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Eden Hazard regains status as Premier League’s best player under Antonio Conte’s guidance

Eden Hazard’s first half brace against Manchester City provided another case for the Belgian to claim his second PFA Player of the Year award along with a Premier League title. Although Chelsea have performed better as a unit over the course of the season in comparison to the 2014-2015 triumph, Hazard has once again dominated in the latter stages of the season when the Blues have slightly plateaued.

Hazard, who arrived from Ligue 1 a few seasons ago as one of the most coveted youngsters in European football, has now developed into the finest player in the country. Along with several teammates, the 26-year-old endured a poor campaign in the build up to Jose Mourinho’s dismissal last season, but now represents a rejuvenated figure under Antonio Conte.

Chelsea sit seven points clear of second place Spurs with seven games remaining and barring a tragic slip-up, Hazard’s been the catalyst in another successful title campaign, which includes several standout performances to covet another PFA award. Oddly enough, for lengthy spells this season Chelsea’s diminutive dynamo wasn’t mentioned as a potential candidate for the award, often overshadowed by teammate N’Golo Kante who is also close to playing an integral role in two consecutive title triumphs.

Kante’s move to Chelsea is one of many factors associated with Leicester City’s decline, but more importantly, the Frenchman’s arrival substantially improved Antonio Conte’s midfield. The Frenchman may arguably be the pivotal cog to Chelsea’s title-winning success, but Hazard’s flourished in decisive moments throughout the campaign.

In many ways, Hazard’s subject to downfall is possibly his individual playing style. Far from a natural goal-scorer, or a tireless runner, it’s unsurprising that the Belgian attacker is slightly underrated. The Chelsea star plays relatively simple passes to switch play, and can be guilty of slowing down the tempo of the game to isolate defenders, but the close body control, swift incisive passing combinations, along with his ability to dribble and simultaneously shrug off opponents places the Belgian in a different class.

Unlikely to consistently showcase Alexis Sanchez’s work-rate on both ends of the field, poach goals like Harry Kane, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, or Romelu Lukaku, and unable to provide the composure, silky passing and vision in the final third like David Silva, Hazard’s fine-tuned his trade to dominate Premier League opponents at will. Even Dele Alli’s growth at Spurs is fairly noteworthy, but where the aforementioned players have fizzled out at some point this season, Hazard as provided several moments of brilliance this season, whilst arguably surpassing the level displayed in Chelsea’s 2014-2015 triumph.

Then, Mourinho demanded the Belgian to be a hardworking wide player that performed his defensive duties, but be equally efficient in the final third. Ultimately, Mourinho inevitably questioned the Belgian’s work-ethic and was keen to state his disappointment in Chelsea’s 2014 Champions League semi-final exit to Atletico Madrid.

“Eden is the kind of player that is not so mentally ready to look back to his left-back and to leave his life for him,” said Mourinho. “If you see the first goal of Atletico you completely understand where the mistake was and why we conceded that goal. The perfect team at the top-level cannot make these kinds of mistakes.”

On the other hand, Hazard’s production in the final third also hindered the appreciation surrounding the Chelsea star. One of the Belgian’s flaws prior to Chelsea’s initial title triumph this decade involved the 25-year-old’s reluctance to dominate games by opting to play short incisive passes opposed to shooting in dangerous positions around the box.

Despite several news outlets linking the Belgian with an eventual move to Real Madrid, Hazard doesn’t necessarily possess the goal-scoring prowess previous world-class exports (Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez and Gareth Bale) displayed prior to their big money transfers to Spain. Yet to eclipse the 22 goal tally – in all competition – recorded in the Belgian’s final season at Lille, Hazard should surpass his league best 14 Premier League goals at the bare minimum.

Still, Hazard’s rediscovering his status as a devastating attacker surfaced following Conte’s tactical shift to a 3-4-2-1. The tactical rejig presents Hazard the freedom to float around the final third and into pockets of space across the field to receive the ball and subsequently dribble past opponents.

The other key aspect associated with Chelsea’s successful 3-4-2-1 involved Conte ridding Hazard of his defensive duties. Similar to Ronaldo, Hazard’s disinterest in consistently tracking advancing full-backs has proved a liability to Chelsea’s defensive shape, and another reason Mourinho and the Belgian’s previous managers fell out with the 26-year-old.

But with Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante protecting the midfield zone and the wing-backs offering width going forward and additional defensive cover on the flanks, Hazard’s been able to flourish as a pure attacker with minimal defensive responsibilities. It’s also why Hazard remains one of the top scorers, dribblers and most fouled players in the Premier League.

Likewise, Hazard rediscovered his knack of scoring decisive goals throughout the season.

There was the individual run from half to shrug off Francis Coquelin and mesmerize Laurent Koscielny to defeat Arsenal at Stamford Bridge. Dribbling from both sides of the field to gain a yard on Everton’s Ashley Williams to score twice from the flanks resulted in a blowout against Everton. Meanwhile, swift transitional breaks at West Ham and Manchester City provided examples of Hazard’s threat on the counter-attack.

Goals at home to Manchester United, Leicester City and most recently Manchester City were also significant, but the varied aforementioned moments of brilliance justify the 26-year-old’s status as a top-class all-round attacker. Now capable of scoring goals consistently from open-play, on the counter-attack or through sheer moments of individual brilliance, Hazard has restored himself as the key man in possibly another title-winning side.

Coincidentally, Chelsea’s final hurdle against a top five side presents the Blues with their first trip to Old Trafford this season against a United outfit that have struggled to win home games. With Diego Costa struggling for form since the new year, and Pedro’s goal return fizzling out, Hazard remains Chelsea’s main goal threat and source of creativity – assuming Cesc Fabregas doesn’t feature in the XI – and Mourinho will be tasked with nullifying the Belgian.

In United’s FA Cup quarter-final exit at Stamford Bridge, the plan to have Phil Jones track Hazard, and constantly hack the Belgian – a tactic responsible for Ander Herrera’s harsh dismissal and also utilized by PSG during Mourinho’s second tenure at Chelsea – backfired, yet oddly enough, limited the Blues’ attack for large portions of the match.

“In 20, 25 minutes for Hazard, it was impossible for him to play football,” said Conte following Chelsea’s FA Cup triumph over United.

“I see only that he got a lot of kicks. I don’t think that I’m crazy and I see only him in this situation. “He started receiving kicks and finished receiving kicks. No one person can say this did not happen.”

Many teams have fallen into the trap of trying to outwit Conte, but in the meantime haven’t identified a ploy to stifle Hazard’s all-round attacking threat. The latter represents the significant feat in Mourinho’s first major win against a top side as United manager, whilst preventing Chelsea from cruising to another Premier League title.

Nevertheless, the recurring emphasis on reducing Hazard’s influence validates Conte’s tactical alteration as a pivotal moment in terms of Chelsea’s resurgence as an elite Premier League side, and the Belgian’s status as the best player in the country. Another top performance against his former manager would make it difficult for even Mourinho to question Hazard’s merit.

Under Conte’s guidance, Hazard’s reemerged back into the conversation as one of world football’s top talents. Similar to the current title race, there just doesn’t appear to be another legitimate front-runner, which is another testament to Hazard’s greatness. His evolution into a devastating, reliable final third attacker solidifies his status as this year’s standout Premier League player.

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

 

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Manchester City 1-3 Chelsea

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.

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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Chelsea’s new system faces potential halt against energetic Spurs

What a difference a few weeks make. Ask Antonio Conte’s Chelsea side and they’ll provide a detailed summary.

Consecutive losses to Liverpool and Arsenal left many questioning Conte’s merit as an elite manager, whilst declaring the Blues out of the title race before it really began. Now, they sit top of the Premier League, scoring 17 goals and recording six clean sheets in that span, yet all it took was a simple tactical shift following the arrival of David Luiz and Marcos Alonso.

Chelsea now look like a well-equipped machine with all the tools capable of mounting a legitimate title challenge, and finally stepping away from the Jose Mourinho aura that’s incessantly floated around West London for over a decade. Unlike the Portuguese manager’s initial departure – where the Blues failed to find a new identity – Conte has stamped his philosophy at Stamford Bridge in a fair manner.

But the significant feat in Conte’s brief success in England was his overall approach to the situation. Roman Abramovich’s rash decisions to freely sack managers based on the club’s form was no secret to the Italian, yet he still carried forward in a pragmatic manner.

Avoiding the mistake of attempting to make initial drastic alterations like Andre Villas-Boas and Filipe Luiz Scolari, two foreign managers that were hired based on success abroad was wise. Also, Conte couldn’t rely on Mourinho’s failed approach like previous managers, so the Italian simply offered the players a chance to prove their worth in a defensive-oriented 4-1-4-1 heavily based around structure.

The Blues simply didn’t possess the personnel to operate in the 4-2-4 Conte previously deployed prior to his appointment at Juventus. Moreover, Conte also didn’t have the centre-back options to accommodate the 3-5-2 that was successful during his tenure in Turin. A 4-1-4-1, on the other hand, was logical because the Blues simply didn’t have a No.10 that could dominate or win games in a free role.

Interestingly, this was the default Chelsea system till the turn of the decade due to the abundance of top-class central midfielders at Stamford Bridge. Carlo Ancelotti attempted to stray away from the system with some success with a 4-4-2 diamond and eventually the 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree system, but Conte doesn’t possess similar quality midfielders.

This has to do with the West London clubs brief obsession with diminutive technically gifted players following their Champions League triumph. Chelsea moved to a 4-2-3-1 and were slowly playing captivating football but were retrospectively feeble in central areas, lacking a creative cog and ball-winner to protect the back four.

Although Chelsea enjoyed a perfect start to the Conte era, the performances weren’t convincing, as the Blues struggled to create chances from open play. Ultimately, individual lapses and a peculiar defensive approach – sitting off technically gifted dynamic sides and not applying pressure in their own half – left many questioning the quality of current crop of players and Conte’s ability to succeed overseas.

Consecutive dropped points could serve as in indicator that change was required, and it was certainly beneficial that injuries in key areas enabled Conte’s system alteration without dissent. Two of last season’s major underachievers Cesc Fabregas and Branislav Ivanovic were eased out of the XI, and though John Terry started the season well, at some point this season Conte would have to consider a future without the Chelsea captain.

Conte tried it their way and Chelsea were played off the park by potential title rivals Liverpool and Arsenal, and more worryingly conceded eight goal in three games. With Terry and Ivanovic injured, and Fabregas failing to impress like many Chelsea supporters hoped he would against former club Arsenal, Conte’s switch to a 3-4-2-1 was not only logical, but desperately required.

Frankly, late deadline day signings were possibly acquired specifically for this system. Marcos Alonso was one of Serie A’s standout defenders in a left wing-back role for Fiorentina last season, whereas David Luiz impact with and out of possession is significant.

Luiz’s most recent display against Middlesborough striker Alvaro Negredo displayed astute defending and the aggression that’s not associated with the Brazilian. Likewise, the 29-year-old’s proficient passing typifies the defender as deep-lying playmaker from centre-back, as he consistently builds plays with long diagonals into the channel – this is also essential due to Fabregas’ exclusion deprived the XI of a genuine ball-player in deep zones.

More so, Chelsea’s 3-4-2-1 frees Eden Hazard of lengthy defensive duties – now he roams into central positions from the left, drifts into space in the channels, and is beginning to shoot more, which is significant to his world-class form. Pedro Rodriguez is also familiar with coming off the right flank and utilizing his speed to break beyond the defence in a three-man attack.

The midfield duo consisting of N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic is built around dynamism and quickly regaining possession, thus providing the Blues with the solid base they’ve lacked in recent years. Meanwhile, Diego Costa’s rediscovered the goal-scoring form that widely regards the Spanish international as one of the best strikers in the sport.

“Diego is a very good player,” Conte said. “It’s important for me, for his teammates, to see that in every game, Diego works a lot with the ball and without the ball. He’s an example for all. And I want to continue this way.

“If he continues to score, I’ll be very happy. But I’ll be happier to see this commitment, this work-rate during training and in games, to work with the team with and without the ball. If all the players are able to think in this way, it’s fantastic and we’ll be a good team, a very tough team to play.

But possibly the most fascinating aspect of Conte’s shift is their current run of clean sheets. Once proving to be a pair prone to mistakes, Luiz and Gary Cahill have been near flawless, and Cesar Azpilicueta has adapted superbly to an exterior centre-back role. Elsewhere, Alonso and Moses offer proper balance at wing-back: Moses is a tricky dribbler, while Alonso’s crosses from the left are consistently dangerous.

Modern day Premier League teams predominantly utilize three-man defences as a reactive system to the opposition, but Conte’s Chelsea are currently bucking the trend. Coincidentally, this week’s MLS East final showcased the potential risk in wide areas when playing a back-three, yet even in this respect, Luiz and Azpilicueta’s recovery runs negate this threat. But similar to the last time Chelsea were defeated in the league, upcoming fixtures against Spurs and Manchester City will provide proper tests.

Evidently, Chelsea improved in every area subsequent to the formation switch, but their performances are equally reminiscent of a genuine title contender. Conte’s men have comfortably dispatched of Everton, Leicester, and Manchester United at home, whereas their away wins at Hull, Southampton and Middlesborough were professional and tidy, thoroughly displayed defensively solidity and togetherness.

In particular, this weekend’s derby with the former should be cagey following Chelsea’s late recovery which put an end to Spurs’ title run at the conclusion of last season. Mauricio Pochettino’s men can match Chelsea’s strength in midfield with Moussa Dembele and Victor Wanyama, congest the box with Vincent Janssen’s presence, or even rely on the intricate passing and vertical threat of Son Heung-min, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen. Still, it will be interesting to see how the Spurs manager attempts to halt the Blues’ fine form.

“It’s a good challenge for us to go and play them at the moment,” said Pochettino. “They are in very good form. They have a great manager that I know very well and they have great players too,”

“It’s an advantage not being involved in European competition or the cups now. They have time to train and develop their philosophy. They are, not only in England but in Europe, the team most in form today.”

Spurs haven’t been overly-impressive domestically, but still remain the sole unbeaten side in the league, aiming to disrupt the sharp passing Chelsea displayed in recent weeks. Still, injury woes at the back, the suspension of Danny Rose, and favourable battles in Spurs’ third suggests the Blues are favourites t build on their flawless streak. Similar to in-game substitutions or the appointment of a new manager, teams tend to improve following change, further justifying the fascination involving Chelsea’s form.

The culture shift at Stamford Bridge is well underway, and though non-involvement in European competitions is valuable, Conte’s intensity and meticulous defensive regime could see Chelsea utilize 3-4-2-1 as their optimum shape until additional recruits join the club. Nevertheless, Conte’s bold decision signifies a new era at Stamford Bridge, as he is one of many foreign managers reviving the tactical proficiency English football recently lacked.

 
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Posted by on November 26, 2016 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Tactical Preview: Chelsea – Manchester United

Jose Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge is the main storyline in the Premier League this weekend. Sacked less than a year ago, Mourinho will face Antonio Conte for the first time and attempt to overpass his former employers in the league table.

It will be United’s second consecutive away match against the traditional top four and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Mourinho’s men play on the counter-attack once again. United added power to the midfield by moving to a 4-3-3, with Marouane Fellaini joining Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera to frustrate Liverpool at Anfield, and it’s likely he’ll adopt a similar approach here.

‘I knew that, working in England and staying in the Premier League, sooner or later I had to play against Chelsea and go to Stamford Bridge,’ Mourinho said. ‘The computer has decided it is to go now. And here we go.’

‘I don’t have to analyze their start to the season,’ he added. ‘But you look to the table and you see where they are. They are in a good position. So the start of the season cannot be bad if they are where they are.’

Although Chelsea pose a considerably different threat going forward, it would be surprising to see Mourinho revert back to a 4-2-3-1. Ander Herrera has performed excellent in a deeper role in recent weeks, but with Paul Pogba likely given the license to push forward in a midfield duo, the former would be forced to cover too much space in central areas.

It’s likely Fellaini will retain his place in the midfield trio, but Mourinho’s main decision is where he’ll position the personnel. At Anfield, Pogba operated closest to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and though he rarely influenced the match, the Frenchman did create the best chance for his Swedish teammate.

Herrera is unlikely to feature as the no.10 despite his goal threat around the box, and Mourinho could opt to utilize Fellaini’s aerial presence to fluster Chelsea’s back-line. Gary Cahill has struggled against Ibrahimovic in the past, and Mourinho could instruct the Swede or Fellaini to isolate the out-of-form England international or target David Luiz.

The other major decision involves the wide positions – Mourinho’s traditional no.10’s have operated in wider positions this season, and assuming he doesn’t utilize a 4-2-3-1, this may be his preference against Chelsea. Ashley Young’s efficient performance in a defensive winger role should merit another start on the left, but the big question is whether Mourinho opts for Juan Mata’s guile, Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s creativity and transitional threat, or Marcus Rashford’s direct dribbling on the opposite flank.

United’s back four, on the other hand, should remain unchanged. Daley Blind and Antonio Valencia have performed well at the full-back position, while Eric Baily and Chris Smalling’s physical stature will provide a stern test against the league’s leading goal-scorer Diego Costa.

Chelsea’s mini-resurgence following two embarrassing defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal involved Conte shifting his side’s shape to a 3-4-2-1. However, Manchester United’s visit to Stamford Bridge will display whether the system is a long-term solution for the Blues.

The return of John Terry could see Cesar Azpilicueta move to a right wing-back role, with Gary Cahill moving to the right of David Luiz. This would provide interesting battles in wide areas with Ashley Young responsible for Azpilicueta, whereas United must be wary of Marcos Alonso’s positioning on the left.

Nonetheless, Chelsea’s centre-backs should cope with Ibrahimovic’s threat in a 3v1 situation, as the Swede lacks natural pace to get behind Conte’s defence. However, the threat of Martial and Rashford breaking into wide areas beyond the wing-backs or into the channels to isolate exterior centre-backs could prove costly.

N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic are expected to continue in midfield, and the former has gradually improved playing slightly ahead of the latter. Chelsea’s midfield possesses tenacity, strength, ball-winning skills, and the willingness to press the opposing midfielders which is why Mourinho may be tempted to summon Fellaini.

Conte will have Oscar and Willian available for selection, but Victor Moses’ positive performance last weekend may merit a start alongside Eden Hazard. Hazard remains the key player, here, though, and may be the reason Mourinho sticks with a 4-3-3 due to his new positional freedom to roam between the lines or break beyond the centre-backs. Once an individual battle between Hazard and Valencia will now require an additional midfielder or centre-back to negate the Belgian.

This also is another opportunity for Costa to provide a big-game moment, following disappointing performances against Laurent Koscielny and Joel Matip in previous weeks. Mourinho may replicate the successful approach of man-marking the Spaniard tightly and encouraging his centre-backs to sacrifice fouls away from the box. Smalling and Bailly have developed a suitable partnership with the latter sweeping danger when required, but against an excellent all-rounder in Costa, this will be no easy task for the United duo.

“I think that it arrives at the right moment for us,” said Conte.

“It’s important to continue this way. The last game we beat a good team that last season won the title and this was important. On Sunday we face another great team. I want to see progress compared to Liverpool and Arsenal. I am confident about this. I saw fantastic commitment this week.”

Chelsea will likely intend to dominate possession and peg United into their own half, but that’s not an issue for Mourinho who will aim to l avoid defeat on his return to Stamford Bridge. Traditionally, United have leant towards width in bigger matches, and here, this appears to be a clear outlet to success.

But limiting Costa and Hazard’s threat will be Mourinho’s main priority against a Chelsea side that’s fairly average in terms of creating chances from open-play. Therefore, Mourinho’s caution and intent to disrupt may lead to another drab encounter involving two sides that will focus on defensive structure, as neither manager can afford to lose another game.

 
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Posted by on October 22, 2016 in Published Work

 

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Fiorentina 0-1 Juventus

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Courtesy of Flickr/Some rights reserved by calciocatania

Kwadwo Asamoah’s first half goal earned Juventus a vital victory in Florence, which sees them extend their lead at the top of the table to 14-points.

ImageVincenzo Montella was without Giuseppe Rossi, and the suspended Borja Valero, while Mario Gomez and Anderson were included in the starting XI.

Antonio Conte introduced Angelo Ogbonna into the back three, and Claudio Marchisio retained his place in midfield as Andrea Pirlo was serving a one-match suspension.

This was a performance that justified Juventus’ title credentials – Conte’s men created the better chances in the first half, and subsequently defended superbly as a unit to preserve a one-goal lead.

Juventus shape

One of the key feats to Juve’s success in matches against the top side’s this season is their pragmatic approach when the opposition sustains possession. Conte’s side relied on their imperious defending in his first title triumph – but considering the side has improved gradually, along with a congested fixture list, there’s no surprise that the champions have adopted this approach.

Conte instructed his men to sit off the Fiorentina centre-backs, while Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal closed down Montella’s full-backs. Likewise, Vidal pressed Alberto Aquilani’s movement in midfield, while Claudio Marchisio closed down Anderson. Fiorentina failed to develop a rhythm in midfield, due to Juventus’ high-press on goal-kicks.

Juventus approached the second half with caution, and preferred to sit deeper in their third and soak up pressure. This was evident in the latter stages when they dropped into two banks of four with Asamoah in line with the centre backs, while Mauricio Isla was introduced to patrol the right flank.

Although Montella’s men dominated possession throughout various periods of the match, his side was unable to unlock Juventus’ solid shape. Fiorentina didn’t create a legitimate goal-scoring opportunity until the second half, which exemplifies the significance of Juve’s work-rate and shape out of possession.

Fiorentina lack a game plan

While Fiorentina sustained majority of possession, their activity in the final third was poor – Montella’s side lacked a game plan. With Pizarro’s threat nullified, and the wide players properly tracked, Mario Gomez lacked service.

Anderson enjoyed a positive opening 15 minutes leading the press with Gomez, and driving forward with his penetrating runs from midfield. The Brazilian, however, was unable to maintain his high energy levels and his impact on the match decreased as time passed.

Distribution from midfield was often played into wide areas, and penetration from Aquilani and Anderson was non-existent, thus justifying Juve’s intent on sitting deep.

Pizarro shackled

Another key factor regarding Juve’s success was the containment of David Pizarro. Fiorentina’s deep-lyer failed to influence in the match, as Conte’s men negated his influence on the match. Vidal, Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente shared turns pressing the Chilean, with Llorente often closing down Pizarro when he aimed to pick up the ball in deep positions.

On two separate occasions, Llorente and Tevez dispossessed the Chilean at the edge of his box, but they were unable to punish the home side. Pizarro completed 32 of his possible 34 passes, but majority of his distribution was sideways within his third.

Conte’s decision to nullify Pizarro’s threat in midfield was successful, as Fiorentina struggled to dictate the tempo of the match in midfield, whilst lacking the tempo required to shift Juve’s back line out of position.

1-0

Juventus’ goal was constructed from a moment of brilliance opposed to a well-constructed attack. However, the warning signs were evident prior to Asamoah’s opener as Juve enjoyed freedom in wide areas.

Vidal and Lichtsteiner combined on the right flank, which led to a cross towards the far post, and Norberto Neto pushed away Asamoah’s deflected shot. Subsequently, Asamoah played a ball into Llorente, who cleverly turned his defender and earned a corner.

But in the final minutes of the first half, Asamoah received a pass from Giorgio Chiellini and evaded three Fiorentina challenges before striking a sensational shot past Neto – albeit a slight deflection. Asamoah was the key man in Juve’s attack, and the Ghanaian was involved in several key first half chances.

Second half

Montella turned to his bench in the second half by introducing Matias Fernandez and Rafal Wolski in midfield. The change saw Aquilani become the deepest midfielder, while Fernandez injected creativity in central zones. Still, Fiorentina encountered the same issues in midfield, but Manuel Pasqual became a constant threat on the left flank.

Pasqual delivered a great ball to Gomez in the box but he nodded it wide of the net. Later in the half, he combined with Juan Vargas and his cutback to Wolski led to Ryder Matos directing his header off the cross bar. Vargas dropped into deeper positions to retain possession, while Fernandez drifted into key areas to receive the ball, but Fiorentina couldn’t unlock Juve’s organized back line.

Juve produced a conservative performance in the second half, and their attack was languid. Marchisio was free to string passes together from deep positions but they were often misplaced, while Pogba and Vidal continuously conceded possession. Martin Caceres and Mauricio Isla were introduced in the latter stages of the half to ensure Juve maintained their lead.

Conclusion

A rather dull encounter signified the strengths Juve possess, as they contained Fiorentina’s threat in attack.

Conte’s men enjoyed a successful first half performance, but overall their defensive solidity, and intent on shackling Pizarro was beneficial. 

“We played the first half at a high level, then after the break we dropped back in part due to fatigue after international duty,” Conte said. 

“We allowed Fiorentina only one chance to score, rarely ran risks and held out pretty well.”

While Juve can be ruthless in attack, their defensive performances in key matches have been pivotal towards their success this season. Ultimately, the win practically guarantees a third consecutive Scudetto, along with ending Fiorentina’s Champions League aspirations.

 
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Posted by on March 10, 2014 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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AC Milan 0-2 Juventus

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Courtesy of Flickr/ All rights reserved by shakatak11

Despite being the inferior side for large portions of the match, Juventus’ clinical finishing proved decisive in their road victory at the San Siro.

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Clarence Seedorf was forced to make a few changes to his starting XI that defeated Sampdoria last week. The Rossoneri were without the suspended Sulley Muntari and the injured Mario Balotelli, so Nigel de Jong and Andrea Poli slotted into midfield. Also, Christian Abbiati, Urby Emanuelson and Daniele Bonera featured in Seedorf’s back line.

Antonio Conte was without the suspended Arturo Vidal, while Giorgio Chiellini was sidelined due to injury. Claudio Marchisio and Martin Caceres slotted into Juventus’ rather predictable XI.

Great teams find ways to win even when they’re not playing particularly well, and ruthless finishing enabled Juventus to replicate this feat.

Milan’s approach without the ball

One of the peculiar feats regarding this year’s Milan side has been their tendency to perform against the top-sides, yet underachieve against lesser opposition. Despite the vast gap between both sides in the table, Milan was expected to raise their game at the San Siro, and their approach without the ball was pivotal towards their dominance for lengthy periods.

Seedorf instructed his men to press Juventus’ back line when they played out of the back. Giampaolo Pazzini, Kaka and Adel Taarabt pressed Juve’s back three, while Poli man-marked Andrea Pirlo. With Milan’s fullbacks quickly closing down Juve’s wingbacks, Conte’s men were unable to build attacks from midfield, and Milan were able to dominate possession.

Milan negated Juve’s midfield by stifling Pirlo, and ensuring that distribution from the back was limited – without Vidal’s energy in midfield, Juve struggled to compete in central areas.

Midfield battle

The biggest surprise was Juve’s poor display in midfield. The aforementioned absence of Vidal was clearly a massive loss, and with Pirlo shackled, Claudio Marchisio and Paul Pogba were expected to carry the weight. Pogba, however, was languid in midfield, thus producing arguably his worst performance this season, whereas Marchisio’s runs from midfield were promising – it was vital in the build up – but his overall impact was minimal.

In stark contrast, Milan physically imposed their authority in midfield. De Jong was fielded higher up the pitch, aiding Milan in retaining possession through pressing in Juventus’ third, whereas Riccardo Montolivo produced an extraordinary performance. He recovered the most balls in midfield (12), while his five interceptions and four tackles in midfield typified his overall impact.

Milan attacks

With Seedorf fielding Poli as his no.10, Milan’s creativity came from wide outlets. The movement from Milan’s wide men created space for Milan’s fullbacks to push into advanced positions, despite early pressure from Juve’s shuttlers. Ultimately, there were three elements to Milan attack.

  • Fullbacks push forward: Emanuelson and Ignazio Abate’s advanced positions posed a threat for a short period. Buffon comfortably saved Emanuelson’s shot from outside the box, and later on, Taarabt overloaded the right flank with Abate, but the Juventus goalkeeper easily coped with his cross. Emanuelson continued to push forward throughout the half, and his ball into the box evaded Pazzini, and fell to Poli, but the Milan striker skied his shot over the net.
  • Direct balls into Pazzini: Over the course of the first half, Juventus’ back three failed to cope with Pazzini’s movement. In the 8th min, Pazzini nodded down a long ball to Kaka, but his shot flashed wide of the net. Minutes later, Taarabt’s ball from the right flank were flicked on by Kaka towards Pazzini, but his header flew over the net. Towards the end of the half, the Italian did well to hold up the ball and turn on Andrea Barzagli, but Buffon comfortably held his tame effort.
  • Kaka direct runs: Pazzini was behind Kaka’s first legitimate goal-scoring opportunity, as he beat Leonardo Bonucci to a loose ball and drove towards goal, thus leading to Kaka forcing Buffon to make a key toe save, and his rebound was cleared off the line by Bonucci. The Brazilian tormented Juventus later in the half, when he drifted infield from the left flank, but his curling effort was pushed aside by Buffon, and Poli blasted the rebound over the net. Lastly, his direct running from the left created space for teammates as well, as he squared a pass to Montolivo, whose effort was also saved by Buffon.

Milan created an abundance of chances to take the lead, but a terrific showing from Buffon, along with woeful finishing prevented Seedorf’s men from taking the lead.

Juventus goals

While Milan struggled scoring goals, Juventus’ ruthless finishing signified the difference between both sides. Fernando Llorente’s opener stemmed from a simple long-ball that Adil Rami couldn’t clear, in which it fell into space that Marchisio ran into. The Italian located Tevez in the box, while Stephane Lichtsteiner’s forward run enabled him to latch onto the Argentine’s clever forward pass, and complete his cross for an unmarked Llorente to tap the ball into an open net.

Juventus found more space in midfield in the second half, and it was evident when Tevez received time to fire a venomous shot off the crossbar to secure three points. Tevez, in general, displayed his significance to the side – his creativity created Llorente’s opener, and his goal-scoring prowess led to his fantastic strike for Juve’s second.

In truth, he epitomizes a striker fit for Conte’s system. His willingness to press Taarabt in Milan’s third, thus creating a chance that Lichtsteiner shockingly missed, along with using his strength to easily brush aside Rami and force Abbiati to make a save illustrates what he offers Juventus. The Argentine’s remarkable goal was his 15th in 26 Serie A appearances, and it’s fair to say that not only was Tevez the best striker in the match, but he’s possibly the best in the league.

Conclusion

Usually matches between two top-sides – disregarding the Milan’s position in the table – are decided by the narrowest margins. Although, Milan produced a positive performance, their inability to beat an impressive Buffon haunted the Rossoneri.

The win puts Juventus in pole position to claim their third consecutive Scudetto, and this match indicated the significance of Llorente and Tevez’s arrival. The strike duo has formed an unparalleled partnership this season, as they combine superbly within the final third, while providing flexibility, consistent performances, and goals.

 
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Posted by on March 3, 2014 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Juventus 3-0 Roma

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Courtesy of: Football.ua

Juventus extended their lead at the top of Serie A to eight points with an impressive victory over Roma.

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Antonio Conte fielded his preferred starting eleven, as he welcomed back Andrea Pirlo from injury.

Rudi Garcia made no significant changes to his 4-3-3. Francesco Totti, Gervinho and Adem Ljajic led the line, while Kevin Strootman, Miralem Pjanic and Daniele De Rossi formed a midfield trio.

This fixture had no major tactical theme – Juventus’ approach without the ball nullified Roma’s main attacking threat.

Juventus without the ball

One of the most significant feats in this match was Juventus’ approach without the ball. Opposed to bringing the match to the away side, Conte instructed his men to sit deep in their half and minimize space between the lines for Totti to drift into.

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This approach was logical because it ensured there was no space behind the Juventus backline to attack on the counter and Totti would be unable to drag defenders out of position. Conte’s men sat in two compact banks of four, with Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente sitting a few yards ahead of the midfield to maintain Juventus’ shape.

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Conte’s midfield trio sat in front of the back line, as Juventus became a 5-3-2, considering Stephan Lichtsteiner and Kwadwo Asamoah sat deeper then usual. Vidal and Pogba pushed out wide when Roma’s fullbacks received the ball, to prevent them from pushing forward, and they diligently dropped deeper to ensure that their wingback wasn’t isolated against Roma’s front three – this meant Tevez and Llorente dropped into these central areas preserve structure in midfield.

Juventus’ approach out of possession was significant – Garcia’s men were left flabbergasted in possession, as the home side stifled their main attacking threats.

Roma struggle

Juventus’ reactive approach meant Roma enjoyed majority of the possession throughout the match. Apart from Tevez occasionally closing down defenders, and Juventus’ attempt to press from goal-kicks, Roma’s centrebacks, along with De Rossi, were free to push forward.

The issue that Roma encountered – besides Juventus’ great organization – was their slow ball circulation and a focal point in attack. Strootman retained possession well and Pjanic – who looked injured – attempted to penetrate, but the midfielders’ impact was minimal. Gervinho was caught offside when he broke into good positions, and was always put into 1v2 situations when he intended on isolating a wingback – and Ljajic drifted infield desperately looking for gaps to penetrate.

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Totti found it difficult to grow into the match, and he failed to create space for Roma’s attacker to run into. Whenever Totti dropped deep to receive the ball the closest Juventus centreback stuck tight to the Italian – Vidal also tracked his movement and closed Totti down when he roamed around the halfway line.

Ultimately, the only way Roma could create an opportunity to expose Juventus on the counter would be to press the Juventus backline higher up the pitch, or force them to concede possession in their third, and quickly commit men forward. Ljajic received a great chance early in the match when Totti dispossessed Leonardo Bonucci, but besides that effort, Buffon made routine saves to preserve his clean sheet.

Despite monopolizing majority of the possession, the away side rarely created legitimate goal-scoring opportunities because they couldn’t find openings in Juventus’ shape. The ball circulation was slow, their playmakers were nullified, and there was no space in the final third for Gervinho to attack.

Pirlo – De Rossi

Although Roma opted to drop into their shape and allow Juventus’ centrebacks to play from the back, Garcia instructed his men to press Pirlo. Totti was handed the duty to track the Italian maestro, and Pjanic occasionally stepped in when Totti was out of position. Garcia’s attempt to nullify Pirlo was logical, but as the game wore on, the Italian found it easier to receive the ball and build attacks from deep – this was down to fitness levels, and Roma’s lack of structure without the ball.

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On the other hand, De Rossi was free to play passes from deep – he often switched balls towards the fullbacks, but rarely played long diagonal balls or forward penetrating passes. De Rossi’s passing was conservative, and while his passing rate was phenomenal, it didn’t influence Roma’s attack. Here, De Rossi often dropped between the two Roma centre-backs to ensure a numerical advantage at the back, and help push Dodo and Maicon forward.

Although neither man dominated the match from midfield, both held pivotal roles – Pirlo helped Juventus get into better attacking positions as the match wore on, whereas De Rossi’s presence prevented Juventus’ strike force from isolating the Roma’s centrebacks.

Set-pieces

The home side’s threat from open-play was minimal, but they efficiently executed set-pieces. In fairness, Pogba and Vidal ignited attacks on the break, but their final ball let them down – however, Roma looked vulnerable defending set-pieces, and Juventus took advantage.

Juventus’ opening goal came from a simple Lichtsteiner throw-in that led to the Swiss wingback playing a pass into Tevez, who cleverly turned De Rossi, slid an incisive ball towards Vidal, and the Chilean beat Morgan De Sanctis at the near post. 20 minutes later, Pirlo tricked the Roma defence into thinking he’d play a ball into the six-yard box, and laid it off to Pogba, whose shot was blocked – Roma failed to clear their lines and Barzagli’s diagonal pass to Tevez subsequently led to the Argentinian striker whipping a ball across the six-yard box, which Bonucci couldn’t latch onto.

Bonucci doubled the home side’s lead minutes into the second half, when he broke free from Leandro Castan and guided in Pirlo’s free-kick at the far post. Roma further displayed their inability to defend set-pieces when Chiellini nodded back Pirlo’s free-kick at the far post and Castan handled the ball in the area, thus leading to his dismissal and a penalty, which Mirko Vucinic converted. Although Juventus’ influence from open-play was minimal, Conte’s men exposed Roma through set-pieces, and were rewarded with three goals.

4-2-3-1

Garcia opted to bring on Mattia Destro and Vasilis Torosidis for Pjanic and Dodo, as Roma moved to a 4-2-3-1.

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The move was logical as Roma now possessed a focal point in attack, but unfortunately for the away side, they struggled to get the ball into Destro – Pjanic’s departure deprived the away side of any penetration, as they were left with Strootman’s complacent passing and De Rossi in a deeper role.

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Garcia’s final attempt to alter the match saw Alessandro Florenzi replace Totti, but De Rossi and Castan were sent off within four minutes of his introduction. With Roma down to nine-men away from home against the champions, the match was over, and Juventus comfortably sustained their two-goal lead.

Conclusion

Juventus’ defensive solidity and set-piece efficiency merited three points – this was far from their best performance of the season, yet their defensive display was superb, as Conte’s men stifled Roma’s attack.

Roma dominated possession for large portions of the match, but the away side lacked invention, guile and penetration when they broke into Juventus’ half. Garcia’s men circulated the ball too slow, allowing Juventus to maintain their shape, while their set-piece defending was abysmal. Roma have overachieved by some margin this season – considering this is their first loss of the season – and if they can positively bounce back from this result, then the title race is far from over.

Roma’s overall performance wasn’t great – nor was it poor – here, they lost to a better side, executing a well-thought-out approach.

 
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Posted by on January 6, 2014 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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