Football Focus, Aston Villa-Liverpool: Brendan Rodgers’ vision for fluidity in attack

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source:  Liverpool’s narrow 1-0 win at Aston Villa on Saturday showcased a contrast of styles in each half of play from the Reds. The free-flowing style that manager Brendan Rodgers has tried to instill shined through in the first half, but it shrank as time wore on and Villa pressed for an equalizer.

Both teams started similar lineups as in previous league games in the young 2013-14 season, with Liverpool preferring a two-man central pair of Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva, while Aston Villa played three in the middle again.

In effect, Liverpool cut its lineup into an attacking block and a defending block, with those two central players creating a conduit between them. Gerrard and Lucas took turns pressing underneath Philippe Coutinho, Iago Aspas and Jordan Henderson.

Gerrard and Coutinho were the Reds’ primary playmakers, Gerrard from a deeper position and Coutinho higher up the field. Lucas’ role primarily consisted of winning balls and sweeping up defensively.

Aston Villa’s midfield triangle played much flatter than usual in the first half, causing its wingers to tuck in and leaving space on the outside.

Constant interchange and movement

When Villa had the ball, Liverpool dropped into two blocks of four defensively.

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Aspas worked closely with target striker Daniel Sturridge on both sides of the ball, remaining high as a quick outlet for breakout passes. Wingers Henderson and Coutinho dropped even with Lucas and Gerrard, leaving space into which they could run in transition.

In attack, the players interchanged constantly and overlapped one another at every opportunity.

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Primary movements included Coutinho tucking inside to find the ball and Aspas pressing alongside Sturridge on the front line. This gave left back José Enrique the space to overlap often, and Liverpool usually had two forward runners on balls played through.

Sturridge’s work rate creates game’s only goal

No play symbolized Liverpool’s attacking movement better than its goal. Sturridge started on the left wing, drifted inside and ended up finishing the play inside the six-yard box. He covered an immense amount of ground without ever really sprinting, all because he kept looking for open spaces to exploit.

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As Liverpool looks to counter-attack, Sturridge drifts into the channel to possibly exploit a one-on-one situation or open up space for Aspas to run centrally.

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He decides to hold the ball up and play centrally through the midfielders. Sturridge dribbles toward the middle of the field before laying the ball off. Meanwhile, José Enrique overlaps again on the left. After he gives the ball up, Sturridge continues his bent run toward the forward line, allowing the play to develop and searching for a gap into which he can run.

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Both he and Coutinho (who has drifted centrally once more) find themselves in the soft space between Villa’s defensive and midfield lines. Instead of taking on Matthew Lowton one-on-one, José Enrique decides to serve the ball into the middle, where Liverpool has numerical superiority.

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Now comes the tough decision for Villa’s defenders: do they step up and try to cut the pass out to Sturridge and Coutinho, or do they delay and wait for a midfielder to back-tackle? Ron Vlaar decides to step, thinking he can take the ball off Coutinho.

But instead, Coutinho dummies the ball through to Sturridge, and because Vlaar is now out of position, the forward finds himself one-on-one with Antonio Luna. Any forward in the world would salivate at the prospect of taking a player on in the penalty area and scoring, and Sturridge does well to round Luna and goalkeeper Brad Guzan before slotting it in.

A game of two halves

Aston Villa clawed for an equalizer for the remainder of the match, putting Liverpool on the back foot, especially in the second half. Liverpool’s defensive shell resulted from a combination of its desire to keep a slim lead on the road and Villa’s tactical changes to attack more dangerously.

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Instead of holding deeper positions next to Ashley Westwood, Leandro Bacuna and Fabian Delph pressed higher in Villa’s midfield triangle. It more closely resembled Villa’s shape in its first two league matches, which could be described as a traditional 4-3-3.

That allowed the wingers to stay wider, which put Liverpool on the back foot defensively. As the match wore on, the Reds’ line of confrontation dropped deeper and deeper, until Sturridge eventually began his team’s defensive work in his own half.

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His starting position dropped even deeper than Liverpool’s half of the center circle, which allowed it to condense its two blocks of four even further. Villa had no space to play within 25 yards of goal. Liverpool astutely held a deep but firm position, allowing the ball to play around in front but never getting too close to the penalty area.

In effect, Liverpool bunkered down and held on tightly for three points on the road. Villa completed 50 of 79 attempted passes in its attacking third of the field in the second half, compared to 30 out of 47 in the first, but it could not find a way past goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, who again made a couple crucial saves.

Attacking for 90 minutes

Ideally, Liverpool would like to be on the front foot all game long. A free-flowing system starts to look even better when a team goes up by two or more goals because then the opponent gets stretched out, looking for a response, giving more room to play combinations and run into spaces. So far, Liverpool has only been able to get its goal and then drop deep to keep the slimmest of leads.

Early in the season, teams are rarely able to convert the majority of their scoring opportunities. Although Liverpool’s players showed great understanding when moving forward with the ball, that should only get better as they get more of a chance to train together and establish a rhythm (not to mention getting Luis Suárez back from suspension).

For now, manager Brendan Rodgers will be happy — but not satisfied. His team still has work to do to become an attacking force for 90 minutes.

If you missed the match, or if you want to re-watch it in its entirety, here it is:

Gareth Barry’s historic longevity: Incredible stats, top goals

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Gareth Barry is expected to make Premier League history on Monday.

If Barry, 36, appears (he is expected to start) for West Bromwich Albion in their game against Arsenal (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) at the Emirates Stadium he will make his 633rd appearance in the PL, breaking Ryan Giggs‘ record.

After making his PL debut in the 1997-98 campaign for Aston Villa, Barry has gone on to play for Manchester City, Everton and now West Brom who he signed for in the summer.

In a recent interview the left-footer said he could go on playing until the age of 40 but he only has a contract through the end of this season at the Hawthorns after turning down a new two-year deal at Everton.

The midfielder, a former England international, won an FA Cup and a Premier League title while at Man City and has played as a left back, center back and in central midfield. Steady, composed and dependable, Barry is the kind of seasoned pro who are worth their weight in gold.

In the video above you can watch Barry’s top five goals in the Premier League, while below are some incredible stats from his near 20-year career in England’s top-flight.

  • Most starts in Premier League history: 600
  • Most minutes played: 52,871
  • Most yellow cards: 119
  • Ranked 10th all-time in wins with 261
  • 17 current PL players were not born when Barry made his Premier League debut on May 3, 1998

Trio of USWNT players stay in locker room for national anthem

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USWNT players Megan Rapinoe, Sydney Leroux and Becky Sauerbrunn were among players from both the Seattle Reign and FC Kansas City who did not appear for the national anthem at a NWSL game on Sunday.

Rapinoe was the first USWNT player to kneel during the national anthem as she joined the protests led by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick calling for racial equality and against police brutality.

With several NFL teams on Sunday taking a knee during the anthem and the Pitstburgh Steelers, Tennessee Titans and Seattle Seahawks staying in the locker room during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner, U.S. President Donald Trump has responded angrily to sports teams who decided to kneel during the national anthem.

Here’s more info from Sounder At Heart on SB Nation:

This time Megan Rapinoe is not alone. Several players from both teams joined her, staying in the locker room during the flag and anthem ceremony.

Elli Reed, Megan Rapinoe, Madalyn Schiffel, Lauren Barnes and Diana Matheson from the Reign did not take the field. Former Sounders/Reign player Sydney Leroux was among the FCKC starters who were not out for the ceremonies. Yael Averbuch, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Desiree Scott round out that group. Sauerbrunn is currently the United States captain. Leroux and Rapinoe are both regulars with the USWNT.

With U.S. Soccer bringing in a new bylaw earlier this year which states players must stand for the national anthem, could we see male and female U.S. stars following this option by not going out onto the pitch for the national anthem in upcoming international games?

All eyes will be on USWNT captain Sauerbrunn, plus midfielder Rapinoe and Leroux, during the anthem when Jill Ellis’ side play against South Korea on Oct. 19 and Oct. 22.

The actions of Bruce Arena’s USMNT side will also be heavily scrutinized ahead of their upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Panama and Trinidad & Tobago on Oct. 6 and Oct. 10 respectively.

Valencia coach Marcelino pulls muscle celebrating winner

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MADRID (AP) It was a bittersweet celebration for Valencia coach Marcelino after his team’s winning goal against Real Sociedad in the Spanish league on Sunday.

Marcelino pulled a thigh muscle in his left leg while celebrating Simone Zaza‘s 85th-minute winner at Anoeta Stadium.

Marcelino put his hand on the back of his leg and immediately started limping, visibly in pain.

Television images later showed him wincing in pain on the bench, and he limped every time he went out to the coach’s area to give instructions to his players.

“I’m older, I need to control myself in certain situations,” the 52-year-old Marcelino said, with a smile. “When it’s the coach getting injured, it’s not a problem.”

Valencia won 3-2 to stay unbeaten and move to fourth place in the standings.

Antonio Conte admits he misses Italy, plans to return home

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This is not exactly what Chelsea’s fans will want to hear on a Monday morning after a resounding 4-0 win at Stoke as the Blues moved up to third in the Premier League table.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Antonio Conte, who delivered the Premier League title in his first season in charge of the Blues, and his first season in England, in 2016-17, has been speaking of his desire to return to his homeland.

Conte, 48, spoke to Italian radio station RadioUno about his experience in the Premier League and left the door wide-open for a return to Serie A in the coming months as he admitted he misses Italy.

“I miss it, that’s beyond doubt,” Conte said. “Italy is my homeland, so once I have had some good experiences, formative experiences, important and life-changing experiences, I’ll be back. I don’t know when but that’s the aim.

“It’s always difficult to predict the future. Us managers have the most precarious job of all. Today you’re working, tomorrow you’re out. I want to succeed, to finish one project and make the right decision about the next. This experience has given me so much, has improved me so much, but perhaps in the future I won’t be a manager. Perhaps I’ll work as a director of football. I don’t know.”

Conte has been linked with the managers job at Inter Milan and with comments like this, those links will not go away.

Adding further fuel to the fire was his decision to only signed an improved contract over the summer rather than extending his stay at Stamford Bridge. Conte’s current deal is due to expire at the end of the 2018-19 season.

After a tough summer and a tough start to the season which saw a feud with Diego Costa dominate the talk surrounding Chelsea, a loss to Arsenal in the Community Shield, an opening day defeat at home to Burnley, plus some questionable dealings in the transfer market, the pressure was piling on Conte.

His team have responded with five wins in their next six games in all competitions and are right up there with the early pacesetters in the Premier League.

That said, the fact that Conte was under any pressure whatsoever was a joke considering what he had achieved last season when nobody expected Chelsea to seriously challenge for the title. Therein lies why he could want out when his current deal at Chelsea is up, or maybe even sooner than that.

In situations like this I often think about what Eric Cantona did: leave before anybody else expects you to and you’ll go out, and remain, a hero.