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Christian Eriksen’s guile sparks Spurs past Conte’s imperious Chelsea

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Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs have developed a knack of producing their finest performances against top Premier League opponents at White Hart Lane. Spurs’ first half display against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City set the bar this season, but ending Chelsea’s 13-game winning streak may hold higher value given the Blues’ dominance since their 3-0 defeat at Arsenal a few months ago.

Where other managers have adjusted their shape with hopes of halting Chelsea’s remarkable form, Pochettino’s move to a 3-4-2-1 felt natural considering he’s utilized the system on a few occasions – most recently in Spurs win over Watford a fortnight ago. Spurs obliterated Watford based on extremely poor defensive play from the hosts so it was difficult to truly assess the system’s value, and the decision to replicate the league leaders’ default system aimed to man-mark across the pitch.

The recurring issue involving two sides adopting identical systems is that it often produces uneventful, cagey battles. With the midfield zone containing physical ball-winning midfielders opposed to creative no.10’s ensured this was expected to be a scrappy affair between two well-drilled units.

In central areas, Moussa Dembele and Victor Wanyama harried N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic when they pushed forward, so the midfield duos were often restricted to safe passes from deeper positions. However, the midfielders were effective in various manners – Kante and Matic were protecting space in central areas to clog space that Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen preferred to receive possession. Meanwhile, Dembele flourished when he dribbled past opponents in the left channel, while Wanyama sat deep attempting to thwart Hazard’s threat in transition.

Elsewhere, Spurs’ possession dominance combined with Chelsea’s reluctance to press high witnessed Danny Rose and Kyle Walker maintain advanced positions to peg Chelsea wing-backs Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses into their half. Chelsea’s best spell in the initial meeting at Stamford Bridge involved Moses eventually pushing forward beyond Eriksen towards the Spurs box, which is why the switch to a 3-4-2-1 was a logical move, here. Therefore, the two sides created dangerous attacking moves in contrasting manners.

In the opening phase of the match, Chelsea’s long diagonals into wide positions exploited Spurs’ high defensive line with Hazard’s wasting a quality chance via Matic’s reverse pass from midfield. Chelsea’s swift counter-attacks amongst the front three easily bypassed Spurs midfield, but the away side’s inability to complete the final pass around the box was pivotal to their downfall.

From a defensive aspect Chelsea were far more reserved. Conte’s men maintained their base 5-4-1 and retreated into their half to negate Spurs’ clever movement and intricate passing between the lines. The away side only pushed forward as a unit when passes were played back to Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris with hopes of building attacks from deep.

Spurs, on the other hand, struggled to find space between the lines, and heavily relied on their energetic organized pressing to breach the Chelsea back-line. Prior to Alli’s opener, Spurs received two openings in a minute span that epitomized their identity under Pochettino: Wanyama intercepting a pass into Hazard and Eriksen subsequently picking up a loose Kante pass in midfield, but both men guided their efforts wide.

The key element to Spurs defensive instructions involved Alli and Eriksen tucking in centrally to prevent Kante and Matic from receiving possession in the midfield zone. Chelsea were often forced to play long balls into the channels for Costa, or have Hazard drop extremely deep to receive the ball in a midfield zone, but the Blues encountered difficulties finding a natural rhythm in possession.

Although Alli will dominate headlines for the game-winning brace, the key man, here, was Eriksen. Eriksen, in truth, is an extremely misunderstood footballer under Pochettino. Once believed to develop into a creative dynamo, the Dane now represents a functional attacker capable of playing throughout the midfield.

But where other key players struggled to perform in congested areas, Eriksen varied his movement to receive possession and play key passes throughout. Alli often aided Kane in pressing from the front, but when the Spurs striker pulled Luiz out of position, the former attempted to charge behind the Chelsea back-line.

This was the ideal movement required to pull Conte’s back-three out of position – Kane dropped deep, Alli charging behind and Eriksen forcing Cahill away from the six-yard box – and was evident in the buildup to both goals, though a collective defensive breakdown was the catalyst for the opener. Walker’s pull back to Eriksen attracted four defenders to the ball, but Luiz’s attempt to play offside, and Cahill’s intent to join three teammates to close down the Dane, enabled Alli to tower over Cesar Azpilicueta to freely nod a well weighed cross past Thibaut Courtois.

Despite a positive Chelsea onslaught to start the second half – Spurs retreated into their base shape, keen to play on the counter – Spurs secured maximum points in a similar manner. Walker’s advanced positioning, along with Eriksen floating deeper in the right channel, led to another superb cross into the box that provided another example of Alli’s fine heading ability over the diminutive Azpilicueta. Though Chelsea were better positioned for Alli’s second, isolating Azpilicueta and exploiting his lack of height at centre-back was a clever – though far from innovative – ploy from Pochettino.

Chelsea were forced to chase the remainder of the match, but a lack of sharp and precise passing ensured Spurs coped well defensively. Conte received plenty of deserved praise for reinvigorating Chelsea’s season, but clever movement, patience and perhaps Cahill’s early booking – bypassed by Eriksen following a poor header and virtually halting his aggressive tight marking on the Dane – resulted in Spurs’ trident attack outwitting a resolute Blues back-line.

Nevertheless, similar to Spurs’ defeat over City earlier this season, this doesn’t appear to be a reliable template in consistently defeating Conte’s Chelsea side. Poor performances from key players combined with various sides’ inability to replicate Spurs pressing and energy levels over extensive periods, suggests Chelsea should rarely encounter sustained vulnerable periods of this nature.

However, although this serves as a great reminder that Chelsea’s road to another league title is far from over, it equally highlights that an efficient tactical scheme will be required to overwhelm Conte’s diligent regime.

 
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Posted by on January 5, 2017 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Tactical Preview: Manchester City – Chelsea

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The Premier League’s two key managerial acquisitions this summer, Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte, face off in this weekend’s big clash at the Etihad Stadium. The stark contrast between Guardiola and Conte’s philosophy is vivid, and with both sides vying to mount a title challenge, this clash has all the ingredients of a potential Premier League classic.

Matches of this stature tend to be cautious considering most managers prefer to avoid defeat against title rivals, but City have failed to record a domestic win since the Manchester Derby, and will be desperate to make a statement here. Frankly, Chelsea’s form hints that the pressure will be on Guardiola to end their seven-game winning streak.

Chelsea are the Premier League’s form team following a tactical switch to a 3-4-2-1, and it would be surprising to see Conte stray away from the successful system. Diego Costa has often struggled against the sheer physicality of Manchester City centre-backs Vincent Kompany and Eliaquim Mangala, but with both men unavailable – the former injured and the later on loan –the Chelsea striker should fancy his chances running at John Stones rather than Nicolas Otamendi.

Though the Blues have been fairly convincing in Conte’s 3-4-2-1, last weekend’s clash with Spurs posed the league leaders a few issues, despite their impressive fight back. It was always uncertain as to whether Chelsea could cope with intense high pressure, and for large spells of the first half against Spurs, the Blues struggled to push into the opposing half as a unit.

City are likely to replicate Spurs’ pressing but in an intelligent manner: where Mauricio Pochettino’s men constantly pressed and tired before half-time, City will likely aim to fluster the Blues in spurts. But where Chelsea’s shape is all but certain to be a 3-4-2-1, Guardiola’s unpredictability makes it difficult to determine how the Spaniard will approach the match.

However, Eden Hazard and Pedro’s resurgence poses a similar threat. The former operating in an inside-left role may force a centre-back or Fernandinho to keep tabs on the Belgian, whereas Pedro’s movement beyond the defence could force Claudio Bravo off his line on several occasions.

Between the 3-2-2-3 and the 4-1-4-1, it’s possible we may see a hybrid of the two. Guardiola should offer a hint of caution going forward, but he may instruct full-backs, Aleksandar Kolarov and Bacary Sagna to sit in half-spaces to help negate potential counter-attacks with Ilkay Gundogan or Fernandinho splitting the centre-backs when necessary.

In the past Guardiola preferred to control bigger matches with ball retention, and considering Chelsea has yet to sort out issues with their midfield two when opposing sides overload central areas suggests the City manager could sacrifice a winger for a ball-player. Gundogan and Fernandinho will likely start in midfield with David Silva, but Raheem Sterling’s fitness remains pivotal, nonetheless.

Conte’s wing-backs are integral to their success and Guardiola is forced to make a major decision regarding his shape. Nolito and Sterling possess the work-ethic to track the forward movement of Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses, yet if City dominate possession, as expected, he may aim to quickly shift balls to the wide players to peg the Chelsea wing-backs deeper.

The pairing of N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic are vast improvements to a Chelsea side that were feeble in midfield last season, but once again, here, they face a difficult task coping with intelligent space invaders in Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva. Ilkay Gundogan and Silva could operate centrally if Guardiola opts for 4-1-4-1, which would enable De Bruyne to serve as a counter-attacking threat behind the Chelsea wing-backs.

Upfront, Sergio Aguero should lead the line following two goals at Burnley, but unlike previous meetings against Chelsea, he faces a 1v3 disadvantage upfront. Aguero’s pace and movement would likely be a threat to David Luiz and Gary Cahill, but now, they have an additional spare man in Cesar Azpilicueta to sweep up danger. This may see Aguero’s main involvement based around linking play when he drops deep or moves towards the flank, whilst poaching loose balls within the 18-yard box.

On the other hand, Guardiola will be tasked with limiting David Luiz’s productivity from deep areas – the Brazilian is the chief playmaker in Conte’s 3-4-2-1 and his influence was limited against Spurs when Chelsea endured pressure from Pochettino’ men. Therefore, Guardiola is expected to instruct his wide players and Aguero to quickly close down Chelsea’s centre-back trio.

Ultimately, Guardiola’s system should define the tempo and the pattern of the match. With no one yet to identify a ploy capable of nullifying Chelsea’s threats, surely pressure will be on his midfield duo to keep Pedro and Hazard quiet, whilst preventing the wing-backs from pushing forward.

Likewise, Conte’s received a week to manage heavy cohesive high-pressing, but last week’s switch to a narrow 5-4-1 negated Spurs’ superiority in central areas, and he may follow suit here. City’s technically gifted creators and direct wide threats pose a serious threat to the Blues away from home, and if Conte’s men fail to start the match with the intensity the Italian demands, then their seven-game winning streak will be under severe threat.

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

 

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Chelsea’s new system faces potential halt against energetic Spurs

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What a difference a few weeks make. Ask Antonio Conte’s Chelsea side and they’ll provide a detailed summary.

Consecutive losses to Liverpool and Arsenal left many questioning Conte’s merit as an elite manager, whilst declaring the Blues out of the title race before it really began. Now, they sit top of the Premier League, scoring 17 goals and recording six clean sheets in that span, yet all it took was a simple tactical shift following the arrival of David Luiz and Marcos Alonso.

Chelsea now look like a well-equipped machine with all the tools capable of mounting a legitimate title challenge, and finally stepping away from the Jose Mourinho aura that’s incessantly floated around West London for over a decade. Unlike the Portuguese manager’s initial departure – where the Blues failed to find a new identity – Conte has stamped his philosophy at Stamford Bridge in a fair manner.

But the significant feat in Conte’s brief success in England was his overall approach to the situation. Roman Abramovich’s rash decisions to freely sack managers based on the club’s form was no secret to the Italian, yet he still carried forward in a pragmatic manner.

Avoiding the mistake of attempting to make initial drastic alterations like Andre Villas-Boas and Filipe Luiz Scolari, two foreign managers that were hired based on success abroad was wise. Also, Conte couldn’t rely on Mourinho’s failed approach like previous managers, so the Italian simply offered the players a chance to prove their worth in a defensive-oriented 4-1-4-1 heavily based around structure.

The Blues simply didn’t possess the personnel to operate in the 4-2-4 Conte previously deployed prior to his appointment at Juventus. Moreover, Conte also didn’t have the centre-back options to accommodate the 3-5-2 that was successful during his tenure in Turin. A 4-1-4-1, on the other hand, was logical because the Blues simply didn’t have a No.10 that could dominate or win games in a free role.

Interestingly, this was the default Chelsea system till the turn of the decade due to the abundance of top-class central midfielders at Stamford Bridge. Carlo Ancelotti attempted to stray away from the system with some success with a 4-4-2 diamond and eventually the 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree system, but Conte doesn’t possess similar quality midfielders.

This has to do with the West London clubs brief obsession with diminutive technically gifted players following their Champions League triumph. Chelsea moved to a 4-2-3-1 and were slowly playing captivating football but were retrospectively feeble in central areas, lacking a creative cog and ball-winner to protect the back four.

Although Chelsea enjoyed a perfect start to the Conte era, the performances weren’t convincing, as the Blues struggled to create chances from open play. Ultimately, individual lapses and a peculiar defensive approach – sitting off technically gifted dynamic sides and not applying pressure in their own half – left many questioning the quality of current crop of players and Conte’s ability to succeed overseas.

Consecutive dropped points could serve as in indicator that change was required, and it was certainly beneficial that injuries in key areas enabled Conte’s system alteration without dissent. Two of last season’s major underachievers Cesc Fabregas and Branislav Ivanovic were eased out of the XI, and though John Terry started the season well, at some point this season Conte would have to consider a future without the Chelsea captain.

Conte tried it their way and Chelsea were played off the park by potential title rivals Liverpool and Arsenal, and more worryingly conceded eight goal in three games. With Terry and Ivanovic injured, and Fabregas failing to impress like many Chelsea supporters hoped he would against former club Arsenal, Conte’s switch to a 3-4-2-1 was not only logical, but desperately required.

Frankly, late deadline day signings were possibly acquired specifically for this system. Marcos Alonso was one of Serie A’s standout defenders in a left wing-back role for Fiorentina last season, whereas David Luiz impact with and out of possession is significant.

Luiz’s most recent display against Middlesborough striker Alvaro Negredo displayed astute defending and the aggression that’s not associated with the Brazilian. Likewise, the 29-year-old’s proficient passing typifies the defender as deep-lying playmaker from centre-back, as he consistently builds plays with long diagonals into the channel – this is also essential due to Fabregas’ exclusion deprived the XI of a genuine ball-player in deep zones.

More so, Chelsea’s 3-4-2-1 frees Eden Hazard of lengthy defensive duties – now he roams into central positions from the left, drifts into space in the channels, and is beginning to shoot more, which is significant to his world-class form. Pedro Rodriguez is also familiar with coming off the right flank and utilizing his speed to break beyond the defence in a three-man attack.

The midfield duo consisting of N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic is built around dynamism and quickly regaining possession, thus providing the Blues with the solid base they’ve lacked in recent years. Meanwhile, Diego Costa’s rediscovered the goal-scoring form that widely regards the Spanish international as one of the best strikers in the sport.

“Diego is a very good player,” Conte said. “It’s important for me, for his teammates, to see that in every game, Diego works a lot with the ball and without the ball. He’s an example for all. And I want to continue this way.

“If he continues to score, I’ll be very happy. But I’ll be happier to see this commitment, this work-rate during training and in games, to work with the team with and without the ball. If all the players are able to think in this way, it’s fantastic and we’ll be a good team, a very tough team to play.

But possibly the most fascinating aspect of Conte’s shift is their current run of clean sheets. Once proving to be a pair prone to mistakes, Luiz and Gary Cahill have been near flawless, and Cesar Azpilicueta has adapted superbly to an exterior centre-back role. Elsewhere, Alonso and Moses offer proper balance at wing-back: Moses is a tricky dribbler, while Alonso’s crosses from the left are consistently dangerous.

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Modern day Premier League teams predominantly utilize three-man defences as a reactive system to the opposition, but Conte’s Chelsea are currently bucking the trend. Coincidentally, this week’s MLS East final showcased the potential risk in wide areas when playing a back-three, yet even in this respect, Luiz and Azpilicueta’s recovery runs negate this threat. But similar to the last time Chelsea were defeated in the league, upcoming fixtures against Spurs and Manchester City will provide proper tests.

Evidently, Chelsea improved in every area subsequent to the formation switch, but their performances are equally reminiscent of a genuine title contender. Conte’s men have comfortably dispatched of Everton, Leicester, and Manchester United at home, whereas their away wins at Hull, Southampton and Middlesborough were professional and tidy, thoroughly displayed defensively solidity and togetherness.

In particular, this weekend’s derby with the former should be cagey following Chelsea’s late recovery which put an end to Spurs’ title run at the conclusion of last season. Mauricio Pochettino’s men can match Chelsea’s strength in midfield with Moussa Dembele and Victor Wanyama, congest the box with Vincent Janssen’s presence, or even rely on the intricate passing and vertical threat of Son Heung-min, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen. Still, it will be interesting to see how the Spurs manager attempts to halt the Blues’ fine form.

“It’s a good challenge for us to go and play them at the moment,” said Pochettino. “They are in very good form. They have a great manager that I know very well and they have great players too,”

“It’s an advantage not being involved in European competition or the cups now. They have time to train and develop their philosophy. They are, not only in England but in Europe, the team most in form today.”

Spurs haven’t been overly-impressive domestically, but still remain the sole unbeaten side in the league, aiming to disrupt the sharp passing Chelsea displayed in recent weeks. Still, injury woes at the back, the suspension of Danny Rose, and favourable battles in Spurs’ third suggests the Blues are favourites t build on their flawless streak. Similar to in-game substitutions or the appointment of a new manager, teams tend to improve following change, further justifying the fascination involving Chelsea’s form.

The culture shift at Stamford Bridge is well underway, and though non-involvement in European competitions is valuable, Conte’s intensity and meticulous defensive regime could see Chelsea utilize 3-4-2-1 as their optimum shape until additional recruits join the club. Nevertheless, Conte’s bold decision signifies a new era at Stamford Bridge, as he is one of many foreign managers reviving the tactical proficiency English football recently lacked.

 
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Posted by on November 26, 2016 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Tactical Preview: Chelsea – Liverpool

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Liverpool’s trip to Stamford Bridge features two sides that may remain optimistic about a potential title challenge this season.

Neither side were active in last year’s title race but without European football to focus on Jurgen Klopp and Antonio Conte will have enough time to solely prepare for league fixtures. Essentially Klopp and Conte are similar: two managers popularizing a brand of football to win domestic trophies abroad and now being asked to guide their current side back to prominence.

Where the verdict is still out on whether Conte’s Chelsea can compete against the better sides in the league, Klopp’s men have developed a habit of doing so. The Reds already dispatched of last year’s runner-ups Arsenal and Leicester City – scoring four goals on each occasion – but a trip to Chelsea should pose a different test. Conte’s arrival now witnesses a team that now possesses the organization and discipline that went missing last year, combined with a legitimate counter-attacking threat in transition.

“I think Liverpool are a really good team,” said Conte. “They play with high intensity, they bring many players in offensive situations, they are very good.”

“We must pay great attention tomorrow because we know they are very strong.”

Liverpool’s major decision rests on whether to start Daniel Sturridge upfront. The striker’s pace posed several issues for Leicester last weekend, but Klopp’s big game XI’s have often featured Roberto Firmino in a central role. The Brazilian’s movement pressing is integral to Klopp’s set-up, but likewise, his outside runs into the channels to create space, and willingness to drop deep and play quick intricate passes encourages forward runners into the box.

Sadio Mane’s pace and willingness to track back should merit a start on the right, whereas Philippe Coutinho may return to the XI on the left. Coutinho remains an interesting proposition that constantly intends on shooting from distance opposed to influencing his side’s buildup play within the final third, but similar to Firmino, Klopp turns to the Brazilian in the big games.

Therefore, it’s unlikely Sturridge will still start upfront, with Firmino drifting infield from the left hand side, and attempt to find space goal-side of N’Golo Kante. Klopp will also be hoping to recall one of his centre-backs following Lucas’ error that resulted in Jamie Vardy’s goal last week. While the Brazilian already lacks height, it’s evident Conte would encourage Costa to exploit his defensive deficiencies and unfamiliarity with the position.

On the other hand, though the midfield trio excelled thus far, this could be one area of concern for a Reds side yet to face an opposing group with proficient ball-winning traits. Liverpool lack that type of player in their midfield, opting to field Jordan Henderson as the deepest midfielder, along with Lallana’s creativity and Georginio Wijnaldum’s verticality and late runs into the box.

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Projected Starting XI’s

However, Conte’s Chelsea eradicated last year’s issues in midfield by moving to a 4-1-4-1 with Nemanja Matic and Oscar pressing the opposition midfielders while Kante sits deeper to protect the back four. Liverpool’s midfield will face their first stern test in terms of pressing across the pitch, and they may have to revert to a more cautious shape to encourage the Blues forward and play on the counter.

In attack, Chelsea aren’t expected to make any changes: Eden Hazard and Willian should feature on the flanks, with the latter possibly providing a greater threat if Coutinho operates from the left due to his unwillingness to track. That would leave makeshift left-back James Milner vulnerable against the speedy Brazilian and the high possibility of Branislav Ivanovic surging forward on the overlap. On the opposite flank, Hazard has displayed signs that he’s rediscovering his best form and Nathaniel Clyne will likely adopt cautious positions in fear of the Belgian’s threat behind him.

Meanwhile, Costa is the joint-leading goal-scorer in the league, and may finally relish a battle against a Liverpool defence lacking a physically imposing centre-back following Martin Skrtel’s departure. Klopp should be able to feature his preferred centre-back partnership with Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren, but they lack familiarity and natural aggression, thus making Costa’s presence their most difficult task to date.

“[He’s] world class,” Klopp said of Costa. “The best thing I can say, if other supporters love you then that’s not a good sign!”

“But he’s a real warrior on the pitch and he uses his body all the time. That’s a quality and what you need to know.

The major change in Chelsea’s XI will see the debut of David Luiz for the injured John Terry. Kante’s arrival at Stamford Bridge was beneficial to preserving the aging back-line, and Conte will hope Luiz’s indiscipline and constant habit of making mistakes will be protected until he fully adjusts into the Italian’s methodology.

However, Mane’s pace and the positional intelligence of Firmino could bamboozle the Brazilian and inconsistent Cahill. Nonetheless, if Conte’s men can cope with Liverpool’s first phase of aggressive gegenpressing, Luiz’s ball-playing skills will be an instant improvement to Chelsea’s build-up play from deeper positions.

Two contrasting styles consisting of a cagey midfield battle presents an interesting spectacle. Neither back-line, though, is sturdy or reliable, but Chelsea’s Kante could make the difference whereas Henderson could be overrun. Both sides have been wasteful in the final third this season, and this may simply rest on efficiency in the final third and which outfit can overcome the opposition’s dissimilar pressing schemes.

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2016 in EPL, 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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Italy 2-0 Belgium: Conte’s well-drilled defensive scheme overwhelms Belgium’s individualism

Italy euro 2016

LYON, FRANCE – JUNE 13: Players of Italy celebrate the goal of Graziano Pelle during the UEFA Euro 2016 Group E match between Belgium and Italy at Stade de Lyon, Parc OL on June 13, 2016 in Lyon, France. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

Belgium had no answers for Italy’s impressive defensive display in their opening match of Euro 2016.

Marc Wilmots surprise inclusion saw Marouane Fellaini start in a no.10 role behind Romelu Lukaku, which pushed Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne into wide positions. Axel Witsel and Radja Nainggolan formed a midfield duo, while Wilmots opted to play Jan Vertonghen at left-back.

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Without Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti, Antonio Conte turned to Emanuele Giaccherini and Marco Parolo in midfield. Eder and Graziano Pelle formed a strike partnership, whereas Mateo Darmian and Antonio Candreva were fielded as wing-backs.

This was as good a defensive performance as you will see in this tournament, as Italy’s collective defending stifled the Belgium’s explosive individual attackers.

Italy’s shape

It was well known that Italy’s strengths lied within their all-Juventus centre-back trio and goalkeeper, but whether Conte would adopt an alternative defensive approach remained a mystery. Ultimately, Italy constantly interchanged between their base 5-3-2 and two banks of four when Belgium pushed forward.

Giaccherini and Parolo would shift to the flank to close down the full-backs, with the available Italian midfielders remaining compact and shifting centrally in unison. But when the shuttlers were unable to close down the Belgian full-backs, the available Italian wing-back would step forward and effectively see Conte’s side transition into a 4-4-2.

This was a highly successful approach considering Belgium lack natural full-backs, and it equally contained their star wide players. But more importantly, Conte’s men were disciplined, maintained structure in central areas, and their constant lateral movement as a unit ensured the Belgians encountered difficulty locating space in the opposition’s half of the field.

Belgium struggle

While Italy’s defensive shape deserves credit, Wilmots and his players are equally culpable for their downfall. It must be said that they lacked a creative ball passer in deeper zones to help bypass the Italians’ defensive shape, but overall their play was based on individualism opposed to collective effort.

Despite dominating possession for large portions of the opening half, Wilmots’ men had two Nainggolan shots from outside of the box represent Belgium’s threat from open play. Romelu Lukaku was often outnumbered upfront – his linkup play was poor – De Bruyne’s passing in the final third was sloppy, Hazard was unable to play nifty intricate passes with his teammates to break forward, and apart from pressing De Rossi, Fellaini’s inclusion as a no.10 still remains peculiar.

Laurent Ciman often over hit crosses into the box with sometimes Fellaini, or solely Lukaku in the box, but it’s difficult to assess whether that was Wilmot’s preferred approach or an element of attack Belgium was forced to adopt due to Italy’s defence. More so, it’s evident Italy’s ability to clog spaces in central areas, and the lack of a genuine passer in Belgium’s combative midfield proved beneficial to Conte’s men.

Italy going forward

Conte’s Italy were always expected to be competent defensively, but their method of attack appeared intriguing prior to kickoff. In ways, it was fairly similar to how Conte’s Juventus side operated in the final third during the Italian’s first season at the club.

While third man running from midfield was hardly noticeable, the Azzurri were unsurprisingly focused on combinations amongst teammates across the pitch. The Italians remained compact centrally, but the most key aspect involved the wing-backs positioning themselves as wide forwards – Italy practically transitioned between a 3-1-4-2 and a 3-3-4 in certain offensive phases.

However, the productivity from both flanks were fairly contrasting. Darmian was always an open outlet for cross-field diagonal balls, but when he combined with Giaccherini the latter’s crosses were underwhelming. Candreva, on the other hand, was arguably Italy’s main attacking threat with his crossing from the right flank.

Eder and Pelle struggled in this respect, but the latter squandered two decent chances around the box when he drifted into dangerous positions. Conte’s focus on playing through partnerships was logical, but the lack of quality throughout the side certainly hindered Italy’s efficiency in the final third.

1-0

Giaccherini’s opener came at a time when neither side showcased distinct superiority, and with Italy’s midfield lacking creativity, Bonucci’s passing range was a reminder of the centre-backs significance in both phases of the game. Without Marchisio and Verratti, Italy’s midfield trio is very functional, and Bonucci’s exceptional passing range ensures Conte’s men has the option of bypassing the opposition from deep.

But the winner equally highlighted Bonucci’s brilliance and poor defending from the Belgian back-line. With no Belgian player eager to close down Bonucci, the Italian simply lofted his pass over Toby Alderweireld for Giaccherini, who calmly controlled the delivery on his first touch, and subsequently placed his shot past Thibaut Courtois.

At the time, an Italy opener appeared unlikely, as they struggled to retain possession in Belgium’s half, whilst failing to pose a threat on the counter-attack. It was undoubtedly a moment of genius from both Italian players, but it also exploited the Belgian defence that may have been better persisting with Spurs duo Jan Vertonghen and Alderweireld as a centre-back pair.

Open second half

Oddly, the final 45 minutes saw the game open up despite the Italians having no incentive to push their wing-backs so high up the pitch. Belgium should have equalized via a sensational counter-attack involving Hazard, De Bruyne and Lukaku from the right, whereas the former tested Buffon from distance after turning Darmian at the edge of the box – Conte immediately swapped the fatigued left wing-back for Mattia De Sciglio.

Conte’s persistence with his first half approach was possibly down to Hazard and De Bruyne’s poor display, but with Belgium retreating into their base shape following half-time, Wilmots’ men located a plausible route to goal via swift counter-attacks. Four Italian players were booked in the second half to halt prevent the Belgians from scoring in transition, which raises the belief that Conte was better off continuing with his initial reactive approach.

Wilmots substitutions

In search of an equalizer, Wilmots’ attempt to rescue the match witnessed Dries Mertens replaces Nainggolan, as Belgium transitioned into a standard 4-2-3-1. The meant De Bruyne and Hazard interchanged positions behind Lukaku, while Fellaini now played alongside Witsel in midfield.

Although Hazard and De Bruyne slightly improved following the change – the former’s dribbling and combinations improved, while De Bruyne’s crossing created two legitimate chances for Divock Origi and Fellaini – the Belgians still struggled to get behind a sturdy Italian back-line. Yannick Ferreira Carrasco was introduced as an auxiliary right-back and Origi’s pace also offered a glimmer of hope, but neither substitute was capable of shifting the match. Fellaini played within close proximity of Origi in the latter stages, and though they created two solid chances from this route attack, Belgium appeared solely dependant on crosses into the box.

Despite two botched opportunities from the Belgians in the box, Vertonghen and Carrasco’s willingness to join the attack presented space in the channels for Italy to exploit on the counter. In contrast, substitute Ciro Immobile was involved in two counter attacks that forced Thibaut Courtois to make a stellar save, while his appreciation of space was pivotal to Pelle’s injury time goal.

Conclusion

This was a remarkable defensive display from an Italian side that displayed discipline, organization, and natural cohesion as Conte out-coached Wilmots throughout.

Following his anticipated move to Chelsea at the conclusion of the tournament, Conte was always expected to be heavily critiqued based on Italy’s results and performances. The decision to encourage the wing-backs forward forced Belgium’s star wide players to defend in their half, as the only question regarding Conte’s Italy was the productivity in the final third.

Nonetheless, the issues halting Belgium from joining the elite were on display, here: poor team selection, a system that mainly relies on individual talent, and the lack of natural fullbacks were all responsible for the aforementioned underwhelming performance. Unlike other teams in the tournament, Wilmots’ reluctance to maximize his star players’ talent was bizarre, and that must be his main goal for the remainder of the tournament.

In what will be remembered as a dream start for a group of men widely dismissed by many, this shouldn’t overshadow the notion that Belgium was the ideal opponent for this Italian side. The defensive display was likely to fluster Belgium’s individualism, but they were still culpable of conceding great opportunities – and heavily exposed on the counter – that better sides would convert.

More so, the real test for Italy rests in their final two games, where their functional midfield and uninspiring forwards will be forced to outwit a Swedish and Irish side that will sit deeper, and aim to compress space around their box. Conte undoubtedly possesses the best defence in the competition, buy the productivity from the front six will define Italy’s success at this tournament.

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2016 in Euro 2016, Published Work

 

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Manchester United 0-0 Chelsea: Both sides display signs of underachievement at Old Trafford

hazard united

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 28: Eden Hazard of Chelsea in action during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford on December 28, 2015 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Manchester United and Chelsea battled to a score-less draw at Old Trafford.

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Louis van Gaal recalled Wayne Rooney to lead the line, and changed his midfield duo with the inclusion of Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Mateo Darmian also returned from injury to start at left-back, pushing Daley Blind to centre-back, whereas Ashley Young featured on the right.

Guus Hiddink was forced into changes as well due to the suspension of Diego Costa, while Gary Cahill, Cesc Fabregas, Loic Remy and Radamel Falcao were also unavailable for selection. Therefore, Eden Hazard started upfront, John Obi Mikel protected the defence alongside Nemanja Matic, while Kurt Zouma provided mobility in a centre-back partnership with John Terry.

Chelsea approach

There were no surprises in regards to the overall pattern of the match prior to kick off. United lead the league in possession stats this season, whereas Chelsea were always likely to play on the counter especially without Costa leading the line.

With that being said, it was interesting to see how Chelsea would approach the match out of possession. Willian and Pedro were forced deeper to prevent Young and Darmian from creating overloads, whereas Oscar aided Hazard in pressing. At times, Oscar moved upfront to lead the line to give Hazard a rest – on the other hand, the United midfield received more time on the ball – whereas Oscar and Willian occasionally swapped positions to maintain energy levels.

United countered Oscar’s pressing by having both Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger drop behind the halfway line to receive possession before attempting to play long diagonals towards the flanks. Likewise, Mikel and Matic sat in front of a narrow back four, which inevitably left space for Juan Mata and Herrera to drift into when Oscar and Hazard were pressing in United’s half.

Chelsea were fortunate not to concede in the opening 20 minutes, but their overall approach – despite its structural flaws – was rarely tested because of United’s limited penetration in the final third.

Clumsy possession out the back

Interestingly, Chelsea constantly found themselves in trouble when they attempted to play out the back. Perhaps this was Hiddink’s ploy to build attacks without Costa, but here, Chelsea were simply sloppy in possession.

Oscar was forced into a last-ditch tackle on Herrera after being dispossessed in his own half. Then, Mata intercepted Courtois’ attempt to find Cesar Azpilicueta, but the Spaniard’s cross to an unmarked Rooney was cleared by Zouma. Also in the second half, there was a sequence that witnessed Mikel fail to control a simple five-yard Zouma pass, thus resulting in a United corner kick.

United’s possession dominance led to a few nervy moments for the Blues, but they were equally placing United in key goal-scoring positions with their sloppy passing around the box.

United attack down the left

One of the main issues preventing United from enjoying a successful campaign thus far is their productivity in the final third. The lack of penetration through incisive passing and direct running resulted in a tedious attack that was aided by their determination to operate down the left.

United constantly aimed to take advantage of Branislav Ivanovic down the left, which was logical considering Martial operated in this zone. Though United’s initial chance stemmed from the right – Mata’s shot off the cross bar – Pedro and Azpilicueta adequately closed down Young’s crossing, whereas Mata drifted centrally throughout.

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On paper, Martial against Ivanovic favoured the Frenchman, but the United youngster struggled to impose himself against the Serbian. Chelsea appeared susceptible down this flank in the opening stages with Darmian surging forward, and Martial hitting the post, but the Serbian fared well in 1v1 battles with the Frenchman.

Nevertheless, intelligent movement and positive combinations still witnessed United create their best chances down the left in the second half. Darmian moving infield provided Martial enough space to storm past Pedro to present Herrera with a golden opportunity that Courtois miraculously saved. While, substitute, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson’s cross in the latter stages of the second half should’ve resulted in a Rooney winner.

Martial didn’t thrive in his individual battle with Ivanovic, but United still exploited Chelsea’s frailty down this flank, creating their best goal-scoring opportunities.

Hazard

However, Hiddink’s major decision involved Hazard playing upfront. The unavailability of the natural centre-forwards meant the Dutchman had to tinker in this area, and with United fielding two attack-minded full-backs, combined with Hazard’s past defensive issues on the flanks, it was logical to start the Belgian upfront.

Frankly, both Oscar or Pedro have experience playing in this role – the former operated as natural no.9 at the Emirates last year, whereas the latter charged behind opposing defences during his time at Barcelona. Hazard performed superbly at White Hart Lane earlier in the year, receiving the ball in various areas, but the issue behind his role upfront was that Chelsea were deprived a penalty box presence. The same applied here, as the Belgian was outmuscled off the ball by Chris Smalling and Daley Blind when he received the ball with his back to goal.

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Still, the Belgian influenced an apathetic Chelsea midfield when he moved into deeper positions, however, suffering the most fouls throughout – the Belgian and Matic glided through challenges throughout to evade several challenges.

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One move at the beginning of the second half epitomized his threat from deep – Hazard easily rolled Herrera and bypassed Schweinsteiger before playing in Pedro at the edge of the box, but De Gea made two outstanding saves to keep match goal-less. From open play, Chelsea’s attacking threat was scarce, but they were most dangerous when Hazard received the ball in the midfield zone.

Chelsea counters

Ultimately, Chelsea’s deep positioning and poor passing when they retained possession placed significant precedence on their counter-attacks. It was the evident attacking ploy for the Blues, but without any substantial build-up play, and sporadic set-pieces in dangerous areas, it appeared to be the away side’s sole goal source.

But where Chelsea usually countered with devastating efficiency under Mourinho, here, their counters appeared improvised. In the opening 20 minutes, both United centre-backs committed mistakes that enabled Hazard and Oscar to break towards the box, but both plays concluded with the former and Willian failing to provide Pedro with a final ball.

Essentially, the lack of a natural forward thwarted Chelsea’s counter-attacks. The likes of Pedro and Hazard are used to having forward offer diagonal runs for a final pass or to create space, but here, it led to poor decision-making from both men and the potential ball receiver. The duo was actually involved in a 2v2 break following the Belgian turning Schneiderlin near the half way line, but the entire play was halted as neither player made the correct run or pass.

As players tired, Chelsea’s threat on the counter decreased significantly, but they still squandered possibly the best chance of the game via this method of attack. Pedro was once again involved, as he swiftly stormed into United’s half – subsequent to a United corner – before playing in an unmarked Matic who motored into the box but fired his shot over the net.

Second half

The match followed a relatively similar pattern in the second half, however, Chelsea retreated deeper, their pressing decreased, and United received more time and space to turn possession dominance into goal scoring opportunities. Yet, apart from the two spurned aforementioned chances that stemmed from the left flank, United rarely tested the fatigued away side.

Perhaps a lack of rotation affected Chelsea here, as Ashley Young grew in prominence down the right with Pedro struggling to close the United full-back down, whereas Oscar and Hazard’s threat on the counter perished in the final 20 minutes. Herrera continued to charge into space space in the channels behind Mikel, and deserved a penalty on the opposite side of the box following a late last-ditch Azpilicueta tackle, while Blind received more time on the ball to play forward penetrative passes.

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Chelsea’s shape was shockingly disjointed with Matic protecting Terry, and Mikel unaware of Herrera’s movement behind him. But with Rooney coming forward to link play, and not enough players in the box to attack the full-backs’ crosses, United’s attack remained blunt.

Substitutions

Oddly, Hiddink refrained from using all his substitutions despite fielding more than half of his XI against Watford two days prior. Ramires replaced Willian on the right, but where Pedro, Oscar and Hazard were evidently exhausted in the final 20 minutes, Hiddink was reluctant to summon his youngsters.

Van Gaal quickly reacted to Ramires’ introduction by introducing Borthwick-Jackson, and replacing Blind for Phil Jones. This saw Smalling push forward in the final 10 minutes, but the change was likely due to Blind’s fitness levels rather than a tactical shift, considering Chelsea’s threat was non-existent during these stages.

The United manager’s attempt to rescue the match saw Memphis Depay replace Mata, pushing Martial to the right. Nonetheless, the change proved futile, as Memphis rarely touched the ball, whereas Martial offered no threat on the right. It was peculiar to see Fellaini remain on the bench with United delivering multiple crosses into the box, along the Dutchman preferring not to utilize Martial’s pace against a nervy Chelsea back-line.

Conclusion

As expected, one day’s rest provided a cautious battle between two underachieving Premier League sides, in which goal-keeping heroics and poor finishing proved decisive.

Martial Zoma

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 28: Anthony Martial of Manchester United battles for the ball with Kurt Zouma of Chelsea during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford on December 28, 2015 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Chelsea were far from impressive, but with limited time on the training ground for Hiddink to employ his philosophy, combined with several first-team players unavailable, the interim Chelsea manager may be pleased with the result.

United, on the other hand, displayed improved dynamism and commitment in attacking areas, but the hosts’ susceptibility to counter-attacks, along with their limited penetration showcased one of the few issues under Van Gaal. A place in the top four remains attainable, but United must improve in both phases if they intend on achieving their target.

 
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Posted by on December 30, 2015 in Match Recaps, Published Work, Uncategorized

 

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