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European football talking points: N'Golo Kante's struggles in new role at Chelsea, Marek Hamsik's lukewarm run at Napoli and more

Unpredictability defines football but here is a safe bet -- a gameweek after midweek European fixtures never fails to excite! Exhausted from their travels, top teams tend to take their feet off the pedal in the subsequent league matches, which often works in favour of lower-ranked teams hoping to nick a point or three out of the big guns. While most top teams across the leagues managed to secure wins, including Bayern Munich's comfortable victory over last season's runners-up Schalke 04 (who have lost all four of their matches this season), there was no shortage of hiccups either.

We discuss four talking points from across top Europeans Leagues, in a week where Liverpool reaffirmed their title credentials with a thumping victory against Southampton, while Barcelona scrambled for a 2-2 draw against city-rivals Girona.

N'Golo can't play here

With Jorginho taking up the role of sitting in front of the Chelsea defence and dictating the pace of the match, Kante has been pushed to a more advanced role on the right side of the midfield. Reuters

N'Golo Kante has been pushed to a more advanced role on the right side of the midfield. Reuters

Yet another match, yet another record-shattering passing 'masterclass' from Chelsea's summer recruit Jorginho, and yet another display that leaves more questions unanswered than answered. For all of Chelsea's possession, West Ham should consider themselves unlucky not to have sealed the match with the gilt-edged chances they created in their 0-0 draw against the Blues.

One of the questions that have emerged after the match should be regarding the role of N'Golo Kante in this new-look Chelsea side. With Jorginho taking up the role of sitting in front of the Chelsea defence and dictating the pace of the match, Kante has been pushed to a more advanced role on the right side of the midfield. While the French star has impressed with his harrying of opposition players, the former Leicester star has been playing nowhere near his best. Kante's superpower is his ability to read the play three steps in advance and intercept everything that is headed towards his defenders, but his advanced starting position during opposition possession renders his special abilities futile.

His contribution in the attack hasn't been Earth-shattering either. In the match against West Ham, Kante was found in promising positions only for him to scuff the opportunities. He struggled to whip in the crosses from the right wing, often looking for the overlapping Cesar Azpilicueta than trying to make space himself, and looked confused when two opportunities fell to him inside the box.

Chelsea need goals from the midfield and with Mateo Kovacic, Ross Barkley, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, and Danny Drinkwater (if you want to believe in the extraordinary) available for Sarri to pick from, Kante might struggle to get game time if he continues to struggle in attack. PSG, Barcelona and almost every other team in the world wanted him in the summer, but Kante turned down the opportunities and stayed loyal to the Blues. But if the current situation continues, expect renewed interests from big clubs across the world.

How can a World Cup winner, a chant makers' fantasy, and arguably the best defensive midfielder in the world today, struggle to make into a team? Football, you crazy, crazy thing!

Time's up, Hamsik?

Marek Hamsik was at his best for Napoli in the previous season, but has been off to a sedate start this year. Reuters

Marek Hamsik was at his best for Napoli in the previous season, but has been off to a sedate start this year. Reuters

Chelsea isn't the only football club where their (arguably) best player from the previous season is struggling to find the right rhythm. Marek Hamsik struggled once again in a deep-lying midfielder role even as Carlo Ancelotti shifted the system at Napoli to a 4-2-3-1 from a 4-3-3 in the team's victory 3-1 against Torino.

Hamsik was once again deployed in a Regista role, this time in a double-pivot partnership with Marko Rog, but failed to excite, and with young Spanish midfielder Fabian Ruiz impressing in the midweek against Red Star Belgrade, time might be up for the Slovenian captain at Naples.

Hamsik became a fan favourite at Napoli by bossing the midfield and spearheading an attack, his late runs into the box becoming an effective way to exploit the gap between the opposition's defence and midfield. But with Ancelotti preferring him in a deep role, his pace or eye for goal has become secondary attributes, with distribution and positional awareness taking the front seat. Creative players perform best when allowed to occupy a relatively free role, and Ancelotti's ambition to turn Hamsik into a Pirlo-esque player seems to have backfired.

Even though Ancelotti and Hamsik haven't had a perfect start to the campaign, the Naples side has kept pace with runaway leaders Juventus, who won again on the weekend against a stubborn Frosinone. Cristiano Ronaldo was the difference-maker once again for the Old Lady, scoring the team's first goal and later setting up the second with a lightning-quick counter-attack.

Contrary to early season predictions, it is Fiorentina and not the Milan clubs who are giving Napoli and Juventus something to worry about in the Serie A. The team from Florence defeated SPAL 3-0, with Juventus and Chelsea transfer target Federico Chiesa netting the third and winning the footballing world's heart by celebrating the goal with his sibling who was the ball-boy for the match.

The Lopetegui press

Julen Lopetegui faces the challenge of transforming a champion side into one that fits his style of play. Reuters

Julen Lopetegui faces the challenge of transforming a champion side into one that fits his style of play. Reuters

Like Ancelotti, new Real Madrid coach Julen Lopetegui is facing the daunting challenge of changing the shape of a very good, and extremely successful squad into what he requires. A much-changed Los Blancos overcame a tough Espanyol to win 1-0 on the weekend, but the match provided a glimpse of the system the former Spanish national team coach wants to use at Madrid.

Lopetegui, like most modern coaches, follows a possession-based philosophy but also wants to deploy a high-press once they lose the ball. His side, like teams under Pep Guardiola and even Marcelo Bielsa, follows the golden rule of pressing -- once the possession is lost, the team has 5-6 seconds to immediately press and win the ball back, and if you don’t succeed in the task, then fall into a default defensive shape.

Lopetegui's playing style has two critical functions to prevent counter-attacks from the opposition -- a quick transition into a high press to win the ball back and also the position of both full-backs and defensive midfielder during the said transition. Modric, occupying the most forward role in a midfield three, is often in charge of initiating the counter-press, with full-backs, forwards and Toni Kroos coming in (according to the position of the opposition player with the ball) to add to the pressing.

The problem is, if the defensive midfielder, Casemiro in the match against Espanyol, and the full-backs are not occupying the right positions during the press, the opposition can find acres of space, something Espanyol did on more than one occasion.

When in possession, the Madrid coach wants his full-backs to kiss the flanks and occupy a position very close to opposition penalty box. Apart from adding more players in the attack, the positions of the full-backs also ensure they are the first ones cover when an opposition launches a counter through the wings. But the advanced position of the full-backs leaves the defensive duties during counters to a trio of Casemiro, Rafael Varane and Sergio Ramos. The Brazilian plays a single-pivot and is in charge of hunting down the opposition player who has broken free of the pressing.

While Casemiro has the athleticism and the positional nous to take up the position, it is still a large responsibility, especially with opposition getting a free run at Varane and Ramos if Casemiro's wall can be broken, and Lopetegui will need to work on this, especially with city-rivals Atletico next in their fixtures list. Luckily for Real, their title-chasing rivals Barcelona struggled against Girona in a 2-2 draw, allowing the Los Blancos to regain the position on top of the table.

De Topper disappoints

Hirving Lozano was among those who scored in the 3-0 win over Ajax on Sunday. Reuters

Hirving Lozano was among those who scored in the 3-0 win over Ajax on Sunday. Reuters

The match between PSV Eindhoven and Ajax is called the De Topper for a reason -- one of the two sides usually ends up topping the Dutch Eredivisie every season. But like last season, the match was won 3-0 by the home side, with Ajax, the away team on this occasion, hardy putting up a fight.

World Cup's breakout star Hirving Lozano, Gaston Pereiro and Luuk de Jong scored in a 14-minute-long blitzkrieg in the first half for Mark van Bommel's PSV in a performance that laid down a marker in the team's bid to retain the Eredivisie title. Ajax, without their captain Matthijs de Ligt, who limped out injured while warming up for the match, looked out of shape defensively and struggled to cope with de Jong's physicality throughout the match.

The victory gave PSV a clear five-point lead at the top of the Eredivisie, with Ajax level on points with Feyenoord and SC Heracles. The Eindhoven side have scored 24 goals in their opening six matches and conceded three. Eredivise, done and dusted?


Updated Date: Sep 24, 2018 18:32 PM

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