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Euro 2016 Preview: How the tournament may be dull but ridiculously unpredictable

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There’s a contrasting feeling looming around the upcoming Euro 2016 tournament following the decision to include eight additional teams.

Although it offers an increased viewership due to a larger tournament, the overall quality drastically decreases due to a limited amount of great sides.. Now, the inclusion of eight teams paves an easier route to the knockout stage, and can arguably hinder the tournament from a footballing perspective.

Frankly, that belief hinges on the true definition of ‘entertaining football’ – while one used to associate the term with Spain’s ability to retain possession and pass their way through opponents, the sudden shift in success involves organized defending and quick transitions on the counter-attack. Leicester City’s Premier League triumph, combined with another successful Atletico Madrid campaign – despite finishing the season trophy-less – suggests teams may attempt to replicate their approach considering the tournament favourites’ insistence on possession dominance.

More importantly, despite the inevitable likelihood of several limited sides reverting to deep defensive blocks and solely attacking on the counter-attack, realistically, the ploy is fairly logical. Defensive solidity is essential in a knockout competition, and considering avoiding heavy defeats should guarantee progression beyond the group stage, tight games could surface throughout the tournament.

This reactive approach, however, should favour several tournament underdogs if executed properly – the best teams in the world possess various attacking options, and would clearly prefer to operate in space opposed to probing until they find an opening. Likewise, the lack of a genuine great side or tournament favourite equally increases the tournament’s overall interest. The quality is fairly scarce, but ahead of the opening match, it’s difficult to fully justify a clear favourite.

Spain, Germany and France dominate the conversation, but the European giants all possess positional deficiencies that inhibit the belief that they’re superior to their rivals.

Reigning world champions Germany and two-time defending Euro holders Spain can no longer turn to reliable goal-scoring centre-forwards and may both encounter issues providing penetration in the final third. Mario Gomez, Alvaro Morata and Aritz Aduriz will be responsible for the goals despite the possible stylistic inadequacies, whereas Mario Gotze and Cesc Fabregas have featured as significant false-nine options in past tournaments – the former is arguably better in midfield, whereas the latter’s role requires out-of-form wide players David Silva and Pedro Rodriguez to offer penetration.

The reigning world and European champions pose different tactical dilemmas ahead of their opening group games, though. Often accused of over-possessing the ball, Spain have additional direct options in Lucas Vasquez and Nolito to offer variety to their patient possession-based football. Germany, on the other hand, have the option of utilizing Gomez as a legitimate target-man, but will be without key players in Ilkay Gundogan, Anthony Rudiger, and Marco Reus.

Meanwhile, hosts, France aim to hoist their first major tournament in 16 years, and the talent Didier Deschamps’ possesses suggests Les Bleus may never receive a better opportunity to end the drought. The hosts have several direct options like Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba that can play off Olivier Giroud’s impressive linkup play, but defensive absentees Raphael Varane, Mamadou Sakho, and Jeremy Mathieu leaves the French with very few options in defence. It’s also difficult to overlook that France’s recent tournament exits have come against Spain and Germany, and Deschamps’ men still look devoid of the experience to overcome their rivals in a head-to-head showdown.

Elsewhere, the same issues arise amongst the remaining notable contenders.

Italy possess the best defence and goalkeeper in the tournament but offer no creativity in midfield due to injuries to Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio, while their attacking options are extremely underwhelming. Antonio Conte has been heavily criticized for his selection prior to the tournament, but from an optimistic perspective, the Italian manager’s first two seasons at Juventus were fairly similar, with various players from midfield players scoring goals. Conte’s attention to detail, and overall cohesion in attacking moves will define an Italian side that appears sturdy at the back.

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Cristiano Ronaldo is the best player at Euro 2016, and a free role upfront ensures Portugal won’t be overloaded down the left. Fernando Santos midfield is one of the best in the tournament, and though they also lack major tournament experience, they’re capable of outmuscling and dominating most sides in central areas. The movement of the Portuguese attackers will be interesting, but the defensive options at Santos’ disposal places significant responsibility on the midfield to ensure their shape isn’t disjointed – Ronaldo’s role will always be the difference-maker but Santos must find balance quickly.

Oddly, it’s difficult to identify better striker options in this year’s tournament than the four men Roy Hodgson possesses in Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy, Daniel Sturridge and Marcus Rashford. However, with England straying away from a flat 4-4-2, and the rapid growth in youthful, highly-technical players amongst the ranks, England currently suffers from the same issue that’s plagued them for years – striking the right balance and fielding his strongest XI. Needless to say, while many other teams would welcome England’s striking issues, like Portugal, their back-four is undoubtedly the clear weakness.

While this was expected to be the tournament Belgium evolved into world beaters, the same questions are being raised regarding their role amongst Europe’s elite. It still feels like Belgium’s success rests on the form of Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne as the front line hasn’t substantially improved, whereas Marc Wilmots is still without natural full-backs. While Belgium’s individual talent still remains – they can count on a rejuvenated Moussa Dembele, possibly the best Premier League’s best centre-back partnership in Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, and two top-class attacking midfielders in Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard – the pressure is now on Wilmots to put the pieces together to launch a deep tournament run.

The tournament is still filled with stars like Gareth Bale, Robert Lewandowski, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic that will be aiming to overcome a lack of genuine support to make a statement, whereas Croatia’s impressive midfield – that still lacks a holding midfielder – is unlikely to make up for a tireless, yet often frustrated Mario Mandzukic and an unconvincing back-line. With more room for error, and no real powerhouses – this is possibly the antithesis of this year’s Champions League – it really leaves the tournament up for grabs.

Denmark (1992) and Greece’s (2004) triumphs – in much difficult circumstances – offers every team a sense optimism, and with the likes of Iceland, Turkey, Austria and Slovakia also involved, this is possibly the most open tournament in recent memory. It certainly may be a truly dull spectacle from a football standpoint, but the possibility of several winners guarantees a high-level of excitement.

So many questions remain unanswered.

So many teams look far from the finished product.

And with the international game drastically suffering with every passing tournament, the level of unpredictability presents a breath of fresh air that many will appreciate.

EURO 2016 is unlikely to be remembered as the best tournament of our lifetime, but the inaugural 24-team format has potential to usher in a new era courtesy of several shock results.

Perhaps now is the time where the impossible becomes possible.

 
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Posted by on June 9, 2016 in Euro 2016, Published Work

 

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

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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.

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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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Manchester City press and pass their way past Liverpool

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Manuel Pellegrini was keen to highlight the importance of scoring goals ahead of Manchester City’s monumental showdown against Liverpool. “The way in football is to score goals, that is why people pay for their tickets. Fans are always trying to celebrate the goals of their teams. That is very important, I think it is the best way to win.”

At the Ethiad Stadium, Pellegrini strayed away from his preferred 4-4-2 due to Sergio Aguero’s absence, and opted to play a 4-2-3-1 with David Silva as the no.10. On the other hand, Brendan Rodgers has Luis Suarez – the best striker in the league on current form – at his disposal, but was adamant on nullifying City’s threat in midfield. This approach was successful against Spurs a few weeks ago – Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson pressed the double-pivot, and constantly played balls behind the high Spurs backline.

Initially, Liverpool’s midfield sat off in a 4-1-4-1, but they didn’t press Yaya Toure or Fernandinho, and the City duo was free to play passes to Samir Nasri and David Silva, who drifted between the lines. Rodgers acknowledged this, and instructed his men to close down the opposition’s midfield. This was a logical approach, but Silva and Nasri’s movement into deeper positions helped City play through Liverpool’s press.

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However, City adopted a pragmatic, yet risky approach towards coping with Suarez’s threat. When the home side conceded possession in Liverpool’s half, City’s back four pushed higher up the pitch, preventing Suarez from turning and running at goal – Kompany quickly closed down the isolated Uruguayan striker. Yet, Liverpool’s front three’s combination of pace and intricacy posed legitimate threats for the home side – but for the most part Suarez’s threat was contained.

Liverpool’s best chances came from attacking space behind the City backline: Philippe Coutinho’s tame effort in the first half, and Raheem Sterling’s sitter were both created by Suarez. The one issue with Liverpool’s swift attacks was the number of men they committed forward – Lucas Leiva positional discipline was questionable, and both fullbacks surged forward, which left Rodgers with his two centrebacks as a line of defence.

City dropped into two banks of four out of possession, and Silva was often the free man searching for space to receive the ball and spring quick counter attacks by stringing passes towards Nasri and Navas. Pellegrini’s men squandered several opportunities on the break to add to their goal tally, but the home side notched a winner from this route of attack. Nasri’s magnificent cross field pass found Jesus Navas in an advanced position, and the Spaniard picked out Alvaro Negredo, whose unorthodox finish squeaked past Simon Mignolet.

Although Liverpool had the better opportunities in the second half, City were comfortable. Pellegrini’s men pressed Liverpool as a unit when they attempted to play out of the back, forcing the away side – in particular Mamadou Sakho – into conceding possession. City continued to monopolize possession through Silva and Nasri’s intelligence to drop deeper and drift into pockets of space between the lines, while the introduction of James Milner nullified Glen Johnson’s threat in wide areas. The movement of City’s creative players and their pressing was pivotal – both sides generated legitimate threats on the break, but Liverpool’s attacking naivety continuously handed the home side goal-scoring opportunities.

 
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Posted by on December 26, 2013 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Mourinho’s cautious approach stifles Arsenal’s creative midfielders

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Jose Mourinho threatened to take a step backwards to instill consistency in Chelsea’s results, after their shocking Capital One Cup defeat against Sunderland.  Mourinho stated his reluctance to shackle his attacking players and implement a counterattacking game, but a trip to the Emirates called for it.

Mourinho’s flawless record against Arsene Wenger isn’t a coincidence – Wenger’s possession-based philosophy plays into the Portuguese manager’s meticulous approach, and there was no surprises in either starting XI, despite many continuing to question Juan Mata’s exclusion.

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A cagey opening half displayed dissimilar defensive approaches without the ball. Chelsea sat off the Arsenal midfield and limited space between the lines, whereas Wenger’s wingers quickly closed down Cesar Azpilicueta and Branislav Ivanovic – Azpilicueta mirrored this approach on Theo Walcott, but from an offensive perspective the Chelsea fullbacks impact on the match was minimal.

Eden Hazard and Willian – Chelsea’s most in-form attackers – played on the flanks, while Ramires operated behind Torres, but often took up positions in midfield to prevent the Gunners from overloading central areas. While many questioned Mourinho’s preferred front three, the Portuguese manager’s selection was logical.

The trio possesses a devastating threat on the counterattack, but have the tactical discipline to diligently track back to maintain Chelsea’s compact shape and protect their fullbacks. Ramires helped Torres press Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta when building out of the back, and Chelsea’s wide men continuously launched swift counterattacks – yet, their decision-making and final ball were poor.

Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna scampered forward when the opportunity presented itself, but their deliveries were short. Arsenal’s midfielders couldn’t locate space between the lines to penetrate, and Olivier Giroud was an isolated figure – albeit, receiving Arsenal’s best chance to win the match, but Petr Cech’s quick movement off his line led to an important save that kept the match goalless.

But for the umpteenth time this season, Mesut Ozil failed to impose himself against a top-side. Ozil isn’t the type of player that dictates matches – he weaves around the opposition’s final third and provides flashes of brilliance, but that feat was anonymous, as was the German playmaker – despite completing the most passes in the final third. The most fascinating component in Arsenal’s attacking approach was Ozil and Rosicky’s movement. Ozil constantly drifted into deeper positions, which created space between the lines for Rosicky to drift into and vice-versa. The duo combined admirably, and Arsenal’s best chances were created through their movement.

Chelsea made player swaps in wide areas by introducing Andre Schurrle and Oscar, and David Luiz replaced Fernando Torres to secure a vital away point – shockingly, Wenger didn’t turn to his bench. The away side created the best chance of the match – despite their reactive approach – when Frank Lampard’s volley smashed off the crossbar. The 35-year-old midfielder occasionally made forward runs towards the box, when Hazard or Willian moved into wide positions, and he assiduously worked hard in the second half to protect Azpilicueta, when Ozil attempted to overload the left flank.

Arsenal stuck to their philosophy on a wet, windy night at the Emirates Stadium, but Mourinho’s side was well-equipped to contain their threat. “They played their game but it was the game we wanted them to play. They tried to win the game but we played tactically well,” Mourinho said.

More so, another game between the Premier League’s top teams – disregarding Manchester City at home – was uninspiring, as the overall display from both sides was equivalent to the weather conditions – dismal.

 
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Posted by on December 23, 2013 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Arsenal 1-1 Everton

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Everton came from behind to deny Arsenal the opportunity to extend their lead at the top of the Barclays Premier League to seven points.

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Arsene Wenger made four changes to the side that defeated Hull City midweek by recalling Aaron Ramsey, Olivier Giroud, Kieran Gibbs and Mikel Arteta to the starting lineup.

Roberto Martinez fielded the same starting eleven that defeated Manchester United at Old Trafford in midweek action.

Everton produced another impressive away performance, but was unable to snatch maximum points at the Emirates Stadium.

Everton dominate

One of the few shocking feats in this match was Everton’s dominance in possession. Everton pressed Arsenal high, preventing the Gunners from building play out of the back, which disrupted the home sides approach.

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But Arsenal did the opposite – they dropped back into two banks of four and their press was at a minimal. This allowed Martinez’s men more freedom to play passes in Arsenal’s third, but also comfortably build play out of their half. Arsenal were pegged into their own half due to Everton’s pressure, and their fullbacks constantly looked to bomb forward, as Arsenal’s wide men lacked the pace to trouble them on the counter.

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The only issue Everton faced was producing a final ball – for all of Ross Barkley’s threat in the final third, his decision making and capability of playing a defence splitting pass isn’t strong. Lukaku was starved for service as he aimed to make runs behind the Arsenal backline, but Martinez’s men didn’t attempt to squeeze a pass through.

4-1-4-1

There was a brief spell in the match when Wenger instructed Ramsey to push forward alongside Ozil to prevent his side from dropping deeper. In theory this was logical, but it was a huge risk as it left Arteta vulnerable against Everton counter-attacks.

The one issue with an Arteta-Ramsey double pivot has been Ramsey’s persistence to push forward into the final third. Although, the Gunners could get away with this against inferior opposition – or when Flamini is playing – Arteta has been exposed this season against the likes of Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Liverpool on the break.

Everton’s lack of quality in the final third was beneficial to Wenger’s men, and the Frenchman quickly reverted to a 4-2-3-1, with Ramsey sitting deeper. Ramsey’s offensive contribution has been a positive this season, but it does leave Arteta with more defensive work to complete, ultimately making him a liability on the break.

Barkley

Once again, Barkley produced another phenomenal performance at the Emirates – more importantly, it was in front of Roy Hodgson, as the Everton attacker is in contention for a spot in the England squad headed to the World Cup in June.

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Barkley was a constant nuisance for the Arsenal midfield, mainly Mikel Arteta, who was once again exposed against a pacy, technically gifted midfielder. Barkley dropped into pockets of space throughout the final third and in deep positions in midfield to help Everton push forward, and break past Arsenal’s bank of four.

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But, while Barkley’s positional intelligence was showcased, the Englishman posed a legitimate threat on the break. There were four distinct scenarios where Barkley carved open the Arsenal midfield, but was unable to convert his brilliance into goals.

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  • 4th min: Gareth Barry played a pass to Lukaku, and he squared the ball to Barkley who was behind Arteta. Barkley ran at the Arsenal defence and played a pass to Mirallas, but his ball flew across the six-yard box.

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  • 5th min: Barkley dispossessed Aaron Ramsey, then nicked the ball past Santi Cazorla, and drove at the Arsenal backline before playing a ball into Romelu Lukaku, who failed to get past Per Mertesacker.

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  • 21st min: Kieran Gibbs’ cross was cleared by Bryan Oviedo and Barkley turned and drifted past Arteta, subsequently playing a pass to Mirallas, who drove forward and struck his shot wide.

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  • 25th min: Sylvain Distin played a ball to Barkley who dropped deep, and turned past Arteta, playing a pass to Lukaku who laid it off for the Englishman. Barkley surged past Arteta, Giroud and Koscielny, but his final ball was poor.

Barkley was terrific, and he displayed his brilliance during the buildup to Everton’s equalizer when he turned Mathieu Flamini, and easily skipped past Arteta before playing the ball to Oviedo on the left flank.

Barkley’s pace, strength, positional awareness and trickery are remarkable, but is inability to play a final defence-splitting ball kept Arsenal in the match.

Arsenal vs. Howard

Arsenal struggled to grow into the match during the first half, and that was down to their lack of pressure, sloppiness in possession, and Everton’s work rate with and without the ball. While the Gunners did receive chances on the break to pose a threat, their wide men were pegged back to deep, and they lacked the pace required to catch Martinez’s men out of shape.

Arsenal’s best chances – besides Cazorla’s lovely ball across the six-yard box – came in the final four minutes of the half, when their nifty attacking players combined around the edge of the box.

  • 41st min: Arteta pushed forward and played a pass to Wilshere, who steered the ball into the path of Olivier Giroud, but Howard was quick off his line to make the save – however, Giroud was offside.
  • 42nd min: Ozil played a quick pass to Ramsey and he played in Giroud, but once again Howard was quick off his line to make a save.
  • 44th min: Ozil played a pass towards Giroud, which Ramsey dummied and subsequently made a run to receive the pass from Giroud, but Howard denied the Frenchman from six-yards out.

Arsenal was at their best when they combined in the final third, but Howard’s positioning and quick instinct prevented the Gunners from taking the lead.

Everton down the left

Everton is known for their constant play down the left flank, and although Leighton Baines was unavailable, Oviedo has provided adequate cover for the Toffees.

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Pienaar constantly drifted infield, finding pockets of space to receive the ball, which allowed Oviedo to push forward. Early on, neither Ozil nor Wilshere were tracking the Costa Rican fullback’s runs, and he delivered crosses into the box, but Mertesacker and Arteta comfortably dealt with that threat. In the 66th minute, both men combined well, leading to Pienaar’s cutback to Barkley, but Wojciech Szczesny saved his shot.

Although Pienaar didn’t participate for the entire match, Everton still posed a threat down the left flank. Barry made a clever overlapping run in the 83rd minute that allowed Oviedo to deliver a cross into the box, which resulted in Gerard Deulofeu’s equalizing goal.

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The left flank was Everton’s preferred area on the field to attack, and there was no surprise that the ball was circulated through the left during the buildup to their equalizer.

Substitutions

Martinez predicted pre-match that substitutions would play a pivotal role in the fixture, and he was right. Wenger made a triple-substitution introducing Theo Walcott, Tomas Rosicky and Flamini for Ozil, Cazorla and Ramsey. It was uncertain as to whether this was a fitness concern or if Wenger was searching for a direct approach.

Walcott provides pace on the break, Rosicky drives forward and is capable of playing long precise diagonal balls or short incisive passes, whereas Flamini was expected to provide more defensive cover in midfield – which he didn’t. It was fitting to see Wenger’s subs involved in Arsenal’s opener, as Rosicky’s long diagonal ball found Walcott in the box, which he nodded across goal, and Ozil smashed the ball into the roof of the net.

Martinez introduced Leon Osman for Pienaar, which pushed Barkley to the left – apart from the buildup to the equalizer, it limited Barkley’s impact during the final 10 minutes of the match. The Everton manager also made a player swap introducing Deulofeu for Mirallas, who displayed a moment of brilliance, firing an unstoppable shot past Szczesny.

The substitutions by both managers didn’t alter the match tactically, but it gave both sides a different element of attack, thus providing two goals in the final 11 minutes.

Conclusion

It was an impressive away performance from Everton – they dictated possession for large portions of the match, got into better positions, and nullified Arsenal’s main strengths.

“The only bit of criticism is you need to take your chances, in the final third we were not ruthless enough,” Martinez told Sky Sports.

For what it’s worth, Arsenal once again displayed the progress they’ve made as unit, defensively. Mertesacker and Koscielny continue to impress, and displayed why they’re currently the best centreback duo in the league.

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Arsenal lacked pace on the counter attack, and due to Everton’s shape and pressure, the home side was unable to get into their preferred passing rhythm around the final third. More so, the Gunners possess a difficult December schedule, and it’ll be interesting to see how Wenger utilizes the personnel at his disposal, as it certainly affected his approach and substitutions against Everton.

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2013 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Arsenal’s fluid midfield knocks Liverpool back to reality

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Arsene Wenger was a calm figure in his pre-match press conference Friday afternoon. Arsenal was in their darkest hour since their opening day defeat to Aston Villa, as they lost consecutive home matches to Borussia Dortmund and Chelsea in cup competitions.

However, the Arsenal manager didn’t show a sign of fear. He was confident his men would show up to the occasion. And a big occasion it was. Although Arsenal hasn’t encountered stern opposition yet, they hosted a Liverpool side in hot form. Liverpool’s success has been down to Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge’s great run of form, and Arsenal’s main goal was to keep them quiet.

While there aren’t many people buying into Arsenal’s great start this season, Wenger is confident that his men will prove the doubters wrong. He’s developed an ‘us against the world mentality’ within his squad that’s proved to be quite successful thus far. The media’s doubt in Arsenal’s title credentials has been Wenger’s fuel to motivate his men, and once again they produced a scintillating performance.

The Gunners’ superiority in midfield proved to be pivotal, as they aimed to get runners from midfield to attack space and latch onto the final ball. Their attacking midfielders dropped deeper to sustain possession, Aaron Ramsey continued to impress on both ends and Bacary Sagna is proving to be a sensible outlet on the right flank.

Similar to Olivier Giroud’s goal against Borussia Dortmund, Sagna got into an advanced position down the right flank, and delivered a wonderful cross towards Santi Cazorla – aided by Giroud’s movement, which dragged Kolo Toure and Martin Skrtel out of position. Cazorla nodded the ball off the post, but quickly reacted and smashed the rebound into an open net. From an attacking sense Sagna’s role can become prominent with Arsenal fielding a narrow midfield, depending on his ability to consistently deliver quality balls from the right flank.

Liverpool did present Wenger’s men with a few scares, mainly through their direct play on the break between Sturridge and Suarez. In the early moments of the match, both men dropped deep to receive the ball and got past Mikel Arteta on a few occasions. But as the match progressed, Laurent Koscielny mirrored Arteta’s defensive responsibilities – as it was evident he needed assistance – and stayed tight on the forward that dropped deep.

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Ultimately this hampered Liverpool’s attack, as they lacked invention when Arsenal had players behind the ball.

Brendan Rodgers’ men were stifled when trying to play out of the back as Arsenal pressed higher up the pitch, winning possession in Liverpool’s third. Liverpool could have benefitted from pushing higher up the pitch as a unit, and getting their wingbacks forward, but they preferred to do neither, despite Jon Flanagan getting into decent positions.

Rodgers attempted to turn the tide in the second half, by reverting to a 4-4-2 and introducing Philippe Coutinho on the left. Although Coutinho looked a bit off pace – considering he returned from injury – Liverpool maintained a better shape without the ball. Coutinho’s impact on the match was less eventful from an attacking perspective – the Brazilian’s movement was positive, but he was unable to complete his precise passing in the final third.

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The tactical shift allowed Suarez more space to attack when he dropped into deeper positions, but it left Sturridge isolated. Suarez scampered around the final third causing mayhem with his intelligent movement, but his decision making let him down massively. With Ramsey pushing forward to join the attack, Arteta was left vulnerable, thus providing Suarez with more space to penetrate

Ramsey put the match out of reach when he received a clever pass from Ozil at the edge of the 18-yard box. The Welshman let the ball bounce and confidently struck it on the half volley past Simon Mignolet.

Liverpool failed to impress on their first legitimate test of the season, while Arsenal continued to focus on their superiority in midfield. Arsenal’s fluid, canny, relentless and patient, yet when you add in the improvement of Giroud’s overall game and their manageable schedule thus far, you can understand why the Gunners are top of the table.

Regardless of what their defensive statistic’s state, Wenger’s men still look vulnerable at the back, and it’ll be interesting to see how they develop in the latter months of the season. Nonetheless, this result should boost Arsenal’s confidence ahead of a week that sees them travel to Dortmund and Manchester United.

The Gunners have been imperious thus far, but we’ll get a better sense of their overall strengths next week.

Analysis

  • Chelsea missed an opportunity to go top of the table for a few hours, as they fell to Newcastle at St. James Park. Jose Mourinho’s men struggled to move forward a unit in the opening minutes, due to Newcastle’s early pressure. Chelsea’s fullbacks were quickly closed down, while Frank Lampard and Ramires were also unable to push forward.

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Lampard’s inclusion in away matches or against top class sides is quite bizarre considering his limited impact on the match. Due to Lampard’s inability to play penetrating forward passes, David Luiz proved to be a vital cog in Chelsea’s attack, as he played balls between the lines for Oscar and Juan Mata to receive. Newcastle was complacent in the first half, and despite Chelsea’s dominance in possession, the Blues were dull in the final third.

The onus was on Mourinho to make changes in the second half, to give his side a slight advantage. However, it was Pardew who made the most of the personnel on his bench. Vurnon Anita was superb upon his arrival, allowing Yohan Cabaye to push forward, and the movement of Loic Remy improved massively in the second half. Remy dropped deeper to help Newcastle push forward – a feat neither striker completed in the first half – while Yoan Gouffran and Moussa Sissoko were threatening on the counter, as Chelsea pushed more men forward. Coincidentally, it was Gouffran who was on the receiving end of a wonderful Cabaye delivery, which gave Pardew’s men the lead.

Samuel Eto’o, Willian and Andre Schurrle were introduced in the second half, as Chelsea gradually improved, but their passing tempo was still slow and penetration was at a minimum. Loic Remy put the match out of reach for the Blues as they fail to end their week on a high note. Chelsea missed a great opportunity to keep pace with Arsenal at the top of the table, and they now sit five points behind the league leaders.

  • Manchester United won their fourth consecutive match in all competitions, as they easily dispatched of a poor Fulham side. United scored three goals in the opening 30 minutes to earn three valuable points ahead of a monumental showdown against league leaders Arsenal next week. Fulham’s overall shape without the ball was shambolic, as Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie found it relatively easy to receive the ball between the lines. United’s notorious strike force tormented Fulham’s makeshift centre back duo, as they played a key role in all three United goals. The Red Devils were in full control of the opening 45 minutes – Phil Jones was given time and space to dictate the midfield, whereas Fulham was dismal in central areas. There was a vast improvement in Fulham’s second half performance as United were content with the result. They now await a trip to Spain midweek, and host Arsenal at Old Trafford, in a match that can truly define their season. Moyes’ men can’t afford to lose another match at home, especially when it can put them 11 points behind Arsenal.
  • Tottenham and Everton wasted the opportunity to climb to second in the table as they played to a dire draw at Goodison Park.  Andre Villas-Boas’ men were dominant in the first half pressing Everton and preventing them from playing out of the back. Aaron Lennon, Jan Vertonghen and Andros Townsend were rampant down the flanks causing the Everton fullbacks nightmares. Villas-Boas’ men struggled to play out of the back in the early periods of the match, but relied on Michael Dawson’s cross-field diagonal balls to push the North London side forward. Yet, despite Spurs’ superiority in possession, Spurs didn’t provide Roberto Soldado with quality service.

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Nevertheless, the Spaniard was poor on the night, failing to connect with his teammates when the opportunity was presented, and his touches were dismal. Everton improved in the second half when Gerard Deulofeu and Ross Barkley sparked energy in Everton’s attack – with Barkley’s movement between the lines and Deulofeu’s pace. Despite Holtby’s positive outing in the no.10 role – pressing the opposition and playing positive passes – the German midfielder, like the wide men, failed to connect with Soldado, which has been Spurs’ major issue this season.

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While Spurs continue to be impressive on the defensive end, their inability to score goals is worrying. Soldado is top-class striker, but he needs service and players to work off of, hence why Christian Eriksen’s arrival was pivotal.

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He’s the only player in the Spurs side capable of playing incisive passes in the final third, and if runners aren’t getting behind Soldado, his ability to play defence-splitting passes will be significant towards Spurs’ and Soldado’s success.

  • Joe Hart was dropped from the Manchester City starting XI, thus handing Costel Pantilimon a spot in the City lineup. The Romanian goalkeeper didn’t have much work to do, as six different City players got on the score sheet in their impressive 7-0 victory over Norwich.
  • Steven Caulker’s second half header earned Cardiff City three points in the Premier League’s first Welsh Derby. It was a cagey affair that saw both sides nullify their opponent’s strengths in midfield. The main source of attack came from long diagonals behind the left back – it led to openings for Swansea in the first half, and the corner that led to Caulker’s goal in the second. Cardiff City manager Malky Mackay stated pre-match that his men had to get it right tactically to earn three points, and that’s what they did.

Results: Newcastle 2-0 Chelsea, Hull City 1-0 Sunderland, West Brom 2-0 Crystal Palace, West Ham 0-0 Aston Villa, Manchester City 7-0 Norwich City, Stoke City 1-1 Southampton, Manchester United 3-1 Fulham, Arsenal 2-0 Liverpool, Everton 0-0 Tottenham, Cardiff City 1-0 Swansea City

Weekend Stats

  • Cardiff City v Swansea City was the first ever top-flight fixture in England not to feature any English teams.
  • Spurs have only conceded one league goal in the first half of Premier League games this season, fewer than any other team.
  • Asmir Begovic’s goal 13 seconds into Stoke City’s match against Southampton makes him the FIFTH goalkeeper to score a Premier League goal and the previous fastest was in the 62nd minute.
  • Manchester United’s total of 14 points after nine matches is seven points less than they had at this point last season.
  • José Mourinho suffers his worst Premier League defeat as Chelsea manager since a 2-0 defeat at Aston Villa in September 2007.
  • Arsenal has lost 28 Premier League matches in the month of November, more than in any other month. Under Wenger, have lost 22 of 67 in November (33%).

Infostrada Sports (@InfostradaLive) provides all the stats in this recap.

Tune into the 2 Guys and a MIKE podcast as it returns this week. Subscribe to it on I-Tunes!

 
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Posted by on November 4, 2013 in EPL Notebook, Published Work

 

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Carrick displays why he needs to anchor England’s midfield in Brazil

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There was a sigh of relief around Wembley. Steven Gerrard surged forward and fortuitously skipped past Kamil Glik, clipping the ball over Wojciech Szczesny to double England’s lead – securing a spot in next year’s World Cup. It wasn’t easy, but Roy Hodgson did it. The Three Lions will return to the ‘world’s biggest stage’, this time with less expectation, but some optimism based on Hodgson’s bold moves over the past four days.

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However, while the old guard – Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard – will receive the headlines for netting the goals, the men that received the opportunity to impress didn’t look back. It must be said that Poland started the match well – in terms of pressing – and Hodgson’s men struggled to stamp their authority on the match. Adrian Mierzejewski pressed Michael Carrick, limiting his influence – and when Gerrard dropped deeper into midfield, Robert Lewandowski helped his Polish teammate close the English captain down.

Nonetheless, Mierzejewski also posed an attacking threat, as he constantly got behind the English double pivot, spreading incisive passes in the final third. Meanwhile, Poland also tormented Hodgson’s men when they swiftly broke on the counter after English set pieces – going from box to box – but Lewandowski squandered two legitimate goal-scoring opportunities.

Andros Townsend and Leighton Baines continue to make legitimate stakes for a starting spot – based on impressive outing – but neither Poland nor Montenegro intended on dictating the match, which benefitted the duo. That’s not saying that neither can solidify a spot in the starting lineup, but will Hodgson trust the latter when England encounter elite opposition?

Nevertheless, it was Carrick who starred in the heart of midfield against Poland. His three tackles – only bettered by Phil Jagielka – and 94% pass completion was exceptional. Once the Polish players tired and their press diminished, Carrick became the key figure in Hodgson’s side. His inch perfect passes found Wayne Rooney, and Daniel Sturridge lurking between the lines, while his ability to retain possession is a feat no current English midfielder possesses.

And, it was Carrick’s one-time pass to the advancing Leighton Baines that led to England’s opener. The Everton fullback delivered an exceptional cross – one that Ashley Cole would value – to Rooney, who rose above the Polish defenders and nodded the ball past Szczesny.

England’s attacking quartet continues to take a step in the right direction – Rooney’s movement around the final third and midfield displayed his maturity as an international player, while Townsend’s unpredictable direct approach troubled the Polish backline. Also, Welbeck and Sturridge’s movement into central areas and their intricate play in the final third have been positive, as they continue to improve as international players, albeit there poor form in front of goal.

Nevertheless, the main man is Carrick. Unlike Frank Lampard, Jack Wilshere and Gerrard, the Manchester United midfielder provides astute defensive cover, and has the ability to anchor England’s midfield with his precise penetrating passes. Carrick isn’t getting younger, but in an area where Hodgson is currently lacking star performers, the 31-year-old is the present and future of England’s midfield.

 
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Posted by on October 15, 2013 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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