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

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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.

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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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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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Dimitri Payet’s attacking third wizardry allows Didier Deschamps France to dream

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France’s forward Dimitri Payet celebrates scoring France’s second goal during the Euro 2016 group A football match between France and Romania at Stade de France, in Saint-Denis, north of Paris, on June 10, 2016. / AFP / KENZO TRIBOUILLARD (Photo credit should read KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images)

It was a strike Dimitri Payet will tell his grandchildren about.

When it appeared that the France hype machine was approaching an unexpected halt, a moment of sheer individual brilliance left the Stade de France crowd in jubilation. What many believed would be a forthright result turned into a physical battle against a resilient Romanian side that were minutes away from a valuable point.

Didier Deschamps opted for Payet’s creativity over youngster Anthony Martial, and the West Ham midfielder justified the French manager’s selection by creating the opener, and scoring the late winner. Opening matches of tournaments are usually the toughest, and despite France’s positive performance on the night, Deschamps’ men didn’t meet their peak form, which in fairness shouldn’t be a surprise.

France maintained their traditional 4-3-3 formation throughout, but at times it appeared to be a 4-4-2 with Antoine Griezmann playing close to striker Olivier Giroud. When Griezmann was caught in advanced zones, Paul Pogba would drift to the right flank to ensure the French maintained a solid shape out of possession. But for all the promise regarding a possible partnership, they rarely formed combinations that pestered the Romanian defence.

Apart from a few scares defending set-pieces – French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris was forced into a key save within the opening two minutes – Deschamps’ men imposed their territorial dominance throughout the first half. The surprise, however, involved Romanian coach, Anghel Iordănescu’s, decision to have his side play further away from their 18-yard box to compress space in midfield.

Deschamps may have anticipated the Romanians would congest space around the 18-yard box by employing a low defensive block, but limiting space in midfield was a logical approach by Iordănescu considering the personnel included in the French XI. While Deschamps’ side is filled with several direct ball-carriers, Martial’s dribbling and willingness to run beyond the defence may have posed a greater threat, as France rarely charged beyond the opposing defence.

Nevertheless, despite France’s misfortunes in the opening half, they demonstrated natural balance across the pitch. Pogba dropped deeper on the right to spread play towards the flanks, while Payet received license to drift centrally to create space for Blaise Matuidi and Patrice Evra to charge into on the left. Yet, for all of France’s midfield players floating around central zones, the hosts’ main attacking threat surprisingly stemmed from wide areas. Payet’s crossing from both flanks saw Giroud and Griezmann direct efforts inches wide of the goal, while the latter also nodded a loose ball off the post following a Bacary Sagna cross.

Similar to the fit opening half, Romania enjoyed a dynamic start to the second, but still struggled to spark quick counter-attacks when they regained possession. Romania striker, Florin Andone’s tireless work rate and strength flustered France’s back-line, but he lacked pace and proper holdup play to enable his teammates to join the attack.

The scrappy nature of the second half witnessed a combative Romanian side spending more time in France’s half, but they unfortunately lacked the quality to test Hugo Lloris from open play, despite that Bogdan Stancu coolly converting a penalty following Patrice Evra’s clumsy tackle on Nicolae Stanciu. But even though Romania’s threat in the final third was scarce, France couldn’t afford to push multiple bodies forward without conceding space for Iordănescu’s men to exploit on the counter-attack.

Where Romania persisted to push forward and fluster France out of possession, the hosts relied on Payet’s crossing to create chances. Payet was the most active player in the final third and once again crosses from both flanks created Giroud’s opener and a Pogba volley that resulted in a remarkable Ciprian Tătăruşanu save.

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Deschamps attempt to win the match saw Kingsley Coman replace Griezmann and Pogba sacrificed for Martial. France transitioned into a standard 4-2-3-1 with Coman and Martial in wide positions, and although neither substitute significantly influenced the match, the tactical alteration positioned Payet in a central role. In fairness, the pivotal aspect of Deschamps’ formation swap solely rests on Payet receiving the ball between the lines seconds prior to scoring the winner, but had he persisted with his initial approach, the Frenchman would likely be positioned on either flank.

Payet will rightly receive plaudits for his overall display, which equally signifies the lack of creative ball-players included in the XI. Although France’s general play was positive for large portions of the match, it’s slightly worrying that Payet’s crossing was their sole method of attack. France don’t necessarily need to tinker with the current XI, but an array of offensive combinations in the final third will be required as the tournament progresses.

 
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Posted by on June 11, 2016 in Euro 2016, Published Work

 

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