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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: 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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Tactical Preview: Liverpool – Manchester City

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Manchester City’s trip to Anfield sets up the final big match of the year, with Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp’s tactical rivalry holding vital significance to the current title race. Liverpool currently sit one point ahead of Guardiola’s men prior to kick-off, but a Chelsea win against Stoke could shift this into a match neither side can afford to lose.

The main talking point ahead of the match is the return of Sergio Aguero from a four-game suspension. City has operated without a natural striker for majority of the Argentine’s suspension – losing once in that time span –  but it’s unlikely Kevin De Bruyne or Nolito start upfront here. Aguero’s pace and ruthless finishing around the box could harm an unconvincing Reds back-line.

Nonetheless, City have coped well without Aguero, but as per usual, Guardiola’s shape isn’t certain here. Considering Liverpool often play in a 4-3-3, there’s a good chance City match the hosts in midfield and play in a 4-1-4-1 with Fernandinho at the base. Ilkay Gundogan’s injury means he could go 4-3-3 as well with a combative midfield trio of Fernandinho, Fernando and Yaya Toure, but given Liverpool’s efficient pressing, the former is probably Guardiola’s best option.

With that being said, Guardiola may still opt for additional protection ahead of the back four and shift to a 4-2-3-1 with Fernando in a deeper role opposed to David Silva alongside Fernandinho. Upfront, Raheem Sterling should retain his spot on the left in what will be a pivotal battle against the adventurous Nathaniel Clyne, whereas De Bruyne’s counter-attacking ability and exceptional crossing may force James Milner to be cautious from left-back.

Guardiola also has issues at the back where John Stones’ availability is uncertain after limping off the field at Hull a fortnight ago. Aleksandar Kolarov would join Nicolas Otamendi in midfield, while Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy are expected to operate as full-backs.

Liverpool, on the other hand, are still without Philippe Coutinho, but the Reds have fared well without their Brazilian star. Normally, Klopp would lean towards potential squad rotation, but he’s named an unchanged XI for the past few games and it’s unlikely he’ll tinker here. Daniel Sturridge and Emre Can would potentially fill in if required, but Klopp’s sole change hinges on Joel Matip’s fitness.

The front trio of Divock Origi, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane should start upfront, and Guardiola must fear Mane’s pace against Clichy. More so, the interchanging movement of the front three could exploit City’s shaky back-line, which further emphasizes the significance of Guardiola’s midfield decision-making.

Adam Lallana, Liverpool’s most in-form player, also poses a threat in this regard via late runs into the box. Georginio Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson will operate from deeper zones with the former pushing forward when possible, but Liverpool’s main threat comes from the right. Mane can drift inwards to encourage Clyne forward, whereas if Firmino tucks in, the Senegalese winger maintains width to isolate full-backs.

Essentially Liverpool’s cohesion and enhanced understanding of Klopp’s system could fluster a Manchester City side still attempting to reach optimum form. But the other key battle involves how City cope with Liverpool’s gegenpressing.

Everton and Stoke attempted to bypass Liverpool’s press via long direct balls into the centre-forward, a ploy that Guardiola utilized during his time at Bayern Munich, which witnessed Javi Martinez operated as an advanced midfielder behind Mario Mandzukic. Guardiola can persist with this approach by placing Fernandinho or Yaya Toure closer to Aguero to ensure City can retain possession if Aguero is unable to win aerial duels upfront.

Elsewhere, City’s high-pressing could also prove beneficial considering Guardiola’s men have looked less assured when forced to defend over extensive periods. Liverpool’s ability playing out the back can be exploited with cohesive pressing, and work-rate efficiency from both sides will be decisive.

Nevertheless, neither side have displayed defensive solidity throughout the season, and there should be goals here. Liverpool’s movement in the final third and the understanding of covering positions may overwhelm City’s defence, but Klopp must also worry about the space invaders Silva and De Bruyne between the lines activity between the lines as they represent Aguero’s main supply lines.

Liverpool’s dominant home form tips them as slight favourites here, but a returning Aguero, along with City’s form attackers suggests this could be a potential Premier League classic.

 
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Posted by on December 31, 2016 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Manchester City 1-3 Chelsea

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Antonio Conte’s Chelsea recorded their eighth consecutive Premier League victory at Manchester City in a fairly open tactical showcase.

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Pep Guardiola made several changes to the side that defeated Burnley at Turf Moor last weekend. Ilkay Gundogan joined Fernandinho in midfield, whereas Leroy Sane and Jesus Navas operated as wingers. Opting for power against a decent counter-attacking Burnley outfit, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva were recalled, here, for their creativity and guile in the final third.

Conte was forced into replacing the injured Nemanja Matic, and therefore turned to Cesc Fabregas to form a midfield duo with N’Golo Kante.

For large portions of the match it appeared Guardiola had conquered Conte’s 3-4-2-1, but City’s profligacy in the final third provided Chelsea a lifeline to punish the hosts with efficient direct attacks.

Guardiola’s shape

City’s flexibility following Guardiola’s appointment meant the pre-match team sheet offered no hints regarding the hosts’ default system. Guardiola tends to find weaknesses in the opposition’s set up – that could explain why Matic’s injury wasn’t mentioned by Conte in the buildup to the match –  and bases his XI on his own analysis of the opposition, but the Spaniard replicated Everton manager Ronald Koeman’s decision to also employ a three-man defensive system.

What was initially meant to be a 3-2-2-3 was actually a similar 3-2-4-1 with Sane and Navas operating as wing-backs, whilst De Bruyne and Silva floated around pockets of spaces behind Aguero. Ultimately the risk of a dull encounter was possible due to sole overloads between the centre backs and lone striker, but both sides possessed personnel issues that resulted in structural deficiencies.

Wing-backs

The key feature of the match in the opening 45 minutes involved the wing-backs. One of Chelsea weak points in the system should lie here: Marcos Alonso is vulnerable against pacy runners, whereas Moses isn’t a natural defender. Yet, the opening stages of the first half witnessed Moses and Alonso maintain advanced positions to peg back the City wide men, which made Guardiola’s shape look like a 5-2-2-1 out of possession.

More so the early frenetic stages presented an open end-to-end encounter based heavily on transitional play. But both sides enjoyed spells of dominance in the first half that was predominantly based around the individual displays of their wing-backs.

Chelsea chances

Conte’s men were positive in the opening half hour comfortably bypassing City’s occasional high press with swift passes, while Hazard’s quick combinations with Diego Costa steered the Blues towards goal. Hazard constantly got the better of Otamendi on the half turn, and quickly aimed to play quick intricate passes with the Chelsea striker, but a sole shot from distance that flew wide served as their main threat when Pedro latched onto a poor John Stones header.

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But where Moses and Alonso surged into good crossing positions during this period, and Hazard’s ability to turn defence to attack with his dribbling posed danger, the away side failed to convert positive moves into goals. Majority of Chelsea’s moves stemmed down the channels behind the space of City wing-backs as Guardiola’s men were unable to contain Hazard’s transitional threat until they gained control of the overall tempo.

City overload the right

Guardiola’s men also enjoyed space behind the wing-backs, but there appeared to be a designed model that they continuously followed to exploit space in the channels. Initially, it was believed that encouraging Navas to run at Alonso would be pivotal – this did result in City’s opener – but Silva and De Bruyne’s movement were the catalyst to the hosts’ best moves.

Within the opening 10 minutes De Bruyne had already made two clever darts into space behind Alonso only to have his cross cut out after he embarrassed Cahill, and force Azpilicueta to cover ample ground to make a vital tackle. Silva and De Bruyne constantly took turns drifting behind the Chelsea midfield pair and charging down the right channel with the intent to launch counters.

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The other aspect of the creative duo’s threat was their positioning. Converted to a deep-lying central midfield position under Guardiola, here, they predominantly floated around pockets of space on the right side to overload that area of the pitch. When De Bruyne held a wide position, Silva was central in half spaces to form passing triangles with Navas and vice versa.

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Still, De Bruyne was often finding space deeper behind Hazard who was clearly reluctant to track back and not quick enough to close down his compatriot’s dangerous crosses – Cahill was then dragged into these positions – into the six-yard box that forced Chelsea defenders into desperate lunges to avoid potential Aguero tap-ins.

Silva, on the other hand, played two clever reverse balls over the Chelsea defence when he dropped deeper to pick up possession. First, Luiz had to recover to block Aguero’s effort, then Sane exploited Moses’ wing-back positioning and darted behind the Nigerian to receive the pass, but Azpilicueta blocked Aguero’s tap-in.

Silva and De Bruyne were expected to pose threats in these areas, but the formation change offered an element of surprise. Nonetheless, the overloads on the right and the ability to identify pockets of space throughout the final third perplexed Conte’s men in the latter stages of the first half and they were fortunate to head into half-time trailing by a solitary goal.

City fail to capitalize

The peculiar factor surrounding the final result involved City failing to increase their first half lead. Put simply, Guardiola’s men were dominant during the opening 15 minutes of the second half by forcing Chelsea players into sloppy passing via pressing.

Costa’s lazy pass in City’s third ignited an individual mazy run from Sane that eventually led to Thibaut Courtois making a key save, whereas miscommunication from Alonso and Cahill enabled Aguero to round the Belgian keeper only to be denied by a last-ditch block from the latter. Frankly, De Bruyne’s missed sitter subsequent to a swift Navas break potentially turned the tide, as it was the best chance City created prior to Chelsea’s equalizer.

Fabregas

The other key element to City’s dangerous spell was Silva’s appreciation of space behind the Chelsea midfield. Kante and Matic, two of the league’s best ball-winners and tacklers, protect the back four by maintaining their central position and quickly closing down opposing central midfielders, but they also deprive Chelsea of astute passing from deep, hence the significance of Luiz.

But with Fabregas operating alongside Kante, the Spaniard displayed the pros and cons of his overall game. Throughout the match, Silva freely roamed between the lines, often adopting positions to either side of Fabregas or behind his compatriot. Silva may have spent extensive periods in wide areas attempting to create overloads, but his best moments in open play and transition stemmed when he drifted laterally into space behind Fabregas.

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However, it was extremely odd that City players weren’t wary of Fabregas’ passing range, thus allowing the Spaniard to play forward passes opposed to applying pressure. City were warned in the first half when Fabregas’ long range pass into space behind Otamendi and Navas played Hazard free to round Claudio Bravo, yet the Belgian opted to pass rather than shoot into an open net.

Fabregas may have his defensive limitations in terms of his work-rate and lack of pace, but he remains an elite Premier League passer, and City’s reluctance to close down the midfielder’s passing lanes was pivotal to the equalizer. The Spaniard received time and space to look up twice and hit a long ranged pass into Costa, who had time to chest the ball beyond Otamendi and equalize.

Chelsea were struggling to bypass City’s 5-4-1 defensive shape with patient possession, and Fabregas’ passing range provided an alternative direct outlet to bypass the hosts’ midfield block. It must be said that given Fabregas played under Guardiola at Barcelona, failing to press the Spaniard when he dropped into deep positions in the Chelsea half was an unlikely goal source prior to kick off.

Chelsea’s swift counters

It’s difficult to determine whether Pedro’s substitution was tactical or related to the minor knock he picked up in the first half, but the introduction of Willian proved beneficial to Chelsea’s counter-attacking threat. While Pedro’s threat running behind is essential, Willian’s ability to transition from defence to attack meant Chelsea didn’t have to solely rely on Hazard.

With City pushing for a go-ahead goal, and lacking natural defensive midfielders – Fernandinho and Gundogan are purely box-to-box players than ball-winning pivots – counter-attacks were always plausible outlets for Conte’s men. Regardless that both goals stemmed from this route of attack, the significant feat was the ruthless direct finishing from the Blues.

First, Costa cleverly turned Otamendi at the halfway line to play in Willian who stormed into the box to slide the ball beyond Bravo. The move from Chelsea’s box to the City goal ignited by the Blues trio (Hazard-Costa-Willian) lasted 12 seconds, further summarizing the threat they posed. Hazard’s stoppage-time goal was strictly direct, but again, it followed an identical template to the Costa’s equalizer: Alonso clipping a ball in space beyond Otamendi, and Hazard shrugged off pressure from Kolarov to secure three points.

Chelsea’s threat on the break was evident through Hazard’s dribbling in the opening stage, but Willian’s speed, and Costa varying his movement to link play and drag both City defenders out of position was decisive. The simplicity in Chelsea’s attack shouldn’t be understated, as Conte’s men quickly facilitated the attackers with the ball once possession was regained, placing them in positions to bypass one defender en route to goal.

Final 20 minutes

Now the onus was on City to push men forward and accepting the possibility of conceding more goals on the counter. Navas and Silva continued to find openings around the box but last ditch interventions ensured City couldn’t find a breakthrough inside the box.

Guardiola summoned Yaya Toure and Kelechi Iheanacho and transitioned into more of a 3-5-2 that still had Silva floating around, and encouraged substitute Gael Clichy to move forward, but even then, the hosts struggled to identify an opening. Chelsea sat deeper in a narrow 5-4-1 and eventually brought on youngster Nathan Chalobah for Costa – who couldn’t continue – to protect the centre of the pitch.

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City’s key play-makers ran out of ideas in the final third, and the Chelsea defence coped with Aguero’s threat around the penalty area, which could explain his frustration and eventual sending off for a poor challenge on Luiz. Chelsea’s “smash and grab” second half performance flustered Guardiola’s men, and once the Blues retreated deeper into their half, there was less space for Silva to exploit between the lines, and limited opportunities to exploit the wing-backs.

Conclusion

From a tactical perspective, neither manager would be pleased with the open nature of the encounter, but it vividly describes the work and additional personnel required to take both clubs to the next level. The battle, nonetheless, may have been won by Conte, but Guardiola’s approach was successful for a large portion of the match.

Though Guardiola’s philosophy is a work in progress, City are still creating ample chances, but failure to keep clean sheets is a product of the lack of balance and possibly a defensive issue amongst individuals. While Chelsea encountered issues with their wing-backs and Fabregas’ positional deficiencies, the decision to push the attackers higher and quickly facilitate balls to their feet was logical.

On two separate occasions the Blues overcame deficits against intense high pressure, and though their first half displays may worry Conte, the response following half-time represents resilience within the Chelsea camp. 3-4-2-1 vs. 3-2-4-1 was an intriguing tactical battle that’s refreshing to modern-day Premier League football, and Conte’s decision to push the floating attackers in advanced positions and encourage his men to bypass the City press with instant balls into their feet trumped what was nearly a classic Guardiola display.

 
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Posted by on December 5, 2016 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Tactical Preview: Manchester City – Chelsea

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The Premier League’s two key managerial acquisitions this summer, Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte, face off in this weekend’s big clash at the Etihad Stadium. The stark contrast between Guardiola and Conte’s philosophy is vivid, and with both sides vying to mount a title challenge, this clash has all the ingredients of a potential Premier League classic.

Matches of this stature tend to be cautious considering most managers prefer to avoid defeat against title rivals, but City have failed to record a domestic win since the Manchester Derby, and will be desperate to make a statement here. Frankly, Chelsea’s form hints that the pressure will be on Guardiola to end their seven-game winning streak.

Chelsea are the Premier League’s form team following a tactical switch to a 3-4-2-1, and it would be surprising to see Conte stray away from the successful system. Diego Costa has often struggled against the sheer physicality of Manchester City centre-backs Vincent Kompany and Eliaquim Mangala, but with both men unavailable – the former injured and the later on loan –the Chelsea striker should fancy his chances running at John Stones rather than Nicolas Otamendi.

Though the Blues have been fairly convincing in Conte’s 3-4-2-1, last weekend’s clash with Spurs posed the league leaders a few issues, despite their impressive fight back. It was always uncertain as to whether Chelsea could cope with intense high pressure, and for large spells of the first half against Spurs, the Blues struggled to push into the opposing half as a unit.

City are likely to replicate Spurs’ pressing but in an intelligent manner: where Mauricio Pochettino’s men constantly pressed and tired before half-time, City will likely aim to fluster the Blues in spurts. But where Chelsea’s shape is all but certain to be a 3-4-2-1, Guardiola’s unpredictability makes it difficult to determine how the Spaniard will approach the match.

However, Eden Hazard and Pedro’s resurgence poses a similar threat. The former operating in an inside-left role may force a centre-back or Fernandinho to keep tabs on the Belgian, whereas Pedro’s movement beyond the defence could force Claudio Bravo off his line on several occasions.

Between the 3-2-2-3 and the 4-1-4-1, it’s possible we may see a hybrid of the two. Guardiola should offer a hint of caution going forward, but he may instruct full-backs, Aleksandar Kolarov and Bacary Sagna to sit in half-spaces to help negate potential counter-attacks with Ilkay Gundogan or Fernandinho splitting the centre-backs when necessary.

In the past Guardiola preferred to control bigger matches with ball retention, and considering Chelsea has yet to sort out issues with their midfield two when opposing sides overload central areas suggests the City manager could sacrifice a winger for a ball-player. Gundogan and Fernandinho will likely start in midfield with David Silva, but Raheem Sterling’s fitness remains pivotal, nonetheless.

Conte’s wing-backs are integral to their success and Guardiola is forced to make a major decision regarding his shape. Nolito and Sterling possess the work-ethic to track the forward movement of Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses, yet if City dominate possession, as expected, he may aim to quickly shift balls to the wide players to peg the Chelsea wing-backs deeper.

The pairing of N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic are vast improvements to a Chelsea side that were feeble in midfield last season, but once again, here, they face a difficult task coping with intelligent space invaders in Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva. Ilkay Gundogan and Silva could operate centrally if Guardiola opts for 4-1-4-1, which would enable De Bruyne to serve as a counter-attacking threat behind the Chelsea wing-backs.

Upfront, Sergio Aguero should lead the line following two goals at Burnley, but unlike previous meetings against Chelsea, he faces a 1v3 disadvantage upfront. Aguero’s pace and movement would likely be a threat to David Luiz and Gary Cahill, but now, they have an additional spare man in Cesar Azpilicueta to sweep up danger. This may see Aguero’s main involvement based around linking play when he drops deep or moves towards the flank, whilst poaching loose balls within the 18-yard box.

On the other hand, Guardiola will be tasked with limiting David Luiz’s productivity from deep areas – the Brazilian is the chief playmaker in Conte’s 3-4-2-1 and his influence was limited against Spurs when Chelsea endured pressure from Pochettino’ men. Therefore, Guardiola is expected to instruct his wide players and Aguero to quickly close down Chelsea’s centre-back trio.

Ultimately, Guardiola’s system should define the tempo and the pattern of the match. With no one yet to identify a ploy capable of nullifying Chelsea’s threats, surely pressure will be on his midfield duo to keep Pedro and Hazard quiet, whilst preventing the wing-backs from pushing forward.

Likewise, Conte’s received a week to manage heavy cohesive high-pressing, but last week’s switch to a narrow 5-4-1 negated Spurs’ superiority in central areas, and he may follow suit here. City’s technically gifted creators and direct wide threats pose a serious threat to the Blues away from home, and if Conte’s men fail to start the match with the intensity the Italian demands, then their seven-game winning streak will be under severe threat.

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2016 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City quickly taking shape as they embrace a new indentity

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We’re not even two weeks into the new Premier League season and Pep Guardiola is the main topic of discussion.

In whom many regard as the most coveted manager in the sport, this shouldn’t be a surprise given the global media attention the Premier League receives. However, the attention and pressure surrounding Guardiola is larger than his passion for the game – not only must he win, but he must do so playing entertaining football Frankly, the willingness to break boundaries, evolve the players at his disposal, and the determination to play proactive possession football are one of the many caveats that makes Guardiola likeable.

With that being said, Guardiola is human, and like many managers has his flaws – particularly his man management skills have been questioned over the years. The sudden decision to drop Joe Hart and Yaya Toure have also been closely assessed, and though it’s a logical decision from a manager aiming to guide City amongst Europe’s elite, it’s been quite controversial.

Guardiola’s success as a manager is unprecedented, revolutionizing two historically great clubs in Barcelona and Bayern Munich. He took the world by storm with the former, revolving his team around intelligent ball-playing midfielders, whilst transforming Lionel Messi into one of the finest players this sport has ever seen. Barcelona utilized lengthy spells of possession and intense high-pressing as their primary defensive method, but going forward, they constantly overloaded flanks and quickly shifted the route of attack until space was available to penetrate.

His move to Bayern was less appreciated considering they won the treble the year prior, but even then, Guardiola completely altered their style of play. The German powerhouse still possessed excellent midfielders, but his attack was based around the wing play of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery. His final seasons at Bayern saw an all-rounder centre-forward in Robert Lewandowski lead the attack, and Arturo Vidal offer verticality combined with combative tackling, which completely differs from the side he built at the Camp Nou.

It’s evident that Guardiola’s appointment at the Etihad is the trickiest of his short career. Here’s a man who worked with genuine world-class players in every position at his previous clubs, whereas at City, only David Silva, Sergio Aguero, and possibly Kevin De Bruyne are in that category.

More so, in terms of structure and a constructive footballing philosophy, City can be considered a broken team lacking technically adequate footballers. It’s been the same core since the turn of the decade, operating mostly in a 4-4-2, thus relying on their superior talent to somewhat dominate a league that’s drastically declined.

Guardiola’s arrival – along with a few other notable managers – changes the general scheme of the league. Certainly the top clubs in Spain and Germany have the best players at their disposal, but the Premier League now has the best managers. And with most of the top teams generally at the same stage of their development, the value of a tactically astute manager can’t be overlooked.

Therefore, Guardiola is aware that there’s minimal margin for error, regardless of the amount of time and patience the City board offers.

“It’s the right moment to come here and prove myself,” stated Guardiola earlier this summer. “I want to play the way I want. But wherever you go you have to adapt to the quality of the players. We have to find each other as soon as possible.

“What we want is so simple. When the opposition have the ball to get it back, when we have it to move it as quickly as possible, to create the most chances as possible.”

The contrast between City’s two competitive games is stark, but the shift in styles is evident. City now adopt a 4-1-4-1 with Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva in deeper positions, whereas it appears Sergio Aguero will primarily operate as a lone striker. Aguero’s not an all-rounder like Lionel Messi or Robert Lewandowski, and it will be interesting to see how Guardiola intends on maximize the Argentine’s devastating finishing.

The midfield trio of Silva and De Bruyne ahead of Fernandinho is equally intriguing. Fernandinho splits the centre-backs to offer protection, but also play penetrative passes into his midfield partners. But the Brazilian is renowned for his dynamism rather than his passing, and though he’s capable of deputizing in this position, Guardiola’s buildup play may encounter slight issues until Ilkay Gundogan is match fit.

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Manchester City’s 4-1-4-1 transitions into a 2-3-2-3 or a 3-2-2-3 depending on Fernandinho’s positioning when they attack. Essentially, Guardiola’s men attack with five players and defend with five.

Silva and De Bruyne, on the other hand, have freedom to join what is often a five-man attack in possession, but the creative midfielders receive passes in deeper positions rather than between the lines. Although this may not be a permanent role for Silva in the bigger games – Guardiola may prefer a physical presence centrally, and Silva in a wide possession similar to Andres Iniesta during his tenure at Barcelona – the combination with the wide players has been positive. It’s notable that Raheem Sterling assisted Silva’s opener against Steaua midweek, whereas De Bruyne created Nolito’s goal.

But the abundance of wide players at Guardiola’s disposal suggests he may once again build his side around the likes of Leroy Sane, Raheem Sterling, Nolito and Jesus Navas. The quartet offers Guardiola a good balance of experience and youth along with direct crossers and wide forwards. Suddenly, last year’s underachievers Sterling and Navas are showcasing signs of improvement, the former has won two penalties and both men have been involved in goals thus far.

One of the key elements in City’s late win over Sunderland witnessed Guardiola replace Nolito with Navas, thus pushing Sterling to the left in generic 4-4-2. The alteration resulted in Sterling and Navas hugging the touchline and running at defenders to offer a source of creativity from wide areas. City’s winner also stemmed from Navas’ dart down the right and a low cross into the box that was redirected past Vito Mannone.

Still, the main talking point regarding City’s season opener against Sunderland was the positioning of full-backs Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna. The full-backs adopted more central positions in half-spaces to help City dominate the centre, whilst ensuring David Moyes’ men could launch breaks through midfield.

Apart from an exceptional out-side the foot pass from Clichy in the opening half, the duo wasn’t comfortable receiving the ball facing their goal, and often played passes backwards, rather than offer penetration in the final third.  City’s passing was slow and patient throughout, thus making it easy for Moyes’ men to remain compact when shifting from flank-to-flank as a unit.

Tuesday’s Champions League playoff clash at Steaua witnessed Guardiola start Nicolas Otamendi alongside new signing John Stones, thus pushing Aleksandar Kolarov to left-back – he started at centre-back against Sunderland – and Pablo Zabaleta at right-back. Kolarov and Zabaleta were more assured in possession in central positions, while Otamendi’s passing and familiarity with the position was an upgrade to the former’s display last weekend.

Coincidentally, Zabaleta played a super pass into half space from a central position for the advancing Kolarov, which awarded City a penalty that Aguero subsequently missed – this is was a prime example of what Guardiola expects from his full-backs: incisive passing from central positions, and advanced running into dangerous areas.

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“It’s not time to change a lot because I don’t want to confuse my players but I have to say, I am impressed the most that they are so intelligent,” said Guardiola.

“The way we played in Bucharest was a high, high level. We did it so quickly. That’s because of the intelligence and quality of the players.

In fairness, the hosts were in complete shambles out of possession, and City easily bypassed the opposition with their swift passing combinations – a trait that was also nonexistent on Guardiola’s debut, but vividly displayed via Aguero’s combination with Nolito prior to his second goal against Steaua.

Likewise, there was a distinct understanding in their positioning, highlighting Guardiola’s demand of proper positional balance: when the full-backs were narrow, the wide players attacked the opposing defenders, and if the wide players moved centrally, City’s full-backs could charge forward.

Guardiola’s men were nearly flawless on the night, but their trip to the Britannia Stadium should provide an accurate indicator of City’s progress. Stoke have transitioned into a proactive side under Mark Hughes, as there’s more variety to their game than simple long punts up the field, whilst acquiring young technically gifted attack minded players.

The Potters’ recent success against City is key, and even without Xherdan Shaqiri, the counter-attacking threat of Mame Biram Diouf, Marko Arnautovic, Bojan should really test Guardiola’s men in transition. On the other hand, they’re more than capable of maintaining possession, and Hughes’ side can bypass City’s possible high-press it would be interesting to see how the away side copes.

A change in shape, variety in defensive structure, and improved performances from last season’s outcasts illustrates Guardiola’s influence at the Etihad thus far is headed in the right direction. Ultimately, Guardiola wants to build a flexible side capable of mid-game formation changes, yet his current dilemma is a simple as certain City players struggling to complete five-yard passes and receiving possession in tight spaces. Only time and more work on the training ground will improve the understanding of Guardiola’s approach, but for now, Guardiola must identify what style of play benefits his side.

The current squad at Guardiola’s disposal indicates City are better suited to play on the counter-attack, and in his first domestic away fixture against a Stoke City side capable of retaining possession, it’s a logical prospect despite the Spaniard’s fixation with territorial dominance.

Nevertheless, Guardiola’s presence in a league suffering from a tactical and structural rut is exciting. His aim to buck trends and develop a footballing culture could reap rewards sooner than expected.

 
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Posted by on August 19, 2016 in Published Work

 

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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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