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

Leave a comment

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.

Arena should give Ream a look in Brooks’ absence

FulhamFC.com
Leave a comment

With John Brooks out three months thanks to a horribly timed thigh injury, the United States yet again has to scramble to fill a void at the back. It’s not the first time an injury to Brooks has left the USMNT scrambling for cover at a thin position.

In the successful Gold Cup this past summer, with a largely domestic squad in place, Omar Gonzalez saw the bulk of the time at central defender, with Matt Besler his partner through the final two matches. However, with European-based players now in contention for spots with the early September international break, those two are unlikely to continue, at least not together.

[ MORE: Liverpool holds all the cards in Coutinho transfer ]

The most obvious choice to start September 1st against Costa Rica and likely shoo-in should he remain healthy for the next two weeks is Geoff Cameron. The 32-year-old has been back and forth between defense and midfield with club and country, and although he has publicly acknowledged his preference for a spot higher up the pitch, he was used in a back-three in Stoke City’s Premier League opener last weekend and is steadiest at the back.

But with a spot next to Cameron up for grabs in Brooks’ absence, a player who should get serious consideration is United States fill-in extraordinaire Tim Ream.

Ream has had to work hard to earn his place with the U.S., and while he’s seen time of late, he’s not been a first-choice pick. The 29-year-old has four caps so far in 2017, with two of those starts, including one in the impressive 1-1 draw against Mexico at the Azteca with the US still clawing its way back up the Hex standings. Even then, Ream would likely not have earned that spot had Arena not chosen to rotate nearly the entire squad between the pair of qualifiers in that window. His other start this year, the 1-1 draw at Panama, only came after Cameron pulled out of the squad the day of the game with a late injury. The last time Ream started back-to-back matches for the U.S. came back in 2015 when he was somewhat of a regular through the second half of the calendar year.

[ MORE: LA Galaxy send Van Damme back to Belgium ]

But now, with Brooks out, Ream looks like the perfect man to fill in again. The 29-year-old defender finished last season in top form as Fulham narrowly missed out on promotion, earning the official website’s Man of the Match award in a May 2nd draw with Brentford, and won it again in the club’s final match of the season.

Without missing a beat, Ream has picked up where he left off last campaign in the first few matches this month. Last weekend against Reading at the Madjeski Stadium, Ream’s center-back partner Tomas Kalas was sent off 36 seconds into the match, forcing Fulham to play a man down for 89 minutes. Ream and company solidified the back, conceding just once in the 61st minute en route to a 1-1 draw.

The club still likely requires reinforcements at the CB position – Ream was forced to partner with right-back Denis Odoi against Reading with Kalas suspended and Michael Madl injured – meaning Ream could see an influx of competition in the coming weeks. However, as it stands, the American is far and away the best (and most improved) central defender on a club favored for promotion.

Gonzalez performed well in the Gold Cup, and Matt Besler was serviceable, but with few other options in the heart of defense to take Brooks’ place, Bruce Arena could yet again look to Ream for an in-form replacement.

Mourinho looks to pile title pressure on Chelsea

Getty Images
Leave a comment

A week ago, just before their 2017/18 Premier League season began, Antonio Conte declared Chelsea to be an underdog for the title. It’s right not to put Chelsea to be a favorite,” Conte said.

Jose Mourinho disagrees.

Looking to deflect pressure away from his Manchester United squad, Mourinho declared Chelsea to not only be the favorites to win the Premier League this season and defend their title, but proclaimed it would be a massive disappointment if they didn’t.

[ MORE: Liverpool in an advantageous position regarding Coutinho ]

To Mourinho, the simple fact that Chelsea won last season means they should consider themselves the team to beat going forward. “For me the favorite is the champion,” Mourinho said in his pre-match press conference ahead of Manchester United’s game against Swansea City on Saturday. “Always. Because for some reason [they were] the champion. It doesn’t mean you are going to win it – I think it is the stamp that you have when you are champion, it is that the next season you are the favorite.”

Chelsea seems to have a depth issue at the moment, with injuries plaguing the squad. New signing Tiemoue Bakayoko leaves a big hole in midfield, especially with Nemanja Matic sold to the Red Devils. In addition, Gary Cahill and Pedro will miss time in the near future with suspensions, while superstar Eden Hazard remains out as he recovers from a broken ankle.

Despite all the missing players, Mourinho believes that Chelsea always comes through in the transfer window, and that will solve their problems. “If they have [depth problems], in a couple of weeks the problems are over. They have very good teams, very good players and I don’t see any reason for them not to be fighting for the title.”

Manchester United next meets Chelsea on November 5th in Premier League action at Stamford Bridge.

LA Galaxy offloads Jelle van Damme to native Belgium

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The 2017 season continues to punch LA Galaxy fans right in the gut.

With the club near the basement of the Western Conference standings, the LA Galaxy have officially announced the sale of defensive rock Jelle van Damme to Royal Antwerp of the Belgian top flight. The club confirmed a transfer fee of $235,000.

While van Damme is 33 years old, the sale of fan-favorite van Damme is still a blow both on and off the pitch. With the Galaxy in a period of transition, van Damme was a likeable personality who was known for leaving it all out on the field on gamedays.

The official news release of the transfer made it clear the club did not initiate the transfer with the intention to sell, but instead the player himself requested a return home as his career comes nearer to a close. Van Damme is from Lokeren, Belgium, a town between Antwerp and Ghent.

“Jelle came to us and requested to return home to Belgium to be closer to his children,” LA Galaxy General Manager Pete Vagenas told LAGalaxy.com. “We worked closely with Jelle and Royal Antwerp so that we could make this move possible for Jelle and his family. Our top priority remains the success of the LA Galaxy. We thank him for his time with our club and wish him the best going forward.”

Van Damme joined the Galaxy in early 2016 on a free transfer from Belgian giants Standard Liege. He made 55 total appearances across all competitions, including 46 in league play and another three in the playoffs. The defender’s contract was set to expire in December.

The team has taken a total nosedive in the last two months. Without a league win since June 21st against Colorado, the Galaxy have collected just a single point in league play, and they currently sit just a point off the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

Liverpool holds all the cards in Coutinho saga

Getty Images
2 Comments

In a time of heightening player control in a rapidly expanding transfer market, one club sticks out as grasping a clear understanding of the shifting business landscape and how to retain its grip on its most valuable assets.

Following the sudden departure of superstar playmaker Neymar, Barcelona is trying desperately to pry Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool. On Friday, numerous reports in England claimed that Barcelona had gone in with a third bid, one even more ridiculous than the previous two. But they’re fighting a losing battle.

For a number of reasons, the Reds hold complete control over Philippe Coutinho’s transfer saga, a saga that will likely end with no transfer having been completed.

First and foremost, Coutinho just recently signed a contract extension in January that runs through 2022. As far as we know, there is no release clause in the deal, meaning at the most basic of levels, Liverpool maintains contractual control. However, as we’ve seen the past few years, that alone hasn’t stopped a number of players forcing their way out.

Yet this time, Liverpool finds itself in an advantageous position outside of just the contract. With the 2018 World Cup right around the corner, the Reds know that should they force Coutinho to stay, he is obligated to play at his best, knowing that any less would see him miss out on a spot in the packed Brazil roster, or at the least a starting position. Thus, Liverpool can be sure that even if their denial of his departure renders him despondent, he will likely remain the quality player he has proven to be.

The money Barcelona is offering – a whopping $151 million according to the most recent reports – is indeed a ludicrous amount for a player who, while quality, does not have nearly the marketability of his countrymate now residing in Paris. On talent alone, Coutinho likely isn’t worth that total, meaning Liverpool should sell. And yet, even with that cash in hand, in this hyper-inflated market where more is less, could it really do justice in replacing his impact in the club? This late in the transfer window, there’s no chance they could replace the 25-year-old, meaning they’d likely be torpedoing their entire season – Champions League included – to feel the warmth of $151 million burning a hole in their pocket until January, or even next summer.

Liverpool has built its entire roster around Coutinho. The arrival of Salah, the use of Firmino, the wide deployment of Mane, the makeup of the midfield. He’s good enough and young enough to be considered a “franchise player.” In two games without Coutinho this season, they’ve scored five goals, but that is a poor metric to describe the 180 wild minutes. The money alone isn’t worth the cost of his departure.

It’s quite possible that Barcelona’s stubbornness, brought on by the sudden loss of a beloved player and the meteoric rise of their rivals to all-time greatness, could see the Catalans come back with an even more preposterous bid. It’s true every player has a value, and at some point, should Barcelona’s blind rage see them flail wildly into the transfer window, the Reds should sell, and will. But with Fenway Sports Group not in dire need of cash and in an advantageous position, in all likelihood they won’t. Barcelona can throw all the Neymar money at Liverpool their heart desires, but nothing will force the Reds to budge.