Playback: Blueprint on how to beat Man City

1 Comment

BLUEPRINT EMERGES TO BEAT MAN CITY

Manchester City will probably still win the Premier League this season, but a blueprint has emerged as to how you can hurt them.

Pep Guardiola‘s men lost 4-3 at Liverpool on Sunday with Jurgen Klopp fighting fire with fire and ending City’s bid to go the entire PL season unbeaten in the process.

[ MORE: Liverpool 4-3 Man City | 3 things ] 

City lost for the first time this season at the 23rd attempt but teams are, finally, figuring out how you can stop them. Well, at least for large spells of a game. If you’re going to listen to anyone about how to get the better of a Guardiola team, it’s Klopp. No manager has beaten Guardiola more in his managerial career.

Speaking to our analysts on the pitch at Anfield after the game, Klopp said time and again how you have to be “brave” but also “press at the right time” to shut down City’s slick passing game. Liverpool’s gameplan worked perfectly but they still only won 4-3 as City were brave themselves and kept getting on the ball to cause havoc.

[ MORE: “Historic” game to live long in memory

Liverpool started brightly, pressing high and getting at City’s full backs with Sadio Mane pushed high on Kyle Walker and Mohamed Salah on Fabian Delph. City couldn’t get the ball out of their own half and Ederson was forced into poor clearances and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was given too much space and rifled home a fine opener.

Is this a crisis for Guardiola and Man City? Nope. When you look at their remaining schedule, the only game you can see them being seriously tested in is their trip to Tottenham in mid-April.

But what is the blueprint for success against the team who’ve looked unbeatable for most of the season?

Here are four fundamentals you have to do well to have a chance of beating Man City:

1. Isolate City’s full backs in one-on-one battles: This is easy to do for Liverpool because of the pace and danger of Mane and Salah but the likes of Crystal Palace, Newcastle and Bristol City have all had success doing this in recent games. If you are brave enough to let your wingers step high on the man with the ball, you can get success. Walker and Delph (or Danilo, who replaced the injured Delph) aren’t as comfortable as City’s other players on the ball and will give it away under intense pressure.

2. High-press, high-press, high-press: The likes of Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva can find gaps in the tightest defenses, so why sit back and let City wait for one tiny defensive lapse to punish you? If you press City high, Ederson and their center backs will give you the ball back and you can pounce further up the pitch. Of course, you aren’t going to be able to press for the entire game but if you can split the game into four quarters, you can have a chance as long as you do number three…

3. Take your chances: Easy to say but tough to do. Liverpool could have led City 2-0 in the return game at the Etihad earlier this season but Mohamed Salah missed big chances after another fast start from Klopp’s men. Liverpool had seven shots on target and scored with four of them. They also hit the post through Mane and in a 20 minutes spell from the 55th minute they tore Man City apart. For all the talk about their poor defending, City had conceded the fewest goals in the PL heading into this game.

4. Allow City the first pass centrally, then pounce: Look at Liverpool’s four goals. Man City created their own problems in all four and they were caught out for loose passes from their defense into the central midfield area. That’s the time where you can snap in and win the ball back, then get at their back four while they are on the back foot. As Klopp told our analysts, you have to press at the right time. Liverpool did and City couldn’t handle it.


SUMMER STANDOFFS GO WRONG

Back in the summer transfer window the trio of Alexis Sanchez, Virgil Van Dijk and Philippe Coutinho were embroiled in lengthy and messy transfer sagas.

All three were kept by their clubs (Arsenal, Southampton and Liverpool respectively) but two of the three have already moved in January and the third is edging closer than ever to the exit door.

What did the three clubs achieve but not selling their star players in the summer? Who really “won” this stalemate, if anyone did?

You can argue that Liverpool were the big winners from this. Yes, they lost Coutinho but they also got an eye-watering sum of $197 million from Barcelona for a star player that wasn’t actually making them that much better than they already were with Salah, Mane and Firmino around. Klopp also added van Dijk for $100 million from Southampton and although that price is high, Liverpool improved their shaky defense considerably and still made close to $100 million on the deal. Decent.

For Saints, they lost their leading center back but in truth VVD’s heart wasn’t in it after he handed in a transfer request in the summer amid Liverpool apologizing and calling off their bid to sign him following an alleged illegal approach for the Dutch defender. Yet Southampton’s form has dipped badly since their captain had his head turned and they are just one point above the relegation zone with a cloud hanging over the club. Their stance to try and persuade VVD, a player who signed a six-year deal in the summer of 2016, to stay long-term, has backfired massively.

That segues us nicely to Sanchez and his impending departure from Arsenal.

On transfer deadline day in September Arsenal could have got $75 million from Man City for Sanchez but the deal broke down at the 11th hour as they couldn’t line up Thomas Lemar as a replacement. Since then, Sanchez has played well in fits and starts but his overall output has diminished drastically and his situation was very different to Coutinho and van Dijk’s, who were both on long-term contracts.

With less than six months left on his current deal, Sanchez could now be sold for less than half of what he could have fetched in September and probably a third of his actual market value. Arsene Wenger believed he could convince Sanchez (plus Mesut Ozil) to stay at the Emirates but it appears Arsenal’s gamble has failed dramatically and they’re lucky to get anywhere near $40 million for the Chilean forward if that’s what Man United are said to be paying for him.

In hindsight (a wonderful, wonderful thing) all three players should have probably been sold in the summer but Liverpool appear to be the real winners with Coutinho increasing his value and finally landing their man in van Dijk despite paying slightly over the odds.

As for Arsenal and Southampton, they’ll look back on the decision to not cash in on their stars in the summer as very poor decisions.


VAR CHATTER INCREASES

Fans of Southampton and Swansea City will be the loudest advocates of using the VAR system on Monday.

Over the weekend both clubs should have had big decisions go their way which would’ve helped them on their way to sealing massive victories in their fight against relegation.

Abdoulaye Doucoure’s 90th minute equalizer for Watford against Southampton was perhaps the biggest incident yet to show why VAR is needed in the Premier League. The French midfielder punched the ball past Alex McCarthy and into the net to snatch a point for Watford in the 2-2 draw (after they’d trailed 2-0 at half time) and could end up not only costing Saints dear in their battle against relegation, but manager Mauricio Pellegrino is under severe pressure to save his job with no wins in their last 10 PL games.

As for Swansea, Mo Diame committed a clear handball to stop a shot going in in their 1-1 draw at Newcastle and the hosts should have been down to 10-men and the Swans awarded a penalty kick.

All it would have taken is a quick word in the ear of the referee from a Video Assistant Referee watching the incidents on a TV screen to tell them that Watford’s goal should have been chalked off and Diame should have been sent off and Swansea awarded a penalty kick. That’s it. For this huge decisions which impact the outcome of the game, we need this technology. Purists out there harp on about ruining the flow of the game but there’s no need to have challenge flags for managers or a maximum or minimum number of decisions per game.

Simply put: if a contentious incident occurs in the game regarding a goal, red card or a penalty decision, have someone else check it and see if the decision was correct. If there was an obvious mistake made by the match officials, overturn it. If there is still doubt about it, keep the same decision. It is that easy. It really is.

VAR isn’t in place in the PL but the debate rumbles on after it was used in the FA Cup and League Cup last week with some teething issues but it was largely successfully with the main issue being that fans inside the stadium didn’t know what was happening and why there was a delay.

With the Bundesliga, Major League Soccer and Serie A using the technology this season to clear up contentious calls, it’s tough to see the Premier League not adopting this technology from the 2018-19 campaign onwards.


RELEGATION PICTURE GETTING CRAZY

Just 10 points separates last-place Swansea City with Everton in ninth in the Premier League. There is going to be an almighty scrap against relegation.

Swansea City, West Brom and Stoke City occupy the current bottom three but above them the likes of Southampton, Brighton, Huddersfield and Newcastle are bang out of form, with even the likes of Watford, West Ham, Crystal Palace and Bournemouth embroiled in the battle.

So, that’s half the league.

Momentum means everything at this time of the season and both West Ham and Palace have it after impressive wins at the weekend, while Bournemouth will also feel confident after beating Arsenal on Sunday and so to will West Brom after grabbing their first win in 21 outings.

If you had to select three teams to go down, who would you pick? I feel like we will all be changing our minds on a weekly basis from here until May 13.


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

Most to gain (or lose) from decisive USMNT matches

Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The United States men’s national team will not be changing coaches regardless of the scores against Canada and Cuba this month, giving added incentive to 23 men called into the team to get the job done.

Long- and short-term injuries continue to open the door to players well past Gregg Berhalter’s top 23, even deeper considering the concurrent U-23 camp and the coach’s apparent disinterest in some other players still performing well in Europe.

Christian Pulisic, Zack Steffen, and Michael Bradley picked up injuries that won’t allow them to join the team, while Timothy Weah and Tyler Adams have just restarted training with their clubs after long injury absences. Miles Robinson is still absent after being injured at the last camp and missing Atlanta’s playoff run

Throw in Berhalter’s decision not to call up Matt Miazga, Duane Holmes, and Julian Green to go with Jozy Altidore‘s lack of fitness, and you’ve got another month for some players to surprise (We haven’t even mentioned Antonee Robinson, Cameron Carter-Vickers and Richie Ledezma are at a loaded U-23 camp).

Edit note: Maybe we need to write up a Top 50 USMNT depth chart this evening or soon…

Chase Gasper and Corey Baird were sent home from camp ahead of the European arrivals, so here are the players whose fortunes could hinge on delivering for a coach who needs it. Make no mistake about it: Earnie Stewart’s vote of confidence means the coach is going nowhere, but anyone who helps Berhalter score a berth in the CONCACAF Nations League semifinals will take a place near his heart.

Who’s gotta carpe sabbati? Read on…

Sebastian Lletget ,Jackson Yueill, Cristian Roldan (in that order) — We probably wrote something similar to this last month, but future camps without Tyler Adams, Christian Pulisic, and Weston McKennie are only going to happen if all are (again) injured or there is absolutely nothing on the line against Jamaica’s B Team.

Include Bradley’s absence and you’ll get an even deeper understanding of why who is chosen alongside McKennie and (probably) Alfredo Morales for this big match against Canada is a big deal. Lletget is 27 and Berhalter hasn’t shown a lot of love for him despite bringing a unique skill set and decent performances when he’s been given time on the USMNT pitch. Roldan might be the best non-prospect American player in MLS. Yueill is just 22, but again there are a lot of absent players ahead of him. We’re not included Wil Trapp in this discussion because he’s clearly a Berhalter favorite.

Out-fight Scott Arfield and out-fox Jonathan Osorio, and give Berhalter a reason to keep calling you into the fold.

The goalkeepers — There’s no reason to expect Zack Steffen to lose his first XI spot through injury, especially given his status as a Bundesliga starter on loan from a Champions League outfit — Oh, and he was Berhalter’s club No. 1, too! — but at some point these goalkeeper call-ups and their performances will determine who will be Nos. 2 and 3 for qualifying and for, probably, the 2022 World Cup.

Jonathan Klinsmann, Ethan Horvath, and Brady Scott aren’t here, and boy did Leicester City’s Chituru Odunze open some eyes during the U.S. flame-out at the U-17 World Cup.

So here’s Brad Guzan, the presumptive No. 1 in a post-Tim Howard world who proved presumptions aren’t foolproof.

Only two of Sean Johnson‘s eight caps were not friendlies, and both were Gold Cup clean sheets (six years apart). Might he get a chance in Orlando?

And Matt Turner is new here after an outstanding 2019 season in MLS. You can bet Berhalter rang up a respected Bruce Arena to get plenty of info before calling in the New England Revolution’s No. 1.

Aaron Long — This isn’t about gaining a spot on the squad, as the 27-year-old Long looks like a mainstay for Berhalter, rather a steady place in the XI. Miazga not being here could’ve been heard as a clarion call to the center backs who were called up.

Long has struggled in his past few months wearing the national team shirt, and a healthy John Brooks is an automatic starter. That leaves one spot, a pivotal one given Berhalter’s preferential formation, and Walker Zimmerman is a better passer than Long. This is a big camp for proving whether the Red Bulls man is a starter or security blanket.

Report: Galaxy leading way in Zlatan pursuit

Harry How / Getty Images
Leave a comment

A report out of Italy hints at a win for the LA Galaxy when it comes to Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Football-Italia says the best offer sent the way of the big Swede, 38, is from the Galaxy, at about $15 million over two years.

MLS can pop its collar that the report says Ibrahimovic doesn’t believe Bologna is a big enough club to tempt him into a move away from LA, where he was MLS Best XI in consecutive seasons.

[ MORE: Stewart says Berhalter is safe ]

The report also notes that Napoli interest has cooled, while AC Milan (more on them later) and Manchester United have not made serious offers for the man with 456 career club goals and 173 assists between the Galaxy, Ajax, Man United, Juventus, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Barcelona, and Paris Saint-Germain.

Knowing the math, and that Zlatan has scored 53 times in 58 matches for United, you wonder whether he’s not hunting 500 club goals. He’s also a known trophy hunter. Both of those paths are markedly easier with the Galaxy than Bologna, and Ibrahimovic is already comfortable and locked in a fierce rivalry with Carlos Vela and LAFC.

Zlatan also had 116 caps with 62 goals for Sweden and is one of the biggest names to grace Major League Soccer’s pitches. Of course there’s a chance at his age that he could break down, or his form could drop off a cliff, but for now another run as both villain and hero in a major MLS market would be a win for the league (even if he regularly touts himself as bigger than the league).

While we have not seen Ibrahimovic in a top league since he was injured for Man United, there’s little doubt he could still do a job over there. He’s only 2.5 seasons removed from a 28-goal, 10-assist season in all comps for Man United.

Don’t sleep on the idea that AC Milan could make a call to Ibrahimovic’s people, having scored just three goals in their past four games including high-profile 1-goal losses to Roma, Juventus, and Lazio. Milan has just 11 goals in 12 league outings, and was supposed to be a Serie A threat without the schedule congestion of Europe.

Top teams in good shape as EURO 2020 qualifying reaches climax

Getty Images
Leave a comment

With the Netherlands missing out on Euro 2016 and Italy absent from the World Cup in 2018, some of Europe’s traditional soccer powers have surprisingly failed to advance to recent major international tournaments.

Don’t expect any big shocks when qualification for next year’s European Championship wraps up over the coming days.

Six teams – Belgium, Spain, Italy, Poland, Russia and Ukraine – have already booked their places in the tournament and the remaining 14 automatic qualifiers will be determined after the final group games.

World champion France, European champion Portugal, and heavyweights such as Germany, England and the Netherlands are in good shape to finish in the top two in their respective groups, ensuring spots in the Europe-wide finals taking place in June and July.

There are big opportunities for Europe’s so-called lesser soccer nations, too. Finland, for example, needs only to beat Liechtenstein to qualify for its first major tournament.

France, the World Cup winner last year, is tied on points with Turkey in Group H and will secure a top-two finish by beating Moldova on Thursday. In case of an upset in that game in Paris, the French have another shot at qualification at Albania on Sunday.

Portugal, led by Cristiano Ronaldo, is guaranteed to advance in the defense of its title with wins over Lithuania at home and Luxembourg away – the bottom two teams in Group B.

England needs one win from its final two games – at home to Montenegro on Thursday and away to Kosovo on Sunday – to top Group A.

Editor’s note: Need tickets for the England game? Click here

And in Group C, Germany and the Netherlands are tied on points and need a maximum of four points from their final two qualifiers. Both have to play Northern Ireland, which is three points behind in third place.

The last four qualifying spots for the 24-team Euros will be decided in the playoffs in March.

RONALDO’S CHALLENGE

Could Cristiano Ronaldo fail to qualify for a major tournament?

UEFA would hate to see the Portugal star miss out, but his team has lacked a spark in qualifying and is eight points off Group B leader Ukraine.

Portugal is favored to beat Lithuania on Thursday and Luxembourg on Sunday to secure second place.

Still, there’s little margin for error. Dropped points could allow Serbia to overtake, forcing Portugal into the playoffs.

ENGLAND LANDMARK

England will be playing its 1,000th men’s international in the match against Montenegro and the occasion will be marked in a number of ways, including recognizing the notable contributions of former players and managers. Players will wear individual “legacy numbers” on their jerseys.

England manager Gareth Southgate is hoping a line can be drawn following scenes last month when his players were racially abused by some Bulgaria fans during England’s 6-0 win in Sofia. The game was stopped on two occasions by the referee. England’s match away to Montenegro in March was also marred by racist chanting toward England’s black players, notably Raheem Sterling.

“The players will want to move on, really,” Southgate said. “I think, for all of them, they dealt with it brilliantly and it would be wrong not to discuss it at all but I know that they want to get on with the football.”

Kosovo, which was accepted as a member of UEFA and FIFA only in 2016, is third in the group and could secure automatic qualification with a win at the Czech Republic on Thursday and a draw against England.

FINALLY FINLAND?

Finland is the only Nordic team never to have qualified for a World Cup or a European Championship. That could all change this week.

The Finns are second in Group J, five points clear of both Armenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and will join Italy in advancing to the finals with a win at home against last-placed Liechtenstein on Friday or if Bosnia fails to beat the Italians. Finland’s second chance, if needed, comes against Greece on Monday.

Finland is coached by a primary school teacher, Markku Kanerva, who led the country to a first ever European Under-21 Championship in 2009 and is impressing with the senior team a decade on.

Teemu Pukki has seven goals in qualifying as the team looks to go further than it ever did with past greats such as Sami Hyypia and Jari Litmanen.

CROATIA AT RISK

Croatia is finding European qualifying harder than last year’s World Cup.

The Croatians lead the evenly matched Group E but if they lose to Slovakia on Saturday the World Cup finalists could end up relying on other results to go their way.

Another team in a fight to qualify is Switzerland, which is third in Group D behind Ireland and Denmark, but is a big favorite against Gibraltar.

PLAYOFF SHOOTOUT

The playoffs offer a last chance for unsuccessful teams, but it’s a complex process.

Sixteen teams who didn’t qualify automatically will be ranked according to their divisions from the 2018 Nations League and put into four single-elimination brackets.

At the bottom end, there’s the League D playoff, which is guaranteed to hand one team its debut at a major championship. Georgia and Belarus have secured a place in that playoff mini-tournament and will likely be joined by Kosovo and North Macedonia.

The highest division almost certainly won’t have enough unqualified teams to make a four-team bracket, so will recruit extras from lower tiers. That could hand League A’s Iceland a fortunate draw with League C teams such as Bulgaria and Israel.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

AP Sports Writer James Ellingworth in Dusseldorf, Germany, contributed to this story

USMNT boss Berhalter won’t be fired; USA confident of making World Cup

Getty Images
2 Comments

USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter is under pressure, but he will not be fired if they lose against Canada or Cuba in the coming days.

Or anytime soon, for that matter.

That is the resounding message of support from USMNT General Manager Earnie Stewart, who spoke to reporters via a conference call on Tuesday and had to answer plenty of questions about the U.S. losing 2-0 at 69th ranked Canada last month.

Stewart batted away speculation about Berhalter’s future, as the USMNT need to win their remaining two CONCACAF Nations League Group A games against Canada in Orlando on Friday and then against Cuba, plus overturn a three-goal deficit on Canada, to reach the finals of the inaugural tournament.

“We’re looking at the future. So when I evaluate Gregg and the staff, what I’ve seen today, I’m a pleased man. An individual result is not going to change that,” Stewart said. “I’ve seen that progress, and when you look at these individual results of the Canada away game, no, we weren’t happy. We weren’t happy at all. We have now a moment to rectify that as well. This Friday is about that. We need to perform.”

Stewart then doubled down in his support of Berhalter and this group of players, led by the likes of Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and now Sergino Dest, saying he is incredibly confident of reaching the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

“I have no fear at all that we are not going to qualify for the World Cup. I am very, very confident of that,” Stewart added.

The former USMNT player then revealed he’s felt personally attacked by the USMNT fanbase accusing the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) of nepotism as Jay Berhalter, Gregg’s brother, is high up in USSF and running to becoming the new CEO.

“I am the one making the decisions. All the conspiracy theories out there are very disrespectful to me and to the individuals: to Jay Berhalter, to Gregg Berhalter, myself,” Stewart said. “When people insinuate these things … I’ve worked a little bit too hard to be in the position where I’m in today to actually have people think that.”

Berhalter’s reign has seen mixed results so far, as the USMNT reached the 2019 Gold Cup final but were beaten by Mexico’s B team in the summer.

They were smashed 3-0 by Mexico’s A team in a friendly in September and the lackluster displays have infuriated the USMNT fanbase who have been hurting for over two years since the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

Aside from the results, the major issues have been the possession-based style of play not seeming to suit the USMNT player pool, with so many talented youngsters struggling to adapt to what Berhalter wants, plus some player seemingly picked regardless of their performances.

So, Berhalter will stay, for now. But when is the next major flashpoint?

2022 World Cup qualifying starts next summer and if the USMNT get off to a bad start, it will be intriguing to see how Stewart and USSF react.

No matter what Stewart says this is a federation, and coach, under pressure. Let’s see if his team respond.