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Eden Hazard regains status as Premier League’s best player under Antonio Conte’s guidance

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Eden Hazard’s first half brace against Manchester City provided another case for the Belgian to claim his second PFA Player of the Year award along with a Premier League title. Although Chelsea have performed better as a unit over the course of the season in comparison to the 2014-2015 triumph, Hazard has once again dominated in the latter stages of the season when the Blues have slightly plateaued.

Hazard, who arrived from Ligue 1 a few seasons ago as one of the most coveted youngsters in European football, has now developed into the finest player in the country. Along with several teammates, the 26-year-old endured a poor campaign in the build up to Jose Mourinho’s dismissal last season, but now represents a rejuvenated figure under Antonio Conte.

Chelsea sit seven points clear of second place Spurs with seven games remaining and barring a tragic slip-up, Hazard’s been the catalyst in another successful title campaign, which includes several standout performances to covet another PFA award. Oddly enough, for lengthy spells this season Chelsea’s diminutive dynamo wasn’t mentioned as a potential candidate for the award, often overshadowed by teammate N’Golo Kante who is also close to playing an integral role in two consecutive title triumphs.

Kante’s move to Chelsea is one of many factors associated with Leicester City’s decline, but more importantly, the Frenchman’s arrival substantially improved Antonio Conte’s midfield. The Frenchman may arguably be the pivotal cog to Chelsea’s title-winning success, but Hazard’s flourished in decisive moments throughout the campaign.

In many ways, Hazard’s subject to downfall is possibly his individual playing style. Far from a natural goal-scorer, or a tireless runner, it’s unsurprising that the Belgian attacker is slightly underrated. The Chelsea star plays relatively simple passes to switch play, and can be guilty of slowing down the tempo of the game to isolate defenders, but the close body control, swift incisive passing combinations, along with his ability to dribble and simultaneously shrug off opponents places the Belgian in a different class.

Unlikely to consistently showcase Alexis Sanchez’s work-rate on both ends of the field, poach goals like Harry Kane, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, or Romelu Lukaku, and unable to provide the composure, silky passing and vision in the final third like David Silva, Hazard’s fine-tuned his trade to dominate Premier League opponents at will. Even Dele Alli’s growth at Spurs is fairly noteworthy, but where the aforementioned players have fizzled out at some point this season, Hazard as provided several moments of brilliance this season, whilst arguably surpassing the level displayed in Chelsea’s 2014-2015 triumph.

Then, Mourinho demanded the Belgian to be a hardworking wide player that performed his defensive duties, but be equally efficient in the final third. Ultimately, Mourinho inevitably questioned the Belgian’s work-ethic and was keen to state his disappointment in Chelsea’s 2014 Champions League semi-final exit to Atletico Madrid.

“Eden is the kind of player that is not so mentally ready to look back to his left-back and to leave his life for him,” said Mourinho. “If you see the first goal of Atletico you completely understand where the mistake was and why we conceded that goal. The perfect team at the top-level cannot make these kinds of mistakes.”

On the other hand, Hazard’s production in the final third also hindered the appreciation surrounding the Chelsea star. One of the Belgian’s flaws prior to Chelsea’s initial title triumph this decade involved the 25-year-old’s reluctance to dominate games by opting to play short incisive passes opposed to shooting in dangerous positions around the box.

Despite several news outlets linking the Belgian with an eventual move to Real Madrid, Hazard doesn’t necessarily possess the goal-scoring prowess previous world-class exports (Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez and Gareth Bale) displayed prior to their big money transfers to Spain. Yet to eclipse the 22 goal tally – in all competition – recorded in the Belgian’s final season at Lille, Hazard should surpass his league best 14 Premier League goals at the bare minimum.

Still, Hazard’s rediscovering his status as a devastating attacker surfaced following Conte’s tactical shift to a 3-4-2-1. The tactical rejig presents Hazard the freedom to float around the final third and into pockets of space across the field to receive the ball and subsequently dribble past opponents.

The other key aspect associated with Chelsea’s successful 3-4-2-1 involved Conte ridding Hazard of his defensive duties. Similar to Ronaldo, Hazard’s disinterest in consistently tracking advancing full-backs has proved a liability to Chelsea’s defensive shape, and another reason Mourinho and the Belgian’s previous managers fell out with the 26-year-old.

But with Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante protecting the midfield zone and the wing-backs offering width going forward and additional defensive cover on the flanks, Hazard’s been able to flourish as a pure attacker with minimal defensive responsibilities. It’s also why Hazard remains one of the top scorers, dribblers and most fouled players in the Premier League.

Likewise, Hazard rediscovered his knack of scoring decisive goals throughout the season.

There was the individual run from half to shrug off Francis Coquelin and mesmerize Laurent Koscielny to defeat Arsenal at Stamford Bridge. Dribbling from both sides of the field to gain a yard on Everton’s Ashley Williams to score twice from the flanks resulted in a blowout against Everton. Meanwhile, swift transitional breaks at West Ham and Manchester City provided examples of Hazard’s threat on the counter-attack.

Goals at home to Manchester United, Leicester City and most recently Manchester City were also significant, but the varied aforementioned moments of brilliance justify the 26-year-old’s status as a top-class all-round attacker. Now capable of scoring goals consistently from open-play, on the counter-attack or through sheer moments of individual brilliance, Hazard has restored himself as the key man in possibly another title-winning side.

Coincidentally, Chelsea’s final hurdle against a top five side presents the Blues with their first trip to Old Trafford this season against a United outfit that have struggled to win home games. With Diego Costa struggling for form since the new year, and Pedro’s goal return fizzling out, Hazard remains Chelsea’s main goal threat and source of creativity – assuming Cesc Fabregas doesn’t feature in the XI – and Mourinho will be tasked with nullifying the Belgian.

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In United’s FA Cup quarter-final exit at Stamford Bridge, the plan to have Phil Jones track Hazard, and constantly hack the Belgian – a tactic responsible for Ander Herrera’s harsh dismissal and also utilized by PSG during Mourinho’s second tenure at Chelsea – backfired, yet oddly enough, limited the Blues’ attack for large portions of the match.

“In 20, 25 minutes for Hazard, it was impossible for him to play football,” said Conte following Chelsea’s FA Cup triumph over United.

“I see only that he got a lot of kicks. I don’t think that I’m crazy and I see only him in this situation. “He started receiving kicks and finished receiving kicks. No one person can say this did not happen.”

Many teams have fallen into the trap of trying to outwit Conte, but in the meantime haven’t identified a ploy to stifle Hazard’s all-round attacking threat. The latter represents the significant feat in Mourinho’s first major win against a top side as United manager, whilst preventing Chelsea from cruising to another Premier League title.

Nevertheless, the recurring emphasis on reducing Hazard’s influence validates Conte’s tactical alteration as a pivotal moment in terms of Chelsea’s resurgence as an elite Premier League side, and the Belgian’s status as the best player in the country. Another top performance against his former manager would make it difficult for even Mourinho to question Hazard’s merit.

Under Conte’s guidance, Hazard’s reemerged back into the conversation as one of world football’s top talents. Similar to the current title race, there just doesn’t appear to be another legitimate front-runner, which is another testament to Hazard’s greatness. His evolution into a devastating, reliable final third attacker solidifies his status as this year’s standout Premier League player.

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Posted by on April 14, 2017 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Tactical Preview: Chelsea – Manchester United

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Jose Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge is the main storyline in the Premier League this weekend. Sacked less than a year ago, Mourinho will face Antonio Conte for the first time and attempt to overpass his former employers in the league table.

It will be United’s second consecutive away match against the traditional top four and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Mourinho’s men play on the counter-attack once again. United added power to the midfield by moving to a 4-3-3, with Marouane Fellaini joining Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera to frustrate Liverpool at Anfield, and it’s likely he’ll adopt a similar approach here.

‘I knew that, working in England and staying in the Premier League, sooner or later I had to play against Chelsea and go to Stamford Bridge,’ Mourinho said. ‘The computer has decided it is to go now. And here we go.’

‘I don’t have to analyze their start to the season,’ he added. ‘But you look to the table and you see where they are. They are in a good position. So the start of the season cannot be bad if they are where they are.’

Although Chelsea pose a considerably different threat going forward, it would be surprising to see Mourinho revert back to a 4-2-3-1. Ander Herrera has performed excellent in a deeper role in recent weeks, but with Paul Pogba likely given the license to push forward in a midfield duo, the former would be forced to cover too much space in central areas.

It’s likely Fellaini will retain his place in the midfield trio, but Mourinho’s main decision is where he’ll position the personnel. At Anfield, Pogba operated closest to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and though he rarely influenced the match, the Frenchman did create the best chance for his Swedish teammate.

Herrera is unlikely to feature as the no.10 despite his goal threat around the box, and Mourinho could opt to utilize Fellaini’s aerial presence to fluster Chelsea’s back-line. Gary Cahill has struggled against Ibrahimovic in the past, and Mourinho could instruct the Swede or Fellaini to isolate the out-of-form England international or target David Luiz.

The other major decision involves the wide positions – Mourinho’s traditional no.10’s have operated in wider positions this season, and assuming he doesn’t utilize a 4-2-3-1, this may be his preference against Chelsea. Ashley Young’s efficient performance in a defensive winger role should merit another start on the left, but the big question is whether Mourinho opts for Juan Mata’s guile, Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s creativity and transitional threat, or Marcus Rashford’s direct dribbling on the opposite flank.

United’s back four, on the other hand, should remain unchanged. Daley Blind and Antonio Valencia have performed well at the full-back position, while Eric Baily and Chris Smalling’s physical stature will provide a stern test against the league’s leading goal-scorer Diego Costa.

Chelsea’s mini-resurgence following two embarrassing defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal involved Conte shifting his side’s shape to a 3-4-2-1. However, Manchester United’s visit to Stamford Bridge will display whether the system is a long-term solution for the Blues.

The return of John Terry could see Cesar Azpilicueta move to a right wing-back role, with Gary Cahill moving to the right of David Luiz. This would provide interesting battles in wide areas with Ashley Young responsible for Azpilicueta, whereas United must be wary of Marcos Alonso’s positioning on the left.

Nonetheless, Chelsea’s centre-backs should cope with Ibrahimovic’s threat in a 3v1 situation, as the Swede lacks natural pace to get behind Conte’s defence. However, the threat of Martial and Rashford breaking into wide areas beyond the wing-backs or into the channels to isolate exterior centre-backs could prove costly.

N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic are expected to continue in midfield, and the former has gradually improved playing slightly ahead of the latter. Chelsea’s midfield possesses tenacity, strength, ball-winning skills, and the willingness to press the opposing midfielders which is why Mourinho may be tempted to summon Fellaini.

Conte will have Oscar and Willian available for selection, but Victor Moses’ positive performance last weekend may merit a start alongside Eden Hazard. Hazard remains the key player, here, though, and may be the reason Mourinho sticks with a 4-3-3 due to his new positional freedom to roam between the lines or break beyond the centre-backs. Once an individual battle between Hazard and Valencia will now require an additional midfielder or centre-back to negate the Belgian.

This also is another opportunity for Costa to provide a big-game moment, following disappointing performances against Laurent Koscielny and Joel Matip in previous weeks. Mourinho may replicate the successful approach of man-marking the Spaniard tightly and encouraging his centre-backs to sacrifice fouls away from the box. Smalling and Bailly have developed a suitable partnership with the latter sweeping danger when required, but against an excellent all-rounder in Costa, this will be no easy task for the United duo.

“I think that it arrives at the right moment for us,” said Conte.

“It’s important to continue this way. The last game we beat a good team that last season won the title and this was important. On Sunday we face another great team. I want to see progress compared to Liverpool and Arsenal. I am confident about this. I saw fantastic commitment this week.”

Chelsea will likely intend to dominate possession and peg United into their own half, but that’s not an issue for Mourinho who will aim to l avoid defeat on his return to Stamford Bridge. Traditionally, United have leant towards width in bigger matches, and here, this appears to be a clear outlet to success.

But limiting Costa and Hazard’s threat will be Mourinho’s main priority against a Chelsea side that’s fairly average in terms of creating chances from open-play. Therefore, Mourinho’s caution and intent to disrupt may lead to another drab encounter involving two sides that will focus on defensive structure, as neither manager can afford to lose another game.

 
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Posted by on October 22, 2016 in Published Work

 

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Chelsea 2-2 PSG (AET): Blanc outwits Mourinho as PSG are rewarded for their bravery following Ibrahimovic’s dismissal

Fabregas veratti

Ten men PSG relied on goals from their Brazilian centre backs to come from behind on two separate occasions, effectively knocking Chelsea out of the Champions League at Stamford Bridge

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Jose Mourinho made one change to the side that featured in France, with Oscar joining Eden Hazard and Ramires behind Diego Costa. This was the expected Chelsea XI with the back four unchanged, while Cesc Fabregas dropped deeper to form a midfield duo with the returning Nemanja Matic, and Ramires operated on the right to help contain Blaise Matuidi.

Laurent Blanc welcomed back Thiago Motta into the XI alongside Marco Verratti and Matuidi to form a midfield trio. Javier Pastore was selected over compatriot Ezequiel Lavezzi on the right of a three-pronged attack, with David Luiz moving to centre back and Marquinhos pushing Gregory Van der Wiel to the bench.

Although PSG never took the lead, the French champions displayed the confidence to not only maintain their initial approach, but also outplay and outmuscle a limp Chelsea side that held a man advantage for over 90 minutes.

Cagey opening period

This was a contrast of last year’s return leg at Stamford Bridge. On that night, Chelsea required two goals to secure progression, and PSG happily sat deep in their half, with the intent of playing on the counter. But this time around, a scoreless draw would see the French champions crash out of the tournament, which led many to believe an entertaining European clash was on the horizon.

Marquinhos van der wiel chelsea psg 2014 2015

The interesting feat in the opening half hour, however, was the manner in which both sides approached the match without the ball. Blanc’s men maintained a medium block and their pressing, led by Verratti, was initiated when Chelsea’s attacking players entered the French side’s half. Chelsea aimed to peg PSG into their half from the opening kickoff, with Oscar joining Diego Costa in leading the press. PSG enjoyed lengthy spells of possession in the first leg with Verratti and Luiz retaining possession near the semi-circle, but Mourinho instructed his men to cut off those passes. Costa and Oscar sat between the two players, while Matic sporadically pushed forward to aid the aforementioned attackers.

Still, PSG was better equipped for Chelsea’s threat in open play and it started with the inclusion of Marquinhos, who was handed the task of negating Hazard’s threat down the left – mainly because van der Wiel struggled in the first leg. Hazard was fairly quiet down the left in this regard, only enjoying a powerful run when he skipped past Pastore in the third minute.

On the other hand, Cesar Azpilicueta was a tad more adventurous. The Spanish left back moved into advanced positions due to Pastore’s reluctance to track his runs, along with his narrow positioning, but his attacking impact was scarce. Nonetheless, an interesting feat of the second leg was the risk Blanc took on the left. With Cavani often in a central position, Branislav Ivanovic, the best right back in the Premier League, and Ramires, a powerful runner received space to overload Maxwell. Oddly, Chelsea’s activity often transpired on the opposite flank, whilst Matuidi’s discipline was evident, as his tireless work ethic saw the French midfielder track Ramires and Ivanovic when they attempted to surge forward.

Chelsea attacks

While Chelsea’s attacking six combined well with nifty intricate passing, the Blues lacked a final ball on numerous occasions. And despite the likes of Oscar, Costa and Fabregas finding space between the lines to receive the ball, Chelsea’s creative players were underwhelming.

Chelsea PSG shots prior iBRA SEND OFF

A tame Oscar effort was the sole attempt on target from both sides combined, but more importantly, Mourinho’s side were breaking into key areas. On two occasions in the first half, Thibaut Courtois coolly collected corners and instantly ignited breaks with his quick throws. First, Fabregas found Oscar between the lines but his heavy touch halted the play. Then, Courtois’ rolled ball to Hazard earned Matuidi a booking for tugging the Belgian to the ground. Chelsea’s quick breaks from Courtois throws were promising, but ultimately, the quality in the final third was disappointing.

As stated prior, it was peculiar to see Chelsea reluctant to overload Maxwell or increase Matuidi’s workload. Costa, who was heavily isolated in Paris, drifted to the left to avoid 1v2 situations with Luiz and Silva, and attempt to combine with Hazard. Silva eventually shifted over to the left to provide Marquinhos cover as the match progressed, and despite a splendid individual slalom that led to a penalty shout, Costa rarely outfoxed the Brazilian centre backs.

10 v 11

The turning point in this frenetic second leg took place when Ibrahimovic was harshly dismissed for a tackle on Oscar. Despite occasionally dropping deep to help PSG push forward and launch counter attacks, the Swede hardly influenced the match – in reality, the sending off was beneficial to the French side.

Oddly, the tempo of Chelsea’s passing and movement decreased, which ensured PSG’s solid shape was rarely threatened. Likewise, Blanc’s formation remained the same: Cavani moved upfront, with Matuidi playing a dual role on the left, and Pastore drifting laterally into pockets of space on the right.

PSG dominate

More so, PSG’s assertion of dominance was spectacular considering the French side was down a man against the Premier League leaders. In particular, Motta and Verratti were the key men: they completed the most passes (Motta 95 and Verratti 80) and achieved over a 90 per-cent passing rate.

Motta verratti passing tackles chelsea 2014 2015

The duo grew in prominence in the second half, as Chelsea’s work ethic and approach out of possession was shocking, while their energy levels significantly decreased. Mourinho’s side sat in two banks of four, but the midfield band wasn’t compact, and there was plenty of space to drift into to receive the ball. PSG’s ball playing midfielders weren’t pressed, and when so, it was often disjointed, which could explain why the top passing combinations in the match involved Motta and Verratti.

Motta verratti pass combo chelsea

Similar to Verratti, Matic pushed forward to press the Italian – the duo led the match with five fouls committed – and disrupt the away side’s passing rhythm, but apart from the Serbian’s effort, Chelsea was overloaded in midfield. The midfield trio casually waltzed into pockets of space to serve as passing options, and Pastore also dropped deeper to offer an outlet.

Matic Verratti fouls chelsea psg 2014 2015

PSG’s best move of the match, and arguably the tie, illustrated the freedom they received in midfield. Prior to picking up the ball near his box and quickly combining with Marquinhos and Motta, the Italian evaded challenges from Hazard and Willian, slid a pass between the lines for Pastore, who finally connected a through-ball to Cavani – who ran behind Fabregas and off the shoulder of Ramires – to round Courtois, but he fired his shot off the post.

Cavani was culpable for missing two key chances in the same tie last season, and although he was nearly responsible for their exit once again, the move vividly epitomized a mobile, yet fluid side in the second half. Cavani played off the shoulder of the centre backs, Matuidi continued to shuttle forward from the left to try to connect with crosses from wide areas, Motta sat deeper and retained the ball, Verratti offered tenacity and intelligent passing with his dynamism, and Pastore’s aim to drift into pockets of space and play through balls should have resulted in a goal.

Perhaps Chelsea can be criticized for their dire play, but PSG were clearly the better side in the second half, with their ball playing midfielders overloading central areas to steamroll Chelsea’s midfield.

Substitutions

Apart from Willian’s second half arrival, it was interesting to see both managers attempt to alter the match subsequent to Cahill’s opener – there was less than 10 minutes remaining in the match.

Blanc called upon Adrien Rabiot and Ezequiel Lavezzi to replace Matuidi and Verratti with PSG moving to a 4-2-2-1. Rabiot and Motta sat in midfield, with Lavezzi and Pastore behind Cavani – the former stormed forward from the right to play closer to the Uruguayan striker, and the latter persisted with drifting between the lines.

Within seconds, Pastore’s move to the left proved beneficial as it offered Maxwell space to surge past Willian to deliver a cross to Lavezzi in the box, but the Argentine’s header flew right at Courtois. Then, Maxwell’s adventurous off the ball run enabled Pastore to isolate Willian to earn that corner that resulted in Luiz’s equalizer.

Mourinho, on the other hand, remained cautious and introduced Kurt Zouma for the knackered Matic, and similar to big matches against both Manchester clubs this season, the Blues conceded a late goal after dropping deep to soak up pressure. Mourinho turned to Didier Drogba in extra-time opposed to Juan Cuadrado or Loic Remy, and was likely aiming to add an additional aerial presence in the box.

Drogba moved upfront, and Costa was now positioned on the left, which in truth, didn’t harm Chelsea because Marquinhos rarely ventured forward and the Spanish international was often positioned in that area throughout the match. The Ivorian served as an expedient outlet for Hazard to play off of in extra-time, but Marquinhos and Salvatore Sirigu’s last ditch efforts prevented the Blues from notching a third goal.

Set pieces

Nevertheless, set pieces, or to be specific, aerial duels, proved decisive over 210 minutes of football. The first leg saw three Chelsea defenders combine for an unorthodox away goal, PSG aim to isolate Cesar Azpilicueta via crosses, and Cavani rising high to snatch a second half equalizer.

Both sides possess dominant aerial players, and the lack of guile and creativity – despite PSG showcasing both as they pushed for a goal and created a few half chances in the second half – increased the significance of set pieces. Where Sirigu desperately flapped at corners throughout, PSG’s inability to clear their lines resulted in both Chelsea goals.

However, PSG’s two goals were quite extraordinary considering their corners and crosses into the box in the opening half – that Courtois easily snagged – were poor. But moments of sheer brilliance from the world’s most expensive centre backs, combined with shocking marking from Chelsea’s defenders, saw Luiz’s thunderous header force extra-time, and Silva win the tie on away goals – he beat Terry on two occasions within minutes, as Courtois made a stellar save prior to the equalizer.

Conclusion

PSG’s performance at Stamford Bridge was superb, and amazingly it appears Ibrahimovic’s dismissal was a blessing in disguise. The French side was unconvincing prior to the sending off, as Chelsea’s numerical advantage altered the Blues’ approach both mentally and tactically.

Blanc, however, deserves credit for his game management. The French manager stuck with his initial approach in a major European tie at Stamford Bridge: his side was defensively organized out of possession, while the ball playing midfielders were vastly superior in central areas.

Mourinho was astonishingly unprepared for this situation, and his sluggish midfielders, particularly Matic (who trained once prior to kick-off) failed to dictate the tempo of the match and were severely underwhelming in the final third. The Blues were lethargic in possession, and they were shockingly open without the ball in the second half, lacking the structure and solidity required to compete with PSG’s powerful, yet technical ball playing midfielders.

In recent years, Mourinho has been left humbled in world football’s most prestigious tournament, but here, he was outcoached and outwitted by Blanc’s bravery. While Chelsea and Mourinho continue the club’s “evolution” – a mission to return the former to Europe’s elite – Blanc will hope PSG’s historic triumph could be the catalyst in the club’s journey into that exclusive group.

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

 

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Premier League Preview: Chelsea

Courtesy of Flickr/In Mou We Trust

Courtesy of Flickr/In Mou We Trust

Many questioned Jose Mourinho’s vocal dismissal of Chelsea’s title hopes following their impressive 1-0 triumph over Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium last February. 

“The title race is between two horses and a little horse that needs milk and needs to learn how to jump,” Mourinho said. 

“Maybe next season we can race.”

The Portuguese manager was aware that his side could grasp the title from the self-proclaimed two-horses, but he also knew that his striker profligacy, along with the vast inexperience throughout his squad wouldn’t suffice.

In recent years, Chelsea’s involvement in continental competitions has been successful, but they were irrelevant in their domestic title races, falling behind both Manchester clubs. Roman Abramovich invested well in young talents such as Eden Hazard and Oscar, but there were significant holes throughout the squad that were exposed on a weekly basis.

Mourinho rightly claimed that his side was in transition, utilizing last season as a primitive guideline both psychologically and physically on what it takes to be an elite side in Europe. In that time he had to stray away from the flashy football that Chelsea’s creative players and supporters enjoyed in the opening months of last season, along with offloading fan favourites Juan Mata and David Luiz.

It was part of the evolution.

The combination of entertaining football and results didn’t mesh at Stamford Bridge, thus forcing Mourinho to revert back to his meticulous counter-attacking approach.

“We are going in one direction and the right direction, but it is quite frustrating. Football is about getting results and it’s quite frustrating, as we may have to take a step back in order to be more consistent at the back,” Mourinho stated following a loss to Stoke City.

“It’s something I don’t want to do, to play more counter-attacking, but I’m giving it serious thought. If I want to win 1-0 I think I can as I think it is one of the easiest things in football. It is not so difficult, as you don’t give players the chance to express themselves.”

Chelsea conceded nine goals in the 23 league matches subsequent to those comments, comfortably defeating every team in the top seven. In the end, the lack of a top-class striker proved costly, as they failed to break down inferior opposition, losing games in the latter stages of the season against Aston Villa, Sunderland, and Crystal Palace.

Chelsea finished four points behind champions Manchester City, and crashed out of the Champions League at the semi-final stage, but Mourinho was pleased with the progress upon his return.

Mourinho’s Chelsea, though, enters this season as the bookies favourite, and history makes it difficult to bet against the Blues. 

The Portuguese manager’s sides tend to peak during his second season, as his players become accustomed to his philosophy, thus allowing them to carry out his instructions with precipitous efficiency. During Mourinho’s career, Porto won the European Cup, Chelsea retained their Premier League crown, Inter Milan won the treble, and Real Madrid broke records as they dethroned Barcelona.

The Chelsea board’s proactive nature in the transfer market steers Mourinho in pole position to achieve his second season success.

Sales of Romelu Lukaku, Demba Ba, and Kevin De Bruyne, along with the departures of club legends Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole have paved the way for Mourinho to introduce world-class players in Cesc Fabregas, Filipe Luis, and Diego Costa. Didier Drogba will also make an emphatic return to Stamford Bridge, while Thibaut Courtois’ successful loan spell at Atlético Madrid provides Petr Cech with legitimate competition for a starting role.

Stylistically, there isn’t much variation in Chelsea’s system. The Blues may occasionally lack ideas when they dominate possession, but they’re extremely organized without the ball, terrorizing teams in transition with swift counter-attacks.

Chelsea will alter from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3 throughout the season, and play a three-man defence when they desperately need a goal. Deploying Fernando Torres out wide has been the significant tactical change — similar to Samuel Eto’o’s role at Inter — with Torres sporadically varying his movement into central areas. While Torres playing on the flanks may not be one of Mourinho’s preferred moves, it’s an option the Portuguese manager can utilize.

Chelsea’s strength lies in the attacking midfield department, as they now possess two players in each position.

This desperately helps Oscar, as his form dwindled towards the end of last season due to exhaustion. Equally, while Eden Hazard enjoyed his best campaign at the club, scoring 14 league goals, the arrival of Costa and Fabregas should decrease the massive attacking load placed on his shoulders last season. Mourinho will hope both men will take the next step and discover a level of consistency, with Hazard in particular scoring more goals, as the duo enters their third season in the Premier League.

Equally, the likes of Mohamed Salah, Andre Schurrle and Willian are expected to have adapted to Mourinho’s philosophy and the rigorous strains of the Premier League. Salah and Willian’s work ethic and pace down the flanks offer balance, while World Cup winner Schurrle will be eager to add more goals to his resume and cement a place in the starting XI.

Ultimately, Mourinho targeted the areas that required improvement, and acquired world-class personnel to fill them. Gary Cahill and John Terry formed the best centre-back partnership last year, as the Blues carried the best defensive record, conceding 27 league goals.

Luis, arguably the best left-back in Spain last season, offers Mourinho leeway at the full-back position, and ensures that Branislav Ivanovic can step in for Terry when required and Cesar Azpilicueta can play in his preferred right-back position. Courtois, on the other hand, is arguably the best goalkeeper in the world at the tender age of 22, which immediately improves Chelsea’s sturdy back-line.

With Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas favored to form Chelsea’s double-pivot, what appeared to be a weak point in the Blues starting XI since their last title triumph, now looks quite frightening. 

Matic arrived in January last season, providing the strength, passing, and reliability at the base of a feeble midfield to impede the opposition’s attacks. Likewise, Fabregas’ familiarity with the league should see him settle quickly, and his direct style of play should create and tally goals.

The Spaniard’s passing range also ensures Chelsea can control games in midfield, along with orchestrating attacks from deeper positions. Chelsea can also rely on reliable midfielders in Ramires and John Obi Mikel as adequate cover, while 21-year-old Marco van Ginkel has returned to full fitness — after enduring a season ending knee ligament injury — producing positive preseason performances alongside Matic and Fabregas.

Costa, however, has been the big positive in preseason, scoring two quality goals and displaying through his work ethic and individual ability why Mourinho was keen on luring the 25-year-old to Stamford Bridge. Although Costa has only endured one prolific season at the highest-level scoring 36 goals in 44 appearances, it’s key to note that he’s yet to enter his peak years and Mourinho is more than capable of maximizing the striker’s talents.

The main worries around Costa is his tendency to drift out of games when teams sit deeper, and many fear that he may not be the man to solve Chelsea’s issues against inferior opposition as his aerial threat isn’t established. Blues supporters also fear the possibility of Costa sustaining a long-term injury, as only 36-year-old Drogba and Torres serve as replacements. With weeks remaining in the transfer window, Mourinho may be poised to make one final move for a striker, as Marko Marin and Victor Moses are likely to be deemed surplus to requirements.

Still, Costa doesn’t need to score 30 goals a season to push this Chelsea side over the hump, and his ability to link play with the midfield and charge powerfully into the channels is one of the various reasons why he’s the ideal counter-attacking striker.

In truth, Chelsea’s summer activity, along with their rivals’ failure to significantly improve their starting XI or squad, merits the Blues as title favourites.

They bolstered their imperious defence with a fine left back and one of the best goalies in the game, the young creative midfielders’ evolution combined with Fabregas’ world-class talent should form a stellar midfield, and they now possess a legitimate goalscorer.

It’s taken Chelsea nearly five years to assemble a squad capable of challenging on both domestic and European fronts, and with the depth the Blues possess, they should be in the hunt for all four trophies available.

The squad at Mourinho’s disposal is built to keep his second season folklore alive.

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2014 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Chelsea’s superior squad sneak past Liverpool

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Chelsea’s slender victory against Liverpool displayed the difference between a potential title contender, and a side heading in that direction. Chelsea’s cautious performance provided a short period in the first half that saw Jose Mourinho’s men produce their best football since his return.

Liverpool’s lack of squad depth forced Brendan Rodgers into making one change to the side that lost at the Ethiad Stadium – the Reds were without Steven Gerrard and Daniel Sturridge, while Victor Moses was ineligible to feature. On the other hand, Mourinho had the luxury of tinkering with his starting lineup, recalling Cesar Azpilicueta, Gary Cahill, Willian and Frank Lampard.

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The away side fortuitously took the lead in the opening three minutes, due to poor set-piece defending from Mourinho’s men. Both sides have experienced difficulties defending set-pieces this season, so this was a logical point of attack to exploit – Martin Skrtel pounced on a loose ball in the box – that Branislav Ivanovic failed to clear – and tapped it into an open goal from six-yards out.

Similar to their victory against Southampton, Chelsea responded well. However, Liverpool’s work ethic without the ball in the opening minutes of the match frustrated Mourinho’s men. Raheem Sterling and Phillipe Coutinho quickly closed down Chelsea’s fullbacks, and Luis Suarez worked tirelessly against John Terry and Gary Cahill, but the problem was in midfield.

Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson looked weary and sluggish throughout the match, as they half-heartedly pressed Chelsea’s midfield. David Luiz and Frank Lampard adopted deep positions in midfield and freely played passes around the pitch, while Willian, Oscar and Hazard drifted infield, and successfully operated between the lines. The buildup to Hazard’s equalizer witnessed Chelsea’s three creators combine in central areas, and Oscar’s powerful run led to Hazard’s curling effort.

Liverpool was overrun in midfield at certain points during the first half, and their attempt to replicate this feat failed. Coutinho drifted infield to help his side control the midfield – with Allen pushing into an advanced position on the right – but the Brazilian’s final ball was consistently poor. Suarez was merely an isolated figure in the opening half, as Cahill and Terry closely monitored his movement around the final third.

Chelsea’s success was also down to their pressing – Mourinho’s men limited Liverpool’s ability to play out of the back, and it also prevented their midfield from developing a fluid passing rhythm. Whenever Rodgers’ men evaded Chelsea’s press, they struggled to get behind the Chelsea defence, or create legitimate goal scoring opportunities.

Mourinho was forced to introduce Ashley Cole midway through the half, which pushed Azpilicueta to right-back. Although Coutinho occasionally closed down Ivanovic, the Chelsea defender rarely  surged forward. Azpilicueta had different intentions  – he ventured forward at the first opportunity presented, and his cross found Oscar, who snuck past Mamadou Sakho and played a ball across the box, which Eto’o directed past Simon Mignolet.

There was a significant decline in Chelsea’s attacking impetus in the second half, and Liverpool began to pose a threat in the attacking third. Sterling scampered down the right flank admirably, Sakho’s header – from a Henderson cross – rattled the crossbar, and Petr Cech saved Suarez’s tame volley.

Unlike Mourinho, Rodgers doesn’t possess legitimate game changers on the bench and he was forced to hand a debut to 19-year-old Brad Smith for the injured Allen, as Liverpool became a 3-5-2. Liverpool’s wingbacks pushed into advanced positions out wide, thus pegging Chelsea’s creators into deeper positions. Coutinho began to drop into better positions in the final third, and Suarez effortlessly ran the channels, but apart from two penalty cries – Eto’o’s clip being his only legitimate shout – Liverpool didn’t come close to an equalizer.

Liverpool’s overachievement in the first half of the season has been derailed over the Christmas period; while they do possess an exciting starting eleven, Rodgers’ side doesn’t possess the depth required to secure a Premier League crown, and possibly a Champions League spot.

 
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Posted by on December 29, 2013 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Mourinho’s tactical alterations guides Chelsea past Southampton

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Courtesy of Warrenfish

They did it the hard way. This time they weren’t aided by a fortuitous referee error – Chelsea came from behind to defeat Southampton, courtesy of Jose Mourinho’s tactical alterations in the second half.

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It didn’t help that Michael Essien’s back pass led to Jay Rodriguez’s opener, 14 seconds into the match. Although Essien will receive criticism for Southampton’s great start, Branislav Ivanovic should’ve been goal side of the Englishman, while Cahill should’ve been positioned centrally.

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The onus was on Chelsea to push forward and attack, but they struggled to bypass an impressive Saints press. Mourinho’s men received limited time on the ball – they fought in central areas, but found it difficult to create legitimate goal scoring opportunities.  However their direct play did leave Mauricio Pochettino’s men wary on the break, yet the Blues weren’t playing to expectations.

Although Chelsea were disappointing in the first half, from an attacking perspective, Pochettino would’ve been disappointed as well.  Pablo Osvaldo was able to freely drop into space between the lines to receive the ball, whereas Southampton was presented with several opportunities to increase their lead on the break. Shockingly, Pochettino’s men were unable to record a shot on target after taking the lead through Rodriguez’s goal. The away side often broke into great positions on the counter attack, but their decision making, final ball and the overall tempo in their play was poor.

Mourinho was forced to make his first substitution towards the end of the first half, when Oscar was unable to continue, which led to the introduction of Frank Lampard – thus pushing Ramires to the right flank for the remainder of the half.

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Subsequently, Essien was removed for Demba Ba, as Mourinho went 4-4-2. The Portuguese manager stated he couldn’t risk Essien playing in such a defensive role – with a yellow card – for the entire half, as Southampton posed a threat on the counter attack. The Ghanaian lacked a bit of sharpness, but in terms of ball circulation, he’s been a better option than Lampard in a double-pivot.

However, Mourinho’s decision to go 4-4-2 saw Chelsea implement a well-rounded direct approach. Ramires was given license to drive forward when the opportunity presented itself, while Chelsea played more long balls into Torres and Ba – simply to evade Southampton’s press. Pochettino’s men were now pegged back into their half, as they didn’t want to gamble pressing high – with Chelsea now possessing more attacking players in their third –  and replicating their first half approach would risk a chance of being overrun in midfield.

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At this point Mata become more of a prominent figure. In the past we’ve seen the Spaniard drop deeper, having a significant impact playing balls over the top into the striker. In the second half, Mata freely drifted into midfield to play these dangerous balls – several of Ba’s goals were created in that manner last year. Coincidentally, Mata’s delivery from corner kicks was also exceptional, as they led to Gary Cahill and John Terry’s goal. And while the out of favour Spaniard impressed going forward, he was equally exceptional without the ball, as he worked hard to nullify Luke Shaw’s threat from left back.

Chelsea’s direct balls from deep unsettled Southampton’s backline, who were fairly comfortable in the first half. Nathaniel Clyne nervously gave away throw-ins, while Jose Fonte and Dejan Lovren couldn’t cope with Torres or Ba’s threat upfront. Nonetheless, It was Torres and Hazard’s direct runs that led to a free kick and corner, prior to both of Chelsea’s goals.

Mourinho then introduced John Obi Mikel for Torres as Chelsea flipped to a 4-3-3. Whereas minutes prior, Pochettino moved to a 4-4-2 sacrificing James Ward-Prowse – Southampton’s main threat in wide areas – for Steven Davis, and Rickie Lambert for Morgan Schneiderlin. Southampton continued to push for a winner, but they lacked a threat in wide areas, and with Mikel present, Chelsea was more equipped to withstand Southampton’s threat on the counter.

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Likewise, the unshackled Ramires was a key performer in the second half. His energetic forward runs, and will to track back to break up Southampton’s counter attack was impressive – the Brazilian completed a game-high 10 tackles. And while Ramires’ rampaging run in injury time was dispossessed, his persistence to win the ball back, allowed the Brazilian to play a scintillating ball towards Ba, which secured all the points for the Blues.

Mourinho flipped his formation three times throughout the match, as Chelsea worked extremely hard, to make up for a poor first half. A combination of energy, strength, and direct play, displayed why the Blues are tipped as title contenders. Chelsea lacks an identity, and they’re not playing to Mourinho’s standards, but the Portuguese manager showcased that his side’s flexibility can be enough to mount a legitimate title push.

 
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Posted by on December 2, 2013 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Three Things: Basel 1 – 0 Chelsea

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Stamford Bridge rang out in jeers. Chelsea had lost their second consecutive match, this time in front of their home supporters, as animosity drifted around the stadium. It was only September, and the West London side looked to be heading down a familiar cycle. The pressure was rising, as a club of Chelsea’s stature couldn’t afford to crash out of the group stage under their newly-appointed manager.

Subsequently, Chelsea went on a fantastic run, losing only once over the last two months, and climbing to the top of their Champions League group. The results displayed a gradual improvement under Mourinho, who is desperate to win silverware and a trip to Basel was the ideal occasion to make that statement.

A win for the West London club would secure qualification, but the Swiss side also required maximum points to keep their European campaign alive. Here are three observations on Basel’s historic victory against Chelsea.

Basel attack wide areas

It was an unexpected onslaught.  Basel was on the attack from the first minute and Chelsea couldn’t cope. They pegged Mourinho’s men into their own half, searching for an opening in the final third. The Swiss side was unfortunate not to take the lead on several occasions, as Petr Cech made numerous top-class saves to keep his side in the match.

Yet, Chelsea were the opposite – they were sloppy in possession, and their slow buildup didn’t help the cause. Their main outlet in the first half was right back Branislav Ivanovic, who earned his side a corner, and provided a scintillating cross for Samuel Eto’o, but he was unable to connect with the Serbian’s cross.

Apart from that chance, Chelsea were lethargic. Eto’o was practically an isolated figure upfront, Willian provided glimpses of brilliance – barring his final ball – and Oscar also failed to have an impact on the matches. Eto’o ‘s quiet night came to a halt in the 42nd minute, when the Cameroonian striker was stretchered off the pitch due to injury, thus leading to Fernando Torres’ appearance.

While Chelsea struggled to push forward as a unit, Basel found openings to exploit. Despite Willian and Oscar adequately tracking back to protect their fullbacks, Mohamed Salah and Valentin Stocker enjoyed space in wide areas. Chelsea’s fullbacks sat narrow when defending, and they were forced to come of position to close the wingers down.

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Basel’s wide men made runs behind the Chelsea fullbacks when possible – particularly they were dangerous on the break, as Ivanovic and Azpilicueta were caught out in narrow positions, which invited Basel’s wide players to push forward.

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Coincidentally, a mixture of pushing too many men in advanced areas, and their narrow positioning led to Salah’s winner. Fabian Schar played an exceptional cross-field pass behind Ivanovic, and Salah ran onto it, brushed off the Serbian and beat Cech at the far post. The warning signs were evident, and it was shocking to see Mourinho ignore this feat, considering the joy Basel were having down both flanks.

Similar to the first meeting at Stamford Bridge, Basel’s wide men played a pivotal role in their well-deserved victory, as Salah and Stocker terrorized Chelsea’s defence.

Hazard and Torres impact

There was no significant improvement from the Blues at the start of the second half, which forced Mourinho to introduce Eden Hazard for the unimpressive Oscar. Chelsea was dismal in the final third – they didn’t test Yann Sommer, as the Blues only recorded one shot over the course of 90 minutes.

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From an attacking perspective, Hazard and Torres’ introduction led to a gradual improvement in Chelsea’s activity around the final third. The Chelsea duo provided a direct element of attack that away side lacked in the first half – as Willian’s tracking forced him to start from deeper positions, and Chelsea’s passing was dire.

Hazard and Torres combined well around the 18-yard box, and their will to take defenders on from deep positions, opened up space for Chelsea’s midfielders to attack. Mourinho’s men got into a great position in the 60th minute, when Hazard and Torres combined, thus opening up a shooting lane for the Belgian, but he opted to played a well-weighed pass out wide to Ramires, but the Brazilian’s first touch was abysmal.

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Both men have been scrutinized in the past for uninspiring performances in a blue shirt, but they drove Chelsea into dangerous positions in the final third. Chelsea’s display was dire, but Torres and Hazard provided glimpses of brilliance that gave Blues supporters a glimmer of hope.

Chelsea need more than a striker

There’s been a constant shout for Chelsea to add a world-class striker to their squad in January, but the West London side shouldn’t overlook the other issues they possess. Mourinho opted to stick with the same three-man midfield that was successful at West Ham over the weekend.

“We go through because Schalke didn’t get a result, and that is not the same. I can only find one reason for the performance, and I saw signs of it from the first minute: my team were tired. We paid the price today of the international week, and from the game against West Ham where we had put in an outstanding performance,” Mourinho said.

“We paid the price today of the international week, and from the game against West Ham where we had put in an outstanding performance. But we made a big mistake in the first second of this game, immediately, and after that we made mistakes defensively, with the ball, lost easy passes, lost the ball, and we finished with a ridiculous goal,” he added. 

Chelsea’s midfield trio was constantly being overrun in midfield – Basel’s attacking three effortlessly skipped past Mourinho’s men in midfield and found it considerably easy to receive the ball between the lines. Lampard was out of breath chasing shadows, as he struggled to complete the full 90 – seemingly, the Englishman can no longer handle two games in a week. Ramires has failed to reach the heights of the past two seasons, as he wandered around midfield bewildered, conceding possession easily, and albeit finding good positions in the final third, his poor touches let his side down.

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Mourinho’s limited midfield trio withholds individual duties – Mikel protects the back four and ensures Chelsea sustain possession, while Lampard and Ramires push forward, but this leaves Chelsea vulnerable to counter-attacks, as their midfield often lacked structure. Frankly, besides making runs into the box – which is slowly becoming ineffective – Lampard doesn’t offer much going forward.

Chelsea’s weak area is in midfield – they lack a player that can dictate the tempo of the match, and provide positive forward passes. Likewise, in the double-pivot, Mourinho’s reluctance to play Mikel and Ramires together often leads to the Brazilian playing in a deeper role – which hinders his strengths.

Chelsea’s intent to sign a world-class striker is vindicated, but as the season wears on, the Blues will continue to suffer if quality personnel aren’t added to a feeble midfield.

Conclusion

Basel were worthy winners on the night – the Swiss side exposed Chelsea’s weaknesses in midfield and down the flanks, and they were organized when the away side held possession.

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In particular, Fabian Schar was exceptional – exceeding expectation on the defensive end, and providing a winner for Salah to win the match.

“After our great display in the first half we realized we could get a result. It obviously helped us that Chelsea wanted to play football themselves and not just sit deep. This allowed us to find gaps. To beat Chelsea twice is historic for this club,” Yakin said. 

“We had situations to score but had bad control, no sharpness. The team was tired. When the team is tired, defensive and attacking mistakes can happen, and you concede goals that you never normally concede. But Basel deserved the bonus. They were the better team,” Mourinho said.

Chelsea qualified for the round of 16 in an uninspiring manner, as Mourinho blamed the poor display down to fatigue and lack of squad rotation. Ultimately, the result, along with the performance was inexcusable – his men were poor on the night, they lacked invention, guile, structure and a proper game plan. Simply, Mourinho’s tactics were dire, and life at Chelsea won’t get easier until he improves the midfield, and provides another offensive dimension.

 
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Posted by on November 27, 2013 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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