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Guardiola’s tactical flexibility has allowed him to succeed in multiple leagues

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In the wake of his brutal defeat to Liverpool in the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal matchup, plenty has been written about Pep Guardiola‘s tactics and selection. The Spaniard has failed to hoist the Champions League trophy since 2011 with Barcelona, and hasn’t even brought a team to the finals since departing La Liga.

But despite his European ups and downs, there is no contesting Guardiola’s league success. Since signing on to lead Barcelona in 2008, he will secure a seventh league title in his 10 years in charge in La Liga, the Bundesliga, and the Premier League. That is a mind-bogglingly dominant run.

His squad tinkering has taken flak in European play when margins are slim, but across a full season of league play, Guardiola’s ability to not just boost his squad depth but use it to perfection is spectacular. However, most importantly, Guardiola’s tactical flexibility has seen him deploy his players in various roles while still putting them in good positions to utilize their best qualities and minimize their weaknesses.

[ MORE: How does this MCFC team compare to Guardiola’s past? ]

Starting at Barcelona, Guardiola popularized the tiki-taka style of play, dominating possession and forcing the opponent to take risks or be slowly choked to death. Still today, there are elements of that in his tactical setup at Manchester City, but his stop at Bayern forced him to change his style, the beginning of his flexibility.

In Germany, Guardiola tweaked his Barcelona tiki-taka tactics that featured bombing full-backs and a single holding midfielder in Sergio Busquets. The Spanish team filtered the ball out wide and then pinched back in with inverted wingers, a formula many fans now know well. However, in his first year at Bayern, that changed over the course of his first Bundesliga campaign, with his full-backs instead pinching early and often acting as quasi-midfielders. This often saw his wingers Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery alone on the touchline, sacrificing width but controlling the center of the field, a new way to choke out opponents.

[ STREAM: Man City v Man United ] 

A central switch was particularly useful when midfield players like Thiago Alcantara and Bastian Schweinsteiger missed significant time due to injury, but it also allowed players like Thomas Muller and Mario Gotze to focus less on retaining possession in the final third and more on deadlier off-ball movement, something the top German attackers have perfected in the last decade.

Over the years at Bayern, he continued to deploy this strategy successfully thanks in part to the versatility of Philip Lahm and David Alaba. Now at Manchester City, things have again adapted to his squad. While he has returned to overlapping full-backs and a single holding midfielder, he has often asked his #8 (Kevin De Bruyne or Ilkay Gundogan) to drop significantly deeper, especially against pressing teams. While this ultimately failed against Liverpool in the Champions League a few days ago, it had seen success against Liverpool earlier in the season in the 5-0 win, plus the 4-1 victory over Tottenham where they suffocated Spurs.

To help break a press, City has gone to a vertical passing strategy not seen in the Guardiola tiki-taka style of old. For example, in the Tottenham win, Sergio Aguero was seen often receiving passes up the middle near the midway line (or even before it) where he then would lay back off to a central midfielder or winger. Seven of Aguero’s 10 completed passes in that game went backwards or square into the middle third of the pitch. This can cause havoc in the central areas, seemingly bypassing the midfield, creating space for the CM to then burst forward on the ball, ultimately forcing the opposing center-backs to stop the push and allowing the striker to sneak in behind.

This stop-start method of squeezing through the center of the pitch proves Pep’s ability to adapt in league play. While it still has yet to translate to European play – with Pep’s confidence in his squad depth potentially detrimental in a tournament with small space for error – it has led him to league success unlike any other manager over the last decade. With Manchester City on the cusp of one of the most dominant runs in Premier League history, his mastery of the competitive English top flight in such a short time is truly impressive.

MLS wrap: Friedel, Vancouver in focus; More Zlatan thoughts

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We’re fairly positive you heard at least one Major League Soccer score from this weekend.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic took his status as a living legend to our shores, and came off the bench to make an instant impact on debut in the LA Galaxy’s thrilling 4-3 win over LAFC on Saturday.

[ MORE: Arsenal beats Stoke ]

Ibrahimovic scored a wild shot off a bounce from almost 40 yards before heading in the winner as the Galaxy rallied back from a 3-0 deficit in the first “El Trafico.”

“I saw the goalkeeper he was out and I said I will shoot it over, but it was all depending how do I shoot, do I shoot high or in front to put power on it,” Ibrahimovic said. “I chose the power way and it went in. Then the adrenaline starts, you start, and you don’t want it to finish. You take off your shirt and you just want to celebrate with the fans. You want to feel the energy that is going through the stadium. If I would have more strength, I would have run all over the pitch, but I just managed one side of the field.”

A couple other thoughts on the game, and Zlatan:

— The next time someone tells you that MLS, or any league brand, needs players more than names, ask yourself if the league would be better served if Saturday’s meter would have moved with “random 20-year-old South American or European prospects” had the same performances as Carlos Vela and Ibrahimovic. If you said yes, well, enjoy making “Use Your Illusion III.”

Bob Bradley, likely the most impressive American-born manager in history, has had enough of Zlatan. The LAFC boss oversaw Saturday’s come-from-ahead loss as well as a 3-1 loss to Manchester United as Swansea boss which included a brace from the Big Swede. Four goals in about 113 minutes. Woof.

— In our rush to call it the “best game in MLS history,” please don’t forget David Beckham’s first start, which finished three goals off his set pieces and markers from a 17-year-old Jozy Altidore in addition to Landon Donovan, a bullet from Clint Mathis, Edson Buddle, and Juan Pablo Angel:

Some other things we learned on Saturday (and Friday).

— Toronto is going to be fine. The Reds have a huge CONCACAF Champions League match looming at midweek, and still battered Real Salt Lake 3-1 at BMO Field. Of course they should usually handle their business, like most good MLS teams, when a team travels across a continent as they did Friday. But off an 0-2 league start, surely seeing two goals from Jozy Altidore — and 12 combined shots from the USMNT striker and Sebastian Giovinco — feels good.

— The only match Brad Friedel has lost as New England Revolution boss was his opener, and that saw the Revs go two men down. If Friedel and I were friends, I’d like to think I’d call him “Frieds.”

“Frieds,” I’d say, “Looks like I was wrong about you being able to find the talent in that bunch and do well as a first year manager.”

That’s because New England is now 2-1-1 after beating Houston 2-0, albeit up a man for most of the match. Keep an eye on a manager the league would love to trumpet with more success.

— Orlando City and the New York Red Bulls staged a 4-3 wonder in Florida, but you can be happy you weren’t watching live to see the officials send soccer back 20 years by not calling Dom Dwyer for his rugby style stiff arm of Luis Robles in scoring off a corner. You have to feel for the video editor here, because the below highlight is state-run TV level funny. Imagine trying to build a lifelong fan out of someone who’s watched any other high level soccer in his life when this happens to their team:

— There’s a reason Carl Robinson is still in charge over in British Columbia, and the Vancouver Whitecaps‘ 2-1 win in Columbus show just why. The Crew are a tight, thriving unit, but Robinson’s men didn’t flinch when Gyasi Zardes put them down a goal. Well-utilized Brek Shea continued a productive start to the season with an equalizer, and Federico Higuain’s old pal Kei Kamara gave the ‘Caps all three points level with Sporting KC for first in the West.

— Speaking of Sporting, KC scored a third minute goal and a welcomed clean sheet in moving to 3-1-1 with a win over Ben Olsen’s DC United. Goal scorer Felipe Gutierrez might be the league’s top performer over the first month of the season. After failing to score in KC’s season-opening loss, he has five goals in five games.

— It was another big name veteran who starred for Chicago Fire and kept Gio Savarese from a win as Portland Timbers manager. Bastian Schweinsteiger set-up goals from Nemanja Nikolic and Brandon Vincent in a 2-2 tie at Toyota Park in Illinois.

— No snow globe this time around, and no real goals in Atlanta United‘s win at Minnesota United. An own goal hurts, but the Loons are looking much better in Year Two of MLS.

— It’s going to take San Jose some time to become a consistent side under Mikael Stahre, with a number of new pieces playing a new system, but there’s some encouragement in scoring early and sticking with dangerous NYCFC before falling 2-1. Most importantly, and we’ve said this before, Stahre has unleashed Valeri Qazaishvili, who recorded seven more shots as the West Coast, younger, poor man’s Sebastian Giovinco.

— Colorado Rapids handled their business again under head coach Anthony Hudson, with Dominique Badji bagging a hat trick in a 3-0 win over visiting Philadelphia. Tim Howard made four saves for the Rapids, who were outshot at home to spite the score line.

— Three games, three red cards for Seattle. This one helped them lose 1-0 to a Jeisson Vargas goal in Montreal.

Where does Zlatan rank in MLS superstar signings?

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic has announced his arrival in Major League Soccer in a typically understated fashion…

The big question surrounding Zlatan’s arrival at the LA GAlaxy on a two-year deal is if he can still produce goals on a regular basis following his serious knee injury last year which kept him out for eight months and continued to hamper him this season at Manchester United.

Yet another question is intriguing to many: where does the 36-year-old stack up in terms of the biggest signings in MLS’ 23-year history?

It’s an intriguing question to ponder and despite Zlatan’s status as one of the most recognizable players on the planet, the impact he will have on MLS will be determined on what he produces on the pitch. Some of the other star names who previously arrived haven’t produced star moments, even if they remained stars after their retirement.

With the Designated Player era ushered in by David Beckham in 2007 (Zlatan reportedly won’t be a DP and will received close to $3 million per year via TAM) many stars have come and gone in MLS with varying degrees of success. It isn’t an exact science as you need big name players to buy into the different challenges MLS brings up and, in essence, almost adapt their own games and reinvent themselves a little.

Some of the biggest names have struggled massively, while others have excelled and even elevated their previous status among the U.S. and global soccer community due to their play in MLS.

Below is a look where Zlatan’s arrival currently ranks in terms of the superstars to come to the U.S., with his ranking no doubt set to rise if he bangs in goals and keeps up his impressive artistry of the English language off the pitch.

Remember: below is a ranking of the top overseas stars to arrive in MLS during the DP era, so there are no U.S. national team or Canadian national team players because Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Landon Donovan and others would all be in this list otherwise.

Let’s be clear, we are talking about big-name overseas stars who have arrived as much for their superstar status off the pitch as well as their obvious playing talent to help the status of the league grow. We are focusing on the star power in the list below, with current MLS players in bold.


  1. David Beckham (LA Galaxy)
  2. Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC)
  3. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (LA Galaxy)
  4. Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy)
  5. David Villa (New York City FC)
  6. Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls)
  7. Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls)
  8. Diego Valeri (Portland Timbers)
  9. Tim Cahill (New York Red Bulls)
  10. Didier Drogba (Montreal Impact)
  11. Juan Pablo Angel (New York Red Bulls, Chivas USA, LA Galaxy)
  12. Nemanja Nikolic (Chicago Fire)
  13. Miguel Almiron (Atlanta United)
  14. Carlos Vela (LAFC)
  15. Bastian Schweinsteiger (Chicago Fire)
  16. Federico Higuain (Columbus Crew SC)
  17. Ignacio Piatti (Montreal Impact)
  18. Frank Lampard (New York City FC)
  19. Fredy Montero (Seattle Sounders, Vancouver Whitecaps)
  20. Kaka (Orlando City SC)
  21. Jermain Defoe (Toronto FC)
  22. Steven Gerrard (LA Galaxy)
  23. Giovani dos Santos (LA Galaxy)
  24. Andrea Pirlo (New York City FC)
  25. Rafael Marquez (New York Red Bulls)

Twenty-Three* thoughts for Week 3 in MLS

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Almost half of Major League Soccer’s clubs have two weeks off to either lick wounds, right wrongs, or celebrate fine starts to their season.

There are 23 clubs in MLS, and we’re here to highlight what happened this week with the clubs who took the pitch for league play.’

[ MORE: (Very) Fresh faces for USMNT ]

Atlanta United and Vancouver Whitecaps — Call this one “V-A-R-you kidding me?”

A match we’d been anticipating all week gets a straight-shot to the gut from a trio of bad decisions.

First, Atlanta’s Leandro Gonzalez Pires works himself into position on a Five Stripes free kick, clearly and purposely aiming to find a way to hit the deck against Vancouver center back Kendall Waston.

Then Waston, who is known for his physical play, gets his elbow up against Gonzalez Pires, allowing the theatrical center back to go down like he’d been de-spined Sub-Zero/Mortal Kombat-style (Yes we made up a word there).

Finally, and probably most egregiously, referee Ismail Elfath goes to the Video Assistant Referee and somehow thinks he has a conclusive angle to send Waston off.

Can Waston have a red for that? Sure, but it was built and aided by embarrassing acting from LGP and it’s just not the sort of play we think should be reviewed and go from zero to red.

Chicago Fire — Veljko Paunovic’s men are a disappointing 0-2 start, but will feel pleased to see second-round pick Elliott Collier get off the mark. They’ll also know they lost to Minnesota with Bastian Schweinsteiger tending to more important matters:

Columbus Crew — The Twenty-Three would like to issue a too-soon apology to Columbus in case they “do a Burnley” and make our miserable preseason predictions even worse. The Crew could easily be 3-0 with a bit better finish from Gyasi Zardes.

DC United — Seemingly serial disappointment Darren Mattocks has two goals and 10 shots in two matches. Maybe Ben Olsen is what the Jamaican needed all along. Now both men would like a win, and soon.

FC Dallas — Granted Oscar Pareja’s men earned their 3-0 win on the back of Clint Dempsey‘s red card, but FCD now has a win and a draw in rebounding from a calamitous performance against Tauro in the CONCACAF Champions League.

Philadelphia Union — Threats were few for the hosts at Talen Energy Stadium, with David Accam taking a pair of shots and CJ Sapong held without an attempt. Still, the Union are unbeaten in two matches and showed good mettle in keeping Columbus off the board.

Houston Dynamo — There’s good Houston and there’s bad Houston. The first half saw electric attackers Mauro Manotas and Alberth Elis scored one minute apart in cooking up a 2-0 lead. But the Dynamo didn’t threaten much in the second half as the hosts found a way to a point in the seventh minute of stoppage time.

Minnesota United — Rebounded from the season-ending loss of Kevin Molino to pick up a second win of the season, something it took the Loons eight matches to do in their MLS debut last season. Seven combined shots from Sam Nicholson and Ibson helped do the trick.

Montreal Impact — Remi Garde is going to be exhaling after his Impact scooped the first win of his tenure, and in home derby style. Montreal has won its last two regular season 401 Derbies, which is not too shabby even if this one needed a huge deflection and perhaps some quite tired TFC legs to get the job done.

New York City FC — No David Villa meant NYC had a little more work to do in breaking down Orland this weekend, but it’s 2-0 win was very positive in taking a 3-0 record atop the Supporters’ Shield table. NYC has allowed just one goal through three matches, and winger Jesus Medina has been very, very good.

New York Red Bulls — Given that CCL sides went 0-3 this week in league play and the fact that Major League Soccer doesn’t have every team going every week, perhaps scheduling a bye here would’ve made more sense? RBNY’s 1-0 loss in Utah featured eight total shot attempts from the visitors.

Orlando City — The Lions are still waiting on their lineup to find its flow with one point through three matches, but “How long will Jason Kreis be allowed to run a losing team?” is starting to feel like a real question. Yes, it’s only three matches. No, this isn’t very good.

For more on Orlando’s plight, head here.

Real Salt Lake — Mike Petke will be feeling a lot better after his reading of the riot act inspired a win over his former team at Rio Tinto. This save is making the rounds, understandably so, and what we like best about this from RSL elder Nick Rimando is the wisdom to figure the show was coming low and the quickness to get there.

San Jose Earthquakes — Valeri Qazaishvili felt underused last season, or at-best poorly deployed. Not this go round, as Mikael Stahre is proving he’s going to fire at will with his weapons. To allow three goals on four shots on target, however, is an issue.

Seattle Sounders — Deuce has a reputation. Whether it was for his right-handed slap to Jacori Hayes’ private parts or the left-handed follow-through, we still really don’t have a read on Seattle thanks to travel congestion and a red card. Dallas went on to win 3-0.

Sporting KC — We thought SKC-SJ would be a good one, and it again delivered. Peter Vermes is opening up the attack, and now has seen seven Sporting goals in a pair of wins.

Alas…

Toronto FC — Given the Reds’ CONCACAF Champions League success/travel and a playoff structure as forgiving as Major League Soccer’s means TFC’s 0-2 start to the season is only cause for alarm in terms of:

A) Retaining the Supporters’ Shield

B) Losing a 401 Derby

Part B happened this weekend. Chances were even, as were battles, and Montreal’s game plan to foul TFC to death helped hamper flow. Jeisson Vargas’ goal took a massive deflection after the Reds’ back line gave Ignacio Piatti significant room to set up his teammate (Not a great idea). It’ll be fine.

Sporting KC out-crazy Fire in early Game of the Year contender

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BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. (AP) Felipe Gutierrez scored twice and Sporting Kansas City rallied with two late goals to beat the Chicago Fire 4-3 on Saturday night.

Gutierrez capped the scoring for Sporting (1-1-0) in the 86th minute, finishing Daniel Salloi’s back-heel flip. Jimmy Medranda tied it at 3-all three minutes earlier with a left-footed blast.

Chicago (0-1-0) erased a two-goal deficit with three goals over a 13-minute span. Aleksandar Katai cut the deficit to 2-1, heading home Bastian Schweinsteiger‘s cross in the 70th minute.

Nemanja Nikolic evened the score with a putback on Tim Melia’s save in the 74th minute and he made it 3-2 in the 82nd, finishing a short feed from Brandon Vincent off Matt Polster’s deep cross.

Gutierrez opened the scoring with a putback header from the middle of the area in the ninth minute. Johnny Russell doubled the lead for Sporting in the 44th minute, finishing Salloi’s back feed with a left-footed smash.