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Resilient Sporting KC stick to the script to frustrate Vanney’s profligate TFC

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Toronto FC’s issues around the opposition’s box was on full display in a scoreless draw with Sporting Kansas City. Greg Vanney’s men haven’t scored a goal from open play against 11 men since last year’s second leg conference final triumph, and their profligacy around the box is developing into a noteworthy concern.

The first half, however, was a rarely intriguing tactical battle at this level that witnessed both sides negate the oppositions threat in contrasting manners. TFC preferred to press higher up the pitch with Tosaint Ricketts and Sebastian Giovinco closing down the centre-backs, while Victor Vasquez or initially Michael Bradley pushed forward to limit Ilie Sanchez’s time on the ball.

TFC wing-backs Steven Beitashour and Raheem Edwards also aggressively stepped higher to prevent the Sporting KC full-backs from receiving space to drive forward, whereas the midfield battle was fairly scrappy. Meanwhile, the shuttlers encountered difficulties retaining possession and gaining ascendancy in central areas due to the aforementioned congestion, which therefore stifled the creative players from both sides.

The away side, on the other hand, retreated into a 4-1-4-1 out of possession with the wide players sitting narrow, and striker Dom Dwyer remaining goal-side of TFC captain Michael Bradley. It was another ploy to force the TFC centre-backs to build attacks, whereas Bradley’s inability to alleviate Dwyer’s pressure ensured the Reds were deprived creativity in deeper midfield zones.

This was essentially a major issue for the hosts with Giovinco starved of service over lengthy periods, and Jozy Altidore’s capability of dropping into the midfield zone to link play was required. Likewise, the intent to mark out Bradley has been successfully utilized by all TFC opponents this season, thus forcing the hosts elsewhere to move forward.

Peter Vermes’ men struggled going forward due to TFC’s pressing and were unable to launch proper counter-attacks. But similar to TFC, the midfielders couldn’t link play with the attackers, and the ploy to push the wing-backs forward to provide natural width – wide forward Soony Saad and Gerso Fernandes moved centrally to combine with Dwyer – backfired due to Beitashour and Edwards’ defensive discipline.

Nonetheless, TFC created the better chances in the first half through width from the left flank, and Giovinco’s diverse movement to pull the away side out of position. It took nine minutes for Giovinco to drop beyond half to receive the ball and combine with Edwards down the left and the move resulted in Vasquez locating Beitashour unmarked in half space, but his pull-back for the aforementioned Italian was scuffed. Another move following a rare Bradley switch of play saw Edwards identify Giovinco between the lines, but once again Beitashour’s great positioning was wasted following the right wing-back’s pass behind an unmarked Vasquez.

The Reds main threat involved Edwards – an academy product enjoying his first full start for the club – driving down the left flank. The left wing-back bamboozled Graham Zusi with a clever turn and played a pass to Giovinco in a pocket of space, which led to an opportunity that Jonathan Osorio scuffed wide of the net. Afterwards, Edwards play Ricketts free down the left channel, but the Canadian international’s poor decision-making halted a promising move.

Another variation of TFC’s dominance down the left occurred in the latter stages of the first half when Edwards moved to an advanced central position to drag Zusi with him, while Nick Hagglund stormed forward down the left channel. This was risky due to Gerso’s threat in transition, but it also pegged the attacker into his own half away from the isolated Dwyer. These positional alterations eventually witnessed Hagglund sneak past Gerso to cross the ball to Osorio in the six-yard box, but the TFC midfielder skied his shot over the net.

Although Sporting KC improved in the opening 15 minutes of the second half via high pressing – it led to a poor Bradley pass that nearly resulted in a Dwyer winner – TFC still found joy through Edwards down the left flank. However, the TFC homegrown product wasted a golden opportunity and was unable to connect his crosses with teammates.

Conversely, with the away side tiring throughout the second half, the TFC midfield suddenly gained control of the game, whereas Giovinco began to receive passes between the lines before charging towards the box. Vermes’ men posed a few saves from Alex Bono in the final half hour, yet TFC were unable to test Sporting KC keeper, Tim Melia, despite ample territorial dominance.

In another match this season where a narrow back-line left the Reds perplexed, Vermes’ approach can be classified as an efficient defensive scheme several MLS teams may adopt on their travels to BMO Field this season. In truth, it limits TFC’s option to utilize their pace on the counter-attack, and with no players capable of building attacks from deep in the current setup, this appears a logical method to disrupt arguably the best offence in the league.

Abandoning the system that provided last year’s success would be extreme, but it’s certainly time to consider instilling flexibility to a rather bland Reds attack.

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Posted by on April 1, 2017 in Published Work

 

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TFC’s road to success involves a shift in gears against Sporting Kansas City

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Losing a championship game is difficult to cope with, but coming within inches of a historic first MLS Cup title on home soil is borderline traumatic.

TFC’s 2016 playoff run will live in the memories of both the players and Reds fans for the unforeseeable future. On a frigid winter night at BMO Field, Michael Bradley and Justin Morrow’s spot kick misfortunes unravelled a dominant display from the hosts.

The former, in particular, produced a heroic captain’s display ahead of the Reds back-four, which justified the American’s discomfort post-match.

“In a perfect world you would congratulate them,” Bradley said while slumped in his stall at BMO Field, trying to put into words the pain of an opportunity missed. “But that’s not how it goes, you know? Had we won, it’s not the first thing on your mind. Congratulations to them.

“[But] we were so, so, so determined and wanted so badly to finish this season off in front of our fans in this stadium holding up that Cup. To know how close we were to doing that and ultimately miss out?

“That’s not an easy one to swallow.”

Friday’s home opener against Sporting Kansas City features two of the four remaining undefeated MLS teams, but it’s also TFC’s first match at BMO Field since that heartbreaking winter night. Greg Vanney will aim to vanquish last year’s shortcomings with a positive opening night performance, and with close to a fully fit squad the Reds – on paper – are favourites.

However, Vanney’s men endured a turbulent start to the season, despite avoiding defeat in their opening three games – two without 2015 MVP Sebastian Giovinco. Still operating in their base 3-5-2, TFC are encountering the same issues in the final third that arose in last year’s playoff run.

As a whole, however, they simply haven’t performed at their peak level. This isn’t an issue, nonetheless, given all three games have been played on the road. More importantly, unlike previous seasons where the Reds may have succumbed to defeat, Vanney’s men earned points following fairly mediocre performances.

The Reds struggled to create chances in open play at Real Salt Lake, and virtually scored from two set-pieces against a defensively inferior Philadelphia Union outfit. Last week, TFC were clearly superior at Vancouver, but only created clear cut opportunities subsequent to Brek Shea’s dismissal.

There has been one change to the core team from last year’s remarkable season, which has witnessed Johnathan Osorio drop to the bench for the newly acquired Victor Vasquez. Meanwhile, the thought of an Altidore – Giovinco partnership upfront remains more of a dream than a reality as the latter returns from a thigh injury.

Altidore, on the other hand, was TFC’s standout player in last year’s playoff run, and has started the season as the club’s in-form player. Altidore’s ability to drop deep to link play, or play off the shoulder – along as in the channels – and use his brute strength to shrug off challenges has been the Reds’ main threat in the final third.

The other positive feat in TFC’s attack stems from the left wing-back position where Morrow has performed superbly as an attacking outlet. Morrow scored a pivotal goal against the Union, whereas youngster Raheem Edwards created Vasquez’s winner at Vancouver two weeks ago.

Elsewhere, the most disappointing aspect throughout three games is the TFC midfield. Michael Bradley is still a liability out of possession when he protects the back four, whereas opposing sides have instructed their advanced midfielders to limit the American’s threat from deeper zones.

Vasquez still requires time to settle into a new environment, and despite scoring the winner at Vancouver has rarely influenced. The dynamism and tenacity Armando Cooper injected into the Reds midfield last year has also went anonymous – the Honduran international is guilty of over touching the ball whilst conceding possession and silly fouls in dangerous areas in the opening three games.

Osorio, nonetheless, is the real loser, here, as the Brampton native blossomed into one of MLS’ promising young talents in recent seasons. The 24-year-old consistently retains possession in the final third, can play a clever incisive penetrative balls behind the opposing defence, and offers the guile and level of unpredictability Vanney’s men have lacked this season.

Also, lack of width from the right flank – though Tsubasa Endoh’s attempt was a failed experiment – leaves TFC’s attack lopsided and extremely narrow in large phases which caters to the opposition, who often sit deep and congest the midfield zone. A moment of individual brilliance from TFC’s star attackers is always possible, but there’s an evident lack of balance amongst the attacking quintet that Vanney has yet to solve.

Due to the amount of depth TFC possess throughout their squad, these issues aren’t as significant as it would be in previous seasons. Slow starts to the season aren’t unusual, and the ability to swap players and alter systems is an advantage many teams throughout the league lack.

“Winning the game is a priority, but making sure that we get through the weekend and don’t put anyone in a tough situation also is a priority,” said Vanney ahead of Friday’s home opener.

It’s evident TFC’s star players – excluding Altidore – have yet to discover their best form, but that’s the challenge Vanney must embrace. Last year, the TFC’s managers task was to build an identity and stability throughout the starting XI. And although Vanney was capable of instilling tactical flexibility amongst the aforementioned traits, minimal improvements within the XI offers room for skepticism.

TFC’s squad depth may have improved, but is the XI significantly better than last year? The other issue that may arise throughout the season – mainly if TFC fail to identify a solution to their blunt attacking play in the final third – is whether Vanney can guide the Reds to another level without major acquisitions.

Expectations have been set, and the disappointment surrounding the opening three games suggests the overall culture throughout the club has improved for the better. TFC now consider themselves genuine contenders and overall winners, and while the reliance on Altidore and Giovinco’s greatness upfront remains, there’s ultimately no room for a substantial setback.

Nevertheless, TFC’s ability to grind results is a facet great teams possess, and this slow start may simply represent an additional sign of growth en route to a title-winning season. The opportunity to overcome last year’s heartbreak begins Friday night, and though TFC’s opening three games offered minimal signs of improvement, Vanney’s Reds have nothing to worry about…. yet.

 
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Posted by on March 31, 2017 in Published Work

 

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Manchester City’s defensive deficiencies further exposed by Klopp’s vibrant Liverpool

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Liverpool and Manchester City showdowns have developed into popular Premier League fixtures in recent years, and the arrival of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola was expected to enhance the competitive rivalry between the two clubs. Sunday’s clash at the Etihad was not only vital in regards to the current top four race, but stylistically, it also highlighted the growth witnessed throughout the league over the past 12 months.

Although the attacking philosophies vary between the two managers, the emphasis on dynamic pressing and clever passing combinations suggested the possibility of a potential goal-fest. But, unlike previous meetings against Klopp’s Reds, the hosts were dominant in the opening period.

Guardiola decision to employ a 4-2-3-1 meant David Silva operated in his preferred no.10 role, whereas Kevin De Bruyne sat deeper in midfield alongside Yaya Toure. The most intriguing change in Guardiola’s XI witnessed Fernandinho start at right-back, where he pushed forward at every opportunity and quickly pressed James Milner when the Liverpool left-back received possession.

Interestingly enough, City’s ability to stretch the pitch through Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling’s positioning created more space in central areas for David Silva to drift into. Silva’s positioning, here, was integral to City’s dominant spells, yet the hosts created majority of their chances in wide areas via overloads and incisive passing into half spaces.

Fernandinho and De Bruyne both delivered dangerous crosses into the six-yard box within the opening 15 minutes of the match, whereas Sane also created dangerous chances that resulted in a Simon Mignolet save, and a last-ditch tackle from James Milner to deny Sterling an easy tap-in. Later on, Milner was once again the key cog in denying City an opener following De Bruyne’s brilliant reverse pass to Silva in left half-space, but Guardiola’s approach was fairly successful in terms of field positioning to get the better of Silva and De Bruyne’s creativity.

A string of Liverpool chances towards the end of the half offered signs that they were growing into the game, but their poor start was down to sloppy passing and their reluctance to swarm Guardiola’s men in the early stages. Sadio Mane was presented a glorious breakaway following a poor John Stones back pass, whereas Roberto Firmino and Adam Lallana both tested Willy Caballero.

Gael Clichy rarely pushed forward with fear of leaving vacant space for Mane to charge into, and despite Firmino’s positive link up play when he dropped into midfield zones, Liverpool’s possession was tedious, opposed to efficient in the final third. Liverpool’s positive spell continued in the second half, and Clichy’s slip subsequent to Emre Can chipping a pass over the City defence for Firmino led to a penalty that Milner comfortably converted.

Liverpool were now free to revert to a narrow 4-5-1 with the intent to hit City on the counter and one break ignited by Firmino and Philippe Coutinho forced Caballero into a vital save around the hour mark. Toure was now a liability in transition, and Guardiola quickly sacrificed the Ivorian for a natural right-back in Bacary Sagna, thus pushing Fernandinho into midfield. Toure’s decline has been evident in recent seasons, but with Coutinho easily gliding past the City midfielder in the aforementioned move, the possibility of Liverpool increasing their lead appeared evident.

However, Guardiola’s substitution was followed by Silva moving alongside Fernandinho, while De Bruyne hugged the touch-line on the right flank. Therefore, Sterling, Aguero and Sane operated centrally with the former as the no.10 – but his wayward passing limited his influence – while Sane constantly aimed to run behind the Liverpool defence.

Aguero, on the other hand, moved into wider areas to evade the pressure applied by Joel Matip and Ragnar Klavan when the Argentine received the ball with his back to goal. For all of the speculation associated with Aguero’s future under Guardiola, here, his reliable finishing was his downfall, whereas his linkup play was fairly positive.

Nevertheless, City responded superbly following Guardiola’s alterations. Silva’s starting position was deeper, while De Bruyne delivered two dangerous crosses into the box before creating Aguero’s equalizer shortly afterwards. Guardiola’s decision to move his creative cogs away from the congested midfield zone was logical, and though it led to more chances, City remained vulnerable in transition.

Lallana missed a glorious chance set up by Firmino, and minutes later Mane’s powerful run from midfield resulted in the aforementioned Brazilian firing a low effort into side-netting. Meanwhile, besides Sterling breaking behind and nearly chipping Mignolet, and a wonderful individual effort from Aguero – when he dropped into a deeper zone in the left channel – De Bruyne and Silva architected City’s best moves down the right flank. Both men created opportunities for Aguero to notch a winner, but the Argentine’s profligate finishing ensured the score line remained deadlock at full-time.

In a truly enthralling end-to-end game, the performances from both sides epitomized the current obstacles preventing a proper title challenge. Where Liverpool still lack a reliable goal-scorer despite their devastating high-octane brand of football, City’s defence and lack of protection in midfield outweighs Guardiola’s riches in the final third.

 
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Posted by on March 20, 2017 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Tactical Preview: Manchester United – Liverpool

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Something has to give in this weekend’s big clash between Manchester United and Liverpool at Old Trafford. The former is one of the in-form Premier League teams with nine consecutive wins, whereas Liverpool is coming off a draw at Sunderland and a Capital One Cup semi-final first leg defeat at Southampton.

United have improved since the two teams drew 0-0 at Anfield this season, but it’s difficult to believe Mourinho will stray away from his successful approach that night. Mourinho’s “big game mantra” is built around defensive organization and efficient finishing when chances arise, and though successfully attacking the Reds would be ground-breaking, the Portuguese manager can’t afford to drop three points.

At Anfield, United were fairly direct with their play by avoiding passes from the back, which prevented Liverpool from gegenpressing and winning the ball in advanced positions. Ironically, United’s high pressing stifled Liverpool’s buildup play in the opening half and were combative in midfield throughout.

There shouldn’t be many changes, here, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s fitness issues means the Swede may not lead the line ahead of Paul Pogba. Marcus Rashford or Anthony Martial are the likely replacements upfront, offering genuine pace behind the Liverpool aggressive high-line.

Marouane Fellaini performed well at Anfield, and though Mourinho would typically opt for the Belgian’s physicality in central areas, Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera have developed a great partnership at the base of midfield. However, Mourinho may be concerned about Carrick coping with Liverpool’s intense pressing.

Carrick is accustomed to having ample time on the ball to dictate the game’s tempo, but Klopp will likely instruct his players to apply the pressure once the 35-year-old gains possession. This may lead to Herrera dropping deeper as well to alleviate pressure off Carrick, or witness the Spaniard attempt to help United build from deep despite potential pressure from the visitors.

The other decision Mourinho must make involves his wide personnel. Ashley Young performed well in a defensive winger role at Anfield and could merit another start, but it appears Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Martial will drift centrally from the flanks. The other possible option behind the striker is Jesse Lingard, who is often utilized in bigger games due to his discipline and ability to carry out instructions.

They can all fulfill defensive duties diligently, but equally pose a transitional threat when United regain possession. Juan Mata will likely be excluded because he lacks the aforementioned traits, but is a reliable impact sub off the bench if United require guile in the final third. Martial and Rashford possesses similar traits, and if Ibrahimovic starts upfront, one of the youngsters could start from the left, while the other is utilized as an impact sub.

Marcos Rojo’s fitness issues puts the Argentine’s place in the XI in jeopardy, meaning Chris Smalling and Phil Jones should start at centre-back. Meanwhile, Matteo Darmian and Antonio Valencia should retain their spots as full-backs, despite the former possibly encountering issues against the attack-minded Nathaniel Clyne.

Liverpool, however, aren’t blessed with United’s depth, and Klopp shouldn’t have many big decisions to make. Sadio Mane’s absence due to African Cup of Nation’s duty deprives Liverpool of pace upfront, but the return of Philippe Coutinho balances out Klopp’s fortunes.

Divock Origi could return to the XI to replace Daniel Sturridge following an ineffective performance at Southampton. Nonetheless, Klopp may be better off without a natural centre-forward with Roberto Firmino upfront, whilst the returning Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana operating from the flanks.

That would mean Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum would start ahead of Jordan Henderson if deemed match-fit. But if Henderson is unavailable, Klopp will likely start Origi, and opt for Wijnaldum and Lallana ahead of Can. Joel Matip is set to return and could re-form his partnership with Dejan Lovren at centre-back, whereas Simon Mignolet is expected to start in goal.

With so many physical midfielders and both managers keen on heavy pressing, this could be another scrappy encounter with few chances. Liverpool’s approach is intriguing, nonetheless, especially if Mourinho attempts to replicate the defensive template set at Anfield.

Klopp’s Liverpool, however, have displayed their ability to remain compact and defend deep for lengthy spells, and they may be equally patient, and aim to combine quick passes to break on the counter. Still, it will be interesting to see how United cope with Liverpool’s interchanging movement and Lallana’s late charges into the box – especially if Carrick starts at the base of United’s midfield.

United are slight favourites based on overall form between the two clubs, depth, and numerous game-changers off the bench. Both sides attempt to play quite narrow with the wide players drifting in-field, but Liverpool’s movement, cohesion and understanding of constant positional interchanging suggests United’s back-line should endure a few problems.

The first goal should open things up and determine the tempo of the match, but that depends on whether Liverpool can unlock United’s sturdy defence, and whether the hosts will push men forward to create ample chances. Despite several goal-scorers throughout both XI’s, this could be another tactical battle built around defensive organization and discipline.

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

 

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Tactical Preview: Everton – Manchester City

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Ronald Koeman deserved massive credit for his mid-game tactical changes that earned Everton a point at the Etihad earlier this season, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the Toffees approached the return fixture in a similar manner. Where Koeman’s attempt to go 3v3 against City’s defence back-fired, a half-time switch to a midfield diamond ensured Everton battled in central areas and ignited swift counter-attacks when Guardiola’s men lost possession.

Everton have been fairly inconsistent in recent months and still appear to be better suited on the counter-attack. With that being said, it’s possible Everton may stray away from a back three, here – due to injuries – to deploy a 4-5-1 or 4-3-1-2 against City to prevent Pep Guardiola’s side from possessing a numerical advantage in midfield.

Koeman will be missing Idrissa Gueye and James McCarthy in midfield, depriving the Toffees of dynamism and ball-winning skills in the centre of the park. Therefore, a midfield trio of Gareth Barry, Ross Barkley and new signing Morgan Schneiderlin is likely.

Barkley’s performance against Liverpool a month ago was woeful, and against creative dynamos like Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, Koeman’s midfield trio require discipline. Schneiderlin, on the other hand, was the Premier League’s best midfielder during the 2014/2015 and Koeman will hope the Frenchman can quickly come close to replicating those levels.

Upfront, Romelu Lukaku poses Everton’s main threat with 18 goals in all competitions, along with his physical advantage over both John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi. Lukaku’s role as a pure poacher hasn’t been successful under Koeman, and using the Belgian as an outlet to ignite counters – by dropping deep or making charging diagonal runs into the channels – will be crucial against a feeble City back-line.

Yannick Bolasie’s pace and power will also be missed, thus leaving Koeman with three options in wide areas. Kevin Mirallas and Gerard Deulofeu’s dribbling and direct goal-threat is expected to be Koeman’s first choice option alongside Lukaku, with Valencia providing an aerial threat in the box if Everton are forced to chase the game late on.

There shouldn’t be much change in Everton’s back-line, either, considering their main attacking ploy still based around the adventurous positioning of full-backs Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines. Funes Mori and Ashley Williams haven’t proved to be a reliable centre-back partnership, nor has Joel Robles endured his best weeks as Everton keeper, placing additional pressure on the midfield trio to clog space between the lines.

For once, City’s XI is quite close to picking itself following a 5-0 thrashing of West Ham in the FA Cup. With Fernandinho still serving a suspension, combined with Everton’s threat on the counter, Fernando and Yaya Toure are expected to form the midfield duo in a possible 4-2-3-1.

Sergio Aguero will start upfront with David Silva likely in the no.10 role, given De Bruyne and Sterling are more reliable sources for defensive coverage ahead of the full-backs to negate the threat of Baines and Coleman. The other option would be to have Silva play slightly ahead of Toure in midfield, with De Bruyne moving behind Aguero, and Jesus Navas playing on the opposite flank.

Guardiola will be wary of Everton’s threat in wide areas, and this may lead to Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna starting at full-back. Pablo Zabaleta has been underwhelming from the right, and for all of Aleksandar Kolarov’s attacking productivity from the left, the Serbian defender remains a liability from a defensive perspective.

The Toffees will attempt to make this a slow-burning, scrappy encounter from the start, but the key to their success rests heavily on whether their midfield can contain the movement of Silva and De Bruyne in the final third. Likewise, the same can be said for City who are still vulnerable defending swift transitional attacks, as the pace and strength of Lukaku will also prove crucial.

Elsewhere, the battle in wide areas will also be decisive. City will aim to peg the Everton full-backs into their half through territorial dominance and counter-pressing, but their wide attacking players must also track back to prevent potential overloads and service into Lukaku.

City’s profligate spot-kicks prevented a win at the Etihad, but assuming Everton avoid a combative approach throughout the pitch, there should be goals at Goodison Park. Neither side has proven to be defensively sound without the ball and lack competent protection ahead of their unconvincing back-lines.

As simplistic as this may sound, the more efficient side within the final third should triumph, which makes Guardiola’s men favourites ahead of kick-off, barring a defensive meltdown. But Koeman’s tactical acumen shouldn’t be underestimated, and this could be another tactical spectacle in what’s been a truly intriguing Premier League season.

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

 

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Liverpool and Manchester United’s rivalry regains prominence under Klopp and Mourinho

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England’s most glorified rivalry is gaining prominent interest this season. Liverpool against Manchester United has been an underwhelming spectacle throughout the Premier League era, but the current table standing, prior history amongst the managers, and United’s signings over the summer provides optimism.

Jurgen Klopp and Jose Mourinho are considered two of the greatest football managers in the modern game, and their presence has equally improved the overall standard of the Premier League from a tactical perspective. It’s also important that they’re managing the two most successful clubs in England, who combine for 38 league titles between each other. That is mainly why Klopp and Mourinho’s appointments were pivotal at both clubs – for one, the rivalry has lacked gusto over the years, whereas neither club is meeting the standards expected by supporters.

Oddly enough, from a geographical and historical sense, although Liverpool and Manchester United is considered the biggest game of the Premier League campaign, the rivalry’s surprisingly lacked memorable matches domestically and in Europe. Part of it is down to Liverpool’s inability to lack a proper title challenge during the Sir Alex Ferguson era, with only a sole 4-1 win at Old Trafford in the 2008/2009 season coming close to a monumental fixture – yet that only put the Reds four points – playing one more game than the Red Devils – behind the eventual title winners.

Despite being the two most successful clubs in England, the other factor that’s deprived the rivalry of genuine excitement is that both enjoyed their dominance in different eras. United’s most intense football rivalries have come against the likes of Blackburn, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City, whereas apart from the Patrice Evra – Luis Suarez racism scandal, this matchup has been irrelevant to the title race.

In truth, United claiming 20 league titles, and their quest for two more European crowns – they currently have three to Liverpool’s five – are the sole reasons why the rivalry’s excitement remains. It’s developed into more of a fixture built around pride and bragging rights opposed to a derby defined by title-winning moments like El Clasico, O Classico (Porto – Benfica) or what Der Klassiker (Bayern Munich – Borussia Dortmund) is slowly transitioning into.

However, the current state of the Premier League witnesses both sides separated by a handful of points, in what could be the most thrilling title race of this era. Where Liverpool has finished second twice in the past decade, United’s status as yearly title contender’s has drastically declined since Ferguson’s sudden retirement. United never replaced Ferguson with a true winner of his mould, whereas Liverpool lacked a tactical proficient manager with concepts suited for the modern game – more so, in European competitions – like Klopp.

Liverpool have struggled to maintain a top four status in the post-Rafa Benitez era, whereas United were floating around the same level of mediocrity without Ferguson. This is truly fitting considering both managers were pivotal in English football’s dominance on Europe in the past decade. Klopp and Mourinho, however, provide a new tale in the quest for English supremacy both domestically as well as in Europe.

More so, the two managers play a huge factor in this regard, but for contrasting reasons. Louis van Gaal spent extensive money on a youthful core for the future, but it always felt that top players were still required to mount a title challenge. Liverpool, on the other hand, lacked a cult hero, but also a manager with a distinct football philosophy to move away from the underwhelming spells of Roy Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish, and Brendan Rodgers – albeit the latter was inches away from doing the unthinkable courtesy in a similar environment that Klopp currently enjoys.

Another positive component, here, is previous meetings between the two managers during their respected tenures at Real Madrid and Dortmund. Mourinho’s tactics have been classified as outdated in recent seasons due to the difficulty he’s encountered on the domestic and continental stage. While a sole victory against Jurgen Klopp in seven meetings suggests the notion could be true, United’s display in a 0-0 draw at Anfield earlier this season proves otherwise.

That night, Mourinho’s United were fairly reactive, but their approach was superb: avoiding passes in defensive areas to limit Liverpool’s gegenpressing, whilst pressing high and forcing the Reds into mistakes in their half. It was one of the rare moments at Anfield this season where Klopp’s high-scoring Reds were perplexed, and although David De Gea was forced into two world-class saves, Zlatan Ibrahimovic missed arguably the best chance of the game.

It was the standard Mourinho “big match performance” – defensively solid to ensure a result is obtained opposed to risking a loss to a title rival. It ultimately epitomizes what United supporters have subconsciously desired in recent seasons. Surely, attractive football is appreciated, but the short-term nature of the sport values trophies and wins on a higher scale – an aspect of coaching that defines Mourinho’s career.

United have only lost one domestic match since that night, with Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic rediscovering their best form, whereas the return of Michael Carrick enables the former and Ander Herrera to perform at their optimum best in midfield. United weren’t necessarily playing poorly prior to that result, but as of late their level of play is more expansive and vividly showcases a side full of confidence.

With United sitting a mere five points behind second placed Liverpool ahead of Sunday’s kick-off, and a possible Capital One Cup final showdown awaiting, it appears that tide is turning in this historic rivalry. Klopp’s Liverpool, though out-of-form, have overachieved with the absence of European football, whereas despite a slow-start to the season, Mourinho’s United is finally playing to the high standards many expected the club to maintain subsequent to Ferguson’s departure.

In short, both clubs appear to be headed in the right direction. Mourinho has added – and will continue to do so in the upcoming transfer windows – top class players to provide the perfect balance of youth and experience in his team. And it’s likely that the Portuguese manager will receive the time and patience to build his preferred side to challenge on both fronts.

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Elsewhere, a full pre-season with the Reds enabled Klopp to properly instill his methodology, and though major signings weren’t made, the German is displaying his ability to maximize the talent at his disposal. Financial limitations and the strength of their rivals will always put Klopp at a disadvantage, meaning identifying players suited to his system – along with the improvement of his young core – is the ideal route to sustaining long-term success.

Short of a top class all-rounder forward, Liverpool have been at their best with Roberto Firmino dropping deep to encourage runners forward, and making inwards runs into the channels to combine with teammates around the box. Klopp has favoured Divock Origi in recent weeks due to injuries and may rely on Belgian’s growth during his tenure, but the Reds’ fluid, interchanging football is fully maximized with Firmino operating as the focal point of the attack.

Although four months remain in the current Premier League season, Sunday’s matchup holds huge merit on the title race and the improving state of English football’s most prestigious rivalry. A United win would pull Liverpool into a scrap for a top four spot and build on the Red Devils’ current winning streak. Yet, from a tactical viewpoint, it presents Klopp with the task of overcoming United’s powerful side away from Anfield.

Following years of criticism regarding the stagnation throughout the top Premier League sides, it appears that the bigger games are slowly delivering more than sole exciting, attack-minded matches. In what could be the greatest era in Premier League history, it’s fitting that England’s most famous clubs can finally deliver a potential ‘classic’ based  purely on football terms.

 
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Posted by on January 13, 2017 in Published Work

 

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Christian Eriksen’s guile sparks Spurs past Conte’s imperious Chelsea

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Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs have developed a knack of producing their finest performances against top Premier League opponents at White Hart Lane. Spurs’ first half display against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City set the bar this season, but ending Chelsea’s 13-game winning streak may hold higher value given the Blues’ dominance since their 3-0 defeat at Arsenal a few months ago.

Where other managers have adjusted their shape with hopes of halting Chelsea’s remarkable form, Pochettino’s move to a 3-4-2-1 felt natural considering he’s utilized the system on a few occasions – most recently in Spurs win over Watford a fortnight ago. Spurs obliterated Watford based on extremely poor defensive play from the hosts so it was difficult to truly assess the system’s value, and the decision to replicate the league leaders’ default system aimed to man-mark across the pitch.

The recurring issue involving two sides adopting identical systems is that it often produces uneventful, cagey battles. With the midfield zone containing physical ball-winning midfielders opposed to creative no.10’s ensured this was expected to be a scrappy affair between two well-drilled units.

In central areas, Moussa Dembele and Victor Wanyama harried N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic when they pushed forward, so the midfield duos were often restricted to safe passes from deeper positions. However, the midfielders were effective in various manners – Kante and Matic were protecting space in central areas to clog space that Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen preferred to receive possession. Meanwhile, Dembele flourished when he dribbled past opponents in the left channel, while Wanyama sat deep attempting to thwart Hazard’s threat in transition.

Elsewhere, Spurs’ possession dominance combined with Chelsea’s reluctance to press high witnessed Danny Rose and Kyle Walker maintain advanced positions to peg Chelsea wing-backs Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses into their half. Chelsea’s best spell in the initial meeting at Stamford Bridge involved Moses eventually pushing forward beyond Eriksen towards the Spurs box, which is why the switch to a 3-4-2-1 was a logical move, here. Therefore, the two sides created dangerous attacking moves in contrasting manners.

In the opening phase of the match, Chelsea’s long diagonals into wide positions exploited Spurs’ high defensive line with Hazard’s wasting a quality chance via Matic’s reverse pass from midfield. Chelsea’s swift counter-attacks amongst the front three easily bypassed Spurs midfield, but the away side’s inability to complete the final pass around the box was pivotal to their downfall.

From a defensive aspect Chelsea were far more reserved. Conte’s men maintained their base 5-4-1 and retreated into their half to negate Spurs’ clever movement and intricate passing between the lines. The away side only pushed forward as a unit when passes were played back to Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris with hopes of building attacks from deep.

Spurs, on the other hand, struggled to find space between the lines, and heavily relied on their energetic organized pressing to breach the Chelsea back-line. Prior to Alli’s opener, Spurs received two openings in a minute span that epitomized their identity under Pochettino: Wanyama intercepting a pass into Hazard and Eriksen subsequently picking up a loose Kante pass in midfield, but both men guided their efforts wide.

The key element to Spurs defensive instructions involved Alli and Eriksen tucking in centrally to prevent Kante and Matic from receiving possession in the midfield zone. Chelsea were often forced to play long balls into the channels for Costa, or have Hazard drop extremely deep to receive the ball in a midfield zone, but the Blues encountered difficulties finding a natural rhythm in possession.

Although Alli will dominate headlines for the game-winning brace, the key man, here, was Eriksen. Eriksen, in truth, is an extremely misunderstood footballer under Pochettino. Once believed to develop into a creative dynamo, the Dane now represents a functional attacker capable of playing throughout the midfield.

But where other key players struggled to perform in congested areas, Eriksen varied his movement to receive possession and play key passes throughout. Alli often aided Kane in pressing from the front, but when the Spurs striker pulled Luiz out of position, the former attempted to charge behind the Chelsea back-line.

This was the ideal movement required to pull Conte’s back-three out of position – Kane dropped deep, Alli charging behind and Eriksen forcing Cahill away from the six-yard box – and was evident in the buildup to both goals, though a collective defensive breakdown was the catalyst for the opener. Walker’s pull back to Eriksen attracted four defenders to the ball, but Luiz’s attempt to play offside, and Cahill’s intent to join three teammates to close down the Dane, enabled Alli to tower over Cesar Azpilicueta to freely nod a well weighed cross past Thibaut Courtois.

Despite a positive Chelsea onslaught to start the second half – Spurs retreated into their base shape, keen to play on the counter – Spurs secured maximum points in a similar manner. Walker’s advanced positioning, along with Eriksen floating deeper in the right channel, led to another superb cross into the box that provided another example of Alli’s fine heading ability over the diminutive Azpilicueta. Though Chelsea were better positioned for Alli’s second, isolating Azpilicueta and exploiting his lack of height at centre-back was a clever – though far from innovative – ploy from Pochettino.

Chelsea were forced to chase the remainder of the match, but a lack of sharp and precise passing ensured Spurs coped well defensively. Conte received plenty of deserved praise for reinvigorating Chelsea’s season, but clever movement, patience and perhaps Cahill’s early booking – bypassed by Eriksen following a poor header and virtually halting his aggressive tight marking on the Dane – resulted in Spurs’ trident attack outwitting a resolute Blues back-line.

Nevertheless, similar to Spurs’ defeat over City earlier this season, this doesn’t appear to be a reliable template in consistently defeating Conte’s Chelsea side. Poor performances from key players combined with various sides’ inability to replicate Spurs pressing and energy levels over extensive periods, suggests Chelsea should rarely encounter sustained vulnerable periods of this nature.

However, although this serves as a great reminder that Chelsea’s road to another league title is far from over, it equally highlights that an efficient tactical scheme will be required to overwhelm Conte’s diligent regime.

 
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Posted by on January 5, 2017 in EPL, Published Work

 

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