Indian Super League: Kerala Blasters impress in Nelo Vingada debut but still struggle to score

The second half of the Hero Indian Super League started with a bunch of positives for two-time finalists Kerala Blasters, with new coach Nelo Vingada tweaking the system to offer more attacking freedom to his players. Unfortunately for the home side, the freedom only translated into chances and not goals, as they played out an entertaining 1-1 draw against ATK.

Here are three talking points from the first match of the second half of the fifth season of Indian Super League

1) Old habits die hard

Vingada has begun his stint at Kerala Blasters with the same structure he used while he was the manager of NorthEast United in 2016 – a 4-1-4-1 formation with Nikola Krcmarevic playing the shielding role in the midfield. Luckily for the coach, the team he inherited were used to playing a similar system, which meant very little tinkering was required.

The difference was that in David James’ side, the onus was on the front-two, often played by Matej Poplatnik and Slavisa Stojanovic, to score the goals while the wingers whipped in crosses. Against ATK, Vingada’s Kerala had just one target man in Poplatnik, while Stojanovic occupied a deeper position in the midfield. Blasters’ plan was to play to play the ball into Poplatnik’s feet, who would then look for runners from the midfield with a first-time pass. Midfielders took turns to support their primary striker, depending largely on the zone of play. Seiminlen Doungel (Len) was a constant threat cutting in from the left wing, while young Sahal Abdul Samad had another outstanding game, orchestrating everything from the midfield. Prasanth, playing in the right wing, worked tirelessly as Vingada’s side dominated most parts of the match. The defence looked well-balanced too and had the game in control throughout the match.

While the system looked promising and chances were created in galore, Kerala were haunted by the same ghost from the past when it came to actually converting those chances. Len, Prasanth and Stojanovic missed sitters while Poplatnik and Sahal also made goalkeeper Arindam Bhattacharya skip heart beats with their attempts. On another day, the score could have been 4-1 in favour of the home team. But we’ve been saying this about Kerala a lot, right?

The new coach is confident about ending the goal-scoring woes though Kerala, who have just scored 13 goals in as many matches, have very little support in the bench who are proven goal-scorers.

2) Building for the future

With the January transfer window open, Kerala Blasters were expected to add some players to their squad after a disastrous first half of the ISL campaign. But the opposite has happened, with experienced players moving away from the club, while youngsters were signed as a replacement. Vingada had even confirmed to journalists that the decision to loan Holicharan Narzary wasn’t his but the management’s. The January transfer plan actually goes in sync with what they did in the summer too, by signing the likes of 2017 Under-17 World Cup stars Dheeraj Singh and Mohammad Rakip. So what is Kerala thinking?

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A place in the playoffs is realistically unachievable for the Kerala team, so they are instead focusing on building a strong Indian core in the team. The young Indian players, especially Sahal and Len, have shown how game-time in top-level football can be a catalyst in the growth of footballers. Rakip and Dheeraj have been playing a lot too, which means the ISL franchise is prepared to wait a season or two, to unlock the potential in the Indian players in their ranks. A lot of teams promote young players to sell them in the future but Blasters seem to be cultivating stars to make their own future brighter. It is a bold strategy but Floyd Pinto and the Indian Arrows have shown in the recent past in the I-League that consistency and belief can go a long way in getting the best out of young players.

With CK Vineeth and Narzary gone, youngsters Boaringdao Bodo, Nongdamba Naorem, Jithin MS and co, will all be hopeful of playing for the senior team in the near future, especially with Vingada confirming in the post-match press conference that it is very unlikely his club will be making any more signings in the window.

3) Where is the Manjappada?

A new manager and a new year aren’t, unfortunately, good enough reasons for the Blasters faithful to make a return to their home. The home support against ATK, although loud and appreciative of the team’s good work on the field, was still underwhelming. Only 4582 fans turned up for the match in a 45000+ capacity stadium.

blasters

The Manjappada (Yellow Army) are arguably the largest football fan-base in the country but their stand-off with the Kerala management, largely due to the team’s decisions to not sign ‘quality players’ and play a ‘boring brand of football’, has affected the stadium attendances badly.

Hopefully, Vingada’s appointment and the positive football against ATK will bring the crowd back. Football certainly needs Kerala!

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Maurizio Sarri, named as new Chelsea manager, is owner Roman Abramovich’s latest gamble in quest for ‘perfect football’

On a summer day in 2003, the fax machine at Gianfranco Zola’s office buzzed with an unexpected message. It was a request, more like an ‘offer you can’t refuse’, from Russian billionaire and Chelsea football club’s new owner Roman Abramovich. He desired to retain Zola, who had left Chelsea in the summer for his hometown club Cagliari and was willing to pay £3 million as wages to the Italian, and another £1 million to Cagliari to buy out the contract.

 

As rumours go, the diminutive attacker, who was a key figure in Chelsea’s Champions League berth-clinching 2002-03 campaign, had played a huge role in convincing Abramovich to buy the debt-ridden London club. He wanted Zola in his Chelsea, and the team’s football to be modelled around the attacking guile that the Italian brought to the football field.

Zola rejected the offer to stay true to his promise to Cagliari but the fax message was a precursor to how Abramovich would function — he gets what he wants. Soon an army of international players was gathered at the Stamford Bridge. A roaring lion with a sceptre replaced the old laid-back lion on Chelsea’s crest. The intention was clear — to win but also win by playing attractive football.

Unfortunately for Abramovich, the king he chose to run his empire (after giving a season to Claudio Ranieri), Jose Mourinho, came from a different school of thought, where winning was all that mattered. Mourinho, in his first stint at Chelsea, instilled his DNA into the Chelsea team, making them winners, although not by playing the football Abramovich craved for. The marriage didn’t last long with Mourinho leaving the club in his third season with the Blues. A herd of managers (10 including two stints by Guus Hiddink) occupied the helm at Chelsea, won trophies aplenty, but alas, failed to deliver the football their Russian owner desired. Antonio Conte became the latest manager to be sacked by Chelsea on Friday.

Appointing Maurizio Sarri, the banker who turned into a football coach to help Empoli and Napoli scale new heights in the Italian leagues, is Abramovich’s latest attempt at bringing attractive football to Stamford Bridge. The bespectacled tactician, known for his smoking habits on the pitch, doesn’t come with the same reputation as Mourinho or Carlo Ancelotti, but his work at Napoli has earned him praise within the footballing world. The manager is notoriously famous for his work ethic, as is obvious from his desire to live at Chelsea’s training ground in Cobham, and encourages his team to play attacking football, often called ‘Sarri-ball’ or the vertical tiki-taka. “If I saw my team defending and counter-attacking after 30 minutes, I would get up and return to the bank because I would not be having fun,” the Italian said during the 2015-16 campaign with Napoli. The Sarri-ball is his solution the problem – a possession-based style with plenty of short, quick passes but with an emphasis on moving up the pitch quickly.

Maurizio Sarri was announced as the new Chelsea manager on Saturday. Image courtesy: Chelsea website

Maurizio Sarri was announced as the new Chelsea manager on Saturday. Image courtesy: Chelsea website

In simpler terms, it is the best of Spanish football and the best of German football integrated into one formation. Sarri’s Napoli liked to have the ball, but the objective was always to systematically move it forward unlike the Barcelona side who mastered the traditional tiki-taka, which involved horizontal passes that stretched the opposition team and made holes for key passes. Current Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, who implemented tiki-taka to perfection at Barcelona, was so impressed after facing Sarri’s Napoli in the Champions League in the 2017-18 season that he described the team as the best side he has faced in his career as a manager. While Sarri might not have titles to show for his time at Napoli and Empoli, he did beat title-winning Max Allegri to the Panchina d’Oro (award to given the best coach in Italian football) in the 2015-16 season.

Empoli’s Emperor

Sarri’s big break as a coach came in 2012, aged 53. He was hired by Empoli, then struggling in the lower ends of Serie B. A relegation survival would have been enough for Sarri to secure his job but the former banker ensured that the club reach the promotion play-offs in his first season.

In his second season, Empoli secured a promotion to top-division and in his third, the Florence-based team managed a respectable 15th position in Serie A with a shoe-string budget. It was not just the position that was impressive. Sarri’s Empoli were strong in defence – conceding the second least number of goals – and played a football that involved keeping possession of the ball.

His success at Empoli might have gone unnoticed by the media, but the football world had taken note of the late-blooming manager. According to various reports, Arrigo Sacchi, the legendary AC Milan coach, asked then AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi to sign Sarri as their manager. But Berlusconi hesitated and Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis came swooping in for the Sarri. The rest, as they say, is history, as Sarri introduced the famous Sarri-ball system and gave Juventus a tough battle in Serie A.

On a collision course

Things will not be easy for Sarri at Chelsea though. Unlike Napoli or Empoli, where players hadn’t tasted a lot of success, Chelsea are a club with a winning DNA. It remains to be seen if the players at the London club will accept Sarri’s demands of an attractive, fast-paced football, especially having a played a counter-attacking, defence-first football for most of their time in London.

Sarri won’t be the first attractive-football-playing manager their Russian billionaire manager has appointed. Remember what happened to Luiz Felipe Scolari and Andre Villas-Boas? Chelsea never bought into their ideology and eventually led to the sacking of the managers.

Chelsea are a club built on a tough defence. They have always been tough to crack but didn’t often play the most flamboyant of football. In fact, judging by the club’s history, it wouldn’t be Chelsea if they didn’t resist Sarri’s policies. To ensure a smooth functioning environment for Sarri, Chelsea will have to support him in the transfer market.

At Napoli, he played he deployed a 4-3-3, with two centre-backs who were comfortable with the ball, had great distribution and were athletic. While Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger fit the description, Gary Cahill and David Luiz’s future will be in doubt. Chelsea have been linked with Juventus’ Daniele Rugani, a young centre-back whom Sarri managed at Empoli, while returning Kurt Zouma also offers a fresh option.

Similarly, his midfield trio included a defensive midfielder, a box-to-box player and a playmaker. In N’Golo Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko, he has strong and athletic midfielders, but Cesc Fabregas might struggle in the advanced role. But with Ruben Loftus-Cheek set to be given a major role in Chelsea, and Jorginho all but confirmed, the midfield looks ready to play Sarri-ball.

Zola’s return

If rumours are true, Sarri will also be assisted by Zola. The former Chelsea player has a decent resume as a coach, having managed West Ham United, Watford and Birmingham City in England and is a favourite amongst Chelsea fans. He will also be able to act as a mediator between the players and the manager, thereby easing the transition. Zola’s agent has publicly expressed his client’s desire to work with “idol” Sarri and his appointment would mark the perfect end to a 15-year-long cycle that started with Abramovich sending a fax message asking Zola to join his empire. The question is whether the end of the cycle will produce the football that Abramovich craves for at Chelsea.

One thing is for sure, with Sarri’s appointment, the Premier League will become richer with another coach who has a distinct, positive approach to football. Imagine Sarri-ball, Guardiola’s tiki-taka, Klopp’s gegen-pressing, Unai Emery and Mourinho’s counter-attacks, and some good old English long-ball game in the Premier League next season.

FIFA World Cup 2018: Sluggish Germany Needs to Prioritize Form Over Pedigree

Much of the commentary surrounding Germany, the defending champion, ahead of the World Cup was whether this team in transition, devoid of pillars such as ex-captains Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger, could carry the mantle forward. Parallels had already been drawn before the team arrived in Russia. In Joshua Kimmich, the Die Mannschaft was sure it had found the next Lahm. Timo Werner’s Confederations Cup heroics in 2017 meant he was deemed the ideal successor to Miroslav Klose. But after the team’s first game, where it was comprehensively beaten by Mexico, the comparisons have taken a back seat as the central question became, “Is this German side good enough?”

To put things into perspective, the last time a German side lost its first match in a World Cup, the Berlin wall was still a daunting structure while other World Cup competitors Serbia and Croatia weren’t even formed. Germany in the past 30-odd years has established itself as a powerhouse, the team to beat, in international football.

“Football is a simple game: 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.” – Gary Lineker ( Former England striker)

The most surprising part of the earthquake-causing victory was how Mexico beat Germany to its own game. Counter-attacking, gegen-pressing and direct football, all trademarks of the multiple Joachim Low sides, were used by the Mexicans, as the Germans stood still and allowed the men-in-green to dictate play.

Redundant formation and tactical naivety

Low opted to start the German team with a 4-2-3-1 formation, a system the Germans have been using since the 2010 World Cup, with Julian Draxler, Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller forming the trio behind Werner in an attack-minded set-up. The problem with this double-pivot formation, anchored by Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira, is the space it leaves in the midfield. The 4-2-3-1 requires two players capable of handling the defensive responsibilities while also having the vision to distribute the ball across the field. The formation, which was prominent till around four years back, is no longer used by big clubs because they have struggled to find the perfect two for the job, especially when opposition teams stack up the midfield. The Kroos-Khedira (Schweinsteiger) combination was perfect till 2014, when opposition teams were also playing the same formation, but against Mexico the midfield looked thin and it might get exposed against a stronger team.

Even when the game looked like it was slipping off its hands, Low failed to make substitutions that the situation demanded, instead opting for stars. Hirving Lozano was a constant threat in the left-wing for Mexico, and Kimmich had to shoulder a mammoth amount of work with Mueller taking up a very central attacking role. Bringing young Julian Brandt or Marco Reus, both natural wide players, for Muller would have brought stability to the formation, but Low used up all his substitutions on attackers by sacrificing his midfield and defence. The formation left gaping holes in the midfield and a more clinical team would have been able to score more than the solitary goal Mexico managed.

Time for a fresh approach

While the result was catastrophic, Germany is still a favourite to progress from the group. But coach Low will have tough decisions to make for the desired result. The centre-back pairing of Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng looked solid but the central midfield will need tweaking. Ilkay Gundogan offers creativity, Niklas Sule has raw strength, and Sebastian Rudy has experience as a box-to-box player. Adding any of the three into the midfield will add steel to the midfield and free Khedira of his running duties.

Similarly, with Timo Werner in form, Low might have to sacrifice the experienced Mueller for a player who can play in the flanks and offer width to the German side. Leroy Sane was surprisingly omitted from the squad because Low believed he had enough players for the position. One among Reus, Draxler and Brandt should feature in the playing XI, especially if Germany fails to break down the opposition in the first half against Sweden.

The team against Mexico also lacked the desire you often associate with a German team in an international tournament. It was Dutch legend Johan Cryuff who said you aren’t 100% once you’ve won something — like a “bottle of carbonated water where the cap is removed for a short while.” Germany lacked that fizz on the pitch and the only way it can prevent the ‘curse of defending champion getting knocked out in the first round’ (both Italy and Spain were knocked out in tournaments that followed their World Cup victories) is to up the tempo and deploy players in form.

The young German team that won the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia had that desire in them and Low will be required to use some of these players to reinvent a squad that does not look motivated for the task. The tournament is a make-or-break event for many in the German squad including Low. If the squad fails, expect a complete overhaul and another rebuilding campaign, similar to what followed the Euro 2000 campaign. That said, the task is too hard for Low who has a side filled with world-class stars, provided he is willing to take a gamble or two. Even the odds aren’t against the Germans — the last time they lost an opening match in the World Cup, they went on to reach the finals.

FIFA World Cup 2018: Time ripe for Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ to make history in Russia

“The time isn’t in one, two or four years. I think now is the moment to be together and do something great,” stressed Eden Hazard, Belgium football team captain, to the press who had gathered, ahead of his team’s friendly against Costa Rica. The purpose was clear – a rallying call for his troops to embrace themselves for what is undoubtedly a make-or-break tournament for the much-hyped ‘golden generation’ of Belgium footballers.

This article first appeared on Firstpost

Hazard, a symbol part of this ball-playing, intelligent football generation, probably understands the importance of the event as much as anyone else. A team, however good it might be, will only be remembered for the trophies it wins. History is full of examples. Johan Cruyff-led Netherlands 1974 World Cup team or Roberto Baggio’s 1994 Italian team were arguably better than the Dutch or the Italian team that tasted international success. Yet it is the latter people remember.

The ‘this is Belgium’s tournament’ rhetoric has been floating around for over four years now. The Belgium Red Devils was an outside favourite to win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. They were knocked out in the quarters by a Messi-inspired Argentina. At the 2016 Euro, a more experienced side, was expected to do better. But things didn’t improve, as a directionless Belgium were knocked out by a far inferior, yet highly motivated Wales.

So the time is clearly now for the Red Devils. The core of the team have already played in two major international tournaments are arguably in the peak of their career. According to research, the best age to play in a World Cup is 27.5; the average age of the Belgium team for the World Cup is 27.6, and is one of the most experienced side at the World Cup.

 

Belgium had a flawless qualification campaign in UEFA’s qualifying Group H with the likes of Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia, Cyprus and Gibraltar offering very little threat. The team scored 43 goals in the campaign with Lukaku leading the way with 11.

The relative easiness of the campaign meant coach Roberto Martinez, who replaced Marc Wilmots, and his coaching staff had ample time to test out a three-man defence formation. The Red Devils have stuck with the formation till date but questions still persist on its effectiveness against a strong side.

The rationale behind the switch from a four-man defence would be Belgium’s lack of a genuine left-back – Jordan Lukaku is still developing and not seen as an option by the manager. The formation allows Martinez to field the trio of Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Vincent Kompany, along with wing-backs, thereby ensuring defensive stability.

The formation unfortunately puts a lot of pressure on the central midfielders, especially in terms of helping out in defence, so whoever might partner de Bruyne in the centre will have a large role to play.

Part of Wilmots’ fault was his inability to out-think his opposition managers even with a better set of players in his ranks. Martinez’s Belgium have not been tested against major opponents yet and his decision to stick to a three-man defence might come into question if they struggle.

With Kompany still nursing an injury it won’t be a surprise if Belgium switches to a 4-3-3 for the World Cup though. While the team might not have played it under Martinez, it is a system that is widely popular amongst youth teams in Belgium. Academies and junior teams were asked to adopt the system as a part of a football revolution under Michel Sablon which is often credited as the reason behind Belgium’s phenomenal growth as a footballing powerhouse.

Cohesion the key

Having a set of good quality players is one thing, winning a title is a totally another. Ask England side who had like the likes David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen playing for it. Team unity and cohesion will be the key for Belgium if they are to challenge for a title come mid-July. If the superstars in the team can click, then Belgium would be a force to reckon with.

But in a squad with so many big names and egos, finding the right balance is hard task. Martinez claimed the ommission of Radja Nainggolan from the World Cup squad was purely tactical but it is widely accepted that decision was taken with team unity in mind. The Roma midfielder is a great asset for any team but Martinez believed keeping him in the substitute bench could back fire.

Premier League stars v England football team

Belgium are a part of Group G which also features England, Tunisia and Panama. England are likely to be Red Devils’ major challengers but working to Belgium’s advantage will be their players’ familiarity playing with/against the English opposition.

11 players of the 23-man Belgium squad ply their trade in the English Premier League which would make the match against England interesting in multiple levels. England have a very young, attacking side, spearheaded by Harry Kane, and will pose a threat to the ageing Red Devil backline. But Belgium have enough star power to top their group and proceed to the knockout stages.

But a mere entry to the knockout phases will not quench the thirst of the multitudes of fans waiting for the Red Devils’ entrance into the history books. Nothing short of silverware will suffice for Belgium’s golden generation.

Squad

Goalkeepers: Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea), Simon Mignolet (Liverpool), Koen Casteels (VfL Wolfsburg).

Defenders: Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham), Thomas Meunier (Paris Saint-Germain), Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham), Dedryck Boyata (Celtic), Vincent Kompany (Manchester City).

Midfielders: Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), Axel Witsel (Tianjin Quanjian), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Nacer Chadli (West Bromwich Albion), Leander Dendoncker (Anderlecht), Thorgan Hazard (Borussia Moenchengladbach), Youri Tielemans (Monaco), Mousa Dembele (Tottenham Hotspur).

Forwards: Michy Batshuayi (Chelsea/Dortmund), Yannick Carrasco (Dalian Yifang), Adnan Januzaj (Real Sociedad), Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United), Dries Mertens (Napoli).

What is a ‘tactical masterclass’?

I recently asked on Facebook how people like to define ‘trolls’ and ‘trolling’. I was surprised that everyone had different interpretations of the word, ranging from anyone who disagrees with you online to fake profiles that resort to online abuse. My reaction to the Sunday night’s social media reaction to Jose Mourinho’s ‘tactical masterclass’ against Chelsea bears distinct similarity with my doubts on trolling – how do you define a ‘tactical masterclass’?

I had discussed about this in Jorge Sampaoli’s masterclass vitory for his Sevilla side against Real Madrid and I’m forced to come back to the question again after United’s victory and the subsequent social media tirade.

But first, let’s talk about what Mourinho got right yesterday. And as much as I wouldn’t like to admit it, he did get a lot of things right. Benching top-scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic was a brave move (blah I said he should do this some 5 months back) and utilising Marcus Rashford’s pace to play behind the relatively-slow Chelsea back-line was a smart move. Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard made a quick dynamic front-three which the make-shift Chelsea defence struggled to cope with (again I said it). Ander Herrera produced a typical dogged display to keep the ‘Hazard’ (see what I did there?) in his pockets but it beats me why Eden was not advised to take up a wider role and draw the Spaniard away from central midfield.

Maybe Antonio Conte hasn’t still realized a player needs to make around 5-6 fouls to earn his first yellow card in the match. Very few leagues in the world would have allowed Herrera to keep kicking at people’s heels throughout the match.

But apart from these strong individual displays, United and Jose Mourinho did not do anything that suggested any tactical brilliance. That Chelsea defence is susceptible to high-intensity pressing was shown to us by Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham way back in November when Chelsea was playing its best football under Conte. Then, and against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, Chelsea was bailed out by some individual brilliance. Not to forget that Conte was playing with his favoured XI.

While Thibaut Courtois’s freakish ankle injury during a commercial commitment must have pissed off Conte, it was Marcos Alonso’s absence that hurt him the most on Sunday. The Italian had two ready-made replacements in Nathan Ake and Kenedy but opted to start Kurt Zouma, who has played very little time in a back-three, and push Cesar Azpi to the left wing-back position. The move back-fired the Spaniard offering very little in attack and the lack of symmetry in the shape meant Victor Mosses’ attack was stifled as well. Zouma looked clue-less in the defence and struggled as a RightBack when Chelsea switched to 4 in the back to accommodate Cesc Fabregas in the second half.

On a day of poor performances from the entire Chelsea squad, Diego Costa’s and Nemanja Matic’s incompetency stood-out the most. The Chelsea striker missed opportunities to hold up the ball, was terrible with his passes (Chelsea didn’t complete a single pass in United’s penalty box) and looked like he was just interested in a brawl with Rojo and Bailly. The Serbian midfielder meanwhile played a match that made Paul Pogba’s 100 million tag justifiable (almost).

 

This was more of Chelsea’s undoing itself than a Manchester United tactical masterclass, much like Sevilla’s victory over Real Madrid.  Chelsea had a very poor game and once again showed it has its rivals to thank for the relatively trouble-free stay at the helm of the Premier League so far. The opposition teams haven’t really put up a string of good performances and the Blues have somehow managed to survive at the top with its super-thin squad. Conte’s 3-4-3 will not work without proper wing-backs (like on Monday) and this team has forgotten how to play a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2 because of its unparalled success with the current system.

Where Mourinho was perhaps different from Klopp or Pochettino is that he convinced his team to forget their natural abilities and flair to win the match. Even though Liverpool and Spurs pressed Chelsea with great intent, they could not sustain that throughout the match, because it was trying to attack Chelsea at every given opportunity, which finally played into the hands of the Blues. Mourinho meanwhile, didn’t press with his entire team. He wanted to win the midfield, not go all-out and attack when in possession like Spurs. And in classic Mourinho style, he hand-picked the players to execute his plan – Herrera to take out Hazard, a dynamic front-three to run past the slow Chelsea defence and Rojo/Bailly to irritate Costa. The rest of the team were just happy to just sit back and ensure Chelsea never got into the match.

This is the very ‘anti football’ that made Mourinho what he is – a winner. A team like Manchester United is bound have some of the best athletes in the world and Mou has the ability in him to convince talented players to give up what they love doing to execute his plan.  This is where a Stoke City or West Brom struggles – the quality of the players doing the dirty jobs for United (or Chelsea, Real, Inter before this) are different. He is all-about man management and getting what he wants out of the players. Not a Carlo Ancelotti who takes pride in forging a team that best utilizes the talent of all its players. While this wins you matches, curbing the natural abilities of these super human footballers to do one particular thing in the football field does not deserve to be called a tactical masterclass. And it is something that is bound to backfire in the long run (ever wondered why footballers start revolting in his third year at every club?).

If football is a way expression, Mourinho is its antithesis. I agree there is something romantic about a Barcelona-schooled manager coming up with anecdote to the ‘pure football’ the Catalans proudly preach. You need a Heath Ledger Joker to make the story of Gotham city and batman great.

Don’t get me wrong. Manchester United was the better side and deserved to win the match. But does it deserve to be called a ‘tactical masterclass’ in the mould of Marcelo Bielsa, Pep Guardiola or even the forgotten Brendan Rodgers? Let me not answer that. I’ll instead put a different question forward – do we ever call a Sam Allardyce or a Tony Pulis victory over the big teams a tactical masterclass? Or was the United victory called a tactical masterclass simply because it was Mourinho?

Perks of watching Sevilla v Real Madrid on a slow internet connection

Contrary to popular perceptions, change is not the only thing permanent on planet Earth. If history is anything to go by, and I’ve been hearing a lot about it around the city due to the Jallikattu ban, human beings have been frustrated since time immemorial.

Back in the stone ages we were upset about not gathering enough food while today we face the challenges and emotional trauma of bad internet connections. On Sunday night, an over-sized football fan (read – me), braved post-operative instructions, and dived into the deep waters of the internet to find a free steaming link for Real Madrid’s trip to Sevilla

Beneath penis enlargement programs and lonely neighbourhood women, I did find a working link but alas, my internet connection was too damn slow to buffer the match seamlessly. I decided to brave it out because, you see, Real Madrid, a team I dislike unless it is playing Barcelona, was on a historic run (40 games unbeaten) and Sevilla, a team I have a good rapport with having managed it for years in FIFA and PES, had recently held the Los Blancos to an entertaining 3-3 draw.

Tactically, it had all the billings of a cracker. And the starting line-up confirmed it. Real Madrid, clearly worried about the previous encounter, chose for a cautious 3-5-2 approach (yes the same formation Italy and Wales used in EURO 2016), with Marcelo and Carvajal acting as wing-backs. This was a team, unbeaten since Donald Trump became a household name, changing its normal shape ( a 4-3-3) because it was vary of the opposition. If there’s anything such as a mental high, Jorge Sampaoli would have certainly felt it seeing the starting line-up. That is, unless, he was distracted by Sergio Ramos’ respect for his balls.

 

Good thing about being in the 21st century is that for every frustration there is a hyper orientalized English movie to calm you down. So I channeled my inner Master Shifu and found a fun way to kill my time during the buffer breaks — screenshots and analysis. I ended up taking way more than I should have in a dull 2-1 victory for Sevilla but I’m going to use some to explain some key points, which according to me, were the highlights of the game.

PRESSING AND COUNTER PRESSING

One thing that did not change was how Sampaoli approached the game. This Sevilla side works on pressing hard and then attacking through the flanks, something which Zidane had hoped to stifle with the change of formation.

The wing-backs, with the aid of the two midfielders in the respective side, were able to halt Sevilla’s progress through the flanks. The ever-lively Vitolo and Nasri were taken out of the game as shown by the screenshots below.

madrid-pressing-3

Carvajal, Modric and Casemiro form a triangle to prevent Sevilla’s attack through the left flank.

Even when the wingers cut inside, Sevilla opted not to switch flanks, where it had a numerical advantage, and instead opted for the safer pass back to either N’Zonzi or Iborra in the central midfield.

madrid-pressing-2

Madrid’s central midfielders hunt down the players trying to cut in

Zidane was winning the battle of pressing in the  defensive half, but Madrid’s lack of man in the attacking half meant all Sevilla players needed to do was keep their heads still.

Madrid’s lack of adventure and Sevilla’s discipline meant a dead spectacle for the fans. The Los Blancos were terribly direct and super slow in their counter attacks, almost hoping Sevilla will make a mistake. Which it did in a rush-of-blood-to-the-head moment and conceded a penalty for Ronaldo to score.

Not so surprisingly, for both teams, it was the counter pressing, bombarding full-backs pressing high in the opposition half, which opened up up chances for both teams.

This 21st minute pressing from Marcelo finally forcing the keeper to kick the ball outside play.

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Sevilla’s goal also came via counter pressing though the strategy was deployed only because there was just a few minutes remaining and Real Madrid was already looking happy with the point.

Sevilla outnumbered Real in a throw and launched a scathing attack on the left to feed Jovetic who curled past the outstretched arms of Navas to win the game for his team and end Real’s dream run.

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RAMOS IS WORLD’S BEST DEFENDER

If you have been following my blog (please say yes) you will all know how much I love Leonardo Bonucci. He is the epitome of ball-playing central defenders who have come to dominate football today so when I say Sergio Ramos might be better, I mean it.

Let me get this straight. I’m not a fan of the chap otherwise and would like him to be on the losing side always (for some weird reason). Yet, Ramos is everything a central defender should be (kudos to Mourinho who moved him from RB to CB) — fast, brilliant in the air, and exceptional tackling. Yet, that’s just 30% of his overall abilities. The defender is an attacking threat from all the set pieces and has a knack of producing the goals when its needed. Unfortunately he scored in the wrong end against Sevilla

Zidane used Ramos as a ‘libero’ or a sweeper in the match (read my piece on David Luiz to know more about the role). His was the starting point of most attacks for Madrid, spraying balls to wingers, while also preventing Sevilla to control the second third of Real Madrid’s half.

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Here’s heatmap proof (via whoscored) of Ramos’ dominance in the region. Certainly an option for Zidane to try in important matches (maybe even an El Clasico).

WHAT TACTICAL MASTERCLASS?

We (yes me included) have a tendency to hype things, especially when there is an upset involved. A lot of publications I generally read called Sevilla’s victory as a tactical masterclass. I didn’t think it really was. It was at best an ordinary match, two sides with too much respect for each other, playing a waiting game. I’m not denying that requires great patience and team-work, but it never looked like Jorge Sampaoli had unearthed some master plan to beat Madrid — the team was simply better drilled and focused.

Real Madrid will easily recover from the victory, but Zidane’s maturity as a tactician was questioned in the match. What was the need to leave a successful 4-3-3 ? Ronaldo and Benzema missed chances to finish off the game and extra presence in the attacking half might have sealed the victory for the travelling side.

 

Chinese Super League: Trouble for football’s big boys or added insurance?

Oscar’s double thumbs-up in Shanghai SIPG jersey is not going to go down in the history books as one of ‘those’ sensational transfers. It certainly did not have a manager kicking a boot on to the player’s face nor did it involve an astronomical sum at the end of a bidding war.

 

Yet, the Brazilian playmaker’s 60 million move to China could be the beginning of the end of Europe’s tag as footballer’s dream destination. With Chinese Super League announcing its intention to become one of world’s best leagues by signing some of World’s coveted talents, Europe now faces stiff competition for football stars — especially from continents such as South America and Asia.

The signs were already there. Last season, the Asian football markets saw records being shattered with the arrivals of Jackson Martinez (Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao), Ezequiel Lavezzi (Hebei China Fortune), Ramires (Jiangsu Suning) and Alex Teixeira (Jiangsu Suning). These were players who were in the peak of their career unlike a Didier Drogba or Nicolas Anelka who took the Asian route for one last fat pay cheque before they hang their boots up. Europe didn’t mind the Drogbas and Anelkas moving because it was helping them clear out players on the decline without upsetting the fans who don’t like it when their heroes aren’t offered contract extensions. But Jaingsu secured services of 25-year-old Teixeria by outbidding Liverpool — a team with a rich pedigree in Europe. Oscar was, until very recently, a primary target for Serie A champion Juventus. Suddenly, to people’s dismay, the Chinese were taking away Europe’s primary targets.

Shattering the football cycle

China’s financial power, aided by President Xi Jingping’s 50-point plan for football domination, in due course, will bring to end the traditional cycle of football economy. To understand how this works, lets break down the cycle into four parts. Of course, no club is completely reliant on one particular system and having a youth team is mandatory for long-term success, but we will stick to this simplistic structure to get an idea of what China can do to football.

There are 4 types of clubs:

1. The Home-grown: Clubs such as Spain’s Athletic Bilbao and England’s Southampton have always relied on identifying talent at a very young age and nurturing them to become top-class footballers. Their success lies two in factors – 1) continuous supply of young, quality footballers and 2) big clubs buying their stars for a high sum.

2. The scouts: Some clubs may not have a bright academy but they make up for it by scouting talent from across the world. They take the gamble with young players from their own league or other countries by giving them regular playing time. For the players, the clubs are guaranteed spotlights. If they perform well, the big guns will come looking. For the clubs, if the gamble pays of its a lot of profit.

3. Title chasers: The demands of a cup every single seasons means most of these clubs like to buy proven talent. They tend to buy from clubs in established leagues rather than taking a risk by signing them young.

4. The final-bow: The Major League Soccer (MLS) or the Indian Super League (ISL) are primary example of leagues where the players go to after their peaks for one last pay cheque. There is money and the football isn’t too demanding. The clubs in turn make the most out the players’ marketability through jersey and ticket sales.

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What Chinese clubs have done, much to the unhappiness of Europe, is that they have entered in the ‘title-chasers’ category and not ‘final bow’. Suddenly, the home grown clubs and the scouts have alternative option to sell, which in turn will give them leverage during a negotiation. Liverpool desperately wanted Teixeira, but Shakhtar Donetsk, would not fudge until the Reds matched the Chinese bid. Moreover, the money going into these relatively smaller clubs, will allow them to fend off approaches from top clubs.

The EPL, buoyed by a new TV rights deal, is an example of how money can level the playing field. A traditional buyer such as Chelsea or Manchester City will struggle to sign a player from Southampton today because the money the Saints are getting from the deal (which is close to what top clubs from other European clubs make). This in turn prevents the top clubs’ ability to buy off competition.

If Chinese Super League continues its trend, and one would assume that will be the case, then the likes Atletico Madrid, Sevilla, and Borussia Dortmund will have the financial security to say no to approaches from teams in the same league.

That said, the Chinese market also acts as an added insurance for the big clubs who are bound by the financial fair play (FFP) regulations. Take the case of Oscar. Chelsea bought the Brazilian from Internacional for his potential. Though he didn’t exactly flop, he never rose to the Neymar levels that were expected and was only a bench-warmer in Antonio Conte’s new look Chelsea. In short, it was a gamble that didn’t pay off for Chelsea. That is, until CSL took him in and handed Chelsea a whopping 40 million profit.

The big clubs now have the safety of not losing money on risky moves which will push them to scout talents rather than rely on other scouting clubs. If Gabriel Jesus turns out to be a flop at Manchester City, it won’t worry the City owners too much. There is the CSL who would love to get a young player of his quality. Acquiring players from big clubs is good for China too. Oscar still has the best part of his career ahead of him and is more marketable than a player bought from Shakhtar because of Chelsea’s fan base.

This will disrupt the functioning of traditional scouting clubs who will have the likes of Real Madrid and Chelsea breathing down their necks.

China is using the same method that saw its rapid rise in industrial sectors — acquiring foreign companies (clubs) and talent (in this case footballers) to improve its own. Atletico Madrid is partly owned by Chinese Billionare Wang Jianlin while Manchester City in 2015 announced a 265 million pounds deal with Chinese investors. With President Xi’s dream of turning China into a ‘soccer powerhouse’ very much a priority, rich offers from the oriental east will not be on a shortage (at least for the immediate future).

Chinese Football League promises to shake up the existing the financial system in football and throw open a plethora of opportunities (and difficulties) to clubs in Europe. Only one thing is missing in China’s top league today — the presence of a European football star.

But with the summer of 2017, this could change, with both Wayne Rooney and John Terry being eyed up. Will they open the flood-gates (and thereby change the power structure in football forever) by moving to China? Only time will tell.

David Luiz’s ‘coming of age’ as Conte’s perfect Sweeper

David Luiz featured in two of the most controversial incidents in Chelsea’s visit to Manchester City’s Eithad stadium last gameweek. First, a characteristic rush-of-blood-to-the-head moment, when he shoved off (not according to the referee though) a goal-bound Sergio Aguero. Second, when he drew an ugly tackle from Aguero, which resulted in a straight red for the Argentine, while also initiating a brawl which saw Fernandinho sent-off.
The charismatic player’s return to the Stamford bridge was supposed to be filled with these incidents –occasional brilliance (ask Chelsea fans about that night in Munich) and a lot of mediocrity. The potential was always there — brilliant control, combative in the air and a never-give-up attitude summing up the Brazilian on a good day.
But those good days were rare and his 50 millions transfer to PSG was seen as a big joke by the football fraternity. What a way to off-load a player who was seen a liability!
Yet, the ‘Geezer’ has been Chelsea defensive lynch-pin this season and barring the nudge on Aguero, is yet to do anything characteristically naive. It almost seems, after futile efforts from multiple managers, which includes Jose Mourinho’s attempt to play him as central defensive midfielder, the defender has found a new life, under the wings of Chelsea’s new coach Antonio Conte. Ever since Chelsea switched to the 3-4-3 formation after conceding three against Arsenal, David Luiz has played remarkably well, donning the role of a ‘sweeper’ in the three-man defensive-line.
So what are the reasons behind Luiz’s ‘coming of age’ in his second stint with the Blues?
Extra Protection
Chelsea’s 3-4-3 formation allows David Luiz the freedom he craves for, with Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta behind him for cover his lapses.  Luiz plays as the sweeper or ‘the libero’, tracking down forwards who move towards the midfield to receive the ball. He does not need the zonal awareness required while playing in a four-man defence. His ball-playing abilities, come into good use too, with Conte using a deep-lying playmaker, much like Leonardo Bonucci’s role for Italy in the 2016 EUROs.
With Andrea Pirlo omitted from the squad and both Marco Veratti and Claudio Marchisio missing out due to injuries, the Italian side was short of creativity in the midfield. But instead of accommodating Thiago Motta in the starting line-up, Conte handed over the play-making duties to Bonucci and played gritty box-to-box midfielders  Emanuele Giaccherini and Marco Parolo alongside Daniel de Rossi. The non-fancied team went on to be the tournament’s dark horses and was eventually beaten by Germany in penalties.
In Chelsea, the Bonucci role has been handed over to David Luiz with creative midfielder Cesc Fabregas only finding a place in the bench. And the ‘Sideshow Bob’ has excelled. With wing-backs Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso falling back while not in possession, making a  five-man defence, Luiz has the freedom to chase down loose balls or man-mark his assigned targets. The floating role also covers his biggest weakness — positional awareness.
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Luiz has also formed a great relationship with N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic –both defensive-minded midfielders — which allows him to carry the ball into the opposition half. Either of the two midfielders fall in to occupy the area left vacant by Luiz thereby  reducing chances of a quick counter-attack.
Pep’s Stones vs Conte’s Luiz
For a generation used to seeing dominant teams playing four in the back, Manchester City’s match against Chelsea was brilliant exhibition of how sweepers can be employed in football formations. John Stones was playing the traditional sweeper in the City’s back-three alongside Nicolas Otamendi and Aleksander Kolarov. This role, perhaps brought into limelight by German Franz Beckenbauer in the 1970s and the 1990 World Cup winning West Germany  team he coached, requires the sweeper to be the last line of defence before the ‘keeper. Primarily his job is to close down the space left by his teammates. The sweeper should have a great awareness of the game and must anticipate the forward’s moves. While in possession he must also have the ability to pick the right pass and initiate the counter-attack. You could see Stones sitting back while Kolarov and Otamendi challenged Diego Costa. Whenever Costa won the duel, Stones would immediately rush to stop the Spaniard.
Pep Guardiola is a coach who relies on his defenders’ ball-playing ability. He made Javier Mascherano, a defensive midfielder, into a central defender at Barcelona while at Bayern his often used Javi Martinez in the role of a sweeper. In Stones, another defender who is good with the ball at his feet, Guardiola probably sees someone who can take-over the role at Manchester City.
Conte’s Luiz takes up a slightly more advanced role though. He is not the last line of defence like the traditional sweeper, with Cahill and Azpi playing further back. This allows Luiz more freedom. And Chelsea has a specific plan for him ever match. Against Middlesbrough, his duty was to stick with Alvaro Negredo who is intimidating in the air while his defensive-mates thwarted the threats of Gaston Ramirez and Adama Traore. In the City match, Luiz double-teamed with his partners, acting as an extra shield incase the attackers find their way past Chelsea’s relatively slow defenders. As mentioned earlier, the slightly more advanced position also allows him to make forays into the midfield and link up with Matic and Kante.
Manager’s Faith
For all the criticism he received during his first spell, with former Manchester United defender Gary Neville even calling him a ’10-year-old on a PlayStation’, he was also seen by many at Chelsea, including owner Roman Abramovic, as the rightful heir to John Terry’s throne in the defence. But Mourinho did not find the Brazilian’s flamboyance to his liking and packed him off to PSG.
Now back at Chelsea, he finally seems to have the faith of the manager, who has also designed a tactic that best suits the defender’s skill-set.  Luiz also brings a certain charisma into the team and is the perfect embodiment of the common saying – “playing football with your leg is one thing, playing with your heart is another.”
The Blues will face sterner tests in the League but after an eight-match winning run, in which it has conceded only two goals, the confidence must be high in the camp, as it prepares to host Tony Pulis’ West Bromwich Albion. Luiz, though, could miss out on the match, with the defender struggling to recover from Aguero’s horror tackle.

Manchester City v Chelsea tactical preview: Wide-men hold the key

Chelsea went into the match against Tottenham having won its previous six matches in the Premier League. The Blues were undoubtedly the side in form, even though Spurs had not lost a match in the season, but the first-half of the encounter saw Mauricio Pochettino’s men command the game — a stark contrast to Chelsea’s dominating displays where it has overpowered its opponents in the first 45 minutes.

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How Manchester City might line up to counter Chelsea’s wide threat

The reason for Spurs’ successful first half was Pochettino’s brave decision to play a 4-1-4-1 formation. With Victor Wanyama sitting back and protecting the defence, midfielders Christian Eriksen and Mousa Dembele (playing higher up the field) bossed the central midfield, pressing the Chelsea players in their own half. Son Heung-min and Dele Alli took up wider positions and were successful in keeping Chelsea’s marauding wing-backs – Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso – largely at bay.

Read: Sterling: ‘I have more freedom under Guardiola’

For the first time since Antonio Conte had to switched to a three-in-the-back, Chelsea’s defence looked unsettled and conceded a goal — its first in 600-odd minutes. But having played in the midweek (Champions League), Tottenham ran out of the stamina required to play a high-pressing game and eventually let Chelsea claw its way back and win the match.

Importantly though, Spurs had revealed a way to dismantle the resolute Chelsea defence and through it, stifle its attack — something that would have made the tactician inside Pep Guardiola lick his lips. Even more so because it is a formation that he has already tried and tested to good effect at Manchester City.

Read: Guardiola: ‘Conte maybe the best in the world’

The Sky Blues host Chelsea at the Etihad on Saturday and coach Guardiola will be eyeing to go one over Conte — a manager who has stolen the plaudits in the first-half of the Premier League season for re-shaping a side that failed miserably in its title defencelast season. Conte reveals admiration for Guardiola philosophy

Conte’s Chelsea plays a 3-4-3 formation that uses wide men to great effect. Moses and Alonso, make up the two extra men when Chelsea attack, taking up wide positions, allowing Eden Hazard and Pedro to cut-inside and go one-on-one with the central defenders. While defending, the two players occupy a traditional full-back position, making it a five-man back-line.

Such has been the efficacy of Conte’s system that he has played the same team and won the last seven matches. Ronald Koeman and Everton tried to counter the formation by playing a 5-man defense but the London team ran riot and scored a staggering five goals in the match.

Stability leads to predictability?

But there is a chink in the Chelsea’s apparently flawless defensive armour.

While Cesar Azpilicueta and Gary Cahill are incredibly gifted defenders, they lack the ball-playing skills and composure required to pave their way through a high-pressing attack. This was perhaps best highlighted in Chelsea’s matches against Liverpool and Arsenal — two teams who pressed early and had natural pace.

Chelsea likes to build play from the back but if the defenders are pressed early, they are prone to errors. This was highlighted by the many instances Azpilicueta was robbed off the ball by Tottenham. With Son and Alli marking the wing-backs tightly, the two defenders were denied the easy way out with the pressure the defenders to play aimless balls into the midfield or conceding throws.

City has natural width and pace in Raheem Sterling, Nolito, Leroy Sane and Jesus Navas. If the wide-men can keep Moses and Alonso busy, City’s central midfielders can then have a crack at Azpilicueta and Cahill, who also lack in pace. Sergio Aguero chases down everything in and around the penalty box and the Chelsea defenders will have a handful to deal with.

The problem for Chelsea is the lack of an alternative plan. The ‘keeper can’t clear the ball because winning high-ball is solely Diego Costa’s duty, considering how weak Hazard and Pedro are in that department. If John Stones or another central defender sticks to the Spaniard, Conte’s men might struggle to initiate an attack.

Considering how low young Nathaniel Chalobah and Ruben Loftus-Cheek — both considerably good in the air — are in the pecking order, the easiest option for Conte would be to push Nemanja Matic slightly higher up in midfield and mirror the 4-1-4-1 formation, with N’Golo Kante playing pivot.

Read: Guardiola wary of Costa and Pedro

While the tall Serb can be an outlet for the ‘keeper, it will leave a massive hole in the midfield which the likes of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne will exploit.

That said, the 4-1-4-1 will leave Fernandinho as the only line of protection ahead of the defenders, something the in-form trio of Hazard, Pedro and Costa will enjoy. Guardiola has used the 4-2-3-1 formation recently and has the option of playing a double-pivot of Fernandinho and Ilkay Gundogan. The tactics will allow more freedom to the Chelsea wingers though. But considering the Guardiola’s philosophy, he is more likely to take the attack to the opposition than try to counter.

An interesting proposition, albeit quite unheard of in football, would be for the ever-tinkering Guardiola to play a 3-2-4-1 formation.

The double pivot of Fernandinho and Gundogan will provide protection to defence and also aid in making play from the back. A three-man defence (John Stones, Alexander Kolarov and Nicholas Otamendi) will also be aided by the wide men in defence. The formation also follows Johan Cruyff’s idea of total football where the team has, while attacking or defending, at least one player more than the opponent. The tactics will also allow City’s best players to be on the field at the same time.

On paper, the flexible City side certainly has an advantage over Chelsea, which will in all-likeliness use the same set of players and the same formation it used against Tottenham last weekend . That said, when has football ever been about what’s on the paper.

‘Theatre of dreams’ or an arena of nightmares?

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When Manchester United appointed Jose Mourinho as its new manager in the summer, it did not come as a surprise for football fans across the world. After all, the inevitable had happened. The manager, who has always been open about his love for the Red Devils and who supposedly cried after Sir Alex Ferguson overlooked him for the job in 2013, had finally arrived at the ‘Theatre of Dreams’. The script was perfect too — the self-proclaimed ‘Special One’ at a club in desperate need of success after seasons of under-performances.

THE ARTICLE FIRST GOT PUBLISHED ON SPORTSTAR – READ

Yet, the alliance between the two, which saw the bookmakers marking Manchester United as favourite to win the English Premier League title at the start of the season, has not achieved the kind of results it had hoped to. In his first 16 games as United’s manager, Mourinho’s record is worse than that of his predecessors, Louis van Gaal and David Moyes.

Mourinho’s biggest problem, perhaps, lies in his own rigidity — an unwillingness to adapt to circumstances, largely due to his staunch belief in self. His stints across clubs (Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid) suggest that the Portuguese, while being a master of moulding well-oiled teams to execute his plan, can sometimes be caught off-guard when his ‘Plan A’ falters.

Take Chelsea’s Champions League battles with Paris Saint-Germain in the past seasons for example. A team that completely dominated the EPL playing a 4-2-3-1 (Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic forming the midfield pivot) failed to stop a 10-man PSG in 2015. Mourinho failed to adopt an attacking approach after PSG went a man down in the early minutes and instead relied on his first-choice plan — to sit back and counter. This allowed the men from Paris to dominate possession and go through on ‘away goals’.

Mourinho picks (buys) players who fit into his formation. He then trains them to perfection and turns them into a winning combination. Every player in the team knows what he is required to do. The problem that Mourinho is facing at United is he does not have the players required to execute his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation — a strategy that more and more football managers are ditching due to its demand for discipline.

Looking at the past for answers

The good thing about football, though, is that most answers can be had from the past. And if United’s match against Arsenal on November 19 is any indication, Mourinho seems to have found the answer to his team’s recent troubles in two outfits that dominated the EPL in the last two decades — Chelsea, which he managed to Premier League titles in 2004-05 and 2005-06, and Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United of 2006-09.

Mourinho started the match with a 4-3-3 (4-1-2-3) formation instead of his much-preferred 4-2-3-1. The formation had a fluid front three of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial (later Wayne Rooney) and Juan Mata constantly interchanging their positions. This was very similar to Ferguson’s front three of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez (sometimes Park Ji-sung).

In the midfield, Mourinho had Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba occupying a more advanced role with Michael Carrick sitting back to protect the defence. This was reminiscent of Mourinho’s Chelsea with Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Claude Makelele.

Ferguson, perhaps, opted for the front three to best utilise the forwards in his team. Neither Rooney nor Tevez were the traditional ‘big’ strikers and were instead forwards who relied on quick feet and pace to score goals. Ronaldo, who started as a winger in a 4-4-2 system, was also showing tendencies to cut inside from the flanks and score goals. All three forwards were versatile. They not only had the ability to play on the flanks but also were capable of tracking back, thereby allowing Ferguson to play a very dynamic front-three, who constantly drew the defenders out of their positions.

Mourinho’s decision, though, could have been dictated by circumstances. Even though he has a big forward in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Swedish striker’s ability has considerably waned since the time they were together before at Inter Milan. (At Inter Milan, Mourinho played the 4-3-3 and Ibrahimovic scored 25 goals). United also lacks quality wingers who can feed the strikers. Mourinho has already tried Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial, Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the wide positions, but all have shown a tendency to cut inside and move towards the centre. At Inter Milan, Mourinho had the luxury of his fullbacks, Maxwell and Maicon, helping the strikers in attacks. However, at United, barring the occasional brilliance of Antonio Valencia, none of the fullbacks has lived up to Mourinho’s expectation.

In his first season at Chelsea, Mourinho did not have the same quality of fullbacks (William Gallas/ Wayne Bridge/ Paulo Ferreira) but had natural wingers in Arjen Robben, Joe Cole and Damien Duff. That allowed his fullbacks to sit back and concentrate more on the defence.

Mourinho’s insistence on playing the 4-2-3-1 formation also put immense pressure on the wingers. The tactic demands discipline from the wide-men, who not only have to help in defence but also be part of the attack. This is something that players such as Eden Hazard and Ronaldo found difficult to perform. By playing 4-3-3, Mourinho has eased the pressure on his attackers, the extra central midfielder tracking back to support the defence.

Mourinho’s switch to 4-3-3 or 4-1-2-3 is an attempt to get the best out of the world’s most expensive player. Pogba has failed as No. 10 or as a part of the two-man midfield pivot in the 4-2-3-1 formation. Though the Frenchman has the vision and the athleticism to thrive in the role, he has often struggled with the extra defensive responsibilities put on him. This was highlighted at EURO 2016 where Pogba failed to team up with N’Golo Kante to good effect. France’s manager Didier Deschamps, as a result, was forced to add Moussa Sissoko in the team to strike a balance in the midfield.

United’s new formation also allows the team’s best outfield player of this season, Ander Herrera, to have a greater impact. The Spaniard has shone brightly whenever given the role of the attacking midfielder in the double-pivot of the 4-2-3-1 formation. But he has to do the bulk of the defensive duties while partnering Pogba in the role, which stifles Herrera’s attacking prowess.

Mourinho has therefore inverted the midfield pyramid in the last few matches to bring some much-wanted stability, though the late goal United conceded against Arsenal is certainly a blot on an otherwise dominant performance.

To be fair, Mourinho did try playing the formation after his derby defeat to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. But against Watford, he did not have the right players to execute the 4-3-3 to perfection. Rooney teamed up with Pogba as the attacking central midfielders, with Marouane Fellaini sitting back. The Belgian, though physically strong and great in the air, is not a natural defensive midfielder and was found wanting in so many instances. By replacing Fellaini and Rooney with Herrera and Carrick, Mourinho had decoded a formation that best suits his current line-up of players.

Second season wonder

History shows us that Mourinho usually delivers his best in his second season. In his first year (with any team), he gauges his team’s ability, draws up a plan that will work and instils the winning mentality in his players. However, it is in the summer that follows the first season that the Portuguese’s team is at its best.

As the table, ‘Mourinho’s season of success’, suggests, there has never been a second season at a club where the Portuguese hasn’t delivered. The key here is that Mourinho found a formation that worked for each league and then built a team around it.

In his first stint at Chelsea, Mourinho played the 4-3-3 formation to lead the Blues to successive Premier League titles. The 4-1-2-3 formation, with French midfielder Claude Makelele anchoring the midfield, introduced a new line to English football that was still fixated on the 4-4-2. Makelele, positioned between the defenders and midfielders, was an anomaly in English football that preferred having central midfielders alongside each other. It must be said that the formation would have been successful only if the team’s striker was a bully capable of handling two defenders at a time, and in Didier Drogba the manager had the ideal candidate.

At Inter, Mourinho inherited a team that was custom made to defend, with the attacking duties solely on Ibrahimovic and an untamed Mario Balotelli. But the manager decided to sell his prized asset to Barcelona after his first year and used the money to buy world class players, who went on to play a major part in the club’s run to Champions League glory. Most importantly, Mourinho’s second season saw a tactical shift. He switched from the Serie A-winning 4-3-3 (with Ibrahimovic) to the 4-2-3-1 system for the first time in his career — another tactical change to suit the needs of the league.

With Mourinho looking to have finally found a formation that suits the demands of the EPL, the next few transfer windows will prove crucial, for the manager will be recruiting players, who would fit into his new tactics, in the hope of guiding Manchester United back to its glory days.