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Tactical Preview: Chelsea – Leicester City

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Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off features the two most recent Premier League champions Chelsea and Leicester City. The former failed to defeat the latter on both occasions last year, with Claudio Ranieri coincidentally claiming the title at Stamford Bridge.

Nevertheless, Leicester’s return to Stamford Bridge presents additional pressure towards the reigning champions considering the Foxes have conceded four goals against two of the traditional top four sides away from the King Power Stadium. While Chelsea’s form remains somewhat inconsistent – despite a bounce back away win at Hull – Antonio Conte’s switch to a 3-4-2-1 has been effective following humbling defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal.

The main selection issue for Conte rests in who plays behind Diego Costa alongside Eden Hazard. It’s uncertain that Willian will feature following the sudden passing of the Brazilian’s mother, so Conte could turn to Victor Moses direct running or Oscar’s guile and creativity on the right. Conte’s recent system alteration has left Oscar without a place in the current XI, but his dynamism and tireless work-rate could result in a potential recall.

Frankly there shouldn’t be any changes to the current Chelsea midfield bank: N’Golo Kante enjoyed freedom playing slightly ahead of Nemanja Matic, and should feature in that role against his former employers. Meanwhile, Marcos Alonso should continue at left-wing back, and the return of John Terry would push Cesar Azpilicueta to right wing-back.

“It’s important for me to see every day the shape, every day the situation,” said the Italian.

“Tomorrow I have four central defenders and I have to take a decision for three, I have to value the situation – one must go on the bench.”

Elsewhere, Conte will be hoping Terry’s potential return will provide stability to a back-four that’s been unconvincing since his injury. With that being said, Gary Cahill will feature on the opposing side of David Luiz, as the Brazilian will be expected to build attacks from the back. The Blues will rely on Luiz’s passing from deep with Cesc Fabregas on the bench and it will be interesting to see whether Islam Slimani and Jamie Vardy will step forward to negate the Brazilian’s productivity.

In terms of individual battles, Chelsea’s key men are unsurprisingly their best attacking players in Diego Costa and Hazard. Costa is currently the highest goal-scorer in the league and should relish individual battles with centre-backs Robert Huth and Wes Morgan, who have been thoroughly exposed against direct attackers since Kante’s departure.

On the other hand, Hazard’s role behind Costa offers the Belgian freedom to drift into pockets of space in central areas if he’s not positioned towards the left flank, but here, he should dominate either way. Daniel Amartey hasn’t performed poorly in midfield, but his partnership with Danny Drinkwater still witnesses the duo concede far too much space in central areas. The possible inclusion of Andy King – a midfielder renowned for making late runs into the box – would leave Drinkwater further isolated in midfield and Hazard shouldn’t encounter difficulties receiving the ball in dangerous areas.

Likewise, one of Leicester’s weaknesses stems down their right flank due to Riyad Mahrez’s reluctance to protect right-back Danny Simpson. Simpson can prove to be a liability in 1v1 situations, and unless protection from midfield or Mahrez is provided, Hazard and Alonso’s overloads could be the decisive factor.

There shouldn’t be any major changes to Leicester’s shape or their personnel, but Ranieri’s attacking quartet could shape the general tempo of the match. Islam Slimani and Jamie Vardy are expected to start from the front and the latter’s runs into the channel could trouble Cahill or Terry in exterior centre-back positions. If Kante plays further forward to press Drinkwater and prevent long diagonals towards Vardy, Matic’s positioning will be key in terms of bypassing the duo’s pressing and ensuring Slimani doesn’t isolate David Luiz.

Ranieri could summon Ahmed Musa towards the left to peg back Azpilicueta, but with Chelsea likely to dominate possession he may prefer the diligent Marc Albrighton. If Leicester can quickly facilitate possession into wide areas, Slimani may be instructed to target the struggling Gary Cahill to win aerial duels in the box.

“Conte changed everything, and now it’s important that the [Chelsea] players follow him,” said Ranieri.

“It will be another tough match,” he added. “Conte has changed the shape of Chelsea so we have to fight.

Although Chelsea have been underwhelming in open play when presented the task of breaking down organized opposition, Leicester remains vulnerable defending set-pieces. Conte may opt to designate set-piece duties elsewhere due to Willian’s significant decline in this area, as Chelsea possess ample aerial threats that could exploit Leicester’s deficiencies.

Perhaps Leicester have stumbled against the traditional English elite thus far, but Chelsea’s issue creating chances and inefficient finishing suggests that they won’t be blown out at Stamford Bridge. However, the Foxes’ poor away record and predictable attack should ensure that Chelsea will cope better with their threat this time around due to improved defensive structure under Conte.

Neither side are the defensive giants that claimed the Premier League title in previous seasons so there will be goals, but it’s vital that Leicester score first – they have yet to showcase their ability to turnaround a result on the road this season – if they intend on claiming maximum points.

 
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Posted by on October 14, 2016 in Published Work

 

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BPL Notebook Matchday 6: Antonio Conte’s Chelsea receive a humbling reality check

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Welcome to the Premier League, Antonio Conte, the honeymoon is officially over.

Three wins from the opening three games presented room for optimism, but Conte’s Blues remain win-less in league play since the international break. The talks of a possible title challenge have halted, and fears of last year’s nightmare sits in the minds of Chelsea fans across the world, and most certainly the players.

Can you blame them?

Apart from the departure of Jose Mourinho and the summer signing of N’Golo Kante, Chelsea’s XI is identical to last year’s side that produced the worst title defence in Premier League history with a tenth place finish. Very little has changed in personnel, and Conte’s task of returning this group of players into champions appears to be an insurmountable task.

Where Mourinho failed, Conte is now asked to succeed. David Luiz, Michy Batshuayi and Kante’s arrivals wouldn’t be classified as a great transfer window when compared to their title rivals, but a combination of athleticism, dynamism and youth doesn’t hurt a Chelsea side that psychologically crumbled during tribulation last year.

The Blues were convincing winners against a travelling Bournemouth side, and late goals against West Ham and Watford suggested that during the rough times Conte was capable of altering his tactics to gain a result. Where pre-season title favourites Manchester City and Manchester United were also perfect, Chelsea were keeping pace via the rejuvenated Diego Costa and a remarkable ball winner in Kante, who effortlessly protected the back-four.

Oddly enough, Chelsea produced their best performance of the season en route to their first blip of the season. The Blues flabbergasted Swansea at the Liberty Stadium for lengthy spells of their 2-2 draw, but several spurned opportunities from Eden Hazard and Diego Costa proved costly – despite the latter scoring two goals and earning a point from a losing position.

Thibaut Courtois conceding a penalty tipped the momentum in Swansea’s favour, but Gary Cahill’s mental lapse – despite being fouled in the process – gifted Leroy Fer a goal that’s practically inflicted a blow to Chelsea’s back-line. Perhaps John Terry’s injury shouldn’t be downplayed, but though the Chelsea’s captain’s absence deprives Conte an organizing leader at the back, it isn’t a legitimate excuse for the Blues’ current woes.

Liverpool and Arsenal were always going to provide a fair assessment of Chelsea’s progress under Conte, and the most in-form teams in the league – apart from Manchester City – comfortably dominated the West London side in every aspect. Liverpool came to Stamford Bridge and overloaded central areas to produce arguably the best first half performance of the season – to be frank, 2-1 was flattered Conte’s side.

More so, the manner in which Chelsea defended and conceded was shocking. They sat deep in a 4-5-1 and were reluctant to apply pressure in midfield. Jordan Henderson controlled the match from a deeper position – scoring an unbelievable goal in the process – whereas the attacking quartet constantly interchanged positions to overwhelm Nemanja Matic and Kante. Still, Dejan Lovren’s opener illustrated the issues Chelsea still encounter at the back: Coutinho’s whipped ball into the box met three unmarked Liverpool players at the far post, and the Croatian’s inch-perfect side-foot volley flew past Courtois.

The Blues were no better at the Emirates, but once again, a defensive individual mistake proved decisive. Alexis Sanchez nicked possession from Cahill, and charged into a 1v1 break with Courtois, before chipping the ball over the Belgian keeper. Chelsea trailed within the opening 10 minutes and shortly afterwards Arsenal inflicted further damage.

This time it was Hazard who failed to fulfill his defensive duties, as Hector Bellerin charged beyond the Belgian to receive Alex Iwobi’s pass in half space and the Arsenal right-back’s low cross met an unmarked Walcott to double the Gunners’ lead. A terrific counter-attack inspired by Mesut Ozil bamboozled Kante and witnessed the German combine with Alexis to put the match out of reach.

“We started this game in a bad way, and from the first minute” said Conte.

“This is very strange because Arsenal against Chelsea is a massive game,” he continued, “and when we play this type of game against a very good team like Arsenal, you must stay concentrated from the first minute and this today did not happen.”

Nonetheless, Conte’s men persisted on sitting off the opposition with neither Cesc Fabregas – who played 120 minutes midweek and probably shouldn’t have started despite scoring two goals – and Matic eager to press Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin. This was equally further evidence that Fabregas shouldn’t operate as a shuttler in Chelsea’s midfield trio, as Oscar’s tenacity and work-rate was dearly missed.

Chelsea were outclassed for the second consecutive week, and though they moved into key positions via Hazard and Willian, Conte’s men lacked an end product in the final third. Diego Costa was positive in spurts, but Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny’s intent to tightly mark and freely foul the Spanish international limited the Chelsea’s striker’s threat.

Fabregas failed to link midfield and attack with his rushed forward passes, and additional poor outings from Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic are also responsible for Chelsea’s stagnation – it’s simply worrying that David Luiz has been Chelsea’s best defensive player over the past two weeks. Another underwhelming transfer window has placed a Chelsea manager in a difficult predicament as the current crop of defenders and midfielders simply aren’t good enough.

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The verdict is out on this Chelsea side, and the issues are much bigger than the manager. John Terry and Kurt Zouma’s eventual return should boost the Blues back-line, but Conte’s determination to lure Leonardo Bonucci and Kalidou Koulibaly over the summer suddenly makes sense.

Chelsea aren’t in a crisis, and a top four finish still remains attainable given the talent in the squad, but individual mistakes and poor defensive work ethic from Hazard and Fabregas won’t do Conte any favours. We may not see the best from this Chelsea side until Conte brings in his own players, but for once, Roman Abramovich mustn’t’ allow mediocre displays seal the fate of another top manager.

Rooney-less United make statement

The most convincing Manchester United victory during the briefly lived Jose Mourinho era involved another brutal defeat for the reigning Premier League champions and the Red Devils captain watching from the bench. United claimed maximum points within the opening 45 minutes by capitalizing on Leicester’s poor set-piece defending by scoring four goals in quick succession.

Although Leicester failed to pose a significant threat on both ends, the quick combination passes and constant overloads on both flanks were positive improvements to United’s open-play buildup. Paul Pogba enjoyed his best game in a United shirt, scoring his first goal since joining the club, and stepping into free space – with Leicester defenders reluctant to press the Frenchman – to test Ron-Robert Zieler on a few occasions.

United scored four goals in 20 minutes, and while their overall play was mesmerizing at times – the second goal witnessed every United player touch the ball prior to Juan Mata’s superb finish – it’s key to note that they exploited Leicester’s set-piece defending deficiencies. It was a Mourinho-esque win, and though the Portuguese manager downplayed his pleasure, it’s a step in the right direction.

Daley Blind’s set-piece deliveries were crucial, Antonio Valencia continues to impress with his offensive mindset at right-back, and though Ander Herrera isn’t an ideal partner for Pogba in a midfield two, the Spaniard’s tenacity, ball retention skills and incisive passing will help United unravel deep defensive lines.

Ranieri’s switch to a 4-1-4-1 prevented United from increasing their lead, as his midfield applied improved pressure in central areas, but the match was won by half-time. United were much sharper and fluid when they pushed men forward, and the constant overloads in attacking zones was refreshing.

Though Rooney can still play a role in United’s title aspirations, perhaps this was evidence that Mourinho’s best XI doesn’t require his captain.

City overcome adversity at the Liberty Stadium

Manchester City maintained their perfect start to the Pep Guardiola era, and once again the Spaniard offered a variation of a 4-1-4-1 that posed issues for Swansea. However, the hosts weren’t completely outplayed here, and relied on Fernando Llorente’s aerial threat to unease City’s centre-back partnership and the diminutive Claudio Bravo.

Llorente capitalized on Bacary Sagna’s slip to smash a superb effort past Bravo, but his hold up play and physical presence pegged City’s centre-backs deeper into their half. The Spaniard was an evident reference point for the Swansea attack, but the hosts failed to maximize the striker’s aerial threat throughout the 90 minutes.

Nevertheless, Guardiola’s tactical tweaks also played a decisive role in the final outcome. Raheem Sterling maintained width on the left, while Sagna pushed higher up the pitch on the right to ensure City stretched the pitch. Aleksandar Kolarov slipped into a narrow position – basically forming a back three – when Fernandinho pushed forward, and Sagna’s wide role enabled Kevin De Bruyne to receive passes in pockets of space between the lines.

It was Sagna’s cross that led to Aguero’s opener, and frankly De Bruyne’s rare profligate passing and finishing around the box prevented a City onslaught. Yet even when Swansea appeared capable of a possible fight-back with their high-pressing, Guardiola tinkered with his side’s shape by moving De Bruyne central and pushing David Silva to the left.

De Bruyne grew in prominence following the alteration, and began to receive service behind Leon Britton before charging towards the Swansea goal. The Belgian won the penalty that led to Aguero’s winner, and Sterling’s impressive counter-attacking run ensured City remain perfect under Guardiola.

There was general interest regarding Guardiola’s approach without Nolito, and with De Bruyne now likely to be sidelined for a few weeks, the Spaniard will be tasked with identifying another successful attacking solution. Still, despite being only six games into the season, it’s difficult to declare anyone other than City as title favourites.

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Time to take Klopp’s Liverpool seriously after steamrolling Hull City?

The pressure was on Liverpool to build on their terrific performance at Stamford Bridge against Mike Phelan’s travelling Hull City side, and Jurgen Klopp’s men passed their test with flying colours. Their passing and movement was fluid, the pressing was cohesive, and the finishing around the box was ruthlessly efficient.

The Reds are beginning to look like a Klopp side.

From the opening whistle, Hull City dropped into a 4-5-1 with the midfield and defensive bank within close proximity to limit space between the lines. But Abel Hernandez’s inability to get close to Jordan Henderson allowed the Liverpool captain the freedom to dictate the tempo of the match from deeper positions. With Hull dropping deeper towards their box, Hernandez was equally isolated upfront, and the away side were unable to launch counter-attacks due to Liverpool’s dynamic gegenpressing.

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James Milner constantly stormed beyond Robert Snodgrass and was a useful outlet at left-back, meanwhile the Hull midfield couldn’t cope with Liverpool’s attacking quartet’s movement between the lines. Liverpool players continuously popped up into space at the edge of the box for pull-backs, whereas Lallana operated in half-spaces and Firmino occasionally drifted wide to encourage forward runs.

Ultimately, Ahmed Elmohamady’s dismissal for a handball on the goal-line sealed Hull’s fate. They became a 4-5-0 with no real outlet upfront, and were forced to cope with Liverpool’s relentless attack throughout. At the moment, there may not be a team in better form than Klopp’s Reds, and if they can maintain performance levels of this quality, they will be a difficult team to beat this season.

Son pushing for permanent starting role at Spurs

Sometimes injuries can be a blessing in disguise. Son Heung-min is justifying that notion and was once again the catalyst in a Spurs victory. With Eric Dier and Moussa Dembele unavailable, Son slid into the Spurs attacking trio, while Dele Alli operated alongside Christian Eriksen ahead of Victor Wanyama.

Although Moussa Sissoko struggled from the right, Middlesbrough’s midfield couldn’t cope with Eriksen or Alli’s movement in the final third, whereas Son’s penetrative runs from the left provided guile. Spurs’ opener displayed their attacking approach vividly: Victor Janssen pegged the hosts’ centre-backs deep with his back-to-goal holdup play, which attracted Adam Clayton to the ball, thus enabling Son to run onto his layoff and place his shot past Victor Valdes.

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Son’s second was even better as the South Korean international evaded two challenges near the edge of the box and curled an unstoppable into the far post to double Spurs’ lead. Spurs were dominant in the opening period, combining their intense pressing to deprive the hosts an outlet forward, while their quick passing flustered Aitor Karanka’s men.

Middlesbrough failed to cope with Spurs’ pressing and constantly conceded possession in their half. On the other hand, Gaston Ramirez was comfortably negated by the presence of Victor Wanyama ahead of the back four. The second half introduction of Adama Traore was promising but his poor final ball negated the substitute’s overall threat.

Ben Gibson’s second half goal provided the host’s a lifeline, yet their intention to push forward for a winner left vacant space for Eriksen and Alli to exploit, but similar to Traore, their production in the final third was underwhelming. Still, the several absentees missing didn’t affect Spurs balance from an attacking sense, as Son presents Mauricio Pochettino with future selection issues.

Tadic developing into the main man at St. Mary’s

The summer departures of Ronald Koeman, Graziano Pelle and Sadio Mane put Southampton’s future in jeopardy. Their main goal-scorer, best player, and top manager moved onto new challenges, leaving many to question whether Claude Puel could bring success to the Saints.

Southampton’s trip to West Ham showcased both sides’ limitations around the box during the opening 40 minutes, but the two best performers of the match combined to steer the away side into the lead with the game’s first shot on target. Tadic’s outwards run into the left channel saw Ryan Bertrand run beyond Antonio to receive the Serbian’s pass, and subsequently assist Charlie Austin’s opener.

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It was a brilliant move that highlighted Bertrand’s threat from left-back due to Antonio’s lack of discipline, and Tadic’s guile in a free role behind Austin and Nathan Redmond. West Ham, however, were dismal going forward: Dimitri Payet failed to influence the match from the right, while Simone Zaza was isolated upfront.

Bilic’s attempt at a comeback resulted in Sofiane Feghouli replacing Miguel Lanzini and pushing Payet into a central role. Nonetheless, Antonio’s movement to the opposite flank created space for Cedric Soares to exploit throughout the second half. Tadic and Soares combined in the box minutes into the second half but an impressive Adrian save kept West Ham alive.

As the match wore on, Bilic’s men also succumbed to Southampton’s counter-pressing which inevitably led to Tadic’s goal. Cheikhou Kouyate was dispossessed near his box and Redmond’s pass into Austin saw the striker initially play in the advancing Tadic, who coolly rounded Adrian and doubled Southampton’s lead.

Puel’s approach worked brilliantly as Southampton outworked and outplayed the hosts courtesy of getting the full-backs beyond Antonio and Tadic’s ability to receive the ball behind the West Ham midfield on numerous occasions. With competent passers and diligent frontmen leading the line, Tadic may finally receive the freedom to maximize his creative talent.

Results

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

Weekend Stats

  • Dimitri Payet has had more shots (15) in the Premier League without scoring than any other player so far this season.
  • Since his debut (Aug 2014), Charlie Austin has scored as many Premier League goals as Wayne Rooney (21), despite playing 20 games fewer.
  • Alexis Sanchez’s scored 47 goals in his 100 appearances for Arsenal one fewer than Thierry Henry (48) in his first 100 appearances for the club.
  • Son Heung-Min has already equaled his Premier League goal tally from 2015-16 in just three appearances this season (4).
  • Since the start of 2015-16, James Milner has been involved in 20 league goals for Liverpool (8 goals, 12 assists).

Stats provided by OPTA

 
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Posted by on September 27, 2016 in Published Work

 

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BPL Notebook Matchday 2: Top Clubs make statement, last year’s achievers suffer from goal drought, same ol’ Liverpool?

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It felt like an eternity since Old Trafford was filled with such excitement. The last three seasons have been slightly excruciating for Manchester United supporters, but it appears that Jose Mourinho is ready to put the days of underachievement behind the club.

Similar to the other top clubs vying for the title, United is still a work in progress, but Mourinho’s ability of preparing his sides to earn results is pivotal. As a whole, they weren’t spectacular, but the back four was flawless once again, and marquee signings Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic rose to the occasion.

Where many have failed to live up to the United bill – whilst crumbling at the pressure surrounding Old Trafford – Pogba and Ibrahimovic have taken a step towards justifying their summer transfers. Some said Ibrahimovic was too old, but he’s now notched the Community Shield winner, and was the goal-scoring hero on Southampton’s visit to Old Trafford.

Frankly, Ibrahimovic’s goal presented a sigh of relief, considering Southampton were in full control prior. A midfield trio of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Steven Davis and substitute Jordy Clasie were dictating the tempo of the match with ease, as United constantly conceded possession, but the away side lacked any threat around the box.

Dusan Tadic drifted into clever positions but failed to create chances for his teammates, whereas the striker partnership of Shane Long and Nathan Redmond were underwhelming. Full-backs Matt Targett and Cedric’s crosses didn’t connect with the former – he clearly lacks the pace to get past opponents – whereas the latter constantly dropped into midfield or to the right flank to run at players.

The away side were getting into dangerous positions but were unable to get behind the United defence, thus highlighting the significance of Sadio Mane and Graziano Pelle’s departure. The contrast between the two sides attacking options were vivid when you assess their best chances – Long quickly scuffed a low shot at David De Gea despite breaking free into the United box, while Ibrahimovic towered over Jose Fonte to nod a powerful header past the keeper.

It was Ibrahimovic’s first clear-cut chance of the night, and he comfortably slotted a penalty kick won by Luke Shaw in the second half to double United’s lead. Pogba, on the other hand, completed a full 90 minutes in midfield, and appeared unfazed by his massive transfer fee. Ander Herrera’s passing in United’s opener suggested he may play a key role in Mourinho’s XI, but Pogba completely tarnished that notion.

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The Frenchman’s first touch of the match may have indicated otherwise – a poor pass that resulted in a quick Southampton counter-attack. But Pogba nonchalantly evaded challenges with his powerful dribbling, and his clever chipped pass towards Juan Mata in half space nearly resulted in a highlight reel Ibrahimovic goal.

United’s midfield offered the power that’s been non-existent in recent years: Marouane Fellaini and Pogba are aerially competent, and are more than capable of shrugging off opponents when required. When Pogba sat deeper and passed with precision, and when surging forward with the ball he represented the link between defence and attack.

In Pogba and Ibrahimovic, Mourinho has addressed issues the club have ignored for years – with the former it simply involved power and dynamism in midfield. Likewise, United haven’t possessed a clinical penalty box finisher since Robin van Persie’s debut season at the club. That year United won the title, and if Ibrahimovic maintains his current form, history may repeat itself.

Analysis

Guardiola’s City swiftly takes shape

Sergio Aguero has been Manchester City’s saviour from the moment he moved to England, but Pep Guardiola’s attempt to reduce the heavy reliance on individualism is slowly coming to fruition.

Aguero added another two league goals to his tally – taking his weekly total to five – but City’s significant improvement from their opening weekend display was collective. City were dominant in the first half, stifling Mark Hughes’ Stoke City attempt to build attacks from the back and quickly retaining possession near the hosts’ box.

Even with Fernandinho pressed out of the match, City were still relatively fluid going forward. Nicolas Otamendi’s passing out the back was positive, Raheem Sterling’s dribbling troubled defenders, and Kevin De Bruyne constantly darted through the right channel to deliver quality crosses into the box.

Perhaps City’s midweek trip to Romania resulted in fatigue to a fairly unchanged squad, but going two goals ahead merited the away side’s declined passing tempo. Bojan’s second half penalty kept the score-line close, but Guardiola’s men were untested throughout. Late counter-attacks witnessed substitutes Kelechi Iheanacho and Nolito increase City’s lead, but in fairness, their first half performance – a combination of mesmeric passing, intelligent movement, and intense pressing – away from the Etihad was an upgrade to previous displays under Manuel Pellegrini and Roberto Mancini.

It may be worrying that City aren’t scoring or creating enough goals from open play, and Guardiola will be aiming to improve that area swiftly.  Guardiola’s philosophy should improve various elements of City’s game on a weekly basis, but while Spaniard attempts to fix their slight issue in possession, his side still appears better suited in counter-attacking scenarios.

Conte’s system alteration proves decisive

They saved it for late yet again, and Conte’s bold changes can be identified as the catalyst behind Chelsea’s perfect start to the season. Still opting to field his side in a hardworking 4-3-3 system, Chelsea’s subdued attack provided minimal scares for Walter Mazzarri’s Watford outfit.

Chelsea pressed well from the front to fluster Watford’s back-line – out of possession they kept Watford at bay – but one of the main issues the Blues currently experience is the lack of creativity and penetration from central areas. Nemanja Matic and Oscar offer tenacious work-rate, positional discipline, and physicality in midfield, but their passing is mediocre, which explains why Chelsea’s buildup play is somewhat lethargic. Much credit goes to N’Golo Kante who ensured Chelsea weren’t exposed in midfield, whilst maintaining the Blues’ passing rhythm once possession was regained.

It doesn’t help that Pedro Rodriguez offensive threat from the right is scarce, while Branislav Ivanovic has transformed into a liability on both ends. To make matters worse, a stunning strike from Etienne Capoue – Watford’s first legitimate chance of the game – put the hosts ahead with little over a half hour remaining.

Nevertheless, a switch from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-4 following the introduction of Victor Moses, Michy Batshuayi and Cesc Fabregas tipped the balance. Fabregas played ahead of Kante, Batshuayi offered an additional penalty box presence, while Hazard maintained width on the right as Moses attacked defenders from the left.

Watford’s decision to sit deeper to preserve their lead benefitted Conte’s side, and a simple Batshuayi tap-in – stemming from goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes failure to hold Hazard’s shot from distance – served as an equalizer. Minutes later, Fabregas recovered possession and instantly clipped a pass behind the Watford defence for Costa to run onto and notch his second winning goal of the season. It was a vintage move between the two Spaniards often utilized during Chelsea’s title-winning run two seasons ago, and another piece of evidence highlighting Conte’s astute mid-game tweaks.

It’s no secret Conte prefers to play with two strikers upfront, but the current squad at his disposal is better suited in a 4-3-3 to maintain a compact defensive structure. However, Fabregas’ creativity and a promising Batshuayi – Costa partnership may turn the Italian manager’s head.

New season, same Liverpool?

If Liverpool’s win over Arsenal at the Emirates was a statement to their league rivals and potential title contenders, then a loss at Burnley quickly erased any fear Jurgen Klopp’s men were aiming to impose. A loss away to Burnley showcased the issues Liverpool have suffered in recent years: they perform well against the top teams, but severely underachieve when given the onus to break down inferior opposition.

Saturday’s loss at Turf Moor was no different, and Klopp would be highly disappointed that both goals conceded were via moves his teams are renowned for. Nathaniel Clyne succumbed to Burnley’s high pressing, and his loose pass resulted in a terrific Sam Vokes finish. Later in the half, newly-acquired midfielder, Steven Defour, charged through midfield and played in Andre Gray to double Burnley’s lead.

Apart from the goals, the hosts broke into Liverpool’s half twice, via Gray’s pace, but failed to test Reds keeper, Simon Mignolet. Therefore, Liverpool struggled to get behind Burnley’s low-defensive block, and didn’t receive quality service from wide areas to trouble the hosts’ back-line.

The weird feat regarding Liverpool’s XI was the decision to start Daniel Sturridge from the right. Sturridge was often seen dropping near the half-way line to pick up the ball, but he rarely posed a scare in Burnley’s half. Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana combined occasionally in left half space, but the former continuously struck audacious shots from distance wide of the net.

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The main contrast in Liverpool’s two matches was the amount of space the opposition presented. Klopp’s men comfortably exploited an expansive Arsenal side last week, but here, Burnley remained deep and clogged central space – at times they had a six-man defence with George Boyd and Scott Arfield aligned with the back four to complete defensive duties – thus forcing the Reds to shoot from distance.

Liverpool must maintain a level of consistency in both results and performances if they intend on securing a top-four finish this season.

Arsenal & Leicester continue to struggle in front of goal

This wasn’t the tight, cautious encounter often expected between two top-sides, despite last year’s champions and runner-ups recorded the first score-less draw of the season. Arsenal and Leicester remain win-less to start the season, which isn’t ideal considering many tip both sides to miss out on the top four this season.

From an offensive view, Arsenal’s buildup was slightly improved via Granit Xhaka’s passing, but the Gunners remained underwhelming in the final third. Alexis Sanchez’s occasionally linked play upfront but was fairly anonymous, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s powerful running served as the away side’s sole goal-scoring threat.

Leicester offered better structure in their home opener with Shinji Okazaki applying pressure to Xhaka from deep, while the inclusion of Nampalys Mendy ensured central areas were protected. But Leicester’s issue upfront is dissimilar to Arsenal’s – to be frank, Claudio Ranieri’s attack is fairly predictable.

Danny Drinkwater’s diagonals and quick Kasper Schmeichel releases into the channel for Jamie Vardy are being coped with, and though Riyad Mahrez’s trickery still bamboozles defenders, finishing in the final third has been wayward – an issue Vardy is equally suffering from as well. Hull City and Arsenal have maintained deeper defensive lines to limit Leicester’s counter-attacking threat, and the champions still look unconvincing when they dominate possession.

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Arsenal, on the other hand, simply miss Olivier Giroud’s presence in the box. While many Arsenal supporters would prefer a better centre-forward, at the moment, the Gunners issues derive from a non-existent penalty box threat.

Giroud remains an underrated Premier League striker, but his ability to bring runners into play, and attack crosses into the box is invaluable at the Emirates. Theo Walcott struggles to time his runs beyond the defence, and despite Alexis’ wonderful skill-set, he’s been ineffective as a lone striker.

With little over a week remaining in the transfer window, you would expect both managers to address their attacking issues, but with few options available in the transfer market, they may have to rely on applying minimal tactical tweaks to their starting XI.

Sunderland require plan B upfront.

Cristhian Stuani scored two wonderful goals Sunday afternoon to hand Middlesbrough their first win of the season, but it’s difficult to overlook Sunderland’s issues upfront. A long-distance screamer and a wonderful passing move punished the Black Cats, following a dominant first half display from the away side, but Sunderland sparked a promising second half fight-back.

Jeremain Lens replaced Paddy McNair, and moved within close proximity of Jermain Defoe at half-time, while Lynden Gooch slotted into midfield alongside Steven Pienaar. Lens’ presence offered additional pressure to Middlesbrough’s defence and his ability to play with his back to goal forced Aitor Karanka’s men towards their penalty box.

Sunderland found joy down the left flank where they exposed Stuani’s – a forward by trade – reluctance to track Patrick van Aanholt’s adventurous runs forward, which further ignited a brief turnaround. Duncan Watmore and Steven Pienaar combined with the advancing full-back throughout the second half, as the hosts’ goal stemmed through this route of attack when Van Aanholt charged into the box to tap in a rebound from Watmore’s initial shot.

Following Brad Guzan inability to hold onto Adnan Januzaj’s shot minutes later, Sunderland’s attack failed to create another clear-cut chance. Middlesbrough created second half openings through Alvaro Negredo’s hold-up play at half, and here, Sunderland may have flourished with a natural target-man alongside Defoe.

Look no further than Defoe’s equalizer against Manchester City to witness the threat the Sunderland striker offers, but with minimal space available behind the opposing back-line, the England international’s threat remains scarce. Likewise, if Sunderland experience extensive spells without possession, Defoe playing off a striker would prove beneficial.

Moyes’ men won’t receive many opportunities to dominate games, but the current state of his attacking quartet doesn’t suggest Sunderland will score enough goals to survive this season.

West Ham injury issues halts growth

It took Harry Arter’s senseless foul on Cheikhou Kouyate – which resulted in the Bournemouth midfielder’s dismissal – for Slaven Bilic’s men to look threatening in the final third and claim their first win of the season. West Ham were poor against Chelsea, and were equally underwhelming against a much weaker Bournemouth side at home.

Bournemouth’s full-backs remained high, and West Ham’s decision to drop off into a 4-5-1 enabled Arter and Andrew Surman time and space to play forward passes into wide positions. The away side’s attack suffered, however, due to Jordon Ibe drifting centrally into congested areas only to be dispossessed, while Callum Wilson was out-muscled by West Ham centre-backs Winston Reid, and James Collins. West Ham’s attacking threat was also unconvincing, but they found some joy via Gokhan Tore first half display, where he dominated full-back, Charlie Daniels poor positioning at left-back.

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Neither side offered a substantial goal-threat in the second half, but Arter’s dismissal shifted the balance of the match. Bournemouth shifted to a narrow 4-4-1, but were ultimately undone by West Ham’s width. Unsurprisingly, it was Tore picking up Mikhail Antonio’s over-hit cross and providing a better delivery for the unmarked Englishman to nod past Artur Boruc.

Injuries to Sofiane Feghouli, Andre Ayew and Manuel Lanzini are evidently responsible for West Ham’s torpid attack, but Dimitri Payet’s influence is clearly missed at London Stadium. Without Payet, West Ham are deprived of creativity, a genuine set-piece specialist, and penetrative passing in the final third.

Payet’s return should see West Ham shift to a 4-2-3-1 that offers the Frenchman freedom to dictate play between the lines. At the moment, they simply lack guile and the element of unpredictability in attacking zones that was responsible for their success last season. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Bilic was counting down the days until his injured players return, as West Ham’s overall attacking play has been average.

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

Weekend Stats

  • Michail Antonio has scored a joint-high seven headed goals in the Premier League since the start of 2015-16 (level with Giroud).
  • Patrick van Aanholt (4) has scored more Premier League goals in 2016 than any other defender
  • Leicester’s unbeaten run at home now stands at 16 Premier League games (W10 D6), since losing to Arsenal in September 2015.
  • Since returning to the Premier League, Cesc Fabregas has more assists than any other player (26)
  • Sergio Aguero is the top scoring player in the Premier League so far in 2016 (18 goals in 19 games)
 
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Posted by on August 22, 2016 in EPL, Published Work

 

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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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