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Chicago Fire 3-2 Toronto FC: TFC makes the same mistakes in Chicago which calls for change

BRIDGEVIEW, IL - APRIL 04: Warren Creavalle #3 of Toronto FC and Joevin Jones #3 of the Chicago Fire battle for the ball during an MLS match at Toyota Park on April 4, 2015 in Bridgeview, Illinois. The Fire defeated Toronto FC 3-2. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) Credit: Jonathan Daniel / staff

BRIDGEVIEW, IL – APRIL 04: Warren Creavalle #3 of Toronto FC and Joevin Jones #3 of the Chicago Fire battle for the ball during an MLS match at Toyota Park on April 4, 2015 in Bridgeview, Illinois. The Fire defeated Toronto FC 3-2. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Credit: Jonathan Daniel / staff

Toronto FC conceded a second half lead against the Chicago Fire to suffer their third consecutive loss of the season at Toyota Park.

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Greg Vanney was able to recall Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore to his starting XI, while Justin Morrow formed a makeshift centre-back partnership with Nick Hagglund.

Former TFC striker Quincy Amarikwa led the line ahead of Shaun Maloney in Frank Yallop’s 4-4-1-1. Harry Shipp and David Accam operated on the flanks with Matt Polster and Michael Stephens sitting in midfield.

TFC controlled possession for large portions of the match, but they rarely offered a threat in the final third, and Chicago continuously exploited space in wide areas.

Chicago down the left

The main storyline over 90 minutes, and TFC’s season thus far, has been the Reds’ vulnerability in wide areas. With Mark Bloom unavailable, and Vanney short of centre-back options, the TFC manager was forced to persist with Ashtone Morgan and Warren Creavalle in fullback roles.

But Chicago’s intent to press high, and isolate Creavalle, in particular, was evident from the second minute. Joevin Jones dispossessed Creavalle in TFC’s half and stormed into the box to squeeze a shot on goal, but Joe Bendik pushed the left-back’s effort aside. The away side received an early warning within minutes, which is why it was odd to see both full-backs push forward.

The Fire enjoyed the better chances throughout the match, opting to surge forward through quick transitions opposed to well-worked passing moves. On three separate occasions, simple long outlet balls in transition were played into the left channel, but neither Accam nor Amarikwa could solve Bendik.

Ultimately, the two goals Chicago scored were created down the left, with Jones dispossessing Robbie Findley before combining with Maloney for the first, and the former Wigan Athletic midfielder gaining a yard on Hagglund to snag the second. Creavalle, not a natural fullback, constantly bombed forward ahead of the speedy Accam, and the home-side’s main source of attack were ignited in the vacant space.

Defensive shape

Another interesting feat regarding TFC’s struggles this season has been their reinvigorated 4-3-1-2. The system, however, deprives the Reds of natural width – they also possess one natural winger – which explains why the fullbacks are instructed to maraud forward into advanced positions.

However, the fullbacks lack adequate protection when the Reds drop into their natural shape and sit in front of the ball. TFC tend to defend with seven men behind the ball, with exterior central midfielders, Benoit Cheyrou and Jonathan Osorio responsible for pushing into wide positions without the ball.

But when the duo is unable to move into wide positions, neither Giovinco, Altidore, nor Findley appears interested in fulfilling their defensive duties, enabling the opposition’s fullback’s freedom to surge into advanced positions. The home side, on the other hand, dropped into two narrow banks of four with the midfield band remaining compact with the back four to limit space between the lines. Chicago’s back four proactively pressed TFC’s attacking trio when they received the ball with their back to goal, preventing the forwards from turning towards goal, as Altidore’s influence was scarce, and Findley’s link up play was severely underwhelming.

TFC issue in the final third

One of the evident changes under Vanney, helped by off-season acquisitions, involves the Reds playing proactive football. Under Ryan Nelsen, TFC often defended in deep banks of four with hopes of punishing teams on the counter, and struggled to break teams down in the latter stages of the season.

Where Vanney has assembled an XI capable of retaining the ball for long spells, TFC still encounter the issues that thwarted last season’s playoff run. Giovinco’s space in the final third will decrease with every passing week, but without natural width in the XI, the onus on Bradley, Cheyrou, and Osorio to create chances, and offer adequate service for the front three is significant.

Bradley and Cheyrou were involved in a lovely move for Giovinco’s equalizer, and the latter lobbed a ball into the channel for the Italian to score the second. Still, this is a TFC midfield trio filled with passers, but lacks energy and strength to serve as an additional outlet to unlock organized back-lines.

Although the lack of pressure on Bradley enabled the American to connect short passes to set TFC forward, the buildup often halted in the middle third. Considering Bradley has struggled this season, mainly against teams that press him aggressively, Vanney’s reluctance to start Collen Warner in his natural role is peculiar.

With Bradley higher up the pitch, TFC then receive the energy and running Osorio doesn’t – and may never – offer at this stage of his career. Considering another lacklustre attacking display, the trio of Warner, Bradley, Cheyrou must cross Vanney’s mind, as powerful runs from deep and penetrative balls in the final third have been non-existent.

11v10

Nevertheless, Creavalle’s second half sending off was the defining moment, as TFC was forced to finish another match with 10 men. While it’s uncertain that the Reds would claim a point had Creavalle remained on the pitch, Jeff Larentowicz’s well-taken free kick following the TFC defender’s dismissal, enabled the Fire to sit deeper and play on the counter.

Vanney replaced the ineffective Findley with Jackson, moving the Brazilian to right back, as TFC operated in a 4-3-1-1. The TFC manager also summoned Bright Dike for Osorio, but Yallop, swapping Amarikwa for Kennedy Igboanaike, was the key change.

The away side pushed men forward in search of a winner, thus leaving space for the speedy Igboanaike and Accam to exploit on the counter. This played into the Fire’s hand, as they were equally poor in open play, and simple balls into Igboanaike in the channels constantly stretched TFC’s back-line.

A move in the 83rd minute summarized Chicago’s threat subsequent to Creavalle’s dismissal. Igboanaike was released into the left channel before laying the ball off to an onrushing Accam, but the Ghanaian fired his shot over the net. TFC were unable to trouble Chicago’s back four, and frankly wasteful finishing prevented a Fire onslaught.

Conclusion

TFC squandered a glorious opportunity to obtain valuable road points against a mediocre MLS side, but the loss equally highlighted the current issues at the club. Still, both side’s relished quick transitions, and were unconvincing when faced with the task of breaking down the opposition’s defence.

Chicago’s attacks were calculated, as they constantly relied on their pacy attackers to surge into space behind the TFC fullbacks. More so, TFC’s midfield balance isn’t correct and the current system hasn’t reaped rewards on both ends – they’re vulnerable out of possession, and lack conviction in attacking areas.

Perhaps the Reds miss their sidelined first team defenders, but this performance serves as an indicator that Vanney must show tactical flexibility going forward.

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2015 in Match Recaps, 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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Manchester City 0-2 Barcelona

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Courtesy of Flickr/Some rights reserved by Globovisión

Barcelona took a big step towards the Champions League quarter-finals, as they recorded a comfortable victory over Manchester City.

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Manuel Pellegrini made several changes to his starting XI with Alvaro Negredo leading the line ahead of David Silva, Aleksandar Kolarov and Jesus Navas. Fernandinho returned from injury to partner Yaya Toure in midfield, while Martin Demichelis slotted in at centre-back.

Gerardo Martino made three changes to the side that defeated Rayo Vallecano over the weekend. Jordi Alba, Javier Mascherano and Xavi returned to the starting lineup, while Neymar was available for selection.

Pellegrini’s tactics contained Barcelona’s attacking threats, but a defensive error shifted the tactical battle.

City without the ball

One of the interesting components regarding Pellegrini’s tactics was Manchester City’s shape without the ball, as there were two distinct features in their overall approach.

In the early moments of the match when Barcelona tried to play out of their third, City maintained a high-block and pressed Martino’s side as a unit. Fernandinho closed down Xavi, Toure stuck tight to Fabregas, and the wingers closed down Barcelona’s attack-minded full-backs. Barcelona usually played through it due to their 3v2 situation at the back with Sergio Busquets being the key man in midfield, but their was one incident in the first half that nearly led to a goal.

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Fabregas won possession at the edge of Barcelona’s box and tried to play out of the back, but City’s high-block quickly pressed the Spanish champions, and Xavi conceded possession, thus resulting in Negredo firing a shot directly at Victor Valdes.

However, City often sat deeper, and focused on limiting the space between the lines. Gael Clichy and Pablo Zabaleta stuck tight to Barcelona’s wide men, and Martino’s full-backs rarely ventured forward. Kolarov’s role on the left was to prevent Dani Alves from pushing forward, while Alba feared that Navas’ pace could harm Barcelona on the break.

City contained Barcelona’s threat for majority of the first half. Apart from a Xavi shot from distance, the away side failed to pose any threats in the final third. Messi’s involvement in the first half was also limited: he often dropped deeper in search of possession, and when he drifted towards the right, Martin Demichelis intercepted key passes and won tackles.

Barcelona dominate midfield

When assessing Barcelona’s XI pre-match, the inclusion of a fourth midfielder highlighted Martino’s intent on dominating central areas. Andres Iniesta was fielded on the left, but throughout the match he subtly interchanged positions with Fabregas.

As I stated earlier, Busquets was the key reason as to why City’s high-block wasn’t effective. With Negredo and Silva leading the press, their aim was to close down Barcelona’s centre-backs. Busquets, however, dropped in between Mascherano and Gerard Pique to create a 3v2 situation at the back, which helped Martino’s men push into City’s half.

Barcelona continued to maintain a numerical advantage when they pushed into City’s half, as their midfield trio passed around Fernandinho and Toure. Silva moved into midfield to help City cope with Barcelona’s trio, but Iniesta often drifted infield to offer an additional passing option.

With Xavi and Busquets often sitting deeper, the key men in attack were Fabregas and Iniesta. The duo repeatedly combined and attempted to pull City defenders out of position, as they offered guile and a pinch of penetration with their quick, incisive passes, and nonchalant runs towards the box.

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Despite not creating many clear-cut chances in the first half, Barcelona created overloads on both ends of the field to ensure that they would dominate possession.

Silva

Although Barcelona dominated possession, Pellegrini’s men created the better chances in the first half. Their key player was Silva – who’s referred to as one of the game’s best space invaders – and here, he drifted into space between the lines, and key areas in Barcelona’s third.

Vincent Kompany’s well-weighed pass to Silva – the Belgian played an identical pass to Nasri in the buildup to Samir Nasri’s goal against Chelsea over the weekend – allowed the Spaniard to slip a ball into Negredo, and although Pique ushered him towards the byline, the City striker’s chip shot flashed across the six-yard box.

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Silva was the link between midfield and attack – he often won possession in deep positions prior to making a key pass, and constantly received the ball in a pocket of space before playing it into wide areas. His pass to Navas towards the end of the half led to Negredo guiding his header inches wide of the far post.

The one issue City and Silva encountered was the tempo of their counter-attack, along with the fact that Barcelona always had numbers behind the ball. Xavi and Busquets protected the back four, while Alves and Alba’s cautious positioning ensured that Martino’s men wouldn’t get caught out of position.

1-0

Ultimately, for all of City’s admirable work both in and out of possession the tie shifted in the buildup to Messi’s opening goal. Silva once again did well to break out Barcelona’s half with the intent of launching a quick counter-attack, but with a lack of runners, he opted to play a pass to Navas on the right flank.

Busquets quickly retreated and sat alongside Alba to prevent the full-back from being isolated, thus creating a 1v2 situation. The ideal move would be to sustain possession and push forward as a unit, but Navas attempted to take both players on and was dispossessed.

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This left City in an awkward position, with Toure and Fernandinho, along with their full-backs and Demichelis caught higher up the pitch, Messi moved into an onside position alongside Kompany. With fears of Barcelona’s attackers running behind the defence, Kompany dropped deeper, thus playing Messi onside.

Subsequently, Iniesta played an exceptional ball to Messi, and Demichelis’ split-second decision to prevent Messi from shooting resulted in a penalty. While many will hammer Demichelis for his decision-making, it’s difficult to name a defender that would allow Messi to shoot in that position, especially when slow-motion replays show that initial contact was made outside of the box.

Nonetheless, it was the one of the few mistakes City made prior to Demichelis’ dismissal, and a moment of brilliance from Iniesta handed Barcelona the lead.

Pellegrini makes substitutions as City go 10v11

Pellegrini quickly reacted to Demichelis’ dismissal and opted to introduce Joleon Lescott for Kolarov, and Nasri for Navas. City was now a 4-4-1 without the ball as Silva drifted to the left to protect Clichy, while Barcelona dominated possession.

Nasri’s inclusion handed Pellegrini another creative option that could expose pockets of space with Silva, and push City’s full-backs forward. Nasri exploited space in midfield after being played in by Silva, and his one-two with Negredo presented the Frenchman with space to shoot, but Mascherano blocked his attempt.

Afterwards, Silva played in Clichy down the left but his cross went directly to Valdes, and the Spaniard’s delivery from the right flank in the 86th minute was pushed away by Valdes for a corner. City’s best chance came from a Toure cross-field diagonal pass to Zabaleta, whose one-timed pass to Silva allowed the Spaniard to control the ball on his chest and volley his shot at Valdes, but the Spanish keeper made a great save to preserve Barcelona’s lead.

City continued to create chances due to Barcelona’s cautious approach, but Pellegrini’s men lacked quality in the final third.

Alves down the right

The key feat subsequent to Demichelis’ dismissal was Alves’ proactive role. The Brazilian became Barcelona’s key player in the second half, and scored the all-important second goal.

With Silva drifting into central positions to help City manufacture attacking moves, Alves capitalized on the space ahead of him, as Silva didn’t possess the energy to get back into position. This forced Clichy to defend Alves, while Lescott shifted over to cover the right-winger. Lescott’s passing from defence, positioning, and man marking was poor, as the City centre-back endured a difficult second half.

  • 66th min: Iniesta plays a ball out wide to an unmarked Alves and he squares his pass to Xavi inside the box, but the Spaniard guides his shot over the net.
  • 68th min: Iniesta once again supplies Alves, who then plays a one-two with Alexis Sanchez. Sanchez drags Lescott out of position and Alves runs by Clichy to receive the ball, and is free on goal but his shot glides inches wide of the post.
  • 89th min: Alves plays a pass into the right channel for Neymar to chase, and the substitute plays in Alves at the edge of the box. The right-back’s first touch guides him past a leggy Clichy, and he slid his shot past Hart.

Kolarov’s departure was massive in the sense that the Serbian provided astute cover for Clichy, and prevented the left-back from being isolated against an advancing Alves. Silva didn’t have the energy to track Alves’ runs, and Lescott was easily dragged out of position, which allowed the Brazilian to dominate the right flank in the second half.

Conclusion

Barcelona dominated possession for large portions of the match, and their patient approach paid dividends as they pounced on Navas’ mistake, while Alves dominated the right flank in the latter stages.

“Barcelona had a lot of the ball but they had it where we wanted. They were not near our area; that’s what we wanted. The team played with courage, with personality, and tried to draw the match with ten men,” Pellegrini said.

Pellegrini’s logical approach was correct as it negated Barcelona’s threats in the final third. However, two-away goals puts City in a difficult predicament ahead of the second leg, and Pellegrini will rue the fact that a simple error disrupted the natural tactical battle.

 
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Posted by on February 19, 2014 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Arsenal 2-1 Liverpool

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Courtesy of Flickr/Ronnie Macdonald

Arsenal advanced to the last eight of the FA Cup with a resilient victory against Liverpool at the Emirates.

Image Arsene Wenger made several changes to the starting XI that drew Manchester United in midweek. Yaya Sanogo led the line with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lukas Podolski filling in alongside Mesut Ozil. Mathieu Flamini returned from suspension, Lukasz Fabianski started in goal, and Carl Jenkinson and Nacho Monreal started at full-back.

Brendan Rodgers made two changes to his starting lineup, as Daniel Agger slotted into the back four, and Joe Allen joined Steven Gerrard, and Philippe Coutinho in midfield.

Liverpool started the match well, but defensive lapses and woeful finishing saw them crash out of the FA Cup.

Liverpool’s great start

Liverpool produced arguably the best 20-minute spell of football in Premier League history during their 5-1 victory over Arsenal at Anfield, and were looking to replicate that performance at the Emirates. Rodgers’ side have started matches well this season, scoring majority of their league goals in the first-half, and they will be disappointed that they weren’t two goals ahead within the opening five minutes.

Daniel Sturridge was played in free – courtesy of a Gerrard through ball – against Fabianski, but the Polish goalkeeper saved his tame effort. Minutes later, Luis Suarez chipped a delicate ball over Arsenal’s back four towards Sturridge, and while the Liverpool striker rounded Fabianski, his shot hit the side-netting.

Within the opening five minutes Sturridge was presented with two glorious opportunities to possibly replicate the result at Anfield. Apart from an ambitious shot from Suarez at the edge of the box, Liverpool failed to create legitimate goal-scoring opportunities for the remainder of the half.

Defensive shapes

The first-half lacked the high-octane, free-flowing football that both sides are renowned for and that was down to their shape without the ball.

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Arsenal dropped into two banks of four without the ball and encouraged their wingers to press Liverpool’s fullbacks, while Mikel Arteta energetically closed down Philippe Coutinho – as the Brazilian struggled to cope with the physical battles in midfield. Sturridge had minimal impact on the match due to Laurent Koscielny’s proactive role, in which he didn’t allow the striker to turn with the ball.

More so, it was peculiar to see Liverpool reluctant to play balls in behind the defence. Flamini offered grit in midfield, while Arsenal still lacked pace at the back.

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Liverpool, on the other hand, dropped into a 4-5-1 that at times looked like a 4-1-4-1. Rodgers also encouraged his side to close down Arsenal’s full-backs, while Coutinho and Joe Allen alternated when pressing Arteta. Some of Jordan Henderson’s best performances have come against Arsenal, and his dynamism was missed in midfield, as Arsenal exploited pockets of space in the first half.

Gerrard

Liverpool’s key player in attack was Gerrard. With Lucas absent, the Liverpool captain remained at the base of the midfield, and constantly switched the Reds’ route of attack. Gerrard was the most proficient passer, completing 64 passes, and he created Liverpool’s best chances in the match.

The key to Gerrard’s success, however, was the fact that no Arsenal player applied pressure on the Reds skipper. Mesut Ozil preferred – or was instructed by Wenger – to drop ahead of the midfield bank of four, opposed to limiting Gerrard’s influence on the match. In the opening minute his well-weighed through ball to Sturridge should’ve handed the Reds a lead.

Subsequently, Gerrard’s second half cross-field diagonal ball towards Coutinho should’ve seen the Brazilian level the score, but he opted to play a tame cross into the box. Gerrard was also influential via set-pieces, as his cool penalty narrowed the lead to a goal, and his free-kick delivery to Martin Skrtel was an additional goal-scoring opportunity.

Gerrard provided a positive impact towards Liverpool’s attack due to Arsenal’s naivety without the ball, but poor finishing and decision-making aided Wenger’s side.

Ozil

Ozil’s performance at Anfield was maligned by the media, as the German looked disinterested; he casually drifted through the match, and was constantly bullied off the ball by Henderson and Gerrard. The German’s looked knackered as of late, which could be down to Wenger mismanaging his minutes, but here the 25-year-old midfielder quietly sparked Arsenal’s attack.

Specifically in the first half, when Arsenal pushed forward, the Gunners located pockets of space throughout the midfield and Ozil was often the lynchpin behind their attacks. Ozil was the link in attack; whether it was his delicate chip to play in Sanogo, his cross that led to Chamberlain’s goal, or his ability to evade a challenge before driving to the box to have his shot blocked, the German dictated Arsenal’s activity in the final third. Ozil’s inch-perfect pass to Chamberlain in the second half, allowed the Arsenal winger to cut back the ball to Podolski for Arsenal’s second goal.

Ozil’s contribution in both goals signified his importance to Arsenal’s attack, as the German was heavily involved in majority of the Gunners’ offensive moves.

Oxlade-Chamberlain vs. Sterling

With Theo Walcott out for the remainder of the season, the talks as to who will play in wide areas in Brazil has been heavily debated. At the Emirates, two ideal candidates in Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sterling were eager to impress.

Oxlade-Chamberlain was terrific on the night – he constantly tracked back to protect Jenkinson, thus keeping Aly Cissokho quiet throughout the match. He scored and assisted a great goal, and his pace continuously tormented the Liverpool back-line. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s pace also exposed Gerrard’s vulnerability at the base of Liverpool’s midfield.

The Arsenal attacker generally picked up the ball from his own half and quickly transitioned into attack, thus resulting in Gerrard and Coutinho making poor challenges and earning yellow cards – Gerrard was fortunate not to see red as he committed a clumsy second-half tackle, which merited a booking.

Likewise, Sterling, who’s been in great form over the past few weeks, was dangerous in the second half. With Liverpool forced to attack, the English winger constantly received long diagonal balls from Gerrard and attacked Monreal. Sterling was successful beating defenders and stretching the play towards the byline, but his final ball was often poor.

Yet, towards the latter stages of the match, when Rodgers fielded him as an attacking right-back, Sterling showcased his defensive attributes and impressive work-rate, by constantly getting back into position and making timely tackles.

Although Sterling didn’t replicate the impact he posed in the league encounter at Anfield, he, as did Oxlade-Chamberlain, displayed that they could fill the role that Roy Hodgson demands in wide areas.

Substitutions

With limited options on the bench, Rodgers introduced Henderson for the ineffective Cissokho, as Liverpool became a 4-2-3-1. Jon Flanagan moved to the left and Sterling became a right full-back. Suarez drifted centrally, allowing Sterling to peg Arsenal back and attack the space behind Podolski. Henderson occasionally pushed forward, but he often sat deep with Gerrard, which allowed Coutinho more space in midfield.

As Arsenal dropped deeper towards their box, Liverpool, and in particular Gerrard received more space to switch balls from flank-to-flank. Liverpool’s best chance came when Coutinho drifted into space and played in Sturridge, but as he tried to round Fabianski, the Polish keeper pushed the ball away. Apart from the aforementioned Gerrard ball to Coutinho, Liverpool’s other opportunities were snap-shots from Suarez and Sturridge from distance.

Wenger’s reluctance on removing Ozil was peculiar, considering his limited influence in the second half, lack of defensive work, and the fact that they host Bayern Munich in midweek. However, Cazorla replaced Podolski at first, which was also odd based on his limited defensive work – and Sterling still posed a threat down the right.

Minutes later, Kieran Gibbs replaced the leggy Oxlade-Chamberlain, and swapped flanks with Cazorla. Now, Gibbs nullified Sterling’s threat in attack, and his energy pegged Sterling deeper into his half, forcing him to defend. Giroud replaced Sanogo to wind down the clock, as Arsenal survived Liverpool’s second half resurgence.

Conclusion

Despite an early scare, Arsenal was clinical in front of goal, and escaped the Emirates with an important victory. Rodgers was upset with the result, and poor officiating, but he highlighted that clinical finishing was the difference. “We could very easily have had another five or six goals today, but we weren’t as clinical,” Rodgers said.

Howard Webb’s poor officiating will dominate headlines, but besides a few defensive issues, Wenger’s weakened side showcased resilience at the back – including Fabianski’s key saves – as they gained revenge for their drubbing at Anfield.

Nevertheless, the games key players could all play a key role in England’s World Cup quest. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s pace, defensive work, and quality in the final third snuck Arsenal past the Reds, but Gerrard’s passing could’ve equally tilted the tie if his teammates converted their chances.

 
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Posted by on February 17, 2014 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Three Things: Arsenal 0-0 Manchester United

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Courtesy of Flickr/Football Nomad

Cautious Moyes

After Sunday’s 2-2 draw against Fulham, many were criticizing David Moyes’ attacking approach. Although United completed 86 crosses in the match, displaying a lack of variety in attack, Moyes’ side was atrocious on the defensive end.

Despite dominating possession for large portions of the match, individual errors led to Steve Sidwell’s opener and Darren Bent’s late equalizer. With a trip to the Emirates Stadium on the horizon, United couldn’t afford to drop points if they had any hopes of finishing in the top four.

United dropped into a 4-5-1 without the ball, as they focused on minimizing space between the lines. Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley provided astute protection in front of the back four, and Arsenal’s attacking players were unable to get into dangerous positions around the final third.

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Moyes instructed his men to sit narrow – identical to their performance at Old Trafford earlier this season – but this time wide players Antonio Valencia and Juan Mata prevented Arsenal’s fullbacks from pushing forward. United was set up to contain Arsenal’s attacking players, and they succeeded. The Gunners created minimal chances from open play, their ball circulation was slow, and they lacked the penetration and guile to break down United’s back line.

The issue with United’s approach was that it sacrificed their threat on the attack. Apart from three squandered efforts from Robin van Persie, United didn’t test Wojciech Szczesny. Rooney was often yards away from the Dutch striker, and when United held possession, he was unable to receive the ball in key areas. Overall, United’s attack was stagnant; van Persie was constantly flagged offside, and with Moyes keen on his central midfielders – and Rooney – sitting deep, the champions lacked runners.

Moyes’ approach was logical, and it earned United an important point. However, while the Red Devils completed a job without the ball, their threat on the attack was languid.

Ozil improves his performance

Mesut Ozil’s form has been heavily critiqued and ridiculed over the past few months, and his performance at Anfield over the weekend was the last straw. Ozil’s involvement in two Liverpool goals left many questioning whether he truly is a world-class player.

While the sudden outrage in Ozil’s status is bizarre, encountering a dip in form in your first season in England isn’t. Nonetheless, the German playmaker took it upon him to silence the critics at the Emirates. Statistically, he was superb, creating the most chances and completing the most passes in the final third.

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Although Ozil wasn’t the best player on the pitch, he was certainly the most influential Arsenal player. Laurent Koscielny – Arsenal’s best player on the night – nodded Ozil’s corner towards the back post, but it was cleared by Valencia, and his intricate passing with Santi Cazorla, led to the Spaniard forcing David De Gea to make a key save.

For the most part it looked like the gap in quality between Ozil and his teammates was vast. Ozil roamed around the final third playing passes with his teammates, and creating space for others to penetrate, but nothing came of it. Likewise, when he did attempt to play intricate passes in tight spaces the receiver often couldn’t play a returning pass.

Ozil’s price tag leaves him vulnerable to heavy criticism, but as of late it’s difficult to pinpoint an attacker who’s produced consistent performances.

Giroud or bust?

Arsene Wenger had one job to complete during the January transfer window – purchase a striker. An entire month flew by, and despite a few warning signs regarding fatigue and performance levels, Wenger was reluctant on meeting the wishes of Arsenal supporters.

Apart from their victory against Spurs earlier this season, Olivier Giroud has failed to score against the league’s top-sides. Giroud’s enjoyed a good campaign as Arsenal’s main striker this season, but his inability to provide goals in these matches has affected the Gunners’ results.

With Arsenal’s summer pursuit of Luis Suarez proving to be unsuccessful, and Theo Walcott sidelined for the remainder of the season, many expected Wenger to jump into the January market. The Frenchman, however, fully believes that the squad at his disposal possesses enough quality to end Arsenal’s nine-year trophy drought.

Wenger included Nicklas Bentdner, Lukas Podolski and Yaya Sanogo on the bench against Manchester United, yet the trio witnessed Giroud struggle at the Emirates. Despite outmuscling and pestering United captain Nemanja Vidic in the first-half, the French international’s finishing was poor. In the 76th minute, Sagna created Arsenal’s best opportunity, but Giroud failed to convert the right-back’s delightful delivery into the six-yard box.

Giroud’s lack of pace puts him at a disadvantage, and his link-up play with advancing midfielders has become predictable. It’s illogical to believe the sole purchase of a striker would win Arsenal a trophy this season, but with the Frenchman showing evident signs of fatigue, a competent, alternative option could’ve been beneficial.

More so, Giroud’s poor performance symbolizes the Gunners’ issues upfront, but with three options at their disposal, maybe it’s time Wenger gives his main striker a rest.

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2014 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Three Things: Manchester United 2-2 Fulham

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Courtesy of Flickr/vnupdate.net

David Moyes employs predictable tactics

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

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

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

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

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

Carrick outshines world-class teammates

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

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

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

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

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

Fulham survive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Luis Suarez turns provider in Liverpool’s FA Cup triumph over Bournemouth

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Courtesy of: Flickr/cap_gundamgirl

For all the attacking prowess Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool possess, there’s a vast contrast in terms of their defensive qualities. Victor Moses and Daniel Sturridge guided Liverpool to the fifth round of the FA Cup, in a match that revolved around Rodgers’ men providing a threat on the counter, opposed to dominating possession.

After Liverpool’s 2-2 slip-up against Aston Villa at Anfield, the Reds were expected to alter their formation to provide adequate protection ahead of the back four. But with Rodgers persistent on keeping Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge upfront, Liverpool continued to play with a two central midfielders.

Liverpool struggled to sustain possession for large portions of the match, and Bournemouth created several half-chances. Marc Pugh and Charlie Daniels surged forward at every opportunity, dominating the left flank, while creating openings behind Martin Kelly, but the home side lacked quality in the final third.  Meanwhile, Bournemouth posed a threat in wide areas, as Liverpool’s issue defending set-pieces, and balls from the flank, troubled Rodgers’ backline.

Rodgers’ decision to play Steven Gerrard as a deep-lying midfielder last week was bold, and the Reds nearly lost the match in the first half. Here, without the injured Lucas Leiva, Henderson and Gerrard were paired in midfield again – and despite both men completing over 90% of their passes, they were a liability on the counter attack. Bournemouth consistently bypassed Liverpool’s midfield on several occasions, but the home side failed to convert chances around the 18-yard box.

The games most important player was Luis Suarez – the Uruguayan striker ran the channels, admirably tracked back to complete defensive duties, and he displayed his ability to play as a competent no.10. His cross-field pass on the break led to Moses’ near-post opener, and he received the ball behind the Bournemouth midfield and slid an incisive pass into Sturridge, who expertly doubled Liverpool’s lead.

The score-line doesn’t reflect the fact that Liverpool found it considerably easy at Goldsands Stadium, but once again their defensive issues were exposed. Suarez and Sturridge will torment back lines around the country, but an unreliable backline and Gerrard’s inability to consistently break up play in midfield can impede Liverpool’s top-four aspirations.

 
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Posted by on January 25, 2014 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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