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.

“This game belongs to the players” Wenger downplays Guardiola success

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Arsene Wenger has stressed that Pep Guardiola has not changed the game of soccer over the last decade or so, maintaining that the players are the ones who make a team truly great.

Asked if Guardiola has “raised the bar” of managing in his time at the top, Wenger said, “No, because you look at Barcelona and they are still the best team in Europe. You have to accept that the modern game has changed with the recruitment of the best players in a short number of clubs.”

[ MORE: EFL Cup final preview ]

“We, as managers, can maybe impart our philosophy but this game belongs to the players because the importance of the players has become bigger than ever before.”

In fact, Wenger showed a twinge of jealousy at all the attention Guardiola is getting with the team blowing out the rest of the Premier League this season, referencing trophies in the recent past Arsenal has hoisted. “We are maybe underdogs but we have to believe in our quality. The history, the fact we have done it before, shows why not do it again?”

“At the end of the day, you have to be cool,” Wenger said, “because Manchester City is dominating the league in the head of everybody and so maybe we are more underdogs than in the FA Cup semi-final [last season when Arsenal beat Man City].”

Deportivo wastes penalty kick, remains winless under Seedorf

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MADRID (AP) — Clarence Seedorf remained winless as Deportivo La Coruna coach after a 0-0 draw with Espanyol in the Spanish league on Friday.

Deportivo squandered chances including a second-half penalty kick taken by Lucas Perez. Its winless streak reached 10 games in all competitions.

It was the third game in a row without a victory since Seedorf took over to try to avoid relegation. Deportivo was 18th in the 20-team standings, in the relegation zone.

In addition to the missed penalty, Deportivo twice hit the posts in front of a supportive crowd at Riazor Stadium. The players left the field applauded by the local fans despite the setback.

Perez’s penalty attempt was saved by Espanyol goalkeeper Diego Lopez in the 65th minute. Lopez, who earlier this season stopped a penalty taken by Lionel Messi, dived to his right to stop Perez’s low shot.

The match marked the Deportivo debut of veteran Ghanaian midfielder Sulley Muntari. He played alongside Seedorf at AC Milan, and was signed this week after a trial period.

Espanyol, 15th in the standings, hasn’t won in seven matches, since it ended Barcelona’s 29-match unbeaten streak in the first leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinals. Espanyol’s last league win was in January, seven rounds ago.

Barcelona defends its seven-point lead in the standings when it hosts Girona on Saturday. Second-place Atletico Madrid visits Sevilla on Sunday.

Conte says he believes in his selection regarding Willian

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Antonio Conte has lashed out at anyone questioning why Brazilian winger Willian hasn’t played regularly until recently, saying

“Do you think that I am stupid when I put Willy on the bench?” Conte fired back at reporters when he was asked about Willian’s earlier lack of playing time at his pre-match press conference ahead of Chelsea’s match on Sunday against Manchester United.

[ MORE: Heynckes squashes Lewandowski to Premier League rumors ]

“I have to try and make the best decision for the team, no? Maybe last season we won the title, or did I forget something?”

The 29-year-old has made 29 Premier League appearances, but only 13 starts. He started in the midweek Champions League match against Barcelona and not only scored Chelsea’s only goal but also proved their most incisive player, prompting questions about his selection.

“Now he is playing because he deserves to play, not because there is some regret from the past,” Conte said. “For what? If a player deserves to play, and shows me during the training session that he is on top of his form, and wants to work defensively, he plays. If not, [he will] stay on the bench, stay in the stands.”

Instead of saying he wishes Willian had played more earlier in the season, he praised himself for giving the Brazilian the start at the appropriate time.

“He is playing now and I am very happy with my choice. Willian deserved to start in the previous game, and played well. I did a fantastic choice, and I want to take credit for that.”

EFL Cup Final preview: Arsenal, Manchester City fight for different types of glory

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  • These two clubs have never met in a major Cup final
  • With a win, Arsene Wenger would become the 8th PL manager to win all 3 major English trophies
  • Sergio Agüero has scored in all of his last 4 appearances against Arsenal

For Manchester City, it’s the first step of a potentially record-setting season. For Arsenal, it’s the Gunners’ best chance at securing a trophy.

The two teams are fighting for very different levels of glory as the two meet at Wembley Stadium on Sunday at 11:30 a.m. ET. Manchester City, despite losing to Wigan in the FA Cup just a week ago, would still be on track for a Double this season with a win against the Gunners. Meanwhile, Arsenal is outside the Premier League top four, and – as they have done each of the past two seasons in the FA Cup – could salvage an otherwise disappointing league season with a major Cup trophy.

Both teams will be struggling with selection in certain areas. Manchester City is likely missing Raheem Sterling, who could sit out due to an unspecified muscle injury according to Pep Guardiola in his pre-match press conference, while Fabian Delph is suspended after his sending off against Wigan in the FA Cup. That means either Danilo or 21-year-old Oleksandr Zinchencko would start at wing-back. Zinchenko is the likely candidate there, having appeared in four of City’s five EFL Cup games this season so far and playing almost every minute of those four matches. Gabriel Jesus, who missed more than two months with a knee injury, could be ready to make his early return. Claudio Bravo will continue to play in goal for the domestic Cup competitions.

Arsenal, meanwhile, is without new signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan who is cup-tied to his previous club Manchester United, while Alexandre Lacazette is not yet recovered from his knee injury suffered in the North London derby, and Mesut Ozil could miss out with an illness. The Gunners are likely, however, to get Aaron Ramsey back in midfield after recovering from a groin injury, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can return to the lineup after his own cup tied absence in the Europa League midweek.

What they’re saying

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola on playing Arsenal twice in a week: “We will be happy if we win, sad if we don’t but after the game we have another match against Arsenal. We are going to try and maintain our level, but finals are different, it is not what you have done in the past.”

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger on playing Manchester City: “Manchester City have so many players that you think you have to stop that it is better to focus on the team plan than rather than on any individual. It’s true that I always used to use this competition with a youth team. For us it’s an opportunity. We’ll play with all the regular players.” 

Prediction

Arsenal has often come up big in hotly contested Cup matches, despite poor form in the surrounding competitions, so it would not be surprising to once again see Arsene Wenger hoist a trophy on Sunday to temporarily distract the fanbase and media from larger struggles. However, picking against this Manchester City team would be selection suicide, even after their disappointment against Wigan and considering the absence of under the radar star Raheem Sterling. Manchester City wins 3-1 with a pair of late goals to sink the Gunners, with a newly healthy Gabriel Jesus providing an influential injection off the bench in the final 20 minutes. Pep Guardiola raises another trophy at the site where he won the 2011 Champions League.