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The home side didn’t help its cause by playing Wayne Routledge and Nathan Dyer as withdrawn wingers, crowding space in the middle for Michu, Leon Britton and Jonathan de Guzmán.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

Which Liverpool players are “playing for futures” with Klopp?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 17:  Jurgen Klopp, Manager of Liverpool talks with Loris Karius of Liverpool after the Premier League match between Liverpool and Manchester United at Anfield on October 17, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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Following Liverpool’s humbling defeat at Leicester City on Monday the post-game comments of manager Jurgen Klopp hit home.

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“It’s getting more serious now. We all play for our future, myself included. We get judged every day, especially on match days,” Klopp told Sky Sports after the 3-1 loss which saw Liverpool put in a truly woeful display.

Liverpool currently still sit in fifth place, four points off second place, but a team which led the Premier League earlier in the season have won just one of their seven PL games so far in 2017 as they’re now battling for their lives just to finish in the top four.

Klopp was handed a new six-year contract in the summer, so he will stick around, but there are some big concerns for him to address if Liverpool are to become anything more than just a top four contender.

It begs this question: how many of these current Liverpool players will be around next season?


Let’s take a look at the best starting lineup for Klopp this season…

—– Mignolet —-

— Clyne — Matip — Lovren — Milner —

—- Henderson —- Wijnaldum —-

—- Lallana —- Coutinho —- Mane 

—– Firmino —–

Heading into next season, here are the areas he needs to address…

—– ? —-

— Clyne — ? — Lovren — ? —

—- Henderson —- ? —-

—- Lallana —- Coutinho —- Mane 

—– ? —–


Defensively is where the biggest improvements are needed.

In goal both Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius have made high-profile mistakes, so surely someone like Joe Hart would be a good pickup and help turnaround Liverpool’s woeful defense? Dejan Lovren and Nathaniel Clyne will stick around but the jury is out on Joel Matip and although James Milner puts in a great shift at left back that just isn’t his natural position. Liverpool need at least one quality center back and a new left back.

Those defensive issues just haven’t been addressed over the past few seasons. They’ve conceded an average of 1.3 goals per game in each of the past four PL campaigns, and they are well on track to do that again. In simpler terms, Liverpool concede 50 goals every season and expect something to change. It won’t.

In midfield they’re pretty set although you can question Jordan Henderson‘s role as a true holding player at times. He is much better playing alongside a destructive force and with Lucas set to leave and Emre Can hot and cold, he hasn’t got that. Georginio Wijnaldum has impressed at times this season but his attacking instincts often leave Henderson outnumbered. Klopp has yet to find the correct balance in midfield, especially defensively.

We all know how good they are going forward and the only change you could argue is either playing Daniel Sturridge up top or bringing in a prolific goalscorer as Roberto Firmino is far from a poacher in front of goal. Sadio Mane is Liverpool’s top scorer this season with 11 goals.

Premier League announces schedule changes

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 10: Wayne Rooney of Manchester United (L) and Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City (R) battle for possession during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Manchester City at Old Trafford on September 10, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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The Premier League have released new dates and times for games throughout April, as domestic broadcasters in the UK line up their schedules for the business end of the 2016-17 season.

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game live

Plenty of derbies, top four battles and relegation scraps will take center stage in April as a busy month of action will be pivotal in deciding the fate of teams across the league.

Remember, you can watch every single Premier League game live online via NBCSports.com.

Just click on the link above to keep up to date on when and where you can watch each game.

Below is the new schedule for games in April, and on on May 1, with all times listed as Eastern Standard Time.


Saturday 1 April
7:30am Liverpool v Everton
12:30pm Southampton v AFC Bournemouth

Sunday 2 April
8:30am Swansea City v Middlesbrough
11am Arsenal v Manchester City

Tuesday 4 April
3pm Manchester United v Everton

Wednesday 5 April
2:45pm Arsenal v West Ham United*
*Consequent to Arsenal v Manchester City moving to Sunday 2 April
2:45pm Hull City v Middlesbrough*
*Consequent to Swansea City v Middlesbrough moving to Sunday 2 April
2:45pm Swansea City v Tottenham Hotspur*
*Consequent to Swansea City v Middlesbrough moving to Sunday 2 April
3pm Chelsea v Manchester City

Saturday 8 April
7:30pm Tottenham Hotspur v Watford*
*Subject to movement to Sunday 9 April should Arsenal or Leicester City play in the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday 11 April.
12:30pm AFC Bournemouth v Chelsea

Sunday 9 April
8:30am Sunderland v Manchester United
11am Everton v Leicester City*
*Subject to Leicester City’s possible participation in the Champions League on Tuesday 11 April.

Monday 10 April
3pm Crystal Palace v Arsenal*
*Subject to Arsenal’s possible participation in the Champions League quarter-finals

Saturday 15 April
7:30pm Tottenham Hotspur v AFC Bournemouth
12:30pm Southampton v Manchester City

Sunday 16 April
8:30am West Bromwich Albion v Liverpool
11am Manchester United v Chelsea

Monday 17 April
3pm Middlesbrough v Arsenal*
*Subject to Arsenal’s possible participation in the Champions League quarter-finals

Saturday 22 April
7:30am Manchester City v West Bromwich Albion*
*Subject to Manchester City’s possible participation in the FA Cup semi-finals

Sunday 23 April
7am Leicester City v Tottenham Hotspur*
*Subject to Tottenham Hotspur’s possible participation in the FA Cup semi-finals
9:15am Burnley v Manchester United*
*Subject to Manchester United’s possible participation in the FA Cup semi-finals
9:15am Chelsea v Southampton*
*Subject to Chelsea’s possible participation in the FA Cup semi-finals
11:30am Liverpool v Crystal Palace

Saturday 29 April
12:30pm Crystal Palace v Burnley

Sunday 30 April
7am Manchester United v Swansea City
9:05am Everton v Chelsea
11:30am Tottenham Hotspur v Arsenal
*Subject to Arsenal’s possible participation in the Champions League semi-finals

Monday 1 May
3pm Watford v Liverpool

Southampton: Van Dijk won’t leave, selling days likely done

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - MARCH 29:  Ralph Krueger the Southampton Chairman looks on during the Barclays Premier League match between Southampton and Newcastle United at St Mary's Stadium on March 29, 2014 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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Ralph Krueger doesn’t plan on selling any more big Southampton stars, and there’s none brighter than Virgil Van Dijk.

The Dutchman is perhaps the best center back in the Premier League, regularly linked with transfers to anywhere from Manchester City to Liverpool.

[ MORE: Liverpool hires new CEO ]

But Krueger says Saints have had enough of selling big assets. Southampton has sold Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Sadio Mane, and Nathaniel Clyne in the past three seasons, and those are just the names to go to Liverpool. Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama have also moved on from St. Mary’s.

From Sky Sports:

“We would like to move away from that and we feel confident this summer will be a lot quieter in Southampton and we can keep the core of this team moving forward for a few years.

“That is going to be important when you see how excellent the group is right now and how exciting the football is. The game we are playing is a pleasure to watch and a pleasure to be part of.”

Saints were the more effective side in a 3-2 EFL Cup Final loss to Manchester United this weekend, but are well off the pace in the race to make back-to-back trips into Europe.

It will be hard to hold onto Van Dijk and even new bright light Manolo Gabbiadini without Europe, but Krueger is a strong leader with the ability to convince almost anyone to buy into a plan.

Real Salt Lake signs Plata to multi-year DP deal

Real Salt Lake forward Joao Plata (8) gestures while walking during an MLS soccer game against New York City FC Saturday, May 23, 2015, in Sandy, Utah. (Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP) DESERET NEWS OUT; LOCAL TELEVISION OUT; MAGS OUT
Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP
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SANDY, Utah (AP) Real Salt Lake has re-signed forward Joao Plata to a multi-year contract and he will continue to hold a designated-player spot.

The 24-year-old was acquired from Toronto FC before the 2013 season and he has 30 goals and 30 assists in regular-season play with RSL.

[ MORE: Liverpool flops vs LCFC ]

Plata ranks No. 3 on the team’s all-time assists list and No. 5 in goals. He has 33 goals and 35 assists during his MLS career.

Real Salt Lake begins the season Saturday when it hosts Toronto FC.