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Defensive concerns mounting for Guardiola at Man City

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MANCHESTER, England (AP) During Manchester City’s offseason of heavy spending, Pep Guardiola prioritized improving his midfield and wide areas rather than upgrading the team’s defensive unit.

John Stones, an upcoming center back with lots of potential but still much to learn, was the only defender to arrive at Etihad Stadium ahead of the new season despite City’s aging collection of full backs and the worrying state of his central defense.

Guardiola might be regretting it now.

[ MORE: Breaking down UCL, Europa draws ]

Undermined by a porous back line that has kept only two clean sheets in 15 games, City is stuttering as it tries to keep pace with Chelsea near the halfway stage of the Premier League campaign.

City is in fourth place – seven points behind Chelsea – after winning three of its last nine league games, and four of its last 14 games in all competitions. On Saturday, Guardiola’s team conceded two goals in the first four minutes and was beaten 4-2 by previously out-of-form Leicester.

The 10-match winning run to open the season seems a distant memory now for City. But even during that period, when Guardiola was being widely hailed for his apparently seamless transition to the English game, concerns were being raised about the team’s defense and what the coach was asking of it.

Bacary Sagna, Pablo Zabaleta, Gael Clichy and Aleksandar Kolarov are City’s full backs. They are all in their 30s and have been given new tasks under Guardiola, such as playing as center backs in a back three or tucking into central midfield when City attacks to free up space for wingers and be in good positions for an opposition counterattack.

[ MORE: Klopp hammers Nevilles after Karius criticism ]

Meanwhile, center backs Stones, Nicolas Otamendi and – when fit – Vincent Kompany are being asked to bring the ball out from the back and start attacks. They are playing in front of a ball-playing goalkeeper, Claudio Bravo, who rarely kicks it long and often takes risks with his passing and build-up play.

It seems like Guardiola hasn’t got the defenders to carry out what he wants. The defense is looking exposed and error-prone, and City is conceding sloppy goals that are overshadowing the team’s attractive passing game. Guardiola frequently changes from a four-man defense to three at the back, which doesn’t appear to be helping, either.

“Always I try to control the games so that we concede few goals,” Guardiola said in reference to his time in charge of Barcelona and Bayern Munich, who mostly had strong defensive records. “Here I cannot do that and I have to analyze why.”

After the loss to Leicester, Guardiola appeared to dismiss the importance of tackling – “What’s tackles?” he said, “… we are not going to win or lose for the tackles” – and suggested he would continue playing the same style.

“Of course here in the Premier League, there are some special things but the pitch is the same, it’s 11 vs. 11, so I have to control the little differences between the other leagues. But (my) idea, I think, is good; it will be good.”

Not helping City’s defense is the fact that when it’s breached, Bravo isn’t proving as able a shot-stopper as the goalkeeper he replaced, Joe Hart. Bravo doesn’t have an imposing presence when strikers bear down on goal and was easily beaten by low shots in the 3-1 loss to Chelsea and the loss to Leicester.

Next up for City is Watford at home on Wednesday, part of a full round of midweek matches in the Premier League. Who knows what the make-up of City’s defense will be, and whether Guardiola will play with three defenders or four? At least he has Otamendi back from suspension.

 

LIVE – Everton kick off Europa League campaign

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Wayne Rooney will play his first competitive game for Everton in 13 years.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores

That storyline will dominate Everton’s return to Europe as they kick off their 2017-18 UEFA Europa League campaign in front of a packed house at Goodison Park on Thursday.

The Toffees welcome Slovakian side MFK Ruzomberok for the first leg of the third qualifying round as they aim to make it back to the group stage for the first time since 2014-15.

Click on the link above to follow not only Everton’s game but all of the Europa League qualifiers going on across Europe this afternoon with the likes of AC Milan, Fenerbache, PSV, Marseille and Athletic Bilbao all in action.

If Ronald Koeman‘s side successfully navigate their way past Ruzomberok then they will be in the play-off round which is the final hurdle before the group stage.

Bob Bradley named first-ever LAFC head coach

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Bob Bradley is heading back to Major League Soccer and will be the first-ever head coach of Los Angeles Football Club.

LAFC announced Thursday that Bradley, 59, would take charge of the new MLS club for their inaugural season in 2018.

The former Chicago Fire, New York MetroStars, Chivas USA, U.S. national team, Egyptian national team, Stabaek, Le Havre and Swansea City head coach is back Stateside for the first time since 2011 when departed his job with the USMNT.

Bradley won the 2007 Gold Cup, took the U.S. to the 2009 Confederations Cup final and reached the 2010 World Cup Round of 16 while in charge of the USMNT.

LAFC announced the news in an unconventional manner with the video below as Bradley is back in the game after leaving Premier League side Swansea City in December 2016 as he became the first-ever American to coach in the PL.

MLS’ newest team is already pushing ahead with its 22,000 capacity soccer-specific stadium in downtown LA with construction underway on their swanky new home.

The club also boast a huge number of high-profile owners including Mia Hamm, Magic Johnson, Will Ferrell, Vincent Tan and many others with entrepreneur Peter Guber the executive chairman.

Barcelona praise Man United; Mourinho lauds Pogba

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Barcelona beat Manchester United 1-0 in their International Champions Cup clash at FedEx Field on Wednesday and the Spanish giants were quick to praise Jose Mourinho’s side after the narrow victory.

[ VIDEO: Man City hammer Real Madrid

New Barca boss Ernesto Valverde certainly has his hands full in his first few weeks in charge at the Nou Camp as Neymar’s future is the main topic of conversation around the Catalan club.

That said, after the win (which came via a goal from, you guessed it, Neymar) Valverde had plenty of kinds words to say about United and the job Mourinho is doing at Old Trafford.

“Obviously it hasn’t been well lately, but I mean they won the Europa League. This year they are going to be in the Champions League. Their presence by itself is impressive. They impress. I think they are going to be a really hard team to beat,” Valverde said. “For me, they are contenders to win and they are going to be hard to beat in the Premier League and the Champions League. I wouldn’t want to face them in the Champions League.’

Mourinho was asked about the situations regarding the top talent in world soccer and the huge transfer fees, and he picked out that moment to praise the current most-expensive player in the world Paul Pogba.

“(Lionel) Messi and Neymar, there is only one; there is not two,” Mourinho said. “(Luis) Suarez, (Andres) Iniesta, (Gerard) Pique, (Cristiano) Ronaldo, (Gareth) Bale, (Luka) Modric, Toni Kroos; there is only one so they can only play for one club, not for two clubs. We can’t have them, they belong to the clubs. But I have to say that Paul Pogba showed the level… he showed he belongs to that level.”

This is certainly a big year for Pogba after his up and down start to life back at Old Trafford in 2016-17.

Sure, he he hadn’t plenty of pressure on his shoulders with the huge price tag, his emoji spinning around the pitch and much more, but he helped drag United through the season and achieve their main aim of getting back to the Champions League.

After a strong preseason Stateside where the won four games and lost a tight encounter to Barcelona, it appears Mourinho has things moving in the right direction.

Whether or not United will challenge for the PL title and Champions League this season remains to be seen but you can’t argue that Romelu Lukaku and Victor Lindelof aren’t huge additions and if Mourinho can add one or two more he will have the required balance to made the Red Devils a formidable unit.

LA Galaxy fire Onalfo, hire Sigi Schmid

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Sigi Schmid is back in the game.

On Thursday LA Galaxy announced that Curt Onalfo had been relieved of his duties “effective immediately” and that Schmid had been hired.

The former UCLA, Columbus Crew and Seattle Sounders coach is back for his second-stint with the Galaxy — he previously coached the Galaxy from 1999-2004 — as the man with more wins than any other boss in MLS history is tasked with saving LA’s season.

Schmid has won two MLS Cups, a record five U.S. Open Cups and three MLS Supporters’ Shield over his illustrious career.

LA Galaxy President Chris Klein explained the decision to bring in the experienced coach after Onalfo’s promotion form LA Galaxy II failed to work out with the MLS giants currently languishing in ninth spot in the Western Conference.

“After a great deal of evaluation and careful consideration, we believe that Sigi Schmid is the best person to coach our team for the remainder of this season and into the future,” Klein said. “Sigi is one of the most experienced coaches in the history of soccer in the United States and he is an extremely successful manager that has proven himself to be a winner within Major League Soccer. Sigi has been one of the best coaches the history of our league and we have full confidence in him to lead our team moving forward. Our goal remains to win trophies and be the best club in North America and we believe that Sigi gives us the best opportunity to achieve this. Curt Onalfo has been a loyal servant to the Galaxy and Galaxy II for a number of seasons and we wish him well.”

From the start Onalfo was on a hiding to nothing with Bruce Arena departing for the U.S. national team last season and Onalfo tasked with an almighty rebuild following his great work with bringing through youngsters at LA Galaxy II.

Schmid knows the league inside out and his main aim will be to rally a talented group of Galaxy players to one of their famed second half of the season surges as they search for another MLS Cup to add to their record haul of five.

With LA in ninth spot in the West they are only three points off the bottom of the standings but are also just five points from the final playoff spot.

For so long Schmid plotted LA’s downfall as head coach of the Seattle Sounders from 2009-16, but now he’s back in LA and as fate would have it his first game back in charge of the Galaxy is against… the Sounders this Saturday at StubHub Center.