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Ibrahimovic injury hands keys to young attackers to steer Manchester United clear

The sudden knee injury Zlatan Ibrahimovic suffered in Manchester United’s Europa League triumph over Anderlecht ruled the striker unavailable for the remainder of the season, yet the Swede’s absence is being perceived in various ways.

Although Ibrahimovic has been the star performer for United in his inaugural Premier League campaign, the Swede’s greatness hasn’t been accepted by some United fans. The conflict between individual brilliance outweighing a stagnant attacking scheme is one of the perplexing issues associated with Ibrahimovic’s impressive goal-scoring resume, but also created an intriguing predicament at Old Trafford.

In many ways, United are at a cross-road: a mixture of promising young talent, and over-the-hill Premier League veterans that would be deemed nothing more than squad players at other contenders have arguably underachieved this season. Where many tipped Jose Mourinho’s men to challenge for the Premier League title ahead of the current season, United’s trip to the Etihad has huge implications regarding the remaining Champions League spots opposed to the title race.

A combination of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reluctance to lay foundations for a potential dynasty – which therefore created a short-minded mentality to solely win in the moment – ignited United’s current downfall. While, an amalgamation of David Moyes inability to direct the club in the right direction along with Louis van Gaal’s attempt to fill his XI with promising youngsters ultimately presented a difficult task for Mourinho.

The Portuguese manager, often renowned for a man who constructs his teams to build on the mantra Ferguson had instilled in his final years – hence why Mourinho was probably the best-suited option as Ferguson’s initial successor – is also harshly labeled as a manager afraid to utilize the youth at his disposal. Therefore, the reality of building a squad to Mourinho’s preference has been an arduous process that has put both the club and manager under scrutiny.

Luckily for Mourinho, of the four main signings made this summer, Ibrahimovic – whom he spent time with at Inter Milan – exceeded expectation and proved to be one of the elite Premier League performers this season. Truthfully speaking, it may be more extraordinary that Ibrahimovic’s talent was questioned prior to his Old Trafford arrival, given the Swede’s goal-scoring record throughout his career. At 35, Ibrahimovic’s remarkable form transcended to England, whilst playing a major role in United’s quest to regain Champions League football.

Stylistically, United comfortably dominate possession, but lack the guile and invention in the final third to break down inferior opposition that prefer to sit deep and limit space between the lines. Possession is often slowly circulated from side to side, with very few penetrative passes, or runners aiming to break beyond the opposing defence.

Dependence on Ibrahimovic isn’t necessarily a negative factor considering the youthful Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford are too inexperienced to solely lodge a proper title challenge. Meanwhile, Ibrahimovic’s form provided Mourinho a logical reason to exclude a declining Wayne Rooney from the United XI.

Frankly, the Swede’s presence was required in a United side lacking a genuine world class star capable of providing match-winning moments. Old Trafford was an environment where Ibrahimovic could maximize his talents and establish himself as the focal point of a bland attacking scheme developed under Mourinho’s predecessors.

It’s no coincidence that Ibrahimovic’s less remembered spell at Barcelona and Juventus witnessed several stars surrounding the 35-year-old in cohesive systems. The peculiar feat involving Ibrahimovic is that the Swede thrives in disjointed systems built around his strengths, and despite all the talent the 35-year-old possesses, it appears he’s at his best when his club sacrifices their structure at his expense.

This is also one of many factors as to why dependence on the Swede was expedient. Despite a slow start to life in England, Ibrahimovic’s 17 league goals is amongst the division’s best, and pivotal to a United side still aiming to find an identity. In that sense, Ibrahimovic’s instant impact has proved beneficial at Old Trafford, and provided Mourinho time to implement his philosophy.

Wayne Rooney’s progressive decline and injury issues prevent the United captain from serving as a competent spearhead to the attack. Anthony Martial’s reported discontent with playing from the left flank opposed to a main central role is evident, but the Frenchman’s dribbling and ability to charge behind the opposition defence remains crucial to a United side guilty of lacking penetration in the final third.

Marcus Rashford’s rapid rise to prominence last season has also left many perplexed at his limited amount of game-time, and his performances at Middlesbrough and against Chelsea in recent weeks highlighted the rare moments of speed and verticality displayed in United’s game.

However, United’s home draw against an organized West Brom outfit displayed the limitations Mourinho’s men have encountered without Ibrahimovic this season. A visit to Sunderland presented a similar challenge, but at the half hour mark Ibrahimovic received the ball with his back to goal, gained a yard on two markers and curled a super low effort past goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. It came at a period where United were devoid of creativity, yet Ibrahimovic’s moment of brilliance completely shifted the pattern of the match – a gift no player in United’s current squad possesses.

On paper, the trio of Martial, Ibrahimovic, and Rashford should’ve never presented an issue given Ibrahimovic’s tenure at PSG, where the Swede played with speedy wide attackers in the mould of the aforementioned youngsters. Ibrahimovic’s all-round game enables the Swede to operate in two distinct roles, and in truth, it was intriguing to witness the 35-year-old’s Ligue 1 tenure.

Domestically, Ibrahimovic operated as a traditional centre-forward, similar to his current role at United, poaching goals around the box. The Swede claimed the golden boot in three of his four seasons in the French capital, tallying a remarkable 38 goals last season.

However, Ibrahimovic’s play was entirely different in Europe to ensure PSG dominated the midfield zone, whilst decreasing the likelihood of the 35-year-old being isolated upfront. Dropping deeper into midfield to hold up possession and operate as a no.10 to encourage Angel Di Maria and Lucas Moura to charge behind the opposition’s defence from wide areas.

At United, Ibrahimovic is currently operating as the former, and though the latter would probably serve more beneficial for the Red Devils – given the pace Mourinho possesses in attack – the Swede’s form in the final third became priority. Historically, though, United have usually enjoyed success built around a well-rounded unit opposed to solely relying on a reliable target-man, and Ibrahimovic’s presence at the club serves as another fine example.

Apart from Robin van Persie’s remarkable 2012/2013 campaign in an albeit truly imbalanced side, over the past decade when Rooney or Ruud van Nistelrooy enjoyed breakout years, United finished no higher than runner-ups. Therefore, it remains a mystery as to why Mourinho never insisted on shuffling his attacking options throughout the season.

Rashford’s willingness to work the channels and run beyond the defence were crucial against Chelsea and Middlesbrough, while he also picks up the ball in midfield zones before dribbling towards the box. And where the United youngster isn’t renowned for his creativity, he tends to drift away from the penalty box to play quick intricate passes with teammates to create goal-scoring chances.

Martial, on the other hand, scored the game winning goal at Burnley last weekend as he ignited a swift break from United’s half and subsequently finished the move 10 seconds later. It was a trademark counter-attacking move from a Mourinho side that may not have occurred had Ibrahimovic spearheaded the attack.

Ibrahimovic’s goal-scoring form was decisive, which therefore resulted in heavy reliance on the Swede this season, but it’s been refreshing to witness variety in United’s attack. However, while Martial and Rashford can eventually develop into top-class strikers, the likelihood that both men could guide United to a proper title challenge is unrealistic.

In a league where many promising starlets eventually burn out due to excessive amount of games, Mourinho’s decision to properly manage their minutes is fairly logical. Meanwhile, young strikers develop reliable finishing skills in their mid twenties, and neither Rashford, nor Martial have displayed signs of bucking the trend which partially justifies Mourinho’s reluctance to persist with Ibrahimovic earlier this year.

Still, Mourinho can be held accountable for not utilizing the variety of attacking options to his advantage when required, but another standout performance in the Manchester Derby for Rashford or Martial – more so the former given his performance against Chelsea – would make it difficult for the United manager to ignore.

Ibrahimovic was the main man at Old Trafford, but there are other options capable of making United more flexible and less functional from an attacking perspective. Finding that balance is the next task Mourinho must overcome, but at the moment, trusting his young attacking core presents a colossal test that will define the remainder of United’s season and potentially the club’s transfer activity over the summer.

 
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Posted by on April 26, 2017 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Tactical Preview: Chelsea – Manchester United

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted by on October 22, 2016 in Published Work

 

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Tactical Preview: Manchester United – Manchester City

The 172nd Manchester derby is set to be most highly anticipated spectacle of the current Premier League season. Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho will compete in their first competitive match in nearly four years, and appear to be title contenders following their unbeaten start to the season.

Mourinho’s record against Guardiola is unconvincing, but a tilt at Old Trafford with a stable squad places United as slight favourites prior to kick-off. Nevertheless, this is still a battle between football’s chief pragmatist and the modern-day innovator in Guardiola. United is expected to congest central areas, hold a deep-line, and break when the opportunity is presented, whereas Guardiola’s City will dominate possession with hopes of breaking down Mourinho’s sturdy back-line.

The main talking point, however, involves Guardiola’s replacement for the suspended Sergio Aguero.

“Sergio is an important player for us but we knew seven or eight days ago he was not going to be able to play and we would need to use other players,” said Guardiola. “I am a new guy here and I have to learn how things work, but you can be sure I learn quick. I take note of what happened and store it for the future.”

Kelechi Iheanacho is the suitable fill-in, but the City manager has various options to choose from upfront. Nolito is a direct runner that would drift across the front-line, aiming to receive possession and run at defenders, while Silva can operate as a false-nine, encourage runners beyond United’s back-line, though ensuring City dominate central areas.

Raheem Sterling, on the other hand, serves as an interesting tactical prospect. Sterling’s tactical intelligence is unprecedented at a young age, and his past experience in a central role witnessed the England international drop deep to pick up the ball to run at defenders, stretch the opposing back-line with quick sprints into the channel, and his ability to find open space within the penalty box.

Ironically, Sterling’s main weakness is his finishing, but the 21-year-old’s rejuvenated form under Guardiola has reassured his threat in the final third. City’s won several penalties this season via Sterling’s dribbling and pace, while his poacher finishing around the box illustrates the rapid improvement in comparison to last season.

Claudio Bravo is expected to make his City debut, which will improve the away side’s distribution and overall buildup play out the back. However, United’s aerial threat via set-pieces and crosses from wide areas could fluster the diminutive Chilean.

Leroy Sane and Ilkay Gundogan are also fit for selection which would result in a rejig of the XI’s Guardiola has selected thus far. Still, if Guardiola opts to start without a recognized striker, United’s back-line will face a stern test against the speed from either Sane, Jesus Navas, Nolito or Sterling.

In truth, Mourinho’s main concern rests in protecting space between the lines against Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. Guardiola has fielded both men in deeper central roles, with license to charge into the box or towards the channels to create overloads in wide areas. With the full-backs adopting narrow positions in half space, and Fernandinho or Gundogan sitting deep, both De Bruyne and Silva will receive ample space to create in key areas.

Gundogan’s debut would improve City’s aim to dictate the tempo from deep, and if Guardiola opts to field Silva as a false-nine, Fernandinho would finally receive the opportunity to play in his preferred box-to-box role without fear of covering space for the languid Yaya Toure. More so, Gundogan’s inclusion would test Wayne Rooney’s tactical resolve as he’d be forced to press the German throughout, which has proved a difficult task for the United captain in recent years.

This is undoubtedly a troubling prospect for United’s midfield, as they’ve looked unconvincing in protecting these zones. Their narrow win at Hull witnessed Adama Diomande easily drift into pockets of space behind the United midfield to receive possession and charge towards goal. When Southampton traveled to Old Trafford, United’s midfield also endured spells where they couldn’t cope with the passing of Jordi Clasie, Steven Davis and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, and solely benefited from their lack of a goal-threat around the box.

Here, and specifically in big matches, Mourinho has been renowned for flipping his 4-2-3-1 into a 4-3-3 and sacrificing a central midfielder, which means Rooney would be omitted. Rooney’s tactical discipline has been exposed in the past, and though he’s capable of game-defining moments whilst simultaneously producing average performances, Mourinho can’t afford to be overrun in midfield.

This is suited for Morgan Schneiderlin’s physical presence and ball-winning skills or Ander Herrera’s slick passing and tenacity in midfield to offer protection ahead of what should be an unchanged back-line. Perhaps a slightly advanced role would enable Pogba to finally flourish in a United shirt, and his combinations with Ibrahimovic in prior matches have been promising.

With that being said, Mourinho may also be tempted to start Marcus Rashford and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, assuming the latter is fit to participate from the start.

“He [Mkhitaryan] is available,” said Mourinho. “I’m not saying he’s ready to play 90 minutes but he’s ready to try to help us.”

The duo offers tactical discipline, while possessing excellent pace and dribbling skills to pose a threat via swift counter-attacks in transition. Martial’s slow start to the season puts his selection in jeopardy, but he still offers a similar goal threat against City’s unconvincing full-backs, who are expected to adopt fairly high positions.

Similar to the Ferguson era, United will pack the midfield and keep their defensive lines compact out of possession, before quickly scurrying forward with numbers on the counter. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s dislike for Guardiola is definitely motivation, but his ability to operate as a creator to get runners such as Pogba, Mkhitaryan, Rashford or Martial forward could be decisive. Likewise, Ibrahimovic’s aerial threat flustered every opponent United’s encountered thus far, and he’ll relish individual duels against Nicolas Otamendi or John Stones.

As expected, neither side has been overly convincing to start the season, and while the pattern of the match is predictable, this could be an extremely cautious showdown. City will dominate possession and aim to bypass United’s high-pressing in the early stages of the match, but Guardiola’s extensive ball retention has been a form of defence in high-profile away matches during his career.

It wouldn’t be far-fetched to see both managers play for a draw, yet here, the personnel decisions upfront should determine how the two sides approach the match.

 
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Posted by on September 9, 2016 in Published Work

 

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Guardiola and Mourinho’s renewed rivalry comes too soon to make stark assessment

So here we are again.

Another chapter between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho is set to unfold, yet it’s surreal that even a four-year break couldn’t rid the highly anticipated tension between the two managers.

This is the first time the two managers will be in opposing dugouts in a competitive match since Real Madrid clinched La Liga in 2012, yet it feels as if nothing has changed. That final match at the Camp Nou represents the sole time Guardiola hasn’t claimed a domestic title, but more importantly it signified a key moment in their managerial careers.

Initially it appeared Guardiola had lost the war – Mourinho was league champion, whereas the constant battle with the then-Madrid manager pushed the Spaniard into a year sabbatical to get away from his true passion. Yet, Mourinho failed to capitalize on Guardiola’s departure, and was subsequently dethroned by 15 points to Tito Vilanova’s Barcelona, thus resulting in Mourinho being fired for the first time in his career.

Since then, neither manager has been able to return to a Champions League final, and have equally been considered underachievers for their work at Bayern Munich and Chelsea. At Bayern, Pep was unable to guide the German champions to another European crown, whereas despite guiding Chelsea to the summit in England, Mourinho’s main goal was to build a dynasty – the Blues endured the worst title defence in Premier League history, finishing tenth, and the Portuguese manager was sacked in December.

More so, Manchester was supposed to serve as a therapeutic reinvigorating challenge for Guardiola. An opportunity to prove the cynics wrong – to build a team requiring evolution in nearly every position and transform them into an elite European side that produces breathtaking football. It was a challenge that threatened the other Premier League giants, specifically Manchester United who were spiralling downwards under Louis van Gaal.

Similar to Real Madrid at the turn of the decade, United required a solution to not only challenge Guardiola, but in the process regain their annual title challenger status. Ultimately, they turned to Mourinho: a man who craved the job since Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement, and who already crippled Guardiola’s mindset in their previous battles in Spain.

Their El Clasico battles sparked attention worldwide – it helped that the two best players of our generation combatted against each other in their prime – but to Guardiola’s dislike, these encounters are vividly remembered for the off-the-field/media hype opposed to the football itself – in truth, the quality of the games were generally poor.

There’s a growing feat that similar football displays may occur in Manchester, and for both managers, that’s not an ideal prospect. The Manchester Derby may not generate media attention equivalent to El Clasico, but the rivalry and hatred amongst both clubs and supporters is parallel.

Still, the upcoming chapter in the Guardiola and Mourinho tale supersedes anything ever witnessed in the history of the derby. It’s bigger than Wayne Rooney’s acrobatic winner at Old Trafford, Michael Owen’s stoppage time winner in the 2009 seven goal-thriller and the Vincent Kompany goal that guided City to their first Premier League title in the modern era.

This is football idealism vs. the ultimate pragmatist, proactive battling reactive, attractive possession oriented football aiming to solve a well-drilled organized defence. The contrasting styles of football, and off-the field managerial antics and preferences doesn’t alter the fact that both men crave success.

And while it’s normal for attention to be placed on two of the sought out managers in the sport, their first showdown in over four years lacks significance from a footballing perspective. Guardiola remains keen on having his players drilled into his football philosophy and lifestyle, whereas Mourinho’s pragmatism doesn’t conflict with his care for his players and vice-versa, and though both have evident flaws, they’re aim to win is perceived via dissimilar methods.

Past wars in Spain didn’t benefit either manager, and frankly another attempt by Mourinho to replicate an archaic method of draining his counterpart through the media would likely backfire. With Jurgen Klopp, Antonio Conte, Arsene Wenger and Mauricio Pochettino around, Mourinho doesn’t have the time to reignite an individual war with Guardiola. It won’t work.

The decision to bring Zlatan Ibrahimovic to the Premier League, however, insists that psychological battle with Guardiola may continue. Guardiola’s relationship with Ibrahimovic deteriorated quickly when they were both at Barcelona in 2010-2011, and the possibility of the Swede finally gaining revenge on his former manager hints that Mourinho’s hostile approach may continue at Old Trafford.

It’s success or failure for Mourinho, and though he’s finally at a club that provides patience, stability and long-term support, the Portuguese manager would be unable to cope finishing behind Guardiola. Similarly, Guardiola’s massive overhaul at the Etihad suggests Mourinho is in the ideal position to inflict the first blow, raise the pressure on the Spaniard, and win now.

Likewise, United’s joint best defensive record benefitted Mourinho prior to his arrival, but he’s yet to identify the proper balance in attacking positions. Mourinho has yet to alter his starting XI, and reliance on the individual brilliance of Ibrahimovic, and a late winner from Marcus Rashford indicates United are far from the finished product.

They’re not the powerful, never say die Chelsea that perplexed English sides with the introduction of the 4-3-3. The brilliance of Wesley Sneijder behind lethal strikers, whilst ahead of physically imposing midfielders and centre-backs doesn’t compare. And the relentlessly slick counter-attacking machine that steamrolled teams at the Santiago Bernabeu – and effectively halted Guardiola’s tenure at Barcelona – would be difficult to replicate without a Cristiano Ronaldo-esque threat upfront.

Mourinho’s United are capable of developing into a direct, transitional nightmare for opponents in the future – look no further than Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Marcus Rashford’s cameo at Hull two weeks ago for evidence – but reliance and faith in Rooney and Ibrahimovic, the former in particular, stagnates an immediate stylistic alteration.

City, on the other hand, also have to hand debuts to several summer signings, whilst continually building towards perfecting Guardiola’s ideology. The false full-backs, instant counter-pressing, and insistence to quickly cycle through possession requires time, but clearly suggests City’s peak form awaits, despite impressive spells of dominance in previous league matches.

The ball-playing wizards consisting of Xavi, Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, or the sheer greatness of Lionel Messi aren’t at Guardiola’s disposal at the Etihad. Arjen Robben’s threat, combined with the tactical and positional universality of Philip Lahm, David Alaba and Thomas Muller can’t be relied on either.

Even though, Guardiola has successfully revolutionized the manner in which Barcelona and Bayern Munich effectively ply their trade, the Spaniard’s workload at City is undoubtedly his biggest challenge. A broken model built around individualism and possessing the most talented squad is the antithesis of a Guardiola side, and the pressure to build a cohesively flexible unit and claim silverware poses an arduous challenge.

Nevertheless, the most fitting aspect involving the two sides is that they’re generally at the same level of development. Though United are generally built to win the league this year, Guardiola’s talent base can suffice while they adapt to his well-detailed tactical scheme.

The football plot lines are also interesting. How will Guardiola replace the suspended Sergio Aguero? Will Mourinho finally drop Wayne Rooney for an additional midfielder to ensure United aren’t overrun in midfield? Is this the ideal match for debutants such as Ilkay Gundogan, Leroy Sane or Claudio Bravo to start?

Saturday’s derby should provide a brief example of what could be the most thrilling title race in the league’s history, but the most anticipated match of the season must display improved growth opposed to resuming fireworks. The tactical ideologues for both managers have been questioned following recent failures, and though the possibility of a cagey and cautious encounter is expected, the platform presented to make a statement is available.

Titles aren’t won, nor are philosophies fully integrated in September, but avoiding defeat will be imperative, here. Both managers have experienced memorable nights in Manchester, but now they aim to conquer a city that is big enough for one true winner. Failure is no longer an option and the pressure is on both managers to make an immediate impact, but where media rants and touch-line quarrels dominated headlines, this new chapter has to be about the football.

An identity crisis looms throughout Manchester, and though Saturday’s derby will provide more answers, the dawn of a new era emerging throughout the Premier League will slowly transition into a global spectacle. All eyes will be on Old Trafford, the ‘Theatre of Dreams’, where ironically, one can be prematurely crushed.

Something has to give.

 
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Posted by on September 9, 2016 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Paul Pogba’s arrival may force Jose Mourinho to adopt a three-man midfield at Manchester United

All eyes are set on Paul Pogba.

What appears to be the final incoming transfer at Old Trafford has smashed the world transfer record. At the age of 23, Pogba, is now the most expensive player in world football, joining Manchester United for a record fee £89m. It’s gut-check time – all the hype, all the dabbing, all the aspirations of becoming a Ballon d’Or winner will be displayed on a weekly basis in the most watched league in the world.

The global spotlight now rests on the young Frenchman, which is largely why he decided to return to Manchester. Leaving Juventus – a club on the cusp of becoming genuine European contenders and already perennial Italian champions – for Manchester United is currently a significant downgrade, which equally illustrates United’s intent to regain an elite status across the continent.

“I spoke with a lot of players when he was at Madrid; I spoke with [Alvaro] Morata and I spoke with others and they all told me he’s the coach for me because he’s going to make you work harder. I feel this,” Pogba told MUTV.

“I spoke with him a few times and he gave me energy and positivity. I was thinking ‘why not?’. I’m sure he can help me improve and make me a better player and a better person.”

Without Champions League football, Jose Mourinho’s United were still capable of luring Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Eric Bailly and Pogba to Old Trafford, thus making an alarming statement to their domestic and former European rivals. A domestic winner and proven striker upfront will ease Mourinho into his job, whereas Mkhitaryan is a creative upgrade in the final third and Bailly is an exciting athletic prospect at the back.

Pogba, however, is the marquee signing, and the aim is for the Frenchman to command the midfield zone for the next decade. This is why United invested so much money in a nearly finished product, but similar to the aforementioned summer signings – excluding Bailly – it’s uncertain how Mourinho will utilize the players at his disposal.

On paper, United appear to be a genuine title contender, but apart from bolstering the midfield and attack with top-class talent, you can argue that the incoming players weren’t desperately required and only Ibrahimovic’s role has been defined. While Pogba is the marquee player, most teams including Ibrahimovic are built around the Swede upfront, which could be problematic from a short-term perspective.

This could explain why Ibrahimovic has yet to win a Champions League during his career – eventually the entire attack is solely based around long balls into the striker as most coaches wisely attempt to maximize his full potential. At least for this season at Old Trafford that may be true, as the Swedish striker has yet to show significant signs of declination, whereas his dual role would compliment Pogba’s late runs into the box, thus improving United’s attack.

Therefore, Mourinho is likely to field Wayne Rooney in a no.10 role assuming he utilizes the 4-2-3-1 that’s been his base system at Real Madrid and Chelsea. During those tenures Mourinho’s preferred midfield featured Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira at the Santiago Bernabeu, whereas Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic protected the backline at Stamford Bridge. The former features a hybrid of a destroyer/wide-ranged passer with a tenacious runner, while the latter showcased a positional undisciplined creator with a technical ball winner.

Pogba’s versatility enables the Frenchman to operate in various roles, but he failed to excel in Deschamps’ 4-2-3-1 throughout his international career – most notably at Euro 2016. Aiming to maximize Antoine Griezmann’s goal threat was logical, but it equally meant Pogba’s influence was sacrificed. In the latter stages of the tournament, Pogba was cautious of his positioning and often played deeper near the centre-circle to play passes going forward, as neither the 23-year-old nor Blaise Matuidi are natural defensive midfielders.

Nevertheless, this isn’t to say Pogba won’t or can’t be utilized in a midfield duo. Home matches against inferior opposition should see United dominate majority of the possession, which would allow Pogba to join the attack, whilst Michael Carrick or Morgan Schneiderlin holds their position to protect the defence.

The worry for United is they currently lack a reliable top class defensive midfielder, and were constantly exploited in transitional phases against Leicester City in Sunday’s Community Shield. Mourinho could turn to Morgan Schneiderlin to as a temporary solution, but Pogba’s compatriot is arguably better suited in the opposite shuttling role due to his dynamism.

With that being said, Mourinho is renowned for flipping his 4-2-3-1 into a 4-3-3 in the bigger games, and that would enable the Frenchman to play in the shuttling role that was responsible for his rapid prominence at Juventus. The shuttling role presents Pogba the freedom to charge forward into attack but also utilize his brute strength to regain possession in central areas. United’s midfielders are more adept to shuttling opposed to operating in a double-pivot, which may force Mourinho to eventually alter his main system.

Although there are still selection issues that could arise regarding Rooney’s first team status once Pogba is declared match fit, and Juan Mata’s future at the club, United appear better equipped utilizing a three-man midfield. Considering the large amount of money spent to sanction Pogba’s return, Mourinho’s main goal surely rests upon maximizing the world’s most expensive player’s threat.

“He [Pogba] has everything,” said Mourinho. “What he has to learn now is how to play with us because I always say that in football you can be a super player, like he is, but a team is a team and you need to learn how to play in the team, and the team needs to learn how to play with you.”

“We need to get the best out of him and this will be a process. So if he needs protection, I am here to protect. I know some people think that he arrives here now and, the first time he touches the ball, he scores, but I’m here to protect him and give him the best conditions to be what we think he is going to be, which is a football player for Man United, a reference for this club. I’m so happy.”

Apart from slight mental lapses in terms of positioning, and letting his emotions alter his performance, Pogba is an exceptional all-rounder with all the tools required to dominate a league that is slowly regaining its tactical essence. Whether it be goals, creativity, power, or sheer technical ability, Pogba has it all, and considering he’s yet to reach his peak, Mourinho’s experience in elevating a player’s confidence can prove decisive.

Perhaps he’s never been the standout player or midfielder during his time in Turin, but now, Pogba must now rise to the challenge and consistently produce standout performances. Failure to instantly seam into the Manchester United setup could lead to psychological issues and possible stagnation that has witnessed other marquee signings fail in the past.

But with every risk comes a possible reward, and United’s excessive transfer fee for the most sought out young player in world football is a triumph that can’t be overlooked. With Pogba, United aim to provide the Frenchman a platform to begin an era of dominance in what might be the most competitive Premier League seasons in the competition’s history.

The stage is now yours Paul, you have our attention.

 
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Posted by on August 9, 2016 in Published Work

 

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Portugal 1-0 Sweden

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Courtesy of Football.ua

Cristiano Ronaldo’s late winner earned Portugal a narrow victory over Sweden at the Estadio da Luz.

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Paulo Bento stuck with his traditional 4-3-3 with Ronaldo, Nani and Helder Postiga leading the line. Miguel Veloso, Joao Moutinho and Raul Meireles formed a midfield trio.

Erik Hamren didn’t provide many surprises either, as he preferred a 4-4-1-1 with Zlatan Ibrahimovic ahead of Johan Elmander. Alexander Kacaniklic and Sebastian Larsson operated on the flanks, while Kim Kallstrom and Rasmus Elm played in midfield.

Sweden defended admirably for large portions of the match, but Portugal’s guile, and perseverance guided them to an important victory.

Sweden shape

Hamren’s aim was evident in the opening minutes of the match, as his side swiftly dropped into a 4-5-1 without the ball. The Swedish wingers tucked in centrally to help maintain a narrow shape and Elmander admirably tracked Veloso. Elmander’s positioning on Veloso was significant – in the past Veloso’s opted to drop between the centrebacks and play long diagonal balls to build play from the back. But here, Elmander prevented the Portuguese midfielder from dictating the tempo of the match.

With Elmander keeping Veloso quiet, Elm and Kallstrom had the duty of tracking Moutinho and Meireles. Hamren’s approach prevented Portugal from constant penetration in the final third, yet it also provided an attacking spark for Sweden. Sweden’s narrow shape allowed Portugal’s fullbacks forward, but it left gaps for Swedish fullbacks – mainly Mikael Lustig – to expose.

A main issue Portugal’s encountered over the past few years has been preventing 2v1 situations on the left flank, as Ronaldo sits higher up the pitch to lodge quick counters. In the 6th minute, Lustig got into an advanced position and delivered a great cross towards Elmander, but the Swedish striker directed the ball inches wide.

Seconds later, Hamren’s men got forward again, and earned a corner kick, as the Portuguese defenders couldn’t cope with Lustig’s venomous ball into the box. Sweden’s best chance of the half also stemmed through great wing play from Hamren’s men. Elmander did well to deliver a cross into the box, and Ibrahimovic cleverly dummied the oncoming ball, and it fell to Larsson who watched Rui Patricio parry away his shot.

Sweden’s shape nullified Veloso, halted Portugal’s activity in the final third and gave them attacking options from wide areas, but they were unable to make the most of their created chances.

Portugal approach

Sweden’s reactive approach towards the match handed Portugal the onus to go forward and search for a goal. One of the main issues this Portuguese team has encountered over the years is breaking down sides that sit deep, focus on organization, and maintain a compact shape when out of possession.

Bento’s men experienced the same recurring issues in the first half. The front three struggled to get involved in the match, thus leading to Ronaldo and Nani constantly swapping positions. The Portuguese wide men often took up more central positions to receive the ball, as their fullbacks and midfielders were encouraged to attack space in wide areas and attempt to create overloads.

In particular, Joao Pereira enjoyed heaps of space on the right flank with Kacaniklic tucked in centrally, but the Portuguese right back’s crosses didn’t connect with any attacking players. Martin Olsson and Kacaniklic struggled from defensive aspect throughout the match, and despite Bento’s men enjoying success down that flank, the productivity from the right was poor.

Meireles and Moutinho’s activity in the final third was limited when they attempted to build play from the back. The Portuguese duo were forced to drop deeper in midfield to string passes together and their combination should’ve led to an opener in the 4th minute. Meireles slipped a pass between the Swedish defence, and an advancing Moutinho received the ball, rounded Andreas Isaksson, but his shot hit the side netting.

Meireles and Moutinho both finished the match with an 85% pass accuracy rate, while Moutinho completed a game-high four tackles and accurate crosses.  Meireles was dangerous in deeper positions, as he lobbed passes over the Swedish defence, attempting to get Portuguese attackers in goal-scoring positions. The Portuguese pair were influential throughout the match, and although they were restricted to certain areas across the pitch, they were able to dictate the tempo of the match.

Portugal got into great positions in the final third out wide, but they were stifled in central areas. Hamren’s men maintained a compact shape in two banks of four –  this forced Portugal’s midfield into deeper positions and their attacking three were ineffective. For all of Portugal’s possession in the first half, it was shocking to know that Sweden had created the better chances, despite Ibrahimovic’s minimal influence.

Ibrahimovic

Portugal’s main concern heading into this two-legged affair was clear. Bento’s men were on a mission to neutralize Ibrahimovic, and over the course of 90 minutes, they succeeded.

First off, Sweden’s shape without the ball was an issue. Their midfield bank of five were pegged too deep into their half, and their transitions into attack were slow. Ibrahimovic was an isolated figure – in the first half, the Swedish striker had 17 touches on the ball. When the prolific striker successfully held the ball up, he lacked options and support to help push Sweden forward, but more importantly he didn’t receive adequate service.

Secondly, Pepe and Bruno Alves held a 2v1 advantage over the Swede, and their physical presence kept the prolific striker quiet. Ibrahimovic didn’t have any clear goal-scoring opportunities, nor was he allowed space to penetrate – the Portuguese centre backs performed a magnificent job on the Swede, as he was merely a peripheral figure.

Portugal down the left

As the second half wore on, Portugal’s overall performance improved, due to Hamren’s men dropping deeper into their third. Ultimately, this left a large gap between Ibrahimovic and the Swedish midfield, and it placed a daunting task on the Swedish wingers, who were forced to track runs from Portugal’s adventurous fullbacks.

Nonetheless, Bento’s troops were still struggling to test Isaksson. Majority of Portugal’s play came down the left flank, where Coentrao began to take advantage of Larsson, as the Swedish winger’s energy levels dipped quickly.

  • 70th minute: Coentrao and Almeida completed a one-two and the Portuguese full back got behind Larsson and drove towards the box, where he was tugged down by the Swede, thus leading to a Larsson booking.
  • 80th minute: Nani’s movement pushed Lustig out of position, and Coentrao played a pass behind the Swedish fullback towards the Portuguese winger. Nani delivered a decent ball into the box, which was half-heartedly cleared by Anders Svensson, presenting an ideal shooting angle for the Portuguese winger, but Svensson made a timely block to earn Portugal a corner kick.
  • 88th minute: Ronaldo received the ball on the left side of the pitch, and wonderfully turned Lustig to break free. The Portuguese captain played in an advancing Coentrao – who once again got past Larsson – and his dangerous cross in the box fell to Moutinho, who laid the ball off for Ronaldo, but he fired his shot over the net.

Towards the end of the match it was evident that Bento’s men targeted Larsson. Portugal got into great positions through these three situations, as Ronaldo’s winner and his header off the crossbar were created down this flank.

Hugo Almeida

Over the past few years, Postiga and Hugo Almeida have been maligned figures for the national team. Their inability to capitalize in front of goal has led to their ridicule, but it would be difficult to criticize the Portuguese strikers here.

However, despite Postiga’s positive attacking contribution, Bento decided to take another route of attack, and introduced Almeida. The move created turmoil worldwide over social media, but Almeida’s impact on the match provided Portugal with that extra bit of attacking impetus they lacked throughout the half.

  • 65th minute: Almeida receives the ball between the lines and is allowed to turn and play an overweighed pass to Coentrao, who flew past Larsson into a goal scoring position. Although the ball went out for a goal kick, Almeida displayed his intent to penetrate in the final third, opposed to feeding the ball back to the midfield like Postiga.
  • 70th minute: As stated earlier, his one-two with Coentrao got the Portuguese fullback into a dangerous position, which resulted in a Larsson booking.
  • 82nd minute: Veloso quickly threw the ball into Almeida’s feet, and their quick one-two allowed Veloso to evade Larsson and deliver a cross into the box. Ronaldo got in front of Olsson and his diving header flew past Isaksson. This was significant because it was one of the few times Veloso wasn’t shackled by Elmander, and Ronaldo finally decided to target Sweden’s weak link in Olsson – Lustig had a pretty decent outing coping with Nani and Ronaldo in 1v1 situations.
  • 85th minute: Almeida drifted to the left flank and received a lovely diagonal ball from Joao Pereira. The Portuguese striker lofted a ball into the box, and once again Ronaldo beat Olsson, but his header rang off the post.

Portugal dominated the second half, but Almeida’s introduction made the difference. The Portuguese striker’s movement, mobility and intent to penetrate, gave his side an element of attack they lacked, prior to his arrival.

Conclusion

Although the performance from Bento’s men was below par, Ronaldo’s goal puts Portugal in a great position to progress to the World Cup. However, failure to increase their lead in the second half could come back to haunt the Portuguese as they squandered several chances to win the tie.

“I’m always disappointed when we lose. On the whole, we played a good match defensively. What hurts a bit is that we had three good chances to take the lead in the first half. We would have liked to have come away from here having scored a goal,” Hamren said. 

Sweden had the better chances in the first half, and defended admirably for large portions of the match, but one defensive miscue proved costly. In fairness, their negative approach in the second half allowed Portugal to mount pressure in their third, and limit their chances of nicking an important away goal. Sweden looked better when they attempted to play through midfield, opposed to the direct approach they adopted in the second half, as Ibrahimovic was often disconnected from the midfield.

“We dominated the whole match, even more so in the second 45 minutes, as we created several chances to get a more comfortable result. Now the goal is to prepare the team to win again in Sweden, knowing that we are going there with a slender lead but with no goals conceded. We certainly won’t go to Sweden to defend this result,” Bento said.

Nevertheless, this was an ideal result for Portugal. Ronaldo struggled throughout the match, but the team fought hard, and provided him the platform to once again display his superiority on the field. The importance of the first goal will be crucial in Stockholm, but the occasion plays into Portugal’s hands. Sweden will be forced to attack from the start, and Portugal’s reactive approach and threat on the counter could expose a feeble Swedish backline. Bento’s men are nearly there, but they’ll need to defend better, attack with more precision and be efficient in front of goal if they intend on securing qualification.

 
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Posted by on November 16, 2013 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Zlatan’s goal is one of many reasons why I hate social media!

In 48 hours, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s wonder goal against England has received close to 5 million views on YouTube. The goal capped off a fantastic performance from the Swedish international, in which he scored four goals. On his day Ibrahimovic is arguably one of the best strikers in the world and is a true world-class striker, but is his goal the ‘best goal ever’?

 

The answer is NO!

I refused to weigh in on which goal is the best of all time, because I feel it is a pointless argument that we can all agree on. Also, it would take years to go through every goal scored to make an intelligent decision. Nonetheless, it was a great goal that should rightfully be put into the discussion.

Now I’m not going say it wasn’t a great goal ‘because it was a friendly’ or say he scored because ‘Hart was way off his line’ as many have done. I will say that people are blowing it out of proportion because it was England, who isn’t a great side. I also say despite the goal, I expected Ibra to play at such a high level with the likes of 17-year-old Raheem Sterling, 20-year-old Wilfried Zaha, the inexperienced Ryan Shawcross and Tom Huddlestone are on the field. I’m not trying to make excuses for England, but these are not good players and it’s no coincidence that three of Ibra’s goals were scored once Roy Hodgson made some changes to give some of these young/inexperienced players time on the pitch.

Nonetheless, Ibrahimovic’s goal was great. The technique was fantastic, but the fact that he had the confidence and audacity to attempt the overhead kick was remarkable.

The goal took over social media in the matter of minutes and these comments were thrown around.

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People have the right to voice their opinion and social media is the outlet often used in today’s society, but I’ve noticed that it can tarnish some great moments.

Suddenly, Ibrahimovic’s goal has made him the best striker in the world. A four-goal performance against England’s B or C team miraculously elevates him to a ‘best striker ever’ conversation.

One goal not only blows up twitter, but we seem to forget the likes of Radamel Falcao, Edinson Cavani and Robin Van Persie. More importantly, he’s now put in a conversation with Ronaldo, Gerd Muller, Eusebio, Ferenc Puskas etc.

It’s a problem within our society, and people feel the need to throw around farcical titles on players based on performances like this. I won’t deny that it was a great performance and neither will Ibrahimovic, but do we really believe that he is the best now or ever based on that?

It’s like the trendy ‘world-class’ label, that tends to go around now. Players such as Juan Mata, Santi Cazorla and Javier Hernandez just to name a few, have been given the title this season. These are great players, but they are not yet world-class. Maybe my expectations of players are too high, but they rightfully should be.

Throwing around these titles towards players because they hit a good run of form ruins its prestige, and we tend to do this a lot. I can name you approximately 30 legitimate world-class players and there’s nothing wrong with that.

In today’s time, social media is somewhat the root of all evil. I have a love/hate relationship with it. The hate often outweighs the love because of the nonsense that is allowed on it.

Why can’t we embrace moments of brilliance from Zlatan and cherish them for what they are? It’s time we move away from putting these outrageous labels on moments/performances like this and sit back and enjoy them.

Zlatan, we thank you for providing us with a goal of the highest quality.

Social media trolls….DIE!

 

Tyrrell Meertins

Follow me @TEEWHYox

 
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Posted by on November 16, 2012 in FIFA

 

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