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.

VOTE: 2016-17 Premier League Goal of the Season

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Okay, so you have 1064 to choose from, so choose wisely…

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 PL season reviews

The 2016-17 Premier League season is over but you can vote for your favorite goal of the campaign up until June 1.

Simply click on the video above to watch the contenders compiled by Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe, and then you can vote by clicking here.

Enjoy!

Ex-Barcelona president Rosell held in money laundering probe

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MADRID (AP) Spanish authorities say former Barcelona president Sandro Rosell and his wife have been detained in a probe over his businesses in Brazil.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 season reviews

The detentions early Tuesday are part of a money laundering investigation related to buying television rights for past matches of Brazil’s national team.

Three other people have been detained, but their identities were not immediately released by authorities.

Police raided offices, homes, and businesses in Barcelona and other locations in Spain as part of “Operation Rimet,” in reference to former FIFA President Jules Rimet.

Authorities said the operation used information from the FBI following the U.S. case against high-level FIFA officials in 2015.

Rosell is already standing trial for fraud and corruption charges involving the 2013 transfer of Brazilian striker Neymar.

Report: Sam Allardyce wants to quit Crystal Palace

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The Daily Mail is reporting that Sam Allardyce wants to quit as Crystal Palace manager.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 PL season reviews

Allardyce, 62, kept Palace in the Premier League on May 14 after beating Hull City, but it is reported that after a meeting with Eagles chairman Steve Parish, the former Bolton, Newcastle, West Ham and Sunderland manager has decided to walk away.

The core reason is thought to be that Allardyce is not impressed with the transfer plans the club has over the summer.

It is believed Palace want to meet again with Allardyce before confirming his departure  but the report states he has cleared out his office at the training ground.

The former England manager (he quit as Three Lions boss last September after being embroiled in an undercover newspaper sting) only joined Palace on Dec. 23, 2016 when he signed a two-and-a-half-year deal.

After struggling to turn things around initially, key January signings such as Mamadou Sakho and Luka Milivojevic helped the Eagles eventually soar away from the relegation zone as they beat Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool in the final weeks of the season.

Is it strange that Allardyce would move on? Tony Pulis left Palace in similar fashion back in 2014 after not getting assurances for Parish and the board over transfer spending for the next summer.

With the likes of Christian Benteke and Yohan Cabaye around, the Eagles have players on big money and have spent big to try and push into the PL’s top 10. However, they looked far from a top 10 team last season as Allardyce helped them stumble to safety with brilliant displays against the top clubs interspersed with poor showings against fellow strugglers.

If Big Sam doesn’t think the correct budget is there for him to work with, then you can certainly understand why he would walk away.

Premier League Playback: Themes of the season

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3-4-3 REIGNS SUPREME

If it’s good enough for Chelsea and Tottenham, it should be good enough for the rest of the Premier League. And it started to get that way.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 season reviews

With Antonio Conte using a 3-4-3 formation from September onwards, Chelsea took the PL by storm with a three-man central defense and Spurs followed suit in the second half of the season.

We started to see teams like Arsenal, Everton, Watford, Manchester City, Manchester United, West Ham, Stoke and many others use it.

Nobody could do it quite as well as Chelsea and Spurs, though.

[ MORE: Detailing Chelsea’s title parade at Stamford Bridge

The thing with systems is they come and go. Like fashion they follow a leader and then eventually something fresh arrives to take over.

With 4-3-3 formations taking over from 4-4-2 and 4-5-1 over the past few years, plenty of teams have invested in exciting wingers but are finding it tough to get them in dangerous areas. That is the main reason why 3-4-3 works so well.

[ MORE: Final Premier League standings ]

Whether they are stereotypical wingers like Chelsea’s Eden Hazard or Pedro, or the likes of Christian Eriksen or Dele Alli at Spurs, you can create space for your most creative players to roam free out wide and then you don’t have to worry about losing defensive shape.

Both Chelsea and Spurs had full backs capable of attacking and also tracking back and with Kyle Walker and Danny Rose, Spurs arguably had the better wing backs over Chelsea’s Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso who were square pegs in round holes. With Walker and Rose injured often in the second half of the season, Chelsea’s wing-back duo took over.

[ MORE: How Chelsea won the PL title in September ]

Alonso covered for Hazard and Moses covered for Pedro and Chelsea looked balanced. Conte had found the right system by switching to default after a demoralizing loss away at Arsenal where he furiously slammed the table and demanded better. He got it.

Conte had used the 3-4-3 with Juventus and the Italian national team with fine results and like every great Italian designer, everybody is now copying him…


LONDON (THE SOUTH) CALLING

With all three north east clubs from this season relegated, the south dominated in the Premier League. For just the third time in PL history two London clubs sat in first and second place in Chelsea and Tottenham, but this is about much more than that.

For next season Newcastle are the only team guaranteed to be north of  Burnley and the PL will have a very southern feel.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

Brighton have been promoted, while if Reading beat Huddersfield Town in the playoff final at Wembley next Monday (May 29) then 10 of the PL’s 20 teams next season will be from the Greater London area or the south coast. That’s a huge shift when you think back to the days of Blackburn Rovers, Leeds United, Wigan Athletic, Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United all in the PL.

Many believe the north-south divide in the PL is down to economics. Investors, particularly those from overseas, are picking clubs in southern England to pump their money into. Due to London being the main economic and transport hub of the UK, that makes sense. Reports surfacing that some northern teams are contemplating building training bases closer to London aren’t a joke.

[ MORE: A look behind-the-scenes at Spurs’ stunning new stadium

One of the main reasons Alexis Sanchez chose Liverpool over Arsenal was said to be the fact that the Gunners were in London. That happens more often than you think and plenty of PL players travel from London to teams in the Midlands and the far south each day for training just so they and their families can call London home.

These cycles do come in waves but it seems like for the foreseeable future that the power shift in the PL with be in London and the surrounding areas. Just watch out for it over the next couple of years.


GIANTS SEPARATE, BUT STUTTER

This was a season where the top six mostly got their act together as they easily pulled away from midtable.

However, plenty of giants stuttered there way to the top four and two of the biggest didn’t make it.

Arsenal’s late surge of seven wins from their final eight games wasn’t enough as they finished outside of the top four for the first time in 20 years under Arsene Wenger.

[ MORE: Premier League scoreboard ]  

Man United prioritized their Europa League final in the final weeks of the season (we will see how that works out when they face Ajax in Stockholm on Wednesday) as Jose Mourinho gave up on qualifying for the Champions League through their league position.

As for Man City and Liverpool, their defensive issues are there for all to see but they had enough in attack to get the job done and finish in the top four.

Spurs were the only challengers for Chelsea throughout the season but in truth the Blues never looked like relinquishing the title after their 13-game winning run. Even that wobble in April with a defeat away at Manchester United didn’t let Tottenham in.

Antonio Conte won the battle of the managers and in his first season in England he won his fourth-straight league title as a club manager. Pep Guardiola and Mourinho have plenty of work to do to justify their big-spending and egos. Both have flattered to deceive this season.

Wenger may not be around next season as Arsenal go through a huge transition and with no European action for Chelsea and Liverpool in 2016-17,  they’ll have to deal with new challenges in 2017-18.

The top four is far from settled but the top six looks likely to stay that way for a while with only Everton ever threatening to finish higher than seventh. The Toffees finished 15 points off the top four, which shows just how much the perennial powers of England have stretched away from the rest.


MIDTABLE BATTLEGROUND

At the end of the season there was just five points separating eighth place and 15th in the Premier League table.

The midtable battle was real.

With so many teams now established as Premier League clubs, all are investing wisely and many are seeing their expectation levels rise to try and finish in the top 10.

[ MORE: Premier League stats

That said, Southampton, who finished in eighth place, were just six points off Watford who finished one spot above the relegation zone. This season was a wake up call to the likes of West Ham, Leicester, Crystal Palace and Swansea — who all flirted with relegation at times — that they can’t afford to rest on their laurels.

With Claudio Raneri fired less than 12 months after leading Leicester to the title, plus Saints’ Claude Puel under pressure, Palace sacking Alan Pardew and West Ham’s Slaven Bilic maybe on the way out, teams in the middle of the pack know they aren’t as comfortable as they have been.

Newcastle United and Brighton arrive from the Championship next season ready to spend big to stick around and the threat of relegation is very real to this cluster of midtable teams. The parity party is here.


RETURN OF THE TARGETMAN

Look at the top seven goalscorers in the Premier League…

  1. Harry Kane (Tottenham) – 29 goals
  2. Romelu Lukaku (Everton) – 25 goals
  3. Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal) – 24 goals
  4. Diego Costa (Chelsea) – 20 goals
  5. Sergio Aguero (Man City) – 20 goals
  6. Dele Alli (Tottenham) – 17 goals
  7. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Man United) – 17 goals

The only outliers here are Sanchez, who can often play out wide but started the season through the middle, and Dele Alli who chipped in with a Frank Lampard-esque goal haul. If it wasn’t for his season-ending knee injury, Zlatan would have also reached 20 goals easily.

Among that list you have traditional center forwards at each club banging in the goals and that points to the way teams are setting up tactically.

The targetman has returned.

It may not be for good but the growing trend in the PL over the past few is to play with a three-man attack as two wide forwards create space for playmakers and forwards to link up. Spurs do it superbly well with Eriksen and Son pulling out and then Alli allowed to roam to link up with Kane.

An intriguing stat suggests that the days of hopeful efforts from distance may be numbered too, with a lowest ever rate of 11.6 percent of the 1064 goals scored from outside the box. Speaking of stats…


STATS OF THE SEASON

Here are some stats which summed up the season.


ABIDING MEMORIES OF 2016-17

Based here in England, I spend my time traveling to stadiums and training grounds to watch and/or talk to Premier League players and managers.

[ MORE: Full PL Playback archive

Over the course of the long nine month season there are always a couple of moments which stick out.

Here’s are the top five memories I will take away from this Premier League season, and I thank each and every one of you for reading, tweeting and asking me questions along the way.

We are all in this together. And we all love every single second of it. 81 days and counting until the 2017-18 season…

  • Arsenal 3-4 LiverpoolWhat a wonderful game. On the opening weekend of the season we witnessed one of the best matches of the entire season. Sadio Mane ripped Arsenal apart and Jurgen Klopp‘s Liverpool destroyed Arsenal… only to let them back into the game with some shambolic defending. This match had it all and was an instant PL classic.
  • Tottenham 2-0 Chelsea – Dele Alli scored two headers on January 4 as Spurs beat Chelsea and the Blues’ winning run came to an end at a record-equaling 13. This was the moment when you felt like Spurs would kick on and win the title. In a frigid White Hart Lane the thermostat was cranked up plenty of notches as Tottenham rattled Chelsea early and Pochettino’s youngsters struck twice through Alli. You get the sense that more epic battles will come between these two teams, and managers, in the years to come.
  • Arsenal 3-0 Chelsea – This was a true game-changer for Chelsea. Watching Antonio Conte furiously slam his fist on the table after that defeat in the press room, you just knew he would change things. In came the 3-4-3 formation and the rest is history. At the time it didn’t seem like a big moment, but for me that defeat was the moment of the season. It sparked Conte’s rebuild of Chelsea and got the players on board.

Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here