Willian signs, so will José Mourinho’s “false nine” experiment vanish?

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On Wednesday, as expected, Chelsea wrapped up the signing of Brazilian winger Willian from Anzhi Makhachkala for $45 million.

The 25-year-old winger signed a five-year deal at Stamford Bridge following a successful work permit hearing, after he turned down advances from both Liverpool and Tottenham to link up with José Mourinho.

Mourinho is delighted with the capture of a speedy winger who likes to attack down the flanks and cut balls back to his fellow attackers. But will Willian have plenty of Chelsea men alongside him when he makes those foraging runs during his Blues career?

(MORE: Chelsea move in to scupper Tottenham’s Willian bid)

On Monday night at Old Trafford, Mourinho sprung a huge surprise against Manchester United as he didn’t start with a recognized striker. Looks of disbelief and intrigue filled the press box in Manchester as Mourinho played more mind games.

Was he trying to confuse Moyes or putting pressure on Russian owner Roman Abramovich to give him more cash to buy a top striker before the end of the transfer window? Whatever he was playing at, the gameplan worked and Chelsea left the home of the reigning champions with a valuable point after not being tested defensively for much of the 90 minutes.

That said, it wasn’t like they carved United open either. A midfield battle ensued as Mourinho deployed a 4-2-4 formation that stopped United’s full-backs, Phil Jones and Patrice Evra, getting involved from the flanks and stifled any attacking creativity the Red Devils tried to get going.

(MORE: Official; Chelsea agree Willian deal. What can we expect?)

Yet, this decision to play Andre Schurrle in the “false nine” role could have just been a one-off especially now that Willian has joined. In order to get the best out of his expensive new attacker, Mourinho needs to revert to a more rigid 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 formation. However with Fernando Torres on the bench alongside Romelu Lukaku on Monday and Demba Ba left in London, do those three players possess the required firepower to bring trophies to Stamford Bridge?

Mourinho doesn’t think so. That’s why he allowed Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Schurrle to interchange as the game went on and the flexibility amongst his attackers was crucial to the success of this Barcelona-esque shape. Okay, Chelsea set up an extremely defensive version of the “false nine” made famous in Catalonia but Mourinho was making a point: he wants a new striker and he wants one now.

(MORE: Mourinho praises Chelsea’s “kids” after defensive masterclass)

So where does Willian fit into all this?

Well, he will be the main supply line from the flanks for whoever Mourinho decides to play in the central role. But the Brazilian attacker can also defend and play a similar role to De Bruyne against United, which will leave Moruinho with plenty of options out wide. The chances of Wayne Rooney joining Chelsea between now and Monday are pretty slim and if that fails Samuel Eto’o is lined up as plan B, to join Willian in an Anzhi to Chelsea convoy.

Yet Eto’o may not be able to play the lone forward role Mourinho would have favored in the past during his first-spell at Chelsea. Didier Drogba held the ball up and brought others into play before spreading the ball wide and finishing off crosses. The second incarnation of Mourinho’s Chelsea is a more subtle version, a side that caresses the ball with great care and intricacy around the box before slotting home from central areas. Oscar, Ramires, Hazard and De Bruyne love to weave forward and entice defenders into making mistakes in and around the box.

Willian will fit in very well with that style at Chelsea but he needs a target man to aim for in the box and Chelsea need a focal point of their attack. Will Mourinho decide to go with one of the three strikers he has? Buy a new one? Or deploy a “false striker” to confuse the opposition?

The “false nine” worked for Chelsea from a defensive standpoint and in terms of keeping the ball. But will it be Chelsea’s go-to formation this season?

Maybe the “false nine” will work as the kinks are worked out over the season, or maybe it should be shelved. Either way, Mourinho has got us guessing. Once again.

The 2 Robbies: Terriers Triumph And Chelsea Leave It Late

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe start today’s show off by discussing Huddersfield Town’s surprising win against Manchester United (00:20), Jose Mourinho’s measured post-match interview (03:50), praise Manchester City again (10:30), discuss Sean Dyche’s next move (16:10), analyze that exciting match between Chelsea and Watford (18:30) and finally, weigh in on Slaven Bilic’s future at West Ham United (27:30).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

All of the The 2 Robbies content can be accessed by clicking on this link:

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Follow them on Twitter @The2Robbies

La Liga: Barca win to maintain lead, but Valencia won’t go away

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Barcelona regained a four-point cushion atop the Spanish league with a ho-hum 2-0 win over visiting Malaga and surging Valencia dismissed Sevilla 4-0 at home on Saturday.

Barcelona faced last-placed Malaga in the closing match of the day, with added pressure from second-placed Valencia, which has won five in a row.

Barcelona is unbeaten after starting with seven straight wins and drawing with Atletico Madrid last week.

Seldom-used Gerard Deulofeu opened the scoring for Barcelona after just two minutes, and Andres Iniesta celebrated his first of the season in the second half thanks to a brilliant assist by Lionel Messi.

Defending champion Real Madrid hosts Eibar on Sunday.

Barcelona benefited from a flagrant referee misjudgment to get its go-ahead goal against Malaga. Left back Lucas Digne was allowed to center the ball after it clearly crossed the byline, and Deulofeu acrobatically back-footed it inside the net.

Despite the blow, the visitors got back up and managed to neutralize Barcelona for most of the first half, but lost striker Diego Rolan just before the second period. The Uruguayan import was forced off by injury.

Without Rolan, Malaga lacked bite in its pressure of the home backline, and Barcelona was able to polish ball circulation and find Messi with more frequency.

Messi received a clean pass from defender Javier Mascherano, drew the defense, and dropped a perfect pass for Iniesta, whose shot was deflected by defender Roberto Rosales on its way to the upper left corner.

Malaga surrendered and Barcelona dominated the rest of the way.


Gonzalo Guedes opened the scoring for Valencia near halftime with a majestic strike from outside the box after deftly outmaneuvering two defenders on the chase.

Simone Zaza added his eighth league goal after the break with a spin and low cross shot. Santi Mina came off the bench and scored the third with just five minutes to go, finishing off a speedy counterattack for the hosts.

But the show was all Guedes, and the Portuguese midfielder rounded off his great game with the closer, subtly poking the ball over goalkeeper Sergio Rico in added time.

Sevilla has lost three in a row in all competitions. Managed by Eduardo Berizzo, the team started off red-hot in La Liga but has floundered lately, ranking fifth.

 

Serie A: Napoli’s perfect season ends after draw with Inter

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MILAN (AP) Napoli’s perfect start to Serie A finally came to an end on Saturday in an enthralling 0-0 home draw with Inter Milan, the only other unbeaten side in the Italian top flight.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup | Sunday preview — Spurs vs. Liverpool ]

There were plenty of chances at the San Paolo, and Inter goalkeeper Samir Handanovic was kept busier than his Napoli counterpart Pepe Reina.

It was the first time since April and a 2-2 draw at Sassuolo that Napoli has failed to win in Serie A.

Napoli remained top of the standings, two points above Inter and six above Juventus and Lazio, which face Udinese and Cagliari respectively on Sunday.

[ TACTICS SESSION: Inside the brilliant mind of Kevin De Bruyne ]

Napoli was looking for a ninth successive league win. It was boosted by Lorenzo Insigne passing fit to start after injuring a thigh on Tuesday in the Champions League defeat at Manchester City.

Inter was full of confidence after Mauro Icardi’s hat trick helped it win last week’s derby against AC Milan, but it hadn’t won in Naples in 20 years.

Napoli almost went in front but Handanovic pulled off a stunning double save to deny first Jose Callejon and then keep out Dries Mertens’ rebound attempt from point-blank range.

Handanovic then kept out an effort from Insigne following a great ball over the top from Marek Hamsik.

[ MORE: Mourinho — “We deserved the punishment of defeat” to Huddersfield ]

Inter went close shortly before halftime but Reina did well to fingertip Borja Valero’s close-range attempt over the bar.

Insigne had more chances after the break, going closest with a curling effort just past the right post.

Hamsik also fired narrowly wide, and Handanovic parried a powerful shot from substitute Piotr Zielinski.

Mertens should have won the match for Napoli in the final minute but Handanovic was again on hand to keep out his close-range volley.

Tactics Session: Inside the mind of Kevin De Bruyne

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If not for Harry Kane‘s prolific scoring of goals during the early days of this season, Kevin De Bruyne would almost certainly be the early runaway favorite for 2017-18 Premier League Player of the Season.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup | Sunday preview — Spurs vs. Liverpool ]

Alas, Kane, the one-season wonder that he is, seems hellbent on cracking the century mark in the PL this season, rather than waiting until 2018-19. This sets up what should be a thoroughly exhilarating seven-month battle between two polar opposite players — Kane, the goalscorer; and De Bruyne, the assist machine.

On Saturday, NBC Sports’ Robbie Earle delved into the mind of De Bruyne (above video) in light of last weekend’s 7-2 thrashing of Stoke City, during which De Bruyne notched another pair of assists to take season tally to five through eight games. Later on Saturday, De Bruyne added another in Man City’s 3-0 victory over Burnley.

[ MORE: Matchday experience — behind the scenes at Southampton ]

The first thing pointed out by Earle is the recovery — though deployed as more of a central midfielder on the day, De Bruyne sits wide with City in possession high up the field, just waiting for the opportune moment to surge forward and join the likes of Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Sergio Aguero (now that he’s back from injury). When Jesus’ ball is too lightly weighted, De Bruyne reacts quickest to make the recovery.

From there, his head is up and scanning the entire field. One touch forward, and he’s already accounted for the positioning of each of his teammates, as well as the Stoke defenders, and every pocket of space into which he’ll either carry or play the ball. He knows the precise spot on the field he must get to in order to pull the defense to him, thus opening the necessary space (and time) for the final man — Sane, in this instance — to make his run in behind.

[ MORE: Mourinho — “We deserved the punishment of defeat” to Huddersfield ]

This is the part of De Bruyne’s game which he does better than anyone else in the world right now; no one can hold a candle KDB’s timing and vision — not Henrikh Mkhitaryan, not Isco, not Mesut Ozil, not even his brilliant teammate (and fellow six-assist man) David Silva. He’s almost operating at peak-Andres Iniesta level right now, which makes KDB and Co. appointment viewing every weekend.

Even now, after creating the passing lane and providing Sane the extra half-second to get level with his man before accelerating past in the blink of an eye. Even then, having seen the pass he has to play, there’s still the (major) matter of threading the needle through and around four defenders. On this occasion, the perfect pass is nearly 15 yards in front of Sane, and far less than that distance in front of the goalkeeper. An inch or two too short, it’s cleared by the right back; and inch or two too long, and the goalkeeper collects it easily.

As usual, no player in the world comes close to matching De Bruyne’s genius.