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Wolfsburg 3-2 Manchester United: United have no answers for Wolfsburg swift counter-attacks

Naldo United

WOLFSBURG, GERMANY – DECEMBER 08: Naldo of Wolfsburg celebrates scoring the first goal during the UEFA Champions League match between VfL Wolfsburg and Manchester United FC at the Volkswagen arena on December 8, 2015 in Wolfsburg, Germany. (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Wolfsburg recorded a historic victory over Manchester United to knock the English side out of the Champions League.

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Dieter Hecking preferred a mobile attacking quartet, and therefore started Max Kruse ahead of Andre Schurrle, Julian Draxler and Vieirinha. Max Arnold and Julian Guilavogui formed a midfield duo, while Ricardo Rodriguez was fit to start the match at left-back.

Louis van Gaal faced several injury issues prior to kick-off, which eventually saw Guillermo Varela start at right-back, while Bastian Schweinsteiger and Marouane Fellaini sat in midfield. Juan Mata was the creative conductor behind the pacy attacking trio of Memphis Depay, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard.

Wolfsburg counter-attacked superbly in what proved to be a fairly open match that once again exploited Manchester United’s shortcomings on both ends.

United press

The most striking feat regarding the overall result was that United started the match fairly well. Wolfsburg prefer to pass their way from the back into the opposition’s third, so it was logical for Van Gaal to instruct his men to press from the front.

Essentially, United attempted a combination of high-pressing and man-marking with the centre-backs tightly marking Draxler and Kruse, while the full-backs prevent the wingers from getting a second or third touch in their attempts to turn towards goal.

Martial and Lingard pressed the centre-backs, and when Guilavogui dropped deep, Mata pushed forward to ensure it was 3v3 at the back. At times, the personnel varied with Mata and Martial pushing forward, while Fellaini closed down the Wolfsburg holding midfielder.

Though United’s pressing wasn’t entirely efficient, it led to some nervy moments for goalkeeper Julian Benaglio, whereas Memphis prevented Christian Trasch from surging forward. Memphis dispossessed Trasch and slid a pass into half-space for Martial, which ultimately troubled Benaglio. Later on, it was substitute Cameron Borthwick-Jackson that robbed Vieirinha in the buildup to Lingard’s contentious offside goal.

United created chances on the break due to their pressing, and successfully prevented Wolfsburg from enjoying long spells of possession in their half.

Wolfsburg without the ball

The hosts adopted a more simplistic approach out of possession, preferring to drop into a 4-5-1 rather than fully committing to pressing from the front. The midfield three were aligned and compact to ensure passes didn’t meet United players between the lines, but it was evident Wolfsburg aimed to prevent Schweinsteiger from dictating the tempo of the match from deeper positions.

Arnold stepped forward to fluster Schweinsteiger who’s been exposed in recent years when encounter dynamic pressing. However, when Wolfsburg sat off, Draxler was instructed to negate his compatriot’s passing lanes, where as Guilavogui matched Fellaini’s physicality in midfield.

United’s issue in open play has been apparent, so Hecking’s aim to press Schweinsteiger out of the game highlighted his intent to nullify the away side’s activity in the final third.

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With that being said, Van Gaal’s men still scored from open play, and occasionally surged into key areas in the final third, but often lacked the final pass.

United’s attack was filled with pace, and Van Gaal intended on encouraging his ball-players to slide passes behind the defence for the onrushing runners. Daley Blind stepped forward to find Mata between the lines, and he instantly turned and located Martial’s diagonal run behind the defence for the opener.

It took United three passes to get to the Wolfsburg box, but it fully indicated their attacking intent going forward.

Minutes later, Memphis dispossessed Trasch and slid a through-ball into half space for Martial, but his cross on goal was hesitantly recovered by Benaglio. In the 27th minute, Guilavogui stepped forward to press Blind leaving space vacant between the lines, and though the Dutchman located Memphis between the lines, the United winger’s pass to Martial in the box was over hit – summing up United’s productivity around the penalty area.

Unfortunately for United, they were penalized for six offside calls throughout the match, with majority of the scenarios stemming around the box, as their attacking quartet failed to replicate the brilliance of the opening goal.

Wolfsburg counter-attack

The key attacking trend on the night was Wolfsburg’s counter-attack. This was partially down to United’s inability to collectively press as a unit for the entire first half, and Hecking’s men simply bypassed the opposition with nifty short passes.

Wolfsburg, however, stuck to their patented counter-attacking module by playing quick short passes around pressure and subsequently switching play to the opposite flank –  this element of attack was also implemented in last year’s riot of Bayern Munich. The hosts intended on isolating full-backs Varela and Matteo Darmian – the former is inexperienced and the latter’s form is poor – but Schurrle, in particular, failed to get the better of the youngster.

Hecking’s men attacked with five players as Arnold often ventured forward, and Vieirinha’s go-ahead goal represented the ideal Wolfsburg attack under this set-up. Following Wolfsburg successfully bypassing pressure in their half, two long diagonals were played to Schurrle and Draxler on both flanks, before the latter stormed past Schweinsteiger to combine with Kruse, thus resulting in a Vieirinha tap-in.

Schweinsteiger and Fellaini were both culpable for Wolfsburg’s ability to easily storm through midfield on the break. Schweinsteiger’s vertical passing in midfield zones was underwhelming, and he suffered under midfield pressure with Fellaini caught in advanced forward. One move saw Schweinsteiger give the ball away to Schurrle, who quickly located Draxler free on goal but David De Gea made a key save.

Fellaini and Schweinsteiger isn’t the ideal midfield duo against Europe’s better sides, and their inability to dictate the tempo of the match, combined with constantly being overrun by tricky dynamic players led to their first half issues.

Fellaini

On the defensive end, Fellaini was a liability, playing slightly ahead of Schweinsteiger. Van Gaal has retreated to playing through Fellaini late in games when chasing a goal, but the Belgian international represented an additional attacking threat that consistently worked opposed to a last-ditch approach.

The Belgian’s aerial prowess created several dangerous United moments, as he initially towered over Dante to force a terrific Benaglio save from an in-swinging Blind corner. In the second half, Benaglio made another sensational save to stop Memphis’ acrobatic shot, as Fellaini’s nod-down from a Martial cross placed United in a legitimate goal-scoring position

United’s equalizer was basically a carbon copy of Fellaini’s initial first half chance, as another Blind corner saw the Belgian shrug off Dante to nod the ball in the ground, but Guilavogui directed the ball into his own net. Fellaini’s offensive contribution vividly showcased why the Belgian is efficient in advanced areas, but here, in terms of overall balance, he was positioned in the wrong position.

United improves

United enjoyed lengthy spells of possession in the oppositions half during the final 45 minutes, with Hecking’s men dropping into two banks of four opposed to the initial 4-5-1. Hecking was wary of Blind’s vertical passes into pockets of space and encouraged Draxler to apply pressure on the Dutchman, while Kruse tracked Smalling.

This enabled Schweinsteiger to split the defenders to make it 3v2 in deep positions, with Arnold and Vieirinha occasionally pushing out of position to close the German down. However, majority of Schweinsteiger’s passes went to the flanks, and United persisted with astray balls over the Wolfsburg defence.

With United pushing so many men forward, Wolfsburg’s threat on the counter-attack increased. The trio of Schurrle, Draxler and Kruse consistently surged forward, with the former Chelsea man getting behind the United defence to force De Gea into key saves. Van Gaal turned to Michael Carrick and Nick Powell upfront, but neither player substantially influenced the match.

Set-pieces

Oddly, while United were fairly dominant attacking set-pieces, they were severely poor from a defensive aspect, conceding two goals in the process. In fairness, defensive solidity is a combination of familiarity and effective partnerships, so United’s injury woes at the back initially placed Van Gaal’s men at a disadvantage.

Still, the simplicity in Naldo’s movement for both goals frustrated Van Gaal because they came minutes after United had scored, stemmed from simple runs away from the marker. The Brazilian international ran across several defenders to side-volley Gustavo Rodriguez’s free-kick past De Gea.

The winner saw Naldo simply run past Carrick to powerfully nod the ball off the ground and past the United goalkeeper. Basic man-marking proved costly, as Wolfsburg exposed United’s make-shift back four, whom failed to carry out simple defensive responsibilities.

Conclusion

It was possibly the most adventurous brand of football United have played this season, yet consequently they were overrun in midfield and still failed to translate possession dominance into creating ample quality chances. For the second time in the group-stage round, United took the lead away from home, and failed to sustain the lead due to poor set-piece marking and quick counter-attacks.

Nevertheless, this is what Wolfsburg are about, and what makes Hecking’s achievement so remarkable is the fact that the German side topped the group following the sales of Bundesliga player of the year Kevin De Bruyne, and Ivan Perisic – two key players to last year’s success. They simply worked hard to shut down United’s creative ball-players, and aimed to play their way out of trouble before charging past an immobile pairing of Schweinsteiger and Fellaini.

schwein smalling united

WOLFSBURG, GERMANY – DECEMBER 08: Bastian Schweinstieger of Manchester looks dejected during the UEFA Champions League match between VfL Wolfsburg and Manchester United FC at the Volkswagen arena on December 8, 2015 in Wolfsburg, Germany. (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Bongarts/Getty Images)

United had no answers to Wolfsburg’s counters with Morgan Schneiderlin unavailable, and the heavy reliance on Schweinsteiger to be the focal point of United’s midfield at this stage in his career is peculiar. It’s difficult to question Van Gaal’s approach going forward, but apart from the opening 10 minutes, United’s work out of possession was shocking.

This puts Van Gaal’s work at United into question. In a group that many tipped United to win, the Red Devils rarely imposed sustained dominance in any match, whilst the recurring issues on both sides of the pitch played to their downfall. Van Gaal’s a stubborn man, but this should serve as a lesson to the United manager who risks stagnation if the required tweaks to his philosophy are overlooked.

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Posted by on December 10, 2015 in Match Recaps, Published Work, Uncategorized

 

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AS Roma 2-1 Juventus

Xinhua News Agency Aug. 31, 2015-- AS Roma's Pjanic (2nd R) celebrates his goal with teammates during their Italian Serie A soccer match against Juventus on August 30, 2015 in Rome, Italy. Rome won 2-1.

Xinhua News Agency
Aug. 31, 2015– AS Roma’s Pjanic (2nd R) celebrates his goal with teammates during their Italian Serie A soccer match against Juventus on August 30, 2015 in Rome, Italy. Rome won 2-1.

Roma relied on two goals from Bosnian duo Miralem Pjanic and Edin Dzeko to defeat title rivals Juventus.

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Iago Falque joined Dzeko and Mohammed Salah upfront in Rudi Garcia’s 4-3-3. Daniele De Rossi moved to centre-back alongside Kosta Manolas, whereas Seydou Keita formed a midfield trio with Radja Nainggolan and Pjanic.

Max Allegri reverted to a 3-5-2 with Mario Mandzukic and Pablo Dybala leading the line. With Claudio Marchisio and Sami Khedira unavailable for selection, Simone Padoin and Marco Sturaro joined Paul Pogba in midfield.

Roma dominated possession over extensive periods of the match, and with Juventus unable to pose a threat on the counter, Allegri’s men succumbed to two moments of brilliance.

Roma press

While Roma’s dominance may have been down to Juve’s caution, Allegri’s side have displayed their ability to decrease their route to goal by instantly lobbing balls into the strikers. Juve’s only way to maintain a decent spell of possession was to build from the back, but here, Garcia instructed his men to press from the front, with all three attackers handed a distinct role.

Falque and Salah pressed the exterior centre-backs, while Dzeko possessed a dual role. If Dzeko pushed towards Bonucci – a very good passer of the ball – he instructed a midfielder to close down Padoin, but for the most part, the Bosnian striker stuck goal-side to the Juventus midfielder to negate his influence from deep.

Roma didn’t always press in this manner, as they were keen on dropping into a 4-5-1 when necessary to clog spaces in midfield, yet both methods effectively contained Juve’s threat in open play. The wide players maintained their discipline, keeping the adventurous wingbacks quiet, and Dybala rarely received passes between the lines.

Juventus shape

Where Roma pressed higher up the pitch in various spells, Allegri instructed his side to drop deeper into their half and pressed aggressively in midfield. This allowed De Rossi time on the ball, and Nainggolan, in particular was free to retain possession, stringing passes from flank to flank.

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Essentially, Roma overloaded central areas with several passers, and it could explain several reckless tackles and eventual bookings in midfield. The transition to a 5-3-2 negated Dzeko’s aerial threat, as he was always outnumbered around the box, but in general their approach was too conservative, allowing the home-side too much space to dominate.

Roma’s balanced attack

Ultimately, there were two ways to describe Roma’s dominance over the current champions. First, Enrique placed Gervinho to the bench for Falque, who in fairness offered the hosts genuine width. With Falque stretching the pitch, Salah operated in narrow mixed positions, before charging into half space to create chances.

Gervinho and Salah are similar players – both thrive when there’s space to break into on the counter attack – but here, both the latter and Falque created chances in their respected positions. Salah’s first half pull-back resulted in Pjanic directing a shot off the post, whereas Falque delivered a devastating ball across the six-yard box that went amidst.

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The hosts’ attack would improve with a trequartista in the XI, but the cohesion between the front six was an improvement from last year. There was balance in wide areas, and each midfielder was able to fulfill their role due to Juve’s setup. Keita sat deep to protect the back four, Nainggolan retained possession a few yards ahead, and Pjanic scurried between the lines to receive possession and force Chiellini and Pogba into first half bookings.

Lack of familiarity upfront

Juve’s deep defensive line limited the possibility of creating chances from deep, but the away side still appeared perplexed during the rare occasions when they sustained possession in Roma’s third. One of the keys to Juve’s success last season involved Carlos Tevez and Alvaro Morata understanding their roles – the former dropped deep to receive the ball, while the latter sprinted behind the defence.

Tevez’s departure deprives Juve of a creative threat between the lines that can score goals and effectively link play with his teammates, which resulted in flat possession in the final third. Dybala’s lateral movement in these areas was positive, but a sole individual slalom sufficed from his presence upfront.

Likewise, Mario Mandzukic doesn’t offer a threat behind the last defender, and with Juve maintaining a low block, the Croatian was isolated for long spells. This, nevertheless, is also related to a lack of familiarity between the pair, along with one of the downfalls that comes with Mandzukic.

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The Croatian’s denies his team of natural pace upfront, but he was equally reluctant to drop deep to link play with his teammates. There was one moment towards the conclusion of the first half where Pogba was clearly frustrated with his attackers’ movement upfront, as neither attacker aimed to drop deep to receive the ball.

More so, Juve’s deep line, combined with a new strike partnership lacking Allegri’s basic attacking concepts is partially responsible for the away side’s blunt productivity in the final third.

Allegri adapts

Pjanic’s superb free-kick put Roma ahead at the hour mark, but Roma’s threat from wide areas decreased significantly. Majority of the hosts’ buildup play was narrow, and with Pogba offering improved protection for Evra, Garcia’s men relied on distant Nainggolan efforts on goal that forced Buffon to make a few saves.

Allegri instantly reacted to Pjanic’s opener, introducing Morata for the subdued Mandzukic, but the away side’s best chances stemmed from corner kicks. Then the Juve manager altered to a midfield diamond, sacrificing Lichtsteiner for Roberto Pereyra.

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Pereyra represented the ideal player suited for Allegri’s approach as his pace offers a genuine threat on the counter, and it was odd to see the Argentinian reduced to a bit-part role considering the circumstances. The Argentine forced Dzeko into a booking, while his pace and clever combination with Morata led to Dybala’s consolation goal – Morata dispossessed Keita in midfield to ignite the swift break.

Evra’s second dismissal proved costly in the final stages of the match, but a change of shape and additional space from Morata and Pereyra nearly inspired a comeback.

2-0

Roma, though, quickly pounced on the champions’ mistakes. Subsequent to Evra’s dismissal, Pjanic played a lovely diagonal behind Juan Cuadrado for Falque, and his cross into the box witnessed Dzeko tower over Chiellini to notch his first goal for the hosts.

The significance of the goal may be overlooked, but it distinctly highlights two areas that Garcia seeked to improve this summer. Put simply, it was another dangerous delivery from Falque in a wide area that was converted by a legitimate centre-forward.

There’s a chance that the signings may not elevate Roma into potential champions, but the goal provides evidence that Garcia has made it priority to offer variety to an attack that was mightily predictable last season.

Conclusion

Juve’s apathetic display enabled Roma to dominate the match, as a moment of brilliance and a defensive lapse punished the champions in the second half.

This was an improved display for Garcia’s side, following a poor draw to Verona, with the most intriguing theme involving the balance within his attacking trio. In the past, the attacking options at Garcia’s disposal represent a team suited to play on the counter, and natural width combined with an aerial threat can improve Roma’s difficulty breaking down organized back-lines.

Miralem Pjanic (15) of AS Roma competes for the ball with Paul Pogba (10) of Juventus FC during the Serie A soccer match between AS Roma and Juventus FC at Stadio Olimpico on August 30, 2015 in Rome, Italy. CREDIT: ANADOLU AGENCY

Miralem Pjanic (15) of AS Roma competes for the ball with Paul Pogba (10) of Juventus FC during the Serie A soccer match between AS Roma and Juventus FC at Stadio Olimpico on August 30, 2015 in Rome, Italy.
CREDIT: ANADOLU AGENCY

Allegri’s approach was logical considering the scheduling of the fixture and limited time to integrate his philosophy, but here, his personnel selection was incorrect. Perhaps match fitness prevented Morata from starting, but Pereyra’s pace in midfield proved crucial in transition, and was the missing piece to a disjointed attempt to break on the counter.

Still, it would be harsh to prematurely criticize Juventus as the club lost a leader in Andrea Pirlo, and the league’s best attacker and midfielder in Tevez and Arturo Vidal, last summer, leading to several new additions in Turin. Allegri will be assessed attentively in the upcoming weeks, as the Juventus manager rightly requires time to find the correct balance, and welcome back injured players on his quest to retain the Scudetto.

 
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Posted by on September 4, 2015 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Juventus 3-0 Roma

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Courtesy of: Football.ua

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

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

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

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

Juventus without the ball

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

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

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

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

Roma struggle

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

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

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

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

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

Pirlo – De Rossi

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

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

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

Set-pieces

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

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

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

4-2-3-1

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

 

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David Moyes’ tactical alteration leads to Young’s impact at the Britannia

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At one point it looked like no one could do it on a cold Wednesday night at Stoke. Both sides were ushered off the pitch as heavy hail forced referee Mark Clattenburg to delay the match for 10 minutes. Prior to his decision, the match was played at a lethargic pace, as neither side was capable of retaining possession, due to the dreadful field conditions.

United dominated possession in the first half, but they lacked creativity, invention and penetration. Anderson and Tom Cleverley maintained deep positions alongside Phil Jones, and they rarely ventured forward. Mark Hughes’ men dropped off and focused on limiting gaps of space in midfield, and United rarely looked threatening, apart from Anderson’s sporadic balls between the lines to Welbeck.

The issue with United’s 4-5-1 was their lack of numbers in the final third. Welbeck was an isolated figure that linked play well, but received minimal service, while Oussama Assaidi and Jon Walters protected their fullbacks, thus limiting Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia’s influence on the match.

Moyes’ men gradually improved in the second half, as the pitch and weather conditions were playable, along with Anderson and Cleverley’s willingness to thrust into the final third. Likewise, Moyes quickly turned to his bench, and introduced Javier Hernandez, as United became a 4-4-1-1.

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Welbeck played off Hernandez, and the Stoke’s defenders dropped deeper than expected, in fear that Hernandez’s pace would leave them exposed. With two attackers roaming around the final third, Cameron and Erik Pieters were forced to sit narrow, thus giving Young and Valencia space to receive the ball and attack the fullbacks.

Coincidentally, while Moyes’ substitution and tactical alteration were beneficial, Hughes couldn’t say the same. A minute after Marko Arnautovic entered the match, Wilson Palacios switched off – Young drifted away from the Honduran to receive a ball from Cleverley, then played a pass to Hernandez and ran towards goal – past Palacios – and fired a venomous shot past Thomas Sorensen – scoring his first goal for United in 19 months.

Hughes was then forced to replace the injured Ryan Shawcross for Charlie Adam – this forced Cameron to play centreback and Glenn Whelan to cover at right back. Subsequently, Young received a pass from Evra and attacked Whelan – however, Walters drifted over to help the Irish midfielder cope with the Englishman’s threat.

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Young created a 1v2 situation, as Walters drifted over to assist Whelan. Evra’s run created half space, but no Stoke defender tracked his run, and the Frenchman was able to cut in and curl his shot past Sorensen.

Here, Young created half space for Evra to run into, and he played the pass to the United fullback, who cut in and curled his shot into the far corner with his weaker foot.

Stoke pushed forward searching for goals in the second half, but their deliveries from wide areas lacked quality, and Crouch’s aerial threat was poorly utilized. Hughes’ men didn’t record a shot on target, which highlighted United’s impressive defensive display. Chris Smalling continuously won aerial duels, Phil Jones covered every blade of grass making five tackles and three interceptions, while Cleverley was the most proficient passer on the pitch, completing 79 passes with a 90% pass accuracy rate.

United reverted to a 4-5-1 in the latter stages of the match, when Darren Fletcher made his second appearance of the season, to close out the match. The performance didn’t showcase any significant progress under Moyes, but his valour to change his system reaped rewards, as United still lack an offensive identity.

 
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Posted by on December 18, 2013 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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AC Milan 2-2 Roma

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Milan came from behind twice to earn a draw against Roma.

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Max Allegri made two changes to the side that drew Ajax in the Champions League, as Urby Emanuelson and Andrea Poli were included in the starting eleven.

Rudi Garcia also made two changes to the starting eleven that defeated Fiorentina last weekend. Michael Bradley replaced the suspended Miralem Pjanic, while Mattia Destro was selected over Alessandro Florenzi.

This was far from a tactical spectacle – Roma took the lead twice, but individual errors, and Allegri’s substitution’s earned Milan a valuable point.

Pressing

Both sides approached the match in different manners when the opposition secured possession, which contributed to Roma’s early dominance. Milan replicated the approach used against Ajax in midweek – Mario Balotelli and Kaka closed down the Roma defenders, while Sulley Muntari and Riccardo Montolivo pushed out wide to press the fullbacks.

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However, there was more emphasis on limiting Maicon’s freedom to push forward, as Muntari successfully nullified his attacking threat.

On the opposing end, Roma occasionally pressed high up the pitch in the early moments, but for the most part, they allowed Milan’s centre backs space to play out of the back.

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Roma opted to press the midfield, and limit their impact on the match, thus leading to Allegri’s men conceding possession in the opening minutes.

Yet, there was a common feat in regards to the way both sides pressed.

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Neither side focused on pressing the holding midfielder, thus handing Nigel De Jong and Daniele De Rossi the freedom to string passes together. This benefited Milan, as De Rossi struggled to grab a stranglehold of the match, whereas De Jong periodically dictated the tempo and triggered attacks. There was no surprise that both men were the most proficient passers in the match.

1-0

Based on Roma’s dominance in the opening period, there was no surprise that they took the lead. But, once again, we witness a goal created because half space was penetrated efficiently – similar to Walcott and Hazard’s goal this weekend.

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The space behind Zapata is the half space Ljajic plays the ball into.

Dodo intercepted Mattia De Sciglio’s pass and surged forward, evading De Jong’s pass before playing the ball out wide to Adem Ljajic. Ljajic drifted centrally and played the ball into half space for Strootman to latch onto.

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Strootman attacked the half space to receive the ball and delivered a cross into the six-yard box, and Destro tapped in Roma’s opener.

Emanuelson

Roma admirably pressed Milan’s midfield in the first half, which led to their slow start, but as the half wore on, Allegri’s men located an additional route of attack.

One of the issues Roma endured in the first half was protection for Maicon. Occasionally, Bradley would tuck in and prevent Milan from overloading the right flank, but for the most part, Ljajic and Gervinho failed to track back.

Majority of Milan’s attacks in the first half were off swift transitions led by Kaka.

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The Brazilian often drifted into key positions to receive the ball, and played quick passes to the left side of the pitch. This was down to Maicon’s narrow positioning, Roma’s lack of numbers at the back, and belief that Emanuelson could get the better of the Brazilian in 1v1 situations.

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Emanuelson’s ambitious runs into Roma’s third pegged Maicon back, and his delivery from wide areas were somewhat threatening. Specifically, his ability to drift past Bradley and Maicon, forced Morgan De Sanctis to make a key save, which led to the corner that Roma conceded from.

Emanuelson’s threat down the left was significant in the first half, as majority of Milan’s attacking threat came through him.

Roma break down the left

Garcia’s men started the second half in fine fashion – they enjoyed their best moments in the opening 15 minutes of the half, but were unable to put the match out of reach. The recurring theme in those opening minutes was exploiting the space behind De Sciglio.

The Milan fullback lacked positional discipline for large portions of the match, and he was a liability from a defensive standpoint.

  • 48th min: Poli’s poor back heel falls to Bradley, who pushes forward and plays a long ball into the left channel for Destro to run onto. Destro holds off Zapata, turns him, and plays the ball to Bradley, who finds Maicon, but Zapata cleared his cross.

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  • 49th min: Subsequently, Strootman picks up a loose ball and plays in Gervinho down the left flank, but Gabriel jumps off his line and commits a reckless challenge in the box, to earn Garcia’s men a penalty – which Strootman converted.

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  • 54th min: Dodo dispossessed De Sciglio and played Gervinho forward into open space on the left flank. Gervinho drove at the Milan defence but his ball to Ljajic was intercepted.
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Ljajic begins his run at half as Gervinho attacks the space behind De Sciglio.

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This is the end of Ljajic’s run as Gervinho plays him in.

  • 58th min: Dodo intercepts Balotelli’s final ball, and plays a pass to Gervinho in acres of space on the left. The Ivorian attacks Zapata, and Ljajic makes a run behind him and receives a disguising pass. Ljajic plays the ball across the box to Gervinho, but Emanuelson makes a lovely tackle to prevent a shot.

Milan pushed higher up the pitch in the second half, but this provided Roma with space to penetrate on the counter, however Garcia’s men were poor in the final third.

Roma change

Garcia made a pivotal player swap in the 63rd minute by sacrificing Destro for Francesco Totti – who appeared for the first time since October. This change played a significant factor in Roma’s dominance, and it allowed Milan some breathing space.

It’s undeniable that Totti is arguably Roma’s best attacker, but Destro’s contribution to the match provided Roma with the platform to threaten Milan in wide areas. Destro’s physical presence occupied the two centrebacks, while Totti often drifted into midfield.

During the final half hour, Allegri’s fullbacks were cautious with their forward movement, and Milan’s centrebacks sat deep – so Totti’s movement didn’t drag Milan’s backline out of position. Suddenly there was no space for Roma to penetrate out wide, and their centre backs were rarely tested.

4-3-1-2

Allegri reacted quickly to Garcia’s decision to introduce Totti. Alessandro Matri replaced Poli, and Milan became 4-3-1-2 with Kaka roaming behind the two strikers.

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Allegri goes 4-3-1-2 allowing Kaka freedom in the final third.

Now, Milan competed in midfield, and Balotelli had more freedom to drop deeper and link play. Prior to Matri’s inclusion, Balotelli struggled against the two Roma centrebacks, but Allegri’s switch allowed the Italian striker freedom in attack.

Roma’s midfielders became sloppy in possession, and lost control of the match, as Montolivo and Muntari constantly closed them down and broke into tackles.

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Eventually, Milan gained control of the midfield, Balotelli became a more prominent figure, and Kaka roamed around the final third with a purpose.

Kaka

The Brazilian was the most influential Milan player on the pitch. In the first half he was restricted to the left flank, but he drifted centrally to receive the ball and initiate quick counter attacks.

However, when Allegri went 4-3-1-2 he was given more freedom to express himself. The one key component to his success against Roma was his positional awareness. Kaka dropped deeper into midfield to help build attacks, located pockets of space effortlessly, and drifted from flank to flank to link play with the fullbacks.

Kaka was the lynchpin behind Milan’s best chances in the final 15 minutes of the match. His nonchalant run into the final third, led to Balotelli laying the ball off to Muntari, who dropped his shoulder, bet Dodo, and levelled the match. While, his incisive penetrating ball into Montolivo, led to Balotelli’s spurned opportunity in injury time.

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This isn’t the Kaka the world grew to adore, but Allegri’s tactical change surely provided glimpses of his brilliance.

Conclusion

Roma have been brilliant over the course of the season, but their overachievement has led to a sense of complacency. By no means did they produce an outstanding performance, but they were the superior side for large portions of the match, and failed to take their chances – frankly, it’s been a recurring theme in their last five or six matches.

As for Milan, although they dropped points, this was still a positive result. They showcased their resilience, and Allegri’s changes ignited a late resurgence that should’ve led to three points. In hindsight, while Milan can use this as a confidence boost heading into the derby, Roma’s dropped points sees Juventus extend their lead at the top of the table to five points.

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

 

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Three Things: Basel 1 – 0 Chelsea

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Stamford Bridge rang out in jeers. Chelsea had lost their second consecutive match, this time in front of their home supporters, as animosity drifted around the stadium. It was only September, and the West London side looked to be heading down a familiar cycle. The pressure was rising, as a club of Chelsea’s stature couldn’t afford to crash out of the group stage under their newly-appointed manager.

Subsequently, Chelsea went on a fantastic run, losing only once over the last two months, and climbing to the top of their Champions League group. The results displayed a gradual improvement under Mourinho, who is desperate to win silverware and a trip to Basel was the ideal occasion to make that statement.

A win for the West London club would secure qualification, but the Swiss side also required maximum points to keep their European campaign alive. Here are three observations on Basel’s historic victory against Chelsea.

Basel attack wide areas

It was an unexpected onslaught.  Basel was on the attack from the first minute and Chelsea couldn’t cope. They pegged Mourinho’s men into their own half, searching for an opening in the final third. The Swiss side was unfortunate not to take the lead on several occasions, as Petr Cech made numerous top-class saves to keep his side in the match.

Yet, Chelsea were the opposite – they were sloppy in possession, and their slow buildup didn’t help the cause. Their main outlet in the first half was right back Branislav Ivanovic, who earned his side a corner, and provided a scintillating cross for Samuel Eto’o, but he was unable to connect with the Serbian’s cross.

Apart from that chance, Chelsea were lethargic. Eto’o was practically an isolated figure upfront, Willian provided glimpses of brilliance – barring his final ball – and Oscar also failed to have an impact on the matches. Eto’o ‘s quiet night came to a halt in the 42nd minute, when the Cameroonian striker was stretchered off the pitch due to injury, thus leading to Fernando Torres’ appearance.

While Chelsea struggled to push forward as a unit, Basel found openings to exploit. Despite Willian and Oscar adequately tracking back to protect their fullbacks, Mohamed Salah and Valentin Stocker enjoyed space in wide areas. Chelsea’s fullbacks sat narrow when defending, and they were forced to come of position to close the wingers down.

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Basel’s wide men made runs behind the Chelsea fullbacks when possible – particularly they were dangerous on the break, as Ivanovic and Azpilicueta were caught out in narrow positions, which invited Basel’s wide players to push forward.

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Coincidentally, a mixture of pushing too many men in advanced areas, and their narrow positioning led to Salah’s winner. Fabian Schar played an exceptional cross-field pass behind Ivanovic, and Salah ran onto it, brushed off the Serbian and beat Cech at the far post. The warning signs were evident, and it was shocking to see Mourinho ignore this feat, considering the joy Basel were having down both flanks.

Similar to the first meeting at Stamford Bridge, Basel’s wide men played a pivotal role in their well-deserved victory, as Salah and Stocker terrorized Chelsea’s defence.

Hazard and Torres impact

There was no significant improvement from the Blues at the start of the second half, which forced Mourinho to introduce Eden Hazard for the unimpressive Oscar. Chelsea was dismal in the final third – they didn’t test Yann Sommer, as the Blues only recorded one shot over the course of 90 minutes.

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From an attacking perspective, Hazard and Torres’ introduction led to a gradual improvement in Chelsea’s activity around the final third. The Chelsea duo provided a direct element of attack that away side lacked in the first half – as Willian’s tracking forced him to start from deeper positions, and Chelsea’s passing was dire.

Hazard and Torres combined well around the 18-yard box, and their will to take defenders on from deep positions, opened up space for Chelsea’s midfielders to attack. Mourinho’s men got into a great position in the 60th minute, when Hazard and Torres combined, thus opening up a shooting lane for the Belgian, but he opted to played a well-weighed pass out wide to Ramires, but the Brazilian’s first touch was abysmal.

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Both men have been scrutinized in the past for uninspiring performances in a blue shirt, but they drove Chelsea into dangerous positions in the final third. Chelsea’s display was dire, but Torres and Hazard provided glimpses of brilliance that gave Blues supporters a glimmer of hope.

Chelsea need more than a striker

There’s been a constant shout for Chelsea to add a world-class striker to their squad in January, but the West London side shouldn’t overlook the other issues they possess. Mourinho opted to stick with the same three-man midfield that was successful at West Ham over the weekend.

“We go through because Schalke didn’t get a result, and that is not the same. I can only find one reason for the performance, and I saw signs of it from the first minute: my team were tired. We paid the price today of the international week, and from the game against West Ham where we had put in an outstanding performance,” Mourinho said.

“We paid the price today of the international week, and from the game against West Ham where we had put in an outstanding performance. But we made a big mistake in the first second of this game, immediately, and after that we made mistakes defensively, with the ball, lost easy passes, lost the ball, and we finished with a ridiculous goal,” he added. 

Chelsea’s midfield trio was constantly being overrun in midfield – Basel’s attacking three effortlessly skipped past Mourinho’s men in midfield and found it considerably easy to receive the ball between the lines. Lampard was out of breath chasing shadows, as he struggled to complete the full 90 – seemingly, the Englishman can no longer handle two games in a week. Ramires has failed to reach the heights of the past two seasons, as he wandered around midfield bewildered, conceding possession easily, and albeit finding good positions in the final third, his poor touches let his side down.

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Mourinho’s limited midfield trio withholds individual duties – Mikel protects the back four and ensures Chelsea sustain possession, while Lampard and Ramires push forward, but this leaves Chelsea vulnerable to counter-attacks, as their midfield often lacked structure. Frankly, besides making runs into the box – which is slowly becoming ineffective – Lampard doesn’t offer much going forward.

Chelsea’s weak area is in midfield – they lack a player that can dictate the tempo of the match, and provide positive forward passes. Likewise, in the double-pivot, Mourinho’s reluctance to play Mikel and Ramires together often leads to the Brazilian playing in a deeper role – which hinders his strengths.

Chelsea’s intent to sign a world-class striker is vindicated, but as the season wears on, the Blues will continue to suffer if quality personnel aren’t added to a feeble midfield.

Conclusion

Basel were worthy winners on the night – the Swiss side exposed Chelsea’s weaknesses in midfield and down the flanks, and they were organized when the away side held possession.

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In particular, Fabian Schar was exceptional – exceeding expectation on the defensive end, and providing a winner for Salah to win the match.

“After our great display in the first half we realized we could get a result. It obviously helped us that Chelsea wanted to play football themselves and not just sit deep. This allowed us to find gaps. To beat Chelsea twice is historic for this club,” Yakin said. 

“We had situations to score but had bad control, no sharpness. The team was tired. When the team is tired, defensive and attacking mistakes can happen, and you concede goals that you never normally concede. But Basel deserved the bonus. They were the better team,” Mourinho said.

Chelsea qualified for the round of 16 in an uninspiring manner, as Mourinho blamed the poor display down to fatigue and lack of squad rotation. Ultimately, the result, along with the performance was inexcusable – his men were poor on the night, they lacked invention, guile, structure and a proper game plan. Simply, Mourinho’s tactics were dire, and life at Chelsea won’t get easier until he improves the midfield, and provides another offensive dimension.

 
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Posted by on November 27, 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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