Flying with Tim Cahill: The art of winning key headers, making runs & countering zonal marking.

Cahill celebrates

A dressing room after a successful football match can be a loud place for a winning team but last Saturday in Toronto the New York Red Bulls were all business after securing a dramatic late 2-1 victory.

There was no loud music blaring out but there was a tune being sung by one of their players.

“I believe he can fly,” he sung, “oh yeah you are flying Timmy, lets get you an Air Jordan sponsorship.”

Tim Cahill remained unmoved. After scoring the game winner in the 89th minute with his head he acted like he had done it before. And he had.

Listed at a generous 5ft 10 inches, the 33-year-old has made a living executing late runs into the box and scoring with his head. In his eight seasons at Everton in the Premier League he scored a remarkable 31 headed goals, averaging one every 7.3 matches, a better ratio than some of the finest headers the league has seen such as Alan Shearer, Duncan Ferguson, Les Ferdinand and Gus Poyet.

After the match I chatted with Cahill about some of the key moments in the game, which had highlighted all the key areas the Australian excels at.

On making key runs into the box

“Firstly, I thought we played some beautiful passing, especially in the first half, the organisation and consistency has to be there first. Its about making sure we fill in the holes and not concede. If we don’t concede we will score and make things happen, lets get more solid and then I will break more. I’ll be honest with you I said today we need to be disciplined, control the team from the middle and let the play come to us and if we get a chance then we break, and all my career I have done that but we had to pick and choose when we broke,” said Cahill, who only had one goal in 22 matches for New York prior to Saturday.

Break he did. Twice into the box to score, once with his foot to open the scoring and the second with his head to end it.

The first goal came via a broken play that meant the midfielder was still in an advanced role but just showed his ability to firstly find space and secondly hit the back of the net with an instinctive, one-touch finish. This is the build up to the move where Lloyd Sam’s cross comes into the box with Cahill perfectly positioned in space, unmarked and ready to pounce.

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Thierry Henry then brilliantly dummies the ball, knowing full well where his team-mate is, allowing Cahill to smash home with his left foot.

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Cahill’s first goal of the season…..

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New York’s opening goal brought them calmness and a confidence that allowed them to play the disciplined style Cahill preached. After a key goalkeeping error allowed Toronto to equalize, the game appeared to be heading for a 1-1 draw until ‘Henry to Cahill’ won them the game. Much focus in Toronto was rightfully on Ashtone Morgan’s poor clearance but watch Cahill’s brilliant run into space and his fantastic ability to not only get high but then put the ball into the ground to beat Joe Bednik in Toronto’s goal.

Cahill reflected on the winner afterwards: “If we were up 1-0 I don’t think I would have went but Thierry didn’t even look at me, I screamed and he heard and being the footballer he is he knew exactly where I was, put the ball in the air and from there, if they are not going to follow me and follow the runners, then there was only going to be one winner on that cross and that’s what I have been looking for all season. Thierry’s class (showed) on that ball and like I said he didn’t even look at me, that’s football, instincts.”

On sitting deeper and helping out his defence

In a cagey first half Cahill sat intelligently in the middle of the visitors midfield with Eric Alexander, concentrating more on being a key outlet for the defenders behind him than connecting with the four in front of them.

“If you watch Toronto’s videos they are a second ball team, they pump it in the box, pick up the second ball, back into the box, third ball, but if you have the players set in the right positions then you can break and find the players like Thierry (Henry) and Lloyd (Sam).”

On two occasions during the match a key header needed to be won deep in New York’s own half and it was done so by the Aussie who has a clear, supreme understanding of the ball when it leaves an opponents foot for a cross, knowing more than most where it is going to fall. “I pride myself on defending just as much as attacking, Toronto are a dead ball team who lump the balls in the box, I am not scared to win a challenge when I am defending and if it starts with me then it will only influence on the others in this team.”

On executing their plan at corners

You do not score 31 Premier League headed goals without knowing how to find your way around a crowded penalty area on corners. On Saturday, following the game, Toronto FC boss Ryan Nelsen admitted that he had warned his team about Cahill’s strengths at corners and although his side did a decent job at just the three corners New York won, the set pieces provided all with a fascinating look at why Cahill is so successful.

Before we take a look at New York’s process on attacking at a corner it is important to see Toronto FC sets up in a full zonal marking shape with all 10 players labelled, all doing a specific job.

tfc Zonal Marking 2

1 – is the man on the near post.

5 – this man monitors the near post but also blocks the angle of the ball coming across the goal.

2, 3, 4 – three players across the six yard box. 2 and 4 usually are the length of a goal between each other with number 3 in the middle, thus blocking off the zones.

6, 7, 8 – three players are then put in front of them and the job of these six players is to mark their zones and stay focused on going forward and side-to-side not back.

9 – This player’s position can be flexible depending on the set up of the opposition. He is usually deeper but here the player in question Ashtone Morgan is attracted to the large group of players and as you will see will go back with his marker as the play develops. He is effectively marking man-to-man unlike the rest of the team.

10 – This is the most advanced player whose job is primary to track any late runners and find crucial space to be a key outlet if his team wins the ball back.

Cahill is the team’s leader in executing what his coaching staff work on through the week. He immediately sets himself up on the edge of the area, running through the positions of the players in his mind.

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Then it is time for a quick meeting between Cahill and his team-mates to go through their runs, so they do not copy one another and pick the right areas to attack and then create holes.

Cahill 5

Cahill 7

After reviewing their assignments it is time to begin early movements to keep defenders on their toes. Cahill, fully aware the attention of many is on him, drifts into space. At this stage you will see Fabian Espindola walking towards Cahill…..

Cahill 8

Espindola then moves into the six yard box to occupy the attention of those in that area and stop them coming out. Now it is time to put the plan into action as Cahill explained to me post match: ‘It’s all about trying to move the defence out of holes, and try and make areas where I can get in, if we dont make the right runs you wont get the goals and in these MLS games you need two or three goals to win games. I am constantly talking on the pitch and organising them to make sure people are in the position and if you get set early it makes it easier.”

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In this case the players are set early. As Henry prepares to take the corner it is time to make the aggressive moves. The two players to Cahill’s right (above) are going to rush in while Cahill spins around into space.

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The importance of everyone doing what they are told with intelligent movement is now evident as Cahill finds himself with some space in front of him ready for the ball…..

Cahill 12

As expected the ball finds Cahill in the space he helped create but is quickly closed down by the zonal markers….

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Cahill is not one to be denied easily though and now the importance of getting the second ball is vital. Cahill explained this afterwards when he referred to its importance from both set pieces and open play against a direct team like Toronto, saying: “The lads are probably sick of me screaming the entire game  ‘second ball’ because if you win that then you start to play, regardless of the circumstances.”

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Cahill fights for the second ball and wins it getting a shot off saved by the onrushing Bendik.

Cahill 15All-in-all it was a complete performance from Cahill who at 33 is starting to become a coach on the field as his head coach Mike Petke explained: “The two goals today were just the cherry on the cake to be honest with you because he does exactly what we ask him to do.  He leads in the midfield, he plays very stingy defence and he’s a work horse.  He’s an example for our young midfielders to be honest with you.”

Suarez’s 10 game suspension shows a real lack of awareness of what the game of football is for.

The number ten.

It is a number in football that evokes wonderful visions in the mind of the likes of Pele, Maradona, Bergkamp, Totti and Messi doing something with a ball millions could only dream of doing.

As they ran themselves past defenders and into our living rooms there stood the number on their backs standing out as bright as can be, a sure sign that their genius was labelled correctly.

Oh how beautiful number ten is to football fans.

Unfortunately for the number it exploded negatively into headlines everywhere today across the world when Luis Suarez was given a ten game ban for biting Branislav Ivanovic during Sunday’s Premier League match at Anfield.

Such a high number, of course, led to many discussions playing out on twitter, talk radio and in offices around the globe with the majority seemingly agreeing that the suspension was fair.

“What else could the FA have done? They would have looked ridiculous if they had given less than seven. He got seven games for biting in Holland, is a repeat offender, was banned eight games for racially abusing Patrice Evra, didn’t learn his lesson by shaking his hand. Ten games is lenient,” preached Talksport’s drive time host Adrian Durham.

It seemed to be a common argument.

“I agree, he has to be taught a lesson,” said his co-host Darren Gough.

However, is it really the Football Association’s job to teach Suarez a lesson? And does handing him 10 games to watch from the stands stop him from doing something he shouldn’t do next time when eight last year did not?

Furthermore is it not in the interest of the FA to keep Suarez in the Premier League? I do not expect them to have noticed the alarmingly lack of true world class players now in their league but, surely, even the suits will know the benefit of having the Uruguayan representing their league each weekend?

A lengthy, intelligent discussion with one of their finest clubs, in Liverpool, would have revealed to them the precarious situation the Reds currently stand. Suarez is clearly playing at a level with his club that doesn’t match his talent and with another year without sitting at the top table of European football’s elite competition looming it was clear the summer months would be very challenging for Ian Ayre, Brendan Rodgers and the Fenway Sports Group to keep their prize asset.

The lengthy ban does nothing to keep Suarez happy with the country he is working in and gives him more reasons to slip back into the ‘them against me’ mentality that he so often displays while on a football field.

This was not Lewis Swares, an average footballer the world had never heard of because he wasn’t very good. This is a star footballer who the Premier League are fortunate to have at the moment and the hearing should have recognised that and come down with a number slightly lower that would have satisfied all involved, not a number that is sure to drag the situation on now with an appeal. Special consideration for premium talent happens in every workplace for a reason, the person in question is always very valuable to those who he represents and the FA have been naive in not thinking that way.

There have been many reports written in the past few days siting an ‘embarrassing situation’ for the branding of Premier League and Liverpool Football Club when nothing could be further from the truth. The Premier League is in the entertainment business and this publicity has done them no harm whatsoever.

The fact that a three-person independent regulatory commission today sat around a room and threw a 10 game suspension towards one of its finest players for a bite is not only misguided but also, perhaps more seriously, shows a real lack of awareness of what the game of football is for.

Football is about entertainment. Millions of people go to work miserable Monday to Friday in England and one of the main things that keeps them going all week is the allure of the football match on Saturday. A chance to watch their beloved team and some of the finest players in the game perform magic tricks with a ball. Today’s ruling denies Liverpool football fans a chance at that until, at least,  late September and quite possibly much longer.

Suarez was rightfully dubbed this week ‘a world class player and a world class problem’ and of course he has let down the entire city and should have been banned but lengthy suspensions in football are doing nobody any favours.

A suspension is supposed to be a severe punishment that represents the crime committed, to prevent you from doing it again but the game is now making a laughing stock out of itself against this notion. Suspensions are thrown out so often that the purpose of them in the first place has been lost. Three yellow cards gained in the Champions League season through to the semi finals and you are banned. A three game ban for mistiming a tackle for a split second in the Premier League and it is ‘violent conduct’, get another red and you miss another four games.

Today’s ruling ensures the 26-year-old, if he stays in England, will miss a quarter of a season when you consider at least two domestic cup ties plus 38 league matches. This is the equivalent of around 20 games in the NHL or NBA, 40 games in Major League Baseball, five races in Formula One and ten PGA tour events. Excessive to say the least.

Many of these sports have handed out lengthy suspensions in the past when sportsmen in question have done very serious acts such as break the law and take performance-enhancing drugs, deliberately cause accidents in a car, use a hockey stick to hit an opponent in the head or run into the crowd and fight with fans.

In fact football itself has rightfully done the same to players for despicable acts such as kicking fans, pushing referees or punching opponents in the face but it now adds an act that caused absolutely no harm to an opponent. A pathetically disgusting act, no doubt, but one hardly worth removing one of the game’s greatest entertainers for 25% of its season.

Suarez may have hurt Ivanovic for a split second but the FA’s ruling will hurt their consumers and their prospects of keeping such a talent for much longer.

Bayern Munich 4-0 Barcelona – The end of an era & the final chapter for the game’s greatest team.

Barcelona now have a game that closes the chapter on their glory. They will win La Liga this season and the history books will show their continued success at winning trophies but this was a night where they were absolutely dominated on the game’s biggest stage.

It was also a performance from them that had been coming. They barely showed up in Milan, never got out of second gear in Paris and when they stuttered in Munich they were absolutely obliterated. One and a half excellent home performances when they got home allowed them to get this far but there will be no further progressing after this stage for Barcelona.

When Thomas Muller, the game’s star performer, made it 4-0 with just under ten minutes to go it was a fitting reminder to the visitors that they best not concentrate on two of the goals being unfairly allowed by the officials. Although they’d have a point, the scoreline absolutely reflected the performances of both sides.

Bayern Munich pressed smartly, passed brilliantly, spread the field intelligently and beat Barcelona in every department. They certainly deserve the credit they will receive but this was a night to focus on the closing of a dynasty.

Barcelona’s six successive semi finals in the Champions League is a remarkable run and their two losses within that came only when two teams, both down to 10-men, shut up shop and stopped them from scoring at the Nou Camp.

For the first time in their great run they were beaten by a team who could do what they set out to do. There will be no comeback this time around.

“I’m drained and I need to fill up. The demand has been very high,” said Pep Guardiola when he announced he was leaving the Barcelona bench during last season. Few disputed his claim and fewer thought of his key players, the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, who might have felt the same way.

The magnificent trio have played together for a number of years but you’d be hard pressed to find a game at any level where they were outplayed like this. Messi was clearly not fit, afraid to step into his stride when he received the ball and regularly dropping deep to lay off a pass and not have to make a run. He simply should not have played but who’d be the coach who would ever not play him if he is telling you he can?

Xavi and Iniesta, two of the greatest players Spain has ever produced, struggled to get any grip on the match but, in truth, were let down by many of their teammates.

No players in world football have played close to the amount of minutes these two footballing masterminds have played in the past six seasons. Those who have followed their careers closely have been waiting for the burnout to hit for sometime. During Euro 2012 some thought their heavy schedule would catch up with them only for Iniesta to be the best player at the tournament and Xavi to takeover the final, leading Spain to a magnificent 4-0 win over Italy.

The pair, who have each claimed an incredible 17 winners medals in the last five seasons, have had some incredible highs in this great game but tonight they fly back to Barcelona demoralized with images stuck in their head from one of the biggest lows of their sparkling careers.

At 33, Xavi, surely a future Barcelona manager, will know only too well what went wrong and what will be needed to make sure this is not repeated. Javier Mascherano is a fine player but should never have been the only recognizable centre-back in the squad when (and not if) Carles Puyol was injured. Starting a 22-year-old centre back in Bartra in a monumental match wasn’t a risk, it was idiotic. He is certainly no Raphael Varane.

It is time for Barcelona to stop playing roulette with the art of defending and go get any of Mats Hummels, Daniel Agger or Laurent Koscielny. Comfortable on the ball is an important requirement, of course, but a defender who is simply good in the air, who can take command from set pieces is essential. If he is a world class defender there is a pretty good chance he is decent technically. Look at Puyol, for example.

And this is where the Barcelona’s philosophy has to be tested and pressed. They have lost some smart football minds in the last two years – do not underestimate the loss of Txiki Begiristain – and it is time for them to reinvent themselves while sticking to their principals. 4-3-3 and the art of treasuring the ball will never change but for them to move forward they simply have to recruit better. While they wasted money on Alex Song, Bayern went in their backyard and found Javi Martinez. For an iconic club like Barcelona that cannot happen again.

Dani Alves has become a massive problem. His link up with Pedro on the right in Munich was admirable for the first quarter of the match but after that it just became suicidal. Bayern exploited their wide areas all game long and Alves not once, even at 3-0 down, looked like a right back. With the excellent Jordi Alba on the left, Barcelona need a defensive minded right back who has the ability to pick his moments when he goes forward, instead of a right back who regularly leaves gaps the size of parking lots behind him. On this night poor Bartra never stood a chance playing next to the Brazilian.

Barcelona will be back but absolutely must learn some key lessons after being taken to school by Bayern in this first leg. While Xavi and Co spend the next few months thinking ahead any one who loves football should take some time and think back at what this team and their greatest players have achieved. Some called them the greatest team to ever play the game. Whether they were or not they, along with their national team, led a passing revolution that changed the game and forced others to be better.

Without Barcelona’s performances in the last six seasons, Bayern Munich do not produce a performance like this tonight. The lines have met each other once again on the circle of footballing life.

Every dynasty comes to an end eventually, the best ones are the ones who pave the way for others to continue their way.

On United’s Robin Reliant approach, why the Premier League is too easy for them + my PL team of the year.

It started with the ring of Arsene Wenger’s phone.

And with it came Robin, revenge, redemption and a ruthlessness that got Manchester United to the finish line a full 27 days before the end of the season.

Champions for the 20th time. It was what Sir Alex Ferguson had dreamed of during one of his many summer visits to New York City just ten months ago.

It will have taken the shrewd Scot many an hour to get the image of Vincent Kompany lifting a trophy he thought he had won already out of his competitive mind.

His side had come within seconds of winning title number 20 only to have it snatched away from them in a storybook ending that even most film directors would have thrown out for being too unrealistic.

Yet, as he consoled his players on that final day, despite being so close, he will have been only too aware of the dismal season that had unfolded. Dumped from the Champions League in the group stage and not one domestic honour claimed, for just the fifth time in the 20 years of the Premier League. It had nowhere near been good enough.

Something had do be done. He had been here before. Of the four previous times they had failed to win any domestic trophies, three times they had bounced back immediately the following season with a Premier League crown. It was time for recruitment.

Many expected a new centre back or a new playmaker in midfield, perhaps even a new goalkeeper. Few expected a new striker and a world class one at that. United had just completed their league season scoring 89 goals, the most since they bagged 97 back in 1999/00. Despite that they had lost the league on goal difference, pointing many to believe the defence needed improvement.

Ferguson looked at it differently. He knew that against all 18 other teams, other than Manchester City, they had reached 89pts from 36 matches, while their neighbours had claimed just 83. The title had been lost in the head-to-head games and he needed a gamebreaker who could make a difference against the quality of City and, at the same time, ensure that the six point gap in which they were better than City, versus the rest of the league, would get wider.

He recognized the league’s greatest weakness, the art of defending, and sensed with the reigning player of the year he could batter teams into submission, while at the same time help his slightly flawed defence by giving them bigger leads to work with.

Van Persie was signed, sealed and would go on to deliver on both of those key demands.

After an opening week loss at Everton, where the Dutchman came off the bench,United won four in a row with Van Persie scoring five goals, three of which tied the games when they were losing while the other two were game winners. Essential points-changing goals.

After a loss at home to Tottenham, United won five in a row, Van Persie scoring the go-ahead goal against Stoke before netting crucial goals in back-to-back games against Chelsea and Arsenal that were each separated by just one goal.

After a loss at Norwich another five game winless run followed and Van Persie’s four goals in that stretch all broke ties during the games and proved to be game winners, 1-0 at home to West Ham, 4-3 at Reading, 3-1 at home to Sunderland and, crucially, 3-2 at Manchester City through a 90th minute free kick.

After a draw against Swansea, Van Persie scored in five straight matches and only when Clint Dempsey scored a 90th minute equalizer for Spurs in January did the 29-year-old walk off the field not a winner after scoring in a match for United. Until then he had scored in 14 of the club’s first 22 matches and they had won all 14 of them.

He had become their momentum changer. In 19 days last April they lost the grip on the league title by winning just one of four league matches. This season, with Van Persie, they have not gone more than a game without winning. Only six times they failed to win a match and in the six games following they scored a thumping 17 goals, scoring at least two every time. They never allowed themselves to go on a poor run. In contrast, City had two separate runs of two games without a win and one three game winless streak.

The Van Persie factor certainly paid off in the two areas Ferguson had hoped but even he couldn’t have imagined it would end this early, coming so thanks to some dismal City performances. The title was secured on April 22nd, a year ago to the day in which United handed City the momentum back following a 4-4 draw at home to Everton. With three games left, United led 83-80 last year. Twelve months on, with four games to go, United lead 84-68. The gap is so large it is a fight that was called weeks ago.

And that may have been one of the reasons for the looks on the faces of the United players and fans as they celebrated the title at Old Trafford on Monday night. Sure, there was happiness, sheer joy in a few, but it felt more like ‘job done’ than ‘something won’. It had almost been too easy.

Sir Alex looked like he was enjoying himself and how could he not but even he must start to wonder if it can get any better than this. There was some irony that the title was won on the eve of the Champions League semi finals, a tournament the manager so craves. Should they have been preparing for a final four clash this week, championship number twenty will have to have waited but instead it was celebrated, for the 13th time in the last 21 seasons.

This week then he will sit and watch Europe’s best clubs fight it out for a spot in the Wembley final and as he does so he should use these teams for motivation this summer, just like he used City last year. United’s monopoly on the Premier League since it was born in 1992 has happened for many positive reasons of their own but is also been helped because of a clear lack of ambition from their domestic rivals.

Financially only Chelsea and City choose to compete with the Red Devils each season, essentially meaning United won a three team race to be champions of England and this season both their main rivals let themselves down badly. Sure, there was some close, excellent matches when the teams came together and it will be those wins that Ferguson will be most proud of this season because they were achieved in top gear. The stark reality is the rest of the league is rarely testing his side and is certainly not helping prepare them for Champions League glory because the team can go through many games stuck in third gear and still win.

Nani, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia have all had poor seasons. Rafael has had good and bad months, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand started just eight games together while Ryan Giggs, despite being lauded by every commentator who covers his game, has spent the majority of the season looking like a 39-year-0ld.

And then there is Wayne Rooney whose inconsistent performances against some very average teams were inexcusable for a player seen by many as among the game’s elite.

Yet still United cruised. As the club and its global fanbase celebrated on Monday many other football fans came together for a collective yawn. United would be wise to do the same back at the league. City will be back to fight, Chelsea quite possibly too, but United and their manager know they are in cruise control against the rest, allowing average players to give average performances on their way to picking up a winners medal more seasons than they don’t. It is little wonder, then, that the majority of these players freeze in a big spot against Real Madrid when the going gets tough.

Last summer Sir Alex convinced ownership they needed to buy a world class player in an area many didn’t think they needed. If they want to be considered amongst the game’s best he will need to do the same again this year.

He can enjoy beating up on the domestic mediocre teams he sees most weeks for now and thrive in defeating the noisy neighbours once again but he will be naive if he concentrates on only achieving Premier League glory each season. That race may still be a marathon but within it they have barely broken a sweat.

Time to pick up that phone.

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For some moronic reason the PFA players awards will be announced later this month including the team of the year. Votes are already in because apparently games this late in the season do not count! Much stock is put into this process by media outlets around the world ignoring the fact the votes are sent in by players who usually judge a colleague by watching highlight shows and saying terms such as ‘he is quality’. I much prefer to give my choices for such awards at the end of the season but some of you have asked on twitter so while I have spent this piece reflecting on the season that was, here are mine.

Player of the Year – Robin Van Persie

Young Player of the Year – Eden Hazard

Team of the Year – Simon Mignolet (Sunderland); Pablo Zabaleta (Manchester City) Phil Jagielka (Everton) Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham) Leighton Baines (Everton); Steven Gerrard (Liverpool) Michael Carrick (Manchester United); Juan Mata (Chelsea) Robin Van Persie (Manchester United) Gareth Bale (Tottenham); Luis Suarez (Liverpool). Subs – Asmir Begovic (Stoke); Matija Nastasic (Manchester City); Morgan Schneiderlin (Southampton) Eden Hazard (Chelsea) Santi Cazorla (Arsenal) Marouane Fellaini (Everton) Michu (Swansea City).

Everton’s left wing party is restored as Pienaar & Fellaini return.

Before Saturday, the last time Steven Pienaar started a football match with manager Harry Redknapp in attendance the opposition in question was Cheltenham Town. It was the 3rd round of the FA Cup in January 2012 and it was the South African’s first start in three weeks since playing against Shamrock Rovers in the Europa League. It had come down to this for the South African, games against teams from League Two and the Irish League for the Spurs winger who had still not started a match in the Premier League that season for Redknapp at Tottenham.

Less than a month later Pienaar was back at Goodison Park on a six month loan. He would start all 14 matches he participated in for the rest of the season, sitting out a game against Tottenham who remained his employers. For now.

By the summer he was officially an Evertonian once again, a place he had blossomed at since 2007 when he initially joined on loan from Borussia Dortmund.

It was the right fit for Pienaar and the right fit for his manager David Moyes despite the Scot having to go against his instincts and break his own rules when it comes to transfer recruitment.

“I had a worry when it was first mooted about him coming back,” said Moyes in December. “But he has been inspirational to how we have played. He has helped the team and he has helped the crowd as well. He has certainly improved us and made us better.”

He added: ” I was worried about it second time around. At Everton we have always tried to do good deals and tried to buy at the right age or certainly at the right price. We had to buy Steven back for more than we sold him and he was a year older. It’s been a great deal for us and we’ve been delighted to have him and I’ve done many a worse deal. But at the time it just felt as if it wasn’t lying well with me.”

Pienaar’s move back to Everton has seen him started most games in a left wing position for the Toffees, although his overall tactical movement often sees him switch with the right-sided player and he has also occasionally started in a central position, off the striker, when Marouane Fellaini has been unavailable.

For Saturday’s home match against QPR, which saw Pienaar go up against Redknapp for the first time since his move, both he and Fellaini were restored to Everton’s starting XI after they each missed the win at home to Stoke and the draw at Tottenham through suspension.

football formations

Four points from the past two games without their star creators certainly satisfied Moyes in his push to contend for a place in Europe next season, even though the team struggled, without the pair, in successful crosses.

Everton crosses

Crosses per game

Before those matches Everton led the Premier League in crosses per game average with 28. They remain second (to West Ham) with 27 through 33 matches. Without Fellaini’s height and Pienaar’s chemistry with left back Leighton Baines, the Toffees didn’t succeed as much as usual in wide areas. Best Skateboards

The return of the pair on Saturday gave the Everton faithful an opportunity to see them get back to the style of play they have been so successful at this season.

Left side dominant

It is no surprise that Everton lead the league in attacks down the left flank, doing so in 43% of their attacks. It is equally not surprising that Baines is second in the league in successful crosses per game at 2.8 (Nicky Shorey is at 2.9 but has played half the amount of games as Baines). However, when this blog looked at Everton’s style earlier this season it asked if the team was actually crossing too much. At the time Baines was the runaway league leader in crosses per game at 3.8 so it is clear they have made slight adjustments in that area.

Despite that they remain close to the top in two key crossing categories and that is down to the strong bond developed between Baines and Pienaar. The pair have a very strong understanding both positionally and tactically of each other and revel in creating overlaps against opposing full backs.

In this video you will see when the ball is swung across how Pienaar immediately looks for space when his team-mate joins the attack. As the play develops Baines actually gets taken down and Pienaar is the first to see it because he is so used to looking for him, even without the ball. At one point he tells his team to kick the ball a different way but Baines soon recovers and the pair do what they do best…

No surprise, Baines to Pienaar was the game’s leading pass combination and no other players got close to the 23 they combined between each other.

Baines to Pienaar

Although much of that comes down to their chemistry it also exemplifies the outstanding movement Pienaar when searching for space. It’s the kind of work rate he also shows in the defensive side of the game, working diligently to pin full backs in so he and Baines can attack them when in possession….

Fellaini factor

Playing Fellaini behind the striker gives Moyes many strengths to his attack, not least the Belgian’s lateral movement and ability to link up with his winger and full back, sometimes at the same time, during possession. He is not a player who runs with the ball towards the goal and plays balls into his forward, choosing instead to do a lot of his damage with his back to goal, bringing in many team-mates towards the ball.

Fellaini vs QPR

Not only does this create passing triangles but also causes the opposition confusion in their defending. In the first video example you will see just what the trio are trying to do and how QPR stick to their task and eventually stop the attack when Baines and Fellaini are blocked as outlets.

Later in the half, however, they are at it again and this time QPR don’t make adjustments and are opened up when they lose concentration.

Everton’s first goal

The opening goal of the game was somewhat fortunate for the home side as Darron Gibson’s long-range effort deflected off defender Clint Hill and into the net, but it did start from a move, once again, down the left. It again highlighted Pienaar’s movement and ability to find space. Ten minutes before the goal Moyes rotated Pienaar with right winger Kevin Mirallas, something he often does to keep defenders on their toes, yet in the buildup to the goal you will see both players involved. Miralles feeds Pienaar who sends Baines down the flank before the ball falls back out to Mirallas whose shot comes out to Gibson.

Everton’s second goal

QPR were completely dominated from the start of the second half up until Everton rightfully got a second to show their overall superiority. Although the second goal came from a corner, it was a corner gained from a free kick won on the left handside. Both the free kick and the corner were very well set pieces taken by Baines.

Baines finished the game with three successful crosses (just above his season average) but all three actually came from corners in this match, yet with Fellaini and Pienaar back in the team both his attempts and the team’s attempts were higher by some margin than they were in the two games prior.

Everton crosses vs QPRA win against one of the league’s poorest teams at home was expected around the blue half of Merseyside but in an era where more and more team’s play narrow styles it was refreshing to see Everton stretch the play again with the return of the duo. Fellaini has rightfully got many plaudits for helping Moyes’ side compete for a spot in Europe all season but Pienaar’s influence should not be ignored. Just ask Leighton Baines.

By kristianjack Posted in Everton

A statistical look at how to spot a relegated team in the Premier League & the need to play over 1.06PPG.

Ian Holloway salutes

On the 12th of January two years ago a Premier League manager, who had just watched his side beat Liverpool 2-1 to get to 28 points after 20 matches, was asked: ‘How much closer now are you to survival in this league?’

“It’s only three points closer innit? Just three points closer to the target,” was the realistic reply.

Although the target wasn’t explained it was clear it was 40pts. It’s a tally often referred to by many Premier League bosses in the bid for safety and an amount only three teams have reached and still got relegated in the last 17 seasons (since the PL went to 20 teams, something we will call PL-20 for the rest of this piece).

Whether he knew or not, the 2010/11 manager in question did not let on that no team in the previous 15 seasons had ever been relegated after getting to the 28 point mark through 20 games.

History was about to change.

His side would go on to lose nine of their next twelve matches, leaving them on 33pts after 32 games.

As his team lost the 32nd match they fell below an average of 1.06 points per game for the first time that season. They wouldn’t get to that level again as six more points in their final six matches meant they finished on 39pts and were relegated on the final day of the season.

Ian Holloway and Blackpool are now enjoying life in the Championship but are no longer together. The Seasiders currently sit 18th surrounding a who’s who of teams who have been relegated from the Premier League with them in the last ten years:

8 Bolton Wanderers 41 16 12 13 60 53 13 5 3 33 17 3 7 10 27 36 7 60
9 Birmingham City 41 14 13 14 58 62 6 8 7 27 33 8 5 7 31 29 -4 55
10 Middlesbrough 41 17 4 20 57 62 12 2 6 35 23 5 2 14 22 39 -5 55
11 Derby County 41 14 12 15 59 56 10 7 4 39 21 4 5 11 20 35 3 54
12 Burnley 41 14 12 15 57 56 8 7 6 28 21 6 5 9 29 35 1 54
13 Charlton Athletic 41 14 12 15 51 55 6 6 9 26 32 8 6 6 25 23 -4 54
14 Sheffield Wednesday 41 15 8 18 49 57 8 3 10 27 34 7 5 8 22 23 -8 53
15 Ipswich Town 41 14 11 16 40 55 8 5 7 27 24 6 6 9 13 31 -15 53
16 Millwall 40 14 10 16 49 55 7 3 9 22 27 7 7 7 27 28 -6 52
17 Leeds United 41 14 10 17 51 61 11 3 6 26 23 3 7 11 25 38 -10 52
18 Blackpool 41 12 15 14 56 54 6 8 6 29 23 6 7 8 27 31 2 51
19 Barnsley 41 13 10 18 51 61 8 4 8 23 24 5 6 10 28 37 -10 49
20 Wolverhampton Wanderers 41 13 9 19 51 60 6 7 7 27 30 7 2 12 24 30 -9 48
21 Blackburn Rovers 40 11 14 15 48 55 8 5 7 23 22 3 9 8 25 33 -7 47

Also relegated alongside Blackpool two years ago were Birmingham City who, much like their relegation cousins, found themselves among the record breakers for relegated teams. The Blues of 2010-11 became the first ever team since the league went to 20 teams after 1994-95 (PL-20) to ever lose their Premier League survival after getting to 38pts through 32 matches.

Birmingham’s collapse two seasons ago has puts all teams (and their analytics staff) not on 39pts already this season on high alert because it has become more difficult identifying just who is a prime relegation candidate.

11 Southampton 32 9 10 13 46 53 6 5 5 24 19 3 5 8 22 34 -7 37
12 West Ham United 31 10 7 14 35 44 7 4 4 26 18 3 3 10 9 26 -9 37
13 Newcastle United 32 10 6 16 42 56 9 1 6 24 21 1 5 10 18 35 -14 36
14 Norwich City 32 7 14 11 30 49 6 7 3 18 17 1 7 8 12 32 -19 35
15 Stoke City 32 7 13 12 28 39 6 7 3 19 18 1 6 9 9 21 -11 34
16 Aston Villa 32 8 9 15 35 59 4 4 8 15 24 4 5 7 20 35 -24 33
17 Sunderland 32 7 10 15 34 45 4 6 6 17 17 3 4 9 17 28 -11 31
18 Wigan Athletic 31 8 7 16 37 57 4 4 8 20 32 4 3 8 17 25 -20 31
19 Queens Park Rangers 32 4 12 16 29 52 2 8 6 12 23 2 4 10 17 29 -23 24
20 Reading 32 5 8 19 36 63 4 6 6 23 31 1 2 13 13 32 -27 23

32 games in, do these teams look like teams who could go down?

Birmingham’s case was an extreme one.  Not only are they the only team, of the 51 teams relegated in the last 17 seasons, to be relegated by getting to 38pts after 32 games, they are also the only team to have got more than 33pts after 32 games and still be relegated. In other words, 50 of the 51 teams relegated in the last 17 seasons had not gotten to the 34pts mark with six games remaining.

What this tells us is 98% of those relegated failed to get more than 1.06 points per game (34pts) through the first 32 matches of the season. And only 2% (one team) were good enough to get at least 1.06 points per game through 32 games and still go down.

Should any of Stoke, Norwich, Newcastle, West Ham or Southampton somehow get relegated this season they would join a very exclusive club.

Points Per Game

As identified above only one team has averaged at least 1.06 PPG through 32 games and been relegated. 1.06 PPG is also relevant as it gets teams to that much-targeted 40 point mark through 38 matches. It is worth noting that the Birmingham side of 10-11 were sent down after getting just one point from their final six matches and, thus, falling below 1.06PPG at the end of the season, finishing on 39.

Only three teams from the 51 in question were relegated by averaging 1.06PPG (40pts or more), the last being West Ham in 2002-03 and that happened because two teams didn’t even reach 27pts that season. With the bottom half becoming more and more competitive every season (12 of the last 15 relegated teams have got to the 30 point mark) it is fair to say 1.06PPG will likely keep you up in this era of the Premier League.

Play football at a 1.06PPG pace all season and you shouldn’t be considered a relegation candidate. Simple.

In fact, even if you play at that level for just two-thirds of the season and then regress you have over a 85% chance of staying up. Only seven of 51 teams relegated (less than 14 %) under PL-20 had a higher average of 1.06PPG (27pts or more) through 25 games and were relegated. Everyone of them fell below 0.85PPG in the last third.

In other words 44 of the 51 teams relegated under PL-20 failed to play at a 1.06PPG through 25 matches. In truth, there were few surprises. They looked like relegated teams two-thirds of the way through and proved it a few months later.

This is relevant when charting the cases of Southampton, West Ham, Newcastle, Norwich, Stoke and Sunderland to be relegated this season.

We have already determined that only 2% of relegated teams have reached a mark over 1.06 PPG through 32 games and gone down, so the other 98% tells us those in this list except Sunderland at this stage don’t look like relegated teams.

But what of those who collapse late in the season? We have determined that a team who gets to 27pts through 25 games has only been relegated when they play below 0.85 PPG in the last 13 matches (11pts or less).

For this we throw out Southampton as they were the only team in this group under 1.06 PPG through 25 matches, claiming 24pts through 25 games (0.96 PPG). An impressive 13pts from their last 7 games – a rate of 1.86 PPG – seems to have all but secured their safety.

Identifying a collapse

However, the cases of the five other teams need to be examined further. West Ham (30), Newcastle (27), Norwich (28) Stoke (30) and Sunderland (29) all played over a rate of 1.06PPG through 25 games. We have determined that any team who gets relegated after reaching this margin did so by not playing above a rate of 0.85PPG (12pts or more) in the last 13 to secure safety. They collapsed.

This conclusion comes from the seven teams in the past seventeen seasons who didn’t and were ultimately relegated. West Ham, who no one is picking to go down being on 37pts through 32 games, should know that no team has ever been relegated reaching the 31 point mark through 25 games or 37 through 31. Hammers don’t appear to be changing history this season.

Newcastle also look very secure. Only Birmingham two seasons ago has been relegated by getting to at least the 36 point mark through 32 games. Four points from their last six games gets them to 1.06 and complete safety.

For Stoke, Sunderland and Norwich, though, there is a precedence of five teams who got to their marks of 30, 29 and 28 through 25 games and failed to survive.

Birmingham (10-11) last 13 – L L D L W D W L L D L L L

Blackpool (10-11) last 13 – D W L L D L L L D D D W L

Ipswich (01-02) last 13 – L L L L D D L D L L W L L

Wimbledon (99-00) last 13 – D L W L L L L L L L L D L

Sunderland (96-97) last 13 – L L L W L L D D L W L W L

You will notice that the four most recent examples show none of the teams in question could win three games or avoid a winless streak of at least six matches. Sunderland of 96-97 is a rare exception to the rule and that is understandable. They are one of the three teams to be relegated by reaching the 40 point mark.

Stoke’s current run in their last 13 is – W L L L D L L. The winless streak of six is already there. Three more losses in their last six and less than two wins will mean they look very much like a relegated team. It will also ensure they finish with less than 40pts and under 1.06PPG.

Sunderland’s current run in their last 13 is – L L D L D L. Another winless streak of six that already exists. Three wins from six would give them what they need and get them to the key mark of 1.06PPG by the end of the season.

Norwich’s current run in their last 13 is – D W L D D L D. Once again we have discovered those prime for a collapse do so when they do not win at least three of their last 13 and go on a winless streak of at least six games. Norwich are firmly in the middle of such a streak right now. The example of Blackpool, drawing many and losing fewer, should be alarming for the Canaries. Like Stoke, three losses and less than two wins in their last six would leave them looking very much like a relegation team.

A look at Aston Villa, Wigan, QPR & Reading

It doesn’t take a genius to understand what these teams look like at this stage of the season, as well as Sunderland, whose recent fall puts them in the collapse category. Of the 50 teams who have been relegated by not getting to the 1.06 mark through 32 games, only 16 (32%) were able to play above 1.06PPG (7pts or more) in the last six matches. This is not surprising. If you are a poor team threatened with relegation after nine months, it is unlikely an eventual relegated team can turn their fortunes around even if the inevitable (relegation) is sealed.

Points acquired by the 51 relegated teams in their last six matches:

0 – 2 teams

1 – 4 teams

2 – 4 teams

3 – 5 teams

4 – 9 teams

5 – 5 teams

6 – 6 teams

7 – 8 teams

8 – 3 teams

9 – 3 teams

10 – 1 team

11 – 1 team

If Aston Villa and Wigan want to not look like a relegation team the rest of the way it is clear they need to be among the 32% and not the 68%. If Villa do that they’ll get to 40pts. Wigan, with a game in hand, currently average a point per game but also know they’ll need nine points to guarantee safety.

No team from those relegated were good enough to play at a rate of two points per game in the last six (12pts), so we can forget about Reading or QPR getting to the 36 point mark. Unless, of course, one of them can somehow do what Wigan did last season when they did something never seen before, gaining 15pts from their last 18 to survive. Unlikely.

A magical run aside, statistical history tells us that those two teams will be relegated but there remains a spot for one other. If those identified as primed for a collapse all survive the other will be one of Wigan or Aston Villa.

Wigan have not reached the 1.06PPG level since they had 14pts through 13 games in November. And that is hardly much more. Aston Villa have not played at that level all season. In short, they have looked like strong relegation candidates for the best part of eight months.

Conclusion

In summary what these numbers all show is the importance of staying at or exceeding 1.06 points per game throughout the season. Play above that all season and you should never be labelled as a ‘relegation candidate’. Three of these clubs will be relegated by May 19th. Two seem likely to drop and a few others may finish the season looking like a relegated team even if only one of them turns out to be. Will it be a one from the collapse category or a team who have been below 1.06PPG for the majority of the season?

Borussia Dortmund 3-2 Malaga – Incredible finish far too cruel on Pellegrini.

Starting XI’s

Jurgen Klopp made two changes to last week’s 0-0 tie in Spain, bringing back Sven Bender for club skipper Sebastian Kehl in midfield while Jakub Blaszczykowski was now fit to play on the right, pushing Marco Reus to the left and Kevin Grosskreutz to the bench.

football formations

Malaga boss Manuel Pellegrini was forced into two changes, with Weligton and Manuel Iturra suspended, choosing Ignacio Camacho and Sergio Sanchez as their replacements while also making another key switch from last week’s first leg, bringing in Duda for Javier Saviola.

football formations

In the five days since drawing 0-0 in the first leg of this Champions League quarter final, Malaga boss Manuel Pellegrini took his team to Real Sociedad, watched them concede three in the first half-an-hour, told them at full time his father had passed away, travelled to Chile to be by his side, flew back to Germany, arrived in Dortmund at 2pm today and then produced a tactical masterclass that looked set to knock Borussia Dortmund out of the tournament.

Then Marco Reus and Felipe Santana scored goals in injury time to finish off one of the wildest Champions League games you will ever see and continue Pellegrini’s week from hell.

When he eventually falls asleep tonight, wherever that may be, the Chilean, who was two minutes away from being the first man since Brian Clough in the 1970s to take two teams in their first attempt to the semi final of European football’s elite club competition, will hopefully rest peacefully knowing his team could not have been any better.

His use of Julio Baptista and Joaquin up top worked brilliantly. Malaga looked like a 4-4-2 drawn up but effectively they were a 4-2-4 with none of the front four seriously committing to a front position throughout the game. This confused Dortmund, whose centre-backs often were left alone to pass amongst themselves while waiting for an outlet to come deeper to be found. There was a remarkable difference between their distribution from leg one to leg two.

Santana-Subotic leg 1

Subo leg 2

The brilliant Ilkay Gunogan had a magnificent first leg because he wasn’t pressed and was given far too much space and although he was excellent again in this game he didn’t get the time or space afforded to him in Spain because of the congested Malaga system. He also struggled to get as many passes from his centre backs (which is why they held on to the ball so well), being forced to come a lot deeper and split the centre backs to start many Dortmund attacks.

Passes to Gundogan in leg 1

Gundo 2

Despite his struggles linking up with the centre-backs, Gundogan again saved one of his best performances for the big stage. He finds space easily, is decent in the tackle for a technical player and can produce a brilliant pass in a flash. He treasured the ball like no other player in this tie and finished with an incredible pass ratio of 128/146 (88%) in two quarter finals in the Champions League. He was born in 1990, folks.

gundo pass

Much focus will righly be put on Dortmund’s incredible comeback but lost in that might be the work of Willy Caballero in Malaga’s net as the Argentine produced a couple of brilliant saves in the second half, particularly one on Mario Gotze whose quick 1-2 with Gundogan showcased the understanding and vision the Dortmund players have in attack.

The same could also be said for Dortmund’s opening goal, an equaliser to make it 1-1 on 39 minutes, when Gotze picked out Reus before the German Player of the Year backheeled a pass to Robert Lewandowski, who showed his outstanding predatory instincts to go around Caballero and finish off a sensational move.

The goal was cruel on Malaga who had deserved their lead, which came courtesy of Joaquin and again showed Pellegrini’s thinking behind dropping Javier Saviola. Baptista came deep, put through Isco who then laid it off for the Spanish winger to fire home on the left foot.

At 1-1 the game was very entertaining with Malaga sticking to a disciplined shape, not retreating too much, while Klopp’s team attacking at a rapid pace. In the 82nd minute it looked like the dark horses had booked their semi final ticket when they broke away and scored through substitute Eliseu, although he was marginally offside.

Then in injury time suddenly Dortmund found a way of doing something they couldn’t do for the entire 90 minutes.

dort goals

Dortmund became the first team to score two goals in added time, whilst needing both those goals to win, since Manchester United in their 1999 CL final against Bayern Munich. Over the two legs, considering the amount of chances they created, it is hard to say they don’t deserve their place in the semi finals but this was very cruel on an excellent Malaga side.

Sleep well Manuel. You deserve it.

Malaga 0-0 Borussia Dortmund – Klopp’s men fail to score for just the third time in their last 52 matches.

Starting XI’s

Manuel Pellegrini had a fully fit Malaga squad to choose from and went with the same XI in a 4-2-3-1 shape that overturned Porto in the second leg of the last 16.

football formations

Dortmund boss Jurgen Klopp picked an expected XI with Jakub Blaszczykowski and Mats Hummels both ruled out through injury.

football formations

Observations

  • While most of the Spanish press focused on Barcelona and Real Madrid’s plights in the Champions League this week, those that covered Malaga’s listened to boss Pellegrini all week talk about the importance of not conceding an away goal. The 59-year-old may have not got a performance he dreamed of but he still ultimately got just what he wanted.
  • Dortmund were excellent in every facet aside from finishing. Jurgen Klopp’s men failed to score for just the third time this season but this had little to do with Malaga’s resistance and a lot more to their wastefulness in front of goal.

dortmund 1

  • Robert Lewandowski probably missed the game’s best chance just two minutes into the second half when Gotze carved open the Malaga defence and laid a cross on a plate for the Pole, only to see him badly miskick his shot.
  • With Blaszczykowski injured, Reus was deployed on the right and although the German star had a decent game with his movement and defensive responsibilities he, like his fellow forwards, struggled finding his team-mates in key moments. Many times this season Reus and Gotze have had a special chemistry together, often knowing where one another is without looking, but today they struggled in that department, connecting only eight times together up until Reus was removed after 69 minutes.

dortmund 2

  • Blaszczykowski’s overall decisiveness and ability to run at the byline was missed but what Reus does offer on that side is some excellent off-the-ball movement, in particular with clever runs across the back four, staying onside and forcing full backs to go inside with him.
  • Malaga’s back four deserve credit, however, for improving as the game wore on. Weligton picked up an early booking and four times inside the opening 25 minutes the visitors got in behind them and were denied by the excellent Willy Caballaro in net. It would have been easy to panic, drop deeper and invite Dortmund to play in the space in between the lines but the home side’s back four stayed structured and consistent.
  • That being said, it is hard to not imagining Dortmund not scoring in another game if these two were forced to play nine more matches. Gotze alone could have had a hat-trick. He broke clean through on 14 minutes but hit a tame shot at Caballaro and midway through the second half had equally an excellent chance when he broke in between centre back and full back on the left only to pull the shot wide.
  • His chance had been created by the outstanding Ilkay Gundogan who was the game’s best player. With many other top class players at the club, it is hard for the 22-year-old to get the recognition he deserves but he was magnificent in this match. His distribution stats show how involved he was but only tell part of the story as the central midfielder put on a clinic with his movement and always being available as a key outlet for either his defenders or attackers.

Dortmund 3

  • Malaga now boast a very impressive record of 11 successive home matches in Europe in which they have not lost. They rarely looked like winning this match, Roman Weidenfeller’s excellent save on Isco was their best effort, but on one of the greatest nights in their history they will be thrilled to still be in this tie heading to the raucous Westfalenstadion on Tuesday night.
  • Dortmund will of course be massive favourites but Malaga will dream of getting a goal and not allowing more than one. Should Klopp’s men by as poor in front of goal as they were in Spain then a shock could be on the cards.

On the maturation of defender Omar Gonzalez & LA Galaxy’s desire to pass out from the back.

Omar

His face lit up when he was asked about it. It was clear it is a game he will enjoy talking about for the rest of his career, not just in the week it had happened.

And what a week it was. Omar Gonzalez was in his third country in the last four days when he gave me some time on Saturday following his side’s 2-2 draw in Toronto. All players of any level have those games that take you to the next level, that give them the confidence in their ability to grow as a player, and for the 24-year-old Gonzalez his had come in Mexico, birthplace of his parents, playing for the United States.

“It was definitely one of the highlights of my career, representing my country playing against, you know, being Mexican, me, but I am extremely happy playing for the US, I grew up here and this is what I have wanted to do since I was a young player and the night was a great effort and showing for me. I was really happy to get a point for the US.”

For Gonzalez, who was named MVP in last season’s MLS Cup final, the World Cup qualifier was just another high-level showcase for him to show his talents and as his team-mate Landon Donovan explained to me postmatch that adds pressure on him when he returns for his club.

“I watched the US games while I was away and I thought he was terrific in the last two (international) games but today was a big test for him too, because anywhere you play as you go higher and higher in levels, your team expects you to come back and perform where you are, at that level, and it was good to see him come back and help us get a point here.”

Anyone who saw the highlights of the game, and not the 90 minutes in its entirety, would question Donovan’s analysis regarding his defender helping his team, after all he was involved in a defensive mix-up on the first goal conceded and was dragged wide by Luis Silva on the second. However, neither goal was directly his fault and throughout the match the US international showed just how he has developed into one of the league’s best defenders. The game was actually a perfect example of how Gonzalez and his team have matured into a team that treasures the ball from front to back.

Team Shape

OG-Shape 1

The Galaxy played a 4-4-2 hybrid again on Saturday with their back four pushing high up the field. Gonzalez, who plays as the right sided centre-back, likes to spread wide and play closer to his full back than his counterpart in the middle of the defence, Leonardo. This allows the centre-back a chance to be an outlet for his full back and midfielders, to create triangles in possession:

OG-triangles

While also closing the gaps between centre back and full back, an area strikers feast in…..

OG-channel cutting

When the opponent attacks as a unit the defensive line drops deeper and they get narrower.

OG-deeper shape

Transitioning back to a high line

And immediately when they deal with the attack, Gonzalez, despite having more senior players around him, is the unquestionable vocal leader in the line to ensure the unit doesn’t get too deep, regularly raising his arms and reminding his team-mates to get forward….

OG-high line

Keeping possession

As the technical report following Euro 2012 explained, the most successful teams are now creating a trend towards a possession-oriented passing game.

OG-possession 3

LA Galaxy, winners of the past two MLS Cups, are no different as Gonzalez explained to me:  “I think as a team we have started to play like that only the past few years, my first year in the league (2009) it was more lets not mess around back here, lets just put it up the field and worry about losing it there and now everyone has been playing together for five years, we are a lot more comfortable with each other and now we do play more out of the back and possess more.”

OG-possession 1

No more was this evident than with the distribution of the goalkeepers. Toronto FC ‘keeper Joe Bednik only played the ball in his own half three times from 35 attempts (9%). The Galaxy, who are where Toronto FC want to be, of course, regularly played it between themselves at the back in moves started by their goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini.

OG-possession 2

The Italian distributed the ball 33 times in the game and 20 of them were in his own half (60%). As Gonzalez rightly said, teams must work on their technical ability to employ such a strategy but it is clear, no matter the standard, no team would want a goalkeeper kicking the ball over the halfway line 91% of the time. In this case, of Bednik’s 32 clearances, 20 went directly to a Galaxy player while, in contrast, Bruce Arena’s team were able to keep possession a lot more because they trusted their defenders on the ball.

Goals

LA’s desire to play from the back was the key contributing factor in the game’s first two goals. This photo, showing Gonzalez starting an attack, was taken 17 seconds before LA opened the scoring.

OG-LA goal

Seven LA Galaxy passes later, without TFC touching the ball, the visitors took the lead:

Gonzalez said post match: “We’ve been working on getting the ball from the backline and getting forward as quickly as possible and that led to a very good goal by us. Linking with the midfielders and forwards is something we want to keep getting better at, pushing up the field. It’s getting better but it’s a slow process because you don’t want to make mistakes and sometimes you have to choose to get the ball forward quicker.”

He didn’t have to say it but it was clear he was thinking about the equaliser when Leonardo attempted to play a short pass to Gonzalez in the build up to the first goal they conceded.

Cudicini’s rash moment left his goal exposed and gave him a harsh reminder to trust his defenders next time.  As you watch the goal develop you can see the pass was clearly not hit hard enough and wouldn’t have got to Gonzalez…

OG - goal 1

At this stage (above) you can see Gonzalez go towards the ball as he backs himself to defend against Earnshaw going in on goal, but his thought process is forced to change…

0G-goal 2

Instead of running down Earnshaw in a 1×1 battle with the goalkeeper he now has to stop and head towards the goal to cover for the onrushing Cudicini.

Picture 4834

By now Cudicini has effectively taken him out of the game and he is powerless to the decision-making of Earnshaw who produces a terrific finish…

Picture 4835

“That will not make us go backwards at all, we will still continue to possess the ball at the back and link up between each other. I was happy with our positioning, the ball wasn’t hit hard enough and the pitch was playing really slow, the grass was really high, and that’s something we talked about before the game, be aware of back passes. We just made a mistake, ” Gonzalez reflected afterwards.

Lesson learned.

Getting defenders to be comfortable on the ball and trust each other technically may have cost Galaxy a goal against Toronto but it is sure to help them score many more this season. At the heart of their improvement is the form and technical progression shown by Gonzalez who at this rate may be playing his final season in MLS before getting a big move to Europe.

Mexico 0-0 USA – Americans pass a big test but El Tri disappoint.

Starting XI’s

Mexico boss Manuel Jose de la Torre made one change from Friday’s draw in Honduras, inserting the impressive young Diego Reyes in at centre back for the suspended skipper, Francisco Rodriguez. Reyes, on his way to Porto in the summer, is a player I have watched for some time and he certainly is no drop off from Rodriguez.

football formations

Jurgen Klinsmann was forced into two changes from Friday’s 1-0 win over Costa Rica, with the injured duo Clarence Goodson and Jermaine Jones being replaced by Matt Besler and Maurice Edu.

football formations

Observations

  • The national anthems bellowed around Estadio Azteca, both sides desperate for their first win of the Hex set up, the game kicked off and then things changed.
  • It immediately didn’t feel as hostile. I wasn’t inside the stadium but even watching on television I could sense it. The crowd didn’t seem behind their team as much as they usually are and although Mexico dominated the early period of the game they didn’t really threaten Brad Guzan’s goal. What they did do was get early yellow cards for Matt Besler and DeMarcus Beasley, thanks to excellent runs by Javier Aquino and Giovani Dos Santos.
  • Aquino had a fine game, sticking to the touchline to stretch the field, being a good outlet for Carlos Salcido’s long balls and causing Beasley numerous amounts of problems with his positioning. The young winger was actually a rare bright spot for a Mexican team having many issues in the final third.
  • The support given to Javier Hernandez was very poor. American defenders Besler and, in particular, Omar Gonzalez were excellent but, in truth, Mexico’s qualities weren’t on show to test them fully.
  • You could of course take the line that an American team, stacked with MLS players, were outstanding in defence and that, perhaps, is very fair and certainly Klinsmann found out things about some of his players today, but I still felt Mexico’s issues were more to do with their own problems rather than any caused by their opponents. They were a team very easy to defend against and that is very unlike Mexico at the Azteca, with one of the game’s best finishers in their side.
  • Giovani Dos Santos is a very frustrating player. When the team is flying he can be the real leader of the orchestra, pinning passes into key spaces and dribbling by opponents, but when things get tight he disappears. His overall showing in this game highlighted just why he has had a difficult time taking over club matches. Playing off the striker, for long periods, he drifted out of the game, picked up the ball in deep areas, was poor with set piece deliveries and didn’t make it hard defensively on either Edu or Michael Bradley.
  • With 18 minutes left, the pressure on Dos Santos to create was eased when left back Jorge Torres was withdrawn for forward Angel Reyna and he immediately made a difference, opening up an American defence before Edu chopped down Aquino in the box for what appeared to be a penalty. It wasn’t given.
  • The US were always going to need some luck as well if they were going to avoid losing in Mexico for a World Cup qualifier for just the second time and that was it.
  • As the clock ran down the Americans actually defended as a unit even better. They got deeper, naturally, but stuck to their task very well and only really came under threat from a couple of corners (of which Mexico had 15!). Their second ever away point against Mexico is a massive bonus for the team inside an extremely competitive Hex. They are far from guaranteed a spot in Brazil but this will be a big boost for them and, perhaps more importantly, their coaching staff.
  • Mexico are far too talented to make qualification too difficult. Three points and no wins from their first three games is a major surprise and it will be interesting to see what the reaction will be to two more dropped points. de la Torre is under big pressure to keep his job and it won’t have been helped that his team was booed off the field at the end. He may focus on the non-penalty call but, deep down, he is sure to have a lot more than just that on his mind right now.