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Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs must rediscover attacking mojo at Arsenal

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The North London derby is now regarded a prominent fixture in what many are classifying as the most compelling title race of the Premier League era. Historically speaking, Arsenal tend to always finish above Spurs, and though that also occurred last season, it’s worth noting that they were both runners-up to Leicester City.

If this were any other year, it would be a brief catastrophic failure for Spurs, but considering they were in the title race within the final weeks of the season, and finished within the top four, Mauricio Pochettino’s side were a product of optimism and growth. But following Manchester City’s recent dip in form throughout October, the two North London sides can still be considered in the title hunt.

Over the last decade, both teams have been renowned for challenging for the final Champions League spot, but now, they’re making a genuine stake at being annual title contenders for contrasting reasons. Arsenal represent a stable side that’s welcomed two world-class players in recent years, whilst avoiding regression unlike Manchester United and Chelsea.

On the other hand, Pochettino’s formed a youthful cohesive team built around organized pressing, quickly regaining possession, and the meteoric rise of Harry Kane. Spurs are one of the few Premier League sides that epitomize the definition of unit, and burnout was the of the few factors in their eventual collapse towards the conclusion of last season.

“It was the first time our players had ever experienced this type of situation and it was very difficult,” said Pochettino. “When you lose your objective, like we did when we lost the chance to win the league at Chelsea, it was tough for them to manage the situation.”

Likewise, an early exit in the Europa League and the ability to name a fairly unchanged side for majority of last year’s campaign was integral to their title challenge. This season, injuries to first-team players, along with the additional midweek Champions League fixtures have disrupted Spurs’ attempt of replicating their aforementioned success.

Coincidentally, the contrast between Spurs and Arsenal extends to the current campaign as well, with the latter enjoying a great run of form since their opening day loss to Liverpool, whereas Spurs have scored a solitary goal from open play in six matches. Although Pochettino’s men remain unbeaten domestically, there’s a clear issue regarding their attacking philosophy.

On paper, though, it’s quite straightforward: the full-backs stay close to the touch-line beyond half, and the centre-backs split into half-spaces as the holding midfielder drops deeper to ensure Spurs play out the back. Kane could come short or spin-off his marker into the channels, while the attacking midfield trio cleverly combine intricate passes in the final third.

Yet, Spurs generally spurn several chances around the box, and remain at their utmost best when they win possession in midfield and quickly facilitate the ball towards goal. Kane’s finishing and link-up play has been missed – the England international has scored 36 per-cent of Spurs league goals in the past two seasons – but more importantly, Tottenham’s passing has been sloppy and laboured.

The Gunners, however, are scoring goals for fun with key players Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, and the returning Olivier Giroud showing signs of ruthless efficiency. It’s believed that form weighs no significance on the eventual outcome of a derby, and that may play a factor here, as well, but it provides an interesting element to this anticipated rivalry.

Stylistically, though, the match favours Spurs, who equally produced their best performance of the season against a Manchester City side obsessed with possession.

“The performance was nearly perfect. To play a great team like Manchester City, you need to do a fantastic job. For that, I’m very proud of our players; work,” Pochettino said afterwards.

“Today, collectively, we worked very hard — all the players were fantastic. It was a real exciting game. Both teams played in an exciting way. We share a similar philosophy.

Spurs’ display could prove to be one of the standout performances of the season as they never allowed Pep Guardiola’s men time to settle, despite succumbing to fatigue and conceding a handful of legitimate goal-scoring opportunities in the second half. Likewise, even when Tottenham flustered City with their energetic man-to-man pressing in midfield, they continuously wasted opportunities in the final third. It was a clear indicator that even at their best, Pochettino’s men could improve their productivity in the final third to overshadow their inability to build play from the back

And while Pochettino was heavily credited for Spurs’ fitness levels last season, his star performers have now endured a severe dip in form since Euro 2016. Christian Eriksen’s creativity has been non-existent in terms of breaking down deep defensive lines, Eric Dier’s moved to a centre-back role and doesn’t appear required in midfield with Victor Wanyama in most situations, whereas Dele Alli has yet to convert quality chances into goals – the partnership developed with Kane could also be a factor in the Spurs youngster’s stagnation.

Interestingly enough, the pressing Spurs have been renowned for could be a decisive tactic against an Arsenal side that also monopolizes possession. Still, the Gunners are equally devastating on the counter, and possess the personnel that can harm Spurs’ high-line if they push men forward.

The team with the best defence and offence generally wins the Premier League, and though they still remain defensively solid in terms of shape and structure, conceding a league best five goals, Arsenal arguably possess the best attack in the division on current form.

Wenger’s fluid attack will test Spurs’ resolve, though, and it’s likely Pochettino will effectively instruct his side to man-mark in midfield given the evident threat of Ozil and Sanchez between the lines. The latter may revert back to his preferred position on the left, but similar to Ozil, he prefers to buzz around space between the lines and through the channels before running towards goal. Ultimately, Spurs lack players of this mould: a creative dynamo capable of placing his teammates in goal-scoring positions, and dynamic, yet diligent dribbler that offers a goal-threat anywhere in the final third.

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Victor Wanyama has been a revelation in the centre of the pitch, and with Moussa Dembele unlikely to start, the Kenyan may be encouraged to solely monitor Ozil’s movement in these zones. Dier’s presence would be helpful, here, but Pochettino’s use of a 4-1-4-1 would enable Alli and Eriksen the role of pressing the Arsenal double-pivot to effectively negate their threat in central areas, and quickly break forward when possession is regained.

This is the other reason why Olivier Giroud’s return and instant goal-scoring form could trouble Spurs’ back-line. Unlike City’s Claudio Bravo, Petr Cech isn’t renowned for constantly setting the tempo of the match with his distribution. Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi’s passing under pressure presented issues in the past, which could lead to balls punted into Giroud to bypass Spurs pressing in midfield and encourage runners forward.

Elsewhere, Spurs simply haven’t scored enough goals following Kane’s injury, and are hopeful the 23-year-old will make his return to action this Sunday. Son Heung-Min form peaked upfront during the early stages of the season, but the South Korean international is more of a threat on the counter-attack where he is provided ample space to dribble towards defenders. The other option upfront in Vincent Janssen offers link-up play, and prefers to peg centre-backs towards their goal, but the Dutch international doesn’t possess Kane’s all-round ability and struggles to create his own chances.

More so, given the case Spurs are unable to utilize their pressing to create goal-scoring opportunities, the reliance on pushing the full-backs forward would be their alternative attacking route. Toby Alderweireld’s diagonal balls from centre-back were always a useful outlet in terms of shifting play, but Danny Rose and Kyle Walker’s influence in advance wide positions will be vital.

Walker and Moussa Sissoko failed to spark a reliable partnership midweek against Bayer Leverkusen, and Pochettino will hope Eric Lamela is fit to start, here. Arsenal’s wide players, though, have diligently provided support for their full-backs this season, and it’s unlikely, Rose, in particular, will receive the space that Riyad Mahrez provided last week against Leicester.

Although Arsenal still possess defensive issues in certain areas, the side’s overall structure has improved over the past year. It also helps that Wenger can utilize various options in midfield. He can turn to power in Elneny and Francis Coquelin, all-round personnel in Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey, or rely on the diminutive passer in Santi Cazorla.

With that being said, the evolution of both sides remains intriguing, nonetheless: by Premier League standards, Wenger’s group of experienced players are now living up to expectations led by their adapted world-class stars, albeit still prone to defensive lapses. In contrast, Pochettino’s youthful cohesive unit must prove they can find other routes to victory if they’re unable to sustain their dynamic pressing throughout the season.

Last season’s incredible overachievement was overshadowed by their wilting post-April results, and although Spurs’ current form is inconsistent, Pochettino’s influence still appears sustainable. However, another shortcoming against Wenger’s Arsenal would put Pochettino’s philosophy under potential scrutiny.

Coming so close to Premier League glory last season suggests the main goal is to go one step further, but history shows they must buck the trend and finish above Arsenal. With several London derbies approaching subsequent to the international break and Champions League group stage qualification on the cusp, Pochettino’s margin for error is slim.

Similar to their last pre-international break fixture, a win at the Emirates could uplift Spurs’ quest to ignite their title bid.

 
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Posted by on November 4, 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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Portugal 1-0 France

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Portugal dispatched of hosts France to claim their first major international trophy courtesy of an extra-time winner from Eder.

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Didier Deschamps named an unchanged XI that narrowly snuck past Germany in the semi-final.

Fernando Santos welcomed back William Carvalho into his holding midfield role, while Pepe returned to the XI to form a centre-back partnership with Jose Fonte.

Portugal stuck to their defensive brand of football here, but Deschamps’ inability to alter his broken system witnessed Santos’ men strike late once again to become European champions.

Deschamps goes 4-2-3-1

Deschamps’ major decision ahead of kickoff was whether to return to the system he started the tournament with or aim to maximize Antoine Griezmann’s talent in a central role. Despite being completely outplayed by Germany in the semi-finals the French manager opted for the latter, which meant Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba formed a double-pivot ahead of the back four, while N’Golo Kante started on the bench.

Though the system caters to Griezmann’s strengths, it certainly decreases the impact France can produce in central areas. With Kante on the bench, Pogba and Matuidi were often adopting deeper positions to ensure the hosts weren’t overrun in midfield, thus making France’s attack quite predictable. It was simply based around knocking balls into striker Olivier Giroud, but only Griezmann was free to play off the striker or run beyond the defence, as the midfield duo were required to maintain their positions.

Portugal without the ball

The pattern of the match suited a Portuguese side that was never keen on being proactive. Their run throughout the knockout round has witnessed Santos’ side drop off into two banks of four, aiming to congest space between the lines and in central zones within their third.

To be fair, Santos was probably pleased that France went 4-2-3-1 because it ensured his men didn’t have to cope with the midfield runs from Pogba and Matuidi. Instead, Nani often attempted to sit goal-side of Matuidi, Adrien Silva stepped forward to Pogba when he received the ball around the halfway line, and William Carvalho was tasked with tracking Griezmann’s movement between the lines.

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Full-backs Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna were harried by Joao Mario and Renato Sanches when they received possession, which ultimately deprived France of natural width. Samuel Umtiti and Laurent Koscielny were free to carry the ball forward, and had no other option but to find the attacking midfield trio who sought out space between the lines, but this was what Deschamps must have expected considering Santos made no changes to his defensive approach.

France shape

Apart from the opening 10 minutes of the match, similar to their opponents, France equally dropped off into two banks of four and were reluctant to press the Portuguese defence from the front. This may have backfired against a German side containing genuine creative outlets possessing excellent passing range, but Santos midfield are renowned for being functional and dynamic. Therefore, the hosts could afford to allow Portugal monopolize the ball in their half while they conserved energy.

Giroud and Griezmann occasionally pushed forward to half-heartedly close down the centre –backs – on one occasion the former’s pressing forced Pepe to concede possession and Dimitri Payet instantly located Griezmann drifting across Fonte, but the forward’s nodded effort was pushed over the net by Rui Patricio – and William Carvalho was free to drop deeper to create 3v2 overloads. France, however, covered space in midfield superbly with Matuidi and Pogba closing down their markers, so apart from long-balls over the defence Portugal struggled to bypass the midfield zone.

Cristiano Ronaldo suffering from a collision with Payet in the early stages of the first half, combined with sloppy passing in transition meant Portugal’s offensive threat during the opening half hour was scarce. Perhaps Deschamps could have encouraged his men to win the ball in advanced zones, but Portugal rarely threatened despite receiving space in their third to build attacks because of their poor passing, so Deschamps’ decision was justified.

Santos adjusts

Ronaldo’s unfortunate substitution could be considered the turning point of the match, as it forced Santos to make a key decision regarding his shape. Santos could have summoned Eder to lead the line here with Nani playing off the striker to maintain their 4-4-2 system, but the Portuguese manager decided to alter his shape.

Impact substitute, Ricardo Quaresma, replaced Ronaldo and shifted to the right of a midfield band of five (it was effectively a 4-1-4-1) while Nani remained upfront as a lone striker. This made sense due to Nani’s impressive movement upfront – in the opening three minutes he received a half chance following an intelligent run behind Koscielny to receive Raphael Guerreiro’s long diagonal, but the Portuguese forward fired his effort wide.

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Nani’s passing in the final third was sharp, and on the rare occasion Portugal drifted into France’s third he looked capable of creating a half chance at minimum. Likewise, the system alteration provided Portugal with cover in wide areas, and now gave Renato Sanches and Adrien sole marking jobs against the France double-pivot.

Sissoko

The most peculiar feat of the match, though, was that Moussa Sissoko was the standout attacking player throughout. Renowned for excelling when provided space on the counter attack for now relegated Newcastle United, Sissoko’s inclusion on the right of a 4-2-3-1 offered defensive discipline and powerful running.

However, here, Sissoko darted infield from the right or into deeper central positions to receive the ball and instantly motor past opposing defenders to earn corner kicks. Although Sissoko’s impact decreased significantly in the second half, he still forced Rui Patricio to make a key save when he received a pass from Umtiti between the lines and subsequently tested the keeper from 30-yards – the move illustrated one of the structural flaws Portugal encountered out of possession.

With France lacking invention and penetration in the final third, Sissoko’s quick change of pace and direct running highlighted the structural issues Santos’ men faced. But it equally showcased France’s sole route of attack when Portugal put numbers behind the ball, obviously indicating that Deschamps system wasn’t maximizing the strengths of his star players.

France attack

It was France who created the better chances from open play, yet apart from Sissoko’s individual slaloms through midfield, the hosts generated their attacks predominantly down the left flank. Karim Benzema’s suspension from the national side meant Giroud would always be the first choice striker at this tournament, and while the Arsenal man receives criticism for his production in front of goal, he remains a useful focal point upfront.

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It was evident Giroud was instructed to nod down balls into Griezmann’s path, whilst bringing other teammates into advanced areas – he effectively created chances for substitute Kinglsey Coman, and a combination with Griezmann led to a Sissoko chance, but Deschamps may have envisioned this route of attack would create space beyond the Portuguese back-line.

Secondly, Giroud and Griezmann constantly stormed down the left behind Cedric to get into good scoring positions. The opening minutes witnessed Matuidi nod the ball behind Cedric for Griezmann, but the Frenchman fired his effort wide of the net. Both strikers received opportunities to take the lead via precise incisive passes from Coman, but both failed to beat Rui Patricio at the near post.

France weren’t particularly poor going forward, but their attacking moves appeared fairly individualistic rather than cohesive. The wider players were now nullified, and the midfielders rarely ventured near the box, so the hosts’ intent to cleverly play quick passes around the Portuguese defence rarely occurred. More so, they were solely relying on Coman and Sissoko’s penetrative runs narrow positions to unlock Portugal’s defence.

Second half

The second half followed a similar theme until the managers made personnel alterations. Deschamps replaced Coman for Payet, which should have resulted in natural width from the left to create more space for Griezmann centrally, and another dribbler/crosser. But Coman’s positioning was identical to Payet, yet he offered pace and quick combinations to fluster the Portuguese back-line. The French substitute forced Santos to react, as Coman’s arrival sparked a brief French resurgence.

Coman created the game’s golden chance when he cut onto his right foot and clipped a cross to the far post that saw Griezmann glance it inches over the net. And along with creating chances in half space for both strikers, he equally combined with Giroud at the edge of the box, and broke away from Fonte, but his heavy touch led to a poor shot at Patricio.

Santos turned to Moutinho for the tiring Adrien, and with the overall tempo of the match decreasing significantly, Portugal improved when they retained possession. Meanwhile, France’s preference of waiting for Portugal to push forward as a unit helped the midfielder settle, and Portugal began to create some half chances from both flanks, but lacked a striker to attack crosses into the box.

The other significant change occurred at the same time with Andre-Pierre Gignac replacing Giroud and Eder being summoned in exchange for Renato Sanches. Gignac moved laterally into the channels to receive the ball and his sole contribution to the match was decisive, as he received Evra’s low cross from the left, subsequently turned Pepe to the ground, but scuffed his shot off the post.

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Eder, on the other hand, provided an alternative threat to Portugal’s attack. The Portuguese midfield were now provided a penalty box threat when they delivered crosses into the box, but more importantly, his hold up play brought his teammates further up the pitch, and equally forced the French centre-backs into committing needless fouls. Eder’s arrival resulted two bookings – Umtiti and Matuidi were both cautioned – whilst pushing Nani to the right flank, which saw the Portuguese veteran expertly negate Evra’s threat from left-back.

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Nevertheless, it was fitting that the game’s defining moment featured the two impact players Santos brought off the bench. The goal came seconds following Raphael Guerreiro’s brilliant free kick that smashed off the crossbar, and it vividly illustrated the positive contrast in Portugal’s game following Santos’ substitution.

Moutinho dispossessed Griezmann following an Evra throw-in and quickly combined with Quaresma before playing the ball into Eder with his back to goal. The Portuguese striker easily shrugged off Laurent Koscielny and ran towards goal – Umtiti retreated backwards to his box – and fired a low shot past goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.

Moutinho provided the forward penetrative passing and ball retention Portugal lacked for large portions of the match. Likewise, Deschamps’ men couldn’t cope with Eder’s physical presence, and regardless if whether Lloris was at fault for conceding the long distance drive – or slightly injured trying to save Guerreiro’s free-kick 30 seconds prior – the Portuguese striker represented an unlikely goal threat within the final third.

This was simply the case of proper game management from Santos, while Deschamps panicked following Eder’s winner, and immediately introduced Anthony Martial without a legitimate method of attack to rescue the match.

Conclusion

It’s difficult to find anyone other than Deschamps culpable for France’s downfall. Unable to identify his best XI, the French manager persisted with a 4-4-2 that didn’t get the best out of his dynamic midfielders and equally left his side exposed in central areas. While Deschamps did get his initial system wrong, what’s more disappointing was his inability to acknowledge his mistake: Martial’s mobility and willingness to run the channels and take on defenders was wasted, while Kante was forced to watch from the bench with Pogba and Matuidi being virtually ineffective from deeper midfield zones.

The semi-final against Germany was a prime example that France were unable to reach an elite status if changes weren’t made. Against Portugal they provided scares in brief spells, but Deschamps reluctance to alter his ineffective approach proved crucial. While basing the side around the in-form Griezmann was logical, following his missed opportunities, it’s difficult to understand why Deschamps didn’t alter formations — in short, that’s where he deserves blame.

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Santos deserves credit for Portugal’s triumph as he out-witted and out-coached Deschamps on the night. Portugal were unconvincing for large portions of the tournament, and relied on a few standout performers on their road to success, but they remained unbeaten throughout the tournament which validates their success.

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Ultimately you need a bit of good fortune to win a cup competition, and finishing third in their group turned out to be a blessing as Santos’ men avoided the few elite sides in the tournament. More so, this was bigger than Ronaldo, which is once again credit to Santos for properly displaying how to effectively utilize a squad throughout the tournament as all 20 players featured at Euro 2016.

Moving natural wingers upfront saw Ronaldo and Nani transition into timely penalty box poachers, and though his side’s defensive shape wasn’t perfect, it was surely enough to ensure Portugal remained unbeaten at Euro 2016.

Nonetheless, Portugal’s European Cup run epitomizes Santos’ tenure thus far: uninspiring, scrappy games that were ultimately won in the latter stages of matches. With majority of the experienced players likely to be phased out, now, Santos is tasked with building an identity the current winners severely lacked throughout the competition.

Pepe, Raphael Guerreiro, Rui Patricio and Nani were outstanding throughout the tournament, but now they must develop a coherent brand of football to build on this success. They were far from the best team at the tournament, but it’s fitting that a centre-forward is responsible for Portugal’s first major triumph following their decade long search to fill the void in this position.

 
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Posted by on July 12, 2016 in Euro 2016, Published Work

 

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Tactical Preview: France – Portugal

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Although we’ve possibly witnessed the best games of Euro 2016 in the previous stages of the knockout round, France’s showdown with Portugal is built to be a fascinating prospect.

Two teams that have attempted to join world football’s elite over the past decade offer several intriguing clashes prior to kickoff. Neither France nor Portugal have been remarkable throughout the tournament, but have found a way to cruise through favourable matches thus far.

Germany presented France’s sole threat in the previous round, and Didier Deschamps were completely outplayed for the first half, and were fortunate to pounce on mistakes committed by Joachim Low’s defence. Deschamps men won’t have to worry about spending long periods without the ball or intelligent playmakers across the pitch against Portugal, but the system isn’t relatively convincing.

Possibly the biggest decision the French manager must make is whether to persist with the 4-4-2 or revert back to a 4-3-3. The 4-4-2 has been the catalyst to France’s best performances against Iceland and Ireland, but against the Germans, they were completely outplayed for large portions of the match.

Against a Portuguese side containing the best player in the tournament in Cristiano Ronaldo, Deschamps may have to rejig his shape. Deschamps’ obsession with the 4-4-2 is based around the tournament’s leading goal-scorer, Antoine Griezmann, playing closer to Olivier Giroud in a central role, whilst receiving the space to maximize his talent.

If Deschamps were to opt for a 4-3-3, Griezmann would be pushed out wide, but France would have a solid shape in central areas as they transition to a 4-5-1.

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In ways the system can still be effective with Griezmann and Payet attempting to overload William Carvalho between the lines, as it’s evident both men strive in central positions. Olivier Giroud will attempt to hold off Pepe and bring his teammates into play, but with two roaming space invaders, Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba should receive space to penetrate.

However, this leaves Pogba and Matuidi with defensive roles ahead of the back-line, which ultimately decreases their ability to charge forward towards goal. Kante’s inclusion provides a midfielder filled with dynamism and the ability to break up plays and swift counter-attacks, which is exactly what the hosts lacked against Germany in the opening half. France were guilty of leaving too much space between the lines and ahead of the midfield bank – Griezmann and Giroud did very little from a defensive aspect – against Germany, which offered players like Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos, and Jerome Boateng space to excel.

Luckily for the hosts, Portugal doesn’t have midfielders at their disposal that are capable of dictating the tempo of a match like the aforementioned German stars. Fernando Santos identified his best XI in the knockout round, as Portugal has operated in an unorthodox 4-1-3-2 en route to the finals, with wide players in Ronaldo and Nani leading the line.

In fairness, neither France nor Portugal have been consistently good throughout the tournament despite their easy road to the final, but the latter in particular has been fairly uninspiring. Apart from a few standout performers in Pepe, Raphael Guerreiro, Adrien Silva, and Nani, there’s very little to get excited about the Portuguese side.

Their attacking play has been predominantly based around crosses from the full-backs, and their functional midfield has been unable to supply service to the frontmen, who in fairness, have made excellent runs throughout the tournament. More so, they struggle to put together slick passing moves in the final third along with exploiting space between the lines.

Frankly, the goals Portugal have scored in the knockout round are telling – Ricardo Quaresma’s counter-attacking goal came when Croatia pushed too many men forward, Renato Sanches’ equalizer against Poland followed one of the game’s few nifty combination plays, whereas Ronaldo notched a set-piece winner and his scuffed shot was fortuitously redirected by Nani to eliminate Wales.

Santos essentially fields three gritty midfielders ahead of William Carvalho that are quite similar in terms of skill level and traits, but severely lack creativity and guile around the penalty area. Meanwhile, although the full-backs have been great from a defensive aspect, their contributions in the attacking third have been equally scarce.

William Carvalho’s return from suspension should see the midfielder push Danilo to the bench, following his difficult afternoon against Gareth Bale in the semi-final win over Wales. Assuming Portugal stick to their current defensive approach and willingly drop into two banks of four out of possession, Carvalho will still face a huge defensive task on the night.

Portugal haven’t been quite convincing out of possession when they transition into a flat 4-4-2, and with Griezmann and Payet aiming to find pockets of space in central zones, William Carvalho could be susceptible of being overrun via a combination of quick incisive passes and deep midfield runs. Likewise, Deschamps has several counter-attacking threats within his XI, so it’s unlikely that Portugal will push several men forward as it would increase the likelihood of being exposed in transition.

The other major talking point involving Portugal is their goal source. Nani and Ronaldo have been positive in this respect, scoring timely goals from minimal service from their teammates. The former’s movement towards the channels has posed issues throughout the tournament, and he’s developed a knack of poaching goals within the penalty box.

Ronaldo’s winner against Wales displayed his set-piece threat, and if Portugal’s full-backs can deliver quality crosses into the box, Santos’ talisman could be the decisive factor. It’s likely Ronaldo will aim to drift to either back post when crosses are played into the box due to his height advantage over diminutive full-backs Bacary Sagna and Patrice Evra.

The Portuguese forward’s opener for Real Madrid in the 2012 Champions League knockout round against Real Madrid witnessed Ronaldo leap over Evra to score against his former employers, and here, he may attempt to replicate that feat. It would be expected that Portugal can also rely on counter-attacks if Kante starts on the bench, yet oddly, their transitional attacks have been underwhelming.

In wide areas, both full-backs have become adept to providing width, but there could be a hint of caution displayed from both, here. Cedric and Raphael will be wary of a French counter, and while Sagna and Evra have improved as the tournament’s progressed, Ronaldo offers arguably the greatest threat on the counter ever, which may see Deschamps’ full-backs limit their adventurous positioning.

While set-pieces can prove significant, there are still many key decisions both managers have to address that could impact the outcome. Portugal’s protection of the back four, along with Deschamps’ decision to play a two or three-man midfield will be pivotal. Nonetheless, this is equally poised for Ronaldo to produce on one of the biggest stages for his country, and it will be interesting to see how Santos aims to utilize his captain.

It can’t be overstated the significance of the first goal, but this could be a cagey affair until one team is forced to push forward.

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

 

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Dimitri Payet’s attacking third wizardry allows Didier Deschamps France to dream

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France’s forward Dimitri Payet celebrates scoring France’s second goal during the Euro 2016 group A football match between France and Romania at Stade de France, in Saint-Denis, north of Paris, on June 10, 2016. / AFP / KENZO TRIBOUILLARD (Photo credit should read KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images)

It was a strike Dimitri Payet will tell his grandchildren about.

When it appeared that the France hype machine was approaching an unexpected halt, a moment of sheer individual brilliance left the Stade de France crowd in jubilation. What many believed would be a forthright result turned into a physical battle against a resilient Romanian side that were minutes away from a valuable point.

Didier Deschamps opted for Payet’s creativity over youngster Anthony Martial, and the West Ham midfielder justified the French manager’s selection by creating the opener, and scoring the late winner. Opening matches of tournaments are usually the toughest, and despite France’s positive performance on the night, Deschamps’ men didn’t meet their peak form, which in fairness shouldn’t be a surprise.

France maintained their traditional 4-3-3 formation throughout, but at times it appeared to be a 4-4-2 with Antoine Griezmann playing close to striker Olivier Giroud. When Griezmann was caught in advanced zones, Paul Pogba would drift to the right flank to ensure the French maintained a solid shape out of possession. But for all the promise regarding a possible partnership, they rarely formed combinations that pestered the Romanian defence.

Apart from a few scares defending set-pieces – French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris was forced into a key save within the opening two minutes – Deschamps’ men imposed their territorial dominance throughout the first half. The surprise, however, involved Romanian coach, Anghel Iordănescu’s, decision to have his side play further away from their 18-yard box to compress space in midfield.

Deschamps may have anticipated the Romanians would congest space around the 18-yard box by employing a low defensive block, but limiting space in midfield was a logical approach by Iordănescu considering the personnel included in the French XI. While Deschamps’ side is filled with several direct ball-carriers, Martial’s dribbling and willingness to run beyond the defence may have posed a greater threat, as France rarely charged beyond the opposing defence.

Nevertheless, despite France’s misfortunes in the opening half, they demonstrated natural balance across the pitch. Pogba dropped deeper on the right to spread play towards the flanks, while Payet received license to drift centrally to create space for Blaise Matuidi and Patrice Evra to charge into on the left. Yet, for all of France’s midfield players floating around central zones, the hosts’ main attacking threat surprisingly stemmed from wide areas. Payet’s crossing from both flanks saw Giroud and Griezmann direct efforts inches wide of the goal, while the latter also nodded a loose ball off the post following a Bacary Sagna cross.

Similar to the fit opening half, Romania enjoyed a dynamic start to the second, but still struggled to spark quick counter-attacks when they regained possession. Romania striker, Florin Andone’s tireless work rate and strength flustered France’s back-line, but he lacked pace and proper holdup play to enable his teammates to join the attack.

The scrappy nature of the second half witnessed a combative Romanian side spending more time in France’s half, but they unfortunately lacked the quality to test Hugo Lloris from open play, despite that Bogdan Stancu coolly converting a penalty following Patrice Evra’s clumsy tackle on Nicolae Stanciu. But even though Romania’s threat in the final third was scarce, France couldn’t afford to push multiple bodies forward without conceding space for Iordănescu’s men to exploit on the counter-attack.

Where Romania persisted to push forward and fluster France out of possession, the hosts relied on Payet’s crossing to create chances. Payet was the most active player in the final third and once again crosses from both flanks created Giroud’s opener and a Pogba volley that resulted in a remarkable Ciprian Tătăruşanu save.

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Deschamps attempt to win the match saw Kingsley Coman replace Griezmann and Pogba sacrificed for Martial. France transitioned into a standard 4-2-3-1 with Coman and Martial in wide positions, and although neither substitute significantly influenced the match, the tactical alteration positioned Payet in a central role. In fairness, the pivotal aspect of Deschamps’ formation swap solely rests on Payet receiving the ball between the lines seconds prior to scoring the winner, but had he persisted with his initial approach, the Frenchman would likely be positioned on either flank.

Payet will rightly receive plaudits for his overall display, which equally signifies the lack of creative ball-players included in the XI. Although France’s general play was positive for large portions of the match, it’s slightly worrying that Payet’s crossing was their sole method of attack. France don’t necessarily need to tinker with the current XI, but an array of offensive combinations in the final third will be required as the tournament progresses.

 
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Posted by on June 11, 2016 in Euro 2016, Published Work

 

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Arsenal 0-0 Chelsea

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Arsenal and Chelsea battled to an apathetic draw at the Emirates Stadium.

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Arsene Wenger was forced to make a few changes to the side that lost to Manchester City, as Jack Wilshere and Laurent Koscielny were unavailable. Olivier Giroud led the line ahead of Theo Walcott, Tomas Rosicky and Mesut Ozil, while Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta sat in the double-pivot.

Jose Mourinho made three changes to the side that defeated Crystal Palace. Frank Lampard, Gary Cahill and John Obi Mikel were included in the starting XI, while Oscar, Juan Mata and Andre Schurrle were on the bench.

Chelsea’s reactive approach frustrated Wenger’s side in a dull match between two of the top sides in the Premier League.

Chelsea’s shape

One of the main issues Arsenal’s encountered when facing Jose Mourinho’s side has been penetrating space between the lines and behind Chelsea’s backline. Mourinho has preferred to take a reactive approach when facing Arsenal, and here, the Portuguese manager stuck to his beliefs.

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Chelsea dropped into a narrow 4-5-1, and opted not to press the Arsenal centre backs. Mourinho’s men maintained a compact shape limiting space between the lines, while Ramires, Lampard and Fernando Torres took turns pressing Arteta – Cesar Azpilicueta quickly closed down Theo Walcott when he received the ball out wide, and the Englishman often drifted centrally, congesting the middle of the park.

Chelsea’s defender’s pushed higher up the pitch knowing that Giroud didn’t possess the pace to exploit their back line, and their positioning ensured that there was minimal space between the lines. Mourinho’s approach stifled Arsenal’s midfield, as they struggled to get into their preferred zones to create chances – it took the Gunners 83 minutes to record their first shot on target.

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Arsenal’s shape

On the other hand, Arsenal’s approach without the ball was quite peculiar. Similar to Chelsea, they also dropped into their shape, but the distance between the midfield and defence was vast. Also, their midfield five didn’t press in central areas, and Mourinho’s men easily found gaps between the lines to exploit. Mikel and Lampard sat deeper, and they were able to play passes to Ramires, and the two attacking wide players in these zones.

Wenger’s men looked much better in wide areas – Walcott quickly closed down Azpilicueta when he received the ball, and despite Rosicky drifting centrally when Chelsea was in possession, the Czech midfielder scurried out wide when Ivanovic received the ball. Chelsea’s fullbacks were pegged back, and their wingers were stifled in wide areas.

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Hazard found it difficult to get the better of Sagna, whereas Willian was also quiet near the touchline – the Chelsea duo influenced the game when they drifted centrally and attacked space between the lines.

Wenger’s side comfortably nullified Chelsea’s threat in wide areas, but their inability to prevent Mourinho’s men from playing between the lines was naïve.

Chelsea counterattack

Chelsea’s source of offence was evident from the first whistle. Torres was an isolated figure upfront who struggled to trouble the Arsenal backline, and with the midfield soaking up pressure, Chelsea’s best chance of scoring was on the counter.

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This is why his selected attacking trio behind Torres was logical – they were capable of tracking back to complete their defensive duties, but their zing posed a threat on the counter. Willian, Ramires and Hazard drove Chelsea’s counterattack forward on several occasions, but were unable to beat Wojciech Szczesny. Chelsea’s best chance came when Hazard drifted infield and chipped a ball over the Arsenal defence, which led to Lampard’s volley off the crossbar.

Besides that, Willian’s tame efforts didn’t trouble Szczesny and he often played a poor final ball, Ramires nodded a cross over the net, and Lampard’s shot from distance flew straight into the Arsenal goalkeeper’s arms. Chelsea tormented the home side on the break, but their quality in the final third was disappointing.

Second half

There was a slight improvement in Arsenal’s display in the final 25 minutes, and it nearly led to the home side nicking a winner. Chelsea was suddenly sloppy in possession, and they constantly conceded the ball to the home side.

Ozil became a prominent figure in the latter stages of the match, as he glided towards each flank attempting to create overloads – specifically the right.

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However, Lampard tracked his runs into these zones to prevent 3v2 situations, and the Englishman – who enjoyed arguably his best performance this season – made key tackles in these areas.

As the game wore on Ozil’s decision to drop into deeper positions was interesting. When the German adopted these deep/wide areas, Rosicky began to find space between the lines to receive the ball and spread play wide to push Arsenal forward and vice-versa. Arsenal’s best chances stemmed through Rosicky’s advanced positions – his driving run from midfield led to Giroud’s effort that went wide, and his one-two with Gibbs on the left flank forced Petr Cech to make a key save to deny the Arsenal striker.

Mourinho’s substitutions were strictly player swaps that maintained balance and his side’s shape, while Wenger didn’t make any alterations, and his side looked leggy in the final minutes, as Chelsea pushed for a winner.

Conclusion

Neither side gambled for a winner due to the fear of losing the match, and they both displayed the flaws that may inhibit them from winning the league. Arsenal had difficulties playing through Chelsea’s shape and press, as Mourinho’s tactics stifled their creative midfielders and direct threat in Walcott.

“They played their game but it was the game we wanted them to play. They tried to win the game but we played tactically well,” Mourinho said. 

Arsenal’s lack of options on the bench is an issue the Gunners may encounter – as Arsenal’s congested schedule approaches, Wenger’s men are slowly showing signs of fatigue. However, while Chelsea displayed that they can get results away from home against the top-sides, this match was a perfect indicator as to why they may actually need a top striker.

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2013 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Manchester United 1-0 Arsenal

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Robin van Persie continued to haunt his former employers, as his first half header pushes Manchester United within five points of league leaders Arsenal.

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Van Persie returned to the starting eleven to lead the line ahead of Wayne Rooney, Antonio Valencia and Shinji Kagawa. Michael Carrick and Phil Jones formed a midfield duo, while Jonny Evans partnered Nemanja Vidic at centre back.

Arsene Wenger made two changes to the side that defeated Borussia Dortmund in midweek. Mathieu Flamini returned to the lineup to join Mikel Arteta in the double pivot, whereas Thomas Vermaelen formed a centre back partnership with Laurent Koscielny.

This was a vintage Moyes display – United’s reactive approach saw the Red Devils concede space on the flanks, as they sat in a narrow shape to nullify Arsenal’s threat in central areas.

United without the ball

One of the main feats in Arsenal’s success over the past few weeks has been their fluidity and quick interchanges in midfield, so the battle in central areas was always going to be pivotal. David Moyes’ men were impressive without the ball – when they lost possession, they quickly closed down the Arsenal defenders to retain possession, and when Arsenal were building play they maintained an extremely high-line.

Space was at a premium in midfield, and Arsenal’s attacking three were unable to receive the ball between the lines, as United sat extremely narrow to close down their passing lanes. Arteta and Flamini dropped deeper between the centre backs to provide an outlet for their defenders and build play – which was odd considering Rooney’s impressive defensive display against Arteta last season – but majority of their passes were sideways. Ozil and Ramsey also attempted to receive the ball in deeper positions, but Valencia and Kagawa pressed them once they received the ball.

United’s wide men played an integral role in their success for large portions of the match. Kagawa and Valencia sat deeper than usual to help Jones and Carrick in midfield. Space was available out wide – which was risky based on Arsenal’s recent success in wide areas – but United’s wide men quickly closed down Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs whenever they received the ball, and the Arsenal duo didn’t offer any threats going forward.

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United’s initial approach without the ball was excellent – they minimized space between the lines, pressed Arsenal’s fullbacks, and kept their creative players quiet.

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During Arsenal’s impressive start to the season, Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil’s form has overshadowed the underlying importance of Olivier Giroud in Wenger’s set-up. The French striker has improved vastly over the past few months, and has been a significant cog in Arsenal’s attack, which is why Moyes was keen on limiting his impact on the match.

Giroud’s developed a better understanding of playing as a lone striker using his brute strength and impressive work rate to thrive as Arsenal’s main man. The French striker struggled in the first half due to great defensive work from Evans and Vidic. The United centre back duo stuck tight to Giroud whenever he received the ball, and the Arsenal striker was unable to sustain possession.

One of the main feats in Giroud’s game this season has been his ability to link play with Arsenal’s midfielders, and allow runners to attack space behind him. But Giroud was outmuscled off the ball – often conceding possession or losing out in duels against the United centre backs. There was no space in midfield for Giroud to tuck into – United’s midfield pushed higher up the pitch swiftly to catch the Frenchman offside on numerous occasions, and his frustration was evident.

Vidic departure/Arsenal improve

Vidic was forced to leave the match at the interval, due to his late collision with David De Gea in the final moments of the first half. This forced Phil Jones to drop into centre back as Tom Cleverley joined Carrick in midfield. Although Cleverley didn’t produce a poor display, United’s lack of a double screen meant Arsenal would receive more opportunities to stamp their authority on the match.

Giroud’s influence on the match grew in the second half, and this was odd because Evans still featured in the match. As gaps began to build between the lines, Giroud was presented with more space to receive the ball and spread play, as Evans and Jones sat off the French striker. There was also a distinct dip in Kagawa’s performance – this could’ve been fatigue based, as he was involved in Wednesday’s midweek draw against Real Sociedad.

Ramsey started the second half on the right touchline stretching the play, and he played a key pass to Giroud in the 47th minute in ample space, and Cleverley was forced to foul him as he ran past the United defence. Three minutes later Ramsey won a loose ball at the halfway line, and played the ball into Ozil who combined with Giroud, but was unable to produce the final ball.

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Ozil had brief glimpses of positivity in his play as he drifted laterally into pockets of space on the right flank behind the United defence to receive the ball, and Santi Cazorla also dropped into those pockets of space to push Arsenal forward.

In the latter stages of the match, Arsenal continued to penetrate pockets of space in wide areas. Ramsey picked out substitute Serge Gnabry, who made a run behind Evra and Ryan Giggs. The Arsenal youngster played a ball across the edge of the box to Giroud, who skipped past Jones, but Smalling made a timely tackle to clear United’s lines.

A minute later, Sagna played a pass to Jack Wilshere, who moved forward and found Ramsey in a pocket of space behind Evra. Ramsey surged into the United box but was crowded out by Cleverley, Evans and Evra, and the ball fell to Giroud who flashed his deflected shot wide of the net.

Although it may have been Moyes’ idea to hit Arsenal on the break, Vidic’s departure and Kagawa’s inability to protect Patrice Evra  gave Wenger’s men a lifeline in the second half. Giroud and Ozil improved slightly, and as a unit Arsenal were getting into better positions.

Sagna

As stated earlier, Arsenal experienced joy down the right flank during the second half, and their star performer was Sagna. The Arsenal right back has been a key contributor in Arsenal’s attack over the past few weeks, as he played a pivotal role in goals in home fixtures against Napoli and Borussia Dortmund.

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Sagna was Arsenal’s bright spark in the second half as he constantly found space behind Kagawa, leaving him free to get forward and play crosses into the box. Majority of Arsenal’s best moves came down the right flank, and Sagna’s crosses gave Moyes’ men a few scares.

  1. 57th minute: Ozil’s corner kick was half-heartedly cleared, and Vermaelen played the ball backwards to Sagna. Sagna sprayed a ball across the box to an unmarked Ozil, but the German maestro fired his shot into the side netting.
  1. 72nd minute: Kagawa was caught out in a central position and Arteta picked out an unmarked Sagna on the right flank. Sagna played a precise ball across the six-yard box, but Evan’s nicked it past Gibbs, Smalling and Giroud for a corner.
  1. 91st minute: Sagna throws the ball into Giroud, and the Frenchman laid it off to Gnabry. Gnabry plays a pass to Sagna – who’s behind Giggs – and he delivers a venomous ball into the box that evades Evans, Jones and Nicklas Bendtner.

Sagna created three clear-cut opportunities for Arsenal to equalize, but his teammates were unable to connect with his fantastic deliveries into the box.

Substitutions

Wenger was forced to turn to his bench early in the second half, and he decided to introduce Wilshere for Flamini. Prior to the substitution, Arsenal lacked penetration in the final third, and struggled to get behind United’s defence. The move was made to add guile, energy, and penetration into Arsenal’s attack and from an attacking perspective the Gunner’s were brighter.

Bendtner and Gnabry also made appearances in the latter stages of the match, as Arsenal became a 4-4-2. Gnabry had a positive impact on the match with his direct approach and his ability to combine with Sagna, and Arsenal’s attacking players. Bendtner’s introduction was peculiar, as he took up a position on the left flank. The Danish striker isn’t renowned for his ability to beat players, but Wenger was hoping that he could get on the end of Sagna’s crosses.

Moyes’ substitutions reflected United’s approach in the final minutes of the match. Giggs replaced Kagawa in hopes that he could provide better protection for Evra. While Marouane Fellaini replaced van Persie, as United became a 4-5-1 without the ball to preserve their lead.

Conclusion

Arsenal improved in the second half as United sat deeper, but Moyes’ reactive approach was successful, as van Persie’s first half winner claimed maximum points.

The gap between United an Arsenal is now five points, but it’s difficult to assess the progress of Moyes’ side. Nonetheless, It was a vintage big match display masterminded by Moyes  – United were organized as a unit, and once they went ahead they cautiously attacked on the break.

Similar to their away draw against West Brom and loss against Chelsea, its been proven that an organized narrow shape can frustrate the Gunners – thus emphasizing the importance of their injured direct attackers. Arsenal weren’t at their best today, but dropping points at Old Trafford doesn’t necessarily inhibit their title aspirations. How the Gunners respond to this defeat heading into the Christmas period will be vital.

 
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Posted by on November 11, 2013 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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