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The home side didn’t help its cause by playing Wayne Routledge and Nathan Dyer as withdrawn wingers, crowding space in the middle for Michu, Leon Britton and Jonathan de Guzmán.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

Journalist in Ghana who exposed FIFA corruption shot dead

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ACCRA, Ghana (AP) An investigative journalist in Ghana who helped expose a high-ranking official at world soccer body FIFA as corrupt was shot dead by gunmen on a motorbike as he drove home alone at night, police said Thursday.

His employers said he was assassinated.

Ahmed Hussein-Suale was killed late Wednesday, shot twice in the chest and once in the neck at close range while driving in the suburb of Accra where he lived. He died immediately, according to police.

Tiger Eye PI, the investigative journalism house Hussein-Suale worked for, said it had the hallmarks of a professional hit.

“We call on the security agencies to unmask the elements behind this assassination and bring them to book,” Tiger Eye PI said.

Police haven’t announced any arrests. Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo condemned the killing and said he expected police to arrest the perpetrators of the “heinous crime” as soon as possible.

Hussein-Suale worked under the leadership of Anas Aremeyaw Anas, a renowned Ghanaian investigative journalist once singled out and praised by former U.S. President Barack Obama as courageous and who has used undercover television documentaries to expose graft and organized crime in Ghana and across Africa.

Anas, who himself has gone undercover to investigate issues like human trafficking and corruption among Ghanaian judges, appears in public wearing elaborate, multicolored veils over his face to protect his identity. The veils allow him to work without being recognized but also help to avoid reprisals.

Anas confirmed Hussein-Suale’s death on Facebook: “Sad news, but we shall not be silenced. Rest in peace.”

The team’s most recent work focused on exposing corruption in African soccer, which they portray as a murky world of backroom meetings where coaches, referees and even the most senior officials can be bribed to fix games or hand out favors.

The team got one of its biggest scoops when it caught Kwesi Nyantakyi, a member of world soccer’s FIFA Council and the second most powerful man in African soccer at the time, taking a bribe of $65,000 from their undercover reporters, who were posing as unethical businessmen. Nyantakyi smiles as he stuffs the wads of cash into a black plastic bag and agrees to use his position as president of the Ghanaian Football Association to help the businessmen – for a cut of their profits.

Nyantakyi resigned from all of his roles and was banned from soccer for life last year for bribery, corruption and conflict of interest as a result of the documentary.

The film also alleged widespread corruption among other officials, referees and coaches, and the entire Ghana Football Association was shut down by Ghana’s president as a result. The Confederation of African Football, the continent’s top soccer body, banned or suspended nearly two dozen referees and officials because of Anas’ team’s work.

Tiger Eye PI said Hussein-Suale’s last project for it was the soccer documentary. It didn’t say what other projects he was involved in for them. The BBC said Hussein-Suale worked with it on various projects, including an investigation into human body parts sold for ritual magic in Malawi.

Some of the methods used by Anas’ team have been questioned and stoked criticism, particularly the tactic of reporters posing as others to trap possibly corrupt figures. The methods have been denounced as illegal by some, including Nyantakyi, who said he will appeal his life ban from soccer.

Hussein-Suale’s killing also brought attention to comments made on television by a Ghanaian politician and businessman after the Nyantakyi scandal broke. Kennedy Agyapong, a member of parliament, appeared on his own television station to single out and denounce Hussein-Suale as “dangerous” and call for members of the public to assault the journalist up if they came across him.

Ranting and shouting into the camera, Agyapong said: “That boy (Ahmed-Hussein) that’s very dangerous, he lives here in Madina. If you meet him somewhere, break his ears. If he ever comes to this premises, I’m telling you, beat him. Whatever happens, I’ll pay because he’s bad, that Ahmed.”

The station also broadcast photographs of Hussein-Suale, apparently revealing his identity. Agyapong, in comments made on Ghanaian radio on Thursday, denied any involvement in the killing.

But in his Facebook message paying tribute to Hussein-Suale, and saying his team will not be silenced, Anas also posted a link to that Agyapong video.

“We … remain unshaken in our resolve to pursue nation-wreckers and make corruption a high-risk activity in the country,” Tiger Eye PI said. “Ahmed was an excellent, experienced investigative journalist.”

Report: Ashley Cole considering offer from Derby, Lampard

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Ashley Cole probably thought that when he joined the LA Galaxy in 2016, it would be the last club he played for before, literally, relaxing on a beach in retirement.

[ Transfer rumor roundup: Klopp wants USMNT starlet; Higuain dominoes ]

Considering he was 36 at the time — he is now 38 — it seemed obvious that England’s 107-times-capped left back would play out a final few years in MLS before calling full-time on his decorated career. Three years later, Cole might still do just that.

He might also resume playing after receiving a six-month contract offer from Championship side and promotion chasers Derby County, who are now coached by one of Cole’s longtime teammates and friends at Chelsea and England, Frank Lampard.

[ MORE: Top Premier League storylines for Week 23 ]

Cole has been without a club since his option was declined by the Galaxy following the end of the 2018 season.

According to the Guardian, the chance to play alongside a largely young, but promising, squad of players and to help Lampard guide the club to the Premier League in his first season as manager is very appealing to Cole.

Barcelona reach Copa del Rey QF but could be disqualified

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MADRID (AP) Barcelona earned a spot in the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey on Thursday, but its continued participation in the tournament remains under threat.

[ Transfer rumor roundup: Klopp wants USMNT starlet; Higuain dominoes ]

Lionel Messi and Ousmane Dembele led Barcelona to a comfortable 3-0 win over Levante at Camp Nou Stadium, helping it advance 4-2 on aggregate. However, the Catalan club could be disqualified for allegedly using a suspended player in the first leg.

Levante said it will make a formal complaint to the Spanish soccer federation on Friday, ahead of the draw for the quarterfinals.

The four-time defending Copa champion has denied any wrongdoing for using youth player Juan “Chumi” Brandariz in last week’s match in Valencia.

“We don’t have any doubts,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said. “We believe we will be in the draw tomorrow. We did everything right and we won on the field, which is where we had to win.”

Levante said Chumi should not have played because of an accumulation of yellow cards with Barcelona’s “B” team, arguing that his suspension applied to the senior team as well, including in Copa matches.

“We prefer to win on the field, but the regulations exist and everyone needs to follow them,” Levante coach Paco Lopez said. “Let’s see what happens.”

The Spanish federation is expected to rule on Levante’s complaint before Friday’s draw.

Real Madrid was eliminated in the tournament’s round of 16 in 2015 for using striker Denis Cheryshev while he was suspended.

“We are surprised, we found out about it by the press,” Barcelona spokesman Josep Vives said. “We analyzed the situation and concluded that Chumi’s participation was legal.”

With Messi back in the lineup after being rested in the first leg, Barcelona easily reversed the 2-1 deficit from the first match. The Argentine playmaker set up goals by Dembele in the 30th and 31st minutes, then sealed the victory by scoring in the 54th.

Barcelona has made it at least to the quarterfinals in the Copa in nine straight seasons. It won the title five times in the last seven years.

Earlier Thursday, Espanyol defeated Villarreal 3-1 at home with two goals by striker Borja Iglesias to advance 5-3 on aggregate, while Real Betis salvaged a 2-2 draw at Real Sociedad to reach the last eight on away goals after a 0-0 first-leg draw.

Real Madrid, Girona, Valencia, Getafe and Sevilla also made it to the quarterfinals. Atletico Madrid was eliminated by Girona on Wednesday.

Top Premier League storylines for Week 23

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From the title race, to a four-way battle for top-four, to the relegation dogfight currently unfolding, this weekend’s slate of Premier League fixtures is full with a little bit of everything…

[ Transfer rumor roundup: Klopp wants USMNT starlet; Higuain dominoes ]

Top-four battle at the Emirates
Arsenal v. Chelsea, 12:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, on NBC [ STREAM ]

Chelsea occupy fourth place heading into the 23rd round of games this weekend, but Arsenal and Manchester United aren’t a million miles back of the Blues — only six points each, to be exact. Saturday’s showdown at the Emirates Stadium could see a six-point swing either way, or an opening of the door for the resurgent Red Devils to leapfrog Arsenal for fifth and trim the deficit between themselves and the UEFA Champions League places.


Will Liverpool slip up/Can Man City keep up?
Liverpool v. Crystal Palace, 10 a.m. ET, Saturday, on NBCSN STREAM ]
Huddersfield v. Man City, 8:30 a.m. ET, Sunday, on NBCSN [ STREAM ]

Newsflash: the title race is a pretty important storyline and (likely) will continue to be so for the remainder of the season, barring a collapse by one of Liverpool or Manchester City. The defending champions have the easier matchup, on paper, this weekend as they’ll visit last-place and relegation-bound Huddersfield Town on Sunday. It should be a straightforward challenge for the Reds as well, though, with 14th-place Crystal Palace visiting Anfield on Saturday.


Life without Kane (and Son) begins… again
Fulham v. Tottenham Hotspur, 11 a.m. ET, Sunday, on NBCSN [ STREAM ]

No player in the PL has scored a higher percentage of his team’s goal this season than Tottenham’s Harry Kane (30 percent, tied with Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang). The trouble with that is that Kane is set to miss the next two months due to his annual mid-to-late-winter ankle injury. Thus, Mauricio Pochettino will be forced to pick between deploying Fernando Llorente as his starting center forward, or playing without a natural forward, thanks to Son Heung-min’s simultaneous call-up to the South Korea squad for the Asian Cup. Statistically speaking, Dele Alli has had a quiet season thus far (four goals, one assist), but Spurs desperately need Alli to show up and show out in a big way the next month or two.


Solskjaer goes for no. 6
Man United v. Brighton, 10 a.m. ET, Saturday, on CNBC STREAM ]

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer doesn’t know what it’s like to lose as manager of Man United. Heck, he couldn’t tell you the first thing about dropping points while in charge at Old Trafford. Five PL games in charge (six in all competitions), and whether or not the “interim” tag should be removed from his title is already an earnest topic of discussion. It wasn’t pretty, but United held on for dear life against Spurs last weekend and secured three points in Solskjaer’s biggest challenge to date. Up next is a visit from 13th-place Brighton & Hove Albion, who toppled United in their first meeting earlier this season.


Relegation six-pointer for Newcastle, Cardiff
Newcastle United v. Cardiff City, 10 a.m. ET, Saturday, on NBC Sports Gold [ STREAM ]

Much like the top of the table, the race at the bottom of the league is heating up. Heading into the weekend, Huddersfield are bringing up the rear, eight points adrift of safety, while Fulham occupy 19th place, five points back of 17th. Newcastle United, who sit 18th and are one point from exiting the relegation zone, will host Cardiff City, the side currently sitting 17th in the table, on Saturday. When you’ve struggled the way these sides have for 22 games, genuine chances at three points don’t come along often. When they do, you absolutely have to take them to have any hopes of surviving the drop.