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 Ryan Giggs played in a withdrawn attacking role, making the formation essentially a 4-2-3-1.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

Serie A roundup: Fiorentina edges Chievo, Roma coughs up lead, Inter held

ROME, ITALY - AUGUST 20:  Kevin Strootman of AS Roma in action during the Serie A match between AS Roma and Udinese Calcio at Olimpico Stadium on August 20, 2016 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
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An early header by Aston Villa loanee Carlos Sanchez gave Fiorentina its first win of the season in their home opener, a 1-0 result over Chievo Verona.

The Villa midfielder rose high above Dario Dainello to smash home the only goal of the match. Unfortunately, there was a catch as starting goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu was forced off just before halftime with an injury. The 30-year-old Romanian international took a kick to the head and could not continue.

Roma was left highly disappointed after coughing up a 2-0 lead, finishing 2-2 on the road at Cagliari. Diego Pierotti gave the visitors the lead at Stadio Sant’Elia just six minutes in by slotting home a penalty. Just after halftime, Kevin Strootman doubled Roma’s lead with his first goal since February of 2014 by poking in Edin Dzeko‘s headed assist from point-blank range.

However, it would come undone. Marco Borriello would pull Cagliari back within one just 10 minutes after Strootman’s score by tapping in a rebound, and Marco Sau poked one in at the far post to equalize in the 87th minute, sending Roma back with just a point.

Frank de Boer’s debut at the San Siro ended in a 1-1 draw with Palermo as Mauro Icardi headed home completely unmarked in in the 72nd minute to cancel out Andrea Rispoli’s opener just after halftime.

Torino pummeled Bologna at home 5-1 behind a hat-trick from Andrea Belotti. The trio is the first hat-trick of the 22-year-old’s professional career. Josef Martinez and Daniele Baselli also found the scoresheet for Torino who earned their first points of the season.

Elsewhere, Udinese used a goal in the first five minutes and another late in stoppage time to beat 10-man Empoli 2-0. Genoa scored three goals in an 11-minute span early in the second half to top Crotone 3-1. Sassuolo grabbed all three points at home with a 2-1 defeat of Pescara. Finally, Sampdoria came back from an early deficit to top 10-man Atalanta 2-1. Fabio Quagliarella scored from the spot to level things up and Sampdoria grabbed the winner a minute before halftime behind Paraguayan Edgar Barreto.

La Liga roundup: Barcelona squeaks out win, Villarreal and Sevilla ends scoreless

SEVILLE, SPAIN - AUGUST 14:  Ivan Rakitic of FC Barcelona in action during the match between Sevilla FC vs FC Barcelona as part of the Spanish Super Cup Final 1st Leg  at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on August 14, 2016 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)
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Barcelona rode a first-half header by Ivan Rakitic the whole way to their second win in two league matches with a 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao.

Arda Turan delivered the all-important assist, lofting the ball in from the left as Rakitic came streaking in to trail the play and climb high to meet the ball. Marc-Andre ter Stegen stood tall in goal for the visitors to San Mames, making four saves including one off his face to keep a powerful shot by Benat out of net following an embarrassing mistake from the German that opened up the chance.

Sevilla failed to keep pace with Barcelona and the rest of the teams at the top, slumping to a 0-0 draw at Villarreal. The Rojiblancos couldn’t even muster a shot on target, weathering five from the hosts among 12 overall attempts on net. Both sides wasted chances with sloppy crosses and missed shots, with Villarreal coming closest on a goal called back for offsides just before halftime. A Mateo Musacchio header found substitute Rafael Borre at the back post but the young Colombian was just past his defender.

Nabil El Zhar scored a double and Kevin-Prince Boateng found the scoresheet as well as Las Palmas hammered Granada 5-1 at Estadio Gran Canaria. The newly promoted side has now won two games in two after their return to the Spanish top flight.

Deportivo Alaves and Sporting Gijon played to a 0-0 draw at Estadio Mendizorrotza in a match that featured just three combined shots on target.

MLS Snapshot: Portland Timbers 4-2 Seattle Sounders

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 6: Darlington Nagbe #6 of Portland Timbers lifts Diego Valeri #8 of Portland Timbers into the air after Valeri scored a goal during the first half of the game against the Columbus Crew at Providence Park on March 6, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
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The match in 100 words or less: A rivalry is meant to be a two-way street, and it was just that, albeit in the most see-saw way possible. Portland scythed, carved, and sliced up the Seattle back line with fluid movement and set-pieces in the first half, working up a 4-0 lead, and then clung on for dear life in the second, ending up with a 4-2 win at Providence Park.

Three Four moments that mattered:

16′ – Just four minutes after a seemingly disastrous miss from Liam Ridgewell, the Timbers began quickly putting that in the rear-view mirror. Vytautas Andriuskevicius earned the opener as his towering header off a corner forced Stefan Frei to make a leaping save, but he could only tip it up into the crossbar and back down into the goal. The ball bounded back out, but the linesman made sure to flag that a goal had been scored, with replays showing the ball did clearly cross the line.

21′ – Fernando Adi doubled Portland’s lead from more handy work by Valeri. The Argentinian burst his way through defenders into the box and ripped off a shot. Frei made a solid save, but the rebound fell to Adi who held strong with the ball and finally stuck it into the back of the net from point-blank range. From there, the game was effectively over, and goals from Lucas Melano and Steven Taylor extended the lead further.

44′ – With the Timbers up 3-0 after a fabulous team goal finished off by Lucas Melano, they capped the first-half with yet another set-piece score. Ridgewell swung in a free-kick from the right, and Taylor contorted his body to meet the ball, redirecting a forceful header past Frei.

51′ – Just six minutes after the break, Seattle suddenly clawed themselves back into the game with a pair of goals. A shot from Andreas Ivanschitz forced an own-goal with a looping shot that smashed into the head of a Portland defender and past Jake Gleeson, and Jordan Morris followed that up minutes later when he met a long ball from Nicolas Lodiero with his head.

Man of the Match: Diego Valeri

Goalscorers: Andriuskevicius 16′, Adi 21′, Melano 29′, Taylor 44, Ivanschitz 47′, Morris 51′

PSG mistakes lead to 3-1 loss at Monaco

CHATILLON, ITALY - JULY 14:  Joao Moutinho of AS Monaco in action during the preseason friendly match between Queens Park Rangers and AS Monaco on July 14, 2015 in Chatillon, Italy.  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
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Paris Saint-Germain has lost for just the third time in Ligue 1 play the last 17 months as they fell 3-1 to AS Monaco.

Things began to fall apart just 13 minutes in when Djibril Sidibe somehow snaked a pass in between five defenders, and Joao Moutinho snatched the lead with an effort snuck inside the post.

It got worse for the visitors with just ticks to go before halftime as David Luiz hauled down Jemerson in the box. The Brazilian defender lept on the back of Jemerson on a free-kick, and while that went unpunished, Luiz nearly gave his countrymate a piggy-back ride, forcing the referee to act. Fabinho buried the penalty, putting PSG in a precarious position headed into the break.

The defending champions gave themselves a lifeline, with the struggling Edinson Cavani scoring a fine header, assisted by the head of Serge Aurier. The hope only lasted so long for Aurier and PSG, when the Ivory Coast international put the game away with an own-goal on the other end to put Monaco 3-1 up and end things at Stade Louis II. Sidibe made it happen again, chasing a long ball forward and diving at it for a shot attempt. Instead, the ball clipped parallel to the goal and off the legs of a chasing Aurier and past Kevin Trapp.

The loss sees PSG drop off the top of the table for the first time in a long time, falling a point back of Guingamp, Nice, and Monaco all on 7 points.