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Yaya Toure can still play a role for Guardiola’s Manchester City

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Yaya Toure’s future at Manchester City was under significant threat following the announcement of Pep Guardiola’s appointment. With the Ivorian’s performances under heavy scrutiny throughout last year’s campaign, along with Guardiola deeming Toure as surplus to requirement during their time at Barcelona, the possibility of deja-vu wasn’t farfetched.

Yet, with the Christmas period vastly approaching, Toure – following a public apology to the club and fans – has returned to the first team with vigour. Two goals at Selhurst Park earned City maximum points, and a standout display in a scrappy match with Burnley has kept City on pace for a proper title challenge.

Though Toure has played an integral role in City’s success this decade, the evolution of the squad has clearly exposed his defensive deficiencies. A player of Toure’s stature, built on strength and heavy running, was always expected to experience a decline towards his early 30’s, but City were reluctant to bolster their options in midfield until Guardiola’s arrival.

Toure and Guardiola’s relationship is mysterious, but the decision to utilize a young Sergio Busquets as his sole pivot at Barcelona didn’t bode well with the media or the Ivorian’s camp. Still, where Guardiola’s Barcelona are now classified as the best club team of our generation, Toure dominated the middle of the park in English football and guided City amongst the division’s elite.

Toure, however, is a difficult player to incorporate into a cohesive side: you can’t play the Ivorian as a sole pivot because he doesn’t possess the work-rate or defensive awareness to protect the back four.

“I’m here to take decisions. Maybe I make mistakes, but I have to take decisions and I respect that all the people cannot agree with me. That happened,” the Spaniard said.

“I spoke in the last month, many times with Yaya because he was my player with Barcelona, I know him very well. So I know how he is like a player.” “As a player there is no doubt — if there was a doubt he would not be here. He is another guy to compete with our midfield players and increase our level.”

On the other hand, Toure struggled in a 4-2-3-1 during the Manuel Pellegrini era because Fernandinho was also an identical box-to-box midfielder and equally lacked the discipline to protect the centre of the pitch when required. From a statistical perspective, Toure may have appeared to be playing well – scoring 20 league goals when City won the double during the 2013/2014 campaign – but in truth, he was partially responsible for the club’s structural issues out of possession.

Likewise, Toure’s best spell at the Etihad was when he played ahead of Nigel de Jong and Gareth Barry, two ball-winners that sat ahead of the back four, therefore providing the City star freedom to push forward. Though it took City’s limitations under Pellegrini to showcase Toure’s current state as a footballer, it’s difficult to dispute that he may solely be useful in two roles.

This however isn’t an issue to Guardiola, who often doesn’t receive credit for being an astute pragmatist. The tiki-taka football played at Barcelona suited the demands of the players that grew up in La Masia, whilst adding direct players in wide positions to provide penetration.

Though Guardiola’s Bayern dominated possession in most games, the German side’s approach was the antithesis of Pep’s Barca. At Bayern, Guardiola’s side revolved around the wing play between the rampaging full-backs and wingers Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery: when the latter was unavailable, Douglas Costa eventual arrival strengthened Bayern’s dominance in wide areas.

Pep’s possession and dynamic counter-pressing guided City back to domestic prominence, shifting between a 4-1-4-1 and 4-2-3-1. David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne have been fielded as deep central midfielders, Aleksandar Kolarov as a centre-back, and full-backs positioned in half spaced to negate counter-attacks have been introduced during Guardiola’s brief stint at City thus far.

But City haven’t been flawless under Guardiola, and several draws have led many to believe the creative, yet frail offensive-minded players required another dimension to their attack. Roughly, this is where Toure’s physical stature has proved beneficial as both a no.6 and a no.10 ahead of Fernandinho and Fernando.

Toure’s production in the final third still remains significant to a City side that can be guilty of being overelaborate. Where his goals won the game at Palace, it was the nifty intricate combinations plays around the box with Nolito that created openings against a sturdy Burnley back-line.

In footballing terms, Toure is the ideal midfielder to be appreciated, and equally thrive in the Premier League. A goal-scoring, powerful specimen that is eager to carry the ball forward, yet capable of simultaneously shrugging off challenges. However, the better teams in the league now rely on heavy pressing, hard-running and defensive organization, all areas that have prevented Toure from maintaining his world-class status following Roberto Mancini’s departure.

Incidentally, Toure’s situation is fairly similar to Cesc Fabregas’ conundrum since leaving the Emirates. Moving into a free attacking role under Arsene Wenger, Fabregas didn’t develop the tactical discipline to be effective throughout midfield. At Barcelona he often played on the flank or interchanged with Lionel Messi at the main centre-forward, because his productivity from deeper positions – specifically when the opposition applied midfield pressure – concerned Guardiola of the Spaniard’s anarchic style.

“Cesc’s anarchy is good for us. He moves down the right and the left; he is physically very strong with a lot of vision and high work rate,” Guardiola said.

“We like the fact that he is so mobile, but it has to be done sensibly. In the end, there is a ball and people who move, but they should move to where they need to be. We do not have a remote control to direct them from the bench.”

Ultimately, Fabregas failed to solidify a role in the Barcelona midfield and his move to Chelsea pushed him into a double-pivot alongside Nemanja Matic. While Fabregas’ first half of Chelsea’s title-winning campaign was impressive, performance levels decreased significantly once sides began pressing the Spaniard when he received possession.

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But where Guardiola’s constant tactical evolution has led to Toure’s recall, Conte simply doesn’t trust Fabregas’ lack of mobility to protect the back four or break up play in midfield. Therefore, apart from brief cameo appearances where his passing range proved crucial in the latter stages of matches, Fabregas is forced to improve his dynamism and work-rate to feature in Conte’s XI.

Conte and Guardiola are seemingly contrasting managers, but with Chelsea being the most in-form team in the league, the latter may be forced into making a few personnel decisions ahead of the Blues’ trip to the Etihad this weekend. Although Chelsea displayed signs of improvement in a 3-4-2-1 rejig following losses to Liverpool and Arsenal several weeks ago, Guardiola may aim to identify one of their few notable weaknesses in central areas.

N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic’s ball-winning skills offer a solid base in the midfield zone, but last week’s win over Spurs also showcased their susceptibility to midfield overloads. It’s also possible that Guardiola will attempt to match Chelsea for power in midfield as they also pose a slight advantage in that regard.

Guardiola is likely to prefer control through possession rather than sheer power at home, so the likelihood of Ilkay Gundogan and Fernandinho in midfield over Toure is the harsh reality the Ivorian will have to accept at the age of 33. It’s possible that Toure would be better suited in away games against physical opponents that prefer to disrupt opposed to pushing forward to attack Guardiola’s men.

More so, the Guardiola-Toure saga will be intriguing to assess over the course of the season because the added flexibility required from the former suggests Toure would have to adapt his game to solidify a role in the City XI. The days of the rampaging runs, breathtaking goals, and precise passing variations have influenced this club like no other, and though Toure’s best days may have passed, the Ivorian still holds a key role in City’s title quest.

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2016 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Cesc Fabregas’ tactical stagnation results in Chelsea conundrum

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Chelsea’s 2014-2015 title triumph was heavily associated with Jose Mourinho’s efficient summer transfer activity. What was supposed to be a shift from the initial squad Mourinho built a decade prior challenged the Portuguese manager to build a dynasty around young, technically gifted players.

Mourinho’s main signings that summer, though, addressed some of the personnel issues Chelsea encountered subsequent to the Special One’s initial sacking. Thibaut Courtois was maturing into one of the best goalkeepers in the world, rather than the aging and error-prone Petr Cech. Filipe Luis was the best left-back in La Liga and was expected to be the left-back to continue in Ashley Cole’s footsteps and possibly enable Cesar Azpilicueta to play in his preferred right-back position.

But the biggest transfers simply catered to the biggest fears regarding the undergoing evolution at Stamford Bridge. Replacing Didier Drogba was difficult – to an extent that he returned as a third striker that season – but the club took one of many risks on Diego Costa: a key figure in Atletico Madrid’s title-winning campaign the year prior, who enjoyed his first top-class season.

Costa’s a powerful all-round striker that willingly worked through the channels, whilst combining his poacher’s instinct and pace to run beyond the defence to notch 20 league goals in his debut campaign. Stylistically, the Spanish international fit the mould of a centre-forward capable of dominating English football and easily settling into a Chelsea side that required his presence.

Cesc Fabregas, on the other hand, was the antithesis: more interestingly, he developed into one the top midfielders in the Premier League during his spell with rivals Arsenal as a youngster. Where Chelsea’s midfield of the past was physical and direct, often bullying Fabregas in central areas, the Spaniard represented a slimmer, yet technical craftsman that was capable of connecting passes from deep, or the final pass around the box to create legitimate goal-scoring chances for his teammates.

If the decision to acquire Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar didn’t highlight the stylistic shift at Stamford Bridge, Fabregas move from Barcelona did. Still, Fabregas’ familiarity with the league ensured it was less of a risk for Chelsea, and his ability to dictate matches from deep was pivotal to the Blues success subsequent to his arrival.

Although a role in a deeper midfield position was beneficial to Fabregas due to his positional versatility in central areas, the Spaniard also suffers from tactical indiscipline. Perhaps his rapid growth at Arsenal overshadowed these issues, but to be frank, Arsenal’s lack of discipline prevented Arsene Wenger’s side from challenging on a domestic and continental front in recent years.

Despite previously playing a deep role in a midfield two, Fabregas’ best seasons for Arsenal witnessed the Spaniard playing in an advanced position – 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 – with defensive minded players like Alex Song and Abou Diaby operating ahead of the back four. Fabregas’ recorded a team high 15 league goals and the most assists during his final season at the Emirates thus proving his threat closer to goal.

Likewise, something similar occurred during his final season at Barcelona under Tata Martino’s direct approach. Barcelona were renowned for their patient buildup and extensive spells of ball possession, but Martino was eager to add a quick, but direct element to their game which Fabregas preferred.

“This coach [Martino] lets me play the way that suits my qualities and I’m very comfortable, very happy,” Fabregas told FourFourTwo magazine following Martino’s arrival.

“On the first day – well, not the first day, but maybe the third or fourth, early on – he called me over and told me: “I want you to be the player you were at Arsenal.” And I thought: “Wow!”, because I’d always felt so good at Arsenal, so important. I’m not the No.10 exactly because things aren’t so clearly defined positionally as with Pep [Guardiola] and Tito [Vilanova], who were very focused on that. When we attack, Tata likes things to be a little more anarchic – just a little – which means that with the ball you can move away from a set position without any problems.”

Ultimately, Fabregas’ joy regarding the positional freedom he received at Arsenal and under Martino has led to his downfall at top-sides with elite managers. Fabregas’ move to Barcelona was specifically based around helping Guardiola evolve the Catalan side, opposed to the Spaniard becoming Xavi’s successor.

Sergio Busquets cemented his role at the pivot, Xavi offered similar passing and tempo-setting traits further up the pitch, while Fabregas couldn’t connect midfield and attack with his dribbling like Andres Iniesta. Nonetheless, Fabregas’ ability to locate space between the lines and goal-scoring threat around the box provided the perfect outlet to create space for the wide players and Lionel Messi, along with making late runs into the box to score goals.

Guardiola’s shift to a 3-4-3 saw Fabregas shuttle forward, and continuously interchange positions with Lionel Messi upfront. When Messi dropped deep into midfield, Fabregas received space to charge into the box, which explains why only his final season at Arsenal offered a higher goal and assist return.

But Barcelona struggled to maintain the incredible levels that led to their historic league and European title triumphs, and Fabregas received ample criticism due to willingness to instantly play forward passes. Guardiola’s teams are often maligned for their use of possession, but they heavily rely on positional and tactical structure in both phases, and Fabregas was a liability in that respect.

“We like the fact that he [Fabregas] is so mobile, but it has to be done sensibly. In the end, there is a ball and people who move, but they should move to where they need to be. We do not have a remote control to direct them from the bench,” said Guardiola.

The second half of the 2014/2015 campaign at Chelsea presented a similar challenge for the Spaniard who started the season superbly. With Nemanja Matic suffering from fatigue due to lack of squad rotation, Chelsea were being exposed and overrun in midfield zones when Fabregas pushed forward to link play.

Opposing teams located the Chelsea midfield as a weak point and targeted Fabregas’ lack of mobility and inability to maintain his position ahead of the back four, thus virtually exposing Matic. Mourinho swiftly reverted back to a 4-3-3 and a deeper defensive block, which led to a string of slow-burning one goal victories, as the freedom Fabregas and the attacking Chelsea players received was quickly sacrificed for silverware.

Guardiola and Mourinho encountered difficulties maximizing the Spaniard’s strengths due to his tactical limitations, and playing to his strengths didn’t provide silverware at the Emirates, so it’s unsurprising that Fabregas is currently fighting for a starting spot under Antonio Conte. In the past, Conte’s teams have been built to attack and renowned for their high-octane pressing, but the Italian is a pragmatist that instantly identified the personnel issues in the Chelsea side he inherited.

Chelsea sit deeper under Conte, and rely on Matic and Oscar to press opponents and maintain the side’s structure ahead of N’Golo Kante. The Blues’ transitional vulnerability has decreased and they have become much harder to breakdown, with majority of the goals conceded have been via individual mistakes and wonder-goals.

Nonetheless, Fabregas’ is definitely missed from an attacking perspective. Chelsea struggle to build attacks from deeper positions – which ultimately led to the deadline day purchase of David Luiz – and creativity is non-existent in the middle third of the field. Oscar and Matic’s pressing can create swift transitional breaks, but Conte’s side remain unconvincing when the opposition freely concedes possession.

While many had suggested Fabregas could slightly play the deep-lying playmaker role Andrea Pirlo revolutionized at Juventus, Chelsea simply don’t have the midfield shuttlers or competent defenders behind the Spaniard to provide such freedom.

“Cesc is in my plans and in Chelsea’s plans,” said Conte. “In my opinion he’s improving a lot on many aspects, above all the defensive situations. If he continues in this way, it’ll be very difficult for me to choose my midfield. But I want this from a player, putting many doubts in my mind over choosing someone else. I’m very clear with my players: when a player deserves to play, I put him in the team.”

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But Fabregas’ influence in Diego Costa’s winner at Watford, along with his two goals at Leicester in Chelsea’s midweek Capital One Cup win over Leicester, mounts pressure on Conte’s decision to start the Spaniard. However, the latter scenario involved Fabregas struggling throughout the match until Conte pushed him behind Costa and relinquished the Spaniard’s defensive duties.

Fabregas’ versatility could see Conte experiment with the Spaniard in an advanced role, but until he improves in the defensive phase – in terms of positioning, work-rate and concentration – he doesn’t merit a spot in the Chelsea XI. It appears to be a recurring issue throughout the Spaniard’s career, but it’s the key issue that’s deprived Fabregas from excelling at the biggest clubs in the world.

Throughout the span of Fabregas’ career, the 29-year-old has experienced significant changes – elite managers, proactive and reactive philosophies, and positions – but nothing is more intriguing than this upcoming showdown against Wenger’s Arsenal. It’s been five years since the Spaniard and Arsenal manager have parted ways, but with the former desperately fighting for a place in the XI and the latter still unable to mount a legitimate title challenge, it appears that very little has changed.

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2016 in Published Work

 

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BPL Notebook Matchday 2: Top Clubs make statement, last year’s achievers suffer from goal drought, same ol’ Liverpool?

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It felt like an eternity since Old Trafford was filled with such excitement. The last three seasons have been slightly excruciating for Manchester United supporters, but it appears that Jose Mourinho is ready to put the days of underachievement behind the club.

Similar to the other top clubs vying for the title, United is still a work in progress, but Mourinho’s ability of preparing his sides to earn results is pivotal. As a whole, they weren’t spectacular, but the back four was flawless once again, and marquee signings Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic rose to the occasion.

Where many have failed to live up to the United bill – whilst crumbling at the pressure surrounding Old Trafford – Pogba and Ibrahimovic have taken a step towards justifying their summer transfers. Some said Ibrahimovic was too old, but he’s now notched the Community Shield winner, and was the goal-scoring hero on Southampton’s visit to Old Trafford.

Frankly, Ibrahimovic’s goal presented a sigh of relief, considering Southampton were in full control prior. A midfield trio of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Steven Davis and substitute Jordy Clasie were dictating the tempo of the match with ease, as United constantly conceded possession, but the away side lacked any threat around the box.

Dusan Tadic drifted into clever positions but failed to create chances for his teammates, whereas the striker partnership of Shane Long and Nathan Redmond were underwhelming. Full-backs Matt Targett and Cedric’s crosses didn’t connect with the former – he clearly lacks the pace to get past opponents – whereas the latter constantly dropped into midfield or to the right flank to run at players.

The away side were getting into dangerous positions but were unable to get behind the United defence, thus highlighting the significance of Sadio Mane and Graziano Pelle’s departure. The contrast between the two sides attacking options were vivid when you assess their best chances – Long quickly scuffed a low shot at David De Gea despite breaking free into the United box, while Ibrahimovic towered over Jose Fonte to nod a powerful header past the keeper.

It was Ibrahimovic’s first clear-cut chance of the night, and he comfortably slotted a penalty kick won by Luke Shaw in the second half to double United’s lead. Pogba, on the other hand, completed a full 90 minutes in midfield, and appeared unfazed by his massive transfer fee. Ander Herrera’s passing in United’s opener suggested he may play a key role in Mourinho’s XI, but Pogba completely tarnished that notion.

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The Frenchman’s first touch of the match may have indicated otherwise – a poor pass that resulted in a quick Southampton counter-attack. But Pogba nonchalantly evaded challenges with his powerful dribbling, and his clever chipped pass towards Juan Mata in half space nearly resulted in a highlight reel Ibrahimovic goal.

United’s midfield offered the power that’s been non-existent in recent years: Marouane Fellaini and Pogba are aerially competent, and are more than capable of shrugging off opponents when required. When Pogba sat deeper and passed with precision, and when surging forward with the ball he represented the link between defence and attack.

In Pogba and Ibrahimovic, Mourinho has addressed issues the club have ignored for years – with the former it simply involved power and dynamism in midfield. Likewise, United haven’t possessed a clinical penalty box finisher since Robin van Persie’s debut season at the club. That year United won the title, and if Ibrahimovic maintains his current form, history may repeat itself.

Analysis

Guardiola’s City swiftly takes shape

Sergio Aguero has been Manchester City’s saviour from the moment he moved to England, but Pep Guardiola’s attempt to reduce the heavy reliance on individualism is slowly coming to fruition.

Aguero added another two league goals to his tally – taking his weekly total to five – but City’s significant improvement from their opening weekend display was collective. City were dominant in the first half, stifling Mark Hughes’ Stoke City attempt to build attacks from the back and quickly retaining possession near the hosts’ box.

Even with Fernandinho pressed out of the match, City were still relatively fluid going forward. Nicolas Otamendi’s passing out the back was positive, Raheem Sterling’s dribbling troubled defenders, and Kevin De Bruyne constantly darted through the right channel to deliver quality crosses into the box.

Perhaps City’s midweek trip to Romania resulted in fatigue to a fairly unchanged squad, but going two goals ahead merited the away side’s declined passing tempo. Bojan’s second half penalty kept the score-line close, but Guardiola’s men were untested throughout. Late counter-attacks witnessed substitutes Kelechi Iheanacho and Nolito increase City’s lead, but in fairness, their first half performance – a combination of mesmeric passing, intelligent movement, and intense pressing – away from the Etihad was an upgrade to previous displays under Manuel Pellegrini and Roberto Mancini.

It may be worrying that City aren’t scoring or creating enough goals from open play, and Guardiola will be aiming to improve that area swiftly.  Guardiola’s philosophy should improve various elements of City’s game on a weekly basis, but while Spaniard attempts to fix their slight issue in possession, his side still appears better suited in counter-attacking scenarios.

Conte’s system alteration proves decisive

They saved it for late yet again, and Conte’s bold changes can be identified as the catalyst behind Chelsea’s perfect start to the season. Still opting to field his side in a hardworking 4-3-3 system, Chelsea’s subdued attack provided minimal scares for Walter Mazzarri’s Watford outfit.

Chelsea pressed well from the front to fluster Watford’s back-line – out of possession they kept Watford at bay – but one of the main issues the Blues currently experience is the lack of creativity and penetration from central areas. Nemanja Matic and Oscar offer tenacious work-rate, positional discipline, and physicality in midfield, but their passing is mediocre, which explains why Chelsea’s buildup play is somewhat lethargic. Much credit goes to N’Golo Kante who ensured Chelsea weren’t exposed in midfield, whilst maintaining the Blues’ passing rhythm once possession was regained.

It doesn’t help that Pedro Rodriguez offensive threat from the right is scarce, while Branislav Ivanovic has transformed into a liability on both ends. To make matters worse, a stunning strike from Etienne Capoue – Watford’s first legitimate chance of the game – put the hosts ahead with little over a half hour remaining.

Nevertheless, a switch from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-4 following the introduction of Victor Moses, Michy Batshuayi and Cesc Fabregas tipped the balance. Fabregas played ahead of Kante, Batshuayi offered an additional penalty box presence, while Hazard maintained width on the right as Moses attacked defenders from the left.

Watford’s decision to sit deeper to preserve their lead benefitted Conte’s side, and a simple Batshuayi tap-in – stemming from goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes failure to hold Hazard’s shot from distance – served as an equalizer. Minutes later, Fabregas recovered possession and instantly clipped a pass behind the Watford defence for Costa to run onto and notch his second winning goal of the season. It was a vintage move between the two Spaniards often utilized during Chelsea’s title-winning run two seasons ago, and another piece of evidence highlighting Conte’s astute mid-game tweaks.

It’s no secret Conte prefers to play with two strikers upfront, but the current squad at his disposal is better suited in a 4-3-3 to maintain a compact defensive structure. However, Fabregas’ creativity and a promising Batshuayi – Costa partnership may turn the Italian manager’s head.

New season, same Liverpool?

If Liverpool’s win over Arsenal at the Emirates was a statement to their league rivals and potential title contenders, then a loss at Burnley quickly erased any fear Jurgen Klopp’s men were aiming to impose. A loss away to Burnley showcased the issues Liverpool have suffered in recent years: they perform well against the top teams, but severely underachieve when given the onus to break down inferior opposition.

Saturday’s loss at Turf Moor was no different, and Klopp would be highly disappointed that both goals conceded were via moves his teams are renowned for. Nathaniel Clyne succumbed to Burnley’s high pressing, and his loose pass resulted in a terrific Sam Vokes finish. Later in the half, newly-acquired midfielder, Steven Defour, charged through midfield and played in Andre Gray to double Burnley’s lead.

Apart from the goals, the hosts broke into Liverpool’s half twice, via Gray’s pace, but failed to test Reds keeper, Simon Mignolet. Therefore, Liverpool struggled to get behind Burnley’s low-defensive block, and didn’t receive quality service from wide areas to trouble the hosts’ back-line.

The weird feat regarding Liverpool’s XI was the decision to start Daniel Sturridge from the right. Sturridge was often seen dropping near the half-way line to pick up the ball, but he rarely posed a scare in Burnley’s half. Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana combined occasionally in left half space, but the former continuously struck audacious shots from distance wide of the net.

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The main contrast in Liverpool’s two matches was the amount of space the opposition presented. Klopp’s men comfortably exploited an expansive Arsenal side last week, but here, Burnley remained deep and clogged central space – at times they had a six-man defence with George Boyd and Scott Arfield aligned with the back four to complete defensive duties – thus forcing the Reds to shoot from distance.

Liverpool must maintain a level of consistency in both results and performances if they intend on securing a top-four finish this season.

Arsenal & Leicester continue to struggle in front of goal

This wasn’t the tight, cautious encounter often expected between two top-sides, despite last year’s champions and runner-ups recorded the first score-less draw of the season. Arsenal and Leicester remain win-less to start the season, which isn’t ideal considering many tip both sides to miss out on the top four this season.

From an offensive view, Arsenal’s buildup was slightly improved via Granit Xhaka’s passing, but the Gunners remained underwhelming in the final third. Alexis Sanchez’s occasionally linked play upfront but was fairly anonymous, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s powerful running served as the away side’s sole goal-scoring threat.

Leicester offered better structure in their home opener with Shinji Okazaki applying pressure to Xhaka from deep, while the inclusion of Nampalys Mendy ensured central areas were protected. But Leicester’s issue upfront is dissimilar to Arsenal’s – to be frank, Claudio Ranieri’s attack is fairly predictable.

Danny Drinkwater’s diagonals and quick Kasper Schmeichel releases into the channel for Jamie Vardy are being coped with, and though Riyad Mahrez’s trickery still bamboozles defenders, finishing in the final third has been wayward – an issue Vardy is equally suffering from as well. Hull City and Arsenal have maintained deeper defensive lines to limit Leicester’s counter-attacking threat, and the champions still look unconvincing when they dominate possession.

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Arsenal, on the other hand, simply miss Olivier Giroud’s presence in the box. While many Arsenal supporters would prefer a better centre-forward, at the moment, the Gunners issues derive from a non-existent penalty box threat.

Giroud remains an underrated Premier League striker, but his ability to bring runners into play, and attack crosses into the box is invaluable at the Emirates. Theo Walcott struggles to time his runs beyond the defence, and despite Alexis’ wonderful skill-set, he’s been ineffective as a lone striker.

With little over a week remaining in the transfer window, you would expect both managers to address their attacking issues, but with few options available in the transfer market, they may have to rely on applying minimal tactical tweaks to their starting XI.

Sunderland require plan B upfront.

Cristhian Stuani scored two wonderful goals Sunday afternoon to hand Middlesbrough their first win of the season, but it’s difficult to overlook Sunderland’s issues upfront. A long-distance screamer and a wonderful passing move punished the Black Cats, following a dominant first half display from the away side, but Sunderland sparked a promising second half fight-back.

Jeremain Lens replaced Paddy McNair, and moved within close proximity of Jermain Defoe at half-time, while Lynden Gooch slotted into midfield alongside Steven Pienaar. Lens’ presence offered additional pressure to Middlesbrough’s defence and his ability to play with his back to goal forced Aitor Karanka’s men towards their penalty box.

Sunderland found joy down the left flank where they exposed Stuani’s – a forward by trade – reluctance to track Patrick van Aanholt’s adventurous runs forward, which further ignited a brief turnaround. Duncan Watmore and Steven Pienaar combined with the advancing full-back throughout the second half, as the hosts’ goal stemmed through this route of attack when Van Aanholt charged into the box to tap in a rebound from Watmore’s initial shot.

Following Brad Guzan inability to hold onto Adnan Januzaj’s shot minutes later, Sunderland’s attack failed to create another clear-cut chance. Middlesbrough created second half openings through Alvaro Negredo’s hold-up play at half, and here, Sunderland may have flourished with a natural target-man alongside Defoe.

Look no further than Defoe’s equalizer against Manchester City to witness the threat the Sunderland striker offers, but with minimal space available behind the opposing back-line, the England international’s threat remains scarce. Likewise, if Sunderland experience extensive spells without possession, Defoe playing off a striker would prove beneficial.

Moyes’ men won’t receive many opportunities to dominate games, but the current state of his attacking quartet doesn’t suggest Sunderland will score enough goals to survive this season.

West Ham injury issues halts growth

It took Harry Arter’s senseless foul on Cheikhou Kouyate – which resulted in the Bournemouth midfielder’s dismissal – for Slaven Bilic’s men to look threatening in the final third and claim their first win of the season. West Ham were poor against Chelsea, and were equally underwhelming against a much weaker Bournemouth side at home.

Bournemouth’s full-backs remained high, and West Ham’s decision to drop off into a 4-5-1 enabled Arter and Andrew Surman time and space to play forward passes into wide positions. The away side’s attack suffered, however, due to Jordon Ibe drifting centrally into congested areas only to be dispossessed, while Callum Wilson was out-muscled by West Ham centre-backs Winston Reid, and James Collins. West Ham’s attacking threat was also unconvincing, but they found some joy via Gokhan Tore first half display, where he dominated full-back, Charlie Daniels poor positioning at left-back.

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Neither side offered a substantial goal-threat in the second half, but Arter’s dismissal shifted the balance of the match. Bournemouth shifted to a narrow 4-4-1, but were ultimately undone by West Ham’s width. Unsurprisingly, it was Tore picking up Mikhail Antonio’s over-hit cross and providing a better delivery for the unmarked Englishman to nod past Artur Boruc.

Injuries to Sofiane Feghouli, Andre Ayew and Manuel Lanzini are evidently responsible for West Ham’s torpid attack, but Dimitri Payet’s influence is clearly missed at London Stadium. Without Payet, West Ham are deprived of creativity, a genuine set-piece specialist, and penetrative passing in the final third.

Payet’s return should see West Ham shift to a 4-2-3-1 that offers the Frenchman freedom to dictate play between the lines. At the moment, they simply lack guile and the element of unpredictability in attacking zones that was responsible for their success last season. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Bilic was counting down the days until his injured players return, as West Ham’s overall attacking play has been average.

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

Weekend Stats

  • Michail Antonio has scored a joint-high seven headed goals in the Premier League since the start of 2015-16 (level with Giroud).
  • Patrick van Aanholt (4) has scored more Premier League goals in 2016 than any other defender
  • Leicester’s unbeaten run at home now stands at 16 Premier League games (W10 D6), since losing to Arsenal in September 2015.
  • Since returning to the Premier League, Cesc Fabregas has more assists than any other player (26)
  • Sergio Aguero is the top scoring player in the Premier League so far in 2016 (18 goals in 19 games)
 
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Posted by on August 22, 2016 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Tactical Preview: Spain – Italy

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Courtesy of Flickr/James FJ Rooney 

Spain and Italy may have met in the two previous European Championships, but this year’s round of 16 clash offers a rejuvenated tactical clash following poor World Cup campaigns.

The current holders and finalists feature in the tie of the round, with both sides making slight modifications since the former’s convincing 4-0 win in the 2012 final.

Spain have transitioned from the patient possession based football orchestrated by Xavi and Xabi Alonso, and now aim to transfer the ball into advanced zones at a quicker rate, while injuries to Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti, combined with the lack of a top-class forward will see Italy play destroyers, here.

In the 2012 final, Spain utilized Cesc Fabregas upfront, and while many assumed the Spaniard operated as a no.10, his runs in the final third were similar to a natural centre-forward. The two teams met earlier in the tournament, where Fabregas dropped deeper into midfield to create an overload, but they were outplayed by a proactive Italian side that afternoon.

One of the main differences in Vincent Del Bosque’s current side witnessed the emergence of Alvaro Morata at the international level. With that being said, Morata offers a different dimension to Spain’s attack. Capable of equally running the channels and coming short to link play, the striker’s willingness to make quick darts beyond the defence forces the opposition deeper, and creates more space for the Spanish midfielders.

The other notable change involves the inclusion of Nolito. David Silva roams into central areas and around the final third from the right flank, whereas Nolito hugs the touchline, constantly aiming to cut onto his stronger foot to trouble the goalkeeper. This essentially makes Spain more direct from an offensive perspective, and has seen Del Bosque’s men serve as the tournament’s standout performers thus far.

This could explain Del Bosque’s decision to field the same XI for all three group games, but following a loss to eventual group-winners Croatia, a hint of caution may be implemented for the knockout stages of the competition. Spain have yet to concede a knockout round goal during Del Bosque’s tenure, and with teams aiming to break into space in wide areas on the counter, he may seek further control in midfield as the holders increase their emphasis on control.

The current midfield of Andres Iniesta and Fabregas offer a combination of direct passing and dribbling, but Del Bosque could turn to Koke’s passing and combative presence in central areas against a reactive Italian side that will aim to fluster the Spanish midfield. It’s unlikely Del Bosque will field another dribbler in Thiago from the start of the match, but he could turn to Bruno alongside Busquets if really wants to neutralize the Italians on the counter – Italy adopting a deep block wouldn’t require Bruno, however.

It’s difficult to see Antonio Conte straying away from his 3-5-2, with the only concern involving Antonio Candreva’s absence. Candreva has played a crucial role in terms of creativity as Italy transition into a 3-3-4 going forward, and his injury could see Matia De Sciglio operate as a right wing-back.

In comparison to the Spain XI, this Italian side is slightly underwhelming, but they understand their roles and will be focused on executing Conte’s game plan. Daniele De Rossi is expected to roam around the back four for protection, while Emanuele Giaccherini and Marco Parolo disrupt play in midfield and wide areas.

Both managers encourage their full-backs/wing-backs to surge into advanced areas in possession, so the battle out wide will be interesting. Likewise, Alvaro Morata will likely be instructed to close down Juventus teammate, Leonardo Bonucci, when he carries the ball forward.

But where Morata will likely be outnumbered in Italy’s third, Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos will be tasked with monitoring Eder and Graziano Pelle. The Italian duo have both scored key goals in Italy’s group-stage victories and attempt to combine upfront, and possibly encourage the midfielder’s to make runs into the box.

Nevertheless, while many hailed Italy’s defensive display against Belgium, Conte’s men have to be better against a side that will prefer to be patient in possession and penetration. More so, the Italians conceded several legitimate goal-scoring chances against the Belgians that night, often resorting to cynical fouls to halt potential counter-attacks.

Spain’s individual talent could be decisive, but they face possibly their biggest test of the tournament in breaking down an Italy back-line that offers experience and grit. Essentially, Conte requires need a valiant team effort throughout, but Spain’s overload in midfield and the new direct options available could prove an insurmountable task for the tenacious Italians.

 
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Posted by on June 27, 2016 in Euro 2016, Published Work

 

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Can Joachim Low, False-nines and Mesut Ozil lead Germany to international glory?

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  Courtesy of Steindy

It was a night that was all too familiar to German supporters. Germany stumbled when it mattered most – once again it was Joachim Low that guided a dejected group of talented footballers down the tunnel and into the dressing room, to explain why they wouldn’t be participating in the finals.

Surprisingly, Low’s head didn’t drop when Stephane Lannoy blew the final whistle at the National Stadium. The German manager stood on the touchline emotionless, in his crumpled white dress shirt, blankly staring at the pitch, potentially questioning where he went wrong. His men were second best on the night. An experienced Italian side outdid Low’s men, thus continuing their inability to defeat the Azzuri in a competitive match.

While one nation rejoiced, the other had to watch 23 of their finest players solemnly stand – or sit – in disbelief, as they knew another golden opportunity passed them by.

Frankly, many tipped the Germans to come out of their shell and avenge their recent two tournament defeats to Spain, along with their semi-final exit on home soil against Italy in 2006. But it didn’t happen. Yet, despite their catastrophic exit in Warsaw, Low assured that his side – the youngest team in the tournament – was flustered, but would grow from this experience.

“I’m not going to question everything we’ve done. The team has great quality. It will continue to develop and learn,” Low stated. “Even though there’s disappointment today, we played a wonderful tournament and I am sure we will be able to cope with this defeat,” he added.

However, Low was correct. His men produced top-class performances in their last two tournaments, prior to the semi-finals, giving many false hopes that they’d gasp in glory. The German manager, hailed for evolving this splendid group of young talent, witnessed his men cruise through tournaments, yet buckle when they encountered elite opposition. What’s more shocking is the manner in which they’ve conceded matches.

In 2010, Low’s side focused on defensive solidity, quick transitions and pace on the counter-attack. They often dropped into two banks of four, and exploded into attack when they won the ball, which undeniably handed the likes of Sami Khedira, Thomas Muller and Mesut Ozil world recognition. Germany was devastating on the counter, handing England and Argentina a footballing lesson en route to the semi-finals.

But, their energetic threat on the counter was simply nullified when they came across a Spanish side that possessed a midfield at their peak of their careers. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Khedira were unable to cope with Spain’s midfield, as Spanish manager Vicente Del Bosque instructed his men to overload central areas, ultimately making it 4v2 in midfield – with Andres Iniesta drifting infield. With Thomas Muller suspended, and Sergio Busquets admirably tracking Ozil’s movement, the Germans were simply outclassed.

Subsequently, Low’s men headed into Poland and Ukraine a different machine – one that consisted of more depth, which should’ve provided Low the tactical flexibility he didn’t possess in South Africa.

The German’s transformed into a side that focused on ball retention, and were keen on dictating possession. Likewise, they found ways to carve open the likes of Portugal and Greece, who preferred to sit deeper than most. However, once again, they came across an elite side that focused on superiority in midfield, and Low’s men were on the losing end of another major semi-final.

Cesare Prandelli fielded a midfield diamond to dictate the match and nullify Schweinsteiger and Khedira, thus leading to a dominant first half performance from the Italians. Meanwhile, Low’s men – mainly Ozil and Toni Kroos – didn’t seem to comprehend their tactical duties. Ozil often drifted into Kroos’ space, whereas Kroos wasn’t sure when he should press Andrea Pirlo.

While many can criticize Low’s team selection, along with his initial game plan, defeat at the same stage, in the same manner – with a better squad – is unacceptable.

While Low was busy evolving Germany, did he evolve as a manager?

Low was quick to brush off the scrutiny he received after Germany’s loss in a press conference ahead of a friendly against Argentina.

“We wanted to go to the World Cup in 2010 in South Africa and begin forming a team that could then win Euro 2012, so the loss in the semifinal against Italy was particularly painful,” Low said.

“We now have the task of working on the errors we made at Euro 2012, and find solutions to those errors over the next two years. We went on this path a few years ago, and we have a long-term plan to which we will stick,” he added.

The apparent solution has been to implement a false-nine system – one that has reaped success for Barcelona, and most notably, their competitive rivals Spain. With Miroslav Klose aging, and Mario Gomez branded as a one-dimensional striker that disjoints their fluidity, testing out a system that would be beneficial to Germany’s attack was logical. And it’s evident that Low is short on strikers, as he’s recently called up Max Kruse as a potential option upfront – while Stefan Kiessling has ruled out a national team return.

Although, Spain has enjoyed success playing without a striker, they’ve often struggled to grind out results. Meanwhile, Cesc Fabregas possesses a direct threat from midfield, which explains why Spain can succeed in this system. Nonetheless, it’s fair to say Low’s false nine can succeed if he displays authority in his team selection opposed to picking favourites.

As of late, Ozil has operated as the false-nine, but Germany hasn’t looked any better going forward. Their passing tempo is too slow, forcing them to spread the ball out wide – and they possess minimal aerial threats. Meanwhile, runners aren’t getting forward, legitimate goal-scoring opportunities are decreasing and they lack bodies in the box.

Temporarily, it’s difficult to assess Mario Gotze’s ability to play in this role, albeit shining against inferior opposition such as the Faroe Islands and Kazakhstan. More so, it’s strange to witness Low continuously search for an answer upfront, when he possesses one in his squad.

Thomas Muller produced a magnificent performance at the Ethiad Stadium earlier this month, in a convincing Bayern Munich away victory – where most assumed he was a false nine, yet he was far from it. Muller worked hard to close down City defenders, and his ability to win aerial duels gave Bayern Munich a different outlet going forward. The self-proclaimed space investigator ran the channels superbly, linking play with his teammates, as he nonchalantly roamed around the final third.

Indeed, Muller and Gotze can provide an alternative – or possibly a permanent – role upfront for Die Mannschaft, but this leaves Ozil out of a spot. Now, it would be easy to hand him a spot as Germany’s central playmaker – as Low has done throughout his tenure – but Germany can do without their sleek, bug-eyed creator in the ‘big’ games?

In both semi-finals exits, Ozil had minimal influence on the final result. It was somewhat reminiscent of Champions League ties against Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, during Real Madrid’s downfall.

Coincidentally, both Kroos and Gotze were the opposing playmakers in Madrid’s Champions League exits, and the duo showcased their ability to provide a balance of defence – by dropping deep to create a midfield three – and attack in their play.

The Arsenal playmaker conducts his business in the final third, but the modern game now relies on playmakers to produce on both ends – Spain and Italy’s creators were tactically disciplined enough to fulfill these duties, thus resulting in a numerical advantage in central areas.

Over the past 12 months, Kroos has developed into a legitimate world-class player, and he merits a start in a central playmaker role in matches against elite sides – even at the expense of Ozil. Kroos’ tactical awareness to find space in midfield to receive the ball, and drop deeper to prevent overloads is vital in the modern game. The 23-year-old midfielder has completed 95% of his averaged 90.5 passes in his last four competitive appearances for Germany.  Also, Kroos completes 3 key passes per game, as he plays incisive balls in the final third to complement his ability to sustain possession.

Promptly, this isn’t to say Ozil isn’t a key cog in Germany’s attack, but Low needs to have the pluck to tactically align his side according to his opponent’s strengths. The managers that have defeated him in these fixtures – Prandelli and Del Bosque – utilize their squads to the fullest, and it’s a craft that Low has yet to master.

Likewise, the fabricated belief that a false-nine system is required for the Germans to succeed is farfetched. While it does display a sign of evolution, Low has catered more to the bigger names, opposed to starting the astute personnel.

As the Germans continue to struggle defensively, the issue that has been the focal talking point of the German national team can be altered easily. Muller is a logical option upfront, whereas Kroos’ brilliance can no longer be ignored – but will Low rise to the occasion, or once again watch his side underachieve on the world’s biggest stage?

 
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Posted by on October 18, 2013 in FIFA, Published Work

 

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Barcelona 3-2 Sevilla

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Barcelona remains at the top of La Liga courtesy of Alexis Sanchez’s injury time winner against a resilient Sevilla side.

Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino made two changes to the side that defeated Valencia at the Mestalla, two weeks ago. Christian Tello started along side Lionel Messi and Neymar in the attacking three, while Xavi Hernandez joined Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets in midfield.

Unai Emery made four changes to the side that drew Malaga two weeks ago, adding Jairo Sampeiro and Vitolo to the attacking three behind Kevin Gameiro. Sebastian Cristoforo played with Stephane M’Bia in the double pivot of Emery’s 4-2-3-1, while Beto started in goal.

This match came to life in the final 15 minutes once Messi gave the Catalan side a two-goal lead – yet despite their victory, Barcelona’s issues at the back are now palpable.

Sevilla’s Shape

Emery’s men faced an onslaught of pressure in the opening 45 minutes but were only down a goal, due to their shape without the ball. Emery’s men dropped into two banks of four with Gameiro and Rakitic up top, aiming to close down Busquets and Xavi – when they dropped deeper. M’Bia was instructed to track Iniesta’s movement, while Cristoforo occasionally pressed Xavi.

However, what was most impressive was Sevilla’s ability to limit the gaps in midfield and defence. Barcelona constantly aimed to penetrate through the middle but was unable to find the final ball or gap in the final third, and that was down to their compact shape and organization. This affected Messi’s influence on the match, as he often dropped deep into midfield, attempting to drag defenders out of position and find his own gaps – but the Argentine forward had little success.

Barcelona down the left

Martino’s men did enjoy success in the first half, mainly down the left hand side. It was a constant source of attack, as Tello and Dani Alves were peripheral figures for large portions of the opening 45. Neymar received the ball countless times and was encouraged to take on Coke Andujar. The Brazilian winger constantly got the better of the Sevilla fullback – due to his marvelous skills and Jordi Alba’s ability to get forward – but his decision-making and quality in the final third was subpar.

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Alba was forced to leave the match midway through the first half, thus allowing Adriano to make an appearance. This now presented Barcelona with a balance, yet neither fullback was eager to push forward – but when Alves did, he was moving centrally. Neymar continued to trouble Coke for the duration of the match, but Barcelona’s opener was orchestrated on the left flank. Adriano finally surged forward and provided a cross to the far post, which Alves nodded past Beto. It was one of the few time Alves broke forward due to Vitolo’s admirable will to track back and protect Alberto.

Martino’s men struggled to find openings in the Sevilla defence, but their narrow shape allowed Barcelona’s left-sided players freedom to penetrate.

Jairo-Vitolo

Barcelona continued to dominate possession in the second half, as they searched for a second goal. Vitolo drifted centrally early in the second half, looking to find gaps to exploit, but the Sevilla attacker realized the service was limited. Yet, two wide men enjoyed a terrific second half, due to Adriano and Alves’ will to surge forward, thus leaving space available behind them to penetrate. Jairo and Vitolo isolated the Barcelona fullbacks, and got into dangerous positions in the final third, which led to corner kicks.

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Sevilla’s first goal stemmed from majestic work from Vitolo. The Sevilla attacker won the ball on the break and attacked space after being played in by Marko Marin. Vitolo danced past Busquets and Gerard Pique, then laid the ball off for Ivan Rakitic to fire past Victor Valdes.

Besides an improvement in the minimal pressure applied by Sevilla, their were two elements of attack that led to their comeback – Jairo and Vitolo’s threat in wide areas on the break was the first positive aspect in Sevilla’s second half resurgence.

Set-pieces

Martino has been heavily criticized for the club’s decision to ignore their defensive issues. The Catalan club is in desperate need of a top-class centreback, but continue to have faith in a Javier Mascherano – Pique partnership. Also, over the past few years, Barcelona has lost players that possess an aerial threat, such as Carles Puyol, Eric Abidal, Yaya Toure and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

This season, Barcelona’s slow defenders have been exposed and their inability to successfully defend set pieces has also been highlighted. Helder Postiga made a near post run and freely nodded in a corner kick at the Mestalla, two weeks ago – and the same issues recurred against Emery’s men.

In the 63rd minute, Cala snuck between Alves and Busquets and nodded a corner kick at the near post, past Victor Valdes. The goal was wrongfully ruled off for a ‘ghost’ foul, which should’ve equalized the scoreline. Martino noticed his side’s disadvantage in height, so he took his players off the post to develop a numerical advantage in the box. Cala got the best of Busquets and Fabregas in the 82nd minute, but the Sevilla defender nodded his header wide of the net. But eight minutes later, Coke earned the equalizer, as the Sevilla fullback was left unmarked to hit the corner kick on the volley, past Valdes.

For all of Barcelona’s talent in attack, they still look frail in defence, and it’s an issue Martino needs to address, if the Catalan side aims on claiming trophies this season.

Fabregas

There’s no question about Cesc Fabregas being Barcelona’s most influential figure this season, and he continued to showcase that in the second half. Minutes upon his arrival, Fabregas made a simple run between the lines to free space for Messi to make a pass, and run into space to tap in Barcelona’s second goal of the night.

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Martino’s men began to find gaps of space between the lines and in the final third in the final 15 minutes of the match, and Fabregas played a key role in their success. His direct forward runs into pockets of space and behind the defence, along with his persistence to get into key areas in the final third, opened up space for Messi, Neymar and Sanchez to penetrate.

Fabregas’ movement and direct approach opened up space for Barcelona’s attackers to express themselves – prior to that they struggled to penetrate in central areas, thus highlighting the impact of his appearance.

Conclusion

Barcelona was dominant in possession for large portions of the match, but their lack of penetration and issues on the break and defending set pieces is alarming. Sevilla will feel they were robbed of points due to Cala’s goal being called off, and the timing of Sanchez’ winner, as their second half performance was promising – specifically Jairo and Vitolo’s

Martino’s men remain unbeaten in league play, as Fabregas’ arrival shifted the match offensively for the Catalan side. It seems evident that the Spaniard is now a key asset to Barcelona, and it’ll be interesting to see if he can sustain this good run of form throughout the season.

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

 

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Valencia 2-3 Barcelona

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Lionel Messi’s first half hat trick was enough to guide Barcelona past Valencia, and remain top of the La Liga table.

Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino made two changes to the side that drew Atletico Madrid midweek, in the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup. Pedro Rodriguez joined Lionel Messi and Neymar to form the attack in Martino’s 4-3-3. Andres Iniesta also returned to the side replacing Xavi, to form a midfield three with Cesc Fabregas and Sergio Busquets.

Miroslav Dukic made three changes to his starting lineup, after last week’s defeat to Espanyol. Sergio Canales and Dorlan Pabon joined Ever Banega in Valencia’s attacking three, replacing Jonas and Sofiane Feghouli. Andres Guardado started at left back in place of Jeremy Mathieu in Valencia’s back four, while Helder Postiga started as the lone striker.

Despite Postiga’s late first half goals, Barcelona took advantage of the space between the lines and was the dominant side, creating several chances throughout the match.

Valencia’s shape

It’s normal for teams to drop off against Barcelona, based on their superiority in midfield, but what’s key is how you approach the match without the ball. Valencia took a naïve approach and chose to sit deep in a 4-5-1, as they chose to play a high-line.

Now there’s no issue with the way Dukic aligned his men – the main issue was the lack of pressure applied to the Catalan side when they had the ball, and the amount of space between defenders. Valencia allowed Barcelona to play the match with freedom, and they punished Dukic’s men with three first half goals.

Barcelona press

One area that Barcelona got criticized for last season was their goal to keep a solid shape, opposed to pressing higher up the pitch when they lost the ball. Not only did it force Barcelona to defend for longer periods, but they also strayed away from a formula that was successful in the past.

But the arrival of Martino has seen the Catalan side revert back to their defensive strategy, when the opposition has possession. They worked hard to close down Dukic’s men when they attempted to play from the back, forcing the home side to concede possession. It was successful in the first half, and it led to Messi’s second goal of the night. Valencia won possession and looked to play out of their half through Banega, but Busquets pressed the Argentine and won possession. Fabregas picked up the ball and played a lovely pass to Messi, who calmly slotted his shot into the back of the net.

Martino’s men worked hard to retain possession with their pressure, forcing Valencia to concede possession in their own half, presenting them with legitimate goal-scoring opportunities.

Barcelona between the lines

One clear aspect to Barcelona’s dominance was the amount of space available between the lines. Dukic’s men often changed their shape without the ball – they went from two banks of four, to a bank of five ahead of the back four, and despite being organized, they were not compact.

Messi’s opener stemmed from the amount of space and time Fabregas received on the ball. Minutes prior to Messi’s goal, Fabregas played a defence splitting pass to Neymar, but the Brazilian was unable to make the most of the opportunity. Messi was different – despite being fortunate, the Argentine made an identical run behind the defence, but he got the ball past the keeper and tapped it into the open net.

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But it wasn’t only Fabregas enjoying the abundance of space available, Messi also dropped deeper, and the Barcelona forward had a significant impact in the Catalan side’s dominance. Messi found pockets of space throughout the Valencia half and was combining with his teammates, spreading passes wide, and aiming to thread that decisive ball in the final third.

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It was no surprise that Messi and Fabregas connected for Messi’s third goal – based on their dominance in the opening 40 minutes, it was just a matter of time. Messi dropped into midfield to receive the ball and he found Fabregas unmarked between the lines, waiting to receive the ball. Messi played in Fabregas, who then found Neymar out on the left – Neymar found an oncoming Messi who slotted the ball into the net.

The third goal highlighted the amount of freedom Barcelona was given when in possession, and Martino’s men deserved their three-goal lead.

Helder Postiga

The often-maligned Portuguese striker was signed by Valencia to replace Roberto Soldado, who made a move to Tottenham over the summer. Surprisingly, for all the negative reviews the Portuguese international gathers, he’s still managed to find the back of the net. And in the span of five minutes, Postiga pegged his side back into the match with two quality finishes.

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Postiga provided an exquisite finish for his first goal, as Joao Pereira got into an advanced position on the right flank, and provided an outstanding cross for his countrymen. Minutes later, Postiga narrowed the lead to one, when the Portuguese striker made an intelligent near post run and flicked the ball into the far post.

Postiga’s goals provided moments of brilliance, which allowed Valencia back in the game, despite their shambolic performance in the first half.

Wide Areas

Valencia got into dangerous positions in the final third, when they took advantage of the space provided in wide areas.

In the first half, Joao Pereira was allowed to push forward at will, with Neymar not instructed to track the Portuguese fullback, when he surged forward. Iniesta drifted over occasionally to nullify Pereira’s threat, and Mascherano was forced to on a few occasions as well – this didn’t bode well for Martino’s men as Postiga was then able to drop off and link play with Mascherano out of position. Pereira’s freedom out wide led to Postiga’s opener, and it was an element to their attack that was successful in the opening 45 minutes.

Dukic’s men took their focus to the opposite flank in the second half, looking to overload Dani Alves. In fairness, if Barcelona continued their high pressing that was so successful in the first half, this may not be an issue, but the Catalan side chose to get back into shape without the ball. When Barcelona lost possession, Banega and Pabon attacked the space behind Alves, creating a few opportunities. Banega and Pabon overloaded the left flank when Barcelona got into their shape, delivering dangerous balls into the box, but Valencia failed to find an equalizer.

Conclusion

Barcelona was exceptional in the opening 40 minutes, and although they missed several chances to put the game out of reach, the rapid decline in their intensity, allowed Valencia back into the match.

Valencia drops their second match in a row, conceding six goals in total, which is not impressive. Dukic’s men were fortunate not to lose by higher tally, based on how open they were throughout the match. With the Europa League about to kick off, it’ll be interesting to see how Valencia copes, but there are a few warning signs that are clearly being shown. The one positive is that Postiga has yet to look a downgrade to Soldado, and they’ll need the Portuguese striker firing if they intend on claiming a European spot this season.

Barcelona keeps their perfect record intact, and they may not have an easier away outing this season. More importantly, the front three are beginning to click and Neymar is slowly finding his groove in La Liga. The one worry for Martino besides signing a centre-back, will be the approach he adopts, once his men are unable to press higher up the pitch, as Barcelona look quite vulnerable when sitting off and keeping their shape. Nevertheless, Messi continued to display why he’s the best player on the planet, while Fabregas has given Martino belief that he can afford to rest Xavi.

 
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Posted by on September 3, 2013 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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