Cox: Like Ancelotti, Guardiola got his subs right. There’s not much more he could have done

May 6, 2022


“Even by the standards of Champions League semi-finals, the most action-packed and dramatic stage of any competition in modern football, Real Madrid’s comeback against Manchester City last night was truly extraordinary. For 85 minutes at the Bernabeu, City were largely faultless and seemed set to record a controlled 1-0 victory that would take them into the final against Liverpool on May 28. Then, suddenly, a late blitz saw the Spanish champions score two goals, both through Rodrygo, and at 5-5 on aggregate, the momentum was with Madrid. It wasn’t a surprise they opened the scoring in extra time, and it wasn’t a surprise that they held out. City were shellshocked. Is it possible to make sense of such a chaotic ending? Let’s see. …”
The Athletic: Michael Cox
Guardian: Systemic flaws of Guardiola’s City keep Champions League out of reach (Video)
NY Times: Real Madrid Stuns City, Seizing the Moment as Only It Can
Guardian: Real Madrid’s latest miracle is a tale of 88 seconds and one Ancelotti video (Video)
The Athletic: Camavinga, Rodrygo, Vinicius: Real Madrid’s big bets on rising stars are paying off


Cox: Liverpool broke down Villarreal by learning not to foul them

April 30, 2022


“The tactical battle between Liverpool and Villarreal was one of contrasts. It was attack versus defence, width versus narrowness, high pressing against a deep block. But above all else, it was about tempo. Liverpool wanted a high-intensity, 100mph game. Villarreal attempted to slow it down whenever possible. A key factor in Liverpool’s eventual breakthrough was Jurgen Klopp’s side not allowing Villarreal breaks in play. …”
The Athletic


Manchester City 4-3 Real Madrid: Classic Champions League tie a genuine gold standard match

April 27, 2022


Kevin de Bruyne opened the scoring after only 93 seconds in an incredible Champions League semi-final first-leg tie
“Carlo Ancelotti’s last visit to Manchester City ended in a 5-0 humiliation in what proved to be the final match of his tenure as Everton manager. When the legendary Italian manager, 62, turned to his Real Madrid backroom staff with arms outstretched and gave an anxious glance down at his watch with City 2-0 up after only 11 minutes on his return to Etihad Stadium, he was probably fearing a similar scoreline. City were flying. Real were overwhelmed. This was shaping up as a one-sided mauling for the great old Champions League campaigner chasing the trophy for a historic fourth time….”
BBC
The Athletic: ‘I always have it in my head’ – the mental strength behind Karim Benzema’s outrageous penalty for Real Madrid
NY Times: A Convincing Win That Was Anything but Convincing
The Athletic: Carlo Ancelotti’s quiet path to redemption at Real Madrid
Guardian: Pep Guardiola urges Manchester City to be more ruthless in Real Madrid return


Five defeats in a row but Potter says it’s ‘not all doom and gloom’ for Brighton. Here’s why he’s right…

March 14, 2022


“A month ago, Brighton and Hove Albion had only lost four league matches all season. Suddenly they’ve lost five games in a row, four of them without scoring. This is the first time since Brighton’s promotion in 2018 that they’ve lost five straight Premier League games, and depending upon which Tottenham side shows up at the Amex on Wednesday, it could soon be six. Brighton have too many points on the board (33) to be nervously looking over their shoulders, and performances haven’t been wretched enough to consider this a full-blown crisis. And considering Liverpool’s current form — eight Premier League wins in a row — a 2-0 defeat here was hardly a disaster. So here are some reasons for positivity. First, Brighton started excellently on Saturday. …”
The Athletic – Michael Cox


Van Dijk’s dominance and Konate’s best performance make Liverpool good bets to reach the Champions League final

February 20, 2022


“In a tactical sense, Liverpool’s 2-0 victory away to Inter Milan felt like a very modern contest. The game was played at a frenetic tempo, both sides looked to push up and press the opposition whenever possible, and there were various moments when the defences seemed set to play themselves into trouble on the edge of their own penalty areas, such was the defensive effort of the attacking players. In situations like that, sometimes the defenders themselves are slightly anonymous — they hold a high line, position themselves to sweep up if the press is beaten, but find that their job title is slightly misleading and they don’t have to do much actual defending. …”
The Athletic (Audio)


Cox: Rangnick and Hasenhuttl’s shared philosophy has a shared weakness

February 16, 2022


“Unsurprisingly, the first meeting between Manchester United manager Ralf Rangnick and Southampton boss Ralph Hasenhuttl, formerly colleagues at RB Leipzig, felt a lot like a Bundesliga contest. There were lots of turnovers, quick transitions and end-to-end moves. Southampton’s bravery in possession was responsible for most of the chances — at both ends. Hasenhuttl started with the 4-2-2-2 formation he’s generally persisted with throughout his time in the Premier League — and the formation Rangnick failed to successfully install at Manchester United. The away side’s ‘box’ midfield caused Manchester United problems, because it left them outnumbered in central areas. …”
The Athletic: Michael Cox


Africa Cup of Nations review: sorrow, anger and Mané’s redemption

February 8, 2022


“Our writers relive their highs and lows of a tournament completely overshadowed by the Olembe Stadium tragedy. … This Cup of Nations was played under a shadow from the moment eight supporters died outside Olembe Stadium a fortnight ago. There is no excusing what happened at a venue surrounded by vast spaces and the depressing sense remains that its causes will be swept under the carpet. After driving back to Yaoundé the following day and speaking with Romaric, who had been in the ground and encountered people who had been caught up in the crush as he left, the horror of what had occurred started to become clear. A subsequent visit to the emergency hospital brought some harrowing testimonies; these are, sadly, the words and images that linger. …”
Guardian
The Athletic – Cox: Italy-esque Senegal shackled Egypt with five men – they were deserved winners (Audio)
****An African Cup of Nations Primer
NY Times – Africa Cup of Nations: Soccer Tournament Offers Joy Amid Coups and Covid
AFCON 2021: The Review
W – 2021 Africa Cup of Nations
YouTube: Senegal vs Egypt | AFCON 2021 FINAL HIGHLIGHTS | 02/06/2022, Cameroon vs Egypt – CAF African Cup of Nations 2022 2:10:39

Fans from Burkina Faso, which recently underwent a coup, rehearsed their dances and drumming before Wednesday’s semifinal.


The rise and fall of three-man defences and what it tells us about the Premier League

February 1, 2022


“The two managers who have defined English football’s recent craze of using a three-man defence are Antonio Conte and Thomas Tuchel. In his debut campaign at Chelsea, 2016-17, Conte became the first manager in half a century to win the English league title with a back three. Four years later, Tuchel used a similar system at the same club, meaning Chelsea became the first team in two decades to win the European Cup with a three-man defence. …”
The Athletic – Michael Cox


Conor Gallagher is a throwback to old-fashioned No 8s – and that could be what England are missing

January 12, 2022


“At a time when the England national side is blessed with several quality attacking midfielders excelling for clubs in the Champions League, Conor Gallagher probably isn’t the best of the bunch. He is, however, surely the most typically English. Gallagher has been the standout player for a rejuvenated Crystal Palace side, featured in many people’s select XI from the first half of the Premier League season, and has been one of the revelations of the season for Fantasy Football players. Palace fans want him to stay, Chelsea fans would like him to return from his loan, and England supporters were delighted to see him make his international debut in November against San Marino. …”
The Athletic – Michael Cox


Who are the 10 best players in the Premier League?

December 17, 2021


“First things first. Let’s not even pretend this is a serious piece of journalism. It’s a game, a fun bit of distraction to force us all to argue with each other and berate everyone else’s bad opinions. So, please, enjoy it for what it is and join the debate — but be nice. It’s just football, right? Here’s the game: name the 10 best players in the Premier League. On general talent, not just the form they’ve been in for the past few weeks. And you have to put them in order, with No 1 the best. It’s actually really hard. Does Harry Kane deserve a place despite his nightmare of a season so far? Is Mohamed Salah plus nine Manchester City players a valid top 10? How do you compare apples and oranges? We asked our writers and editors to have a go, then averaged out the answers to come up with this. Outraged? Again, have a go yourself. We don’t mind being told we’re wrong. …”
The Athletic
The Athletic – Fantasy Premier League: The players on my watchlist for the festive fixtures (Dec. 3, 2021)


Who is the best player from each of England’s 48 counties?

November 30, 2021


“England’s system of counties is rarely discussed in relation to professional football. If you say you support Surrey or Lancashire or Worcestershire, you are clearly talking about cricket rather than football. England’s second sport is played by sides who take their names from the county they’re based in, but football is contested by teams almost universally named after cities and towns. There are, of course, Notts County and Derby County; Notts literally being the name of the county and Derby representing the county of Derbyshire. Things become more complex when you consider Stockport County, named because Stockport was once a ‘county borough’, independent from control of any wider county, and across the border in Wales there’s Newport County, originally named Newport & Monmouth County, after the historic county of Monmouthshire. …”
The Athletic – Michael Cox


Cox: City can beat elite teams without a prolific forward – it’s against the cautious sides it becomes a problem 

November 23, 2021


“Sometimes it feels like every Manchester City game is a test of whether playing without a prolific forward is viable, and the consensus can swing wildly from one match to the next. But City’s upcoming week might demonstrate why. On Wednesday, they face Paris Saint-Germain — a side averaging 62 per cent possession in Ligue 1, and naturally attack-minded by virtue of having multiple superstar forwards. Either side of PSG’s visit, City host Everton and West Ham United, two of the more cautious sides in the Premier League. Everton are averaging just 41 per cent of possession, the fourth-least in the league, and while West Ham are more positive in that respect, only Newcastle United pressure the opposition less frequently in the final third than David Moyes’ side. City’s next three opponents are typical of their managers. …”
The Athletic – Michael Cox


Zonal Marking: From Ajax to Zidane, the Making of Modern Soccer – Michael Cox

October 29, 2021


August 24, 2019: “In life, it takes time to create successful ideas and concepts. Scientists and researchers spend years, even decades, analyzing and studying data to create trials or a study before publishing the results to the world. … I mention this because it may seem odd at first to take a 17-year period and be able to identify seven overarching and different tactical revolutions in soccer in Europe. However, Michael Cox has long established himself as a tactical observer par excellence and his new book argues that the dominant soccer cultures in Europe in the recent past have existed for merely 2-4 years. Zonal Marking: From Ajax to Zidane, the Making of Modern Soccer makes the claim that we have seen six dominant styles of soccer in Europe since 1992 with each based around a national soccer culture. …”
World Soccer Talk
Intelligent football: Michael Cox and the rise of tactical analysis (Oct 2020)
Zonal Marking
Vox in the Box: Michael Cox
amazon
YouTube: Football Tactics with Michael Cox (Zonal Marking)(Aug 13, 2019)


Cox: Italians are defending free kicks differently to the rest of Europe – is it a good idea?

October 25, 2021


“When an attacking side have a wide free kick, around 40 yards from goal, there is a very established way to defend that situation. The defending team positions themselves in a line, holding an offside trap to keep the opposition away from goal, and then run back and attempt to head the ball clear. Here’s Liverpool doing that away at Atletico Madrid in midweek. This is how almost all big clubs defend this type of situation. Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Inter, Paris Saint-Germain all do pretty much the same thing. Chelsea and Manchester City are more aggressive with their positioning, defending higher up, but it’s the same idea. But now, there are outliers — and they’re almost all in Serie A. …”
The Athletic – Michael Cox


Why Ronaldo is giving Solskjaer a huge tactical problem

October 19, 2021


“In one sense, Manchester United’s 4-2 defeat by Leicester could be considered something of a freak result. The scoreline was 1-1 for the majority of the game, both sides significantly overperformed their xG, and four of the game’s six goals came in the frenetic final 12 minutes — three of them scored by Leicester. It was one of those brilliant periods where strategy and tactics go out of the window, giving way to chaos and luck. … The poster boy for their current malaise, of course, is Cristiano Ronaldo. …”
The Athletic


One of the great Guardiola pressing masterclasses – a tactical breakdown of how Man City beat Chelsea

September 28, 2021


“For the neutral, Saturday’s clash between Chelsea and Manchester City was something of a disappointment. Whereas we might have expected the two title favourites to take the game to one another and create an enthralling high-tempo contest, this was a slow-burning game with few clear-cut goalscoring chances. The culprits, in terms of making the game less exciting than anticipated, were clearly Chelsea. Thomas Tuchel used a 3-5-2 formation — the system he successfully turned to midway through last weekend’s victory over Tottenham Hotspur — and Chelsea desperately lacked creativity or connections between midfield and attack. Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner remained in centre-forward positions but received little service. …”
The Athletic


Cox: Mane spinning both ways makes him a dangerous option through the middle

September 14, 2021


“Not for the first time, Sadio Mane’s fine performance in Liverpool’s 3-0 victory over Leeds was overshadowed by the contribution of Mohamed Salah. It was the Egyptian who scored Liverpool’s opener, which brought up his 100th Premier League goal and inevitably dominated the headlines. Mane had to wait until the 92nd minute — and his 10th shot of the match — before getting onto the scoresheet. But this was a contest made for Mane, against a Leeds side using their typically aggressive man-to-man press across the pitch. Whereas Salah was a threat primarily with his speed in behind, Mane was capable of coming short to receive the ball to feet, spinning past opponents and turning in either direction. He was Liverpool’s key attacker. …”
The Athletic
BBC – Leeds 0-3 Liverpool: Fabinho & Salah star as Liverpool look back at their best – Stephen Warnock (Video)


Interchanging front threes or a traditional No 9? Why top Premier League teams prefer flexibility

August 21, 2021


“As the Harry Kane transfer saga rumbled on in the background, the scene on the pitch for last weekend’s Tottenham Hotspur vs Manchester City clash was more typical of modern football. With no Kane available, Tottenham used Son Heung-min up front. With their pursuit of Kane so far unsuccessful, City used Ferran Torres up front. Son and Torres are both generally regarded as wide players. That’s not to say they’re not sporadically prolific — each one scored a Premier League hat-trick last season, and both say they’re perfectly happy playing through the middle. But neither is anything like traditional No 9s: they drop off, they come short and they make runs into the channels. …”
The Athletic


Cox: How Nuno repeated Tuchel’s trick by using narrow attack to beat Manchester City

August 17, 2021


Manchester City’s 2021-22 started in the same way their 2020-21 ended — with a 1-0 defeat. Sunday’s loss at Tottenham wasn’t as disheartening as their defeat by Chelsea in the European Cup final, but there was a common pattern in how their opponents set up without possession. Although the 3-4-3 of Thomas Tuchel was different to the 4-3-3 used by Nuno Espirito Santo in his first game as Spurs manager, it’s worth looking at the positioning of the front three. In Porto, Tuchel evidently told his three attackers to remain in narrow positions and block any passes through the centre of the pitch, as shown below, which largely hampered City’s build-up play — particularly their ability to feed the ball into the centre of midfield. …”
The Athletic
Tottenham 1-0 Man City – Tactical Analysis – Nuno’s First Game
The Stats: Who was Tottenham’s biggest threat? Why didn’t City score? Do either need Kane?
YouTube: Tactical Analysis: Tottenham 1-0 Manchester City |How City’s Best Tactic Was Their Biggest Weakness|


The geographic shift of English football: From a game for the north to southern dominance

August 6, 2021


“If a visitor to England asked you to drop them off somewhere convenient for watching Premier League football, you probably wouldn’t instinctively drive them to North Kilworth. The Leicestershire village, with a population of about 600, can only offer a club at the 13th tier of the English football pyramid. As their Twitter bio explains succinctly: ‘League and Cup double 2016-17 and 2017-18. Been pretty shit ever since.’ … Maybe the English top flight’s geographic midpoint is roughly where you’d expect it to be — but things haven’t always been like this. …”
The Athletic


Harry Kane’s versatility for Tottenham makes him more than a pure goal scorer

August 18, 2018

“Let’s begin with a quiz question. Which club’s shirt number has been responsible for the most Premier League goals since the competition started in 1992? If you guessed Newcastle’s No. 9 shirt — they love their goal scorers at St James’ Park — you’d nearly be right. Were it not for a couple of seasons outside the top flight, Newcastle’s No. 9, with 298 goals, would be top dog. Manchester United’s No. 10 also features highly, with 297 goals, but was handicapped by being left vacant for a couple of seasons, while Arsenal’s No. 14 shirt (248) has been prolific this century but beforehand was worn by the somewhat rare goalscorer Martin Keown.” ESPN – Michael Cox (Video)


World Cup 2018: How Gareth Southgate’s tactical immaturity cost England their shot at the final

July 13, 2018


“For all the celebration of this new-look England side, Wednesday night’s 2-1 semi-final defeat by Croatia was characterised by an old failing: a refusal to adjust tactics to nullify the strength of the opposition and, more specifically, an insistence upon leaving two men upfront while being overrun in midfield. England started excellently, but their tactical inflexibility cost them a place in Sunday’s final. Gareth Southgate’s highly unusual 3-3-2-2 formation is essentially defined by two major features, which both contributed to England’s impressive first half performance.” Independent – Michael Cox


World Cup 2018: How France exposed Nacer Chadli and turned defence into attack to nullify Belgium’s flair

July 13, 2018


France’s 1-0 victory over Belgium wasn’t quite the match it might have been. With four of the world’s most exciting attacking talents on the pitch together, a variety of dynamic midfielders and centre-back pairings comfortable in a high defensive line, this could have been fast-paced, frantic, end-to-end. Instead, it was something different entirely, based around patience, turnovers and the odd counter-attack. It was intriguing rather than enthralling, and the first goal was always likely to be crucial. With the exception of Blaise Matuidi returning following suspension, Didier Deschamps’ starting XI is now set in stone.” Independent – Michael Cox


Semifinal questions: How do Belgium counter France’s front three? England speed or Croatia possession?

July 10, 2018

“The World Cup has reached the semifinal stage and it’s an all-European affair, with France facing Belgium on Tuesday, followed by Croatia vs. England the following day. Ahead of the final four, here is one key question that each team must answer.” ESPN – Michael Cox


Kylian Mbappe in prime position for the Golden Ball despite just one truly good performance

July 5, 2018

“SOME feared the second round of the World Cup would prove underwhelming after an eventful group stage, but those fears now appear misplaced after a hugely entertaining four days in Russia. The second round featured nail-biting penalty shoot-outs, a major upset with Spain departing, and an all-time classic with France and Argentina’s seven-goal thriller. That game, with France prevailing, also proved crucial in the race for the Golden Ball. This round unquestionably belonged to one man: Kylian Mbappe. Fielded on the right of France’s 4-2-3-1 system against Argentina, he produced one of the most rampant, dominant performances you’ll ever witness at a World Cup.” Unibet – Michael Cox


England vs Colombia, World Cup 2018: Drop in performance raises question about Gareth Southgate’s tactical nous

July 4, 2018


“England finally ended their abysmal run in penalty shoot-outs with their second-round victory over Colombia, but a dramatic drop in performance towards the end of normal time raises a question about Gareth Southgate’s ability to influence matches tactically. Jose Pekerman spring a surprise with his team selection. Having previously used a 4-2-3-1 and experimented with a 4-3-3 in training, this was actually more of a midfield diamond. With James Rodriguez out, Juan Quintero played as the number 10, with Radamel Falcao upfront to the left, and Juan Cuadrado playing in a right-sided forward role. Quintero pushed forward to press England’s centre-backs three-against-three, but Pekerman’s approach was basically about keeping things tight in deeper positions, and guarding against England’s midfield runners.” Independent – Michael Cox

England’s unique 3-3-2-2 formation could cause Colombia headaches
“For all the optimism about Gareth Southgate’s side and their chances of winning the World Cup, it’s so often this stage — the first knockout round of a major tournament — in which England collapse. This is usually because England have appeared unprepared for the opposition’s approach, or at least too inflexible to guard against it. Germany’s counter-attacking speed wasn’t nullified in 2010. Andrea Pirlo’s deep-lying playmaking skills weren’t shut down in 2012. Iceland’s long throw proved fatal in 2016. Tactical naivety has constantly been England’s main problem.” ESPN – Michael Cox


World Cup 2018: How Blaise Matuidi laid the platform for Kylian Mbappe to put in the performance of the tournament

July 2, 2018

“Didier Deschamps appeared entirely unsure of his best system ahead of the opening game of this tournament, but recent World Cup winners have tended to suddenly find their optimum formation midway through the tournament. In 2002 Brazil clicked into gear once introducing a second holding midfielder, in 2006 Italy’s switch from 4-3-1-2 to 4-2-3-1 worked wonders, in 2010 Spain thrived once they added more directness and width to their attack, and Germany’s 2014 side changed considerably from their opening game to the final.” Independent – Michael Cox

Why Argentina’s road to World Cup failure is long, complicated and paved with greed and corruption
“… Sebastian Fest’s line in La Nación on the day of Argentina‘s World Cup 2018 elimination this weekend was so starkly poignant because it gets straight to the crux of the matter, cutting through every excuse offered and pointing straight to the institutional rot that is fundamentally to blame for Argentina’s ills. That bumpy road that ended in Kazan, Russia, in the baking summer of 2018 is our current waypoint but this path truly began all the way back in the mid-winter of Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1978 on the day that the Albiceleste won their first-ever World Cup.” Independent


World Cup 2018: Analysing the tactical flaws England will look to exploit against Colombia in the Round of 16

June 29, 2018


“If it remains difficult to judge England’s level of ability, after two victories against below-par opposition and a defeat with a second-string XI, something similar can be said of Colombia for very different reasons. Jose Pekerman’s side have blown hot and cold, with a fine 3-0 win over Poland sandwiched by a 2-1 defeat to Japan and a nervy 1-0 win over Senegal yesterday. The Japan loss was influenced heavily by the fact Colombia were down to ten men for almost the entire contest, and the Senegal performance was compromised by star man James Rodriguez clearly being unfit, lasting just half an hour. It seems unlikely he’ll be fit to start against England, and certainly won’t be 100% fit.” Independent – Michael Cox


Nigeria vs Argentina: Ever Banega’s return frees Lionel Messi from creative duties to inspire victory

June 27, 2018

“Argentina required a late goal from a hugely unlikely source – the right boot of Marcos Rojo – but their approach throughout their 2-1 victory over Nigeria was at least an improvement upon past displays. How much credit manager Jorge Sampaoli can take remains questionable, however, after various reports Lionel Messi and Javier Mascherano are effectively now running the dressing room.” Independent – Michael Cox

What’s wrong with Argentina? We now value ‘balls’ more than talent
“So many things are wrong with Argentina we do not know what is wrong; so much is happening no one knows what is happening. You could start an article on the news pages with that same line but they fit on the sports pages too because these are turbulent times for our football. It was not always like this. For many years, football made up for our long political, social and economic decline.” Guardian


Brazil, Spain, Germany, France failing to find attacking balance

June 25, 2018


Brazil – Neymar
“Football tactics are generally considered a mere necessary evil in football, discussed purely in terms of hampering individual freedom and disrupting opposition play. But tactical planning is also about attacking, about creating the right balance between different concepts to create a cohesive, harmonious but varied threat in the final third. Finding the balance in attack, combining different concepts and formulating how they come together smoothly is the most fascinating element of football strategy. An all-round attacking force offers various qualities: runs in behind, width to stretch play, movement to create gaps in the opposition, late runs from midfield, a target in the middle, a player between the lines to link play, and some degree of long-range, goal-scoring threat to ensure you don’t actually need to penetrate the defence. Limited to only three or four attacking individuals, however, coaches have a tricky balancing act. So far, none of the four favourites for World Cup 2018 — Brazil, Spain, Germany and France — have found the right balance.” ESPN – Michael Cox


Shambolic, frenzied, anarchic – and Argentina crisis has Messi at its heart

June 22, 2018


“It was in 1913 that Racing became the first non-Anglo side to win the Argentinian league title. For much of the century that has followed, Argentinian football has defined itself in opposition to the English, distancing itself from its British heritage. And yet, under pressure, in their frenzied desperation on Thursday, Argentina resembled nobody so much as England. This was shambolic. Too many players tried to do too much themselves. There was altogether too much running, too much frenzy, too many fouls conceded as they desperately tried to regain possession, too little thought. By the end, as Ivan Rakitic casually rolled in a sarcastic third for Croatia, Argentina were gone, any semblance of defensive structure blown to the winds.” Guardian – Jonathan Wilson (Video)

World Cup 2018: Jorge Sampaoli’s approach was an utter disaster that rendered Lionel Messi useless
“There was always a danger Argentina might flop at World Cup 2018, but it shouldn’t have been this pitiful. If Argentina were going to go down, they were going to go down fighting, with coach Jorge Sampaoli a noted advocate of aggressive pressing, attacking football and quick combination play. If those tactics exposed them defensively, it was a risk Sampaoli was willing to take. But the approach Sampaoli stumbled upon somehow provided all the drawbacks without any notable positives. Argentina didn’t press high, they didn’t attack relentlessly, and it’s difficult to recall any passing moves worth mentioning, yet they were still hopelessly open defensively, conceding space on the outside of their three-man defence readily. Only poor Croatian finishing prevented them from taking the lead earlier.” Independent – Michael Cox

Mentally and emotionally burned out, Lionel Messi crumbles under the burden of carrying Argentina at the World Cup
“By the time a humiliated Argentina emerged from the dressing room in Nizhny Novgorod, it was late – in so many ways. A stony-faced Lionel Messi at least led the way here, but this time with ample support as the entire squad followed tightly behind…and right on through the mixed zone without stopping once. Argentina were at last singing from the same hymn sheet in this World Cup by not saying anything all.” Independent

As fighters, as entertainers, as a team, this Argentina project has failed
“On 21 June 1978 Argentina’s World Cup defeat of Peru went down in history as one of the most controversial games ever. The goalfest and intelligent football that unfolded on that cold night in Rosario, as the wonderful Mario Kempes found his feet on his home turf of yesteryear, were eclipsed by allegations which kept conspiracy theorists and investigative journalists busy for years. Argentina, aware they needed to win by at least four goals to progress in their home tournament, triumphed 6-0 amid rumours that an exchange of grain between the countries had been brokered in the dressing room. They went on to lift the trophy.” Guardian (Video)


The race for the Golden Ball is not all about Ronaldo, despite his matchday one heroics

June 20, 2018

“WORLD CUP 2018 was widely hyped as the tournament where Leo Messi might finally taste success at international level, after several disappointments in an Argentina shirt. After one complete round of the World Cup, however, it’s his long-time rival Cristiano Ronaldo who is the competition’s outstanding performer so far, after his hattrick in Portugal’s electrifying 3-3 draw with Spain. A World Cup hattrick is, in itself, a very rare occurrence. There were none in 2006, one in 2010 and two in 2014, so Ronaldo’s treble was clearly a significant achievement. It was also an unusual hattrick comprised of a penalty, a free-kick and a goal from open play.” UniBet – Michael Cox


Tunisia 1-2 England: Southgate’s men hold their nerve, stay patient and find a way to win

June 19, 2018

England defeated Tunisia 2-1 in Volgograd courtesy of good organisation in two different respects: a cohesive, unusual system in open play, and pre-planned set-piece routines. The former ensured England dominated, the latter provided the goals. Gareth Southgate has consistently deployed this 3-5-2 system since England clinched qualification for this tournament, and it’s proved difficult for opponents to cope with late midfield runs. While the three-man defence has made something of a comeback in the Premier League over the last couple of seasons, partly thanks to Antonio Conte’s impact at Chelsea, it’s generally structured as a 3-4-3 rather than 3-5-2, with two holding midfielders screening the defence, and two inside-forwards drifting inside.” Independent – Michael Cox

Tunisia 1-2 England: Southgate’s men hold their nerve, stay patient and find a way to win
“‘There are infinite routes to goal,’ the Uruguay manager Oscar Tabarez said after his side’s win over Egypt last Friday, ‘and all of them are equally valid.’ It’s just that the one England preferred to take – twice – was a Harry Kane header from a corner (much as Uruguay had opted for a Jose Gimenez header from a corner). There’s something a little odd about this bright new England, with its back three, its passing, its ace and its modernity scoring two from that most traditionally English of methods, but Gareth Southgate will not care and nor should any England fan. What was most impressive here was not so much the goals as the method.” Unibet – Jonathan Wilson


World Cup 2018: How Mexico stunned Germany by exposing their full-backs and harassing Toni Kroos out the game

June 18, 2018


“The first four days of World Cup 2018 have featured a string of impressive underdog performances, largely about sitting back and frustrating the opposition. Iceland’s defensive-minded approach worked well against Argentina, Switzerland were content to soak up pressure against Brazil, and both recorded unexpected draws. Mexico’s approach in yesterday’s 1-0 victory over reigning champions Germany, however, was braver, bolder and ultimately more successful. Mexico manager Juan Carlos Osorio has been criticised for his constant chopping and changing, but while he might be reactive, that doesn’t mean he’s defensive. Here, he used a 4-2-3-1 system, rarely seen throughout Mexico’s qualifying campaign, in order to nullify Germany’s strengths and expose their weaknesses.” Independent – Michael Cox (Video)

World Cup 2018: Germany ‘crestfallen’ as shock Mexico defeat is called ’embarrassing’
“It was a defeat that left Germany ‘crestfallen’, was described as an ’embarrassment’ by the country’s media and even triggered an earth tremor, such were the celebrations in Mexico. World Cup holders Germany looked a shadow of their usual selves as they were humbled 1-0 in Moscow – and the result could have been much worse for them. But despite the loss – the first for a German team in a World Cup opener since 1982 – coach Joachim Low remains confident that his side will progress to the knockout stage in Russia.” BBC (Video)


Nine Reasons Why Brazil Will Win the World Cup

June 14, 2018

“… They’re among the betting favorites, but the Selecao still haven’t quite emerged as the favorite. ‘As good as Brazil are, they’re still arguably underrated,’ said Omar Chaudhuri, head of footballing intelligence at the consultancy 21st Club. There’s a chance we’ll get to July 15 and wonder, as we watch Neymar lift the World Cup trophy, how we didn’t see it all along. So, to prevent that from happening—and to risk some relatively minor, low-stakes, online embarrassment—here are nine reasons why Brazil is gonna win it all.” The Ringer (Video)


World Cup favourites choosing defensive-minded midfielders over deep-lying playmakers

June 11, 2018


“The most fascinating tactical development over the past few World Cups has been the increased popularity of the deep playmaker. Having nearly become extinct around the turn of the century, it’s notable that recent World Cup winners have generally depended upon a great creative influence from deep.” ESPN – Michael Cox (Video)


Russia 2018: Group G Betting Tips

June 9, 2018

“Group G is arguably the most predictable in this competition – because, to put it frankly, Tunisia and Panama are two of the weaker sides at the World Cup. England and Belgium both have serious flaws, particularly in defence, but it would be hugely surprising if they struggled to get through this group.” Betting Tips – Michael Cox


Russia 2018 Group D – Betting Tips

June 7, 2018

“Two teams at this World Cup appear gloriously unpredictable: you wouldn’t be surprised if they reached the semi-finals; equally, crashing out at the group phase is eminently possible. The first is Portugal, and the second is Argentina. The link is obvious: underwhelming sides with plenty of defensive question marks, but captained by an all-time great. But whereas Cristiano Ronaldo tasted success with Portugal at the European Championship two years ago, Leo Messi is still searching for a first taste of international glory – the Olympics notwithstanding – for Argentina.” Betting Tips – Michael Cox


Russia 2018: Group E Betting Tips

June 6, 2018

“Brazil have been somewhat unpredictable over the past 20 years: they were highly fancied ahead of 1998, 2006, 2010 and 2014 and failed to lift the trophy, but were widely written off in 2002 and then won seven straight matches. This time around, they’re generally considered favourites – so, if the previous pattern continues, they’ll presumably prove underwhelming again.” Betting Tips – Michael Cox


Russia 2018: Group B

June 4, 2018

“The defence is arguably the best in the competition. Even if Dani Carvajal isn’t fit, Cesar Azpilicueta is a fine replacement, with left-back Jordi Alba crucial for offering thrust and speed from the left. Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique aren’t friends off the pitch, but remain reliable as a defensive partnership, and David De Gea is surely the best goalkeeper at the tournament. There’s a slight question over Sergio Busquets, who is more isolated in this system and is increasingly lacking mobility. Nevertheless, Spain are rightly strong favourites for this group and probably overpriced to win the World Cup overall. …” oddschecker – Michael Cox


Russia 2018: Group C

June 4, 2018

“Judge the 32 World Cup sides purely upon the overall standard talent within the squad, and France might be the most feared squad. But despite – or perhaps because of – Didier Deschamps’ strength in depth across the pitch, he’s struggled to decide upon his best XI or formation. The problems from Euro 2016, where France reached the final but Deschamps struggled to choose between 4-3-3 and 4-4-1-1, might be apparent again here. In a team blessed with versatile, quick attackers and energetic box-to-box midfielders, one of France’s key players might be someone completely different – Olivier Giroud. There’s no guarantee he’ll start, especially because he’s such an effective Plan B, but Giroud is perfectly suited to the slower nature of international tournaments, especially in matches where France will play against a deep defensive line. …” oddschecker – Michael Cox


Real Madrid 3-1 Liverpool: freak goals hand Real their third straight European Cup

May 29, 2018

“Two crazy goalkeeping mistakes and an all-time great goal from substitute Gareth Bale earned Zinedine Zidane his third European Cup in three attempts. Zidane decided to use his diamond midfield here, meaning Isco started instead of Bale, with Karim Benzema leading the line. Jurgen Klopp’s side was as expected – injury problems meant he didn’t really have any selection dilemmas. …” Zonal Marking – Michael Cox


Man United need a big game from Alexis Sanchez vs. Man City

April 13, 2018

“Alexis Sanchez’s January transfer to Manchester United was, on paper, among the most dramatic moves in Premier League history. There were three major factors to it. The first was the novelty of a genuine, real-life swap deal between Arsenal and United, two of the Premier League’s biggest clubs. It was exciting simply because for all the tabloid rumours, such exchange deals barely ever actually come to fruition. But this time everything went through, and two high-profile footballers suddenly swapped lives. …” ESPN – Michael Cox


Chelsea’s struggles at both ends largely due to growing pains of Alvaro Morata, Andreas Christensen

March 1, 2018

“It’s been a peculiar and somewhat unusual week for Chelsea — two good performances in tricky contests against Barcelona and Manchester United, but little to show for their efforts. Having opened the scoring in both matches, Antonio Conte’s men will feel disappointed not to be taking a first-leg lead to the Nou Camp, and underwhelmed at being defeated 2-1 at Old Trafford. …” ESPN – Michael Cox


Tactical fouling is spoiling football – time for the rulemakers to stamp it out

February 9, 2018


“Football is often considered conservative with its rule changes, but in recent decades there have been various subtle but crucial alterations to the Laws of the Game, which are often overlooked. The back-pass law in the early 1990s, for example, forced goalkeepers and defenders to become more technically skilled, encouraging passing football. Stricter tackling laws, meanwhile, protected attackers from brutal challenges. …” ESPN – Michael Cox


Pochettino puts team before individuals in Tottenham’s tenacious attack

February 4, 2018


“‘It is an art in itself to compose a starting team,’ the legendary pioneer of Total Football, Rinus Michels, once said. ‘Finding the balance between creative players and those with destructive powers — and between defence, construction and attack.’ Michels mastered the art and the process of building a great team rather than simply gathering great individuals. It remains the most fundamental test of managerial quality. …” ESPN – Michael Cox (Video), Spurs have done everything right: if they cannot succeed, who can? Guardian – Jonathan Wilson


Check their DMs: Fernandinho, Matic, and others key to a manager’s tactics

January 26, 2018

“Throughout the Premier League era, English football has never entirely embraced the defensive midfielder. In fact, the very concept has routinely prompted dissent from English fans. Traditionally, the English game has produced plenty of box-to-box midfielders and the natural urge was therefore to field two players in that mould together. David Batty’s outstanding performances for Leeds, Blackburn and Newcastle sides were often overlooked, as was Michael Carrick’s excellent work for Manchester United. Those two represented what managers wanted from defensive midfielders in the late 1990s, and late 2000s respectively. But how about the late 2010s? …” ESPN – Michael Cox (Video)


Alexis stars as Arsenal’s three-man defence excels in win at Palace

December 29, 2017

“Three quick thoughts from Arsenal’s 3-2 Premier League win over Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park on Thursday. …” ESPN – Michael Cox


Chelsea still in title hunt with dramatic comeback win vs. Watford

October 23, 2017

“LONDON — Three points from Chelsea’s 4-2 comeback win versus Watford on Saturday at Stamford Bridge that saw the defending champions avoid three consecutive Premier League defeats. …” ESPN – Michael Cox (Video)


Chelsea 0-1 Manchester City: Guardiola uses his full-backs & wingers to get De Bruyne into space

October 8, 2017


“Chelsea came into this game on the back of a midweek victory at Atletico Madrid, probably the tactical performance of the season so far – they showed defensive discipline, midfield control and completely outwitted Diego Simeone’s usually-formidable Atletico. The key was Antonio Conte’s use of 3-5-2, a modification upon the 3-4-3 that won Chelsea the league last season. This 3-5-2 allowed Eden Hazard to play centrally, and means Cesc Fabregas can be used in central midfield without Conte having to sacrifice one of his two disciplined defensive midfielders. Two big advantages. …” Zonal Marking


Gareth Southgate should switch England to a three-man defence

October 8, 2017

“It’s difficult to imagine a starker contrast between performance and outcome than England’s 1-0 victory over Slovenia at Wembley on Thursday night. The narrow win, sealed by Harry Kane’s last-gasp goal, didn’t really mask an uninspiring performance from manager Gareth Southgate’s side. But ultimately it means England have qualified for next summer’s World Cup. Preparation starts now: The FA immediately announced home friendlies against Germany and Brazil next month, knowing those dates wouldn’t be needed for playoff matches, while Sunday’s trip to Lithuania effectively has become another friendly, a chance for experimentation. And experimentation is crucial if England have any chance of reaching the latter stages in Russia next year. …” ESPN


Pressing is the Premier League’s big trend, but it’s not without its problems

December 22, 2016

“If Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool win the Premier League title this season, we might look back upon Monday’s 1-0 victory over Everton as among their most significant triumphs. It was a classic ‘the mark of champions’ win: an away trip to local rivals, a poor game, a below-par performance and a late winner. Liverpool supporters haven’t celebrated so hard for years. For neutrals who anticipated a good game at Goodison Park, however, Monday was a damp squib.” ESPN – Michael Cox


Champions League last 16: Tie-by-tie analysis

December 12, 2016

“1) Manchester City v Monaco. Pep Guardiola will be content with this draw, but Monaco are among the most exciting sides in Europe and perhaps the most underrated team in the competition. Leonardo Jardim has created an exciting side who have scored an incredible 53 goals in 17 Ligue 1 matches. Although Monaco share the goals around impressively, it is notable that Radamel Falcao has found his shooting boots again, scoring five goals in Monaco’s past two games. They are also tactically flexible, able to play both 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 effectively, as they demonstrated with 2-1 victories home and away against Tottenham Hotspur in the group stage.” Guardian – Michael Cox


Three at the back is a dream for Chelsea but a nightmare for Everton

November 6, 2016

“Tt is now five consecutive victories for Chelsea since Antonio Conte switched to a 3-4-3 system – 16 goals scored, none conceded – and this was their most impressive attacking display for years, a wonderful demonstration of efficient turnovers, intelligent running and intricate interplay. If there was any doubt about the difficulty of switching from a four-man defence to a back three, you only needed to look at Everton.” Guardian – Michael Cox


Jürgen Klopp teaches Liverpool the art of filling space dynamically

November 2, 2016

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“Liverpool remain a work in progress but it’s coming together promisingly. During Jürgen Klopp’s first campaign at Anfield the players adapted quickly to his high-energy, heavy-pressing system and regularly disrupted the opposition’s passing but they only sporadically formulated quick, incisive attacking moves themselves.” Guardian – Michael Cox, Michael Cox


Pep Guardiola wins tactical battle with José Mourinho in Manchester derby

September 12, 2016

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“José Mourinho was quick to criticise his players after Saturday’s 2-1 defeat by Manchester City. ‘A few players were below the level,’ he complained. ‘Sometimes players disappoint managers.’ But Mourinho’s tactical blunder was equally to blame for Manchester United’s poor first-half performance and their improvement after the break owed much to his change of formation. City’s most dangerous players in Pep Guardiola’s 4-3-3 system are the two advanced central midfielders, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne.” Guardian – Michael Cox

José Mourinho’s faith in Wayne Rooney faces biggest test in Manchester derby
“It’s probably just as well the Manchester derby is happening so early in the season. There’s only so much fevered anticipation, so much guarded politeness, so many unconvincing insistences that they get along fine that a league can take. Certainly, there’s only so often it can be pointed out that beating Bournemouth, Southampton and Hull or Sunderland, Stoke and West Ham is all very well but the real test will come in the derby.” Guardian – Jonathan Wilson


How Arsenal must play in order to beat Barcelona in the Champions League

February 21, 2016

“Arsenal’s clash with Barcelona has been billed as another contest between two sides in a continual series, but it’s actually been half a decade since the sides previously met. It was so long ago that Cesc Fabregas was still with Arsenal — never mind him joining Barcelona, being turned down by Arsene Wenger when he wanted to return to England and then winning the Premier League with Chelsea.” ESPN – Michael Cox (Video)


How will Pep Guardiola assess Manchester City’s current squad?

February 7, 2016

“Predicting Pep Guardiola’s assessment of Manchester City’s current squad is a trickier task than might be expected. Across his time in charge at Barcelona and Bayern Munich there are common themes and obvious concepts he insists upon — the simple concept of possession football being the most obvious example — but his favoured type of player has varied dramatically. It’s worth remembering, for example, that when Guardiola took charge of Bayern three years ago, the consensus was that he’d struggle to find a place for Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben — wingers rather than the wide forwards with whom he’d worked at Barcelona.” ESPN – Michael Cox


What would the Premier League look like if it were a knockout competition?

January 8, 2016

“At this early stage of the year, English football is all about knockout competitions: the busy festive period of league football is over, and instead we have midweek Capital One Cup semifinals, followed by the FA Cup third round. In fact, this year as a whole is also heavily based around knockout football, with the supposed offseason featuring three major competitions: Euro 2016, the Olympics and a bonus Copa America, too. Knockout football is interesting, in part, because it’s more likely to produce slightly unusual winners. Few would argue, for example, that Wigan were England’s best team in 2013 because they won the FA Cup. The element of randomness is precisely what people enjoy, and come to expect; the concept of a giant-killing in the cup competitions is arguably what the tournament is all about.” ESPN – Michael Cox


Euro 2016 lacks a clear favourite as France, Germany, Spain all flawed

December 17, 2015

“Euro 2016 will be the first-ever European Championships comprised of 24 teams, a format that opens up the tournament to the continent’s minnows. Yet assessing the runners and riders ahead of Saturday’s draw, it feels like one of the most closed European championships in a long time. There are three clear favourites who each have something obvious to shout about: France are the hosts, Spain the holders and Germany the world champions. Other than this trio, it’s incredibly difficult to make a case for anyone else triumphing.” ESPN – Michael Cox