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Tactical Preview: Manchester United – Liverpool

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Something has to give in this weekend’s big clash between Manchester United and Liverpool at Old Trafford. The former is one of the in-form Premier League teams with nine consecutive wins, whereas Liverpool is coming off a draw at Sunderland and a Capital One Cup semi-final first leg defeat at Southampton.

United have improved since the two teams drew 0-0 at Anfield this season, but it’s difficult to believe Mourinho will stray away from his successful approach that night. Mourinho’s “big game mantra” is built around defensive organization and efficient finishing when chances arise, and though successfully attacking the Reds would be ground-breaking, the Portuguese manager can’t afford to drop three points.

At Anfield, United were fairly direct with their play by avoiding passes from the back, which prevented Liverpool from gegenpressing and winning the ball in advanced positions. Ironically, United’s high pressing stifled Liverpool’s buildup play in the opening half and were combative in midfield throughout.

There shouldn’t be many changes, here, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s fitness issues means the Swede may not lead the line ahead of Paul Pogba. Marcus Rashford or Anthony Martial are the likely replacements upfront, offering genuine pace behind the Liverpool aggressive high-line.

Marouane Fellaini performed well at Anfield, and though Mourinho would typically opt for the Belgian’s physicality in central areas, Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera have developed a great partnership at the base of midfield. However, Mourinho may be concerned about Carrick coping with Liverpool’s intense pressing.

Carrick is accustomed to having ample time on the ball to dictate the game’s tempo, but Klopp will likely instruct his players to apply the pressure once the 35-year-old gains possession. This may lead to Herrera dropping deeper as well to alleviate pressure off Carrick, or witness the Spaniard attempt to help United build from deep despite potential pressure from the visitors.

The other decision Mourinho must make involves his wide personnel. Ashley Young performed well in a defensive winger role at Anfield and could merit another start, but it appears Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Martial will drift centrally from the flanks. The other possible option behind the striker is Jesse Lingard, who is often utilized in bigger games due to his discipline and ability to carry out instructions.

They can all fulfill defensive duties diligently, but equally pose a transitional threat when United regain possession. Juan Mata will likely be excluded because he lacks the aforementioned traits, but is a reliable impact sub off the bench if United require guile in the final third. Martial and Rashford possesses similar traits, and if Ibrahimovic starts upfront, one of the youngsters could start from the left, while the other is utilized as an impact sub.

Marcos Rojo’s fitness issues puts the Argentine’s place in the XI in jeopardy, meaning Chris Smalling and Phil Jones should start at centre-back. Meanwhile, Matteo Darmian and Antonio Valencia should retain their spots as full-backs, despite the former possibly encountering issues against the attack-minded Nathaniel Clyne.

Liverpool, however, aren’t blessed with United’s depth, and Klopp shouldn’t have many big decisions to make. Sadio Mane’s absence due to African Cup of Nation’s duty deprives Liverpool of pace upfront, but the return of Philippe Coutinho balances out Klopp’s fortunes.

Divock Origi could return to the XI to replace Daniel Sturridge following an ineffective performance at Southampton. Nonetheless, Klopp may be better off without a natural centre-forward with Roberto Firmino upfront, whilst the returning Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana operating from the flanks.

That would mean Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum would start ahead of Jordan Henderson if deemed match-fit. But if Henderson is unavailable, Klopp will likely start Origi, and opt for Wijnaldum and Lallana ahead of Can. Joel Matip is set to return and could re-form his partnership with Dejan Lovren at centre-back, whereas Simon Mignolet is expected to start in goal.

With so many physical midfielders and both managers keen on heavy pressing, this could be another scrappy encounter with few chances. Liverpool’s approach is intriguing, nonetheless, especially if Mourinho attempts to replicate the defensive template set at Anfield.

Klopp’s Liverpool, however, have displayed their ability to remain compact and defend deep for lengthy spells, and they may be equally patient, and aim to combine quick passes to break on the counter. Still, it will be interesting to see how United cope with Liverpool’s interchanging movement and Lallana’s late charges into the box – especially if Carrick starts at the base of United’s midfield.

United are slight favourites based on overall form between the two clubs, depth, and numerous game-changers off the bench. Both sides attempt to play quite narrow with the wide players drifting in-field, but Liverpool’s movement, cohesion and understanding of constant positional interchanging suggests United’s back-line should endure a few problems.

The first goal should open things up and determine the tempo of the match, but that depends on whether Liverpool can unlock United’s sturdy defence, and whether the hosts will push men forward to create ample chances. Despite several goal-scorers throughout both XI’s, this could be another tactical battle built around defensive organization and discipline.

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


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Liverpool and Manchester United’s rivalry regains prominence under Klopp and Mourinho

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England’s most glorified rivalry is gaining prominent interest this season. Liverpool against Manchester United has been an underwhelming spectacle throughout the Premier League era, but the current table standing, prior history amongst the managers, and United’s signings over the summer provides optimism.

Jurgen Klopp and Jose Mourinho are considered two of the greatest football managers in the modern game, and their presence has equally improved the overall standard of the Premier League from a tactical perspective. It’s also important that they’re managing the two most successful clubs in England, who combine for 38 league titles between each other. That is mainly why Klopp and Mourinho’s appointments were pivotal at both clubs – for one, the rivalry has lacked gusto over the years, whereas neither club is meeting the standards expected by supporters.

Oddly enough, from a geographical and historical sense, although Liverpool and Manchester United is considered the biggest game of the Premier League campaign, the rivalry’s surprisingly lacked memorable matches domestically and in Europe. Part of it is down to Liverpool’s inability to lack a proper title challenge during the Sir Alex Ferguson era, with only a sole 4-1 win at Old Trafford in the 2008/2009 season coming close to a monumental fixture – yet that only put the Reds four points – playing one more game than the Red Devils – behind the eventual title winners.

Despite being the two most successful clubs in England, the other factor that’s deprived the rivalry of genuine excitement is that both enjoyed their dominance in different eras. United’s most intense football rivalries have come against the likes of Blackburn, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City, whereas apart from the Patrice Evra – Luis Suarez racism scandal, this matchup has been irrelevant to the title race.

In truth, United claiming 20 league titles, and their quest for two more European crowns – they currently have three to Liverpool’s five – are the sole reasons why the rivalry’s excitement remains. It’s developed into more of a fixture built around pride and bragging rights opposed to a derby defined by title-winning moments like El Clasico, O Classico (Porto – Benfica) or what Der Klassiker (Bayern Munich – Borussia Dortmund) is slowly transitioning into.

However, the current state of the Premier League witnesses both sides separated by a handful of points, in what could be the most thrilling title race of this era. Where Liverpool has finished second twice in the past decade, United’s status as yearly title contender’s has drastically declined since Ferguson’s sudden retirement. United never replaced Ferguson with a true winner of his mould, whereas Liverpool lacked a tactical proficient manager with concepts suited for the modern game – more so, in European competitions – like Klopp.

Liverpool have struggled to maintain a top four status in the post-Rafa Benitez era, whereas United were floating around the same level of mediocrity without Ferguson. This is truly fitting considering both managers were pivotal in English football’s dominance on Europe in the past decade. Klopp and Mourinho, however, provide a new tale in the quest for English supremacy both domestically as well as in Europe.

More so, the two managers play a huge factor in this regard, but for contrasting reasons. Louis van Gaal spent extensive money on a youthful core for the future, but it always felt that top players were still required to mount a title challenge. Liverpool, on the other hand, lacked a cult hero, but also a manager with a distinct football philosophy to move away from the underwhelming spells of Roy Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish, and Brendan Rodgers – albeit the latter was inches away from doing the unthinkable courtesy in a similar environment that Klopp currently enjoys.

Another positive component, here, is previous meetings between the two managers during their respected tenures at Real Madrid and Dortmund. Mourinho’s tactics have been classified as outdated in recent seasons due to the difficulty he’s encountered on the domestic and continental stage. While a sole victory against Jurgen Klopp in seven meetings suggests the notion could be true, United’s display in a 0-0 draw at Anfield earlier this season proves otherwise.

That night, Mourinho’s United were fairly reactive, but their approach was superb: avoiding passes in defensive areas to limit Liverpool’s gegenpressing, whilst pressing high and forcing the Reds into mistakes in their half. It was one of the rare moments at Anfield this season where Klopp’s high-scoring Reds were perplexed, and although David De Gea was forced into two world-class saves, Zlatan Ibrahimovic missed arguably the best chance of the game.

It was the standard Mourinho “big match performance” – defensively solid to ensure a result is obtained opposed to risking a loss to a title rival. It ultimately epitomizes what United supporters have subconsciously desired in recent seasons. Surely, attractive football is appreciated, but the short-term nature of the sport values trophies and wins on a higher scale – an aspect of coaching that defines Mourinho’s career.

United have only lost one domestic match since that night, with Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic rediscovering their best form, whereas the return of Michael Carrick enables the former and Ander Herrera to perform at their optimum best in midfield. United weren’t necessarily playing poorly prior to that result, but as of late their level of play is more expansive and vividly showcases a side full of confidence.

With United sitting a mere five points behind second placed Liverpool ahead of Sunday’s kick-off, and a possible Capital One Cup final showdown awaiting, it appears that tide is turning in this historic rivalry. Klopp’s Liverpool, though out-of-form, have overachieved with the absence of European football, whereas despite a slow-start to the season, Mourinho’s United is finally playing to the high standards many expected the club to maintain subsequent to Ferguson’s departure.

In short, both clubs appear to be headed in the right direction. Mourinho has added – and will continue to do so in the upcoming transfer windows – top class players to provide the perfect balance of youth and experience in his team. And it’s likely that the Portuguese manager will receive the time and patience to build his preferred side to challenge on both fronts.

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Elsewhere, a full pre-season with the Reds enabled Klopp to properly instill his methodology, and though major signings weren’t made, the German is displaying his ability to maximize the talent at his disposal. Financial limitations and the strength of their rivals will always put Klopp at a disadvantage, meaning identifying players suited to his system – along with the improvement of his young core – is the ideal route to sustaining long-term success.

Short of a top class all-rounder forward, Liverpool have been at their best with Roberto Firmino dropping deep to encourage runners forward, and making inwards runs into the channels to combine with teammates around the box. Klopp has favoured Divock Origi in recent weeks due to injuries and may rely on Belgian’s growth during his tenure, but the Reds’ fluid, interchanging football is fully maximized with Firmino operating as the focal point of the attack.

Although four months remain in the current Premier League season, Sunday’s matchup holds huge merit on the title race and the improving state of English football’s most prestigious rivalry. A United win would pull Liverpool into a scrap for a top four spot and build on the Red Devils’ current winning streak. Yet, from a tactical viewpoint, it presents Klopp with the task of overcoming United’s powerful side away from Anfield.

Following years of criticism regarding the stagnation throughout the top Premier League sides, it appears that the bigger games are slowly delivering more than sole exciting, attack-minded matches. In what could be the greatest era in Premier League history, it’s fitting that England’s most famous clubs can finally deliver a potential ‘classic’ based  purely on football terms.

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Posted by on January 13, 2017 in Published Work


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BPL Notebook Matchday 13: Projected title contenders overcome difficult roadblocks

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Chelsea maintained their seven game winning-streak Saturday afternoon at the expense of rivals Spurs, handing Mauricio Pochettino’s men their first loss of the Premier League campaign.

The result ensures the Blues will travel to Manchester City next week as league leaders, but as expected Antonio Conte’s men endured a few issues to start the match. Within the opening 10 minutes, Christian Eriksen’s impressive opener forced Chelsea’s hands, but worryingly enough, Spurs were equally dominant in terms of their overall play.

Spurs inconsistent form prior to kickoff was slightly downplayed, but Pochettino’s men were still the best defensive team in the league, due to an energetic press that was perfectly executed against Manchester City earlier this season. However, though Spurs were undoubtedly the better side then, they endured dodgy moments when they were unable to sustain their energy levels.

What was key about the performance, in particular, was their efficient finishing in the final third. At Stamford Bridge, Pochettino’s men struggled to get behind the Chelsea defence despite negating their ability to build attacks from the back. Eden Hazard and Diego Costa were starved for service, and for large portions of the first half, Conte’s men were overrun in midfield.

Dele Alli and Harry Kane were capable of receiving intricate passes in pockets of space, with the former’s movement playing a critical role to Eriksen’s opener. Meanwhile, Kyle Walker’s pace and strength exposed Marcos Alonso’s deficiencies in a wide defensive role. But it was only until the half hour mark where Chelsea began to grow into the match.

Similar to their emphatic victory over City, Pochettino’s men began to concede space once their pressing decreased. Suddenly Victor Moses was an open outlet on the right, whereas Hazard and Costa found space to carry the ball into, albeit limited support from their teammates. Though Chelsea were presented space as the half progressed, a short spell that involved Hazard cutting off a poor Hugo Lloris pass, followed by Pedro’s incredible equalizer shifted the momentum into the hosts’ favour.

The problems Spurs encountered towards the conclusion of the first half continued at the start of the second. Hazard was constantly fouled with his back to goal, whereas Costa worked diligently through the channels, but it was Moses’ pluck to charge past Son that proved decisive.

Alonso and Moses’ proactive advanced positioning occurred subsequent to Spurs’ dominance within the first half hour, which was always the worry with Son and Eriksen operating in wide areas. Pochettino’s men simply failed to remain compact out of possession, and you can argue that they didn’t really have a plan B once energy levels decreased.

More so, this is the concern with Spurs. Still showing signs of fatigue from last season, apart from the signing of Wanyama, Pochettino’s XI hasn’t improved significantly. Therefore, the onus is on players to exceed last year’s form, and with Spurs’ overall approach largely based on running, it simply doesn’t appear to be attainable.

On the other hand, Conte deserves credit for reinvigorating his side: Chelsea’s shape didn’t change in the second half, but they closed down ball-carriers and open spaces quicker, and Alonso and Moses provided the width to stretch Spurs’ 4-4-2 throughout. Elsewhere, they equally managed the remainder of the match superbly once they went ahead.

The Blues reverted to a 5-4-1 out of possession with Hazard and Pedro maintaining narrow wide positions to ensure Spurs couldn’t overload central areas. Apart from slight defensive mistakes and Nkoudou easing past substitute Branislav Ivanovic, Spurs failed to trouble an organized Chelsea outfit.

Had this been a year ago, Chelsea may have encountered difficulties closing out a tight match, but there’s a sense of revitalization, belief, and hunger under Conte. Although the performance wasn’t comparable to previous home triumphs during this seven game stretch, champions often find ways to win matches when struggling to reach top form.

If anything, this was an audition for a flexible City side that will have alternative approaches apart from Guardiola’s traditional high pressing. It’s possibly still to early to claim title contender’s status, but overcoming multiple formations and Spurs’ heavy pressing suggests the Blues are heading in the right direction.

Ozil – Sanchez growing partnership overshadows difficult afternoon

Alexis Sanchez’s opener hinted that three points would be a formality, yet this was a difficult outing for Arsene Wenger’s men. Sanchez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s pace earned two members of the Bournemouth back four bookings within the opening 10 minutes as Arsenal’s attacking quartet was built on pace and Mesut Ozil’s creativity.

This was the ideal set up for Ozil to thrive in, yet the wide players were uninspiring following the opener, and the midfield pairing of Mohamed Elneny and Granit Xhaka struggled on both ends. Defensively, Bournemouth’s midfield trio easily bypassed the Arsenal duo en route to goal, and Joshua King simply dropped into space between the lines to combine with teammates.

From an offensive perspective, Arsenal simply lacked the control Santi Cazorla, or Mikel Arteta once provided with a mixture of short and long passes to retain possession. At times the match was end to end, and Arsenal weren’t assured on both ends of the field.

With that being said, Wenger at the very least would be pleased to see his best players doing their utmost best to salvage a result. Interestingly, Alexi’s varied positions witnessed the Chilean dropping deeper to supply penetrative passes for Ozil making runs beyond the Bournemouth back-line.

Though the two Arsenal marquee signings were rarely on the same wavelength, the desperation to create plays and surge their teammates forward was fascinating. Arsenal improved significantly in the second half when Bournemouth retreated in their half opposed to pressing.

Bournemouth was forced to chased the game following Theo Walcott’s winner, which ultimately benefitted a speedy Arsenal attack. Likewise, Sanchez doubled Arsenal’s lead and secured three points in stoppage time following a swift break featuring a well-weighed Ozil pass to ignite the move.

Wenger’s side have made a knack of earning results albeit not playing their best football, and a developed partnership with Alexis striving in a centre-forward role ahead of Ozil in his optimum position could prove decisive if the Gunners intend on mounting a proper title challenge.

Yaya Toure staking role in Guardiola’s City system

He did it again. Yaya Toure wasn’t on the score sheet this week, but the Ivorian played a positive role in a narrow win against a resilient Burnley side. Guardiola named the powerful midfield trio that featured in majority of City’s game’s last season, but Toure was involved in several dangerous moves because he was positioned closer to Sergio Aguero and free of defensive duties.

Although a brace at Crystal Palace placed Toure back in the headlines, here, he showcased what he has left to offer. Fernandinho and Fernando remained deeper in fear of the Burnley counter-attack, whereas Toure predominantly linked play with Nolito, who drifted into pockets of space in central areas.

Sergio Aguero poached both goals but his involvement from open play was scare. Raheem Sterling operated in a wide position on the right, but oddly hesitated when he received the ball in key areas and was considerably ineffective in the final third. But Toure rolled back the clock with his quick incisive combinations and powerful sprints towards goal.

Now, Toure might not feature in the City XI every week, but there was a glaring issue regarding their predictability from open play and the fear of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne being overrun in midfield. It’s the dimension City lacked in the early stages of the season, and the new dimension to a fine-tuned flexible unit presents various ways to win in the near future.

Guardiola will always be associated to the possession-based tiki-taka football that revolutionized the sport during his time at Barcelona, but his spell at Bayern proved the Spaniard can adapt to the cultural strengths that define a domestic league. In Toure, Guardiola may still require the Ivorian’s power, precision, and finishing ability around the penalty box, which further justifies his significance to the squad.

Injury-hit Liverpool encounter near scare against Moyes’ Sunderland

Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool fell to second place when they failed to score at Southampton, and they appeared destined to suffer the same fate against a resolute Sunderland outfit. Moyes aligned his men to disrupt and destroy, but the hosts were dominant for extensive periods throughout.

For all of Liverpool’s patient build up and clever interchanging movement, the hosts rarely got behind the opposition’s defence. Resorting to long distance shots and poor set-piece execution kept the score-line leveled, while Sunderland were pegged so deep into their half that launching counters was nearly impossible with Defoe isolated upfront.

The second half followed a similar tempo, but Patrick van Aanholt’s inability to play a final pass and Duncan Watmore couldn’t score despite rounding Liverpool keeper Loris Karius. Coutinho’s early departure and the absence of Adam Lallana deprived the Reds of genuine guile and creativity in the final third, as several crosses through the six-yard box went astray.

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Substitute Divock Origi’s individual brilliance won the game, but there’s a fear that Liverpool will struggle to break down opposing teams that replicate Sunderland’s approach. Perhaps Origi or Daniel Sturridge’s presence will be useful to poach goals without two creative cogs in Klopp’s successful system, and in truth, being forced to identify a plan B or C could reap rewards long-term.

Mourinho and United’s issues persist at Old Trafford

It’s now come to a point where Manchester United’s results represent the Premier League’s main mystery. Is it simply bad luck? Or do the players and possibly Mourinho need to be held accountable for consistently dropping points?

This isn’t a Mourinho team we’ve been accustomed to falling in love with over the years. There’s been few significant individual improvements from the players that survived the Louis van Gaal era. Elsewhere, Mourinho’s father-esque mantra often associated with his most successful teams is non-existence.

Once again, United conceded within the opening 90 seconds against West Ham, yet they rallied well subsequent to the goal. Phil Jones was superb at the back, while the midfield pairing of Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba occupied half spaces and circulated possession in a tidy manner.

Youngsters Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford received glorious chances to put United ahead but spurned their opportunities, and though Antonio Valencia constantly motored past Dmitri Payet, the Ecuadorian’s crosses didn’t harm the West Ham back-line.

Mourinho’s decision to omit Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Wayne Rooney following positive midweek Europa League performances perturbed United supporters, but the Red Devils weren’t poor, here. The worry, however, rests in United ensuring their positive displays earn the club maximum points on a weekly basis.

Nevertheless, Mourinho will continue to be scrutinized for every United hiccup, but it’s reached the point where the Portuguese manager and the players come together and mount a legitimate top four challenge. At the moment, though, even that goal appears insurmountable.

Results: Burnley 1-2 Manchester City, Hull City 1-1 West Brom, Leicester 2-2 Middlesbrough, Liverpool 2-0 Sunderland, Swansea 5-4 Crystal Palace, Chelsea 2-1 Spurs, Watford 0-1 Stoke, Arsenal 3-1 Bournemouth, Manchester United 1-1 West Ham, Southampton 1-0 Everton

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Posted by on November 29, 2016 in EPL Notebook, Published Work


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Arsenal clash could rejuvenate Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United

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Jose Mourinho’s latest misfortunes as Manchester United manager could place a dent to his managerial legacy. Once referred to as a mastermind tactician, Mourinho’s majestic mantra that’s attributed to his silverware dominance in several countries simply doesn’t have the same effect.

The witty pre-match quotes and everlasting swagger has been replaced with negative comments towards his players and officials. Whereas the siege-mentality that transformed his players to sacrifice their bodies for results is non-existent.

More so, although the Portuguese manager’s sides are more expansive than in recent years, the attacking flare displayed going forward consequently affected the solid base he once sought out. Since his move to Real Madrid, Mourinho’s worked with an abundance of slender technically gifted players, but has failed to combine his personnel with the ruthless defensive mentality that displayed in previous sides.

With social media and the modern soccer player now being protected throughout their youth career, Mourinho’s attempt to motivate his players through harsh criticism has back-fired, thus leading to several behind the scenes locker room squabbles. The ability to control the press, his players and the opposition with his words was one of the United manager’s best traits, but now he does more harm when he speaks.

The aforesaid criticism towards his own players and smug body language on the touchline is reminiscent of Mourinho’s mood towards the conclusion of his Chelsea tenure. However, Mourinho has failed to overcome the slight stylistic shift in modern football, which emphasizes on dynamic pressing across the pitch.

Where possession football was heavily praised and emulated over the last decade, Mourinho’s aim to disrupt and destroy was innovative, despite the negativity received for creating dull encounters. Now, Mourinho’s reactive approach is simply outfoxed by dynamic units that press cohesively and quickly break forward in numbers.

But like his predecessors, life at Manchester United has been difficult. Sir Alex Ferguson, a fond admirer of Mourinho, equally endured difficult moments at United, but his ability to construct new ideas and maximize the talent at his disposal over a lengthy period is what made him great. Mourinho, on the other hand, is stumped and doesn’t seem capable of identifying an alternative winning formula.

United currently sit eight points behind league leaders Liverpool, and though Mourinho has rarely tinkered with his starting XI, it’s evident Mourinho is unsure of his best XI or his optimum formation. Despite improving under Louis van Gaal, United were abject for extensive periods prior to the arrival of the Portuguese manager, and a few big name signings have yet to rid the robotic-esque football showcased in the red side of Manchester.

More worryingly, the fact that the cheapest and lesser-known Eric Bailly can be deemed the standout summer signing at Old Trafford summarizes the current state of the club.

It’s equally alarming that the remaining three signings haven’t really improved the starting XI. Zlatan Ibrahimovic started the season well, but his passing has been mediocre when he drops deep, and still contributes to United’s issue of predominantly playing ahead of the opposition. Pogba, on the other hand, struggles to influence games without being a defensive liability in a midfield two, which is a completely different role to the one he adopted at Juventus.

“He [Pogba] can play in so many positions,” Mourinho said in an exclusive interview with Sky Sports’ Andy Burton

“The problem is not the position. The problem is not the tactical system. The problem is, in my opinion, somebody that comes from a different style of football and needs this time to be at his best level in football that is really difficult to play, especially for midfield players.”

Then there’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan who has yet to feature for United since his 45-minute cameo in the Manchester derby. Therefore, apart from the decision to drop Wayne Rooney, very little has changed from the youthful side that finished fifth last season.

Elsewhere, Pep Guardiola has expanded Manchester City’s possession-based football and provided positional flexibility to the club. Meanwhile, Liverpool and Chelsea have been the standout performers due to their non-involvement in European competitions, thus offering the managers additional training ground preparation.

Mourinho, however, has persisted with a 4-2-3-1, but is further going against the template that brought him success in the past. Perhaps this is a case of the manager attempting to prove the cynics wrong. It can also signify the awareness that his technically gifted outfit are better suited to a sleeker style, opposed to the Chelsea and Inter Milan sides built around physically imposing centre-backs and powerful midfielders.

The permanent switch to this system took place at Real Madrid, but in midfield he possessed the balance of a passing holding midfielder, and an energetic runner in Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira. Since then, catering to Cesc Fabregas’ creativity backfired, whereas now, Pogba isn’t consistently performing at an elite level in a midfield two.

Similar to his most successful sides post-2004, the use of a natural ball-winner and two shuttlers was pivotal, yet it’s odd to see Mourinho – who has publicly claimed his preference to use the system as an alternative – reluctant to push Herrera and Pogba further up the field. The system alteration was logical at Madrid, as it enabled Mesut Ozil freedom to create – yet even in the bigger games, Ozil operated from a wide position, making sharp runs towards the flanks to create space for his teammates.

Though Juan Mata’s been one of United’s standout players this season, the Spaniard simply doesn’t perform at the level that warrants a formation change. However, Pogba performed well in this position closer to Ibrahimovic at Anfield, and could excel higher up the pitch if Mourinho wants to strengthen his midfield.

Nevertheless, despite the personnel void in specific areas, United’s issue doesn’t rest in the options at Mourinho’s disposal – he currently has a big enough squad with various skill sets to challenge for the league. Besides the first half hour against Manchester City, defensive errors have played a decisive factor in United’s erratic league form.

In ways, United are reminiscent of the Borussia Dortmund side during Jurgen Klopp’s final season. Dortmund finished seventh in the Bundesliga, yet their league position didn’t justify the strength of Klopp’s men. Battling injuries to nearly their entire back-line throughout the season, Dortmund created numerous chances per game, but were simply let down by poor finishing and defensive errors.

Mourinho proved he can still gain results in the big games following United’s solid display at Liverpool, but the Red Devils still struggle to convert quality chances into goals. United aren’t playing poorly under Mourinho, but there’s a distinct disparity between this current side, and his teams of the past that were devastatingly efficient in the final third and diligently organized out of possession.

“We kept creating chances and then by magic they crossed the midfield line and scored a goal which is very unfair for us,” said Mourinho following United’s draw to Stoke.

“I have to say they were lucky but luck is part of football. My tribute to them is they are not guilty of our bad luck, so congratulations on a good point for them.”

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Nonetheless, Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger have undergone contrasting careers, but the start to the 2016/2017 Premier League season suggests change may be imminent. A rivalry that started following Mourinho’s initial arrival to England witnessed Arsenal transition from title contenders to top four challengers, whereas Mourinho developed into one of the greatest managers in world football – subsequently winning domestic honours in three different countries.

Mourinho’s return to the Premier League three seasons ago restored the feisty enmity between the two managers, which even led to Wenger being deemed as a “specialist in failure.”

“If he is right and I am afraid of failure it is because I didn’t fail many times. Eight years without silverware, that’s failure,” said Mourinho.

“He’s a specialist in failure,” continued Mourinho. “If I do that in Chelsea, eight years, I leave and don’t come back.”

Yet since Chelsea’s 2015 title triumph, the tide appears to be turning in Wenger’s favour. Mourinho was sacked by the Blues ahead of their worst title defence in Premier League history, and his appointment at Manchester United has been filled with inconsistent results.

But where the aforementioned Premier League managers have altered their side’s previous philosophy – even Wenger has added a new dimension to Arsenal’s game by utilizing Alexis Sanchez as a centre-forward – perhaps its time for Mourinho to stray away from his initial approach. The pressure is mounting at the club – albeit it’s expected he’ll receive ample time to build a squad that meets his desire – but conceding his first Premier League defeat to Wenger would provide a seismic statement, and ultimately diminish United’s title hopes.

For United and Mourinho, underachievement remains risky considering what’s transpired over the last few years, but it would certainly put the latter at a cross-road. We’ve seen the brilliance of Mourinho’s managerial skills in an era-defining period upon his arrival to England, but it may be time to replicate his counter-parts’ decision to adjust what many consider to be an outdated approach, along with identifying the ideal system and roles for his players.

What may be heralded a new era that redefines the elite clubs in the country, could see Mourinho oblige to change, and potentially risk concluding one of the most successful managerial tenures at the club level.

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Posted by on November 18, 2016 in Premier League, 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.


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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BPL Notebook Matchday 1: Debutant managers set their mark

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Weekend in 200 words or less

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

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

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

Stunned Champions miss Kante’s grit

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

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

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

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

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

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

Koeman outwits Pochettino despite Spurs’ late comeback

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

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

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

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

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

Pep’s City require time to hit peak form

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mourinho’s United take shape in tidy manner

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conte’s Chelsea clasp to the Italian’s beat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weekend Stats

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


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Manchester United and Jose Mourinho’s redemption mission looks promising

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Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United appointment was terribly overdue.

What possibly should have been the ideal hire following Sir Alex Ferguson’s sudden retirement, and Mourinho’s departure from Real Madrid, will officially take effect when United face Leicester City in Sunday’s Community Shield clash.

In that time United have terminated David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, as their attempts to maintain Ferguson’s winning mantra failed miserably. Several foreign signings and millions of dollars in transfer fees have been invested at Old Trafford, but apart from last year’s fourth place finish, United have missed out on the top four twice, and have never been apart of the title race.

While it was believed Mourinho was disappointed that United were reluctant to name him as Ferguson’s successor, the Portuguese manager’s return to Chelsea guided amongst England’s elite. A Premier League and Capital One Cup double was recorded in Mourinho’s second season, but failure to maintain such levels resulted in his immediate sacking midway through last season.

Ultimately both parties were at a crossroads – Mourinho’s options were limited considering previously managed clubs and current vacancies, whereas Van Gaal’s reign at Old Trafford turned United into a wretched watch and the club were slowly transitioning into perennial underachievers. Both United and Mourinho have been natural winners over the past decade, and with their current reputation severely battered, an opportunity at redemption couldn’t be ignored.

Where multiple United supporters displayed displeasure with Mourinho’s eventual hiring, oddly, he’s quite similar to the legendary Ferguson.

“He’s won the European Cup twice with different clubs and won titles with all the clubs he’s been at,” said Ferguson.

“You can’t ignore his record and I think Manchester United is the right kind of club for him.”

For one, they’re both pragmatists capable of utilizing players in the most efficient manner. While the general misconception surrounding Manchester United involves the club playing an attractive brand of football built on width and free-flowing possession, it’s key to remember that even the best Ferguson sides were reactive when required.

United comfortably dispatched of Premier League minnows by constantly pushing men forward at every opportunity, but the likes of Darren Fletcher, Park Ji Sung, Anderson and Owen Hargreaves all played key roles in United’s deep Champions League runs over the past decade. Often reverting to a 4-5-1, Ferguson knew how to grind out victories in a slightly more appealing way then Mourinho, but was rarely criticized for doing so.

More so, solely hailing Mourinho as a defensive-minded coach would discredit some of the most exciting sides of this era. Following his first stint at Chelsea, Mourinho’s Inter Milan sides were leading goal-scorers in the two seasons the Portuguese manager spent in Italy. Elsewhere, during his fierce rivalry with Pep Guardiola, Mourinho’s Real Madrid out-scored and beat arguably the best club side ever to claim a La Liga title in 2012.

Similarly, Mourinho’s 2013-2014 title winning Chelsea side played some of the best football in Europe over the first half of that season – combining Cesc Fabregas’ vision, intricate passing in tight spaces, and Diego Costa’s power upfront – before reverting to a defensive minded approach to combat fatigue during the run-in. Additionally, Mourinho’s equally incorporated players such as Deco, Wesley Sneijder, Mesut Ozil and Cristiano Ronaldo – players renowned for their minimal work rate out of possession – into defensive juggernauts further highlighting his ability to identify a proper balance.

Tactically, there shouldn’t be any drastic modifications to Mourinho’s set-up, which therefore should benefit a United side that hoisted the best defensive record in the division last season. Mourinho’s attention to detail should improve a sturdy defensive shape, as they transition between two deep banks of four, possible energetic high pressing, or a standard 4-5-1 in high-profile matches.

Likewise, while Mourinho is lambasted for not offering youth a chance, apart from the early stages of Ferguson’s career at Old Trafford, the former United manager has rarely turned academy prospects into regular first-team players. Players such as Gerard Pique and Paul Pogba have turned into world stars after being overlooked by Ferguson, whereas only Wes Brown, Darren Fletcher and Danny Welbeck maintained a consistent role in the first team.

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Mourinho, however won’t encounter that issue considering several youngsters are currently in the first team, so frankly the one possible downfall in this newfound relationship is the Portuguese manager himself. Although Ferguson was a notorious media bully, Mourinho’s siege-mentality has been nauseating in the past, thus leading to players and his medical staff turn against him. The Portuguese manager lost the dressing room at Real Madrid and most recently at Chelsea, and it’ll be interesting to see how the United players handle Mourinho’s antics.

Then there’s longevity. Mourinho has never stayed at a club for more than three full seasons, thus resulting in many insinuating he’s unable to build a dynasty. Mourinho embraced bigger challenges following treble triumphs with Inter and Porto, yet ironically, those moves witnessed the manager subsequently sacked at Chelsea and Real Madrid.

A second spell at Chelsea presented Mourinho with a chance to build a dynasty in a familiar environment with young promising talent, but failure to build on a title-winning squad – Chelsea’s new (one in-one out) transfer policy exploited a fatigued Blues squad still possessing weaknesses in key areas – was decisive considering it was a key factor in his return. Chelsea’s poor title defence – the worst of any champions in the Premier League area – was a low point for both club and manager, but it’s unlikely Mourinho will encounter such issues at Old Trafford.

At United he will inherit a side that can be classified as a genuine title contender. Mourinho has already added Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Eric Bailly and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to the United roster, and with Pogba reportedly set to make a return to Old Trafford, he arguably has more options at his disposal than his 2013-2014 Chelsea side in a league were several top sides are still enduring a transitional period.

A youthful attack containing the devious Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford’s ability to run the channels, and Jesse Lingard’s tactical discipline compliments the experience of Wayne Rooney and Ibrahimovic. Pogba’s anticipated return to Old Trafford would bolster a midfield alongside the dynamic Ander Herrera and Morgan Schneiderlin or genuine passers in Michael Carrick and Daley Blind.

Then in defence, Mourinho has attack-minded full-backs and is expected to prefer a powerful centre-back partnership of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. With most sides aiming to press from the front, he can also slot Blind to centre-back to help United play out the back, whilst pushing full-backs Matteo Darmian and Luke Shaw forward.

When you assess the current state of the Premier League, the Portuguese manager’s familiarity with the league and the options at Mourinho’s disposal presents both parties a chance to return amongst the higher echelon of English football.

“I came to Manchester United because I wanted to work under Alex Ferguson and then in the latter years [with] what Mourinho has done in football, in Spain and Italy and England, he is a manager who you want to play under,” said Rooney.

“He is one of the best around and to learn from what he brings it’s going to be exciting for me to try and learn under a manager such as himself.”

Unlike Real Madrid and Chelsea, where Mourinho was deemed a failure, a spell at Old Trafford will provide the Portuguese manager with adequate funds to build his preferred team, and the required patience to gain results. Modern day football will never see a tenure comparable to Ferguson’s, but at United, Mourinho’s ensured ample time to attempt to build a dynasty, assuming he doesn’t replicate the disaster that transpired at Stamford Bridge last season.

At the time of Ferguson’s departure, United required a proven winner to maintain the club’s success, whereas now, Mourinho is tasked with guiding his troops back to glory. With a great balance of creativity, experience, youth, technical ability and power, there’s no reason why United shouldn’t be challenging for domestic honours and participating in the latter stages of the Champions League in the next few years.

Regardless if Mourinho fails to display longevity at Old Trafford, his main job is to regain the winning mantra and fear factor once displayed at the club so it can be further evolved in the near future. Nevertheless, the club and manager’s obsession with silverware should be the catalyst in rediscovering the winning aura that’s disappeared.

“I want to be champion,” Mourinho told The Sun. “To say before the season starts that the top four is the target? The top four is not the target. We want to play to be champions.”

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Posted by on August 6, 2016 in Published Work


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