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Apr 20, 2014

Tactics Board: Coleman, Sterling are difference-makers

ESPN FC's Des Curran wraps up the action from Easter Sunday in the Premier League.


EVERTON 2-0 MANCHESTER UNITED There was a time when Everton’s attacks were focused on the left flank. Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar combined so well there that they could neglect the right. Perhaps David Moyes was thinking back to his time as manager at Goodison Park, because his United were undermanned on Everton’s right. Ostensibly Shinji Kagawa was United’s left-sided midfielder. In reality, he spent much of his time in central areas, joining Juan Mata as a second No. 10. It meant Everton had a two-on-one situation with the added advantage that their duo -- Seamus Coleman and Kevin Mirallas -- are two of their most potent attackers, and the solitary United man on that flank, Alexander Buttner, appears a weak link. While Kagawa gravitated toward the middle of the pitch, Coleman barely left the touchline. Without a direct opponent, Coleman had plenty of room to run into, which he did frequently, as his touch map shows. Everton’s second goal was a case in point: Coleman advanced and Buttner neither dealt with him nor Mirallas, playing the Belgian onside when he cut infield to score. Significantly, too, Baines was involved, with a pass in his own half to begin the move. It illustrated the difference between the Everton full-backs. Baines was on the ball more, but Coleman had more touches in the final third. As they played a counter-attacking game, the Irishman used his pace and power to break quickly, usually into space. By neglecting to have cover in front of Buttner, United played into their hands. NORWICH 2-3 LIVERPOOL Raheem Sterling’s recent football has been played at the tip of a midfield diamond, the formation Brendan Rodgers introduced to accommodate both of his strikers. Deprived of the injured Daniel Sturridge, he switched again and used the winger in a fluent front three or, as Rodgers put it, a midfield five to outnumber Norwich’s diamond. Sterling’s touch map shows how hard it was to stop him: He had a roving brief and is developing the ability to influence games wherever he wanders. Whereas Philippe Coutinho, the other man flanking striker Luis Suarez, restricted himself to left and central positions, Sterling roamed across the pitch. The shape suggested he was a winger, but the reality was he played more as a quick No. 10 who was allowed to go where he was most effective. All three of his shots, including both goals, came from positions more associated with a No. 10 than a winger, while his cross for Suarez’s goal was from the left flank. CHELSEA 1-2 SUNDERLAND The statistics only pointed to one result: a Chelsea win. Jose Mourinho’s side had 62 percent of possession, 56 touches inside the Sunderland box, 31 attempts at goal and 15 on target. Vito Mannone saved 14 of them, equalling a Premier League record since such statistics were measured. Yet while it was a bombardment, Chelsea’s finishing can be faulted. As the map of their shots indicates, plenty were from promising positions, well inside the penalty box. As the diagram of Mannone’s saves shows, too many of their efforts were directed toward the goalkeeper and too few toward the corner of his net. Mourinho’s complaints about not having a world-class striker are familiar, but one feature of the finest finishers is not the statistic about the percentage of their shots that are on target, but where they are directed: into parts of the goal where keepers struggle to save them. Those that were off target, meanwhile, weren’t particularly close. Again, it showed Chelsea had persistence but not precision. The figures for Sunderland were very different -- two goals from three shots on target and even the one that was saved, from Marcos Alonso, brought a goal as Connor Wickham scored the rebound. TOTTENHAM 3-1 FULHAM Tottenham are a lopsided team going forward, so Fulham’s answer was to field a lopsided defence. Spurs play with an out-and-out right winger in Aaron Lennon, and a No. 10 who has licence to leave the left wing in Christian Eriksen. Felix Magath picked a specialist left-back in John Arne Riise, and a right-back in John Heitinga who, while versatile enough to operate there, has played much of his football in recent seasons as a central defender. Heitinga’s map of defensive contributions -- tackles, interceptions, clearances and blocks -- shows how narrow he was when Tottenham had the ball. The Dutchman was tucked in alongside centre-backs Brede Hangeland and Fernando Amorebieta. In effect, Fulham played a hybrid system: part back four, part back five. Their defensive width on the right came from winger Alex Kacaniklic, who was charged with tracking left-back Danny Rose when he went forward. Heitinga had comparatively few touches in defensive areas near the touchline and, on one occasion when he was lured out wide to halt Rose, he picked up a booking for fouling the Englishman. There was logic to Magath’s planning. Fulham’s problem was that, while they stopped Eriksen scoring or creating a goal in open play, they were less successful at set-pieces. Two of his set-pieces left Paulinho and Younes Kaboul with simple finishes. Fulham’s unorthodox shape, however, made sense.