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Jose Mourinho alters man-marking scheme to stifle Conte’s colourless Chelsea

Jose Mourinho’s stock as a top-class manager decreased following his return to England. Mourinho’s initial positive start to his second stint at Chelsea swiftly transformed into a toxic environment, and he’s currently failing to receive full support at Manchester United for failing to instantly challenge for a Premier League title.

For all the skepticism regarding Mourinho’s ability to manage younger talent and carry out his methodology with devastating efficiency, United lacked a thoroughly convincing performance against a top Premier League side under Mourinho. But, much of that banter has been halted in recent weeks given United’s displays against Chelsea over the last month, which suggests the Portuguese manager remains the master of winning big games.

United’s FA Cup loss at Stamford Bridge will be remembered for Ander Herrera’s harsh first half dismissal, but it’s often forgotten that Mourinho’s men were the better side in the opening 15 minutes. Chelsea struggled to get out of their half as a unit, and provided no answers for United’s pressing across the pitch thus leaving David Luiz with no options to play forward passes into from the back.

At Old Trafford, Mourinho followed a similar man-marking approach, but ultimately shifted to a 4-4-1-1 with Jesse Lingard playing off Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba pairing in midfield with Marouane Fellaini, and Herrera playing in a deeper right-sided role to swarm Eden Hazard’s movement across the pitch.

While many oddly questioned Mourinho’s initial team selection, this was merely an XI constructed to disrupt and contain Chelsea’s attacking threat. Mourinho persisted with harrying Hazard, but handed the task to Herrera who retained possession deep, intercepted passes into the Belgian’s feet, yet ironically created United’s opening goal – albeit potentially handling the ball in the build up – with a clever pass behind Luiz for Rashford.

Where Hazard varied his movement in the FA Cup tie by drifting to the opposite flank and moving deeper into midfield to drag defenders out of position, the Belgian was deprived of the natural width and overlapping presence of the unavailable Marcos Alonso. Conte preferred Cesar Azpilicueta at left wing-back, but quickly swapped the Spaniard with Victor Moses to attempt to create space for Hazard.

Still, Hazard struggled to find space due to Herrera’s consistent pressure, yet the Belgian was quickly fouled when he bypassed the Spaniard. Elsewhere, Chelsea were deprived of creativity and guile in attacking zones due to United’s disciplined man-marking.

Chelsea’s creativity and goal-scoring threat heavily hangs on Hazard’s shoulders with Costa’s form dipping since the turn of the year, whereas Conte preferred protection ahead of the back four opposed to Cesc Fabregas passing range from deep. The other issue Chelsea encountered involved the lack of mobility at the back without Azpilicueta, who has done a great job in serving as a reliable recovery outlet for David Luiz and Gary Cahill.

The significance in familiarity within a defensive back-line is often overlooked, but here, Kurt Zouma’s last minute inclusion disrupted the cohesion amongst the back three, and deprived the Blues pace at the back. Rashford and Lingard’s partnership was Mourinho’s attempt at utilizing pace to fluster the Chelsea back-line, and the decision was further justified once Conte was forced to alter his back trio.

Rashford spurned a glorious chance in United’s FA Cup loss at Stamford Bridge when he cleverly turned David Luiz down the channel, and here, he instantly charged into these aforementioned wide areas to pull the Chelsea defenders out of position. From the early moments, Chelsea’s defence never appeared comfortable against the pressing or swift darts into space from United’s speedy frontmen – Luiz conceded possession to Lingard which led to a Rashford chance minutes prior to the United striker’s opener.

Although the hosts always offered a threat in transition, this was more about Mourinho’s organization and instilled defensive discipline, rather than United’s offensive productivity. Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini pressed the Chelsea midfield, Mateo Darmian was tight on Pedro, Diego Costa rarely got the better of the opposing centre-backs, and the United full-backs proactively pressed Chelsea’s wing-backs.

Conte’s attempt to rescue a point following Herrera’s fortuitous second half goal, led to the introduction of Willian and Fabregas. Mourinho quickly introduced Michael Carrick to ensure United maintained control of the midfield zone, as the combination of Chelsea’s sloppy passing and United’s disciplined man-marking prevented the Blues from recording a shot on target.

Ironically, Mourinho’s tenure appears to be heavily associated with “playing the United way,” yet he approached the match similar to predecessor Sir Alex Ferguson. Ferguson’s sides remained defensively sturdy and found ways to steal goals on the counter-attack, yet these decisive triumphs were always overshadowed by the memorable home matches at Old Trafford.

Both the players and Conte were unusually lifeless, and simply outworked and out-muscled by a United side that’s slowly finding their groove and arguably produced their best performance of the season. Although, Chelsea’s run-in is fairly manageable, this result suggests the title race is back on. The most worrying feat, however, is United possibly validated a successful ploy to outwit Conte’s 3-4-2-1.

It’s unrealistic to believe multiple teams can replicate United’s man-marking for 90 minutes, but the use of two forwards breaking quickly in transition against Chelsea’s back three proved successful for Crystal Palace and United. For the first time since Chelsea’s emphatic defeat at the Emirates, the pressure is on Conte to make vital tactical adjustments to overcome the opposition’s attempts to nullify Hazard’s influence in the final third.

 
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Posted by on April 17, 2017 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Tactical Preview: Manchester United – Liverpool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Tactical Preview: Everton – Manchester City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted by on January 13, 2017 in Published Work

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Koeman’s Everton can’t rely on improvisation to overcome Klopp’s cohesive Liverpool

The significance of Ashley William’s late winner against Arsenal can’t be overlooked. In terms of the current title race, the Gunners fell further behind league leaders Chelsea, but Williams’ goal granted Everton their second win in 11 outings.

A bright start under Ronald Koeman hinted that Everton could possibly challenge for a European spot this season, and though they aren’t the defensively incompetent side often featured under Roberto Martinez, there’s still a sense of underachievement surfacing around Goodison Park.

The fear of further regression loomed with a difficult December schedule, but positive results against Manchester United and Arsenal alleviated pressure on the Dutchman – especially since both results witnessed the Toffees come from behind to earn results.

“How we played after 20 minutes, there was aggression in midfield and I think James McCarthy played fantastically,” said Koeman following the Arsenal result.

“When you have one win out of 10 games it starts with commitment, working hard, being aggressive and you get the support and you get the win finally.”

Perhaps that vividly describes Everton’s approach under Koeman that appears to be predominantly based around wing-play, but the football displayed at Goodison Park in recent weeks offered improved energy and work-rate. But Everton’s away performances against big clubs this season have been contrasting – at Chelsea a switch to a back three saw the Blues disassemble Koeman’s men, whereas at City, the Dutchman adjusted to a back-four at half-time to nick a second half equalizer at the Etihad.

With that being said, there’s been a certain degree of luck associated with Everton’s positive form in these matches. City’s poor penalty taking – denied twice by Marten Stekelenburg from the spot – along with Mesut Ozil’s profligacy and Ander Herrera striking the woodwork enabled timely second half resurgences, which suggests Koeman’s men simply aren’t performing to the level expected at Goodison.

A pragmatic, yet organized David Moyes Everton often frustrated the top sides, but fear of further progression witnessed the duo part ways. Roberto Martinez, on the other hand, instilled a proactive possession based system that lacked penetration in the final third, and equally saw the Merseyside club experience the defensive issues that led to Wigan’s relegation.

A Monday night Liverpool visit presents another sturdy test this month, considering Jurgen Klopp’s men are the best attacking side in the country. More so, the contrast between the two sides is stark despite both conceding 20 league goals this season – which further highlights the defensive issues both sides possess. Liverpool, though, have recorded twice as many goals, and there’s a clear juxtaposition regarding the Reds’ buildup.

Neither club are blessed with legitimate world-class players in their XI, but Klopp’s year long-tenure has provided his current side time to understand his methodology. ‘Gegenpressing’ is the significant trait associated with Klopp, but in possession, the Reds are capable of breaking down the opposition with swift combination play around the box.

Frankly, it’s difficult to defend against Liverpool because of the constant movement between their attacking quintet. Jordan Henderson sits at the base of the midfield and spreads the play, but the remaining attackers tend to overload central areas to encourage the full-backs forward to provide width.

Where this would present a problem for most teams due to congestion, Liverpool counter the issue by ensuring a teammate’s natural position is covered. For instance, Liverpool’s three goals at Middlesbrough displayed the Reds’ spatial coverage. Sadio Mane drifted centrally for the opener to encourage right-back Nathaniel Clyne forward which is basic football instincts.

The insurance goal, however, witnessed Adam Lallana make a diagonal run into right half space due to Mane’s deeper movement to combine with Georginio Wijnaldum thus resulting in the England international to square the ball across goal for a Divock Origi tap in. The third goal involved a role reversal between Mane and Origi with the former dropping into midfield to receive the ball and the latter darting into the right channel, as another Lallana late run into the box increased Liverpool’s lead.

Out of possession they vary their pressing, but going forward the constant interchanging of movement and spatial coverage provides evidence that Klopp’s approach is being executed at Anfield. Very little can be said about Everton, though, which is the main worry regarding Koeman’s side.

Relying on individual brilliance doesn’t represent a sustainable long-term approach, and the best sides in the world often follow a clear attacking module. There’s been a huge emphasis on crosses into the box, which could explain the summer arrival of Yannick Bolasie – a powerful tricky dribbler – whereas Ross Barkley has been much better in a midfield trio than a no.10 role behind the striker.

But where Everton were at least possessed the identity of a counter-attacking side that finished efficiently around the box, under Martinez during his final season at Goodison, there’s a been a bit of uncertainty around the opposition’s box this season. Still lacking a player capable of unlocking organized back-lines with incisive final passes and inconsistent quality from wide areas has left Romelu Lukaku isolated upfront.

From a defensive perspective, Everton are susceptible to crosses into the box and the centre-back options have been unreliable. Though this could be a league-wide issue unravelling at most clubs, the fact that Koeman’s men struggle in the attacking third insists they can’t turn to outscoring their opponents like Klopp’s Liverpool can.

Given it’s Koeman initial season at Goodison Park, patience may be required before we see results. But basic defensive errors, failure to add guile in deeper and advanced midfield positions, and limiting the involvement of their best attacking players certainly questions Koeman’s long-term plan.

Everton simply represent a side built around wide direct attacks and sheer dynamism in midfield, but the lack of cohesion and collective organization separates them from a Liverpool side carrying out Klopp’s philosophy with devastating efficiency. Ultimately, that alone, can be the decisive factor that prevents Everton from a potential Merseyside derby triumph.

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2016 in Published Work

 

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Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs must rediscover attacking mojo at Arsenal

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.

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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