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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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Chelsea’s new system faces potential halt against energetic Spurs

What a difference a few weeks make. Ask Antonio Conte’s Chelsea side and they’ll provide a detailed summary.

Consecutive losses to Liverpool and Arsenal left many questioning Conte’s merit as an elite manager, whilst declaring the Blues out of the title race before it really began. Now, they sit top of the Premier League, scoring 17 goals and recording six clean sheets in that span, yet all it took was a simple tactical shift following the arrival of David Luiz and Marcos Alonso.

Chelsea now look like a well-equipped machine with all the tools capable of mounting a legitimate title challenge, and finally stepping away from the Jose Mourinho aura that’s incessantly floated around West London for over a decade. Unlike the Portuguese manager’s initial departure – where the Blues failed to find a new identity – Conte has stamped his philosophy at Stamford Bridge in a fair manner.

But the significant feat in Conte’s brief success in England was his overall approach to the situation. Roman Abramovich’s rash decisions to freely sack managers based on the club’s form was no secret to the Italian, yet he still carried forward in a pragmatic manner.

Avoiding the mistake of attempting to make initial drastic alterations like Andre Villas-Boas and Filipe Luiz Scolari, two foreign managers that were hired based on success abroad was wise. Also, Conte couldn’t rely on Mourinho’s failed approach like previous managers, so the Italian simply offered the players a chance to prove their worth in a defensive-oriented 4-1-4-1 heavily based around structure.

The Blues simply didn’t possess the personnel to operate in the 4-2-4 Conte previously deployed prior to his appointment at Juventus. Moreover, Conte also didn’t have the centre-back options to accommodate the 3-5-2 that was successful during his tenure in Turin. A 4-1-4-1, on the other hand, was logical because the Blues simply didn’t have a No.10 that could dominate or win games in a free role.

Interestingly, this was the default Chelsea system till the turn of the decade due to the abundance of top-class central midfielders at Stamford Bridge. Carlo Ancelotti attempted to stray away from the system with some success with a 4-4-2 diamond and eventually the 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree system, but Conte doesn’t possess similar quality midfielders.

This has to do with the West London clubs brief obsession with diminutive technically gifted players following their Champions League triumph. Chelsea moved to a 4-2-3-1 and were slowly playing captivating football but were retrospectively feeble in central areas, lacking a creative cog and ball-winner to protect the back four.

Although Chelsea enjoyed a perfect start to the Conte era, the performances weren’t convincing, as the Blues struggled to create chances from open play. Ultimately, individual lapses and a peculiar defensive approach – sitting off technically gifted dynamic sides and not applying pressure in their own half – left many questioning the quality of current crop of players and Conte’s ability to succeed overseas.

Consecutive dropped points could serve as in indicator that change was required, and it was certainly beneficial that injuries in key areas enabled Conte’s system alteration without dissent. Two of last season’s major underachievers Cesc Fabregas and Branislav Ivanovic were eased out of the XI, and though John Terry started the season well, at some point this season Conte would have to consider a future without the Chelsea captain.

Conte tried it their way and Chelsea were played off the park by potential title rivals Liverpool and Arsenal, and more worryingly conceded eight goal in three games. With Terry and Ivanovic injured, and Fabregas failing to impress like many Chelsea supporters hoped he would against former club Arsenal, Conte’s switch to a 3-4-2-1 was not only logical, but desperately required.

Frankly, late deadline day signings were possibly acquired specifically for this system. Marcos Alonso was one of Serie A’s standout defenders in a left wing-back role for Fiorentina last season, whereas David Luiz impact with and out of possession is significant.

Luiz’s most recent display against Middlesborough striker Alvaro Negredo displayed astute defending and the aggression that’s not associated with the Brazilian. Likewise, the 29-year-old’s proficient passing typifies the defender as deep-lying playmaker from centre-back, as he consistently builds plays with long diagonals into the channel – this is also essential due to Fabregas’ exclusion deprived the XI of a genuine ball-player in deep zones.

More so, Chelsea’s 3-4-2-1 frees Eden Hazard of lengthy defensive duties – now he roams into central positions from the left, drifts into space in the channels, and is beginning to shoot more, which is significant to his world-class form. Pedro Rodriguez is also familiar with coming off the right flank and utilizing his speed to break beyond the defence in a three-man attack.

The midfield duo consisting of N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic is built around dynamism and quickly regaining possession, thus providing the Blues with the solid base they’ve lacked in recent years. Meanwhile, Diego Costa’s rediscovered the goal-scoring form that widely regards the Spanish international as one of the best strikers in the sport.

“Diego is a very good player,” Conte said. “It’s important for me, for his teammates, to see that in every game, Diego works a lot with the ball and without the ball. He’s an example for all. And I want to continue this way.

“If he continues to score, I’ll be very happy. But I’ll be happier to see this commitment, this work-rate during training and in games, to work with the team with and without the ball. If all the players are able to think in this way, it’s fantastic and we’ll be a good team, a very tough team to play.

But possibly the most fascinating aspect of Conte’s shift is their current run of clean sheets. Once proving to be a pair prone to mistakes, Luiz and Gary Cahill have been near flawless, and Cesar Azpilicueta has adapted superbly to an exterior centre-back role. Elsewhere, Alonso and Moses offer proper balance at wing-back: Moses is a tricky dribbler, while Alonso’s crosses from the left are consistently dangerous.

Modern day Premier League teams predominantly utilize three-man defences as a reactive system to the opposition, but Conte’s Chelsea are currently bucking the trend. Coincidentally, this week’s MLS East final showcased the potential risk in wide areas when playing a back-three, yet even in this respect, Luiz and Azpilicueta’s recovery runs negate this threat. But similar to the last time Chelsea were defeated in the league, upcoming fixtures against Spurs and Manchester City will provide proper tests.

Evidently, Chelsea improved in every area subsequent to the formation switch, but their performances are equally reminiscent of a genuine title contender. Conte’s men have comfortably dispatched of Everton, Leicester, and Manchester United at home, whereas their away wins at Hull, Southampton and Middlesborough were professional and tidy, thoroughly displayed defensively solidity and togetherness.

In particular, this weekend’s derby with the former should be cagey following Chelsea’s late recovery which put an end to Spurs’ title run at the conclusion of last season. Mauricio Pochettino’s men can match Chelsea’s strength in midfield with Moussa Dembele and Victor Wanyama, congest the box with Vincent Janssen’s presence, or even rely on the intricate passing and vertical threat of Son Heung-min, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen. Still, it will be interesting to see how the Spurs manager attempts to halt the Blues’ fine form.

“It’s a good challenge for us to go and play them at the moment,” said Pochettino. “They are in very good form. They have a great manager that I know very well and they have great players too,”

“It’s an advantage not being involved in European competition or the cups now. They have time to train and develop their philosophy. They are, not only in England but in Europe, the team most in form today.”

Spurs haven’t been overly-impressive domestically, but still remain the sole unbeaten side in the league, aiming to disrupt the sharp passing Chelsea displayed in recent weeks. Still, injury woes at the back, the suspension of Danny Rose, and favourable battles in Spurs’ third suggests the Blues are favourites t build on their flawless streak. Similar to in-game substitutions or the appointment of a new manager, teams tend to improve following change, further justifying the fascination involving Chelsea’s form.

The culture shift at Stamford Bridge is well underway, and though non-involvement in European competitions is valuable, Conte’s intensity and meticulous defensive regime could see Chelsea utilize 3-4-2-1 as their optimum shape until additional recruits join the club. Nevertheless, Conte’s bold decision signifies a new era at Stamford Bridge, as he is one of many foreign managers reviving the tactical proficiency English football recently lacked.

 
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Posted by on November 26, 2016 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Arsenal clash could rejuvenate Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted by on November 18, 2016 in Premier League, Published Work

 

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Tactical Preview: 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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