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Arsenal clash could rejuvenate Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United

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Jose Mourinho’s latest misfortunes as Manchester United manager could place a dent to his managerial legacy. Once referred to as a mastermind tactician, Mourinho’s majestic mantra that’s attributed to his silverware dominance in several countries simply doesn’t have the same effect.

The witty pre-match quotes and everlasting swagger has been replaced with negative comments towards his players and officials. Whereas the siege-mentality that transformed his players to sacrifice their bodies for results is non-existent.

More so, although the Portuguese manager’s sides are more expansive than in recent years, the attacking flare displayed going forward consequently affected the solid base he once sought out. Since his move to Real Madrid, Mourinho’s worked with an abundance of slender technically gifted players, but has failed to combine his personnel with the ruthless defensive mentality that displayed in previous sides.

With social media and the modern soccer player now being protected throughout their youth career, Mourinho’s attempt to motivate his players through harsh criticism has back-fired, thus leading to several behind the scenes locker room squabbles. The ability to control the press, his players and the opposition with his words was one of the United manager’s best traits, but now he does more harm when he speaks.

The aforesaid criticism towards his own players and smug body language on the touchline is reminiscent of Mourinho’s mood towards the conclusion of his Chelsea tenure. However, Mourinho has failed to overcome the slight stylistic shift in modern football, which emphasizes on dynamic pressing across the pitch.

Where possession football was heavily praised and emulated over the last decade, Mourinho’s aim to disrupt and destroy was innovative, despite the negativity received for creating dull encounters. Now, Mourinho’s reactive approach is simply outfoxed by dynamic units that press cohesively and quickly break forward in numbers.

But like his predecessors, life at Manchester United has been difficult. Sir Alex Ferguson, a fond admirer of Mourinho, equally endured difficult moments at United, but his ability to construct new ideas and maximize the talent at his disposal over a lengthy period is what made him great. Mourinho, on the other hand, is stumped and doesn’t seem capable of identifying an alternative winning formula.

United currently sit eight points behind league leaders Liverpool, and though Mourinho has rarely tinkered with his starting XI, it’s evident Mourinho is unsure of his best XI or his optimum formation. Despite improving under Louis van Gaal, United were abject for extensive periods prior to the arrival of the Portuguese manager, and a few big name signings have yet to rid the robotic-esque football showcased in the red side of Manchester.

More worryingly, the fact that the cheapest and lesser-known Eric Bailly can be deemed the standout summer signing at Old Trafford summarizes the current state of the club.

It’s equally alarming that the remaining three signings haven’t really improved the starting XI. Zlatan Ibrahimovic started the season well, but his passing has been mediocre when he drops deep, and still contributes to United’s issue of predominantly playing ahead of the opposition. Pogba, on the other hand, struggles to influence games without being a defensive liability in a midfield two, which is a completely different role to the one he adopted at Juventus.

“He [Pogba] can play in so many positions,” Mourinho said in an exclusive interview with Sky Sports’ Andy Burton

“The problem is not the position. The problem is not the tactical system. The problem is, in my opinion, somebody that comes from a different style of football and needs this time to be at his best level in football that is really difficult to play, especially for midfield players.”

Then there’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan who has yet to feature for United since his 45-minute cameo in the Manchester derby. Therefore, apart from the decision to drop Wayne Rooney, very little has changed from the youthful side that finished fifth last season.

Elsewhere, Pep Guardiola has expanded Manchester City’s possession-based football and provided positional flexibility to the club. Meanwhile, Liverpool and Chelsea have been the standout performers due to their non-involvement in European competitions, thus offering the managers additional training ground preparation.

Mourinho, however, has persisted with a 4-2-3-1, but is further going against the template that brought him success in the past. Perhaps this is a case of the manager attempting to prove the cynics wrong. It can also signify the awareness that his technically gifted outfit are better suited to a sleeker style, opposed to the Chelsea and Inter Milan sides built around physically imposing centre-backs and powerful midfielders.

The permanent switch to this system took place at Real Madrid, but in midfield he possessed the balance of a passing holding midfielder, and an energetic runner in Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira. Since then, catering to Cesc Fabregas’ creativity backfired, whereas now, Pogba isn’t consistently performing at an elite level in a midfield two.

Similar to his most successful sides post-2004, the use of a natural ball-winner and two shuttlers was pivotal, yet it’s odd to see Mourinho – who has publicly claimed his preference to use the system as an alternative – reluctant to push Herrera and Pogba further up the field. The system alteration was logical at Madrid, as it enabled Mesut Ozil freedom to create – yet even in the bigger games, Ozil operated from a wide position, making sharp runs towards the flanks to create space for his teammates.

Though Juan Mata’s been one of United’s standout players this season, the Spaniard simply doesn’t perform at the level that warrants a formation change. However, Pogba performed well in this position closer to Ibrahimovic at Anfield, and could excel higher up the pitch if Mourinho wants to strengthen his midfield.

Nevertheless, despite the personnel void in specific areas, United’s issue doesn’t rest in the options at Mourinho’s disposal – he currently has a big enough squad with various skill sets to challenge for the league. Besides the first half hour against Manchester City, defensive errors have played a decisive factor in United’s erratic league form.

In ways, United are reminiscent of the Borussia Dortmund side during Jurgen Klopp’s final season. Dortmund finished seventh in the Bundesliga, yet their league position didn’t justify the strength of Klopp’s men. Battling injuries to nearly their entire back-line throughout the season, Dortmund created numerous chances per game, but were simply let down by poor finishing and defensive errors.

Mourinho proved he can still gain results in the big games following United’s solid display at Liverpool, but the Red Devils still struggle to convert quality chances into goals. United aren’t playing poorly under Mourinho, but there’s a distinct disparity between this current side, and his teams of the past that were devastatingly efficient in the final third and diligently organized out of possession.

“We kept creating chances and then by magic they crossed the midfield line and scored a goal which is very unfair for us,” said Mourinho following United’s draw to Stoke.

“I have to say they were lucky but luck is part of football. My tribute to them is they are not guilty of our bad luck, so congratulations on a good point for them.”

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Nonetheless, Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger have undergone contrasting careers, but the start to the 2016/2017 Premier League season suggests change may be imminent. A rivalry that started following Mourinho’s initial arrival to England witnessed Arsenal transition from title contenders to top four challengers, whereas Mourinho developed into one of the greatest managers in world football – subsequently winning domestic honours in three different countries.

Mourinho’s return to the Premier League three seasons ago restored the feisty enmity between the two managers, which even led to Wenger being deemed as a “specialist in failure.”

“If he is right and I am afraid of failure it is because I didn’t fail many times. Eight years without silverware, that’s failure,” said Mourinho.

“He’s a specialist in failure,” continued Mourinho. “If I do that in Chelsea, eight years, I leave and don’t come back.”

Yet since Chelsea’s 2015 title triumph, the tide appears to be turning in Wenger’s favour. Mourinho was sacked by the Blues ahead of their worst title defence in Premier League history, and his appointment at Manchester United has been filled with inconsistent results.

But where the aforementioned Premier League managers have altered their side’s previous philosophy – even Wenger has added a new dimension to Arsenal’s game by utilizing Alexis Sanchez as a centre-forward – perhaps its time for Mourinho to stray away from his initial approach. The pressure is mounting at the club – albeit it’s expected he’ll receive ample time to build a squad that meets his desire – but conceding his first Premier League defeat to Wenger would provide a seismic statement, and ultimately diminish United’s title hopes.

For United and Mourinho, underachievement remains risky considering what’s transpired over the last few years, but it would certainly put the latter at a cross-road. We’ve seen the brilliance of Mourinho’s managerial skills in an era-defining period upon his arrival to England, but it may be time to replicate his counter-parts’ decision to adjust what many consider to be an outdated approach, along with identifying the ideal system and roles for his players.

What may be heralded a new era that redefines the elite clubs in the country, could see Mourinho oblige to change, and potentially risk concluding one of the most successful managerial tenures at the club level.

 
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Posted by on November 18, 2016 in Premier League, Published Work

 

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Premier League Preview: Arsenal

Courtesy of Flickr/Ronnie Macdonald

Courtesy of Flickr/Ronnie Macdonald

What a difference a year makes.

Arsenal supporters were sweating profusely with the Premier League season swiftly approaching, as Yaya Sanogo and Mathieu Flamini were the only players brought into the club on free transfers.

In search of a trophy and a world-class player, Gunners supporters were forced to watch their league rivals bolster their squad, while they quickly refreshed their twitter page, with hopes of a transfer announcement on the official Arsenal feed.

However, the boos that echoed throughout the Emirates Stadium following Arsenal’s opening day loss to Aston Villa last season were quickly forgotten.

There’s a new vibe around the Emirates this time around, as they secured Champions League football for another season and ended their lengthy trophy drought by claiming the FA Cup in May.

The animosity’s transitioned into glee, and the fact that Wenger completed four signings before August signals a change in direction.

The swagger in his step along with the smile that warmed many hearts during his first decade in England has returned.

The positivity floating around the Emirates derives from winning trophies, but now Arsenal faces another stern task.

How will they build on last season’s success?

It’s been awhile since the incessant banter surrounding a trophy drought, the urgency to acquire a world-class player, or the chances of remaining in the top four haven’t dominated Arsenal’s preseason discussion, which serves as a victory in itself.

Arsenal has kept the core of their squad at the Emirates, and Wenger expertly utilized his time in Brazil to poach some of the World Cup’s key performers.

David Ospina and Mathieu Debuchy are straight replacements for the departed Lukasz Fabianski and Bacary Sagna, Joel Campbell’s successful World Cup has rewarded him with a return to the Emirates — opposed to another loan move — while Callum Chambers is a versatile defender for the future.

Wenger, however, won over the fans with the addition of another world-class signing in Alexis Sanchez. There was doubt surfacing around North London regarding Wenger’s ability to attract world-class talent, but following the signings of Ozil and Sanchez, the Frenchman has put those claims to rest. Equally, he’s learned from his mistake with Ozil’s transfer last year, and appears to have a concrete plan on how to utilize the vibrant Chilean attacker.

Sanchez is an exceptional talent that has undergone several positional changes over recent years, and his versatility provides Wenger with variety in attack. Last season, Arsenal solely relied on Olivier Giroud, as Yaya Sanogo wasn’t — and still isn’t — ready to lead the line on a consistent basis, and Sanchez’s arrival provides Wenger with substantial flexibility upfront.

Giroud lacks mobility and pace, but he prefers to play with his back to goal and link play with on rushing runners. Sanchez, on the other hand, offers a contrasting element of attack as he’s a diminutive pacy attacker that charges towards goal.

The Chilean’s physique is misleading, though, as he’s capable of shrugging off defenders to link play and his admirable work-rate sees him successfully challenge and win aerial duels. The one odd feat about Sanchez is that he tends to miss the easy chances, but is capable of providing moments of sheer brilliance.

Sanchez and Giroud would form the perfect strike partnership with their contrasting styles, but it’s likely that Giroud will start the season as the main striker, with Sanchez playing on the right until Theo Walcott returns from injury.

Arsenal’s attack improves with the signing of Sanchez, but Aaron Ramsey’s fitness is also a key factor this season.

Ramsey was indubitably the best midfielder in the country prior to his injury last winter, and his form towards the end of last season — that included a cracking volley against Norwich and the game-winning goal in the FA Cup final — has been carried into preseason. Although Arsenal’s preseason results varied — two one-goal defeats and a convincing win over Benfica — Ramsey offered the creativity, tackling and running that has seen him transition into an exceptional all-rounder.

Wenger, however, must get the best out of Ramsey’s teammates, who have stagnated since their arrival at the club. Jack Wilshere has been considerably mediocre over the past few seasons, Santi Cazorla has failed to replicate his form from his first season at the Emirates, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott need to remain fit.

This could explain the arrival of fitness expert Shad Forsythe, as Wenger hopes to decrease the injuries that occur throughout his squad, but the English trio must also incorporate a level of consistency to their game.

Likewise, Ozil’s second season in England should see him reach the levels that many expected to see with runners in Sanchez, Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain available.

The main concern, though, lies within their options at the defensive midfield position with Flamini and Mikel Arteta protecting the back-line. The former displayed his inability to provide adequate cover over the course of the season, while Arteta — who in fairness isn’t a natural holding midfielder — is exposed on a weekly basis on the counter-attack and against top-class play-makers.

The defence is equally questionable as they capitulated in the second half of last season. Although there’s adequate cover in the fullback positions, Kieran Gibbs has yet to improve, while the verdict will be out on whether Debuchy can eclipse the quality that Sagna offered on both ends of the field.

Similarly, Thomas Vermaelen’s move to Barcelona ensures that the arrival of an experienced centre-back is now a priority. Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker formed one of the sturdiest centre-back partnerships last season, but it would be inane to solely rely on the duo and Chambers.

Stylistically, Arsenal is likely to add a hint of directness with their possession-based system, despite their counter-attacking approach in preseason. Arsenal possess the quality to steamroll past inferior opposition in the Premier League, but their record away from home against the top-sides must improve. Away from the Emirates, Wenger’s side was battered against the teams that finished in the top five, along with falling short against Manchester United at Old Trafford.

Of the teams that finished in the top-eight, Arsenal only enjoyed victories over Spurs, and Liverpool at the Emirates, which illustrates required improvement against the top-sides in the Premier League.

Nevertheless, Arsenal is a better side this year, and while European supremacy is still beyond them, they’re inching closer towards legitimately challenging for the title. Domestic cup competitions appear to be the likely source of more silverware this season, but they possess a squad capable of pushing Chelsea and Manchester City to the finish line.

More so, if Wenger intends on lifting his first Premier League title in over a decade, he will need improved performances throughout his squad and the arrival of a top-class defensive midfielder and centre-back.

Arsenal is arguably two moves away from an unforgettable season, but even if they fail to bolster those areas, anything less than a third place finish should be classified as a disappointment.

It’s time for the Gunners to push forward.

 
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Posted by on August 10, 2014 in EPL, Premier League

 

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Premier League Preview: Manchester City

Courtesy of WikiCommons/Soccer.ru

Courtesy of WikiCommons/Soccer.ru

Manchester City never does it the easy way.

Despite being the best side in the league during their two Premier League triumphs this decade, the boys from the Etihad have stumbled across the finishing line opposed to cruising to silverware like the great teams before them.

During Roberto Mancini’s tenure, City benefitted from United’s slip-ups against Wigan and Everton, before Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero scored stoppage time goals to defeat relegation battling QPR to win the Premier League in the most controversial manner.

Then in the latter stages of last season –– despite only being top of the league for 14 days of the season –– after a crushing defeat at Anfield against Liverpool, Chelsea and Crystal Palace subsequently took points off the Reds that led to another late revival in May.

However, lodged between City’s narrow title triumphs was a disappointing season that saw a considerably frail Manchester United side top their rivals by 11 points to reclaim the league title. City’s attempt to build a dynasty failed miserably, and their poor activity in the transfer market played a significant factor.

Mancini didn’t get the required pieces –– Javi Martinez, Robin van Persie, Daniele De Rossi and Eden Hazard –– and was handed Jack Rodwell, Scott Sinclair, Javi Garcia, Maicon and Matija Nastasic, with only the latter featuring regularly in the starting XI. City had only won the league on goal difference, which explains why the signing of a legitimate world-class striker in van Persie catapulted United back to glory, while City’s development stagnated.

The arrival of Manuel Pellegrini saw City recruit experienced players around the continent –– Jesus Navas, Alvaro Negredo, Fernandinho and Stevan Jovetic –– to fill the voids within their squad, but winning the title on the final day of the season against rivals that were in transitional periods calls for improvement.

However, City’s transfer activity this summer has been limited due to their Financial Fair Play irregularities. While Diego Costa, Ander Herrera, and Alexis Sanchez have joined their title rivals, City has introduced Fernando, Willy Caballero, Bacary Sagna and Frank Lampard on-loan, with Porto centre-back Eliaquim Mangala expected to join the reigning champions.

Pellegrini’s squad doesn’t need major changes, but increased quality would not only separate City from those attempting to make a title push, but increase their chances of competing against Europe’s elite in the Champions League.

Sagna and Caballero provide adequate cover and increase competition for Pablo Zabaleta and Joe Hart, while Lampard’s arrival is merely a wise ploy to keep him fit ahead of New York City FC’s inaugural season and meet the required five home-grown player quota in the Champions League.

This leaves £12m Fernando as City’s sole significant purchase, with the champions finally replacing the tenacious Nigel de Jong. Fernando is a quality footballer that can sit at the base of the midfield and break up play with his physicality and positional intelligence, while Fernandinho and Yaya Toure offer attacking impetus in central areas. His signing also offers Pellegrini flexibility to stray away from his preferred 4-4-2 and potentially dabble with a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 in big games.

Fernando’s arrival is significant because with Yaya Toure turning 31-years-old last May, Pellegrini will be eager to deploy the Ivorian higher up the pitch and decrease his defensive duties. City’s midfield remains their strong point with a veteran core of players, led by the impeccable David Silva. Toure’s 20 goals received plaudits last year, but Silva was their best player.

Look no further than Silva’s standout performances against the best sides in the Premier League last season. Silva constantly found spaces between the lines to provide delicate through-balls to his teammates, while his willingness to drift laterally from flank-to-flank to create overloads played a significant role in City’s dominance on the left side of the pitch. Silva’s goal or assist tally don’t represent his overall excellence, as he’s usually the catalyst in City’s best moves, averaging a league high 3.6 key passes and 0.6 accurate through-balls per game.

Pellegrini’s midfield should suffice for another season, but the main worry for City lies both in defence and attack.

The fullback positions appear to be solidified, but it’s the centre-back area that looks particularly feeble. Vincent Kompany has declined significantly since City’s first title triumph, and like partner Martin Demichelis –– who will turn 34 next season –– is extremely vulnerable when positioned higher up the pitch. City has desperately required a top-class defender alongside Kompany over the past few seasons, and while Mangala has the potential to become an elite European centre-back, his arrival doesn’t guarantee immediate defensive solidity.

The one positive Pellegrini can take from preseason –– along with no injuries sustained or issues within the locker room –– is the form of Jovetic. City operated in a 4-4-2 throughout their USA tour, with Jovetic forming an imperious strike force with Dzeko. Jovetic scored five goals at the Guinness International Champions Cup, but more impressive was his overall linkup play. Jovetic operated behind the main striker and dropped deep to link play with the midfield, his various strike partners, and created space for runners to exploit.

Nonetheless, there was never an issue regarding the quality of City’s attacking quartet. Pellegrini’s main concern was in regards to their fitness levels. With Alvaro Negredo sidelined for approximately two months with a broken foot, along with Sergio Aguero and Jovetic’s recurring injuries, only Dzeko serves as a reliable option.

Aguero, in particular, was stellar last season scoring 32 goals in 36 appearances in all competitions, despite suffering numerous injuries. Aguero scored against every side in the top seven excluding Liverpool –– he was sidelined for the home fixture, and played a bit part role in the return showdown at Anfield after returning from injury –– further exemplifying his importance to City’s title challenge.

When available, Aguero is undoubtedly the best striker in the league, and his fitness plays a significant factor in City’s title hopes.

While no club has retained the Premier League since the turn of the decade, City is equipped to be the first.

But with Chelsea adding the missing pieces to their squad, the fitness of City’s strikers and the arrival of a top-class centre-back will play a vital role in whether Pellegrini’s side becomes the third team to retain the Premier League title.

City is definitely a more complete side in their second title defence of the decade, but shades of their 2012-2013 season hovers around the Etihad.

 
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Posted by on August 10, 2014 in EPL, Premier League

 

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