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Pep Guardiola

Kickoff

in Futbol by
pep

The Premier League is back. Back because the league starts another season today, but also back because the addition of star talent on the pitch and on the sideline has rejuvenated a league that saw 5,000-to-1 underdogs Leicester City capture the title. The Foxes were amazing story, but the traditional powers have reloaded and retooled and are poised regain their grasp on the Premier League.

But first, here are the teams I have pegged for relegation.

The Bottom Three

18. Sunderland – The Black Cats needed CPR-certified Big Sam Allardyce to rescue them from relegation last season and even though David Moyes is a solid manager who you wouldn’t expect to lead a bottom three side, the team hasn’t been improved enough from last season to avoid another relegation scare. Moyes did snag Adnan Januzaj, whose hype was at its peak during Moyes’ United tenure, on a loan deal, and Jermain Defoe is still capable of banging in 15-20 goals up top, but I am not sure the squad has enough goals in it to stay up.

19. Burnley – Burnley were a powerhouse down the stretch of the Championship season last year, but they return to the Premier League without reinforcing the squad enough to challenge for a spot in the league next season. If Andre Gray, who some peg as the next Jamie Vardy, can approach the same form he had last season during his 23-goal campaign, Burnley will have a chance to stay in the top flight, but the rest of the team doesn’t have enough quality to survive in the Premier League, even if they do have tremendous chemistry.

20. Hull City – The Tigers enter the season in turmoil. Manager Steve Bruce has abandoned the team after the club’s owners refused to spend any money on new signings, instead opting to sell first-choice players to Championship teams, and Hull City start the Premier League season with only 13 fit first-team players. There is some quality within the team, but nowhere near enough to compete in the Premier League without proper depth and management.

The Top Four

4. Liverpool – Jurgen Klopp enters his second season at Anfield having adjusted his squad to better suit his aggressive, tireless and entertaining brand of football. Sadio Mane looks an excellent signing and a perfect fit for the new Liverpool; he’s got barrels of pace, the desire to press hard for an entire match and a good goal-scoring touch. Clop also added a few former Bundesliga opponents to bolster his defense, mainly Joel Matip from Schalke and Ragnar Klavan from Augsburg. Joe Allen, who didn’t fit Klopp’s style, and Jordan Ibe are gone, but without the distraction of European football, Liverpool will be able to challenge for a Champions League spot.

3. Arsenal – There is still time for Arsene Wenger to reverse the comical trend of his frugal transfer policy keeping Arsenal from competing for the title and the Champions League. The Gunners start the season with major holes at striker and center back, though rumors suggest Wenger is on the verge of signing Mustafi from Valencia, which would drastically improve the team’s defense.

That would still leave Arsenal without a top striker, though. Theo Walcott has said he prefers life on the right wing, meaning Olivier Girioud is once again Arsenal’s reluctant first-choice striker. Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette and Inter’s Marou Icardi are intriguing options for the Gunners, but thus far Wenger has deemed their price tags too high.

It would be unfortunate for Wenger’s stinginess to spoil what is likely his final season at the Emirates. He has made an excellent signing this summer in Granit Xhaka, who will boss the midfield for the Gunners and add a vertical dimension to the team with his long passing, but even though Arsenal have a strong starting XI, they will fall short of the pair of teams from Manchester without adding another big player.

2. Manchester United – The arrivals of Jose Mourinho, Zlatan Ibrahomivic, Henrik Mkhitaryan and, most expensively, Paul Pogba have brought the Galacticos feeling back to Old Trafford after Louis Van Gaal’s uninspiring tenure. Eric Bailly’s addition has strengthened a spine that was already quite good last season and now United have players who can score goals to make its defensive disposition actually mean something.

The big question for United is one of tactics. Mourinho preferred a 4-2-3-1 at Chelsea and has hinted that it would be his formation for the Red Devils as well. But Pogba’s arrival changes things. Pogba has struggled as a deeper midfielder in the 4-2-3-1 as recently as this summer during the Euros and he was never able to play the No. 10 role at Juventus. At Juve, Pogba’s best role was as a center mid bombing forward in a 4-3-3, which is a formation that would suit Ibrahimovic, who played at the top of PSG’s 4-3-3, and Mkhitaryan.

Wayne Rooney would be the casualty of the 4-3-3; currently pegged as the No. 10 behind Ibra in the 4-2-3-1, Rooney would lose his place in the 4-3-3, for Mourinho has said he will not play Rooney as a central midfielder. It’s a case of loyalty or royalty: Does Mourinho stick with the club legend and play Pogba in a role he isn’t suited for, or does everything change with the arrival of the world’s most expensive player?

No matter the answer, United will be an excellent team this season, one that combines the grit and stingy nature of Mourinho’s defenses with the individual and collective brilliance of their expensive and talented attackers. But in the end, I think they will fall short of their Manchester rivals.

1. Manchester City – The dream is finally a reality. Pep Guardiola, the club’s dream manager, has arrived, and he has brought with him a bundle of fantastic signings to bolster a team that was already a title contender, but was lacking in tactical direction. Guardiola’s genius will give City several new dimensions, breathing new life into a side that constantly came up short against the biggest clubs in European play.

Guardiola has already mastered the domestic leagues of Spain and Germany, and now he sets his sight on the Premier League, which will present new problems, but nothing that his tactical acumen and blank checkbook can’t solve. His initial reinforcements of Ilkay Gundogan, Leroy Sane, Nolito and, most recently, John Stones give City a mix of potential, solidity and flair, and if Pep gets his wish, soon Barcelona’s Marc Andre Ter Stegen will take Joe Hart’s place in goal.

The potential for Guardiola’s experimentations with this squad are mouth water.  Raheem Sterling will have his chance to shine in a high-octane, press-heavy system that is all about moving the ball forward with tempo. Fernandinho could play anywhere on the pitch this season if you listen to Guardiola’s praises, and there are even whispers of Yaya Toure, who played for Pep at Barcelona and was convinced to stay at City by his former manager, following his brother’s footsteps and playing center back.

It might take time for Guardiola’s intellectual approach to the game to soak in with his players, but the nature of Pep’s style is already sewn into the fabric of a lot of his players. Sergio Aguero should win the golden boot this season if he stays healthy, David Silva, who had a bit of a down season by his standards last year, should be rejuvenated under Guardiola, and Gundogan could challenge Pogba for the title of best midfielder in England once he is fit.

Although Mourinho’s transition at United might be quicker given that he has already won in the Premier League, I think Guardiola’s style and selection are superior, paving the way for City to stake their claim as kings of Manchester and champions of England.

Der Bayern Dusel

in Champions League Analysis/Futbol by
bayern

Juventus, along with their Spanish spirit animal (Atletico Madrid), are the perennial thorn in the side of the Champions League. In an extravagant competition designed to pit star-studded sides that play fast and fluid attacking football against each other, Juve are the antithesis: A defensive-minded side with a speciality in tactics and tackles rather than flicks and flair.

During the past two seasons under Max Allegri, Juve have sapped the elegance from the flamboyant likes of Manchester City, Dortmund and Real Madrid, and they performed admirably in the Champions League final against Barcelona. Juve were certainly a more dangerous side last season, when they had a world class striker leading the line (Carlos Tevez), a destructive presence in the midfield who could also join the attack (Arturo Vidal) and a certain promising prospect who we will get to later. But Allegri has adapted, and on a relatively tight budget considering the club let Tevez return to his beloved Boca Juniors on a free transfer, and he had his side battling for a place in the Champions League quarterfinals Wednesday night.

The first leg of Juve’s Round of 16 matchup against Bayern was only the second time Juve had played a four-goal game in the Champions League under Allegri and it was the second time that an opponent had put two goals past them. Other than Barcelona, this Bayern team is clearly the most talented opponent Juve have faced during the past two seasons, and the Zebras began the tie in typical fashion, sitting back and letting Bayern bring the game to them. The strategy backfired when Thomas Muller scored just before halftime, and the tie seemed over when Robben scored Bayern’s second away goal in the 56th minute. Juve rallied, though, scoring twice in the final half hour to even things up before the scene shifted to Bavaria.

Juve’s comeback in the first leg was surprising, but it was nothing compared to the way The Old Lady started in the return leg. Within the first 30 minutes, Juve had secured two away goals of their own and looked poised to pull off a major upset; the moment Juan Cuadrado’s finesse shot hit the back of the net in the 28th minute, Juventus had outscored Bayern 4-0 during the past hour of play. With Bayern’s goals in Turin stripped of their additional value, Juventus had earned itself a chance to shape up at the back and try to see out the tie for an hour with one of the best attacking teams in world football breathing down their necks.

The Old Lady nearly did it, too. Juve nearly pulled off a feat many thought to be impossible. They were as comfortable as can a team can be when putting 10 men behind the ball and giving Bayern Munich an hour to figure out how to score a pair of goals, and their defending was solid. But parking the bus against the top sides in the world can’t last forever, which Juve found out in the first leg when they sat back without a lead to protect and conceded two.

It was only after going down 2-0 at home when Juve picked up their intensity and played more ambitiously, and that spirit carried over in the opening half hour of Wednesday’s affair. Allegri got the tactics wrong out of the gate in this tie, playing in fear of Bayern from the opening kick in their home leg, but it seemed Juve’s strong close in Turin had keyed Allegri in to the benefits of letting his team play more aggressively, particularly against a depleted Bayern backline that has looked shaky when challenged. That mindset didn’t last long, though, for Juve retreated into their shell once they put themselves two goals ahead.

I think Allegri blew a golden opportunity in Bavaria. Juve scored twice because they were putting good pressure on Bayern and creating chances on the break and with possession of their own, yet as soon as they got up 2-0 he decided to switch his team into an even more defensive formation, all but killing Juve’s chances of scoring a third goal without a good bit of luck. I can see parking the bus straight away if you score two quick goals in fluke situations, but Juve were legitimately troubling Bayern and Pep Guardiola’s defense was in shambles. Had the Zebras finished out the half and started the second with the same attacking fervor they arrived in Germany with, they might well have gone through.

Not only did Allegri neuter his team after they had showcased their attacking prowess, he also took out his two top performers well before they were ready to leave the pitch, and his changes directly preceded Bayern’s first two goals. Allegri took Alvaro Morata off for Mario Mandzukic in the 72nd minute, and less than a minute later Robert Lewandowski had headed home Douglas Costa’s brilliant cross to bring Bayern within one. Then Allegri brought Cuadrado off in the 89th minute, and two minutes later Muller had tied the game.

Morata, who came on as a sub in the first leg and created one of Juve’s goals, was brilliant Wednesday. His hold up play was great, he had a tremendous work rate chasing down clearances and his run that created Juve’s second goal was sublime. Picking up the ball deep in his own half, Morata glided past Bayern’s defenders as if they weren’t there, charging down the pitch until the defense committed to him and then slid a perfect pass to Cuadrado, who played a great match himself, for the goal.

Morata should have had a goal of his own, too, but the referee disallowed it on a wrong offside call, making for the second time this tie Juve had lost a goal because of an incorrect decision. Morata was critical for Juve when they got past Real Madrid last season and he was good enough in both of his appearances against Bayern to secure the same result this season. If there is any positive takeaway for Juve from this game, it’s that Morata looked lively once again in the midst of a rather quiet season. The version of Morata that played against Bayern paired with Paulo Dybala, one of the best young forwards in Europe, would give Juventus a great strike partnership for the next few years.

Unfortunately for The Old Lady, Morata was subbed off 20 minutes too early, and while Allegri was submarining his sides’ chances, his adversary helped win the game for his team. Guardiola’s subs were fantastic, with Kingsley Coman entering in the 60th minute and Thiago coming on in extra time. Coman was an energetic presence out wide for Bayern, but more importantly his insertion shifted Douglas Costa into a more central role.

Alex Sandro, a left back by trade who has had good success as a hybrid wide midfielder for Juve, had done as good a job as he could in dealing with Costa, helping cover for the slower Patrice Evra by tracking back and taking up the widest positions. Once Coman came in and drew Sandro’s attention, Evra and Juve’s midfielders were left to defend Costa, a losing proposition for Juve.

Coman was also directly involved in the result, assisting on Muller’s equalizer in the 91st minute and scoring a gorgeous curler on the break to seal the tie in the 110th minute. Coman was a Juve player a season ago, though he never played a meaningful role, and Bayern got him on loan with an option to buy during the summer (for a price that now looks like a steal). Who knows how much Coman would have played had he stayed with Juve this season, but imagining this same Juve team coming into Bavaria with Sandro at left back and Coman taking Evra’s place in the side must be painful for Juve fans. Coman is fantastic on the ball and an excellent playmaker for a 19-year-old. Ribery and Robben have been the star wide players for Bayern for several seasons, but it won’t be long before Costa and Coman displace them.

It is tough to say that the better team didn’t go through from this tie; Bayern are impossibly deep and talented and they managed six goals (albeit with extra time) against a team that hasn’t allowed a goal in Serie A since Jan. 10. But when you consider the two missed calls (one giving Bayern an underserved goal in the first leg, the other taking a legitimate goal away from Juve in Bavaria) and the fact that Juve scored four straight goals in the middle of this tie, one could argue that Juve were just as good, if not better, during these two games.

Juventus will never be able to make that claim firmly, though, because they gave Bayern way too much time to thump their way back into the tie with crosses and longshots rather than staying positive and keeping the pressure on Bayern’s unconvincing defense. Such has been the story for Juve in big games under Allegri.

Juve, while lacking the volume of the other super clubs, are talented and Allegri has a great defensive system that his players buy into. What is separating Juve from the European crown is that their manager has yet to reciprocate the trust his players have in him. Sitting back and making opponents come to them will always be a part of The Old Lady’s DNA, but until Allegri realizes that parking the bus against the best teams in the world is a stopgap, often desperate, solution and not a foolproof plan, Juve will be at the mercy of teams that can dominate possession in the final third in their sleep.

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