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Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo still has room to build all-time great legacy at Juventus’ expense

For the first time in over a decade, Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t the main topic of discussion of a major cup final featuring the Portuguese star. With Real Madrid on the verge of being the first club to retain the Champions League, the Portuguese forward has occasionally floated amongst the peripheral this season.

Nevertheless, the trials and tribulations of eight years in Madrid may result in Ronaldo’s greatest achievement since moving to the Spanish capital. A La Liga/Champions League double at the expense of city rivals Atletico, and Lionel Messi’s Barcelona would validate their dominance as world football’s alpha club. All this in the latter stages of the 32-year-old’s career.

A career that was supposed to be on the decline continues to enjoy the success that many could only dream of. Ronaldo equally remains one of the key components to Zinedine Zidane’s outfit, as the transition from high-flying roaming left-sided forward to a clinical forward has been seamless.

“Obviously what I want the most is to play more freely up front,” Ronaldo said. “That is the opportunity Zinedine Zidane has been giving me as a No. 9. I play freely. I play on the wing, down the middle. I play whenever I think I should.”

From a silverware perspective, the last 12 months have been the greatest Ronaldo’s ever experienced. Yet, oddly enough, the final in Cardiff means more. Not solely to build on Real’s trophy haul, or representing the focal point in another Champions League milestone. For once, this is about Ronaldo.

No mentions of Lionel Messi. No distraction of a summer move from Old Trafford to the Santiago Bernabeu. With guidance from Zidane, Ronaldo has been working hard for this moment. A chance to produce a display that will be cemented in football history for years to come.

Perhaps that’s one of the few, if not, sole criticism left in the anti-Ronaldo arsenal. Although it can be deemed extremely harsh, very few can argue that greatest players of our generation delivered genuine world-class final’s moment. Whether it be Lionel Messi’s 2011 Champions League final master-class, Xavi’s metronomic control in both the 2009 Champions League Final and 2008 European Final or Ronaldo’s goals in the 2002 World Cup final, the small group of players that dazzled over the past 20-years have shifted the game in some manner.

At the conclusion of his career, Cristiano will be mentioned in the same breath as the aforementioned greats, but what sets him apart is the lack of a truly defining moment. The infamous Copa del Rey winner in 2011 along with the goal that practically clinched La Liga in 2012 were magnificent moments in Real history, but on the biggest stage, Ronaldo hasn’t been able to provide the extra bit of quality we’ve grown accustomed to.

This is not to say that Ronaldo “doesn’t show up for the big games.” Frankly, the 32-year-old’s ability to score goals is unparalleled and he epitomizes the ultimate modern day “big game” star, but even when you examine his performances in recent title triumphs, the Portuguese forward has been fairly underwhelming.

During the earlier stages of Ronaldo’s prime at Manchester United resulted in the opening goal in Moscow, yet he was subsequently denied by Petr Cech in the shootout. The following year, Ronaldo was merely a bystander in a fairly one-sided defeat to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.

Oddly, Ronaldo’s significance decreased in Real’s success over Atletico. However, the 32-year-old still managed to score a penalty in both finals – with last year’s goal securing Real’s second Champions League title in three years. Even in last summer’s European Championship, Portugal defeated host nation France following the captain’s first half departure due to injury.

Frankly, much of Ronaldo’s inability to showcase his optimum talent on the biggest stage has been associated with fatigue. This year, however, Zidane’s altered his talisman’s training regimen and opted to rest the Portuguese international in pivotal domestic games against inferior opposition.

“He knows himself that sometimes he has to not play,” Zidane said following Real’s first leg semi-final victory over Atletico. “It’s not just this year; it’s an accumulation over the years. He knows that himself because he is intelligent.”

In return, Ronaldo discovered the best form of his career post-May since the turn of the decade, which has witnessed the forward single-handily guide Madrid to the final in Cardiff.

He arguably eliminated two favourites en route to the final with hat-tricks against Atletico and Bayern Munich, scoring 8 goals over both legs. Likewise, Ronaldo scored six goals in Real’s final four league games to edge out Barca in the final week of the La Liga season.

Though, far from tactically competent, and still lacking balance in certain areas, Zidane’s Real compliments Ronaldo’s transition into a conventional forward. Toni Kroos and Luka Modric are two of the finest ball-playing midfielders in world football, whilst Marcelo and Dani Carvajal offer crossing from advanced full-back positions.

If Zidane prefers width, Karim Benzema can operate in the channels, whereas Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez have offered pace and defensive discipline from wide areas. Then, there’s Isco who has helped Real overload central areas but also provides the guile Madrid can lack if Kroos and Modric aren’t floating around the penalty area.

Where Mourinho’s counter-attacking Madrid benefitted Ronaldo’s pace, power, and trickery during his prime, Zidane’s version – stemming from Carlo Ancelotti’s arrival that led to a proactive outlook of the game – provides ample service for the reliable Portuguese goal-scorer. Under Mourinho, Ronaldo was the ultimate counter-attacking player, but his evolution along with the Real methodology alteration under Ancelotti and Zidane suggests he’s now the ultimate forward.

In truth, although Ronaldo continues to maintain an unprecedented level of excellence at 32, the decline many have harped about could limit what would be an advantage for the newly-crowned Spanish champions. On paper, Ronaldo charging into space behind Dani Alves and running at Andrea Barzagli appears to be an area that would concern Juventus in previous seasons.

But this version of Ronaldo may prefer to exploit the Juventus defence with his athletic and aerial superiority. Apart from a few moments of brilliance from Lionel Messi, Massimiliano Allegri’s Juve have been susceptible defending crosses from wide areas – a route to goal Ronaldo utilized to dispatch Bayern and Atletico – and will encounter difficulties preventing the 32-year-old from scoring.

It’s been nearly 10 years since Ronaldo’s first Champions League triumph, and despite the various heartfelt narratives surrounding the final, football’s biggest stage is still about him. At 32, he remains the best, and most dangerous player on the pitch, capable of deciding a match within seconds.

History beckons in Cardiff, but with nothing else to prove to the cynics, the possibility of being the first team to retain the Champions League in this era presents Ronaldo with another opportunity to enhance his football immortality with one memorable performance against Juventus.

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Ibrahimovic injury hands keys to young attackers to steer Manchester United clear

The sudden knee injury Zlatan Ibrahimovic suffered in Manchester United’s Europa League triumph over Anderlecht ruled the striker unavailable for the remainder of the season, yet the Swede’s absence is being perceived in various ways.

Although Ibrahimovic has been the star performer for United in his inaugural Premier League campaign, the Swede’s greatness hasn’t been accepted by some United fans. The conflict between individual brilliance outweighing a stagnant attacking scheme is one of the perplexing issues associated with Ibrahimovic’s impressive goal-scoring resume, but also created an intriguing predicament at Old Trafford.

In many ways, United are at a cross-road: a mixture of promising young talent, and over-the-hill Premier League veterans that would be deemed nothing more than squad players at other contenders have arguably underachieved this season. Where many tipped Jose Mourinho’s men to challenge for the Premier League title ahead of the current season, United’s trip to the Etihad has huge implications regarding the remaining Champions League spots opposed to the title race.

A combination of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reluctance to lay foundations for a potential dynasty – which therefore created a short-minded mentality to solely win in the moment – ignited United’s current downfall. While, an amalgamation of David Moyes inability to direct the club in the right direction along with Louis van Gaal’s attempt to fill his XI with promising youngsters ultimately presented a difficult task for Mourinho.

The Portuguese manager, often renowned for a man who constructs his teams to build on the mantra Ferguson had instilled in his final years – hence why Mourinho was probably the best-suited option as Ferguson’s initial successor – is also harshly labeled as a manager afraid to utilize the youth at his disposal. Therefore, the reality of building a squad to Mourinho’s preference has been an arduous process that has put both the club and manager under scrutiny.

Luckily for Mourinho, of the four main signings made this summer, Ibrahimovic – whom he spent time with at Inter Milan – exceeded expectation and proved to be one of the elite Premier League performers this season. Truthfully speaking, it may be more extraordinary that Ibrahimovic’s talent was questioned prior to his Old Trafford arrival, given the Swede’s goal-scoring record throughout his career. At 35, Ibrahimovic’s remarkable form transcended to England, whilst playing a major role in United’s quest to regain Champions League football.

Stylistically, United comfortably dominate possession, but lack the guile and invention in the final third to break down inferior opposition that prefer to sit deep and limit space between the lines. Possession is often slowly circulated from side to side, with very few penetrative passes, or runners aiming to break beyond the opposing defence.

Dependence on Ibrahimovic isn’t necessarily a negative factor considering the youthful Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford are too inexperienced to solely lodge a proper title challenge. Meanwhile, Ibrahimovic’s form provided Mourinho a logical reason to exclude a declining Wayne Rooney from the United XI.

Frankly, the Swede’s presence was required in a United side lacking a genuine world class star capable of providing match-winning moments. Old Trafford was an environment where Ibrahimovic could maximize his talents and establish himself as the focal point of a bland attacking scheme developed under Mourinho’s predecessors.

It’s no coincidence that Ibrahimovic’s less remembered spell at Barcelona and Juventus witnessed several stars surrounding the 35-year-old in cohesive systems. The peculiar feat involving Ibrahimovic is that the Swede thrives in disjointed systems built around his strengths, and despite all the talent the 35-year-old possesses, it appears he’s at his best when his club sacrifices their structure at his expense.

This is also one of many factors as to why dependence on the Swede was expedient. Despite a slow start to life in England, Ibrahimovic’s 17 league goals is amongst the division’s best, and pivotal to a United side still aiming to find an identity. In that sense, Ibrahimovic’s instant impact has proved beneficial at Old Trafford, and provided Mourinho time to implement his philosophy.

Wayne Rooney’s progressive decline and injury issues prevent the United captain from serving as a competent spearhead to the attack. Anthony Martial’s reported discontent with playing from the left flank opposed to a main central role is evident, but the Frenchman’s dribbling and ability to charge behind the opposition defence remains crucial to a United side guilty of lacking penetration in the final third.

Marcus Rashford’s rapid rise to prominence last season has also left many perplexed at his limited amount of game-time, and his performances at Middlesbrough and against Chelsea in recent weeks highlighted the rare moments of speed and verticality displayed in United’s game.

However, United’s home draw against an organized West Brom outfit displayed the limitations Mourinho’s men have encountered without Ibrahimovic this season. A visit to Sunderland presented a similar challenge, but at the half hour mark Ibrahimovic received the ball with his back to goal, gained a yard on two markers and curled a super low effort past goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. It came at a period where United were devoid of creativity, yet Ibrahimovic’s moment of brilliance completely shifted the pattern of the match – a gift no player in United’s current squad possesses.

On paper, the trio of Martial, Ibrahimovic, and Rashford should’ve never presented an issue given Ibrahimovic’s tenure at PSG, where the Swede played with speedy wide attackers in the mould of the aforementioned youngsters. Ibrahimovic’s all-round game enables the Swede to operate in two distinct roles, and in truth, it was intriguing to witness the 35-year-old’s Ligue 1 tenure.

Domestically, Ibrahimovic operated as a traditional centre-forward, similar to his current role at United, poaching goals around the box. The Swede claimed the golden boot in three of his four seasons in the French capital, tallying a remarkable 38 goals last season.

However, Ibrahimovic’s play was entirely different in Europe to ensure PSG dominated the midfield zone, whilst decreasing the likelihood of the 35-year-old being isolated upfront. Dropping deeper into midfield to hold up possession and operate as a no.10 to encourage Angel Di Maria and Lucas Moura to charge behind the opposition’s defence from wide areas.

At United, Ibrahimovic is currently operating as the former, and though the latter would probably serve more beneficial for the Red Devils – given the pace Mourinho possesses in attack – the Swede’s form in the final third became priority. Historically, though, United have usually enjoyed success built around a well-rounded unit opposed to solely relying on a reliable target-man, and Ibrahimovic’s presence at the club serves as another fine example.

Apart from Robin van Persie’s remarkable 2012/2013 campaign in an albeit truly imbalanced side, over the past decade when Rooney or Ruud van Nistelrooy enjoyed breakout years, United finished no higher than runner-ups. Therefore, it remains a mystery as to why Mourinho never insisted on shuffling his attacking options throughout the season.

Rashford’s willingness to work the channels and run beyond the defence were crucial against Chelsea and Middlesbrough, while he also picks up the ball in midfield zones before dribbling towards the box. And where the United youngster isn’t renowned for his creativity, he tends to drift away from the penalty box to play quick intricate passes with teammates to create goal-scoring chances.

Martial, on the other hand, scored the game winning goal at Burnley last weekend as he ignited a swift break from United’s half and subsequently finished the move 10 seconds later. It was a trademark counter-attacking move from a Mourinho side that may not have occurred had Ibrahimovic spearheaded the attack.

Ibrahimovic’s goal-scoring form was decisive, which therefore resulted in heavy reliance on the Swede this season, but it’s been refreshing to witness variety in United’s attack. However, while Martial and Rashford can eventually develop into top-class strikers, the likelihood that both men could guide United to a proper title challenge is unrealistic.

In a league where many promising starlets eventually burn out due to excessive amount of games, Mourinho’s decision to properly manage their minutes is fairly logical. Meanwhile, young strikers develop reliable finishing skills in their mid twenties, and neither Rashford, nor Martial have displayed signs of bucking the trend which partially justifies Mourinho’s reluctance to persist with Ibrahimovic earlier this year.

Still, Mourinho can be held accountable for not utilizing the variety of attacking options to his advantage when required, but another standout performance in the Manchester Derby for Rashford or Martial – more so the former given his performance against Chelsea – would make it difficult for the United manager to ignore.

Ibrahimovic was the main man at Old Trafford, but there are other options capable of making United more flexible and less functional from an attacking perspective. Finding that balance is the next task Mourinho must overcome, but at the moment, trusting his young attacking core presents a colossal test that will define the remainder of United’s season and potentially the club’s transfer activity over the summer.

 
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Posted by on April 26, 2017 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Jose Mourinho alters man-marking scheme to stifle Conte’s colourless Chelsea

Jose Mourinho’s stock as a top-class manager decreased following his return to England. Mourinho’s initial positive start to his second stint at Chelsea swiftly transformed into a toxic environment, and he’s currently failing to receive full support at Manchester United for failing to instantly challenge for a Premier League title.

For all the skepticism regarding Mourinho’s ability to manage younger talent and carry out his methodology with devastating efficiency, United lacked a thoroughly convincing performance against a top Premier League side under Mourinho. But, much of that banter has been halted in recent weeks given United’s displays against Chelsea over the last month, which suggests the Portuguese manager remains the master of winning big games.

United’s FA Cup loss at Stamford Bridge will be remembered for Ander Herrera’s harsh first half dismissal, but it’s often forgotten that Mourinho’s men were the better side in the opening 15 minutes. Chelsea struggled to get out of their half as a unit, and provided no answers for United’s pressing across the pitch thus leaving David Luiz with no options to play forward passes into from the back.

At Old Trafford, Mourinho followed a similar man-marking approach, but ultimately shifted to a 4-4-1-1 with Jesse Lingard playing off Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba pairing in midfield with Marouane Fellaini, and Herrera playing in a deeper right-sided role to swarm Eden Hazard’s movement across the pitch.

While many oddly questioned Mourinho’s initial team selection, this was merely an XI constructed to disrupt and contain Chelsea’s attacking threat. Mourinho persisted with harrying Hazard, but handed the task to Herrera who retained possession deep, intercepted passes into the Belgian’s feet, yet ironically created United’s opening goal – albeit potentially handling the ball in the build up – with a clever pass behind Luiz for Rashford.

Where Hazard varied his movement in the FA Cup tie by drifting to the opposite flank and moving deeper into midfield to drag defenders out of position, the Belgian was deprived of the natural width and overlapping presence of the unavailable Marcos Alonso. Conte preferred Cesar Azpilicueta at left wing-back, but quickly swapped the Spaniard with Victor Moses to attempt to create space for Hazard.

Still, Hazard struggled to find space due to Herrera’s consistent pressure, yet the Belgian was quickly fouled when he bypassed the Spaniard. Elsewhere, Chelsea were deprived of creativity and guile in attacking zones due to United’s disciplined man-marking.

Chelsea’s creativity and goal-scoring threat heavily hangs on Hazard’s shoulders with Costa’s form dipping since the turn of the year, whereas Conte preferred protection ahead of the back four opposed to Cesc Fabregas passing range from deep. The other issue Chelsea encountered involved the lack of mobility at the back without Azpilicueta, who has done a great job in serving as a reliable recovery outlet for David Luiz and Gary Cahill.

The significance in familiarity within a defensive back-line is often overlooked, but here, Kurt Zouma’s last minute inclusion disrupted the cohesion amongst the back three, and deprived the Blues pace at the back. Rashford and Lingard’s partnership was Mourinho’s attempt at utilizing pace to fluster the Chelsea back-line, and the decision was further justified once Conte was forced to alter his back trio.

Rashford spurned a glorious chance in United’s FA Cup loss at Stamford Bridge when he cleverly turned David Luiz down the channel, and here, he instantly charged into these aforementioned wide areas to pull the Chelsea defenders out of position. From the early moments, Chelsea’s defence never appeared comfortable against the pressing or swift darts into space from United’s speedy frontmen – Luiz conceded possession to Lingard which led to a Rashford chance minutes prior to the United striker’s opener.

Although the hosts always offered a threat in transition, this was more about Mourinho’s organization and instilled defensive discipline, rather than United’s offensive productivity. Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini pressed the Chelsea midfield, Mateo Darmian was tight on Pedro, Diego Costa rarely got the better of the opposing centre-backs, and the United full-backs proactively pressed Chelsea’s wing-backs.

Conte’s attempt to rescue a point following Herrera’s fortuitous second half goal, led to the introduction of Willian and Fabregas. Mourinho quickly introduced Michael Carrick to ensure United maintained control of the midfield zone, as the combination of Chelsea’s sloppy passing and United’s disciplined man-marking prevented the Blues from recording a shot on target.

Ironically, Mourinho’s tenure appears to be heavily associated with “playing the United way,” yet he approached the match similar to predecessor Sir Alex Ferguson. Ferguson’s sides remained defensively sturdy and found ways to steal goals on the counter-attack, yet these decisive triumphs were always overshadowed by the memorable home matches at Old Trafford.

Both the players and Conte were unusually lifeless, and simply outworked and out-muscled by a United side that’s slowly finding their groove and arguably produced their best performance of the season. Although, Chelsea’s run-in is fairly manageable, this result suggests the title race is back on. The most worrying feat, however, is United possibly validated a successful ploy to outwit Conte’s 3-4-2-1.

It’s unrealistic to believe multiple teams can replicate United’s man-marking for 90 minutes, but the use of two forwards breaking quickly in transition against Chelsea’s back three proved successful for Crystal Palace and United. For the first time since Chelsea’s emphatic defeat at the Emirates, the pressure is on Conte to make vital tactical adjustments to overcome the opposition’s attempts to nullify Hazard’s influence in the final third.

 
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Posted by on April 17, 2017 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Tactical Preview: Manchester United – Liverpool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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.

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted by on January 13, 2017 in Published Work

 

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BPL Notebook Matchday 13: Projected title contenders overcome difficult roadblocks

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.

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

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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