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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 – Manchester City

The 172nd Manchester derby is set to be most highly anticipated spectacle of the current Premier League season. Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho will compete in their first competitive match in nearly four years, and appear to be title contenders following their unbeaten start to the season.

Mourinho’s record against Guardiola is unconvincing, but a tilt at Old Trafford with a stable squad places United as slight favourites prior to kick-off. Nevertheless, this is still a battle between football’s chief pragmatist and the modern-day innovator in Guardiola. United is expected to congest central areas, hold a deep-line, and break when the opportunity is presented, whereas Guardiola’s City will dominate possession with hopes of breaking down Mourinho’s sturdy back-line.

The main talking point, however, involves Guardiola’s replacement for the suspended Sergio Aguero.

“Sergio is an important player for us but we knew seven or eight days ago he was not going to be able to play and we would need to use other players,” said Guardiola. “I am a new guy here and I have to learn how things work, but you can be sure I learn quick. I take note of what happened and store it for the future.”

Kelechi Iheanacho is the suitable fill-in, but the City manager has various options to choose from upfront. Nolito is a direct runner that would drift across the front-line, aiming to receive possession and run at defenders, while Silva can operate as a false-nine, encourage runners beyond United’s back-line, though ensuring City dominate central areas.

Raheem Sterling, on the other hand, serves as an interesting tactical prospect. Sterling’s tactical intelligence is unprecedented at a young age, and his past experience in a central role witnessed the England international drop deep to pick up the ball to run at defenders, stretch the opposing back-line with quick sprints into the channel, and his ability to find open space within the penalty box.

Ironically, Sterling’s main weakness is his finishing, but the 21-year-old’s rejuvenated form under Guardiola has reassured his threat in the final third. City’s won several penalties this season via Sterling’s dribbling and pace, while his poacher finishing around the box illustrates the rapid improvement in comparison to last season.

Claudio Bravo is expected to make his City debut, which will improve the away side’s distribution and overall buildup play out the back. However, United’s aerial threat via set-pieces and crosses from wide areas could fluster the diminutive Chilean.

Leroy Sane and Ilkay Gundogan are also fit for selection which would result in a rejig of the XI’s Guardiola has selected thus far. Still, if Guardiola opts to start without a recognized striker, United’s back-line will face a stern test against the speed from either Sane, Jesus Navas, Nolito or Sterling.

In truth, Mourinho’s main concern rests in protecting space between the lines against Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. Guardiola has fielded both men in deeper central roles, with license to charge into the box or towards the channels to create overloads in wide areas. With the full-backs adopting narrow positions in half space, and Fernandinho or Gundogan sitting deep, both De Bruyne and Silva will receive ample space to create in key areas.

Gundogan’s debut would improve City’s aim to dictate the tempo from deep, and if Guardiola opts to field Silva as a false-nine, Fernandinho would finally receive the opportunity to play in his preferred box-to-box role without fear of covering space for the languid Yaya Toure. More so, Gundogan’s inclusion would test Wayne Rooney’s tactical resolve as he’d be forced to press the German throughout, which has proved a difficult task for the United captain in recent years.

This is undoubtedly a troubling prospect for United’s midfield, as they’ve looked unconvincing in protecting these zones. Their narrow win at Hull witnessed Adama Diomande easily drift into pockets of space behind the United midfield to receive possession and charge towards goal. When Southampton traveled to Old Trafford, United’s midfield also endured spells where they couldn’t cope with the passing of Jordi Clasie, Steven Davis and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, and solely benefited from their lack of a goal-threat around the box.

Here, and specifically in big matches, Mourinho has been renowned for flipping his 4-2-3-1 into a 4-3-3 and sacrificing a central midfielder, which means Rooney would be omitted. Rooney’s tactical discipline has been exposed in the past, and though he’s capable of game-defining moments whilst simultaneously producing average performances, Mourinho can’t afford to be overrun in midfield.

This is suited for Morgan Schneiderlin’s physical presence and ball-winning skills or Ander Herrera’s slick passing and tenacity in midfield to offer protection ahead of what should be an unchanged back-line. Perhaps a slightly advanced role would enable Pogba to finally flourish in a United shirt, and his combinations with Ibrahimovic in prior matches have been promising.

With that being said, Mourinho may also be tempted to start Marcus Rashford and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, assuming the latter is fit to participate from the start.

“He [Mkhitaryan] is available,” said Mourinho. “I’m not saying he’s ready to play 90 minutes but he’s ready to try to help us.”

The duo offers tactical discipline, while possessing excellent pace and dribbling skills to pose a threat via swift counter-attacks in transition. Martial’s slow start to the season puts his selection in jeopardy, but he still offers a similar goal threat against City’s unconvincing full-backs, who are expected to adopt fairly high positions.

Similar to the Ferguson era, United will pack the midfield and keep their defensive lines compact out of possession, before quickly scurrying forward with numbers on the counter. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s dislike for Guardiola is definitely motivation, but his ability to operate as a creator to get runners such as Pogba, Mkhitaryan, Rashford or Martial forward could be decisive. Likewise, Ibrahimovic’s aerial threat flustered every opponent United’s encountered thus far, and he’ll relish individual duels against Nicolas Otamendi or John Stones.

As expected, neither side has been overly convincing to start the season, and while the pattern of the match is predictable, this could be an extremely cautious showdown. City will dominate possession and aim to bypass United’s high-pressing in the early stages of the match, but Guardiola’s extensive ball retention has been a form of defence in high-profile away matches during his career.

It wouldn’t be far-fetched to see both managers play for a draw, yet here, the personnel decisions upfront should determine how the two sides approach the match.

 
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Posted by on September 9, 2016 in Published Work

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis

Guardiola’s City swiftly takes shape

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

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

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

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

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

Conte’s system alteration proves decisive

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

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

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

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

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

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

New season, same Liverpool?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arsenal & Leicester continue to struggle in front of goal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunderland require plan B upfront.

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

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

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

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

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

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

West Ham injury issues halts growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weekend Stats

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

 

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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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Tactical Preview: France – Germany

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Courtesy of Flickr/William Morice

France’s showdown against Germany has the potential of being the tournament’s standout match. A rematch of the 2014 World Cup quarter-final witnesses a youthful French squad receive another opportunity to place themselves amongst the few elite international sides in the world if they can overcome the current world champions

Both sides altered their traditional systems to secure their quarter-final triumphs, but now it’s interesting to see how Didier Deschamps and Joachim Low approach the match. Needless to say, semi-finals tend to be tight, cautious affairs that are decided by fine margins, and both managers have several key decisions to make prior to kick-off.

Deschamps is expected to recall Adil Rami alongside Laurent Koscielny following his quarter-final suspension, but the main talking point is whether N’Golo Kante will be included in midfield. France have been at their utmost best at the tournament operating in a 4-4-2 with Antoine Griezmann closer to Olivier Giroud and Paul Pogba partnering Blaise Matuidi in midfield, yet with Kante in midfield, France possess solid defensive cover ahead of the back four.

France were able to overturn a 1-0 deficit against Ireland and dispatch of Iceland 5-2 in those matches, but Germany offers a larger threat going forward. Neither Matuidi nor Pogba are natural holding midfielders and would likely encounter difficulties coping with Mesut Ozil, Thomas Muller, and Julian Draxler between the lines, so Kante’s return would be logical.

That means France would operate in a 4-3-3 with Payet drifting centrally from the left and Griezmann darting from the right flank to combine with Giroud. Griezmann and Dmitri Payet have excelled from a central role at this tournament, but conceding too much space between the lines in exchange for creativity would be quite the gamble.

Low, on the other hand, could return to a 4-2-3-1, but may consider adopting a 3-4-2-1 if Giroud plays alongside Griezmann. Mats Hummels’ suspension would see Benedikt Howedes partner Jerome Boateng at centre-back, but if Low were to persist with a three-man defence, Shkodran Mustafi would make his first start since his opening match goal against the Ukraine.

Bastian Schweinsteiger should be fit to start in midfield with Toni Kroos, which ensures competent passing in central zones, but equally deprives the German’s of dynamism going forward. With Payet and Griezmann roaming between the lines, Schweinsteiger and Kroos will need to be cautious with their positioning, as France will aim to exploit the former’s limited mobility.

Low’s main dilemma involves replacing the injured Mario Gomez. Thomas Muller hasn’t been at his best throughout the tournament, and though he’s struggled in a no.9 role for his country, he still offers an aerial threat upfront. Mario Gotze started the tournament in a false nine role, but Germany were frankly too predictable in possession and unable to create multiple chances from open play. Gotze can still feature in an attacking midfield role, with Muller moving upfront, as precise passing and quick interchanging between the lines would pose several issues for the French.

Germany can also turn to Andre Schurrle who has been utilized as a super sub over the past few years. Schurrle offers a direct threat beyond the defence, and his pace would force the French back-line to sit deeper, which could prove beneficial with Boateng and Kroos’ range of passing. In truth, Gomez’s absence is a massive blow for the Germans, because the striker offered a threat in the penalty box, thus offering variety to an attack that can sometimes become too predictable.

Nevertheless, Kroos still remains the key man for Germany. France will have to be wary of Germany’s threat between the lines, but halting Kroos’ ability to dictate the tempo of the match is equally crucial. Italy were forced to have Graziano Pelle and Eder stick tight to the German throughout, and Olivier Giroud may be tasked with this duty. But with Boateng capable of deputizing as an additional playmaker from centre-back, Deschamps will have to instruct Pogba or Matuidi to press forward and negate Kroos’ threat.

Nonetheless, it’s difficult to predict how this match will unfold. Both managers can utilize several formations and are capable of shifting between systems throughout the match. Ultimately this could be down to which midfield can negate service between the lines, but both managers may opt for defensive-minded systems to ensure they avoid defeat.

While majority of the matches at this tournament have been fairly predictable, this showdown offers several plot twists that are truly fitting for a cup final.

 
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Posted by on July 7, 2016 in Euro 2016, Published Work

 

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Napoli 1-3 Juventus: Juventus’ clinical finishing sinks Rafa Benitez’s unadventurous Napoli

CARLO HERMANN/AFP/Getty Images)

CARLO HERMANN/AFP/Getty Images)

Juventus avenged their Supercoppa Italiana misfortunes to claim their first win at the San Paolo in 14 years.

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Massimiliano Allegri handed Martin Caceres a start at right back for Stephan Lichtsteiner, while Arturo Vidal sat ahead of Claudio Marchisio, Andrea Pirlo and Paul Pogba.

Rafa Benitez also opted to leave his attacking six unchanged with Jonathan De Guzman joining Marek Hamsik and Jose Callejon in an attacking trio behind Gonzalo Higuain.

In another slow burning contest between two of the top sides in the country, Juventus’ clinical finishing in front of goal was enough to sink Napoli.

Pattern 

While Allegri and Benitez adopted the same attacking personnel, both managers were reluctant to stray away from their initial Super Coppa shape. Unsurprisingly, this meant that the pattern of the match didn’t differ, as the slow, patient buildups that lacked creativity and guile in the final third were evident at the San Paolo.

With both sides displaying discipline and organization without the ball, the non-existent fluidity in attack led to a static, uninspiring match. Put simply, Juve dominated possession, and Napoli intended on breaking quickly in transition.

Without the ball

However, here Napoli were better structured when they dropped into two deep banks of four. Walter Gargano and David Lopez limited space between the lines ahead of the back four, and they received help from De Guzman who tucked infield to limit space in central areas.

Lopez Gargano

Ultimately, this was a logical approach considering Allegri’s decision to field four ball-playing midfielders, as there was an evident lack of invention in central areas. While Callejon was responsible for negating Patrice Evra, Caceres received space on the right to exploit due to De Guzman being pulled into the midfield battle. Oddly, Caceres was reluctant to push forward into this space, yet when the Uruguayan advanced forward he forced Rafael Cabral to make a key save, and delivered a well-weighed ball across the six-yard box that his teammates failed to attack.

Juve equally dropped deeper into a 4-4-1-1 without the ball, opposed to pressing higher up the pitch. Marchisio and Pogba pushed out into wide areas, Pirlo monitored Hamsik’s movement, and Tevez dropped off to track the deep lying Napoli midfielder.

Napoli struggled to create chances from open play, but they continued to pose a threat in transition. The home side’s best – and sole – chance in the opening half saw Hamsik run past three Juventus midfielders, before the ball fell to De Guzman in the box, but the Dutch international skied the ball over the net.

Juventus lacks variety in attack

The one worry for Allegri moving forward was the overall quality of the performance. While Juve dominated possession, and were rarely tested for large portions of the match, both penetration and guile remain non-existent in big matches.

Pogba’s opener was a moment of individual brilliance, while Caceres’ winner was a well-executed set piece combined with poor marking. Juventus didn’t cope well against Napoli’s reactive approach, and with a shortage of creative options available in the final third, Allegri’s side were bound to encounter difficulties.

Juve were often free to play out the back with Pirlo dropping in between centre backs Giorgio Chiellini, and Leonardo Bonucci to play the first pass, but the admirable work from Lopez, De Guzman and Gargano deprived the away side from linking midfield and attack. With Vidal fielded in a trequartista role, the Chilean’ successfully completed tackles higher up the pitch, but his powerful runs from deep were sorely missed.

Allegri’s midfield quartet lacked ideas in central areas, and there was a vast difference in terms of attempted take-ons across the pitch. The decision to overload central areas with ball-playing midfielders wasn’t necessarily incorrect, but Napoli’s ability to maintain a compact shape, along with a lack of variety in attacking areas worked against the current champions.

Juventus Napoli take ons

Tevez – Higuain

Tevez and Higuain were the key men in the Supercoppa Italiana final, scoring both goals for their respected clubs, but the Argentinian strikers were ineffective at the San Paolo. The former was involved in Juve’s best moves in last month’s encounter, while the latter served as a reliable reference point in the box.

Higuain Tevez Napoli Juve

The problem here is that the Argentinian strikers often received the ball yards away from the box.

Here, there was minimal space for Tevez to operate in between the lines. Nonetheless, the Juventus striker was involved in some of their best moves, as his incisive pass should have resulted in a Caceres goal, and he was involved in the buildup to Pogba’s opener.

Higuain, on the other hand, struggled because Napoli sat too deep out of possession. The Napoli striker was involved in his side’s sole break in the opening half, but his involvement was scarce due to Benitez’s caution.

Second half changes

Apart from an individual slalom from Lopez in the opening minutes of the second half, the pattern of the match remained unchanged until Benitez introduced Dries Mertens for Hamsik. De Guzman moved to a central role, and Napoli gained an additional direct threat through the Belgian. Mertens’ impact was immediate, as he constantly ran at Caceres – resulting in the Uruguayan receiving a booking – whilst earning, and delivering the corner that led to Miguel Britos’ equalizer.

Allegri quickly responded to taking the lead shortly after Caceres’ goal, by replacing Pogba for Lichtsteiner. Juve sat deeper in the final 20 minutes, reverting to a 5-3-2, with Vidal and Marchisio drifting wide to protect their wingbacks from being overloaded.

Benitez reacted by introducing Manolo Gabbiadini and Duvan Zapata, thus moving to a traditional 4-4-2. Napoli was handed the onus to break down Allegri’s side, but only received chances in the latter stages of stoppage time: Mertens intercepted Angelo Ogbonna’s stray pass and slid in Zapata, but he overran the ball and was booked for simulation. Then, Mertens’ penetrative pass into the box for Higuain, nearly led to an equalizer, but Giorgio Chiellini’s last-ditch tackle preserved Juve’s lead.

The decision to introduce Mertens improved Napoli’s impetus, but the timing of Caceres winner, along with Allegri’s alteration to a five-man defence, halted Napoli’s attempt to claim an equalizer.

Conclusion

A second tilt between the two sides in the last month resulted in a dire encounter that relied on clinical finishing, opposed to an abundance of tactical themes.

Benitez’s attempt to thwart Juventus’ activity in open play was nearly successful, but their threat on the counter was limited. Neither side offered enough creativity and guile in the final third or central areas, and found joy in wide areas.

Although neither side was fully deserving of maximum points, Allegri’s Juve proved that they have enough talent to overcome poor performances, and cruise past their domestic rivals.

 
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Posted by on January 12, 2015 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Juventus 3-0 Napoli

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Juventus sit one point behind league leaders Roma after a convincing victory over Napoli.

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Antonio Conte made two changes to the side that drew Real Madrid in midweek. Angelo Ogbonna joined Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli at centre back, while Mauricio Isla made an appearance as a right wingback.

Rafa Benitez assembled his side in a 4-2-3-1 with Gonzalo Higuain leading the line ahead of Jose Callejon, Marek Hamsik and Lorenzo Insigne. Gokhan Inler and Valon Behrami formed the double pivot.

Two moments of individual brilliance may have put the match out of reach, but Juventus were terrific in and out of possession.

Juventus’ great start

Conte’s men started the match in a positive manner, which has been a recurring theme throughout the early part of this campaign.

Shockingly, it only took two minutes for the Bianconeri to take the lead. From an initial short corner, Pirlo squared a pass to Isla, and the Chilean’s deflected shot fell to Llorente – who was marginally offside – and the Spaniard tapped the ball into the net. Three minutes later, Pirlo received his cleared corner kick at the edge of the box, and the Italian received time and space to deliver a cross at the far post to Paul Pogba, who nodded the ball across goal to Bonucci, but Pepe Reina made an excellent save to deny the Italian.

It was an ideal start for Conte’s men – they created two legitimate goal-scoring opportunities, took the lead, and pegged Napoli into their own half, during the opening 10 minutes.

Napoli shape

To an extent, Napoli’s shape without the ball was the cause for Juventus’ first half dominance. In Napoli’s away matches against top-sides this season, Benitez’s men have been cautious, and focused on attacking teams on the counter. Here, they dropped too deep, and failed to limit Juve’s activity in the final third.

Higuain and Hamsik dropped off near Pirlo, allowing Bonucci, Barzagli and Ogbonna time on the ball. Benitez’s men allowed Juve’s centrebacks to push forward, and their wingbacks to advance higher up the pitch. Occasionally, Higuain and Napoli’s wide men would press Juve’s defenders, but that left Pirlo as a free outlet to receive the ball.

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Another odd feat was Napoli’s defensive approach towards the Italian maestro when he had the ball in Napoli’s half. No pressure was applied on Pirlo as he was allowed to spread passes to the advancing wingbacks.

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Coincidentally, Kwadwo Asamoah and Isla was Pirlo’s preferred outlet going forward. Napoli’s two banks of four were organized, but their shape lacked structure.  There was space between the lines for Juve to exploit and their press was non-existent, which allowed Conte’s men freedom to express themselves.

Juventus shape

Unlike Napoli, Juventus’ shape without the ball was simple, yet effective. Similar to Napoli’s approach, Tevez and Llorente preferred not to press Napoli’s centrebacks, as they stuck close to Behrami and Inler – preventing the midfield duo from receiving the ball. This left the Napoli fullbacks as the free outlets out wide, but Vidal and Pogba closed them down admirably, while Asamoah and Isla tracked Insigne and Callejon’s runs.

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Napoli failed to get the ball into Higuain, who was left isolated against Juventus’ three centrebacks, whereas Hamsik was unable to find space between the lines. Conte’s men nullified Napoli’s attacking threat by winning individual battles across the pitch, and limiting Hamsik’s space in the final third.

Another interesting feat was the dissimilarity in cohesion between both attacks. Juventus was fluid, their passing tempo was quick, and their utilization of wide areas was pivotal. Napoli struggled in wide areas against Arsenal at the Emirates a few weeks ago, and Conte’s men created their best chances from this source of attack, as they focused on isolating their fullbacks – while they may be great going forward, their defensive abilities are mediocre.

  1. 25th minute: Tevez received a pass from Pirlo between the lines and flicked a ball behind Christian Maggio to an unmarked Asamoah, but the Ghanaian’s shot hit the side netting.
  2. 38th minute: Vidal received a cross-field ball from Asamoah, and he played a defence splitting pass to the oncoming Isla. The Chilean delivered a sensational cross to Llorente, but Reina denied him at the near post.
  3. 65th minute: Pirlo spreads a pass to Isla on the right flank, and the Chilean squared the ball to Tevez on the edge of the box. Vidal’s movement led to Raul Albiol’s slip, and Tevez slipped the ball into the Chilean midfielder, but he scuffed his shot at the near post and it hit the side netting.

Juventus received several opportunities to increase their lead from wide areas, but great goalkeeping from Reina, and poor finishing kept Napoli in the match.

Napoli improve

There was a gradual lift in Napoli’s performance during the second half. Opposed to the first half, their work ethic improved when they lost the ball, as they instantly swarmed the Juventus defenders. Napoli pushed higher up the pitch, attempting to squeeze Conte’s men in their own half, and this led to their superiority in possession.

Nonetheless, Benitez’s men encountered the same issues in the second half, as they were unable to get behind the Juventus backline. But with Juventus sitting deeper, Hamsik’s movement enabled him to find gaps to exploit. Similar to the first half, Hamsik was forced to drop near the halfway line to receive the ball, and help Napoli push forward.

Hamsik passing vs Juventus

The Slovak international was neutralized in the first half, as he’s unable to influence the match from a deeper position. With Juventus 10-yards deeper, Hamsik found pockets of space to receive the ball and he attempted to overload wide areas, and penetrate in the final third.

  1. 63rd minute: Ogbonna failed to clear Pablo Armero’s cross and it fell to Hamsik – who snuck behind Pogba – but the Slovak’s shot towards the near post hit the side netting.
  2. 77th minute: Hamsik found space on the left flank, and played a splendid ball to Insigne – who made an intelligent run behind Barzagli – but Buffon saved Insigne’s shot at the near post.

Also, it’s key to point out Insigne’s attacking threat throughout the match. Whilst Napoli lacked invention and creativity in the final third, the Italian winger looked like the only player capable of snagging an equalizer. In the first half, he had two shots outside of the box that flashed inches of wide of the post and cross bar. Early on in the second half, he nearly beat Buffon with a promising curling free kick, but once again Buffon made a vital save. Insigne’s movement allowed him to get into great positions to threaten Juventus – the Italian was Napoli’s main attacking threat throughout the match but he was unable to beat Buffon when the opportunity was presented.

Benitez’s men improved in the second half with Hamsik and Insigne leading the charge, but Napoli’s standout performers lacked that extra bit of quality around the 18-yard box.

Tevez

Although he didn’t add to his six goals in 11 matches, Tevez continued to shine for the Bianconeri. He was arguably the man of the match as he produced another fantastic display behind Llorente. Tevez found space between the lines to receive the ball and link play with his teammates, he made intelligent runs into space to open up holes in the backline, and he swiftly dribbled past Napoli defenders with ease.

The Argentine has settled well in his role as the second striker as his movement in the final third to allow runners to attack behind him, and his ability to play intricate passes in tight spaces has seen Tevez develop into a significant cog in Juventus’ attack. Tevez became a nuisance towards Napoli’s backline, and Inler’s foul on him – which led to Pirlo’s fantastic free kick goal – displayed the threat the Argentine poses in the final third.

Pirlo and Pogba added two goals in seven minutes to put the match out of reach, but Tevez continued to display why he’s currently the best striker in Italy.

Conclusion

Juventus move within one point of league leaders Roma, but more importantly they displayed that they’re still favourites to lift their third consecutive Scudetto. They nullified Hamsik’s threat in the final third and their overall shape without the ball was impressive for large portions of the match. On the other hand Napoli’s poor shape, and work ethic without the ball allowed Juve’s wingbacks, Tevez and Pirlo space to thrive in. 

“We needed more possession and to be more dangerous, but above all to show the character and quality we knew we had,” Benitez said. 

“We know Pirlo has quality, but we can’t play an entire game just for one player. We knew it could be difficult, but we know that in future we can play as we did in the second half,” he added. 

Napoli improved in the second half, and although they’re undergoing a transitional period, their performances in big matches and Hamsik’s minimal influence shouldn’t be overlooked. Napoli’s role in the title race is unknown as the season is long, but this match highlighted the contrast in quality between the two title rivals.

 
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Posted by on November 12, 2013 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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