Football Focus, City-United: Central superiority wins Manchester derby

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source:  While Sergio Agüero scored twice in Manchester City’s 4-1 win over Manchester United on Sunday, the key tactical move of the game came from the final goalscorer. Samir Nasri’s movement, and the counter-movements that it created, were the key to City’s attack.

Both teams played hybrid 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 formations, with one holding midfielder advancing higher than the other and one attacking player underneath the other. With the pressure it put on United, City was able to allow both outside backs to overlap, sometimes at the same time.

This pinned United wingers Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young deeper into their defensive half than United is used to, meaning they could not get forward to provide width in attack.

Danny Welbeck often looked like a lonely island, as Wayne Rooney dropped deep to find the ball and defend City’s attacks. On the other end, Álvaro Negredo and Agüero linked up more often, and their partnership proved to be a handful for United’s back line, combined with Nasri tucking in and the outside backs advancing.

Kolarov overlapping, Nasri pulling central

Multiple times in the early going, Nasri drifted way inside to find the ball. Taking the cue, left back Aleksandar Kolarov provided the team’s width on the left. Pablo Zabaleta also got around Jesús Navas on the right, and he varied his runs to the inside and outside to keep from being too predictable.

source:  The result was an overload of City attackers against a United defense that often got pinned into its own end, especially in the first half. Patrice Evra and Chris Smalling could not advance very often, and their wingers had to collapse to mark the extra numbers City threw forward.

This approach offers a high reward for the risk it takes. Leaving just two center backs to defend is a dangerous proposition against a two-forward set, but with how deep Rooney dropped, it still left a two-on-one advantage most of the time.

source:  With Nasri cutting in and holding midfielders Fernandinho and Yaya Touré both pressing into supportive attacking positions, City had numerical superiority in the middle of the field. Agüero dropped back at times, or Navas would also tuck in, often giving the home side four attackers to three United defenders (a winger and central midfielders Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick).

The first goal came from this type of movement, with Kolarov serving the cross that Agüero volleyed home. Nasri also created the third goal with an incisive central dribble, and he finished off the fourth goal.

In the play above, Valencia and Young (just a shadow on the very right of the screen) are pinned deep again because of Zabaleta and Kolarov’s advancement, giving United just Rooney to look for as an outlet.

United can’t get in

source:
(Chalkboard courtesy of FourFourTwo Stats Zone)

When United did get forward, its attack was often delayed and stifled by how many numbers City threw forward. United wasted little time in getting the ball into midfield, attempting less than 50 passes in its defensive third.

However, after advancing quickly to the border between midfield and attack, the passes became stagnant. Side-to-side ball movement was the norm, and rarely did the ball get behind the City defenders. This lack of penetration resulted in frustrated strikers, and Rooney dropped deeper and deeper into midfield to find the ball at his feet.

United attempted 25 total crosses in the game, but it completed only five. Nine of those service opportunities came from outside the penalty area extended to the touchlines, and only one of those was successful.

The four wide players — Evra, Smalling, Young and Valencia — only completed four crosses of their 17 total attempts. The area on top of the City penalty area offered little more than a series of missed connections and lack of attacking creativity (see the red lines in that area on the chalkboard at right).

Wayne Rooney’s work rate

Rooney found more success in passing the deeper he dropped. As a shadow striker, his range is wide, as he ended up defending 20 yards from his own goal at times and in the channels.

source:
(Chalkboard courtesy of FourFourTwo Stats Zone)

This is nothing new: Rooney has always been a rangy attacker who likes to be in the thick of the action. He was one of United’s only threats on Sunday, but his frustration was readily apparent.

In the second half, manager David Moyes moved him to the target role, dropping Welbeck to the wing in a 4-3-3. However, the shadow role is Rooney’s best, as his immense work rate and desire to have the ball at his feet drive the United attack.

Fellaini is a similar type of player, although it didn’t show against City. In his brief time as an Everton player this season, he ranged from box to box and touchline to touchline, acting as the Toffees’ attacking metronome.

If he can share that role with Rooney going forward, it will take the strain off both players and make it more difficult for opponents to key in on just one of them.

Newfound deficiencies at Old Trafford

On a couple occasions under Moyes, United has come across situations and opponents that made them look less than comfortable. After a shaky first 20 minutes at Swansea City, for example, Robin van Persie saved his team some embarrassment and put away two goals. From that point on, the team cruised.

Rooney and van Persie have proven to be a formidable partnership, and adding Fellaini into the equation should only make that more dangerous. But with van Persie out, United looked listless in attack against City. Fellaini won’t take over a game by himself; he needs players around him who can be dangerous.

The questions only got louder for Moyes after this defeat, but the warning signs have been there all along in this young season. Things might be tough for a while as United goes through its managerial revolution, but if the Red Devils have proven anything, it’s that patience is never lacking at Old Trafford — at least among those in charge.

Celtic’s dominance under Rodgers reaching new levels

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They’re unbeaten in 29 games, winning 27 of them. They hold a 25-point lead. They’re about to clinch a sixth straight league title this weekend and it’s still not even April.

Celtic’s players have taken their supremacy of Scottish soccer to a new level this season, putting the storied club from Glasgow in the conversation when discussing the most dominant sides in Europe’s domestic leagues in the 21st century.

Celtic will be the Scottish champion again as early as Friday if its closest rival, Aberdeen, loses to Dundee. If Aberdeen wins, Celtic will take an unassailable lead in the Scottish Premiership by beating Hearts on Sunday.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There’s been a sense of inevitability about the whole thing since the turn of the year, by which time Celtic had jumped into a 19-point lead. It’s long stopped being called a “title race” in Scotland, more a procession.

Meanwhile, the team coached by former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers won the Scottish League Cup in late November and is also through to the semifinals of the Scottish Cup.

With Celtic’s unbeaten run across three domestic competitions currently at 36 games, this might be the most dominant season by any club in the history of Scotland’s top flight.

A glance around Europe shows a few other examples of title monopolies.

Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) and BATE Borisov (Belarus) are currently on a streak of 11 domestic leagues titles in a row since 2006. Olympiakos is on course for a seventh straight Greek league title, which would be its 12th in the last 13 years, and Sheriff Tiraspol has won the Moldovan league every year except one since 2000. Basel leads the Swiss league by 17 points and is about to seal a ninth title in 10 years.

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

In these lesser-profile leagues, teams can dominate because of the cash they receive from participating in UEFA competitions, which often allow them to outspend their domestic rivals.

Last week, UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin, attending a conference in Lisbon, spoke of the threats to European soccer in the coming years, including the “decrease in competitive balance within European club competitions and secondary effects affecting domestic competitions.”

There are examples of lopsided championships in Europe’s big leagues, too: Juventus is closing on an unprecedented sixth straight Serie A title in Italy and on course for a third straight Serie A-Coppa Italia double; Bayern Munich is on course for a fifth straight Bundesliga title in Germany, which included winning one championship after 27 matches of a 34-round league; Lyon won the French league title seven times in succession from 2002; and Ajax won four straight titles in the Netherlands from 2011-14.

Scotland is widely regarded as a backwater in European soccer these days, mainly because of the uncompetitive nature of its league and an increasing lack of exposure and coverage outside Britain.

What didn’t help was Rangers – Celtic’s fierce crosstown rival and winner of a record 54 league titles – getting demoted to the fourth tier of the Scottish game in 2012 because of financial irregularities.

This is Rangers’ first season back in the Premiership, but it hasn’t been able to challenge Celtic and currently sits 33 points behind in third place. There used to be constant talk of the two “Old Firm” clubs crossing the border to join the English league but that has cooled.

“I want to win (the league) by 50 points,” Rodgers, who is in his first season at Celtic, said last month.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

In any other league, that would be a preposterous comment, but perhaps no longer in Scotland.

The season started so embarrassingly for Celtic and Rodgers, a 1-0 loss to Gibraltarian part-timer Lincoln Red Imps in a Champions League qualifier in July described by some pundits as the club’s worst defeat in its 130-year history.

Now, they are about to lift the league title with eight matches to spare and potentially in the month of March for the second time in four years.

“We want to continue winning, continue the run that we’re on,” Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon said, “and make sure we do that for as long as we can.”

AP Sports Writers Graham Dunbar in Geneva and James Ellingworth in Moscow, and Associated Press writers Ciaran Fahey in Berlin, Daniella Matar in Milan, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Raf Casert in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.

Steve Douglas is at http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

Mourinho: Midseason international friendlies don’t make sense

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Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United has a big challenge thanks to injuries and a club with far more international participants than the weekend’s Premier League rival.

It has the manager asking, frankly, why the friendlies?

While Phil Jones and Chris Smalling were injured in England training, not the friendly against Germany nor the World Cup qualifier versus Lithuania, Mourinho wonders why the national teams need to play relatively meaningless matches in the middle of club season.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

Mourinho says he is being careful not to be too vocal about his disappointment given that he’ll probably one day need those friendlies as an international boss. From Sky Sports:

“A couple of weeks before the Euros or a couple of weeks before the World Cup makes sense. But mid-season friendly matches mixed with qualification matches, I don’t think that makes sense.

“On top of that the matches are not really big matches so I am not a big fan. But I think one day I will be there so I cannot be very critical.”

Mourinho will be without Jones, Smalling, and Paul Pogba this weekend. He also has several internationals who won’t arrive back at Old Trafford until Thursday. United hosts West Brom on Saturday.

Lamela needs hip surgery, out for rest of Spurs season

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Tottenham Hotspur won’t be getting an Erik Lamela boost any time soon.

The 25-year-old winger will undergo surgery on his ailing hip this Saturday, costing him availability for Spurs’ stretch run and Argentina duty.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

Lamela has been missing since Oct. 29, and left Spurs lineup with the team unbeaten in the Premier League (5W-4D).

He registered a goal and an assist in PL play, adding a goal and four helpers in the side’s first two rounds of the EFL Cup and two assists in three Champions League matches.

Real Salt Lake introduces Mike Petke as new head coach

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Mike Petke is getting a deserved next kick as an MLS coach.

The New York Red Bulls icon, 41, is taking over at Real Salt Lake, where he had been leading USL side Real Monarchs since December.

“They’re an animal waiting to be released from a cage,” Petke called RSL’s roster.

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

Petke won better than 41 percent of his matches as RBNY boss, leading the club to the 2013 Supporters’ Shield. This came after 351 matches between Colorado, the Red Bulls/MetroStars, and DC United.

He leaves Real Monarchs with a perfect 1-0 record. Unbeaten!

“The vision that he laid out, along with Craig and Rob, was music to my ears,” Petek said. “They really showed me what was ahead for the RSL organization, and it was an easy thing to be a part of.”

Petke thanked the Monarchs for restoring some of his love for managing, something he said was “kicked out of me”. The Red Bulls shockingly parted ways with Petke in January 2015, moving onto Jesse Marsch.

This is a low risk hire for Real, who gains a respected coach and soccer mind. The optics aren’t great coming so early into the season and so soon after his hiring at Monarchs raised eyebrows.

The hiring comes four days after RSL drew the Red Bulls 0-0 at Red Bull Arena, which is the only disappointment of this whole ordeal: Not getting to see the response at his old home.