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Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo still has room to build all-time great legacy at Juventus’ expense

For the first time in over a decade, Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t the main topic of discussion of a major cup final featuring the Portuguese star. With Real Madrid on the verge of being the first club to retain the Champions League, the Portuguese forward has occasionally floated amongst the peripheral this season.

Nevertheless, the trials and tribulations of eight years in Madrid may result in Ronaldo’s greatest achievement since moving to the Spanish capital. A La Liga/Champions League double at the expense of city rivals Atletico, and Lionel Messi’s Barcelona would validate their dominance as world football’s alpha club. All this in the latter stages of the 32-year-old’s career.

A career that was supposed to be on the decline continues to enjoy the success that many could only dream of. Ronaldo equally remains one of the key components to Zinedine Zidane’s outfit, as the transition from high-flying roaming left-sided forward to a clinical forward has been seamless.

“Obviously what I want the most is to play more freely up front,” Ronaldo said. “That is the opportunity Zinedine Zidane has been giving me as a No. 9. I play freely. I play on the wing, down the middle. I play whenever I think I should.”

From a silverware perspective, the last 12 months have been the greatest Ronaldo’s ever experienced. Yet, oddly enough, the final in Cardiff means more. Not solely to build on Real’s trophy haul, or representing the focal point in another Champions League milestone. For once, this is about Ronaldo.

No mentions of Lionel Messi. No distraction of a summer move from Old Trafford to the Santiago Bernabeu. With guidance from Zidane, Ronaldo has been working hard for this moment. A chance to produce a display that will be cemented in football history for years to come.

Perhaps that’s one of the few, if not, sole criticism left in the anti-Ronaldo arsenal. Although it can be deemed extremely harsh, very few can argue that greatest players of our generation delivered genuine world-class final’s moment. Whether it be Lionel Messi’s 2011 Champions League final master-class, Xavi’s metronomic control in both the 2009 Champions League Final and 2008 European Final or Ronaldo’s goals in the 2002 World Cup final, the small group of players that dazzled over the past 20-years have shifted the game in some manner.

At the conclusion of his career, Cristiano will be mentioned in the same breath as the aforementioned greats, but what sets him apart is the lack of a truly defining moment. The infamous Copa del Rey winner in 2011 along with the goal that practically clinched La Liga in 2012 were magnificent moments in Real history, but on the biggest stage, Ronaldo hasn’t been able to provide the extra bit of quality we’ve grown accustomed to.

This is not to say that Ronaldo “doesn’t show up for the big games.” Frankly, the 32-year-old’s ability to score goals is unparalleled and he epitomizes the ultimate modern day “big game” star, but even when you examine his performances in recent title triumphs, the Portuguese forward has been fairly underwhelming.

During the earlier stages of Ronaldo’s prime at Manchester United resulted in the opening goal in Moscow, yet he was subsequently denied by Petr Cech in the shootout. The following year, Ronaldo was merely a bystander in a fairly one-sided defeat to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.

Oddly, Ronaldo’s significance decreased in Real’s success over Atletico. However, the 32-year-old still managed to score a penalty in both finals – with last year’s goal securing Real’s second Champions League title in three years. Even in last summer’s European Championship, Portugal defeated host nation France following the captain’s first half departure due to injury.

Frankly, much of Ronaldo’s inability to showcase his optimum talent on the biggest stage has been associated with fatigue. This year, however, Zidane’s altered his talisman’s training regimen and opted to rest the Portuguese international in pivotal domestic games against inferior opposition.

“He knows himself that sometimes he has to not play,” Zidane said following Real’s first leg semi-final victory over Atletico. “It’s not just this year; it’s an accumulation over the years. He knows that himself because he is intelligent.”

In return, Ronaldo discovered the best form of his career post-May since the turn of the decade, which has witnessed the forward single-handily guide Madrid to the final in Cardiff.

He arguably eliminated two favourites en route to the final with hat-tricks against Atletico and Bayern Munich, scoring 8 goals over both legs. Likewise, Ronaldo scored six goals in Real’s final four league games to edge out Barca in the final week of the La Liga season.

Though, far from tactically competent, and still lacking balance in certain areas, Zidane’s Real compliments Ronaldo’s transition into a conventional forward. Toni Kroos and Luka Modric are two of the finest ball-playing midfielders in world football, whilst Marcelo and Dani Carvajal offer crossing from advanced full-back positions.

If Zidane prefers width, Karim Benzema can operate in the channels, whereas Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez have offered pace and defensive discipline from wide areas. Then, there’s Isco who has helped Real overload central areas but also provides the guile Madrid can lack if Kroos and Modric aren’t floating around the penalty area.

Where Mourinho’s counter-attacking Madrid benefitted Ronaldo’s pace, power, and trickery during his prime, Zidane’s version – stemming from Carlo Ancelotti’s arrival that led to a proactive outlook of the game – provides ample service for the reliable Portuguese goal-scorer. Under Mourinho, Ronaldo was the ultimate counter-attacking player, but his evolution along with the Real methodology alteration under Ancelotti and Zidane suggests he’s now the ultimate forward.

In truth, although Ronaldo continues to maintain an unprecedented level of excellence at 32, the decline many have harped about could limit what would be an advantage for the newly-crowned Spanish champions. On paper, Ronaldo charging into space behind Dani Alves and running at Andrea Barzagli appears to be an area that would concern Juventus in previous seasons.

But this version of Ronaldo may prefer to exploit the Juventus defence with his athletic and aerial superiority. Apart from a few moments of brilliance from Lionel Messi, Massimiliano Allegri’s Juve have been susceptible defending crosses from wide areas – a route to goal Ronaldo utilized to dispatch Bayern and Atletico – and will encounter difficulties preventing the 32-year-old from scoring.

It’s been nearly 10 years since Ronaldo’s first Champions League triumph, and despite the various heartfelt narratives surrounding the final, football’s biggest stage is still about him. At 32, he remains the best, and most dangerous player on the pitch, capable of deciding a match within seconds.

History beckons in Cardiff, but with nothing else to prove to the cynics, the possibility of being the first team to retain the Champions League in this era presents Ronaldo with another opportunity to enhance his football immortality with one memorable performance against Juventus.

 
 

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Ibrahimovic injury hands keys to young attackers to steer Manchester United clear

The sudden knee injury Zlatan Ibrahimovic suffered in Manchester United’s Europa League triumph over Anderlecht ruled the striker unavailable for the remainder of the season, yet the Swede’s absence is being perceived in various ways.

Although Ibrahimovic has been the star performer for United in his inaugural Premier League campaign, the Swede’s greatness hasn’t been accepted by some United fans. The conflict between individual brilliance outweighing a stagnant attacking scheme is one of the perplexing issues associated with Ibrahimovic’s impressive goal-scoring resume, but also created an intriguing predicament at Old Trafford.

In many ways, United are at a cross-road: a mixture of promising young talent, and over-the-hill Premier League veterans that would be deemed nothing more than squad players at other contenders have arguably underachieved this season. Where many tipped Jose Mourinho’s men to challenge for the Premier League title ahead of the current season, United’s trip to the Etihad has huge implications regarding the remaining Champions League spots opposed to the title race.

A combination of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reluctance to lay foundations for a potential dynasty – which therefore created a short-minded mentality to solely win in the moment – ignited United’s current downfall. While, an amalgamation of David Moyes inability to direct the club in the right direction along with Louis van Gaal’s attempt to fill his XI with promising youngsters ultimately presented a difficult task for Mourinho.

The Portuguese manager, often renowned for a man who constructs his teams to build on the mantra Ferguson had instilled in his final years – hence why Mourinho was probably the best-suited option as Ferguson’s initial successor – is also harshly labeled as a manager afraid to utilize the youth at his disposal. Therefore, the reality of building a squad to Mourinho’s preference has been an arduous process that has put both the club and manager under scrutiny.

Luckily for Mourinho, of the four main signings made this summer, Ibrahimovic – whom he spent time with at Inter Milan – exceeded expectation and proved to be one of the elite Premier League performers this season. Truthfully speaking, it may be more extraordinary that Ibrahimovic’s talent was questioned prior to his Old Trafford arrival, given the Swede’s goal-scoring record throughout his career. At 35, Ibrahimovic’s remarkable form transcended to England, whilst playing a major role in United’s quest to regain Champions League football.

Stylistically, United comfortably dominate possession, but lack the guile and invention in the final third to break down inferior opposition that prefer to sit deep and limit space between the lines. Possession is often slowly circulated from side to side, with very few penetrative passes, or runners aiming to break beyond the opposing defence.

Dependence on Ibrahimovic isn’t necessarily a negative factor considering the youthful Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford are too inexperienced to solely lodge a proper title challenge. Meanwhile, Ibrahimovic’s form provided Mourinho a logical reason to exclude a declining Wayne Rooney from the United XI.

Frankly, the Swede’s presence was required in a United side lacking a genuine world class star capable of providing match-winning moments. Old Trafford was an environment where Ibrahimovic could maximize his talents and establish himself as the focal point of a bland attacking scheme developed under Mourinho’s predecessors.

It’s no coincidence that Ibrahimovic’s less remembered spell at Barcelona and Juventus witnessed several stars surrounding the 35-year-old in cohesive systems. The peculiar feat involving Ibrahimovic is that the Swede thrives in disjointed systems built around his strengths, and despite all the talent the 35-year-old possesses, it appears he’s at his best when his club sacrifices their structure at his expense.

This is also one of many factors as to why dependence on the Swede was expedient. Despite a slow start to life in England, Ibrahimovic’s 17 league goals is amongst the division’s best, and pivotal to a United side still aiming to find an identity. In that sense, Ibrahimovic’s instant impact has proved beneficial at Old Trafford, and provided Mourinho time to implement his philosophy.

Wayne Rooney’s progressive decline and injury issues prevent the United captain from serving as a competent spearhead to the attack. Anthony Martial’s reported discontent with playing from the left flank opposed to a main central role is evident, but the Frenchman’s dribbling and ability to charge behind the opposition defence remains crucial to a United side guilty of lacking penetration in the final third.

Marcus Rashford’s rapid rise to prominence last season has also left many perplexed at his limited amount of game-time, and his performances at Middlesbrough and against Chelsea in recent weeks highlighted the rare moments of speed and verticality displayed in United’s game.

However, United’s home draw against an organized West Brom outfit displayed the limitations Mourinho’s men have encountered without Ibrahimovic this season. A visit to Sunderland presented a similar challenge, but at the half hour mark Ibrahimovic received the ball with his back to goal, gained a yard on two markers and curled a super low effort past goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. It came at a period where United were devoid of creativity, yet Ibrahimovic’s moment of brilliance completely shifted the pattern of the match – a gift no player in United’s current squad possesses.

On paper, the trio of Martial, Ibrahimovic, and Rashford should’ve never presented an issue given Ibrahimovic’s tenure at PSG, where the Swede played with speedy wide attackers in the mould of the aforementioned youngsters. Ibrahimovic’s all-round game enables the Swede to operate in two distinct roles, and in truth, it was intriguing to witness the 35-year-old’s Ligue 1 tenure.

Domestically, Ibrahimovic operated as a traditional centre-forward, similar to his current role at United, poaching goals around the box. The Swede claimed the golden boot in three of his four seasons in the French capital, tallying a remarkable 38 goals last season.

However, Ibrahimovic’s play was entirely different in Europe to ensure PSG dominated the midfield zone, whilst decreasing the likelihood of the 35-year-old being isolated upfront. Dropping deeper into midfield to hold up possession and operate as a no.10 to encourage Angel Di Maria and Lucas Moura to charge behind the opposition’s defence from wide areas.

At United, Ibrahimovic is currently operating as the former, and though the latter would probably serve more beneficial for the Red Devils – given the pace Mourinho possesses in attack – the Swede’s form in the final third became priority. Historically, though, United have usually enjoyed success built around a well-rounded unit opposed to solely relying on a reliable target-man, and Ibrahimovic’s presence at the club serves as another fine example.

Apart from Robin van Persie’s remarkable 2012/2013 campaign in an albeit truly imbalanced side, over the past decade when Rooney or Ruud van Nistelrooy enjoyed breakout years, United finished no higher than runner-ups. Therefore, it remains a mystery as to why Mourinho never insisted on shuffling his attacking options throughout the season.

Rashford’s willingness to work the channels and run beyond the defence were crucial against Chelsea and Middlesbrough, while he also picks up the ball in midfield zones before dribbling towards the box. And where the United youngster isn’t renowned for his creativity, he tends to drift away from the penalty box to play quick intricate passes with teammates to create goal-scoring chances.

Martial, on the other hand, scored the game winning goal at Burnley last weekend as he ignited a swift break from United’s half and subsequently finished the move 10 seconds later. It was a trademark counter-attacking move from a Mourinho side that may not have occurred had Ibrahimovic spearheaded the attack.

Ibrahimovic’s goal-scoring form was decisive, which therefore resulted in heavy reliance on the Swede this season, but it’s been refreshing to witness variety in United’s attack. However, while Martial and Rashford can eventually develop into top-class strikers, the likelihood that both men could guide United to a proper title challenge is unrealistic.

In a league where many promising starlets eventually burn out due to excessive amount of games, Mourinho’s decision to properly manage their minutes is fairly logical. Meanwhile, young strikers develop reliable finishing skills in their mid twenties, and neither Rashford, nor Martial have displayed signs of bucking the trend which partially justifies Mourinho’s reluctance to persist with Ibrahimovic earlier this year.

Still, Mourinho can be held accountable for not utilizing the variety of attacking options to his advantage when required, but another standout performance in the Manchester Derby for Rashford or Martial – more so the former given his performance against Chelsea – would make it difficult for the United manager to ignore.

Ibrahimovic was the main man at Old Trafford, but there are other options capable of making United more flexible and less functional from an attacking perspective. Finding that balance is the next task Mourinho must overcome, but at the moment, trusting his young attacking core presents a colossal test that will define the remainder of United’s season and potentially the club’s transfer activity over the summer.

 
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Posted by on April 26, 2017 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Zidane’s Real Madrid wins battle in wide areas against Ancelotti’s Bayern Munich

Real Madrid’s quest for a historic European cup/league double was under significant threat when they drew Bayern Munich in the semi-finals, but as typified under Zinedine Zidane’s tenure, the reigning European champions squeaked past Carlo Ancelotti’s men.

Notching two away goals at the Allianz Arena placed Real in a great position to knockout the tournament favourites, and stylistically, suggested the hosts would receive opportunities to break on the counter.  With Gareth Bale unavailable due to injury, Zidane altered his side’s shape to a 4-3-1-2 with Isco floating behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema.

Zidane’s tactical tweak was possibly intended to ensure Real dominate the midfield zone, whilst providing space for the full-backs to push forward to provide width. Real’s heroic first leg fight-back was largely responsible to the proactive positioning of Dani Carvajal and Marcelo to exploit Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery’s reluctance to track-back, and it was likely both outfits would aim to dominate wide areas.

Ironically, the hosts encountered issues in the opening stages of the match in wide areas. Bayern’s first legitimate goal-scoring chance involved David Alaba overlapping Ribery in half space to pick out Thiago, but Marcelo blocked the Spaniard’s shot, while Robben smashed the rebound into the side-netting.

Robben also made similar moves into half space to receive passes from Philip Lahm, but Bayern’s productivity in wide areas – specifically Alaba’s crosses – was underwhelming. The away side equally received space in the channels to break in transition, but the likes of Ribery, Robben and Lewandowski failed to launch these swift transitional moves.

But where Bayern easily found space behind the Real full-backs in the channels, the hosts’ full-backs still surged forward behind Ribery and Robben. The other issue Bayern encountered was Xabi Alonso’s immobility ahead of the back four – he played extremely poor passes, was dispossessed when pressure was applied, and easily overrun in midfield – and Real breaking into space behind the full-backs.

Carvajal delivered a cross into the box that Manuel Neuer pushed into the path of Sergio Ramos, but the Spaniard’s effort was cleared off the line. Ronaldo also wasted a chance when he broke into a breakaway down the right channel, and also spurned an opportunity that stemmed from a brilliant solo Marcelo run.

Nevertheless, what proved to be an extremely open match in the first half swiftly changed as Bayern took ascendancy by retaining possession for extensive periods, whilst persisting with creating overloads in wide areas. Kroos and Modric’s protection decreased as the match wore on, thus leaving Carvajal and Marcelo unable to cope with Bayern’s wide threat.

Alaba and Ribery combined down the left with the former charging into half-space to create Robben’s chance that was cleared off the line. While Robben subsequently attacked the aforementioned space to earn a penalty that was converted by Lewandowski. Lahm and Robben continuously overloaded Marcelo with the latter lofting balls to the far post and attempting to clip forward passes over the Real defence, as Vidal, Alaba and Ribery spurned chances in the box.

Zidane, however, deserves credit for sacrificing Benzema for youngster Marco Asensio, and eventually Isco for Lucas Vazquez as Real reverted to a 4-1-4-1 to ensure there was proper protection for the full-backs. Real remained deep out of possession but with ensured structure, thus enabling Carvajal to lead a 3v2 counter-attack which should’ve resulted in a goal.

The general pattern of the match altered in the latter stages with Bayern’s sole chances stemming from Robben attempting to clip balls from the left over the defence, whereas Real began to locate Ronaldo in the box. The Portuguese forward struggled throughout the match, but similar to Real’s first leg triumph, Ronaldo eventually isolated Lahm to level the score-line.

Coincidentally, Thomas Muller’s introduction pushed Thiago deeper alongside Alonso, thus providing Lewandowski support around the box.

Bayern fortuitously regained the lead via a ball over the top for Muller to chest into the path of Lewandowski, and although the Polish striker didn’t score the goal, the move highlighted the shift in the away side’s approach following Zidane’s formation alteration. Robben also attempted a pass over the top for Muller in half-space to tee up Vidal but the Chilean’s shot was blocked.

Ultimately, Vidal’s harsh dismissal drastically shifted the pattern of the match. Ancelotti turned to Joshua Kimmich for Lewandowski, which pushed Muller upfront and the young German alongside Thiago in midfield. Bayern were now heavily reliant on Robben’s counter-attacking threat from the right, whereas Marcelo’s running also proved crucial.

Ronaldo began to locate pockets of space in the final third to receive possession, and although his final two goals were offside, it equally highlighted the Real talisman’s evolution into a classic goal-poacher. Mistakes from the match officials will continue to dominate headlines, but in pivotal moments throughout the tie, Ronaldo’s ability to adopt dangerous positions was the decisive factor.

In a tie heavily dominated in wide areas, where Bayern were deprived a fully-fit Lewandowski, Real could rely on arguably the best no.9 in the sport. Albeit Bayern’s potential second half fight-back, Real were worthy winners, and Zidane deserves credit for making significant alterations over both legs to ensure Real preserved their status as Europe’s dominant club.

 
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Posted by on April 20, 2017 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Jose Mourinho alters man-marking scheme to stifle Conte’s colourless Chelsea

Jose Mourinho’s stock as a top-class manager decreased following his return to England. Mourinho’s initial positive start to his second stint at Chelsea swiftly transformed into a toxic environment, and he’s currently failing to receive full support at Manchester United for failing to instantly challenge for a Premier League title.

For all the skepticism regarding Mourinho’s ability to manage younger talent and carry out his methodology with devastating efficiency, United lacked a thoroughly convincing performance against a top Premier League side under Mourinho. But, much of that banter has been halted in recent weeks given United’s displays against Chelsea over the last month, which suggests the Portuguese manager remains the master of winning big games.

United’s FA Cup loss at Stamford Bridge will be remembered for Ander Herrera’s harsh first half dismissal, but it’s often forgotten that Mourinho’s men were the better side in the opening 15 minutes. Chelsea struggled to get out of their half as a unit, and provided no answers for United’s pressing across the pitch thus leaving David Luiz with no options to play forward passes into from the back.

At Old Trafford, Mourinho followed a similar man-marking approach, but ultimately shifted to a 4-4-1-1 with Jesse Lingard playing off Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba pairing in midfield with Marouane Fellaini, and Herrera playing in a deeper right-sided role to swarm Eden Hazard’s movement across the pitch.

While many oddly questioned Mourinho’s initial team selection, this was merely an XI constructed to disrupt and contain Chelsea’s attacking threat. Mourinho persisted with harrying Hazard, but handed the task to Herrera who retained possession deep, intercepted passes into the Belgian’s feet, yet ironically created United’s opening goal – albeit potentially handling the ball in the build up – with a clever pass behind Luiz for Rashford.

Where Hazard varied his movement in the FA Cup tie by drifting to the opposite flank and moving deeper into midfield to drag defenders out of position, the Belgian was deprived of the natural width and overlapping presence of the unavailable Marcos Alonso. Conte preferred Cesar Azpilicueta at left wing-back, but quickly swapped the Spaniard with Victor Moses to attempt to create space for Hazard.

Still, Hazard struggled to find space due to Herrera’s consistent pressure, yet the Belgian was quickly fouled when he bypassed the Spaniard. Elsewhere, Chelsea were deprived of creativity and guile in attacking zones due to United’s disciplined man-marking.

Chelsea’s creativity and goal-scoring threat heavily hangs on Hazard’s shoulders with Costa’s form dipping since the turn of the year, whereas Conte preferred protection ahead of the back four opposed to Cesc Fabregas passing range from deep. The other issue Chelsea encountered involved the lack of mobility at the back without Azpilicueta, who has done a great job in serving as a reliable recovery outlet for David Luiz and Gary Cahill.

The significance in familiarity within a defensive back-line is often overlooked, but here, Kurt Zouma’s last minute inclusion disrupted the cohesion amongst the back three, and deprived the Blues pace at the back. Rashford and Lingard’s partnership was Mourinho’s attempt at utilizing pace to fluster the Chelsea back-line, and the decision was further justified once Conte was forced to alter his back trio.

Rashford spurned a glorious chance in United’s FA Cup loss at Stamford Bridge when he cleverly turned David Luiz down the channel, and here, he instantly charged into these aforementioned wide areas to pull the Chelsea defenders out of position. From the early moments, Chelsea’s defence never appeared comfortable against the pressing or swift darts into space from United’s speedy frontmen – Luiz conceded possession to Lingard which led to a Rashford chance minutes prior to the United striker’s opener.

Although the hosts always offered a threat in transition, this was more about Mourinho’s organization and instilled defensive discipline, rather than United’s offensive productivity. Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini pressed the Chelsea midfield, Mateo Darmian was tight on Pedro, Diego Costa rarely got the better of the opposing centre-backs, and the United full-backs proactively pressed Chelsea’s wing-backs.

Conte’s attempt to rescue a point following Herrera’s fortuitous second half goal, led to the introduction of Willian and Fabregas. Mourinho quickly introduced Michael Carrick to ensure United maintained control of the midfield zone, as the combination of Chelsea’s sloppy passing and United’s disciplined man-marking prevented the Blues from recording a shot on target.

Ironically, Mourinho’s tenure appears to be heavily associated with “playing the United way,” yet he approached the match similar to predecessor Sir Alex Ferguson. Ferguson’s sides remained defensively sturdy and found ways to steal goals on the counter-attack, yet these decisive triumphs were always overshadowed by the memorable home matches at Old Trafford.

Both the players and Conte were unusually lifeless, and simply outworked and out-muscled by a United side that’s slowly finding their groove and arguably produced their best performance of the season. Although, Chelsea’s run-in is fairly manageable, this result suggests the title race is back on. The most worrying feat, however, is United possibly validated a successful ploy to outwit Conte’s 3-4-2-1.

It’s unrealistic to believe multiple teams can replicate United’s man-marking for 90 minutes, but the use of two forwards breaking quickly in transition against Chelsea’s back three proved successful for Crystal Palace and United. For the first time since Chelsea’s emphatic defeat at the Emirates, the pressure is on Conte to make vital tactical adjustments to overcome the opposition’s attempts to nullify Hazard’s influence in the final third.

 
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Posted by on April 17, 2017 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Eden Hazard regains status as Premier League’s best player under Antonio Conte’s guidance

Eden Hazard’s first half brace against Manchester City provided another case for the Belgian to claim his second PFA Player of the Year award along with a Premier League title. Although Chelsea have performed better as a unit over the course of the season in comparison to the 2014-2015 triumph, Hazard has once again dominated in the latter stages of the season when the Blues have slightly plateaued.

Hazard, who arrived from Ligue 1 a few seasons ago as one of the most coveted youngsters in European football, has now developed into the finest player in the country. Along with several teammates, the 26-year-old endured a poor campaign in the build up to Jose Mourinho’s dismissal last season, but now represents a rejuvenated figure under Antonio Conte.

Chelsea sit seven points clear of second place Spurs with seven games remaining and barring a tragic slip-up, Hazard’s been the catalyst in another successful title campaign, which includes several standout performances to covet another PFA award. Oddly enough, for lengthy spells this season Chelsea’s diminutive dynamo wasn’t mentioned as a potential candidate for the award, often overshadowed by teammate N’Golo Kante who is also close to playing an integral role in two consecutive title triumphs.

Kante’s move to Chelsea is one of many factors associated with Leicester City’s decline, but more importantly, the Frenchman’s arrival substantially improved Antonio Conte’s midfield. The Frenchman may arguably be the pivotal cog to Chelsea’s title-winning success, but Hazard’s flourished in decisive moments throughout the campaign.

In many ways, Hazard’s subject to downfall is possibly his individual playing style. Far from a natural goal-scorer, or a tireless runner, it’s unsurprising that the Belgian attacker is slightly underrated. The Chelsea star plays relatively simple passes to switch play, and can be guilty of slowing down the tempo of the game to isolate defenders, but the close body control, swift incisive passing combinations, along with his ability to dribble and simultaneously shrug off opponents places the Belgian in a different class.

Unlikely to consistently showcase Alexis Sanchez’s work-rate on both ends of the field, poach goals like Harry Kane, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, or Romelu Lukaku, and unable to provide the composure, silky passing and vision in the final third like David Silva, Hazard’s fine-tuned his trade to dominate Premier League opponents at will. Even Dele Alli’s growth at Spurs is fairly noteworthy, but where the aforementioned players have fizzled out at some point this season, Hazard as provided several moments of brilliance this season, whilst arguably surpassing the level displayed in Chelsea’s 2014-2015 triumph.

Then, Mourinho demanded the Belgian to be a hardworking wide player that performed his defensive duties, but be equally efficient in the final third. Ultimately, Mourinho inevitably questioned the Belgian’s work-ethic and was keen to state his disappointment in Chelsea’s 2014 Champions League semi-final exit to Atletico Madrid.

“Eden is the kind of player that is not so mentally ready to look back to his left-back and to leave his life for him,” said Mourinho. “If you see the first goal of Atletico you completely understand where the mistake was and why we conceded that goal. The perfect team at the top-level cannot make these kinds of mistakes.”

On the other hand, Hazard’s production in the final third also hindered the appreciation surrounding the Chelsea star. One of the Belgian’s flaws prior to Chelsea’s initial title triumph this decade involved the 25-year-old’s reluctance to dominate games by opting to play short incisive passes opposed to shooting in dangerous positions around the box.

Despite several news outlets linking the Belgian with an eventual move to Real Madrid, Hazard doesn’t necessarily possess the goal-scoring prowess previous world-class exports (Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez and Gareth Bale) displayed prior to their big money transfers to Spain. Yet to eclipse the 22 goal tally – in all competition – recorded in the Belgian’s final season at Lille, Hazard should surpass his league best 14 Premier League goals at the bare minimum.

Still, Hazard’s rediscovering his status as a devastating attacker surfaced following Conte’s tactical shift to a 3-4-2-1. The tactical rejig presents Hazard the freedom to float around the final third and into pockets of space across the field to receive the ball and subsequently dribble past opponents.

The other key aspect associated with Chelsea’s successful 3-4-2-1 involved Conte ridding Hazard of his defensive duties. Similar to Ronaldo, Hazard’s disinterest in consistently tracking advancing full-backs has proved a liability to Chelsea’s defensive shape, and another reason Mourinho and the Belgian’s previous managers fell out with the 26-year-old.

But with Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante protecting the midfield zone and the wing-backs offering width going forward and additional defensive cover on the flanks, Hazard’s been able to flourish as a pure attacker with minimal defensive responsibilities. It’s also why Hazard remains one of the top scorers, dribblers and most fouled players in the Premier League.

Likewise, Hazard rediscovered his knack of scoring decisive goals throughout the season.

There was the individual run from half to shrug off Francis Coquelin and mesmerize Laurent Koscielny to defeat Arsenal at Stamford Bridge. Dribbling from both sides of the field to gain a yard on Everton’s Ashley Williams to score twice from the flanks resulted in a blowout against Everton. Meanwhile, swift transitional breaks at West Ham and Manchester City provided examples of Hazard’s threat on the counter-attack.

Goals at home to Manchester United, Leicester City and most recently Manchester City were also significant, but the varied aforementioned moments of brilliance justify the 26-year-old’s status as a top-class all-round attacker. Now capable of scoring goals consistently from open-play, on the counter-attack or through sheer moments of individual brilliance, Hazard has restored himself as the key man in possibly another title-winning side.

Coincidentally, Chelsea’s final hurdle against a top five side presents the Blues with their first trip to Old Trafford this season against a United outfit that have struggled to win home games. With Diego Costa struggling for form since the new year, and Pedro’s goal return fizzling out, Hazard remains Chelsea’s main goal threat and source of creativity – assuming Cesc Fabregas doesn’t feature in the XI – and Mourinho will be tasked with nullifying the Belgian.

In United’s FA Cup quarter-final exit at Stamford Bridge, the plan to have Phil Jones track Hazard, and constantly hack the Belgian – a tactic responsible for Ander Herrera’s harsh dismissal and also utilized by PSG during Mourinho’s second tenure at Chelsea – backfired, yet oddly enough, limited the Blues’ attack for large portions of the match.

“In 20, 25 minutes for Hazard, it was impossible for him to play football,” said Conte following Chelsea’s FA Cup triumph over United.

“I see only that he got a lot of kicks. I don’t think that I’m crazy and I see only him in this situation. “He started receiving kicks and finished receiving kicks. No one person can say this did not happen.”

Many teams have fallen into the trap of trying to outwit Conte, but in the meantime haven’t identified a ploy to stifle Hazard’s all-round attacking threat. The latter represents the significant feat in Mourinho’s first major win against a top side as United manager, whilst preventing Chelsea from cruising to another Premier League title.

Nevertheless, the recurring emphasis on reducing Hazard’s influence validates Conte’s tactical alteration as a pivotal moment in terms of Chelsea’s resurgence as an elite Premier League side, and the Belgian’s status as the best player in the country. Another top performance against his former manager would make it difficult for even Mourinho to question Hazard’s merit.

Under Conte’s guidance, Hazard’s reemerged back into the conversation as one of world football’s top talents. Similar to the current title race, there just doesn’t appear to be another legitimate front-runner, which is another testament to Hazard’s greatness. His evolution into a devastating, reliable final third attacker solidifies his status as this year’s standout Premier League player.

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

 

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Juventus 3-0 Barcelona

Similar to Barcelona’s trip to PSG last month, Juventus’s emphatic first leg triumph further highlighted the Spanish champions’ issues under Luis Enrique.

There were no real surprises to Juventus XI. Gonzalo Higuain started ahead of Mario Mandzukic, Paulo Dybala and Juan Cuadrado. Meanwhile, Miralem Pjanic and Sami Khedira protected Max Allegri’s experience back-line.

Enrique was without the suspended Sergio Busquets, which forced the Barcelona manager to field Javier Mascherano in midfield, whereas Jeremy Mathieu was a surprise member in the away side’s back-line.

Juve’s wonderful start to the match was a combination of exploiting the away side’s weaknesses along with their imbalanced shape, which ultimately defined the overall tempo of the match.

Juve squeeze early

One of the key elements to Juve’s success was their quick start. In the opening minutes, Higuain had already spurned a free header from six-yards out via Pjanic’s free-kick.

But from open play, Juve’s high-pressing ensured Barcelona couldn’t settle into their preferred tempo. Higuain and Dybala monitored the Barcelona centre-backs and Cuadrado occasionally stepped towards Mathieu to make it 3v3 at the back.

An attempt to overturn Juve’s press witnessed Mascherano slot into a deeper zone, which therefore offset Khedira to push forward to limit the Argentine’s influence from midfield. Barca were marked across the pitch due to Juve’s cohesive pressing: the full-backs were tight on the Barca wide players – Dani Alves succumbed to an early booking due to concessive fouls on Neymar – Suarez was isolated upfront, while Pjanic tracked Iniesta’s movement in midfield.

Enrique was infuriated by goalkeeper Marc Andre ter Stegen’s reluctance to play passes over the top for Suarez to chase into the channels and viciously showcased is disappointment within the opening five minutes. Obviously, Juve were unable to sustain this press throughout the match – nor was it likely their intention to do so – but it still represented a significant feat to the Italian champions’ positive start.

Barca’s flawed system

The other key factor associated with Barca’s issues was the initial set-up. What appeared to be a 3-4-3 ahead of kickoff was a back three in possession, but supposed to be a back four when Juve broke forward. However, Enrique’s men were uncertain of their duties from front to back.

Sergi Roberto left his right-back zone to help overload central areas, whilst making vertical darts into the channels to provide penetration going forward. Mathieu, on the other hand, rarely ventured forward in the opening stages despite the hosts allowing the Frenchman space to step into their half to play passes out the back. Perhaps Allegri wanted Mathieu in advanced positions so Juve could break into the right channel in transition, along with the fact that the Barcelona centre-back isn’t the strongest defender on the ball.

Iniesta was unable to control the game – though it’s not one of the traits the Spaniard is renowned for – whereas the other issue stemmed from the left flank. Iniesta started the match as the widest midfielder, but his narrow positioning along with Neymar operating as a wide forward meant there was no cover on the flanks, which therefore forced Mathieu to step to the left to cover space against Cuadrado.

Essentially, there was ample space in the channels for Juve’s wide players to manipulate, and it’s unsurprising that the buildup to both of Dybala’s goals stemmed down the flanks.

Dybala goals

Slack defending contributed to the simplicity of Juve’s opening goals, but the fact that the buildup was nearly identical justifies Allegri’s approach. Higuain switched the ball to the right flank to place Cuadrado in a 1v1 situation with Mathieu, which ultimately resulted in Dybala ghosting into the box and quickly firing the opener past ter Stegen.

Subsequently, Juve sprung on the counter-attack down the left flank for Mandzukic to run at the recovering Sergi Roberto before pulling the ball back for Dybala, who curled another super effort past the Barcelona goal-keeper. Towards the end of the half Alex Sandro broke past Rakitic down the left to provide a pull-back opportunity for Higuain that ter Stegen nearly pushed away into danger.

Barcelona encountered difficulties protecting pull-backs from half spaces, but more worryingly was their reluctance to track Dybala, Higuain and Khedira’s late runs towards the box. Juve’s crucial first half chances followed the aforementioned template that highlighted Barca’s issues in wide areas – against the wide players and tracking Dybala’s movement to the flanks – along with Busquets’ absence ahead of the back four.

Messi Magic

The other aspect of Juve’s quick start meant the hosts could drop deeper, remain compact, and swarm the away side when they attempted to penetrate in central zones.

Busquets’ absence was critical to Barca’s issue because Mascherano failed to dictate the tempo of the match with his passing and lacked the range and confidence to play penetrating passes from deep. Meanwhile, out of possession, the Argentine was culpable for being caught on the ball via pressure and failing to track late runs towards the box.

Therefore, Barca were devoid of creativity in midfield: with Rakitic and Roberto unsure of their roles, and Iniesta marked out of the match, only a dangerous cross from the often open Mathieu nearly troubled Juve, but Giorgio Chiellini blocked Suarez’s diving header. Ultimately, it took brilliance from Messi – forced to beat at the minimum two players whenever he found space on the field – to create the game’s best chances.

The first opportunity involved a breathtaking reverse ball that bisected the Juve defence to play in Iniesta, but his poor finish witnessed Gianluigi Buffon push away the Spaniard’s attempt seconds prior to Dybala’s second goal. Frankly, Messi was involved in two other major chances in the second half that should’ve resulted in away goals.

First, a failed combination with Neymar led to the Argentine sliding a low effort inches wide of the far post. Then, Messi received the ball in a pocket of space to bamboozle Chiellini before playing in Suarez who rolled Bonucci, but fired his shot wide. Majority of Barca’s attacking play was bland and lethargic, and it’s surprising they failed to record an away goal given the several chances created through Messi’s greatness.

Second Half

Enrique removed Mathieu at half time for Andre Gomes, meaning Mascherano moved to centre-back, Samuel Umtiti operated as a left-back and the Portuguese midfielder sat at the base ahead of the back-line. The tactical alteration ensured Barca had cover at left-back, and although Sergi Roberto still charged forward into midfield, Rakitic often moved to the right touchline to maintain width.

While the tactical shift slightly improved Barca’s shape, Juve’s best period of the second half – the build up to Chiellini’s third goal – witnessed Mandzukic charge down the left create another pull-back for Khedira, and Cuadrado also charging into the aforementioned space that led to an identical move where Higuain’s tame effort was easily handled by ter Stegen. Minutes later, a quick free-kick over the Barca defence should’ve sealed the match but Higuain’s preference to shoot rather than play the ball across goal to an unmarked Mandzukic led to another important ter Stegen save.

Barca dominated possession for majority of the match following Chiellini’s goal, while Juve maintained a deeper line and slowly turned to defensive options off the bench to secure the result. Enrique’s men still found pathways to goal via Suarez getting the better of Bonucci on numerous occasions, but largely through Messi finding space in midfield to create.

Conclusion

Juve were deserving winners, here, despite producing a far from perfect performance. Allegri exploited the systematic flaws in Enrique’s unorthodox XI by breaking into space in the channels, combined with the intelligent positioning and individual brilliance of Dybala – who scored two great goals and forced the away side into fouling him across the pitch.

Juve’s initial energetic pressing flustered Barca, and they took a commanding lead, protected key zones around their box for large spells to neutralize Barca’s key attackers in the final third. However, Barca’s poor set-up and Busquets’ suspension was also pivotal at full-time, along with poor finishing around the box as Messi created the two best chances of the match.

Allegri has been the victim of a second leg collapse at the Camp Nou in the past, and though a supreme performance from the Barca front three isn’t farcical, the experience of the Juve defence combined with their tactical discipline and organization suggests Barca may not have enough to turn the tie. Enrique may need more than the individual brilliance of his three star attackers to overcome this well-drilled Juventus side.

 
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Posted by on April 14, 2017 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Atlanta’s Miguel Almiron shines brightest in entertaining draw at Toronto FC

The recurring theme witnessed throughout the start of Toronto FC’s 2017 campaign involves Greg Vanney’s Reds serving as frustrated figures against organized defensive units. However, stylistically, Atlanta United FC’s visit to BMO Field presented a contrasting challenge that should’ve favoured last year’s MLS Cup finalists.

But despite TFC’s star-studded attacking options upfront against a fairly open travelling Atlanta side, the Reds designated players were outshone by Miguel Almiron and Hector Daniel Villalba. The former’s appreciation of space exposed TFC’s imbalanced midfield, whereas the make-shift back three, featuring Chris Mavinga’s first home start, were terrorized by the latter’s pace.

Almiron’s threat was evident in the opening two minutes when the Paraguayan drifted goal side of Bradley to received possession to ignite an attack, whilst minutes later dribbling past the TFC captain before being shrugged off the ball by Armando Cooper. This year, teams have preferred to sit back and attempt to nick a goal on the counter attack against the Reds, but Atlanta’s proactive approach flustered the hosts.

One aspect of TFC’s game that’s often overlooked is their vulnerability in central areas out of possession, particularly when Bradley is forced to mark an intelligent no.10 in the mould of Almiron. Likewise, the aforementioned threat of Almiron and Villalba led to Atlanta’s opener, as the former received the ball in acres of space to the left of Bradley and instantly slid a through ball behind Mavinga resulting in Villalba slotting his shot past goalkeeper Alex Bono.

In recent matches, TFC encountered periodic difficulties because opposing forwards and advanced midfielders would solely focus on limiting Bradley’s time on the ball. Here, Almiron dominated the TFC captain in both phases: The Paraguayan harried Bradley when he received the ball, but also cleverly received possession in pockets of space across the final third. Almiron’s teammates also aided the Paraguayan with his defensive duties to force Bradley into conceding possession cheaply, as Martino’s men were comfortable in possession and utilized the pace of the forwards and Almiron’s creativity.

Still, the issue with playing so open against the hosts equally presents space for TFC to utilize in the final third. Ultimately, TFC’s equalizer was a combination of Victor Vazquez’s advanced positioning and the link-up play between Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore. It was one of the rare moves where Altidore moved towards the ball – as he often aimed to charge behind the Atlanta back-line or dart into the channels – when Giovinco dropped into midfield.

Altidore and Giovinco were both guilty of spurning opportunities around the box, with majority of the chances stemming from Giovinco’s deep positioning, Bradley receiving the freedom to push forward, and Vazquez playing closer to the opposition’s penalty box. TFC took the lead in the final minutes of the first half via Jeff Larentowicz’s poor clearance that led to Vazquez guiding Steven Beitashour to the byline to combine with fellow wing-back Justin Morrow for an easy tap-in.

Nonetheless, Atlanta equalized within the first minute of the second half following another defensive lapse from Mavinga, which invited Villalba to latch onto a simple long ball over the TFC defence and coolly notch his second goal of the night. Martino’s men increased the tempo of their game and successfully dispossessed Bradley and Vazquez to ignite swift transitional breaks with Almiron being denied twice by Bono.

Where the Paraguayan’s threat briefly decreased in the first half when he dropped ahead of the TFC midfield, the variation in movement towards the channel and beyond the defence reinvigorated Atlanta’s offensive threat. Almiron and Villalba continued to pester the Reds with their direct counter-attacks, but apart from audacious long distance efforts from Vazquez, Vanney’s men were quiet in the second half.

Martino’s men dropped closer towards goal in the second half to limit space behind the defence, but the congested midfield zone, and diligent defensive work from the away side’s wide players nullified TFC’s productivity in the final third. With Yamil Asad wrongly sent off in the final 15 minutes, Martino sacrificed his star players to preserve a point in what will be classified as a remarkable away performance.

Very few MLS sides can come to BMO Field and outperform Vanney’s Reds, but here, Almiron dominated the centre of the pitch, and displayed a proactive method to exploit Bradley’s deficiencies as the sole pivot. Stifling Bradley has developed into a pattern that most sides are leaning towards, and though TFC’s profligacy in the final third may eventually translate into goals, their productivity on both ends of the field can no longer be taken lightly.

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2017 in Published Work

 

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