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Tactical Preview: Everton – Manchester City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2016 in Published Work

 

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Tactical Preview: Chelsea – Everton

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Chelsea’s current form indicates that they’re vying to partake in this year’s title race, but they encounter a stern test against Ronald Koeman’s Everton. Koeman’s arrival has witnessed Everton improve their defensive shape, but the Toffees’ poor record at Stamford Bridge means the Blues start the match as favourites.

Chelsea have won four consecutive league games since moving to a back three, and more importantly have yet to concede a goal during that time. Therefore, Antonio Conte is expected to make few changes to his starting lineup following impressive victories over Leicester City, Manchester United, and Southampton.

David Luiz and Gary Cahill appear more assertive at the back with Cesar Azpilicueta sweeping up where necessary, and the Brazilian’s ability to play positive passes in advanced areas will likely keep captain John Terry out of the lineup. Marcos Alonso and the in-form Victor Moses will retain their roles as wing-backs, but both men represent potential defensive liabilities against Everton’s swift wide players.

“He [Luiz] has made us solid in defence but I am not surprised. He is a good player and won a lot in his career,” said Conte.

“But we must win more and that is why he is at the club. We wanted to buy him for this reason.”

Koeman possesses excellent dribblers – Gerard Deulofeu, Kevin Mirallas or Yannick Bolasie – that can play from the flanks, and the Everton manager will encourage his wingers to attack the Chelsea wing-backs. Also, with Seamus Coleman capable of motoring forward, Conte may swap Eden Hazard and Pedro to avoid potential overloads against Alonso.

On the other hand, Hazard’s form has substantially improved since Chelsea moved to a 3-4-2-1, as the wide players now have license to move into central positions and beyond Diego Costa. However, with Idrissa Gueye suspended and Leighton Baines unavailable due to injury, Hazard can pose issues in both areas.

Bryan Oviedo endured a difficult time against Michail Antonio last weekend and could be overwhelmed by Hazard’s dribbling if he drifts towards the right flank. Meanwhile, Gueye’s dynamism has aided Gareth Barry throughout the season, and the former England international may struggle against Hazard’s quick movement and sharp turns between the lines.

With James McCarthy also unavailable, Koeman may turn to Tom Cleverley’s energy alongside Barry, opposed to sacrificing Ross Barkley’s potential threat in transition. Nonetheless, the midfield zone is expected to be scrappy with Conte expected to persist with the midfield duo of N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic that’s based around strength and tackling.

This also places emphasis on whether Koeman will field Barkley – who has struggled to impose himself against competent defensive shield’s this season – in the no.10 role, or perhaps place a direct outlet in Bolasie or Mirallas centrally. Koeman’s arrival has also offered Everton flexibility, which means they’re capable of reverting to a back three or shifting to a 4-3-3 to ensure they clog spaces in central areas, which proved to be a successful ploy against Manchester City.

Ultimately, Romelu Lukaku and Diego Costa, two of the three leading goal-scorers this season will face stern challenges. Lukaku’s service has decreased due to the emphasis on getting the ball into wide areas, but he remains a proficient finisher around the box and can’t be awarded space in the final third. However, it will likely be 3v1 at the back, though Lukaku will likely aim to isolate the diminutive Azpilicueta to attack crosses in the box – yet, he poses an advantage in similar scenarios against Cahill or Luiz.

Elsewhere, Costa will face another physical battle against Ashley Williams and Funes Mori, here. Costa’s showcased his all-round talent throughout this current season, but the combination of athleticism and power could limit the Chelsea striker’s link-up play, though he should receive space to work the channels and charge forward into the box. There’s also the possibility of replicating Chelsea’s system to include Phil Jagielka in a back three to negate Costa’s threat upfront, and rely on individual battles across the pitch.

“We know that Chelsea is a strong team, a different team than last year,” said Koeman.

“They play with a lot of intensity and are aggressive. They have a different system, have got a lot of clean sheets and are winning games.”

Nevertheless, Costa and Hazard remain Chelsea’s difference-makers, with the latter in particular, favoured to continue his impressive form due to Everton’s deficiencies in the centre of the pitch and their left flank. Everton also pose a threat in transition, and if they can get their wingers to run at the wing-backs or Lukaku isolating centre-backs in the box, Conte’s men face a realistic possibility of conceding their first goal in over a month.

Chelsea will likely dominate possession for large spells and locate space to create chances, but the pace and power Everton pose on the counter presents a genuine challenge to the Blues’ improved defensive structure under Antonio Conte.

 
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Posted by on November 4, 2016 in Published Work

 

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BPL Notebook Matchday 4: Guardiola’s supremacy over Mourinho ensures Manchester’s blue

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Manchester is blue.

The hype surrounding another chapter of the Jose Mourinho vs. Pep Guardiola rivalry was poised, but like several past encounters, the latter was filled with smiles at the final whistle.

They said he couldn’t do it at Stoke – albeit not being a cold Tuesday night – but Guardiola’s City mesmerized the Potters over lengthy spells. And at Old Trafford, they weren’t favourites. Despite the sensational passing moves, rejuvenated underachievers such as Raheem Sterling, and the weekly growth and understanding of Guardiola’s philosophy, City weren’t supposed to be this good in September.

Mourinho’s experience may still be the x-factor that guides Manchester United to another Premier League title, but Guardiola’s City displayed that they’re still the team to beat. Frankly, Mourinho’s past achievements and United’s stability was a non-factor – put simply, this was another outing where Guardiola out-coached his Portuguese rival.

If we base the result on performances this season, the result isn’t too surprising. United were unbeaten like City, but apart from the solid displays from the rarely tested back-line, Mourinho’s men were average. Though City showcased signs of vulnerability, their progress as a unit was evident with every game.

The first half performance at Old Trafford was their best yet, leaving Mourinho and his troops flabbergasted. City’s passing was breathtaking, the midfield was dominant, and when they pushed men forward there was an intended route to goal. Nolito and Raheem Sterling positioned themselves on the touch-line to maintain width, with the latter constantly running across Luke Shaw – it was clear Guardiola highlighted the left-back’s positioning as weakness in the United XI.

But more so, United were unable to cope with City’s counter-pressing, and their sloppy passing ensured Guardiola’s men constantly retained possession. The midfield duo of Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini’s positional awareness were exploited this season on a few occasions, and here, against genuine world-class stars in Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, United suffered profoundly.

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Neither Pogba, nor Fellaini competently tracked City’s creative dynamos and it was unsurprising that De Bruyne, in particular, was involved in both goals. The Belgian easily received various passes in pockets of space behind Fellaini, and was unmarked when he poked the ball behind Daley Blind in the buildup to City’s opener. Kelechi Iheanacho’s winner witnessed Sterling easily drift past Pogba, whereas the City striker found space behind Fellaini to receive a pass that subsequently resulted in a simple tap in.

Tactically speaking, Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1 is largely associated with Rooney’s inclusion in the XI, but even the United captain failed to negate Fernandinho’s passing from deep positions. In the past, Mourinho has often flipped his midfield to transition into a 4-3-3, which in truth, appears to be the ideal system for United – yet the Portuguese manager was reluctant to offer his defence proper protection and deploy Pogba in his preferred position.

The decision to retreat into two banks of four without pressing the centre-backs equally proved costly. Where John Stones may have been expected to be the catalyst from deep, Nicolas Otamendi was efficient on both ends of the field – the Argentine constantly located De Bruyne between the lines, and made several key interventions around the City box.

In many ways, the Guardiola – Mourinho spectacle spoiled the general viewer: even when the latter attempted to fix his initial error by shifting into a 4-3-3 to introduce Ander Herrera and Marcus Rashford, the former quickly negated United’s eight-minute spell of improvement by summoning Fernando for Iheanacho. Now City were effectively operating with De Bruyne playing through the channel, and Leroy Sane’s debut cameo ensured Guardiola could rely on a tricky wide player from the right.

United received opportunities to equalize via Rashford’s pace and Ibrahimovic’s aerial threat, while Pogba and Fellaini appeared comfortable in advanced positions, but the away side still posed several threats on the counter-attack. Even Mourinho’s traditional last-ditch substitution – replacing a defender for a striker and moving to back three – that welcomed Anthony Martial was countered by the arrival of Pablo Zabaleta, which saw Fernando drop into defence with City transitioning into a 5-4-1.

Guardiola simply had an answer for every option Mourinho relied on with hopes of salvaging a result. Perhaps this is a wakeup call for Mourinho and the Old Trafford faithful that believe they’re clear-cut favourites to return to the summit in May, as the big name signings, Mourinho’s experience, and stable core barely harmed City.

Oddly enough, while all the banter regarding Mourinho’s system change is focused around Rooney, the United captain produced one of his better performances in recent time. Rooney created Ibrahimovic’s fortuitous goal, and constantly charged forward to provide his teammates service in key areas.

Nevertheless, the dilemma with fitting Rooney into the XI sacrifices key facets that could make the difference between a title-winning team and top-four challengers, which suggests Mourinho must address his formation issue sooner rather than later. Like every manager in the league, Guardiola’s spent big this summer, but he represents a veteran Premier League manager opposed to a man attempting to find his way.

A true student of the game that always identifying various methods to defeat an opponent in the finest manner. Once doubters that the Spaniard solely required the best talent the sport has to offer will vanish quickly, as true greatness shines regardless of the circumstances.

Full-time celebrations featured the City players joining together in a group huddle and their manager congratulating the players individually for their impressive performance. Where Mourinho and his troops suffered that long walk towards the Old Trafford tunnel in defeat, the scenes on the pitch captured a significant moment in Manchester history.

For the first time since the Abu Dhabi Group United Group took over the club, City finally appear to be a team.

And that’s what makes Guardiola great.

Swansea punish Conte’s profligate Chelsea

It would be very difficult to identify how Chelsea didn’t maintain their 100% record to start the season at the Liberty Stadium. The Blues were dominant for majority of the match but failure to build on Diego Costa’s 18th minute opener proved costly.

Chelsea’s discipline out of possession has been one of the few factors that have improved under Antonio Conte, and here, they comfortably coped with Swansea’s three-man backline. Oscar and Nemanja Matic harried Leroy Fer and Ki Sung-yeung out of possession while N’Golo Kante’s consistency ahead of the back-line has been a revelation.

The away side persisted with sitting off Swansea’s centre-backs, and they also avoided pressing Jack Cork in deeper positions, yet the hosts were unable to pose a threat from open play. However, several wasted opportunities from Hazard and Costa kept Francisco Guidolin’s men in the match, and two defensive errors from Thibaut Courtois and Gary Cahill – the latter was actually fouled despite is mental lapse – witnessed the Swans score two goals in two minutes.

Although Costa walked a tightrope throughout, he remained a constant goal threat by dropping into space behind Cork, and running towards goal. Once again, the Blues required Conte’s timely substitutions to earn a point, though, as the Italian turned to Victor Moses and Cesc Fabregas. The latter ignited two Chelsea moves in a three-minute span, thus resulting in Costa’s acrobatic equalizer.

Top teams tend to struggle in the initial match following the international break – due to the vast amount of players travelling around the world to compete – but this was about Chelsea’s poor finishing opposed to fatigue. Guidolin’s formation switch prior to half-time did lead to a slight improvement in the home side’s overall play, but they still failed to create quality chances apart from that freakish two-minute spell.

In a title race consisting of the best managers in the world, Conte is aware that his Chelsea side can’t afford to concede points due to mental/defensive lapses within their half. Although Costa’s start to the season provides room for optimism, Conte requires goal contributions from the likes of Hazard, Oscar and Willian to mount a legitimate title challenge.

Liverpool’s cruise past Leicester with sheer speed

Liverpool may not lift the Premier League title in May, but similar to a Chelsea side playing no part in European competitions, the Reds should be a difficult outfit to overcome. Despite Jurgen Klopp’s side possessing a few weak areas going forward, on their day, Liverpool can compete with the best sides in the league.

The Reds weren’t keen on applying their energetic press from the front due to Leicester’s threat on the counter, which therefore witnessed the champions struggle to cope with the hosts’ pace upfront. Klopp’s men dropped into a 4-5-1 out of possession and occasionally attempted to squeeze when the opportunity presented itself, whereas Claudio Ranieri instructed the champions to prevent Liverpool from playing out the back.

Still, Leicester’s main issue revolves around Kante’s departure leaving a massive hole in midfield, and Ranieri relying on their main strengths from last season. Liverpool instantly exploited Daniel Amartey’s positional indiscipline in central areas through Firmino, who drifted from the left flank into pockets of space behind the midfielder to test Kasper Schmeichel.

Minutes later, the Reds exposed Leicester weak points – Riyad Mahrez’s unwillingness to track full-backs, and space behind Amartey – to open the scoring as James Milner received a pass behind the Leicester winger and located Firmino between the lines, as the Brazilian ran across the edge of the box to beat Schmeichel.

Meanwhile, Sadio Mane and Daniel Sturridge’s inclusion in the XI offered pace, which could explain why Liverpool were reluctant to press from the front. The former doubled the Reds’ lead but it stemmed from Sturridge breaking beyond the Leicester centre-backs, while Henderson and Firmino combined in central areas.

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Ranieri’s side encounter difficulties breaking down opponents due to the lack of a creative passer, Mahrez’s poor form, and the fact that teams have now designed defensive methods to cope with Vardy’s pace and runs into the channels. Lucas Leiva succumbed to Leicester’s high pressing to provide the away side a lifeline, but apart from one moment of brilliance between Vardy and Mahrez, the Foxes failed to pose a threat in the final third.

Firmino was the catalyst behind Liverpool’s key moves throughout, and his influence improved when he moved into a central position following Sturridge’s departure. The Brazilian’s outside runs into half-space led to key chances for Henderson and Mane, and when the latter rounded an onrushing Schmeichel, Firmino coolly doubled his goal tally.

While Leicester’s inability to evolve this summer currently coincides with their issues, Klopp’s astutely outwitted Ranieri. Firmino’s movement, the decision to retreat into their base shape, and the speed of Sturridge and Mane were the key elements to the perfect performance. Often capable of raising their level against the superior sides in the league, the Reds must identify ways to replicate performances of this stature on a weekly basis.

Southampton frontman woes surface at the Emirates

Another positive away display against a top side saw Southampton drop points against an uninspiring Arsenal side. Failure to replace Mane and Graziano Pelle lingered throughout the Southampton XI to start the season. They were highly impressive at Old Trafford, and here, once again, the Saints failed to capitalize on a positive performance.

The overall pattern of the match was predictable, yet extremely tame with all three goals created via set-pieces. Arsenal dominated possession with debutant Lucas Perez’s penalty box presence fairly non-existent, and Southampton’s narrow 4-5-1 limiting space within central areas. Unfortunately for the Saints, they lack a centre-forward capable of holding up play, nor were they capable of putting together enough passes to mount counter attacks.

Likewise, Arsenal’s buildup play was extremely frustrating: the crosses from wide areas were over-hit, while Mesut Ozil endured a quiet outing by his standards. Claude Puel’s decision to introduce Shane Long pushed Redmond to the right and Tadic upfront, thus ultimately leading to the former squandering two 1v1 chances with Petr Cech from point-blank range.

Alexis Sanchez and Olivier Giroud were summoned shortly after the hour mark, but besides the contentious penalty call for Jose Fonte’s slight pull on the latter, neither attacker influenced the match. Perhaps the decision to award Arsenal a stoppage time penalty was harsh, but this was further evidence that justifies the notion that Southampton desperately require a goal-scorer upfront.

The midfield is young and talented and the back-line remains solid, but Puel’s men will struggle to win games if they don’t address their inadequacies upfront.

Everton newcomers make their mark in Lukaku goal-fest

Ronald Koeman’s appointment at Goodison Park went under the radar, but his influence on a Toffee side that underachieved last season is gaining prominence. Romelu Lukaku’s 11-minute hat-trick will rightly dominate headlines, but Idrissa Gueye and Yannick Bolasie’s direct dominance was the catalyst behind Everton’s triumph at the Stadium of Light.

David Moyes’ Sunderland adopted a deep defensive block to fluster an Everton side still deprived of a genuine creator in advanced positions, and courageously coped with the away side’s first half territorial dominance. Ross Barkley barely found space to exploit beyond Jan Kirchhoff, Bolasie’s role from the right meant he could only deliver crosses into the box, whereas Lukaku was unable to roll his defender around the box to test the keeper.

The one evident change in Everton’s overall game is the direct power and dribbling from Bolasie on the flanks and Gueye’s dynamism in midfield. Sunderland couldn’t cope with either player in their respected position, and when Koeman opted to replace Barkley for Gerard Deulofeu, and swap Bolasie to his preferred left flank, the Black Cats were overwhelmed by Everton’s pace.

Bolasie’s threat from the left persisted in the opening 15 minutes of the second half, but a rapid second half counter involved Gueye clipping a far post cross for Lukaku to nod Everton into the lead. Gueye also contributed to Lukaku’s quick snapshot off the crossbar prior to Bolasie driving past Javier Manquillo to create the Belgian’s second goal from a far post cross.

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Mirallas and Deulofeu combined to complete Lukaku’s hat-trick, but Everton played to last year’s strengths by breaking swiftly on the counter-attack. Nonetheless, Bolasie’s presence and ability to evade challenges, create chances and score goals, along with Gueye’s drive in central areas, offers an additional element to Everton’s game.

With 20 minutes to spare Everton comfortably humbled their former manager in a devastating manner. Lukaku offers Koeman the non-existent goal-threat witnessed in Everton’s opening three games, but in terms of penetration – without a creative passer around the final third – Gueye and Bolasie’s direct play may suffice.

Results

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

Weekend Stats

  • Ronald Koeman is the 1st Everton boss since Thomas McIntosh in 1919 to win his first two competitive away games in charge of the Toffees.
  • Romelu Lukaku recorded the first hat-trick of the 2016/2017 Premier League season, and it was the 12th quickest scored in the division’s history (11 mins, 37 secs).
  • Thibaut Courtois has received more red cards (2) & given away more penalties (3) than any other GK in the PL since August 2015.
  • Liverpool have scored more Premier League goals in 2016 than any other team (50).
  • Harry Kane has become the fourth Spurs player to score 50 Premier League goals (after Sheringham, Defoe and Keane).
  • Jose Mourinho has won just one of his last ten meetings with Pep Guardiola. (drawn four and lost five).
 
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Posted by on September 13, 2016 in EPL, Published Work

 

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BPL Notebook Matchday 1: Debutant managers set their mark

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Weekend in 200 words or less

And so it begins. Leicester City stole the hearts of fans a few months ago, producing one of the great underdog stories of any sport. It was a truly remarkable moment, but equally a much required wake up call for the supposed elite clubs in England.

Leicester made a statement, but last year’s underachievers fired back with a response. The three previous champions of the past decade all hired top class managers with hopes of altering their identity and goals set by the club. Now the Premier League may still play second fiddle to the Bundesliga and La Liga in terms of personnel, but what the league now offers in return is astonishing.

A league that’s witnessed their best clubs exposed constantly in Europe welcomes the continent’s elite managers, whom aim to tactically enhance their lopsided clubs. It’s a step in the right direction, and with the league currently balanced, the arrivals of these foreign managers suggests this may be the greatest domestic club season ever.

Stunned Champions miss Kante’s grit

The fairy tale that took the Premier League by storm last season initially hit a speed bump, Saturday afternoon. Claudio Ranieri’s men were humbled by new-boys Hull City, courtesy of two wonder goals from Robert Snodgrass and Abel Hernandez. Leicester haven’t regressed over night, and frankly they still possess several star performers and traits that were essential to last season’s success.

Danny Drinkwater’s long diagonals, Riyad Mahrez’s ability to use both feet to evade defenders with his trickery, and Jamie Vardy’s pace combined with his willingness to chase after every loose ball were evident on the day, but Leicester were unable to combine all three traits in one move. Certainly not every team or individual player will hit top form on opening day, but Leicester’s loss illustrated that they’re now the hunted, opposed to the hunters.

Saturday afternoon, Leicester missed their most integral hunter, N’Golo Kante, who completed a move to Stamford Bridge earlier this summer. The champions’ back-line, specifically Wes Morgan and Danny Simpson were constantly exposed, and Andy King is renowned for his late runs into the box rather than his ball-winning skills – this was on display minutes prior to Snodgrass’ winner, when Hull City midfielder, Sam Clucas, easily bypassed King in transition.

Kante was the engine in Leicester’s midfield, harrying opponents and regaining possession in central areas to ignite possible transitional attacks. The French international’s dynamism and ball-winning skills were non-existent at the KC Stadium, and Ranieri’s side were sporadically out-muscled and out-worked in midfield.

Shinji Okazaki injected guile to Leicester’s attack, whereas Ahmed Musa’s speed and direct play enables Ranieri the option to field the Nigerian in any attacking position. Still, Leicester struggled to break down a motivated Hull City outfit containing 13 fit players, which could set the precedent for what could be a difficult season for the champions.

Ranieri will hope Nampalys Mendy could be the combative, forever-running force Leicester require in midfield, as it’s impossible to overlook Kante’s impact.

Koeman outwits Pochettino despite Spurs’ late comeback

Spurs’ collapse during last year’s run-in was supposed to be a lesson for the future, but for over an hour at Everton, one could question whether they carried their form over to the new Premier League campaign. In fairness, Ronald Koeman’s debut at Goodison Park saw the Toffee’s adopt a 3-4-2-1 without Romelu Lukaku, meaning Gerard Deulofeu played ahead of Ross Barkley and Kevin Mirallas.

The system successfully stifled Spurs in the opening half: Harry Kane was isolated upfront, the attacking trio couldn’t find space between the lines due to adequate protection from Gareth Barry and Idrissa Gueye, whereas the advanced positioning of the full-backs saw Deulofeu constantly charge laterally into vacant space within the channels.

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Victor Wanyama enjoyed a positive debut in a Spurs uniform, but alongside Eric Dier, Pochettino’s side lacked creativity and penetration from midfield, and therefore struggled to build out the back. To be frank, Everton desperately missed Lukaku’s finishing, here, as Deulofeu constantly found himself in goal-scoring positions – Spurs centre-backs struggled throughout – but clearly displayed he must improve his productivity in the box.

The hosts’ profligacy served as a lifeline to the away side, but Pochettino deserves massive credit for altering his system to a 4-4-2 when Koeman’s men tired, pushing Vincent Janssen alongside Kane. Lamela’s equalizer came shortly after Pochettino’s change, as he got ahead of Mason Holgate to nod Kyle Walker’s cross past Joel Robles.

Everton continued to pose a threat on the counter, but with fewer men breaking forward due to lengthy spells out of possession, Spurs’ back-line were never troubled. Still, the hosts’ performance was positive despite dropping points, Koeman’s tactical prowess should provide optimism at Goodison Park – they should have won the game by half-time.

Pep’s City require time to hit peak form

All the pressure is on Pep Guardiola to transform Manchester City into a super power, and even though he may be capable of doing so, it wasn’t going to transpire over night. City required a late Paddy McNair own goal to defeat Sunderland, and though Guardiola’s side has encountered problems against the Black Cats in the past, many City supporters and neutrals expected more.

The hosts were always going to dominate possession for majority of the match, but their passing tempo was languid throughout, thus explaining why they failed to create chances in the final third. Guardiola’s attempt to stamp his identity into this City side, but the Spaniard also requires time to adjust to the league, and complete his summer clear-out.

John Stones and Nolito featured in a City XI that was initially a 4-1-4-1, and though there were brief spells displaying slick passing combinations and rapid counter-pressing, City’s difficulties ensure Guardiola’s men are still a work in progress. Aleksandar Kolarov’s role at centre-back was interesting, whereas Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy – natural full-backs – adopted central half-spaces to ensure City dominated the midfield zone.

However, neither full-back, in particular, Sagna, looked comfortable receiving the ball with their back towards the opposing goal, and they failed to consistently offer any sort of incision or proactive passing in Sunderland’s half. Fernandinho’s passing from a pivot role was mediocre, and until new signings arrive it’s evident Ilkay Gundogan will be a significant figure in Pep’s set-up.

Raheem Sterling’s threat was scarce until he moved to the left hand side for a brief period, whereas Nolito showcased glimpses of what he offers from the left. Then there’s Aguero. The Argentine has been the cornerstone for the club in recent seasons, but unlike former strikers Guardiola has managed, Aguero’s predominantly an excellent finisher that is deprived of an all-round game.

Guardiola was also responsible for a late winner following a tactical change that saw Jesus Navas and Raheem Sterling run at the opposition from wide areas. Where Barcelona was strictly about possession, and Bayern’s direct style resulted in several isolation phases in wide areas, Guardiola will seek a style suitable to the personnel at his disposal.

City will improve with every passing week and it’s only a matter of time before they begin firing on all cylinders.

Mourinho’s United take shape in tidy manner

Of all the performances this weekend, United’s 3-1 win at Bournemouth was probably the most convincing. Although, Mourinho’s men required a bit of fortune to take the lead in the first half via Juan Mata, United were hardly troubled throughout.

While United’s attacking play is still unsettled – Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s partnership is slowly improving – it was United’s back six that were thoroughly impressive. This isn’t much of a surprise considering the Red Devils hoisted the joint best defensive record in the league, but now each player is fulfilling their roles to a tee.

Ander Herrera was tidy in possession and pulled strings from deep with a combination of short and long passes. Meanwhile, Marouane Fellaini physical presence and work-rate has been beneficial in a slightly more advanced role.

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Antonio Valencia’s advanced surges from right back have also been decisive: The Ecuadorian created the Community Shield winner, and over the weekend combined with Juan Mata to double United’s lead. Eric Bailly and Daley Blind both produced another powerful performance, with the latter’s passing playing a significant role in United building from the back, whilst easily breaking up play around the box

From a defensive aspect United were superb, and clinically took the chances that were presented to them. It was the ideal Mourinho display based around a solid defensive shape, and devastating efficiency in the final third.

More so, considering United’s depth and Mourinho’s familiarity with the league, it’s difficult to raise an argument as to why any other side should pip the Red Devils for the title. With Henrikh Mkhitaryan or Paul Pogba yet to feature, United could get even better over the next few weeks and may be the team to beat this season.

Conte’s Chelsea clasp to the Italian’s beat

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In terms of personnel, there was one change to the Chelsea XI that started last year’s campaign at Stamford Bridge. N’Golo Kante’s arrival to Stamford Bridge forced Cesc Fabregas to the bench, but more importantly Conte’s decision to deploy a 4-3-3 resulted in an improved defensive shape.

Oscar and Nemanja Matic broke into tackles in midfield, with Kante patrolling space ahead of the back four. Likewise, Chelsea’s defensive line remained closer to goal and was within close proximity of the midfield band. There’s no doubt Chelsea missed Cesc Fabregas’ range of passing and creativity from deeper positions, but his tactical and positional deficiencies couldn’t be compromised, here.

Nonetheless, Chelsea’s attack was limp. Diego Costa comfortably dropped deep into pockets of space to receive the ball, but solely ran towards goal at every opportunity. And where Willian’s form hasn’t been great since pre-season, Eden Hazard often slowed down the attack due to limited support in wide areas.

Despite the occasional clever combinations amongst Chelsea teammates, their best chances stemmed via swift transitions – Cesar Azpilicueta dispossessing Antonio and driving towards goal saw the West Ham defender concede a silly penalty. James Collins equalized from the sole chance West Ham created throughout, as Slaven Bilic’s men were extremely poor throughout, albeit chief creator, Dimitri Payet, making a substitute cameo.

Conte gambled in the final 15 minutes by replacing Oscar, Hazard and Willian, to move to a 4-4-2 with Michy Batshuayi and Costa upfront. The Italian manager’s previous tenures have been based around two strikers constantly linking play upfront – one drops deep to lay the ball off to a midfield player, while the other forward charges beyond the defence.

Chelsea’s winner saw Batshuayi nod Matic’s lofted ball into the path of Costa – who wasn’t closed down by Collins – and the Spanish international fired the low winner past Adrian. Unless the Blues attack the transfer market and bolster the current squad, this is what we could expect from Conte’s side.

Without European football, you can’t exclude the Blues from the title race as Conte’s side will be organized defensively and extremely tough to beat.

Results: Hull City 2-1 Leicester City, Swansea City 1-0 Burnley, Crystal Palace 0-1 West Bromwich Albion, Spurs 1-1 Everton, Middlesborough 1-1 Stoke City, Southampton 1-1 Watford, Manchester City 2-1 Sunderland, Bournemouth 1-3 Manchester United, Arsenal 3-4 Liverpool, Chelsea 2-1 West Ham

Weekend Stats

  • Diego Costa scored from outside the box in the league for the first time since 15th February 2014.
  • Liverpool have scored more goals (43) than any other Premier League team in 2016.
  • Jermain Defoe has now scored 9 goals against Manchester City, he has only scored more against Aston Villa & Wigan (10 each).
  • Ross Barkley has now scored in 3 of Everton’s last 4 opening day matches in the Premier League.
  • Leicester are the first reigning champions to lose their opening match of the season in the Premier League era.
 
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Posted by on August 16, 2016 in EPL Notebook, Published Work

 

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Three Things: Everton 3-1 Swansea

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Courtesy of Flickr/sbos2

Full-backs pose problems

With Romelu Lukaku unavailable for selection, Roberto Martinez’s main attacking outlet is through his advancing full-backs. Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines have established themselves as arguably the best fullback duo in the Premier League, as they quickly transition defence to attack with their surging runs forward.

Everton, however, was sloppy in possession throughout the opening minutes of their FA Cup tie against Swansea. Despite their early goal, and Ross Barkley’s activity between the lines, Martinez’s men struggled in the final third. Wayne Routledge and Roland Lamah quickly closed down the Everton full-backs when they received possession, while Steven Pienaar and Kevin Mirallas were quiet in the opening half.

Nevertheless, with Pienaar and Mirallas drifting infield, space opened up for the fullbacks to get into advanced positions – this is where Everton’s best chances were created. Pienaar drifted into a pocket of space to flick a Sylvain Distin pass into Baines, and the South African international audaciously chipped the Everton left-back’s pass off the crossbar.

Subsequently, Coleman and Mirallas combined, thus leading to Coleman driving towards the byline, and the Everton right-back’s well-weighed ball into the box was smashed light-years over the crossbar. Although Baines’ impact decreased in the second half, Coleman and Mirallas combined on numerous occasions, as they dominated the right-flank.

The duo’s movement on the right created an opening for Barkley to attempt a shot on goal. Afterwards, Coleman drove to the byline on two separate occasions delivering a ball at the far-post to Pienaar, which he nodded inches wide of the post – Mirallas also received an opportunity to increase Everton’s lead but thrashed his shot over the cross-bar.

Despite Baines’ quiet second-half, the left-back coolly slotted a penalty kick past Gerhard Tremmel, which secured Everton’s progression into the last eight of the competition. More so, Everton’s activity in wide-areas exposed Swansea’s makeshift back four.

Individual errors prove costly

Swansea was aiming to extend their unbeaten run under Monk on their travels to Goodison Park. Monk’s approach to the match was logical, and his side nullified Everton’s strengths, but individual mistakes in their own third led to their downfall.

Kyle Bartley’s return to the Swansea XI following his loan spell at Birmingham started poorly, as his defensive error contributed to Lacina Traore’s debut goal. Bartley failed to clear Baines’ free kick, and Traore back heeled Sylvain Distin’s ball towards the six-yard box past Tremmel. Swansea maintained an organized shape –despite conceding space between the lines – as they quickly pressed Everton on the ball, forcing them to play backwards, and their full-backs struggled to assert their dominance in the opening half.

Monk’s men received opportunities in the final third to punish Everton’s shaky back line, but the away side lacked a killer instinct. Alvaro Vasquez was played in free in the first minute, but his reluctance to shoot with his left foot after rounding the goalkeeper, allowed Everton to recover from their mistake. Likewise Lamah constantly surged forward down the left flank, but no Swansea attacker attempted to connect with his deliveries across the six-yard box.

Despite their positive attacking opportunities, the away side’s attempt to record a historic FA Cup triumph halted due to ensuing defensive mistakes. Neil Taylor’s poor back pass towards Tremmel was intercepted by substitute Steven Naismith and the Scottish attacker slotted his shot into the net. Naismith’s impact on the match increased when Ashley Richards committed a clumsy tackle on the Scotsman.

Everton failed to unlock the away side’s backline in the buildup to all three goals, but Swansea’s defensive lapses presented Martinez’s men with goal scoring opportunities, and they pounced.

Traore debut disappointing

Traore is supposed to serve as an astute replacement for the injured Romelu Lukaku, and while his life at Goodison started with a goal, his overall performance was underwhelming.

It’s irrational to believe that the Ivorian will offer an identical physical threat as Lukaku, and Martinez insisted that the on-loan striker has more to his arsenal. “His size will give you the wrong impression of the way he is as a footballer. He is technically very gifted, he has a real understanding of the space and combination play around him and is really quick with his penetrating runs, he [Traore] is a real athlete,” Martinez said.

“All those aspects make us a little bit different because we haven’t got that sort of player with that presence and height. He is a footballer who is going to bring us a lot.”

Traore’s debut resulted in 19 touches – receiving two more touches than Naismith – as he spent long portions of the match anonymous. Everton lacked a focal point, along with a goal-scoring threat in attack, as he didn’t attempt to make runs behind the backline or drop into spaces to receive the ball.

The Ivorian’s debut was poor, and it may take time to adapt to the frenetic pace of the Premier League, but surely Martinez will demand a better performance in future matches – especially with Everton aiming to finish in a European spot.

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2014 in Match Recaps, 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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