Premier League Breakdown: Kyle Martino discusses Chelsea v. Manchester City

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There’s nothing quite like a clash between two title favorites and that’s exactly what we have this weekend when Chelsea welcome Manchester City to Stamford Bridge (Sunday 12:00pm ET on NBCSN or watch live via NBC Sports Live Extra).

With two very distinct styles of play, breaking down what makes each side so dangerous is crucial.

So I sat down with NBC Sports Premier League analyst Kyle Martino to chat about what’s in store for Sunday’s big match.

Let’s get stuck in.

IS THE CITY MATCH TAILOR MADE FOR A JOSE MOURINHO COUNTERATTACK?

Absolutely. Think back to the Manchester United game where Jose Mourinho tried that tactic but United were unwilling to make risky plays. They were unwilling to get frustrated and bite and start to commit more numbers forward and start to play a more risky style of soccer. And when it comes to City, that’s their makeup – they’re going to take risks and they’re going to get plenty of players into the attack. So the counter-punch style of soccer that Mourinho likes to play feels like the perfect fit to disrupt City.

Mourinho is so funny because he’s been talking about things like entertainment value and wanting to play a more attractive style than in the past but if you really look at Chelsea, they’re more direct now than they’ve ever been before. They’re playing so many long balls over the top and they’re also much more defensive than they’ve been in the past. So Mourinho is painting this picture like they’re going to be more attractive and entertaining than they’ve been in the past but I think the opposite has been true so far this year – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Perhaps the best example of Mourinho’s pragmatic approach was when he won the 2010 Champions League with Inter Milan and they beat Barcelona in the semi-final in doing so. His approach to that matchup was very calculated and defensive but it worked. So now we see him coming out and telling the public that he wants his side to play entertaining soccer but at the end of the day, I don’t think he cares if people don’t like the way he’s winning games, as long as he wins them.

For Mourinho it’s all about three things – being pragmatic, getting results, and proving he can out-smart other coaches while doing so.

IS CHELSEA’S GAME PLAN AGAINST TITLE CONTENDERS SIMPLY TO AVOID LOSING?

There is an air about Chelsea that they’re going into some games – like against Manchester United and Tottenham – and they’re not necessarily trying to win rather they’re simply trying not to lose. And if they happen to win that way, then great.

It’s a lot like that Johan Cruyff quote, the “Italians can not beat us, but we can certainly lose against them.” You get the sense that’s Mourinho’s philosophy. And it’s not always pretty, breath-taking, intricate soccer but that approach of dropping into a low-block defense and closing down the passing lanes is effective and one Mourinho will use to frustrate City. This kind of plan will play out over the season and at the end of the day I don’t think anyone with a medal around their neck is going to look back and say ‘Man, I wish we would’ve won it in a different way.’

source: Reuters
Through eight matches, Manuel Pellegrini’s 4-2-2-2 formation has resulted in a league high 20 goals for Manchester City.

DISCUSS MANUEL PELLEGRINI’S APPROACH TO THE CHELSEA GAME

For the most part Pellegrini’s team is set up to run on it’s own. I think he does a lot of tactical work during the week and I think he’s a very smart man manager. That’s what people talk about – Pellegrini is so good at rotating the squad and keeping wraps on different personalities. He’s already rotated his strikers, midfielders and defenders – and I think on the day when you have Silva playing the way he is and you have Nasri as confident as he is that’s all because Pellegrini’s personality and set-up gets the best out of these guys.

On the day there will be a couple tactical changes Pellgrini may make but he’s already established a system that’s bringing the best ever performances out of Yaya Toure, David Silva, Samir Nasri and Segio Aguero. If you simply let those layers operate on the day, that’s going to take care of the work they’ve done during the week.

STYLISTICALLY, IS CITY A DIFFERENT TEAM THIS YEAR?

100%. There was a lot of talk when Navas was brought in about him giving City more width, which was needed because they were a little bit narrow last year. And I think Navas does give them another look and that he has been good when he’s played but I don’t think that moves the needle that much because they’re still a relatively narrow team.

The biggest difference is Pellegrini’s reliance on strike partnerships and keeping two high forwards. If you think back to Roberto Mancini’s tenure at CIty, he usually played with one relatively high forward but at other times they never even had a striker pushed up because too often players wanted to get wide and create. But now Aguero and Negredo stay very high and at times will interchange as to who leads the line.

I think the reasons why City are finding a lot of success and scoring goals at a tremendous rate are two fold. First, there’s that preternatural understanding that Aguero and Negredo seem to have, as evidenced by Negredo’s dummy that put Aguero through on goal last weekend. Second, City have such weapons in the midfield that the forwards don’t have to come back and crowd them. The forwards can let Nasri, Toure and Silva bring them game to them. So that allows Aguero and Negredo to stay high and occupy the opposition’s center-backs for 60+ minutes every game, which can be really difficult to play against. So for me, that’s why City is a completely different team now than what we saw the last two seasons.

source: Reuters
Alvaro Negredo and Sergio Aguero have combined for 9 goals and 4 assists over Manchester City’s first eight league matches.

SAFE TO SAY THAT AGUERO AND NEGREDO IS CITY’S PREFERRED STRIKE PARTNERSHIP?

Negredo and Aguero is the partnership that we’ll see more often than other permutations but being in multiple competitions including the Champions League means we will see plenty of rotation. We’ll see Edin Dzeko come back in the fold but the constant will be Aguero.

It will be Negredo/Aguero, Dzeko/Aguero and Jovetic/Aguero. When the season began Pellegrini had Dzeko ear-marked to be his go-to striker and through preseason the question was – Who will partner with Dzeko? Now the question is – Who partners with Aguero?

The preferred choice is clearly Negredo. The difference between Negredo and Dzeko is consistency. I think Dzeko had a few very good games early on but then he had a couple of matches where if he didn’t score, he didn’t make a difference in the game.

FROM A LEAGUE WIDE PERSEPCTIVE – HOW GOOD IS THE AGUERO/NEGREDO PARTNERSHIP?

Very good. But are they better than Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge? I don’t think so. Not yet.

To me, SAS are so impressive because Liverpool don’t have the midfield quality of City and because the Reds haven’t played a consistent 90 minutes all season. I think when Philippe Coutinho gets healthy things may start to change but for now it’s been Suarez and Sturridge stepping up in a big way so for that reason I’d give them the slight edge over Aguero and Negredo.

HOW IMPRESSED ARE YOU WITH NEGREDO?

Very impressed. Partially it’s because of the scoring but moreso it’s because, like Giroud at Arsenal, if Negredo isn’t getting you a goal, he’s getting you an assist or making a difference in the game. He’s constantly setting guys up and putting them in dangerous positions. Negredo has accepted that Aguero will be the leading goal scorer and realizes that if that’s the case, he needs to be making a different impact in the game.

It’s the multi-dimensional aspect to Negredo’s game – being a set up man, strong in the box, good in the air, great with his back to goal, comfortable with the ball at feet and constantly creating chances for himself – that makes him such a well rounded forward. And I think what City are trying to pull off with a 4-2-2-2 doesn’t really work unless there are two forwards who are working in tandem with one playing with his back to goal and staying underneath and bring his partner into play.

Negredo has always been a great player. I mean, if you make it into the Spain team as a striker, you’re something special. But right now I think we’re seeing a Negredo who is at the very top of his game, even better than he was at Sevilla. And I believe that a;; goes back to the influence of Pellegrini.

The Mendy Effect: Pep praises injured back

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Full back Benjamin Mendy cost Pep Guardiola and Manchester City $68 million, but perhaps he’ll be just as valuable as a very expensive sports psychologist.

The “Shark Team” member was amusing on social media even before his ACL injury sent him to the sidelines until at least April, but he’s become a must-follow Twitter fixture with his in-game messages (See some of his work below).

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

City faces Burnley at 10 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com).

It’s fairly clear his act has translated in private, too, as apparently Mendy is just as good in group messages (Let us in, Pep. We won’t tell anyone). From ManCity.com:

“Usually, players who are out for a long time with injury are sad. They sometimes train apart and feel isolated.

“Mendy decided to be present. He is communicating on social media, WhatsApp and he calls his teammates and messages me. He is going to be so important outside the pitch because people like him make the atmosphere much better.”

It’s not surprising for anyone who’s been following the former Le Havre, Marseille and Monaco man.

Keep in mind, these Tweets below are from the last few days alone!

Ozil to Manchester United?!? Wenger reacts to gossip

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Sometimes, even the biggest Arsene Wenger detractors have to feel for the guy.

Coming off a thrilling late win in Serbia, one that saw Olivier Giroud cap off a team goal straight out of the creative Wenger playbook, the manager should’ve been discussing how to stretch those good vibes into this weekend’s visit to Goodison Park.

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

Yet no. Instead of talking about how the Gunners would respect the struggling Toffees, Wenger had to address speculation from several outlets claiming Mesut Ozil would move to Manchester United, perhaps as soon as January.

Feeling it? No, no Wenger was not feeling it. From Arsenal.com:

“We have to deal with all kinds of speculation when the players are at the end of their contracts. On the other hand, to be professional is to give 100 per cent as long as you are somewhere. For the rest, we came out many times and said that’s the situation. It [the media] can come out tomorrow and say that he extends his contract here. It will be exactly the same, it will not change anything. When you play the next game, commit 100 per cent. … When a player plays for Arsenal Football Club, his commitment cannot be linked with the length of his contract, it has just to be linked with the responsibility and the ambition he has to win the football game.”
Of course most big clubs have to deal with such drama on a year-to-year basis and, yes, having Ozil and Alexis Sanchez still in town was completely avoidable. But the idea that Ozil could leave, for free, to Manchester United? We’re sure Gooners the world over will be thrilled with the gossip.

MLS Decision Day preview: Much at stake

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Four teams can claim a Western Conference second round berth, while four more can earn a valuable first-round bye in the East.

Yep, there’s plenty to play for beyond the West’s final playoff spot Sunday during Major League Soccer’s Decision Day, when every team will take the pitch for 4 p.m. ET kickoffs.

[ MORE: Conte feels pressure ]

Here’s what we do know regarding the playoffs:

  1. Supporters’ Shield winning Toronto FC gets a first round bye, while No. 6 seed New York Red Bulls are headed to the road for a first round playoff
  2. New England, Montreal, Philadelphia, Orlando, DC, Minnesota, Colorado, and LA will not make the playoffs
  3. Full stop.

So, yes, this will be fun.

First, let’s look at the Eastern Conference Standings ahead of Sunday’s extravaganza:

Eastern Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Toronto FC 33 20 8 5 72 35 37 13-3-1 7-5-4 68
x – New York City FC 33 16 8 9 54 41 13 10-4-2 6-4-7 56
x – Chicago 33 16 7 10 61 44 17 12-3-2 4-4-8 55
x – Atlanta 33 15 9 9 68 38 30 11-2-3 4-7-6 54
x – Columbus 33 16 5 12 51 47 4 12-2-3 4-3-9 53
x – New York 33 13 8 12 51 46 5 9-6-2 4-2-10 47

— New York City FC controls its bye destiny, though Columbus could join them on 56 points and would pass them on tiebreakers (wins).

— If that happens, Chicago could claim the second bye with a win or draw in Houston (The Fire owns the goal differential tiebreaker).

— If New York City and Chicago lose or draw, Atlanta could finish second with a home win over TFC.

— Columbus can finish second with a win and non-wins for Chicago and Atlanta.

Western Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
x – Vancouver 33 15 7 11 49 47 2 9-5-3 6-2-8 52
x – Portland 33 14 8 11 58 49 9 10-4-2 4-4-9 50
x – Seattle 33 13 11 9 49 39 10 10-5-1 3-6-8 50
x – Sporting KC 33 12 13 8 39 27 12 10-6-1 2-7-7 49
x – Houston 33 12 11 10 54 45 9 11-4-1 1-7-9 47
San Jose 33 12 7 14 36 58 -22 9-5-2 3-2-12 43
FC Dallas 33 10 13 10 43 47 -4 7-7-2 3-6-8 43
Real Salt Lake 33 12 6 15 47 54 -7 8-4-4 4-2-11 42

Byes

— Vancouver finishes first with a win or draw at Portland. The ‘Caps could finish as low as third with a loss to Portland and a Seattle win versus Colorado.

— Portland finishes first — and wins the Cascadia Cup — with a win over visiting Vancouver.

— Seattle can claim a first round bye with a win over visiting Colorado and a Vancouver win over Portland.

— Sporting KC can finish second with a win at Real Salt Lake and non-wins for Portland and Seattle.

Final playoff spot

— San Jose claims the sixth seed with a home win over Minnesota. They can also finish sixth with a draw joined by non-wins for FC Dallas at home to LA and Real Salt Lake at home versus SKC.

— FC Dallas claims the sixth seed with a win over LA and a San Jose draw or loss versus Minnesota. FCD gets sixth with a draw, and a San Jose loss coupled with a RSL loss or draw versus SKC.

—  Real Salt Lake gets sixth with a win over SKC, and non-wins from San Jose and Dallas. RSL could also get sixth with a draw and losses for San Jose and Dallas.

(Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

Schedule
FC Dallas vs. LA Galaxy
DC United vs. New York Red Bulls
San Jose vs. Minnesota United
Real Salt Lake vs. Sporting KC
Houston vs. Chicago
Seattle vs. Colorado
Philadelphia vs. Orlando City
Portland vs. Vancouver
Montreal vs. New England
New York City vs. Columbus
Atlanta vs. Toronto

Predictions

— NYCFC hangs on for a draw against Columbus, earning a bye, leaving Chicago to host New York Red Bulls and Atlanta off to Columbus for the first round of the playoffs (We have Toronto beating Atlanta on Sunday).

— Vancouver and Portland draw, while Seattle beats Colorado. The ‘Caps and Sounders get byes, while Seattle takes back the Cascadia Cup.

— San Jose beats Minnesota, gaining the West’s sixth seed. The Quakes head to Portland for the first round, while SKC hosts Houston.

Conte feels pressure, but “most important thing is to work”

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Chelsea has sputtered a bit in its bid to repeat as Premier League champions, though this isn’t quite “stop me if you’ve heard this one before.”

The Blues sit fifth in the Premier League table with 13 points, nine behind leaders Manchester City, and tossed away a 2-0 lead before rallying to draw Roma at midweek.

The Blues host fourth-placed Watford to kick off Saturday’s Premier League action at 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com)

[ MORE: West Ham 0-3 Brighton ]

And while fans are frustrated with the plan, Chelsea was in 15th at the end of October during Jose Mourinho’s ill-fated follow-up to the 2014-15 Premier League title.

Still, manager Antonio Conte feels their pain, although he’s satisfied with the effort. From Chelsea’s official site:

“Do I feel the pressure? Every manager feels pressure, but I try to give all of myself into my job, so I’m happy when I go home because I know in every moment I give all of myself for the fans, the players and the club. In football you know anything can happen, but the most important thing is to work.”

Chelsea may not look as good as Man City or Manchester United, but is still well-positioned to finish amongst the leaders and is leading a very difficult UCL group with Roma and Atletico Madrid. Things are fine, but the gossip storm just won’t leave Conte and his future at Chelsea alone (Thanks, Italian press).