FC Barcelona’s 2-1 win over Real Madrid in the first 2013 installment of El Clásico kept it undefeated and at the top of the La Liga table. Aside from a 15-minute spell of Madrid domination in the second half, the result always looked assured.
Barça dominated the first half, moving the ball at will and allowing Neymar to run at defenders. Lionel Messi played as a tucked-in right winger on the opposite side of an asymmetrical 4-3-3.
Neither team played with a traditional center forward, as Gareth Bale drifted between the right and left sides for Madrid, and Cesc Fàbregas did the same for Barcelona. Both favored attacking through a certain side, as Madrid overloaded Barça left back Adriano, and Barcelona tended to look for Neymar as a first option.
As always in the Spanish league, positions in attack remained fluid and interchangeable, aided by the teams’ use of a false nine. That resulted in a central overload that favored a dominant Barcelona midfield triangle.
Early Barça dominance sets the stage
The home team set the tone early, out-passing Madrid, 147-73, in the first 20 minutes. The early spell gave the game its first goal and established its rhythm. Hard tackles and the expected intricate passing moves would be the flavor of the day.
With Messi used to playing a central role, Barcelona played wide through the left flank more often. Messi frequently tucked in to give Dani Alves his accustomed space to overlap. The team’s attacking shape was designed to make defenders think twice about their positioning and put numbers in the middle:
Fábregas ended up on top of the midfield triangle often, creating almost a diamond. Neymar’s width gave him multiple isolation opportunities against Daniel Carvajal. It was one of these instances, created by Andrés Iniesta’s dribble to commit two defenders, that gave Neymar his goal.
The attacking patterns that emerged were either an interchange of short passes in the middle and on the right with Messi, or a longer ball to Neymar on the opposite side.
Real chances in second half
The best spell for the visitors occurred just after the second half kicked off. Madrid found its way around Barcelona’s stranglehold in midfield, opting for longer, squarer passes to get possession in wider areas.
Real’s attacking shape all game provided chances of sustained possession when the field and players spread farther. Luka Modrić and Sami Khedira pulled farther to their respective sides of the midfield triangle than normal in a 4-3-3, while Bale drifted from side to side (but he preferred the right):
Madrid’s best area of attack became a triangle higher up the pitch, involving Bale, Khedira and Ángel di María. However, even when those three became involved and maintained the ball, Real could not get behind Barcelona’s back line without assistance from a bad giveaway or poor positioning. Most of its dominance — in the spell in which it found some — was on the border of midfield and the attacking third.
Win the midfield, win the game
The match progression showcased Real and Barça’s individual strengths as teams. Barcelona controlled the middle of the field, while Madrid had to pick its moments and play more opportunistically. Against weaker teams, Real can also control the middle, but its biggest strength is along its front line, while Barcelona’s is in the middle.
Barça’s Busquets-Xavi-Iniesta midfield triangle completed 175 (91.1 percent) of its 192 attempted passes, led by Busquets’ 50-for-52 performance. In the Barcelona-dominated first half, Busquets completed all 29 of his attempts. Iniesta’s higher rate of incompletion came from his probing forward passes, trying to get behind the Madrid defense.
By comparison, the Ramos-Khedira-Modrić trio completed 89 (83.2 percent) of 107 attempts — a lower percentage in just over half as many tries. Bale’s poor performance had a greater impact than it normally would have because of Barça’s midfield dominance; he could not find the ball very often, receiving just 10 passes in the attacking third and two in and around the penalty area before being substituted.
Shifting season paradigms
Saturday’s result asks more questions of Madrid’s early season form than Barcelona’s. Real has proven to be a competent team in continental play this season, racking up a plus-10 goal difference in three victories. Even in its 1-0 derby loss to Atlético Madrid in La Liga, Real controlled the middle.
However, coming up against a team with Barcelona’s skill set proved to be a tough challenge. Perhaps it says more about Barça’s ability. Maybe assertions of domestic and European dominance from a star-studded lineup — headlined by Bale, who was ineffective on Saturday — were premature.
After its dominance in El Clásico, FC Barcelona now looks like the team to beat.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
PORTLAND, Ore. — In one of the most stunning turnarounds in Major League Soccer history, the Portland Timbers are tied atop the Supporters’ Shield standings one year after finishing third from bottom. First-year head coach Caleb Porter began instilling a unique philosophy, by MLS standards, at the start of the season, and the ascent since has been exponential.
The Timbers defeated Seattle Sounders FC on Sunday, perhaps turning the tables on a relationship in which the Sounders have been widely seen as the “big brother” to the Timbers, who work in a smaller town, with a smaller budget and without the backing of an NFL conglomerate.
While the Sounders exhibit a smash-and-grab style both on and off the field, playing a direct style and making big-name signings such as Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson and Obafemi Martins, Portland has relied on its coach’s tactical acumen and team-building ability to get to the top.
“A real soccer game, at a high level, is going to be a little bit more of a chess match, a little bit more of a probably slower tempo,” Porter said on the Soccer Made in Portland podcast in March. “I want control in a game. Control allows us to increase our chances of winning. Shape allows us to have control. Possession allows us to have control. Pressure allows us to have control because we’re deciding what’s happening in the game.”
Never shy about speaking to the press (his post-game talks regularly take well over 10 minutes), Porter has outlined his philosophy as a desire to dominate games through possession and pressure.
Attacking with numbers
Portland’s basic shape is best described as a 4-3-3. Players are encouraged to interchange and work within the framework of the system to express their creativity, depending on their technical ability and soccer IQ.
For example, Darlington Nagbe has more freedom than any other player because he plays best when he roams free. The others around him remain aware of his movement and fill in spaces as necessary. On Sunday, although Nagbe started as the left winger, he swapped positions with Kalif Alhassan in the middle very often.
The three biggest keys to the Timbers’ attack are:
• A1: The double pivot between Will Johnson and Diego Chará. They form the base of every attacking movement and defensive sequence, encouraged to get forward often and win balls high up the field. Porter has said that both players’ natural tendency is to press into the attack, and this system allows them to step into higher spaces.
For two months earlier this season, the two could not start the same match due to multiple injury concerns. Between July 7 and Sept. 7, Portland had its worst stretch of the season, winning just twice, while losing five games and tying two.
In their first game back together, the Timbers defeated Toronto FC, 4-0, and the two central players combined for 90 percent passing accuracy, including three key passes that led directly to shots, and one goal from Johnson. Since then, they have once again started every game as the double pivot points, and Portland is 4-0-2.
• A2: Overloading the central channel. This is where Porter’s technical and tactical coaching ability comes out in the final product, as his players are comfortable playing in tight spaces and know when to move the ball out of the middle.
The most dangerous space on the field to attack is the area on top of the opponent’s penalty area, as the vast majority of goals created through the run of play find this space at some point during the build-up.
In this instance from Sunday’s game, Nagbe once again pulls inside and switches spots with Alhassan. Johnson and Chará push up, Maximiliano Urruti drops back as more of a false nine than a traditional target striker, and José Valencia also tucks in.
The move draws all five Sounders midfield players back, opening spaces for the Timbers to get wide and behind the back line.
Nagbe’s movement causes trouble for opponents because he is so good on the ball and always aware of his surroundings. He knows when to overload, when to create space, when to pass and when to shoot. His finishing ability from distance has netted him nine goals in 2013, a franchise single-season record, as well as some of the best goals in MLS since he’s been in the league.
His overdrive work rate helps, too. Against Seattle, he completed all but four of his passes and made 12 loose-ball recoveries and two interceptions. His activity centered mainly on his left-sided starting position, but he covered ground all over the field.
Combined with Diego Valeri’s passing ability (although the Argentine Designated Player has been injured recently), Portland has the keys to unlock the central channel of any defense.
• A3: Getting the outside backs involved. In the play above, Jack Jewsbury and Michael Harrington step into the attacking half and offer opportunities for width (as do Valencia and Alhassan). With so many players inside the width of the 18-yard box, the ball will eventually have to go wide to move out of pressure.
When that happens, Jewsbury and Harrington can either get to the end line and find service into the box, or they can combine with wide players to exploit isolation opportunities. For example, if Urruti turns and plays the ball into space for Jewsbury to run onto, the defender can play with Valencia to get past the lone Seattle defender on that side.
Those three points lead to a style that is especially difficult to defend when Portland goes up a goal, and one that is useful in coming from behind if the opponent scores first. The Timbers are 10-0-6 when scoring first, but they have also come back to take two wins and five ties in 12 games when conceding first.
“Every game, we’re going for three points,” Porter said after Sunday’s win. “Even though we’ve had draws, we’ve not gone into any game — home or away — trying for anything other than getting three points.”
The overriding principle throughout Portland’s attacking philosophy is having possession of the ball. From back to front, Porter stresses the importance of having the ball and keeping it on the floor, moving it to create unbalance in opponents’ shape. If a team has the ball, it can throw numbers forward.
“Everybody wants to have the ball,” Porter said in March. “Everybody wants to attack. If you ask anybody, even the center backs, they would rather have the ball and attack than defend all game.”
Winning possession high up the field
The other half of Porter’s philosophy, aside from possession, is defensive pressure. After some early-season rust that saw Portland concede eight goals in its first four games, the Timbers have four shutouts in their last six matches.
Some of it is down to goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts’ shot-stopping ability — he has won MLS Save of the Week nine times — but most of it is the knowledge of when and how to defend.
“The harder you work when you lose the ball, the quicker you get the ball back,” Porter said. “There are two ways to defend: you defend the goal, or you defend the ball. We defend the ball.”
When an opponent tries to build from the back, Portland’s defensive pressure can again be broken into three keys that are closely connected:
• D1: Immediate chase and pressure. Without initial pressure on the ball from a first defender, the rest of the team’s work to get into position is rendered useless.
• D2: Cutting the field in half to make play predictable. This falls onto the center forward. He has to be in position to cut off square passes through the middle of the field that would relieve the initial pressure.
• D3: Funneling play into defensive numbers-up spaces or forcing a long, 50/50 ball. The first defender’s body shape on approach to pressure must discourage play into a teammate that would relieve pressure (usually wide because Portland’s numbers concentrate in the middle). The center forward, again, must cut off simple switches through the middle.
Finally, the central players have to bait opponents into playing the central pass. Instead of touch-tight marking, perhaps that means dropping off a couple steps and moving to pressure as the ball is in transit, then converging on the intended target so he has no outlet.
In real time, this is how high-pressure defending looks. Urruti both applies initial pressure (D1) and cuts the field in half (D2) with his body shape on approach — the red space is off-limits to the passer on the ball. Valencia bends his run to discourage the wide pass, Johnson moves to get goal-side of the weak-side central midfielder, and Nagbe and Chará are in position to converge on the ball in transit (D3).
But at times, especially against the stronger teams in the league such as the Sounders, Portland cannot expect to win the ball high up the field every time. It did quite often, making 19 recoveries and six interceptions in the top half of the field, but Seattle put quite a bit of pressure on Ricketts’ goal throughout the game.
“We want to be a team in the front half. We want to be pressing and locking teams in, on the ball, but I’ve also prepared them to be in the back half as well. So basically, I’ve prepared them for Plan A and Plan B,” Porter said afterward. “I’ve tried to prepare these guys to be composed and mature when we’re playing with a lower block and not able to push the game. … I think that’s been a big reason why we’re grinding out results because earlier in the year, we were either up the field and pushing, playing well, or we’re just getting run through. So we’ve kind of downshifted just a little bit and balanced our team — just a little bit — so we’re a little bit more set up to win games. This time of year, it’s going to be tight games, most likely.”
The double pivot was again crucial in that aspect of the game on Sunday. In the defensive phase, it becomes a pair of traditional holding midfielders, shielding the back four. Johnson made 12 recoveries, while Chará had 10 and added six interceptions.
One aspect of Portland’s game that still needs work is defending set pieces, or “box defending,” as Porter calls it. Of the 33 goals the Timbers have conceded, 17 have been from dead balls: four penalty kicks, three direct free kicks, one long throw-in, three corner kicks and six free kicks served in.
The Sounders defeated Portland on an Eddie Johnson header from a Mauro Rosales free kick on Aug. 25, and Ricketts came up with another Save of the Week candidate Sunday before Dempsey hit the crossbar, both on set pieces. In the run-and-gun MLS style of play, that’s a weakness that could be exploited by opportunistic teams in the playoffs.
Buying in doesn’t cost a thing
One final aspect of Porter’s system that isn’t tactical, but it’s vital: buying in. Porter has gotten more out of every player on his roster than any coaches who have had those players before, with the possible exception of injured center back Mikael Silvestre.
In his press conference on Sunday, Porter spoke at length about how his players have bought into the philosophy of possession soccer, a sentiment that important players such as Johnson, Alhassan and Ricketts echoed afterward in the locker room. Their selflessness to the team cause has been the single biggest aspect of this team’s success.
“There have been so many guys that have just transformed as players,” Porter said. “The talent was always there. … They’re good guys, they’re talented, they have character, and you get them bought in, you get them together, you get them in the right roles, this is what can happen. … You look at the best teams in the world: teams that raise trophies are teams that have chemistry, teams that remain humble.”
In March, he tried to tamper expectations a little, while still clearly believing in what he was trying to build.
“We’re trying to change habits within guys that have never played consistently under pressure,” Porter told Soccer Made in Portland. “It’s a psychological thing, too. I mean, how many teams really play? Some say they do. So you’ve got guys that are used to, when they’re under pressure, hit the panic button and kick it. … I think the biggest challenge is, you get guys that just haven’t been encouraged to play enough, or haven’t been told how you play. That’s the toughest part. All of a sudden, you’re getting them at a certain age — and they want to learn, they really do — but if you’re 26 years old, and you’ve never done it, even if you want to learn, it’s hard to do it all of a sudden.”
As a college coach, Porter was used to reversing serious developmental flaws in the players he recruited. But at that level, coaches have closer control over their rosters. Rebuilding a professional team has to take contracts, ownership and a salary cap into consideration. Most of the Timbers’ important players were only role players last year, whether they played in Portland or elsewhere, and have stepped up into major areas of responsibility this season.
‘We play the way we play so we’re in a position to win’
From the players he brought in and the players who remained from last year’s disappointment of a season, Porter has built the most tactically sophisticated team in a doldrums of a league as far as soccer IQ goes. The Timbers have beaten direct teams with their active, evolving system of tactical problem solving, which allows them to win games in multiple ways.
“If there’s a fight, we’re up for a fight,” Porter said on Sunday. “There’s no problem with that. We can out-football teams, but also, we can outfight teams. This team’s not soft. … And yet, we still were able to mix in some good football, and you could still see — for periods — our way of playing, maybe not as much as I would like, but it’s hard to be disappointed to get that result.”
Portland’s ascent has been remarkable. Building a team to play an attractive, possession-based style takes time, but the club has shown patience from top to bottom since the start of the season. Comparing Porter’s quotes from just two months ago, when Seattle beat his team at CenturyLink Field, to quotes from Sunday shows the belief (and perhaps stubbornness) it takes to find success.
“We play the way we play so we’re in a position to win and, to some extent, to score the goal,” he said after the 1-0 loss on Aug. 25. “We’re right there. We were toe to toe with that team, and it was an even game. The difference was they found a goal in one moment.”
On Sunday: “When you believe that you can win games, you put yourself in position to win these games. … There’s no reason why we would be inferior [to Seattle]. There’s no reason why we should be the little brother. We should be a legitimate contender. We should be capable of beating the Sounders, and it not being a miracle. It’s very satisfying, a year later, that here we are … and I think it says everything about how far we’ve come as a club.”
Portland is at the top of the league, tied with the New York Red Bulls. The Timbers are one of the teams to beat in MLS, 12 months after being just a team that regularly got beat in MLS.
Instead of taking an extended look at any particular team based on match play, this week’s Football Focus looks at some of the top goals of the week. Taking three of the more tactically inclined goals from the top five this weekend, let’s take a closer look at strikes from Willian, Luis Suárez and Adnan Januzaj:
No. 5: Willian’s first goal for Chelsea
Willian curled a shot inside the far post for his first Chelsea goal, against Norwich City on Sunday, sealing the Blues’ 3-1 win. He took advantage of poor defensive pressure followed by a small window of opportunity to score his opener.
As Willian dribbles at the Norwich defense, he is under no immediate pressure. Sébastien Bassong could step up to him, or Alexander Tettey could track back further to apply pressure. Either way, the defenders would still have plenty of time to track passes to Oscar on the left or Samuel Eto’o on the right.
Essentially, the Canaries have four defenders back, and nobody pressures the ball.
That allows Willian to dribble to the top of the penalty area before deciding to dish the ball wide for Eto’o. Bassong should track Willian’s run, as the closest defender, which he does. However, he could be farther goal-side and ball-side to keep the play in front of him.
Bassong correctly stops tracking Willian when the Chelsea attacker strays outside of the center back’s zone of responsibility. At this point, his task is to provide cover for Martin Olsson, in case Eto’o cuts in.
Eto’o does just that, but Bassong is barely too far away to step up and win the ball cleanly. When Bassong steps up, Olsson should be able to release and mind Willian on the wing. Instead, three players reach into the tackle, as Jonny Howson also tracks back.
The ball pops free to Willian, who really only has time to take one touch. He makes it count.
No. 3: Luis Suárez scrambles to score
Since returning from his 10-game suspension, Luis Suárez has scored three goals for Liverpool. His goal on Saturday against Crystal Palace sparked a 3-1 win and showed his determination inside the penalty area.
As Suárez receives the ball wide, José Enrique is in position to provide a two-on-one isolation, especially since Palace’s defense is slow to shift. Daniel Sturridge is the only other Liverpool attacker in a dangerous position right now, and he can easily be passed off among defenders so they can slide to cover the immediate danger, which is the ball.
Suárez plays the ball for Enrique, and the Palace defenders’ eyes stay glued to the ball. That allows Suárez to run behind Mile Jedinak, staying on the midfielder’s back shoulder and virtually invisible. That puts Suárez in great position to receive a cutback from the endline, which is one of the most dangerous attacking passes.
When Enrique plays the ball back toward Suárez, Jedinak allows the ball to run because he doesn’t Suárez behind him. By the time Jedinak and his teammates’ focus shifts, Suárez is in position to score a scrappy goal, even after taking an extra touch and falling over.
No. 2: Adnan Januzaj caps dream first start with volley
Manchester United wunderkind Adnan Januzaj scored both of his team’s goals in a comeback 2-1 victory at Sunderland on Saturday, making manager David Moyes look like a genius for playing the 18-year-old. Januzaj’s second goal, a side volley, was particularly masterful.
As Nani has the ball on the right wing, Januzaj is wide on the left. Sunderland’s back four is in fine shape, staying compact but prepared to spring wide if necessary. If Nani switches the ball to the left, Sunderland has plenty of time to shift while the ball travels.
Januzaj starts to make his run toward goal as Nani prepares his cross. Wayne Rooney is the target, and he will draw most of the defenders’ attention. In this situation, the back-post run might be the biggest area of missed opportunity; most players simply choose not to make it, or they mistime it.
Still, as long as the Sunderland defenders have their heads on a swivel and recognize the run, it shouldn’t be dangerous. The cross isn’t great, as Nani decides to hit it with the outside of his right foot.
Sunderland makes no real defensive errors on this play, aside from the weak clearance on Nani’s cross. Even so, as the ball heads toward Januzaj, the nearest defender provides immediate pressure on the ball. Just as Willian did in the above example, Januzaj only has one touch.
He also makes it count, emphatically scoring his second goal of the game — and the winner.
In the first half of its 3-2 win over Newcastle United on Monday, Everton picked the visitors apart. Those 45 minutes, combined with other recent performances, showed the potential the Toffees have with new manager Roberto Martínez’s system.
It’s a similar possession-based game that he tried to instill at Wigan Athletic, but with Everton’s superior players, the results should be more impressive. Indeed, early in the Premier League season, Martínez’s men have proven to be among the most entertaining and positive sides in the league. Only Arsenal and Manchester City have scored more goals.
Everton has built its system on a simple passing to unlock spaces on the field for one-on-one isolation, usually on the wings. Outside backs Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman provide two of the more dangerous attacking options on the squad, and 19-year-old Ross Barkley has been a revelation in central midfield.
Leon Osman and Kevin Mirallas run the wings, never afraid to take defenders on with the ball at their feet, and Romelu Lukaku seems to have taken over the target role from Nikica Jelavić, who had a hard time getting involved in his early starts.
Building blocks of possession
The most obvious aspect of Everton’s system is the patience it displays in building up attacks. Short passes keep the ball moving and keep opponents constantly adjusting their positioning, aiming to open up gaps to exploit in midfield when defenders get stretched.
Of the 512 passes Everton attempted against Newcastle, 458 were short, as defined by Opta. Only 92 total passes came in the defensive third of the field, though, with most of the impetus put on the midfielders to initiate play. The Toffees completed 232 of 273 passes (85 percent) in the middle third, including 161 of 181 among the three central midfielders: Barkley, Gareth Barry and James McCarthy.
In his 500th Premier League game, Barry ran the show with his attempts to unlock the Magpies’ defense. His 75 attempted passes were the most on his team, and he completed 86.7 percent of them.
Looking at their passing charts, the three center midfielders played mostly short, fairly square passes. Every ball movement, no matter how small, causes adjustments from opponents. The more adjustments they are forced to make, the more likely they are to unknowingly open up spaces.
It’s soccer by chess, not checkers, predicated on one- and two-touch passing and a high tempo.
Short, short, long
Series upon series of short passes against Newcastle opened up options for the long ball that turned what usually becomes a 50-50 ball into sustainable possession. Atrocious defending from the visiting team helped the cause, particularly on Tim Howard’s assist to Romelu Lukaku in the 36th minute.
For an example of short-range possession turning into a plausible long-ball opportunity and one-on-one isolation, let’s pick up the end of a nearly 30-pass sequence by Everton. (It may have been more than 30 passes, but it began off-camera, so it’s difficult to be certain.)
As usual, all three central midfielders are involved in the build-up. Osman tucks in on the left side, allowing Baines to get around him and provide another option. On the opposite flank, Coleman and Mirallas stay out of the play, waiting and expecting their teammates to realize the space they are in.
The short exchanges draw seven Newcastle defenders onto the near side of the field, as six Everton attackers work the ball around.
A passing lane opens up for Lukaku to check in and play the ball back toward McCarthy, who recognizes the space Mirallas and Coleman have on the far side.
A longer pass to Mirallas’ feet leaves him isolated against Newcastle left back Davide Santon, whom Mirallas already beat once on the dribble to assist Lukaku’s opening goal in the fifth minute.
Coleman advances to the inside (an underlapping run, as opposed to an overlapping run around Mirallas to the outside), dragging his defender away and giving Mirallas more space. Ideally, McCarthy should spin away and drag another defender with him.
Getting to goal
That’s the idea in Everton’s attack: overload the middle to isolate wide players, allowing for individual brilliance or a centering pass (or sometimes both) to get the ball into dangerous areas. The Toffees struggled to get on the end of crosses — Mirallas and Coleman completed one each, and nobody else had any — but the opportunities were created.
The majority of Everton’s passes in the attacking third went wide, although Baines and Osman on the left were more willing to take players on than Mirallas and Coleman on the right. Most crosses came from the right side.
Overall, Everton completed 21 of 27 one-on-one dribbles and 110 of 147 passes in the final third.
Martínez recognizes that it takes much longer to build and sustain his vision than a smash-and-grab style, telling television cameras after the game, when his team had secured fourth place:
We were disappointed with the first three games. I thought we were really dominant, really good, and we should have got more points. It’s a great target, to get into the top four. Now, it’s only six games, but it’s something that gives you a good start, and that’s all it is: a good start. You could see the potential today. Some of the signs were terrific as a team, and then all the other aspects that we need to work and develop, and we’re looking forward to that.
Three key words in that quote show where Martínez is trying to go: “develop,” “potential” and “dominant.”
Everton has only scratched the surface in the first six games of the season, still fine-tuning many aspects of its game. However, the flashes it showed against Newcastle and in previous matches paints a picture of a team that can, has and will dominate games and opponents.
Good soccer is a living creature; it needs to be nurtured and grown. By the time spring rolls around, Everton should be much closer to adulthood.