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BPL Notebook Matchday 4: Guardiola’s supremacy over Mourinho ensures Manchester’s blue

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Manchester is blue.

The hype surrounding another chapter of the Jose Mourinho vs. Pep Guardiola rivalry was poised, but like several past encounters, the latter was filled with smiles at the final whistle.

They said he couldn’t do it at Stoke – albeit not being a cold Tuesday night – but Guardiola’s City mesmerized the Potters over lengthy spells. And at Old Trafford, they weren’t favourites. Despite the sensational passing moves, rejuvenated underachievers such as Raheem Sterling, and the weekly growth and understanding of Guardiola’s philosophy, City weren’t supposed to be this good in September.

Mourinho’s experience may still be the x-factor that guides Manchester United to another Premier League title, but Guardiola’s City displayed that they’re still the team to beat. Frankly, Mourinho’s past achievements and United’s stability was a non-factor – put simply, this was another outing where Guardiola out-coached his Portuguese rival.

If we base the result on performances this season, the result isn’t too surprising. United were unbeaten like City, but apart from the solid displays from the rarely tested back-line, Mourinho’s men were average. Though City showcased signs of vulnerability, their progress as a unit was evident with every game.

The first half performance at Old Trafford was their best yet, leaving Mourinho and his troops flabbergasted. City’s passing was breathtaking, the midfield was dominant, and when they pushed men forward there was an intended route to goal. Nolito and Raheem Sterling positioned themselves on the touch-line to maintain width, with the latter constantly running across Luke Shaw – it was clear Guardiola highlighted the left-back’s positioning as weakness in the United XI.

But more so, United were unable to cope with City’s counter-pressing, and their sloppy passing ensured Guardiola’s men constantly retained possession. The midfield duo of Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini’s positional awareness were exploited this season on a few occasions, and here, against genuine world-class stars in Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, United suffered profoundly.

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Neither Pogba, nor Fellaini competently tracked City’s creative dynamos and it was unsurprising that De Bruyne, in particular, was involved in both goals. The Belgian easily received various passes in pockets of space behind Fellaini, and was unmarked when he poked the ball behind Daley Blind in the buildup to City’s opener. Kelechi Iheanacho’s winner witnessed Sterling easily drift past Pogba, whereas the City striker found space behind Fellaini to receive a pass that subsequently resulted in a simple tap in.

Tactically speaking, Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1 is largely associated with Rooney’s inclusion in the XI, but even the United captain failed to negate Fernandinho’s passing from deep positions. In the past, Mourinho has often flipped his midfield to transition into a 4-3-3, which in truth, appears to be the ideal system for United – yet the Portuguese manager was reluctant to offer his defence proper protection and deploy Pogba in his preferred position.

The decision to retreat into two banks of four without pressing the centre-backs equally proved costly. Where John Stones may have been expected to be the catalyst from deep, Nicolas Otamendi was efficient on both ends of the field – the Argentine constantly located De Bruyne between the lines, and made several key interventions around the City box.

In many ways, the Guardiola – Mourinho spectacle spoiled the general viewer: even when the latter attempted to fix his initial error by shifting into a 4-3-3 to introduce Ander Herrera and Marcus Rashford, the former quickly negated United’s eight-minute spell of improvement by summoning Fernando for Iheanacho. Now City were effectively operating with De Bruyne playing through the channel, and Leroy Sane’s debut cameo ensured Guardiola could rely on a tricky wide player from the right.

United received opportunities to equalize via Rashford’s pace and Ibrahimovic’s aerial threat, while Pogba and Fellaini appeared comfortable in advanced positions, but the away side still posed several threats on the counter-attack. Even Mourinho’s traditional last-ditch substitution – replacing a defender for a striker and moving to back three – that welcomed Anthony Martial was countered by the arrival of Pablo Zabaleta, which saw Fernando drop into defence with City transitioning into a 5-4-1.

Guardiola simply had an answer for every option Mourinho relied on with hopes of salvaging a result. Perhaps this is a wakeup call for Mourinho and the Old Trafford faithful that believe they’re clear-cut favourites to return to the summit in May, as the big name signings, Mourinho’s experience, and stable core barely harmed City.

Oddly enough, while all the banter regarding Mourinho’s system change is focused around Rooney, the United captain produced one of his better performances in recent time. Rooney created Ibrahimovic’s fortuitous goal, and constantly charged forward to provide his teammates service in key areas.

Nevertheless, the dilemma with fitting Rooney into the XI sacrifices key facets that could make the difference between a title-winning team and top-four challengers, which suggests Mourinho must address his formation issue sooner rather than later. Like every manager in the league, Guardiola’s spent big this summer, but he represents a veteran Premier League manager opposed to a man attempting to find his way.

A true student of the game that always identifying various methods to defeat an opponent in the finest manner. Once doubters that the Spaniard solely required the best talent the sport has to offer will vanish quickly, as true greatness shines regardless of the circumstances.

Full-time celebrations featured the City players joining together in a group huddle and their manager congratulating the players individually for their impressive performance. Where Mourinho and his troops suffered that long walk towards the Old Trafford tunnel in defeat, the scenes on the pitch captured a significant moment in Manchester history.

For the first time since the Abu Dhabi Group United Group took over the club, City finally appear to be a team.

And that’s what makes Guardiola great.

Swansea punish Conte’s profligate Chelsea

It would be very difficult to identify how Chelsea didn’t maintain their 100% record to start the season at the Liberty Stadium. The Blues were dominant for majority of the match but failure to build on Diego Costa’s 18th minute opener proved costly.

Chelsea’s discipline out of possession has been one of the few factors that have improved under Antonio Conte, and here, they comfortably coped with Swansea’s three-man backline. Oscar and Nemanja Matic harried Leroy Fer and Ki Sung-yeung out of possession while N’Golo Kante’s consistency ahead of the back-line has been a revelation.

The away side persisted with sitting off Swansea’s centre-backs, and they also avoided pressing Jack Cork in deeper positions, yet the hosts were unable to pose a threat from open play. However, several wasted opportunities from Hazard and Costa kept Francisco Guidolin’s men in the match, and two defensive errors from Thibaut Courtois and Gary Cahill – the latter was actually fouled despite is mental lapse – witnessed the Swans score two goals in two minutes.

Although Costa walked a tightrope throughout, he remained a constant goal threat by dropping into space behind Cork, and running towards goal. Once again, the Blues required Conte’s timely substitutions to earn a point, though, as the Italian turned to Victor Moses and Cesc Fabregas. The latter ignited two Chelsea moves in a three-minute span, thus resulting in Costa’s acrobatic equalizer.

Top teams tend to struggle in the initial match following the international break – due to the vast amount of players travelling around the world to compete – but this was about Chelsea’s poor finishing opposed to fatigue. Guidolin’s formation switch prior to half-time did lead to a slight improvement in the home side’s overall play, but they still failed to create quality chances apart from that freakish two-minute spell.

In a title race consisting of the best managers in the world, Conte is aware that his Chelsea side can’t afford to concede points due to mental/defensive lapses within their half. Although Costa’s start to the season provides room for optimism, Conte requires goal contributions from the likes of Hazard, Oscar and Willian to mount a legitimate title challenge.

Liverpool’s cruise past Leicester with sheer speed

Liverpool may not lift the Premier League title in May, but similar to a Chelsea side playing no part in European competitions, the Reds should be a difficult outfit to overcome. Despite Jurgen Klopp’s side possessing a few weak areas going forward, on their day, Liverpool can compete with the best sides in the league.

The Reds weren’t keen on applying their energetic press from the front due to Leicester’s threat on the counter, which therefore witnessed the champions struggle to cope with the hosts’ pace upfront. Klopp’s men dropped into a 4-5-1 out of possession and occasionally attempted to squeeze when the opportunity presented itself, whereas Claudio Ranieri instructed the champions to prevent Liverpool from playing out the back.

Still, Leicester’s main issue revolves around Kante’s departure leaving a massive hole in midfield, and Ranieri relying on their main strengths from last season. Liverpool instantly exploited Daniel Amartey’s positional indiscipline in central areas through Firmino, who drifted from the left flank into pockets of space behind the midfielder to test Kasper Schmeichel.

Minutes later, the Reds exposed Leicester weak points – Riyad Mahrez’s unwillingness to track full-backs, and space behind Amartey – to open the scoring as James Milner received a pass behind the Leicester winger and located Firmino between the lines, as the Brazilian ran across the edge of the box to beat Schmeichel.

Meanwhile, Sadio Mane and Daniel Sturridge’s inclusion in the XI offered pace, which could explain why Liverpool were reluctant to press from the front. The former doubled the Reds’ lead but it stemmed from Sturridge breaking beyond the Leicester centre-backs, while Henderson and Firmino combined in central areas.

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Ranieri’s side encounter difficulties breaking down opponents due to the lack of a creative passer, Mahrez’s poor form, and the fact that teams have now designed defensive methods to cope with Vardy’s pace and runs into the channels. Lucas Leiva succumbed to Leicester’s high pressing to provide the away side a lifeline, but apart from one moment of brilliance between Vardy and Mahrez, the Foxes failed to pose a threat in the final third.

Firmino was the catalyst behind Liverpool’s key moves throughout, and his influence improved when he moved into a central position following Sturridge’s departure. The Brazilian’s outside runs into half-space led to key chances for Henderson and Mane, and when the latter rounded an onrushing Schmeichel, Firmino coolly doubled his goal tally.

While Leicester’s inability to evolve this summer currently coincides with their issues, Klopp’s astutely outwitted Ranieri. Firmino’s movement, the decision to retreat into their base shape, and the speed of Sturridge and Mane were the key elements to the perfect performance. Often capable of raising their level against the superior sides in the league, the Reds must identify ways to replicate performances of this stature on a weekly basis.

Southampton frontman woes surface at the Emirates

Another positive away display against a top side saw Southampton drop points against an uninspiring Arsenal side. Failure to replace Mane and Graziano Pelle lingered throughout the Southampton XI to start the season. They were highly impressive at Old Trafford, and here, once again, the Saints failed to capitalize on a positive performance.

The overall pattern of the match was predictable, yet extremely tame with all three goals created via set-pieces. Arsenal dominated possession with debutant Lucas Perez’s penalty box presence fairly non-existent, and Southampton’s narrow 4-5-1 limiting space within central areas. Unfortunately for the Saints, they lack a centre-forward capable of holding up play, nor were they capable of putting together enough passes to mount counter attacks.

Likewise, Arsenal’s buildup play was extremely frustrating: the crosses from wide areas were over-hit, while Mesut Ozil endured a quiet outing by his standards. Claude Puel’s decision to introduce Shane Long pushed Redmond to the right and Tadic upfront, thus ultimately leading to the former squandering two 1v1 chances with Petr Cech from point-blank range.

Alexis Sanchez and Olivier Giroud were summoned shortly after the hour mark, but besides the contentious penalty call for Jose Fonte’s slight pull on the latter, neither attacker influenced the match. Perhaps the decision to award Arsenal a stoppage time penalty was harsh, but this was further evidence that justifies the notion that Southampton desperately require a goal-scorer upfront.

The midfield is young and talented and the back-line remains solid, but Puel’s men will struggle to win games if they don’t address their inadequacies upfront.

Everton newcomers make their mark in Lukaku goal-fest

Ronald Koeman’s appointment at Goodison Park went under the radar, but his influence on a Toffee side that underachieved last season is gaining prominence. Romelu Lukaku’s 11-minute hat-trick will rightly dominate headlines, but Idrissa Gueye and Yannick Bolasie’s direct dominance was the catalyst behind Everton’s triumph at the Stadium of Light.

David Moyes’ Sunderland adopted a deep defensive block to fluster an Everton side still deprived of a genuine creator in advanced positions, and courageously coped with the away side’s first half territorial dominance. Ross Barkley barely found space to exploit beyond Jan Kirchhoff, Bolasie’s role from the right meant he could only deliver crosses into the box, whereas Lukaku was unable to roll his defender around the box to test the keeper.

The one evident change in Everton’s overall game is the direct power and dribbling from Bolasie on the flanks and Gueye’s dynamism in midfield. Sunderland couldn’t cope with either player in their respected position, and when Koeman opted to replace Barkley for Gerard Deulofeu, and swap Bolasie to his preferred left flank, the Black Cats were overwhelmed by Everton’s pace.

Bolasie’s threat from the left persisted in the opening 15 minutes of the second half, but a rapid second half counter involved Gueye clipping a far post cross for Lukaku to nod Everton into the lead. Gueye also contributed to Lukaku’s quick snapshot off the crossbar prior to Bolasie driving past Javier Manquillo to create the Belgian’s second goal from a far post cross.

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Mirallas and Deulofeu combined to complete Lukaku’s hat-trick, but Everton played to last year’s strengths by breaking swiftly on the counter-attack. Nonetheless, Bolasie’s presence and ability to evade challenges, create chances and score goals, along with Gueye’s drive in central areas, offers an additional element to Everton’s game.

With 20 minutes to spare Everton comfortably humbled their former manager in a devastating manner. Lukaku offers Koeman the non-existent goal-threat witnessed in Everton’s opening three games, but in terms of penetration – without a creative passer around the final third – Gueye and Bolasie’s direct play may suffice.

Results

Manchester United 1-2 Manchester City, Bournemouth 1-0 West Brom, Middlesbrough 1-2 Crystal Palace, Stoke City 0-4 Spurs, Burnley 1-1 Hull City, West Ham 2-4 Watford, Arsenal 2-1 Southampton, Liverpool 4-1 Leicester, Swansea 2-2 Chelsea, Sunderland 0-3 Everton

Weekend Stats

  • Ronald Koeman is the 1st Everton boss since Thomas McIntosh in 1919 to win his first two competitive away games in charge of the Toffees.
  • Romelu Lukaku recorded the first hat-trick of the 2016/2017 Premier League season, and it was the 12th quickest scored in the division’s history (11 mins, 37 secs).
  • Thibaut Courtois has received more red cards (2) & given away more penalties (3) than any other GK in the PL since August 2015.
  • Liverpool have scored more Premier League goals in 2016 than any other team (50).
  • Harry Kane has become the fourth Spurs player to score 50 Premier League goals (after Sheringham, Defoe and Keane).
  • Jose Mourinho has won just one of his last ten meetings with Pep Guardiola. (drawn four and lost five).
 
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Posted by on September 13, 2016 in EPL, Published Work

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis

Guardiola’s City swiftly takes shape

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

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

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

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

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

Conte’s system alteration proves decisive

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

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

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

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

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

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

New season, same Liverpool?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arsenal & Leicester continue to struggle in front of goal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunderland require plan B upfront.

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

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

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

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

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

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

West Ham injury issues halts growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weekend Stats

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

 

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Jordan Henderson’s success is a testament of hardwork and patience

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The manner in which we assess successful signings in the transfer window is atypical. Hype, elation, and belief fill the air, but along with the positive vibes come a sense of accountability. The demand to instantly perform has become mandatory, as supporters and the media are quick to tarnish your name if you fail to make an impact.

Factors such as adapting to a new club, city or country, living arrangement and style of football are forgotten. Patience is no longer a virtue – it’s a rarity. Ask Jordan Henderson, a promising English talent whom was the media scapegoat when he moved to Liverpool in summer 2011. It was a transitional period for a club that was looking to head in a different direction, but their decisions in the transfer market provided inadequate assistance.

Unfortunately for Henderson, being signed around the same period as Andy Carroll, Charlie Adam and Stewart Downing wasn’t beneficial – their combined transfer fee equaled £78m. Unlike the other signings – Carroll and Adam were brought in as poor replacements for Fernando Torres and Raul Meireles, while Downing was purchased to supply service to Carroll – Henderson was a future prospect that required time to develop. Shockingly, Henderson started 31 of 38 Premier League games, playing in various positions across midfield – his performances were lacklustre, and his steep transfer fee led to more criticism.

“Players used to come to Liverpool and go into the reserves for two years. These kids are having to go straight into the team,” said Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers, after a draw against Arsenal in January. Theoretically, he had a point – Henderson was thrown into the fire, but that didn’t affect the young midfielder, who was familiar with encountering daunting challenges.

Although Henderson enjoys playing table tennis and badminton during his leisure time, football always played a significant role in his life. Yet, there was skepticism as to whether he would receive a professional contract from boyhood club Sunderland – where he’s plied his trade since the tender age of eight. Towards the latter stages of his youth career, manager of the Sunderland academy, Ged McNamee feared that Henderson may not make the grade.

“There were times you’d look at Jordan and you’d think ‘There’s something special about that boy’ and then other times you’d see him struggling and you’d worry for him,” McNamee said.

“It was only really when he turned 16, where we were forced into making a decision whether or not to give him a contract that we began to realize what kind of special player we’d signed.”

Likewise, matters got worse for the 16-year-old starlet when he learned that he was diagnosed with the Osgood-Schlatter disease. According to Boston’s Children Hospital the disease is an overuse condition or injury of the knee that causes pain and swelling below the knee area over the shinbone. Growing children and adolescents whom participate in athletics are prone to the disease because that is when bones are growing faster than muscles and tendons.

Nevertheless, Henderson overcame the roadblocks that nearly halted his career, but his move to Anfield wasn’t rosy. Succeeding Steven Gerrard in midfield looked unlikely, and his ability to maintain a certain level of consistency was non-existent, as he constantly drifted out of matches. The demand for Champions League football was evident, and neither fans, nor upper management were settling for mediocrity.

Henderson’s Liverpool career was hanging by a thread, and the Merseyside club was willing to offload the Englishman to Fulham, in exchange for Clint Dempsey 16 months ago. But Henderson refused to leave – he wanted to prove his worth and fight for a starting role in midfield. That’s the type of man Henderson is – while his slender build may be deceiving, the 23-year-old possesses the heart of a lion.

His unmatched work ethic separates him from many players his age, as he covers every blade of grass tirelessly. Henderson’s characteristics can stem from the upbringing he developed within his household – The Liverpool midfielder doesn’t drink or smoke, and isn’t afraid to admit that he’s a tad introverted.

“I don’t really go out. I stay in and watch TV. None of my mates are bad lads, they didn’t go drinking at a young age or anything like that, but when they used to go out, they’d tell me not to, which was a good thing,” Henderson said.

“I just love playing football and I don’t want anything to jeopardize that. I like to go in every day training and working hard.”

Henderson’s performances this season have been superb – his powerful forward runs from midfield, combined with his ability to press the opposing midfield higher up the pitch to make key tackles have been acknowledged. While his finishing in front of goal could improve, the absence of Steven Gerrard has provided Henderson the platform to display his proficient passing.

The 23-year-old has started every Premier League game this season, and there’s been a vast improvement in his passing statistics. Henderson averages a career high 53.5 passes per game with an 87% success rate. And while scoring goals may not be Henderson’s niche at this point in his career, halfway through the season he’s recorded five assists – matching a career high.

Liverpool doesn’t possess a player of Henderson’s stature in midfield – a dynamic, tactically disciplined, hard-working runner, whom is also a reliable passer. Henderson is an ideal role model for many young footballers – his ‘never say die’ attitude and determination to succeed will enable him to improve over the course of his career.

More so, the Liverpool midfielder is a prime example of why supporters should have patience with new signings. It took the 23-year-old two full seasons to find his feet at Anfield, but he’s developed a prominent role in Liverpool’s push for Champions League football – Henderson is gradually silencing all the cynics.

 
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Posted by on December 27, 2013 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Sunderland sneak past Chelsea’s press

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Jose Mourinho believes that the world is against him. The Portuguese manager has brushed off any belief that his side has defensive issues, and even claimed that Chelsea could possibly concede against a training dummy, because “all the rebounds are going in.”

To his understanding, Chelsea isn’t efficient in the attacking third, and it puts pressure on his defenders to make minimal errors. But, one could make the case that their attacking issues lie on their non-existent tactical identity, and their inability to create numerous chances in the final third.

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However, Chelsea displayed a different approach in their Capital One Cup quarterfinal against Sunderland. Opposed to dropping into two banks of four and solely breaking on the counter, Chelsea pressed Sunderland high up the pitch. When Gus Poyet’s men attempted to play out of the back, the West London club boxed the home side into Sunderland’s half, and won possession.

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Wes Brown and John O’Shea failed to cope with Chelsea’s pressure, and although Lee Cattermole dropped between the centreback duo to build attacks, Sunderland often conceded possession in their third. This was a logical approach from the away side, but similar to previous away matches this season, Chelsea was poor in front of goal.

On the upside, Willian continued to shine in Chelsea’s trident. He was the best player on the pitch, completing five key passes, and completing 90 passes with a 93% pass accuracy rate. The Brazilian’s ability to retain possession in the final third is impressive, and he calmly completed numerous passes in key areas. But most importantly, his dynamism allows him to evade challenges, find pockets of space to receive the ball, and play incisive passes.

Chelsea fortuitously took the lead seconds into second half, courtesy of Lampard’s persistence to attack the box to meet Cesar Azpilicueta’s cross in the six-yard box. Chelsea fully controlled the remainder of the half, and they continued to close down Sunderland in their third, but Eto’o, Lampard, and Kevin De Bruyne squandered legitimate goal-scoring opportunities.

Mourinho was forced to introduce Michael Essien for Azpilicueta, as he was unable to complete the full 90, and he also opted to bring on Eden Hazard and Demba Ba. Chelsea slowed down the tempo of the match in the final 25 minutes, and David Luiz began spraying long diagonal balls to the Senegalese striker, but Ba’s impact was minimal.

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Ba closing down Cattermole.

Chelsea’s inability to convert countless opportunities in the second half haunted them, when Cattermole broke past Ba’s press, and played a pass to Emanuele Giaccherini, who found Jozy Altidore in the box.

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Cattermole drifts away from Ba, and plays a lovely pass into the open space ahead of him. Lampard – who isn’t in this shot – and Mikel watch the ball glide between them.

Mark Schwarzer, stopped Altidore’s shot but substitute Fabio Borini tapped in the rebound, with three minutes to play. Chelsea’s energy levels dipped in extra-time and substitute Ki-Sung Yueng’s composed finish in the 118th minute pushed the Black Cats into the semi-finals.

Chelsea didn’t produce a master class performance, but they were the better side for majority of the match. Although Chelsea doesn’t possess a tactical identity and have several areas in their squad to improve, the manner in which they’ve lost domestic away matches has been similar. Mourinho’s men may not be playing the best football, but they’ve put themselves in situations to win matches – however, they dissipate too many opportunities in front of goal.

Chelsea’s high-pressing approach was successful, but it caused them to tire in the latter stages of the match, and Poyet’s energetic substitute’s instilled belief, and produced goals.

 
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Posted by on December 18, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Gareth Bale’s Galactico expectations require time

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Gareth Bale is encountering an arduous situation at the Santiago Bernabeu. It’s been two months since Bale made the move to Real Madrid, and the Welshman has been vilified and harshly scrutinized by the Spanish media. The rapid influx in fans, owners and the media demanding immediate success has somewhat tarnished modern day football, as players and manager’s are continuously under severe pressure. Despite all the negativity surrounding Bale, it’s shocking to know that he was a household favourite a few months ago.

Tottenham Hotspur supporters were on the edge of their seats when Bale received the ball on the right flank in their final game of the season against Sunderland. Had it been a few years ago, he may have opted to pass the ball or attempt a pacy dash towards the byline to provide a cross – but not this time. His confidence was oozing off his sweaty skin and fear was expressed in the Adam Mitchell’s eyes, as there was only one logical outcome.

The 24-year-old Welshman cut infield with his fancied left foot and curled the ball with precision and pace, humbling Simon Mignolet as could do nothing but watch the ball fly into the top corner, despite his efforts to make a save. White Hart Lane erupted. Spurs faithful adapted to Bale’s brilliance throughout the season, and this was just another piece of magic to add to the highlight reel.

Bale ran towards the Spurs supporters jubilant, knowing that this would be the last time he’d share a moment of this magnitude at White Hart Lane. The celebration was more of a ‘come get me NOW’ opposed to a sign of hope that relied on their London rivals dropping points on the final day of the season to solidify fourth place.

Daniel Levy’s most prized asset was ready to make the big jump abroad, despite the North London side earning a club-high 72 points. Truthfully, it was foreseeable. Bale’s vast growth into a world-class player couldn’t be ignored. He thrived in a no.10 position under Andre Villas-Boas that handed the Welshman a free role to roam around the final third searching for gaps and openings in the opposition’s backline. However, he maintained defensive responsibility by quickly closing down centre backs to complement Spurs’ high-pressing game.

The pressure of living up to the ‘galactico’ billing is insurmountable. However, Bale – the 11th galactico – had bigger shoes to fill as his summer transfer to Real Madrid made him the world’s most expensive player. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to know that on two separate occasions, Bale’s career hung by a thread.

Bale’s athleticism was evident at a young age. The Welshman excelled in rugby, hockey and track-field throughout school, but football was Bale’s top priority.  The Welshman’s PE teacher Gwyn Morris was aware of the Welshman’s talent and challenged him to improve other aspects of his game by forcing Bale to play one-touch football and predominantly use his weaker right foot, as he was superior to the rest of his schoolmates.

Southampton youth scout Rod Ruddick spotted the Welshman when he played for Cardiff Civil Service in a U-9 five-a-side tournament in Newport, Wales. “Even at the age of eight Gareth had fantastic ability. When you sign a player at that age it is because they have great potential and he has just kept getting better,” Ruddick said.

“You could see his pace and quality on the training pitch but I think his left foot helped him stand out. What we saw then we knew he was going to be something special,” he added.

Bale worked his way through Southampton’s satellite academy, but his recurring back injuries sustained from a growth spurt, nearly prevented him from receiving a full-time scholarship.

The Welshman signed with Spurs for £10m in 2007 – a year after breaking into the Southampton first team – and he endured 24 consecutive losses when he featured for the North London club. Bale’s frail build was his downfall, as he struggled to stay fit, which saw Alex McLeish attempt to pursue to the Welshman to join Birmingham in 2009. “Gareth wasn’t in the Spurs side at the time and Harry Redknapp wasn’t able to get him a game for whatever reason,” McCleish said.

“What if he had come to Birmingham and enjoyed it? We were in the Championship at the time but eventually got promoted to the Premier League. That would have changed the picture for us financially. You just don’t know. Unfortunately, this time, for us it didn’t, he said.”

Bale worked hard over the next few years to become stronger physically and mentally – with help from former Spurs manager Harry Redknapp’s tough love approach in training – and the football world witnessed glimpses of his brilliance. He took the world by storm through his two performances against Inter Milan in 2010, where he singlehandedly terrorized Brazilian fullback Maicon. Bale’s ability was never questioned – it was whether he could replicate his performances on a consistent basis.

Under Andre Villas-Boas, the 24-year-old winger flourished, and took the first chance to move abroad to challenge for trophies, opposed to spending another year at White Hart Lane, fighting to secure a Champions League spot. It was his childhood dream to play for Madrid, but scrutiny and ridicule followed him like a shadow.

More so, Bale’s transfer fee has been the focal point during his sluggish start at the Santiago Bernabeu. Had Bale set the valuation, or publicly stated he was worth £85m, then it would be understandable – however he didn’t. The inflated transfer market has been beneficial to teams with lesser financial power, as they now possess the power to hold out until they receive their required price tag.

Is Bale a £85m player? No.

At the time, was Bale worth £85m? Possibly.

Considering his remarkable performances throughout 2012/2013, the three years remaining on his contract, and the fact that Spurs initially weren’t willing to sell the Welshman, the valuation isn’t far-fetched.

Consequently, the Bale saga, and a few niggling injuries, prevented the Welshman from participating in pre-season activities. Given the circumstances, it’s absurd to label the Welshman a ‘flop’ based on the first two months of the season. Adapting to a new league, culture, country and style of football is never easy. While some players settle quickly into a new environment, others need time and patience – and based on the abundance of turnover that transpired at Madrid this summer, it’s rational.

Carlo Ancelotti, known for his possession-based philosophy has struggled to find his best starting eleven, and has been adamant on fitting Bale into the equation. But the rise of Angel Di Maria – arguably Madrid’s best player this season – has highlighted the need of natural balance in Ancelotti’s attack, specifically in their 7-3 victory against Sevilla.

“The team lacks little offensively, but lost concentration when at 3-0, but then continued to play well. We need more balance because you cannot open up a game when you are winning 3-0,” Ancelotti said.

“We played faster and more vertical. We need more offensive balance, but the game was fantastic,” he said.

Bale displayed glimpses of old, grabbing two goals and two assists. Sevilla’s shape without the ball was diabolical for large portions of the match, which benefitted a Madrid side that prefers to attack on the break. The Welshman was allowed space to isolate defenders, use his blistering space to stretch the match by running towards the byline, make darting runs into the box and combine with his teammates in wide areas.

Likewise, Bale has struggled to impose his authority on matches against sides that prefer to sit deeper, and defend with nine men behind the ball. Opposed to England, La Liga sides are precise with their overall shape without the ball, as they aim to be organized and compact. With Cristiano Ronaldo playing a free role, Bale has less space to work with, is more likely to drift out of games via isolation, and is a conventional winger, which will explain his inevitable statistical decline.

Coincidentally, Bale and Madrid, are going through a transitional period. Ancelotti is searching for balance, a preferred formation and a cohesive unit – whereas, Bale is settling into life abroad, which will expect him to thrive with less space, in a natural wide role.

An £85m transfer fee guarantees high expectations, but if Madrid supporters and owners are patient, then Bale can prove to be an intelligent investment in the near future.

 
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Posted by on November 1, 2013 in FIFA, Published Work

 

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Southampton 1-1 Sunderland: Match report

Jose Fonte’s 88th minute equalizer denied Sunderland their first win of the season, in a thrilling match at St. Mary’s stadium.

The two sides that flirted with relegation last season were keen on bolstering their squad, by adding a few marquee signings to their roster, this summer. Mauricio Pochettino acquired the likes of Victor Wanyama and Pablo Daniel Osvaldo, while Paolo Di Canio snagged Jozy Altidore and Emanuele Giaccherini.

After suffering a heart-wrenching opening day loss to Fulham, it was the Black Cats that got off to a great start, taking the lead in the second minute. Giaccherini was allowed a free header off a Sebastian Larsson corner kick, and the Italian nodded the ball past Artur Boruc. It was the ideal start for Di Canio’s men, who dictated majority of their match against Fulham last week, but was unable to find a goal.

Pochettino was disgruntled by the Saints’ early setback, but sees the defensive error as a learning curve in his side’s development.

“I fully take responsibility in that sense. It just shows that we have to improve. It’s not acceptable that we step onto the pitch in that manner. We were basically asleep,” Pochettino said.

“It’s a big lesson for us. It’ll help us to improve,” he said.

southampton v sunderlandJay Rodriguez found the back of the net two minutes later, but the goal was rightfully ruled offside. Southampton striker Rickie Lambert dropped deep to receive the ball, and he played a lovely pass to Rodriguez, who made a diagonal run and slipped the ball past Westwood.

Sunderland’s energetic start prevented Pochettino’s men from dictating the match. Their 4-4-1-1 became a 4-5-1 when they didn’t have the ball, with Giaccherini and Adam Johnson working hard to nullify the attacking threat of Southampton’s fullbacks – Giaccherini in particular was exceptional, keeping Luke Shaw quiet during his time on the field.

The Black Cats stayed compact and organized in their third of the pitch, allowing Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama to have possession, but the Saints’ double-pivot struggled to play balls into their attacking midfielders. Rodriguez and Adam Lallana had to drift infield to receive the ball, but didn’t succeed when doing so. Pocchettino’s men were stubborn, and continuously persisted on attacking through the middle, but Sunderland comfortably handled every attack they faced.

With the centre of the pitch congested, Southampton found their attacking source in wide areas, courtesy of James Ward-Prowse. In the 17th minute, the 18 year-old winger nearly orchestrated the equalizer, when Lambert forced Westwood into making a great save. Ward-Prowse’s delivery from set-pieces were also exceptional, but Pochettino’s men were unable to take advantage of Sunderland’s dire set-piece defending.

Both side’s made interesting alterations at half-time – Pocchettino introduced Osvaldo and Nathaniel Clyne for Schneiderlin and Shaw, thus pushing Ward-Prowse into the double-pivot with Wanyama. Di Canio introduced Ji Dong-Won for Sessegnon, which gave the Black Cats more of a threat on the counter-attack, and Sunderland nearly put the match out of sight in the 57th minute. Ji played in a lovely ball for the isolated Altidore, but the American striker forced Boruc to make a great save – Ji and Johnson also flashed shots wide of the net, but Sunderland rarely tested Boruc throughout the 90 minutes.

Southampton’s intent on penetrating through the middle continued in the second half, and despite the introduction of Gaston Ramirez, Pochettino’s men rarely troubled Sunderland in those areas. Osvaldo’s debut was interesting, and inspiring for Saints fans  – despite showing his cynical side towards the end of the game, Osvaldo’s presence opened gaps for Southampton’s attacking three to receive balls between the lines. The Italian striker linked play with the wide men in hope of creating overloads and his off the ball movement was impressive, often drifting into key areas in the final third.

For all their dominance, Southampton waited until the final minutes to solve Westwood. Throughout the match several free-headers forced Westwood into simple saves, and Saints players failed to get on the end of Ward-Prowse’s delivery. But to Pocchettino’s delight, Fonte met the 18-year-old’s scintillating free-kick in the 88th minute, to earn his side a valuable point.

Southampton were rewarded for their dominance in possession, as Sunderland remain winless. Di Canio’s men failed to offer any variety of attack going forward, and were determined to hold on to their lead, thus allowing Southampton to assert their authority on the match. Di Canio was aware of his men’s dire performance and stated the obvious in his post-match press conference.

“We were leading at 1-0 but another set-play cost us two points. It was a cheap free-kick but 1-0 is more than acceptable. We have to be honest, Southampton deserved to win this game because they played better,” Di Canio said.

As for Southampton, they remain unbeaten in their opening matches, and have looked to assemble a side capable of finishing in the top-half, and potentially competing for a Europa league spot. Pochettino was aware that his side deserved more, but at this moment, he’s focused on their growth over the season.

“We had the best chances, and we actually deserved the three points. We just have to look ahead and prepare well for the coming games,” Pochettino said.

 
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Posted by on August 27, 2013 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Danny Welbeck: The present and future of Manchester United

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Courtesy of Football.ua

Manchester City may rue the day that they overlooked young Danny Welbeck as a potential player for their youth academy.

“City custard-pied me as a kid,” said Welbeck when describing his rejection from the Manchester club as an eight-year old. The lifelong Red Devils fan worked harder after the rejection, and was scouted by Manchester United in a tournament a week later, playing for his local side Fletcher Moss.

Welbeck, born and raised in Manchester, of Ghanaian descent, found himself discovering his love for the game at Markfield Avenue in Longsight, a small town approximately four miles away from Old Trafford. Welbeck was academically gifted as a youth, obtaining 12 GSCEs and could have went on to become a successful university student – but his drive and motivation to become a professional footballer, put those academic dreams on hold. He was often found playing on the streets with former United player Wes Brown and his brothers, who coincidentally were his neighbours.  Welbeck’s parents Victor and Elizabeth, who emigrated from Ghana in the 1970’s, have watched their son develop into one of United’s invaluable players this season.

22-year old Welbeck hasn’t always found his United career enjoyable, and needed time on loan to fine-tune his raw talent. In 2010, Welbeck joined Preston North End, where the Englishman scored two goals in eight appearances. Unfortunately for the Mancunian, his loan spell ended before it really began, as he was sidelined due to a swollen knee injury.

It was Welbeck’s successful loan spell at Sunderland in 2010/2011, where the Englishman came to life, scoring six Premier League goals, in 26 appearances – most notably his goal in a 3-0 mauling of Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.  Welbeck speaks highly about his time with the Black Cats, as he believes that it enhanced his development as a player.

“I went to Sunderland as a boy and I came back a man,” Welbeck said. 

“It was beneficial to me and like a stepping stone in my career. It allowed me to come back to United a bigger and better person,” he said.

Scoring goals has been a key element towards Manchester United claiming their 20th Premier League title. United currently lead the league in goals scored, with 79, failing to score in only two games. The signing of Robin Van Persie in the summer has been key in United’s successful attempt to grasp the title from their noisy neighbours, as the Dutch striker has scored 25 league goals. 19 different players have contributed to Manchester United’s 79 goals this season, which is a Premier League record.

Welbeck is one of the 19 men that have scored for United this season, but has failed to find the back of the net as often as he’d like too. Last season the English striker netted nine Premier League goals, forming a devastating partnership on the club and international stage with teammate Wayne Rooney. Welbeck led the line for England in Euro 2012 last summer; where he had a decent tournament, producing a sublime finish against Sweden, in which the Three Lions were victorious. The future looked bright for the English striker, as it was certain that he would be a permanent starter for United this season.

Unfortunately for the 22-year-old, the arrival of Van Persie has forced United to shuffle the pack, which has seen Rooney drop in the hole behind the Dutch striker, while Javier Hernandez and Welbeck have made minimal appearances. It was evident that the introduction of Van Persie would stall the development of these two young strikers, and many tabloid papers speculated Welbeck’s departure away from Old Trafford this season, on loan to Reading. Although Welbeck’s minutes have been cut, the English striker has improved his all-around game over the past 12 months, and should play an integral role in United’s quest to become one of the top sides in European football.

Welbeck has been given a different role this season, as he rarely featured as United’s main striker. The Englishman has shown his versatility in United’s 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 system, as Welbeck can play on both flanks and occasionally in the hole behind Van Persie. Welbeck would be every managers dream player, based on his ability to fulfill any duty that Sir Alex Ferguson has instructed him to complete this season. The Englishman possesses pace, power and the technical ability to succeed as a striker, and most recently we’ve been able to witness his tactical acumen of the game.

The Englishman’s standout performance against Real Madrid in the Champions League, allowed Welbeck to showcase his tactical cognizance to the world. Welbeck started on the left hand side in the first leg, and defensively he didn’t have much work to do, as Alvaro Arbeloa rarely surged forward. The Englishman did possess a threat on the counter attack with his pace, and he scored United’s all-important away goal from a corner kick.

In the second leg, Welbeck was assigned a different job, as he was instructed to close down Madrid midfielder Xabi Alonso. Many questioned Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision in selecting Welbeck over Rooney in a monumental Champions League tie, and the United boss had this to say pre-match,

“Xabi Alonso controls the game for Real Madrid…[tracking back] Danny Welbeck is the best at that in our team, plus he can work from there to support Robin van Persie,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson may not be known for his tactical shrewdness, but his decision to drop Rooney was wise. In the first leg, Rooney did a poor job in tracking Fabio Coentrao, who bombed past Rooney on several occasions and in the quarter-finals against Italy at Euro 2012, he allowed Pirlo to dominate the game. Rooney failed to pick up the Italian playmaker, as he did against Sergio Busquets in the 2011 Champions League final. Pirlo on the night completed more passes than the entire English midfield, while Rooney left United outnumbered in midfield against Barcelona.

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Pirlo dominates England

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Rooney leaves Busquets free

Rooney couldn’t be trusted to fulfill his defensive duties, and Welbeck rose to the occasion in a fine matter. Welbeck nullified Alonso, preventing him from playing long diagonals and forward passes.

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Welbeck shuts down Alonso

The Englishman also troubled Madrid going forward as he often ran past Alonso and connected with Van Persie – unfortunately for United, Welbeck was unable to beat Diego Lopez.

According to whoscored.com, Welbeck possesses an 86.4% pass completion rate, the highest of any striker in the Premier League – higher than English colleagues Steven Gerrard and Jack Wilshere. Statistically, the United player has been superb when given the opportunity to play, as he’s improved his all-around game. Modern day football has advanced, and attacking players need to be able to provide more than just goals. It may be overlooked, but Welbeck merits his position as United’s third choice striker based on his versatility. The Englishman has the ability to win key aerial duels, but also beat defenders with his pace, which explains why Ferguson trusts Welbeck to play in different positions across the pitch.

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As stated earlier, his passing is efficient, especially around the final third and his ability to win tackles on the defensive end has been a positive for United.

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Ferguson has played the 22-year-old striker in some of United’s big games this season, specifically, away to Newcastle, Tottenham and Real Madrid, and home to Manchester City and Liverpool. Welbeck has the skill set and tactical awareness to play in these monumental matches and Ferguson now trusts Welbeck to successfully complete his job.

Many may question Ferguson’s decision to include Welbeck in the squad because he’s clumsy on the ball and his erratic finishing, but the young Englishman is still maturing into a top-class player. Despite his dismal goal-scoring return, Ferguson stated that Welbeck’s goal drought hasn’t left him concerned. 

“It’s a fantastic asset when you have a player who is as adaptable as that. But I think he will find his role through the middle once he gets that maturity and gets into a more consistent way of scoring,” Ferguson said.

“Maybe he doesn’t appreciate us moving him around in various positions and we’ve maybe overused that because he is young, but his value to the club is there because I know he can do a job for me in any of those positions,” he said.

Welbeck’s growth over the past year has been impressive, as the Englishman has become one of United’s top players. In Ferguson’s system, Welbeck can play as an energetic winger, in the hole to disrupt deep-lying playmakers, or as a central striker that holds off defenders and allows his team to join the play. The ability and the tactical awareness he possesses may one day see him become the top striker for club and country. Welbeck has yet to play his best football for United and his place in the squad is indispensable – it’s scary that he’s only 22.

 
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Posted by on May 3, 2013 in EPL

 

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