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Tactical Preview: Wales – Portugal

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Courtesy of Flickr/Jon Candy

Euro 2016’s first semi-final will feature the top two players at the tournament. Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo may be teammates for Real Madrid, but they stand in each other’s path of claiming their country’s first trophy at the international level.

Surprisingly, while the two men are capable of single-handily winning matches, it’s arguable that the work-rate of their teammates has been pivotal towards their success thus far. Portugal and Wales have been labeled as “one-man teams” prior to the tournament, yet their progress illustrates the significance of working as a collective.

Tactically, this could prove to be another underwhelming showdown between two sides that prefer to play on the counter-attack. This was supposed to be the case between Wales and Belgium, but the latter’s poor defensive structure ensured the former received ample space for Bale to constantly launch counter-attacks.

Portugal offers an entirely different challenge. Fernando Santos’ men won’t be naïve out of possession, and they pose a larger threat on the counter attack that should worry Chris Coleman considering Wales weren’t entirely stellar in that aspect despite out-playing Belgium in the previous round.

Nonetheless, the biggest disappointment revolves around the players suspended for the semi-final. Portugal will be without William Carvalho, whereas Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies have also been suspended for the semi-final. In comparison to Portugal, Wales’ quality is limited and it’s evident that the suspensions could prove decisive.

Three-man defences have fared well thus far, and it will be interesting, yet equally surprising if Santos were to replicate Joachim Low’s decision to alter his system. In many regards, on paper at least, Chris Coleman’s system may frustrate a Portuguese side that severely lacks width.

Wales’ centre-backs prefer to engage in aerial duels, and their man advantage at the back ensures Ronaldo will be positioned in many 1v2 positions when he attacks crosses, or aims to cut centrally from the left. Then, similar to their triumph against Belgium, Coleman could encourage his wing-backs to position themselves higher up the pitch to negate Portugal’s main source of width.

The main issue for Wales could be the Ramsey suspension solely due to his role in midfield. Ramsey has been impressive throughout the tournament, offering diligent work-rate, tenacity, and an additional body in midfield.

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Likewise, he was provided the freedom to join counter-attacks with Bale and the selected striker, whilst covering his box-to-box duties. The build up to Hal Robson-Kanu’s quarter-final winner epitomized his significance – Ramsey made a diagonal charge from the half way line into right half space to meet Bale’s dinked pass, and the midfielder instantly delivered the cross that resulted in the goal.

Without Ramsey, Coleman may transition into more of a 3-4-2-1 with Jonny Williams joining Bale behind the striker. Williams is more of a raw attacking threat – he plays nifty passes into tight areas and is capable of dribbling beyond opponents – in comparison to Ramsey, and though it doesn’t affect Joe Allen and Joe Ledley’s role ahead of the back four, Wales will likely need another body central areas to cope with Portugal’s gritty midfield.

This could interest Coleman to field Bale in a midfield role – he’s displayed he can be disciplined defender in a reactive system during his time at Real Madrid – and have Robson Kanu playing off Sam Vokes to ensure Wales have a focal point upfront. If not, Williams will be forced to play a more functional role alongside Ledley and Allen.

On the other hand, William Carvalho’s suspension also affects a crucial aspect of the match. The game’s pivotal battle will be whether Portugal can cope with Bale’s threat on the counter. In terms of form, Bale is the best player on both sides ahead of kick-off. The Welshman consistently displayed his threat via set-pieces, on the counter-attack and hints of creativity from deeper positions.

While it’s arguable Danilo is better suited in Portugal’s 4-1-3-2 opposed to William Carvalho, he faces a difficult task in coping with Bale’s running on the counter-attack. Assuming Coleman will avoid engaging in a physical battle between Vokes and standout defender Pepe, Kanu’s decoy diagonal runs into wide areas could fluster the Portuguese back-line. Ultimately, if Danilo struggles against Bale’s runs, Pepe may need to exceed the superb performance levels displayed throughout the tournament.

In truth, Portugal must improve in open-play. Wales will happily concede possession to Santos’ men and welcome crosses into the box, and the intent of quickly facilitating passes into Ronaldo may not prove successful considering the Portuguese talisman will be outnumbered upfront.

Renato Sanches’ physical presence and powerful running is one of the few positives during this semi-final run, but Santos may turn to Joao Moutinho alongside the 18-year-old and Joao Mario. Moutinho is the sole genuine passer at Santos’ disposal – his pass over the Polish defence to Ronaldo in the second half of the quarter-final was evidence – and with the full-backs likely to remain cautious due to Bale’s threat, it’s difficult to highlight how Portugal will get behind the Welsh defence.

Here, we have two teams utilizing diverse systems: Coleman’s success has been based around a collective effort whilst maximizing the talents of his best players. Santos hasn’t been afforded that luxury – Ronaldo hasn’t been effective in the final third, but individual performances from Nani, the defenders, and Renato Sanches combined with previous tournament experience has sufficed.

The threat of Bale and Ronaldo will dominate pre-match talks, but a place in the finals will rest on which side can perform better as a unit.

 
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Posted by on July 5, 2016 in Euro 2016, Published Work

 

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Real Madrid – Atletico Madrid: Champions League final preview

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Courtesy of Flickr/avalaisure

A year ago, Diego Simeone’s side defeated Real Madrid for the first time in 14 years at the Santiago Bernabeu to claim the Copa del Rey. After winning their first La Liga crown in 18 years with a draw at the Camp Nou last weekend, Atletico Madrid travel to Lisbon to participate in the first-ever local derby Champions League final against Real.

Although Real are in search of La Decima, an Atletico victory would complete an unprecedented double, and be classified as one of the greatest triumphs in football history. But Carlo Ancelotti’s men will arrive in Lisbon as favourites with Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo aiming to claim his second Champions League crown, and increase his record-breaking 16-goal tally.

This is expected to be a high-octane, scrappy affair, between two sides that thrive on the counter-attack. Stylistically, Atletico’s ability to maintain a high level of play and compete with Europe’s richest clubs is remarkable, and it’s fair to say that they’re not underdogs.

Atletico possesses one of the best defensive records in Europe, and they prove to be a difficult outfit to beat when their back four is fit. Equally, they shift and press as a unit, and quickly transition into attack with quick intricate combination passes.

Simeone’s men drop into two banks of four without the ball and the two strikers stick goal-side to the opposition’s deepest midfielder’s to close down passing lanes. The wide men –– Koke and Arda Turan –– adopt narrow positions to limit space between the lines and central areas. Full-backs, Juanfran and Filipe Luis, also decrease space between themselves and the centre-backs, and encourage the opposition to play through the flanks, as Miranda and Diego Godin consistently dominate aerial duels.

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Atletico’s shape when Madrid maintain possession. The wingers tuck in centrally, and the two forwards allow the Madrid centre-backs to circulate possession.

Atletico are capable of winning the ball higher up the pitch, or sticking to the aforementioned tactic, but under both circumstances their ability to quickly break into attack is pivotal. Both wide players are technically astute, hardworking players, with Koke drifting infield to express his creativity, while Turan evades challenges and motors forward. The positioning of the two forwards usually enables them to receive the ball while running towards goal, or dropping off to receive the ball and pull defenders out of position.

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Atletico maintain the same shape, but Turan is ready to press Arbeloa when he receives the ball. Diego Ribas and Diego Costa have closed down Xabi Alonso’s passing lanes and Juanfran has also adopted a narrow shape closer to Miranda.

Diego Costa and Turan, however, are both injury doubts ahead of Saturday’s final following their early first half departures against Barcelona. While the latter is likely to feature against Madrid, Atletico are working hard to ensure the former is also fit. In both league fixtures this season, Costa worked the channels admirably and consistently tormented Sergio Ramos and Pepe. Likewise, Costa’s physicality, and eye for goal –– scoring 36 goals in all competitions –– is unmatched.

Adrian Lopez or Raul Garcia will be the likely replacement for the 25-year-old striker, and both men offer different threats. Similar to Costa, the former relies on pace, but in terms of strength and finishing he’s not quite at the Spaniard’s level. Still, when called upon Lopez has delivered, scoring goals against Barcelona and Chelsea en route to the final. The latter, on the other hand, could field on the right flank or upfront, and his physical presence would see Atletico play direct. In previous rounds he targeted Jordi Alba and Ashley Cole to utilize his aerial superiority, and the Spaniard’s 17 goals in all competitions is only bettered by Costa.

Atletico, though, isn’t the only side heading into Saturday’s final with personnel concerns. Gareth Bale and Ronaldo passed fitness tests earlier this week, but Pepe and Karim Benzema are both unlikely to feature, meaning Raphael Varane and Alvaro Morata will be included in the starting XI. Carlo Ancelotti will also be forced to decide between Sami Khedira and Asier Illarramendi to complete a midfield trio for the suspended Xabi Alonso.

Khedira has featured in Madrid’s final two games of the season –– 117 minutes –– after tearing a cruciate ligament in his knee six months ago. Khedira was in the midfield that lost to Atletico in at the Bernabeu in October, but he failed to trouble Simeone’s midfield. Illarramendi, 20, has struggled against physical sides that intentionally target the Spaniard, and it’s likely that Ancelotti may go for Khedira’s dynamism and tenacity, despite the German’s scarce match fitness.

Madrid have been at their utmost best in this tournament when given the opportunity to play on the counter –– most recently displayed against Bayern Munich –– but Ancelotti’s men will likely dominate possession, and the pattern of the match will be identical to previous encounters this season.

In three matches of significant value this season –– the tie was over in the second leg of the Copa del Rey –– Madrid struggled to break down and create legitimate goal scoring opportunities against Simeone’s men. The one match that Madrid won two goals stemmed from major deflections, and a well-worked move from Angel Di Maria and Jese Rodriguez. Atletico, on the other hand, pose a legitimate threat through set pieces, and if Costa is unavailable, Simeone’s men will aim to exploit Madrid in these situations.

Considering the circumstances, Luka Modric and Angel Di Maria will be the key men for Madrid. Both men provide the dynamism and creativity in midfield that steered Madrid to the Copa del Rey final, but were equally nullified in their second league encounter at the Vicente Calderon. With Ronaldo and Bale keen on drifting into central areas, Atletico’s narrow defending nullifies space for the wide players to cut into. Both men have failed to produce quality performances against the newly-crowned Spanish champion, with Bale struggling in 1v2 situations, and Ronaldo lacking service and space to create shooting angles. With that being said, Modric’s ability to dictate the tempo of the match, and Di Maria’s willingness to spring forward and provide a goal-scoring threat will be key.

In eight of the last nine fixtures between the two sides, a goal has been scored within the opening 15 minutes. And while an early goal is expected, it won’t necessarily alter the predicted pattern of the match. Atletico’s system solely focuses on limiting space in their third, defensive solidity, and quick transitions, and Simeone is reluctant to stray away from his philosophy.

With Madrid’s recent issues in open play against Simeone’s side, and their tendency to switch off during matches, one goal may be the difference between success and failure. In 12 months, Atletico have snapped various droughts against their cross-town rivals, and on the biggest stage in world football, they’ll be seeking to avenge their loss to Bayern Munich –– in which the late Luis Aragones scored –– 40 years ago.

With Atletico’s limited financial resources and diminutive squad, Simeone’s ability to get his side to sustain maximum levels and challenge on both fronts –– domestic and European –– serves as a triumph for modern football. Meanwhile, Madrid’s return to the final for the first time in 12 years will be considered a failure if they don’t claim La Decima.

The sky is the limit for Atletico, whereas Real have everything to lose.

 
 

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Valencia 2-3 Real Madrid

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Jese’s second half goal keeps Real Madrid within five points of Atletico Madrid and Barcelona.

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Carlo Ancelotti made three changes to the side that drew Osasuna last weekend. Angel Di Maria, Nacho, and Alvaro Arbeloa were in the starting lineup, as Gareth Bale and Pepe were unavailable.

Caretaker manager Nico Estevez made several changes to Valencia’s 4-2-3-1. Jonas led the line ahead of Fede, Pablo Piatti and Sofiane Feghouli, while Oriol Romeu and Daniel Parejo were in the double-pivot.

This was a disappointing match that surprisingly produced several goals – Madrid dominated possession, and although Valencia’s shape nullified their threat, attacking quality prevailed.

Valencia shape

One of the key components towards Valencia’s impressive display was their shape without the ball. Estevez’s side dropped into two compact banks of four and minimized space between the lines.

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Madrid struggled to find space in central areas around the final third, and this led to their front four constantly interchanging positions. As per usual, Ronaldo roamed around the final third looking for openings, but Isco and Benzema dropped deep into midfield to receive the ball. Isco desperately drifted from flank to flank aiming to create overloads and link play with the wide players, but the Spaniard’s impact was minimal.

Another key feat in Valencia’s shape was Feghouli’s role – the Algerian midfielder admirably tracked Marcelo’s runs and nullified his attacking threat down the left flank. Valencia’s narrow shape was impressive – it limited Madrid’s threat from open play and Ancelotti’s men struggled to created legitimate goal-scoring opportunities.

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Although Madrid dictated the tempo of the match, the away side rarely penetrated in the final third nor did they test Vicente Guaita. At this point it wasn’t a matter of how they would score, many were questioning whether they would find the back of the net.

It took a moment of brilliance from Angel Di Maria to give the away side the lead. Di Maria received Marcelo’s cross-field pass, and drifted between Piatti and Juan Bernat, before striking a venomous shot into the far corner.

Prior to the goal, Madrid lacked direction, invention and creativity in the final third, and unfortunately for the away side, their lead was short lived.

Alonso/Modric

While Cristiano Ronaldo found it difficult to express himself in the final third, Madrid’s midfield duo flourished. In fairness, Valencia’s shape contributed to their dominance as they half-heartedly attempted to close down the duo.

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Alonso often dropped deep between the two centre backs to receive the ball and launch Madrid’s attacks, but Valencia’s midfield rarely pressed the Spaniard in central areas. On the other hand, Modric was marked tightly, but the Croatian evaded defenders and played positive passes into advanced positions – there was no surprise that the Madrid duo were the most reliable passers on the field.

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Likewise, they replicated their brilliance without the ball – Alonso made key tackles in his third, while Modric intercepted the most passes. On both ends they were magnificent – they controlled the tempo of the match, and facilitated passes into key areas, as they were Madrid’s main attacking outlets.

Valencia down the left

Although Estevez’s side spent large portions of the match defending in their own zone, they still managed to pose a threat on the left flank. On numerous occasions, Valencia’s left sided players isolated Arbeloa, and both goals were created down this flank.

The first goal highlighted Piatti and Bernat’s tactical understanding – Piatti drifted infield between the two centre backs and Bernat pushed forward, got half a yard of space ahead of Di Maria, and delivered a well-weighed ball into the box that Piatti nodded past Diego Lopez. As the match continued, Di Maria’s diligence to track Bernat’s runs decreased, and the Valencia fullback casually pushed forward.

But, the main issue Madrid encountered was the lack of protection provided for Arbeloa, as Piatti constantly attacked the Spaniard. And it was Piatti’s powerful run down the left flank that earned Valencia a corner, which subsequently led to Mathieu’s equalizer.

Majority of Valencia’s attack prior to Sergio Canales’ arrival was down the left flank. Arbeloa was left vulnerable on several occasions and it was peculiar to see Ancelotti overlook this feat.

Canales

Estevez made the first alteration of the match with 30 minutes remaining, opting to introduce Canales for the uninspiring Fede. Coincidentally, Valencia equalized seconds after his introduction, which gave the home side the incentive to push for a winner.

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Unlike Fede, Canales became a threat in the final third. He drifted into space between the lines to receive the ball, and he successfully mounted Valencia’s attacks on the break. On separate occasions Canales was involved in the two legitimate goal-scoring opportunities that the home side created. Lopez comfortably saved his tame effort in the 73rd minute, and two minutes later his back heel to Piatti led to a cross towards Jonas, who fired his shot inches wide of the goal.

Canales’ introduction instilled an element of creativity the home side lacked in the first half, and they progressively created better chances.

Madrid 4-4-2

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Ancelotti switched to a 4-4-2.

The match was slipping away from Madrid, and Ancelotti gambled by introducing Jese and Daniel Carvajal – the double-change pushed Ronaldo upfront, and Di Maria to the left, as Madrid became a 4-4-2. The away side still lacked a competent link between midfield and attack, but these two men were involved in the build up to Jese’s winner.

Unlike Arbeloa – who didn’t venture forward – Carvajal’s first involvement in the match was an overlapping run down the right, which led to a dangerous cross in the six-yard box. However, Valencia failed to clear their lines and Modric recovered the ball, played a pass out wide to Jese and his weak shot at the near post beat Guaita, to hand the away side the lead.

Ancelotti summoned Asier Illarramendi in the latter stages of the match, as Madrid sat deeper and launched quick counter-attacks. Ancelotti’s change didn’t increase Madrid’s attacking impetus in the final third, but it did create one opportunity, which Jese pounced on.

Conclusion

Valencia contained Madrid for large portions of the match, but was unable to trouble the away side when they pushed into the final third. Their dominance down the left flank was logical – although Di Maria is usually a tactically disciplined player – however they took advantage of Madrid’s poor set piece defending, but only threatened from open play when Canales was introduced.

Madrid displayed an unappealing performance, but they found a way to secure maximum points.

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Ronaldo in an offside position seconds before Madrid’s second goal.

Their front four failed to penetrate in the final third, but an officiating error and poor goalkeeping handed Ancelotti’s men the lead twice. The away side keeps pace with the league leaders heading into 2014, but they’ll need to improve their all-around game if they intend on staying the course.

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

 

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Juventus 2-2 Real Madrid

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Courtesy of Football.ua

Real Madrid secured a berth in the Champions League knockout round as they earned a valuable draw in Turin.

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Antonio Conte introduced Leonardo Bonucci  to his starting eleven for the suspended Giorgio Chiellini, while Kwadwo Asamoah slotted in at left back for Angelo Ogbonna.

Carlo Ancelotti made a few changes to the side that defeated Juventus at the Santiago Bernabeu a few weeks ago. Gareth Bale and Xabi Alonso made their first starts in the Champions League this season, while Raphael Varane’s inclusion in the back four, pushed Sergio Ramos to right back.

This match showcased a recurring theme that’s been displayed by both sides this season – Juventus dominated the opening 45 minutes, but Real Madrid’s energetic pressing led to a vast improvement in their second half performance.

Juventus Shape

Conte’s men mirrored the approach utilized at the Bernabeu, by dropping into a 4-5-1 without the ball. Claudio Marchisio and Carlos Tevez were instructed to prevent Sergio Ramos and Marcelo from pushing forward, but they sat narrow alongside the midfield three to minimize gaps. They had a fairly easy time coping with Madrid due to the lack of cohesion in Ancelotti’s attack. Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo were higher up the pitch, while Modric and Khedira sat close to Alonso in a deeper position.

With Madrid’s full backs monitored, and their midfield unable to find gaps in central areas, Conte’s men didn’t face many issues on the defensive end. Khedira didn’t offer any attacking threat going forward, and Vidal admirably tracked Modric, when he attempted to dribble forward. In particular, Vidal was superb in midfield, breaking up play with his combative tackles, intercepting passes and quickly leading the transition from defence to attack.

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Similar to the fixture two weeks ago, Madrid was stifled in midfield, and this was down to Ancelotti’s approach and Juventus’ shape.

Pirlo vs. Alonso

Ancelotti was pleased to welcome back Alonso to the side, seeing as they missed a player of his stature in midfield. Like Pirlo, Alonso sits deeper in midfield, but he tends to play diagonal cross-field balls to build the attack. It’s a key element in Madrid’s game that they’ve lacked during his absence, as no other midfielder in Ancelotti’s squad possesses his passing range.

The key feat in both approaches was the ability to nullify the prolific deep-lying playmakers. At the Bernabeu we witnessed Karim Benzema press Pirlo for a small portion of the match to some effect, but allowed the Italian to dictate the match in the latter stages, prior to Giorgio Chiellini’s sending off. And once again Benzema was handed the duty to track Pirlo when Juventus had possession of the ball.

Nonetheless, one of the main components that led to Juventus’ superiority in midfield was Pirlo’s freedom and Conte’s intent on nullifying Alonso. Benzema’s defensive work on Pirlo didn’t improve, and once again the Italian maestro was free to facilitate passes into the channels and wide areas.

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However, Conte was weary of Alonso’s threat, and instructed Llorente to close him down whenever he received the ball.

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The contrast in forward passes is evident between the two deep-lying playmakers, and it was down to the work ethic of both strikers.

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It was strange seeing Bonucci given time on the ball considering his proficient range of passing, and for the most part Juventus had two exceptional passing outlets available going forward. Ancelotti’s defensive tactics were once again naïve, and it led to Juventus’ first half superiority. Alonso’s impact on the match was limited, and this is an approach most sides will take if they encounter Madrid in the latter stages of this competition.

Space in wide areas

Although Juve’s attacking approach was logical, they enjoyed space in wide areas due to Madrid’s shape. The initial aim was to drop into two banks of four without the ball, which explains why it was odd to see Ancelotti’s men defend with seven men – leaving the three attackers higher up the pitch.

With Madrid already outnumbered in midfield, Ancelotti’s men couldn’t afford to leave their fullbacks without sufficient protection. Initially Asamoah was cautious about surging into advanced position – which was logical based on Madrid’s threat on the counter – thus handing the onus to Caceres to get forward. The Uruguayan took advantage of the space behind Ronaldo, and was one of Pirlo’s favored passing option aft. In the second half, it was Caceres’ cross that found Llorente in the box, which saw Conte’s men equalize.

Juve’s superiority in midfield was clear in the first fixture, and the spare man was often Paul Pogba, as Khedira failed to track his runs. Pogba produced another decent outing on the left side, specifically on the break as he freely attacked space. Specifically, there were two separate occasions – besides his outside foot cross that deflected off of Pepe – that led to legitimate goal-scoring opportunities.

  1. Vidal did well to sustain possession and played a scintillating ball to Pogba, who drove forward and played a pass to the oncoming Tevez. Tevez looked up and delivered a quality cross to the back post towards Marchisio, but Iker Casillas denied the Italian midfielder.
  1. Llorente received a flick-on from Vidal, and dropped deep with the ball to play a pass to Tevez on the flank. Tevez drove at the defence, and played an incisive ball into the box for the advancing Pogba. Pogba received the ball, forcing Varane to come across and make a last-ditch tackle on the French midfielder, thus resulting in a penalty.

Juventus were exceptional in the first half, and a few top-class Casillas saves prevented Conte’s men from increasing their lead. Nevertheless, Madrid’s shape without the ball was bizarre, yet beneficial to Juventus, who penetrated space in wide areas.

Madrid press

Ancelotti’s men enjoyed a great start to the second half, and that was down to their work rate without the ball. Opposed to the first half, where Juventus was allowed to freely play out of the back, Ancelotti instructed his men to press higher up the pitch. Madrid’s front six squeezed Juventus in their own half and forced them to either play long balls or concede possession in their own half.

Conte’s men were unable to sustain possession and break past Madrid’s press, which ultimately led to Ronaldo’s equalizer. Luka Modric pressed Caceres, Ronaldo cut off the passing lane to Andrea Barzagli, Karim Benzema was near Bonucci and Alonso closed down Pirlo. Caceres played a poor pass into Benzema, and the Frenchman ran towards the Juventus defence, before playing in Ronaldo, who solemnly chipped Gianluigi Buffon.

Ancelotti’s men posed a sufficient attacking threat when they pressed high, as they won the ball in key areas in the final third, and began to dictate the match.

Second half

There’s been a recurring theme in the way both sides perform in the final 45 minutes of matches, and it was displayed in the second half. Madrid have produced more adventurous displays in the second half, while Juventus endure massive energy dip in their performance levels.

There was an overall improvement in Madrid’s second half performance, and the success of their high press proved to be beneficial. Juventus began to drop deeper into their third when Madrid had possession of the ball, and Modric was more inventive with his passing.

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The Croatian midfielder began to push forward into attacking positions, as he picked out positive passes between the lines and in wide areas.

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Also, Ramos began to push forward in the latter stages of the second half, as Tevez failed to track his runs. There were two separate occasions that saw Ramos fouled by Bonucci at the edge of the box, and his shot being blocked in the 18-yard box, after beating Asamoah in a 1v1. Madrid posed a larger threat on the break – Ronaldo and Benzema were receiving balls between the lines and Ancelotti urged his men to play Ronaldo into 1v1 situations. Juventus did have their chances in the second half, but a lack of penetration in the final third and quality in their passes, prevented them from nicking a winner.

Conclusion

Casillas’ brilliance in the opening 45 minutes, along with Madrid’s improved second half display secured first place in Group B. Both sides looked threatening on the counter, but all four goals were down to defensive miscues, highlighting how vulnerable both sides were without the ball.

Ancelotti’s initial tactics were questionable, but once again Madrid produced a positive second half performance to earn a point. Their defensive shape, and their overall build up play between midfield and attack still needs grooming, but Madrid continue to find ways to win during this significant transitional period.

“I’m leaving here feeling satisfied with my team’s second-half performance,” Ancelotti said. 

“The reaction was very good on our part. After the break we were much better in terms of courage and aggression,” he added. 

On the other hand, Juventus are in a favourable predicament ahead of their final two matches. Conte will be disappointed with their second half dip, but progression is still attainable. Two wins and they’re in. It sounds straightforward, but Conte’s men will need to improve on both ends if they want to achieve maximum points.

“We deserve more points than we have, but when you face a team like Real Madrid, who have players that can turn the match around in a few minutes, there’s not much you can do,” Conte said. 

“My team played a great game tonight – we played very well especially in the first half, just like we had planned to. It’s the sixth game in 18 days for us and it’s normal to be a little tired,” he added.

 
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Posted by on November 6, 2013 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Gareth Bale’s Galactico expectations require time

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Gareth Bale is encountering an arduous situation at the Santiago Bernabeu. It’s been two months since Bale made the move to Real Madrid, and the Welshman has been vilified and harshly scrutinized by the Spanish media. The rapid influx in fans, owners and the media demanding immediate success has somewhat tarnished modern day football, as players and manager’s are continuously under severe pressure. Despite all the negativity surrounding Bale, it’s shocking to know that he was a household favourite a few months ago.

Tottenham Hotspur supporters were on the edge of their seats when Bale received the ball on the right flank in their final game of the season against Sunderland. Had it been a few years ago, he may have opted to pass the ball or attempt a pacy dash towards the byline to provide a cross – but not this time. His confidence was oozing off his sweaty skin and fear was expressed in the Adam Mitchell’s eyes, as there was only one logical outcome.

The 24-year-old Welshman cut infield with his fancied left foot and curled the ball with precision and pace, humbling Simon Mignolet as could do nothing but watch the ball fly into the top corner, despite his efforts to make a save. White Hart Lane erupted. Spurs faithful adapted to Bale’s brilliance throughout the season, and this was just another piece of magic to add to the highlight reel.

Bale ran towards the Spurs supporters jubilant, knowing that this would be the last time he’d share a moment of this magnitude at White Hart Lane. The celebration was more of a ‘come get me NOW’ opposed to a sign of hope that relied on their London rivals dropping points on the final day of the season to solidify fourth place.

Daniel Levy’s most prized asset was ready to make the big jump abroad, despite the North London side earning a club-high 72 points. Truthfully, it was foreseeable. Bale’s vast growth into a world-class player couldn’t be ignored. He thrived in a no.10 position under Andre Villas-Boas that handed the Welshman a free role to roam around the final third searching for gaps and openings in the opposition’s backline. However, he maintained defensive responsibility by quickly closing down centre backs to complement Spurs’ high-pressing game.

The pressure of living up to the ‘galactico’ billing is insurmountable. However, Bale – the 11th galactico – had bigger shoes to fill as his summer transfer to Real Madrid made him the world’s most expensive player. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to know that on two separate occasions, Bale’s career hung by a thread.

Bale’s athleticism was evident at a young age. The Welshman excelled in rugby, hockey and track-field throughout school, but football was Bale’s top priority.  The Welshman’s PE teacher Gwyn Morris was aware of the Welshman’s talent and challenged him to improve other aspects of his game by forcing Bale to play one-touch football and predominantly use his weaker right foot, as he was superior to the rest of his schoolmates.

Southampton youth scout Rod Ruddick spotted the Welshman when he played for Cardiff Civil Service in a U-9 five-a-side tournament in Newport, Wales. “Even at the age of eight Gareth had fantastic ability. When you sign a player at that age it is because they have great potential and he has just kept getting better,” Ruddick said.

“You could see his pace and quality on the training pitch but I think his left foot helped him stand out. What we saw then we knew he was going to be something special,” he added.

Bale worked his way through Southampton’s satellite academy, but his recurring back injuries sustained from a growth spurt, nearly prevented him from receiving a full-time scholarship.

The Welshman signed with Spurs for £10m in 2007 – a year after breaking into the Southampton first team – and he endured 24 consecutive losses when he featured for the North London club. Bale’s frail build was his downfall, as he struggled to stay fit, which saw Alex McLeish attempt to pursue to the Welshman to join Birmingham in 2009. “Gareth wasn’t in the Spurs side at the time and Harry Redknapp wasn’t able to get him a game for whatever reason,” McCleish said.

“What if he had come to Birmingham and enjoyed it? We were in the Championship at the time but eventually got promoted to the Premier League. That would have changed the picture for us financially. You just don’t know. Unfortunately, this time, for us it didn’t, he said.”

Bale worked hard over the next few years to become stronger physically and mentally – with help from former Spurs manager Harry Redknapp’s tough love approach in training – and the football world witnessed glimpses of his brilliance. He took the world by storm through his two performances against Inter Milan in 2010, where he singlehandedly terrorized Brazilian fullback Maicon. Bale’s ability was never questioned – it was whether he could replicate his performances on a consistent basis.

Under Andre Villas-Boas, the 24-year-old winger flourished, and took the first chance to move abroad to challenge for trophies, opposed to spending another year at White Hart Lane, fighting to secure a Champions League spot. It was his childhood dream to play for Madrid, but scrutiny and ridicule followed him like a shadow.

More so, Bale’s transfer fee has been the focal point during his sluggish start at the Santiago Bernabeu. Had Bale set the valuation, or publicly stated he was worth £85m, then it would be understandable – however he didn’t. The inflated transfer market has been beneficial to teams with lesser financial power, as they now possess the power to hold out until they receive their required price tag.

Is Bale a £85m player? No.

At the time, was Bale worth £85m? Possibly.

Considering his remarkable performances throughout 2012/2013, the three years remaining on his contract, and the fact that Spurs initially weren’t willing to sell the Welshman, the valuation isn’t far-fetched.

Consequently, the Bale saga, and a few niggling injuries, prevented the Welshman from participating in pre-season activities. Given the circumstances, it’s absurd to label the Welshman a ‘flop’ based on the first two months of the season. Adapting to a new league, culture, country and style of football is never easy. While some players settle quickly into a new environment, others need time and patience – and based on the abundance of turnover that transpired at Madrid this summer, it’s rational.

Carlo Ancelotti, known for his possession-based philosophy has struggled to find his best starting eleven, and has been adamant on fitting Bale into the equation. But the rise of Angel Di Maria – arguably Madrid’s best player this season – has highlighted the need of natural balance in Ancelotti’s attack, specifically in their 7-3 victory against Sevilla.

“The team lacks little offensively, but lost concentration when at 3-0, but then continued to play well. We need more balance because you cannot open up a game when you are winning 3-0,” Ancelotti said.

“We played faster and more vertical. We need more offensive balance, but the game was fantastic,” he said.

Bale displayed glimpses of old, grabbing two goals and two assists. Sevilla’s shape without the ball was diabolical for large portions of the match, which benefitted a Madrid side that prefers to attack on the break. The Welshman was allowed space to isolate defenders, use his blistering space to stretch the match by running towards the byline, make darting runs into the box and combine with his teammates in wide areas.

Likewise, Bale has struggled to impose his authority on matches against sides that prefer to sit deeper, and defend with nine men behind the ball. Opposed to England, La Liga sides are precise with their overall shape without the ball, as they aim to be organized and compact. With Cristiano Ronaldo playing a free role, Bale has less space to work with, is more likely to drift out of games via isolation, and is a conventional winger, which will explain his inevitable statistical decline.

Coincidentally, Bale and Madrid, are going through a transitional period. Ancelotti is searching for balance, a preferred formation and a cohesive unit – whereas, Bale is settling into life abroad, which will expect him to thrive with less space, in a natural wide role.

An £85m transfer fee guarantees high expectations, but if Madrid supporters and owners are patient, then Bale can prove to be an intelligent investment in the near future.

 
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Posted by on November 1, 2013 in FIFA, Published Work

 

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Galatasaray 1 – 6 Real Madrid

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Real Madrid cruised past Turkish champions Galatasaray in a rematch of last year’s Champions League quarterfinals.

Galatasaray vs Real Madrid - Football tactics and formations

Angel Di Maria and Alvaro Arbeloa returned to Carlo Ancelotti’s starting eleven, after Saturday’s thrilling draw against Villareal. Di Maria formed an attacking three that sat behind Karim Benzema with Cristiano Ronaldo and Isco. Luka Modric and Sami Khedira played in the double pivot, while Arbeloa started at left back.

Fatih Terim assembled his side in a 4-3-1-2 that saw Didier Drogba and Burak Yilmaz form a strike partnership. Wesley Sneijder played behind the two strikers, while Engin Baytar, Felipe Melo and Selcuk Inan formed a midfield three.

Galatasaray started the match well, but a change of shape in the second half opened up space for Ancelotti’s men to exploit.

Madrid’s shape

Galatasaray enjoyed a decent amount of possession in the opening minutes, and Madrid’s shape without the ball was interesting. Ancelotti’s men dropped into two banks of four without the ball, with Isco drifting to the left flank and Di Maria sitting narrow to make up the numbers in midfield. It’s a typical approach to make in a traditional 4-2-3-1, but the key in sitting off and dropping into shape is the ability to stay compact – an issue Madrid sustained in the first half.

The movement of Yilmaz and Sneijder caused Madrid a few issues due to the few gaps of space in midfield. Yilmaz drifted to the left flank aiming to free space for the midfield three to drive into, while Sneijder was attacking space between the lines, looking to get on the ball. Sneijder didn’t have a significant impact in the first half, and Yilmaz was struggled throughout the match, but their movement off the ball guided Terim’s men into key areas.

Felipe Melo

A key feat in the first half was Melo’s attacking threat from midfield and outstanding work from Iker Casillas and substitute goalkeeper Diego Lopez. Melo threatened Madrid on three occasions, but top-class goalkeeping prevented the Turkish side from taking a well-deserved lead.

  1. Melo drove into ample space in midfield to drive a venomous 30-yard shot that was wonderfully saved by Casillas.
  2. In the 16th minute, Melo attacked a well-driven cross into the box, and the Brazilian midfielder nodded the ball right at Lopez, from six-yards out.
  3. 13 minutes later, Melo rose high again to direct a corner kick into the net, but it was Lopez again that made a phenomenal stop, to keep the match leveled.

Melo was awarded three legitimate goal scoring opportunities – a rare feat against Madrid – but he was denied by two top-class keepers, who made fantastic saves to keep the match level.

Pressing

While Madrid sat in two banks of four, the interesting feat in their play without the ball was how they pressed. Di Maria and Isco got close to Albert Riera and Emmanuel Eboue preventing the Galatasaray fullbacks from getting forward and providing the width the Turkish side required.

Now, this was a logical approach, but it was odd to see their lack of pressure in midfield. Selcuk and Engin were tracked when attempting to make runs forward, or looking for gaps of space, but Melo was allowed to play passes freely in deeper positions. Melo’s passes were often out to the flanks, opposed to penetrating, but it allowed Terim’s men to dictate the tempo of the match.

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Galatasaray’s press was significant, preventing Madrid from creating numerous chances or settling into the match. Yilmaz and Drogba pressed the Madrid fullback’s forcing Pepe and Sergio Ramos to push forward and ignite the buildup. Modric and Khedira dropped deeper to receive the ball, but Sneijder and the midfield three pressed efficiently.

Isco dropped deeper into midfield to provide an extra passing option, helping Madrid push forward, but Galatasaray’s pressure contained Madrid for majority of the half. The downfall to Pepe and Ramos’ freedom pushing forward was their range of passing, which was surprisingly accurate. It was Madrid’s only outlet forward, besides Terim’s men conceding possession in their third, but this outlet led to Isco’s opener.

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Di Maria received the ball from midfield and played a long diagonal ball to the Spaniard, who made a run from midfield. Isco’s first touch was immaculate, and with the help of poor defending, the Madrid maestro slotted the ball past Fernando Muslera, handing Madrid an undeserved lead.

Galatasaray’s pressing was superb, preventing Ancelotti’s men from starting plays and creating chances, but once their energy levels dipped, Madrid grew into the match. Madrid’s approach was questionable – although it was rational to close down Terim’s fullbacks, Melo was allowed to dictate the tempo of the match, and great goalkeeping prevented the Turkish side from taking the lead.

Galatasaray go 4-2-3-1

Galatasaray vs Real Madrid - Football tactics and formations

Drogba was unable to feature in the second 45 due to an injury sustained in the final minutes of the first half. This forced Terim to switch formations from a 4-3-1-2 to 4-2-3-1 with Nordin Amrabat moving to the left and Sneijder playing behind Yilmaz.

The tactical alteration presented a key change in Galatasaray’s attack – Sneijder was now able to locate gaps between the lines to receive the ball and play key passes in the final third.

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Two minutes into the second half, Sneijder received the ball between the lines and played a pass out wide to Amrabat. The Galatasaray midfielder delivered a threatening ball into the box that Yilmaz nodded wide from six yards out. Terim’s men were presented with four legitimate chances to take the lead/equalize prior to Madrid’s onslaught, which began after this spurned opportunity.

Although Terim’s tactical chance allowed Sneijder to express himself in the final third, it also saw Galatasaray’s pressing become ineffective, thus allowing Modric to dictate the match from deep areas.

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Frankly the change began 30 minutes into the match, as the Croatian midfielder was providing passes to his wingers in advanced positions. Drogba’s absence opened up a passing outlet for Madrid to play out of the back, and Ancelotti’s men began to stamp their authority on the match.

Terim was forced into making a tactical alteration that benefitted Sneijder, but it freed up space for Madrid to break through the Turkish side’s pressure, allowing Modric and Isco to dictate the match.

Second half

With Terim’s men chasing the match, Madrid found space to exploit on the counter, but also between the lines. While Benzema and Ronaldo scored goals based on defensive errors, both men added a second due to space available between the lines.

Benzema dropped into that space for Ronaldo’s opener – the Frenchman linked play with Khedira, who sprayed a pass out wide for Di Maria, and the Argentinian winger slid a ball across the six yard box for Ronaldo to tap in. This space was unavailable in the first half, and Ancelotti’s men exploited it for Benzema’s second of the night.

This time it was Bale who received the ball between the lines, spraying a pass to Ronaldo, who provided the assist for Benzema. Ronaldo did pickup a hat-trick with a piece of individual brilliance in the final minutes of the match, but it goes to show how effective Terim’s tactics were in the first half.

Madrid improved in the second half due to a drop in Galatasaray’s pressing, the Turkish side’s will to search for an equalizer, and Terim’s tactical change that freed up space in midfield for Ancelotti’s men to exploit.

Conclusion

Madrid won the match in convincing fashion, despite an impressive start by Galatasaray. Drogba’s departure played a significant factor in the second half, and it’s interesting to question whether his involvement would alter the score.

With Copenhagen earning a draw at home to Juventus, and the massive defeat Terim’s men faced, the Turkish club is put in a serious hole to start their Champions League campaign. The importance of getting a result in your home matches is massive, and with Terim’s men lacking the depth of Juventus or Madrid, chances of qualifying have decreased.

Madrid was poor in the first half, but it’s fair to state that it’s a relatively new squad with a new manager, that’s aiming to find its balance in attack. It was an impressive result away from home in a tough venue, as Ancelotti’s road to Lisbon begins in fine fashion.

 
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Posted by on September 19, 2013 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Roberto Soldado: Another Piece To Villas-Boas’ and Tottenham’s Puzzle

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White Hart Lane was left in a subdued atmosphere despite Gareth Bale’s winner against Sunderland on the final day of the season. News from St. James Park had broke loose that Laurent Koscielny’s second half goal was enough to secure Champions League football for the Gunners – ultimately leaving Tottenham out of Europe’s most prestigious tournament for the second consecutive season.

Tottenham finished the season with 72 points – the club’s record point total and the highest of a side that has finished outside the top four, which would’ve guaranteed the North London side second place two seasons ago. For the most part, Andre Villas-Boas’ first season at White Hart Lane was successful – despite finishing one spot lower than Harry Redknapp’s side a year prior. Although AVB’s influence saw Spurs develop tactically, the Portuguese manager’s side still encountered a few issues that saw them drop 12 points in their final 10 games – which Bale scored goals in the final five minutes against Southampton and Sunderland, to avoid further blemishes.

Defensive solidity has been a recurring issue for Spurs over the past few years, yet the large abundance of inferior teams in the league has benefitted the North London side. The main issue Tottenham has endured was in the final third, mainly at home, where they struggled to break down sides that sat deep, and stayed organized. Spurs dropped 19 points at home last season, albeit only being bettered by Liverpool for creating the most clear-cut chances in the league – simply highlighting that a no.10 and a striker was needed.

While Bale’s highly speculated move to Real Madrid has dominated headlines, AVB has added two quality players in Paulinho and Nader Chadli to his squad – as it looks certain Spurs will transition into a 4-3-3 side. Frankly, keeping Bale is essential, but it’s uncertain as to whether he’ll be able to replicate the 26 goals he scored last season – where he benefitted playing in a free role as a no.10.

Now, Bale’s departure wouldn’t be disastrous as many think, considering Spurs would receive approximately £80-100m for the Welshman. There’s no question that there was a heavy reliance on Bale, but the system switch would limit the freedom he enjoyed – and it would leave the creativity to the midfield three and the wingers, while they would need a reliable striker to provide the goals – which explains the purchase of Spanish international Roberto Soldado.

Soldado has reached the peak of his career, so there was no surprise that he was eager to be the main man of a potential contender. The 28-year-old has failed to consistently be the centre of attack for the national team, and a full season under AVB’s guidance, bolsters his chances of potentially solidifying a starting role in Brazil next summer.

At the age of 14, Vicente del Bosque, then Real Madrid youth team coach, persuaded Soldado to leave his regional side Don Bosco. Soldado was an instant hit at Castilla, Madrid’s B side, yet he was unable to display his skills for the first team, despite scoring 63 goals in four seasons. With a strike-force that consisted of Ronaldo, Robinho, Raul, Michael Owen and Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Soldado found it difficult to feature regularly in a Madrid shirt, which led to Fabio Capello’s decision to loan the striker to Osasuna for the 2006-2007 season. 13 goals in all competitions for the Pamplona based side was enough to earn Soldado a second stint at Madrid, under newly appointed coach Bernd Schuster, but once again the Spaniard was deprived the opportunity to play.

Soldado was offloaded to Getafe the next season for €4m, where it looked like his career would amount to nothing, yet that’s where the Spaniard’s career took storm. Life abroad allowed the Valencia-born striker to flourish as the spearhead of the Getafe attack, scoring 33 goals in 66 appearances, which interested a Valencia side that was looking to replace David Villa. As humble, and soft-spoken as Soldado is off the field, he was quick to state his role with the club that eventually paid €10m for his services.

“I have all the enthusiasm in the world, but I’m not here to replace anyone,” Soldado said.

“I’ll contribute as much as possible with my work,” he added.

During Soldado’s three seasons at his hometown club, the Spanish striker slowly built his own legacy. The 28-year-old striker notched 80 goals in 146 appearances for Los Che, scoring a minimum of 25 goals per season in all competitions – while bringing his Champions League tally up to 15 goals, more than any player on the Spurs roster. Throughout the Spaniard’s career, he’s made it clear that he’s a genuine poacher, which could explain the player’s he admired as a youth.

“I favoured the finishers [when growing up], the goalscorers. [Ivan] Zamorano – I loved him when he was at Madrid. Jimmy [Floyd] Hasselbaink at Atletico, Ronaldo when he was at Barcelona. They really were the best of the best,” Soldado said in a UEFA.com interview.

However, although Soldado’s demeanor off the field was reserved, the bullish, yet gritty side of the Spaniard, which is often seen on the pitch, came out when speaking to reporters about his Valencia departure.

“The reason I’m leaving is because I don’t have faith in the current project and because the president has been lying for a long time, to me personally over the telephone,” Soldado said.

“A lot of the information you have received I believe was leaked by him. He has caused a lot of damage for me and my people, who are like family to me,” he added.

As the Spaniard reaches the latter parts of his career, a move to Spurs was logical, seeing as he fits the mold of a player the North London side need. Soldado prefers to play as the lone striker, and has made a living off of poaching goals in the 18-yard-box – all 24 of the Soldado’s league goals came in the penalty area. The Spanish striker tends to play on the shoulder of the last defender, while his movement off the ball and link-up play has gradually improved.

His performance against Uruguay in the Confederations Cup was an indicator that the Spaniard can thrive as the main striker in a 4-3-3. Soldado constantly linked play with Cesc Fabregas, allowing the Barcelona midfielder to get into advanced positions when he dropped deep – not to mention his game-winning goal with his preferred right foot.

Statistically, Soldado is an upgrade to the two strikers that Spurs have at their disposal. His 24% shot conversion is twice as good as Jermaine Defoe and Emmanuel Adebayor’s, along with scoring more league goals than the both men combined. Of the 511 chances created by Spurs last season, the duo scored 16 goals and without a proper no.10, AVB’s men lacked a player that can play an incisive final ball. Soldado is a step up from the current Spurs strikers – his awareness in the box and ability to get on the end of chances can prove to be pivotal next season.

In hindsight, Soldado does rely on quality service from the midfield, and with players such as Moussa Dembele, Paulinho and Lewis Holtby behind him, the Spaniard should suffice. Although the trio isn’t known for their incisive direct passing, Soldado can link play, allow the midfield to penetrate the space behind him, and provide ample space with his off the ball movement so the midfield could supply the service required.

For all the good Soldado offers, the Spanish striker does have the tendency to drift out of games. It’s been one of the few pieces of criticism the 28-year-old has received over the past few years, yet Soldado doesn’t let the negativity affect his game.

“You have to have the belief that if you try to get away from your marker twice and you fail the third time you will succeed. In fact they can be winning the battle for almost the entire game but then you get the better of them once – and often that is enough,” Soldado said in an interview with the Telegraph.

Yet, even though the Spaniard has been ridiculed for being shaped in the form of a limited striker, Del Bosque, now Spanish head coach, encourages Soldado to stick to his game. Del Bosque believes that Soldado’s movement away from the play, not only keeps pressure on the opposition’s defenders, but it also gives the midfield space to orchestrate.

With that being said, Soldado’s arrival did come at a hefty price, and pressure will be on the Valencia-born striker to produce, but Spurs now have their first legitimate proven goal-scorer since the departures of Dimitar Berbatov and Robbie Keane.

Spurs still face a few deficiencies at the back, and could improve on their squad depth, but as AVB’s tenure continues, the chances of Champions League football returning to White Hart Lane increases.

With-or-without Bale, Spurs are building a team to fit AVB’s philosophy, which proved to be successful at Porto. The Portuguese manager adds another piece to the puzzle that he’s attempting to solve – hence, Soldado’s fantastic goal-scoring record can be the difference between Champions League football and another substandard finish outside of the top four.

It’s evident that Spurs’ transition to a 4-3-3 is beneficial to their long-term success but they need to score more goals, and Soldado is the answer.

 
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Posted by on August 12, 2013 in EPL, Published Work

 

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