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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 Ryan Giggs played in a withdrawn attacking role, making the formation essentially a 4-2-3-1.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.

AT THE HALF: Man City 1-2 Monaco; Atleti lead in UCL round of 16

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 21:  Radamel Falcao Garcia of AS Monaco celebrates as he scores their first and equalising goal during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg match between Manchester City FC and AS Monaco at Etihad Stadium on February 21, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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We’re only halfway through the first leg of Manchester City versus Monaco, and Bayer Leverkusen versus Atletico Madrid, in the UEFA Champions League round of 16, but the goals are coming fast and furious from England to Germany.

[ MORE: Rooney left out of Man United’s Europa League squad (again) ]

Man City found themselves 1-0 up at the Etihad Stadium, when Leroy Sane turned on video-game mode to set up Raheem Sterling for the opening goal in the 28th minute. But, as City have so typically done in the Champions League, they began self-destructing four minutes later. Radamel Falcao‘s diving header brought Monaco level in the 32nd minute, and Kylian Mbappe’s finish over the head of Willy Caballero put the visitors 2-1 up eight minutes later.

[ MORE: FA Cup QF draw — Chelsea vs. Man United; Arsenal vs. Lincoln City ]

As for Tuesday’s other round-of-16 tie, Saul Niguez simultaneously opened the scoring and snatched the soul of every Bayer defender who dared to contest him. Antoine Griezmann added a second for Atleti, who hold their 2-0 lead at halftime, seven minutes later.

LIVE: UCL last 16 – Man City v Monaco; Bayer v Atletico Madrid

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 06:  Sergio Aguero of Manchester City celebrates after scoring his sides fourth goal during The Emirates FA Cup Third Round match between West Ham United and Manchester City at London Stadium on January 6, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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Two more UEFA Champions League Round of 16 clashes get underway on Tuesday.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

Manchester City host AS Monaco at the Etihad Stadium with Pep Guardiola knowing his shaky defense must stay strong against the leading scorers in France’s top-flight. Monaco have already come to England and beaten Tottenham Hotspur in the UCL group stage and under talented manager Leanardo Jardim the likes of Radamel Falcao looks fired up and ready to go.

That said, City have been much better in recent weeks and have shown their best form this season in the UCL. Remember, Pep has never failed to reach the semifinals of this competition as a manager. Quite the record.

Elsewhere Bayer Leverkusen welcome Atletico Madrid to the BayArena with Mexico’s Javier Hernandez back among the goals and aiming to give the Bundesliga outfit a lead to take with them to Madrid.

The runners up late season, Atleti are currently fourth in La Liga but Diego Simeone’s side have looked stellar in Europe this season once again as they finished above Bayern Munich to win their group. Expect a tense, tough game in Germany.

Click on the link above to follow live commentary on both games, while we will have reaction and analysis on all of the UCL knockout games here at Pro Soccer Talk.


Tuesday’s UCL Round of 16, first legs

Manchester City vs. AS Monaco – 2:45 p.m. ET
Bayer Leverkusen vs. Atletico Madrid – 2:45 p.m. ET

Bayern defends Ancelotti for middle-finger gesture to fans

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MUNICH (AP) Bayern Munich has defended coach Carlo Ancelotti for raising his middle finger to Hertha Berlin fans after supposedly being spit at following a dramatic 1-1 draw in the Bundesliga.

[ MORE: Shaw in betting investigation ]

Bayern says “basically we find the human reaction of Carlo Ancelotti with the gesture to be emotionally understandable after the nasty spitting attack.”

Robert Lewandowski’s injury-time equalizer for Bayern on Saturday prompted altercations between Bayern and Hertha players in a heated atmosphere at the Olympic Stadium.

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game live

The German soccer federation ended its investigation into the matter after Ancelotti agreed to pay 5,000 euros ($5,300) to its foundation for social work.

In 2014, Norbert Duewel, then-coach of second-division club Union Berlin, was fined 3,500 euros for raising his middle finger in a 4-1 loss at home against 1860 Munich.

Sacha Kljestan ready to take reigns as Red Bulls captain

HARRISON, NJ - MARCH 6:  Sacha Kljestan #16 of New York Red Bulls dribbles past Steven Beitashour #33 of Toronto FC  during their match at Red Bull Arena on March 6, 2016 in Harrison, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
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When news began to spread of a trade regarding one of Major League Soccer’s most recognizable faces, Sacha Kljestan was with his New York Red Bulls teammate at the U.S. Men’s National Team’s January camp.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

The clarity over Dax McCarty’s move to Eastern Conference foe Chicago Fire is very much uncertain — even a month after the fact — but the veteran midfielder’s absence left an opening for the Red Bulls captaincy.

[ MORE: PST talks with Atlanta president Darren Eales ahead of 2017 ]

And that was an opportunity that Kljestan was honored to be named.

“I was just proud. My first feeling was that I’m thankful for Jesse [Marsch] having that trust in me and my teammates having that trust in me as well, which is very important,” Kljestan said. “But I just feel very proud to represent Jesse and the coaching staff and represent every member of the club that works with the New York Red Bulls. Most importantly I want to represent the fans in a way that they are proud of.”

Fortunately for the Red Bulls, what they have had over the past two seasons in Kljestan is a player that not only provides flash and brilliance on the pitch but also stability off the field and in the locker room.

Since making his return to MLS in 2015, Kljestan has notched an astounding 34 assists — the most of any player during that span — to go along with his 14 goals.

Red Bulls manager Jesse Marsch has been impressed with Kljestan’s work ethic since bringing in the Designated Player, and he says little thought needed to be put into naming the U.S. international his squad’s next captain.

“It almost wasn’t even a choice at all,” Marsch said in regards to naming Kljestan his primary captain. “He had served as basically a vice-captain for two years and it was an natural fit. There were discussions with the staff but I think it was pretty clear that this is a guy that is a top leader. That being said, we’ve said all along that the captain isn’t a one man job.

“It’s about a community of people and certainly the two guys that will support Sacha the most will be Luis [Robles] and Brad [Wright-Phillips]. I think the three of them will take on big leadership roles and there’s room for young guys to blossom into bigger leadership positions as well.”

The Red Bulls have undoubtedly proven their success in the regular season since rebranding to the aforementioned name in 2006 when the Global giant, Red Bull, acquired the franchise.

The last 11 seasons have provided the club with plenty to cheer about, including two Supporters’ Shield crowns and only missing out on the postseason once, but the Red Bulls have struggled to get past one major hurdle.

Winning an MLS Cup is challenging.

It’s only something that 11 teams have accomplished in the league’s history. Of those 11 teams, only five of them have won two or more titles since MLS’ inception in 1996.

Marsch’s approach since day one has been very clear to both his team and the opponents that the Red Bulls face. The goal has been to play an attacking-minded press, similar to that of Barcelona in the club’s hay day.

While that pressing style likely won’t change, the team is prepared to add another dimension to its attack by switching to a two-forward setup starting in 2017.

“With our little tweak in formation that we’re doing now, we’re trying to be less susceptible to opening ourselves up and creating too much space between our lines,” Kljestan said. “We’re working on ways now to become more connected and become harder to break down and really make teams earn their chances against us. We might go through some growing pains with the formation but I think it’ll make us stronger in the long run.”

The Red Bulls begin their 2017 journey on Wednesday when they face the Vancouver Whitecaps in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. The two sides will meet a second time on March 2 in Vancouver.