Football Focus, Swansea-Manchester United: Swansea shows promise in possession, but poor defensive shape

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source:  Two goals in quick succession in the first half turned an even match into a comfortable 4-1 win for Manchester United over Swansea City on Saturday. Before conceding twice, Swansea looked like a fairly capable, possession-based team.

The biggest surprise in player selection was United manager David Moyes’ decision to start only one forward in Robin van Persie, leaving Wayne Rooney on the bench. Ryan Giggs played in a withdrawn attacking role, making the formation essentially a 4-2-3-1.

Wingers Danny Welbeck and Antonio Valencia took up narrow starting positions, with Welbeck preferring to cut in from the left wing and allowing Patrice Evra to overlap from left back.

Ahead of the center backs, Michael Carrick played more of a traditional holding role, while Tom Cleverley roamed box to box, with a little more freedom to push high. Swansea didn’t really play with a No. 6 (holding) and No. 8 (box-to-box) midfielder; instead, Leon Britton and Jose Alberto Cañas (and Jonjo Shelvey, in the second half) both played No. 8 roles.

Many teams prefer to have two players starting from that deeper role, as it allows for more movement and an element of less predictability — the players involved just have to make sure that one is always in the gap between the center backs.

Swansea defensive shape to blame for two

Even with two players protecting the defense, Swansea conceded two preventable goals. The first directly involved the team’s defensive shape with relation to its deep midfielders’ roles.

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When an attacking player sits in the space between the defensive and midfield lines, the goal is to draw the center backs out of position, which is exactly what Welbeck does. Chico steps up to him, and Ashley Williams is also drawn up. This leaves the outside backs setting the offside line, which should never happen.

Both Angel Rangel and Ben Davies are in proper position, accounting for United’s wide threats, but one center back needs to stay goal-side of van Persie. Shelvey (who in the run of play has temporarily switched positions with a holding player) should preferably step to Welbeck, leaving both center backs to take up their ideal positions (green line).

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On the second goal, van Persie uses change of direction to get behind Williams. Before Evra crosses, Williams is in good position, goal-side and ball-side of the attacker. But watch the video — van Persie’s quick, choppy steps in opposite directions allow him to float onto Williams’ back shoulder.

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The resulting separation is not much — maybe a step — but it’s enough that when Evra floats a ball over Williams, Davies realizes that his central partner will be beaten by the cross. He has to leave Valencia alone and hope he can win the ball in the air. He doesn’t, and it sends the defense scrambling.

Triangles everywhere

Before those two daggers, Swansea showed a lot of promise, trying to keep the ball on the floor and play.

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The idea, à la FC Barcelona, is to create triangles of support all over the field for the player in possession. The pattern of play becomes less predictable the more passing lanes for the player on the ball.

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This is one of its better sequences of ball movement, created by Wayne Routledge tucking in from the left wing and Cañas and Shelvey distributing. Davies gets involved, overlapping from left back, and Rangel on the right is also in an advanced position.

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When Davies loses the ball, it’s not so much a lack of options as awareness. He tries to force the ball forward when his best passing lanes are behind him, either back to Cañas or one of the center backs.

Encouragingly, Swansea never resorted to kicking the ball over the top, even when it went down a couple goals. Swansea attempted 534 passes in the game, according to OPTA, only 41 of which (7.7 percent) were long. The home side attempted 161 passes in the attacking third of the field, compared to United’s 123. Of United’s 471 total passes, 53 (11.3 percent) went long.

Second-half adjustments: New forwards in the mix

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Swansea stayed in a 4-3-3 in the second half, but Wilfried Bony took over the target role. Michu dropped and took over the playmaking role, and his partnership with Bony looked promising. Shelvey moved to a holding position, which suits his skill set more. For his part, Shelvey is a good distributor, but he isn’t as apt moving forward as Michu.

The second-half Swansea look is closer to its ideal lineup, and Bony could turn out to be one of the signings of the year. He and Michu interchanged well, and with Nathan Dyer cutting in dangerously on the right, it gave the team a more dynamic attack.

When Rooney came off the bench around the hour mark, United moved to 4-4-2 with him and van Persie running up top. Carrick and Cleverley flattened out their line, and the wingers pulled wider.

Welbeck’s starting position changed noticeably. Even though he still cut inside, he began his runs wider and also had the option of running the flank. Evra stayed home more, and Rooney and van Persie had space to operate in the middle of the field.

Breaking through the ceiling

Coaches often talk about players’ “ceilings,” or potential. That same terminology could be applied to teams. While United looked to be a bit closer to its top form on Saturday, Swansea has a lot of room for growth.

When Bony came on, it changed the dynamic of Swansea’s attack. Michu is too dynamic of a player to not have him in the middle of the field (he checked back often from the striker spot anyway), and Shelvey is not dynamic enough for that spot.

Although United won this game comfortably, Swansea will likely improve more as the season progresses than its opponent, relative to the start of the season. Swansea’s ceiling isn’t as high as United’s because of the gap in individual talent, but fans have plenty of reason to be optimistic.

Did you miss the game? Watch it all unfold here.

La Liga: Las Palmas stuns nine-man Valencia, Atleti settles for draw

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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Las Palmas 2-1 Valencia

It’s never ideal when you finish a match with nine men, and that was the case on the day for third-place Valencia. Things were going according to plan for the visitors early on at the Gran Canaria when Santi Mina scored five minutes into the match.

However, goals from Jonathan Viera (22nd minute) and Jonathan Calleri (53rd minute) brought Las Palmas in front, and they wouldn’t relinquish the advantage.

Gabriel Paulista‘s second yellow card, which set up Las Palmas’ penalty kick in the second half was the first sending off for Valencia, while Ruben Vezo joined his teammate in the locker room with three minutes remaining in regulation.

The victory moves Las Palmas into 19th place in La Liga.

Atletico Madrid 1-1 Girona

Barcelona’s lead at the top of La Liga will likely grow courtesy of Atletico’s inability to apply pressure on the Blaugrana. Antoine Griezmann’s first-half strike wasn’t enough to cushion the Atleti lead, and in turn, Girona equalized with 17 minutes left in regulation when Portu scored off of a great take out of the air.

Espanyol 0-3 Sevilla

Franco Vasquez got things started for the visiting side after just 15 minutes, and before halftime Sevilla managed to double their lead through Pablo Sarabia. For good measure, the sixth-place side added a third goal in the 90th minute as Luis Muriel finished off a pass from Sarabia.


Elsewhere in La Liga

Villareal 2-1 Levante


Sunday’s La Liga matches

Alaves vs. Leganes — 6 a.m. ET
Real Madrid vs. Deportivo La Coruna — 10:15 a.m. ET
Real Sociedad vs. Celta Vigo — 12:30 p.m. ET
Real Betis vs. Barcelona — 2:45 p.m. ET

Blockbuster trade sends Kamara to Galaxy, Zardes to Columbus

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The MLS offseason has been in full force for some time now, and the blockbuster moves continue to take shape.

On Saturday, the Columbus Crew finalized a deal with the LA Galaxy to send striker Ola Kamara to the Western Conference side.

[ MORE: All of the picks from Friday’s MLS SuperDraft first & second rounds ]

In exchange for Kamara, the Galaxy have sent U.S. Men’s National Team attacker Gyasi Zardes and $400,000 in Targeted Allocation Money to the Crew. The amount of TAM could increase to $500,000 if Kamara scores 12 or more goals in 2018.

Since arriving on the MLS scene in 2016, the Norwegian had scored 34 regular season goals for the Crew, while adding five assists.

Meanwhile, Zardes has spent his entire professional career with the Galaxy up until this point, after having signed a Homegrown contract with the club over five years ago.

The USMNT winger has scored 34 goals in 131 regular season appearances since making his senior team debut for the Galaxy.

Sources: NYCFC’s Jack Harrison expected to join Stoke this winter

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One of New York City’s biggest soccer stars could be retracing his routes back to England this winter.

Several MLS league sources have confirmed to Pro Soccer Talk that New York City FC winger Jack Harrison is being tracked by Premier League outfit Stoke City, and that a bid has been placed for the 21-year-old “in the range of $5 million.”

[ MORE: Sergio Aguero continues to display brilliance for Man City ]

PST reached out to NYCFC for comment, but the club wasn’t available for immediate response.

Harrison was born in Stoke-on-Trent, and came up through Manchester United’s academy system as a youth player, prior to coming to the United States at the age of 14.

Additionally, league sources have revealed to PST that a deal is “likely to be reached between the two sides” before the end of the winter transfer window.

PL sides have until Jan. 31 to complete signings of players, which gives Stoke roughly 10 days to get a signature from Harrison.

Goal USA’s Ives Galarcep was the first to report the story of Stoke’s interest in Harrison. The Goal report states that Stoke’s initial bid for Harrison of $3 million was rejected by NYCFC last week.

Harrison was selected by NYCFC in the first round of the 2016 MLS SuperDraft, after the team executed a trade with the Chicago Fire. The 21-year-old was the first-overall pick in that season’s draft out of Wake Forest University.

In his time with the Eastern Conference MLS club, the England-native has scored 14 goals in all competitions, while adding 13 assists for the Cityzens.

Harrison earned his first call up with the England Under-21 national team in 2017 in a match against Scotland, before also appearing in a fixture against Andorra.

The interest from Stoke is far from surprising given the intrigue regarding Harrison from foreign clubs in the past. Stoke is currently in the midst of a fierce relegation battle in England, with the Potters sitting 17th place in the PL on 23 points.

Over the past year, Brighton & Hove, Everton and Leicester City are just a few of the sides that have tracked Harrison’s progress, although it never appeared that NYCFC was close to a deal with any of the aforementioned PL clubs.

From an NYCFC perspective, the move isn’t completely out of left field when considering the moves that technical director Claudio Reyna and manager Patrick Vieira have sought after recently.

The club has added attacking talents such as Designated Player Jesus Medina, Jonathan Lewis and Ismael Tajouri within the last 12 months to help prepare for such a move.

Meanwhile, the Eastern Conference giants still boast an attack led by forward and captain David Villa, while being complimented by Maxi Moralez and a strong midfield.

Sergio Aguero continues to display brilliance for Man City

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It’s hard to say that Sergio Aguero is an unforgotten man in Manchester City’s loaded lineup of talented attackers, but sometimes it does feel that way.

[ MORE: PL Roundup — Top three all victorious, Gunners thrash Palace ]

The 29-year-old striker proved his worth once again though on Saturday afternoon at the Etihad Stadium after scoring his second hat-trick of the 2017/18 Premier League season in Man City’s 3-1 victory over Newcastle United.

Although the match never seemed in doubt that Pep Guardiola‘s side would come out on top, Aguero has a way of finding himself in all the right positions, and more importantly, capitalizing on the chances he has when he gets into those spots.

An overwhelming amount of possession — which exceeded 80 percent in favor of Man City — gave the hosts the opportunities that it needed, and City manager Pep Guardiola has full confidence in Aguero, who continues to light up English football in his 200th PL appearance.

“I said we are not going to buy a striker because we have Sergio Aguero and in 2-3 weeks we will have Gabriel Jesus,” Guardiola said after the match. “We are so happy for him. We need a guy who scores the goals.”

The Argentine international is now tied for sixth-place in England’s top flight with seven career PL hat-tricks in his time with Man City.

The true beauty of what Aguero does though isn’t the fact that he scores so many goals, but instead how he manages to score them.

It certainly helps out when you have creative masterminds in the attack like Kevin De Bruyne, Leroy Sane and David Silva, but it’s been Aguero’s genius that has helped pace the Cityzens for so many years now.

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The veteran goalscorer kicked things off for City 11 minutes before halftime, after nodding home the slightest header into the far corner.

Aguero then proceeded to score from the penalty spot in the second stanza, before adding his final finish after finding himself in the right position when Sane decided to take on the entire Newcastle backline.

[ MORE: Wenger hails Arsenal, talks Aubameyang move ]

Overall, Aguero’s 16 goals in the PL are third-most this season, only trailing the likes of Harry Kane and Mohamed Salah — who have had superb campaigns in their own right.

One thing is for certain though, if the Cityzens go on to become the “greatest team in PL history” much of the team’s success will — and should be — attributed to its star striker in Sergio Aguero.