Saturday, August 8, 2015

The European Through Ball Vol. 1

This entry starts a new feature on the blog. "The European Through Ball" will be my reflections on the matches I watch across the continent. In the first edition, some thoughts on Manchester United's scrappy win over Tottenham, Everton and Chelsea drawing at home to start the season in entertaining fashion, a Derby de la Côte d'Azur that had everything and new season, same old Marseille.

Manchester United 1 Tottenham 0

  • When United signed Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin in the summer many hailed it as the long overdue reconstruction of their central midfield. With the German national captain still not completely match fit, it was Scheiderlin who was first on the hot seat alongside Michael Carrick. In theory, it's a pairing that should enable United to hold on to possession and dictate the flow of the game. In actuality it was anything but, as the duo were consistently hustled off the ball by Spurs effective pressing. If anything, the Red Devils ceded even more control when Schweinsteiger came on for Carrick, with his only contribution being a rash foul that resulted in a yellow card. Until everyone is up to speed, it might just be wise for Louis Van Gaal to build his midfield around Ander Herrera. The Spaniard's fluidity will at least provide better options when linking with the front three.
  • Meanwhile Spurs started with a midfield pivot of Nabil Bentaleb and Eric Dier. Playing Dier as a defensive midfielder may have been a corrective measure by Mauricio Pochettino. The Englishman was often beaten for pace when playing in the back four last season. Dier was tidy without being spectacular, but Bentaleb was disappointing. The Algerian rarely provided the right balls for Spurs attacking quartet and it was his woeful pass that led to United breaking away for the winning goal. Pochettino will likely provide the duo with more chances, but the feeling remains that Spurs could do with a central midfielder of a higher level than Bentaleb.
  • Both teams have problems to sort out as far as firepower is concerned. Wayne Rooney barely touched the ball at Old Trafford but he was hardly at fault. There wasn't much in terms of creativity behind him. Juan Mata was the only United player who looked capable of creating opportunities. Memphis Depay struggled on his first start in the league and there were few if any flashes of dribbling or acceleration by the new signing. Outside of the assist for the winning goal, Ashley Young showed little to justify his recently signed contract extension.
  • On the other hand, Spurs' front four were actually creative but failed to capitalize on their chances. To their credit, Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen, Nacer Chadli and Moussa Dembele all pressed really well throughout the match. However, Spurs really have to bolster their attack with a player that can share the goalscoring burden with Kane. All the pressing in the world will be futile if Spurs can't finish their chances.
  • There was a debutant in defence for each side. Matteo Darmian fitted in seamlessly on his first start for United. The Italian national right-back was comfortable on the ball and was a constant attacking outlet on the right. He also tracked back well and was rarely beaten in a one-on-one situation. In fact, it was noticeable that Spurs attacked down United's left but switched to the right as soon as Antonia Valencia came on for Darmian. Despite it being only one game, Darmian looks a step up on the recently departed Rafael as well as the makeshift options of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones.
  • As good as Darmian was,the best debutant on display was Toby Alderweireld. It might have been a messy transfer including a lot of wrangling with Southampton, but on the evidence of his first start, Spurs will consider all the hassle worth it. After seeing Jan Vertonghen paired with the likes of Michael Dawson, Younes Kaboul and Vlad Chiriches, Spurs fans will be delighted to finally see another international centre back in the team. Alderweireld and Vortenghen had a natural understanding together in the heart of defence. Not only were they barely troubled by United's forwards, but also launched several good diagonal balls and passes, contributing to the attacking side of the game. If Alderweireld sustains the form he showed last season for Southampton, Spurs can expect to have a more sustainable challenge for a top four spot this season.

Everton 2 Watford 2

  • Everton came back from behind twice in the match, however the result can't be disguised as anything other than a disappointment. Starting the season at home against a newly promoted team provided Everton the opportunity to get their campaign off on a positive note. In stead, it was a Toffees performance that was laboured for the most part. The squad needs investment and refreshment and that, just to make the top ten. A repeat of the heroics in 2013/14 already look a world away for this team.
  • For all the hype around Ross Barkley he still hasn't produced a whole season of consistent performances. Barkley struggled for most of the match, misplacing simple passes along with attempting some outrageous shots. His goal was a long overdue moment of inspiration. One hopes that it kickstarts a season of consistent excellence for the talented midfielder.
  • Watford gave an excellent account of themselves on their return to the Premier League. A point at Goodison is not to be scoffed at. Quique Sanchez Flores' teams are always organized and hard to beat, but are also tactically aware to expose their opponents weaknesses. They showed excellent awareness and opportunism in scoring their goals. Flores has a squad with a good mix of physicality and finesse. Etienne Capoue, Sebastian Prodl, Valon Behrami and Jose Holebas are more than up for a scrap, while Jose Jurado, Almen Abdi, Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney provide the guile and goals. With the Pozzo family in charge, Flores can also count on strengthening in January if needed. All signs point to a good season at Vicarage Road.
  • Welcome back Heurelho Gomes! The Brazilian goalkeeper may well be remembered for his eccentricities and mistakes from his time at Spurs, but it can't be denied that Gomes is pure box office. There aren't many who do spectacular saves like Gomes. He pulled off some really good stops to deny Everton and couldn't have done anything to prevent either goal. He did provide footballing theatre when he came for crosses, fumbling a few here, parrying a few there. There might well be some dropped points thanks to Gomes, but in this observer's eyes, his entertainment value to the league is a welcome boost.

Chelsea 2 Swansea 2

  • There will be a lot of debate (most of which will be created by Jose Mourinho himself) around Thibaut Courtois' sending off and penalty, but the truth is that this was the same Chelsea seen in the second half of last season. Even before going a man down, Swansea played the better football and only the extremely partisan fan wouldn't admit that the Blues were lucky to be ahead. Chelsea may well be the team to beat this season, but it certainly isn't because they play the most dominating football. It's hard to see anything other than another season of pragmatic football at the Bridge.
  • There is no clearer argument about Chelsea's pragmatism than the continued selection of Willian. The Brazilian is almost universally praised for his work rate, speed and defensive qualities, but how much has he actually contributed in attack? 6 goals and 6 assists in 61 games are not statistics of an excellent attacking player. It's hard to see Chelsea being more entertaining or troubling the best teams with Willian remaining in the side.
  • While neutrals and supporters will always debate Chelsea's style of play, Swansea continue to play in a fashion that wins admirers. The Swans took the game to the Champions from the get go. Jefferson Montero consistently beat Bratislava Ivanovic with pace and trickery, while Andre Ayew and Bafetimbi Gomis ensured John Terry and Gary Cahill were always on their toes with their dangerous movement. Even in midfield, Jonjo Shelvey was executing some delightful through balls for his forwards. The only regret Garry Monk may have is that after playing against 10 men for half an hour, Swansea were unable to conjure a rare away win at Stamford Bridge.
  • Mourinho often spews rubbish but his claim that teams throughout the league are now signing better players is accurate. With a front three of Ayew, Gomis and Montero, Swansea can feel confident of upsetting any big team whether it be home or away. There are a few other teams who are also assembling similar levels of firepower. It certainly makes for a more exciting league, but importantly one hopes that it enables managers to be enterprising rather than keeping the standard mentality of keeping ten men behind the ball against the big teams.

Nice 1 Monaco 2

  • Where does one start in a match that had everything? 4 substitutions in the first half, a red card, chances galore, Hatem Ben Arfa, Stephan El Shaarawy, great finishes, scrappy goals and on and on. This match simply had it all. The derby of the French Riviera was a fantastic watch, a reminder that great football can be witnessed in any of Europe's top leagues.
  • Leonardo Jardim did a fantastic job at Monaco last season after a rocky start. In addition to reaching the quarterfinals in the Champions League, Monaco had a great second half to the season culminating in a third place finish they had no right to at the beginning of January. Key behind the renaissance was the flourishing understanding between Anthony Martial and Bernardo Silva. The duo were at it again as they combined beautifully for a well-worked equalizer. After impressing for Portugal at the U-21 Euros and continuing his fine domestic form, it's hard to see Silva staying at Monaco for too long. If the young Portuguese helps his team past Valencia in the Champions League playoff, expect Monaco to make a huge profit on the skilful playmaker.
  • Many fans amongst the Monaco faithful were unhappy with the club's decision to loan Valere Germain to Nice. Germain played a big role in helping Monaco gain promotion back to Ligue 1 and many fans identified with him before the big stars arrived at the club. Monaco's loss is Nice's gain. The forward showed his finishing prowess when he sneaked in at the last moment to bury an exquisite strike to give Nice the lead. If it wasn't for Nice being down to 10 men, Germain could have been the match-winner. Nice can certainly build on their 11th place finish last season if Germain keeps scoring. One gets the feeling the striker will enjoy leading the line in less pressured surroundings.
  • So, what about two of football's mercurial talents? Hatem Ben Arfa finally got to make his debut for Nice after signing in January. The Frenchman clearly looked rusty albeit much fitter during his time at Newcastle. Other than a few poorly delivered set-pieces Ben Arfa didn't contribute much to the game. It may be a while before he is anything close to his best, but Nice at least feels like the right environment to build up Ben Arfa's confidence. Confidence is not something Stephan El Shaarawy lacks. The young Italian came on in the 40th minute and was constantly involved in Monaco's attacking moves. There was a penchant for overhead kicks at every cross, with one inadvertently becoming an assist for Layvin Kurzawa's match-winning goal. Shaarawy looked energized playing away from the constant pressure of AC Milan and at the very least, he brings another dimension and unpredictability to Monaco's attack. It's going to be interesting to watch how Ben Arfa and Shaarawy's campaigns unfold the rest of the Ligue 1 season.

Marseille 0 Caen 1

  • With the departures of Andre-Pierre Gignac, Dmitri Payet and Andrew Ayew in the summer, Marcelo Bielsa lost 43 goals from his Marseille team. The responsibility of filling Gignac's shoes now fall on Michy Batshuayi. So how did the young Belgian do? In fairness, Batshuayi actually played really well. He had two shots on target that were denied by the excellence of Remy Vercoutre (why is he not keeping at a bigger club?) and held the ball up really well while creating space for attacking midfielders. Despite drawing a blank in the season opener, Batshuayi is certain to provide goals as long as others in the team create chances.
  • Replacing Ayew and Payet however, may be much trickier for Bielsa. Abdelaziz Barrada and Florian Thauvin have the guile, but lack the speed of Ayew and Payet which was so crucial to Marseille's fast break. To execute Bielsa's tactics the players need to have speed for pressing opponents and creating chances on the counter. In the current setup it's hard to identify players that can replicate the impact of Ayew and Payet.
  • Another player that is going to be missed at the Velodrome is Gianelli Imbula. The young Frenchman was the breakout star of Ligue 1 last season and his sale to Porto was a bitter pill to swallow for Marseille fans. Despite Mario Lemina and Alaixys Romao's best efforts, the midfield had neither the thrust nor creativity that Imbula provided last season. Lemina did at least create some chances with some good long-range shots, but throughout the match it seemed like there was a big gaping hole in the home team's midfield.
  • One defeat isn't the end of the world. Only last season, Marseille started with one point from their first three games. Bielsa has the ability to turn it around. However, like most of his second seasons, the bigger question is whether Bielsa can adapt? Having seen six first-team regulars depart, the Argentinian's style is not the easiest for new players to immediately switch to. Can he compromise for a slightly slower style with intermittent pressing? It's an intriguing question. The other challenge is squad depth. Will the gambles taken on Abou Diaby and Lassana Diarra pay off when they are match fit? These are the questions on which Marseille's season hang. As always there promises to be drama and intrigue at the Velodrome!

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