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Real Madrid 4-1 Atletico Madrid

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Courtesy of Flickr/Ver en vivo En Directo

Despite an ineffective first half display, Real Madrid came from behind to claim their 10th European title.

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Pattern

With this being the fifth meeting between the two sides this season, there was a good chance that the pattern of the match would be the same. Both sides prefer to play on the counter, but the manner in which they attack on the break is slightly different.

As displayed against Bayern Munich and Barcelona this season, Real prefer to sit deeper and utilize the pace of Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo to punish opponents. Atletico, on the other hand, press the opposition in midfield and look to facilitate the ball to their forwards, as they’re positioned to receive the ball while running due to their deep positioning.

Simeone’s side, though, won La Liga averaging less than 50% of possession, and similar to previous encounters, Real dominated possession and was forced to unlock an organized Atletico defence.

Madrid’s issue

The main issue Madrid encountered during three of the four meaningful matches with their cross-town rivals this season was the ability to create goal-scoring opportunities. Even their 3-0 victory in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinal was flattering, as two of the three goals took heavy deflections.

Ancelotti opted to play Khedira –– who featured in 117 minutes of action since his return from a six-month layoff –– ahead of Illarramendi who’s been exploited in high-profile matches on a few occasions this season. Experience was a factor in Ancelotti’s decision, along with the German’s mobility, tenacity, and strength. Khedira, however, was fielded as the single-pivot in midfield.

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Similar to the first Madrid derby at the Bernabeu, Khedira’s presence was futile as he constantly decreased Real’s passing tempo, and his distribution was conservative. Atletico dropped into their traditional two banks of four to limit productivity in their third and central areas.

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Likewise, Luka Modric and Angel Di Maria were forced to receive the ball near the halfway line to avoid Atletico’s press, thus impeding their impact on the match. Simeone’s side also pressed Madrid higher up the pitch –– more often in the earlier stages and when Costa was on the pitch –– as they aimed to quickly break into Real’s box. Villa and substitute Adrian Lopez harried Khedira when he received the ball, and the former also applied pressure on Modric in these areas.

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In the first half, Real failed to test goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. Real’s best chance was created through Tiago’s misplaced pass at the half-hour mark. The pass fell to Bale, but as the Welshman ran into the box, desperate lunges from Tiago and Miranda forced the 24-year-old to steer his shot wide of the net.

Equally, Atletico’s shape without the ball must be lauded. Simeone’s men have impressively contained Bale and Ronaldo’s threat this season, and that continued in Lisbon. Both wide players prefer to drift into central areas to score goals, and while the Atletico wide players closed down passing lanes, Gabi and Tiago protected their back four admirably.

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Bale occasionally dropped deeper to retain the ball, but in the opening half neither Karim Benzema nor Ronaldo touched the ball in Atletico’s box.

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1-0

Adrian replaced Costa in the ninth minute, and suddenly Simeone was left with the XI many expected the Argentine to initially field. Ultimately this left Atletico’s attack limited in open play. It’s likely that Simeone would play Garcia behind Costa –– for his defensive pressure and offensive aerial threat –– with Turan on the flank, but with his best offensive options unavailable, set pieces appeared to be their best hope.

Prior to the goal, Atletico continuously aimed to overload the left flank, and deliver crosses to Garcia at the far post, as he attempted to isolate Fabio Coentrao. David Villa no longer offers the goal-threat he once did a few years ago, whereas apart from Adrian’s pace –– which forced Varane into conceding the corner that led to Diego Godin’s opener –– the 26-year-old’s threat upfront was scarce.

Subsequently, Varane half-heartedly cleared Gabi’s corner, and Juanfran instantly nodded the ball back into the box, but with Iker Casillas yards off his line, Godin out jumped Khedira and nodded the ball into the net. It was Godin’s eighth goal of the season –– all headers –– and without Costa it was the likely source for an Atletico goal.

Di Maria

Nevertheless, Real’s success always lied in the hands of Di Maria and Modric. Heading into the match they were two players that were required to perform if Real intended on claiming La Decima. The duo was outstanding in Real’s first leg Copa del Rey triumph, and in their draw at the Calderon, Turan and Koke nullified their strengths.

Here, however, Di Maria was the best player on the pitch. Often referred to as underrated, and rarely considered a big game player, the Argentine has developed into one of Madrid’s most important players since Ancelotti implemented the 4-3-3 system at the turn of the year.

Initially, Di Maria was instructed to play crosses from deep positions into the box. Although Atletico’s back four is dominant in aerial duels, the Argentine’s deliveries from deep have tormented Simeone’s men in every encounter this season. In the first half, though, a mixture of poor crossing, and lack of movement in the box meant Di Maria’s deliveries were ineffective.

Real required the Argentine’s dynamism in midfield, and his sharp runs from deeper positions tormented Atletico’s back four. In the early stages, referee Björn Kuipers, wrongly awarded advantage following Di Maria’s sensational run –– where Gabi fouled him –– which led to Coentrao breaking free into the box from the left channel.

That was a warning to Simeone’s men, as Di Maria forced Garcia and Miranda into bookings with his powerful runs from midfield. Meanwhile, in the second half, Juanfran feared that the Argentine would once again cause havoc in the final third, thus resulting in a cynical challenge subsequent to Di Maria’s first touch.

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Di Maria’s dynamism in midfield made him Real’s most proactive player on the field, as he produced another breathtaking performance.

Atletico go 4-2-3-1 

Simeone wasn’t getting the best out of Adrian as the highest attacker in Atletico’s 4-4-2, so the Argentine adopted a 4-2-3-1 in the second half. The alteration was beneficial to Atletico as they began to exploit key areas in Real’s third, whereas Adrian and Koke enjoyed a fine 10 minute spell on the left flank.

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Now Koke and Adrian were on the flanks –– with Koke drifting into central areas to become a third passer in midfield  –– and Garcia sat behind Villa as the main target man. Garcia played this role to perfection in the 2-2 draw at the Calderon this season, but the two wide players thrived in the early stages of the second half.

In the 49th minute, Filipe Luis dispossessed Dani Carvajal in Real’s third, and then played a pass to Koke who drifted over to the left flank to create the overload. Koke then delivered a cross towards the far post for Garcia, but the Spaniard side-volleyed his effort over the bar. Afterwards, the 22-year-old delivered another promising cross into Real’s box, and Coentrao’s header cleared the ball into Adrian’s feet, but his shot deflected off Khedira for a corner.

Equally, Adrian’s pace and ability to evade challenges in tight spaces enabled him to get the better of Carvajal –– along with Isco and Modric –– on a few occasions, but the 26-year-old lacked an incisive final ball. In terms of attacks created from open play, this was Atletico’s best spell, but their habit of not finishing their chances in big games led to their downfall.

Swapped formations

Ancelotti quickly reacted to Simeone’s changes by introducing Marcelo and Isco for Coentrao and the underwhelming Khedira. Madrid effectively transitioned into a 4-4-2 with Isco and Modric sitting in midfield, while Di Maria was positioned on the left flank.

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Seven minutes later, Simeone replaced the fatigued Garcia for Jose Sosa, thus leaving Villa upfront on his own. Atletico were now shaped in a 4-3-3, but due to Real’s superiority in possession, Simeone’s men were pegged into their half and they were more of a 4-5-1. 

Atletico’s limited options on the bench may have forced Simeone to preserve his lead, and unlike previous meetings he reacted to Real’s offensive changes.

Real dominate

However, Ancelotti’s changes were identical to the ones made in the league showdown at the Calderon. There he started the match with two defensive-minded fullbacks before introducing Marcelo and Carvajal. Marcelo’s passing, dribbling and goal presence is superior to Coentrao’s, which explains the logic in the substitution.

Real also lacked a link between midfield and attack without Alonso, so Isco was introduced to exploit pockets of space as Atletico’s press decreased. Atletico’s players tired –– which is understandable due to their dynamic style of play and it being the final game of the season –– and with Simeone lacking match-changing options on the bench, or a threat on the counter, his men were forced to hang on.

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Modric was now the deepest midfielder and the Croatian dictated the tempo of the match. Isco also served as a reliable passer, as well as comfortably retaining possession in the final third. Modric’s run towards the box led to Ronaldo and Benzema exchanging passes, before Isco fired a shot wide of the net. Isco also received a glorious chance to win the match courtesy of Carvajal’s chipped pass and his wonderful first touch, and turn, but Godin made a remarkable last-ditch tackle to maintain their slender lead.

Real camped in Atletico’s half for the remaining 25 minutes, and their were two variations to their attack. The first being quick combination plays around the box. Modric’s pass into Ronaldo saw the Portuguese forward play in Bale, but the 24-year-old fired his shot wide of the net. Subsequently, Bale and Ronaldo combined and the 24-year-old winger received a pass from the current Ballon d’Or winner behind the Atletico defence, but Godin’s pressure forced the Welshman to guide his shot into the side netting.

Secondly, Di Maria continued to play crosses into the box from the left flank, but last-ditch clearances from every member of Simeone’s defence preserved Atletico’s lead. Considering Atletico’s successful set-piece defending, it was surprising to see Simeone’s men concede a goal in this manner. However, Real’s inability to create legitimate goal-scoring opportunities against Atletico, and Ramos’ imperious form decreases the shock value; it was one of the few ways for Ancelotti’s men to equalize.

Ramos’ well-timed run towards the centre of the box allowed the Spaniard to get ahead of Tiago and nod Modric’s corner past Courtois with seconds to spare. Ancelotti’s offensive changes altered the tempo and pattern of the match, and Real were rewarded with a stoppage-time equalizer.

Extra-time

Simeone’s final change occurred minutes prior to Ramos’ equalizer as Toby Alderweireld replaced an injured Filipe Luis. Likewise, an injured Juanfran was forced to continue the match hobbling, as Atletico utilized their three available subs.

Nevertheless, the pattern of the match didn’t change. Villa did well to hold up the ball at times, but he doesn’t offer the physical presence Costa possesses, and he couldn’t outpace Varane and Ramos. When Atletico lost the ball it was immediately cleared back to Real, and with Simeone’s men wary of being exposed on the counter, they opted to soak up the pressure and play for penalties.

But in the second half of extra-time Real were rewarded for their persistent attacking. Di Maria evaded Juanfran and Miranda’s challenges following his run from the left flank, and while Courtois saved his initial effort, Bale nodded the rebound into the open net. Marcelo and Ronaldo added two more goals as the final 10 minutes was drab.

Conclusion

This match was similar to their league encounter at the Calderon. Atletico controlled the opening hour, but Ancelotti utilized his bench effectively in the second half to exploit Simeone’s side.

Costa’s ability to work the channels, break on the counter, and disturb Real’s centre backs were missed, and Atletico didn’t possess an attacking threat in open play.

“It was my responsibility to have [Diego Costa] play and obviously I made a mistake because I had to switch him as early as I did; obviously he wasn’t as good as he had been the day before. That was my decision to make. We looked at each other, we caught each other’s eye, and we didn’t want to waste part of the game with one less player,” Simeone said.

“What was most difficult was to get the equalizer. We didn’t have any space, Atlético defended very well, but we tried every way possible, right to the end – we managed to do it and then the game changed completely. The goal we scored gave us a lot of strength and after that perhaps we wanted the victory more,” Ancelotti said.

Frankly, the score-line doesn’t do Atletico justice; this was a remarkable season –– winning La Liga and reaching the Champions League final ––  in which the likes of Porto, Milan, Chelsea, Barcelona and Real failed to beat them in normal time.

Still, this was a straightforward tactical showdown. In ways Simeone is similar to Mourinho –– from the petulance to the methodical approach –– but here, defensive organization and tactical discipline couldn’t overshadow a meager bench and minimal transitional attacks.

That enabled Ancelotti’s side to dominate the latter stages of the match, and with the help of Di Maria’s dynamism and key changes, Real emerged victorious.

 
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Posted by on May 25, 2014 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Tottenham 0-5 Liverpool

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Courtesy of: Football.ua

Liverpool produced a scintillating performance at White Hart Lane, which sees them climb to second in the table.

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Andre Villas-Boas made two changes to his side, introducing Roberto Soldado and Sandro to the starting line up.

Brendan Rodgers was forced to make one change to the side that defeated West Ham last week, as Lucas was placed in midfield for the injured Steven Gerrard.

Rodgers’ men were exceptional – they attacked and defended well as a unit, but most importantly they exposed Spurs’ highline.

Pressing

A key component heading into this fixture was how both sides would approach the match without the ball. In possession, they both rely on ball retention, yet defensively they intend on applying pressure, and closing down their opponents in their third.

Spurs attempted to press Liverpool from the back with Soldado and Paulinho closing down the two centre backs, but Lucas Leiva dropped between Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho as the spare man. At times, Aaron Lennon and Moussa Dembele pushed forward to press Lucas, and a Liverpool fullback, but Nacer Chadli’s deep positioning provided Rodgers’ men with a passing outlet.

The odd feat in AVB’s approach was their reluctance to press in midfield. Spurs maintained an extremely high-line, but they allowed Liverpool’s midfield space and time to play passes across the pitch. The only defence Villas-Boas could make is Liverpool’s aim to overload central areas – Rodgers’ men already had a numerical advantage in central areas, but with Phillippe Coutinho drifting infield, Spurs were outnumbered 4v2.

Liverpool down the right

A common feat in the first half was Liverpool’s aim to isolate Kyle Naughton. Prior to Liverpool’s opener, Rodgers’ men constantly looked to overload and play balls behind the Spurs left back.

  • 10th min: Henderson played a lovely diagonal ball to Raheem Sterling, and the Liverpool winger cut to his right, beating Naughton, and forcing him to foul Sterling at the edge of the 18-yard box.
  • 11th min: Sterling intercepts Dembele’s pass and plays a one-two with Coutinho, before slipping a ball to Allen – behind Naughton – who delivers a cross into the box, thus leading to Sterling firing his shot over the net.
  • 15th min: Etienne Capoue fails to clear Lucas’ corner, and the ball falls to Sterling, who cuts to his right, beats the Frenchman for space and drives a venomous cross into the box.
  • 17th min: Coutinho drifted infield, dragging Chadli and Lennon out of position, before slipping a ball into Sterling. Chadli recovered his run, but was also beaten for pace by Sterling, but the Liverpool winger’s cross went right into Hugo Lloris’ hands.
  • 47th min: Sterling got the better of Lewis Holtby by cutting towards the byline, and his lofted cross was met by Sakho, who nodded the ball off the post.

Sterling was Liverpool’s main threat leading up to Suarez’s opening goal – Rodgers utilized his pace, and instructed his men to play him into 1v1 situations. Naughton struggled throughout the entire half, and Ezekiel Fryers replaced him at half time.

1-0

Subsequently, Liverpool took the lead a minute after Sterling’s final threat in the opening 20 minutes. There’s no denying the quality of the finish, or Henderson’s influence on the situation, but the manner in which Spurs conceded was appalling.

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Above we see Spurs’ shape after Dawson’s timely sliding interception to prevent Henderson from breaking free on goal. We also see Suarez behind Dembele, Sandro and Capoue.

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Henderson’s persistence allowed him to nick the ball away from Dawson to play in Suarez, and the Uruguayan – who was initially behind the three Spurs players – ran onto the ball, anticipated Walker’s slide, swayed to the left and coolly slotted his shot past Lloris.

While Henderson’s run and determination plays a pivotal role towards the build-up of the goal, the work ethic and positional awareness of the Spurs trio was diabolical.

Spurs’ highline

The most evident feat throughout the match was Spurs’ vulnerability maintaining an organized high-line, and Liverpool’s aim to get runners behind it. It also didn’t help that Villas-Boas was without Jan Vertonghen and Vlad Chiriches, thus forcing him to pair Capoue and Dawson against Suarez.

However, it was peculiar to see AVB stick with this approach, considering his results against both Manchester clubs this season. At the Ethiad, City blitzed Spurs’ backline, defeating them by six goals. Yet, against United, Spurs sat a few yards deeper and focused on minimizing passing lanes, and space between the lines.

Here, they reverted to the approach at the Ethiad, which ultimately made Rodger’s approach straightforward.

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  • 21st min: Sterling and Joe Allen dispossessed Chadli at the halfway line, and Sterling drove forward and played Suarez through, but the Uruguayan failed to slip his shot past Lloris.

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  • 23rd min: A simple Lucas long ball stretched Spurs’ backline and set Coutinho free on the left flank.

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  • 27th min: Lucas played a quick pass to Coutinho off a free kick, and the Brazilian spotted Suarez’s simple run into half-space. Suarez did well to hold the ball up, and cut it back to Coutinho, and his shot rattled the cross bar.

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  • 33rd min: A simple hoofed clearance from Martin Skrtel, sees Suarez run past the Spurs high-line and nearly double Liverpool’s lead. Lloris mistimed his header, and it fell to Suarez, but the French keeper did well to recover and deny the Uruguayan.

Villas-Boas’ approach was eccentric – he instructed his men to play a high-line, but no pressure was applied on the midfield, and Liverpool were allowed to easily bypass the Spurs midfield. Meanwhile, it was beneficial to Suarez, who is renowned for making runs into the channels and behind the backline.

This was a poor tactical approach from AVB, yet this isn’t the first time his preferred high-line has failed him in a big match.

Henderson

Although Suarez may steal all the headlines based on his great form, and outstanding goal return, it’s key to note that Henderson was magnificent at White Hart Lane. At times, Henderson found himself in deeper positions playing long diagonals and retaining possession, but Spurs were unable to cope with his dynamism from midfield.

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Henderson’s energetic runs from deep positions were integral to the buildup for three Liverpool goals. Rodgers was aware of Villas-Boas tactical naivety, and he encouraged the Liverpool midfielder to push forward and attack open space.

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  • 17th min: Henderson attacked space between Walker and Dawson, which gave Suarez a positive passing option. Dawson may have intercepted the pass, but Henderson’s run and persistence handed him the opportunity to lay the ball off for Suarez, thus leading to his opener.

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  • 39th min: Henderson starts his run at half between Lennon and Paulinho, and the Liverpool midfielder surges forward unmarked, and runs into space to receives Coutinho’s lay off. Lloris stopped Henderson and Suarez’s efforts, but the Englishman did well to convert the third attempt.

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  • 74th min: Henderson makes a run behind Chadli and into the space between Capoue and Walker. Walker does well to force Henderson wide, but he provides a nifty back heel to Suarez, who picks out Jon Flanagan at the back post, and he fires his shot off the cross bar to give Liverpool a 3-0 lead.
Henderson better view 3-0 run

A better angle of Henderson beginning to make a run behind Chadli, into open space

Better view 3-0 Henderson

Henderson continues his run and attacks the space

Henderson’s role was pivotal to Liverpool’s success at White Hart Lane. He was a proficient distributor from deep positions –  alongside Allen he pressed Dembele, Sandro and Paulinho out of the match, and his energetic runs from midfield tormented the Spurs backline.

Second half

Spurs responded well in the second half as Liverpool oddly dropped deeper into their third, but Soldado missed two opportunities to cut down the two-goal deficit. While Spurs pushed forward, Liverpool had clear opportunities to expose Villas-Boas’ men on the counter – led by Henderson – but they often lacked the final ball.

Ultimately, Paulinho’s red card midway through the second half ended any chance of Spurs mounting a comeback. With Sandro’s injury in the first half, Dembele’s departure for Andros Townsend and Paulinho’s sending off, AVB was forced to field Lewis Holtby and Chadli in a 4-4-1.

Liverpool received more space in midfield to retain possession, and Rodgers’ men surprisingly only scored three goals, despite creating numerous opportunities.

Conclusion

This was a fantastic Liverpool performance, but it’s difficult to ignore Villas-Boas’ tactical naivety. The Portuguese manager looked to have learned from his mistakes based on his approach against United, but is eagerness to revert to back to his preferred philosophy has been suicidal. It let AVB down in big games throughout his career in England, and this time it cost him his job at White Hart Lane.

Rodgers’ men were diligent out of possession, and isolated Spurs’ deficiencies at every opportunity. Liverpool targeted Naughton, nullified their holding midfielders, and used an energetic midfielder to penetrate open space. The result will build confidence in the Liverpool dressing room, but it’s unlikely that they’ll enjoy such freedom on their trips to City and Chelsea – until then, it’s difficult to categorize Liverpool’s role in the title race.

 
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Posted by on December 16, 2013 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Gareth Bale’s Galactico expectations require time

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Gareth Bale is encountering an arduous situation at the Santiago Bernabeu. It’s been two months since Bale made the move to Real Madrid, and the Welshman has been vilified and harshly scrutinized by the Spanish media. The rapid influx in fans, owners and the media demanding immediate success has somewhat tarnished modern day football, as players and manager’s are continuously under severe pressure. Despite all the negativity surrounding Bale, it’s shocking to know that he was a household favourite a few months ago.

Tottenham Hotspur supporters were on the edge of their seats when Bale received the ball on the right flank in their final game of the season against Sunderland. Had it been a few years ago, he may have opted to pass the ball or attempt a pacy dash towards the byline to provide a cross – but not this time. His confidence was oozing off his sweaty skin and fear was expressed in the Adam Mitchell’s eyes, as there was only one logical outcome.

The 24-year-old Welshman cut infield with his fancied left foot and curled the ball with precision and pace, humbling Simon Mignolet as could do nothing but watch the ball fly into the top corner, despite his efforts to make a save. White Hart Lane erupted. Spurs faithful adapted to Bale’s brilliance throughout the season, and this was just another piece of magic to add to the highlight reel.

Bale ran towards the Spurs supporters jubilant, knowing that this would be the last time he’d share a moment of this magnitude at White Hart Lane. The celebration was more of a ‘come get me NOW’ opposed to a sign of hope that relied on their London rivals dropping points on the final day of the season to solidify fourth place.

Daniel Levy’s most prized asset was ready to make the big jump abroad, despite the North London side earning a club-high 72 points. Truthfully, it was foreseeable. Bale’s vast growth into a world-class player couldn’t be ignored. He thrived in a no.10 position under Andre Villas-Boas that handed the Welshman a free role to roam around the final third searching for gaps and openings in the opposition’s backline. However, he maintained defensive responsibility by quickly closing down centre backs to complement Spurs’ high-pressing game.

The pressure of living up to the ‘galactico’ billing is insurmountable. However, Bale – the 11th galactico – had bigger shoes to fill as his summer transfer to Real Madrid made him the world’s most expensive player. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to know that on two separate occasions, Bale’s career hung by a thread.

Bale’s athleticism was evident at a young age. The Welshman excelled in rugby, hockey and track-field throughout school, but football was Bale’s top priority.  The Welshman’s PE teacher Gwyn Morris was aware of the Welshman’s talent and challenged him to improve other aspects of his game by forcing Bale to play one-touch football and predominantly use his weaker right foot, as he was superior to the rest of his schoolmates.

Southampton youth scout Rod Ruddick spotted the Welshman when he played for Cardiff Civil Service in a U-9 five-a-side tournament in Newport, Wales. “Even at the age of eight Gareth had fantastic ability. When you sign a player at that age it is because they have great potential and he has just kept getting better,” Ruddick said.

“You could see his pace and quality on the training pitch but I think his left foot helped him stand out. What we saw then we knew he was going to be something special,” he added.

Bale worked his way through Southampton’s satellite academy, but his recurring back injuries sustained from a growth spurt, nearly prevented him from receiving a full-time scholarship.

The Welshman signed with Spurs for £10m in 2007 – a year after breaking into the Southampton first team – and he endured 24 consecutive losses when he featured for the North London club. Bale’s frail build was his downfall, as he struggled to stay fit, which saw Alex McLeish attempt to pursue to the Welshman to join Birmingham in 2009. “Gareth wasn’t in the Spurs side at the time and Harry Redknapp wasn’t able to get him a game for whatever reason,” McCleish said.

“What if he had come to Birmingham and enjoyed it? We were in the Championship at the time but eventually got promoted to the Premier League. That would have changed the picture for us financially. You just don’t know. Unfortunately, this time, for us it didn’t, he said.”

Bale worked hard over the next few years to become stronger physically and mentally – with help from former Spurs manager Harry Redknapp’s tough love approach in training – and the football world witnessed glimpses of his brilliance. He took the world by storm through his two performances against Inter Milan in 2010, where he singlehandedly terrorized Brazilian fullback Maicon. Bale’s ability was never questioned – it was whether he could replicate his performances on a consistent basis.

Under Andre Villas-Boas, the 24-year-old winger flourished, and took the first chance to move abroad to challenge for trophies, opposed to spending another year at White Hart Lane, fighting to secure a Champions League spot. It was his childhood dream to play for Madrid, but scrutiny and ridicule followed him like a shadow.

More so, Bale’s transfer fee has been the focal point during his sluggish start at the Santiago Bernabeu. Had Bale set the valuation, or publicly stated he was worth £85m, then it would be understandable – however he didn’t. The inflated transfer market has been beneficial to teams with lesser financial power, as they now possess the power to hold out until they receive their required price tag.

Is Bale a £85m player? No.

At the time, was Bale worth £85m? Possibly.

Considering his remarkable performances throughout 2012/2013, the three years remaining on his contract, and the fact that Spurs initially weren’t willing to sell the Welshman, the valuation isn’t far-fetched.

Consequently, the Bale saga, and a few niggling injuries, prevented the Welshman from participating in pre-season activities. Given the circumstances, it’s absurd to label the Welshman a ‘flop’ based on the first two months of the season. Adapting to a new league, culture, country and style of football is never easy. While some players settle quickly into a new environment, others need time and patience – and based on the abundance of turnover that transpired at Madrid this summer, it’s rational.

Carlo Ancelotti, known for his possession-based philosophy has struggled to find his best starting eleven, and has been adamant on fitting Bale into the equation. But the rise of Angel Di Maria – arguably Madrid’s best player this season – has highlighted the need of natural balance in Ancelotti’s attack, specifically in their 7-3 victory against Sevilla.

“The team lacks little offensively, but lost concentration when at 3-0, but then continued to play well. We need more balance because you cannot open up a game when you are winning 3-0,” Ancelotti said.

“We played faster and more vertical. We need more offensive balance, but the game was fantastic,” he said.

Bale displayed glimpses of old, grabbing two goals and two assists. Sevilla’s shape without the ball was diabolical for large portions of the match, which benefitted a Madrid side that prefers to attack on the break. The Welshman was allowed space to isolate defenders, use his blistering space to stretch the match by running towards the byline, make darting runs into the box and combine with his teammates in wide areas.

Likewise, Bale has struggled to impose his authority on matches against sides that prefer to sit deeper, and defend with nine men behind the ball. Opposed to England, La Liga sides are precise with their overall shape without the ball, as they aim to be organized and compact. With Cristiano Ronaldo playing a free role, Bale has less space to work with, is more likely to drift out of games via isolation, and is a conventional winger, which will explain his inevitable statistical decline.

Coincidentally, Bale and Madrid, are going through a transitional period. Ancelotti is searching for balance, a preferred formation and a cohesive unit – whereas, Bale is settling into life abroad, which will expect him to thrive with less space, in a natural wide role.

An £85m transfer fee guarantees high expectations, but if Madrid supporters and owners are patient, then Bale can prove to be an intelligent investment in the near future.

 
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Posted by on November 1, 2013 in FIFA, Published Work

 

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Real Madrid 0-1 Atletico Madrid

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Atletico Madrid remains undefeated as they thoroughly outplayed city rivals Real Madrid.

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Carlo Ancelotti made one change to his starting eleven that squeezed past Elche midweek, as Asier Illarramendi started in midfield alongside Sami Khedira. Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo led the line in Ancelotti’s 4-4-2, whereas Angel Di Maria and Isco played on the flanks – Luka Modric and Gareth Bale started the match on the bench.

Diego Simeone made three changes to the side that defeated Osasuna midweek, as Gabi, Filipe Luis and David Villa returned to the starting lineup. Simeone’s 4-4-2 saw Villa and Diego Costa form a partnership upfront, with Arda Turan and Koke on the flanks, while Gabi and Tiago played in midfield.

Atletico Madrid limited space in midfield, closed down their opponents quickly and were dangerous on the counter attack, yet their quality in front of goal prevented Simeone’s men from blowing out their rivals.

Atletico’s shape nullify Madrid

Real Madrid dominated possession for long portions of the match, but Atleti’s approach without the ball was significant to their success. They dropped into two banks of four, with a high-line, which saw Costa and Villa drop a few metres ahead of the midfield.

Atleti’s midfield sat narrow, keeping a compact shape, and Madrid struggled to push forward. Ancelotti’s men were forced to play sideways passes into wide areas as Madrid lacked penetration and activity in the final third. With Turan and Koke tucking into central positions, Illarramendi and Khedira struggled to assert their dominance in midfield, and Madrid suffered, as they didn’t possess a link between midfield and attack.

Isco started the match out on the left, and attempted to drift into central areas to find openings, but the young Spaniard was forced to combine with Madrid’s central midfielders in deep positions. Frankly, Di Maria was Madrid’s only legitimate attacking threat. The Argentinian winger hugged the touchline and drifted infield with the ball, providing Benzema with two lovely deliveries, in the span of four minutes.

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Atleti’s determination to keep a compact shape was pivotal to their success – Simeone’s men nullified Madrid’s attack, as their large portion of possession didn’t harm Atleti, while the likes of Ronaldo, Isco and Benzema were deprived of quality service.

Diego Costa

Diego Costa was by far the most influential player on the pitch, as he was a constant nuisance towards Real Madrid’s backline. Costa continuously made runs into the channels – attacking the space behind the fullbacks – he held up the ball for his midfielders to move into advanced positions, along with drawing a game-high eight fouls throughout the match.

Costa is a hardworking forward, who is slowly receiving the recognition he deserves. The Atleti striker scored the match winner – his eighth La Liga goal this season, equaling Lionel Messi’s league leading total – in the 11th minute, when he slid the ball past Diego Lopez, after being wonderfully played in by Koke.

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The 24-year old striker then turned Pepe easily on the left flank and cut the ball back to the top of the box for Turan, but the Turkish midfielder skied his shot into the stands. And in the 60th minute Costa received a glorious opportunity to put the match out of sight. The Brazilian born striker was handed a 1v1 situation with Lopez, but his first touch was heavy, thus forcing him to strike his shot directly at Lopez.

It was a classic, hardworking performance from Costa – he ran the channels exceptionally, caused Pepe and Sergio Ramos several problems, and scored the winning goal, which hands Atletico their second win against Real in the last four months.

Madrid goes 4-2-3-1

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Ancelotti made two changes at half time, as he tactically tinkered with his side. Bale and Modric replaced Illarramendi and Di Maria as Madrid shifted into a 4-2-3-1. The introduction of Bale was odd considering Di Maria’s offensive contribution in the first half, whereas Illarramendi struggled to impose his authority on the match.

Yet, neither substitute had a significant impact in the second half. Modric misplaced passes, was bullied in midfield and struggled to push forward, whereas Bale offered the same threat that Ronaldo does, and both men were tracked admirably.

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Isco preferred to move into central positions as he found more space between the lines and linked play in deeper areas, but in terms of creating chances, he was still poor.

From an offensive perspective Madrid grew into the match as the second half wore on – their passing tempo was quicker and they were getting into better positions, but Atleti coped with the small amount of chances that Ancelotti’s men created.

Atletico missed opportunities

For all the positive that came from Atleti’s work ethic without the ball, Simeone might be disappointed that his men didn’t kill the game off earlier. Simeone’s men created several legitimate goal scoring opportunities, but their decision-making and quality in the final third kept the match close.

In the 28th minute Tiago nodded his free header over the bar from 10 yards out, and 13 minutes later, Gabi’s header was saved, while Lopez stopped Costa’s rebound – an opportunity that stemmed from an identical corner kick. Costa’s 1v1 chance in the second half, along with Koke’s 80th minute shot off the bar was another set of missed chances that Simeone’s men created.

Despite Madrid’s superiority in possession, Atleti created the better chances throughout the match, which merited three points on the night.

Morata

Alvaro Morata entered the match with 17 minutes to play, as Ancelotti reverted back to a 4-4-2 with the departure of Isco. Unlike Benzema, Morata provided energy, mobility and an attacking spark to Madrid’s attack. The Spanish striker was chasing down balls, working hard to close down defenders, and his will to track back to win the ball in midfield delighted the fans.

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Morata was on the end of Madrid’s best chances to win the match – his 83rd minute acrobatic volley – from a Khedira cross – was saved by Thibaut Courtois, and minutes after Tiago hit the post, Morata beat Courtois, but the ball hit the side netting.

One of the issues Madrid is facing is the lack of options in the striker position, and with Benzema continuing to produce mediocre performances, Morata may earn himself a start in the upcoming weeks.

Conclusion

Atletico Madrid was worthy of all three points after producing a hard-fought performance against their bitter rivals.

Diego Costa’s magnificent performance, along with their ability to maintain a compact, yet narrow shape, nullified Madrid’s strengths. Costa’s movement into the channels was pivotal, but Atleti’s performance as a unit was miles ahead of a Madrid side that look disjointed going forward.

Ancelotti’s possession-based approach has seen Madrid encounter a few issues this season, one being their ability to break down compact backlines. They struggle to find a link between midfield and attack, thus leaving their attackers isolated as they lack cohesion going forward. Ultimately, it was an issue they faced last season, but their ability to attack on the counter bailed them out – but Simeone’s men were disciplined and quickly got back into their shape. In fairness, this is a fairly new squad being assembled, with a new manager looking to instill his philosophy, but Ancelotti will hope to get his team in unison before Madrid supporters get irritated.

It was an impressive Atletico Madrid performance that showcased a side that withholds unity, while Ancelotti’s Real Madrid is still searching for it.

 
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Posted by on September 30, 2013 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Barcelona 3-2 Sevilla

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Barcelona remains at the top of La Liga courtesy of Alexis Sanchez’s injury time winner against a resilient Sevilla side.

Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino made two changes to the side that defeated Valencia at the Mestalla, two weeks ago. Christian Tello started along side Lionel Messi and Neymar in the attacking three, while Xavi Hernandez joined Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets in midfield.

Unai Emery made four changes to the side that drew Malaga two weeks ago, adding Jairo Sampeiro and Vitolo to the attacking three behind Kevin Gameiro. Sebastian Cristoforo played with Stephane M’Bia in the double pivot of Emery’s 4-2-3-1, while Beto started in goal.

This match came to life in the final 15 minutes once Messi gave the Catalan side a two-goal lead – yet despite their victory, Barcelona’s issues at the back are now palpable.

Sevilla’s Shape

Emery’s men faced an onslaught of pressure in the opening 45 minutes but were only down a goal, due to their shape without the ball. Emery’s men dropped into two banks of four with Gameiro and Rakitic up top, aiming to close down Busquets and Xavi – when they dropped deeper. M’Bia was instructed to track Iniesta’s movement, while Cristoforo occasionally pressed Xavi.

However, what was most impressive was Sevilla’s ability to limit the gaps in midfield and defence. Barcelona constantly aimed to penetrate through the middle but was unable to find the final ball or gap in the final third, and that was down to their compact shape and organization. This affected Messi’s influence on the match, as he often dropped deep into midfield, attempting to drag defenders out of position and find his own gaps – but the Argentine forward had little success.

Barcelona down the left

Martino’s men did enjoy success in the first half, mainly down the left hand side. It was a constant source of attack, as Tello and Dani Alves were peripheral figures for large portions of the opening 45. Neymar received the ball countless times and was encouraged to take on Coke Andujar. The Brazilian winger constantly got the better of the Sevilla fullback – due to his marvelous skills and Jordi Alba’s ability to get forward – but his decision-making and quality in the final third was subpar.

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Alba was forced to leave the match midway through the first half, thus allowing Adriano to make an appearance. This now presented Barcelona with a balance, yet neither fullback was eager to push forward – but when Alves did, he was moving centrally. Neymar continued to trouble Coke for the duration of the match, but Barcelona’s opener was orchestrated on the left flank. Adriano finally surged forward and provided a cross to the far post, which Alves nodded past Beto. It was one of the few time Alves broke forward due to Vitolo’s admirable will to track back and protect Alberto.

Martino’s men struggled to find openings in the Sevilla defence, but their narrow shape allowed Barcelona’s left-sided players freedom to penetrate.

Jairo-Vitolo

Barcelona continued to dominate possession in the second half, as they searched for a second goal. Vitolo drifted centrally early in the second half, looking to find gaps to exploit, but the Sevilla attacker realized the service was limited. Yet, two wide men enjoyed a terrific second half, due to Adriano and Alves’ will to surge forward, thus leaving space available behind them to penetrate. Jairo and Vitolo isolated the Barcelona fullbacks, and got into dangerous positions in the final third, which led to corner kicks.

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Sevilla’s first goal stemmed from majestic work from Vitolo. The Sevilla attacker won the ball on the break and attacked space after being played in by Marko Marin. Vitolo danced past Busquets and Gerard Pique, then laid the ball off for Ivan Rakitic to fire past Victor Valdes.

Besides an improvement in the minimal pressure applied by Sevilla, their were two elements of attack that led to their comeback – Jairo and Vitolo’s threat in wide areas on the break was the first positive aspect in Sevilla’s second half resurgence.

Set-pieces

Martino has been heavily criticized for the club’s decision to ignore their defensive issues. The Catalan club is in desperate need of a top-class centreback, but continue to have faith in a Javier Mascherano – Pique partnership. Also, over the past few years, Barcelona has lost players that possess an aerial threat, such as Carles Puyol, Eric Abidal, Yaya Toure and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

This season, Barcelona’s slow defenders have been exposed and their inability to successfully defend set pieces has also been highlighted. Helder Postiga made a near post run and freely nodded in a corner kick at the Mestalla, two weeks ago – and the same issues recurred against Emery’s men.

In the 63rd minute, Cala snuck between Alves and Busquets and nodded a corner kick at the near post, past Victor Valdes. The goal was wrongfully ruled off for a ‘ghost’ foul, which should’ve equalized the scoreline. Martino noticed his side’s disadvantage in height, so he took his players off the post to develop a numerical advantage in the box. Cala got the best of Busquets and Fabregas in the 82nd minute, but the Sevilla defender nodded his header wide of the net. But eight minutes later, Coke earned the equalizer, as the Sevilla fullback was left unmarked to hit the corner kick on the volley, past Valdes.

For all of Barcelona’s talent in attack, they still look frail in defence, and it’s an issue Martino needs to address, if the Catalan side aims on claiming trophies this season.

Fabregas

There’s no question about Cesc Fabregas being Barcelona’s most influential figure this season, and he continued to showcase that in the second half. Minutes upon his arrival, Fabregas made a simple run between the lines to free space for Messi to make a pass, and run into space to tap in Barcelona’s second goal of the night.

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Martino’s men began to find gaps of space between the lines and in the final third in the final 15 minutes of the match, and Fabregas played a key role in their success. His direct forward runs into pockets of space and behind the defence, along with his persistence to get into key areas in the final third, opened up space for Messi, Neymar and Sanchez to penetrate.

Fabregas’ movement and direct approach opened up space for Barcelona’s attackers to express themselves – prior to that they struggled to penetrate in central areas, thus highlighting the impact of his appearance.

Conclusion

Barcelona was dominant in possession for large portions of the match, but their lack of penetration and issues on the break and defending set pieces is alarming. Sevilla will feel they were robbed of points due to Cala’s goal being called off, and the timing of Sanchez’ winner, as their second half performance was promising – specifically Jairo and Vitolo’s

Martino’s men remain unbeaten in league play, as Fabregas’ arrival shifted the match offensively for the Catalan side. It seems evident that the Spaniard is now a key asset to Barcelona, and it’ll be interesting to see if he can sustain this good run of form throughout the season.

 
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Posted by on September 17, 2013 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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2 Guys and a MIKE – Premier League/FA Cup Podcast March 11th

Mike “the Mod” and Tyrrell Meertins briefly breakdown all the action that took place in the Premier League and the FA Cup this weekend.

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2013 in Podcasts

 

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Will The Real Andre Villas-Boas Please Stand Up !

12 months ago, Andre Villas-Boas at the age of 33 made his big money move to Chelsea after a remarkable season at Porto. Villas-Boas went undefeated domestically and won an unprecedented treble, which included a Europa league title, making him the youngest manager to win a European competition. Unfortunately, even with a resume of that quality, he failed to replicate that success at Chelsea who indirectly paid Porto ₤13.3m to attain the young manager. After a failed stint at Chelsea, Villas-Boas finds himself in North London where he has signed a three-year deal with rivals Tottenham Hotspur.

       AVB, as referred to by the media was known for his extremely high defensive line that is created because he asks his players to defend high up the pitch. When doing this, his players attempt to make the pitch as small as possible forcing the opposition to lose possession in their half of the field. This form of defence requires high fitness levels and requires defenders with pace as they do play the offside trap. Villas-Boas also intends on having his team penetrating vertically. He likes to operate with two pacy wingers, one who can cut inside the middle of the pitch to drag a defender with him, and the other to provide natural width and stretch the field in order to deliver venomous balls for the striker to get onto. Unlike Chelsea, he has this area covered and it’s just a matter of finding adequate replacements to fill in for these players, as the likes of Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon are injury prone and can burn out easily as Redknapp discovered during his time at Spurs.

The formula that worked so well at Porto in which his team scored over 100 goals in one season, failed miserably at Chelsea. His short tenure at Chelsea saw his team lose to Arsenal 5-3, Liverpool 2-1, QPR 1-0, Napoli 3-1, Manchester United 3-1, and also tie them 3-3 after being three goals up. The qualities/personalities that he had at hand at Porto were not available at Chelsea. He had a defence that preferred to sit deep; a midfield that lacked creativity, no natural wingers, and two strikers that he failed to get the best out of, simply it was a project waiting to fail. His eight month spell at the club saw Chelsea fighting for a European spot rather than for the Premier League crown which he was brought in to win. The club suffered their worst start to a Premier League season since Roman Abrahimovich bought the club in 2003. After a string of poor results, Villas-Boas finally got the sack, and it’s hard to argue that he didn’t deserve it.

It is now four months later and he has received a second stint in England as manager of Tottenham Hotspur. Tottenham finished fourth last season in the final Champions League spot, but failed to qualify because Chelsea had won the competition, giving them an automatic spot in next years tournament and pushing Spurs to the Europa League. Spurs started off last season well and were in the title race for periods of the season, but their lack of squad depth saw them fade away in January after a hard fought loss to eventual champions Manchester City.

Squad depth is one of many issues Villas-Boas faces as the new manager of Spurs. It leaves many wondering if he “bites more than he can chew” when he accepts job offers with such a high demand. Villas-Boas is young and wants to give himself a challenge, but at this point in his career another failed stint, can really tarnish his reputation and opportunities to be offered high profile jobs in the future. To win a Premier League title or any domestic league, you need to rely on more than just 11 players. Spurs will need to address this issue as the likes of Modric, Parker, Bale, Adebayor and Lennon were all burnt out by February and suffered a massive loss of form, which caused Spurs to obtain 16 points from a possible 39 in their last 13 games of the season, and drop to fourth place in the table.

Villas-Boas will have to win over the locker room as fast as possible, and with personalities such as William Gallas and Rafael Van der Vaart in the locker room it’s much easier said then done. Unlike Redknapp, who was a man manager, we are unsure if Villas-Boas possesses the characteristics to get the best out of top level players. His fallouts with John Terry, Frank Lampard, and Didier Drogba are perfect examples, although they aren’t the easiest players to deal with. His problem was he tried to change things to quickly, and attempted to phase out the “old guard” without much explanation.

“His plan was long-term. But somewhere in the middle of that, the present didn’t go so well and that’s where the problems came” according to Lampard. “I have been told because I didn’t sign a new contract I was not allowed to play” – Salomon Kalou. Not one Chelsea player had something positive to say about Villas-Boas, and even though when he was sacked Chelsea sat three points out of fourth, you couldn’t imagine that they would win the FA Cup and qualify/win the Champions League if he was still in charge.

Spurs best player in Luka Modric is tempted to pursue Champions League football, and it should be Villas-Boas first priority to keep the Croatian superstar at White Hart Lane. Although, Levy will only sell Modric at a high price, he is too valuable to lose and would possibly set Villas-Boas five steps back. It now seems imminent that he will leave Spurs, and it seems like Joao Moutinho is the man they look to replace Modric with. Moutinho had a great Euro 2012 campaign and has been spectacular at Porto, he also knows Villas-Boas system inside out. He would settle in at Spurs well, but is he the man that will take this team to the next level?

Another question to be asked is will Levy provide the money needed for AVB to find his perfect mix of players? As last season came to an end, many wondered if this Spurs team can get any better. Villas-Boas provides that breath of fresh air, and his eye for young talent should not be overlooked, but for this club to reach the next level, they will need to spend, and the squad will have to get bigger and better. When a few members of the Spurs XI were unavailable last year, the team looked disjointed and was a shade of themselves. They only really seemed to hit full gear, when their original starting XI would be on the field. Levy has already funded moves for Gylfi Sigurdsson and Jan Vertonghen at approximately ₤18m. These are signs of good things to come, and many Spurs fans will hope he doesn’t follow in Juande Ramos footsteps as Villas-Boas has control over the players coming into the side. Levy allowed Ramos to restructure the squad and gave him transfer control, and in return Ramos guided Spurs to their worst-ever to start to a season in the clubs history.

Lastly, it has to be said that Villas-Boas needs to stay away from the media. It seems like everyday journalists shove daily interviews with him down our throats. This morning, papers were filled with talks about Spurs aiming for the Premier League title and it just seems that this man can’t stay out of the spotlight. The pressure he mounts on his players is ridiculous, and if Spurs are unable to get results during a patch of the season, the media will be waiting to attack Villas-Boas and the team, as they did during his tenure at Chelsea. Villas-Boas hasn’t been at the club for over a month yet and he along with his new signings has put massive heaps of pressure on the club already.

Now I understand Villas-Boas did win the treble with Porto, but there are few things to consider. Was he really tested? In the last 10 years Porto has won their domestic league eight times. Is it possible he was a big fish in a small pond? Now yes, he won the Europa League, but the teams he encountered were nowhere near the level of any of the top four teams in England. What he did at Porto was outstanding, but do we really know where to classify Villas-Boas? You can look at the untested challenge at Porto that saw him go undefeated in his domestic league and win the Europa league while claiming a treble.

Or you can look at his time at Chelsea in which he steered Chelsea to their worst start in Premier League history, alienated the squad, was tactically naïve/inept, and saw him make some dismal decisions for the club. May I remind you that with the same squad, Roberto Di Matteo led Chelsea to an FA Cup and a Champions league title, two competitions that Villas-Boas nearly had them bowing out of. He also failed to win games against any top four sides except for Manchester City, and that involved John Terry rallying his troops and instructing them to defend deep rather than high after conceding a goal two minutes into the game. Good managers are able to deal with the squad they have and play to their strengths, Di Matteo did this, where as Villas-Boas was stubborn and virtually had no plan B to his tactics/style of football that clearly did not suit Chelsea.

It’s really difficult to predict how this could play out with Villas-Boas as his two stints with top clubs are much like Jekyll & Hyde. Through them you could get a sense of the type of man he his and his football philosophy. It looks good on paper, and many will hope he has learned from his errors at Chelsea, as the neutrals such as myself want to see him succeed. It leaves one to think he will succeed and eventually give Spurs Champions League football and trophies, or it can fail and see him spend half a season at White Hart Lane. Spurs fans have been so close to success over the past years and the key question will be, how the fans along with the players and Levy will cope if he falls short of their expectations?

Tyrrell Meertins

 
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Posted by on July 13, 2012 in EPL

 

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