Saturday, August 15, 2015

The European Through Ball Vol. 4

On this edition, some reflections on an entertaining day of football in Europe. Everton put in a thorough performance at St. Mary's, Spurs do what Spurs usually do, Stephen Ireland turns back the clock, Thomas Tuchel has a dream start in the battle of the Borussia's and Lyon get a lucky break to beat Guingamp.

Southampton 0 Everton 3
  • An excellent display by the Toffees was underpinned by a couple of factors. Ross Barkley was excellent running with the ball in dangerous areas, threading accurate passes through to the forwards and topping it off with a composed finish for Everton's third goal. More importantly for the Blues, it's been a while since Romelu Lukaku has looked at his best. Roberto Martinez must realize that using Lukaku out wide might be effective as a surprise tactic every now and then, but ultimately the Belgian is in the team to deliver goals. With Lukaku playing in the centre, all he had to focus on was finishing, which is what he did with two different goals. The first, a good sideways header to finish Arouna Kone's excellent cross and the second, a confident left-footed strike after a good through ball by Ross Barkley. Not many forwards are going to score a brace away to Southampton and if Lukaku can replicate this level of performance consistently, Everton may still finish in the top seven.
  • Arouna Kone has had a frustrating time since joining Everton two years ago. Now free of his injury troubles and a full pre-season behind him, the Ivorian might just have a crucial role to play in the Toffees season. Having scored on the opening day of the season after coming off the bench, Kone put in another impressive performance. He dovetailed effectively with Lukaku and managed to find good spaces to run into, always providing a good outlet for Everton's midfielders. Kone may not get the headlines, but his unheralded work-rate could prove to be effective if Everton are to win more games against the better teams. 
  • As good as Everton were, Southampton were poor on many different counts. The fact that Saints have already conceded five goals in two games is a worry. It's clear to see that being partnered next to Maya Yoshida in stead of Toby Alderweireld has had a negative impact on Jose Fonte. Southampton are now back to the original pairing of centre-backs they had when they first got promoted back to the Premier League. The partnership wasn't good enough then and it isn't now. Saints fans will hope that the signing of Virgil Van Dijk from Celtic is completed sooner rather than later or it could be hard to replicate last season's success let alone build on it. Meanwhile, the play up front was also pedestrian for the most part. Though Saints had more possession than Everton they were unable to do anything meaningful with the ball, relying excessively on right-back Cedric and Dusan Tadic to cross the ball into the box. Jordy Clasie was signed as Morgan Schneiderlin's replacement and the hope must be that once the Dutch international returns from injury, Southampton will revert to a more composed style of play rather than the harum-scarum style witnessed during the home opener at St. Mary's.
Tottenham 2 Stoke 2
  • In keeping with the game, let's start with Tottenham's positives. The interplay between Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen and Nacer Chadli was excellent. The trio created chances for each other with some fantastic passes and the only pity was that Spurs didn't score more when they were in the ascendancy. Furthermore, the trio pressed from the front once again, ensuring Spurs more of the ball in dangerous areas. It must be comforting for new signing Clinton Njie that he will have the opportunity to settle into an attack that is already creating chances. With the talented Cameroonian now in his ranks, at least Mauricio Pochettino has a failsafe if he feels the need to change one of his front three, rather than the complete unravelling that took place against Stoke after the substitution of Kane.
  • It feels like eons ago when Stephen Ireland was actually the most creative midfielder at Manchester City. Today's performance coming off the bench was a reminder of the talent that Ireland possesses. Ireland's passing changed the complexion of the match completely. Passing with 95% accuracy, Ireland enabled Stoke to completely bypass Tottenham's midfield. He created a couple of great chances culminating in the assist for the equalizer and could have possibly headed in a winning goal as well. It's hard to believe that Ireland is still only 28. If Mark Hughes can coax such performances more regularly, Ireland could well be a better choice than Charlie Adam in midfield as his pass and move style is best suited to a continental style that the manager is trying to implement at Stoke.
  • While Ireland and Stoke walk away with the plaudits, it must concern Pochettino that his side were so easily overturned in the last half an hour of a match at home. White Hart Lane has to be a banker for Spurs if they want to improve on last season, but it's hard to see Spurs succeeding with the options they currently have in central midfield. Eric Dier, Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb may all turn out to be mainstays in the club's future, but dominating central midfielders they are not. Playing one of the trio is not unreasonable, but Spurs are in serious need of a top-notch orchestrator to take make them more solid in the centre of the park. As things stand, neither is the Spurs midfield acting as a base for attack nor as a shield for the defence.
Borussia Dortmund 4 Borussia Monchengladbach 0
  • In a league that is guaranteed to be won by Bayern Munich, the greatest curiosity around the opening week of the season was centred on how Thomas Tuchel's reign at the Signal Iduna Park would start. Would Tuchel be able to inspire Borussia Dortmund after the iconic reign of Jurgen Klopp? On first impressions, the answer is a resounding yes. While the pressing was reminiscent of Klopp's team at their best, the passing was more accurate and the control of the game seemed less frantic. Every single player performed exceptionally. Marco Reus led from the front, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang won almost every sprint, Henrik Mkhitaryan picked up great positions, Ilkay Gundogan looked like he is finally over his injury troubles and the 19-year old Julian Weigl was so calm while distributing the ball from the base of midfield. Tougher challenges await Tuchel, but a positive start after the nightmares of last season was crucial. The new manager can be pleased with the performance of his stars.
  • After this performance it would be hard to believe that Borussia Monchengladbach finished third last season and are looking forward to the group stages of the Champions League. Lucien Favre's men, usually so organized and hard to break down, were overrun from the first minute to the final whistle. The experienced Swiss manager will certainly convince his players that this was a one-off and not every team in the Bundesliga will match the firepower of Dortmund. The bigger challenge that Favre faces is how to build on last season's achievements.  The Foals are going to need more than just discipline and organization to compete on two fronts. Realistically Gladbach are not competing for trophies, but the aim has to be a consistent top four place along with incremental success in Europe. To ensure that takes place, the club have to add some stardust to the squad.
  • It would be natural for fans of Dortmund to take this season one step at a time. Yet, if the club is honest with itself, an immediate return to the Champions League spots has to be the aim. In addition to the stars in the starting eleven today, Dortmund had Sven Bender, Gonzalo Castro, Adrian Ramos and Kevin Kampl on the bench, while Nuri Sahin and Neven Subotic are a few weeks away from full fitness. It doesn't have the depth of Bayern Munich, but Dortmund's squad is easily good enough to come second in the league while going on a deep run in the Europa League. An exciting season at the Signal Iduna awaits.
Guingamp 0 Lyon 1
  • Lyon welcomed back Maxime Gonalons in the centre of midfield after his suspension. However, it was another welcome that grabbed the headlines. Mathieu Valbuena has returned to France by joining the runners-up. The experienced attacking midfielder is a great addition to the squad and his experience and skill will come in handy as Lyon compete on two fronts. Valbuena looked at home just behind Alexandre Lacazette and once he is more settled we can expect plenty of thrills from this exciting attack.
  • Guingamp were excellent, playing with the spirit and verve that has become the hallmark of this exciting team. Regardless of the calibre of their opponents, Jocelyn Gourvennec's men always like to play on the front foot. They posed Lyon plenty of problems and were unfortunate to not get at least a point. Nicolas Benezet troubled both Jeremy Morel and Rafael on the flanks and sent in several teasing balls that troubled Samuel Umtiti and Milan Bisevac. What Gourvennec wouldn't have given for last season's top scorer Claudio Beauvue to be on the end of those crosses? In a cruel twist of fate it was Beauvue who ended up scoring the winner for Lyon against his former club. It's tempting to be downbeat about Guingamp's chances this season, but this club have a habit of fighting against the odds. Expect another season of survival for the Northwestern team.
  • Lyon's young attacking talents had another frustrating afternoon. While Messrs Fekir, Lacazette, Ferri and Tolisso get up to speed, Lyon have been saved from defeat by the excellence of their centre-backs and goalkeeper. Umtiti put in another solid performance and with the addition of Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Lyon could conceivably have a long-term partnership between two French international centre-backs. However, the star in this match was Anthony Lopes. The 24-year old goalkeeper was excellent with some close-range blocks, topping it off with a superb save in stoppage time to ensure Lyon left with the three points. Lopes is the kind of solid goalkeeper who will probably will win Lyon many more points this season when the forwards draw a blank. The battle for the No.1 spot in France's Euro 2016 squad could shape up to be very interesting between Lopes and Hugo Lloris.

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