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Manchester United 0-0 Chelsea: Both sides display signs of underachievement at Old Trafford

hazard united

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 28: Eden Hazard of Chelsea in action during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford on December 28, 2015 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Manchester United and Chelsea battled to a score-less draw at Old Trafford.

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Louis van Gaal recalled Wayne Rooney to lead the line, and changed his midfield duo with the inclusion of Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Mateo Darmian also returned from injury to start at left-back, pushing Daley Blind to centre-back, whereas Ashley Young featured on the right.

Guus Hiddink was forced into changes as well due to the suspension of Diego Costa, while Gary Cahill, Cesc Fabregas, Loic Remy and Radamel Falcao were also unavailable for selection. Therefore, Eden Hazard started upfront, John Obi Mikel protected the defence alongside Nemanja Matic, while Kurt Zouma provided mobility in a centre-back partnership with John Terry.

Chelsea approach

There were no surprises in regards to the overall pattern of the match prior to kick off. United lead the league in possession stats this season, whereas Chelsea were always likely to play on the counter especially without Costa leading the line.

With that being said, it was interesting to see how Chelsea would approach the match out of possession. Willian and Pedro were forced deeper to prevent Young and Darmian from creating overloads, whereas Oscar aided Hazard in pressing. At times, Oscar moved upfront to lead the line to give Hazard a rest – on the other hand, the United midfield received more time on the ball – whereas Oscar and Willian occasionally swapped positions to maintain energy levels.

United countered Oscar’s pressing by having both Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger drop behind the halfway line to receive possession before attempting to play long diagonals towards the flanks. Likewise, Mikel and Matic sat in front of a narrow back four, which inevitably left space for Juan Mata and Herrera to drift into when Oscar and Hazard were pressing in United’s half.

Chelsea were fortunate not to concede in the opening 20 minutes, but their overall approach – despite its structural flaws – was rarely tested because of United’s limited penetration in the final third.

Clumsy possession out the back

Interestingly, Chelsea constantly found themselves in trouble when they attempted to play out the back. Perhaps this was Hiddink’s ploy to build attacks without Costa, but here, Chelsea were simply sloppy in possession.

Oscar was forced into a last-ditch tackle on Herrera after being dispossessed in his own half. Then, Mata intercepted Courtois’ attempt to find Cesar Azpilicueta, but the Spaniard’s cross to an unmarked Rooney was cleared by Zouma. Also in the second half, there was a sequence that witnessed Mikel fail to control a simple five-yard Zouma pass, thus resulting in a United corner kick.

United’s possession dominance led to a few nervy moments for the Blues, but they were equally placing United in key goal-scoring positions with their sloppy passing around the box.

United attack down the left

One of the main issues preventing United from enjoying a successful campaign thus far is their productivity in the final third. The lack of penetration through incisive passing and direct running resulted in a tedious attack that was aided by their determination to operate down the left.

United constantly aimed to take advantage of Branislav Ivanovic down the left, which was logical considering Martial operated in this zone. Though United’s initial chance stemmed from the right – Mata’s shot off the cross bar – Pedro and Azpilicueta adequately closed down Young’s crossing, whereas Mata drifted centrally throughout.

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On paper, Martial against Ivanovic favoured the Frenchman, but the United youngster struggled to impose himself against the Serbian. Chelsea appeared susceptible down this flank in the opening stages with Darmian surging forward, and Martial hitting the post, but the Serbian fared well in 1v1 battles with the Frenchman.

Nevertheless, intelligent movement and positive combinations still witnessed United create their best chances down the left in the second half. Darmian moving infield provided Martial enough space to storm past Pedro to present Herrera with a golden opportunity that Courtois miraculously saved. While, substitute, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson’s cross in the latter stages of the second half should’ve resulted in a Rooney winner.

Martial didn’t thrive in his individual battle with Ivanovic, but United still exploited Chelsea’s frailty down this flank, creating their best goal-scoring opportunities.

Hazard

However, Hiddink’s major decision involved Hazard playing upfront. The unavailability of the natural centre-forwards meant the Dutchman had to tinker in this area, and with United fielding two attack-minded full-backs, combined with Hazard’s past defensive issues on the flanks, it was logical to start the Belgian upfront.

Frankly, both Oscar or Pedro have experience playing in this role – the former operated as natural no.9 at the Emirates last year, whereas the latter charged behind opposing defences during his time at Barcelona. Hazard performed superbly at White Hart Lane earlier in the year, receiving the ball in various areas, but the issue behind his role upfront was that Chelsea were deprived a penalty box presence. The same applied here, as the Belgian was outmuscled off the ball by Chris Smalling and Daley Blind when he received the ball with his back to goal.

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Still, the Belgian influenced an apathetic Chelsea midfield when he moved into deeper positions, however, suffering the most fouls throughout – the Belgian and Matic glided through challenges throughout to evade several challenges.

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One move at the beginning of the second half epitomized his threat from deep – Hazard easily rolled Herrera and bypassed Schweinsteiger before playing in Pedro at the edge of the box, but De Gea made two outstanding saves to keep match goal-less. From open play, Chelsea’s attacking threat was scarce, but they were most dangerous when Hazard received the ball in the midfield zone.

Chelsea counters

Ultimately, Chelsea’s deep positioning and poor passing when they retained possession placed significant precedence on their counter-attacks. It was the evident attacking ploy for the Blues, but without any substantial build-up play, and sporadic set-pieces in dangerous areas, it appeared to be the away side’s sole goal source.

But where Chelsea usually countered with devastating efficiency under Mourinho, here, their counters appeared improvised. In the opening 20 minutes, both United centre-backs committed mistakes that enabled Hazard and Oscar to break towards the box, but both plays concluded with the former and Willian failing to provide Pedro with a final ball.

Essentially, the lack of a natural forward thwarted Chelsea’s counter-attacks. The likes of Pedro and Hazard are used to having forward offer diagonal runs for a final pass or to create space, but here, it led to poor decision-making from both men and the potential ball receiver. The duo was actually involved in a 2v2 break following the Belgian turning Schneiderlin near the half way line, but the entire play was halted as neither player made the correct run or pass.

As players tired, Chelsea’s threat on the counter decreased significantly, but they still squandered possibly the best chance of the game via this method of attack. Pedro was once again involved, as he swiftly stormed into United’s half – subsequent to a United corner – before playing in an unmarked Matic who motored into the box but fired his shot over the net.

Second half

The match followed a relatively similar pattern in the second half, however, Chelsea retreated deeper, their pressing decreased, and United received more time and space to turn possession dominance into goal scoring opportunities. Yet, apart from the two spurned aforementioned chances that stemmed from the left flank, United rarely tested the fatigued away side.

Perhaps a lack of rotation affected Chelsea here, as Ashley Young grew in prominence down the right with Pedro struggling to close the United full-back down, whereas Oscar and Hazard’s threat on the counter perished in the final 20 minutes. Herrera continued to charge into space space in the channels behind Mikel, and deserved a penalty on the opposite side of the box following a late last-ditch Azpilicueta tackle, while Blind received more time on the ball to play forward penetrative passes.

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Chelsea’s shape was shockingly disjointed with Matic protecting Terry, and Mikel unaware of Herrera’s movement behind him. But with Rooney coming forward to link play, and not enough players in the box to attack the full-backs’ crosses, United’s attack remained blunt.

Substitutions

Oddly, Hiddink refrained from using all his substitutions despite fielding more than half of his XI against Watford two days prior. Ramires replaced Willian on the right, but where Pedro, Oscar and Hazard were evidently exhausted in the final 20 minutes, Hiddink was reluctant to summon his youngsters.

Van Gaal quickly reacted to Ramires’ introduction by introducing Borthwick-Jackson, and replacing Blind for Phil Jones. This saw Smalling push forward in the final 10 minutes, but the change was likely due to Blind’s fitness levels rather than a tactical shift, considering Chelsea’s threat was non-existent during these stages.

The United manager’s attempt to rescue the match saw Memphis Depay replace Mata, pushing Martial to the right. Nonetheless, the change proved futile, as Memphis rarely touched the ball, whereas Martial offered no threat on the right. It was peculiar to see Fellaini remain on the bench with United delivering multiple crosses into the box, along the Dutchman preferring not to utilize Martial’s pace against a nervy Chelsea back-line.

Conclusion

As expected, one day’s rest provided a cautious battle between two underachieving Premier League sides, in which goal-keeping heroics and poor finishing proved decisive.

Martial Zoma

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 28: Anthony Martial of Manchester United battles for the ball with Kurt Zouma of Chelsea during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford on December 28, 2015 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Chelsea were far from impressive, but with limited time on the training ground for Hiddink to employ his philosophy, combined with several first-team players unavailable, the interim Chelsea manager may be pleased with the result.

United, on the other hand, displayed improved dynamism and commitment in attacking areas, but the hosts’ susceptibility to counter-attacks, along with their limited penetration showcased one of the few issues under Van Gaal. A place in the top four remains attainable, but United must improve in both phases if they intend on achieving their target.

 
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Posted by on December 30, 2015 in Match Recaps, Published Work, Uncategorized

 

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Arsenal 2-1 Manchester City: Ozil exploits Manchester City’s feeble defensive shape with simple movement

Ozil vs City

LONDON, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 21: Mesut Ozil of Arsenal challenged by Fabian Delph and Yaya Toure of Man City during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Manchester City at Emirates Stadium on December 21, 2015 in London. (Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Arsenal scored two goals in the final 15 minutes of the first half to defeat Manchester City.

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Arsene Wenger was still without Alexis Sanchez so he made no significant changes to his starting XI.

Manuel Pellegrini welcomed back Sergio Aguero to lead the line, while Fabian Delph started on the left over Raheem Sterling. Delph played alongside David Silva in the no.10 role, and Kevin De Bruyne operated on the right.

Recurring issues with tactical discipline witnessed Arsenal overwhelm Manchester City at the Emirates following a positive start to a match where they simply lost control.

Identical approach

One of the key feats heading into the match was how either side would approach the match. City have showcased their pragmatism in big domestic games – this led to a dull goalless draw at Old Trafford – whereas Wenger employed reactive tactics to defeat Pellegrini’s men at the Etihad last season.

At the Emirates, neither side was willing to push forward. Despite dominating plenty of possession, City quickly dropped into two banks of four with Delph tucking centrally to help Silva press Aaron Ramsey, and quickly shifting towards the flanks to prevent Hector Bellerin from pushing forward.

The partnership of Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini deprive Arsenal of creativity and astute passing in deeper positions, so the intent to stifle the former was logical. With Aguero left with the responsibility of harrying both Arsenal centre-backs, Laurent Koscielny often pushed forward to play passes into midfield – though they were often misplaced, the Frenchman’s passing was eventually decisive.

Arsenal, on the other hand, were more of a 4-5-1 with Ozil joining Ramsey and Flamini in midfield, opting to minimize passing lanes in central areas. Olivier Giroud’s work-rate was occasionally useful as well, as he dropped off to apply pressure on Yaya Toure and Fernandinho, who had ample time to spread play to the wings as the hosts dropped off into their defensive base shape.

Ultimately this lead to a dull opening half hour of football, as neither side was keen on allowing the opposition space between the lines.

City’s issue

There was a sense of caution in City’s approach from the opening whistle – Delph’s inclusion on the left justified the notion – as they dominated possession throughout the first half but failed to create chances from open play. Wenger’s men deserve credit for remaining compact and limiting spaces between the lines, but City are also culpable for their lack of conviction in the final third.

They preferred safe sideways passes with Toure and Fernandinho within close proximity of each other leading the charge at the half way line, while De Bruyne and Silva were stifled between the lines. Aguero lacked match sharpness and was contained well by the Arsenal centre-backs, and City’s attacking full-backs lacked options in the box when they pushed forward to play crosses.

Nevertheless, prior to Walcott’s opener it was De Bruyne who created the best chances of the match. The Belgian delivered plenty of crosses that were easily cleared throughout, but initially, he comfortably glided past Arsenal left back Nacho Monreal and forced Petr Cech to make a near post save.

The game-defining moment however, came seconds prior to City conceding. Coincidentally it was Eliaquim Mangala – another centre-back igniting a positive move – that located Aguero, and the Argentinian dropped off Koscielny and instantly flicked the ball into space behind Walcott and Monreal for De Bruyne.

De Bruyne drove into the box, and opposed to passing to Silva – in fairness Per Mertesacker did well to cut off the lane to the Spaniard – the Belgian flashed his shot wide of the net. It appeared that City’s dominance was beginning to fluster Wenger’s men, but City’s possession was predominantly bland, and a moment of brilliance from Walcott changed the match.

Silva vs. Ozil

The exciting element to this match involved the Premier League’s star creative midfielders, and it was fitting that both men started in their preferred no.10 role. David Silva has been the key man for City in recent years, and arguably the league’s best performer over the past 24 months, but Ozil’s 13 assists heading into the match represented the German rediscovering his best form.

However, the contrast in how they were marked prove decisive. Both prefer to drift laterally between the lines to receive the ball, but neither playmaker did so with ease in the opening stages. Silva was man-marked across the pitch by Flamini and was unable to receive the ball in tight spaces.

Apart from one moment at the edge of the box when Silva skied his shot over the net, the Spaniard’s best moments stemmed on the break where he had enough space to freely play forward passes to the wide players. In open play, the City playmaker was restricted to dropping deeper towards the halfway line to influence the game.

City’s approach didn’t have the same impact on Ozil, but initially it was simple and effective. The German’s attempt to bypass City’s midfield block involved movement towards the flank, but Pellegrini instructed the closest holding midfielder to shuttle over to apply pressure.

Ultimately, Pellegrini gambled with his midfield pairing, as on countless occasions Toure has been guilty of leaving Fernandinho exposed with his reluctance to quickly retreat into shape. Yet, to no surprise, Arsenal’s best moves in the first half involved Ozil recording two assists by exploiting space behind the Ivorian.

  • 5th min: Koscielny’s pass finds Ozil in space behind Toure, but the German’s ball to Walcott was slightly over-hit.
  • 31st min: 1-0 Walcott. A similar pass from Koscielny finds Ozil again in acres of space behind Toure, but this time he connects with Walcott, who cuts back to the edge of the box and curls a splendid strike beyond Joe Hart. This wasn’t a traditional assist, but nonetheless, who was Toure marking?
  • 46th min: 2-0 Giroud. A series of errors from Eliaquim Mangala and Fernandinho enables Walcott to pick up a loose ball at the half way line and locate Ozil in space behind the Brazilian. Ozil quickly slid a pass into the box for Giroud to double Arsenal’s lead.

Arsenal’s productivity in City’s third was scarce, but the difference in defending the opposing playmaker proved costly for City. Silva’s threat was thoroughly negated due to Flamini’s work-rate – despite it creating space for De Bruyne and Toure to drive into, which in fairness wasn’t a first half issue – while Ozil patiently waited for City’s midfield duo to get caught out of position to impact the match.

Arsenal second half chances

Pellegrini quickly reacted to his side trailing by two goals by turning to Sterling in place of Delph on the left. City still encountered issues going forward with Toure and Aguero still moving languidly, while Bellerin kept tight on Sterling to nullify his threat from the left. Apart from two near post Aguero headers from set-pieces, and a tame toe poke towards Cech, City offered no threat in the final third.

The same can’t be said about Arsenal, as their full-backs were increasingly proactive. Likewise, Joel Campbell ran across Aleksandar Kolarov twice in the box to blast his initial effort over the net, and force Hart into a simple save that once again stemmed from a Koscielny diagonal.

Ramsey posed a threat with is deep runs from midfield, but equally displayed the discipline issues he possesses considering there was no need to risk a City counter in this situation. A break ignited by Bellerin’s willingness to outfight Fernandinho resulted in Ramsey running beyond both centre-backs into the box, but once again he was denied by Hart.

Then, one move in the dying moments epitomized City’s poor defensive play in two phases. Both Mangala and Nicolas Otamendi failed to cope with Giroud, thus enabling the Frenchman to lay the ball off to substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and the England international picked out Ramsey who charged past Toure into the box only to clip his shot wide of the net.

Arsenal created countless chances in the second half with City eager to throw players forward, but poor finishing, and Hart’s heroics provided City with a lifeline.

Substitutions

Pellegrini’s initial attempt to rescue the match was unsuccessful, so he sacrificed two of his three underperforming stars in Silva and Aguero for Wilfried Bony and Jesus Navas. The formation remained the same, but it essentially gave City a new dimension with Bony serving as an aerial threat, whereas now the away side offered pace and natural width on both flanks.

The latter’s introduction appeared peculiar initially considering Wenger made his favourite substitution when ahead, introducing Kieran Gibbs for Campbell to ensure adequate protection down the flanks. Wenger also decided to move to a natural 4-5-1 replacing Ozil with Oxlade-Chamberlain, and pushing the England international alongside Ramsey and Flamini for additional protection in midfield.

The hosts now appeared content to protect their lead with an additional midfielder – even as a duo Mangala and Otamendi failed to negate Giroud’s influence and there was no need for a floater behind the Frenchman – but Pellegrini reverted to the shape that was successful in the early stages of the season, introducing two wide players and shifting De Bruyne to his preferred no.10 role.

City push for equalizer

City’s resurgence followed shortly after, with De Bruyne’s movement and Arsenal’s energy levels decreasing. Toure instantly played a pass into De Bruyne between the lines thus leading to Sterling receiving the ball in the box to cut in on Bellerin and curl a weak effort at Cech.

de bruyne arsenal

LONDON, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 21: Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Manchester City at the Emirates Stadium on December 21, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Catherine Ivill – AMA/Getty Images)

De Bruyne varied his movement to the flank to receive service, but it should also be noted that Flamini maintained his position opposed to tracking the Belgian’s movement. Along with Navas breaking past Monreal on a clear break-away and opting to pass rather than shoot – a typical error in decision-making from the Spaniard that’s displayed frequently – De Bruyne was the catalyst behind a potential City recovery.

Subsequent to Toure’s wonder-goal, De Bruyne ran beyond the defence to combine with Bony resulting in the Ivorian’s shot being blocked for a corner. Then, Toure surged through the Arsenal midfield to receive De Bruyne’s lay off in the box but the 32-year-old poked the ball wide of the net.

Arsenal’s persistence to seek a third goal left them vulnerable on the counter, but Wenger’s alterations didn’t necessarily improve their situation. De Bruyne was lively in a no.10 role, and it must be said that both wide players were handed a quality opportunity to score, which emphasizes that this is City’s most effective set-up going forward.

Conclusion

Arsenal claimed the most important fixture of the title race thus far, with the simplicity in the buildup to both goals once again exploiting City’s fragility in midfield and the centre-back positions. In ways, the manner in which Ozil and Silva were marked display the contrast in preparations between the two managers.

In what was building up to be a slow-burning cagey encounter, Walcott’s goal led to an open match that frankly could’ve ended as an Arsenal blowout. City’s approach was fairly conservative, but they simply looked out-of-order going forward, and enjoyed their best moments when Pellegrini reverted to an expansive shape.

The sides that focus on organization and compact shapes out of possession have prospered in the current Premier League season, and here, Arsenal followed suit.

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2015 in Match Recaps, Published Work, Uncategorized

 

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Wolfsburg 3-2 Manchester United: United have no answers for Wolfsburg swift counter-attacks

Naldo United

WOLFSBURG, GERMANY – DECEMBER 08: Naldo of Wolfsburg celebrates scoring the first goal during the UEFA Champions League match between VfL Wolfsburg and Manchester United FC at the Volkswagen arena on December 8, 2015 in Wolfsburg, Germany. (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Wolfsburg recorded a historic victory over Manchester United to knock the English side out of the Champions League.

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Dieter Hecking preferred a mobile attacking quartet, and therefore started Max Kruse ahead of Andre Schurrle, Julian Draxler and Vieirinha. Max Arnold and Julian Guilavogui formed a midfield duo, while Ricardo Rodriguez was fit to start the match at left-back.

Louis van Gaal faced several injury issues prior to kick-off, which eventually saw Guillermo Varela start at right-back, while Bastian Schweinsteiger and Marouane Fellaini sat in midfield. Juan Mata was the creative conductor behind the pacy attacking trio of Memphis Depay, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard.

Wolfsburg counter-attacked superbly in what proved to be a fairly open match that once again exploited Manchester United’s shortcomings on both ends.

United press

The most striking feat regarding the overall result was that United started the match fairly well. Wolfsburg prefer to pass their way from the back into the opposition’s third, so it was logical for Van Gaal to instruct his men to press from the front.

Essentially, United attempted a combination of high-pressing and man-marking with the centre-backs tightly marking Draxler and Kruse, while the full-backs prevent the wingers from getting a second or third touch in their attempts to turn towards goal.

Martial and Lingard pressed the centre-backs, and when Guilavogui dropped deep, Mata pushed forward to ensure it was 3v3 at the back. At times, the personnel varied with Mata and Martial pushing forward, while Fellaini closed down the Wolfsburg holding midfielder.

Though United’s pressing wasn’t entirely efficient, it led to some nervy moments for goalkeeper Julian Benaglio, whereas Memphis prevented Christian Trasch from surging forward. Memphis dispossessed Trasch and slid a pass into half-space for Martial, which ultimately troubled Benaglio. Later on, it was substitute Cameron Borthwick-Jackson that robbed Vieirinha in the buildup to Lingard’s contentious offside goal.

United created chances on the break due to their pressing, and successfully prevented Wolfsburg from enjoying long spells of possession in their half.

Wolfsburg without the ball

The hosts adopted a more simplistic approach out of possession, preferring to drop into a 4-5-1 rather than fully committing to pressing from the front. The midfield three were aligned and compact to ensure passes didn’t meet United players between the lines, but it was evident Wolfsburg aimed to prevent Schweinsteiger from dictating the tempo of the match from deeper positions.

Arnold stepped forward to fluster Schweinsteiger who’s been exposed in recent years when encounter dynamic pressing. However, when Wolfsburg sat off, Draxler was instructed to negate his compatriot’s passing lanes, where as Guilavogui matched Fellaini’s physicality in midfield.

United’s issue in open play has been apparent, so Hecking’s aim to press Schweinsteiger out of the game highlighted his intent to nullify the away side’s activity in the final third.

1-0

With that being said, Van Gaal’s men still scored from open play, and occasionally surged into key areas in the final third, but often lacked the final pass.

United’s attack was filled with pace, and Van Gaal intended on encouraging his ball-players to slide passes behind the defence for the onrushing runners. Daley Blind stepped forward to find Mata between the lines, and he instantly turned and located Martial’s diagonal run behind the defence for the opener.

It took United three passes to get to the Wolfsburg box, but it fully indicated their attacking intent going forward.

Minutes later, Memphis dispossessed Trasch and slid a through-ball into half space for Martial, but his cross on goal was hesitantly recovered by Benaglio. In the 27th minute, Guilavogui stepped forward to press Blind leaving space vacant between the lines, and though the Dutchman located Memphis between the lines, the United winger’s pass to Martial in the box was over hit – summing up United’s productivity around the penalty area.

Unfortunately for United, they were penalized for six offside calls throughout the match, with majority of the scenarios stemming around the box, as their attacking quartet failed to replicate the brilliance of the opening goal.

Wolfsburg counter-attack

The key attacking trend on the night was Wolfsburg’s counter-attack. This was partially down to United’s inability to collectively press as a unit for the entire first half, and Hecking’s men simply bypassed the opposition with nifty short passes.

Wolfsburg, however, stuck to their patented counter-attacking module by playing quick short passes around pressure and subsequently switching play to the opposite flank –  this element of attack was also implemented in last year’s riot of Bayern Munich. The hosts intended on isolating full-backs Varela and Matteo Darmian – the former is inexperienced and the latter’s form is poor – but Schurrle, in particular, failed to get the better of the youngster.

Hecking’s men attacked with five players as Arnold often ventured forward, and Vieirinha’s go-ahead goal represented the ideal Wolfsburg attack under this set-up. Following Wolfsburg successfully bypassing pressure in their half, two long diagonals were played to Schurrle and Draxler on both flanks, before the latter stormed past Schweinsteiger to combine with Kruse, thus resulting in a Vieirinha tap-in.

Schweinsteiger and Fellaini were both culpable for Wolfsburg’s ability to easily storm through midfield on the break. Schweinsteiger’s vertical passing in midfield zones was underwhelming, and he suffered under midfield pressure with Fellaini caught in advanced forward. One move saw Schweinsteiger give the ball away to Schurrle, who quickly located Draxler free on goal but David De Gea made a key save.

Fellaini and Schweinsteiger isn’t the ideal midfield duo against Europe’s better sides, and their inability to dictate the tempo of the match, combined with constantly being overrun by tricky dynamic players led to their first half issues.

Fellaini

On the defensive end, Fellaini was a liability, playing slightly ahead of Schweinsteiger. Van Gaal has retreated to playing through Fellaini late in games when chasing a goal, but the Belgian international represented an additional attacking threat that consistently worked opposed to a last-ditch approach.

The Belgian’s aerial prowess created several dangerous United moments, as he initially towered over Dante to force a terrific Benaglio save from an in-swinging Blind corner. In the second half, Benaglio made another sensational save to stop Memphis’ acrobatic shot, as Fellaini’s nod-down from a Martial cross placed United in a legitimate goal-scoring position

United’s equalizer was basically a carbon copy of Fellaini’s initial first half chance, as another Blind corner saw the Belgian shrug off Dante to nod the ball in the ground, but Guilavogui directed the ball into his own net. Fellaini’s offensive contribution vividly showcased why the Belgian is efficient in advanced areas, but here, in terms of overall balance, he was positioned in the wrong position.

United improves

United enjoyed lengthy spells of possession in the oppositions half during the final 45 minutes, with Hecking’s men dropping into two banks of four opposed to the initial 4-5-1. Hecking was wary of Blind’s vertical passes into pockets of space and encouraged Draxler to apply pressure on the Dutchman, while Kruse tracked Smalling.

This enabled Schweinsteiger to split the defenders to make it 3v2 in deep positions, with Arnold and Vieirinha occasionally pushing out of position to close the German down. However, majority of Schweinsteiger’s passes went to the flanks, and United persisted with astray balls over the Wolfsburg defence.

With United pushing so many men forward, Wolfsburg’s threat on the counter-attack increased. The trio of Schurrle, Draxler and Kruse consistently surged forward, with the former Chelsea man getting behind the United defence to force De Gea into key saves. Van Gaal turned to Michael Carrick and Nick Powell upfront, but neither player substantially influenced the match.

Set-pieces

Oddly, while United were fairly dominant attacking set-pieces, they were severely poor from a defensive aspect, conceding two goals in the process. In fairness, defensive solidity is a combination of familiarity and effective partnerships, so United’s injury woes at the back initially placed Van Gaal’s men at a disadvantage.

Still, the simplicity in Naldo’s movement for both goals frustrated Van Gaal because they came minutes after United had scored, stemmed from simple runs away from the marker. The Brazilian international ran across several defenders to side-volley Gustavo Rodriguez’s free-kick past De Gea.

The winner saw Naldo simply run past Carrick to powerfully nod the ball off the ground and past the United goalkeeper. Basic man-marking proved costly, as Wolfsburg exposed United’s make-shift back four, whom failed to carry out simple defensive responsibilities.

Conclusion

It was possibly the most adventurous brand of football United have played this season, yet consequently they were overrun in midfield and still failed to translate possession dominance into creating ample quality chances. For the second time in the group-stage round, United took the lead away from home, and failed to sustain the lead due to poor set-piece marking and quick counter-attacks.

Nevertheless, this is what Wolfsburg are about, and what makes Hecking’s achievement so remarkable is the fact that the German side topped the group following the sales of Bundesliga player of the year Kevin De Bruyne, and Ivan Perisic – two key players to last year’s success. They simply worked hard to shut down United’s creative ball-players, and aimed to play their way out of trouble before charging past an immobile pairing of Schweinsteiger and Fellaini.

schwein smalling united

WOLFSBURG, GERMANY – DECEMBER 08: Bastian Schweinstieger of Manchester looks dejected during the UEFA Champions League match between VfL Wolfsburg and Manchester United FC at the Volkswagen arena on December 8, 2015 in Wolfsburg, Germany. (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Bongarts/Getty Images)

United had no answers to Wolfsburg’s counters with Morgan Schneiderlin unavailable, and the heavy reliance on Schweinsteiger to be the focal point of United’s midfield at this stage in his career is peculiar. It’s difficult to question Van Gaal’s approach going forward, but apart from the opening 10 minutes, United’s work out of possession was shocking.

This puts Van Gaal’s work at United into question. In a group that many tipped United to win, the Red Devils rarely imposed sustained dominance in any match, whilst the recurring issues on both sides of the pitch played to their downfall. Van Gaal’s a stubborn man, but this should serve as a lesson to the United manager who risks stagnation if the required tweaks to his philosophy are overlooked.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2015 in Match Recaps, Published Work, Uncategorized

 

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Bayern Munich 5-1 Wolfsburg: Guardiola’s system alteration was the catalyst in Lewandowski’s dominant performance

Robert Lewandowski of Bayern Munich celebrates after scoring his second goal during the Bundesliga match between FC Bayern Muenchen and VfL Wolfsburg at Allianz Arena on September 22, 2015 in Munich, Germany. CREDIT: BORIS STREUBEL

Robert Lewandowski of Bayern Munich celebrates after scoring his second goal during the Bundesliga match between FC Bayern Muenchen and VfL Wolfsburg at Allianz Arena on September 22, 2015 in Munich, Germany.
CREDIT: BORIS STREUBEL

Robert Lewandowski scored five goals in nine minutes to single-handedly defeat Wolfsburg at the Allianz Arena.

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Dieter Hecking made three changes to the side that defeated Hertha Berlin over the weekend, as Ricardo Rodriguez, Bas Dost, and Luiz Gustavo played a role in the away side’s 4-4-2.

Pep Guardiola fielded his strongest XI in a 4-3-3 system. Thomas Muller, Douglas Costa, and Mario Gotze started upfront – keeping Lewandowski on the bench – while Thiago Alcantara, Xabi Alonso and Arturo Vidal formed a midfield trio.

This was a peculiar encounter between the top two Bundesliga sides of last season, which witnessed the runners-up start superbly, only to be outdone by what may be the best individual display of the season from Lewandowski.

Wolfsburg adopt similar approach

Many can classify this encounter as a match of two halves involving Hecking implementing the same defensive approach that handed the Bavarian’s their first domestic loss in last year’s title winning campaign. Put simply, Wolfsburg aimed to prevent Alonso from dictating the tempo from deep.

The away side dropped into two banks of four out of possession with Dost and Max Kruse alternating roles – when one forward stepped forward to press the ball carrier, the other remained goal-side to Alonso. Daniel Caligiuri and Julian Draxler quickly pressed the Bayern full-backs, whereas Joshua Guilavogui pressed Thiago, forcing the Spaniard to drop deeper to receive possession, thus limiting space to link play with Muller.

Alonso, in fairness, offered an improved threat via set-pieces, but it was evident Wolfsburg’s initiative was to thwart Bayern’s vertical play. The reigning champions penetrated central areas occasionally in the first half due to Luiz Gustavo’s poor positioning throughout, but out of possession, Hecking’s men were fairly comfortable.

Bayern struggle

In retrospect, Wolfsburg’s success without the ball insinuates Bayern encountered difficulties in the attacking phase. Bayern particularly struggled in central areas as neither Thiago nor Vidal were able to power the hosts forward.

Oddly, Vidal received ample space behind Gustavo to surge forward – he was always positioned behind the Brazilian – but was unable to receive the ball in these zones. There was a three-minute span that saw David Alaba step forward to find the Chilean in a pocket of space, whilst Gotze located Muller behind Dante, but neither player tested goalkeeper Benaglio.

Douglas Costa, arguably Bayern’s most impressive performer this season, looked dangerous when he cut in from the right, and though Gotze often bamboozled right back Christian Trasch, the German’s productivity from the left was scarce – the 23-year-old equally failed to balance wide areas to combine with Juan Bernat.

With that being said, Thomas Muller was deprived of service of front, with Wolfsburg’s centre-back duo of Naldo and Dante tacking the German’s movement. There was one moment in the 37th minute involving Muller dragging Naldo into midfield before charging behind the defender, which vividly expressed the simplicity in breaking down the Wolfsburg defence.

Although Bayern dominated possession in the opening half, failure to increase vertical passes from midfield proved crucial, as most areas were stifled by the away side.

Wolfsburg breaks down the right

Though Wolfsburg didn’t counter-attack with the great efficiency displayed last year, a distinctive pattern recurred when they occasionally broke forward. Frankly, the powerful running from Ivan Perisic, and Kevin De Bruyne’s ability to link midfield and attack was missed, yet the away side still posed a threat.

Bayern was wary of Wolfsburg’s threat in transition and dropped into a compact 4-5-1 when the away side enjoyed spells of possession, and it was unsurprising to see their best chances stemming from wide areas on the break. Yet, the lackadaisical approach from both Bayern full-backs was peculiar: Philip Lahm allowed Draxler infield to test Neuer, while Juan Bernat didn’t close down Caligiuri’s cross into the six-yard box, which narrowly evaded Draxler.

Wolfsburg’s opener equally stemmed from this route of attack – a tried and proven method to discombobulate Bayern’s defence by launching balls towards the flanks following slick passing. Trasch’s desperate clearance saw Dost and Draxler combine, with the latter instantly clipping the ball into space behind the advanced Bernat – Caligiuri drove into the box and fired an unstoppable shot past Neuer.

Likewise, the champions were fortunate not to be two goals down, as Neuer’s failed attempt to sweep up Benaglio’s long punt led to Caligiuri laying the ball off to Guilavogui, whose audacious shot from half bounced off the post. Perhaps a languid display from both full-backs enabled Wolfsburg’s joy in wide areas, but Hecking’s attempt to replicate last year’s successful approach against the champions was evident.

Bayern alter system

Ultimately, there were two significant factors to Bayern’s impressive turnaround – the first being Guardiola’s decision to shift the team’s shape to a 4-2-3-1. Bayern weren’t poor in the first half, but the change in shape offered penetration in central areas due to an additional striker, whilst Alonso finally received time and space to influence the tempo.

Alaba moved to left-back, Vidal dropped deeper alongside Alonso but was free to bomb forward, Javi Martinez is a fine passing outlet from the back, while Muller roamed between the lines behind Lewandowski. Now, Wolfsburg’s Brazilian centre-backs were both occupied, offering a legitimate threat to a back four that lacked protection from Gustavo.

Muller and Lewandowski operated effectively as the ideal strike partnership, and the movement from both men was the catalyst to the subsequent goal fest. In short, this was a simplistic attacking ploy that offered improved direct play and width.

Lewandowski

Here, the game’s star player was Lewandowski, scoring the fastest hat-trick in Bundesliga history, whilst dominating a nine-minute spell that eviscerated last year’s runner-up’s. The Polish striker occasionally drifted wide, and into narrow pockets of space, but with Muller dropping between the lines – effectively dragging Dante out of position – Lewandowski freely ghosted into the box on countless occasions.

Gustavo’s poor shielding left the Wolfsburg centre-backs vulnerable against Lewandowski and Muller’s movement. Lewandowski’s opening goals, however, were quite fortuitous, with Dante’s desperate tackle guiding the ball into his path, while Costa’s header evaded Muller and Gustavo into the path of the Polish striker, who ran towards goal and fired a low shot past Benaglio.

The third goal vividly illustrated the improved the positional issues Wolfsburg’s centre-backs encountered in the second half combined with their disjointed high-pressing.

As Bayern bypassed the pressure with short passes, Lewandowski dragged Naldo to the left-flank at the halfway line, and Vidal slid a sumptuous pass between Dante and Gustavo for Muller, ultimately resulting in a 3v2 in the box leading to Gotze finding the Polish striker unmarked to complete his hat-trick.

Lewandowski’s final goals involved clever wing play from Alaba and Costa, as the latter stormed past several challenges with his pace and power, and a combination of Muller dragging Dante out of position and a well-weighed Gotze cross: both incidents saw Lewandowski ghost past Gustavo and Naldo in the buildup.

It was a remarkable individual display showcasing the Polish striker’s power, intelligent movement, and clinical finishing that makes him one of the most revered player’s in world football.

Conclusion

In terms of significance, this may not be equivalent to Lewandowski’s performance against Real Madrid two years ago, but the dominance can’t be understated. However, it was intriguing to see both sides effectively adopt simplistic methods of attack to achieve superiority.

Hecking’s decision to negate Bayern’s passing and aggressively press the full-backs limited productivity in the final third, whilst exploiting deficiencies in wide areas in transition. It proved successful once again, but losing key attacking players over the summer possibly prevented an improved score-line.

Guardiola, however, deserves plaudits for the decisive tactical move: Bayern encountered difficulties connecting midfield and attack in the first half – therefore, Muller was outnumbered and isolated around the box – but the alteration left the centre-backs isolated against two of the games intelligent attackers.  With a half hour remaining, Bayern comfortably earned three points due to improved direct play.

The willingness to defend in numbers showcased the fear of being blitzed in transition, combined with the half-time tactical alteration highlights Guardiola’s brilliance and Bayern’s overall flexibility. But there still appears to be an issue in wide areas via transitions, but if Guardiola’s men can replicate the former, this may finally be the all-round powerhouse that Bayern supporters envisioned upon his arrival.

 
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Posted by on September 25, 2015 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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AS Roma 2-1 Juventus

Xinhua News Agency Aug. 31, 2015-- AS Roma's Pjanic (2nd R) celebrates his goal with teammates during their Italian Serie A soccer match against Juventus on August 30, 2015 in Rome, Italy. Rome won 2-1.

Xinhua News Agency
Aug. 31, 2015– AS Roma’s Pjanic (2nd R) celebrates his goal with teammates during their Italian Serie A soccer match against Juventus on August 30, 2015 in Rome, Italy. Rome won 2-1.

Roma relied on two goals from Bosnian duo Miralem Pjanic and Edin Dzeko to defeat title rivals Juventus.

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Iago Falque joined Dzeko and Mohammed Salah upfront in Rudi Garcia’s 4-3-3. Daniele De Rossi moved to centre-back alongside Kosta Manolas, whereas Seydou Keita formed a midfield trio with Radja Nainggolan and Pjanic.

Max Allegri reverted to a 3-5-2 with Mario Mandzukic and Pablo Dybala leading the line. With Claudio Marchisio and Sami Khedira unavailable for selection, Simone Padoin and Marco Sturaro joined Paul Pogba in midfield.

Roma dominated possession over extensive periods of the match, and with Juventus unable to pose a threat on the counter, Allegri’s men succumbed to two moments of brilliance.

Roma press

While Roma’s dominance may have been down to Juve’s caution, Allegri’s side have displayed their ability to decrease their route to goal by instantly lobbing balls into the strikers. Juve’s only way to maintain a decent spell of possession was to build from the back, but here, Garcia instructed his men to press from the front, with all three attackers handed a distinct role.

Falque and Salah pressed the exterior centre-backs, while Dzeko possessed a dual role. If Dzeko pushed towards Bonucci – a very good passer of the ball – he instructed a midfielder to close down Padoin, but for the most part, the Bosnian striker stuck goal-side to the Juventus midfielder to negate his influence from deep.

Roma didn’t always press in this manner, as they were keen on dropping into a 4-5-1 when necessary to clog spaces in midfield, yet both methods effectively contained Juve’s threat in open play. The wide players maintained their discipline, keeping the adventurous wingbacks quiet, and Dybala rarely received passes between the lines.

Juventus shape

Where Roma pressed higher up the pitch in various spells, Allegri instructed his side to drop deeper into their half and pressed aggressively in midfield. This allowed De Rossi time on the ball, and Nainggolan, in particular was free to retain possession, stringing passes from flank to flank.

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Essentially, Roma overloaded central areas with several passers, and it could explain several reckless tackles and eventual bookings in midfield. The transition to a 5-3-2 negated Dzeko’s aerial threat, as he was always outnumbered around the box, but in general their approach was too conservative, allowing the home-side too much space to dominate.

Roma’s balanced attack

Ultimately, there were two ways to describe Roma’s dominance over the current champions. First, Enrique placed Gervinho to the bench for Falque, who in fairness offered the hosts genuine width. With Falque stretching the pitch, Salah operated in narrow mixed positions, before charging into half space to create chances.

Gervinho and Salah are similar players – both thrive when there’s space to break into on the counter attack – but here, both the latter and Falque created chances in their respected positions. Salah’s first half pull-back resulted in Pjanic directing a shot off the post, whereas Falque delivered a devastating ball across the six-yard box that went amidst.

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The hosts’ attack would improve with a trequartista in the XI, but the cohesion between the front six was an improvement from last year. There was balance in wide areas, and each midfielder was able to fulfill their role due to Juve’s setup. Keita sat deep to protect the back four, Nainggolan retained possession a few yards ahead, and Pjanic scurried between the lines to receive possession and force Chiellini and Pogba into first half bookings.

Lack of familiarity upfront

Juve’s deep defensive line limited the possibility of creating chances from deep, but the away side still appeared perplexed during the rare occasions when they sustained possession in Roma’s third. One of the keys to Juve’s success last season involved Carlos Tevez and Alvaro Morata understanding their roles – the former dropped deep to receive the ball, while the latter sprinted behind the defence.

Tevez’s departure deprives Juve of a creative threat between the lines that can score goals and effectively link play with his teammates, which resulted in flat possession in the final third. Dybala’s lateral movement in these areas was positive, but a sole individual slalom sufficed from his presence upfront.

Likewise, Mario Mandzukic doesn’t offer a threat behind the last defender, and with Juve maintaining a low block, the Croatian was isolated for long spells. This, nevertheless, is also related to a lack of familiarity between the pair, along with one of the downfalls that comes with Mandzukic.

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The Croatian’s denies his team of natural pace upfront, but he was equally reluctant to drop deep to link play with his teammates. There was one moment towards the conclusion of the first half where Pogba was clearly frustrated with his attackers’ movement upfront, as neither attacker aimed to drop deep to receive the ball.

More so, Juve’s deep line, combined with a new strike partnership lacking Allegri’s basic attacking concepts is partially responsible for the away side’s blunt productivity in the final third.

Allegri adapts

Pjanic’s superb free-kick put Roma ahead at the hour mark, but Roma’s threat from wide areas decreased significantly. Majority of the hosts’ buildup play was narrow, and with Pogba offering improved protection for Evra, Garcia’s men relied on distant Nainggolan efforts on goal that forced Buffon to make a few saves.

Allegri instantly reacted to Pjanic’s opener, introducing Morata for the subdued Mandzukic, but the away side’s best chances stemmed from corner kicks. Then the Juve manager altered to a midfield diamond, sacrificing Lichtsteiner for Roberto Pereyra.

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Pereyra represented the ideal player suited for Allegri’s approach as his pace offers a genuine threat on the counter, and it was odd to see the Argentinian reduced to a bit-part role considering the circumstances. The Argentine forced Dzeko into a booking, while his pace and clever combination with Morata led to Dybala’s consolation goal – Morata dispossessed Keita in midfield to ignite the swift break.

Evra’s second dismissal proved costly in the final stages of the match, but a change of shape and additional space from Morata and Pereyra nearly inspired a comeback.

2-0

Roma, though, quickly pounced on the champions’ mistakes. Subsequent to Evra’s dismissal, Pjanic played a lovely diagonal behind Juan Cuadrado for Falque, and his cross into the box witnessed Dzeko tower over Chiellini to notch his first goal for the hosts.

The significance of the goal may be overlooked, but it distinctly highlights two areas that Garcia seeked to improve this summer. Put simply, it was another dangerous delivery from Falque in a wide area that was converted by a legitimate centre-forward.

There’s a chance that the signings may not elevate Roma into potential champions, but the goal provides evidence that Garcia has made it priority to offer variety to an attack that was mightily predictable last season.

Conclusion

Juve’s apathetic display enabled Roma to dominate the match, as a moment of brilliance and a defensive lapse punished the champions in the second half.

This was an improved display for Garcia’s side, following a poor draw to Verona, with the most intriguing theme involving the balance within his attacking trio. In the past, the attacking options at Garcia’s disposal represent a team suited to play on the counter, and natural width combined with an aerial threat can improve Roma’s difficulty breaking down organized back-lines.

Miralem Pjanic (15) of AS Roma competes for the ball with Paul Pogba (10) of Juventus FC during the Serie A soccer match between AS Roma and Juventus FC at Stadio Olimpico on August 30, 2015 in Rome, Italy. CREDIT: ANADOLU AGENCY

Miralem Pjanic (15) of AS Roma competes for the ball with Paul Pogba (10) of Juventus FC during the Serie A soccer match between AS Roma and Juventus FC at Stadio Olimpico on August 30, 2015 in Rome, Italy.
CREDIT: ANADOLU AGENCY

Allegri’s approach was logical considering the scheduling of the fixture and limited time to integrate his philosophy, but here, his personnel selection was incorrect. Perhaps match fitness prevented Morata from starting, but Pereyra’s pace in midfield proved crucial in transition, and was the missing piece to a disjointed attempt to break on the counter.

Still, it would be harsh to prematurely criticize Juventus as the club lost a leader in Andrea Pirlo, and the league’s best attacker and midfielder in Tevez and Arturo Vidal, last summer, leading to several new additions in Turin. Allegri will be assessed attentively in the upcoming weeks, as the Juventus manager rightly requires time to find the correct balance, and welcome back injured players on his quest to retain the Scudetto.

 
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Posted by on September 4, 2015 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Arsenal 0-0 Liverpool: Rodgers alters formation to stifle Arsenal’s passing and break with speed

Philippe Coutinho of Liverpool takes a shot at goal under pressure from Hector Bellerin of Arsenal during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Liverpool at the Emirates Stadium on August 24, 2015 in London, United Kingdom. CREDIT: JULIAN FINNEY

Liverpool and Arsenal played to entertaining draw at the Emirates Stadium.

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Arsene Wenger was forced into forming a make-shift centre-back partnership of Gabriel and Calum Chambers, as first choice defenders Per Mertesacker (illness) and Laurent Koscielny (back issue) unavailable. Wenger persisted with the same front six that started a week prior at Selhurst Park.

Brendan Rodgers tinkered with the system that earned Liverpool two wins to start the season, moving to a compact 4-3-3. Roberto Firmino made his official Premier League debut from the right, while Emre Can and Lucas Leiva joined James Milner in midfield.

The abundance of attacking players in the starting XI combined with shaky back-lines suggested that there would be goals at the Emirates, but this action-packed, open affair shockingly concluded with neither side converting their chances. The Reds were dominant in the opening half, but as they tired Arsenal gained territorial dominance but were vulnerable in transition – put simply, it was a game of two distinct halves.

Rodgers adjusts

The most interesting story line heading into the match surrounded Rodgers XI. Liverpool kick-started their campaign with two unconvincing displays – albeit claiming maximum points – and with Jordan Henderson unavailable due to a foot injury, the opportunity to include a defensive-minded midfielder was a logical move.

Here, Rodgers moved to a 4-3-3, moving Milner and Emre Can as shuttlers ahead of Lucas. This was significant due to the risk of being overrun in midfield with Henderson and Milner started ahead of the back four, as neither player is a legitimate ball winner.

The 4-3-3’s defensive base shape is a 4-5-1, and Liverpool’s midfield band remained narrow and compact, improving the overall structure of the side. Rodgers was expected to alter his side’s approach against Arsenal’s fluid attack, and the move to a 4-3-3 suited the side, improving their natural balance and defensive solidity.

Liverpool’s quick start

Considering the several new additions to Rodgers’ squad combined with the Reds’ poor displays thus far, their energetic start came as a surprise. Surely, Rodgers most impressive win against Arsenal followed this template, but here, the lack of familiarity within the squad suggested that the home side would dictate the opening period.

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However, within the opening five minutes, Liverpool exploited Arsenal’s inexperienced make-shift back four and their fullback’s advanced positioning. Can was free to charge into left half-space before pulling back the ball for Benteke, but the Belgian slashed his shot wide. A similar move occurred a few minutes later, as Milner played in the Liverpool striker in right half-space, resulting in Coutinho firing the subsequent pullback off the cross-bar.

It’s key to note that Arsenal scored a lovely goal that was wrongly disallowed, yet shortly afterwards Lucas dispossessed Alexis, and clever work from the two Brazilian’s placed Benteke into right half-space, but Petr Cech made a key save. Oddly, Arsenal started poorly, with the Reds dominating half-spaces between both advanced full-backs, but once again, their profligacy in the final third proved costly.

Arsenal’s poor passing

Equally, the additional component to Arsenal’s difficulty in the opening half, and Liverpool’s dominance, involved the former’s poor passing in their half and the final third.

Much credit should be awarded to Lucas who negated Ozil’s threat between the lines and blocked off passes into Giroud. Wenger’s side found it difficult to break past Liverpool’s narrow 4-5-1 – Can and Milner closed down Arsenal’s midfield duo when they received possession, depriving the Gunners a genuine link between midfield and attack.

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Essentially, teams bypass midfield pressure through service from the back-line, but the inexperienced Arsenal centre-backs proved inadequate options. Chambers, in particular, enjoyed a dreadful half, conceding possession three times to Coutinho alone.

Liverpool’s midfield quintet was also influential via collective pressing, as they harried Arsenal’s duo when they attempted to play short passes through central areas. One incident in the opening half witnessed Lucas, Milner, Can, and Coutinho harry Coquelin and Cazorla, which forced the former to make a desperate last-ditch tackle to halt Benteke’s surge into the box.

At times, Arsenal produce their best football when they play quick combination passes amongst each other, but Wenger’s men failed to gain a rhythm due to Liverpool’s pressing, Lucas’ positioning, and incompetent passing out of their half.

Arsenal improve

As expected, Liverpool were unable to maintain their pressing over the course of 90 minutes, thus reverting back to a narrow 4-5-1 deep in their half. Therefore, the Gunners were free to monopolize possession in the box, and penetrate wide areas to create chances.

Now was the ideal time for Bellerin and Monreal to surge forward, and the full-backs delivered positive crosses into the box. Movement from wide areas led to Alexis hitting the post, and a Bellerin cross resulted in Giroud squandering a glorious opportunity to nick a winner in the six-yard box.

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Giroud benefitted from the shift in dominance, as he was subdued in the first half due to lack of service in the final third – Lucas’ influence also played a factor. The Frenchman wouldn’t be deemed a prolific finisher, but his superb link-up play virtually makes him an additional playmaker – hence, why he improved once his teammates received space to play passes into him and charge forward.

It’s unsurprising to see Giroud involved in Arsenal’s best moves during their 20-minute spell of dominance, and though he missed a key chance to put the Gunners ahead, it was odd to see the Frenchman replaced for Theo Walcott.

Liverpool swift attacks

With the Gunners pushing men forward, there was ample space for Rodgers’ men to exploit on the counter. Liverpool broke quickly in the first half, but most moves involved the Reds pressing higher up the pitch to win possession.

Contrastingly, Gomez, and substitute Alberto Moreno, won the ball in their own half before charging forward into Arsenal’s half on the counter. The former’s opportunity witnessed Milner fire a shot directly at Cech, while the latter’s poor decision-making saw him overrun the ball opposed to playing in the unmarked Can.

Nevertheless, the away side’s additional method of attack in the final quarter of the match was strictly direct. Lucas located Coutinho between the lines, and the Brazilian evaded a few challenges from deep to test Cech from distance – the Liverpool attacker also skipped past Bellerin to test the Arsenal keeper. Then a simple Mignolet punt resulted in Benteke winning an aerial duel and subsequently combining with Firmino to fire a wayward shot over the net.

Wenger’s late direct attempt

While Rodgers appeared content with the result in the final half hour, Wenger made attacking alterations to introduce pace in the final third. Walcott replaced Giroud upfront, whereas Coquelin was sacrificed for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, pushing Ramsey alongside Cazorla upfront.

The risky change deprived Arsenal of a natural ball-winner, yet the introduction of Chamberlain would have benefited Giroud upfront. Liverpool’s deep defensive line prevented the Walcott from running behind the opposition’s back-line, but Oxlade-Chamberlain merited why he’s due for a starting role, particularly in home games.

Courtesy of: Getty Images/David Price Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain of Arsenal is challenged by Alberto Moreno of Liverpool during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Liverpool on August 24, 2015 in London, United Kingdom.

Courtesy of: Getty Images/David Price
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain of Arsenal is challenged by Alberto Moreno of Liverpool during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Liverpool on August 24, 2015 in London, United Kingdom.

Ramsey’s driving runs from midfield did present a chance that nearly fooled Mignolet, but it was Oxlade-Chamberlain who forced the Belgian into several saves, foiling a weak area in Joe Gomez. Perhaps a pairing of Ramsey and Cazorla left Arsenal susceptible to quick counters, but the Gunners lacked powerful deep runners throughout the match, and Chamberlain’s inclusion improved the balance in the final third and the likelihood of a winner.

Conclusion

Most goal-less draws are quickly classified as dull encounters, but this fixture was fairly open and entertaining despite the poor finishing throughout. Liverpool will feel unlucky not to put the match out of sight in the first, yet Arsenal moved into better positions in the second, and should have executed.

“Performance-wise I was very happy with how we worked. First half in particular we created chances and should have been in front. In the second half you always expect pressure,” said Rodgers.

“Our performance level has grown over time, our defensive organization is good against big teams.”

Rodgers displayed his tactical awareness and flexibility with the inclusion of Can and Lucas in midfield, thus leading to Liverpool’s best performance of the season. They pressed and harried superbly in central zones, maintained a narrow shape when required to do so, and constantly exploited Arsenal’s make-shift back four when they swiftly broke on the counter – inevitably all that was missing was the all-important goal to classify this as a remarkable away display.

The same can’t be said for Wenger, as Arsenal’s entire set-up was peculiar. From the full-backs maintaining advanced positions, to not providing another holding midfield to help Coquelin protect the back four, the home side’s display was appalling. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s direct running from the right was beneficial, but this served as further evidence that Wenger must identify his preferred attacking quartet sooner rather than later.

It appears Rodgers finally has a team that fits his stylistic preference – in regards to funds available – and his decision to move to a 4-3-3 highlights that while he can make mistakes, his side still remains tactically flexible. More so, this could be the Liverpool manager’s approach in big games until Daniel Sturridge returns to the XI.

 
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Posted by on August 26, 2015 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Manchester United 1-0 Spurs

during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford on August 8, 2015 in Manchester, England.

during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford on August 8, 2015 in Manchester, England.

Manchester United recorded a narrow win over Spurs at Old Trafford in the first game of the 2015/2016 Premier League season.

Starting XI's

Starting XI’s

Louis van Gaal introduced four United debutants to the starting XI, as Morgan Schneiderlin formed a midfield partnership with Michael Carrick, Matteo Darmian started at right back, Sergio Romero was given the nod over David De Gea in goal, and Memphis Depay operated behind Wayne Rooney.

The sole surprise in Mauricio Pochettino’s 4-2-3-1 saw Eric Dier feature alongside Nabil Bentaleb in midfield, whereas Toby Alderweireld made his Spurs debut alongside compatriot Jan Vertonghen at centre back. Harry Kane led the line ahead of Nacer Chadli, Christian Eriksen, and Moussa Dembele.

Spurs were the better side during the initial stages of the first half, but were unable to maintain those levels following the match winner. United enjoyed spells of positive football, but here, pressing served as a significant factor towards the final result.

United without the ball

Last season, Manchester United spent a few months attempting to find a cohesive attacking method, but it was evident that defending as a unit was first priority without top class personnel. United displayed their growth under Van Gaal against Spurs dropping into two banks of four, yet maintaining a high-line and pressing in midfield.

Essentially, proper man-marking in midfield prevented Spurs creative players from dictating the tempo of the match, and the full-backs were solid, and the wingers were equally disciplined with their defensive duties. Schneiderlin followed Dembele when the Belgian moved into central areas, there was a moment when Carrick harried Bentaleb all the way to Spurs six-yard box, and Depay initially closed down Dier.

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Van Gaal’s intent to prevent Spurs from playing out the back was logical, and a combination of United’s pressing and a compact shape thwarted Dier and Bentaleb’s passing. The duo comfortably played conservative sideways passes to their teammates, but Schneiderlin and Carrick retained possession in advanced areas before igniting attacks.

The poor passing and slow buildup from the Spurs back-six enabled United to create their best chances, and the game-winner on the break. Mata intercepted Bentaleb’s pass, and a swift United break involving Memphis, Ashley Young, and Rooney, saw the recovering Walker direct the ball into his own net.

United’s work ethic and organization out of possession limited Spurs threat, but equally served as their main method of attack in the first half.

Spurs press

Spurs, on the other hand, also relied on quick transitions to create chances, but as witnessed under Pochettino in recent seasons, the away side pressed intelligently. Similar to United, Spurs reverted into two banks of four out of possession, but unlike teams in the past, here, they maintained a lower block.

The low block ensured United couldn’t locate runners behind Spurs’ defence, but it also forced Van Gaal’s men to break down an organized unit – one of their few flaws from last season. Likewise, the away side’s pressing forced United’s midfielders and defenders into several mistakes that led to goal-scoring opportunities.

There were two incidents in the opening 15 minutes that saw Mata and Schneiderlin dispossessed in their half, but Pochettino’s men failed to test Romero. Pochettino seemed keen on negating Carrick’s threat in midfield, and when Eriksen failed to close down the Englishman, Dier and Bentaleb took turns stepping forward.

Still, the move that epitomized Spurs’ pressing came minutes into the second half, when Dembele dispossessed Daley Blind at the edge of the box, but the Dutchman’s last ditch tackle blocked Kane’s attempt to play Chadli free on goal – substitute Bastian Schweinsteiger was also guilty of conceding possession in his half, but Smalling brushed aside Kane to halt a legitimate goal scoring opportunity.

Pochettino’s approach equally successful, but the quality in the final third led to Spurs’ shortcomings.

Kane/Eriksen combine

The one positive aspect involving Spurs’ attack was the combination between Eriksen and Kane. Frankly, Spurs should have been ahead in the opening 5 minutes when Kane clipped a delicate ball over the United defence to Eriksen, but the Dane’s lobbed effort flew over the net.

With Spurs midfield unable to influence the game from deep, it was Eriksen’s positioning between the lines, and neat short passes with Kane that served as an additional route to goal. First, Eriksen pounced on Schneiderlin’s mistake – after Dembele dispossessed him near United’s box – before sliding a pass into Kane, but the striker could only win a corner.’

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Afterwards, a few nifty passes between the two attackers saw Eriksen launch a pass behind Young for the advancing Kyle Walker, but an onrushing Romero confidently cleared his lines. Surely Spurs’ pressing placed the away side in key areas, but Kane, and specifically Eriksen, were involved in the few goal-scoring chances, prior to United’s winner.

Open play issue

The main concern in this game was the lack of quality displayed in open play. United improved following the winner, as Carrick began to find space to play positive passes into the final third. United often aimed to create overloads and quickly switch play to the opposite flank, but there was hardly an attempt to play a pass behind Spurs’ back-line, nor were there runners breaking past the centre-backs.

Despite Darmian’s excellent display, his forward ventures didn’t pose a threat, whereas Depay’s decision making in the final third was underwhelming. United constantly aimed to place Young in 1v1 situations with Walker, but the Spurs right back superbly dominated the tricky winger.

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Meanwhile, service into Rooney was limited, and though he often dropped deeper to get involved, finding the striker in the box was a rare occurrence. It took United 64 minutes to record their first shot on target, which epitomizes the home side’s inactivity in attacking zones, yet Spurs were equally disappointing.

Pochettino’s XI, however, provided few attacking weapons across the pitch. United’s pressing prevented Spurs from building out the back, and the poor passing from the midfield prevented the away side from linking play with the attacking quartet. Neither side dominated for long spells, and Spurs’ laboured ball circulation and poor passing proved costly.

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Chadli remains a powerful runner that can do a job, whereas Dembele conservative passes and ability to dribble past opponents doesn’t equate to goals. Similar to Rooney, Kane faced pressure when he received the ball, and despite cleverly evading challenges throughout, and though the striker’s final ball and finishing were poor, Smalling’s commanding presence equally negated his threat.

Substitutions

Spurs rarely threatened United’s third following the goal, and Van Gaal’s changes illustrated the Dutchman’s intent to gain control of a match capable of tilting in the away side’s favour. Schweinsteiger made his United debut in a straight swap for Carrick, whereas Herrera moved behind Rooney, leaving the Red Devils with four ball-playing midfielders in central areas.

United passed the ball with improved purpose, moving into better positions through Herrera’s movement and combination play, but Van Gaal’s men couldn’t find a route behind Spurs’ defence.

during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford on August 8, 2015 in Manchester, England.

during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford on August 8, 2015 in Manchester, England.

However, Pochettino’s contrasting personnel changes gave Spurs a direct threat – Ryan Mason’s dynamism was shackled due to his caution to push forward, and Erik Lamela moved to the right for Dembele. The changes saw Pochettino push Chadli behind Kane, whereas Eriksen moved to the left, thus decreasing his influence on the match and combination with Kane.

Yet, Romero denied Eriksen on two occasions in the final 10 minutes: Toby Alderweireld’s long diagonal behind Young fell to Eriksen, and a lobbed Mason ball into the box saw the United goalkeeper make a key save to deny the Dane. Eriksen was unable to influence the match from the left, but his profligate finishing nearly earned Spurs a valuable point.

Stylistically, neither managers’ substitutions were completely successful, but Pochettino’s direct set up created two legitimate chances despite their blunt build-play.

Conclusion

This may have been a match featuring a handful of chances, but the variation in pressing, combined with the defensive shape of both sides was interesting. Perhaps an open game would serve as an ideal curtain raiser, but uninspiring attacks impacted brief spells of dominance from both sides.

The opening weeks of any domestic league usually offer freak results, and cautious encounters amongst the top-sides, as players approach full fitness and adjust to their new clubs. While Spurs appear to have improved defensively as a unit, Kane and Eriksen will be integral to their success if others don’t improve under Pochettino.

United will certainly need time for their new signings to settle, as apart from Carrick’s passing from deep, their attack desperately requires penetration, pace, creativity and guile to break down deep blocks. Pressing served as the main catalyst, with both sides flourishing when they won the ball near the opposition’s goal, but further signings are required if either outfit intends on achieving their projected targets.

 
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Posted by on August 12, 2015 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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