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Chelsea 2-2 PSG (AET): Blanc outwits Mourinho as PSG are rewarded for their bravery following Ibrahimovic’s dismissal

Fabregas veratti

Ten men PSG relied on goals from their Brazilian centre backs to come from behind on two separate occasions, effectively knocking Chelsea out of the Champions League at Stamford Bridge

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Jose Mourinho made one change to the side that featured in France, with Oscar joining Eden Hazard and Ramires behind Diego Costa. This was the expected Chelsea XI with the back four unchanged, while Cesc Fabregas dropped deeper to form a midfield duo with the returning Nemanja Matic, and Ramires operated on the right to help contain Blaise Matuidi.

Laurent Blanc welcomed back Thiago Motta into the XI alongside Marco Verratti and Matuidi to form a midfield trio. Javier Pastore was selected over compatriot Ezequiel Lavezzi on the right of a three-pronged attack, with David Luiz moving to centre back and Marquinhos pushing Gregory Van der Wiel to the bench.

Although PSG never took the lead, the French champions displayed the confidence to not only maintain their initial approach, but also outplay and outmuscle a limp Chelsea side that held a man advantage for over 90 minutes.

Cagey opening period

This was a contrast of last year’s return leg at Stamford Bridge. On that night, Chelsea required two goals to secure progression, and PSG happily sat deep in their half, with the intent of playing on the counter. But this time around, a scoreless draw would see the French champions crash out of the tournament, which led many to believe an entertaining European clash was on the horizon.

Marquinhos van der wiel chelsea psg 2014 2015

The interesting feat in the opening half hour, however, was the manner in which both sides approached the match without the ball. Blanc’s men maintained a medium block and their pressing, led by Verratti, was initiated when Chelsea’s attacking players entered the French side’s half. Chelsea aimed to peg PSG into their half from the opening kickoff, with Oscar joining Diego Costa in leading the press. PSG enjoyed lengthy spells of possession in the first leg with Verratti and Luiz retaining possession near the semi-circle, but Mourinho instructed his men to cut off those passes. Costa and Oscar sat between the two players, while Matic sporadically pushed forward to aid the aforementioned attackers.

Still, PSG was better equipped for Chelsea’s threat in open play and it started with the inclusion of Marquinhos, who was handed the task of negating Hazard’s threat down the left – mainly because van der Wiel struggled in the first leg. Hazard was fairly quiet down the left in this regard, only enjoying a powerful run when he skipped past Pastore in the third minute.

On the other hand, Cesar Azpilicueta was a tad more adventurous. The Spanish left back moved into advanced positions due to Pastore’s reluctance to track his runs, along with his narrow positioning, but his attacking impact was scarce. Nonetheless, an interesting feat of the second leg was the risk Blanc took on the left. With Cavani often in a central position, Branislav Ivanovic, the best right back in the Premier League, and Ramires, a powerful runner received space to overload Maxwell. Oddly, Chelsea’s activity often transpired on the opposite flank, whilst Matuidi’s discipline was evident, as his tireless work ethic saw the French midfielder track Ramires and Ivanovic when they attempted to surge forward.

Chelsea attacks

While Chelsea’s attacking six combined well with nifty intricate passing, the Blues lacked a final ball on numerous occasions. And despite the likes of Oscar, Costa and Fabregas finding space between the lines to receive the ball, Chelsea’s creative players were underwhelming.

Chelsea PSG shots prior iBRA SEND OFF

A tame Oscar effort was the sole attempt on target from both sides combined, but more importantly, Mourinho’s side were breaking into key areas. On two occasions in the first half, Thibaut Courtois coolly collected corners and instantly ignited breaks with his quick throws. First, Fabregas found Oscar between the lines but his heavy touch halted the play. Then, Courtois’ rolled ball to Hazard earned Matuidi a booking for tugging the Belgian to the ground. Chelsea’s quick breaks from Courtois throws were promising, but ultimately, the quality in the final third was disappointing.

As stated prior, it was peculiar to see Chelsea reluctant to overload Maxwell or increase Matuidi’s workload. Costa, who was heavily isolated in Paris, drifted to the left to avoid 1v2 situations with Luiz and Silva, and attempt to combine with Hazard. Silva eventually shifted over to the left to provide Marquinhos cover as the match progressed, and despite a splendid individual slalom that led to a penalty shout, Costa rarely outfoxed the Brazilian centre backs.

10 v 11

The turning point in this frenetic second leg took place when Ibrahimovic was harshly dismissed for a tackle on Oscar. Despite occasionally dropping deep to help PSG push forward and launch counter attacks, the Swede hardly influenced the match – in reality, the sending off was beneficial to the French side.

Oddly, the tempo of Chelsea’s passing and movement decreased, which ensured PSG’s solid shape was rarely threatened. Likewise, Blanc’s formation remained the same: Cavani moved upfront, with Matuidi playing a dual role on the left, and Pastore drifting laterally into pockets of space on the right.

PSG dominate

More so, PSG’s assertion of dominance was spectacular considering the French side was down a man against the Premier League leaders. In particular, Motta and Verratti were the key men: they completed the most passes (Motta 95 and Verratti 80) and achieved over a 90 per-cent passing rate.

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The duo grew in prominence in the second half, as Chelsea’s work ethic and approach out of possession was shocking, while their energy levels significantly decreased. Mourinho’s side sat in two banks of four, but the midfield band wasn’t compact, and there was plenty of space to drift into to receive the ball. PSG’s ball playing midfielders weren’t pressed, and when so, it was often disjointed, which could explain why the top passing combinations in the match involved Motta and Verratti.

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Similar to Verratti, Matic pushed forward to press the Italian – the duo led the match with five fouls committed – and disrupt the away side’s passing rhythm, but apart from the Serbian’s effort, Chelsea was overloaded in midfield. The midfield trio casually waltzed into pockets of space to serve as passing options, and Pastore also dropped deeper to offer an outlet.

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PSG’s best move of the match, and arguably the tie, illustrated the freedom they received in midfield. Prior to picking up the ball near his box and quickly combining with Marquinhos and Motta, the Italian evaded challenges from Hazard and Willian, slid a pass between the lines for Pastore, who finally connected a through-ball to Cavani – who ran behind Fabregas and off the shoulder of Ramires – to round Courtois, but he fired his shot off the post.

Cavani was culpable for missing two key chances in the same tie last season, and although he was nearly responsible for their exit once again, the move vividly epitomized a mobile, yet fluid side in the second half. Cavani played off the shoulder of the centre backs, Matuidi continued to shuttle forward from the left to try to connect with crosses from wide areas, Motta sat deeper and retained the ball, Verratti offered tenacity and intelligent passing with his dynamism, and Pastore’s aim to drift into pockets of space and play through balls should have resulted in a goal.

Perhaps Chelsea can be criticized for their dire play, but PSG were clearly the better side in the second half, with their ball playing midfielders overloading central areas to steamroll Chelsea’s midfield.

Substitutions

Apart from Willian’s second half arrival, it was interesting to see both managers attempt to alter the match subsequent to Cahill’s opener – there was less than 10 minutes remaining in the match.

Blanc called upon Adrien Rabiot and Ezequiel Lavezzi to replace Matuidi and Verratti with PSG moving to a 4-2-2-1. Rabiot and Motta sat in midfield, with Lavezzi and Pastore behind Cavani – the former stormed forward from the right to play closer to the Uruguayan striker, and the latter persisted with drifting between the lines.

Within seconds, Pastore’s move to the left proved beneficial as it offered Maxwell space to surge past Willian to deliver a cross to Lavezzi in the box, but the Argentine’s header flew right at Courtois. Then, Maxwell’s adventurous off the ball run enabled Pastore to isolate Willian to earn that corner that resulted in Luiz’s equalizer.

Mourinho, on the other hand, remained cautious and introduced Kurt Zouma for the knackered Matic, and similar to big matches against both Manchester clubs this season, the Blues conceded a late goal after dropping deep to soak up pressure. Mourinho turned to Didier Drogba in extra-time opposed to Juan Cuadrado or Loic Remy, and was likely aiming to add an additional aerial presence in the box.

Drogba moved upfront, and Costa was now positioned on the left, which in truth, didn’t harm Chelsea because Marquinhos rarely ventured forward and the Spanish international was often positioned in that area throughout the match. The Ivorian served as an expedient outlet for Hazard to play off of in extra-time, but Marquinhos and Salvatore Sirigu’s last ditch efforts prevented the Blues from notching a third goal.

Set pieces

Nevertheless, set pieces, or to be specific, aerial duels, proved decisive over 210 minutes of football. The first leg saw three Chelsea defenders combine for an unorthodox away goal, PSG aim to isolate Cesar Azpilicueta via crosses, and Cavani rising high to snatch a second half equalizer.

Both sides possess dominant aerial players, and the lack of guile and creativity – despite PSG showcasing both as they pushed for a goal and created a few half chances in the second half – increased the significance of set pieces. Where Sirigu desperately flapped at corners throughout, PSG’s inability to clear their lines resulted in both Chelsea goals.

However, PSG’s two goals were quite extraordinary considering their corners and crosses into the box in the opening half – that Courtois easily snagged – were poor. But moments of sheer brilliance from the world’s most expensive centre backs, combined with shocking marking from Chelsea’s defenders, saw Luiz’s thunderous header force extra-time, and Silva win the tie on away goals – he beat Terry on two occasions within minutes, as Courtois made a stellar save prior to the equalizer.

Conclusion

PSG’s performance at Stamford Bridge was superb, and amazingly it appears Ibrahimovic’s dismissal was a blessing in disguise. The French side was unconvincing prior to the sending off, as Chelsea’s numerical advantage altered the Blues’ approach both mentally and tactically.

Blanc, however, deserves credit for his game management. The French manager stuck with his initial approach in a major European tie at Stamford Bridge: his side was defensively organized out of possession, while the ball playing midfielders were vastly superior in central areas.

Mourinho was astonishingly unprepared for this situation, and his sluggish midfielders, particularly Matic (who trained once prior to kick-off) failed to dictate the tempo of the match and were severely underwhelming in the final third. The Blues were lethargic in possession, and they were shockingly open without the ball in the second half, lacking the structure and solidity required to compete with PSG’s powerful, yet technical ball playing midfielders.

In recent years, Mourinho has been left humbled in world football’s most prestigious tournament, but here, he was outcoached and outwitted by Blanc’s bravery. While Chelsea and Mourinho continue the club’s “evolution” – a mission to return the former to Europe’s elite – Blanc will hope PSG’s historic triumph could be the catalyst in the club’s journey into that exclusive group.

 
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Posted by on March 12, 2015 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Brazil 1-7 Germany

Courtesy of Wikicommons/Steindy

Courtesy of Wikicommons/Steindy

Germany avenged their 2002 World Cup final loss by convincingly battering Brazil at Estadio Mineirao.

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Luiz Felipe Scolari made three changes to his XI welcoming back Luiz Gustavo alongside Fernandinho in midfield, while Dante formed a centre-back duo with David Luiz, and Bernard replaced the injured Neymar.

Joachim Low named an unchanged XI.

Germany played to their strengths and scored four goals in a six-minute span in what proved to be relatively straightforward tactical battle.

Germany’s shape

One of the key aspects to Germany’s success in the first half was their shape out of possession. Low’s side dropped into a 4-1-4-1 without the ball with Sami Khedira pressing Luiz Gustavo, Toni Kroos tracking Paulinho, and Bastian Schweinsteiger monitoring Oscar’s movement.

With the German’s keeping close to the Brazilian midfield, the vacant centre-backs had no passing options available, and were forced to play direct. For the most part, Low’s side negated the host’s threat in midfield, and without midfield runners, and Fred upfront –– he’s not renowned for his pace –– the German back-line was free to play higher up the pitch.

Brazil encountered identical issues throughout the tournament, but relied on quick transitions to score goals, and with Neymar unavailable, it always felt that a moment of brilliance or execution from set pieces would be their solitary goal outlet.

Direct Brazil

Similar to previous matches in the tournament, David Luiz’s long diagonal balls were pivotal towards Brazil bypassing Germany’s pressing. Luiz was Brazil’s creative outlet in the first half playing diagonal balls into the front four and surging through midfield to feed Hulk; the winger’s distribution in the final third, however, was putrid. Defensively, Luiz struggled due to the lack of protection in midfield, but he was undoubtedly Brazil’s most creative player on the field.

Luiz Germany

Likewise, Germany’s pressing in midfield prevented Brazil’s chief creator from receiving the ball in advanced positions in the final third. Prior to the goal fest, Oscar was most influential when he dropped deeper into midfield to receive the ball and link play. Brazil’s best move was created in this manner, as Oscar combined with Fernandinho and Fred, thus leading to the ball being played into Marcelo in the box, but Philipp Lahm made a key tackle to halt their attack.

Germany’s pressing nullified Brazil’s attempt to play through midfield, and impeded Oscar’s role as the no.10, while Luiz’s deliveries and surging runs from defence served as the successful method in bypassing Low’s side.

Germany dominate right flank

In last year’s Confederations Cup, fullbacks Marcelo and Dani Alves played key roles in Brazil’s attack. The attack-minded fullbacks would surge into the final third, and their crosses from wide areas created several goals en route to the final. 12 months later, the former endured possibly the worst match of his career, while the latter was dropped for Maicon.

Germany’s dominance stemmed from Marcelo’s advanced positioning as Thomas Muller, Khedira and Lahm exploited this space in transition. This approach was evident from the opening minutes, and equally played a decisive role in the buildup to Germany’s opening goals.

Lahm Muller BrazilFirst, Khedira stormed past Oscar and Fernandinho before playing the ball wide to Muller, and his cross to the far post saw Mesut Ozil return the favour to Khedira who fired his shot off Kroos. Then Marcelo conceded possession cheaply, and Khedira shrugged off Gustavo, thus playing in Muller who earned a corner following Marcelo’s recovery run. Muller side footed Germany into the lead from the ensuing corner kick.

On an interesting note, a similar incident occurred on the right flank with Schweinsteiger looping a ball into space in the left channel for Ozil, who ran past Luiz, but the Brazilian centre-back out-muscled the diminutive playmaker to retain possession. Still, the massacre on the right continued as Muller surged into space behind Marcelo who was caught out of possession once again, but Dante cleared his corner to award the Germans a throw-in; seconds later, Klose slid the ball past Julio Cesar to double Germany’s lead, following great passes from Muller and Kroos.

Finally, the build up to Germany’s third goal was also created down this flank, as Lahm surged forward to receive an exquisite pass from Ozil, and the right-back’s low-cross fell into the path of Kroos, who fired a powerful effort past Cesar. A year ago, this appeared to be the logical approach to adopt from a Brazilian standpoint, but the quality from the fullbacks in the final third was putrid, whereas Bernard and Hulk failed to track the runs of Lahm and Benedikt Howedes.

This was a logical plan executed brilliantly by Low’s side, and it was surprising that Scolari didn’t instruct the fullbacks to sit deeper, or his wingers to trackback.

Brief Brazilian fight back

Scolari made two changes at the interval, introducing Ramires and Paulinho, and transitioning into a 4-3-3. This was the system the Brazilian manager should have utilized from the opening whistle, and there was an immediate response at the start of the second half.

Germany retreated into their half, whereas Ramires played as the highest midfielder to help Fred lead the press, and surge forward into attack. Ramires and Paulinho’s powerful running posed a few issues for Low’s side, and forced Neuer into making key saves to deny the latter and Oscar.

Low reacted brilliantly, introducing Andre Schurrle for Klose and moving Muller in the centre-forward position. Now Germany possessed pace upfront, and they were favoured to create chances on the break as Brazil pushed numbers forward in the second half. Likewise, Schurrle scored two wonderful goals in the second half, halting any chance of a miraculous comeback.

Conclusion 

In what should have been a tight-affair between two prestigious international sides, Germany annihilated Brazil on home soil in a match that will be remembered for years to come.

This was a one-sided affair that saw Germany play to their strengths, and dominate nearly every aspect of the match. There were three factors to Germany’s success: they exploited space behind Marcelo, their pressing in midfield –– an approach various sides have utilized in this tournament against the hosts –– prevented Brazil from playing through midfield, and Scolari’s reluctance to play a 4-3-3, saw Germany’s wide players drift centrally to overload central areas.

Shots Brazil Germany

Germany combined approaches that were unsuccessful against Scolari’s side in previous rounds, but their ruthlessness and execution in the final third proved decisive. Neymar and Thiago Silva were missed, but Scolari got his tactics wrong, and failed to react to Germany’s dominance in the opening half hour.

Under Scolari, Brazil’s biggest strength was their ability to win games, and how they react to this emphatic defeat will define whether this group of players is capable of making the next step in future competitions.

 
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Posted by on July 9, 2014 in Published Work, World Cup 2014

 

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Tomas Rosicky’s energy and perseverance drives Arsenal past Spurs

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Arsene Wenger’s decision to acquire Mesut Ozil on transfer deadline day has been identified as the spark that’s led to Arsenal’s formidable form this season. The signing displayed the North London side’s title ambitions, and his presence has influenced his teammates to raise their overall game – but initially, it put Tomas Rosicky’s place in the squad at risk.

Rosicky, who most recently celebrated his 33rd birthday, has struggled to solidify a place in Arsenal’s XI throughout his eight-year spell in North London. Injuries have hampered the Czech’s ability to reach his expected potential, and with Arsenal possessing an abundance of creative players, his role within the squad was questionable.

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Here, the 33-year-old midfielder started alongside Santi Cazorla and Serge Gnabry in Arsenal’s attacking trio, behind Theo Walcott. Walcott aimed to attack space behind the fullbacks, Gnabry stuck to the touchline to provide width and isolate defenders – a logical approach based on Spurs’ fullbacks willingness to surge forward, while their centrebacks lack pace – whereas Cazorla drifted centrally to provide a creative spark.

Rosicky has occasionally slotted into the no.10 role behind the striker this season, opposed to Cazorla or Ozil, and it’s because the Czech midfielder provides a different element to Arsenal’s attack. Rosicky isn’t renowned for his sleek penetrating passes, or ability to take control of games – he’s an energetic direct threat that drives Arsenal forward, when their intricate passing is ineffective.

When Arsenal drew Everton at the Emirates this season, Wenger made a triple-substitution, which included Walcott and Rosicky replacing Cazorla and Jack Wilshere. It took 10 minutes for the duo to influence the match, as Rosicky’s long diagonal ball into the box met Walcott, and he nodded it towards Ozil, who gave Arsenal the lead from close range.

On two separate occasions, Rosicky drove Arsenal forward from deep positions in midfield, with swift, sleek combination play. Quick intricate passes with Cazorla and Wilshere enabled the 33-year-old to push forward and play a pass into Walcott, whose curling effort swerved inches wide of the net. Five minutes later, Rosicky dropped towards the halfway line to receive the ball, play a quick one-two with Wilshere, then inventively combine with Cazorla, who drifted infield and also curled his shot wide of the net.

The interesting feat about Rosicky is his admirable work-rate – he scampers around the pitch with the energy levels of a 20-year-old, quickly closing down the opposition, and breaking into tackles. Wenger’s decision to place him behind Walcott was with the intent of preventing Spurs from playing out of the back. For the most part, they were successful, and Rosicky was rewarded for his tireless running.

In the 61st minute, Rosicky closed down Danny Rose at the halfway line – the Czech subsequently dispossessed the Spurs left back, and shrugged off Kyle Walker, before cleverly chipping the ball over Hugo Lloris. Rosicky’s ability to drift into pockets of space and push runners forward is often overlooked, yet pivotal in an attack that can occasionally lack guile and penetration.

Although Rosicky could improve his goal-scoring/assist tally, the 33-year-old still offers a positive blend in Arsenal’s attack. His consistent dynamic style of play that involves direct running, and quick intricate passing has seen Rosicky quietly become one of Arsenal’s key men this season. Trophies have become a distant thought in the mind of Arsenal supporters, but Rosicky’s energetic play from midfield can play a decisive factor in ending their prolonged title drought.

 
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Posted by on January 4, 2014 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Emmanuel Adebayor justifies his return to prominence at Old Trafford

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Courtesy of: Roger Gorączniak

One of the few alterations in Tim Sherwood’s resurgent Spurs side is the inclusion of two strikers. Andre Villas-Boas’ reluctance to play a 4-4-2 left supporters and the ownership disgruntled, and it was one of the key factors that led to his dismissal.

Villas-Boas’ persistence to play marquee signing Roberto Soldado as the lone striker didn’t replace the attacking void Gareth Bale’s departure left in attack – and it’s difficult to solely blame the Spaniard for Spurs’ attacking deficiencies. Soldado isn’t a traditional number nine – he thrives when teammates are within close proximity to link play, and adequate service is provided. Villas-Boas’ side struggled to score goals and create chances during the latter stages of Villas-Boas’ tenure, while Soldado was merely a peripheral figure that spent many matches isolated against the opposition’s centrebacks.

Another difference to the North London side since Sherwood’s appointment is Emmanuel Adebayor’s presence in the starting XI. Villas-Boas banished Adebayor from the first-team, and the Spurs striker only featured for 45 minutes this season prior to Sherwood’s appointment.

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Tottenham’s trip to Old Trafford was pivotal, and their impressive away record instilled optimism, as Sherwood’s men aimed to defeat Manchester United for the second consecutive season. Sherwood made one change to the attacking six that comfortably defeated Stoke City over the weekend, introducing Etienne Capoue for the injured Paulinho. Christian Eriksen was expected to drift infield from the left flank to provide creativity, whereas Aaron Lennon and Kyle Walker were responsible for width on the right.

While Eriksen’s impact on the match was monumental, Adebayor’s performance exhibited Spurs’ attacking approach. Spurs struggled to sustain possession in the opening half hour – they constantly misplaced passes in key areas, and their decision-making was poor. Yet, despite United’s dominance in possession and down the right flank, it was Sherwood’s men who created the better chances.

Adebayor was a reliable passing outlet for the North London side, as he often dropped deep into midfield to receive the ball, and bring the midfield – that often sat deep – into the match to link play; a feat that Soldado struggled to complete as the lone striker. The Togolese striker initiated quick counters from his own half, and his rampaging run into United’s third, which led to Lennon’s tame effort in the 12th minute, highlighted his impact. Towards the end of the first half, Adebayor wonderfully brought down a loose ball, and played an incisive pass to Lennon that led to a squandered Soldado opportunity.

The Spurs striker’s involvement in both goals summed up his influence on the match. Eriksen’s ability to locate and attack space enabled the Dane to get into United’s third to deliver a cross at the far post, and Adebayor rose above Chris Smalling to direct the ball past David De Gea – it was the Togolese striker’s fourth goal since his return from exile.  Likewise, it was Adebayor who brought his midfield into the attack in the buildup to Eriksen’s goal, as he played the initial pass to Soldado, which led to Lennon’s penetrating run towards United’s box.

And while Adebayor’s involvement in both goals was pivotal, his determination and work ethic was identical. His battle with Wayne Rooney to win possession near the Spurs corner flag, along with his powerful run to the byline, before cleverly back-heeling the ball to his teammate displayed his ambition.

Unfortunately for the Togolese striker his exceptional afternoon was short-lived as he was stretchered off the pitch midway through the second-half. Spurs dug deep for the final moments of the match, and Hugo Lloris made a few key saves to preserve the lead. Sherwood’s belief in Adebayor has gifted Spurs with a rejuvenated striker, who’s developed into a key cog in their push for Champions League football. Here, he was the goal scorer, creator, and at times the heartbeat of the Spurs attack.

 
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Posted by on January 1, 2014 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Chelsea’s superior squad sneak past Liverpool

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Chelsea’s slender victory against Liverpool displayed the difference between a potential title contender, and a side heading in that direction. Chelsea’s cautious performance provided a short period in the first half that saw Jose Mourinho’s men produce their best football since his return.

Liverpool’s lack of squad depth forced Brendan Rodgers into making one change to the side that lost at the Ethiad Stadium – the Reds were without Steven Gerrard and Daniel Sturridge, while Victor Moses was ineligible to feature. On the other hand, Mourinho had the luxury of tinkering with his starting lineup, recalling Cesar Azpilicueta, Gary Cahill, Willian and Frank Lampard.

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The away side fortuitously took the lead in the opening three minutes, due to poor set-piece defending from Mourinho’s men. Both sides have experienced difficulties defending set-pieces this season, so this was a logical point of attack to exploit – Martin Skrtel pounced on a loose ball in the box – that Branislav Ivanovic failed to clear – and tapped it into an open goal from six-yards out.

Similar to their victory against Southampton, Chelsea responded well. However, Liverpool’s work ethic without the ball in the opening minutes of the match frustrated Mourinho’s men. Raheem Sterling and Phillipe Coutinho quickly closed down Chelsea’s fullbacks, and Luis Suarez worked tirelessly against John Terry and Gary Cahill, but the problem was in midfield.

Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson looked weary and sluggish throughout the match, as they half-heartedly pressed Chelsea’s midfield. David Luiz and Frank Lampard adopted deep positions in midfield and freely played passes around the pitch, while Willian, Oscar and Hazard drifted infield, and successfully operated between the lines. The buildup to Hazard’s equalizer witnessed Chelsea’s three creators combine in central areas, and Oscar’s powerful run led to Hazard’s curling effort.

Liverpool was overrun in midfield at certain points during the first half, and their attempt to replicate this feat failed. Coutinho drifted infield to help his side control the midfield – with Allen pushing into an advanced position on the right – but the Brazilian’s final ball was consistently poor. Suarez was merely an isolated figure in the opening half, as Cahill and Terry closely monitored his movement around the final third.

Chelsea’s success was also down to their pressing – Mourinho’s men limited Liverpool’s ability to play out of the back, and it also prevented their midfield from developing a fluid passing rhythm. Whenever Rodgers’ men evaded Chelsea’s press, they struggled to get behind the Chelsea defence, or create legitimate goal scoring opportunities.

Mourinho was forced to introduce Ashley Cole midway through the half, which pushed Azpilicueta to right-back. Although Coutinho occasionally closed down Ivanovic, the Chelsea defender rarely  surged forward. Azpilicueta had different intentions  – he ventured forward at the first opportunity presented, and his cross found Oscar, who snuck past Mamadou Sakho and played a ball across the box, which Eto’o directed past Simon Mignolet.

There was a significant decline in Chelsea’s attacking impetus in the second half, and Liverpool began to pose a threat in the attacking third. Sterling scampered down the right flank admirably, Sakho’s header – from a Henderson cross – rattled the crossbar, and Petr Cech saved Suarez’s tame volley.

Unlike Mourinho, Rodgers doesn’t possess legitimate game changers on the bench and he was forced to hand a debut to 19-year-old Brad Smith for the injured Allen, as Liverpool became a 3-5-2. Liverpool’s wingbacks pushed into advanced positions out wide, thus pegging Chelsea’s creators into deeper positions. Coutinho began to drop into better positions in the final third, and Suarez effortlessly ran the channels, but apart from two penalty cries – Eto’o’s clip being his only legitimate shout – Liverpool didn’t come close to an equalizer.

Liverpool’s overachievement in the first half of the season has been derailed over the Christmas period; while they do possess an exciting starting eleven, Rodgers’ side doesn’t possess the depth required to secure a Premier League crown, and possibly a Champions League spot.

 
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Posted by on December 29, 2013 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Jordan Henderson’s success is a testament of hardwork and patience

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The manner in which we assess successful signings in the transfer window is atypical. Hype, elation, and belief fill the air, but along with the positive vibes come a sense of accountability. The demand to instantly perform has become mandatory, as supporters and the media are quick to tarnish your name if you fail to make an impact.

Factors such as adapting to a new club, city or country, living arrangement and style of football are forgotten. Patience is no longer a virtue – it’s a rarity. Ask Jordan Henderson, a promising English talent whom was the media scapegoat when he moved to Liverpool in summer 2011. It was a transitional period for a club that was looking to head in a different direction, but their decisions in the transfer market provided inadequate assistance.

Unfortunately for Henderson, being signed around the same period as Andy Carroll, Charlie Adam and Stewart Downing wasn’t beneficial – their combined transfer fee equaled £78m. Unlike the other signings – Carroll and Adam were brought in as poor replacements for Fernando Torres and Raul Meireles, while Downing was purchased to supply service to Carroll – Henderson was a future prospect that required time to develop. Shockingly, Henderson started 31 of 38 Premier League games, playing in various positions across midfield – his performances were lacklustre, and his steep transfer fee led to more criticism.

“Players used to come to Liverpool and go into the reserves for two years. These kids are having to go straight into the team,” said Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers, after a draw against Arsenal in January. Theoretically, he had a point – Henderson was thrown into the fire, but that didn’t affect the young midfielder, who was familiar with encountering daunting challenges.

Although Henderson enjoys playing table tennis and badminton during his leisure time, football always played a significant role in his life. Yet, there was skepticism as to whether he would receive a professional contract from boyhood club Sunderland – where he’s plied his trade since the tender age of eight. Towards the latter stages of his youth career, manager of the Sunderland academy, Ged McNamee feared that Henderson may not make the grade.

“There were times you’d look at Jordan and you’d think ‘There’s something special about that boy’ and then other times you’d see him struggling and you’d worry for him,” McNamee said.

“It was only really when he turned 16, where we were forced into making a decision whether or not to give him a contract that we began to realize what kind of special player we’d signed.”

Likewise, matters got worse for the 16-year-old starlet when he learned that he was diagnosed with the Osgood-Schlatter disease. According to Boston’s Children Hospital the disease is an overuse condition or injury of the knee that causes pain and swelling below the knee area over the shinbone. Growing children and adolescents whom participate in athletics are prone to the disease because that is when bones are growing faster than muscles and tendons.

Nevertheless, Henderson overcame the roadblocks that nearly halted his career, but his move to Anfield wasn’t rosy. Succeeding Steven Gerrard in midfield looked unlikely, and his ability to maintain a certain level of consistency was non-existent, as he constantly drifted out of matches. The demand for Champions League football was evident, and neither fans, nor upper management were settling for mediocrity.

Henderson’s Liverpool career was hanging by a thread, and the Merseyside club was willing to offload the Englishman to Fulham, in exchange for Clint Dempsey 16 months ago. But Henderson refused to leave – he wanted to prove his worth and fight for a starting role in midfield. That’s the type of man Henderson is – while his slender build may be deceiving, the 23-year-old possesses the heart of a lion.

His unmatched work ethic separates him from many players his age, as he covers every blade of grass tirelessly. Henderson’s characteristics can stem from the upbringing he developed within his household – The Liverpool midfielder doesn’t drink or smoke, and isn’t afraid to admit that he’s a tad introverted.

“I don’t really go out. I stay in and watch TV. None of my mates are bad lads, they didn’t go drinking at a young age or anything like that, but when they used to go out, they’d tell me not to, which was a good thing,” Henderson said.

“I just love playing football and I don’t want anything to jeopardize that. I like to go in every day training and working hard.”

Henderson’s performances this season have been superb – his powerful forward runs from midfield, combined with his ability to press the opposing midfield higher up the pitch to make key tackles have been acknowledged. While his finishing in front of goal could improve, the absence of Steven Gerrard has provided Henderson the platform to display his proficient passing.

The 23-year-old has started every Premier League game this season, and there’s been a vast improvement in his passing statistics. Henderson averages a career high 53.5 passes per game with an 87% success rate. And while scoring goals may not be Henderson’s niche at this point in his career, halfway through the season he’s recorded five assists – matching a career high.

Liverpool doesn’t possess a player of Henderson’s stature in midfield – a dynamic, tactically disciplined, hard-working runner, whom is also a reliable passer. Henderson is an ideal role model for many young footballers – his ‘never say die’ attitude and determination to succeed will enable him to improve over the course of his career.

More so, the Liverpool midfielder is a prime example of why supporters should have patience with new signings. It took the 23-year-old two full seasons to find his feet at Anfield, but he’s developed a prominent role in Liverpool’s push for Champions League football – Henderson is gradually silencing all the cynics.

 
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Posted by on December 27, 2013 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Gareth Barry: Everton’s unsung hero

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The underlying significance of a ball-playing holding midfielder has been highly recognized in modern day football. The elite sides around Europe all possess a player in this mold – the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Sergio Busquets and as of late Phillip Lahm have consistently performed at world-class levels as the single pivot, abolishing the belief that only players whom possess a physical presence can succeed in this role.

Most recently, the admiration for a deep-lying midfielder has shifted towards the Premier League. Michael Carrick was a standout last season in a deeper role, similar to Mikel Arteta’s impressive showing the year prior. And while sides like Liverpool occasionally play with a midfield trio, they still combine energy (Henderson), passing (Gerrard), and strength (Lucas) in these areas. The aim to control central areas is pivotal in the modern game, which explains why teams prefer to sustain possession and have players that are capable of dictating the tempo from deep positions.

Everton has undergone a radical transformation in terms of their philosophy, since Roberto Martinez’s arrival. Opposed to their reactive approach under David Moyes, Martinez has instilled a pragmatic possession-based philosophy. Despite losing Marouane Fellaini to Manchester United, Martinez has put his faith in Ross Barkley to be the main source of creativity, Romelu Lukaku to spearhead the attack and Kevin Mirallas as a direct wide threat – thus forming a tantalizing partnership on the right flank with Seamus Coleman. Nevertheless, Martinez inherited a great core of players, and the Spaniard has found a balance between promising technical youth, and experienced veterans.

Surprisingly, Martinez’s most influential signing came at no cost, minutes before the transfer window closed. Gareth Barry was surplus to requirements at Manchester City, and in desperate need of first-team football, so a change in scenery was tempting – even if it wasn’t the dream move to Liverpool that he hoped for in 2008. Rafa Benitez was keen on bringing in Barry for Xabi Alonso – who was reportedly set to depart Anfield – but Liverpool didn’t have the funds to meet Villa’s price valuation, and Alonso stayed at the Merseyside club for another season.

At the time, Barry’s growth was gaining recognition at Aston Villa, so when Manchester City inquired about his services in 2009, the Englishman couldn’t decline. “I feel I am joining a club that will seriously challenge to win major honours,” Barry said.

However, while Barry’s stature continued to rise, his deficiencies were exposed on the world’s largest stage in South Africa. Barry was exhausted. He looked unfit, out of his element, average, frankly there weren’t enough words to describe Barry’s unpleasant afternoon at the Free State Stadium nearly four years ago. The English midfielder chased German shadows when Joachim Low’s men slaughtered England in the most recent World Cup. The Englishman conceded possession at the edge of the box, which led to Germany’s third goal – and he was lucidly beaten for pace by Mesut Ozil, thus putting the match out of reach.

Barry’s career was scarred – he’s never fully recovered from that humid, summer day in Bloemfontein, and many began to closely critique his weaknesses afterwards. Despite enjoying two good seasons at Manchester City, Barry’s progress at the club level was impeded. In terms of silverware, the 32-year-old midfielder coveted an FA Cup and Premier League medal, but he was incapable of solidifying a role alongside Yaya Toure in City’s midfield. While the Englishman’s performances were rarely putrid, his natural ability wasn’t enough to boast the Manchester Club amongst Europe’s elite. 

And as the years went by, City desperately searched for players to fill this void. By the end of Barry’s fourth season with the club, City had Jack Rodwell, Toure, Javi Garcia, and newly acquired Fernandinho at their disposal.

At the age of 32, Barry knew his minutes would be scarce when manager Manuel Pellegrini told him a starting role was unattainable, as many midfielders were ahead of him. Barry began to realize that a move abroad was logical, and with Marouane Fellaini set for a move to Manchester United, Everton’s interest persuaded the Englishman.

“Firstly, it’s all about playing regular football in the Premier League. I haven’t joined Everton to try and help my England ambitions but that will come if I’m playing consistently well for Everton,” Barry said. 

“I wasn’t comfortable with my last year at City, with not playing, so now I’m looking to establish myself here. It was made clear to me that I wasn’t going to be guaranteed first team football.”

The arrival of Barry has led to a formidable midfield partnership with James McCarthy – the Englishman often sits as the deepest midfielder, while McCarthy’s dynamism enables him to drive forward into attack. More importantly, Barry’s positional and tactical awareness allows Everton’s attacking players to express themselves. He drops between the centrebacks and in vacant spaces out wide, giving the fullbacks onus to surge forward.

Barry sits in deep areas ahead of the two centrebacks, and focuses on dictating the tempo of the match – his passes often go sideways, but the Englishman isn’t wary of playing forward, penetrating balls. The 32-year-old averages 69.7 completed passes per game – a team high – at an 86% success rate, but he also plays an integral role on the defensive end breaking up play. More so, Everton hasn’t lost a match at full strength, with Barry in the starting XI.

Martinez has expressed his praise for the midfielder on several occasions, as he believes English supporters don’t appreciate the importance of the no.6 role. “To be able to see a pass and execute it in the way he does is a talent which you either have or you haven’t but he has developed an incredible awareness – the way he sits in for other players, the way he drives forward when he has to, the way he takes decisions,” Martinez said.

In the buildup to Gerard Deulofeu’s equalizer against Arsenal, we witnessed a glimpse of what Barry offers Everton. Barry controlled a loose ball, and played a forward pass to Ross Barkley, who turned Mathieu Flamini wonderfully, and evaded Arteta’s challenge. Barkley sprayed the ball out wide to Bryan Oviedo, and Barry continued his run powerful from midfield, aiming to create an overlap, which gave Oviedo half-a-yard to deliver a cross – thus leading to Deulofeu’s magnificent finish.

Everton’s transformation under Martinez has been remarkable – The Spaniard’s ability to evolve their attack over a short period of time has produced a different side at Goodison Park. The young attacking players may steal the headlines, but Barry remains a key cog towards the club’s success this season.

 
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Posted by on December 27, 2013 in EPL, Match Recaps

 

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