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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:

Kasper Schmeichel wants to play for Denmark 6 days after hernia surgery

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 27: Kasper Schmeichel of Leicester City in action during the Premier League match between Leicester City and Swansea City at The King Power Stadium on August 27, 2016 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Former Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel was tough, but his son might be tougher.

Leicester City shot-stopper Kasper Schmeichel had hernia surgery earlier Monday, and while that seems like it would sideline him for some time, apparently not.

The 29-year-old tweeted from the hospital bed that he is aiming for a return on Sunday – just six days removed from surgery – when his native Denmark takes on Armenia in World Cup qualification.

That’s…ambitious. Not surprising though, given the ambition Leicester City showed last season stunning everyone to win the title.

Schmeichel was injured against Swansea on Saturday in Premier League play when he made a clearance and came up notably uncomfortable. He was replaced in the 57th minute by new Foxes signing Ron-Robert Zieler. According to manager Claudio Ranieri, the club had already planned surgery for this problem even before Saturday’s flare-up due to the recurring nature of the problem.

Sadly, the Wednesday’s friendly against Liechtenstein comes a little too soon for Schmeichel. It will be the first international match he will miss since March of 2015. We’ll give him a pass, considering most of us would still be in post-op then.

Report: Zardes injury is serious, broken foot could end his season

SEATTLE, WA - JUNE 16:  Gyasi Zardes #9 of the United States dribbles against Jefferson Montero #7 of Ecuador during the 2016 Quarterfinal - Copa America Centenario match at CenturyLink Field on June 16, 2016 in Seattle, Washington. The United States beat Ecuador 2-1.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
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According to Goal.com’s Ives Galarcep, the injury that forced Gyasi Zardes to withdraw from USMNT consideration for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers is serious and could have much larger consequences.

Zardes reportedly suffered a broken right foot, and could not just miss the rest of the 2016 MLS season, but the rest of the calendar year, ruling him out of not just the two upcoming matches, but also the beginning of the Hexagonal in November should the U.S. advance to the next round.

The 24-year-old was injured just after halftime in an MLS match against Vancouver on Saturday, when he was brought down by Kendall Watson. It’s hard to see in full-speed what happens, but upon closer inspection, it appears that Watson’s follow-through catches the inside of Zardes’s right foot. He continued to play but looked less than healthy when he was finally substituted off in the 87th minute.

Zardes has been a rare youthful yet important cog in the USMNT machine the past few years. He played every minute of the Copa America run to the 3rd place match, and he has missed just two matches since making his debut in January of 2015, giving him 31 caps already despite a debut just 19 months ago.

The injury is also a serious blow for the LA Galaxy. Zardes had come onto the field in the 31st minute to replace an injured Steven Gerrard, and in-form defender Jelle van Damme had also departed the match with a knee ligament injury which will see him miss 2-3 weeks.

Michail Antonio thought he was being pranked when he got his England call-up

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 28:  Michail Antonio of West Ham during the Premier League match between Manchester City and West Ham at Etihad Stadium on August 28, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)
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Many were surprised when they saw West Ham winger Michail Antonio on Sam Allardyce‘s first England squad list.

Including Michail Antonio.

In fact, Antonio admitted he thought he was being pranked, or at the very least, the butt of a joke. Then he saw the proof, and began to get emotional.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Speaking with the official England Instagram account, Antonio said, “So literally I’ve done an interview at the end of the game [West Ham’s 3-1 loss to Manchester City on Sunday] and then I’ve come in and the physio’s come over to me and gone ‘you’ve been called up.’ I was like ‘haha funny’ and he’s gone ‘no no seriously’ and I was like ‘good banter!'”

[ MORE: West Ham falls to Manchester City 3-1 ]

The 26-year-old said he stared at the physio for a good 30 seconds before he was shown the official paper, at which point he began “welling up.” The water works came soon after. “So I gave my missus a call, obviously she doesn’t pick up. And then I just got myself mentally ready and waited for it to come out.”

Antonio has two goals in three Premier League games this season, although he struggled in West Ham’s season opener against Chelsea when forced to deputize at right-back. The London-born winger has never played under Allardyce, having joined the Hammers just a few months after Big Sam’s departure from West Ham.

Earthquakes fire longtime general manager John Doyle

SANTA CLARA, CA - AUGUST 25: San Jose Earthquakes owner, John Doyle announces the San Jose Earthquakes new stadium ground breaking set for October 21st 2012 before the game between the Colorado Rapids and the San Jose Earthquakes at Buck Shaw Stadium on August 25, 2012 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Tony Medina/Getty Images)
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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — The San Jose Earthquakes fired longtime general manager John Doyle on Monday, replacing him with technical director Chris Leitch on an interim basis.

Coach Dominic Kinnear and his staff remain in place, the team said.

Doyle, who in 2005 was the inaugural member of the San Jose Earthquakes Hall of Fame, had been the general manager since October 2007 and helped bring the franchise back following a two-year absence. He is a former player, assistant coach and color analyst with the organization.

San Jose has a 7-8-11 record for seventh place in the Western Conference and was three points back of Portland for the final playoff berth.