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The home side didn’t help its cause by playing Wayne Routledge and Nathan Dyer as withdrawn wingers, crowding space in the middle for Michu, Leon Britton and Jonathan de Guzmán.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

Premier League player Power Rankings

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With the games coming thick and fast, it is time to take a look at which players were “en fuego” during the past weekend in the Premier League.

[ MORE: Full Power Rankings archive ]

Players from Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City dominate our latest rankings after their fine performances over the past PL weekend.

Remember: this is a list of the top 20 performing players right now in the Premier League and based on them actually playing in the previous Matchweek. If they didn’t play due to injury or suspension, they aren’t going to make this list.

Let us know in the comments section below if you agree with the selections.


  1. Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – New entry
  2. Kevin De Bruyne (Man City) – Up 8
  3. Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace) – Up 10
  4. Jamie Vardy (Leicester City) – Up 14
  5. Jonjo Shelvey (Newcastle United) – Up 10
  6. Harry Kane (Tottenham) – Up 5
  7. David De Gea (Man United) – Down 5
  8. Christian Eriksen (Tottenham) – Down 8
  9. Sadio Mane (Liverpool) – Up 3
  10. Roberto Firmino (Liverpool) – New entry
  11. David Silva (Man City) – Down 2
  12. Paul Pogba (Man United) – Down 7
  13. Romelu Lukaku (Man United) – Down 7
  14. Kenedy (Newcastle) – Up 3
  15. Marko Arnautovic (West Ham) – Down 11
  16. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal) – Down 13
  17. Kyle Walker (Man City) – New entry
  18. Luka Milivojevic (Crystal Palace) – New entry
  19. Nick Pope (Burnley) – New entry
  20. Jay Rodriguez (West Brom) – New entry

FIFA closes racism case from U-17 World Cup final

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ZURICH (AP) FIFA closed a racism investigation Thursday that involved a Spain player and an England opponent from the Under-17 World Cup final.

FIFA said its disciplinary panel dismissed the charge against the Spanish player because of a “lack of sufficient evidence that could corroborate the English player’s claim.”

It is the third recent case of a high-profile allegation of racist abuse of black players being closed without action.

The latest ruling, from England’s 5-2 win in India last October, followed “a thorough investigation,” FIFA said.

In March, UEFA ended two investigations because of a lack of verifiable evidence.

Those claims were made by Borussia Dortmund forward Michy Batshuayi against Italian club Atalanta, and Liverpool youth forward Rhian Brewster against a Spartak Moscow opponent.

Brewster also played in the Under-17 World Cup final, scoring the first goal in England’s comeback after trailing 2-0 in the first half.

“Despite the absence of a sanction, which can only be imposed on the basis of clear evidence, the disciplinary committee would like to restate FIFA’s unequivocal, zero-tolerance stance against all forms of discrimination,” the soccer body said in a statement.

In other rulings announced Thursday, FIFA imposed fines totaling more than $1.25 million.

The Laos soccer federation was fined 690,000 Swiss francs ($712,000) for several breaches of rules governing the eligibility of players to represent a national team.

Benfica and Sporting Lisbon were among five clubs found guilty of breaking rules which prohibit third-party investors having a stake in players’ transfer rights, and misuse of FIFA’s international transfer registration process.

Benfica was fined a total of 165,000 Swiss francs ($170,000) in two cases and Sporting was fined 110,000 Swiss francs ($114,000). In Spain, Celta Vigo was fined 65,000 Swiss francs ($67,000) and Rayo Vallecano was fined 55,000 Swiss francs ($57,000). Qatari club Al Arabi was fined 187,500 Swiss francs ($194,000).

Sam Allardyce: I’d give myself 11 out of 10 on survey

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Sam Allardyce has responded to Everton sending out an email survey to fans asking to rate his performance.

Yep, that actually happened earlier this week as fans were asked to rate, out of 10, if they “have a high level of trust in the current manager and coaching staff of Everton e.g. in making the right decision to get the best out of the team.”

Speaking to the media on Thursday ahead of Everton’s clash with Newcastle on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com), Allardyce replied “P*** Off. Eleven” when asked what he would give himself out of 10.

He then went into more depth about what happened and confirmed he had received an apology from majority owner and chairman Farhad Moshiri.

“The survey… the managing director of marketing and communications has clearly slipped up,” Allardyce said. “Even though I believe the survey has been recently passed out before, from my point of view it was a big mistake. I think it has allowed you to write some beautiful headlines on that situation. The actual question was what do you think of the manager, the players and the staff – and obviously our managing director of marketing is clearly not a great understander of football and how football works, because he is into marketing and branding and market research.”

Most of Everton’s fans would give Allardyce less than a five, hence why this is such a big deal, as the former West Ham, Sunderland and Crystal Palace manager is fighting to keep his job with just over 12 months left on his current deal.

The English manager took charge of Everton back in November 2017 after Ronald Koeman was sacked following the Toffees being sucked into a relegation battle. Since then Allardyce has steered Everton into the top half of the table but has been heavily criticized by fans for negative tactics as he was booed at Swansea last weekend in the 1-1 draw.

Allardyce has laughed off suggestions of negative soccer from fans and the fact he has jokingly given himself an 11 out of 10 will only antagonize the large band of Everton fans who want him out this summer.

The brash character then said he would be “disappointed” if he lost his job this summer and is planning to be in charge of Everton next season. Maybe those in charge of the club will now be forced to give Big Sam a little more time after this unfortunate email scenario.

Sweden not keen on Zlatan’s World Cup return

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With Zlatan Ibrahimovic already making his mark in Major League Soccer with three goals in his first three games for the LA Galaxy, the veteran Swedish forward is eyeing a return to international duty for the 2018 World Cup this summer.

“A World Cup without me wouldn’t be a World Cup” said Ibrahimovic, 36, recently as he also confirmed during an appearance on the Jimmy Kimmel Show that he will be going to Russia but didn’t give specific details if it was as a spectator or a player.

Well, perhaps we won’t be having a World Cup because it appears not all of his former teammates would be on board if Zlatan took a U-turn on his decision to retire from the Swedish national team after EURO 2016.

Back-up goalkeeper Karl-Johan Johnsson had the following to say to outlet Main Oppose.

“We managed to qualify and go through to the World Cup without him, and I think we can manage to play well at the World Cup without him,” Johnsson said. “But it’s up to the coach to see if he wants to bring him – and I am sure if he does join, he will play well. As a team, we play as a collective, all the players together. With Zlatan, as a person, as a player he’s an individualist, and the play goes around him. Instead, now, we play more the team all together.”

Boom.

Zlatan has said multiple times that he is thinking about a return to the Swedish national team squad and with World Cup squads set to be announced in around about one month from now, surely Sweden’s head coach Janne Andersson must now if he will call up Zlatan.

We all know Zlatan is a quote machine (thanks, pal) and would probably do something amazing like score a flying scissor kick goal in the last minute to beat Germany in the group stage if he did go to to the World Cup. But maybe, just maybe, Sweden would be taken more seriously this summer if Zlatan didn’t go to Russia as it could well become the “Ibrahimovic show: starring the Swedish national team.”

The positives for Sweden are obvious. The can bring in their all-time leading goalscorer to jump off the bench late in tight games to try and get them out of Group F where they face Germany, Mexico and South Korea.

The negatives are centered around what Johnsson said, with Sweden looking like a tighter unit and all pulling together to get to the World Cup after missing out on qualifying for the last two in 2010 and 2014 when Zlatan was around. Not entirely his fault, of course, but there’s something to be said about other stepping up when he departed the international stage almost two years ago.

Zlatan has actually only played in two World Cups, in 2002 and 2006, scoring just once, and if he does go to the World Cup he will be taking the spot of one of Marcus Berg, John Guidetti, Ola Toivonen and Issac Thelin in the squad. Berg scored eight in qualifying, while Emil Forsberg scored four from midfield and the Swedish attacking unit seems to flow a lot better without Zlatan.

Look, Zlatan will probably go to the World Cup. But it appears not everyone will be happy with this decision.