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Tactical Preview: Spain – Italy

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Courtesy of Flickr/James FJ Rooney 

Spain and Italy may have met in the two previous European Championships, but this year’s round of 16 clash offers a rejuvenated tactical clash following poor World Cup campaigns.

The current holders and finalists feature in the tie of the round, with both sides making slight modifications since the former’s convincing 4-0 win in the 2012 final.

Spain have transitioned from the patient possession based football orchestrated by Xavi and Xabi Alonso, and now aim to transfer the ball into advanced zones at a quicker rate, while injuries to Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti, combined with the lack of a top-class forward will see Italy play destroyers, here.

In the 2012 final, Spain utilized Cesc Fabregas upfront, and while many assumed the Spaniard operated as a no.10, his runs in the final third were similar to a natural centre-forward. The two teams met earlier in the tournament, where Fabregas dropped deeper into midfield to create an overload, but they were outplayed by a proactive Italian side that afternoon.

One of the main differences in Vincent Del Bosque’s current side witnessed the emergence of Alvaro Morata at the international level. With that being said, Morata offers a different dimension to Spain’s attack. Capable of equally running the channels and coming short to link play, the striker’s willingness to make quick darts beyond the defence forces the opposition deeper, and creates more space for the Spanish midfielders.

The other notable change involves the inclusion of Nolito. David Silva roams into central areas and around the final third from the right flank, whereas Nolito hugs the touchline, constantly aiming to cut onto his stronger foot to trouble the goalkeeper. This essentially makes Spain more direct from an offensive perspective, and has seen Del Bosque’s men serve as the tournament’s standout performers thus far.

This could explain Del Bosque’s decision to field the same XI for all three group games, but following a loss to eventual group-winners Croatia, a hint of caution may be implemented for the knockout stages of the competition. Spain have yet to concede a knockout round goal during Del Bosque’s tenure, and with teams aiming to break into space in wide areas on the counter, he may seek further control in midfield as the holders increase their emphasis on control.

The current midfield of Andres Iniesta and Fabregas offer a combination of direct passing and dribbling, but Del Bosque could turn to Koke’s passing and combative presence in central areas against a reactive Italian side that will aim to fluster the Spanish midfield. It’s unlikely Del Bosque will field another dribbler in Thiago from the start of the match, but he could turn to Bruno alongside Busquets if really wants to neutralize the Italians on the counter – Italy adopting a deep block wouldn’t require Bruno, however.

It’s difficult to see Antonio Conte straying away from his 3-5-2, with the only concern involving Antonio Candreva’s absence. Candreva has played a crucial role in terms of creativity as Italy transition into a 3-3-4 going forward, and his injury could see Matia De Sciglio operate as a right wing-back.

In comparison to the Spain XI, this Italian side is slightly underwhelming, but they understand their roles and will be focused on executing Conte’s game plan. Daniele De Rossi is expected to roam around the back four for protection, while Emanuele Giaccherini and Marco Parolo disrupt play in midfield and wide areas.

Both managers encourage their full-backs/wing-backs to surge into advanced areas in possession, so the battle out wide will be interesting. Likewise, Alvaro Morata will likely be instructed to close down Juventus teammate, Leonardo Bonucci, when he carries the ball forward.

But where Morata will likely be outnumbered in Italy’s third, Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos will be tasked with monitoring Eder and Graziano Pelle. The Italian duo have both scored key goals in Italy’s group-stage victories and attempt to combine upfront, and possibly encourage the midfielder’s to make runs into the box.

Nevertheless, while many hailed Italy’s defensive display against Belgium, Conte’s men have to be better against a side that will prefer to be patient in possession and penetration. More so, the Italians conceded several legitimate goal-scoring chances against the Belgians that night, often resorting to cynical fouls to halt potential counter-attacks.

Spain’s individual talent could be decisive, but they face possibly their biggest test of the tournament in breaking down an Italy back-line that offers experience and grit. Essentially, Conte requires need a valiant team effort throughout, but Spain’s overload in midfield and the new direct options available could prove an insurmountable task for the tenacious Italians.

 
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Posted by on June 27, 2016 in Euro 2016, Published Work

 

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Euro 2016 Preview: How the tournament may be dull but ridiculously unpredictable

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There’s a contrasting feeling looming around the upcoming Euro 2016 tournament following the decision to include eight additional teams.

Although it offers an increased viewership due to a larger tournament, the overall quality drastically decreases due to a limited amount of great sides.. Now, the inclusion of eight teams paves an easier route to the knockout stage, and can arguably hinder the tournament from a footballing perspective.

Frankly, that belief hinges on the true definition of ‘entertaining football’ – while one used to associate the term with Spain’s ability to retain possession and pass their way through opponents, the sudden shift in success involves organized defending and quick transitions on the counter-attack. Leicester City’s Premier League triumph, combined with another successful Atletico Madrid campaign – despite finishing the season trophy-less – suggests teams may attempt to replicate their approach considering the tournament favourites’ insistence on possession dominance.

More importantly, despite the inevitable likelihood of several limited sides reverting to deep defensive blocks and solely attacking on the counter-attack, realistically, the ploy is fairly logical. Defensive solidity is essential in a knockout competition, and considering avoiding heavy defeats should guarantee progression beyond the group stage, tight games could surface throughout the tournament.

This reactive approach, however, should favour several tournament underdogs if executed properly – the best teams in the world possess various attacking options, and would clearly prefer to operate in space opposed to probing until they find an opening. Likewise, the lack of a genuine great side or tournament favourite equally increases the tournament’s overall interest. The quality is fairly scarce, but ahead of the opening match, it’s difficult to fully justify a clear favourite.

Spain, Germany and France dominate the conversation, but the European giants all possess positional deficiencies that inhibit the belief that they’re superior to their rivals.

Reigning world champions Germany and two-time defending Euro holders Spain can no longer turn to reliable goal-scoring centre-forwards and may both encounter issues providing penetration in the final third. Mario Gomez, Alvaro Morata and Aritz Aduriz will be responsible for the goals despite the possible stylistic inadequacies, whereas Mario Gotze and Cesc Fabregas have featured as significant false-nine options in past tournaments – the former is arguably better in midfield, whereas the latter’s role requires out-of-form wide players David Silva and Pedro Rodriguez to offer penetration.

The reigning world and European champions pose different tactical dilemmas ahead of their opening group games, though. Often accused of over-possessing the ball, Spain have additional direct options in Lucas Vasquez and Nolito to offer variety to their patient possession-based football. Germany, on the other hand, have the option of utilizing Gomez as a legitimate target-man, but will be without key players in Ilkay Gundogan, Anthony Rudiger, and Marco Reus.

Meanwhile, hosts, France aim to hoist their first major tournament in 16 years, and the talent Didier Deschamps’ possesses suggests Les Bleus may never receive a better opportunity to end the drought. The hosts have several direct options like Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba that can play off Olivier Giroud’s impressive linkup play, but defensive absentees Raphael Varane, Mamadou Sakho, and Jeremy Mathieu leaves the French with very few options in defence. It’s also difficult to overlook that France’s recent tournament exits have come against Spain and Germany, and Deschamps’ men still look devoid of the experience to overcome their rivals in a head-to-head showdown.

Elsewhere, the same issues arise amongst the remaining notable contenders.

Italy possess the best defence and goalkeeper in the tournament but offer no creativity in midfield due to injuries to Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio, while their attacking options are extremely underwhelming. Antonio Conte has been heavily criticized for his selection prior to the tournament, but from an optimistic perspective, the Italian manager’s first two seasons at Juventus were fairly similar, with various players from midfield players scoring goals. Conte’s attention to detail, and overall cohesion in attacking moves will define an Italian side that appears sturdy at the back.

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Cristiano Ronaldo is the best player at Euro 2016, and a free role upfront ensures Portugal won’t be overloaded down the left. Fernando Santos midfield is one of the best in the tournament, and though they also lack major tournament experience, they’re capable of outmuscling and dominating most sides in central areas. The movement of the Portuguese attackers will be interesting, but the defensive options at Santos’ disposal places significant responsibility on the midfield to ensure their shape isn’t disjointed – Ronaldo’s role will always be the difference-maker but Santos must find balance quickly.

Oddly, it’s difficult to identify better striker options in this year’s tournament than the four men Roy Hodgson possesses in Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy, Daniel Sturridge and Marcus Rashford. However, with England straying away from a flat 4-4-2, and the rapid growth in youthful, highly-technical players amongst the ranks, England currently suffers from the same issue that’s plagued them for years – striking the right balance and fielding his strongest XI. Needless to say, while many other teams would welcome England’s striking issues, like Portugal, their back-four is undoubtedly the clear weakness.

While this was expected to be the tournament Belgium evolved into world beaters, the same questions are being raised regarding their role amongst Europe’s elite. It still feels like Belgium’s success rests on the form of Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne as the front line hasn’t substantially improved, whereas Marc Wilmots is still without natural full-backs. While Belgium’s individual talent still remains – they can count on a rejuvenated Moussa Dembele, possibly the best Premier League’s best centre-back partnership in Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, and two top-class attacking midfielders in Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard – the pressure is now on Wilmots to put the pieces together to launch a deep tournament run.

The tournament is still filled with stars like Gareth Bale, Robert Lewandowski, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic that will be aiming to overcome a lack of genuine support to make a statement, whereas Croatia’s impressive midfield – that still lacks a holding midfielder – is unlikely to make up for a tireless, yet often frustrated Mario Mandzukic and an unconvincing back-line. With more room for error, and no real powerhouses – this is possibly the antithesis of this year’s Champions League – it really leaves the tournament up for grabs.

Denmark (1992) and Greece’s (2004) triumphs – in much difficult circumstances – offers every team a sense optimism, and with the likes of Iceland, Turkey, Austria and Slovakia also involved, this is possibly the most open tournament in recent memory. It certainly may be a truly dull spectacle from a football standpoint, but the possibility of several winners guarantees a high-level of excitement.

So many questions remain unanswered.

So many teams look far from the finished product.

And with the international game drastically suffering with every passing tournament, the level of unpredictability presents a breath of fresh air that many will appreciate.

EURO 2016 is unlikely to be remembered as the best tournament of our lifetime, but the inaugural 24-team format has potential to usher in a new era courtesy of several shock results.

Perhaps now is the time where the impossible becomes possible.

 
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Posted by on June 9, 2016 in Euro 2016, Published Work

 

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Barcelona 2-1 Real Madrid

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Barcelona moved four points clear of rivals Real Madrid with a narrow victory at the Camp Nou.

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Luis Enrique named his expected XI with Javier Mascherano stepping into midfield for Sergio Busquets, who was unable to start the match, to join Ivan Rakitic and Andres Iniesta. 

Similar to Enrique’s team selection, Ancelotti’s XI offered no element of surprise. The Italian recalled Toni Kroos into midfield alongside Luka Modric, Isco and Gareth Bale, while Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema started upfront. 

 This match followed a similar pattern to previous clasico’s with Real enjoying the better first half, and Barca improving throughout, but more importantly it showcased the stylistic alterations that have taken place at both clubs. 

 Barcelona struggle 

 Barcelona were far from their best in the opening half, but their inability to impose authority on the match was unsurprising. The home side’s transformation into a devastating counter-attacking outfit has been showcased on several occasions this season, but with limited space to exploit in Madrid’s third, Enrique’s men failed to consistently pose a threat in attacking zones. 

Madrid’s two banks of four maintained a high-line when Barca attempted to play out the back, and their pressing forced the home side to occasionally concede possession cheaply. On the other hand, Madrid limited space between the lines when they dropped deeper into their half, further thwarting a star studded attack. 

More so, Modric moved to the right to ensure Madrid held a numerical advantage against Neymar and Jordi Alba. The Croatian equally monitored Iniesta’s movement, whereas Kroos was handed the task of pushing forward to pester Javier Mascherano.

Although Suarez endured a quiet opening half, the Uruguayan was the most effective Barca player by dropping deep in attempt to link play – this movement forced Pepe to commit the foul that led to Jeremy Mathieu’s opener. 

The home side should have doubled their lead shortly afterwards when Suarez’s mishit shot fell to an unmarked Neymar in the box, but the Brazilian fired a tame effort directly at Iker Casillas. 

Real fly down the left 

Real produced arguably their best display in recent weeks in the latter stages of the first half. Kroos and Modric were tidy in central areas, igniting sleek attacks from deep areas, but majority of Real’s moves stemmed down the left flank.

With Barca dropping into a 4-5-1, and considerably keen on retreating into their base shape, Ancelotti’s men exploited space behind the advanced Messi. Marcelo freely surged down the left to steer Real into key areas, and he equally completed the most attacking third passes for the away side.

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Ronaldo drifted to the left towards the end of the half with hopes of offering a greater impact, but Rakitic quickly shuttled over to his right flank to aid Dani Alves. Real’s minimal penetration in the final third has thwarted their threat in recent weeks, and while the right side was fairly anonymous throughout, Marcelo’s adventurous positioning was significant. 

Benzema 

However, the game’s most threatening attacking player was undoubtedly Benzema, as the Frenchman was often on the end of Marcelo’s surging runs. While Benzema has often been the scapegoat at the Bernabeu, mainly for some questionable finishing, and the pressure of playing alongside two of the most expensive players on the planet, the Frenchman was Madrid’s key man at the Camp Nou. 

Here, Benzema’s off-the-ball movement was simple, yet efficient: he often made diagonal runs across centre-backs Gerard Pique and Mathieu, or cleverly drifted into half-space to receive forward passes. Real’s first legitimate chance saw Benzema move into half-space to receive a pass from the rampaging Marcelo, before receiving space from Alves to clip a ball into the far post but Ronaldo directed his shot off the crossbar.

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Prior to the aforementioned chance, Benzema made a simple diagonal run into right half-space, but he lashed his shot inches wide of the far post. Coincidentally, the Frenchman made an identical run in the buildup to Ronaldo’s equalizer, this time opting to back heel the ball into the path of the Portuguese striker who failed to test Claudio Bravo.

Likewise, Benzema’s general linkup up play was equally impressive. He dropped deep to receive the ball, and clip a pass into the right channel for Bale, and his ability to hold off Mathieu and spin Mascherano was pivotal in the buildup to Ronaldo’s long distance effort towards the end of the half . 

Overall Benzema’s movement was excellent, he combined well with teammates – creating Ronaldo’s equalizer – and was unlucky not to convert Real’s sole legitimate chance in the second half, following an excellent passing move on the break that was initiated by the Frenchman. 

Frankly, a few vital last-ditch tackles from MOTM candidate, Gerard Pique prevented Benzema from punishing the hosts in the first half.

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In a monumental (potential) title decider against the club’s biggest rivals, it was Benzema that posed several issues for Barca’s back-line opposed to Ronaldo or Bale. 

 2-1 

Suarez left the clasico a hero Sunday night, with his second half goal further displaying modifications made under Enrique. The goal itself wasn’t memorable, but it solidifies a shift in the club’s philosophy. In the past, Barca may have continued to try and break Real down with intricate passes in the final third, but here, and as they have on several occasions this season, they adopted a direct approach to bypass the away side’s pressing. 

Following several passes between the Barca defenders, it was Alves’ long ball into right half-space that saw Suarez run across Pepe to expertly control the pass on his chest and slide his shot past the keeper. Suarez had varied his movement throughout – running off the defenders shoulder or dropping deep to link with an advancing teammate – and fittingly both methods resulted in goals. 

Rakitic also played a key role in the build up as his vertical run in the right channel pulled Ramos out of position, and created a laneway for Suarez to run into.

This move would be classified as an atypical method of attack in the past, but Enrique’s shift deems Suarez’s winner as the ideal goal. 

 Final 35 minutes 

With that being said, Suarez’s goal altered the pattern of the match, and specifically flustered what was turning into a classic Madrid performance. Mascherano attempted a simple long ball over the defence for Neymar 10 minutes after Suarez’s goal, but Carvajal did well to nudge the Brazilian aside. 

But Real were desperate for a winner, and in return sacrificed their solid shape to push more men forward. Neymar’s influence increased with his individual slaloms from the left, while Messi found more space between the lines to drive at Real’s defence to place his teammates in goal scoring positions. 

Now there was plenty of space for Barca’s prolific front three to exploit on the counter, but their finishing and final ball was consistently underwhelming.

 Messi improves real

Madrid’s attempt to rescue a point failed, with Benzema’s deflected effort serving as the sole chance that tested Bravo. Where Enrique turned to three ball playing midfielders in Xavi, Busquets and Rafinha ensure his side retained possession in the final minutes, only Jese Rodriguez’s introduction looked capable of impacting the match. 

Still, Madrid transitioned into a lopsided 4-2-4 that equally played into Barca’s hands when they won possession. Ancelotti lacked options on the bench to alter the match, and an attempt to rescue a late point left Madrid vulnerable on the counter.

 Conclusion 

In the past, Barca was renowned for dominating possession, whereas Real relied on quick transitions to bypass their energetic pressing and score goals. But where Ancelotti’s side has shifted into a possession-based outfit, Enrique has maximized the strengths of his attacking three with an enhanced direct approach. 

Both sides stuck faithful to their systems throughout, with both centre forwards playing key roles in the end result. Benzema’s terrific movement and linkup play resulted in several slick passing moves that terrorized Barca’s back-line. But Suarez served as a diligent reference point upfront that offered the home side an additional element of attack that they have missed in recent years.

 “He (Suarez) is not just an old-style striker; he can also combine with his team-mates, he reads the game well, he knows what the team needs at key moments,” Enrique said. 

 “You have to have [different] resources; that’s very important. Our aim is to have the ball, to create chances and to defend a long way from our goal but your opponent plays too and we have to interpret what we need in the game. We scored from a set play as well [as a long pass], and that’s gratifying for all of us.” 

Real’s initial approach was logical considering the threat Barca have posed in transition this year, but wasteful finishing in the first half proved crucial. Barca, in fairness, weren’t dominant until Suarez’s winner, which could represent Madrid’s tired legs in midfield, and their determination to find an equalizer. 

The tactical elements were scarce throughout, but both goals epitomized the current ethos at both club – Madrid didn’t possess an alternative attacking method in the latter stages, but worryingly (with a two legged clash against Atletico on the horizon) Madrid still encounters issues breaking down organized back-lines.

 
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Posted by on March 24, 2015 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Spain 1-5 Holland

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Courtesy of Wikicommons/Football.ua

Holland avenged their World Cup finals defeat by thrashing the reigning champions in the second half.

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Diego Costa was deemed fit to feature in Vicente del Bosque’s 4-2-3-1 ahead of Andres Iniesta, Xavi, and David Silva. Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets played in the double-pivot.

Louis van Gaal started Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie upfront in his 3-4-1-2 with Wesley Sneijder playing behind the duo. Jonathan de Guzman and Nigel de Jong formed a midfield two, while Daley Blind and Daryl Janmaat operated as wingbacks. 

Despite starting the match well, Spain failed to cope with Holland’s direct approach that involved the midfield quickly facilitating the ball to their strikers behind the Spanish defence.

Holland with out the ball

The most intriguing talking point subsequent to kickoff was Holland’s approach without the ball. Usually teams would opt to defend in two deep banks of four and force the Spaniards to break them down, but here, van Gaal’s men held an extremely high-line and pressed in midfield.

Van Gaal aimed to pack central zones with hard-working players and limit as much space as possible for the Spaniards to work in. De Guzman and de Jong pressed Xavi and Xabi Alonso – who were both quiet – Sneijder worked hard to cut off Busquets’ passing lanes, and the surprising feat was the positioning of Stefan de Vrij and Bruno Martins Indi.

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The two outside centre-backs man-marked Iniesta and Silva when they drifted infield to receive the ball; sometimes all the way into Spain’s half. Iniesta and Silva were often fouled and they struggled to turn due to the committed defending of de Vrij and Indi.

Likewise, neither Cesar Azpilicueta nor Jordi Alba got forward enough, as their was limited time in central areas to string passes out in these wide zones, while Janmaat and Blind closed the Spanish full-backs down.

Holland’s intent was to clog spaces in central zones to prevent the Spaniards from overloading the midfield and dictating the tempo of the match.

Spain’s shape

Spain, on the other hand, was more conservative out of possession, and didn’t rely on their high-pressing that has proved beneficial in recent years. Spain dropped into two banks of four with Xavi behind Costa attempting to close down the Dutch defenders.

The issue with Spain’s approach without the ball was that it lacked motivation and grit. At times, Holland easily shifted the ball from side to side, as the Spanish players failed to effectively close van Gaal’s men down. Silva and Iniesta also appeared disinterested in committing their defensive duties in wide areas, further allowing Holland’s wingbacks forward, while Robben and van Persie made runs into the channels.

Spain’s work ethic out of possession was the vast difference between Holland’s approach as del Bosque’s men were sluggish and lacklustre.

Spain attacks 

With both side’s opting to play with high-lines, the space to exploit was behind the defence. Spain, however, encountered two issues throughout the match.

First, Spain didn’t offer runners in midfield, and the only player aiming to get behind the defence was Diego Costa. Costa made several intelligent runs behind Holland’s back-line, and he appeared frustrated when passes weren’t played into his path. Jordi Alba was the other player that could have offered this threat but Janmaat kept the left-back quiet.

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Silva’s movement into central areas left gaps of space available on the right, but Azpilicueta was quite cautious with his positioning. Pedro Rodriguez would serve as a useful option on the right flank, as would Juanfran who displayed his adventurous running when he exploited Eden Hazard in the Champions League this season; but it appeared that Azpilicueta was preferred based on his defensive qualities.

Spain, however, did receive their opportunities when they occasionally bypassed Holland’s press, or the outside centre-backs were caught out of position. Xavi played two balls into Costa – one from deep and the other between the lines – but on both occasions the recovering Ron Vlaar broke up the play. Xavi’s third pass was the charm, and it occurred when the Dutch centre-backs didn’t come out to press Iniesta and Silva. The duo exchanged quick passes ahead of de Guzman and de Jong before sliding the ball into Xavi between the lines, and the Spaniard delivered an inch-perfect pass to Costa who was taken down and awarded a penalty.

An identical situation occurred in the latter stages of the half with Iniesta dropping deep into midfield – away from de Vrij – and Silva drifted to the left channel to make an unmarked forward run to collect the Barcelona midfielder’s sumptuous no-look pass, but he failed to beat goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen with his delicate chip.

The Spanish attacking three exploited space between the lines frequently in the second half, but they weren’t on the same wave-length with Costa – who didn’t appear 100 per-cent fit – and their final ball was often underwhelming.

Spain struggled to play their preferred game due to Holland’s pressure, but with limited runners providing penetration, and the lack of conviction or a final ball in advanced areas, del Bosque’s men were bound to encounter issues.

Holland attacks

Van Gaal’s aligned his side to exploit the space behind Spain’s high-defensive line, and the warning signs were evident in the opening minutes. Alba’s poor chest pass in Spain’s half saw Robben slide the ball into Sneijder, but the Dutch midfielder fired his shot directly at Casillas.

Robben and van Persie were both caught offside on a few occasions prior to the latter’s opening goal, yet del Bosque was unfazed by their threat. The other worry was the combination plays on the flanks subsequent to Alonso’s goal that led to de Guzman and Blind delivering quality crosses into the box that surprisingly evaded everyone. The work ethic from Iniesta and Silva in these defensive errors were poor and Holland’s forwards were keen on drifting wide to create overloads.

Coincidentally, the buildup in Holland’s opening goals were identical, as Blind’s terrific long diagonals from the half-way line saw van Persie lose Ramos, and Robben sneak behind Pique to provide quality finishes. The quality of the finishing and deliveries were world-class, but the defending from the Spanish centre-backs was putrid.

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The two following goals were merely defensive errors – both by Casillas, while Azpilicueta deserves some blame for the third goal – but the final goal epitomized Holland’s attacking approach. Indi won the ball off Pedro and Sneijder quickly sprayed the loose ball into the path of Robben who outpaced Ramos before cutting back inside to grab his second goal of the night.

While Spain didn’t field enough options to exploit the space behind the defence, van Gaal possessed two forwards capable of punishing any side in the world under these circumstances.

Conclusion

There were evident flaws in Holland’s brave approach, but van Gaal’s decision to alter his preferred system reaped rewards.

“If I played with three attackers, my wingers would have chased down the Spain backs too much, that would be a waste,” van Gaal said.

“I played this system because I believe that we are not good enough to beat Spain with our normal 4-3-3 formation.”

Van Gaal’s approach maximized the pace of Robben, and prevented Spain from dictating the tempo of the match in a congested area. Certainly if del Bosque introduced runners, or Silva converted his chance prior to van Persie’s equalizer the match could’ve been different.

This serves as another crushing blow on Brazilian soil, yet the fact that it was preventable – del Bosque didn’t need to risk going 4-3-3, which created more gaps in midfield for Holland to penetrate on the counter – and could harm Spain’s chances of progressing out of the group.

Van Gaal pragmatically built his approach towards nullifying and exploiting Spain’s strengths, whereas del Bosque’s belief in his players and reluctance to stray away from their philosophy led to their downfall in a match that could’ve gone either way.

 
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Posted by on June 14, 2014 in Published Work, World Cup 2014

 

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The Champions League has surpassed the World Cup as the pinnacle of world football

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Courtesy of Flickr/Arturo Miguel

Cities across the world will be in the midst of a soccer craze. Throughout June and July, bars and local pubs will hit capacity, the streets filled with passionate supporters, and plastic flags will be blowing in the wind.

Yes, it’s World Cup year.

Every four years, FIFA’s illustrious tournament brings people in unison to enjoy the global game. Hearts are broken, stars are born, and one country will gasp in glory –– obtaining bragging rights as World Champion for the ensuing four years.

This is arguably the ultimate sporting event.

In 2010, 700 million viewers tuned into the World Cup finals between Spain and Holland, while approximately 3.2 billion watched at least one match in the tournament.

In a few weeks, eyes worldwide will be set on Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. It’s not like the duo are unfamiliar with the attention, but the increased expectancy to dominate in Brazil will be instilled, especially with both failing to match irrational targets for their national squads in previous years.

The two superstars are undeniably the best players of our generation; some can argue that they will be the best to ever play the game. Their consistency, goals per-game ratio, and ability to perform under heaps of pressure are astonishing for their clubs, but many have harshly lambasted the duo for lesser performances on the international stage.

The World Cup may be the largest sporting event based on viewership, but is it still the pinnacle soccer event?

Currently, top players in the past who have claimed World Cup success are put in a separate category to those still searching for international glory. But with the vast changes in the modern game regarding transfer fees, wages, and the physical demands of playing for club and country, players would prefer to prolong their club career, rather than endure a career-impeding burnout.

On average, the top-sides play 50-60 games a season; when you include friendlies and international tournaments, the aforementioned numbers incline. Last season, Chelsea playmaker Oscar played 71 games, and he’s currently featured in 56 since the start of the new campaign. Xavi Hernandez, a key cog in Spain’s international success over the six years, has appeared in a minimum 55 games per season, thus highlighting the physical demands of a modern day soccer player.

With the World Cup held in the summer –– after an excruciating club season –– players enter the tournament fatigued, and often find it difficult to reach their best form. In retrospect, the UEFA Champions League is an 11-month marathon –– when you include the qualifying rounds –– in which teams have an entire season to derive a well thought-out plan to claim European glory and maintain energy levels; simply it’s a larger measuring tool opposed to seven games within a month. Managers are able to turn to the market and build a team that suits their philosophy, whereas international managers are forced to work with the players at their disposal.

Ahead of the 2010 Champions League final between Inter Milan and Bayern Munich, Jose Mourinho stated his thoughts on the European tournament.

“This game is the most important in the world,” Mourinho said. “It is even bigger than the World Cup because the teams in it are at a higher level than national teams, who can’t buy the best players. If you hold it to be important, you have to transmit that to the players.

With that being said, Mourinho’s acknowledgement of the best players featuring in the Champions League was factual. The World Cup’s four-year gap has slowly become a nuisance, opposed to a timely feat focused on the significance of the tournament.

Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, also agreed that the Champions League has surpassed the World Cup.

“I always said that club football is better than national team football, by far,” Wenger told Arsenal.com

“You have the best players from any country in the national team. In any big club you have the best players of all the countries in the world. It’s as simple as that.”

This year’s World Cup will be missing a few star performers, which inhibits the overall quality of the tournament. The likes of Gareth Bale, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robert Lewandowski, David Alaba and Arda Turan won’t feature in Brazil this summer, yet the aforesaid men were prominent figures in the Champions League knockout rounds.

The average career of a professional soccer player has decreased over the years, which explains why many have focused on achieving European glory.

Now the best players are moving to the biggest clubs in the world to increase their chances of winning the Champions League; the tournament has slowly become a goal that every player aspires to achieve.

In the past, former Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, shared his thoughts on the rise of the Champions League.

“The Champions League is the best competition in the world now, better than the World Cup, better than the European Championships; it’s a fantastic tournament,” Ferguson said.

“Have you seen the last six World Cups? It is better going to the dentist, I suppose.”

While both tournaments are a drab during the group-stages, there’s a vast difference between the two in the knockout rounds. The Champions League two-legged knockout set-up enables a variety of approaches, and challenges managers tactically, especially with the away goal rule.

The World Cup, on the other hand, has faced its critics in the past due to amount of conservatism in the latter stages. Look no further than Spain’s success under Vicente del Bosque –– they have yet to concede in the knockout round during his reign, and average a solitary goal per game. Del Bosque’s approach is logical, but in terms of overall quality and excitement their fixtures have been tedious.

Ronaldo and Messi have already achieved European glory –– the former once, while the latter has claimed three –– and despite not replicating their imperious form on an international stage, both men have produced sensational performances on numerous occasions. If they continue to maintain the consistency that’s elevated them into elite players, there’s no question that the duo will be put in the same conversation as Diego Maradona and Pele, regardless of their international shortcomings.

Perhaps the World Cup may be the largest sporting event in the world, but it is no longer soccer’s most prestigious tournament.

The Champions League provides a platform for the best players and managers to showcase their talents on a yearly basis to a global audience. The level of play is higher, the best players feature on a consistent basis, and the competition is stiff.

The days of defining a player’s career based on their international success are over.

 
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Posted by on May 23, 2014 in FIFA, Published Work

 

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Real Madrid – Atletico Madrid: Champions League final preview

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Courtesy of Flickr/avalaisure

A year ago, Diego Simeone’s side defeated Real Madrid for the first time in 14 years at the Santiago Bernabeu to claim the Copa del Rey. After winning their first La Liga crown in 18 years with a draw at the Camp Nou last weekend, Atletico Madrid travel to Lisbon to participate in the first-ever local derby Champions League final against Real.

Although Real are in search of La Decima, an Atletico victory would complete an unprecedented double, and be classified as one of the greatest triumphs in football history. But Carlo Ancelotti’s men will arrive in Lisbon as favourites with Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo aiming to claim his second Champions League crown, and increase his record-breaking 16-goal tally.

This is expected to be a high-octane, scrappy affair, between two sides that thrive on the counter-attack. Stylistically, Atletico’s ability to maintain a high level of play and compete with Europe’s richest clubs is remarkable, and it’s fair to say that they’re not underdogs.

Atletico possesses one of the best defensive records in Europe, and they prove to be a difficult outfit to beat when their back four is fit. Equally, they shift and press as a unit, and quickly transition into attack with quick intricate combination passes.

Simeone’s men drop into two banks of four without the ball and the two strikers stick goal-side to the opposition’s deepest midfielder’s to close down passing lanes. The wide men –– Koke and Arda Turan –– adopt narrow positions to limit space between the lines and central areas. Full-backs, Juanfran and Filipe Luis, also decrease space between themselves and the centre-backs, and encourage the opposition to play through the flanks, as Miranda and Diego Godin consistently dominate aerial duels.

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Atletico’s shape when Madrid maintain possession. The wingers tuck in centrally, and the two forwards allow the Madrid centre-backs to circulate possession.

Atletico are capable of winning the ball higher up the pitch, or sticking to the aforementioned tactic, but under both circumstances their ability to quickly break into attack is pivotal. Both wide players are technically astute, hardworking players, with Koke drifting infield to express his creativity, while Turan evades challenges and motors forward. The positioning of the two forwards usually enables them to receive the ball while running towards goal, or dropping off to receive the ball and pull defenders out of position.

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Atletico maintain the same shape, but Turan is ready to press Arbeloa when he receives the ball. Diego Ribas and Diego Costa have closed down Xabi Alonso’s passing lanes and Juanfran has also adopted a narrow shape closer to Miranda.

Diego Costa and Turan, however, are both injury doubts ahead of Saturday’s final following their early first half departures against Barcelona. While the latter is likely to feature against Madrid, Atletico are working hard to ensure the former is also fit. In both league fixtures this season, Costa worked the channels admirably and consistently tormented Sergio Ramos and Pepe. Likewise, Costa’s physicality, and eye for goal –– scoring 36 goals in all competitions –– is unmatched.

Adrian Lopez or Raul Garcia will be the likely replacement for the 25-year-old striker, and both men offer different threats. Similar to Costa, the former relies on pace, but in terms of strength and finishing he’s not quite at the Spaniard’s level. Still, when called upon Lopez has delivered, scoring goals against Barcelona and Chelsea en route to the final. The latter, on the other hand, could field on the right flank or upfront, and his physical presence would see Atletico play direct. In previous rounds he targeted Jordi Alba and Ashley Cole to utilize his aerial superiority, and the Spaniard’s 17 goals in all competitions is only bettered by Costa.

Atletico, though, isn’t the only side heading into Saturday’s final with personnel concerns. Gareth Bale and Ronaldo passed fitness tests earlier this week, but Pepe and Karim Benzema are both unlikely to feature, meaning Raphael Varane and Alvaro Morata will be included in the starting XI. Carlo Ancelotti will also be forced to decide between Sami Khedira and Asier Illarramendi to complete a midfield trio for the suspended Xabi Alonso.

Khedira has featured in Madrid’s final two games of the season –– 117 minutes –– after tearing a cruciate ligament in his knee six months ago. Khedira was in the midfield that lost to Atletico in at the Bernabeu in October, but he failed to trouble Simeone’s midfield. Illarramendi, 20, has struggled against physical sides that intentionally target the Spaniard, and it’s likely that Ancelotti may go for Khedira’s dynamism and tenacity, despite the German’s scarce match fitness.

Madrid have been at their utmost best in this tournament when given the opportunity to play on the counter –– most recently displayed against Bayern Munich –– but Ancelotti’s men will likely dominate possession, and the pattern of the match will be identical to previous encounters this season.

In three matches of significant value this season –– the tie was over in the second leg of the Copa del Rey –– Madrid struggled to break down and create legitimate goal scoring opportunities against Simeone’s men. The one match that Madrid won two goals stemmed from major deflections, and a well-worked move from Angel Di Maria and Jese Rodriguez. Atletico, on the other hand, pose a legitimate threat through set pieces, and if Costa is unavailable, Simeone’s men will aim to exploit Madrid in these situations.

Considering the circumstances, Luka Modric and Angel Di Maria will be the key men for Madrid. Both men provide the dynamism and creativity in midfield that steered Madrid to the Copa del Rey final, but were equally nullified in their second league encounter at the Vicente Calderon. With Ronaldo and Bale keen on drifting into central areas, Atletico’s narrow defending nullifies space for the wide players to cut into. Both men have failed to produce quality performances against the newly-crowned Spanish champion, with Bale struggling in 1v2 situations, and Ronaldo lacking service and space to create shooting angles. With that being said, Modric’s ability to dictate the tempo of the match, and Di Maria’s willingness to spring forward and provide a goal-scoring threat will be key.

In eight of the last nine fixtures between the two sides, a goal has been scored within the opening 15 minutes. And while an early goal is expected, it won’t necessarily alter the predicted pattern of the match. Atletico’s system solely focuses on limiting space in their third, defensive solidity, and quick transitions, and Simeone is reluctant to stray away from his philosophy.

With Madrid’s recent issues in open play against Simeone’s side, and their tendency to switch off during matches, one goal may be the difference between success and failure. In 12 months, Atletico have snapped various droughts against their cross-town rivals, and on the biggest stage in world football, they’ll be seeking to avenge their loss to Bayern Munich –– in which the late Luis Aragones scored –– 40 years ago.

With Atletico’s limited financial resources and diminutive squad, Simeone’s ability to get his side to sustain maximum levels and challenge on both fronts –– domestic and European –– serves as a triumph for modern football. Meanwhile, Madrid’s return to the final for the first time in 12 years will be considered a failure if they don’t claim La Decima.

The sky is the limit for Atletico, whereas Real have everything to lose.

 
 

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Atletico Madrid 2-2 Real Madrid

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Courtesy of Flickr/All rights reserved by Notyfarandula

Atletico missed a golden opportunity to overtake their city rivals, as Cristiano Ronaldo’s late equalizer earned Madrid a vital point at the Vicente Calderon.

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The one major change in Atletico’s XI was the inclusion of Raul Garcia behind Diego Costa. Koke and Arda Turan were fielded on the flanks, while Gabi and Mario Suarez sat in the double-pivot.

Carlo Ancelotti made no changes to the side that blitzed Schalke in midweek.

Atletico dominated majority of the match subsequent to Karim Benzema’s early opener, but woeful finishing, and Simeone’s reluctance to turn to his bench allowed Madrid to dominate the latter stages of the derby.

Real Madrid’s great start

One of the worries many Madrid fans endured at the start of the season was the lack of depth upfront. With Gonzalo Higuain sold to Napoli, Karim Benzema was the sole senior option upfront, and his lackadaisical demeanour, along with his tendency to squander legitimate goal-scoring opportunities, left many skeptical regarding Ancelotti neglecting to find a replacement for Higuain.

Benzema, however, has improved over the last few weeks, and was Madrid’s most proactive attacker. Likewise, the French striker confidently guided Angel Di Maria’s cross from the right flank past Thibaut Courtois from point-blank range. The early goal was exactly what Ancelotti wanted – yet surprisingly it led to Atletico’s dominance.

Atletico shape

The key to Atletico’s dominance was their approach without the ball. The first significant feat was the role of Raul Garcia. Garcia worked hard to press Xabi Alonso, forcing him to play sideways passes in his third, opposed to the long diagonal’s he prefers to make. Garcia’s inclusion was logical, and the midfielder successfully completed his required task.

Secondly, Atletico maintained a narrow shape in midfield when Madrid tried to play out of the back – they simply couldn’t play passes through midfield or to their two best players. On the contrary, this was down to the great work of Atletico’s wide players. Koke and Turan quickly closed down Luka Modric and Di Maria, when the fullbacks pushed towards Gareth Bale and Ronaldo. Yet, there were times when Koke and Turan dropped deeper and prevented the Madrid wide players from receiving the ball.

Ronaldo and Bale were peripheral figures for large portions of the match. Both players drifted infield, but Alvaro Arbeloa was likely to break forward, while Fabio Coentrao was wary of being exposed, despite his involvement in the buildup to Benzema’s opener.

Equally, the Atletico wide men were pivotal in Atletico’s attack, as they tucked in to ensure Simeone’s men dominated midfield. Modric was unable to impose his authority on the match, and the Argentine’s threat in midfield was negated, apart from Di Maria’s long diagonal ball to Benzema that forced a Courtois save.

Atletico’s overall approach without the ball was exceptional – Garcia limited Alonso’s impact, the wide players aided the fullbacks in nullifying Bale and Ronaldo, while as a whole they ensured there was no link between midfield and attack in a scrappy match, which on their standards was beneficial.

Costa

In general, the match suited Costa, as once again he was involved in all the controversy. Surprisingly, the Spanish international was Atletico’s key man, but he can also be held responsible for their inability to secure maximum points.

It took 10 minutes for Costa to make a statement, as he played a pass to Turan and made a run into the left channel, where Sergio Ramos committed a clumsy tackle on the Spanish international, which should’ve resulted in a foul. The Atletico striker’s runs into the channels, and willingness to find space in the final third tormented Madrid’s centre backs.

Nonetheless, he was effective when he dropped deeper and dragged Pepe and Alonso out of position, then charged into space – although, he was usually fouled when doing so. Costa was the games most dangerous player, but his wastefulness in front of goal kept Madrid in the match.

For the most part, world-class strikers always finish 1v1 situations with the goalkeeper, and here he struggled to complete that job. A shot from the right side of the box ricocheted off the side netting, and a failed chip attempt minutes before Gabi’s thunderous goal, summed up Costa’s first half.

However, his best opportunities were spurned in the second half. He cleverly hit a free kick at the edge of the box under the wall but it fell straight into Diego Lopez’s arms. Afterwards, Garcia played him in free on goal, but Pepe’s presence forced Costa to force his shot wide of the net. While that was his best opportunity to double Atletico’s lead, Costa’s header from a corner kick went inches wide.

It’s not often that your most proactive player equally leads to your downfall, but on this occasion, Costa played this role to a tee.

Ancelotti substitutions

With the match drifting away from Madrid, Ancelotti’s substitutions enabled his side to dominate the latter stages of the match. Here, the Italian was wise with the timing and personnel selection, while Simeone’s reluctance to turn to his bench saw his side’s energy levels dramatically decrease.

Although the decision to introduce Marcelo and Dani Carvajal was peculiar, it enabled his side to peg Atletico into their own half – although, fitness levels also played a factor. Unlike Coentrao and Arbeloa, the duo bombarded forward and created chances. Carvajal created two chances for Ronaldo – which ultimately led to his equalizer – and Marcelo’s ball to Modric saw the Croatian sky his shot inches over the bar.

Isco, on the other hand, provided the energy that Di Maria lacked in the second half. He provided a link between midfield and attack, and intelligently found pockets of space in the final third to circulate the ball. The two fullbacks provided more thrust in the final third, whereas Isco was the link that Madrid desperately lacked in the first-half.

Simeone made one substitution by introducing Christian Rodriguez for Turan, but at that point, Atletico were already teetering. Atletico required energy and pace in wide areas – as their pressing decreased – and Simeone’s lack of options, along with his reluctance to make a change gave Madrid the upper hand in the second half.

Conclusion

Atletico dominated majority of the match, but Costa’s wastefulness in front of goal, and Ancelotti’s substitutions merited a draw.

While Atletico lost two points, they now possess the tiebreaker, if the duo were to possibly finish the season level on points. Simeone’s initial game plan was logical and successful, but his inability to identify that substitutions were required led to his downfall.

This may be one of Madrid’s worst performances since the turn of the year, and while their trip to Europe may have played a part, they were outmatched in midfield for large portions of the match. While their lead at the top is now trimmed to a sole point, Ancelotti’s ability to obtain a point when his side was thoroughly outplayed could prove beneficial in May.

 
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Posted by on March 3, 2014 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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