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 Ryan Giggs played in a withdrawn attacking role, making the formation essentially a 4-2-3-1.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

Champions League score picks – Week 2

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The UEFA Champions League group stage kicks off Week 2 on Tuesday, so let’s have some fun and try to predict the scores.

[ MORE: Champions League schedule ]

Feel free to join in down in the comments section, as I’m predicting another unbeaten week for all five Premier League teams in action.

[ MORE: Group stage predictions ] 

Below you will find score predictions for all 16 UCL games across the next two days.


Tuesday

Group E
Sevilla 3-1 Maribor
Spartak Moscow 1-1 Liverpool

Group F
Man City 3-0 Shakhtar Donetsk
Napoli 3-1 Feyenoord

Group G
Besiktas 0-2 RB Leipzig
Monaco 2-1 FC Porto

Group H
Borussia Dortmund 1-3 Real Madrid
APOEL 0-3 Tottenham Hotspur

Wednesday

Group A
CSKA Moscow 1-2 Manchester United
Basel 0-2 Benfica

Group B
Paris Saint-Germain 2-2 Bayern Munich
Anderlecht 2-1 Celtic

Group C
Atletico Madrid 1-2 Chelsea
Qarabag 1-3 Roma

Group D
Sporting Lisbon 1-3 Barcelona
Juventus 2-1 Olympiacos

Court hearing opens into spectators attacking referees

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MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) Witnesses in Uruguay’s capital testified before a judge on Monday about an attack on two referees by spectators at a soccer match.

A male and a female referee were attacked on Saturday during a second division under-19 game between Basanez and Platense.

The next day, the Uruguay Football Association cancelled all organized football as referees protested the violence by refusing to officiate. Officials are expected to meet on Wednesday to decide if they will lift the stoppage.

Witnesses told Judge Julia Staricco it started after a kid threw rocks on the field with encouragement from his father. The female referee’s partner asked the kid to stop, leading to an argument with other spectators who punched and kicked the referees.

An attorney representing the country’s referees union, Fernando de Los Santos, says the officials suffered bruises to their bodies.

“There are several people responsible here: The players, especially who are all young in the under-19 category; their parents, and their families,” de Los Santos said.

“This is not new. We’ve seen this kind of violence in the lower divisions. But this is the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

The Basanez and Platense clubs have issued statements condemning the violence. Basanez also said it fired one of its players who was part of the attack.

The case is being handled by the same local judge who recently charged three people for violent acts during the Penarol-Nacional derby.

Morata has a warning for Chelsea’s Premier League rivals

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Alvaro Morata believes his fast start to life in the Premier League at Chelsea is only a taster of what is to come.

[ MORE: Who is the PL’s most complete striker? ]

After scoring a hat trick at Stoke City on Saturday in Chelsea’s 4-0 win, Morata spoke to reporters about the chances he missed and admitted he could have had five goals to his name.

The Spanish striker, 24, is clearly not content with simply replacing Diego Costa at Chelsea.

“I am happy with my start in the Premier League but I can do better,” Morata said. “I had two chances at the end of the game against Stoke [but didn’t take them]. I also need to improve my physical condition to be as good as possible.”

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Can do better. Six goals in your first six Premier League games is a pretty decent return, Alvaro.

Still, you can see what he’s saying. Morata has looked good in fits and starts so far this season but his undeniable quality is there for all to see. He scored three goals and added two assists with his head before Saturday’s breakout where he proved he can also score with his feet.

Morata struggled against Arsenal 10 days ago as he seemed isolated up top and the physicality of the Premier League seems to still surprise him at times.

It is still early days for the Spanish international who joined for $77.8 million (which could rise to $93.9 million) but the way in which he accelerated past Stoke’s defense on his first and second goals, then finished coolly reminded us all that of his schooling at Real Madrid and Juventus.

Morata is now undeniably a contender for the Golden Boot and looks like a more refined, agile replacement for Costa. His quickness of thought and elegance has replaced the brute force and desire of Costa and it seems like it will work out just fine.

Jose Mourinho on Man United’s midfield injury crisis

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Jose Mourinho has been speaking in Moscow ahead of Manchester United’s UEFA Champions League clash with CSKA Moscow on Wednesday.

[ MORE: UCL team news for PL clubs ]

The Man United boss has had a positive start to the new season with seven wins from nine games in all competitions as his side are second in the Premier League table only on goal difference.

[ MORE: Champions League schedule

That said, injuries are mounting up for the Red Devils, particularly in central midfield as Marouane Fellaini, Paul Pogba and Michael Carrick are all missing for United’s trip to CSKA.

“We don’t have Fellaini. We don’t have Pogba. We don’t have Carrick. All three midfield players that we lose for this match. The solutions are not many,” Mourinho said. “We are trying not to focus on individual battles in specific areas on the pitch. We are going to have a team with quality and balance to try to win the match. That’s our objective.”

What are Mourinho’s solutions to plug these gaps?

Ander Herrera will likely start in central midfield alongside Nemanja Matic which should be enough but given the extent of the injuries to both Pogba and Fellaini they will also have to play against Crystal Palace on Saturday.

Fellaini was injured by Southampton’s Shane Long on Saturday and Mourinho confirmed the Belgian midfielder would not play again before the international break.

“Fellaini was lucky. It could be a much worse situation but in a moment where we don’t have Pogba and Carrick he becomes even more important than he always is. I expect Fellaini not to be out for a long time,” Mourinho added.

As for Mourinho, he was asked about the decision by the English Football Association to take no further action after he was sent to the stands late on in United’s 1-0 victory at Southampton on Saturday.

“If I am not punished it is because there are no reasons for the sending off,” Mourinho said. “I am happy that it is recognized and I can do my work normally against Crystal Palace. That’s enough for me.”