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.

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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.

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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.

4-3-3 : Mourinho’s solution to his Manchester blues?

Like most things in life, football formations have a history of going in cycles. And if yesterday’s match against Arsenal is anything to go by, Jose Mourinho has found his answer to Manchester United’s recent troubles, in two teams that dominated the last two decades of English football — his own Chelsea squad that won consecutive Premier League titles in 2004-06 and Sir Alex Fergusson’s Manchester United of 2006-09.

The Portguese manager started the match with a 4-3-3 (4-1-2-3) formation, opting to not go with 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, very similar to Sir Alex’s front-three of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez (sometimes Park Ji-sung). In the midfield, he had Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba occupying a more advanced role while Michael Carrick sat back protecting the defence, reminiscent to Mourinho’s Chelsea team with Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Claude Makelele.

The dynamic front three

Sir Alex perhaps used 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 their 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 highly versatile, with the ability to play in the flanks and most importantly, happy to track back, allowing Ferguson to play a very dynamic front-three, constantly drawing the defenders out of their positions.

Mourinho’s decision, though, could have been borne out of circumstances. Even though he has a big forward in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the striker’s ability has considerably waned since their one season together at Inter Milan (where Mourinho played the 4-3-3 and Ibrahimovic scored 25 goals). The team 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. In his Inter Milan team, Mourinho had the luxury of having full-backs Maxwell and Maicon aiding the attacks, but barring occasional performances from Antonio Valencia, none of Manchester United’s full-backs have lived upto Mourinho’s expectation.

At Chelsea, he did not have the same quality in full-backs (William Gallas/ Wayne Bridge/ Paulo Ferreira) but had natural wingers in Arjen Robben, Joe Cole and Damien Duff.  That meant his full-backs could sit back and concentrate more on the defence.

Addressing Pogba concerns

The pressure on the wingers had also been compounded by Mourinho’s insistence on playing a 4-2-3-1 formation until now. The tactics require the wingers to be disciplined, helping out in defence, while also being a major force in attack – something the likes of Eden Hazard and Cristiano Ronaldo found hard. By playing a 4-3-3, Mourinho has eased the pressure on his attackers, the extra central midfielder tracking back to support the defence.

Mourinho’s shift to 4-3-3 or a 4-1-2-3, similar to what he used during his first stint at Chelsea, is also a bid to get the best out the World’s most expensive player. Pogba has failed in his roles as number 10 or as a part of the two-man midfield pivot in the 4-2-3-1 formation. Though Pogba 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 the EURO 2016 when Pogba failed to partner N’Golo Kante to good effect. Didier Deschamps had to then bring in Moussa Sissoko to add balance in the midfield. This could also be down to Pogba’s years in Juventus where he developed into a world-class footballer. The team used to play a midfield duo of Aturo Vidal, Claudio Marchisio (who replaced Andrea Pirlo in the role) alongside Pogba, both defensively sound technically-gifted players, which gave him the license to roam box-to-box.

The new formation also allows Manchester United’s best outfield player of this season — Ander Herrera — to have a greater impact. The Spaniard has shone brightly whenever he has been given the role of the more attacking-minded midfielder in the double-pivot of a 4-2-3-1. But he has to do the bulk of the defensive duties when he partners Pogba in the role, which stifles his attacking-side.

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

To be fair, Mourinho did try playing the formation after his team’s derby loss against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. But against Watford, he had the wrong players required to execute the 4-3-3 to perfection. He had Rooney team-up with Pogba, while Fellaini guarded the defence. The Belgian, though physically strong and great in the air, isn’t a natural defensive midfielder and was found wanting in so many instances. By replacing Fellaini and Rooney with Herrera and Carrick, Mourinho has decoded a formation that best suits his current line-up of players.

A draw against Arsenal isn’t something that would please Mourinho, but his team dominated the Gunners yesterday, and was perhaps a tad unlucky to not to have earned all three points.

Mourinho is a manager who gets things done his way, so it remains to be seen whether he will persist with the 4-3-3 formation in the long-run. But for now, he seems to have found a solution to United’s early season problems.