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 Ryan Giggs played in a withdrawn attacking role, making the formation essentially a 4-2-3-1.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.

Serie A roundup: Lazio hand 10-man Juventus first loss (video)

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Lazio’s triumphant victory over league favorites Juventus highlights Saturday’s Serie A action.

 [ MORE: Serie A scores, schedule ]

Lazio 3-1 Juventus

Juventus are no longer unbeaten in Serie A play under Maurizio Sarri, losing 3-1 to Simone Inzaghi’s inspired Lazio.

Luiz Felipe, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Felipe Caicedo scored for the home side, who are now three points behind second-place Juventus and five behind top-of-the-table Inter Milan.

Scoreless from open play since October, Cristiano Ronaldo found the back of the net in the 25th minute to put the Old Lady in front after tapping in Federico Bernardeschi’s well-placed pass inside the box.

It was Juventus’ game to lose, which they went on to do after a series of defensive and cognitive mishaps.

Tied after Felipe’s goal right before the break, Milinkovic-Savic scored in the 74th minute. The Serbian’s goal came after Juan Cuadrado was sent off for his reckless tackle on last-man Manuel Lazzari in the 69th. Milinkovic-Savic was set up by Luis Alberto‘s assist over the Juventus defense and scored with a low shot past goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny.

Ciro Immobile had a clear-cut chance to widen his red-hot goalscoring form, but the striker was denied by Szczesny from the spot. Juventus’ goalkeeper saved Immobile’s initial blistering strike, and his following second chance.

In stoppage time, however, Felipe Caicedo’s second-chance strike was too much for the Polish ‘keeper.

Juventus will have to quickly turn the page as they face Bayer Leverkusen midweek in their final match of the Champions League group stage, while Lazio travel to France to take on Rennes in their Europa League group stage finale.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Atalanta 3-2 Hellas Verona

Udinese 1-1 Napoli

La Liga roundup: Barcelona, Real Madrid remain level on points after wins (video)

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Routine wins from league favorites Barcelona and Real Madrid, highlight La Liga’s Saturday action.

[ FOLLOW: PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Barcelona 5-2 RCD Mallorca

It was a special night at Barcelona’s Camp Nou.

Fresh from winning the Ballon d’Or for a record sixth time, Lionel Messi was greeted by his three children on the field, who handed him a shinny, golden ball – given yearly to the best player in the world – prior to the first whistle.

From that point on, it was evident that it would be all smiles for everyone tied to the defending champions at the stadium (and for those watching remotely) on Saturday.

 

That was the case.

Antoine Griezmann – a topic of conversation due to lack of productivity at Barcelona this season – kicked off the game with a solo run and subsequent goal in the seventh minute, opening the floodgates.

As a celebration of his latest, individual accomplishment, Messi showcased the power and precision of his left foot at the tune of a hat-trick. The Argentine ace scored twice in the first half and another in consolation time, putting his season total mark at a league-best 12 goals.

The moment and goal of the night (possibly of the season) didn’t directly involve Messi, however. With a daring, emphatic and genius back-heel strike, not only did Luis Suarez put the home side up 4-1, but cemented himself in the ballot for best goal of the season.

With 34 and a better goal differential than Real Madrid, Barcelona remain atop of La Liga ahead of their clash with Inter Milan on Tuesday, while Mallorca hope Ante Budimir can score another brace; this time against a struggling Celta Vigo next weekend.

Real Madrid 2-0 Espanyol

With goals from Karim Benzema and Raphael Varane, Real Madrid comfortably cruised past a struggling Espanyol.

With the majority of Real Madrid in Espanyol’s final third following a recovered free-kick attempt, Benzema charged his way into the box before laying off a ball to Varane, who not a proven goalscorer whatsoever, placed the ball into the back of the net with ease.

It was the 37th minute, and the home side were up 1-0 against a poor Espanyol.

With a notable superior style at hand, Los Blancos continued to surge forward. Opportunities at goal were generated but the ball wouldn’t go past ex-Real Madrid ‘keeper Diego Lopez.

Then, in the 79th minute, Benzema registered his 11th goal of the season, finishing an off-balance pass from Federico Valverde inside the box.

Winners in their last La Liga bouts, Real Madrid now prepare for their Champions League Group Stage finale against Club Brugge midweek. Espanyol, despite being in the drop zone, host CSKA Moscow in their Europa League Group Stage finale. The Catalonian club lead Group H with 11 points after five matches.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Granada 3-0 Alaves

Levante 2-4 Valencia

Ancelotti’s future uncertain after Napoli draws at Udinese

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ROME (AP) Carlo Ancelotti’s future as Napoli coach is uncertain after his team failed to beat Udinese on Saturday in Serie A.

The 1-1 draw extended Napoli’s winless run to nine matches in all competitions. Piotr Zelinski saved Napoli with a late goal that salvaged a point for the visitors.

Amid reports that Ancelotti could soon be fired, Napoli, which had won its last six league matches against Udinese, went a goal down after a counterattack which was finished by Kevin Lasagna in the 32nd minute.

Napoli improved after Fernando Llorente replaced an uninspired Lorenzo Insigne in the second half. It equalized after a good combination between Dries Mertens and Zielinski, who wrongfooted the Udinese ‘keeper with a shot into the bottom corner.

Also, Atalanta twice came from behind after Samuel Di Carmine’s two goals to beat Hellas Verona 3-2 with a late winner from Berat Djimsiti, who volleyed home from close range.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Kyle Walker: City catching up to Liverpool ‘difficult’ after derby loss to United

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After a crushing 2-1 loss to archrival Manchester United at home, 14 is the new magic number for Pep Guardiola and company.

14 is the number of points that Manchester City trail league leaders Liverpool by, an uphill battle that is influencing many people on the outside looking in to think that City’s chances of lifting the league’s silverware for a third straight season are officially done and dusted.

That’s not the narrative that is occupying Kyle Walker‘s train of thought, however. Speaking on behalf of his City teammates and himself, the defender is keen on fighting until they’re mathematically out of contention for the title, regardless if the standings show that Liverpool have yet to suffer a defeat this season after 16 matches.

“Can’t fault the manager,” Walker told Sky Sports following City’s second Premier League loss in five games. “He has won numerous trophies. I can’t put my finger on it. It is going to be difficult, Liverpool are on fire. They [Liverpool] are getting wins and we are not. It is a big gap but we will fight until the end.”

A consolation goal from Nicolas Otamendi in the 85th minutes wasn’t enough for the Cityzens, who endured a fourth league loss this season, matching last season’s number of losses throughout 38 games.

After the dispiriting derby day performance from City, the defending champions stand at 32 points after 16 bouts, the lowest point haul for Guardiola in his 11-year top-flight management career.

No team in league history has overcome a 14-point deficit. Since late October, City are yet to record a clean sheet, an apparent issue that Walker believes he and the rest of the team’s defenders need to address in order to return to old ways.

“Us as defenders need to hold our hands up,” he said. “We need to keep clean sheets and strikers maybe need to put more away. They had a game plan and it worked. They have quick players in quick areas and they are going to hurt you on the counter. Credit where credit is due, they stepped up today. Fair play.”