination involving Chelsea’s form.

The culture shift at Stamford Bridge is well underway, and though non-involvement in European competitions is valuable, Conte’s intensity and meticulous defensive regime could see Chelsea utilize 3-4-2-1 as their optimum shape until additional recruits join the club. Nevertheless, Conte’s bold decision signifies a new era at Stamford Bridge, as he is one of many foreign managers reviving the tactical proficiency English football recently lacked.

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

 

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Vanney’s Toronto FC lived and died in wide areas at Montreal

Toronto FC’s flexibility has been on full display throughout the 2015-2016 campaign, but the late season shift to a 3-5-2 enabled manager Greg Vanney to get the utmost best from his Designated Players. Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore have been in fine form towards the end of the campaign in a system that provides gusto, width, and defensive stability to a side that’s struggled to identify proper balance throughout its existence.

Yet it took Mauro Biello’s Montreal Impact no less than 15 minutes to exploit the Reds’ weakness. TFC’s discipline and compact shape is one of many improvements witnessed this season, and though they failed to beat Montreal in their predeceasing 4-4-2 diamond, it was peculiar to see Vanney persist with a three-man back-line.

Dominic Oduro’s pace and Ignacio Piatti’s dynamic dribbling were expected to serve as creative outlets for Mancosu’s willingness to run beyond the defence and poach goals. Therefore, the Impact’s wingers were legitimate threats to a TFC back-line that features fairly adventurous wing-backs.

In truth, TFC’s first half downfall illustrated one of the few flaws associated with a three-man back-line. Arguably one of the best left-backs in MLS, Justin Morrow, and Steven Beitashour, were caught out of position in the build up to the goals, but as the match wore on, they received adequate aid from the exterior centre-backs to negate Montreal’s threat from wide.

Vanney didn’t align his side to soak up pressure and play on the counter, and the hosts’ ability to quickly break forward on the counter perplexed the Reds. More so, ineffective performances from Jonathan Osorio and Armando Cooper weren’t beneficial to the TFC midfield, which is another factor responsible for the away side’s poor structure.

First, there was no legitimate press on Marco Donadel from a deep-lying role, and prior to the quick opening goals Mancosu easily stormed past Cooper and Bradley, thus reaffirming TFC’s fragile shape ahead of the defence. Perhaps Vanney wanted to limit Montreal’s counter-attacking threat by opting to retreat into a 5-3-2 base shape, but the hosts’ first half goals exploited poor positioning from the Reds defence – in particular the full-backs.

Montreal’s quick lead may have thwarted TFC’s prepared approach, but it also proved to be the hosts’ downfall. The onus on preventing an away goal became priority, thus leading to Biello’s men subsequently sitting off the Reds’ back three and compressing space in central areas. However, TFC’s production from open-play was erringly underwhelming, often reverting to hopeless long-balls into Altidore.

Biello’s side flustered the away side with swift transitions that were ignited no lower than the half-way line, and as the hosts dropped deeper towards their box, they simply failed to produce a quality chance in the final third. Piatti’s audacious chip via Hernan Bernadello’s outlet pass and Mancosu’s linkup play with Oduro that forced Clint Irwin into a key save, served as the sole chances created subsequent to the opening goals.

Vanney, however, deserves credit for his proactive second half gambles, albeit falling three goals behind before the hour-mark. Montreal’s decision to defend on their penalty box saw Mancosu pressing the ball 30-yards from goal, whilst occasionally aided by Bernier and Bernadello by applying pressure when TFC’s midfield duo monopolized possession. TFC transitioned to a 3-4-2-1 aiming to facilitate the ball to Giovinco and Osorio in dangerous positions, but the former was still forced to drop deeper, whereas the latter remained non-existent.

Afterwards, Vanney summoned Tosaint Ricketts for Osorio, and Will Johnson for Cooper, which flipped their attacking shape by having Giovinco float behind the two strikers. The problem with Montreal protecting their penalty box was that it encouraged TFC’s wing-backs forward. Consequently, with two strikers in the box and the centre-backs were occupied, Bradley and Giovinco received ample time to gain ascendancy.

The hosts proved they’re an efficient counter-attacking side, but their reactivity enabled TFC’s designated players to receive the ball near the box, while the wide players provided the essential width required to unsettle the Impact defence. Although TFC’s 3-5-2 has been a revelation this season, Biello’s wide players temporarily posed several issues for the away side, and they never really identified a solution for Bernier’s advanced positioning.

Nonetheless, Vanney deserves credit for adapting – though it was heavily delayed – and gaining control of the match via slight tweaks to his system and logical personnel alteration. It would be surprising to see TFC move to a four-man defence for the second leg, but it’s evident the Reds need to impose further caution in both phases of the game to progress to the MLS Final.

 
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Posted by on November 26, 2016 in Published Work

 

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Giovinco and Piatti’s MLS dominance defines different breed of No.10’s

The admiration of the traditional No.10 remains one of the iconic facets in modern football. A player of this mould is highly appreciated for his selfless ability to consistently create chances for others, but the constant evolution in philosophies throughout the sport ensures the significance of the role can decrease during certain spells.

But following the turn of the century, the box-to-box midfielder’s knack of covering ground on both ends of the field was pivotal in the popular 4-4-2 shape. Elsewhere, the deep-lying creator quietly gained prominence as well, but there’s something about the 10 jersey that always grabbed the eye.

Frankly, the diminutive creative players capable of slaloming into open space and creating key goal-scoring chances remains the most revered role in this sport. It’s the popularized jersey number that represents a side’s key player – if you go through youth systems across the world that don’t assign kits based on positions, the No. 10 is arguably the most popular jersey number apart from seven and nine.

More so, teams switching to a more expansive 4-2-3-1 reinvigorated the significance of the roles. The 4-3-3 presented too much congestion in central areas for intelligent playmakers to find space, and it was rare to see these players operate in wide areas during the mid-2000’s. This is not to say that creative players didn’t operate in a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3, but they were strictly all-round dynamos opposed to solely basing their game around creating chances.

Perhaps there was a fear of being heavily reliant on one-source of creativity, whereas the emphasis on power and dynamism ensured the role was hardly decisive in most systems throughout the game. The other factor was that these decorated playmakers lacked the versatility to influence a match in a similar manner across the front-line – to be frank, they were solely creators.

In truth, the no.10 role has diversified over the years, and it’s difficult to identify various men that define the position. Mesut Ozil is possibly the only top-class player that ticks all boxes: a selfless, slender magician that solely strives in a central position, yet equally capable of making improving his side’s overall play by placing teammates in goal-scoring positions via perfectly weighed passes.

It’s the selfless intent to create space for others with his movement combined with the precise incisive passing that’s reminiscent of a throwback playmaker. Nowadays, a second striker playing off the centre-forward will be deemed a no.10: Wayne Rooney operated in this role during the latter stages of Sir Alex Ferguson’s tenure, but he was more about goals than creativity.

Then there are players utilized as pure destroyer to negate the opposition’s deep-lying playmaker, but still capable of transitioning into a third central midfielder. Oscar was expected to thrive in this role for Chelsea but solely excelled with the former, whereas Toni Kroos’ success under Jupp Heynckes – largely remembered for his impact against Real Madrid in the 2011-2012 Champions League semi final – involved the latter.

In Italy, there was a spell were trequartistas – the term used to describe a playmaker in Italy – were merely energetic runners. Subsequent to Wesley Sneijder serving as the catalyst for Inter Milan’s successful second half of their treble season, the likes of Fredy Guarin and Kevin-Prince Boateng’s ball-carrying skills linked midfield and attack, whereas Juventus relied on Andrea Pirlo’s passing from deep areas – incisive passing to unlock deep defences within the final third was a rarity.

During Jose Mourinho’s second stint at Chelsea, the Portuguese manager offered a concise, yet valid description to define the role.

“For me a No.10 does a lot of things, with the ball and without the ball. So for me a No.10 is a very special player in my team,” said Mourinho.

“A No.10 for me is an eight-and-a-half when the team loses the ball, and a nine-and-a-half when the team has the ball. Who is my perfect No.10? Wesley Sneijder and Deco. They could defend, get in the box and finish.”

Though the conclusion to Mourinho’s comments were slightly incorrect – Deco and Sneijder received free roles as their teammates were responsible for their defensive work – it goes to show that the focus on pressing and defensive structure has largely extorted the requirement of a natural playmaker.

Even in MLS, a league driven by a creative player in the hole is now shifting in this direction. Look no further than the Eastern Conference final between Montreal Impact and Toronto FC – a heated rivalry, labeled the 401 Derby, that will ensure a Canadian team will make an appearance in MLS Cup for the first time in league history.

More interestingly, is the fact that the two-legged fixture will feature two of the best players in MLS, who were oddly snubbed of deserving MVP candidate status. Likewise, they both wear the No.10 jersey, but are far from genuine creators. Giovinco and Piatti are within the top three playoff scorers, both recorded 17 goals in regular season play to finish third behind lethal finishers in David Villa and Bradley Wright-Phillips, but don’t feature within the league’s top ten key passes-per-game figures.

Giovinco, however, recorded 15 league assists, which leaves many to believe he’s a creative lynchpin, but averaging an MLS-high 6.3 shots per-game illustrates he’s more of a second striker than a creator. Both men are fielded in the front-line of their attack, and are equally not responsible for defensive duties due to the midfield base protecting fairly mediocre back-lines – although Piatti does his fair share of tracking attacking full-backs before sprinting forward to lead counter-attacks.

Greg Vanney’s TFC side showcased tactical flexibility throughout the 2015-2016 campaign, and the switch to a 3-5-2 improved the overall balance of the side. The wing-backs offer width and remain in advanced positions, the midfield is built around a combination of Johnathan Osorio’s guile and Armando Cooper’s dynamism ahead of Michael Bradley, whereas Jozy Altidore’s improved form creates vacant space between the lines for Giovinco.

Although Giovinco is capable of locating pockets of space to receive the ball around the opposition’s penalty box, the 29-year-old’s most dangerous in transition when he instantly offers an outlet in the channels to subsequently run at defenders. It’s the Italian’s individualism that solidifies his match-winning ability, and offering the last year’s MVP space to run at defenders or time to shoot from distance is risky.

“What’s going to make you win is having that focus for 90 minutes against a player like Giovinco, who is one of the best players in the league and who could turn the game in his favour in a moment,” said Impact manager Mauro Biello.

“This is something that’s shared; it’s not just one player on him,” said Biello. “Against a player like that, you need cover from the side, from the front. “You don’t want to give him space. We’ve been watching video over and over and the games where he’s been most frustrated are the ones where he has numbers around him and where he doesn’t get space to operate.”

Piatti, on the other hand, is cut from a similar cloth, relying on an elderly midfield trio to disrupt the opposition in central areas, whilst protecting the back four before breaking swiftly on the counter attack. Operating as a left forward in a 4-3-3 with license to drift into central areas, Dominic Oduro’s pace and Matteo Mancosu’s willingness to run behind the defence has seen the Impact transition into one of the best counter-attacking sides in the league.

While Piatti possesses the skill-set to create countless chances for his teammates, it’s the ability to dribble past defenders with ease – only Chicago Fire’s David Accam averaged more than 2.6 successful dribbles per game – and locate open space in the final third that elevates his threat. Following Giovinco’s earlier brace against the Impact earlier this year, the past two meetings against TFC – albeit the Reds operating in a 4-4-2 diamond – Piatti has been involved in all three Montreal goals.

“One of his greatest strengths is what people don’t sometimes see, what he does before he gets the ball,” Vanney said of Piatti’s anticipation. “He’s a guy who’s very, very clever about his moments when he’s helping the team defend, when he sees the team is about to win the ball.

“He quickly transitions into an attacking action before anyone else on the field is transitioning. He is already transitioning, which is what he wins, fragments of time, seconds, above everybody anyone else. That’s where he gets his space, where he gets his separation from defenders. Then what we all see is his ability to take on defenders one-on-one and score.”

First, Piatti received too much space to run at the box to curl an unstoppable effort towards the far corner. Then, the Argentine drifted laterally to the right channel to pick up the ball and charge towards the box, and was eventually clipped down to earn a penalty that he subsequently converted. Finally, Montreal defeated TFC with 10-men when Piatti drifted into the final third and latched onto Oduro’s link up play to fire a low shot past goalkeeper Alex Bono.

Last season, the Impact dispatched of TFC within 45 minutes in their single-knockout clash, but 12 months later, both sides have slightly evolved their overall game. Though TFC’s production in open-play substantially improved this season, the sudden prominence in counter-attacking football has witnessed both sides provide a platform for their star No.10’s to flourish.

Ultimately, the tie widely hinges on which side can negate the opposition’s No.10’s production within the final third. Regardless of the result, an MLS finalist will feature a creative player that serves as an “x-factor,” that can win a match on his own via goals, opposed to an outlet capable of making his teammates better.

With the influx of foreign players, the new admiration for dynamic pressing, and tactically astute managers plying their trade in the league, the brief era revolving around selfless no.10’s in MLS could slowly come to a halt. Still, the impressive individual statistics recorded by Piatti and Giovinco, along with their dominance over the past two seasons suggests the stylistic culture amongst creative players is shifting to MLS.

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2016 in Published Work

 

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