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The home side didn’t help its cause by playing Wayne Routledge and Nathan Dyer as withdrawn wingers, crowding space in the middle for Michu, Leon Britton and Jonathan de Guzmán.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

Everton 2-0 Hajduk Split: Toffees cruise in Europa League first leg

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  • Keane nabs first EFC goal
  • Baines, Rooney with classy assists
  • Gueye scores rare goal
  • Second leg Aug. 24 in Croatia

Michael Keane and Idrissa Gana Gueye scored as Everton took a 2-0 lead over HNK Hajduk Split in a UEFA Europa League playoff round first leg at Goodison Park on Thursday.

Leighton Baines and Wayne Rooney had assists for the Toffees, while Jordan Pickford, Ademola Lookman, and Davy Klaassen also posted lively performances for the hosts ahead of next week’s second leg.

The Toffees could’ve scored four or five if not for questionable offside calls alone, and the match was interrupted in the first half when the Hajduk support section got out of hand.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Ademola Lookman won an early corner for Everton that led to nothing, and played a terrific ball into the center of the box that Davy Klaassen just missed with a sliding effort.

Hajduk had a moment in two in transition, but the Toffees handled it well. Baines in particular broke up the earliest sign of danger.

The breakthrough goal was splendid, with Baines scooping up a punched corner kick and darting past a defender to dink an aesthetically-pleasing ball into traffic for Keane to head home. 1-0, 30′.

The match was stalled for 5-10 minutes after riotous behavior from visiting Hajduk Split supporters, who tossed bottles onto the field and charged at the stewards (one appeared to punch a security guard).

The Toffees went up 2-0 off a classy assist from Rooney, who was moving away from the defense when he cut a ball to a darting Gueye. The Senegalese engine provided a rare goal in the 45th minute.

[ MORE: Europa League schedule ]

The chances were at a premium for both sides in the second half, with Everton still having the better of play. But Jordan Pickford had to get horizontal to make an outstanding two-handed parry on a Hajduk rush in the 61st minute.

Hajduk really found its game late as Everton seemed to rest on its laurels. Pickford was livid, and called into duty to make some big stops and preserve an important home clean sheet.

America’s latest Bundesliga teenager eyes the future

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As recently as Wednesday, Schalke midfielder Weston McKennie joined his American teammate Nick Taitague and fellow Yank teenager Christian Pulisic for an afternoon of FIFA at Pulisic’s place in Gelsenkirchen.

How long those sort of friendly meetings will endure is up for discussion, because one of the world’s best rivalries has two young American friends on either side.

McKennie is a whopping 21 days older than Borussia Dortmund’s Pulisic, and will turn 19 on August 28. He’s also following in the footsteps of Pulisic as a teenage member of the Revierderby.

[ MORE: JPW’s Premier League picks ]

“When we hang out it doesn’t come up, but we know in the back of our heads that when that game comes around we’ll have to hit pause on our friendship,” McKennie told ProSoccerTalk. “After that game we’ll see how it goes, but I’m sure it’ll be the same.”

The friendship of McKennie, Pulisic, Taitague, and Haji Wright — Wright has left Schalke for a loan stint at Sandhausen in 2.Bundesliga — has otherwise been a boon to the American quartet, and it isn’t wild to consider the unit’s formative days in Germany as a harbinger of what’s to come for the United States men’s national team.

McKennie, 18, could be a massive part of American soccer in the future. Rated the 13th best U-20 prospect in the Bundesliga, the Texas-born midfielder has drawn glowing reviews from new manager Dominic Tedesco, who lauded the player’s “super pressing game” in a senior debut earlier this week, and veterans Benedikt Howedes and Matija Nastasic only had good things to say in conversations with PST this week.

“In the defensive midfield he already operates very mature,” said Howedes, the longtime Schalke man who won the 2014 World Cup with Germany. “He works hard all the time and showed in pre-season that he can help us. If he develops like he has done until now, the team will be pleased with him. Also, he is clever in his head and a really funny guy.”

Nastasic, who won the Premier League with Manchester City in 2013-14, is very pleased with McKennie’s two-way game.

[ MORE: Thursday’s transfer rumor roundup | Wednesday | Tuesday ]

“He’s very very good player in the middle because he can go up front and finish actions but also in defense he’s very good,” Nastasic said. “For me, he’s a box-to-box player who can run and is strong. He can be very very good.”

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Both players stressed patience with McKennie and a Schalke squad that has youthful talent in bunches. In addition to the American teenager, there’s Swiss sensation Breel Embolo, Algerian midfielder Nabil Bentaleb, and German trio Max Meyer, Leon Goretzka, and Fabian Reese.

In Meyer and Goretzka, McKennie has teammates who boast more than 210 league appearances despite a combined age of 43. Both won silver medals at the 2016 Olympics and Goretkza won the Silver Boot and Bronze Ball as Germany won the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia.

The fact that these players surround McKennie, Schalke’s youngest First Teamer, and have done so much at their ages is not lost on the American midfielder.

“Being around guys who’ve accomplished so much at a young age, even with Christian being younger than me and achieving so much and setting the way over here, you’re surrounding yourself with people who are only going to make you better,” McKennie said.

“Knowing ‘This kid’s only one year older than me. This kid’s only two years older than me,’ and seeing the way they carry themselves and the amount of experience they’ve had, it rubs off on you.”

And it’s not just the young guys bringing the energy as Schalke prepares for its Bundesliga opener on Saturday against Red Bull Leipzig.

[ MORE: USMNT’s Brooks out 3 months for Wolfsburg ]

“The spirit, if you could be in the locker room, it’s amazing,” McKennie said. “It doesn’t matter how old you are. The older guys like Naldo and Coke still joke around with young guys. Me being the youngest I get a little bit more than everyone else.”

As for his American hopes, McKennie has spoken of his hopes to get into Bruce Arena’s USMNT fold. He’s hopeful for a call into a friendly camp in the next year, and harbors long shot hopes for a spot on a potential World Cup roster.

Playing an important position in one of the world’s top leagues at age 18 won’t hurt that, though minutes will certainly be difficult to come by this season given Schalke has a rare campaign outside of both the UEFA Champions League and Europa League.

And it may not surprise then when asked to target his role as a potential international, he hopes to grow into a player who’d be described as a mix of two of the United States’ all-time best at that position (one who’s starred at Schalke).

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“I’d kinda say Jermaine Jones if you had to choose a national team player, for the stuff that he does and maybe Michael Bradley, one of those players who is calm on the ball and can play that long ball, the one that is there at the right moments.” McKennie said, though at his age he obviously hasn’t seen a wide variety of USMNT center mids.

“Jermaine in my eyes is one of those guys who gets stuck in no matter what. He goes with all he has, and does the dirty work. That’s kinda how I picture myself.”

All of that isn’t to put the cart before the horse. McKennie is very clear in answering any questions about his future with measured responses. He has a lot of work to do to continue his rise into Schalke’s set-up.

[ MORE: Costa — “I must return to Atletico Madrid” ]

For now, he’ll keep doing what he’s doing, working as hard as possible to maintain a spot in Tedesco’s mix and growing alongside Taitague and Wright, and across the pitch from Pulisic, even as his BVB buddy makes it a bit harder to go out on the town.

“In his area and even in Gelsenkirchen because we’re rivals, he’s noticeable, but he’s not a player who tries to be noticed,” McKennie said. “There are players who try to be noticed, but he’s not. He’s not gonna say no to taking a photo, but even if he’s having a bad day he finds a way to put on a smile. He’s younger than me and I can still look up to him.”

That is until they hopefully hit the same grass for one of the game’s best matches.

Clement says Sigurdsson fee could leave Swans better off

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Many have feared the worst for Swansea City following the sale of Gylfi Sigurdsson to Everton, but fortunately the club’s boss isn’t too worried about the departure of his Icelandic star.

Sigurdsson and Fernando Llorente were nearly all of Swansea’s attack last season as the Welsh side barely avoided relegation. The club’s third coach of the season, Paul Clement, was instrumental in that change of fate.

[ MORE: Thursday’s transfer rumor roundup | Wednesday | Tuesday ]

He’s not worried about the absence, though, because he feels the approximately $60 million coming into his transfer kitty can leave the squad better than it was before Sigurdsson was sold to Everton.

“We want to improve our playing squad, we want to improve our style we want to win more games we believe that with the funds we have available we can strengthen the squad and end up being a better team.”

And, Clement said, now agents and managers know Swansea has the money to do some business. He says they won’t panic because sometimes the deals improve right before the deadline.

“Yesterday various people who work here at this club, their phones were going, the texts were coming in, the emails were coming in from agents all over the world, because they know we’ve done the Gylfi deal and want to do business and bring players in.”

What do you think? Could Sigurdsson’s fee be the goodbye gift that keeps on giving for a Swans side which is considered a relegation candidate?

LIVE – Everton, AC Milan, Ajax in Europa League action

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Everton, AC Milan and Ajax, three of the bigger sides fighting for passage into the Europa League proper, find themselves 180 minutes from the group stage as the final round of qualifying kicks off on Thursday.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores ]

Everton have Croatian side Hajduk Split at Goodison Park for the first leg (3:05 p.m. ET), while Milan host Macedonian side KF Shkendija (2:45 p.m. ET) and Ajax are home to Rosenborg of Norway (2:45 p.m. ET).

[ MORE: Thursday’s transfer rumor roundup | Wednesday | Tuesday ]

Thursday’s notable Europa League fixtures

Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m. ET
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET