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

All eyes are set on Paul Pogba.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted by on August 9, 2016 in Published Work

 

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Manchester United and Jose Mourinho’s redemption mission looks promising

Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United appointment was terribly overdue.

What possibly should have been the ideal hire following Sir Alex Ferguson’s sudden retirement, and Mourinho’s departure from Real Madrid, will officially take effect when United face Leicester City in Sunday’s Community Shield clash.

In that time United have terminated David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, as their attempts to maintain Ferguson’s winning mantra failed miserably. Several foreign signings and millions of dollars in transfer fees have been invested at Old Trafford, but apart from last year’s fourth place finish, United have missed out on the top four twice, and have never been apart of the title race.

While it was believed Mourinho was disappointed that United were reluctant to name him as Ferguson’s successor, the Portuguese manager’s return to Chelsea guided amongst England’s elite. A Premier League and Capital One Cup double was recorded in Mourinho’s second season, but failure to maintain such levels resulted in his immediate sacking midway through last season.

Ultimately both parties were at a crossroads – Mourinho’s options were limited considering previously managed clubs and current vacancies, whereas Van Gaal’s reign at Old Trafford turned United into a wretched watch and the club were slowly transitioning into perennial underachievers. Both United and Mourinho have been natural winners over the past decade, and with their current reputation severely battered, an opportunity at redemption couldn’t be ignored.

Where multiple United supporters displayed displeasure with Mourinho’s eventual hiring, oddly, he’s quite similar to the legendary Ferguson.

“He’s won the European Cup twice with different clubs and won titles with all the clubs he’s been at,” said Ferguson.

“You can’t ignore his record and I think Manchester United is the right kind of club for him.”

For one, they’re both pragmatists capable of utilizing players in the most efficient manner. While the general misconception surrounding Manchester United involves the club playing an attractive brand of football built on width and free-flowing possession, it’s key to remember that even the best Ferguson sides were reactive when required.

United comfortably dispatched of Premier League minnows by constantly pushing men forward at every opportunity, but the likes of Darren Fletcher, Park Ji Sung, Anderson and Owen Hargreaves all played key roles in United’s deep Champions League runs over the past decade. Often reverting to a 4-5-1, Ferguson knew how to grind out victories in a slightly more appealing way then Mourinho, but was rarely criticized for doing so.

More so, solely hailing Mourinho as a defensive-minded coach would discredit some of the most exciting sides of this era. Following his first stint at Chelsea, Mourinho’s Inter Milan sides were leading goal-scorers in the two seasons the Portuguese manager spent in Italy. Elsewhere, during his fierce rivalry with Pep Guardiola, Mourinho’s Real Madrid out-scored and beat arguably the best club side ever to claim a La Liga title in 2012.

Similarly, Mourinho’s 2013-2014 title winning Chelsea side played some of the best football in Europe over the first half of that season – combining Cesc Fabregas’ vision, intricate passing in tight spaces, and Diego Costa’s power upfront – before reverting to a defensive minded approach to combat fatigue during the run-in. Additionally, Mourinho’s equally incorporated players such as Deco, Wesley Sneijder, Mesut Ozil and Cristiano Ronaldo – players renowned for their minimal work rate out of possession – into defensive juggernauts further highlighting his ability to identify a proper balance.

Tactically, there shouldn’t be any drastic modifications to Mourinho’s set-up, which therefore should benefit a United side that hoisted the best defensive record in the division last season. Mourinho’s attention to detail should improve a sturdy defensive shape, as they transition between two deep banks of four, possible energetic high pressing, or a standard 4-5-1 in high-profile matches.

Likewise, while Mourinho is lambasted for not offering youth a chance, apart from the early stages of Ferguson’s career at Old Trafford, the former United manager has rarely turned academy prospects into regular first-team players. Players such as Gerard Pique and Paul Pogba have turned into world stars after being overlooked by Ferguson, whereas only Wes Brown, Darren Fletcher and Danny Welbeck maintained a consistent role in the first team.

Mourinho, however won’t encounter that issue considering several youngsters are currently in the first team, so frankly the one possible downfall in this newfound relationship is the Portuguese manager himself. Although Ferguson was a notorious media bully, Mourinho’s siege-mentality has been nauseating in the past, thus leading to players and his medical staff turn against him. The Portuguese manager lost the dressing room at Real Madrid and most recently at Chelsea, and it’ll be interesting to see how the United players handle Mourinho’s antics.

Then there’s longevity. Mourinho has never stayed at a club for more than three full seasons, thus resulting in many insinuating he’s unable to build a dynasty. Mourinho embraced bigger challenges following treble triumphs with Inter and Porto, yet ironically, those moves witnessed the manager subsequently sacked at Chelsea and Real Madrid.

A second spell at Chelsea presented Mourinho with a chance to build a dynasty in a familiar environment with young promising talent, but failure to build on a title-winning squad – Chelsea’s new (one in-one out) transfer policy exploited a fatigued Blues squad still possessing weaknesses in key areas – was decisive considering it was a key factor in his return. Chelsea’s poor title defence – the worst of any champions in the Premier League area – was a low point for both club and manager, but it’s unlikely Mourinho will encounter such issues at Old Trafford.

At United he will inherit a side that can be classified as a genuine title contender. Mourinho has already added Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Eric Bailly and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to the United roster, and with Pogba reportedly set to make a return to Old Trafford, he arguably has more options at his disposal than his 2013-2014 Chelsea side in a league were several top sides are still enduring a transitional period.

A youthful attack containing the devious Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford’s ability to run the channels, and Jesse Lingard’s tactical discipline compliments the experience of Wayne Rooney and Ibrahimovic. Pogba’s anticipated return to Old Trafford would bolster a midfield alongside the dynamic Ander Herrera and Morgan Schneiderlin or genuine passers in Michael Carrick and Daley Blind.

Then in defence, Mourinho has attack-minded full-backs and is expected to prefer a powerful centre-back partnership of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. With most sides aiming to press from the front, he can also slot Blind to centre-back to help United play out the back, whilst pushing full-backs Matteo Darmian and Luke Shaw forward.

When you assess the current state of the Premier League, the Portuguese manager’s familiarity with the league and the options at Mourinho’s disposal presents both parties a chance to return amongst the higher echelon of English football.

“I came to Manchester United because I wanted to work under Alex Ferguson and then in the latter years [with] what Mourinho has done in football, in Spain and Italy and England, he is a manager who you want to play under,” said Rooney.

“He is one of the best around and to learn from what he brings it’s going to be exciting for me to try and learn under a manager such as himself.”

Unlike Real Madrid and Chelsea, where Mourinho was deemed a failure, a spell at Old Trafford will provide the Portuguese manager with adequate funds to build his preferred team, and the required patience to gain results. Modern day football will never see a tenure comparable to Ferguson’s, but at United, Mourinho’s ensured ample time to attempt to build a dynasty, assuming he doesn’t replicate the disaster that transpired at Stamford Bridge last season.

At the time of Ferguson’s departure, United required a proven winner to maintain the club’s success, whereas now, Mourinho is tasked with guiding his troops back to glory. With a great balance of creativity, experience, youth, technical ability and power, there’s no reason why United shouldn’t be challenging for domestic honours and participating in the latter stages of the Champions League in the next few years.

Regardless if Mourinho fails to display longevity at Old Trafford, his main job is to regain the winning mantra and fear factor once displayed at the club so it can be further evolved in the near future. Nevertheless, the club and manager’s obsession with silverware should be the catalyst in rediscovering the winning aura that’s disappeared.

“I want to be champion,” Mourinho told The Sun. “To say before the season starts that the top four is the target? The top four is not the target. We want to play to be champions.”

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2016 in Published Work

 

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Premier League Preview: Manchester United

Courtesy of Flickr/Hasegawa Takashi

Courtesy of Flickr/Hasegawa Takashi

Individual failure at the World Cup was the greatest thing to happen to Manchester United this summer.

Amongst the constant banter regarding Arturo Vidal’s future, United was back to business at the Guinness International Champions Cup. The Red Devils were undefeated in four matches at the pre-season tournament, including victories over European champions Real Madrid and rivals Liverpool.

Silverware was a distant fantasy throughout David Moyes’ tenure, as the Scotsman only has a Community Shield triumph against Championship side Wigan last season, with United finishing in seventh place; a club low in the Premier League era. The World Cup didn’t provide a change of fortune for the United players, as only the likes of Javier Hernandez, Marouane Fellaini, and Adnan Januzaj –– with Hernandez and Januzaj playing a bit-part role in Brazil –– progressed past the group-stage.

Juan Mata and David de Gea were forced to watch Holland and Chile blitz Spain, Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck couldn’t lift a youthful English side past Italy or Uruguay, Antonio Valencia’s Ecuador lacked quality on both ends, and neither Shinji Kagawa nor Nani could serve as a catalyst for their respected nations when it mattered. Then there was Robin van Persie, who vastly declined subsequent to Holland’s opening match, but captained a side that came within spot-kicks of returning to the World Cup final.

Holland left Brazil unbeaten, claiming victories against Spain, Chile and Brazil, and their success was down to Louis van Gaal’s tactical tinkering. Van Gaal, the antithesis of Moyes, didn’t receive time to reflect on a successful World Cup campaign, though, as he was handed the responsibility to make amends for United’s disappointing season.

And in little under a month we’re beginning to see United take shape.

The drive to impress van Gaal and win football games has been displayed in the discipline and work ethic both on and off the ball. In what was undoubtedly a forgettable spell at Old Trafford, the hunger that United lacked under Moyes was evident.

The contrast between Moyes and van Gaal is vast. From the experience at the highest level, to their football philosophy, and the level of confidence and arrogance that both men possess, van Gaal appears to be a significant upgrade. He’s won league titles in three different countries, and failing to feature in the World Cup final has left a fire under his belly to become a champion once again.

In fairness, preseason results are irrelevant; it’s an opportunity to see what combinations work, improve fitness, and assess the squad at your disposal. Still, the hunger, and increased signs of improvement –– although United couldn’t get any worse –– have given fans a sense of optimism as we approach opening weekend.

Majority of van Gaal’s success, however, was achieved in the previous millennium, where he was handed time and patience to instill his philosophy. Van Gaal may not receive that luxury at Old Trafford, so his intent on winning the fans over and claiming silverware –– regardless of its significance –– was integral.

The departures of veteran’s Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, and Patrice Evra marks the dawn of a new era at Old Trafford, and van Gaal’s preference to work with younger players should lead to a smoother transition. The days of the traditional 4-4-2, and United’s persistence to solely play down the wings under Moyes is of the past, as stylistically, van Gaal is administering a different approach that offers variety in attack.

By no means is van Gaal a tactical genius. Frankly, the Dutchman is similar to Jose Mourinho, as he ensures his players stick to their tasks with devastating efficiency. Van Gaal, though, may be methodical like his Portuguese rival, but he’ll provide United with flexibility. He’ll alter from a three-man to a four-man defence, as he prefers to have a spare man in defence to retain possession, but also withhold a numerical advantage out of possession.

While Moyes’ decisions were often peculiar and heavily questioned, van Gaal displayed his ability to alter games on the fly. A change to a 4-3-3 against Mexico led to Arjen Robben’s dominance, and the decision to call upon Tim Krul in a penalty shootout is one of the standout storylines at the World Cup.

Equally, apart from the personnel, there’s very little separating Holland’s approach at the World Cup to United’s displays in pre-season. The swift transitional attacks, high-pressing and defensive line, along with the man marking in midfield has been evident.

The young English duo of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones will get their chance to mature and prove their worth alongside one of United’s most consistent performers over the past few seasons in Jonny Evans.

Their athleticism will enable United to play a high-line –– an option that proved suicidal with Ferdinand and Vidic in the XI –– and although the risk of the opposition exploiting space behind the trio is likely, United’s chances of winning the ball in advanced positions will increase. Smalling’s performances in preseason, however, has forced van Gaal into the transfer market as he searches for a versatile centre-back, but stellar displays in Brazil from Dirk Kuyt and Ron Vlaar should serve as a sign of optimism for Red Devils fans.

The arrival of Ander Herrera provides United with the dynamism and penetration from central areas that they’ve severely lacked in recent years. Van Gaal also appears capable of resurrecting careers at the Theatre of Dreams. Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia have solidified their roles as adequate replacements for Luke Shaw and Rafael at the wingback position, with the former scoring goals and creating quality chances on both flanks.

Equally, Darren Fletcher’s transition into a deep-lying passer led to a few man-of-the match performances that could see him feature sporadically this season if he can cope with the pace of a competitive match.

The highpoint from United’s tour across the United States was the production from the front three. Danny Welbeck’s tactical discipline remains one of the England international’s key traits, but Rooney and Mata –– players that have been chastised over their defensive work in big games –– were equally impressive in and out of possession.

Rooney’s tendency to impress when his position is under threat is unsurprising, but whether the 28-year-old and van Gaal can maintain a fruitful relationship, along with his maintaining his fitness levels throughout the season is up in the air.

Mata, on the other hand, is now playing in his preferred no.10 role in van Gaal’s 3-4-1-2. Not only does the Spaniard receive the space to offer creativity, but van Gaal’s direct style has seen Mata’s verticality reap rewards as he’s playing at the level that saw the 26-year-old transition into a world-class player at Chelsea.

If Mata, van Persie and Rooney can fire on all cylinders, and still have Welbeck, Javier Hernandez and the pace of Adnan Januzaj and Wilfried Zaha available, it’s evident that United’s strength lies in their attack.

Still, claiming the Premier League in the first season will be a stern challenge for van Gaal, considering the competition that awaits the Dutchman. Majority of the teams that finished ahead of the Red Devils have improved over the summer, while United have a month to sort out there issues in midfield and defence.

Ultimately, United lack the depth of Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City in midfield and defence. For instance, if Herrera were to get injured, Tom Cleverley or Marouane Fellaini –– conservative sideways passers –– would slot into midfield. Despite Fletcher’s impressive preseason, it’s key to note that he’s an unreliable option due to his health and fitness conditions.

Likewise, if Jones, Smalling or Evans were unavailable, van Gaal would be forced to turn to his academy players. This isn’t necessarily a bad option, but not an issue a Premier League title winner would be forced into.

This was never a job destined to be fixed in one season, and not only is a place in the top four an attainable goal, but it should also be deemed a success if they finish in a Champions League spot. United has a relatively manageable schedule until October, along with no European competition burden, so the possibility of replicating Liverpool’s success of last season isn’t too farfetched.

However, it would take something special to overtake the complete squads that Chelsea and Manchester City possess.

Considering the timing, van Gaal and United appear to be the perfect match, as the Red Devils aim to return amongst the Premier League’s elite sides.

 
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Posted by on August 10, 2014 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Three Things: Manchester United 2-2 Fulham

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Courtesy of Flickr/vnupdate.net

David Moyes employs predictable tactics

Of the many factors that made David Moyes an odd choice to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson, the contrast in their style of play was near the top of the list. Moyes is a reactive manager that isn’t renowned for producing exciting football, and insists on predominantly generating attack from wide areas.

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On Sunday, crosses were a distinct factor in United’s attack. Moyes’ men dominated possession for large portions of the match, as they aimed to isolate Fulham’s fullbacks. United completed 82 crosses, nearly 400 more passes than their opponents, but the most shocking statistic was the startling difference in attacking third passes.

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Here, Fulham maintained a narrow shape, with 10 men behind the ball, so it was logical for United to utilize their wide options. The issue with Moyes’ approach was that it lacked variety – Fulham were prepared to cope with United’s willingness to deliver crosses into the box.

In fairness, both goals stemmed from initial crosses into the box from Adnan Januzaj and Patrice Evra, but many were disgruntled with Moyes’ approach. Simply, United encountered three problems  – they were outnumbered in Fulham’s box, their passing tempo in buildup play was slow, and the quality of the crosses was inconsistent.

Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie squandered legitimate goal-scoring opportunities from point-blank range through crosses from Ashley Young and Rafael, while Maarten Stekelenburg made key saves to frustrate the home side. Moyes’ men, however, stuck to their task, and continued to attack wide areas; it created the platform for United to score twice, but it wasn’t enough.

Carrick outshines world-class teammates

Juan Mata’s arrival to Manchester United was a sign of ambition. The goal was to provide an overall lift in the side to push for a top-four position, but it was also an opportunity to add world-class talent in their attack. The main talking point prior to Mata’s arrival was the threat Mata, Rooney and van Persie could pose.

While United dominated nearly every aspect of the match at Old Trafford, their three best players failed to impress. Despite Mata and van Persie’s involvement in the first goal, neither player enjoyed a great game, while Rooney drifted in and out of the match. This is not to say that the trio played poorly, but they didn’t ignite a spark to guide United to three points.

Carrick, however, was United’s key man – the Englishman enjoyed arguably his best game of the season, constantly changing the home side’s route of attack. Similar to Carrick’s fortuitous goal, the United midfielder’s passing was significant.

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Today, Carrick provided dynamism in attack, and when he wasn’t playing scintillating balls to Ashley Young, he was driving towards the Fulham penalty area. His shot from the edge of the box in the first half was inches wide of the post, but his goal in the second half nearly capped off a great afternoon for the England international.

Although United’s attacking trio didn’t play up to their standards, Carrick’s performance is a boost for Moyes. With United now sitting nine points behind Liverpool for the final Champions League spot, they’ll need all their top players performing at high-levels if they intend on doing – what looks to be – the impossible.

Fulham survive

The most impressive feat at Old Trafford was Fulham’s ability to secure a result. Although one should credit their perseverance to cope with United’s attack – even if it was far from United’s best performance – their overall approach was negative. Rene Meulensteen’s side preferred to play on the counter-attack, and maintained a compact shape, as they were in dire need of a result.

“We set out, as anybody can see, we needed to stay in there after the results we have had in the last couple of weeks. But we made it very difficult for them,” Meulensteen said. “We focused a lot on making sure we kept our shape, we defended well, but at times we didn’t really play the football that we really want to play. Having said that, we know where we are and this is a valid point for us.”

Johnny Heitinga and Dan Burn confidently dealt with United’s crosses from the flanks, while Lewis Holtby and Muamer Tankovic pressed Darren Fletcher and Carrick when possible. Fulham comfortably coped with United’s attacking threat in the first half, and while Meulensteen’s men didn’t enjoy much possession, they were efficient on the break.

Fletcher was responsible for not tracking Steve Sidwell in the build up to the Fulham midfielder’s goal from a magnificent Holtby ball. In the 37th minute, Fulham were presented a great opportunity to double their lead, and Tankovic broke on the counter from his own half. Tankovic was placed in a 2v2 situation, but waited for the overlapping Kieran Richardson, thus playing him in, but the Fulham winger skied his shot over the bar.

The Cottagers didn’t offer any attacking threat in the second half, as they spent majority of the half defending at the edge of their box. Meulensteen’s side were seconds away from defeat, before a poor Nemanja Vidic clearance led to Richardson forcing De Gea to make a key save, and substitute Darren Bent nodded a De Gea rebound into the net.

Fulham currently sit at the bottom of the Barclays Premier League – three points away from safety – but this could be a vital point that separates survival and relegation at the end of the season.

 
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Posted by on February 9, 2014 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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