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Spain 1-5 Holland

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Courtesy of Wikicommons/Football.ua

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

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

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

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

Holland with out the ball

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

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

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

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

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

Spain’s shape

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

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

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

Spain attacks 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holland attacks

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Brazil 3-1 Croatia

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Courtesy of Flickr/Jose Martinez

Neymar scored twice as Brazil came from behind to defeat Croatia in the opening match at the World Cup.

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Luiz Felipe Scolari fielded his expected starting XI with Fred leading the line ahead of Neymar, Oscar and Hulk. Luiz Gustavo and Paulinho started in the double-pivot.

Without the suspended Mario Mandzukic, Niko Kovac was forced to start Nikica Jelavic upfront ahead of Ivica Olic, Mateo Kovacic and Ivan Perisic. Talented midfielders Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic formed a midfield duo in Kovac’s 4-2-3-1.

Croatia enjoyed a positive opening 15 minutes before Oscar stamped his authority on the match. However, a poor decision by the referee tilted the momentum in Brazil’s favour, and the hosts dealt with Croatia’s late onslaught.

Croatia’s defensive approach

The key to Croatia’s shape in the opening minutes was partially based around their shape. Kovac’s decision to field three ball-playing midfielders led many to believe that Croatia would attempt to control the match. Croatia, however, maintained a medium defensive block, as they dropped into two banks of four without the ball.

Kovacic and Jelavic sat off the Brazilian centre backs and positioned themselves ahead of Luiz Gustavo and Paulinho to cut off passing lanes into midfield. The Brazilian duo was forced to play conservative passes into wide areas, and Kovac’s pragmatism ensured that Croatia negated one of Brazil’s main strengths.

Perisic and Olic – two wide forwards – tirelessly pressed Marcelo and Dani Alves and prevented the full-backs from pushing forward. Considering Marcelo and Dani Alves’ offensive impact in the Confederations Cup, Kovac’s decision to instruct his wingers to limit their threat was pivotal.

Croatia’s approach without the ball was logical, and equally effective in the opening period.

Croatia attacks

Croatia surprisingly took the lead in the opening 10 minutes courtesy of a Marcelo own goal, but the goal and a previous opportunity followed the same pattern.

Modric ignited the break from midfield before playing a pass to Perisic on the right flank, and the Croatian winger’s cross towards the back post saw Olic out jump Alves and steer his header inches wide of the post. Subsequently, Rakitic’s ball to Olic on the left flank led to Jelavic guiding the Croatian winger’s cross off Marcelo and into the net.

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There was always space behind Alves and Marcelo as they continuously aimed to maraud forward, thus leading to the duo conceding possession and being caught out of position. Equally, Croatia aimed to use their wide players’ physical presence to outmuscle Brazil’s diminutive full-backs. Along with Olic’s early chance, Perisic received a cross from Jelavic, and out jumped Marcelo, but he guided his header directly at Julio Cesar.

Croatia’s intelligent midfielders quickly transitioned into attack when they won possession, and exploited the physical and positional deficiencies of the Brazilian full-backs.

Oscar

Scolari’s men were poor in the opening 15 minutes, and their shape was often disjointed when they were in possession. Brazil required a link between midfield and attack, as Neymar was forced to drop too deep to receive the ball, while the midfielders couldn’t facilitate passes towards the wide players and Fred.

Oscar’s start to the match was quite shaky, but he did play two good crosses into the box that shouldn’t be overlooked. The Brazilian continued to take advantage of Vrsaljko – who isn’t a natural left-back – by pushing the ball towards the byline to earn a corner and delivering a cross into the six-yard box that evaded both Neymar and Fred.

Most of Oscar’s play continued down the right; his curling effort following Neymar’s magic was pushed aside by Pletikosa, and he played a great ball into Paulinho between the lines, but the midfielder’s shot was saved by Pletikosa. Oscar usually moves to the right to create space for his teammates, but here he served as the link that Brazil required. Oscar was equally impressive on the defensive end as he protected his full-backs out of possession, and completed key tackles in midfield to halt Croatia’s breaks on the counterattack.

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Likewise, the Chelsea man was involved in all three Brazilian goals. His persistence in a challenge against Rakitic and Modric enabled the Chelsea midfielder to break free and flick the ball to Neymar who opened the scoring. Oscar impressively ran past Vrsaljko and Marcelo Brozovic and played a great pass into Fred, which resulted in the referee harshly awarding a penalty to Brazil for Dejan Lovren’s non-foul on Fred. Lastly, Oscar received a loose ball and capped off his tremendous performance with a low shot past Pletikosa to double Brazil’s lead.

Oscar nearly created another goal from the right flank as his cross into the box to an unmarked David Luiz was steered wide of the net. Oscar was undoubtedly the best player on the field, and oddly it was from the right flank – a position he isn’t naturally accustomed to playing – as he was the catalyst in Brazil’s comeback with his deliveries from wide areas, clever passes, and tireless work rate.

The 22-year old displayed why many classify him as Brazil’s most important player.

Second half

Prior to Neymar’s controversial second goal, Brazil continued to struggle as a unit. Their passing tempo was vividly slow, and Croatia did a better job in attempting to nullify Oscar’s threat. Croatia dropped a bit deeper in the second half, but continued to exploit space behind Alves and Marcelo.

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On a few occasions Olic and Perisic broke into space behind the full-backs, but their poor final ball was often cleared, and Thiago Silva and David Luiz made several timely last-ditch clearances and tackles. Perisic, in particular, enjoyed a good game with his admirable defending, reliable passing, along with his pace and power to drive forward down the flanks. Rakitic and Modric saw more of the ball in the second half as players tired. Oscar and Gustavo harried the latter in deep areas, and without Neymar closing down Rakitic, the Sevilla midfielder began to string positive passes forward.

The match lacked many clear-cut chances apart from the goals and the managers’ attempt to alter the match via substitutions were futile. Scolari’s decision to introduce Hernanes was logical – he’s a good passer of the ball and could quickly increase the passing tempo – but the Inter Milan midfielder was ineffective. Bernard’s direct threat injected energy but he didn’t offer much going forward, while Ramires’ short cameo led to Oscar’s third goal.

Marcelo Brozovic’s presence did offer another threat upfront, as he remained higher up the pitch, and although Ante Rebic offered mobility, he failed to influence the match.

The match opened up in the final 15 minutes with Neymar receiving plenty of space between the lines to drive forward, but Brazil didn’t test Pletikosa. Scolari’s men preferred to drop into their shape to preserve the lead, but Croatia’s persistence led to Modric and Perisic’s efforts from distance – that Cesar poorly dealt with — and Cesar’s controversial collision with Olic.

 Conclusion

Croatia will feel robbed of a potential point following an effective display prior to Neymar’s second goal. However, Oscar’s well-rounded performance along with Pletikosa’s poor goalkeeping also contributed to Brazil’s success on the night.

Kovac’s men did a great job without the ball in negating Brazil’s full-backs and equally exploiting space behind the attack-minded defenders, but they didn’t create enough chances and their final ball was poor.

This wasn’t a great Brazilian performance, but to some degree this is what to expect from Scolari’s men. Brazil is a highly functional side that may not play the most attractive football in the tournament, but they possess a quality that majority of the teams in the tournament lack.

They know how to win games.

 
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Posted by on June 13, 2014 in Published Work, World Cup 2014

 

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

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Courtesy of Flickr/Arturo Miguel

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

Yes, it’s World Cup year.

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

This is arguably the ultimate sporting event.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Eden Hazard has developed into Chelsea’s most valuable player

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Courtesy of Flickr/sbo9

 

Of the many issues that transpire throughout modern-day football, the inflated transfer market may top the list. Whether they’ve overpaid for established talent, promising youth, or a player on his last limb, Chelsea Football Club has been heavily scrutinized over their transfer activity since Roman Abramovich’s arrival in 2003.

Through the Andre Villas-Boas and Roberto Di Matteo era, Abramovich realized the squad required an overhaul to rebuild the dynasty he initially created. Change was imminent, and Abramovich invested in promising young talent across the world. Juan Mata was signed during the Villas-Boas era, and was the key creative cog throughout Chelsea’s 2011/2012 dismal campaign, which surprisingly led to a Champions League triumph.

The following summer showcased the progression of Chelsea’s evolution in which they acquired the unknown, frail, Oscar, and a Belgian talent that was too good to pass up. Once hailed as the ‘new Messi’, Eden Hazard’s sleek movement, diminutive figure, and prolific skill were the main reasons why both Manchester clubs sought after the young starlet – but his heart was elsewhere.

It’s a bit surreal to know that an unproven 21-year-old soccer player kept an entire continent in suspense. But this was not a rarity to any human being that has followed sports over the past decade. It was only two years prior when LeBron James – the best basketball player of our generation – took to primetime to state “he’s taking his talents to South Beach.”

This situation was different – Eden Hazard was not a world-class player, nor was he being sold for a world-record transfer fee, yet the young Belgian’s future was placed on a pedestal. He didn’t jump in front of cameras, or have his announcement constantly advertised on national television. Instead, the Belgian took to social media and declared that he would be joining the “2012 Champions League winners” – West London would be his new home.

Football has always played a relevant role in the Hazard household. Eden, and his three brothers followed in his parents – Thierry and Carine’s – footsteps. Thierry played at the amateur level in Belgium, whereas his mother was a striker in Belgium’s women’s league. Shockingly, Hazard was playing football before he stepped foot on earth, as Carine extended her career with representative side Manage, during the first three months of Eden’s pregnancy.

Hazard expressed the desire to play the sport his parents enjoyed at a very young age, and it didn’t take long for coaches around Europe to identify his natural talent. Royal Stade Brainois football club general manager, Pascal Delmoitiez, was the first to see a knee-high, scrawny, bare footed Hazard. The Belgian’s talent was undeniable – he took advantage of the football pitch minutes away from his house, and Brainois president Alain Pauly was full of praise for the young wizard.

“You could tell straight away that Eden was special. He was a superhero for his team from the start and he has been a superhero ever since,” Pauly said.

“The teams Eden played for at our club would win 5-0, 6-0 or 7-0 and Eden would always score four or five of the goals. It was not fair really because he was too good.”

Hazard was always the main man, but a move to Chelsea presented a new challenge for the Belgian. No longer was he a “big fish in a small pond,” the Belgian was irrationally expected to make an immediate impact in the Premier League, and he was presented the eyes of millions to do so. But, despite the quick intricate passing, flashy skill, and the jaw dropping runs down the left flank, Hazard endured a streaky first season in England.

The Belgian lacked a cutting edge in the final third, while his defensive work was exposed against the likes of Manchester United and Shakhtar Donetsk, thus leading to Di Matteo’s sacking. At 22-years-old, Hazard consistently faded out of matches, and he dominated headlines worldwide for kicking a ball boy at Swansea; the Belgian’s road to stardom hit a rough patch.

Nonetheless, Hazard was still in the process of finding himself – while Rafa Benitez’s short-term tenure saw positive improvements towards the end of last season, it was Jose Mourinho’s return that brought the Belgian to the next level.

“He’s spoken to us all and told us all what he wants from us. He told me to be ambitious with my game, to try things and that I can do something special this year,” Hazard said during pre-season.

Mourinho is known for enhancing the performances of his players, ultimately turning them into world-beaters, and with so many young promising talent at his disposal, the chances of the Portuguese manager replicating this feat was high. Yet, Chelsea’s mediocre performances at the early half of the season had many questioning  Mourinho’s ability to succeed at the highest level, following his diabolical final season at Real Madrid.

In particular, Hazard’s performances began to elevate after being dropped in Chelsea’s 3-0 win against Schalke in the Champions League. The Belgian reportedly failed to return back to England for training – as he missed his scheduled train – after watching his former side Lille battle Monaco, which infuriated Mourinho. “That’s the end of story. He’s a kid. Kids make mistakes and fathers have to be clever in the way they educate their sons. He didn’t play. He wanted to play. He was sad because he didn’t play. We won without him. On Saturday, he is back. So, end of story,” Mourinho said.

Since being omitted from the first team, Hazard scored a sensational goal against Liverpool, a penalty at the final whistle against West Brom to preserve Mourinho’s home streak, and produced magnificent performances at Sunderland and Hull City. The Belgian is slowly developing the efficiency and consistency required to be a top-class European player, and on the defensive end he tirelessly protects his fullback, displaying the tactical discipline he lacked last season.

The abundance of attacking players at Stamford Bridge hasn’t bothered Hazard, as he’s slowly coming into is own. The confidence oozes out of his veins with every touch, fear is quickly shown when he glides across the final third, and the Belgian has slowly made a functional Chelsea side his platform to silence the cynics.

Statistically, Hazard’s game has elevated as he’s transformed into one of the best players in the league. He’s created the most chances in the league (52), and is currently Chelsea’s leading goalscorer, matching the tally he recorded last season (9). David Silva, Mesut Ozil, Luis Suarez and Robert Snodgrass only better Hazard’s 2.4 key passes per game, and the Belgian averages 3.5 successful dribbles.

“Eden can become one of the best players in the world. Now he sees his football and profession with different eyes,” Mourinho said. “Everyone knows he is a talented player, that he was that when he arrived here. But now he is trying to go to a different level, we are helping him and he is doing it step by step. Hopefully, the big talent can transform himself into the big player.”

Perhaps, Chelsea’s league position can be stemmed to Hazard, who’s been the Blues’ most consistent performer this season. With every attack Mourinho’s side aim to get the ball onto the Belgian’s feet – more so, he’s transformed into Chelsea’s go-to-guy.

Hazard moved to England to establish himself as a top player, and at the age of 23 he’s in contention to win the Premier League, Champions League, and play an integral role in Belgium’s World Cup campaign this summer. The sky is the limit for Hazard, and under Mourinho’s guidance he has the potential to become one of the best players in the world.

 
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Posted by on January 24, 2014 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Tactical Analysis: Bosco Lions vs. 2-1-2

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The 2-1-2 has been the Bosco Lions’ preferred formation since their existence. Other formations were experimented with in the early days, but this system enhanced the performances of their attacking players. Defensively, the Toronto-based side has never been strong, yet they always had an abundance of attacking impetus – and the players who were playing consistently for the first time had the potential to increase this threat.

Flashback to three years ago; Sunday’s – usually utilized for leisure time or rest – brought together a group of friends that decided to form a soccer team. Initial success wasn’t expected, but the determination to win was evident. On a weekly basis these young men took the field in their bright lime green jerseys and put their bodies on the line for one another.

Their road to glory wasn’t a formality – penalty shootouts, nail-biting late winners and a surmountable attempt at revenge against rivals DMP is what led them to lifting a championship on a gloomy Sunday afternoon. They did the impossible. A team built to have fun and potentially grow into ‘winners’ did the unthinkable on their first try.

It’s easy to win a title, but defending the crown is a difficult task. The hunger was gone. Complacency snuck upon them, and although their confidence levels increased, they were unable to replicate such success.

What happened?

This team did encounter a few changes that conflicted with their natural balance, but as a whole they improved over the past three years. The core of the team is the same, and the players who were beginners at the time have improved vastly. These players know how to win, so what’s the issue?

They’ve won more games than they’ve lost during this period, but they fail to prosper when it matters. The dependency on individual brilliance hit an all-time high, and although this method of attack was positive, Bosco has been overrun in midfield on several occasions over the past few years.

Is there a talent issue?

No.

Bosco could field their five best players for longer periods of the match, and the chances of them claiming another title would still be slim. Their method of attack has become predictable, whereas they’ve yet to instill a proper defensive system.

However, despite all the flaws they hold, this Bosco side isn’t a lost cause. In short, they lack a bit of structure and tactical discipline. More so, this is a simple guide that can be beneficial towards these young men maximizing their individual talent. A key component that leads to success in indoor soccer is cohesion, and below I will explain what Bosco needs to do to achieve a cohesive system.

Intro   

The 2-1-2 is a common formation used in indoor soccer that relies on two hard working strikers and an energetic, yet tactically disciplined midfielder – pretty much a box-to-box midfielder. Here, the midfielder has two jobs – they need to be able to link play with the attackers, but also provide astute defensive cover for the two defenders. Playing one midfielder is the risk, because there’s a great chance that your side is overrun in midfield, which is why this player needs to be tactically disciplined.

Base shape   

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Bosco Lions 2-1-2

Bosco doesn’t possess two naturally gifted strikers so they often field two grinders upfront. Their main strength is in midfield, and while they do possess competent defenders, these men are attacking minded.

A key feat towards the success of this system is the positioning of the midfielder. In the past, he’s often positioned himself with his back to goal, or roamed higher up the pitch searching for space to receive the ball. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the sole purpose of this system is to sustain possession, and hand the midfielder full control of the match.

In retrospect, the system I’m about to present is similar to the way Pep Guardiola’s sides play. In the early days at Barcelona, Dani Alves would play as a right winger – which led to a great understanding with Lionel Messi and tons of goals from the right side – with Eric Abidal sitting back to provide balance. In Guardiola’s final year, Barcelona played a 3-4-3, which ultimately became a 3-3-4 as Alves bombed forward, and Sergio Busquets dropped in between the defenders.

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David Alaba and Phillip Lahm are in the widest/highest positions on the pitch as fullbacks.

Now, Guardiola implements a 4-1-4-1 at Bayern Munich – although his approach is risky, the field at the Vaughan Sportsplex is neither wide nor long. The Spaniard encourages his fullbacks to surge into advanced positions, while his midfield players drop deep to dictate the tempo of the match.

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Alaba and Lahm are higher up the pitch out wide, and Thiago dropped deep. In this screenshot he’s about to play a pass to Lahm, so he can drive forward.

However, while the generic shape is a 2-1-2, the aim of this system is to end up in a 1-2-2. Ball retention is pivotal, and even though this system could be somewhat conservative, if executed properly, it’ll lead to success.

Without the ball

The most important feat regarding success in 5v5 matches is your shape when your opponent has possession. Your side can field a lineup with a strong attack, but if they’re disjointed as a unit without the ball, there’s a good chance that you won’t succeed over the long-term.

More so, shape is a factor that most teams tend to overlook – but little do they know that your defensive shape wins you the big games, especially against superior opposition. Defending at the Sportsplex should be fairly simple – based on the size of the field, assigning each player a man would be the easy route to take.

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How Bosco should be set up on goal kicks and when the goalie has the ball

The first area that needs to be addressed is defending your opponent’s goal kick or when they opt to play passes to their goalie. This is the only time Bosco should press high. The forwards should close their defenders – midfielder on midfielder and the defenders should keep tight on their attackers. The main goal is to force the opponents goalkeeper to concede possession, and if this press is executed properly then there’s a 99% chance he will.

Apart from those scenarios, Bosco should NEVER press high or press the goalkeeper, unless you’re confident you’ll steal the ball or force him to concede possession. Defensive solidity, organization and cohesion are pivotal in a 5v5 match, and majority of the time it makes a difference.

To avoid being overrun in midfield, or dragged out of position, it’s important that the strikers drop a few yards away from the opposition’s defenders. The aim is to stay compact, and force your opponent to work hard to break your backline down. Regardless of the situation, the attackers should always be behind the ball, which requires improved work-rate on both ends. Below I break down two scenarios that are likely to occur.

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Our shape if the defender beats Randy

Here, the right defender evades Randy’s press. The wide men is the least threatening player so Jose should drop back to cover him, while Randy picks up the left defender. Steve/Nooch should press the opposition’s midfielder, while Bosco’s midfielder should close down the opposition’s right defender.

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If Claudio/Jose gets beat by a defender

Another situation would be Jose/Claudio getting beat by the left defender. Here we still want Jose/Claudio to hustle back and cover the player out wide and Steve/Nooch to close down the midfielder. Bosco tends to concede fouls when their forwards relentlessly track back in attempts to win the ball from the defender that beat them – this gives them the responsibility to keep wide player on their flank, and ensures that the three defenders protect central areas.

In Bosco’s most recent fixture, this defensive model was displayed in the second half after going down 4-1. Subsequently, the opposition failed to threaten Bosco’s goal for the rest of the match. Coincidence?

Midfielder

The 2-1-2 Bosco intend on playing leaves the midfielder with a huge task on both ends – as stated earlier, this player is practically a box-to-box midfielder. Although that isn’t necessarily a bad option when playing inferior opposition, the idea of playing a box-to-box midfielder in a single pivot can be suicidal.

This formation abandons that philosophy – the midfielder in this approach needs to be tactically disciplined, as he’ll be somewhat of a deep-lyer. The main responsibility this player withholds is dictating the tempo of the match. This player is effective when the ball is at his feet. He drops deep to receive the ball and build play, but he’s also required to constantly string passes together, in search of openings.

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Here you see Thiago dropping deep. This allows Alaba and Lahm to push forward, but the centre back the freedom to play long diagonal balls. Also if Lahm or Alaba lost the ball in their zone, Thiago provides defensive cover when either centre back is forced to sweep up.

On the defensive end, he drops deep to become the third defender. Many can see this as an impractical approach, but this is important because it ensures that Bosco always has a numerical advantage at the back.

In the past Bosco has relied on their midfielder to be their attacking thrust, and in certain situations he should be, but this role allows him to be beneficial to Bosco’s overall play. By no means is the midfielder shackled to tactical instructions – indoor soccer provides a lot of openings and chances to break on net, and the midfielder should only push forward when the opportunity is certain.

Finally, teams will be keen to press the midfielder out of the equation, but as the match progresses and players tire, he’ll slowly be handed the space to influence the match. The key is patience – most games are 50 minutes, and in reality the midfielder might take 10-15 minutes before he begins to dictate the tempo. He’ll receive the ball higher up the pitch, but his significance increases once he picks up the balls in pockets of space or at the edge of his own box.

In short, the midfielder’s role in this system is more defined – if he fulfills his duties, the chances of his side’s success increases. He needs to be disciplined, calm, a leader, and defensively astute – yet his ability to play incisive passes and eye for goal must be proficient.

Attacking philosophy

This system instills a sense of defensive solidity, so some may fear that Bosco’s approach going forward will be conservative. In fairness, this may be the case, but if you’re not attacking on the break, the intent should be to move up the field as a cohesive unit.

Virtually, Bosco should be a 1-2-2 when they’re possession. In order to do this, they must focus on ball retention. An issue Bosco encounters on the attack apart from a lack of movement would be their persistence to force passes. They continuously force long balls over the top, or attempt to squeeze penetrating passes into tight areas.

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Here, we see the Bosco midfielder as the last man – his job is to circulate the ball around the field, but also move laterally to provide a passing outlet for wide players that have no forward option. Bosco defenders seem to be hesitant with playing the ball backwards, but they should ALWAYS drop the pass back to the midfielder or the goalie if a passing lane isn’t available – the same goes for corner kicks, as the chances of completing a successful cross into the box is slim.

The longer Bosco holds possession, the less defending they have to do, which conserves energy levels. Likewise, not every pass needs to go forward. There’s nothing wrong with restarting the play and going back to your goalie or back to the player who initially played the pass. You can’t concede a goal if you have the ball, which is why possession is vital. Passing lanes will eventually open, legs will tire, and chances will be created, but Bosco needs to monopolize possession in a professional manner.

When the midfielder drops deep to receive the ball in any situation, the two defenders should be pushed into advanced positions. Majority of the time, this will create 3v2 situations and their will always be an outlet for the midfielder to play into. But the advanced positioning of the defenders is key, because it pegs the opposition into there half, as they now become an offensive threat.

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How Bosco should be shaped when they enter the oppositions half.

Essentially, the Bosco defenders are auxiliary inverted wingers on the attack. They have two options when pushing forward – they can either cut in and shoot, or drive forward and stretch the field. Each Bosco defender has the tendency to cut in and shoot, and while this is encouraged, the opposite winger’s job is to stay wide and stretch the field. Also, the defenders have to be disciplined with their movement, as they’ll be required to transition from attack to defence quickly to support the midfielder, if they’re caught on the break. However, if Bosco can sustain possession in a 1-2-2, their defenders will maintain high energy levels, and sprinting back into position won’t be difficult.

Bosco currently have three strikers at their disposal, and you can argue that they haven’t been utilized properly. Claudio is a pacy, dynamic attacker, Jose is a hardworking space invader, whilst Randy is a genuine poacher.

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Identical diagram to the one above, but now we’re highlighting the attackers.

Here, Jose and Randy are the two strikers up top, and Claudio would preferably slot into Jose’s spot, because they somewhat pose a similar threat. The diagram above encourages Jose to drop deep into space, and then subsequently move out to the flanks and push forward. Jose’s movement is key because it drags a defender out of position and allows either a defender or the midfielder to attack the space.

Jose/Claudio’s movement should be varied – dropping deep into the midfield and drifting over to the wing is encouraged, but most of their energy should be dedicated to their defensive duties. You should NEVER tire yourself out when Bosco has possession of the ball.

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The midfielder won the ball and sprints forward to put himself in a 2v2 situation. Jose is encouraged to make a diagonal run to drag the defender with him – this allows the midfielder to isolate the defender in a 1v1 scenario.

Also, Jose/Claudio play a pivotal role on the break if a midfielder or defender surge forward. There job is to make an opposite run from the ball carrier to drag a defender out of position, and give the carrier half a yard to make a pass or shoot.

Randy’s position is unique – no player on the team possesses the ability to get into goal scoring positions like him. This system will free up space for the midfielder to locate Randy and the defenders to take shots, which can potentially lead to rebounds for him to pick up. Randy needs to get to/near the box frequently, but he also needs to be aware of the space that Jose is creating for him to run into. If Tim/Araujo cut in, Randy will make a straight run into the box, but if the right defender provides width then Randy should make a diagonal run towards the box.

Conclusion

“Whether detailed or vague, good or bad, effective or ineffective, all football teams try to play a certain way to win.”

Richard Whittall, soccer features writer at theScore.com, stated that in his weekly ‘The Skeptical Tactician’ column, and frankly, it’s true. Bosco currently play a high-octane game that allows them to score, but there’s also heavy reliance on individual brilliance.

This system presented allows the forwards to be scrappy, the midfielder freedom to dictate the match, and gives the defenders a chance to express themselves in an attacking sense. Now, it will take time for Bosco to adapt to this system, but it’s a system that should lead to success over the long-term.

Furthermore, the system ensures defensive solidity and organization at the back, yet it requires patience, cohesion and possession to reap rewards.

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2013 in College Soccer

 

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Arsenal 1-1 Everton

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Everton came from behind to deny Arsenal the opportunity to extend their lead at the top of the Barclays Premier League to seven points.

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Arsene Wenger made four changes to the side that defeated Hull City midweek by recalling Aaron Ramsey, Olivier Giroud, Kieran Gibbs and Mikel Arteta to the starting lineup.

Roberto Martinez fielded the same starting eleven that defeated Manchester United at Old Trafford in midweek action.

Everton produced another impressive away performance, but was unable to snatch maximum points at the Emirates Stadium.

Everton dominate

One of the few shocking feats in this match was Everton’s dominance in possession. Everton pressed Arsenal high, preventing the Gunners from building play out of the back, which disrupted the home sides approach.

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But Arsenal did the opposite – they dropped back into two banks of four and their press was at a minimal. This allowed Martinez’s men more freedom to play passes in Arsenal’s third, but also comfortably build play out of their half. Arsenal were pegged into their own half due to Everton’s pressure, and their fullbacks constantly looked to bomb forward, as Arsenal’s wide men lacked the pace to trouble them on the counter.

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The only issue Everton faced was producing a final ball – for all of Ross Barkley’s threat in the final third, his decision making and capability of playing a defence splitting pass isn’t strong. Lukaku was starved for service as he aimed to make runs behind the Arsenal backline, but Martinez’s men didn’t attempt to squeeze a pass through.

4-1-4-1

There was a brief spell in the match when Wenger instructed Ramsey to push forward alongside Ozil to prevent his side from dropping deeper. In theory this was logical, but it was a huge risk as it left Arteta vulnerable against Everton counter-attacks.

The one issue with an Arteta-Ramsey double pivot has been Ramsey’s persistence to push forward into the final third. Although, the Gunners could get away with this against inferior opposition – or when Flamini is playing – Arteta has been exposed this season against the likes of Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Liverpool on the break.

Everton’s lack of quality in the final third was beneficial to Wenger’s men, and the Frenchman quickly reverted to a 4-2-3-1, with Ramsey sitting deeper. Ramsey’s offensive contribution has been a positive this season, but it does leave Arteta with more defensive work to complete, ultimately making him a liability on the break.

Barkley

Once again, Barkley produced another phenomenal performance at the Emirates – more importantly, it was in front of Roy Hodgson, as the Everton attacker is in contention for a spot in the England squad headed to the World Cup in June.

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Barkley was a constant nuisance for the Arsenal midfield, mainly Mikel Arteta, who was once again exposed against a pacy, technically gifted midfielder. Barkley dropped into pockets of space throughout the final third and in deep positions in midfield to help Everton push forward, and break past Arsenal’s bank of four.

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But, while Barkley’s positional intelligence was showcased, the Englishman posed a legitimate threat on the break. There were four distinct scenarios where Barkley carved open the Arsenal midfield, but was unable to convert his brilliance into goals.

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  • 4th min: Gareth Barry played a pass to Lukaku, and he squared the ball to Barkley who was behind Arteta. Barkley ran at the Arsenal defence and played a pass to Mirallas, but his ball flew across the six-yard box.

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  • 5th min: Barkley dispossessed Aaron Ramsey, then nicked the ball past Santi Cazorla, and drove at the Arsenal backline before playing a ball into Romelu Lukaku, who failed to get past Per Mertesacker.

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  • 21st min: Kieran Gibbs’ cross was cleared by Bryan Oviedo and Barkley turned and drifted past Arteta, subsequently playing a pass to Mirallas, who drove forward and struck his shot wide.

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  • 25th min: Sylvain Distin played a ball to Barkley who dropped deep, and turned past Arteta, playing a pass to Lukaku who laid it off for the Englishman. Barkley surged past Arteta, Giroud and Koscielny, but his final ball was poor.

Barkley was terrific, and he displayed his brilliance during the buildup to Everton’s equalizer when he turned Mathieu Flamini, and easily skipped past Arteta before playing the ball to Oviedo on the left flank.

Barkley’s pace, strength, positional awareness and trickery are remarkable, but is inability to play a final defence-splitting ball kept Arsenal in the match.

Arsenal vs. Howard

Arsenal struggled to grow into the match during the first half, and that was down to their lack of pressure, sloppiness in possession, and Everton’s work rate with and without the ball. While the Gunners did receive chances on the break to pose a threat, their wide men were pegged back to deep, and they lacked the pace required to catch Martinez’s men out of shape.

Arsenal’s best chances – besides Cazorla’s lovely ball across the six-yard box – came in the final four minutes of the half, when their nifty attacking players combined around the edge of the box.

  • 41st min: Arteta pushed forward and played a pass to Wilshere, who steered the ball into the path of Olivier Giroud, but Howard was quick off his line to make the save – however, Giroud was offside.
  • 42nd min: Ozil played a quick pass to Ramsey and he played in Giroud, but once again Howard was quick off his line to make a save.
  • 44th min: Ozil played a pass towards Giroud, which Ramsey dummied and subsequently made a run to receive the pass from Giroud, but Howard denied the Frenchman from six-yards out.

Arsenal was at their best when they combined in the final third, but Howard’s positioning and quick instinct prevented the Gunners from taking the lead.

Everton down the left

Everton is known for their constant play down the left flank, and although Leighton Baines was unavailable, Oviedo has provided adequate cover for the Toffees.

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Pienaar constantly drifted infield, finding pockets of space to receive the ball, which allowed Oviedo to push forward. Early on, neither Ozil nor Wilshere were tracking the Costa Rican fullback’s runs, and he delivered crosses into the box, but Mertesacker and Arteta comfortably dealt with that threat. In the 66th minute, both men combined well, leading to Pienaar’s cutback to Barkley, but Wojciech Szczesny saved his shot.

Although Pienaar didn’t participate for the entire match, Everton still posed a threat down the left flank. Barry made a clever overlapping run in the 83rd minute that allowed Oviedo to deliver a cross into the box, which resulted in Gerard Deulofeu’s equalizing goal.

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The left flank was Everton’s preferred area on the field to attack, and there was no surprise that the ball was circulated through the left during the buildup to their equalizer.

Substitutions

Martinez predicted pre-match that substitutions would play a pivotal role in the fixture, and he was right. Wenger made a triple-substitution introducing Theo Walcott, Tomas Rosicky and Flamini for Ozil, Cazorla and Ramsey. It was uncertain as to whether this was a fitness concern or if Wenger was searching for a direct approach.

Walcott provides pace on the break, Rosicky drives forward and is capable of playing long precise diagonal balls or short incisive passes, whereas Flamini was expected to provide more defensive cover in midfield – which he didn’t. It was fitting to see Wenger’s subs involved in Arsenal’s opener, as Rosicky’s long diagonal ball found Walcott in the box, which he nodded across goal, and Ozil smashed the ball into the roof of the net.

Martinez introduced Leon Osman for Pienaar, which pushed Barkley to the left – apart from the buildup to the equalizer, it limited Barkley’s impact during the final 10 minutes of the match. The Everton manager also made a player swap introducing Deulofeu for Mirallas, who displayed a moment of brilliance, firing an unstoppable shot past Szczesny.

The substitutions by both managers didn’t alter the match tactically, but it gave both sides a different element of attack, thus providing two goals in the final 11 minutes.

Conclusion

It was an impressive away performance from Everton – they dictated possession for large portions of the match, got into better positions, and nullified Arsenal’s main strengths.

“The only bit of criticism is you need to take your chances, in the final third we were not ruthless enough,” Martinez told Sky Sports.

For what it’s worth, Arsenal once again displayed the progress they’ve made as unit, defensively. Mertesacker and Koscielny continue to impress, and displayed why they’re currently the best centreback duo in the league.

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Arsenal lacked pace on the counter attack, and due to Everton’s shape and pressure, the home side was unable to get into their preferred passing rhythm around the final third. More so, the Gunners possess a difficult December schedule, and it’ll be interesting to see how Wenger utilizes the personnel at his disposal, as it certainly affected his approach and substitutions against Everton.

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2013 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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2 Guys and a MIKE – World Cup Draw Vodcast December 8th

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Courtesy of: Christophe Badoux

On the debut of the 2 Guys and a Mike vodcast, Tyrrell Meertins and Mike the Mod breakdown the World Cup Draw that took place Friday afternoon.

 
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Posted by on December 8, 2013 in Podcasts

 

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