Tactical decisions David Moyes should make.

Hindsight is a beautiful thing and I won’t go into what Manchester United could have done or should have done to avoid being where they are. The situation for them is pretty clear:  They are 90 minutes away from being eliminated in the Champions League and have 11 10 games left to make a push for the top 4.

We can talk all we like about whether Moyes is the right man for the job, but frankly that doesn’t matter right now.  He’s here and needs to make changes.  So what can he do tactically to make these tasks even remotely possible? Tactics, based on what I’ve observed,  usually involve a combination of the following three things  Adjusting formations, picking different players, and style of play.    As far as formations go, my view is that nominal formations don’t mean a whole lot.  At the kind of margins we’re talking about, a 4-2-3-1, a 4-4-1-1, a 4-1-4-1, and a 4-3-3 are all about a stones-throw away from each other and really depend on the characteristics of the players themselves.

Changing the style of play: The best way to divide this is to focus on how this team would attack and how they would defend.

Proposed first-choice XI for the rest of the season.
Proposed first-choice XI for the rest of the season.

I chose a 4-2-3-1 for this just to illustrate what the team might look like, but the formation isn’t as important as how the players would combine and play cohesively.  Also keep in mind that this is an idealized lineup where everyone is healthy.

AttackingSo let’s start on the attacking side of the pitch.  Anyone who saw United v. Fulham would have seen that United put in 82 crosses of which none resulted in a goal.  Crossing repeatedly is fairly ineffective when the other team knows that’s your tendency, and if that’s all that can be offered. United do have quality attackers/attacking midfielders who should play more one-twos and be active in the box.  This side should be better at counter-attacking.  As seen on the diagram, I’ve left out Robin van Persie.  A year ago, I would have been labeled a troll, since he scored 33 times. This year, however, it might not be such a poor decision.

1. RVP is becoming too isolated that far up the pitch and he isn’t quite able to drop deep because Rooney is everywhere frantically trying to get on the ball, which is caused by neither Cleverley or Carrick driving forward and Ashley Young and Valencia being too one-dimensional. It’s a chain reaction that causes both Rooney and RVP to play sub-optimally.

2. Wayne Rooney is in better form and has been quite clinical when given high quality chances. RVP’s injuries and United’s struggles have made him snatch a bit at the rare chances that he does get.  Plus Juan Mata can now play naturally in his preferred number 10 position where he doesn’t have to do as much defensive work.

Flanks: Januzaj offers a more varied threat than Ashley Young.  He can combine in the center, and he can cross more effectively than Young when needed. He was arguably United’s best player in January while RVP and Rooney were injured and I don’t know why he’s been left out of the team since.  Valencia’s fairly one-dimensional but he’s very quick and is most dangerous when allowed to run into acres of space.  Patrice Evra would be able to provide a consistent crossing option, if Januzaj plays more in the box.  Rafael would have to stay more disciplined.

Defensive style of play: Moyes prefers his two banks of four and that does somewhat match up with how Sir Alex preferred his teams.  The problem is getting everyone to defend as a unit, and particularly down both flanks.  Everyone has to defend and perhaps United need to be willing to play more on the counter-attack because that’s what David Moyes has opted towards this season.

Central midfield: Fellaini and Fletcher would be my choices here.  Fletcher appears to be fully fit now and past the worst stages of his illness, and Fellaini has recovered from his wrist injury.  Both these players offer more tackling quality and forward impetus than either Carrick or Cleverley; however, they can play more of a disciplined defensive role given the more creative attackers in the side now and Evra’s defensive negligence.

Centerback pairing: I didn’t want to take Smalling out of the team because he has impressed when playing as a CB, and he should be partnered with Phil Jones because they’re quicker and more vocal which is important.

Fullbacks: Rafael is a natural RB, and is more comfortable going forward than Smalling.  He is a better attacking fullback than Evra, but is showing more defensive awareness and is quicker. Having Valencia can help nullify left-sided counterattacks too.  Evra on the other hand is going to be a bit of a work around since he either takes up narrow positions defensively or he’s chasing after quick wingers on the counter.  That’s why Jones, Fellaini, and Fletcher are now in the team.  They can all look to cover that side, let Evra catch up, and force play back through the middle to become a solid defensive 8.

So just to recap:  When attacking, United need to cross less.  Rooney needs to play closer to goal, Mata should be a number 10 with more of a free role, akin to how he played at Chelsea pre-Mourinho.  Defending needs more work but putting in more tacklers in midfield and quicker defenders, even if they’re less experienced can tighten up Manchester United’s otherwise porous defense.

Overall this United team will probably have less possession but given the  lack of dynamic midfielders and the big games coming up against superior midfield units (Liverpool, Manchester City, Everton, Newcastle), this is our best bet.  Of course if we need to grab a goal, we can always bring on Chicharito and RVP for someone.

For the Champions League, swap Mata out with Shinji Kagawa because Mata is cup-tied and Kagawa was genuinely excellent throughout the group and provided United with a real spark in the last 15 minutes against Olympiacos.

Chelsea 4–0 Spurs: A Tale of Two Halves

Chelsea and Tottenham were at it again last Saturday.

And that was really horrible news for Spurs.

Hope in the first half for Spurs of earning their first win at Chelsea in the Premier League era turned more sour than six-week old milk as mistakes and card trouble piled on in the second half, leaving Spurs to deal with a demoralizing 4-0 defeat.

Spurs started the game with what appeared to be a gift from the football gods in Fernando Torres’ sudden absence due to a groin injury.  Samuel Eto’o had to come in on a light warm-up.  This initially panned out nicely for Chelsea, as Eto’o nearly earned a penalty on a questionable non-call on Hugo Lloris’ challenge.

From there, though, things got better for Spurs.  Tim Sherwood fielded a Starting XI that he had clearly put a lot of thought into, and they dominated play in the first half.  The lineup looked something like this

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Sherwood expertly identified how Chelsea would come out to try to attack his traditional 4-4-2 and instead played a 4-2-3-1.  Partially, he was saving Soldado for a matchup against Benfica, but Sherwood also understood that his side would need to be more patient in both attack and defense if they wanted to earn at least a draw.  To that end, he formed two key defensive pairings to deal with the greatest threats on the wing, Eden Hazard and André Schürrle.

The left side of the defense paired Jan Vertonghen, in the absence of Danny Rose, and Gylfi Sigurðsson, while the right side paired Kyle Naughton and Kyle Walker.  A couple players played out of their natural position in this case.  Jan Vertonghen was brought out wide and paired with the 6’1″ Sigurðsson on the left side to try to match up against the 6’0″ André Schürrle.  Kyle Walker moved from the fullback position to a right attacker and paired up with the younger and more inexperienced defender Kyle Naughton to contain Eden Hazard.

Seeing this, Mourinho opted to switch Schürrle and Hazard early in the game.  But Walker and Naughton frustrated Schürrle with their speed and physical play, forcing him to defer to the right side of Chelsea’s attack where Hazard was also having trouble with the uncharacteristically tall left flank of Spurs.

The play of Aaron Lennon also begs for analysis.  Sherwood played him as a number 10, probably for the first time in Lennon’s career. The matchup here would be against Nemanja Matić, who dwarfs the 5’7″ Lennon at 6’4.”  Strangely enough, this worked well for Spurs in the early going.  Matić had some issues keeping up with Lennon and Lennon’s freedom as an attacking midfielder allowed him to move around the pitch to create opportunities.

After some decent chances by Nabil Bentaleb and company, Spurs headed to the locker room in good spirits.  Using a carefully devised game plan, they had stagnated a tremendous Chelsea side.  Mourinho anticipated a rigid formation and a team that still did not communicate well enough to strategize against other teams.  Instead, he found a team whose size and movement frustrated his players, and so Chelsea “lost” the first half.

Whatever Mourinho said in the locker room, however, stemmed the tide of battle enormously in Chelsea’s favor.  Oscar came on for Lampard in the 45-minute and Chelsea started to bring numbers forward earlier in their attack.   Sherwood chose not to counter this development, and this would likely be the start of Spurs’ undoing.

Their higher press forced Spurs to be more aggressive on defense.  When they started chasing, they fell into card trouble.  Kyle Naughton and Sandro were shown back-to-back yellows by the referee.

But the tipping point was not the card trouble.  In the 55th minute Jan Vertonghen had a catastrophic error that led directly to a Samuel Eto’o goal.  Vertonghen slipped while playing the ball, like in a divot that had formed on a pitch that produced many an irregularity.  The ball fell straight to Chelsea’s foot and Et’o used his “old man strength” to slot one home under the arm of Lloris as Lloris and Dawson attempted to converge on the Eto’o.

But the 15 minutes from hell did not end there.

In the 59th minute,  Kaboul was shown red in the penalty area and Hazard beat Lloris easily, undoing all the hard work from Spurs.  Despite being the better team for 50 minutes, there was no way Spurs could get back in the game.

At this point, things were over and the players started to sit back. Michael Dawson picked up an injury, a mistake by Sandro led to a goal by Ba in the 87th minute, and Ba scored again in the 89th minute to pour an entire can of Morton’s brand kosher salt into the wound.

The game turned out to be a total nightmare for Spurs.  While all is not lost because of a single game against the league leaders, this game exposed Spurs as not being such a happy family of winners since Tim Sherwood took the reigns.

There is still work to be done and it will be telling to see how Spurs react to such a defeat.

Soldado Delivers for Spurs

For a player who had already scored 5 goals for Spurs in the EPL this season, one would think Roberto Soldado would have “acted like he’d been there before” when he struck for the Lilywhites in the 28th minute.

But for Soldado, his second goal from open play this season meant so much more.

Though Soldado has played an important part in Spurs’ ability to

maintain pace with the top-4 in the Premier League this s

eason, he arguably has not lived up to his bi

lling as a £26 million striker.  Prior to the game against Cardiff, Soldado had not scored at all since a December 29 meeting against Stoke, let alone from open play since 20 October 2013 at Aston Villa.  That gap has seen manager André Villas-Boas sacked and replaced with Tim Sherwood.  Sherwood installed a variation of a 4-4-2 and Soldado partnered with rejuvenated Emmanuael Adebayor to put Spurs back on pace to qualify for a European tournament.

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His play in support of Adebayor has been commendable, with Soldado showing a willingness to share the ball and to drop or run into unusual spaces for a striker.   Soldado’s job now will be to pot goals on a more consistent basis.  With matches coming up against the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool, and Benfica this month, he will be counted on to keep Spurs afloat in the top-5 of the table.

Though his emotional goal against Cardiff appeared to be a big confidence booster for both Roberto Soldado and Spurs fans, goals going forward may even mean more.

World Cup Update (from January 2014)

There have been a couple of high profile transfers and injuries that could play a subtle but possibly critical role for their national teams World Cup chances.

  • Radamel Falcao (Colombia) has been effectively ruled out of the World Cup with an ACL tear during a French league fixture with Monaco.
  • Also on the subject of ACLs, Theo Walcott(England) tore his during an FA Cup tie against Tottenham.
  • Juan Mata (Spain) completed a transfer to Manchester United from Chelsea
  • Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium) left Chelsea for German club Wolfsburg
  • Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero (Argentina) both make their returns after long injury layoffs.

Falcao’s Injury

Radamel+Falcao+Belgium+v+Colombia+R0zXXIGfaAblRadamel Falcao has been talked about in glowing terms over the past two seasons he’s been in the top 3 for goals scored across all European leagues only behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.  Many pundits considered him to be the best pure striker in the game  He left Atletico Madrid for the nouveau riche French club A.S. Monaco this past summer and since then he’s fallen off the radar somewhat.

It’s not that uncommon but Monaco had very few commitments at the time and Falcao’s a truly brilliant striker so his injury is a big deal considering he is Colombia’s biggest threat.  Anyone who loses a player of that quality is bound to be in trouble.  However, Colombia’s a bit different.  They’ve got players who have been in very good form and can still make them a formidable threat at the World Cup this summer.

Jackson Martinez and James Rodriguez (who also moved to Monaco) are demonstrating that they are top quality players and Freddy Guarin has been impressive for a struggling Inter side. Teofilo Gutierrez is also a good quality forward who’s playing his club football in Argentina. This team has plenty of quality relative to its group so I’d expect them to qualify at least as runners up in Group C.

Walcott’s Injury

 Theo Walcott was quite impressive for England at Euro 2012 as he came off the bench to inspire a comeback and he’s improved his finishing.  His pace makes him a dangerous outlet on the right flank for counter attacks. So his ACL tear could put a pretty big dent in England’s preparation for a very difficult group.

 I didn’t really rate England’s chances well because while Roy Hodgson is pretty competent at setting up his sides against bigger teams, so are his counterparts from Italy and Uruguay. Cesare Prandelli and Oscar Tabarez have been with their teams longer than Hodgson has and they know what they have to work with. Italy has more talent and Uruguay has better forward depth.  At this rate, England’s hopes will (once again) rest squarely on Wayne Rooney’s shoulders, although Raheem Sterling is starting to put his foot in the door.

Juan Mata leaves Chelsea

Juan+Mata+Spain+v+Tahiti+Group+B+D1Ul_nkVBqblNormally, getting rid of your two-years running player of the season is considered a bad thing but in this unusual case, it’s a win-win for everybody involved. Manchester United get a fantastic player who can lift their spirits instantly after half a season of substandard performances and bad injury luck.  Mata can increase his World Cup selection chances, and Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho did what Jose Mourinho does by figuring out a way to theoretically make United a more dangerous team against Chelsea’s immediate title rivals Arsenal and Manchester City.

 If Juan Mata weren’t Spanish, he would get onto almost any international team instantly.  But this move makes sense for him, since he’ll definitely get more games and if United are able to achieve their targets for the season with him, it will do him a world of good considering that David Silva has been injured on and off, and Spain might try to give themselves a new look for the World Cup.

Kevin de Bruyne also leaves Chelsea

Another discontent attacking midfielder at Chelsea (there are a lot of them) has figured that the best way to increase his World Cup chances is to leave for a team that will use his talent.  Kevin de Bruyne has featured even less than Juan Mata has, but he struggled a bit to cope with the physicality of the Premier League so he’s opted for a return to the Bundesliga club Wolfsburg which may suit his style better.

This was also a good deal for a talented player and while Belgium is pretty competitive for places at the moment, de Bruyne has a little less pressure on his shoulders to perform which can help him a lot.

 Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero return from injury

For their respective clubs and Argentina, this is very positive news. Messi scored a brace in his first game back and looks to be back to his best after a rough 2013 where he suffered two hamstring injuries.  As long as he can maintain this type of level before the World Cup, Argentina will have their main man ready to run the show.

 Aguero’s return is also a huge lift for Manchester City as he’s continued to score goals at an amazing rate, enough to put him back in the discussion for Premier League Player of the Season along with Luis Suarez. However, the intial suggestion that he would miss two months makes his return after just one month a little bit concerning as there might be a risk of recurrence.  There is no need for Manchester City to rush him back as they were scoring buckets of goals without him, but I guess it can’t hurt to restore the Aguero-Negredo strike partnership as they chase the league title.

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