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Manchester City’s defensive deficiencies further exposed by Klopp’s vibrant Liverpool

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Liverpool and Manchester City showdowns have developed into popular Premier League fixtures in recent years, and the arrival of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola was expected to enhance the competitive rivalry between the two clubs. Sunday’s clash at the Etihad was not only vital in regards to the current top four race, but stylistically, it also highlighted the growth witnessed throughout the league over the past 12 months.

Although the attacking philosophies vary between the two managers, the emphasis on dynamic pressing and clever passing combinations suggested the possibility of a potential goal-fest. But, unlike previous meetings against Klopp’s Reds, the hosts were dominant in the opening period.

Guardiola decision to employ a 4-2-3-1 meant David Silva operated in his preferred no.10 role, whereas Kevin De Bruyne sat deeper in midfield alongside Yaya Toure. The most intriguing change in Guardiola’s XI witnessed Fernandinho start at right-back, where he pushed forward at every opportunity and quickly pressed James Milner when the Liverpool left-back received possession.

Interestingly enough, City’s ability to stretch the pitch through Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling’s positioning created more space in central areas for David Silva to drift into. Silva’s positioning, here, was integral to City’s dominant spells, yet the hosts created majority of their chances in wide areas via overloads and incisive passing into half spaces.

Fernandinho and De Bruyne both delivered dangerous crosses into the six-yard box within the opening 15 minutes of the match, whereas Sane also created dangerous chances that resulted in a Simon Mignolet save, and a last-ditch tackle from James Milner to deny Sterling an easy tap-in. Later on, Milner was once again the key cog in denying City an opener following De Bruyne’s brilliant reverse pass to Silva in left half-space, but Guardiola’s approach was fairly successful in terms of field positioning to get the better of Silva and De Bruyne’s creativity.

A string of Liverpool chances towards the end of the half offered signs that they were growing into the game, but their poor start was down to sloppy passing and their reluctance to swarm Guardiola’s men in the early stages. Sadio Mane was presented a glorious breakaway following a poor John Stones back pass, whereas Roberto Firmino and Adam Lallana both tested Willy Caballero.

Gael Clichy rarely pushed forward with fear of leaving vacant space for Mane to charge into, and despite Firmino’s positive link up play when he dropped into midfield zones, Liverpool’s possession was tedious, opposed to efficient in the final third. Liverpool’s positive spell continued in the second half, and Clichy’s slip subsequent to Emre Can chipping a pass over the City defence for Firmino led to a penalty that Milner comfortably converted.

Liverpool were now free to revert to a narrow 4-5-1 with the intent to hit City on the counter and one break ignited by Firmino and Philippe Coutinho forced Caballero into a vital save around the hour mark. Toure was now a liability in transition, and Guardiola quickly sacrificed the Ivorian for a natural right-back in Bacary Sagna, thus pushing Fernandinho into midfield. Toure’s decline has been evident in recent seasons, but with Coutinho easily gliding past the City midfielder in the aforementioned move, the possibility of Liverpool increasing their lead appeared evident.

However, Guardiola’s substitution was followed by Silva moving alongside Fernandinho, while De Bruyne hugged the touch-line on the right flank. Therefore, Sterling, Aguero and Sane operated centrally with the former as the no.10 – but his wayward passing limited his influence – while Sane constantly aimed to run behind the Liverpool defence.

Aguero, on the other hand, moved into wider areas to evade the pressure applied by Joel Matip and Ragnar Klavan when the Argentine received the ball with his back to goal. For all of the speculation associated with Aguero’s future under Guardiola, here, his reliable finishing was his downfall, whereas his linkup play was fairly positive.

Nevertheless, City responded superbly following Guardiola’s alterations. Silva’s starting position was deeper, while De Bruyne delivered two dangerous crosses into the box before creating Aguero’s equalizer shortly afterwards. Guardiola’s decision to move his creative cogs away from the congested midfield zone was logical, and though it led to more chances, City remained vulnerable in transition.

Lallana missed a glorious chance set up by Firmino, and minutes later Mane’s powerful run from midfield resulted in the aforementioned Brazilian firing a low effort into side-netting. Meanwhile, besides Sterling breaking behind and nearly chipping Mignolet, and a wonderful individual effort from Aguero – when he dropped into a deeper zone in the left channel – De Bruyne and Silva architected City’s best moves down the right flank. Both men created opportunities for Aguero to notch a winner, but the Argentine’s profligate finishing ensured the score line remained deadlock at full-time.

In a truly enthralling end-to-end game, the performances from both sides epitomized the current obstacles preventing a proper title challenge. Where Liverpool still lack a reliable goal-scorer despite their devastating high-octane brand of football, City’s defence and lack of protection in midfield outweighs Guardiola’s riches in the final third.

 
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Posted by on March 20, 2017 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Tactical Preview: Manchester United – Liverpool

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

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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.

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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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Tactical Preview: Liverpool – Manchester United

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Manchester United’s trip to Anfield represents a chance at redemption for both club and manager Jose Mourinho. For the first time in recent memory, both sides consider themselves genuine title contenders, but where Jurgen Klopp’s side are simply bombarding opponents, United are struggling to build a winning foundation under Mourinho.

Klopp and Mourinho’s battles on the European stage consisted of near finished products in Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, which certainly isn’t the case, here, but it clearly demonstrated the latter manager must identify a way to cope with the former’s high-octane approach.

Mourinho’s caution hasn’t proved successful against Klopp’s dynamic gegenpressing in the past, and last month’s derby defeat to Manchester City may encourage the Portuguese manager to alter his approach. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is expected to lead the line, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Wayne Rooney start on the bench, but the main personnel issues for Mourinho rests in midfield.

Predominantly fielding a 4-2-3-1 this season, Mourinho may prefer to flip his system to a 4-3-3 to cope in central areas as he usually tends to do in big matches. Pushing Paul Pogba closer to Ibrahimovic – where the two have developed a positive partnership – is an option, but it’ll be interesting to see if he elects for Marouane Fellaini’s aerial presence and strength in midfield.

Ander Herrera’s excelled in a deeper role in recent weeks, but a pairing with Pogba would risk the possibility of being overrun in midfield, and it’s unlikely Mourinho will trust Michael Carrick in a deeper role against Liverpool’s pressing. Morgan Schneiderlin is also an option, but his tumultuous spell at Manchester United ensures that it’s unlikely he’ll play a factor.

It’s unlikely Mourinho will alter his back-line despite their dodgy defending that resulted in a 1-1 draw against Stoke City two-weeks ago. However, both full-back roles will be interesting: despite Daley Blind’s excellent positional awareness and ability to identify danger, Sadio Mane’s pace could trouble the Dutchman. Meanwhile, Philippe Coutinho’s reluctance to track runners may leave James Milner exposed at left-back, unless Georginio Wijnaldum shifts over to the left to negate Antonio Valencia’s threat from right-back.

Although Daniel Sturridge’s arrival aided Liverpool’s stagnant attack at Swansea, Roberto Firmino should be fit to feature in his preferred false nine role. This means Coutinho will start from the left and Sadio Mane from the right, whereas Emre Can may be awarded his first start of the season with Adam Lallana and Wijnaldum fighting to regain full fitness.

Firmino’s growth as the lone striker witnesses the Brazilian drift into half-spaces between the centre-backs and full-backs, thus encouraging forward runners into the box, and if required, Divock Origi or Sturridge’s intent to play off the last striker will be utilized as a plan B. Can normally wouldn’t start here due to Wijnaldum and Lallana’s form, but the German all-rounder’s inclusion would offer improved penetration and muscle in midfield.

Still, Henderson’s position remains key considering Ibrahimovic is renowned for dropping deeper to encourage runners forward. The Swede boasts an evident advantage over the Liverpool captain in terms of height and physicality, and may be encouraged to position himself into pockets of space in deeper areas.

Elsewhere, the positioning of Milner and Nathaniel Clyne will be interesting. Klopp could encourage the full-backs to push forward to peg back United’s wide-men, but that does risk the possibility of being overrun on the counter-attack. As a whole, Liverpool have defended well in spurts opposed to lengthy spells, but with the attacking players often interchanging positions in central areas, he may require the full-back to be slightly adventurous to ensure they maintain width.

Ibrahimovic’s versatility may not trouble Liverpool, here, as Joel Matip’s excellent display against Diego Costa a few weeks ago suggests the Reds can cope with opposing forwards dropping into midfield. But Ibrahimovic’s aerial threat could pose several issues in open play and via set-pieces, where United will fancy their chances of scoring due to Liverpool’s past collective defensive issues, combined with the concrete contrast in height between the two sides.

Though United may possess the better individuals, Liverpool remain the in-form side producing better performances and results as a whole. Out of possession they remain organized and diligent in a base 4-5-1, and their dynamic pressing fluster opponents into simple mistakes. Ultimately, the outcome hinges heavily on Mourinho’s midfield set-up.

Liverpool’s persistence to overload central areas, along with their energetic pressing could foil a United side yet to display collective discipline in defensive phases. And though Mourinho’s side pose a legitimate threat via the counter-attack and set-pieces, it’s difficult to see United controlling the game unless they engage in a physical midfield battle.

 
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Posted by on October 14, 2016 in Published Work

 

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

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

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

Can you blame them?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rooney-less United make statement

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

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

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

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

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

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

City overcome adversity at the Liberty Stadium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reds are beginning to look like a Klopp side.

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

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

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

Son pushing for permanent starting role at Spurs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Results

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

Weekend Stats

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

Stats provided by OPTA

 
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Posted by on September 27, 2016 in Published Work

 

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Tactical Preview: Chelsea – Liverpool

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Liverpool’s trip to Stamford Bridge features two sides that may remain optimistic about a potential title challenge this season.

Neither side were active in last year’s title race but without European football to focus on Jurgen Klopp and Antonio Conte will have enough time to solely prepare for league fixtures. Essentially Klopp and Conte are similar: two managers popularizing a brand of football to win domestic trophies abroad and now being asked to guide their current side back to prominence.

Where the verdict is still out on whether Conte’s Chelsea can compete against the better sides in the league, Klopp’s men have developed a habit of doing so. The Reds already dispatched of last year’s runner-ups Arsenal and Leicester City – scoring four goals on each occasion – but a trip to Chelsea should pose a different test. Conte’s arrival now witnesses a team that now possesses the organization and discipline that went missing last year, combined with a legitimate counter-attacking threat in transition.

“I think Liverpool are a really good team,” said Conte. “They play with high intensity, they bring many players in offensive situations, they are very good.”

“We must pay great attention tomorrow because we know they are very strong.”

Liverpool’s major decision rests on whether to start Daniel Sturridge upfront. The striker’s pace posed several issues for Leicester last weekend, but Klopp’s big game XI’s have often featured Roberto Firmino in a central role. The Brazilian’s movement pressing is integral to Klopp’s set-up, but likewise, his outside runs into the channels to create space, and willingness to drop deep and play quick intricate passes encourages forward runners into the box.

Sadio Mane’s pace and willingness to track back should merit a start on the right, whereas Philippe Coutinho may return to the XI on the left. Coutinho remains an interesting proposition that constantly intends on shooting from distance opposed to influencing his side’s buildup play within the final third, but similar to Firmino, Klopp turns to the Brazilian in the big games.

Therefore, it’s unlikely Sturridge will still start upfront, with Firmino drifting infield from the left hand side, and attempt to find space goal-side of N’Golo Kante. Klopp will also be hoping to recall one of his centre-backs following Lucas’ error that resulted in Jamie Vardy’s goal last week. While the Brazilian already lacks height, it’s evident Conte would encourage Costa to exploit his defensive deficiencies and unfamiliarity with the position.

On the other hand, though the midfield trio excelled thus far, this could be one area of concern for a Reds side yet to face an opposing group with proficient ball-winning traits. Liverpool lack that type of player in their midfield, opting to field Jordan Henderson as the deepest midfielder, along with Lallana’s creativity and Georginio Wijnaldum’s verticality and late runs into the box.

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Projected Starting XI’s

However, Conte’s Chelsea eradicated last year’s issues in midfield by moving to a 4-1-4-1 with Nemanja Matic and Oscar pressing the opposition midfielders while Kante sits deeper to protect the back four. Liverpool’s midfield will face their first stern test in terms of pressing across the pitch, and they may have to revert to a more cautious shape to encourage the Blues forward and play on the counter.

In attack, Chelsea aren’t expected to make any changes: Eden Hazard and Willian should feature on the flanks, with the latter possibly providing a greater threat if Coutinho operates from the left due to his unwillingness to track. That would leave makeshift left-back James Milner vulnerable against the speedy Brazilian and the high possibility of Branislav Ivanovic surging forward on the overlap. On the opposite flank, Hazard has displayed signs that he’s rediscovering his best form and Nathaniel Clyne will likely adopt cautious positions in fear of the Belgian’s threat behind him.

Meanwhile, Costa is the joint-leading goal-scorer in the league, and may finally relish a battle against a Liverpool defence lacking a physically imposing centre-back following Martin Skrtel’s departure. Klopp should be able to feature his preferred centre-back partnership with Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren, but they lack familiarity and natural aggression, thus making Costa’s presence their most difficult task to date.

“[He’s] world class,” Klopp said of Costa. “The best thing I can say, if other supporters love you then that’s not a good sign!”

“But he’s a real warrior on the pitch and he uses his body all the time. That’s a quality and what you need to know.

The major change in Chelsea’s XI will see the debut of David Luiz for the injured John Terry. Kante’s arrival at Stamford Bridge was beneficial to preserving the aging back-line, and Conte will hope Luiz’s indiscipline and constant habit of making mistakes will be protected until he fully adjusts into the Italian’s methodology.

However, Mane’s pace and the positional intelligence of Firmino could bamboozle the Brazilian and inconsistent Cahill. Nonetheless, if Conte’s men can cope with Liverpool’s first phase of aggressive gegenpressing, Luiz’s ball-playing skills will be an instant improvement to Chelsea’s build-up play from deeper positions.

Two contrasting styles consisting of a cagey midfield battle presents an interesting spectacle. Neither back-line, though, is sturdy or reliable, but Chelsea’s Kante could make the difference whereas Henderson could be overrun. Both sides have been wasteful in the final third this season, and this may simply rest on efficiency in the final third and which outfit can overcome the opposition’s dissimilar pressing schemes.

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2016 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Klopp and Pochettino need to solve their pressing warriors’ attacking dilemmas

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The current tactical resurgence surfacing throughout the traditional Premier League top sides was expected following the arrival of some of the world’s best football managers.

Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola have already injected key elements that contributed to their respected sides’ underachievement last year. However, the stylistic shift currently taking place in England’s top division gained prominence last season.

Prior to Leicester City’s triumph, the past three title winners Chelsea, Manchester City, and Manchester United were generally powerful sides that dominated possession, and were equally solid maintaining a deep defensive block when required. While that may not apply to Manchester City from a defensive perspective – a key reason as to why City was unable to sustain their success – they did possess the power to overwhelm inferior opposition.

This weekend’s lunchtime kickoff between Liverpool and Spurs welcomes a different brand of football that’s replicated across the continent. Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino enjoyed success at previous clubs outside of the Premier League, and their footballing philosophy is ground-breaking to a league that’s been criticized for losing its tactical nous.

Klopp began his Liverpool career at White Hart Lane with a vision of bringing the Reds back amongst the elite sides in England, but on his return to North London the German’s philosophy has provided doubt amongst supporters. Liverpool’s growth was displayed in spurts last season, often producing their best performances when forced to play reactive, whilst receiving space to exploit in the opposition’s half.

Klopp has often referred to ‘gegenpressing’ as the best play-maker: the defensive method where Liverpool swarm the ball in packs once they lose possession. It’s very successful when executed cohesively, often flustering opponents into mistakes, and enabling Klopp’s side to retain possession.

“The best moment to win the ball is immediately after your team just lost it,” Klopp has said. “The opponent is still looking for orientation where to pass the ball. He will have taken his eyes off the game to make his tackle or interception and he will have expended energy. Both make him vulnerable.”

Liverpool’s 4-1 demolition of then-champions, Manchester City, appeared to be a turning point in the club’s season: Klopp finally had his players on the same wavelength in regards to his philosophy and they were such demands with devastating efficiency. Although it didn’t drive Liverpool into the top four or prevent a second half collapse in the Europa League final, the breathtaking performance at the Etihad provided optimism.

Likewise, Spurs press in a different manner, as their intent to win the ball close to the opposition’s box is vivid. More importantly, they clog spaces to limit passing lanes, and the defensive high-line remains high to compress space. Essentially, Liverpool’s pressing is better suited to negate counter-attacks, but both approaches can equally go wrong if it’s not a joint-effort.

“It is a different style of pressing,” said Pochettino ahead of Klopp’s Liverpool debut last season. “If you analyze Dortmund, it’s not similar to how we played at Southampton. Our pressing was to the opposing goalkeeper, whereas Dortmund played with a medium block. You can’t compare Klopp’s style with my style, we are different. I’m not saying one is better than the other, just that we are different.

“It depends on your ideas, your culture, how you see the philosophy, your football,” continued Pochettino. “I prefer to press high and we believe we can press the keeper. Another manager believes it is better to stay with a medium block or play deep and go on the counterattack. This is how you feel and believe, and how you develop your style.”

Therefore, the one glaring issue that can unfold when two teams adopt similar defensive schemes is the possibility of cancelling each other out. Spurs’ buildup play is generally decent, but Liverpool’s first half display at the Emirates suggests they may encounter some issues. More so, while both sides are competent out of possession, their early season attacking deficiencies are concerning.

Pochettino was partially guilty for overexerting his players throughout last season’s campaign, and it’s uncertain as to whether they’ve fully recovered – this specifically applies to Harry Kane and Dele Alli, however, Kane generally takes a few games before he identifies his goal-scoring rhythm. But while Spurs have evolved into a slick passing proactive side, this season, they’ve found it challenging to create chances within the final third.

At Everton, they were simply out-worked and out-pressed during the first half: Kane was staved for service, while the attacking players were clearly shunted out by Gareth Barry and Idrissa Gueye. However, Vincent Janssen’s arrival tilted the match in Spurs favour, as they quickly switched to a 4-4-2 and equalized through Erik Lamela’s header from a Kyle Walker cross.

Janssen was rewarded with a start in last weekend’s win over Crystal Palace, pushing Kane into a withdrawn role, but once again, from an attacking sense, Spurs were dull. Nevertheless, majority of their best moves were created in wide areas, and Victor Wanyama’s winner stemmed from a clever Lamela corner, that saw Kane direct his near post header to the Kenyan.

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Spurs’ attack evidently lacks width, and it’s odd that they aren’t pushing the full-backs forward with two defensive-minded holders sitting in midfield. They play clever intricate passes in central zones, but against two organized sides that adopted deep, narrow shapes – Everton and Palace – majority of their attacks were cut out.

The other concern with Spurs’ attack rests in the pairing of Wanyama and Dier. Both men are powerful specimens capable of breaking up play and possess adequate distribution skills, but they simply lack the dynamism and penetrating forward runs Moussa Dembele offers from deep.

Spurs can afford to field one holding midfielder against sides that prefer to adopt a low defensive block, and although Wanyama nicked the winner against Palace, the Kenyan’s attacking threat from open play is sporadic. While it’s nearly certain Dembele will return to the starting XI when match-fit, the Wanyama – Dier partnership is better suited for the Champions League and against top opposition, which is why they may strive against Liverpool’s tricky attackers.

On the other hand, Klopp’s issue is more complex: Christian Benteke has been sold, and neither Divock Origi, nor Daniel Sturridge have impressed in a central role – the latter started from the right at Burnley and offered little. Klopp has often trusted Roberto Firmino in a central role, where he drops deep to invite forward runs, and makes outward runs into half-spaces to combine with teammates in tight spaces. Nevertheless, the contrast between Liverpool’s two league matches summarizes last year’s problems.

When the Reds are offered space in midfield and behind the back-line they can press, bully, and out-play nearly every team in the league – Arsenal’s makeshift XI frustrated Klopp’s men in the opening half, but when they tired, Liverpool were dominant over a 20-minute period and scored four goals. Arsenal pushed men forwards in the final 20-minutes with attempts of inspiring a comeback, and though Liverpool broke into key positions in transitions, they still conceded two goals in that span, thus enduring a nervy conclusion to the match.

Meanwhile, last week’s trip to Turf Moor, showcased a dull Reds attack that failed to unlock an organized Burnley side. Firmino was forced to drop into deeper positions, Georginio Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana couldn’t locate space to make penetrative runs into the box, Philippe Coutinho was forced into taking several ambitious shots from distance due to his poor passing around the final third, whereas Jordan Henderson was unable to breakup Burnley’s quick transitions that led to both goals.

Klopp has reiterated his gripe with luring players to Anfield, but with a full pre-season under his belt a certain level of consistency is expected. The intricate passing combinations, fluid movement, and Coutinho wonder-goals are brilliant when Liverpool’s gegenpressing is effective, but converting territorial dominance into goal-scoring chances is preventing the Reds from moving forward as a club.

Klopp and Pochettino have bucked the trend of defending in the Premier League, yet oddly, their main issue to start the season is a lack balance in the final third. With players still to return from injury and pre-season, perhaps this is a minor blip, but Saturday’s clash at White Hart Lane presents the ideal opportunity to build confidence in open play.

Neither side is expected to sit deep, as it’s illogical to expect 90 minutes of full-octane pressing, and given the progress displayed by both clubs over the past few months this match is expected to represent the tactical shift within the league. But where Spurs narrow play requires width to stretch the opposition, Klopp must identify the ideal balance to accommodate his new signings in a fairly direct 4-3-3.

In a league that’s most recently been criticized for a lack of organization and defensive structure, a match featuring some of the best young talent in the league may rest on whether they can maximize their creativity and goal-scoring threat around the box.

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

 

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