Serbia must face international ban

Shortly after the melee that ensued after the final whistle of England's 1-0 European Championship win over Serbia, video surfaced on YouTube of Serbian supporters audibly directing monkey chants towards England's Danny Rose (below). Rose, understandably, reacted angrily to the racist chants and kicked a ball into the crowd, an action that would earn him a second yellow. He has since said that the racist chanting had gone on all game and that he was twice hit by stones thrown from the Krusevac crowd, claims captain Jordan Henderson has since confirmed.

The behavior from the Serbian supporters was disgraceful but hardly surprising for a nation with a well documented history of racially motivated taunts and violent behavior at football matches. In 2003 Serbian ultras directed racial abuse at black Wales players. In 2007 black England U-21 international Nedum Onuoha was the victim of racist chanting. In a Euro 2012 qualifier in Genoa last year, the referee was forced to abandon the game after Serbian ultras clashed with police and threw flares on the field. All of these incidents were met with farcically weak punishments from UEFA. At best the Serbian FA has shown an inability to deal with racism and crowd violence. At worst, they've shown an unwillingness to do so. Their behavior in the aftermath of yesterday's incident suggests the latter.

Despite the clear video evidence proving the contrary, the Serbian FA released a statement saying there were no instances of racism throughout the match and that in fact Rose was to blame for the fracas that broke out after the final whistle.

The Serbian FA statement said,
"FA of Serbia absolutely refuses and denies that there were any occurrences of racism before and during the match at the stadium in Kruševac. Making connection between the seen incident - a fight between members of the two teams - and racism has absolutely no ground and we consider it to be a total malevolence."

With regards to Rose the statement said,
"Unfortunately, after the fourth minute of the additional time and the victory goal scored by the guest team, unpleasant scenes were seen at the pitch. And while most of the English team players celebrated the score, their player number 3, Danny Rose, behaved in inappropriate, unsportsmanlike and vulgar manner towards the supporters on the stands at the stadium in Kruševac, and for that he was shown a red card. Unfortunately, it would turn out that was the moment the incident, that later developed, had started."
This official statement from the Serbian FA casts at least as big a shadow on Serbian football as the behavior of its fans in Krusevac. Rose was guilty of nothing more than representing his country as a black person. For the Serbian FA to deny the claims of racial abuse when evidence proves it happened and to somehow blame the victim of that abuse for the violent scenes is disgraceful. It shows they have no interest in cleaning up their act and that their FA is in fact complicit in the unsavory fan behavior. By denying there was any racism shown Tuesday evening, their FA is effectively saying to Serbian fans, "do what you please, we'll deny any claims against you rather than try to stop your behavior."

UEFA has to ban Serbia from all international competition for an extended period of time. The safety of black players should be the main focus of UEFA when they look into this incident. How can UEFA conscionably send a black footballer to play in an environment that clearly isn't a safe one for him? As long as Serbia continues to create an intimidating environment inside their stadiums, and continues to make no effort to change, they don't deserve the right to play in any international tournaments at any level.

UEFA president Michel Platini warned Serbia in February of last year that if they didn't control their fans they'd face expulsion from future club and international tournaments. Serbia has clearly failed on that front. If Platini fails to follow through on his warning, FIFA and UEFA will lose the tiny amount of credibility they have left.

While condemnation of the Serbian supporters' behavior has been nearly universal, a few folks in the British media were displeased with Rose's reaction to the racial abuse. Former professional footballer Paul Parker, himself a victim of racial abuse during his playing days in England, suggested Rose should have kept his dignity, walked down the tunnel and "saved his complaint for the official channels." But what have the official channels, ie UEFA, done to combat the problem of racism? On more than one occasion the behavior of certain Serbian fans has disgraced the sport yet UEFA continues to give them slaps on the wrist as punishment in the form of trivial fines and one match stadium bans. If black players continue to simply walk down the tunnel when they've been racially abused as though nothing has happened, as Parker suggests, the official channels will be all too happy to sweep the incidents under the rug and move on as though nothing did in fact happen. Roses's reaction raised the profile of this event around the world. People are demanding UEFA, for once, react strongly to the disreputable and dangerous behavior of Serbian fans. Contrary to what Parker suggests, Rose acted with an incredible amount of dignity- he stood up to intolerant, unacceptable behavior despite the threat of violence from Serbian players and fans. It's time for UEFA to do the same.

Klinsmann's 3-man central midfield has given USMNT defense needed strengthening

The jury still seems to be out on whether the USA are showing enough signs of progress under Jurgen Klinsmann to suggest the 48-year-old German is the man to lead the team to a successful 2014 World Cup run. Historic away wins under Klinsmann over Mexico and Italy hint at a team on the rise, yet a puzzling loss to Jamaica in a World Cup qualifier in July, controversial roster selections and an underwhelming goal-scoring record have raised doubts among some American supporters about his ability to effectively manage the national team.

A number of the concerns surrounding Klinsmann's first year and a half on the job are reasonable. Four losses from his opening six games wasn't the impression he would have expected to make. The US have not packed enough of a punch in front of goal. In Klinsmann's 18 games in charge, they have scored more than one goal only three times and have averaged just 1.17 goals per game. He got his tactics wrong in the 2-1 loss to Jamaica, putting the US in a precarious position in World Cup qualification. We voiced our frustration on this blog about his decision in that game to leave Clint Dempsey high up the field just behind forwards Jozy Altidore and Herculez Gomez, leaving the three man midfield of Kyle Beckerman, Jermaine Jones, and Maurice Edu stretched to cover the width of the pitch against a Jamaica side playing with two wingers. His most recent decision to leave Altidore off the roster for the upcoming qualifiers and his hesitation to select Michael Bradley to the squad early in his reign raised questions about his team selection.

However, despite what many see as a disappointing first 15 months on the job, it's important to consider the type of soccer the national team was playing prior to Klinsmann's arrival and how it has changed since. Under Bob Bradley the US were an undisciplined side tactically, particularly defensively. From January 2010 until he was sacked in July 2011, Bradley's team played nine teams ranked in the top 30 of the FIFA World Rankings. They drew three of those and lost the other six. In those nine games, they conceded an average of 2.2 goals per game. Klinsmann has faced seven sides ranked in the top 30 and won 2, drawn 1 and lost 3. During those games, the US have conceded 1.2 goals per game, a full goal improvement over Bradley. The US are nowhere close to being able to match the technique of Europe and South America's best sides. In order for the US to compete with them they need to be organized and have great defensive shape.  Klinsmann's biggest contribution the national team thus far has been to improve that defensive shape by introducing more modern formations, specifically formations that use a three-man central midfield and provide more adequate cover for the back four.

Bradley's default formation was either a traditional 4-4-2 (I use traditional to mean a 4-4-2 with two center midfielders and two wide midfielders) or a 4-4-1-1 with a withdrawn forward behind a #9 striker. Both of these systems use only two center midfielders, and typically Bradley would play one of either Maurice Edu, Ricardo Clark, or Jose Torres alongside his son Michael. Played well, 4-4-1-1s and 4-4-2s can be fine formations, and there were games throughout Bradley's tenure where the US looked strong playing them. However, he showed an inability to change these formations and move to ones with three-man center midfields when the tactics of the opposition dictated that he should have.

One of the biggest problems that can arise defensively for a team using a 4-4-2 is the gap of space that often opens up between the two center midfielders and the back four. In a 4-4-2 the center midfielders are responsible for getting tight on the opposition center midfielders. If they're forced to push high up the field to do this, it can create dangerous pockets of space in front of the back four for opposition attackers to move in to. Opponents who receive the ball in these areas have time to turn and dribble at the back four. This forces the center backs to make a decision to either contain the dribbler and continue to back up or to step out and try to win a tackle. If they continue to contain they run the risk of allowing the man in possession to get into a dangerous shooting position. But if one center back steps it allows the opposition to play dangerous through balls into the space left vacated by the stepping center back. I've labeled this gap "problem area" in the diagram below. One way to minimize these gaps between center mids and center backs is to push the back four high up the field towards the center midfielders. However, holding a high defensive line comes with its own risks. High lines are susceptible to balls over the top or slipped in behind the back four, particularly when your center backs lack pace to keep up with opposition forwards. They also require an intelligent back four that knows when to collectively step forward to put the opposition offsides. With high defensive lines, the problem area therefore tends to become the space between the back four and goalkeeper.

The USA's performance at the 2010 World Cup offered a perfect illustration of a 4-4-2's defensive shortcomings in the center of the pitch. The US played a 4-4-2 in every game with Jozy Altidore paired with either Herculez Gomez or Robbie Findley at forward, Bradley in the center of midfield alongside either Edu, Torres, or Clark and Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey occupying the wide areas. All three goals the US conceded in group play resulted from an opposition player making a dangerous run into the gap between the back four and midfield, leaving the US defense out of position. In the opening game against England, Wayne Rooney dropped back from his forward position into this gap (video below). Not wanting to allow the dangerous Rooney to get the ball in this space and turn, center back Oguchi Onyewu felt the need to step out of his position in the back four and track Rooney. This opened up a huge amount of space between the US's other center back, Jay DeMerit, and left back Carlos Bocanegra for an England player to burst into, something Steven Gerrard was all too happy to do. Rooney never touched the ball but his incisive movement had done the damage. Lampard's pass found its way to Emile Heskey who laid it through for Gerrard to comfortably tuck home. Clark, Bradley's partner in central midfield that day, often gets blamed for the goal and indeed he failed to track the run of Gerrard. However, the defensive system was more to blame than Clark. As a center midfielder you're used to passing off forward runs to your center backs. He did a poor job of reading the situation, but the gap in defense should have never opened up. Even if he'd tracked Gerrard from the outset, the England midfielder still may have beat him in a foot race into the space.

England were also lined up in a 4-4-2 that day. Had Bradley gone with three central midfielders, the US would have had a spare man in the center of the park to sit just in front of the back four. That would have allowed Onyewu to pass Rooney off to the spare midfielder rather than getting himself out of position by tracking him. The gap would have never opened up for Rooney to run into, and that goal would likely have never happened.

In the US's second game against Slovenia, Clark was replaced with Torres but the US kept it's 4-4-2 shape. Again, they were made to pay for allowing the opposition to get into pockets of space between DeMerit and Onyewu at center back and Bradley and Torres in the middle of the pitch. In the video below (at 1:09), Valter Birsa drifts unmarked into a 20-yard gap in front of the back four. He receives the ball, turns and shoots before DeMerit or Onyewu are able to step. His finish was incredible, but the amount of space he was given to drift into was criminal and a product of the US's flat, four-man midfield.

Slovenia's second goal again came from an opposition player drifting into the problem gap. Forward Milivoje Novakovic drifts away from the US center backs to receive the ball in the gap where he can turn and slip it through for his forward partner Ljubijankic. The bulk of the blame for this goal, however, falls on Onyewu for his woeful positioning. The other three defenders had done their job pushing forward to close the gap and make the defense more compact. Onyewu was likely positioned so deep because he was worried about his lack of pace being exposed with a ball played in behind him. He wanted to keep Ljubikankic in front of him rather than on his shoulder.

Less than a year on from the World Cup, Bradley hadn't learned his lesson. In a friendly with Spain, he fielded a 4-4-2 against a Spanish side lined up in a 4-3-3 with a world class central midfield trio of Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, and Santi Cazorla. Outmanned in the midfield, the US were subsequently picked apart 4-0. That two of the four goals were scored by Cazorla, an attacking midfielder who makes a living finding pockets of space between defense and midfield, is no surprise.

The obvious key defensive feature of three-man central midfields is that they provide an extra layer of defensive depth in midfield. The extra midfielder can fill the most dangerous areas of space in front of the back four. Incredibly, even after the World Cup and the battering from Spain, Bradley refused to accept his side was often being overrun in midfield. In the end it would cost him his job as he again fielded a 4-4-2 against Mexico in the Gold Cup final. El Tri's first and third goals came from players receiving the ball unmarked in gaps in the middle of the field. (You can see the goals here at 2:30 and 4:28.)

Klinsmann would have certainly recognized the reasons behind the US's rather porous defense under Bradley. He has experimented with a number of different formations, 4-4-2 included, and has said he picks his formations based on the strengths of the players he has available and the style of play of the opposition. In other words, he is flexible and likes his teams to be able to play a number of different styles. But one feature that has been fairly consistent in Klinsmann's lineups is a three-man central midfield. Whether a 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 or diamond 4-4-2, he has shown that he likes to have one center midfielder available to sit in gaps just in front of the back four to prevent the opposition from receiving the ball in these dangerous areas. It has worked to shore up the defense. The US have conceded more than one goal in only three games under Klinsmann. Of the four goals conceded in this World Cup qualifying round, three have come from free kicks. The difficulty the US have had creating genuine goal-scoring opportunities against weaker CONCACAF opposition has been frustrating, but that phase of the game will come as players like Landon Donovan recover from injury.

Jurgen Klinsmann has made the US a more sophisticated side to match up against, and that will have its benefits in the long run.

The modern football sweeper

"The fishing fleet lies dark against the sun-washed sea. Along the Tyrrhenian waterfront, a stressed football manager, unable to sleep, takes an early-morning walk. Oblivious to the shrieking of the gulls and the haggling of the dockside mongers, he strides on, asking himself again and again how he can get the best out of his side, ponders how he can strengthen a defence that, for all his best efforts, remains damagingly porous. As he paces the harbour, churning the problem over and over in his head, a boat catches his eye. The fishermen haul in one net, swollen with fish, and then behind it, another: the reserve net. This is his eureka moment. Some fish inevitably slip the first net, but they are caught by the second; he realises that what his side needs is a reserve defender operating behind the main defense to catch those forwards who slip through. That manager was Gipo Viani, his team was Salernitana, and his invention was catenaccio."
-Excerpt from Jonathan Wilson's Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics on the development of catenaccio, the system made famous by Helenio Herrera at Inter Milan in the 1960s. The system employed a libero, or sweeper, who sat in behind a line of man marking defenders to provide cover and focused on counter attacking with long balls out of the back. In Herrera's version, the libero played behind four man marking defenders (in other versions the libero sat behind three defenders), creating a five man defense in a 5-3-2 formation. Inter would win three Italian league titles, two European Cups and two Intercontinental Cups under Herrera.

Herrera's version of catenaccio ultimately fell out of favor after Inter were beaten 2-0 by Ajax in the final of the 1972 European Cup. Inter's rigid four man markers were drug all over the field by the fluid movement of Ajax's total football and, subsequently, zonal defending became the norm in professional football.

While man marking is a thing of the past and no top level teams use a traditional libero, certain teams have employed systems that, if not directly influenced by catenaccio, have stemmed from the need to address the same concerns catenaccio was attempting to address: particularly the need to have a free man at the back to provide cover. Juventus's current 3-5-2 system is quite similar to Hererra's 1-4-3-2 catennacio. Both used three central defenders. Although Juventus's three central defenders are more fluid and there is no designated libero to sit deep, the idea is to allow two to pick up attackers moving into their zone while one can drop slightly deeper and provide cover, the same philosophy behind Herrera's system (although Herrera's two center backs marked men rather than zones). Three central defenders allow Juventus's full backs to push higher up the field into attacking positions when in possession, operating as what we call wing backs. Again, this is something Hererra was doing in the 1960s. With ample cover in the center of defense, he would allow left back Giacinto Facchetti license to push on and join in the attack.

Michael Cox has written in his Zonal Marking blog of teams using a more modern version of a sweeper whose positioning is different to that of the traditional deep lying sweeper. He suggests the modern version of a sweeper is a defensive center midfielder that plays in front of a four man defense with attacking outside backs. When his team is in possession, this holding midfielder drops into the center of defense while the two center backs move wide on either side of him, forming a back three. This gives the two outside backs the freedom to push into the attacking third without leaving only two center backs to defend any counters that may spring. Barcelona have used this system to great effect with Sergio Busquets dropping between center backs Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique, allowing Dani Alves and Erica Abidal (now Jordi Alba) to get into very attacking positions. I highly recommend this article from Cox if you want a more detailed explanation on the use of this more modern sweeper system. Jonathan Wilson also wrote a fascinating piece on this subject for the Guardian back in 2010 that you can see here. 

Although both Barcelona and Juventus's systems represent modern day versions of sweeper systems, they're quite different in style and philosophy. The defense in Juventus's 3-5-2 sits deeps, invites the opposition to get forward, then looks to spring quick counters. Barcelona's defense makes the field compact by holding a very high line while the 6 attacking players press the ball. Their attack is focused on ball retention and dominating possession. Both employ three at the back with fullbacks providing width high up the field when in possession, but they differ in where on the field they like to do their defending and the importance placed on keeping the ball. These two teams offer a stark example of how systems fairly similar in defensive shape can be quite different in practice.

Links, 9/27/12 Edition

  • Michael Cox: Why the hate for zonal marking?
    •  "The chief criticism of defending zonally is that no one takes responsibility, an argument that misses the point entirely. Ex-coaches who persist with this line of debate are actually adopting quite a cowardly approach -- "No one takes responsibility" is a synonym for "There's no player I can blame." Ironically, it also demonstrates that they're unwilling to take responsibility themselves."
  • Chris Rowland: Football and Finance, Liverpool and the top six
    • " I hope I have been able to show a number of things. First, a realisation of just how catastrophically wrong things went in the years ’09/10 – ’10/11. Liverpool had turned into a club who changed managers on a yearly basis, wasted vast sums on a phantom stadium which couldn’t possibly be financed, had begun the trend of decreased transfer spending and swapped it for vast ineffective wage inflation, relying on player sales to break even."
  • Jonathan Wilson: The question: How troubling is Liverpool's start
    • Already there has been a marked improvement in pass completion, up from 80.9% to 86%, and from 73.24% to 78.9% in the opposition half. To put that into context, last year's figures were the best for Liverpool over a full season since Opta began collating data in 2006-07.The problem is all too familiar. Last season Liverpool converted only 9.13% of their chances, the lowest figure since Opta began producing its reports. It had been 13.59% the previous season but then Liverpool managed just 11.4 shots per game. When Liverpool finished second in 2008-09, they had 15.1 shots per game and converted 13.46% of their chances. But if 9.13% looked bad, this season's figure is far worse: a meagre 5.97%.

Recap: Chelsea 4-2 Reading

Despite another impressive performance from new signing Eden Hazard, Chelsea struggled mightily to break down Reading's crowded defense and were extremely fortunate to emerge 4-2 winners. Just as they often did last year, Chelsea found it difficult to create meaningful goalscoring opportunities when the opposition allowed them to have the bulk of possession and forced them to patiently pick apart seams against two defensive banks of four. The Blues finished the game with just under 72% of possession but only had 7 shots on goal. Four of those shots were goals but the first was a penalty, the second came off a serious goalkeeping blunder, the third was clearly offsides, and the fourth came late when Reading's keeper had gone forward to attack a corner kick.

Chelsea's problem in breaking down compact defenses last season was largely due to the fact Juan Mata was the only creative passer in the Chelsea attack. As I mentioned in my preview to this game in the previous post, the strength's of their other advanced midfielders/wide forwards in the 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 systems last season- Kalou, Sturridge and Ramires- were mainly pace and the ability to advance the ball forward with the dribble. None of the three are exceptional passers. Chelsea's deeper lying midfielders last season, Meireles, Mikel and Lampard, were not of the deep lying creator mold of a Luka Modric, Xabi Alonso, or Andrea Pirlo. Meireles is a hardworking ball winner, Mikel is a very defensive holding player, and Lampard keeps the ball moving and makes well timed runs into the box but none are known for springing attacks with their clever passing. Thus, Chelsea were left with Mata as the sole player with the creativity to cut apart a defense with a vertical pass. As a result, against compact defenses Chelsea would play horizontal balls in midfield all afternoon without ever posing much of a penetrative threat. It was methodical, predictable and easy to defend.

Hazard is a player capable of penetrating the center of compact defenses both with the dribble and with creative forward passes. He brings to the side a directness they lacked in the center of the park last season. He's not content simply keeping the ball moving from side to side but instead likes to go to goal and attack vertically. He proved incredibly effective yesterday, getting into dangerous pockets of space between the seams of the Reading defense and completing 38 of 41 attempted passes in the attacking third (two of which were assists, see the figure below).  Just as they had at Wigan Sunday, Hazard and Mata interchanged between central and wide positions, with Mata given the freedom to come infield to collect the ball. The pair combined for the two highest pass combinations of the match with 18 Hazard to Mata combinations and 18 Mata to Hazard combinations.

With Hazard and Mata orchestrating moves forward Chelsea's struggles yesterday, unlike last season, had less to do with an absence of creativity and more to do with a lack of pace in their ball movement. At 72%, Chelsea had Barcelona-like possession stats but unlike Barcelona, who rapidly move the ball from player to player, they seemed too often to take an extra unnecessary touch, allowing Reading to comfortably rotate their defensive shape. They were also uncharacteristically loose in possession, Ramires particularly guilty of some untidy first touches and passes. Hazard was exceptional in possession but once he got rid of the ball the pace of Chelsea's movement stalled. As the second half progressed with Chelsea trailing 2-1, everything went through Hazard and Mata, with the Spaniard continuing to get in central positions in an effort to get on the ball more. As a result their shape became a bit narrow with the Blues trying to force the ball through the crowded center of Reading's defense. The figure below shows Juan Mata's second half passes in the attacking third. Notice how many of these passes came from central areas, specifically ones just outside the 18 yard box. The two were dangerous on the ball in these crowded pockets of space but Chelsea were struggling to stretch the Reading defense laterally by making threatening runs from wide areas.

The introduction of Sturridge gave the Blues needed width on the right and a new point from which to attack. Prior to his introduction Chelsea's only point of attack was through the middle and thus the center of Reading's defense was able to stay compact and simply check the runs and close the passing lanes of Torres, Mata and Hazard. With Chelsea offering little threat from the right, left back Ian Harte was able to pinch inside and provide additional cover through the middle. Sturridge's introduction forced Harte to defend wider on the right, leaving one less defender to provide cover in the box. Immediately Sturridge was able to use his pace to get around the much slower left back and cut in towards the front post. The threat of him cutting inside from the right left Reading's center backs with an additional concern- not only did they have to check runs coming from the center, an area Chelsea were trying to overload with Mata, Hazard, Lampard and Oscar, they also had to worry about shifting to provide cover for Harte if he were beaten by Sturridge on the outside. Although Sturridge was not involved directly in the third goal, it started when Chelsea had shifted Reading's defense to the right and quickly switched the point of attack to the left allowing Ashley Cole the space to make an unchecked run from left back into Reading's weak side defense.

If yesterday proved anything for Chelsea, it was that their new look attacking outfit will almost certainly experience some hiccups as the players take time to get used to one another. Their key playmaker in Hazard has been involved in only three competitive matches with the squad and Fernando Torres, the only true center forward at the club with whom they'll rely on heavily for goals, was very much a peripheral figure at the club last season. However, there have been hints of what could prove to be a bright future at Stamford Bridge as well, particularly from Hazard and Mata. The two have shown a good understanding of one another in the first two league fixtures and their ability to interchange positions and overload different areas of the field should cause serious matchup issues for opposition defenses. Against teams that pack the defense as Reading did yesterday, Chelsea will need to offer a point of attack from wide areas as Mata and Hazard both move centrally to try to use their combination passing. Wide threats will stretch the opposition defense and allow the two creative players the space to play clever through balls as they did for Chelsea's game-winning third goal yesterday.

Jonathan Wilson on Napoli v. Chelsea and the resurgence of a back 3

The following is an excerpt from Jonathan Wilson's latest blog post for the Guardian. He discusses the resurgence of a back 3 in Italian football looking specifically at how, playing with a back 3, Napoli were able to exploit Chelsea on the break in their 3-1 win in the first leg of the Champions League round of 16. With Chelsea forced to score 2 goals to have a chance of advancing in the second leg at Stamford Bridge, they'll have to aggressively push men into the attack, creating dangerous space for Napoli to exploit on the counter.
"Napoli don't particularly care if the opposition dominate possession. The issue is to hold them at arm's length, prevent easy chances and then strike on the break. That's why Napoli's record is comparatively so much better against the top sides than the bottom: in a mini league of the top seven teams in Serie A they would be second, precisely because they want their opponent to take the initiative."

And that, of course, is dreadful news for Chelsea ahead of the second leg. This Napoli are by no means impregnable. They are susceptible at set-plays and even with three centre-backs they looked far from comfortable against a fairly muted Didier Drogba. The deployment of Juan Mata centrally disrupted them, his movement twice in the first half creating channels that first Ramires and then Branislav Ivanovic nearly exploited with runs from deep.

But this Napoli are devastating on the counterattack. In the second half last night, as Ivanovic advanced, pushing Juan Zúñiga, the left-back, deep, contributing to a spell of pressure in which Chelsea had five decent chances in the space of around 15 minutes, Ezequiel Lavezzi sat in the space behind him and waited for the counter. He wasted his first chance, dragging his shot wide, but after Edinson Cavani had capitalised on a David Luiz slip, he added the third goal, Ivanovic unable to get back.

That's the problem Chelsea face at Stamford Bridge in the return leg. They must take the initiative, but they must do so against a team that wants them to do exactly that."

Evaluating recent team form in the English Premier League

We often hear from soccer pundits that Premier League titles and Champions League positions are won in the winter months when top sides grind out ugly results on pitches badly worn from harsh winter weather. Mathematically, of course, every game is worth 3 points and early fixtures therefore have as much influence on who wins a title as mid season ones. However, I understand the sentiment of these pundits; what they are really saying is Premier League titles are won through consistent results throughout the season. With games coming thick and fast during the mid season fixture list, teams often experience a dip in form due to injuries and players needing rests. Typically it is the teams that are able to avoid a dip in form during the winter months that emerge as title winners and Champions League qualifiers (perhaps it would be more accurate to say titles are lost in the winter months).

The table above ranks teams according to form in their last ten league games going back to early December in order to examine which sides have remained consistent or improved on their early season form and which have experienced a dip in form. Form is defined as points per game. Manchester United top this table with 2.4 points per game from their last 10 fixtures. They have proved to be consistent in their results throughout the season with a difference of only 0.09 between points per game in their last 10 games and their first 13. Though Manchester City sit second on this table with 1.9 points per game from their last 10, they have shown the greatest dip in form from their first 13 games gaining 0.79 fewer points per game than they had early in the season. Many questioned early this season whether City would be able to cope with the marathon Premier League season and be consistent enough to win the title. The table above suggests that they cannot and that we may see United lifting the trophy yet again come early May.

Sunderland's revival under Martin O'Neill is evidenced in the table. The Black Cats have had the biggest improvement in form of all 20 clubs collecting 1.9 points per game in their last 10 compared to just 0.85 in their first 13. Interestingly, the four sides competing for the fourth Champions League spot, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and Newcastle, have all experienced a dip in form in the last 10 games. None seem interested in taking advantage of points dropped by the other three.

Quick reflection on Donovan's Everton contribution thus far

Landon Donovan's excellent form for Everton continued in last night's 1-0 win over league leaders Manchester City where the on loan American assisted Darron Gibson's second half winner. In Everton's 7 games with Donovan in the lineup, they have scored 9 goals for an average of 1.29 gpg. While this is hardly an overwhelming goal scoring total, Everton had netted just 6 in their 7 games prior to Donovan's arrival. Donovan has assisted 5 of those 9 goals (2 in the league, 3 in the FA Cup). Everton have a 4 wins, 2 draws, and a single defeat in Donovan's 7 games.