Football Focus, Swansea-Sunderland: Black Cats making woeful defense a habit

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source:  Swansea City ran rampant over Sunderland on Saturday, scoring four goals in the second half to win, 4-0. The stark contrast between first and second periods showcased the Black Cats’ troubles in the back half.

Sunderland started brightly and nearly took the lead in the 13th minute, but Steven Fletcher could not put home a volley on a corner kick despite being unmarked. Especially in the first half, Sunderland strangled the midfield, at times playing with five players in the middle, taking away Swansea’s strong area.

The home side didn’t help its cause by playing Wayne Routledge and Nathan Dyer as withdrawn wingers, crowding space in the middle for Michu, Leon Britton and Jonathan de Guzmán.

Despite being out-possessed all match, the first half made Sunderland look like it had a chance to steal at least a point on the road. However, it all fell apart in the second half.

Saturday marked Gus Poyet’s first match as manager, and if the Uruguayan hopes to keep his new side in the Premier League beyond this season, he will have to shore up the back line and stop the constant flow of goals into the Black Cats’ net.

Bright first half

On defense, teams will normally draw two lines: a line of confrontation and a line of resistance. The line of confrontation is where a team will begin putting pressure on the ball, and it usually starts at about the midfield line to allow for compactness in defense.

The line of restraint is the point beyond which a team will not allow its opponent to pass. That line is much lower, usually 25 yards from goal or so, and it denotes the spot where delaying and keeping shape are no longer the concern, but winning the ball is everything.

All match at Swansea, Sunderland maintained a low defensive starting position. In the first half, the Black Cats drew their line of confrontation around midfield, but at times moved it higher, depending on the situation. The line of resistance stayed about 22 yards out, at the top of the “D” (the arc on top of the penalty area).

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They also maintained proper numbers behind the ball and a proper defensive shape in their back four and midfield banks. They remained compact enough to make ball movement difficult, but not so compact as to negate counter-attacking opportunities and chances to win the ball high up the field.

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(Chalkboards courtesy of FourFourTwo Stats Zone)

Rarely should teams defend with more than one or two players extra (for example, five or six should be able to defend four) for the same reason. In the example above, Sunderland keeps eight players around the ball to defend Swansea’s seven in attack.

That changed drastically in the second half, allowing Swansea to maintain pressure for 45 minutes.

Painful second half

Because of Sunderland’s willingness to defend higher up the field in the first half, it rarely got pinned into its own end. However, comparing the location and frequency of interceptions between the first and second halves provides some idea of how that changed after the break.

Swansea possessed the ball through the middle more easily, and players turned and ran at goal in ways they could not in the first half. The reason for the radical change was dropping the line of confrontation, whether consciously or unconsciously, well into the Sunderland half for long periods of the half.

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In this instance, Sunderland drops its bank of defensive and midfield players on top of its own 18-yard box, and the team has no discernible shape. Also, eight players are back to defend four attackers. Right from the kickoff, it was all hands on deck, hoping to hang on for the scoreless draw.

This screenshot is taken in the moments before Swansea took a two-goal lead. The space above the two deep lines of defensive players is open, where Michu (No. 3) is at this moment — close to the spot from which de Guzmán hits the goal.

Possession teams need to be put under pressure and made uncomfortable. Parking the bus only gives them more space to operate and combine to penetrate. Most of the Sunderland defenders backed off from the ball, putting too little immediate pressure on attackers to create any level of discomfort.

Corner kicks provide no respite

Two of Sunderland’s conceded goals were own goals off corner kicks, and they were nearly identical plays. It may have seemed coincidental at first, but a closer comparison reveals a pattern.

When defending corner kicks, most teams will put a player on the front post (some put one on the back post as well, but it’s a less dangerous space) and one in the near-post space about six yards off the goal line. The post defender is there to clear shots off the line, while the player in space is responsible for balls driven into the near side of the box, which is the most difficult spot for goalkeepers to cover.

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When Sunderland sets up to defend both corners that end up in the goal, it has a man in the near-post space (red circles), but nobody on the front post itself (empty green circles). A free defender (yellow circle) is in the middle of the six-yard box as well, and some teams will station more than just one zonal defender in that area.

The rest are responsible for finding a man and marking him, contesting aerial balls and clearing the danger.

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On both Sunderland own goals, Swansea attackers get into dangerous areas and cause scrambling defensive reactions. Because they are unable to track their marks, defenders end up running toward the goal to get goal-side of attackers.

The ball ends up in the back of the net despite defenders making contact first. Look at the spot where both balls cross the line: exactly where a front-post defender would be stationed. After one near-post goal, most teams would place a defender in that spot, but Sunderland does not. Goalkeeper Keiren Westwood has to organize his team more effectively.

Grim overall numbers

An inability to cope with pressure from other teams and a propensity to drop into a shell has led to an abysmal minus-15 goal difference overall for Sunderland, with little difference whether the game is at home (minus-6) or on the road (minus-9).

Falling deep into their half hasn’t allowed the Black Cats to attack, scoring just three goals at the Stadium of Light and two away from home. In turn, that has led to frustration for United States international Jozy Altidore, who continues to score for his country while remaining goalless in club play.

Sunderland’s defensive issues have progressively worsened over the last three seasons. If the situation does not reverse soon, the porous defense will be to blame for the club’s eventual relegation.

A burning question for each Premier League team (and the relegated)

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We continue our postseason review of the Premier League with the big questions bearing down on 22 (soon to be 23) teams.

Twenty Premier League sides (and two already-promoted Championship clubs) have work to do in order to achieve their aims.

Chelsea, Liverpool, Spurs, and Man City want to a UEFA Champions League title. Manchester United, too, but the Red Devils join Arsenal as sides aiming to compete for titles.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 season reviews

Others, like West Ham, Everton, and Southampton, are prepared to grow toward top-end competitions, while Stoke City and Leicester City hope to take the next step after relatively disappointing campaigns.

What’s the top question for each team? Read on…

Arsenal  – This one’s easy: Forget will Arsene Wenger stay on (He will) — Will the Gunners name a sporting director and spend, spend, spend to rejoin the elite?

Bournemouth – Manager Eddie Howe and chairman Jeff Mostyn have steadily built the South coast team into a stylish threat that it isn’t afraid to spend, but can they build on their Top Half finish. More importantly, can they hang onto 16-goal man Joshua King, who scored more goals than anyone not on a European-qualifying team?

Brighton and Hove Albion – Chris Hughton is now thrice the Championship manager of the season, now can he identify which players can help him stay in the Premier League?

Burnley – Sean Dyche and the Clarets dug deep into their pocket books to stay in the Premier League for another season, now can the tiny club make the astute moves to do it again?

Chelsea – How will Antonio Conte organize his squad for his first season in the UEFA Champions League with Chelsea is a good one, but what will he do with older stars Diego Costa, Willian, and Cesc Fabregas?

Crystal Palace – Sam Allardyce may want to leave, which is fine, so who’s the right man to keep a very talented XI from underachieving? And will they be able to hang onto Wilfried Zaha?

Everton – This is less about squad than schedule: Assuming the Toffees dust their summer qualifier, how will Ronald Koeman negotiate both the Europa League and the Premier League?

Hull City – With Marco Silva reportedly off to Porto, there are two main questions for Hull: Can they find a new boss capable of keeping them near the top of the Championship, and able to convince ownership to keep spending?

Leicester City – Will Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy still be there come August?

Liverpool – Can Jurgen Klopp straighten out his defending and motivate a squad even when big names aren’t on the other side of the field?

Manchester City – Will another year of additions allow Pep Guardiola to assert his genius in a third major European league?

Manchester United – Is there a good replacement for Zlatan Ibrahimovic at the top of Jose Mourinho’s XI?

Middlesbrough – If the major pieces stick around, Boro has the tools to compete for the Championship title… but will the major pieces stick around?

Newcastle United – Rafa Benitez will again flip the roster at St. James Park, but can he bring the new boys together fast enough to avoid a relegation race?

Southampton – Is Claude Puel going to be the manager? If that one’s too easy, then will Virgil Van Dijk remain at St. Mary’s?

Stoke City – At what point does administration demand the Potters take the next step, or bounce Mark Hughes?

Sunderland – Will Ellis Short and company actually spend, or will Sunderland’s absence from the top flight be a long one?

Swansea City – Assuming Gylfi Sigurdsson leaves, how will Paul Clement address his attack while also fixing his back line and finding a metronome?

Tottenham Hotspur – Can Harry Kane, Dele Alli, and Mauricio Pochettino punch through the glass ceiling to claim a Premier League title or sustained Champions Leagur run?

Watford – How many managers will the Hornets employ in 2017-18?

West Bromwich Albion – Tony Pulis is asking to spend. If the Baggies back him, can he break free from his defensive shell and build a team that aims for more than 40 points and another season in the Premier League?

West Ham United – Both chairman David Gold and manager Slaven Bilic want to make West Ham a big, big club. Can they find the next Dimitri Payet and finally find the elite striker they’ve been chasing for years?

Palace and West Brom: Knowing when to cut ties

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This one’s for two chairmen, Steve Parish of Crystal Palace and John Williams of West Bromwich Albion, if anyone’s passing along advice from a writer with exactly zero Premier League experience.

There’s a temptation to leave well enough alone with managers, an allure made only more seductive by the fact that coaching stability is almost contrarian in the high-turnover world of the Premier League.

And if you’re goal is to just survive every year, then by all means, read no further. You have your men in Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce.

Before we go any further, let’s admit to some prejudices. Pulis’ management preference to often bunker down and strip attacking talents of freedom, at least on the surface, is far from alluring and doesn’t quite fit the expectations of West Brom. And Allardyce is Allardyce, a blustery, credit-claiming boss who’s prime claim  is “I keep ’em up.”

But even beyond that, there’s a question whether either can change aims with so many years of the same anthems.

Pulis’ stingy teams have done relatively well, no doubt, and in no way is he a bad hire for a team with a vacant manager’s chair. But what happened for a second-straight season at the Hawthorns should be unacceptable, especially considering that this season saw a ship chartered toward high success.

When the Baggies clinched safety in 2015-16 only to fall flatter than Saido Berahino‘s West Brom career, it was forgivable. The Baggies hit the 39-point mark with a memorable win over Manchester United, then managed just four points over their last nine matches. That included home losses to Norwich City and Watford.

But critics — myself included — were eating their words when Pulis had West Brom dancing in the Top Ten deep into the 2016-17 season. These weren’t 1-0 counterattacking snoozefests, either, as Pulis was producing goals. Yet what happened when the Baggies hit their vaunted 40-point mark, this time on Feb. 25? One more win the rest of the way, to go with nine losses and two draws.

Here’s what Pulis said after a couple losses, “Complacency is the most annoying word in the dictionary. It is human nature to switch off a bit sometime.”

Sure, but how can it surprise when your mantra from August on is seemingly, “Get 40 points.” Staying switched on when you’ve targeted 40 like it’s the Champions League group stage is tough.

Still, that’s nothing compared to Allardyce, and Parish would be wise to leap at Big Sam’s latest big threats of quitting Palace. Forget that he was hired anywhere after his embarrassing ouster from the England job for a second, and focus on this:

Allardyce took over from Alan Pardew, and Palace slipped into the drop zone. Palace had done a woeful job of recruitment in the summer and Pardew overly complicated his problems by refusing to consistently plug service machines Andros Townsend and Wilfried Zaha into the mix with Christian Benteke.

Allardyce did fix that, but if he deserves anything it’s for striking it rich on three terrific transfer buys in Luka Milivojevic, Mamadou Sakho, and Patrick Van Aanholt. Spending in January is as important as it’s ever been, and Allardyce had more tools in his shed than Pardew or even Pulis beforehand.

Which is to say that if Palace likes Allardyce, fine, but to credit him for this turnaround is only partially worthwhile. To expect him to suddenly become or surprass the man who thrived at Bolton between 1999-2007 is foolish. Almost all of his career nods that don’t involve “avoided relegation” come at levels outside the Premier League, and Palace wants to keep growing.

Back to Pulis, he’s again highlighting the need for West Brom to spend, and perhaps that would allow him to adjust his mentality in the run-up to next season (You’d like to think he’d at least target a Cup run).

What’s worth saying is not that Palace and West Brom should fire their bosses. In Pulis’ case, let’s see if spending can change his stripes a bit (although it should be noted they’ve purchased Nacer Chadli, Matty Phillips, and Salomon Rondon). In Allardyce’s case, it’s a matter of employing a man who’s only out for his reputation and is either going to succeed and claim it was all his genius, or fail and put it on the players or board.

Aren’t there better options?

Football leaks: French police raid PSG HQ, 3 players’ homes

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PARIS (AP) A French official says police investigating suspected tax fraud linked to the soccer industry have raided the headquarters of Paris Saint-Germain and the homes of three Argentine players in France.

The official said anti-corruption police units searched the homes of PSG players Angel Di Maria and Javier Pastore, and that of Nantes forward Emiliano Sala on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Real Madrid signs $50m teen ]

Police also raided the head offices of PSG at Parc des Princes and other offices in Boulogne-Billancourt, outside the French capital, the official said.

The official, familiar with the case, declined to be identified because the investigation is ongoing.

The national financial prosecutor’s office opened an investigation in December after so-called “football leaks” reports allegedly detailed tax arrangements by top players, coaches and clubs.

Real Madrid signs most expensive Brazilian since Neymar

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Real Madrid didn’t wait long after learning Vinicius Junior was healthy.

The 16-year-old Flamengo star is committed to the Bernabeu after passing a physical, and Real Madrid announced Tuesday that they’ll have their new player no later than July 2019.

The reported fee is $50 million, which would be the most money spent on a Brazilian player since Barcelona landed Neymar for about $64 million in 2013.

[ VOTE: Premier League Goal of the Season ]

The forward has made two appearances for Flamengo, and turns 17 on July 12. He has 19 goals in 22 appearances for Brazil’s U-17 side.

Here’s Real’s announcement:

Real Madrid C. F. and Clube de Regatas do Flamengo have reached an agreement regarding the transfer of the federative rights of the player Vinicius Junior from July 2018. The player will remain at his current club until July 2019, although he will be able to play for Real Madrid before then if both clubs agree to it.