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Eden Hazard regains status as Premier League’s best player under Antonio Conte’s guidance

Eden Hazard’s first half brace against Manchester City provided another case for the Belgian to claim his second PFA Player of the Year award along with a Premier League title. Although Chelsea have performed better as a unit over the course of the season in comparison to the 2014-2015 triumph, Hazard has once again dominated in the latter stages of the season when the Blues have slightly plateaued.

Hazard, who arrived from Ligue 1 a few seasons ago as one of the most coveted youngsters in European football, has now developed into the finest player in the country. Along with several teammates, the 26-year-old endured a poor campaign in the build up to Jose Mourinho’s dismissal last season, but now represents a rejuvenated figure under Antonio Conte.

Chelsea sit seven points clear of second place Spurs with seven games remaining and barring a tragic slip-up, Hazard’s been the catalyst in another successful title campaign, which includes several standout performances to covet another PFA award. Oddly enough, for lengthy spells this season Chelsea’s diminutive dynamo wasn’t mentioned as a potential candidate for the award, often overshadowed by teammate N’Golo Kante who is also close to playing an integral role in two consecutive title triumphs.

Kante’s move to Chelsea is one of many factors associated with Leicester City’s decline, but more importantly, the Frenchman’s arrival substantially improved Antonio Conte’s midfield. The Frenchman may arguably be the pivotal cog to Chelsea’s title-winning success, but Hazard’s flourished in decisive moments throughout the campaign.

In many ways, Hazard’s subject to downfall is possibly his individual playing style. Far from a natural goal-scorer, or a tireless runner, it’s unsurprising that the Belgian attacker is slightly underrated. The Chelsea star plays relatively simple passes to switch play, and can be guilty of slowing down the tempo of the game to isolate defenders, but the close body control, swift incisive passing combinations, along with his ability to dribble and simultaneously shrug off opponents places the Belgian in a different class.

Unlikely to consistently showcase Alexis Sanchez’s work-rate on both ends of the field, poach goals like Harry Kane, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, or Romelu Lukaku, and unable to provide the composure, silky passing and vision in the final third like David Silva, Hazard’s fine-tuned his trade to dominate Premier League opponents at will. Even Dele Alli’s growth at Spurs is fairly noteworthy, but where the aforementioned players have fizzled out at some point this season, Hazard as provided several moments of brilliance this season, whilst arguably surpassing the level displayed in Chelsea’s 2014-2015 triumph.

Then, Mourinho demanded the Belgian to be a hardworking wide player that performed his defensive duties, but be equally efficient in the final third. Ultimately, Mourinho inevitably questioned the Belgian’s work-ethic and was keen to state his disappointment in Chelsea’s 2014 Champions League semi-final exit to Atletico Madrid.

“Eden is the kind of player that is not so mentally ready to look back to his left-back and to leave his life for him,” said Mourinho. “If you see the first goal of Atletico you completely understand where the mistake was and why we conceded that goal. The perfect team at the top-level cannot make these kinds of mistakes.”

On the other hand, Hazard’s production in the final third also hindered the appreciation surrounding the Chelsea star. One of the Belgian’s flaws prior to Chelsea’s initial title triumph this decade involved the 25-year-old’s reluctance to dominate games by opting to play short incisive passes opposed to shooting in dangerous positions around the box.

Despite several news outlets linking the Belgian with an eventual move to Real Madrid, Hazard doesn’t necessarily possess the goal-scoring prowess previous world-class exports (Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez and Gareth Bale) displayed prior to their big money transfers to Spain. Yet to eclipse the 22 goal tally – in all competition – recorded in the Belgian’s final season at Lille, Hazard should surpass his league best 14 Premier League goals at the bare minimum.

Still, Hazard’s rediscovering his status as a devastating attacker surfaced following Conte’s tactical shift to a 3-4-2-1. The tactical rejig presents Hazard the freedom to float around the final third and into pockets of space across the field to receive the ball and subsequently dribble past opponents.

The other key aspect associated with Chelsea’s successful 3-4-2-1 involved Conte ridding Hazard of his defensive duties. Similar to Ronaldo, Hazard’s disinterest in consistently tracking advancing full-backs has proved a liability to Chelsea’s defensive shape, and another reason Mourinho and the Belgian’s previous managers fell out with the 26-year-old.

But with Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante protecting the midfield zone and the wing-backs offering width going forward and additional defensive cover on the flanks, Hazard’s been able to flourish as a pure attacker with minimal defensive responsibilities. It’s also why Hazard remains one of the top scorers, dribblers and most fouled players in the Premier League.

Likewise, Hazard rediscovered his knack of scoring decisive goals throughout the season.

There was the individual run from half to shrug off Francis Coquelin and mesmerize Laurent Koscielny to defeat Arsenal at Stamford Bridge. Dribbling from both sides of the field to gain a yard on Everton’s Ashley Williams to score twice from the flanks resulted in a blowout against Everton. Meanwhile, swift transitional breaks at West Ham and Manchester City provided examples of Hazard’s threat on the counter-attack.

Goals at home to Manchester United, Leicester City and most recently Manchester City were also significant, but the varied aforementioned moments of brilliance justify the 26-year-old’s status as a top-class all-round attacker. Now capable of scoring goals consistently from open-play, on the counter-attack or through sheer moments of individual brilliance, Hazard has restored himself as the key man in possibly another title-winning side.

Coincidentally, Chelsea’s final hurdle against a top five side presents the Blues with their first trip to Old Trafford this season against a United outfit that have struggled to win home games. With Diego Costa struggling for form since the new year, and Pedro’s goal return fizzling out, Hazard remains Chelsea’s main goal threat and source of creativity – assuming Cesc Fabregas doesn’t feature in the XI – and Mourinho will be tasked with nullifying the Belgian.

In United’s FA Cup quarter-final exit at Stamford Bridge, the plan to have Phil Jones track Hazard, and constantly hack the Belgian – a tactic responsible for Ander Herrera’s harsh dismissal and also utilized by PSG during Mourinho’s second tenure at Chelsea – backfired, yet oddly enough, limited the Blues’ attack for large portions of the match.

“In 20, 25 minutes for Hazard, it was impossible for him to play football,” said Conte following Chelsea’s FA Cup triumph over United.

“I see only that he got a lot of kicks. I don’t think that I’m crazy and I see only him in this situation. “He started receiving kicks and finished receiving kicks. No one person can say this did not happen.”

Many teams have fallen into the trap of trying to outwit Conte, but in the meantime haven’t identified a ploy to stifle Hazard’s all-round attacking threat. The latter represents the significant feat in Mourinho’s first major win against a top side as United manager, whilst preventing Chelsea from cruising to another Premier League title.

Nevertheless, the recurring emphasis on reducing Hazard’s influence validates Conte’s tactical alteration as a pivotal moment in terms of Chelsea’s resurgence as an elite Premier League side, and the Belgian’s status as the best player in the country. Another top performance against his former manager would make it difficult for even Mourinho to question Hazard’s merit.

Under Conte’s guidance, Hazard’s reemerged back into the conversation as one of world football’s top talents. Similar to the current title race, there just doesn’t appear to be another legitimate front-runner, which is another testament to Hazard’s greatness. His evolution into a devastating, reliable final third attacker solidifies his status as this year’s standout Premier League player.

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

 

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Arsenal clash could rejuvenate Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United

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.”

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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Tactical Preview: Chelsea – Manchester United

Jose Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge is the main storyline in the Premier League this weekend. Sacked less than a year ago, Mourinho will face Antonio Conte for the first time and attempt to overpass his former employers in the league table.

It will be United’s second consecutive away match against the traditional top four and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Mourinho’s men play on the counter-attack once again. United added power to the midfield by moving to a 4-3-3, with Marouane Fellaini joining Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera to frustrate Liverpool at Anfield, and it’s likely he’ll adopt a similar approach here.

‘I knew that, working in England and staying in the Premier League, sooner or later I had to play against Chelsea and go to Stamford Bridge,’ Mourinho said. ‘The computer has decided it is to go now. And here we go.’

‘I don’t have to analyze their start to the season,’ he added. ‘But you look to the table and you see where they are. They are in a good position. So the start of the season cannot be bad if they are where they are.’

Although Chelsea pose a considerably different threat going forward, it would be surprising to see Mourinho revert back to a 4-2-3-1. Ander Herrera has performed excellent in a deeper role in recent weeks, but with Paul Pogba likely given the license to push forward in a midfield duo, the former would be forced to cover too much space in central areas.

It’s likely Fellaini will retain his place in the midfield trio, but Mourinho’s main decision is where he’ll position the personnel. At Anfield, Pogba operated closest to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and though he rarely influenced the match, the Frenchman did create the best chance for his Swedish teammate.

Herrera is unlikely to feature as the no.10 despite his goal threat around the box, and Mourinho could opt to utilize Fellaini’s aerial presence to fluster Chelsea’s back-line. Gary Cahill has struggled against Ibrahimovic in the past, and Mourinho could instruct the Swede or Fellaini to isolate the out-of-form England international or target David Luiz.

The other major decision involves the wide positions – Mourinho’s traditional no.10’s have operated in wider positions this season, and assuming he doesn’t utilize a 4-2-3-1, this may be his preference against Chelsea. Ashley Young’s efficient performance in a defensive winger role should merit another start on the left, but the big question is whether Mourinho opts for Juan Mata’s guile, Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s creativity and transitional threat, or Marcus Rashford’s direct dribbling on the opposite flank.

United’s back four, on the other hand, should remain unchanged. Daley Blind and Antonio Valencia have performed well at the full-back position, while Eric Baily and Chris Smalling’s physical stature will provide a stern test against the league’s leading goal-scorer Diego Costa.

Chelsea’s mini-resurgence following two embarrassing defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal involved Conte shifting his side’s shape to a 3-4-2-1. However, Manchester United’s visit to Stamford Bridge will display whether the system is a long-term solution for the Blues.

The return of John Terry could see Cesar Azpilicueta move to a right wing-back role, with Gary Cahill moving to the right of David Luiz. This would provide interesting battles in wide areas with Ashley Young responsible for Azpilicueta, whereas United must be wary of Marcos Alonso’s positioning on the left.

Nonetheless, Chelsea’s centre-backs should cope with Ibrahimovic’s threat in a 3v1 situation, as the Swede lacks natural pace to get behind Conte’s defence. However, the threat of Martial and Rashford breaking into wide areas beyond the wing-backs or into the channels to isolate exterior centre-backs could prove costly.

N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic are expected to continue in midfield, and the former has gradually improved playing slightly ahead of the latter. Chelsea’s midfield possesses tenacity, strength, ball-winning skills, and the willingness to press the opposing midfielders which is why Mourinho may be tempted to summon Fellaini.

Conte will have Oscar and Willian available for selection, but Victor Moses’ positive performance last weekend may merit a start alongside Eden Hazard. Hazard remains the key player, here, though, and may be the reason Mourinho sticks with a 4-3-3 due to his new positional freedom to roam between the lines or break beyond the centre-backs. Once an individual battle between Hazard and Valencia will now require an additional midfielder or centre-back to negate the Belgian.

This also is another opportunity for Costa to provide a big-game moment, following disappointing performances against Laurent Koscielny and Joel Matip in previous weeks. Mourinho may replicate the successful approach of man-marking the Spaniard tightly and encouraging his centre-backs to sacrifice fouls away from the box. Smalling and Bailly have developed a suitable partnership with the latter sweeping danger when required, but against an excellent all-rounder in Costa, this will be no easy task for the United duo.

“I think that it arrives at the right moment for us,” said Conte.

“It’s important to continue this way. The last game we beat a good team that last season won the title and this was important. On Sunday we face another great team. I want to see progress compared to Liverpool and Arsenal. I am confident about this. I saw fantastic commitment this week.”

Chelsea will likely intend to dominate possession and peg United into their own half, but that’s not an issue for Mourinho who will aim to l avoid defeat on his return to Stamford Bridge. Traditionally, United have leant towards width in bigger matches, and here, this appears to be a clear outlet to success.

But limiting Costa and Hazard’s threat will be Mourinho’s main priority against a Chelsea side that’s fairly average in terms of creating chances from open-play. Therefore, Mourinho’s caution and intent to disrupt may lead to another drab encounter involving two sides that will focus on defensive structure, as neither manager can afford to lose another game.

 
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Posted by on October 22, 2016 in Published Work

 

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Tactical Preview: Manchester United – Manchester City

The 172nd Manchester derby is set to be most highly anticipated spectacle of the current Premier League season. Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho will compete in their first competitive match in nearly four years, and appear to be title contenders following their unbeaten start to the season.

Mourinho’s record against Guardiola is unconvincing, but a tilt at Old Trafford with a stable squad places United as slight favourites prior to kick-off. Nevertheless, this is still a battle between football’s chief pragmatist and the modern-day innovator in Guardiola. United is expected to congest central areas, hold a deep-line, and break when the opportunity is presented, whereas Guardiola’s City will dominate possession with hopes of breaking down Mourinho’s sturdy back-line.

The main talking point, however, involves Guardiola’s replacement for the suspended Sergio Aguero.

“Sergio is an important player for us but we knew seven or eight days ago he was not going to be able to play and we would need to use other players,” said Guardiola. “I am a new guy here and I have to learn how things work, but you can be sure I learn quick. I take note of what happened and store it for the future.”

Kelechi Iheanacho is the suitable fill-in, but the City manager has various options to choose from upfront. Nolito is a direct runner that would drift across the front-line, aiming to receive possession and run at defenders, while Silva can operate as a false-nine, encourage runners beyond United’s back-line, though ensuring City dominate central areas.

Raheem Sterling, on the other hand, serves as an interesting tactical prospect. Sterling’s tactical intelligence is unprecedented at a young age, and his past experience in a central role witnessed the England international drop deep to pick up the ball to run at defenders, stretch the opposing back-line with quick sprints into the channel, and his ability to find open space within the penalty box.

Ironically, Sterling’s main weakness is his finishing, but the 21-year-old’s rejuvenated form under Guardiola has reassured his threat in the final third. City’s won several penalties this season via Sterling’s dribbling and pace, while his poacher finishing around the box illustrates the rapid improvement in comparison to last season.

Claudio Bravo is expected to make his City debut, which will improve the away side’s distribution and overall buildup play out the back. However, United’s aerial threat via set-pieces and crosses from wide areas could fluster the diminutive Chilean.

Leroy Sane and Ilkay Gundogan are also fit for selection which would result in a rejig of the XI’s Guardiola has selected thus far. Still, if Guardiola opts to start without a recognized striker, United’s back-line will face a stern test against the speed from either Sane, Jesus Navas, Nolito or Sterling.

In truth, Mourinho’s main concern rests in protecting space between the lines against Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. Guardiola has fielded both men in deeper central roles, with license to charge into the box or towards the channels to create overloads in wide areas. With the full-backs adopting narrow positions in half space, and Fernandinho or Gundogan sitting deep, both De Bruyne and Silva will receive ample space to create in key areas.

Gundogan’s debut would improve City’s aim to dictate the tempo from deep, and if Guardiola opts to field Silva as a false-nine, Fernandinho would finally receive the opportunity to play in his preferred box-to-box role without fear of covering space for the languid Yaya Toure. More so, Gundogan’s inclusion would test Wayne Rooney’s tactical resolve as he’d be forced to press the German throughout, which has proved a difficult task for the United captain in recent years.

This is undoubtedly a troubling prospect for United’s midfield, as they’ve looked unconvincing in protecting these zones. Their narrow win at Hull witnessed Adama Diomande easily drift into pockets of space behind the United midfield to receive possession and charge towards goal. When Southampton traveled to Old Trafford, United’s midfield also endured spells where they couldn’t cope with the passing of Jordi Clasie, Steven Davis and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, and solely benefited from their lack of a goal-threat around the box.

Here, and specifically in big matches, Mourinho has been renowned for flipping his 4-2-3-1 into a 4-3-3 and sacrificing a central midfielder, which means Rooney would be omitted. Rooney’s tactical discipline has been exposed in the past, and though he’s capable of game-defining moments whilst simultaneously producing average performances, Mourinho can’t afford to be overrun in midfield.

This is suited for Morgan Schneiderlin’s physical presence and ball-winning skills or Ander Herrera’s slick passing and tenacity in midfield to offer protection ahead of what should be an unchanged back-line. Perhaps a slightly advanced role would enable Pogba to finally flourish in a United shirt, and his combinations with Ibrahimovic in prior matches have been promising.

With that being said, Mourinho may also be tempted to start Marcus Rashford and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, assuming the latter is fit to participate from the start.

“He [Mkhitaryan] is available,” said Mourinho. “I’m not saying he’s ready to play 90 minutes but he’s ready to try to help us.”

The duo offers tactical discipline, while possessing excellent pace and dribbling skills to pose a threat via swift counter-attacks in transition. Martial’s slow start to the season puts his selection in jeopardy, but he still offers a similar goal threat against City’s unconvincing full-backs, who are expected to adopt fairly high positions.

Similar to the Ferguson era, United will pack the midfield and keep their defensive lines compact out of possession, before quickly scurrying forward with numbers on the counter. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s dislike for Guardiola is definitely motivation, but his ability to operate as a creator to get runners such as Pogba, Mkhitaryan, Rashford or Martial forward could be decisive. Likewise, Ibrahimovic’s aerial threat flustered every opponent United’s encountered thus far, and he’ll relish individual duels against Nicolas Otamendi or John Stones.

As expected, neither side has been overly convincing to start the season, and while the pattern of the match is predictable, this could be an extremely cautious showdown. City will dominate possession and aim to bypass United’s high-pressing in the early stages of the match, but Guardiola’s extensive ball retention has been a form of defence in high-profile away matches during his career.

It wouldn’t be far-fetched to see both managers play for a draw, yet here, the personnel decisions upfront should determine how the two sides approach the match.

 
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Posted by on September 9, 2016 in Published Work

 

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Guardiola and Mourinho’s renewed rivalry comes too soon to make stark assessment

So here we are again.

Another chapter between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho is set to unfold, yet it’s surreal that even a four-year break couldn’t rid the highly anticipated tension between the two managers.

This is the first time the two managers will be in opposing dugouts in a competitive match since Real Madrid clinched La Liga in 2012, yet it feels as if nothing has changed. That final match at the Camp Nou represents the sole time Guardiola hasn’t claimed a domestic title, but more importantly it signified a key moment in their managerial careers.

Initially it appeared Guardiola had lost the war – Mourinho was league champion, whereas the constant battle with the then-Madrid manager pushed the Spaniard into a year sabbatical to get away from his true passion. Yet, Mourinho failed to capitalize on Guardiola’s departure, and was subsequently dethroned by 15 points to Tito Vilanova’s Barcelona, thus resulting in Mourinho being fired for the first time in his career.

Since then, neither manager has been able to return to a Champions League final, and have equally been considered underachievers for their work at Bayern Munich and Chelsea. At Bayern, Pep was unable to guide the German champions to another European crown, whereas despite guiding Chelsea to the summit in England, Mourinho’s main goal was to build a dynasty – the Blues endured the worst title defence in Premier League history, finishing tenth, and the Portuguese manager was sacked in December.

More so, Manchester was supposed to serve as a therapeutic reinvigorating challenge for Guardiola. An opportunity to prove the cynics wrong – to build a team requiring evolution in nearly every position and transform them into an elite European side that produces breathtaking football. It was a challenge that threatened the other Premier League giants, specifically Manchester United who were spiralling downwards under Louis van Gaal.

Similar to Real Madrid at the turn of the decade, United required a solution to not only challenge Guardiola, but in the process regain their annual title challenger status. Ultimately, they turned to Mourinho: a man who craved the job since Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement, and who already crippled Guardiola’s mindset in their previous battles in Spain.

Their El Clasico battles sparked attention worldwide – it helped that the two best players of our generation combatted against each other in their prime – but to Guardiola’s dislike, these encounters are vividly remembered for the off-the-field/media hype opposed to the football itself – in truth, the quality of the games were generally poor.

There’s a growing feat that similar football displays may occur in Manchester, and for both managers, that’s not an ideal prospect. The Manchester Derby may not generate media attention equivalent to El Clasico, but the rivalry and hatred amongst both clubs and supporters is parallel.

Still, the upcoming chapter in the Guardiola and Mourinho tale supersedes anything ever witnessed in the history of the derby. It’s bigger than Wayne Rooney’s acrobatic winner at Old Trafford, Michael Owen’s stoppage time winner in the 2009 seven goal-thriller and the Vincent Kompany goal that guided City to their first Premier League title in the modern era.

This is football idealism vs. the ultimate pragmatist, proactive battling reactive, attractive possession oriented football aiming to solve a well-drilled organized defence. The contrasting styles of football, and off-the field managerial antics and preferences doesn’t alter the fact that both men crave success.

And while it’s normal for attention to be placed on two of the sought out managers in the sport, their first showdown in over four years lacks significance from a footballing perspective. Guardiola remains keen on having his players drilled into his football philosophy and lifestyle, whereas Mourinho’s pragmatism doesn’t conflict with his care for his players and vice-versa, and though both have evident flaws, they’re aim to win is perceived via dissimilar methods.

Past wars in Spain didn’t benefit either manager, and frankly another attempt by Mourinho to replicate an archaic method of draining his counterpart through the media would likely backfire. With Jurgen Klopp, Antonio Conte, Arsene Wenger and Mauricio Pochettino around, Mourinho doesn’t have the time to reignite an individual war with Guardiola. It won’t work.

The decision to bring Zlatan Ibrahimovic to the Premier League, however, insists that psychological battle with Guardiola may continue. Guardiola’s relationship with Ibrahimovic deteriorated quickly when they were both at Barcelona in 2010-2011, and the possibility of the Swede finally gaining revenge on his former manager hints that Mourinho’s hostile approach may continue at Old Trafford.

It’s success or failure for Mourinho, and though he’s finally at a club that provides patience, stability and long-term support, the Portuguese manager would be unable to cope finishing behind Guardiola. Similarly, Guardiola’s massive overhaul at the Etihad suggests Mourinho is in the ideal position to inflict the first blow, raise the pressure on the Spaniard, and win now.

Likewise, United’s joint best defensive record benefitted Mourinho prior to his arrival, but he’s yet to identify the proper balance in attacking positions. Mourinho has yet to alter his starting XI, and reliance on the individual brilliance of Ibrahimovic, and a late winner from Marcus Rashford indicates United are far from the finished product.

They’re not the powerful, never say die Chelsea that perplexed English sides with the introduction of the 4-3-3. The brilliance of Wesley Sneijder behind lethal strikers, whilst ahead of physically imposing midfielders and centre-backs doesn’t compare. And the relentlessly slick counter-attacking machine that steamrolled teams at the Santiago Bernabeu – and effectively halted Guardiola’s tenure at Barcelona – would be difficult to replicate without a Cristiano Ronaldo-esque threat upfront.

Mourinho’s United are capable of developing into a direct, transitional nightmare for opponents in the future – look no further than Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Marcus Rashford’s cameo at Hull two weeks ago for evidence – but reliance and faith in Rooney and Ibrahimovic, the former in particular, stagnates an immediate stylistic alteration.

City, on the other hand, also have to hand debuts to several summer signings, whilst continually building towards perfecting Guardiola’s ideology. The false full-backs, instant counter-pressing, and insistence to quickly cycle through possession requires time, but clearly suggests City’s peak form awaits, despite impressive spells of dominance in previous league matches.

The ball-playing wizards consisting of Xavi, Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, or the sheer greatness of Lionel Messi aren’t at Guardiola’s disposal at the Etihad. Arjen Robben’s threat, combined with the tactical and positional universality of Philip Lahm, David Alaba and Thomas Muller can’t be relied on either.

Even though, Guardiola has successfully revolutionized the manner in which Barcelona and Bayern Munich effectively ply their trade, the Spaniard’s workload at City is undoubtedly his biggest challenge. A broken model built around individualism and possessing the most talented squad is the antithesis of a Guardiola side, and the pressure to build a cohesively flexible unit and claim silverware poses an arduous challenge.

Nevertheless, the most fitting aspect involving the two sides is that they’re generally at the same level of development. Though United are generally built to win the league this year, Guardiola’s talent base can suffice while they adapt to his well-detailed tactical scheme.

The football plot lines are also interesting. How will Guardiola replace the suspended Sergio Aguero? Will Mourinho finally drop Wayne Rooney for an additional midfielder to ensure United aren’t overrun in midfield? Is this the ideal match for debutants such as Ilkay Gundogan, Leroy Sane or Claudio Bravo to start?

Saturday’s derby should provide a brief example of what could be the most thrilling title race in the league’s history, but the most anticipated match of the season must display improved growth opposed to resuming fireworks. The tactical ideologues for both managers have been questioned following recent failures, and though the possibility of a cagey and cautious encounter is expected, the platform presented to make a statement is available.

Titles aren’t won, nor are philosophies fully integrated in September, but avoiding defeat will be imperative, here. Both managers have experienced memorable nights in Manchester, but now they aim to conquer a city that is big enough for one true winner. Failure is no longer an option and the pressure is on both managers to make an immediate impact, but where media rants and touch-line quarrels dominated headlines, this new chapter has to be about the football.

An identity crisis looms throughout Manchester, and though Saturday’s derby will provide more answers, the dawn of a new era emerging throughout the Premier League will slowly transition into a global spectacle. All eyes will be on Old Trafford, the ‘Theatre of Dreams’, where ironically, one can be prematurely crushed.

Something has to give.

 
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Posted by on September 9, 2016 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Paul Pogba’s arrival may force Jose Mourinho to adopt a three-man midfield at Manchester United

All eyes are set on Paul Pogba.

What appears to be the final incoming transfer at Old Trafford has smashed the world transfer record. At the age of 23, Pogba, is now the most expensive player in world football, joining Manchester United for a record fee £89m. It’s gut-check time – all the hype, all the dabbing, all the aspirations of becoming a Ballon d’Or winner will be displayed on a weekly basis in the most watched league in the world.

The global spotlight now rests on the young Frenchman, which is largely why he decided to return to Manchester. Leaving Juventus – a club on the cusp of becoming genuine European contenders and already perennial Italian champions – for Manchester United is currently a significant downgrade, which equally illustrates United’s intent to regain an elite status across the continent.

“I spoke with a lot of players when he was at Madrid; I spoke with [Alvaro] Morata and I spoke with others and they all told me he’s the coach for me because he’s going to make you work harder. I feel this,” Pogba told MUTV.

“I spoke with him a few times and he gave me energy and positivity. I was thinking ‘why not?’. I’m sure he can help me improve and make me a better player and a better person.”

Without Champions League football, Jose Mourinho’s United were still capable of luring Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Eric Bailly and Pogba to Old Trafford, thus making an alarming statement to their domestic and former European rivals. A domestic winner and proven striker upfront will ease Mourinho into his job, whereas Mkhitaryan is a creative upgrade in the final third and Bailly is an exciting athletic prospect at the back.

Pogba, however, is the marquee signing, and the aim is for the Frenchman to command the midfield zone for the next decade. This is why United invested so much money in a nearly finished product, but similar to the aforementioned summer signings – excluding Bailly – it’s uncertain how Mourinho will utilize the players at his disposal.

On paper, United appear to be a genuine title contender, but apart from bolstering the midfield and attack with top-class talent, you can argue that the incoming players weren’t desperately required and only Ibrahimovic’s role has been defined. While Pogba is the marquee player, most teams including Ibrahimovic are built around the Swede upfront, which could be problematic from a short-term perspective.

This could explain why Ibrahimovic has yet to win a Champions League during his career – eventually the entire attack is solely based around long balls into the striker as most coaches wisely attempt to maximize his full potential. At least for this season at Old Trafford that may be true, as the Swedish striker has yet to show significant signs of declination, whereas his dual role would compliment Pogba’s late runs into the box, thus improving United’s attack.

Therefore, Mourinho is likely to field Wayne Rooney in a no.10 role assuming he utilizes the 4-2-3-1 that’s been his base system at Real Madrid and Chelsea. During those tenures Mourinho’s preferred midfield featured Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira at the Santiago Bernabeu, whereas Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic protected the backline at Stamford Bridge. The former features a hybrid of a destroyer/wide-ranged passer with a tenacious runner, while the latter showcased a positional undisciplined creator with a technical ball winner.

Pogba’s versatility enables the Frenchman to operate in various roles, but he failed to excel in Deschamps’ 4-2-3-1 throughout his international career – most notably at Euro 2016. Aiming to maximize Antoine Griezmann’s goal threat was logical, but it equally meant Pogba’s influence was sacrificed. In the latter stages of the tournament, Pogba was cautious of his positioning and often played deeper near the centre-circle to play passes going forward, as neither the 23-year-old nor Blaise Matuidi are natural defensive midfielders.

Nevertheless, this isn’t to say Pogba won’t or can’t be utilized in a midfield duo. Home matches against inferior opposition should see United dominate majority of the possession, which would allow Pogba to join the attack, whilst Michael Carrick or Morgan Schneiderlin holds their position to protect the defence.

The worry for United is they currently lack a reliable top class defensive midfielder, and were constantly exploited in transitional phases against Leicester City in Sunday’s Community Shield. Mourinho could turn to Morgan Schneiderlin to as a temporary solution, but Pogba’s compatriot is arguably better suited in the opposite shuttling role due to his dynamism.

With that being said, Mourinho is renowned for flipping his 4-2-3-1 into a 4-3-3 in the bigger games, and that would enable the Frenchman to play in the shuttling role that was responsible for his rapid prominence at Juventus. The shuttling role presents Pogba the freedom to charge forward into attack but also utilize his brute strength to regain possession in central areas. United’s midfielders are more adept to shuttling opposed to operating in a double-pivot, which may force Mourinho to eventually alter his main system.

Although there are still selection issues that could arise regarding Rooney’s first team status once Pogba is declared match fit, and Juan Mata’s future at the club, United appear better equipped utilizing a three-man midfield. Considering the large amount of money spent to sanction Pogba’s return, Mourinho’s main goal surely rests upon maximizing the world’s most expensive player’s threat.

“He [Pogba] has everything,” said Mourinho. “What he has to learn now is how to play with us because I always say that in football you can be a super player, like he is, but a team is a team and you need to learn how to play in the team, and the team needs to learn how to play with you.”

“We need to get the best out of him and this will be a process. So if he needs protection, I am here to protect. I know some people think that he arrives here now and, the first time he touches the ball, he scores, but I’m here to protect him and give him the best conditions to be what we think he is going to be, which is a football player for Man United, a reference for this club. I’m so happy.”

Apart from slight mental lapses in terms of positioning, and letting his emotions alter his performance, Pogba is an exceptional all-rounder with all the tools required to dominate a league that is slowly regaining its tactical essence. Whether it be goals, creativity, power, or sheer technical ability, Pogba has it all, and considering he’s yet to reach his peak, Mourinho’s experience in elevating a player’s confidence can prove decisive.

Perhaps he’s never been the standout player or midfielder during his time in Turin, but now, Pogba must now rise to the challenge and consistently produce standout performances. Failure to instantly seam into the Manchester United setup could lead to psychological issues and possible stagnation that has witnessed other marquee signings fail in the past.

But with every risk comes a possible reward, and United’s excessive transfer fee for the most sought out young player in world football is a triumph that can’t be overlooked. With Pogba, United aim to provide the Frenchman a platform to begin an era of dominance in what might be the most competitive Premier League seasons in the competition’s history.

The stage is now yours Paul, you have our attention.

 
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Posted by on August 9, 2016 in Published Work

 

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Manchester United and Jose Mourinho’s redemption mission looks promising

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.

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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