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The home side didn’t help its cause by playing Wayne Routledge and Nathan Dyer as withdrawn wingers, crowding space in the middle for Michu, Leon Britton and Jonathan de Guzmán.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

Burning Question: Who is the best player in North America right now?

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It’s a question many have tried to answer recently, and now it’s ProSoccerTalk’s chance to give a verdict of their own: Who is the best player in North America right now.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

Knowing the loyalty of the devout Liga MX fan, the following statement may make a few onlookers cringe, or become enraged: Carlos Vela is currently the best player in North America. Period.

Truthfully, it shouldn’t take more than 15 seconds to generate such an answer. The question should instead be: What player comes at a touching distance from 31-year-old Vela?

Carlos Vela has been on a legendary streak since arriving in Los Angeles from San Sebastian, scoring for fun. Literally, scoring for fun – when he wants, how he wants: long or short range chips, stunning volleys, headers, from the spot, 30-yard runs leading to gentle tap-ins, free kicks, you name it. In numbers, it reads more like a humble 57 goals in 71 appearances.

That’s a healthy goal-per-game-ratio.

And to be clear, goalscorers aren’t the only type of players that qualify for the sweepstakes – supreme talent doesn’t discriminate. But in this case it just happens to be that an inverted winger, with a penchant for goal, happens to outdo not only every player in MLS, but in every other North American top-flight contest, including Liga MX.

And perhaps scoring goals isn’t his ultimate quality – Vela’s dynamism, agility and tenacity are at the core of his magic. There’s a reason why he’s considered the most talented Mexican player of his generation.

Still tough to accept? Ask yourself this: Who was the last player in North America that Josep Maria Bartomeu and Barcelona went after?

You guessed right – Vela. The Spanish giants know a thing or two about scouting elite talent, don’t they?

Transfer news: Kane to Real Madrid, Alexis Sanchez to West Ham

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The latest transfer news continues across the Premier League and here’s a look at some of the juiciest rumors.

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According to Sport, Real Madrid president Florentino Perez has his sights set on signing Tottenham striker Harry Kane this summer.

With Luka Jovic failing to impress at the Santiago Bernabeu, Los Blancos are set to make some moves to consolidate the presence up top. Kane, 26, and Wolves striker Raul Jimenez are some of the few names to have been mentioned thus far.

Kane, who has a running contract with Spurs until 2024, recently mentioned that he wouldn’t rule out a move out of north London, if Tottenham were unable to capitalize on winning silverware.

“I’m an ambitious player, I want to improve, I want to get better, I want to become one of the top, top players,” Kane said earlier this month. “It all depends on what happens as a team and how we progress as a team. So it’s not a definite I’m going to stay there forever – but it’s not a no either.”

As far as transfers go, nothing gets bigger and more “ambitious” than a summer blockbuster move to Real Madrid. Kane has a promising project spearheaded by Jose Mourinho himself at his boyhood club, but the opportunity to represent Real Madrid – at such a prime age, with an astronomical amount of hype – may only come around once.


Alexis Sanchez’s time at Inter Milan is coming to a close, and his next destination may be a Premier League team not named Manchester United, according to FC Inter News.

The 31-year-old Chilean’s agent, Fernando Felicevich, has reportedly been inquired by West Ham, who are considering placing a bid to lure the winger out of Old Trafford.

Sanchez arrived at Inter last summer on loan but has failed to impress when healthy, recording a mere goal and three assist in 15 appearances this season. With the possibilities of Sanchez remaining at Manchester United past the summer getting slimmer by the day, the Hammers are hoping to land the South American at a reduced price.

Sanchez, one of United’s highest earners, is reportedly also gathering interest from other unnamed Premier League and Bundesliga sides.

Belarusian Premier League roundup: FC Energetik-BGU edge FC Minsk, moves to top of league

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The Belarusian Premier League – the only active European top-flight league at the moment – continued on Sunday despite the coronavirus pandemic.

FC Energetik-BGU 2-0 FC Minsk 

FC Energetik-BGU are the new leaders of the Belarusian Premier League, following a 2-0 victory over FC Minsk, who were atop of the table prior to Sunday’s bout.

Aleksey Nosko broke the deadlock in the 21st minute, while winger Jasurbek Yakhshiboev sealed the victory for the hosts in stoppage time.

With the victory, Energetik-BGU are the only unbeaten team in the league after three matchweeks, winning all three matches. The positive spell began with a 3-1 against Belarus giants BATE Boristov. Since, Energetik-BGU have scored three goals, while managing to concede none.

Slutsk, who also featured on Sunday, moved up to second on the table following a hard-earned 3-2 victory over Isloch, which saw them play the final minutes of the match with 10 players.

Elsewhere in Belarusian Premier League 

Smolevichi-STI 0-0 Vitebsk

Isloch 2-3 Slutsk

Spanish players criticize league’s call for furloughs

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MADRID (AP) Soccer players in Spain on Sunday criticized the Spanish league’s decision to ask clubs to put the footballers on government furloughs during the coronavirus crisis.

The league on Friday said the furloughs were needed because there was no agreement on the size of the salary cuts players must take to reduce the financial impact of the pandemic.

“It is strange that the Liga supports (the furloughs),” Spain’s players’ association said in a statement.

It said the league should have created a financial cushion for this period considering it always boasted about its “economic control measures” and the “well-balanced economy” of the Spanish clubs. The association said it also should be taken into account that the league has been temporarily suspended and not yet canceled.

The league and the players’ association have been in talks to try to find ways to mitigate losses that could reach nearly 1 billion euros ($1.08 billion) if the season cannot be restarted because of the pandemic.

The players said they agree with a salary reduction to help the clubs during the crisis, but not to the extent the league wants, which could amount to nearly half of the total losses if the competition is not resumed.

Players said they want to keep negotiating directly with the clubs instead of being forced into furloughs.

“The clubs and the players have been reaching agreements regarding the salaries,” the players’ association said. “What footballers are not going to do is relinquish labor rights.”

Barcelona and Atlético Madrid are among the Spanish clubs requesting furloughs, but both directly negotiated the amount of the salary reduction with players — 70% in both cases. Both clubs and their players are contributing to guarantee the wages of non-playing employees being furloughed.

The government furloughs help reduce the clubs’ labor costs while also guaranteeing players their jobs once the crisis is over.

Spain has more than 130,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with nearly 12,500 deaths. The nation is expected to remain in a lockdown until April 26.

There is no timetable for the return of the Spanish league.

Players maintained their position to only resume competing when health authorities deem it safe for everyone’s heath, a view also shared by the Spanish league.

The league has suggested it will recommend teams start mini-camp while the lockdown is still in place, if it’s possible to do so within the restrictions imposed by authorities.

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