BPL Notebook Matchday 3: Former stars emerge from last season’s misery

29 Aug
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49 million pounds is a large sum of money.

The current transfer market may suggest otherwise, but 49 million pounds is not pocket change. Managers and club owners don’t place 49 million pounds on a player without expectations. Pressure is placed on a player to instantly live up to the price valuation given by clubs, and failure to meet expectation results in potential scrutiny.

Today’s society is all about the present. Patience is limited, and we crave instant success. If our high standards aren’t met, we’re quick to criticize, and search for another source of happiness/greatness to fill the void for the disappointment we endured. This isn’t necessarily a bad mentality to instill when evaluating certain aspects of the everyday human life, but when it’s utilized to evaluate a player’s worth, it can be slightly absurd.

When a club decides to invest a large transfer fee on a player many tend to overlook the various factors associated with the move.

Will the player adapt to a new style of play and demands from the new manager?

Will the player and his family settle into their new lifestyle?

How will the player psychologically cope with transfer pressure or potential backlash from ex-supporters?

If he moves to a new country, will the climate affect him?

The aforementioned questions are generic, and certainly other factors come into play, but many tend to forget that players are also human beings with natural feelings. Players don’t necessarily flop because they’re not good enough to play in a specific league – if that was the case, most clubs wouldn’t even risk wasting money on a potential failure.

Raheem Sterling’s move to Manchester City sparked turmoil amongst Liverpool supporters, and the England international subsequently experienced the negative aspects of a big-money transfer move. What’s frankly supposed to be the pinnacle moment of a footballing career can sometimes backfire and trigger a period of regression.

The resentment towards Sterling’s move is slightly similar to Fernando Torres’ transfer to Chelsea: it’s not that Sterling was at the peak of his career, but the belief that he’d improve his chances elsewhere in England was rather insulting. Two years after playing a key role in a near title triumph, Sterling had joined the eventual winners that season.

Luis Suarez’s departure and Daniel Sturridge’s constant injury issues presented Sterling the opportunity to be the key man at Anfield that he had no interest in considering once he caught the attention of several big clubs in Europe. And even with Sterling’s positional versatility and tactical awareness elevated his overall game, a move to the Etihad was too good to decline.

Though the price-tag merited his potential and his homegrown player eligibility – the latter guarantees price inflation – Sterling’s move was always a risk. This wasn’t comparable to Kevin De Bruyne, who a year prior performed at a world-class level, and was arguably a top-five player in the world. Sterling’s valuation was steep based on the legitimate possibility that he could reach world-class levels sooner than expected.

However, Sterling’s debut season was the antithesis of the player many project he’ll develop into. He initially performed well at the start of the campaign when Manuel Pellegrini implemented two wide wingers in a 4-2-3-1, thus enabling David Silva to operate in a no.10 role behind Sergio Aguero.

The system was promising, and City were rolling over teams, but through injuries, and Pellegrini’s limited tactical prowess, a severe decline ensued. Sterling’s confidence dropped significantly, and his presence within the final third was ineffective – his Capital One Cup final misses from point-blank range against Liverpool epitomized the England international’s poor form throughout most of the season.

Nonetheless, the announcement of Pep Guardiola’s hiring offered optimism for Sterling’s career, though he failed to produce a consistent level of quality performances last season, which carried through into Euro 2016, it was evident change in personnel and footballing philosophy was required at City.

Frankly, Sterling entered a dire situation. The core of the team was simply based on individualism, whereas the manager was incapable of evolving their play during his tenure. City had become predictable, feeble in midfield, and vulnerable to swift counter-attacks in transition.

Although we’re only three games into the Premier League season, Guardiola’s shift in culture has already showcased vast improvement, and Sterling is proving to be the main beneficiary. This shouldn’t be a surprise when you assess Guardiola’s track record, turning players such as Sergio Busquets, David Alaba and Jerome Boateng into world-class stars, whilst maximizing the talents of youngsters Pedro Rodriguez and Kingsley Coman in past seasons.

Guardiola’s 4-1-4-1 pushes David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne in deeper positions, with the full-backs occupying narrow half-spaces, to limit counter-attacking threats, whilst dominating central areas. Meanwhile, the wingers are responsible for stretching the pitch by hugging the touch-line – ultimately, Guardiola prefers to position the wide men into 1v1 isolation scenarios by dominating the centre and quickly moving the ball into wide areas.

The tactical rejig has resulted in Sterling completing the most take-on’s, winning the most fouls, and surprisingly registering a match-high four tackles at Stoke. Sterling’s dribbling and pace led to two penalty kicks in the opening weeks, but now he’s also overcoming his poor finishing in the penalty box.

Perhaps Sterling’s finishing against West Ham weren’t necessarily difficult, but it highlights the contrast between last year’s confidence and the faith Guardiola has instilled in the youngster. Sterling may have skied his opener over the net under Pellegrini, whereas his ability to round the keeper and coolly slot the ball into an open net is a heavily underrated trait that is solely displayed by the top players.

Leroy Sane’s eventual debut definitely puts Sterling’s starting spot in jeopardy, but at the moment, he represents a rejuvenated tricky wide player under Guardiola. Often unsure of his duties in his debut season, Sterling appears well aware of his role at the Etihad, and if he can continue to torment opposing defences around the final third, whilst adding goals to his game, he may eventually join the list of aforementioned world-beaters.

49 million pounds is undoubtedly an astronomical fee for a 20-year-old, but if you nurture his growth, and provide an ideal tactical platform to maximize his strengths, with time, the player’s value slowly becomes priceless.

Pressing battle exploits weaknesses of Spurs and Liverpool

A showdown between two of the top pressing sides in the league vividly exposed Liverpool and Spurs deficiencies this weekend.

Spurs were behind the Liverpool defence within the opening minute through a mental/defensive lapse that enabled Dele Alli to break forward via a thrown-in, which left many to believe the Reds’ mental lapses would surface again. Yet minutes later, Spurs succumbed to Liverpool’s pressing, and Christian Eriksen’s giveaway saw Liverpool break swiftly into the box, but Philippe Coutinho’s tame effort was saved by Spurs goalkeeper, Michael Vorm.

Klopp’s Liverpool have been impressive against the top-sides in the division, and here, their pressing was once again vital. More importantly, the German’s major decision to drop Daniel Sturridge for Sadio Mane on the right proved wise. Mane was the key man throughout the first half by constantly bypassing Danny Rose, and cleverly charging behind the defence only to be denied by Vorm’s efficient sweeper-keeping.

When Mane wasn’t bamboozling the Spurs defence, he was tracking back to ensure Rose didn’t pose a threat from left-back. Spurs were simply stifled going forward. Apart from Toby Alderweireld’s distribution from centre-back, they encountered difficulties bypassing Liverpool’s press.

Mauricio Pochettino’s men were fortunate not to be trailing by a few goals at the hour mark: a combination of Vorm’s goalkeeping, several last-ditch defensive blocks, and a fortuitous offside call following a slick Liverpool break – stemming from a poor Erik Dier pass – kept the hosts in the game. But as the pressing levels decreased in the second half, both sides improved from open play.

Adam Lallana began to locate space between the lines to receive the ball and ignite forward moves. Spurs, on the other hand, found space through Dier’s advanced positioning at right-back as Liverpool dropped into a 4-5-1 out of possession. To no surprise, it was Alderweireld’s diagonal ball over makeshift left-back James Milner that bypassed the Liverpool press and Dier’s cross led to Rose’s equalizer. Kyle Walker’s departure due to injury, thus resulting in Vincent Janssen’s arrival upfront may have encouraged Spurs to deliver more crosses into the box, but they clearly need increase their productivity in wide areas throughout a match.

Conte’s Chelsea inspired by rejuvenated Hazard

Eden Hazard has a point to prove. The Belgian’s fall from grace last season was surreal, and similar to Sterling, he’s performing at an extremely high-level under a newly appointed manager.

Hazard, however, ended last season on high, and carried his form into Euro 2016 where the Belgian captain dazzled despite exiting the tournament prematurely. Likewise, Hazard is one of many Chelsea players that displayed signs of progress in what has been the most comfortable triumph of the Conte era thus far.

The early lead settled nerves as Hazard went on one of his trademark runs, but opposed to passing to a teammate, he coolly slotted his shot into the far corner. It’s the type of selflessness that’s been disrupting Hazard’s growth: The Chelsea player always gets into good areas with his dribbling, but is reluctant to shoot around the box.

Another key take from Chelsea’s win was the constant switches of play during lengthy spells of possession, and Oscar’s late diagonal runs into half space and the channels to create 3v2 situations on the right flank. Defensively, Chelsea were rarely tested due to their counter-pressing in midfield when they lost possession, and Gray’s failure to hold up the play and link with his teammates.

Chelsea’s profligacy in the final third – mainly through Hazard and Diego Costa – prevented a potential onslaught at Stamford Bridge, despite the noticeable limitations throughout the squad as Conte’s philosophy is quickly settling into the players’ mindset. N’Golo Kante’s work-rate is protecting the back four, and enabling Nemanja Matic and Oscar to harry opponents when they pass half, while Hazard and Diego Costa are show signs of the form that proved decisive in Blues 2014-2015 triumph.

Conte still requires reinforcements if Chelsea intend on challenging the Manchester clubs until May, but if that fails, maximizing the talent of Hazard and Costa without the burden of European competitions could be an effective plan B.

Mourinho’s United save it for late

Manchester United may have dropped points at Hull, had this been the Louis van Gaal or David Moyes era. A match United thoroughly dominated from start to finish required a stoppage time winner from Marcus Rashford to preserve United’s unbeaten start to the season.

Unlike Mourinho’s predecessors, the Portuguese manager’s side are finding ways to win when they don’t play well. Southampton’s trip to Old Trafford required brilliance from Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and here, despite United’s territorial dominance, the away side produced a flat first half performance.

The intent to move the ball forward quicker and penetrate in advanced areas is vivid, but their best chances in the first half stemmed through hopeful crosses into Ibrahimovic from wide players. United, however, experienced a few issues with their overall shape in both phases once again – while the back four remains solid, the midfield and attack are still somewhat unconvincing.

Marouane Fellaini and Paul Pogba offer a combination of power and drive in a midfield duo, but did a poor job of protecting space between the lines, which Adama Diomande consistently exploited in transition. Luckily for United, Hull’s counter-attacking threat was scarce, and Erik Bailly comfortably negated Abel Hernandez’s hold up play throughout the second.

The other issue persists upfront where United lack dynamism around the final third.

Pogba’s willingness to go forward is positive, and though his combinations with Juan Mata and Ibrahimovic are promising, everything appears improvised. There were moments in the match where Ibrahimovic dropped deeper to pick up the ball, and no runners charged beyond the defence – a key element to PSG’s attack during the Swede’s time in Paris. Anthony Martial has shown glimpses of the threat he posed last year, whereas for all of Mata’s ball retention skills and occasional nifty passes, the Spaniard is still lacking an x-factor around the box.

However, Mourinho’s second half alterations offered a direct element to United’s game that improved the away side’s performance. The hosts couldn’t cope with Marcus Rashford and Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s direct running from deep positions: the former forced a good save and delivered a sensational cross that Ibrahimovic should have scored, whereas the latter won free-kicks in dangerous positions when he broke away in transition.

United’s winner caught Hull out of position, as great work from Wayne Rooney led to a Rashford tap-in, which was quite deserving considering the youngster’s impact off the bench. Rashford and Mkhitaryan will now place pressure on Mourinho to make alterations to his XI, and with the derby approaching, a tactical rejig wouldn’t be farfetched.

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Arsenal’s passing dynamos overwhelm Watford

Arsenal’s efficient first half display was enough to decrease the pressure surrounding the club, following a poor start to the current campaign. Olivier Giroud was still unavailable to start, but the return of Mesut Ozil and a second consecutive start for Granit Xhaka in midfield proved too much for Walter Mazzarri’s men.

Watford’s success last season derived via the combination of Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo upfront, but the duo has yet to combine consistently under Mazzarri. Wing-backs Nordin Amrabat and Jose Holebas offered the Gunner’s back-line a few scares, but the hosts didn’t harm Petr Cech in the first half.

With central areas congested, Arsenal also found joy in wide areas: Alexis constantly charged into the left channel to pester Younes Kaboul, and the Chilean’s combinations with Ozil were breathtaking. Arsenal’s marquee signings combined on several occasions including the build up to Arsenal’s opener – an Ozil clipped pass that resulted in Alexis suffering a foul in the box – and the third goal which saw Ozil nod Alexis’ cross past Heurelho Gomes.

Xhaka’s influence from deep was also pivotal towards Arsenal’s success: the midfielder received time and space to play a combination of short and long forward passes, but his ability to break up play thwarted Watford’s attack on a few occasions. Wenger has desperately lacked a player capable of being effective in both roles simultaneously, and Xhaka should restore order in Arsenal’s midfield.

Watford’s attempt to rescue the match witnessed a shift to a 4-4-2 diamond, and although substitute Roberto Pereyra narrowed Arsenal’s lead, Xhaka was still free to string passes together from deeper, and Ozil was drifting into space between the lines to combine with advanced runners.

Arsenal’s passing and swift transitions unraveled the hosts, but majority of their work out of possession was positive, and Wenger’s men must identify some consistency in this area. With new signings arriving and key players expected to return from injury, the mini-crisis Arsenal endured should be an afterthought sooner rather than later.

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

Weekend Stats

  • Raheem Sterling has directly contributed to five goals in his last three appearances for Manchester City (2 goals, 3 assists).
  • Marcus Rashford is the first teenager to score a Premier League goal under a side managed by Jose Mourinho.
  • Chelsea have won consecutive home league games for the first time since May 2015.
  • Both Manchester clubs have won their first three league games in the same season for only the second time in their history (also in 2011/2012)
  • Claudio Ranieri has won his 100th Premier League game as a manager & is the fifth non British/Irish boss to reach the landmark.
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Posted by on August 29, 2016 in EPL, Published Work


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