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BPL Notebook Matchday 13: Projected title contenders overcome difficult roadblocks

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Chelsea maintained their seven game winning-streak Saturday afternoon at the expense of rivals Spurs, handing Mauricio Pochettino’s men their first loss of the Premier League campaign.

The result ensures the Blues will travel to Manchester City next week as league leaders, but as expected Antonio Conte’s men endured a few issues to start the match. Within the opening 10 minutes, Christian Eriksen’s impressive opener forced Chelsea’s hands, but worryingly enough, Spurs were equally dominant in terms of their overall play.

Spurs inconsistent form prior to kickoff was slightly downplayed, but Pochettino’s men were still the best defensive team in the league, due to an energetic press that was perfectly executed against Manchester City earlier this season. However, though Spurs were undoubtedly the better side then, they endured dodgy moments when they were unable to sustain their energy levels.

What was key about the performance, in particular, was their efficient finishing in the final third. At Stamford Bridge, Pochettino’s men struggled to get behind the Chelsea defence despite negating their ability to build attacks from the back. Eden Hazard and Diego Costa were starved for service, and for large portions of the first half, Conte’s men were overrun in midfield.

Dele Alli and Harry Kane were capable of receiving intricate passes in pockets of space, with the former’s movement playing a critical role to Eriksen’s opener. Meanwhile, Kyle Walker’s pace and strength exposed Marcos Alonso’s deficiencies in a wide defensive role. But it was only until the half hour mark where Chelsea began to grow into the match.

Similar to their emphatic victory over City, Pochettino’s men began to concede space once their pressing decreased. Suddenly Victor Moses was an open outlet on the right, whereas Hazard and Costa found space to carry the ball into, albeit limited support from their teammates. Though Chelsea were presented space as the half progressed, a short spell that involved Hazard cutting off a poor Hugo Lloris pass, followed by Pedro’s incredible equalizer shifted the momentum into the hosts’ favour.

The problems Spurs encountered towards the conclusion of the first half continued at the start of the second. Hazard was constantly fouled with his back to goal, whereas Costa worked diligently through the channels, but it was Moses’ pluck to charge past Son that proved decisive.

Alonso and Moses’ proactive advanced positioning occurred subsequent to Spurs’ dominance within the first half hour, which was always the worry with Son and Eriksen operating in wide areas. Pochettino’s men simply failed to remain compact out of possession, and you can argue that they didn’t really have a plan B once energy levels decreased.

More so, this is the concern with Spurs. Still showing signs of fatigue from last season, apart from the signing of Wanyama, Pochettino’s XI hasn’t improved significantly. Therefore, the onus is on players to exceed last year’s form, and with Spurs’ overall approach largely based on running, it simply doesn’t appear to be attainable.

On the other hand, Conte deserves credit for reinvigorating his side: Chelsea’s shape didn’t change in the second half, but they closed down ball-carriers and open spaces quicker, and Alonso and Moses provided the width to stretch Spurs’ 4-4-2 throughout. Elsewhere, they equally managed the remainder of the match superbly once they went ahead.

The Blues reverted to a 5-4-1 out of possession with Hazard and Pedro maintaining narrow wide positions to ensure Spurs couldn’t overload central areas. Apart from slight defensive mistakes and Nkoudou easing past substitute Branislav Ivanovic, Spurs failed to trouble an organized Chelsea outfit.

Had this been a year ago, Chelsea may have encountered difficulties closing out a tight match, but there’s a sense of revitalization, belief, and hunger under Conte. Although the performance wasn’t comparable to previous home triumphs during this seven game stretch, champions often find ways to win matches when struggling to reach top form.

If anything, this was an audition for a flexible City side that will have alternative approaches apart from Guardiola’s traditional high pressing. It’s possibly still to early to claim title contender’s status, but overcoming multiple formations and Spurs’ heavy pressing suggests the Blues are heading in the right direction.

Ozil – Sanchez growing partnership overshadows difficult afternoon

Alexis Sanchez’s opener hinted that three points would be a formality, yet this was a difficult outing for Arsene Wenger’s men. Sanchez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s pace earned two members of the Bournemouth back four bookings within the opening 10 minutes as Arsenal’s attacking quartet was built on pace and Mesut Ozil’s creativity.

This was the ideal set up for Ozil to thrive in, yet the wide players were uninspiring following the opener, and the midfield pairing of Mohamed Elneny and Granit Xhaka struggled on both ends. Defensively, Bournemouth’s midfield trio easily bypassed the Arsenal duo en route to goal, and Joshua King simply dropped into space between the lines to combine with teammates.

From an offensive perspective, Arsenal simply lacked the control Santi Cazorla, or Mikel Arteta once provided with a mixture of short and long passes to retain possession. At times the match was end to end, and Arsenal weren’t assured on both ends of the field.

With that being said, Wenger at the very least would be pleased to see his best players doing their utmost best to salvage a result. Interestingly, Alexi’s varied positions witnessed the Chilean dropping deeper to supply penetrative passes for Ozil making runs beyond the Bournemouth back-line.

Though the two Arsenal marquee signings were rarely on the same wavelength, the desperation to create plays and surge their teammates forward was fascinating. Arsenal improved significantly in the second half when Bournemouth retreated in their half opposed to pressing.

Bournemouth was forced to chased the game following Theo Walcott’s winner, which ultimately benefitted a speedy Arsenal attack. Likewise, Sanchez doubled Arsenal’s lead and secured three points in stoppage time following a swift break featuring a well-weighed Ozil pass to ignite the move.

Wenger’s side have made a knack of earning results albeit not playing their best football, and a developed partnership with Alexis striving in a centre-forward role ahead of Ozil in his optimum position could prove decisive if the Gunners intend on mounting a proper title challenge.

Yaya Toure staking role in Guardiola’s City system

He did it again. Yaya Toure wasn’t on the score sheet this week, but the Ivorian played a positive role in a narrow win against a resilient Burnley side. Guardiola named the powerful midfield trio that featured in majority of City’s game’s last season, but Toure was involved in several dangerous moves because he was positioned closer to Sergio Aguero and free of defensive duties.

Although a brace at Crystal Palace placed Toure back in the headlines, here, he showcased what he has left to offer. Fernandinho and Fernando remained deeper in fear of the Burnley counter-attack, whereas Toure predominantly linked play with Nolito, who drifted into pockets of space in central areas.

Sergio Aguero poached both goals but his involvement from open play was scare. Raheem Sterling operated in a wide position on the right, but oddly hesitated when he received the ball in key areas and was considerably ineffective in the final third. But Toure rolled back the clock with his quick incisive combinations and powerful sprints towards goal.

Now, Toure might not feature in the City XI every week, but there was a glaring issue regarding their predictability from open play and the fear of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne being overrun in midfield. It’s the dimension City lacked in the early stages of the season, and the new dimension to a fine-tuned flexible unit presents various ways to win in the near future.

Guardiola will always be associated to the possession-based tiki-taka football that revolutionized the sport during his time at Barcelona, but his spell at Bayern proved the Spaniard can adapt to the cultural strengths that define a domestic league. In Toure, Guardiola may still require the Ivorian’s power, precision, and finishing ability around the penalty box, which further justifies his significance to the squad.

Injury-hit Liverpool encounter near scare against Moyes’ Sunderland

Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool fell to second place when they failed to score at Southampton, and they appeared destined to suffer the same fate against a resolute Sunderland outfit. Moyes aligned his men to disrupt and destroy, but the hosts were dominant for extensive periods throughout.

For all of Liverpool’s patient build up and clever interchanging movement, the hosts rarely got behind the opposition’s defence. Resorting to long distance shots and poor set-piece execution kept the score-line leveled, while Sunderland were pegged so deep into their half that launching counters was nearly impossible with Defoe isolated upfront.

The second half followed a similar tempo, but Patrick van Aanholt’s inability to play a final pass and Duncan Watmore couldn’t score despite rounding Liverpool keeper Loris Karius. Coutinho’s early departure and the absence of Adam Lallana deprived the Reds of genuine guile and creativity in the final third, as several crosses through the six-yard box went astray.

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Substitute Divock Origi’s individual brilliance won the game, but there’s a fear that Liverpool will struggle to break down opposing teams that replicate Sunderland’s approach. Perhaps Origi or Daniel Sturridge’s presence will be useful to poach goals without two creative cogs in Klopp’s successful system, and in truth, being forced to identify a plan B or C could reap rewards long-term.

Mourinho and United’s issues persist at Old Trafford

It’s now come to a point where Manchester United’s results represent the Premier League’s main mystery. Is it simply bad luck? Or do the players and possibly Mourinho need to be held accountable for consistently dropping points?

This isn’t a Mourinho team we’ve been accustomed to falling in love with over the years. There’s been few significant individual improvements from the players that survived the Louis van Gaal era. Elsewhere, Mourinho’s father-esque mantra often associated with his most successful teams is non-existence.

Once again, United conceded within the opening 90 seconds against West Ham, yet they rallied well subsequent to the goal. Phil Jones was superb at the back, while the midfield pairing of Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba occupied half spaces and circulated possession in a tidy manner.

Youngsters Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford received glorious chances to put United ahead but spurned their opportunities, and though Antonio Valencia constantly motored past Dmitri Payet, the Ecuadorian’s crosses didn’t harm the West Ham back-line.

Mourinho’s decision to omit Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Wayne Rooney following positive midweek Europa League performances perturbed United supporters, but the Red Devils weren’t poor, here. The worry, however, rests in United ensuring their positive displays earn the club maximum points on a weekly basis.

Nevertheless, Mourinho will continue to be scrutinized for every United hiccup, but it’s reached the point where the Portuguese manager and the players come together and mount a legitimate top four challenge. At the moment, though, even that goal appears insurmountable.

Results: Burnley 1-2 Manchester City, Hull City 1-1 West Brom, Leicester 2-2 Middlesbrough, Liverpool 2-0 Sunderland, Swansea 5-4 Crystal Palace, Chelsea 2-1 Spurs, Watford 0-1 Stoke, Arsenal 3-1 Bournemouth, Manchester United 1-1 West Ham, Southampton 1-0 Everton

 
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Posted by on November 29, 2016 in EPL Notebook, Published Work

 

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Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs must rediscover attacking mojo at Arsenal

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The North London derby is now regarded a prominent fixture in what many are classifying as the most compelling title race of the Premier League era. Historically speaking, Arsenal tend to always finish above Spurs, and though that also occurred last season, it’s worth noting that they were both runners-up to Leicester City.

If this were any other year, it would be a brief catastrophic failure for Spurs, but considering they were in the title race within the final weeks of the season, and finished within the top four, Mauricio Pochettino’s side were a product of optimism and growth. But following Manchester City’s recent dip in form throughout October, the two North London sides can still be considered in the title hunt.

Over the last decade, both teams have been renowned for challenging for the final Champions League spot, but now, they’re making a genuine stake at being annual title contenders for contrasting reasons. Arsenal represent a stable side that’s welcomed two world-class players in recent years, whilst avoiding regression unlike Manchester United and Chelsea.

On the other hand, Pochettino’s formed a youthful cohesive team built around organized pressing, quickly regaining possession, and the meteoric rise of Harry Kane. Spurs are one of the few Premier League sides that epitomize the definition of unit, and burnout was the of the few factors in their eventual collapse towards the conclusion of last season.

“It was the first time our players had ever experienced this type of situation and it was very difficult,” said Pochettino. “When you lose your objective, like we did when we lost the chance to win the league at Chelsea, it was tough for them to manage the situation.”

Likewise, an early exit in the Europa League and the ability to name a fairly unchanged side for majority of last year’s campaign was integral to their title challenge. This season, injuries to first-team players, along with the additional midweek Champions League fixtures have disrupted Spurs’ attempt of replicating their aforementioned success.

Coincidentally, the contrast between Spurs and Arsenal extends to the current campaign as well, with the latter enjoying a great run of form since their opening day loss to Liverpool, whereas Spurs have scored a solitary goal from open play in six matches. Although Pochettino’s men remain unbeaten domestically, there’s a clear issue regarding their attacking philosophy.

On paper, though, it’s quite straightforward: the full-backs stay close to the touch-line beyond half, and the centre-backs split into half-spaces as the holding midfielder drops deeper to ensure Spurs play out the back. Kane could come short or spin-off his marker into the channels, while the attacking midfield trio cleverly combine intricate passes in the final third.

Yet, Spurs generally spurn several chances around the box, and remain at their utmost best when they win possession in midfield and quickly facilitate the ball towards goal. Kane’s finishing and link-up play has been missed – the England international has scored 36 per-cent of Spurs league goals in the past two seasons – but more importantly, Tottenham’s passing has been sloppy and laboured.

The Gunners, however, are scoring goals for fun with key players Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, and the returning Olivier Giroud showing signs of ruthless efficiency. It’s believed that form weighs no significance on the eventual outcome of a derby, and that may play a factor here, as well, but it provides an interesting element to this anticipated rivalry.

Stylistically, though, the match favours Spurs, who equally produced their best performance of the season against a Manchester City side obsessed with possession.

“The performance was nearly perfect. To play a great team like Manchester City, you need to do a fantastic job. For that, I’m very proud of our players; work,” Pochettino said afterwards.

“Today, collectively, we worked very hard — all the players were fantastic. It was a real exciting game. Both teams played in an exciting way. We share a similar philosophy.

Spurs’ display could prove to be one of the standout performances of the season as they never allowed Pep Guardiola’s men time to settle, despite succumbing to fatigue and conceding a handful of legitimate goal-scoring opportunities in the second half. Likewise, even when Tottenham flustered City with their energetic man-to-man pressing in midfield, they continuously wasted opportunities in the final third. It was a clear indicator that even at their best, Pochettino’s men could improve their productivity in the final third to overshadow their inability to build play from the back

And while Pochettino was heavily credited for Spurs’ fitness levels last season, his star performers have now endured a severe dip in form since Euro 2016. Christian Eriksen’s creativity has been non-existent in terms of breaking down deep defensive lines, Eric Dier’s moved to a centre-back role and doesn’t appear required in midfield with Victor Wanyama in most situations, whereas Dele Alli has yet to convert quality chances into goals – the partnership developed with Kane could also be a factor in the Spurs youngster’s stagnation.

Interestingly enough, the pressing Spurs have been renowned for could be a decisive tactic against an Arsenal side that also monopolizes possession. Still, the Gunners are equally devastating on the counter, and possess the personnel that can harm Spurs’ high-line if they push men forward.

The team with the best defence and offence generally wins the Premier League, and though they still remain defensively solid in terms of shape and structure, conceding a league best five goals, Arsenal arguably possess the best attack in the division on current form.

Wenger’s fluid attack will test Spurs’ resolve, though, and it’s likely Pochettino will effectively instruct his side to man-mark in midfield given the evident threat of Ozil and Sanchez between the lines. The latter may revert back to his preferred position on the left, but similar to Ozil, he prefers to buzz around space between the lines and through the channels before running towards goal. Ultimately, Spurs lack players of this mould: a creative dynamo capable of placing his teammates in goal-scoring positions, and dynamic, yet diligent dribbler that offers a goal-threat anywhere in the final third.

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Victor Wanyama has been a revelation in the centre of the pitch, and with Moussa Dembele unlikely to start, the Kenyan may be encouraged to solely monitor Ozil’s movement in these zones. Dier’s presence would be helpful, here, but Pochettino’s use of a 4-1-4-1 would enable Alli and Eriksen the role of pressing the Arsenal double-pivot to effectively negate their threat in central areas, and quickly break forward when possession is regained.

This is the other reason why Olivier Giroud’s return and instant goal-scoring form could trouble Spurs’ back-line. Unlike City’s Claudio Bravo, Petr Cech isn’t renowned for constantly setting the tempo of the match with his distribution. Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi’s passing under pressure presented issues in the past, which could lead to balls punted into Giroud to bypass Spurs pressing in midfield and encourage runners forward.

Elsewhere, Spurs simply haven’t scored enough goals following Kane’s injury, and are hopeful the 23-year-old will make his return to action this Sunday. Son Heung-Min form peaked upfront during the early stages of the season, but the South Korean international is more of a threat on the counter-attack where he is provided ample space to dribble towards defenders. The other option upfront in Vincent Janssen offers link-up play, and prefers to peg centre-backs towards their goal, but the Dutch international doesn’t possess Kane’s all-round ability and struggles to create his own chances.

More so, given the case Spurs are unable to utilize their pressing to create goal-scoring opportunities, the reliance on pushing the full-backs forward would be their alternative attacking route. Toby Alderweireld’s diagonal balls from centre-back were always a useful outlet in terms of shifting play, but Danny Rose and Kyle Walker’s influence in advance wide positions will be vital.

Walker and Moussa Sissoko failed to spark a reliable partnership midweek against Bayer Leverkusen, and Pochettino will hope Eric Lamela is fit to start, here. Arsenal’s wide players, though, have diligently provided support for their full-backs this season, and it’s unlikely, Rose, in particular, will receive the space that Riyad Mahrez provided last week against Leicester.

Although Arsenal still possess defensive issues in certain areas, the side’s overall structure has improved over the past year. It also helps that Wenger can utilize various options in midfield. He can turn to power in Elneny and Francis Coquelin, all-round personnel in Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey, or rely on the diminutive passer in Santi Cazorla.

With that being said, the evolution of both sides remains intriguing, nonetheless: by Premier League standards, Wenger’s group of experienced players are now living up to expectations led by their adapted world-class stars, albeit still prone to defensive lapses. In contrast, Pochettino’s youthful cohesive unit must prove they can find other routes to victory if they’re unable to sustain their dynamic pressing throughout the season.

Last season’s incredible overachievement was overshadowed by their wilting post-April results, and although Spurs’ current form is inconsistent, Pochettino’s influence still appears sustainable. However, another shortcoming against Wenger’s Arsenal would put Pochettino’s philosophy under potential scrutiny.

Coming so close to Premier League glory last season suggests the main goal is to go one step further, but history shows they must buck the trend and finish above Arsenal. With several London derbies approaching subsequent to the international break and Champions League group stage qualification on the cusp, Pochettino’s margin for error is slim.

Similar to their last pre-international break fixture, a win at the Emirates could uplift Spurs’ quest to ignite their title bid.

 
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Posted by on November 4, 2016 in Published Work

 

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BPL Notebook Matchday 6: Antonio Conte’s Chelsea receive a humbling reality check

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Welcome to the Premier League, Antonio Conte, the honeymoon is officially over.

Three wins from the opening three games presented room for optimism, but Conte’s Blues remain win-less in league play since the international break. The talks of a possible title challenge have halted, and fears of last year’s nightmare sits in the minds of Chelsea fans across the world, and most certainly the players.

Can you blame them?

Apart from the departure of Jose Mourinho and the summer signing of N’Golo Kante, Chelsea’s XI is identical to last year’s side that produced the worst title defence in Premier League history with a tenth place finish. Very little has changed in personnel, and Conte’s task of returning this group of players into champions appears to be an insurmountable task.

Where Mourinho failed, Conte is now asked to succeed. David Luiz, Michy Batshuayi and Kante’s arrivals wouldn’t be classified as a great transfer window when compared to their title rivals, but a combination of athleticism, dynamism and youth doesn’t hurt a Chelsea side that psychologically crumbled during tribulation last year.

The Blues were convincing winners against a travelling Bournemouth side, and late goals against West Ham and Watford suggested that during the rough times Conte was capable of altering his tactics to gain a result. Where pre-season title favourites Manchester City and Manchester United were also perfect, Chelsea were keeping pace via the rejuvenated Diego Costa and a remarkable ball winner in Kante, who effortlessly protected the back-four.

Oddly enough, Chelsea produced their best performance of the season en route to their first blip of the season. The Blues flabbergasted Swansea at the Liberty Stadium for lengthy spells of their 2-2 draw, but several spurned opportunities from Eden Hazard and Diego Costa proved costly – despite the latter scoring two goals and earning a point from a losing position.

Thibaut Courtois conceding a penalty tipped the momentum in Swansea’s favour, but Gary Cahill’s mental lapse – despite being fouled in the process – gifted Leroy Fer a goal that’s practically inflicted a blow to Chelsea’s back-line. Perhaps John Terry’s injury shouldn’t be downplayed, but though the Chelsea’s captain’s absence deprives Conte an organizing leader at the back, it isn’t a legitimate excuse for the Blues’ current woes.

Liverpool and Arsenal were always going to provide a fair assessment of Chelsea’s progress under Conte, and the most in-form teams in the league – apart from Manchester City – comfortably dominated the West London side in every aspect. Liverpool came to Stamford Bridge and overloaded central areas to produce arguably the best first half performance of the season – to be frank, 2-1 was flattered Conte’s side.

More so, the manner in which Chelsea defended and conceded was shocking. They sat deep in a 4-5-1 and were reluctant to apply pressure in midfield. Jordan Henderson controlled the match from a deeper position – scoring an unbelievable goal in the process – whereas the attacking quartet constantly interchanged positions to overwhelm Nemanja Matic and Kante. Still, Dejan Lovren’s opener illustrated the issues Chelsea still encounter at the back: Coutinho’s whipped ball into the box met three unmarked Liverpool players at the far post, and the Croatian’s inch-perfect side-foot volley flew past Courtois.

The Blues were no better at the Emirates, but once again, a defensive individual mistake proved decisive. Alexis Sanchez nicked possession from Cahill, and charged into a 1v1 break with Courtois, before chipping the ball over the Belgian keeper. Chelsea trailed within the opening 10 minutes and shortly afterwards Arsenal inflicted further damage.

This time it was Hazard who failed to fulfill his defensive duties, as Hector Bellerin charged beyond the Belgian to receive Alex Iwobi’s pass in half space and the Arsenal right-back’s low cross met an unmarked Walcott to double the Gunners’ lead. A terrific counter-attack inspired by Mesut Ozil bamboozled Kante and witnessed the German combine with Alexis to put the match out of reach.

“We started this game in a bad way, and from the first minute” said Conte.

“This is very strange because Arsenal against Chelsea is a massive game,” he continued, “and when we play this type of game against a very good team like Arsenal, you must stay concentrated from the first minute and this today did not happen.”

Nonetheless, Conte’s men persisted on sitting off the opposition with neither Cesc Fabregas – who played 120 minutes midweek and probably shouldn’t have started despite scoring two goals – and Matic eager to press Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin. This was equally further evidence that Fabregas shouldn’t operate as a shuttler in Chelsea’s midfield trio, as Oscar’s tenacity and work-rate was dearly missed.

Chelsea were outclassed for the second consecutive week, and though they moved into key positions via Hazard and Willian, Conte’s men lacked an end product in the final third. Diego Costa was positive in spurts, but Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny’s intent to tightly mark and freely foul the Spanish international limited the Chelsea’s striker’s threat.

Fabregas failed to link midfield and attack with his rushed forward passes, and additional poor outings from Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic are also responsible for Chelsea’s stagnation – it’s simply worrying that David Luiz has been Chelsea’s best defensive player over the past two weeks. Another underwhelming transfer window has placed a Chelsea manager in a difficult predicament as the current crop of defenders and midfielders simply aren’t good enough.

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The verdict is out on this Chelsea side, and the issues are much bigger than the manager. John Terry and Kurt Zouma’s eventual return should boost the Blues back-line, but Conte’s determination to lure Leonardo Bonucci and Kalidou Koulibaly over the summer suddenly makes sense.

Chelsea aren’t in a crisis, and a top four finish still remains attainable given the talent in the squad, but individual mistakes and poor defensive work ethic from Hazard and Fabregas won’t do Conte any favours. We may not see the best from this Chelsea side until Conte brings in his own players, but for once, Roman Abramovich mustn’t’ allow mediocre displays seal the fate of another top manager.

Rooney-less United make statement

The most convincing Manchester United victory during the briefly lived Jose Mourinho era involved another brutal defeat for the reigning Premier League champions and the Red Devils captain watching from the bench. United claimed maximum points within the opening 45 minutes by capitalizing on Leicester’s poor set-piece defending by scoring four goals in quick succession.

Although Leicester failed to pose a significant threat on both ends, the quick combination passes and constant overloads on both flanks were positive improvements to United’s open-play buildup. Paul Pogba enjoyed his best game in a United shirt, scoring his first goal since joining the club, and stepping into free space – with Leicester defenders reluctant to press the Frenchman – to test Ron-Robert Zieler on a few occasions.

United scored four goals in 20 minutes, and while their overall play was mesmerizing at times – the second goal witnessed every United player touch the ball prior to Juan Mata’s superb finish – it’s key to note that they exploited Leicester’s set-piece defending deficiencies. It was a Mourinho-esque win, and though the Portuguese manager downplayed his pleasure, it’s a step in the right direction.

Daley Blind’s set-piece deliveries were crucial, Antonio Valencia continues to impress with his offensive mindset at right-back, and though Ander Herrera isn’t an ideal partner for Pogba in a midfield two, the Spaniard’s tenacity, ball retention skills and incisive passing will help United unravel deep defensive lines.

Ranieri’s switch to a 4-1-4-1 prevented United from increasing their lead, as his midfield applied improved pressure in central areas, but the match was won by half-time. United were much sharper and fluid when they pushed men forward, and the constant overloads in attacking zones was refreshing.

Though Rooney can still play a role in United’s title aspirations, perhaps this was evidence that Mourinho’s best XI doesn’t require his captain.

City overcome adversity at the Liberty Stadium

Manchester City maintained their perfect start to the Pep Guardiola era, and once again the Spaniard offered a variation of a 4-1-4-1 that posed issues for Swansea. However, the hosts weren’t completely outplayed here, and relied on Fernando Llorente’s aerial threat to unease City’s centre-back partnership and the diminutive Claudio Bravo.

Llorente capitalized on Bacary Sagna’s slip to smash a superb effort past Bravo, but his hold up play and physical presence pegged City’s centre-backs deeper into their half. The Spaniard was an evident reference point for the Swansea attack, but the hosts failed to maximize the striker’s aerial threat throughout the 90 minutes.

Nevertheless, Guardiola’s tactical tweaks also played a decisive role in the final outcome. Raheem Sterling maintained width on the left, while Sagna pushed higher up the pitch on the right to ensure City stretched the pitch. Aleksandar Kolarov slipped into a narrow position – basically forming a back three – when Fernandinho pushed forward, and Sagna’s wide role enabled Kevin De Bruyne to receive passes in pockets of space between the lines.

It was Sagna’s cross that led to Aguero’s opener, and frankly De Bruyne’s rare profligate passing and finishing around the box prevented a City onslaught. Yet even when Swansea appeared capable of a possible fight-back with their high-pressing, Guardiola tinkered with his side’s shape by moving De Bruyne central and pushing David Silva to the left.

De Bruyne grew in prominence following the alteration, and began to receive service behind Leon Britton before charging towards the Swansea goal. The Belgian won the penalty that led to Aguero’s winner, and Sterling’s impressive counter-attacking run ensured City remain perfect under Guardiola.

There was general interest regarding Guardiola’s approach without Nolito, and with De Bruyne now likely to be sidelined for a few weeks, the Spaniard will be tasked with identifying another successful attacking solution. Still, despite being only six games into the season, it’s difficult to declare anyone other than City as title favourites.

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Time to take Klopp’s Liverpool seriously after steamrolling Hull City?

The pressure was on Liverpool to build on their terrific performance at Stamford Bridge against Mike Phelan’s travelling Hull City side, and Jurgen Klopp’s men passed their test with flying colours. Their passing and movement was fluid, the pressing was cohesive, and the finishing around the box was ruthlessly efficient.

The Reds are beginning to look like a Klopp side.

From the opening whistle, Hull City dropped into a 4-5-1 with the midfield and defensive bank within close proximity to limit space between the lines. But Abel Hernandez’s inability to get close to Jordan Henderson allowed the Liverpool captain the freedom to dictate the tempo of the match from deeper positions. With Hull dropping deeper towards their box, Hernandez was equally isolated upfront, and the away side were unable to launch counter-attacks due to Liverpool’s dynamic gegenpressing.

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James Milner constantly stormed beyond Robert Snodgrass and was a useful outlet at left-back, meanwhile the Hull midfield couldn’t cope with Liverpool’s attacking quartet’s movement between the lines. Liverpool players continuously popped up into space at the edge of the box for pull-backs, whereas Lallana operated in half-spaces and Firmino occasionally drifted wide to encourage forward runs.

Ultimately, Ahmed Elmohamady’s dismissal for a handball on the goal-line sealed Hull’s fate. They became a 4-5-0 with no real outlet upfront, and were forced to cope with Liverpool’s relentless attack throughout. At the moment, there may not be a team in better form than Klopp’s Reds, and if they can maintain performance levels of this quality, they will be a difficult team to beat this season.

Son pushing for permanent starting role at Spurs

Sometimes injuries can be a blessing in disguise. Son Heung-min is justifying that notion and was once again the catalyst in a Spurs victory. With Eric Dier and Moussa Dembele unavailable, Son slid into the Spurs attacking trio, while Dele Alli operated alongside Christian Eriksen ahead of Victor Wanyama.

Although Moussa Sissoko struggled from the right, Middlesbrough’s midfield couldn’t cope with Eriksen or Alli’s movement in the final third, whereas Son’s penetrative runs from the left provided guile. Spurs’ opener displayed their attacking approach vividly: Victor Janssen pegged the hosts’ centre-backs deep with his back-to-goal holdup play, which attracted Adam Clayton to the ball, thus enabling Son to run onto his layoff and place his shot past Victor Valdes.

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Son’s second was even better as the South Korean international evaded two challenges near the edge of the box and curled an unstoppable into the far post to double Spurs’ lead. Spurs were dominant in the opening period, combining their intense pressing to deprive the hosts an outlet forward, while their quick passing flustered Aitor Karanka’s men.

Middlesbrough failed to cope with Spurs’ pressing and constantly conceded possession in their half. On the other hand, Gaston Ramirez was comfortably negated by the presence of Victor Wanyama ahead of the back four. The second half introduction of Adama Traore was promising but his poor final ball negated the substitute’s overall threat.

Ben Gibson’s second half goal provided the host’s a lifeline, yet their intention to push forward for a winner left vacant space for Eriksen and Alli to exploit, but similar to Traore, their production in the final third was underwhelming. Still, the several absentees missing didn’t affect Spurs balance from an attacking sense, as Son presents Mauricio Pochettino with future selection issues.

Tadic developing into the main man at St. Mary’s

The summer departures of Ronald Koeman, Graziano Pelle and Sadio Mane put Southampton’s future in jeopardy. Their main goal-scorer, best player, and top manager moved onto new challenges, leaving many to question whether Claude Puel could bring success to the Saints.

Southampton’s trip to West Ham showcased both sides’ limitations around the box during the opening 40 minutes, but the two best performers of the match combined to steer the away side into the lead with the game’s first shot on target. Tadic’s outwards run into the left channel saw Ryan Bertrand run beyond Antonio to receive the Serbian’s pass, and subsequently assist Charlie Austin’s opener.

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It was a brilliant move that highlighted Bertrand’s threat from left-back due to Antonio’s lack of discipline, and Tadic’s guile in a free role behind Austin and Nathan Redmond. West Ham, however, were dismal going forward: Dimitri Payet failed to influence the match from the right, while Simone Zaza was isolated upfront.

Bilic’s attempt at a comeback resulted in Sofiane Feghouli replacing Miguel Lanzini and pushing Payet into a central role. Nonetheless, Antonio’s movement to the opposite flank created space for Cedric Soares to exploit throughout the second half. Tadic and Soares combined in the box minutes into the second half but an impressive Adrian save kept West Ham alive.

As the match wore on, Bilic’s men also succumbed to Southampton’s counter-pressing which inevitably led to Tadic’s goal. Cheikhou Kouyate was dispossessed near his box and Redmond’s pass into Austin saw the striker initially play in the advancing Tadic, who coolly rounded Adrian and doubled Southampton’s lead.

Puel’s approach worked brilliantly as Southampton outworked and outplayed the hosts courtesy of getting the full-backs beyond Antonio and Tadic’s ability to receive the ball behind the West Ham midfield on numerous occasions. With competent passers and diligent frontmen leading the line, Tadic may finally receive the freedom to maximize his creative talent.

Results

Manchester United 4-1 Leicester City, Bournemouth 1-0 Everton, Stoke City 1-1 West Brom, Middlesbrough 1-2 Spurs, Liverpool 5-1 Hull City, Swansea City 1-3 Manchester City, Sunderland 2-3 Crystal Palace, Arsenal 0-3 Chelsea, West Ham 0-3 Southampton, Burnley 2-0 Watford

Weekend Stats

  • Dimitri Payet has had more shots (15) in the Premier League without scoring than any other player so far this season.
  • Since his debut (Aug 2014), Charlie Austin has scored as many Premier League goals as Wayne Rooney (21), despite playing 20 games fewer.
  • Alexis Sanchez’s scored 47 goals in his 100 appearances for Arsenal one fewer than Thierry Henry (48) in his first 100 appearances for the club.
  • Son Heung-Min has already equaled his Premier League goal tally from 2015-16 in just three appearances this season (4).
  • Since the start of 2015-16, James Milner has been involved in 20 league goals for Liverpool (8 goals, 12 assists).

Stats provided by OPTA

 
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Posted by on September 27, 2016 in Published Work

 

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Cesc Fabregas’ tactical stagnation results in Chelsea conundrum

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Chelsea’s 2014-2015 title triumph was heavily associated with Jose Mourinho’s efficient summer transfer activity. What was supposed to be a shift from the initial squad Mourinho built a decade prior challenged the Portuguese manager to build a dynasty around young, technically gifted players.

Mourinho’s main signings that summer, though, addressed some of the personnel issues Chelsea encountered subsequent to the Special One’s initial sacking. Thibaut Courtois was maturing into one of the best goalkeepers in the world, rather than the aging and error-prone Petr Cech. Filipe Luis was the best left-back in La Liga and was expected to be the left-back to continue in Ashley Cole’s footsteps and possibly enable Cesar Azpilicueta to play in his preferred right-back position.

But the biggest transfers simply catered to the biggest fears regarding the undergoing evolution at Stamford Bridge. Replacing Didier Drogba was difficult – to an extent that he returned as a third striker that season – but the club took one of many risks on Diego Costa: a key figure in Atletico Madrid’s title-winning campaign the year prior, who enjoyed his first top-class season.

Costa’s a powerful all-round striker that willingly worked through the channels, whilst combining his poacher’s instinct and pace to run beyond the defence to notch 20 league goals in his debut campaign. Stylistically, the Spanish international fit the mould of a centre-forward capable of dominating English football and easily settling into a Chelsea side that required his presence.

Cesc Fabregas, on the other hand, was the antithesis: more interestingly, he developed into one the top midfielders in the Premier League during his spell with rivals Arsenal as a youngster. Where Chelsea’s midfield of the past was physical and direct, often bullying Fabregas in central areas, the Spaniard represented a slimmer, yet technical craftsman that was capable of connecting passes from deep, or the final pass around the box to create legitimate goal-scoring chances for his teammates.

If the decision to acquire Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar didn’t highlight the stylistic shift at Stamford Bridge, Fabregas move from Barcelona did. Still, Fabregas’ familiarity with the league ensured it was less of a risk for Chelsea, and his ability to dictate matches from deep was pivotal to the Blues success subsequent to his arrival.

Although a role in a deeper midfield position was beneficial to Fabregas due to his positional versatility in central areas, the Spaniard also suffers from tactical indiscipline. Perhaps his rapid growth at Arsenal overshadowed these issues, but to be frank, Arsenal’s lack of discipline prevented Arsene Wenger’s side from challenging on a domestic and continental front in recent years.

Despite previously playing a deep role in a midfield two, Fabregas’ best seasons for Arsenal witnessed the Spaniard playing in an advanced position – 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 – with defensive minded players like Alex Song and Abou Diaby operating ahead of the back four. Fabregas’ recorded a team high 15 league goals and the most assists during his final season at the Emirates thus proving his threat closer to goal.

Likewise, something similar occurred during his final season at Barcelona under Tata Martino’s direct approach. Barcelona were renowned for their patient buildup and extensive spells of ball possession, but Martino was eager to add a quick, but direct element to their game which Fabregas preferred.

“This coach [Martino] lets me play the way that suits my qualities and I’m very comfortable, very happy,” Fabregas told FourFourTwo magazine following Martino’s arrival.

“On the first day – well, not the first day, but maybe the third or fourth, early on – he called me over and told me: “I want you to be the player you were at Arsenal.” And I thought: “Wow!”, because I’d always felt so good at Arsenal, so important. I’m not the No.10 exactly because things aren’t so clearly defined positionally as with Pep [Guardiola] and Tito [Vilanova], who were very focused on that. When we attack, Tata likes things to be a little more anarchic – just a little – which means that with the ball you can move away from a set position without any problems.”

Ultimately, Fabregas’ joy regarding the positional freedom he received at Arsenal and under Martino has led to his downfall at top-sides with elite managers. Fabregas’ move to Barcelona was specifically based around helping Guardiola evolve the Catalan side, opposed to the Spaniard becoming Xavi’s successor.

Sergio Busquets cemented his role at the pivot, Xavi offered similar passing and tempo-setting traits further up the pitch, while Fabregas couldn’t connect midfield and attack with his dribbling like Andres Iniesta. Nonetheless, Fabregas’ ability to locate space between the lines and goal-scoring threat around the box provided the perfect outlet to create space for the wide players and Lionel Messi, along with making late runs into the box to score goals.

Guardiola’s shift to a 3-4-3 saw Fabregas shuttle forward, and continuously interchange positions with Lionel Messi upfront. When Messi dropped deep into midfield, Fabregas received space to charge into the box, which explains why only his final season at Arsenal offered a higher goal and assist return.

But Barcelona struggled to maintain the incredible levels that led to their historic league and European title triumphs, and Fabregas received ample criticism due to willingness to instantly play forward passes. Guardiola’s teams are often maligned for their use of possession, but they heavily rely on positional and tactical structure in both phases, and Fabregas was a liability in that respect.

“We like the fact that he [Fabregas] is so mobile, but it has to be done sensibly. In the end, there is a ball and people who move, but they should move to where they need to be. We do not have a remote control to direct them from the bench,” said Guardiola.

The second half of the 2014/2015 campaign at Chelsea presented a similar challenge for the Spaniard who started the season superbly. With Nemanja Matic suffering from fatigue due to lack of squad rotation, Chelsea were being exposed and overrun in midfield zones when Fabregas pushed forward to link play.

Opposing teams located the Chelsea midfield as a weak point and targeted Fabregas’ lack of mobility and inability to maintain his position ahead of the back four, thus virtually exposing Matic. Mourinho swiftly reverted back to a 4-3-3 and a deeper defensive block, which led to a string of slow-burning one goal victories, as the freedom Fabregas and the attacking Chelsea players received was quickly sacrificed for silverware.

Guardiola and Mourinho encountered difficulties maximizing the Spaniard’s strengths due to his tactical limitations, and playing to his strengths didn’t provide silverware at the Emirates, so it’s unsurprising that Fabregas is currently fighting for a starting spot under Antonio Conte. In the past, Conte’s teams have been built to attack and renowned for their high-octane pressing, but the Italian is a pragmatist that instantly identified the personnel issues in the Chelsea side he inherited.

Chelsea sit deeper under Conte, and rely on Matic and Oscar to press opponents and maintain the side’s structure ahead of N’Golo Kante. The Blues’ transitional vulnerability has decreased and they have become much harder to breakdown, with majority of the goals conceded have been via individual mistakes and wonder-goals.

Nonetheless, Fabregas’ is definitely missed from an attacking perspective. Chelsea struggle to build attacks from deeper positions – which ultimately led to the deadline day purchase of David Luiz – and creativity is non-existent in the middle third of the field. Oscar and Matic’s pressing can create swift transitional breaks, but Conte’s side remain unconvincing when the opposition freely concedes possession.

While many had suggested Fabregas could slightly play the deep-lying playmaker role Andrea Pirlo revolutionized at Juventus, Chelsea simply don’t have the midfield shuttlers or competent defenders behind the Spaniard to provide such freedom.

“Cesc is in my plans and in Chelsea’s plans,” said Conte. “In my opinion he’s improving a lot on many aspects, above all the defensive situations. If he continues in this way, it’ll be very difficult for me to choose my midfield. But I want this from a player, putting many doubts in my mind over choosing someone else. I’m very clear with my players: when a player deserves to play, I put him in the team.”

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But Fabregas’ influence in Diego Costa’s winner at Watford, along with his two goals at Leicester in Chelsea’s midweek Capital One Cup win over Leicester, mounts pressure on Conte’s decision to start the Spaniard. However, the latter scenario involved Fabregas struggling throughout the match until Conte pushed him behind Costa and relinquished the Spaniard’s defensive duties.

Fabregas’ versatility could see Conte experiment with the Spaniard in an advanced role, but until he improves in the defensive phase – in terms of positioning, work-rate and concentration – he doesn’t merit a spot in the Chelsea XI. It appears to be a recurring issue throughout the Spaniard’s career, but it’s the key issue that’s deprived Fabregas from excelling at the biggest clubs in the world.

Throughout the span of Fabregas’ career, the 29-year-old has experienced significant changes – elite managers, proactive and reactive philosophies, and positions – but nothing is more intriguing than this upcoming showdown against Wenger’s Arsenal. It’s been five years since the Spaniard and Arsenal manager have parted ways, but with the former desperately fighting for a place in the XI and the latter still unable to mount a legitimate title challenge, it appears that very little has changed.

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2016 in Published Work

 

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PSG 1-1 Arsenal

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Alexis Sanchez and David Ospina’s heroic performances earned Arsenal a valuable point against a superior Paris Saint-Germain side.

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Arsene Wenger recalled Alexis back to the XI following a 2-1 victory over Southampton on the weekend. Alex Iwobi replaced the injured Theo Walcott meaning Olivier Giroud started the match from the bench.

Unai Emery’s 4-3-3 featured Angel Di Maria and Blaise Matuidi flanking Edinson Cavani. Meanwhile Marco Verratti and Adrien Rabiot operated as shuttlers ahead of Gregory Krychowiak.

PSG dominance was showcased over extensive periods of this match, but their profligate finishing combined with Arsenal’s resilience provided an entertaining draw.

1-0

It’s difficult to assess the significance of an early goal. Many tend to believe that it gives the superior team the onus to either increase their lead by exploiting the oppositions nerves, or provides the luxury to maintain a compact defensive shape and break on the counter. But the simplicity over PSG’s opener, here, was alarming.

PSG took the lead within the opening minute through a simple passing move where Serge Aurier stormed past Iwobi, and Di Maria’s movement pulled Laurent Koscielny out of position, thus enabling Cavani to attack the right-back’s cross at the near post. Perhaps the early goal highlights Arsenal’s lack of preparation, but surprisingly it didn’t alter the general pattern of the match.

It would be foolish for Wenger’s men to chase a game after falling behind in the opening 45 seconds, but the French side were less eager to swarm the Gunners higher up the pitch. However, the goal presented Wenger’s men with a stylistic dilemma as to whether they should persist with their initial approach – the XI suggested they intended to play on the counter – or push men forward away from home.

Arsenal’s attacking issue

The decision to field Alexis as a central forward has been quite interesting solely based on the notion that his all-round talent should transcend in central areas. This season, however, the Chilean’s difficulties as the lone striker is evident, which is partially down to his style and Wenger’s approach.

PSG’s centre-backs were pleased to see Alexis drop into midfield in search of possession – if Ozil was deeper Krychowiak would pick him up, or else Marquinhos would step forward and tightly mark the Arsenal forward. Alexis was an isolated figure throughout the first half, yet when he did receive the ball en route to goal, the wide players nor Ozil attempted to charge behind the PSG defence to offer a goal threat.

Ozil was often marked out of the match by Krychowiak and when he moved to the left, Verratti shifted to ensure Arsenal couldn’t create overloads. Iwobi and Oxlade-Chamberlain solely posed a threat when they carried the ball in transition, but rarely threatened during spells of possession. And while the full-backs rarely surged forward to offer width, both Monreal and Hector Bellerin lacked a focal point to deliver crosses to within the box.

With their key attackers struggling to find space in the final third, and the double-pivot swarmed in possession, the away side created few chances from open play. There were no aerial targets in the box which explains minimal crosses from the wide players, and PSG’s narrow defensive shape easily coped with Arsenal’s attempt to play quick intricate passes in central areas to bypass their back-line.

Aurier dominates right aids PSG

Although PSG monopolized more possession than the Gunners, neither side truly posed danger to the opposition from open play in the first half – a worry for Arsenal who scored both goals over the weekend via set-pieces. Rabiot and Verratti harried Cazorla and Coquelin out of possession, and then cycled the ball into wide areas opposed to playing penetrative passes beyond the Arsenal back-line.

This wasn’t necessarily an issues for PSG as they outmuscled and out-passed the Gunners in midfield, but their possession superiority suggested perhaps Emery’s men could have been more adventurous in the opposition’s half. Despite PSG’s inability to maintain Emery’s demanding energy levels to press and regain possession in Arsenal’s half, the French side cleverly combined and created overloads in wide areas.

Ultimately, the key player throughout was Aurier. The Ivorian created Cavani’s opener, yet he also surged into space behind Iwobi to constantly provide an outlet from the right flank. The Arsenal youngster failed to track Aurier’s running from right-back, and his first involvement subsequent to the opening goal was a quality cross through the six-yard box that forced Shkodran Mustafi to clear his lines for a corner.

Wenger’s attempt to fix the issue resulted in Oxlade-Chamberlain and Iwobi swapping flanks, yet Aurier’s threat persisted against the former and Nacho Monreal. The first attempt rolled into the side netting, whereas David Ospina was quick off his line to keep Arsenal in the match.

Aurier was undoubtedly one of PSG’s few goal-scoring outlets, here, as the right-back he drifted into key areas in the final third on several occasions and was unfortunate not to increase the French side’s lead.

Cavani

Where Aurier was the game’s key player, Cavani was heavily involved in the overall outcome. The summer departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic presented the opportunity for the Uruguayan to play in his preferred central role, but Cavani’s developed a habit of squandering great big game chances during his spell in Paris.

For the most part, Cavani’s performance, here, was peculiar: where his movement was exceptional, the finishing was woeful. The Uruguayan played off the back-line’s last shoulder to receive lofted balls from midfield. Wenger’s defence were poorly organized and easily pulled out of position which proved beneficial to the hosts.

First, Verratti shrugged off Coquelin’s challenge before his reverse ball was deflected into the path of Cavani who rounded David Ospina, but guided his shot wide of the net. Cavani then made a quick diagonal dart between Bellerin and Mustafi to chest down Di Maria’s chipped pass over the top, but he failed to make contact.

Cavani broke past Koscielny twice in the final 20 minutes of the match, but the keeper was quick off his line to deny the PSG striker from point blank range. In truth, Cavani’s profligacy in the final third proved costly, and it’s difficult to determine the current issue with the striker.

The best forwards in the world execute in 1v1 situations with the keeper, and though Cavani was once capable of doing so, his current issues in front of goal is plaguing PSG’s growth during this transitional period. Many strikers can learn from the movement that flustered the Arsenal back-line, but the finishing was surely forgettable.

Wenger makes personnel changes/Substitutes

Wenger’s substitution was evidently a key facet, here, and it may have been inspired by Alexis creating Arsenal’s best chance – the Chilean dropped into a pocket of space in the left channel, but his reverse ball into Oxlade-Chamberlain resulted in a last-ditch Thiago Silva tackle. Wenger subsequently brought on Giroud for Oxlade-Chamberlain and than Granit Xhaka for Coquelin, meaning Alexis moved to the left.

Xhaka’s physical stature and ball retention helped the Gunners sustain possession in PSG’s half, whereas Giroud presented a threat to the PSG centre-backs and kept them within the box when they retreated into their deeper second half base shape. More so, the minor alterations benefitted Alexis who freely occupied pockets of space on the left before charging forward to play reverse passes to advanced runners.

Alexis’ movement into this zone, along with his ability to shrug off Krychowiak’s challenge was pivotal to his equalizer. The Chilean dispossessed Motta and ignited a break down the left shortly afterwards that should have won the match for the Gunners, but Iwobi was denied a historic match-winner.

Aurier’s constant involvement during the first 70 minutes was superb, but as the match wore on, the right-back’s reluctance to track back into position also provided space for Alexis to exploit on the counter. With the Gunners pushing for a winner, Motta equally struggled to cope with their pressing, whereas Pastore’s introduction saw the Argentine create Cavani’s final chance that Ospina palmed away.

Furthermore, Wenger’s changes shifted the balance of match in the second half and it was fitting that Ozil and Alexis were involved in the equalizer considering the initial set-up limited their influence. Alexis offered penetration and intelligent movement, which thus led to runners springing beyond the Chilean to provide service, whilst providing space to run at defenders from deep.

Conclusion

Although this is the group-stage round, sometimes a bit of fortune is required to gain results in Europe. Arsenal were nowhere near the best in Paris, but they displayed the resilience and fight that’s consistently been missing within Wenger’s side.

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It must be said that Wenger’s decision to leave Xhaka and Giroud on the bench was odd, but he deserves credit for making the required changes to gain ascendancy. The defence still lacks familiarity, a Cazorla-Coquelin midfield is possibly to light to function as a midfield duo in Europe, whereas Giroud remains integral to Wenger’s setup. Still, this was Arsenal’s toughest match of the group and Wenger will take the point and aim to locate the correct balance throughout the XI.

Emery must be wondering how his side didn’t record maximum points following their dominant display throughout the opening 70 minutes. Ultimately matches between the best sides are defined by small margins, as the combination of Ospina’s heroics and Cavani’s poor finishing provided Arsenal a lifeline to nick a point. It appears Emery will persist with the 4-3-3 that’s been successful in recent years, but with no top class replacement available, the PSG manager must get Cavani back to his ruthless best.

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2016 in Published Work

 

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BPL Notebook Matchday 4: Guardiola’s supremacy over Mourinho ensures Manchester’s blue

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Manchester is blue.

The hype surrounding another chapter of the Jose Mourinho vs. Pep Guardiola rivalry was poised, but like several past encounters, the latter was filled with smiles at the final whistle.

They said he couldn’t do it at Stoke – albeit not being a cold Tuesday night – but Guardiola’s City mesmerized the Potters over lengthy spells. And at Old Trafford, they weren’t favourites. Despite the sensational passing moves, rejuvenated underachievers such as Raheem Sterling, and the weekly growth and understanding of Guardiola’s philosophy, City weren’t supposed to be this good in September.

Mourinho’s experience may still be the x-factor that guides Manchester United to another Premier League title, but Guardiola’s City displayed that they’re still the team to beat. Frankly, Mourinho’s past achievements and United’s stability was a non-factor – put simply, this was another outing where Guardiola out-coached his Portuguese rival.

If we base the result on performances this season, the result isn’t too surprising. United were unbeaten like City, but apart from the solid displays from the rarely tested back-line, Mourinho’s men were average. Though City showcased signs of vulnerability, their progress as a unit was evident with every game.

The first half performance at Old Trafford was their best yet, leaving Mourinho and his troops flabbergasted. City’s passing was breathtaking, the midfield was dominant, and when they pushed men forward there was an intended route to goal. Nolito and Raheem Sterling positioned themselves on the touch-line to maintain width, with the latter constantly running across Luke Shaw – it was clear Guardiola highlighted the left-back’s positioning as weakness in the United XI.

But more so, United were unable to cope with City’s counter-pressing, and their sloppy passing ensured Guardiola’s men constantly retained possession. The midfield duo of Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini’s positional awareness were exploited this season on a few occasions, and here, against genuine world-class stars in Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, United suffered profoundly.

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Neither Pogba, nor Fellaini competently tracked City’s creative dynamos and it was unsurprising that De Bruyne, in particular, was involved in both goals. The Belgian easily received various passes in pockets of space behind Fellaini, and was unmarked when he poked the ball behind Daley Blind in the buildup to City’s opener. Kelechi Iheanacho’s winner witnessed Sterling easily drift past Pogba, whereas the City striker found space behind Fellaini to receive a pass that subsequently resulted in a simple tap in.

Tactically speaking, Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1 is largely associated with Rooney’s inclusion in the XI, but even the United captain failed to negate Fernandinho’s passing from deep positions. In the past, Mourinho has often flipped his midfield to transition into a 4-3-3, which in truth, appears to be the ideal system for United – yet the Portuguese manager was reluctant to offer his defence proper protection and deploy Pogba in his preferred position.

The decision to retreat into two banks of four without pressing the centre-backs equally proved costly. Where John Stones may have been expected to be the catalyst from deep, Nicolas Otamendi was efficient on both ends of the field – the Argentine constantly located De Bruyne between the lines, and made several key interventions around the City box.

In many ways, the Guardiola – Mourinho spectacle spoiled the general viewer: even when the latter attempted to fix his initial error by shifting into a 4-3-3 to introduce Ander Herrera and Marcus Rashford, the former quickly negated United’s eight-minute spell of improvement by summoning Fernando for Iheanacho. Now City were effectively operating with De Bruyne playing through the channel, and Leroy Sane’s debut cameo ensured Guardiola could rely on a tricky wide player from the right.

United received opportunities to equalize via Rashford’s pace and Ibrahimovic’s aerial threat, while Pogba and Fellaini appeared comfortable in advanced positions, but the away side still posed several threats on the counter-attack. Even Mourinho’s traditional last-ditch substitution – replacing a defender for a striker and moving to back three – that welcomed Anthony Martial was countered by the arrival of Pablo Zabaleta, which saw Fernando drop into defence with City transitioning into a 5-4-1.

Guardiola simply had an answer for every option Mourinho relied on with hopes of salvaging a result. Perhaps this is a wakeup call for Mourinho and the Old Trafford faithful that believe they’re clear-cut favourites to return to the summit in May, as the big name signings, Mourinho’s experience, and stable core barely harmed City.

Oddly enough, while all the banter regarding Mourinho’s system change is focused around Rooney, the United captain produced one of his better performances in recent time. Rooney created Ibrahimovic’s fortuitous goal, and constantly charged forward to provide his teammates service in key areas.

Nevertheless, the dilemma with fitting Rooney into the XI sacrifices key facets that could make the difference between a title-winning team and top-four challengers, which suggests Mourinho must address his formation issue sooner rather than later. Like every manager in the league, Guardiola’s spent big this summer, but he represents a veteran Premier League manager opposed to a man attempting to find his way.

A true student of the game that always identifying various methods to defeat an opponent in the finest manner. Once doubters that the Spaniard solely required the best talent the sport has to offer will vanish quickly, as true greatness shines regardless of the circumstances.

Full-time celebrations featured the City players joining together in a group huddle and their manager congratulating the players individually for their impressive performance. Where Mourinho and his troops suffered that long walk towards the Old Trafford tunnel in defeat, the scenes on the pitch captured a significant moment in Manchester history.

For the first time since the Abu Dhabi Group United Group took over the club, City finally appear to be a team.

And that’s what makes Guardiola great.

Swansea punish Conte’s profligate Chelsea

It would be very difficult to identify how Chelsea didn’t maintain their 100% record to start the season at the Liberty Stadium. The Blues were dominant for majority of the match but failure to build on Diego Costa’s 18th minute opener proved costly.

Chelsea’s discipline out of possession has been one of the few factors that have improved under Antonio Conte, and here, they comfortably coped with Swansea’s three-man backline. Oscar and Nemanja Matic harried Leroy Fer and Ki Sung-yeung out of possession while N’Golo Kante’s consistency ahead of the back-line has been a revelation.

The away side persisted with sitting off Swansea’s centre-backs, and they also avoided pressing Jack Cork in deeper positions, yet the hosts were unable to pose a threat from open play. However, several wasted opportunities from Hazard and Costa kept Francisco Guidolin’s men in the match, and two defensive errors from Thibaut Courtois and Gary Cahill – the latter was actually fouled despite is mental lapse – witnessed the Swans score two goals in two minutes.

Although Costa walked a tightrope throughout, he remained a constant goal threat by dropping into space behind Cork, and running towards goal. Once again, the Blues required Conte’s timely substitutions to earn a point, though, as the Italian turned to Victor Moses and Cesc Fabregas. The latter ignited two Chelsea moves in a three-minute span, thus resulting in Costa’s acrobatic equalizer.

Top teams tend to struggle in the initial match following the international break – due to the vast amount of players travelling around the world to compete – but this was about Chelsea’s poor finishing opposed to fatigue. Guidolin’s formation switch prior to half-time did lead to a slight improvement in the home side’s overall play, but they still failed to create quality chances apart from that freakish two-minute spell.

In a title race consisting of the best managers in the world, Conte is aware that his Chelsea side can’t afford to concede points due to mental/defensive lapses within their half. Although Costa’s start to the season provides room for optimism, Conte requires goal contributions from the likes of Hazard, Oscar and Willian to mount a legitimate title challenge.

Liverpool’s cruise past Leicester with sheer speed

Liverpool may not lift the Premier League title in May, but similar to a Chelsea side playing no part in European competitions, the Reds should be a difficult outfit to overcome. Despite Jurgen Klopp’s side possessing a few weak areas going forward, on their day, Liverpool can compete with the best sides in the league.

The Reds weren’t keen on applying their energetic press from the front due to Leicester’s threat on the counter, which therefore witnessed the champions struggle to cope with the hosts’ pace upfront. Klopp’s men dropped into a 4-5-1 out of possession and occasionally attempted to squeeze when the opportunity presented itself, whereas Claudio Ranieri instructed the champions to prevent Liverpool from playing out the back.

Still, Leicester’s main issue revolves around Kante’s departure leaving a massive hole in midfield, and Ranieri relying on their main strengths from last season. Liverpool instantly exploited Daniel Amartey’s positional indiscipline in central areas through Firmino, who drifted from the left flank into pockets of space behind the midfielder to test Kasper Schmeichel.

Minutes later, the Reds exposed Leicester weak points – Riyad Mahrez’s unwillingness to track full-backs, and space behind Amartey – to open the scoring as James Milner received a pass behind the Leicester winger and located Firmino between the lines, as the Brazilian ran across the edge of the box to beat Schmeichel.

Meanwhile, Sadio Mane and Daniel Sturridge’s inclusion in the XI offered pace, which could explain why Liverpool were reluctant to press from the front. The former doubled the Reds’ lead but it stemmed from Sturridge breaking beyond the Leicester centre-backs, while Henderson and Firmino combined in central areas.

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Ranieri’s side encounter difficulties breaking down opponents due to the lack of a creative passer, Mahrez’s poor form, and the fact that teams have now designed defensive methods to cope with Vardy’s pace and runs into the channels. Lucas Leiva succumbed to Leicester’s high pressing to provide the away side a lifeline, but apart from one moment of brilliance between Vardy and Mahrez, the Foxes failed to pose a threat in the final third.

Firmino was the catalyst behind Liverpool’s key moves throughout, and his influence improved when he moved into a central position following Sturridge’s departure. The Brazilian’s outside runs into half-space led to key chances for Henderson and Mane, and when the latter rounded an onrushing Schmeichel, Firmino coolly doubled his goal tally.

While Leicester’s inability to evolve this summer currently coincides with their issues, Klopp’s astutely outwitted Ranieri. Firmino’s movement, the decision to retreat into their base shape, and the speed of Sturridge and Mane were the key elements to the perfect performance. Often capable of raising their level against the superior sides in the league, the Reds must identify ways to replicate performances of this stature on a weekly basis.

Southampton frontman woes surface at the Emirates

Another positive away display against a top side saw Southampton drop points against an uninspiring Arsenal side. Failure to replace Mane and Graziano Pelle lingered throughout the Southampton XI to start the season. They were highly impressive at Old Trafford, and here, once again, the Saints failed to capitalize on a positive performance.

The overall pattern of the match was predictable, yet extremely tame with all three goals created via set-pieces. Arsenal dominated possession with debutant Lucas Perez’s penalty box presence fairly non-existent, and Southampton’s narrow 4-5-1 limiting space within central areas. Unfortunately for the Saints, they lack a centre-forward capable of holding up play, nor were they capable of putting together enough passes to mount counter attacks.

Likewise, Arsenal’s buildup play was extremely frustrating: the crosses from wide areas were over-hit, while Mesut Ozil endured a quiet outing by his standards. Claude Puel’s decision to introduce Shane Long pushed Redmond to the right and Tadic upfront, thus ultimately leading to the former squandering two 1v1 chances with Petr Cech from point-blank range.

Alexis Sanchez and Olivier Giroud were summoned shortly after the hour mark, but besides the contentious penalty call for Jose Fonte’s slight pull on the latter, neither attacker influenced the match. Perhaps the decision to award Arsenal a stoppage time penalty was harsh, but this was further evidence that justifies the notion that Southampton desperately require a goal-scorer upfront.

The midfield is young and talented and the back-line remains solid, but Puel’s men will struggle to win games if they don’t address their inadequacies upfront.

Everton newcomers make their mark in Lukaku goal-fest

Ronald Koeman’s appointment at Goodison Park went under the radar, but his influence on a Toffee side that underachieved last season is gaining prominence. Romelu Lukaku’s 11-minute hat-trick will rightly dominate headlines, but Idrissa Gueye and Yannick Bolasie’s direct dominance was the catalyst behind Everton’s triumph at the Stadium of Light.

David Moyes’ Sunderland adopted a deep defensive block to fluster an Everton side still deprived of a genuine creator in advanced positions, and courageously coped with the away side’s first half territorial dominance. Ross Barkley barely found space to exploit beyond Jan Kirchhoff, Bolasie’s role from the right meant he could only deliver crosses into the box, whereas Lukaku was unable to roll his defender around the box to test the keeper.

The one evident change in Everton’s overall game is the direct power and dribbling from Bolasie on the flanks and Gueye’s dynamism in midfield. Sunderland couldn’t cope with either player in their respected position, and when Koeman opted to replace Barkley for Gerard Deulofeu, and swap Bolasie to his preferred left flank, the Black Cats were overwhelmed by Everton’s pace.

Bolasie’s threat from the left persisted in the opening 15 minutes of the second half, but a rapid second half counter involved Gueye clipping a far post cross for Lukaku to nod Everton into the lead. Gueye also contributed to Lukaku’s quick snapshot off the crossbar prior to Bolasie driving past Javier Manquillo to create the Belgian’s second goal from a far post cross.

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Mirallas and Deulofeu combined to complete Lukaku’s hat-trick, but Everton played to last year’s strengths by breaking swiftly on the counter-attack. Nonetheless, Bolasie’s presence and ability to evade challenges, create chances and score goals, along with Gueye’s drive in central areas, offers an additional element to Everton’s game.

With 20 minutes to spare Everton comfortably humbled their former manager in a devastating manner. Lukaku offers Koeman the non-existent goal-threat witnessed in Everton’s opening three games, but in terms of penetration – without a creative passer around the final third – Gueye and Bolasie’s direct play may suffice.

Results

Manchester United 1-2 Manchester City, Bournemouth 1-0 West Brom, Middlesbrough 1-2 Crystal Palace, Stoke City 0-4 Spurs, Burnley 1-1 Hull City, West Ham 2-4 Watford, Arsenal 2-1 Southampton, Liverpool 4-1 Leicester, Swansea 2-2 Chelsea, Sunderland 0-3 Everton

Weekend Stats

  • Ronald Koeman is the 1st Everton boss since Thomas McIntosh in 1919 to win his first two competitive away games in charge of the Toffees.
  • Romelu Lukaku recorded the first hat-trick of the 2016/2017 Premier League season, and it was the 12th quickest scored in the division’s history (11 mins, 37 secs).
  • Thibaut Courtois has received more red cards (2) & given away more penalties (3) than any other GK in the PL since August 2015.
  • Liverpool have scored more Premier League goals in 2016 than any other team (50).
  • Harry Kane has become the fourth Spurs player to score 50 Premier League goals (after Sheringham, Defoe and Keane).
  • Jose Mourinho has won just one of his last ten meetings with Pep Guardiola. (drawn four and lost five).
 
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Posted by on September 13, 2016 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Arsene Wenger’s late transfer signings won’t save his job unless trophies are delivered

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Arsenal’s vain start to their 2016/2017 Premier League campaign indicates that perhaps some things don’t change.

We’re less than a month into the season and many were classifying Arsenal as a team in crisis, which in truth, is extremely harsh. The Gunners have been down this road in recent years, and though their opening fixtures were testing, many believed Arsene Wenger would learn from past mistakes and have his side prepared for the most intriguing Premier League season ever.

Only Granit Xhaka joined last year’s runner-ups at the Emirates prior to the season’s commencement, leaving many to once again question the manager’s ambition. This has developed into classic Wenger: a man not eager to join in on the “splash the cash culture,” but rather prefers to identify the best financial deal for his club.

Where potential contenders Manchester United and Manchester City concluded their summer activity swiftly, Arsenal were still seeking reinforcements that would convince many that they’re capable of materializing a proper title challenge. However, this has been an issue for several managers within the league as well. Antonio Conte has most recently expressed his discontent regarding the current state a player’s valuation.

“At this moment it’s very difficult to buy because, also, if you ask a player of the medium level, a club might ask for £55m. For this reason, it’s a crazy market. It’s very difficult to enter the market with these prices and in this condition,” said Conte.

“I’m not comfortable [paying over the odds]. I don’t like to pay a lot of money. If a player warrants us paying [lots of] money, then it’s right. But for a medium player, it’s right only to pay the right price, not £20m-30m over. That’s not right. The money is not mine, but I don’t like it the same. I don’t find it right.”

But where Conte is joining a new league with the aim of building a new squad, Wenger’s duties are simply straightforward. The Frenchman has maintained the same core squad over the past few seasons, and though many wholeheartedly believe that a world-class striker and centre-back are required to guide the Gunners amongst Europe’s elite, most late transfer window purchases tend to backfire.

Essentially some of those late window transfer purchases have been successful. Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil both joined the Gunners for hefty price tags and equally represent the quality Arsenal supporters expect at the Emirates. Wenger’s frugal policy, and the fact that these players were surplus to requirements at Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona, may diminishes Arsenal’s transfer achievement, but most Premier League clubs, if not all, have encountered difficulties attracting the best players in the world to move to England.

But apart from Jose Mourinho’s recent spending at Chelsea and Manchester United, Kevin De Bruyne’s move to Manchester City’s represents the sole move by a Premier League club for a top-class player since Robin van Persie moved to Old Trafford. Yet when the opportunity was presented to bolster his striking options, Wenger’s economical view towards player valuation may have proved costly.

Certainly Jamie Vardy’s decision to resign a new contract at Leicester was inexorable, but the manner in which Wenger handled Luis Suarez’s desire to claim silverware was poor. Here was a genuine world-class striker capable of winning games on his own sharing the same ambition as the club supporters and the players, yet Suarez slipped through the cracks and subsequently played a key role in Barcelona’s historic treble winning season afterwards.

Perhaps wages played a factor, and Arsenal may have cooped Sanchez to cope with such failure, but that is a prime example as to why Gunners supporters are enraged. Where Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho sought after targets and quickly closed deals, Arsenal’s deadline day deals for striker Lucas Perez and defender Shkodran Mustafi represents a desperation move.

Perez is a quick, tricky striker that scored more La Liga goals than any other Spaniard last season, whereas Mustafi’s contributions for Germany at Euro 2016 regained the defender’s prominence and will aid a wounded Arsenal back-line. Nonetheless, considering Wenger didn’t initially sought after the duo as potential targets, you can only assume that the signings were mainly to please frustrated fans.

In truth, Wenger did quickly snatch Granit Xhaka off the market, yet the fact that he’s not a world-class star may serve as a defence. Frankly, the days of world-class talent competing in the Premier League during their prime years are gone, as many now turn to England when they’re no longer wanted or can’t break into an elite side.

Arsenal’s current squad was more than capable of winning last year’s title, and can equally challenge this year – even without their deadline day moves. You can’t question any fan base’s ambition regarding their side being strengthened, but Arsenal’s issues rest within the side’s structure rather than the personnel.

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Injuries to Gabriel and Per Mertesacker have left Wenger’s centre-back options scarce, and while neither Calum Chambers nor Rob Holding represent a long-term competent partner for Laurent Koscielny, they could’ve sufficed until the former returns. Still, Mustafi provides additional quality to the back-line, but he’s more of a proactive defender than a natural ball-player, which simply doesn’t offer the correct balance at the back – the competition with a returning Gabriel could prove beneficial, though.

Likewise, for all of the squabble regarding Olivier Giroud’s form, the Frenchman still remains integral to the Arsenal attack. Giroud’s holdup and link up play invites midfielder runners forward and drags defenders out of position, while his aerial presence around the box is unmatched. Surely Giroud’s finishing isn’t on the level of the league’s elite forwards like Sergio Aguero or Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but he still guarantees you 10-15 Premier League goals per season.

Perez, however, doesn’t appear to be the player capable of significantly changing Arsenal’s fortunes upfront nor cementing a permanent place in the XI. Danny Welbeck’s injuries have hampered Wenger’s options upfront, as the England international’s pace stretches back-lines, whilst offering a divergent direct threat. A Welbeck-Giroud partnership, or the ability to summon the former off the bench is promising, yet Arsenal have coped well without Welbeck available.

“He’s [Perez] not only a goalscorer, he’s a guy who combines well with partners, who can give a final ball and makes good runs,” Wenger told Arsenal.com.

“He’s got a good eye for goal and had an outstanding season last year.”

While the traditional title challengers have improved their squad and manager, the latter should be the biggest fear surrounding Arsenal’s title and top four challenge. Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola have already offered the required signs of improvement regarding their sides’ defensive shape along with their pressing scheme, whereas Jose Mourinho has arguably inherited the strongest and already proved successful in this competition.

Wenger must follow suit, which could explain the signing of Xhaka: a great passer of the ball that’s also possesses a physical side to his came by breaking into tackles to win possession throughout midfield. Arsenal’s overall squad can dispatch of inferior opposition with ease, but they tend to drop points against the top half of the tables – tactically astute sides that emphasize the importance of defensive structure yet equally possess a shrewd attacking plan.

Although Wenger’s men recorded four of a possible nine points to start the season, it’s still premature to decipher whether they’ve improved in this phase either. Their pressing nullified Liverpool’s threat in the first half of opening weekend, but fatigue forced them to sit back in the second, which enabled Liverpool’s nifty attackers to bypass the midfield and exploit a makeshift back-line.

The following week, Xhaka’s debut and the return of Laurent Koscielny witnessed a stark improvement, as the latter’s pace proved pivotal in preventing Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy from scoring. Last year, Arsenal defeated Leicester in both encounters, and though the Gunners are stylistically suited to take on the champions, their ability to limit counter-attacks shouldn’t be overlooked.

Although Watford clearly lack a calculated attacking ploy, Arsenal from a defensive aspect: Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were disciplined in wide areas, Mesut Ozil stuck tight to Valon Behrami, while Xhaka’s ball-winning skills ensured the Gunners maintained control of central areas. Alexis continuously drifted towards the left flank to exploit Younes Kaboul’s lack of pace, while the return of Ozil offered Arsenal the precise passing and creativity the Gunners lacked in previous matches.

On the other hand, there’s no doubt the Gunners can “win ugly,” the worry lies in Wenger providing consistency to his side’s reactive performances. For instance, last season Arsenal bypassed United’s sluggish pressing, with Ozil serving as chief creator between the lines – space behind Bastian Schweinsteiger – Alexis dominating Mateo Darmian from the left, and Theo Walcott breaking forward in transition.

A similar home win against European giants, Bayern Munich, offered optimism. The Gunner’s remained narrow and compact out of possession to thwart Bayern’s attempt to dominate the centre of the pitch, and broke forward quickly via Ozil combining with wide players to create overloads on the flanks. But Arsenal’s inability to consistently defend in this manner has developed into an extremely frustrating dilemma.

Nevertheless, its still too early to set Arsenal’s fate. With so many key players unavailable it only appears logical that results will improve. Ultimately this all rests on Wenger – regardless if late signings completed ahead of the window’s conclusion, it appears anything less than a title triumph would be deemed a failure. In what could be a defining season for the future of Arsenal Football Club, minor modifications regarding Arsenal’s work-rate out of possession and overall structure could provide a fairy-tale.

Wenger practically has two players for every position, and various options to adjust to several threats, but simply can’t seem to identify a competent manner to defend that provides consistent results. Its evident Arsenal can compete, and beat the best teams in the world, but the lack of preparation and direction has been their downfall over the years, thus providing yearly stagnation and a potential decline as others evolve.

Where other clubs were forced to spend excessive transfer fees to return to their expected status, Wenger simply has to grasp the evolution of the modern-game and channel the inner pragmatism that separates the fine margins between champion and runner-up.

Against some of the best coaches of our generation Wenger’s Arsenal faces an arduous battle between his footballing beliefs and success, and how he fares will certainly determine the North London club and Frenchman’s future at the Emirates.

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2016 in EPL, Published Work

 

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