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The home side didn’t help its cause by playing Wayne Routledge and Nathan Dyer as withdrawn wingers, crowding space in the middle for Michu, Leon Britton and Jonathan de Guzmán.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

MLS roundup: FCD, POR thrill in 2-2 draw; Sounders’ epic comeback

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With eight MLS Saturday afternoons/evenings officially in the books, only 26 more to go…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

FC Dallas 2-2 Portland Timbers

For the third straight week, we were a matchup featuring two of the top three teams in the Western Conference. After Sporting Kansas City beat Portland two weeks ago, and Dallas topped Sporting KC last week, it was FCD’s turn to host Portland on Saturday. Thankfully, the third game of the early-season round robin did not disappointed, and delivered a higher level of entertaining, attacking soccer (each of the first two ended 1-0).

Fanendo Adi opened the scoring to conclude a cagey opening 30 minutes, and out the window went all semblance of structure and discipline from either side. FCD needed a full 30 minutes before they’d draw level, courtesy of Maximiliano Urruti, a goal that set up a fantastic, frantic final half-hour.

Sebastian Blacno’s first MLS goal put Portland ahead for the second time in the game, in the 71st minute, but the advantage was short-lived, as Tesho Akindele’s 80th-minute header brought FCD back to level terms once again.


Seattle Sounders 3-3 New England Revolution

Game. Of. The. Day.

Seattle found themselves 3-0 down to New England, at home, after 54 minutes. In 13 minutes’ time, from minute 75 to 88, the comeback was on. There’s not much to be said of this one. Just sit back, and enjoy.


Orlando City SC 2-0 Colorado Rapids

Five home games, five wins for Orlando City. The best home-field advantage in all of MLS might just reside in central Florida, and the summer humidity is yet to reach full effect.

Saturday’s victory over a truly awful Rapids side was more labored than you might have expected — all of 70 minutes passed before Carlos Rivas scored the breakthrough — but the result was never in doubt. Colorado managed all of three shots (one on target) over the course of 90 minutes, and Kaka marked his return to action (hamstring injury) with a goal in the 91st minute. All is very, very well in the City Beautiful.


New York Red Bulls 2-1 Chicago Fire

Dax McCarty’s return to Red Bull Arena, following the trade that sent him to Chicago during the offseason, was more than a little bittersweet for the box-to-box bulldog when spent five and a half seasons with New York.

After falling behind to Bradley Wright-Phillips’ opener in the 37th minute, McCarty assisted on Nemanja Nikolic’s 59th-minute equalizer — the spin and lay-off were perfectly executed. The evening ended in disappointment, though, as Kemar Lawrence broke the deadlock in the 71st minute and secured all three points. That’s back-to-back losses for Chicago, who were unbeaten in their first three games since Bastian Schweinsteiger‘s arrival. On the other end, three straight wins for New York, and they’re within two points of first-place Orlando in the Eastern Conference.


Columbus Crew SC 2-3 New York City FC

When two teams with zero desire to play the game at a non-frenetic pace, and no clue how to slow things down and control the game, get together, fireworks are to be expected.

Columbus and New York City meet the above criteria, and were happy to prove as much on Saturday. Jack Harrison put the visitors ahead with the deftest chip in the 8th minute, but Federico Higuain’s equalizer 21 minutes later was just as impressive.

Ola Kamara put Columbus 2-1 ahead in the 49th minute, and all Gregg Berhalter’s side seemed to be in total control. 15 minutes, later Angel Herrera’s header made it 2-2, and Jack Harrison completed the comeback in the 76th minute. Few victories in MLS this season will deserve greater praise than this one, achieved without the services of David Villa (illness).


Sporting Kansas City 3-0 Real Salt Lake

When Sporting KC get themselves a lead, it’s game over. In the four games in which they’ve scored this season, they’ve won 12 out of 12 points possible. On the season, they’ve conceded three goals in eight games, and haven’t conceded multiple goals in a game yet this season.

Of course, scoring has been the majority of the problem, as Peter Vermes’ side has already been blanked four times themselves. It wasn’t a problem on Saturday, though, as Benny Feilhaber, Dom Dwyer and Gerso Fernandes were each stellar from beginning to end, and each bagged a goal in Sporting’s 3-0 win over RSL. An inability close out games has haunted this team in the past, but they’re a perfect 4-for-4 thus far in 2017.


Montreal Impact 1-2 Vancouver Whitecaps

Someone’s giving Colorado a run for their money as the worst team in MLS. With just a single win to their name this season, Montreal have to make the most out of 1) home games; 2) games in which they lead, if they’re to mount any kind of playoff challenge in 2017.

They did neither against Vancouver, throwing away an early 1-0 lead — Marco Donadel opened the scoring in the 9th minute — by conceding goals either side of halftime, to Andrew Jacobson and Cristian Techera. In truth, Vancouver were the better side over 90 minutes and fully deserved the three points, and it’s a crushing result for a Montreal side with just one victory (and zero clean sheets) on the season.


Minnesota United 0-1 San Jose Earthquakes

Elsewhere in MLS

LA Galaxy 0-0 Philadelphia Union

Ligue 1: Level on games played, Monaco go 3 points ahead of PSG

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PARIS (AP) Monaco warmed up for its Champions League semifinal against Juventus with a 3-1 win over Toulouse to move three points clear of Paris Saint-Germain at the top of the French league on Saturday.

Teenage striker Kylian Mbappe, the new wonder of French football, scored his 14th league goal this season.

Kamil Glik and Thomas Lemar also got on the scoresheet for the hosts.

Mbappe has been unstoppable in recent months, scoring 22 goals in his last 20 starts in all competitions.

Having turned 18 just four months ago, Mbappe has scored 24 goals in 38 games in his first full professional season to become one of the most sought-after players across Europe.

Both Monaco and PSG, which travels to third-placed Nice on Sunday, have four league matches left to play.

After rotating his team in a 5-0 loss to PSG in the French Cup to save his best players for Wednesday’s Champions League clash, Monaco coach Leonardo Jardim switched back to his usual starting lineup. His players made a slow start but ended up scoring three goals – their average this season.

Toulouse, which upset Monaco 3-1 in the corresponding fixture last October, had the first chance in the 10th minute when the unmarked Andy Delort sent a header inches wide at the far post from a free kick.

Monaco gradually worked its way into the game and took a firm grip near the half-hour. Following a one-two with Thomas Lemar, Bernardo Silva dribbled past a defender and forced `keeper Alban Lafont to make a good save to his left.

The youngest player in French league history to reach 10 goals in a season, Mbappe was then perfectly set up by Nabil Dirar’s long ball down the left flank but saw his effort deflected by a last-minute tackle from Toulouse skipper Issa Diop.

Struggling to break a well-organized defense, Monaco kept peppering the box with teasing crosses but lacked a cutting edge.

Monaco found itself trailing against the run of the play just after the interval following a blunder from Jemerson. The Brazilian defender fluffed the ball in front of goal, allowing Ola Toivonen to beat Danijel Subasic with a clean finish.

The goal spurred Monaco on even more and Glik put the teams level with a beautiful header into the top right corner from Joao Moutinho’s cross.

Mbappe made it 2-1 in the 64th minute after Bernardo Silva set him up on the right side of the area, rifling a shot into the net from a tight angle.

Lemar completed the win in the 75th minute from Dirar’s clinical cross.

New York Red Bulls introduce space at RBA for autistic families

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HARRISON, N.J. (AP) The Red Bulls have announced plans for a permanent sensory-friendly space at their stadium for families impacted by autism.

Formerly executive offices, the space overlooking midfield is a calm area that is free from the crowds and the noise of Red Bull Arena during matches. Families can use it for free.

The team announced the new space on Saturday before the Red Bulls were set to host the Chicago Fire. It was Autism Awareness Night at the stadium.

“Families deserve to feel welcome and comfortable each time they step foot into Red Bull Arena, not just one night a year,” Red Bulls GM Marc de Grandpre said in a statement released by the club. “We hope all sports teams and entertainment venues are inspired to take similar action to provide comfort for families with loved ones on the autism spectrum.”

League Two game restarted in empty stadium after fans storm field

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LONDON (AP) An English soccer game restarted in an empty stadium after a pitch invasion led to the crowd being told the fixture had been abandoned.

There were five minutes remaining in Leyton Orient’s fourth-tier game against Colchester on Saturday when a sit-down protest was staged on the pitch by Orient fans against Italian owner Francesco Becchetti.

It forced the referee to take the players off the field. The protests lasted for more than an hour before the crowd was told the game had been abandoned and the stadium eventually cleared. The teams came out and finished the game.

Leyton Orient lost 3-1 a week after its relegation from the English Football League was confirmed after 112 years.

“A decision was taken with the police to announce that the game had been abandoned as it was felt this would help clear the pitch, which proved correct,” the EFL said in a statement. “However, it was deemed appropriate that the game needed to be played to a conclusion in order to maintain the integrity of the competition.”