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The home side didn’t help its cause by playing Wayne Routledge and Nathan Dyer as withdrawn wingers, crowding space in the middle for Michu, Leon Britton and Jonathan de Guzmán.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

Supporters Shield still up for grabs as Atlanta, NYRB both win

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The New York Red Bulls are still in the mix, but Atlanta United has taken a one-point lead into the final matchday of the season as both teams won on Sunday.

Atlanta United topped Chicago 2-1 at Mercedes-Benz stadium. Franco Escobar opened it up early and an own-goal put them ahead for good, keeping pace with RBNY’s win over Philadelphia and leaving them a point ahead at the top of the table.

Escobar’s strike came just eight minutes in, after feeding Josef Martinez near the penalty spot who whiffed and fell down, he latched back onto the loose ball and decided to take it himself, curling one inside the far post. Chicago scored in the 24th minute to level the score, but Atlanta did not relent.

Just two minutes after Chicago’s equalizer, Atlanta was back on top. Chris McCann crossed it from the left edge, and Johan Kappelhof attempted to slide and block the cross at the near post, but instead he redirected the ball into the back of his own net.

New York, meanwhile, kept pace with a 1-0 victory at Philadelphia behind a penalty from Kaku, sending Andre Blake the wrong way. The spot-kick was given on a VAR check that determined Alejandro Bedoya handled the ball.

On the final day of the season, the Red Bulls will host Orlando City, while Atlanta is on the road at Toronto. Atlanta can secure the Supporters’ Shield with a win, but New York can jump them with a win and an Atlanta draw or loss. Should Atlanta lose by one goal and the Red Bulls draw, the teams would be level on both points and goal differential, meaning the significant Atlanta lead on goals for would give them the advantage.

Rooney scores brace, DC United completes improbable playoff push

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They’ve done it. They’ve really done it.

D.C. United, with just two league wins through the first 19 games of the MLS season, has completed an improbable playoff bid by securing an Eastern Conference berth in the postseason with a 3-1 win over NYCFC on the penultimate matchday of the season.

Wayne Rooney, the catalyst for this amazing turnaround, fittingly scored a brace, including the opener just eight minutes in on a fabulous run from Luciano Acosta down the end line.

Acosta was there to secure the win, doubling the lead in the 24th minute with a long-distance strike into the top-right corner.

Goalkeeper Bill Hamid was required to preserve the lead, getting down low to stop a tight-angle strike from David Villa towards the end of the first half. That would spur D.C. on, as they would seal the deal with a penalty from Rooney in the 74th minute, leaving NYCFC with just a consolation in the 78th minute when David Villa ended the bid for a clean sheet.

The victory caps an improbable second-half run for D.C. United, as they have won five in a row and 10 of their last 15. Rooney has been the leader, earning the role of captain despite just signing this summer, and scoring 12 goals in 19 MLS matches. With Columbus Crew drawing, D.C. jumped all the way up into fourth place with the win.

Serie A: Icardi wins Milan derby, Lazio up to fourth

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It was a huge day in Serie A, and Mauro Icardi took the headlines with his 92nd minute winner to give Inter Milan a 1-0 victory over rivals AC Milan.

Matias Vecino whipped in a brilliant cross from way out on the right edge, and Icardi was there at the back post to head past Gianluigi Donnarumma for the late victory. The goal capped off an otherwise wasteful match, as Icardi’s winner came on just the fourth shot on target by Inter of their 18 total efforts on net, while AC Milan managed just a single shot on target of their 15 tries. It pushes Inter past Lazio into third in the table, while AC Milan remains way down in 12th.

Meanwhile, Lazio scored a pair of late goals to earn all three points at Parma and jump to third – temporarily – in the Serie A table. Ciro Immobile was on hand to dispatch an 81st minute penalty confidently into the top-left corner and send Lazio on its way to a 2-0 victory. The spot-kick came after Valon Berisha was tackled late by Riccardo Gagliolo both going for a loose ball in the penalty area, a soft giveaway but a penalty nonetheless.

With time winding down, Joaquin Correa sealed it four minutes into stoppage time by wrong-footing Parma goalkeeper Luigi Sepe to finish a well executed counter-attack. The win for Lazio eventually left them in fourth after Inter’s win on 18 points, still seven behind leaders Juventus but only three back of Napoli in second.

Elsewhere, Atalanta clobbered Chievo Verona at Stadio Marc’Antonio Bentegodi 5-1 to pull out of the relegation zone. The win is the first for Atalanta since the first match of the season – stopping a seven-match winless streak – and the goal explosion marks a massive turnaround for a club that had scored a measly two times over the last six games.

The hero was 30-year-old Slovenian international Josip Ilicic who bagged a hat-trick, marking his first three goals of the season. Defender Marten De Roon actually began the scoring in the 25th minute with a laser from outside the top of the box, while Ilicic began his day four minutes later when he delivered a fabulous left-footed curler.

His left foot did it again from outside the box in the 50th minute to put Atalanta 4-0 up, and just two minutes later he had his third, tapping in a Robin Gosens ball home after Chievo goalkeeper Stefano Sorrentino embarrassingly failed to collect the cross.

A huge relegation six-pointer finished in a 3-3 draw that disappointingly lifted neither Empoli nor Frosinone out of the drop- zone. 33-year-old Frosinone captain Daniel Ciofani found a brace, but Turkish international Salih Ucan rocketed home a 79th minute volley to share the points.

Torino slumped to a 2-2 draw with 17th placed Bologna on Arturo Calabresi’s 77th minute equalizer, while Fiorentina also disappointed in a 1-1 draw with 14th placed Cagliari thanks to Leonardo Pavoletti’s 69th minute strike that left the two teams even.

Bundesliga: Thorgan Hazard goes off as Gladbach jumps to second

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While Eden Hazard has torn it up in the Premier League, his brother is quietly leading Borussia Monchengladbach to a stellar season.

Thorgan Hazard scored a goal and assisted two others as Gladbach clobbered Mainz 4-0, jumping to second in the Bundesliga table. Jonas Hofmann had the hat-trick, putting Gladbach in the lead 21 minutes in, but Hazard made things happen. He threaded the pass to Hofmann through the three-man defensive line for the game’s opener.

Hofmann put them 2-0 up on another Hazard assist minutes after halftime, and then he bagged his own on a pinpoint cross from Nico Elvedi that left Hazard all alone to roof it past a helpless Florian Müller. Hofmann pulled in his hat-trick by the 63rd minute to seal the game.

Thorgan Hazard has now been directly involved in 11 goals in nine games for Gladbach this season, the same amount as his brother Eden has for Chelsea so far.

Elsewhere, Hertha Berlin and Freiburg drew 1-1 on a pair of first-half goals. Ondrej Duda scored for Hertha just seven minutes into the match thanks to an absolutely delicious feed from Per Skjelbred on a through ball from just past the halfway line. That was it for Hertha though, as they struggled to create more good chances. Freiburg knotted it up just past the half-hour mark, as Robin Koch delivered a howitzer into the top corner, a truly fantastic goal.

Hertha failed to truly take advantage of the crowded top of the table, but the point pushed them up to sixth in the table, level on 15 points with RB Leipzig. Freiburg, meanwhile, moved to nine points, just three above the relegation zone.