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Manchester City’s defensive deficiencies further exposed by Klopp’s vibrant Liverpool

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Liverpool and Manchester City showdowns have developed into popular Premier League fixtures in recent years, and the arrival of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola was expected to enhance the competitive rivalry between the two clubs. Sunday’s clash at the Etihad was not only vital in regards to the current top four race, but stylistically, it also highlighted the growth witnessed throughout the league over the past 12 months.

Although the attacking philosophies vary between the two managers, the emphasis on dynamic pressing and clever passing combinations suggested the possibility of a potential goal-fest. But, unlike previous meetings against Klopp’s Reds, the hosts were dominant in the opening period.

Guardiola decision to employ a 4-2-3-1 meant David Silva operated in his preferred no.10 role, whereas Kevin De Bruyne sat deeper in midfield alongside Yaya Toure. The most intriguing change in Guardiola’s XI witnessed Fernandinho start at right-back, where he pushed forward at every opportunity and quickly pressed James Milner when the Liverpool left-back received possession.

Interestingly enough, City’s ability to stretch the pitch through Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling’s positioning created more space in central areas for David Silva to drift into. Silva’s positioning, here, was integral to City’s dominant spells, yet the hosts created majority of their chances in wide areas via overloads and incisive passing into half spaces.

Fernandinho and De Bruyne both delivered dangerous crosses into the six-yard box within the opening 15 minutes of the match, whereas Sane also created dangerous chances that resulted in a Simon Mignolet save, and a last-ditch tackle from James Milner to deny Sterling an easy tap-in. Later on, Milner was once again the key cog in denying City an opener following De Bruyne’s brilliant reverse pass to Silva in left half-space, but Guardiola’s approach was fairly successful in terms of field positioning to get the better of Silva and De Bruyne’s creativity.

A string of Liverpool chances towards the end of the half offered signs that they were growing into the game, but their poor start was down to sloppy passing and their reluctance to swarm Guardiola’s men in the early stages. Sadio Mane was presented a glorious breakaway following a poor John Stones back pass, whereas Roberto Firmino and Adam Lallana both tested Willy Caballero.

Gael Clichy rarely pushed forward with fear of leaving vacant space for Mane to charge into, and despite Firmino’s positive link up play when he dropped into midfield zones, Liverpool’s possession was tedious, opposed to efficient in the final third. Liverpool’s positive spell continued in the second half, and Clichy’s slip subsequent to Emre Can chipping a pass over the City defence for Firmino led to a penalty that Milner comfortably converted.

Liverpool were now free to revert to a narrow 4-5-1 with the intent to hit City on the counter and one break ignited by Firmino and Philippe Coutinho forced Caballero into a vital save around the hour mark. Toure was now a liability in transition, and Guardiola quickly sacrificed the Ivorian for a natural right-back in Bacary Sagna, thus pushing Fernandinho into midfield. Toure’s decline has been evident in recent seasons, but with Coutinho easily gliding past the City midfielder in the aforementioned move, the possibility of Liverpool increasing their lead appeared evident.

However, Guardiola’s substitution was followed by Silva moving alongside Fernandinho, while De Bruyne hugged the touch-line on the right flank. Therefore, Sterling, Aguero and Sane operated centrally with the former as the no.10 – but his wayward passing limited his influence – while Sane constantly aimed to run behind the Liverpool defence.

Aguero, on the other hand, moved into wider areas to evade the pressure applied by Joel Matip and Ragnar Klavan when the Argentine received the ball with his back to goal. For all of the speculation associated with Aguero’s future under Guardiola, here, his reliable finishing was his downfall, whereas his linkup play was fairly positive.

Nevertheless, City responded superbly following Guardiola’s alterations. Silva’s starting position was deeper, while De Bruyne delivered two dangerous crosses into the box before creating Aguero’s equalizer shortly afterwards. Guardiola’s decision to move his creative cogs away from the congested midfield zone was logical, and though it led to more chances, City remained vulnerable in transition.

Lallana missed a glorious chance set up by Firmino, and minutes later Mane’s powerful run from midfield resulted in the aforementioned Brazilian firing a low effort into side-netting. Meanwhile, besides Sterling breaking behind and nearly chipping Mignolet, and a wonderful individual effort from Aguero – when he dropped into a deeper zone in the left channel – De Bruyne and Silva architected City’s best moves down the right flank. Both men created opportunities for Aguero to notch a winner, but the Argentine’s profligate finishing ensured the score line remained deadlock at full-time.

In a truly enthralling end-to-end game, the performances from both sides epitomized the current obstacles preventing a proper title challenge. Where Liverpool still lack a reliable goal-scorer despite their devastating high-octane brand of football, City’s defence and lack of protection in midfield outweighs Guardiola’s riches in the final third.

 
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Posted by on March 20, 2017 in EPL, Published Work

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted by on January 13, 2017 in Published Work

 

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Tactical Preview: Liverpool – Manchester City

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Manchester City’s trip to Anfield sets up the final big match of the year, with Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp’s tactical rivalry holding vital significance to the current title race. Liverpool currently sit one point ahead of Guardiola’s men prior to kick-off, but a Chelsea win against Stoke could shift this into a match neither side can afford to lose.

The main talking point ahead of the match is the return of Sergio Aguero from a four-game suspension. City has operated without a natural striker for majority of the Argentine’s suspension – losing once in that time span –  but it’s unlikely Kevin De Bruyne or Nolito start upfront here. Aguero’s pace and ruthless finishing around the box could harm an unconvincing Reds back-line.

Nonetheless, City have coped well without Aguero, but as per usual, Guardiola’s shape isn’t certain here. Considering Liverpool often play in a 4-3-3, there’s a good chance City match the hosts in midfield and play in a 4-1-4-1 with Fernandinho at the base. Ilkay Gundogan’s injury means he could go 4-3-3 as well with a combative midfield trio of Fernandinho, Fernando and Yaya Toure, but given Liverpool’s efficient pressing, the former is probably Guardiola’s best option.

With that being said, Guardiola may still opt for additional protection ahead of the back four and shift to a 4-2-3-1 with Fernando in a deeper role opposed to David Silva alongside Fernandinho. Upfront, Raheem Sterling should retain his spot on the left in what will be a pivotal battle against the adventurous Nathaniel Clyne, whereas De Bruyne’s counter-attacking ability and exceptional crossing may force James Milner to be cautious from left-back.

Guardiola also has issues at the back where John Stones’ availability is uncertain after limping off the field at Hull a fortnight ago. Aleksandar Kolarov would join Nicolas Otamendi in midfield, while Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy are expected to operate as full-backs.

Liverpool, on the other hand, are still without Philippe Coutinho, but the Reds have fared well without their Brazilian star. Normally, Klopp would lean towards potential squad rotation, but he’s named an unchanged XI for the past few games and it’s unlikely he’ll tinker here. Daniel Sturridge and Emre Can would potentially fill in if required, but Klopp’s sole change hinges on Joel Matip’s fitness.

The front trio of Divock Origi, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane should start upfront, and Guardiola must fear Mane’s pace against Clichy. More so, the interchanging movement of the front three could exploit City’s shaky back-line, which further emphasizes the significance of Guardiola’s midfield decision-making.

Adam Lallana, Liverpool’s most in-form player, also poses a threat in this regard via late runs into the box. Georginio Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson will operate from deeper zones with the former pushing forward when possible, but Liverpool’s main threat comes from the right. Mane can drift inwards to encourage Clyne forward, whereas if Firmino tucks in, the Senegalese winger maintains width to isolate full-backs.

Essentially Liverpool’s cohesion and enhanced understanding of Klopp’s system could fluster a Manchester City side still attempting to reach optimum form. But the other key battle involves how City cope with Liverpool’s gegenpressing.

Everton and Stoke attempted to bypass Liverpool’s press via long direct balls into the centre-forward, a ploy that Guardiola utilized during his time at Bayern Munich, which witnessed Javi Martinez operated as an advanced midfielder behind Mario Mandzukic. Guardiola can persist with this approach by placing Fernandinho or Yaya Toure closer to Aguero to ensure City can retain possession if Aguero is unable to win aerial duels upfront.

Elsewhere, City’s high-pressing could also prove beneficial considering Guardiola’s men have looked less assured when forced to defend over extensive periods. Liverpool’s ability playing out the back can be exploited with cohesive pressing, and work-rate efficiency from both sides will be decisive.

Nevertheless, neither side have displayed defensive solidity throughout the season, and there should be goals here. Liverpool’s movement in the final third and the understanding of covering positions may overwhelm City’s defence, but Klopp must also worry about the space invaders Silva and De Bruyne between the lines activity between the lines as they represent Aguero’s main supply lines.

Liverpool’s dominant home form tips them as slight favourites here, but a returning Aguero, along with City’s form attackers suggests this could be a potential Premier League classic.

 
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Posted by on December 31, 2016 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City need more versatility from Sergio Aguero

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Manchester City and Liverpool’s final match of the calendar has the potential of becoming a legitimate Premier League classic. Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola meet for the first time on Premier League soil, with the final result having huge implications on the current title race.

The former was expected to dominate the league under Guardiola’s guidance, whereas the latter’s non-involvement from European competitions suggested there would be more time for Klopp to apply his philosophy at Anfield to mount a proper title challenge. Nevertheless, both sides have fallen behind Antonio Conte’s Chelsea, and though we’re only approaching the half-way mark of the current campaign, a New Years Eve defeat would inflict a severe blow towards title aspirations.

Oddly enough, apart from the managerial rivalry formed in the Bundesliga between Guardiola and Klopp, the main pre-match talking point involves the absence of Liverpool star Philippe Coutinho. The Brazilian’s injury is a disservice to Klopp’s Liverpool given his positive start to the season and ability to score highlight reel goals, but Guardiola being able to call upon a returning Sergio Aguero has flown under the radar.

For all of Aguero’s brilliance, the Argentine still appears to be an undervalued asset to the Premier League. Despite possessing the best scoring rate and notching the most important goal in Premier League history, one can argue that Aguero still isn’t a genuine household name to the average football follower.

Aguero has recorded 13 goals in 17 appearances this season, and it’s difficult to debate that his tally wouldn’t be greater if the Argentine didn’t miss seven-league games due to suspension. Scoring goals in patches, along with joining the league during his peak years definitely plays into Aguero’s favour, but City winning two of three potential league titles when the Argentine has scored over 20 league goals illustrates his significance to the club.

Yet, in ways, City’s success and Aguero’s individualism coincide with the club’s inability to evolve into an elite superpower. That, along with injuries is possibly one of the few reasons Aguero has never featured in a PFA team of the year XI and why his terrific goal tally – averaging a return of 0.69 league goals per game over six campaigns – was often overshadowed by the brilliance of Luis Suarez and Robin van Persie.

Where Suarez and Van Persie appeared capable of playing in various roles and offering more to their side’s buildup play, Aguero simply represents a devastating finisher, rather than an elite all-rounder. In a side built around individual brilliance and catering to their best players’ strengths, previous managers Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini always catered to maximizing the Argentine’s goal threat in the final third.

During Mancini’s spell, City operated in a 4-4-2 with two narrow wide men in David Silva and Samir Nasri moving centrally to provide incisive passes behind the defence, while the full-back maintained width and pushed forward to deliver crosses into the box. Meanwhile, Edin Dzeko’s movement into deeper positions witnessed Aguero constantly sprint behind the opposition defence into goal scoring positions.

Manuel Pellegrini rarely tinkered with City’s default formation during his tenure, but in his final season, the departure of Dzeko, combined with the arrivals of Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne witnessed City shift to a 4-2-3-1. Far from a drastic stylistic move, apart from the wide attackers operating as traditional wingers – more so Jesus Navas than Sterling – Silva or De Bruyne were positioned within close proximity of Aguero, thus providing a reliable source of creativity to the Argentine.

More so, Aguero’s role in Guardiola’s version of a 4-1-4-1 or 3-2-2-3 isn’t as dependent on partnerships, and there was always a fear that the 28-year-old would struggle in the Spaniard’s set-up. Guardiola’s methodical build-up play witnesses Aguero spend extensive periods without a touch of the ball, and the nature of the Argentine’s goals offers further evidence that he’s capable of finishing with either foot whilst posing a competent aerial threat for a diminutive striker. In short, all of Aguero’s 10 league goals stemmed within 20-yards of the opposition’s net.

And though the fear that City’s limited strike options could halt a title challenge if Aguero were unavailable, Guardiola’s men have only lost one league match during the Argentine’s combined seven game absence due to suspension. City’s current league position doesn’t do Guardiola justice, but the shift into a collective unit has decreased the reliance on Aguero’s goals, which further puts the Argentine’s future at the Etihad in question.

The biggest task Guardiola and Aguero face is the former has worked with all-rounders in Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski during Barcelona and Bayern’s peak form under the Spaniard. Aguero, on the other hand, was never challenged to improve his work-rate out of possession or offer more than simply goals to City’s attack.

De Bruyne, Nolito and Raheem Sterling have featured upfront when Kelechi Iheanacho wasn’t called upon, and though City often lacked a penalty box threat around the box, Guardiola’s men still found ways to record maximum points. Elsewhere, 19-year-old Gabriel Jesus’s arrival could elevate City’s high-pressing, though adapting to the frenetic pace and physical nature of the Premier League could require time. Even when you assess the teams aiming to challenge for the title, the first choice centre-forwards all possess various attacking traits.

Arsenal and Liverpool have transitioned between no.9’s capable of linking play and all-rounders in Roberto Firmino and Alexis Sanchez that drop deeper and vary positions to encourage runners forward. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Harry Kane are also accustomed to playing deeper to influence the match from a no.10 role, whereas Diego Costa’s linkup play with his back to goal and willingness to utilize his power to bully opponents and run the channels has been pivotal to Chelsea’s success.

Still, Aguero remains the most ruthless finisher in the league, and it will be interesting to see whether Guardiola will stray away from his preference of a natural all-rounder upfront. Against a defensively inadequate Liverpool side vulnerable to direct football when they attempt to counter-press, Aguero, as in most cases, represents the main attacking threat at Anfield this weekend.

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“We have played them [Manchester City] already and he was involved and I always thought that he is quite a talented boy, I never made a secret of it,” said Klopp.

“Now he [Aguero] is back in the team with a lot of other really good players that makes life not easier for us. But we knew it before and even when he is not playing they are an outstanding team.”

Aguero may have displayed glimpses of improved work-rate this season, but that may not be enough to be the focal point of Guardiola’s long-term plans. With City’s defence far from reliable, Guardiola’s best attempt at claiming the Premier League title may rest in Aguero’s efficient poaching abilities.

But even then, Aguero may not receive the recognition he deserves until he fully evolves his all-round game.

 
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Posted by on December 30, 2016 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Koeman’s Everton can’t rely on improvisation to overcome Klopp’s cohesive Liverpool

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The significance of Ashley William’s late winner against Arsenal can’t be overlooked. In terms of the current title race, the Gunners fell further behind league leaders Chelsea, but Williams’ goal granted Everton their second win in 11 outings.

A bright start under Ronald Koeman hinted that Everton could possibly challenge for a European spot this season, and though they aren’t the defensively incompetent side often featured under Roberto Martinez, there’s still a sense of underachievement surfacing around Goodison Park.

The fear of further regression loomed with a difficult December schedule, but positive results against Manchester United and Arsenal alleviated pressure on the Dutchman – especially since both results witnessed the Toffees come from behind to earn results.

“How we played after 20 minutes, there was aggression in midfield and I think James McCarthy played fantastically,” said Koeman following the Arsenal result.

“When you have one win out of 10 games it starts with commitment, working hard, being aggressive and you get the support and you get the win finally.”

Perhaps that vividly describes Everton’s approach under Koeman that appears to be predominantly based around wing-play, but the football displayed at Goodison Park in recent weeks offered improved energy and work-rate. But Everton’s away performances against big clubs this season have been contrasting – at Chelsea a switch to a back three saw the Blues disassemble Koeman’s men, whereas at City, the Dutchman adjusted to a back-four at half-time to nick a second half equalizer at the Etihad.

With that being said, there’s been a certain degree of luck associated with Everton’s positive form in these matches. City’s poor penalty taking – denied twice by Marten Stekelenburg from the spot – along with Mesut Ozil’s profligacy and Ander Herrera striking the woodwork enabled timely second half resurgences, which suggests Koeman’s men simply aren’t performing to the level expected at Goodison.

A pragmatic, yet organized David Moyes Everton often frustrated the top sides, but fear of further progression witnessed the duo part ways. Roberto Martinez, on the other hand, instilled a proactive possession based system that lacked penetration in the final third, and equally saw the Merseyside club experience the defensive issues that led to Wigan’s relegation.

A Monday night Liverpool visit presents another sturdy test this month, considering Jurgen Klopp’s men are the best attacking side in the country. More so, the contrast between the two sides is stark despite both conceding 20 league goals this season – which further highlights the defensive issues both sides possess. Liverpool, though, have recorded twice as many goals, and there’s a clear juxtaposition regarding the Reds’ buildup.

Neither club are blessed with legitimate world-class players in their XI, but Klopp’s year long-tenure has provided his current side time to understand his methodology. ‘Gegenpressing’ is the significant trait associated with Klopp, but in possession, the Reds are capable of breaking down the opposition with swift combination play around the box.

Frankly, it’s difficult to defend against Liverpool because of the constant movement between their attacking quintet. Jordan Henderson sits at the base of the midfield and spreads the play, but the remaining attackers tend to overload central areas to encourage the full-backs forward to provide width.

Where this would present a problem for most teams due to congestion, Liverpool counter the issue by ensuring a teammate’s natural position is covered. For instance, Liverpool’s three goals at Middlesbrough displayed the Reds’ spatial coverage. Sadio Mane drifted centrally for the opener to encourage right-back Nathaniel Clyne forward which is basic football instincts.

The insurance goal, however, witnessed Adam Lallana make a diagonal run into right half space due to Mane’s deeper movement to combine with Georginio Wijnaldum thus resulting in the England international to square the ball across goal for a Divock Origi tap in. The third goal involved a role reversal between Mane and Origi with the former dropping into midfield to receive the ball and the latter darting into the right channel, as another Lallana late run into the box increased Liverpool’s lead.

Out of possession they vary their pressing, but going forward the constant interchanging of movement and spatial coverage provides evidence that Klopp’s approach is being executed at Anfield. Very little can be said about Everton, though, which is the main worry regarding Koeman’s side.

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Relying on individual brilliance doesn’t represent a sustainable long-term approach, and the best sides in the world often follow a clear attacking module. There’s been a huge emphasis on crosses into the box, which could explain the summer arrival of Yannick Bolasie – a powerful tricky dribbler – whereas Ross Barkley has been much better in a midfield trio than a no.10 role behind the striker.

But where Everton were at least possessed the identity of a counter-attacking side that finished efficiently around the box, under Martinez during his final season at Goodison, there’s a been a bit of uncertainty around the opposition’s box this season. Still lacking a player capable of unlocking organized back-lines with incisive final passes and inconsistent quality from wide areas has left Romelu Lukaku isolated upfront.

From a defensive perspective, Everton are susceptible to crosses into the box and the centre-back options have been unreliable. Though this could be a league-wide issue unravelling at most clubs, the fact that Koeman’s men struggle in the attacking third insists they can’t turn to outscoring their opponents like Klopp’s Liverpool can.

Given it’s Koeman initial season at Goodison Park, patience may be required before we see results. But basic defensive errors, failure to add guile in deeper and advanced midfield positions, and limiting the involvement of their best attacking players certainly questions Koeman’s long-term plan.

Everton simply represent a side built around wide direct attacks and sheer dynamism in midfield, but the lack of cohesion and collective organization separates them from a Liverpool side carrying out Klopp’s philosophy with devastating efficiency. Ultimately, that alone, can be the decisive factor that prevents Everton from a potential Merseyside derby triumph.

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2016 in Published Work

 

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BPL Notebook Matchday 13: Projected title contenders overcome difficult roadblocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ozil – Sanchez growing partnership overshadows difficult afternoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yaya Toure staking role in Guardiola’s City system

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

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

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

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

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

Injury-hit Liverpool encounter near scare against Moyes’ Sunderland

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

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

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

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

Mourinho and United’s issues persist at Old Trafford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Tactical Preview: Liverpool – Manchester United

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Manchester United’s trip to Anfield represents a chance at redemption for both club and manager Jose Mourinho. For the first time in recent memory, both sides consider themselves genuine title contenders, but where Jurgen Klopp’s side are simply bombarding opponents, United are struggling to build a winning foundation under Mourinho.

Klopp and Mourinho’s battles on the European stage consisted of near finished products in Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, which certainly isn’t the case, here, but it clearly demonstrated the latter manager must identify a way to cope with the former’s high-octane approach.

Mourinho’s caution hasn’t proved successful against Klopp’s dynamic gegenpressing in the past, and last month’s derby defeat to Manchester City may encourage the Portuguese manager to alter his approach. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is expected to lead the line, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Wayne Rooney start on the bench, but the main personnel issues for Mourinho rests in midfield.

Predominantly fielding a 4-2-3-1 this season, Mourinho may prefer to flip his system to a 4-3-3 to cope in central areas as he usually tends to do in big matches. Pushing Paul Pogba closer to Ibrahimovic – where the two have developed a positive partnership – is an option, but it’ll be interesting to see if he elects for Marouane Fellaini’s aerial presence and strength in midfield.

Ander Herrera’s excelled in a deeper role in recent weeks, but a pairing with Pogba would risk the possibility of being overrun in midfield, and it’s unlikely Mourinho will trust Michael Carrick in a deeper role against Liverpool’s pressing. Morgan Schneiderlin is also an option, but his tumultuous spell at Manchester United ensures that it’s unlikely he’ll play a factor.

It’s unlikely Mourinho will alter his back-line despite their dodgy defending that resulted in a 1-1 draw against Stoke City two-weeks ago. However, both full-back roles will be interesting: despite Daley Blind’s excellent positional awareness and ability to identify danger, Sadio Mane’s pace could trouble the Dutchman. Meanwhile, Philippe Coutinho’s reluctance to track runners may leave James Milner exposed at left-back, unless Georginio Wijnaldum shifts over to the left to negate Antonio Valencia’s threat from right-back.

Although Daniel Sturridge’s arrival aided Liverpool’s stagnant attack at Swansea, Roberto Firmino should be fit to feature in his preferred false nine role. This means Coutinho will start from the left and Sadio Mane from the right, whereas Emre Can may be awarded his first start of the season with Adam Lallana and Wijnaldum fighting to regain full fitness.

Firmino’s growth as the lone striker witnesses the Brazilian drift into half-spaces between the centre-backs and full-backs, thus encouraging forward runners into the box, and if required, Divock Origi or Sturridge’s intent to play off the last striker will be utilized as a plan B. Can normally wouldn’t start here due to Wijnaldum and Lallana’s form, but the German all-rounder’s inclusion would offer improved penetration and muscle in midfield.

Still, Henderson’s position remains key considering Ibrahimovic is renowned for dropping deeper to encourage runners forward. The Swede boasts an evident advantage over the Liverpool captain in terms of height and physicality, and may be encouraged to position himself into pockets of space in deeper areas.

Elsewhere, the positioning of Milner and Nathaniel Clyne will be interesting. Klopp could encourage the full-backs to push forward to peg back United’s wide-men, but that does risk the possibility of being overrun on the counter-attack. As a whole, Liverpool have defended well in spurts opposed to lengthy spells, but with the attacking players often interchanging positions in central areas, he may require the full-back to be slightly adventurous to ensure they maintain width.

Ibrahimovic’s versatility may not trouble Liverpool, here, as Joel Matip’s excellent display against Diego Costa a few weeks ago suggests the Reds can cope with opposing forwards dropping into midfield. But Ibrahimovic’s aerial threat could pose several issues in open play and via set-pieces, where United will fancy their chances of scoring due to Liverpool’s past collective defensive issues, combined with the concrete contrast in height between the two sides.

Though United may possess the better individuals, Liverpool remain the in-form side producing better performances and results as a whole. Out of possession they remain organized and diligent in a base 4-5-1, and their dynamic pressing fluster opponents into simple mistakes. Ultimately, the outcome hinges heavily on Mourinho’s midfield set-up.

Liverpool’s persistence to overload central areas, along with their energetic pressing could foil a United side yet to display collective discipline in defensive phases. And though Mourinho’s side pose a legitimate threat via the counter-attack and set-pieces, it’s difficult to see United controlling the game unless they engage in a physical midfield battle.

 
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Posted by on October 14, 2016 in Published Work

 

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