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The home side didn’t help its cause by playing Wayne Routledge and Nathan Dyer as withdrawn wingers, crowding space in the middle for Michu, Leon Britton and Jonathan de Guzmán.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

At the half: West Ham lead struggling Arsenal

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They say in derbies that form goes out the window, but it didn’t seem that apparent for Arsenal on Monday evening.

West Ham United is 45 minutes away from a second major win in three Premier League games as the Hammers hold a 1-0 halftime lead over Arsenal. Angelo Ogbonna’s headed goal off a Pablo Fornais cross is the difference so far.

After two straight poor performances for Arsenal, manager Freddy Ljunberg must have hoped for a better reaction in a London derby. Instead, Arsenal has been slow in passing, slow to second balls and not as determined as West Ham to win. Every possession gained is giving West Ham confidence, which led to the goal. The goal came after a couple of pinball rebounds following a corner kick, but the Hammers’ determination to score helped them go in front.

To make matters worse for Arsenal, Kieran Tierney suffered another injury, forcing him off the field in the first half and compelling Ljunberg to bring on Sead Kolasinac, despite him being short on fitness too.

Arsenal has a massive 45 minutes ahead. Should West Ham win, it would go level with Arsenal. If the Gunners lose, it’s their 10th straight match in all competitions without a win and it drops them into the bottom half of the league table.

Watch Live: West Ham United v. Arsenal

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Arsenal will be searching for their first win since firing Unai Emery as manager when they visit West Ham United, who could use a win in the worst possibly way themselves, at the London Stadium on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

The Gunners have drawn one — coming back from a goal down, twice, against Norwich City — and lost at home to Brighton & Hove Albion on Thursday. It’s hardly been an ideal start to life under interim boss Freddie Ljungberg. As a result, they enter Monday’s game sitting 11th in the Premier League table.

As for the Hammers, Manuel Pellegrini is beginning to feel the pressure after winning just one of his side’s last nine games (1W-2D-6L). Following that exceedingly poor run of results, West Ham sit 16th in the PL table, just one point clear of the relegation zone.

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Messi’s hometown offers emotional trip to his childhood

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ROSARIO, Argentina — Soccer wasn’t always Lionel Messi’s favorite activity.

When he was a child in the modest neighborhood of La Bajada in his Argentine hometown of Rosario, he spent his time bicycling with friends, building forts out of branches and stones, playing hide and seek – and occasionally stealing lemons from a neighbor to make juice.

Those stories and others are the focus of a new tour being offered by Rosario to celebrate their 32-year-old hometown hero, an international sports superstar who just won an unprecedented sixth Golden Ball as world soccer’s player of the year.

The tour put together by Rosario’s city hall is free of charge and available in an app translated into several languages, guiding fans through 10 stops.

Few houses are higher than two stories in La Bajada, a middle-class neighborhood in the city that is 186 miles (300 kilometers) northwest of Buenos Aires.

Halfway down Israel street stands a gray house, closed off by shut curtains and protected by railings. There is no sign outside indicating it was Messi’s home, and no one lives there now, though it still belongs to his family.

The neighbors aren’t so shy about the Messi connection, however. Colorful paintings dedicated to the soccer star stand in front of houses and there are sidewalks colored in the blue and white of Argentina’s national team with Messi’s jersey number, 10, painted in black.

Messi’s neighbors and friends are often willing to share stories with visitors.

“Leo was normal and ordinary like other people here,” Diego Vallejos, one of Messi’s childhood friends, told The Associated Press on a sandy soccer field of the El Campito club as three youngsters played soccer.

“We fell, we scratched ourselves riding bikes. We went to the street with water bombs and threw them at buses,” said Vallejos, who is one year older than Messi.

Also are on the tour are the school Messi attended and the Abanderado Grandoli club, where he learned his first soccer moves.

The city long had a somewhat distant relationship with Messi, and officials say the tour seeks to change that. Rosario’s city hall said Messi’s family did not take part in the creation of the tour.

“What we want to emphasize is that Leo is a product of his city, and that there is a life and many stories behind the superstar,” said Santiago Valenti with Rosario’s tourism agency.

Messi was born June 24, 1987, in the Hospital Italiano Garibaldi in Rosario. He lived in the city until 2000, when he moved to Barcelona.

A recently opened sports museum, a few blocks from Messi’s old house, offers an interactive tour of the lives of local stars in racing, boxing, basketball and soccer.

Messi’s section of the museum is introduced by a painting that mixes monuments from Rosario and Barcelona, and the sentence: “All that I did, I did for soccer.” Two giant screens display goals and testimonials from his teammates.

“The idea is not to pay a tribute to his sporting success,” said museum coordinator Juan Echeverría. “It is to value the path he walked, everything that an athlete has to go through to get to the tip of the iceberg that we see when he is on the podium.”

The museum has contacted Messi’s family and the player’s father said he would donate more memorabilia.

One of items on display is a small red coat with a white collar. Below it is Messi’s official register as a Newell’s Old Boys academy player and a picture of him smiling.

Downtown is the Malvinas compound where Newell’s has its soccer academy. It was there the young Messi was filmed out-dribbling much bigger opponents.

“This is where it all started,” said Lisandro Conte, an employee at the academy.

Messi did not play for Newell’s. “At that time there were players who looked more promising, and the bet was placed on them,” Conte said.

Still, Messi has said he wants to finish his career at Newell’s, playing for his hometown club in his own country after a professional career in Barcelona’s storied Spanish league team.

Fans visiting Rosario might even be able to catch a match between teams like the recent clash between Newell’s and arch-rival Rosario Central. Among the 14 youngsters chasing the ball might be Rosario’s next star.

Solskjaer: Man Utd must keep big-game mentality v. lesser teams

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Things are going quite well for Manchester United right now, but manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer insists they still could — and should — be better.

[ MORE: Man arrested in connection to racist abuse at the Manchester derby ]

Following back-to-back wins over Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City in the span of four days last week, Man United now sit fifth in the Premier League table and trail Chelsea by just five points in the race for top-four.

The win over Man City could very well go down as the result of the season, having thoroughly outplayed their rivals, on their own field, for 45 minutes before holding on for all three points. Solskjaer was proud of his player’s mentality on Saturday, but it left him wondering what could be if they managed to maintain that level of focus and performance against the so-called “lesser” teams as well — quotes from the Guardian:

“That’s up to me, to make sure that for every single game they know they have to earn the right to win a game of football. You’ve got to earn the right to win. Sometimes you’ve got to earn it by passing quicker, winning the ball back — there are different ways of winning games of football.

“We’ll work with the mentality of the boys. It’s been very much about margins in those games [we lost]. But if you look behind the results I’m not as negative as you are. I’m not so worried, so concerned. If the boys are then telling me they can’t get up for these games, then we’ve got a problem. Then I’ve really got to work with them because when I played that’s how we won the league. We never gave points away against the lesser teams, the not-so-good teams. The Premier League is difficult. If you don’t have that mentality, you won’t get results. I’ll work on the mentality.”

Up next for United is a visit from a potentially tricky opponent, Everton (Watch live, Sunday, 9 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com), who last week fired manager Marco Silva and beat Chelsea 3-1 less than 48 days later.