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Atletico Madrid 2-3 Barcelona: Barcelona’s front three expose plucky Atletico and begin to take shape under Luis Enrique

Neymar Messi at Atletico

Barcelona came from behind on two separate occasions in the first half to defeat Atletico Madrid at the Vicente Calderon.

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Diego Simeone was without Koke and the suspended Diego Godin, forcing the Atletico manager to make a few alterations as Raul Garcia and Jose Gimenez slotted into the starting XI.

Luis Enrique made no changes to the side that defeated Atletico in the first leg encounter at the Camp Nou.

In search of a result, Atletico strayed away from the approach that was successful in the past against Barcelona – pressing higher up the pitch, and pushing their fullbacks forward, which proved successful, but equally costly.

Pattern Change

From the opening minute it was evident that Atletico were adopting a more proactive approach at the Vicente Calderon. Simeone’s side required two goals to secure progression in normal time, and it was unsurprising to see Atletico press higher up the pitch for large portions of the first half.

The two strikers pressed the centre-backs, while the wide players quickly closed down the attack-minded Barcelona fullbacks. But where Fernando Torres’ goal may have encouraged Simeone’s men to revert back to a low block, the home side continued to push forward in search of more goals.

While we’re accustomed to Atletico maintaining a low block in their half while Barcelona monopolizes possession, here, the hosts pushed forward at every opportunity, thus leading to an open first half.

Wide Areas

The main theme of the match, however, was the activity in wide areas. Atletico’s improved first leg performance – in comparison to the league encounter at the Camp Nou – witnessed a winger and either Koke or Mario Suarez drifting wide in aid of the fullback to create 1v3 situations against Messi and Neymar. The attempt to replicate this successful approach without the ball proved futile, as Messi constantly evaded Mario Suarez’s attempt to provide additional cover.

However, Atletico’s proactivity was key factors in both goals. Guilherme Siqueira moved ahead of Messi to intercept Javier Mascherano’s cross-field pass, which led to Torres’ opener. Then, Juanfran powered past Neymar and Jordi Alba before colliding with Javier Mascherano to earn a fortuitous penalty.

Ultimately, Atleti’s best chances were also created in wide areas, with Siqueira and Turan combining on two separate occasions, with the former finding Griezmann unmarked in the box – the Frenchman’s tame effort was saved, and he theatrically appealed for a suspected Jordi Alba hand ball.

Barca Breaks

The downfall to Atletico’s proactivity, though, was the lack of protection in transition. While the full backs surged into space behind Neymar and Messi, they equally left ample space vacant to arguably the best attacking trio in world football.

With Messi and Suarez upfront out of possession, and Neymar occasionally tracking back – Barcelona often dropped into two banks of four with Rakitic, and Iniesta at times moving into wide areas – Enrique’s approach to bypass Atletico’s pressing by quickly facilitating the ball to the attacking trio was effective.

Barca simply exposed the space behind Atletico’s fullbacks on several occasions through methodical direct moves. Neymar’s equalizer stemmed from a Gerard Pique headed clearance, and the Brazilian sprinting past Juanfran into vacant space. Subsequently, a simple punt from Marc-Andre ter Stegen nearly led to another Neymar goal, but the Brazilian was rightly ruled offside. The issue in that move was that Atletico’s Siqueira and Gabi were left in a 2v2 situation against Messi and Neymar.

It was evident that Atletico’s intent to go toe-to-toe was a gamble, and it was odd seeing the reigning La Liga champions continuously picked off by simple, direct attacks. Neymar’s winner also highlighted Atletico’s defensive naivety, with Messi storming into acres of space down the right, and Jordi Alba – who was accused of handling the ball – quickly sprinting to the home side’s box to direct the Argentine’s cross into Neymar’s path.

Enrique’s decision to encourage his men to quickly play passes to the attackers has tormented Simeone’s side this month, but here, Barca’s talented trio benefitted from the space Juanfran and Siqueira left available.

Rakitic

One key aspect throughout the first half was Rakitic’s movement in midfield. Not only does the Croatian offer Barcelona’s side a different element in central areas, but his verticality epitomizes the Catalan club’s philosophy under Enrique.

While Barcelona is likely to dominate possession in most matches, the emphasis on long spells of ball retention has been replaced with quick, vertical passes to the forwards, which could explain the attacking trios increased dribbling and fouls suffered. With Busquets at the base, and the combination of Iniesta and Rakitic shuttling, the midfield equally suits the system. Iniesta is a dribbler that isn’t renowned for dictating the tempo of matches, while Rakitic was free to make intelligent, powerful runs into space.

Likewise, Barcelona did enjoy a 3v2 overload in midfield, so with Gabi and Mario Suarez pressing Busquets and Iniesta, Rakitic often operated as the spare man in central areas. In the 18th minute, Rakitic’s forward run into the right channel nearly set the Croatian free, but Messi’s pass was over hit. Although the away side was likely to encounter difficulties maintaining control of the match, Rakitic’s forward runs posed issues. The Croatian earned a corner when he latched onto Neymar’s lay off, and a Dani Alves pass that found Rakitic unmarked at the edge of the box led to the corner that resulted in Miranda’s own goal.

Under Enrique, Barcelona have identified a rejuvenated sense of direct play: from Rakitic’s untracked vertical runs into space, to the initial ball that ignited the break to Neymar’s winner, there’s no surprise that a stable XI and shift in play has increased the Croatian’s significance in the squad.

Second Half

Sadly, the match reached its peak in the first half. Gabi’s dismissal at half time forced Simeone to replace Griezmann with Saul. Atletico dropped into a 4-4-1 without the ball, and retreated deeper into their half, offering minimal threats on the break.

The home side’s best chance came with 20 minutes remaining, when Torres flew past Busquets thus leading to Cani firing a devastating shot on goal, but ter Stegen punched the substitute’s effort over the net. Messi dropped deeper into midfield to ensure Barca retained possession to kill the game, and despite Atletico ending the match with nine men, the away side was unable to build on their lead.

Barca effectively got the job done in the first half.

Conclusion

In the span of 17 days, Enrique has rectified his disappointing results against tougher opposition by defeating Simeone’s Atletico on three separate occasions.

Despite two early scares, Enrique’s reluctance to alter his approach proved decisive: Barcelona’s front three were devastating in transition when they broke into space behind the fullbacks, quickly placing their attacking trident in positions to isolate defenders with their dribbling.

Nonetheless, while Simeone’s reactive low block has tormented Real and Barca in recent years, it appears the latter has found an ideal solution to their shortcomings, while the reigning champions were exposed in their attempt to outplay Enrique’s side.

Perhaps Enrique’s Barcelona possess a few flaws throughout the squad, but the focus on quick vertical passes to the strikers is a shift from the days of patient, meticulous ball retention – more importantly, it’s working.

 
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Posted by on January 30, 2015 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Arsenal 1-2 Manchester United: United take advantage when Arsenal’s pressing fizzles out

Courtesy of Flickr/Tsutomu Takasu

Courtesy of Flickr/Tsutomu Takasu

Manchester United claimed their first away win of the season in a tense, slow burning showdown at the Emirates Stadium.

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With United’s long list of sidelined players, Louis van Gaal reverted to a back three with Tyler Blackett, Chris Smalling and Paddy McNair forming a centre-back trio.

Arsene Wenger was also coping with defensive issues, but the Arsenal manager stuck with his preferred 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 shape as Alexis Sanchez, Danny Welbeck and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain led the frontline.

Arsenal dominated possession for large portions of the match, but with a bit of fortune and clinical finishing, United enjoyed a comfortable victory over Wenger’s side.

Pattern

In recent years Manchester United – Arsenal fixtures have followed similar patterns – Arsenal dominate possession, whereas United contain their threat and prevail without producing remarkable performances.

Van Gaal’s decision to revert back to a 3-4-1-2 – the system he implemented with Holland at the World Cup – ensured that the match was likely to follow this theme. Various subplots and definitive factors altered with personnel over the years, but the general pattern highlighted United’s ability to exploit Arsenal’s physical and mental frailties.

However, Wenger’s inaugural clash with Van Gaal as United manager was similar to Sir Alex Ferguson’s final match against Arsenal. Arsenal’s pressing posed several issues for United, but the Gunners were unable to sustain that tempo for the entire match.

Arsenal press

The key feature in the opening half, though, was Arsenal’s pressing. Recently, Arsenal have dropped into their 4-1-4-1 shape and opted to press in midfield, but considering Van Gaal reverted to a back three, Wenger instructed his attacking trio to close down United’s centre backs.

Arsenal’s pressure forced David De Gea and his centre-backs into nervy clearances, but it also placed the home side into key positions to take the lead. First, Oxlade-Chamberlain dispossessed Luke Shaw and Welbeck picked up the loose ball and fired a shot at De Gea. Then, Alexis’ pressure forced De Gea into a poor clearance, thus leading to Welbeck sliding in Wilshere free on goal. However, the United keeper comfortably stopped the England international’s tame effort.

United found it difficult to play through midfield for large portions of the first half, as Arsenal’s pressure forced Van Gaal’s men into daft mistakes, and they also conceded possession cheaply in key areas. Had Wenger’s side maintained their pressing throughout the match, and converted the numerous first half chances into goals, perhaps the result may have been different.

United approach

Where Arsenal focused on energetically pressing higher up the pitch, United stuck to a variation of the man-marking that was effective against Chelsea, and key to Holland’s success at the World Cup. For the most part, Arsenal always held a man advantage in midfield with Alexis and Oxlade-Chamberlain moving into central areas, thus explaining why Arsenal bypassed United’s midfield on a few occasions.

Still, Blackett and McNair followed Arsenal’s wide players when they dropped deeper into midfield, Wayne Rooney contained Mikel Arteta’s threat from deep positions, while Di Maria and Van Persie cut off the passing lanes to the full backs.

United’s lack of numbers in midfield and defenders being caught out of position left the away side vulnerable, and from an attacking perspective, their productivity in wide areas was severely underwhelming in the opening half. Van Gaal’s men lacked the creativity to unlock Arsenal’s back four, and similar to Holland at the World Cup, United resorted to sideways passes and hopeless crosses into the box when they surged into advanced areas.

Although United’s defensive approach impeded Arsenal’s buildup play from the back, whilst attempting to limit Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sanchez’s threat, the away side was fairly average on both ends of the field prior to the opener. More so, it’s difficult to determine whether the approach was successful – United was bypassed in midfield on several occasions, and their attack was considerably underwhelming

Fellaini – Oxlade-Chamberlain

Neither side was enjoyed a consistent spell of success from open play, and it was no coincidence that the star performers in the first half offered contrasting elements of directness. Both sides were comfortable when they packed players ahead of the ball, but they displayed signs of vulnerability on the break, and direct attacks.

Fellaini operated in advanced positions in midfield, and apart from Di Maria’s wonderful run from half that nearly resulted in a Rooney opener, the Belgian utilized his physical and aerial presence to steer United into key areas. The Belgian was always free to receive the ball in mixed positions on the right, and he towered over Nacho Monreal, Kieran Gibbs and Mikel Arteta to link play by chesting and nodding the ball down to his teammates.

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Equally, Fellaini was influential breaking up play in midfield – making key tackles around his box – and igniting swift counters on the break. He combined with Di Maria on two occasions in the match, and his second half ball to the Argentine was pivotal to Rooney’s winner.

Oxlade-Chamberlain, on the other hand, relied on his powerful running to evade challenges and steer Arsenal forward.

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  • 8th min: Oxlade-Chamberlain powered past Rooney down the right flank, but Welbeck nodded his venomous cross over the net.
  • 21st min: Sanchez dropped deeper to receive the ball and instantly played a lovely pass behind the defence to Oxlade-Chamberlain, but De Gea quickly moved off his line to cut of the Arsenal winger’s shooting angle to make a key save.
  • 41st min: Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sanchez combine to ignite a quick Arsenal counter, but Smalling comfortably dealt with Welbeck’s cross into the box.
  • 48th min: Arteta dispossessed Van Persie and quickly played a pass to Oxlade-Chamberlain, and the Arsenal wide man delivered an exceptional ball into the left channel for Welbeck, but De Gea stopped the 23-year-old’s shot.
  • 62nd min: Oxlade Chamberlain flew past Michael Carrick and delivered a lofted cross into the box but Sanchez tamely nodded the ball at De Gea.

It was evident that Oxlade-Chamberlain was Arsenal’s most proactive player against United through the various methods of direct attacking utilized to torment the away side’s defence.

1-0

Although many will classify United’s opening goal as fortuitous, it’s key to note that it was one of the few times Arsenal cheaply conceded possession in their own half.

Ramsey’s tame header not only enabled Rooney to recover the ball in Arsenal’s third, but presented an opportunity for the away side to attack with numbers. Fellaini freely attacked space towards the back post, while both wingbacks stormed into Arsenal’s box. It was a goal made by the wing-backs – that rarely pushed forward prior to the goal – as Young’s cross and Valencia’s powerful strike pushed United into the lead.

Well-worked moves from open play were scarce at the Emirates, which further exemplifies the significance of Ramsey’s lapse, and United’s clinical finishing.

United go 5-4-1/sit deep

In regards to United’s shape, Gibbs’ own goal ultimately led to an immediate Van Gaal alteration. The Dutchman was aware that Arsenal were forced to push forward, which explains why he was keen to push his side deeper than usual.

United transitioned into a 5-4-1 with Van Persie moving to the flank with Di Maria, while Rooney persisted with his pressure on Arteta. Without Mesut Ozil, or any other through ball specialists, Arsenal’s buildup play was laboured and predictable. Likewise, as Arsenal pushed more men forward, Fellaini, Rooney and Di Maria received ample space to exploit on the counter.

Wenger’s decision to introduce Olivier Giroud pushed Arsenal to a 4-1-3-2 as they continuously pushed for a goal, but the tactical alteration lead to three breaks stemmed by Di Maria, ultimately leading to Rooney’s winner. Van Gaal’s decision to move players into wide areas was logical following the opener, as Arsenal offered no offensive threat in open play, whereas United possessed players capable of exploiting space on the break.

Conclusion

The easy thing to do here is blame Wenger for another disappointing result against a top rival – and although the scrutiny is merited, it’s difficult to solely place the blame on the Arsenal manager.

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Arsenal’s pressing was effective in the opening half, with only extremely poor finishing preventing the Gunners from building a commanding lead. Likewise, Arsenal prevented United from testing Wojciech Szczesny, as Rooney’s 84th minute goal was their lone recorded shot on target.

Van Gaal didn’t outwit Wenger, as his three-man defensive system still remains flat from an attacking perspective, but here, a defensive mistake from Ramsey and Gibbs sealed their fate. Nevertheless, Arsenal’s pressing decreased in the second half, thus preventing Wenger’s side from winning the ball higher up the pitch and creating legitimate chances to win the game.

 
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Posted by on November 24, 2014 in Match Recaps

 

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

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Courtesy of Flickr/Arturo Miguel

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

Yes, it’s World Cup year.

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

This is arguably the ultimate sporting event.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Mourinho’s cautious approach stifles Arsenal’s creative midfielders

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Jose Mourinho threatened to take a step backwards to instill consistency in Chelsea’s results, after their shocking Capital One Cup defeat against Sunderland.  Mourinho stated his reluctance to shackle his attacking players and implement a counterattacking game, but a trip to the Emirates called for it.

Mourinho’s flawless record against Arsene Wenger isn’t a coincidence – Wenger’s possession-based philosophy plays into the Portuguese manager’s meticulous approach, and there was no surprises in either starting XI, despite many continuing to question Juan Mata’s exclusion.

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A cagey opening half displayed dissimilar defensive approaches without the ball. Chelsea sat off the Arsenal midfield and limited space between the lines, whereas Wenger’s wingers quickly closed down Cesar Azpilicueta and Branislav Ivanovic – Azpilicueta mirrored this approach on Theo Walcott, but from an offensive perspective the Chelsea fullbacks impact on the match was minimal.

Eden Hazard and Willian – Chelsea’s most in-form attackers – played on the flanks, while Ramires operated behind Torres, but often took up positions in midfield to prevent the Gunners from overloading central areas. While many questioned Mourinho’s preferred front three, the Portuguese manager’s selection was logical.

The trio possesses a devastating threat on the counterattack, but have the tactical discipline to diligently track back to maintain Chelsea’s compact shape and protect their fullbacks. Ramires helped Torres press Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta when building out of the back, and Chelsea’s wide men continuously launched swift counterattacks – yet, their decision-making and final ball were poor.

Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna scampered forward when the opportunity presented itself, but their deliveries were short. Arsenal’s midfielders couldn’t locate space between the lines to penetrate, and Olivier Giroud was an isolated figure – albeit, receiving Arsenal’s best chance to win the match, but Petr Cech’s quick movement off his line led to an important save that kept the match goalless.

But for the umpteenth time this season, Mesut Ozil failed to impose himself against a top-side. Ozil isn’t the type of player that dictates matches – he weaves around the opposition’s final third and provides flashes of brilliance, but that feat was anonymous, as was the German playmaker – despite completing the most passes in the final third. The most fascinating component in Arsenal’s attacking approach was Ozil and Rosicky’s movement. Ozil constantly drifted into deeper positions, which created space between the lines for Rosicky to drift into and vice-versa. The duo combined admirably, and Arsenal’s best chances were created through their movement.

Chelsea made player swaps in wide areas by introducing Andre Schurrle and Oscar, and David Luiz replaced Fernando Torres to secure a vital away point – shockingly, Wenger didn’t turn to his bench. The away side created the best chance of the match – despite their reactive approach – when Frank Lampard’s volley smashed off the crossbar. The 35-year-old midfielder occasionally made forward runs towards the box, when Hazard or Willian moved into wide positions, and he assiduously worked hard in the second half to protect Azpilicueta, when Ozil attempted to overload the left flank.

Arsenal stuck to their philosophy on a wet, windy night at the Emirates Stadium, but Mourinho’s side was well-equipped to contain their threat. “They played their game but it was the game we wanted them to play. They tried to win the game but we played tactically well,” Mourinho said.

More so, another game between the Premier League’s top teams – disregarding Manchester City at home – was uninspiring, as the overall display from both sides was equivalent to the weather conditions – dismal.

 
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Posted by on December 23, 2013 in Match Recaps, 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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Bayer Leverkusen 0-5 Manchester United

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Manchester United arguably produced their best performance of the David Moyes era, as they thumped Bayern Leverkusen at the BayArena.

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Robin van Persie, Nemanja Vidic and Michael Carrick were still unavailable, so David Moyes was forced to make a few changes to his 4-4-1-1. Wayne Rooney led the line ahead of Shinji Kagawa, Nani and Antonio Valencia, while Ryan Giggs and Phil Jones formed a midfield duo.

There were no surprises in Sami Hyypia‘s 4-3-3 as Stefan Kiessling, Gonzalo Castro and Heung-Min Son led the attack, while Lars Bender, Stefan Reinartz and Simon Rolfes formed a midfield trio.

United were terrific – they were organized, disciplined, and frightening on the counter attack, and Leverkusen was punished for their naïve approach.

Leverkusen impress early

Leverkusen started the match in a positive manner, and this was down to United’s shape. United maintained a high line in the early moments, and although it left them vulnerable to balls over the top, the gap between the midfield and backline was large.

This is where Son thrived – The South Korean attacker drifted centrally to pick up pockets of space in the final third, and he attacked Moyes’ men at every opportunity. Son received two opportunities to hand the home side the lead, but both of his attempts didn’t test David De Gea. Kiessling also had a glorious opportunity to hand Leverkusen the lead when he skipped past Rio Ferdinand, but Jonny Evans made a vital interception to keep the match scoreless.

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United continued their impressive run of scoring in the opening 25 minutes of each Champions League match this season – they’ve done so in each group stage match this season – despite Leverkusen’s positive attacking contributions at the start of the match. Shockingly, prior to the goal Kagawa and Rooney were peripheral figures.

Nonetheless, United pounced on Reinartz’s mistake, which allowed Kagawa to break into midfield with pace, before playing a ball to the oncoming Giggs. The Welshman found Rooney on the left, and the Englishman delivered an exquisite ball at the far post for Valencia to tap in.

This was a devastating move that highlighted Moyes approach on the counter attack. United utilized their pace in wide areas, whereas Kagawa excelled in a no.10 role that relied on the Japanese playmaker’s wonderful ability to swiftly transition from defence to attack.

United’s shape

One of the main differences between the sides was the way they approached the match without the ball. United were terrific on both ends – their natural shape was compact, whereas their pressing was cohesive.

Rooney and Kagawa closed down Leverkusen’s centre backs and Giggs tracked Reinartz when he attempted to drop deeper and create 3v2 situations. Hyypia’s men attempted to play around United’s press by having Bender and Rolfes drop deeper, but Nani and Valencia took the authority to track the duo, and left Patrice Evra and Chris Smalling the responsibility of marking Leverkusen’s fullbacks – this left Moyes’ men 3v3 at the back, but the German outfit had difficulties breaking past United’s press.

However, United looked comfortable when Leverkusen pushed forward. The issue Leverkusen encountered was the shape of their attacking three – Castro and Son aren’t natural wide players – they rely on movement around the final third, and United’s narrow shape prevented the wide players from flourishing, as central areas were often congested.

Hyypia’s men were in desperate need of width – which is often provided from their full backs – and although Emre Can and Giulio Donati pushed into advanced positions, the quality in these wide areas were poor. Rolfes and Bender also attempted to push forward to help their full backs attain better positions, but Nani and Valencia admirably tracked their runs.

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It’s been awhile since we’ve seen an impressive defensive display from United, but they showcased their grit in Germany.

Leverkusen shape

While United displayed a sense of organization and discipline, there was a significant contrast in the German side’s approach. Leverkusen’s front three dropped off the United backline, and allowed Evans and Ferdinand to have the ball – yet whenever they did press the centre backs, Jones or Giggs would drop between them and receive the ball.

The German side also encountered issues between the lines – there was a heap of space between midfield/attack and midfield/defence. With no pressure being applied on central players, Giggs, Jones, and Kagawa found it relatively easy to receive the ball, and facilitate play. United didn’t necessarily trouble the German side with their possession, but the multiple gaps available in Leverkusen’s shape left Hyypia’s men vulnerable throughout the entire match.

Midfield battle

One of the most surprising feats in this match was the midfield battle. Heading into the fixture, the biggest concern was whether United would be able to cope without Carrick or Marouane Fellaini against a midfield trio.

Leverkusen’s numerical advantage in midfield favoured the German side to dictate central areas, yet Giggs and Jones produced their best performances of the season. The United duo were intelligent with their movement, and often slotted into deeper positions, knowing that Leverkusen’s midfield wouldn’t press them.

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This played into Giggs’ hands as he was allowed to showcase his impressive range of passing, whilst the duo also contributed on the defensive end, when needed.

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It was shocking to see neither an attacker nor midfielder press Giggs, as he was dominating the midfield, and in the 88th minute his glorious over the top ball to Nani, highlighted this fact. Giggs was allowed time and space to cleverly pick out the Portuguese attacker, who subsequently produced a cheeky finish past a helpless Bernd Leno.

Despite United’s lack of numbers in midfield, Leverkusen’s naïve approach towards containing the duo led to Giggs and Jones’ dominance in midfield.

Leverkusen press

There was a difference in Leverkusen’s approach in the second half – opposed to the opening 45 minutes, Hyypia instructed his men to press higher up the pitch. There were brief glimpses of their press towards the end of the first half, when Bender and Rolfes closed down Giggs and Jones.

However, the issue Leverkusen faced was their press was disjointed. There was no structure in midfield, and United smoothly drove into advanced positions. Equally, it left more space for United’s attackers to drop into, thus leading to Rooney and Kagawa having a larger influence in the second half.

United down the right

Also, with Leverkusen attempting to win possession in advanced positions, space in wide areas were outlets for United to exploit. With Son and Castro rarely tracking back, the onus was on Rolfes and Bender to protect their full backs.

Their was a vast improvement in Valencia’s performance throughout the second half, as Can – who was absolutely dreadful in and out of possession – was caught higher up the pitch on several occasions. Valencia attacked space behind the makeshift left back, and the Ecuadorian’s pace and strength tormented Can. Valencia was involved in four different situations that could’ve led to a goal – likewise, his dangerous cross in the 64th minute led to the corner kick that provided United with their third goal.

Kagawa

Of the many star United performers against Leverkusen, it was Kagawa that impressed – with that being said, Rooney and Giggs’ imperious displays shouldn’t be overlooked.

Kagawa thrived in the no.10 role, which he rarely gets to feature in due to Rooney’s inclusion in the squad. However, Moyes’ reactive approach also played a factor in his success. The Japanese playmaker succeeded at Dortmund playing behind the striker in a transition-based game, which focused on quick attacks on the break – coincidentally this was Moyes’ approach towards the match.

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But the United playmaker dropped deeper to retain possession, and Leverkusen was unable to contain his swift movement. Kagawa’s involvement in Chris Smalling’s fourth goal showcased his highly-rated creative niche. The Japanese international dinked a clever ball over the Leverkusen back line to Rooney, and the Englishman lobbed a pass to Smalling, who guided the ball into the open net.

Kagawa’s performance was impressive – United’s approach played to his strengths, and now it’s evident that United has another element of creativity at their disposal, especially against superior sides in Europe.

Conclusion

This was a convincing United performance – arguably the best display of Moyes’ tenure thus far. Nonetheless, Leverkusen was lethargic – their narrow attack favoured the away side, whereas their defensive approach allowed Kagawa, Giggs and Jones freedom to control the match.

United were by far the superior side, and individual performances from the midfield and Rooney merited three points, and a berth in the round of 16. Moyes can breathe for a few days, but upcoming fixtures against Spurs and Everton should provide a sterner test, and display whether genuine progress has been made.

 
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Posted by on November 28, 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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