Football Focus, Swansea-Manchester United: Swansea shows promise in possession, but poor defensive shape

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source:  Two goals in quick succession in the first half turned an even match into a comfortable 4-1 win for Manchester United over Swansea City on Saturday. Before conceding twice, Swansea looked like a fairly capable, possession-based team.

The biggest surprise in player selection was United manager David Moyes’ decision to start only one forward in Robin van Persie, leaving Wayne Rooney on the bench. Ryan Giggs played in a withdrawn attacking role, making the formation essentially a 4-2-3-1.

Wingers Danny Welbeck and Antonio Valencia took up narrow starting positions, with Welbeck preferring to cut in from the left wing and allowing Patrice Evra to overlap from left back.

Ahead of the center backs, Michael Carrick played more of a traditional holding role, while Tom Cleverley roamed box to box, with a little more freedom to push high. Swansea didn’t really play with a No. 6 (holding) and No. 8 (box-to-box) midfielder; instead, Leon Britton and Jose Alberto Cañas (and Jonjo Shelvey, in the second half) both played No. 8 roles.

Many teams prefer to have two players starting from that deeper role, as it allows for more movement and an element of less predictability — the players involved just have to make sure that one is always in the gap between the center backs.

Swansea defensive shape to blame for two

Even with two players protecting the defense, Swansea conceded two preventable goals. The first directly involved the team’s defensive shape with relation to its deep midfielders’ roles.

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When an attacking player sits in the space between the defensive and midfield lines, the goal is to draw the center backs out of position, which is exactly what Welbeck does. Chico steps up to him, and Ashley Williams is also drawn up. This leaves the outside backs setting the offside line, which should never happen.

Both Angel Rangel and Ben Davies are in proper position, accounting for United’s wide threats, but one center back needs to stay goal-side of van Persie. Shelvey (who in the run of play has temporarily switched positions with a holding player) should preferably step to Welbeck, leaving both center backs to take up their ideal positions (green line).

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On the second goal, van Persie uses change of direction to get behind Williams. Before Evra crosses, Williams is in good position, goal-side and ball-side of the attacker. But watch the video — van Persie’s quick, choppy steps in opposite directions allow him to float onto Williams’ back shoulder.

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The resulting separation is not much — maybe a step — but it’s enough that when Evra floats a ball over Williams, Davies realizes that his central partner will be beaten by the cross. He has to leave Valencia alone and hope he can win the ball in the air. He doesn’t, and it sends the defense scrambling.

Triangles everywhere

Before those two daggers, Swansea showed a lot of promise, trying to keep the ball on the floor and play.

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The idea, à la FC Barcelona, is to create triangles of support all over the field for the player in possession. The pattern of play becomes less predictable the more passing lanes for the player on the ball.

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This is one of its better sequences of ball movement, created by Wayne Routledge tucking in from the left wing and Cañas and Shelvey distributing. Davies gets involved, overlapping from left back, and Rangel on the right is also in an advanced position.

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When Davies loses the ball, it’s not so much a lack of options as awareness. He tries to force the ball forward when his best passing lanes are behind him, either back to Cañas or one of the center backs.

Encouragingly, Swansea never resorted to kicking the ball over the top, even when it went down a couple goals. Swansea attempted 534 passes in the game, according to OPTA, only 41 of which (7.7 percent) were long. The home side attempted 161 passes in the attacking third of the field, compared to United’s 123. Of United’s 471 total passes, 53 (11.3 percent) went long.

Second-half adjustments: New forwards in the mix

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Swansea stayed in a 4-3-3 in the second half, but Wilfried Bony took over the target role. Michu dropped and took over the playmaking role, and his partnership with Bony looked promising. Shelvey moved to a holding position, which suits his skill set more. For his part, Shelvey is a good distributor, but he isn’t as apt moving forward as Michu.

The second-half Swansea look is closer to its ideal lineup, and Bony could turn out to be one of the signings of the year. He and Michu interchanged well, and with Nathan Dyer cutting in dangerously on the right, it gave the team a more dynamic attack.

When Rooney came off the bench around the hour mark, United moved to 4-4-2 with him and van Persie running up top. Carrick and Cleverley flattened out their line, and the wingers pulled wider.

Welbeck’s starting position changed noticeably. Even though he still cut inside, he began his runs wider and also had the option of running the flank. Evra stayed home more, and Rooney and van Persie had space to operate in the middle of the field.

Breaking through the ceiling

Coaches often talk about players’ “ceilings,” or potential. That same terminology could be applied to teams. While United looked to be a bit closer to its top form on Saturday, Swansea has a lot of room for growth.

When Bony came on, it changed the dynamic of Swansea’s attack. Michu is too dynamic of a player to not have him in the middle of the field (he checked back often from the striker spot anyway), and Shelvey is not dynamic enough for that spot.

Although United won this game comfortably, Swansea will likely improve more as the season progresses than its opponent, relative to the start of the season. Swansea’s ceiling isn’t as high as United’s because of the gap in individual talent, but fans have plenty of reason to be optimistic.

Did you miss the game? Watch it all unfold here.

Lacazette gives Arsenal first leg in Greece

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Alexandre Lacazette scored the lone goal as Arsenal beat hosts Olympiacos 1-0 in the first leg of a Europa League Round of 32 tie on Thursday.

The second leg is Feb. 27 at the Emirates Stadium, four days after the Gunners host Carlo Ancelotti and Everton in Premier League play.

Lacazette now has eight goals in 24 appearances for Arsenal this season.

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Lacazette missed a big early chance from close range, Gabriel Martinelli deprived of a near-certain assist.

Fortunately for Lacazette, he got a second bite at the apple and smashed it home with a vengeance. Bukayo Saka continued his impressive debut season by assisting the goal.

It was an even match, as Olympiacos continued its habit of steady defense but was unable to produce any attack. The Greeks weren’t credited with the creation of any big chances.

Bernd Leno made three saves and was very good in distribution on the day, with Saka, David Luiz, Shkrodan Mustafi, and Sokratis Papastathopoulus continuing steady defense under Mikel Arteta.

Wolves clobber Espanyol, Neves scores another magnificent volley

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Diogo Jota had a hat trick and Ruben Neves scored a very Ruben Neves goal as Wolves took a 4-0 lead over Espanyol on Thursday after one leg of Europa League Round of 32 action.

Raul Jimenez, Joao Moutinho, and Matt Doherty recorded assists for Wolves, who will visit the Portuguese side on Feb. 27.

Espanyol had 57 percent of the ball and put four shots on target to Wolves’ five.

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Wolves came out of the gates with a show of strength, taking six shots to Espanyol’s zero over the first 25 minutes.

The goal came off an Adama Traore-won corner, Raul Jimenez flicking on to Jota.

Neves’ goal came straight from his area of expertise, a beautiful bit of control with his chest before smashing home from distance.

The 23-year-old Jota scored the first, third, and fourth goals of the contest to give him two Europa League hat tricks this season. He has 12 goals and five assists in 33 appearances across all competitions this season.

Solskjaer, Mata react to Man Utd draw: ‘We can play better’

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Manchester United got an away goal in a 1-1 first leg draw with Europa League foes Club Brugge in Belgium on Thursday.

The goals were pretty individual, a big chip of Sergio Romero followed by Anthony Martial’s powerful dribble to equalize for the Red Devils.

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United outshot the hosts 16-10, but fell short in big chances created by a 3-1 margin.

Here’s Red Devils manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, via the BBC:

“It was a game with difficult conditions out there. It was almost like an astroturf. The ball was very quick and lively,” Solskjaer said. “We got the away goal. It was a very good individual goal, worked hard to win the ball and finish so we are happy with that but we know we can play better.”

The second leg is Feb. 27 at Old Trafford, four days after a Premier League encounter with Watford in the same building.

United midfielder Juan Mata had a busy day, winning the majority of his tackles and creating one key pass. He expected better from his team but sees the game for what it is.

Here is Mata, from The Manchester Evening News:

“They scored a goal we shouldn’t concede. We scored a goal from their mistake. we wanted to win, obviously, 1-1 is not a very bad result, but we always want to win,” Mata said. “We just couldn’t find spaces, they defended very well with five plus four. We tried to play a few times through the middle, which we didn’t succeed to do that. Then we scored that goal and from then we played a bit better.”

Solskjaer kept Bruno Fernandes, Fred, Daniel James, and Aaron Wan-Bissaka on the bench to start the match. Fernandes and Fred came on late.

FC Cincinnati adds Ajax midfielder Siem de Jong

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FC Cincinnati got a much-needed bit of good news toward the end of a rough week in Southern Ohio.

Longtime Ajax attacker Siem De Jong has joined a talented FCC attack ahead of the club’s second MLS season.

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De Jong, 31, came up through Ajax’s vaunted academy before transferring to Newcastle United, where he suffered through a series of miserable injuries including two collapsed lungs in 18 months.

He’s been capped six times with two goals for the Netherlands in his career and will join a revitalized Cincinnati attack with Jurgen Locadia and Yuya Kubo.

“The system they want to play is quite similar to the Dutch system, and yeah, Ajax is probably one of the team’s that perfected it,” de Jong said. “Over the years I played there, I’ve learned a lot about this similar philosophy and trying to build up from the back in the Dutch style of play. That was one of the reasons why FC Cincinnati was a good fit for me. Hopefully I can help with the experience I’ve had over the years playing this style of football.”

De Jong scored three times in nine matches this season for Ajax, all of the goals coming in a cup match against third-tier Spakenburg. His other eight matches combined for just 118 minutes.

He may not be with FCC when the season starts as he waits on visa approval.