Football Focus, Everton-Newcastle: Examining new-look Toffees under Martínez

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source:  In the first half of its 3-2 win over Newcastle United on Monday, Everton picked the visitors apart. Those 45 minutes, combined with other recent performances, showed the potential the Toffees have with new manager Roberto Martínez’s system.

It’s a similar possession-based game that he tried to instill at Wigan Athletic, but with Everton’s superior players, the results should be more impressive. Indeed, early in the Premier League season, Martínez’s men have proven to be among the most entertaining and positive sides in the league. Only Arsenal and Manchester City have scored more goals.

Everton has built its system on a simple passing to unlock spaces on the field for one-on-one isolation, usually on the wings. Outside backs Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman provide two of the more dangerous attacking options on the squad, and 19-year-old Ross Barkley has been a revelation in central midfield.

Leon Osman and Kevin Mirallas run the wings, never afraid to take defenders on with the ball at their feet, and Romelu Lukaku seems to have taken over the target role from Nikica Jelavić, who had a hard time getting involved in his early starts.

Building blocks of possession

The most obvious aspect of Everton’s system is the patience it displays in building up attacks. Short passes keep the ball moving and keep opponents constantly adjusting their positioning, aiming to open up gaps to exploit in midfield when defenders get stretched.

Of the 512 passes Everton attempted against Newcastle, 458 were short, as defined by Opta. Only 92 total passes came in the defensive third of the field, though, with most of the impetus put on the midfielders to initiate play. The Toffees completed 232 of 273 passes (85 percent) in the middle third, including 161 of 181 among the three central midfielders: Barkley, Gareth Barry and James McCarthy.

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(Chalkboards courtesy of FourFourTwo Stats Zone)

In his 500th Premier League game, Barry ran the show with his attempts to unlock the Magpies’ defense. His 75 attempted passes were the most on his team, and he completed 86.7 percent of them.

Looking at their passing charts, the three center midfielders played mostly short, fairly square passes. Every ball movement, no matter how small, causes adjustments from opponents. The more adjustments they are forced to make, the more likely they are to unknowingly open up spaces.

It’s soccer by chess, not checkers, predicated on one- and two-touch passing and a high tempo.

Short, short, long

Series upon series of short passes against Newcastle opened up options for the long ball that turned what usually becomes a 50-50 ball into sustainable possession. Atrocious defending from the visiting team helped the cause, particularly on Tim Howard’s assist to Romelu Lukaku in the 36th minute.

For an example of short-range possession turning into a plausible long-ball opportunity and one-on-one isolation, let’s pick up the end of a nearly 30-pass sequence by Everton. (It may have been more than 30 passes, but it began off-camera, so it’s difficult to be certain.)

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As usual, all three central midfielders are involved in the build-up. Osman tucks in on the left side, allowing Baines to get around him and provide another option. On the opposite flank, Coleman and Mirallas stay out of the play, waiting and expecting their teammates to realize the space they are in.

The short exchanges draw seven Newcastle defenders onto the near side of the field, as six Everton attackers work the ball around.

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A passing lane opens up for Lukaku to check in and play the ball back toward McCarthy, who recognizes the space Mirallas and Coleman have on the far side.

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A longer pass to Mirallas’ feet leaves him isolated against Newcastle left back Davide Santon, whom Mirallas already beat once on the dribble to assist Lukaku’s opening goal in the fifth minute.

Coleman advances to the inside (an underlapping run, as opposed to an overlapping run around Mirallas to the outside), dragging his defender away and giving Mirallas more space. Ideally, McCarthy should spin away and drag another defender with him.

Getting to goal

That’s the idea in Everton’s attack: overload the middle to isolate wide players, allowing for individual brilliance or a centering pass (or sometimes both) to get the ball into dangerous areas. The Toffees struggled to get on the end of crosses — Mirallas and Coleman completed one each, and nobody else had any — but the opportunities were created.

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(Chalkboards courtesy of FourFourTwo Stats Zone)

The majority of Everton’s passes in the attacking third went wide, although Baines and Osman on the left were more willing to take players on than Mirallas and Coleman on the right. Most crosses came from the right side.

Overall, Everton completed 21 of 27 one-on-one dribbles and 110 of 147 passes in the final third.

Developing dominance

Martínez recognizes that it takes much longer to build and sustain his vision than a smash-and-grab style, telling television cameras after the game, when his team had secured fourth place:

We were disappointed with the first three games. I thought we were really dominant, really good, and we should have got more points. It’s a great target, to get into the top four. Now, it’s only six games, but it’s something that gives you a good start, and that’s all it is: a good start. You could see the potential today. Some of the signs were terrific as a team, and then all the other aspects that we need to work and develop, and we’re looking forward to that.

Three key words in that quote show where Martínez is trying to go: “develop,” “potential” and “dominant.”

Everton has only scratched the surface in the first six games of the season, still fine-tuning many aspects of its game. However, the flashes it showed against Newcastle and in previous matches paints a picture of a team that can, has and will dominate games and opponents.

Good soccer is a living creature; it needs to be nurtured and grown. By the time spring rolls around, Everton should be much closer to adulthood.

Sky Blue’s Sam Kerr named NWSL league MVP for 2017

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CHICAGO (AP) Sky Blue FC forward Sam Kerr has been named the National Women’s Soccer League’s Most Valuable Player for this season.

Kerr, a standout on the Australian national team, had a league-record 17 goals and became the league’s fifth Golden Boot winner to also be named MVP.

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

She became the first NWSL player to score four goals in a game on Aug. 19 against the Seattle Reign. Kerr rallied Sky Blue from a 3-goal deficit to beat the Reign 5-4.

Kerr’s award was announced Friday. The league had earlier announced the season’s other award winners: North Carolina’s Abby Dahlkemper was named Defender of the Year, teammate Ashley Hatch was named Rookie of the Year, Portland’s Adrianna Franch was named Goalkeeper of the Year and the Thorns’ Mark Parsons was named Coach of the Year.

The Mendy Effect: Pep praises injured back

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Full back Benjamin Mendy cost Pep Guardiola and Manchester City $68 million, but perhaps he’ll be just as valuable as a very expensive sports psychologist.

The “Shark Team” member was amusing on social media even before his ACL injury sent him to the sidelines until at least April, but he’s become a must-follow Twitter fixture with his in-game messages (See some of his work below).

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

City faces Burnley at 10 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com).

It’s fairly clear his act has translated in private, too, as apparently Mendy is just as good in group messages (Let us in, Pep. We won’t tell anyone). From ManCity.com:

“Usually, players who are out for a long time with injury are sad. They sometimes train apart and feel isolated.

“Mendy decided to be present. He is communicating on social media, WhatsApp and he calls his teammates and messages me. He is going to be so important outside the pitch because people like him make the atmosphere much better.”

It’s not surprising for anyone who’s been following the former Le Havre, Marseille and Monaco man.

Keep in mind, these Tweets below are from the last few days alone!

Ozil to Manchester United?!? Wenger reacts to gossip

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Sometimes, even the biggest Arsene Wenger detractors have to feel for the guy.

Coming off a thrilling late win in Serbia, one that saw Olivier Giroud cap off a team goal straight out of the creative Wenger playbook, the manager should’ve been discussing how to stretch those good vibes into this weekend’s visit to Goodison Park.

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

Yet no. Instead of talking about how the Gunners would respect the struggling Toffees, Wenger had to address speculation from several outlets claiming Mesut Ozil would move to Manchester United, perhaps as soon as January.

Feeling it? No, no Wenger was not feeling it. From Arsenal.com:

“We have to deal with all kinds of speculation when the players are at the end of their contracts. On the other hand, to be professional is to give 100 per cent as long as you are somewhere. For the rest, we came out many times and said that’s the situation. It [the media] can come out tomorrow and say that he extends his contract here. It will be exactly the same, it will not change anything. When you play the next game, commit 100 per cent. … When a player plays for Arsenal Football Club, his commitment cannot be linked with the length of his contract, it has just to be linked with the responsibility and the ambition he has to win the football game.”
Of course most big clubs have to deal with such drama on a year-to-year basis and, yes, having Ozil and Alexis Sanchez still in town was completely avoidable. But the idea that Ozil could leave, for free, to Manchester United? We’re sure Gooners the world over will be thrilled with the gossip.

MLS Decision Day preview: Much at stake

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Four teams can claim a Western Conference second round berth, while four more can earn a valuable first-round bye in the East.

Yep, there’s plenty to play for beyond the West’s final playoff spot Sunday during Major League Soccer’s Decision Day, when every team will take the pitch for 4 p.m. ET kickoffs.

[ MORE: Conte feels pressure ]

Here’s what we do know regarding the playoffs:

  1. Supporters’ Shield winning Toronto FC gets a first round bye, while No. 6 seed New York Red Bulls are headed to the road for a first round playoff
  2. New England, Montreal, Philadelphia, Orlando, DC, Minnesota, Colorado, and LA will not make the playoffs
  3. Full stop.

So, yes, this will be fun.

First, let’s look at the Eastern Conference Standings ahead of Sunday’s extravaganza:

Eastern Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Toronto FC 33 20 8 5 72 35 37 13-3-1 7-5-4 68
x – New York City FC 33 16 8 9 54 41 13 10-4-2 6-4-7 56
x – Chicago 33 16 7 10 61 44 17 12-3-2 4-4-8 55
x – Atlanta 33 15 9 9 68 38 30 11-2-3 4-7-6 54
x – Columbus 33 16 5 12 51 47 4 12-2-3 4-3-9 53
x – New York 33 13 8 12 51 46 5 9-6-2 4-2-10 47

— New York City FC controls its bye destiny, though Columbus could join them on 56 points and would pass them on tiebreakers (wins).

— If that happens, Chicago could claim the second bye with a win or draw in Houston (The Fire owns the goal differential tiebreaker).

— If New York City and Chicago lose or draw, Atlanta could finish second with a home win over TFC.

— Columbus can finish second with a win and non-wins for Chicago and Atlanta.

Western Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
x – Vancouver 33 15 7 11 49 47 2 9-5-3 6-2-8 52
x – Portland 33 14 8 11 58 49 9 10-4-2 4-4-9 50
x – Seattle 33 13 11 9 49 39 10 10-5-1 3-6-8 50
x – Sporting KC 33 12 13 8 39 27 12 10-6-1 2-7-7 49
x – Houston 33 12 11 10 54 45 9 11-4-1 1-7-9 47
San Jose 33 12 7 14 36 58 -22 9-5-2 3-2-12 43
FC Dallas 33 10 13 10 43 47 -4 7-7-2 3-6-8 43
Real Salt Lake 33 12 6 15 47 54 -7 8-4-4 4-2-11 42

Byes

— Vancouver finishes first with a win or draw at Portland. The ‘Caps could finish as low as third with a loss to Portland and a Seattle win versus Colorado.

— Portland finishes first — and wins the Cascadia Cup — with a win over visiting Vancouver.

— Seattle can claim a first round bye with a win over visiting Colorado and a Vancouver win over Portland.

— Sporting KC can finish second with a win at Real Salt Lake and non-wins for Portland and Seattle.

Final playoff spot

— San Jose claims the sixth seed with a home win over Minnesota. They can also finish sixth with a draw joined by non-wins for FC Dallas at home to LA and Real Salt Lake at home versus SKC.

— FC Dallas claims the sixth seed with a win over LA and a San Jose draw or loss versus Minnesota. FCD gets sixth with a draw, and a San Jose loss coupled with a RSL loss or draw versus SKC.

—  Real Salt Lake gets sixth with a win over SKC, and non-wins from San Jose and Dallas. RSL could also get sixth with a draw and losses for San Jose and Dallas.

(Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

Schedule
FC Dallas vs. LA Galaxy
DC United vs. New York Red Bulls
San Jose vs. Minnesota United
Real Salt Lake vs. Sporting KC
Houston vs. Chicago
Seattle vs. Colorado
Philadelphia vs. Orlando City
Portland vs. Vancouver
Montreal vs. New England
New York City vs. Columbus
Atlanta vs. Toronto

Predictions

— NYCFC hangs on for a draw against Columbus, earning a bye, leaving Chicago to host New York Red Bulls and Atlanta off to Columbus for the first round of the playoffs (We have Toronto beating Atlanta on Sunday).

— Vancouver and Portland draw, while Seattle beats Colorado. The ‘Caps and Sounders get byes, while Seattle takes back the Cascadia Cup.

— San Jose beats Minnesota, gaining the West’s sixth seed. The Quakes head to Portland for the first round, while SKC hosts Houston.