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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:

NYCFC’s Vieira gets big praise from Houston counterpart

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 22:  Former professional football player and Western Union Pass Ambassador, Patrick Vieira, speaks with press at the Beyond Soccer Series Powered By streetfootballworld at Thomson Reuters Building on June 22, 2015 in New York City.  (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Beyond Soccer Series)
Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Beyond Soccer Series
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How long we’ll continue to see Patrick Vieira in Major League Soccer is anyone’s guess, but it’s taken less than a year at his first managerial gig to impress a whole bunch of people.

One of those is Houston Dynamo coach Wade Barrett, who matches wits with Vieira when New York City FC hits BBVA Compass Stadium for a Friday night match.

[ MORE: JPW catches up with Vieira ]

After a glittering playing career at Arsenal and Inter Milan amongst other sides, Vieira ran Manchester City’s reserves between 2013-15. Now in the dugout leading a senior team for the first time, Vieira hasn’t skipped a beat, leading NYCFC to a playoff spot and a legit chance at a first round bye in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Barrett sees the genius in his 40-year-old opponent.

From MLSSoccer.com:

“You see teams that get stuck just doing one thing over and over again, I don’t want to say they get figured out, but sometimes they run out of options,” Barrett said. “You see a coach like him, he’s made adjustments in games, moved pieces around, and I think that’s really important in this league, is to be able to adjust.

“Patrick’s come in and he’s done very well. He’s got his group playing a very effective style.”

Barrett’s a first-year boss himself, guiding Houston to a 4W-4L-9T record since taking over for Owen Coyle in late May. That’s a significant improvement for the Dynamo, who are still destined to miss the playoffs.

“It’s very special” — Wisconsin defender set to take on USMNT, Mexico

Credit: UW Athletic Communications
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Macroeconomics. Soccer practice. Portuguese class. Match versus Rutgers.

All that, and then Sam Brotherton can get down to preparing for Giovani Dos Santos and Jozy Altidore.

The University of Wisconsin captain and New Zealand national teamer has one heck of a week ahead of him.

“It’s been pretty tough trying to balance at all, but I’ve had a lot of support from the university and thankfully my professors have been understanding,” the 6-foot-1 center back told ProSoccerTalk.

[ MORE: LA’s Dos Santos gets Mexico call-up ]

Following this weekend’s match between Wisconsin and Rutgers, Brotherton will hop on a plane to meet head coach Anthony Hudson and New Zealand in Nashville. The Kiwis are Stateside for an Oct. 8 match against Mexico in Nashville before heading to Washington for an Oct. 11 date with the USMNT at RFK Stadium.

Credit: UW Athletic Communications
Credit: UW Athletic Communications

This isn’t a bizarre story of a tiny national team finding a college kid with an ancestral tie and giving him a call; Brotherton is off to tangle with two of CONCACAF’s best in a match that will hopefully better prepare New Zealand for the 2017 Confederations Cup.

Brotherton will enter the trip on his 20th birthday, and on the path for caps Nos. 7 and 8. He’s the only amateur player on a team with West Ham defender Winston Reid, Leeds United striker Chris Wood, and Portland Timbers backstop Jake Gleeson.

It’s no secret that Brotherton has the skill set to be a professional player now, and his call-ups to the national team in the summer before his freshman year had pro clubs on alert. But Brotherton had signed to play for head coach John Trask at a very good school at Wisconsin, and that meant something to him.

[ MORE: JPW hangs with USMNT prospect Gooch ]

“It was a decision I had to make, and I felt that I had made a commitment to the school,” said Brotherton, whose father was educated at Oxford. “I’ve always been passionate about my education and wanted to get my degree so I felt I wanted to give college soccer a try, start off here at Wisconsin and see where it went.”

Brotherton is one of a bevy of young New Zealand players plying their trade in the NCAA Soccer game. Xavier’s Cory Brown was the Big East preseason Defensive Player of the Year. Saint Francis Red Flash senior defender Francis de Vries is an All-American, and Stuart Holthusen was First Team All-MAC at Akron in 2015.

The University at Buffalo has a Kiwi head coach and four players, including goalkeeper Cameron Hogg, who played with Brotherton on the U20 team.

“Sam has always been a leader in any side he stepped into,” Hogg said. “From Auckland to the national U20s, he’s always been a leading voice even if he wasn’t wearing the armband.”

Wisconsin is 4-2-1, the longtime MLS assistant Trask running the Badgers program to a solid start. Trask has started the sophomore in 24 matches, including a freshman season that saw Brotherton named to the Big Ten All-Freshman Team and had his teammates recognizing a leader.

[ MORE: Man Utd-Zorya recap | Zlatan reacts ]

“Sam is one of the few sophomores that I’ve named captain,” Trask told PST. “It’s rare in a team. Sam has just got it. His presence as a person and the quality of his play, every guy on the team said he should be our captain. I’ve got a ton of time for him.”

“Sam is an excellent center back and he’s incredible in the air,” said Adam Lauko, who graduated from Wisconsin in 2015. “On top of that he is mature beyond his years and a well-respected leader. He’s a great guy to be around as well.”

2015 was an insane ride for Brotherton, as the kid went from scoring at the U20 World Cup to his freshman year in Madison. Two days after that season ended, he earned his first full national team cap when he played in a 1-0 win over Oman.

“It was amazing,” Brotherton said. “It’s really quite hard to put into words. It’s very special. I was so fortunate that it happened so young in my career. It’s an honor, but it makes you want to work even harder.”

Being a center back means having the opportunity to learn from Reid, a man with 19 caps and 175 appearances for West Ham. All but 28 of those have come with the Irons in the Premier League, and Reid was chosen the Hammer of the Year in 2012-13 and the New Zealand Footballer of the Year for 2014.

[ MORE: Top 5 Premier League storylines ]

“Rugby is the main sport in New Zealand, but Winston has increased the awareness and popularity of football,” Brotherton said. “He’s a great player and a great guy. A lot of guys look up to him, and every time you get in camp with him it’s great to learn off someone like that.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 10: Chris Smalling of Manchester United looks dejected as Winston Reid of West Ham United celebrates as he scores their third goal during the Barclays Premier League match between West Ham United and Manchester United at the Boleyn Ground on May 10, 2016 in London, England. West Ham United are playing their last ever home match at the Boleyn Ground after their 112 year stay at the stadium. The Hammers will move to the Olympic Stadium for the 2016-17 season. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Fellow New Zealand defender Reid (center) celebrates scoring the match-winner in the final match at the Boleyn Ground (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

When New Zealand won the 2016 OFC Nations Cup, Brotherton started all five matches. He went 120 minutes in the final as the Kiwis won in penalty kicks, but still came back to school at Wisconsin.

“With all his international call-ups and how difficult our business school is, we’re still optimistic he’s going to be an Academic All-American in addition to a soccer All-American,” Trask said. “He knows I won’t stand in his way when the moment’s right. I still think he can learn at the collegiate level while also pushing his degree. It’s a very unique situation.”

Brotherton said he’s grateful to Trask, who he calls “a winner”, and Wisconsin for allowing him to pursue his international career. He praises Hudson’s preparation and tactical acumen, and admits that he’s open to playing professional in Europe, North America, or wherever the best opportunity lies.

[ MORE: Southampton draws in Israel ]

And if that’s home?

“I love going to the beach,” Brotherton said. “I spearfish a little bit, and I definitely miss being close to the sea.”

That’s all in the future, though. Brotherton has a busy week ahead of him, as Wisconsin looks to go 3-1 in Big Ten play with a home win over Rutgers before he goes to hopefully start in front of thousands of passionate Mexico and USMNT fans in two gigantic stadia.

“All players look forward to playing in big games in front of some good crowds,” Brotherton said. “It’s exciting and those opportunities don’t come around too often, so it brings the best out of you as a player.”

Premier League storylines: First vs second at WHL, Saints meet Foxes

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 14:  Kelechi Iheanacho of Manchester City tackles Mousa Dembele of Tottenham Hotspur during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur at Etihad Stadium on February 14, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
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My goodness, do these European weeks allow the Premier League to just reach out and smack you in the face or what?

The PL returns Friday with a match-up of two team on the precipice of the Top Four, and doesn’t stop until a thrilling Sunday leads us into an international break.

[ MORE: Man Utd-Zorya recap | Zlatan reacts ]

Let’s dig into our Top Five storylines for the PL weekend.

First versus second at White Hart Lane

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Manchester City — 9:15 a.m. EDT Sunday (NBCSN)

Pep Guardiola has already presided over a Manchester City win across town at Old Trafford, and scooping three points at White Hart Lane would be yet another gorgeous feather in his new sky blue cap. Want more insight into this 1v2? Here’s JPW with a PST Extra.

Gunners look to keep firing in classic trap game

Burnley vs. Arsenal — 11:30 a.m. EDT Sunday (NBCSN)

Arsene Wenger has Theo Walcott and the Gooners humming, with three-straight clean sheets and just four goals allowed in their last eight contests. With an international break coming, Arsenal just has to do what’s expected of it and take a week to revel in its fine form.

That’s kinda the problem. In the past, Arsenal would make a trip like this much harder than it looks on paper. If the Gunners are truly on the path to something special, that doesn’t happen at Turf Moor.

Will Chelsea responds to furious Conte?

Hull City vs. Chelsea — 10 a.m. EDT Saturday (NBCSN)

As good as Chelsea has been at times this year, there are still lingering worries that the group that quit on Jose Mourinho is lacking the leadership necessary to make a title push (and yes, we know that group won the title one year previous).

Manager Antonio Conte was ticked off after the Blues were bounced all over the Emirates by Arsenal, and are supposed to making the most of this season without a congested European schedule. That should mean a win at Hull, right?

HULL, ENGLAND - MARCH 22: Gaston Ramirez of Hull City challenges Nemanja Matic of Chelsea during the Barclays Premier League match between Hull City and Chelsea at KC Stadium on March 22, 2015 in Hull, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Pretender alert, pretender alert

Leicester City vs. Southampton — 9 a.m. EDT Sunday (CNBC)

Here’s a tale of four teams in one two-team game. Leicester and Southampton have been solid, if not terrific, in Europe, and look threats to advance into the knockout rounds of both the Champions and Europa League.

Leicester and Southampton have also combined for a mere 15 points though 12 Premier League games, far off the pace for fans hoping both could become European fixtures. At least one, or two, maybe four of these teams will feel better come 11 a.m. Sunday. Not three, though. Definitely not three.

Last stop for Guidolin?

Swansea City vs. Liverpool — 7:30 a.m. EDT Saturday (NBCSN)

As the rumor vultures circle above Francesco Guidolin crowing, “Bob Bradley, Bob Bradley“, the Swansea boss looks to engineer a home win over Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool that could save his job. That won’t worry Klopp too much, who is hoping to lead his Reds into the international break as high as second in the PL table.

Second coach in England loses job after newspaper sting

BARNSLEY, ENGLAND - JULY 23:  Tommy Wright assistant head coach of Barnsley during the pre-season friendly match between Barnsley and Everton at Oakwell Stadium on July 23, 2016 in Barnsley, England. (Photo by Clint Hughes/Getty Images)"n
Photo by Clint Hughes/Getty Images
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BARNSLEY, England (AP) A British newspaper investigation led to a second soccer coach getting fired in England on Thursday.

Two days after Sam Allardyce lost his job as England manager following an undercover operation by the Daily Telegraph, second-tier club Barnsley fired assistant coach Tommy Wright.

Wright was filmed apparently accepting an envelope which the Telegraph said contained 5,000 pounds ($6,500) from a fake Asian firm to help place players at the northern club. Video footage was released by the newspaper late Wednesday and Wright was immediately suspended by Barnsley.

[ MORE: Man Utd-Zorya recap | Zlatan reacts ]

“After considering Mr. Wright’s response to allegations in today’s Daily Telegraph about breaching (Football Association) rules over player transfers, Mr. Wright was dismissed,” the club said after a meeting with the coach on Thursday.

Barnsley said it was “unaware of such matters or involved in any wrongdoing.”

The English Football Association decided to terminate Allardyce’s contract on Tuesday after video showed him appearing to offer advice to fictitious businessmen on how to sidestep an outlawed player transfer practice and also negotiating a 400,000 pound ($519,000) public-speaking contract to top up an annual England salary of 3 million pounds ($4 million).

English soccer is reeling after three days of accusations by the newspaper following its months-long investigation into alleged wrongdoing in the game.

Second-tier Queens Park Rangers is investigating footage that appeared to show its coach, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, seeking a fee of 55,000 pounds ($71,600) to work for a fake Far Eastern firm that had suggested selling players to the second-tier London club.

[ MORE: JPW hangs with USMNT prospect Gooch ]

Hasselbaink denied any wrongdoing, saying he was only offered a fee to make a speech in Singapore and did not ask QPR to sign players said to have been represented by the fake firm. QPR said it had “every confidence” in Hasselbaink, and its chief executive and director of football spoke to Hasselbaink on Thursday to get his version of events.

QPR said it wanted to view an unedited version of the video footage and a full transcript.

Hasselbaink, a former Chelsea and Leeds striker, will prepare the QPR team for the league match against Fulham on Saturday.

The Daily Telegraph also filmed an agent accusing 10 managers, which it did not name, of taking bribes linked to player transfers.