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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:

Chelsea adds No. 2 goalkeeper from Portugal’s EURO winning squad

LISBON, PORTUGAL - JULY 11: Portuguese goalkeeper Eduardo  during the meeting with the countries President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa for the Portugal Euro 2016 Victory ceremonies at Lisbon on July 11, 2016 in Lisbon, Portugal.  (Photo by Carlos Rodrigues/Getty Images)
Photo by Carlos Rodrigues/Getty Images
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Chelsea have added some depth at the very back.

Eduardo’s the name, and the 33-year-old Portuguese backstop arrives at Stamford Bridge with a decent resume, having been on the roster for his country’s EURO 2016 triumph.

[ MORE: Stambouli, Bentaleb reunited ]

USMNT fans will remember him from his time between the sticks for Portugal at the 2014 World Cup. He has 35 caps, and has been with Dinamo Zagreb since 2014.

From ChelseaFC.com:

‘All the colleagues I have always say the dream is to come to the Premier League, where there are the best clubs and the best players, and the opportunity to come here arrived at this moment.

‘I am happy to be here and I hope I meet the expectations people have for me.’

Eduardo certainly won’t be taking over for Thibaut Courtois, but will definitely provide competition for No. 2 Asmir Begovic.

UEFA Europa roundup: West Ham bounced by Astra Giurgiu; Genk, Gent, Anderlecht roll on

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 27:  Angelo Ogbonna of West Ham and Takayuki Seto of FC Astra Giurgiu battle for possesion during the UEFA Europa League match between West Ham United and FC Astra Giurgiu at the Olympic Stadium on August 27, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Alex Broadway/Getty Images)
Photo by Alex Broadway/Getty Images
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West Ham dominated the game but not the score line against Romanian side Astra Giurgiu, who advanced to the UEFA Europa League group stage with a 1-0 win at London Stadium on Thursday.

Well-traveled French midfielder Filipe Teixeira did the damage for Astra Giurgiu, as the former West Brom and Barnsley man scored in the 45th minute to give the visitors a 2-1 lead on aggregate after the sides went 1-1 in Romania last week.

The Irons carried possession and a wealth of shots, but couldn’t find their way past Romanian international goalkeeper Silviu Lung, Jr.

[ MORE: Stambouli, Bentaleb reunited at Schalke ]

Sassuolo star Domenico Berardi scored in a 1-1 draw with Red Star Belgrade, completing a 4-1 score line.

Elsewhere, a hat trick from Slovan Liberec’s Jan Sykora led the Czech side to a 3-0 second leg win, and 4-0 aggregate defeat of Cypriot side AEK Larnaca.

Gent got a pair of goals from giant Malian striker Kalifa Coulibaly as the Belgians completed a 6-1 aggregate win over Shkendija.

Full scoreboard
West Ham United 0-1 (agg. 1-2) Astra Giurgiu
Astana 2-2 (agg. 4-2) BATE Borisov
Arouca 1-2 (agg. 1-3) Olympiacos
Midtjylland 0-3 (agg. 0-4) Osmanlispor
Trencin 2-0 (agg. 0-4) Rapid Wien
Lokomotiva 0-2 (agg. 2-4) Genk
AEK Larnaca 0-3 (agg. 0-4) Slovan Liberec
Dinamo Tbilisi 0-2 (agg. 0-5) PAOK
Austria Wien 2-1 (agg. 4-2) Rosenborg
Beitar Jerusalem 0-0 (agg. 1-2) Saint-Etienne
Vojvodina 0-0 (agg. 0-3) AZ Alkmaar
Gabala 0-1 (agg. 3-2) Maribor
Slavia Prague 0-3 (agg. 0-6) Anderlecht
Fenerbahce 2-0 (agg. 3-0) Grasshopper
Panathinaikos 1-1 (agg. 4-1) Brondby
Krasnodar 0-0 (agg. 4-0) Partizani Tirana
Gent 4-0 (agg. 6-1) Shkendija
Istanbul Basaksehir 0-2 (agg. 1-4) Shakhtar Donetsk
SonderjyskE 2-3 (agg. 2-3) Sparta Prague
Sassuolo 1-1 (agg. 4-1) Red Star Belgrade
Goteborg 0-3 (agg. 1-3) Qarabag
Maccabi Tel Aviv 1-2 (agg. 3-3) Hajduk Split

Spurs’ Bentaleb off to Schalke on loan, joining PSG’s Stambouli

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 18: Nabil Bentaleb of Spurs U21 looks on during the Barclays U21 Premier League match between Leicester City U21 and Tottenham Hotspurs U21 at The King Power Stadium on March 18, 2016 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
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Schalke’s quest to rejoin Germany’s elite was buttressed by a pair of interesting pickups on Thursday.

The Royal Blues have added Benjamin Stambouli from Paris Saint-Germain and Nabil Bentaleb from Tottenham Hotspur.

The Bentaleb deal is a loan, as the oft-injured attacker looks to shake off his underperforming reputation. The 21-year-old has 19 caps and three goals for Algeria.

[ MORE: Boufal to Saints ]

Stambouli joins on a four-year deal. A defensive midfielder, Stambouli left Spurs for PSG last year and made 27 appearances for the French champions.

The side nabbed high-profile prospect Breel Embolo earlier this offseason, and should be a problem for most opposing sides when the season begins this weekend.

Schalke finished in fifth place last Bundesliga season, and brings back captain Benedikt Howedes and Olympic star Max Meyer.

Ranking toughness of UCL groups for Leicester, Arsenal, Tottenham, Man City

Kompany and City's defense struggled to contain Messi and Barca in the first half.
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Leicester City, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City all entered the UEFA Champions League at the group stage and they found out their fate on Thursday following the draw in Monaco.

[ MORE: UCL group stage draw ]

Right now Leicester, Arsenal and Spurs will be feeling pretty good about their chances of advancing to the UCL’s Round of 16. As for Man City, boy, it will be a tough route through the group stage once again for them.

[ MORE: Ronaldo wins top award ]

Below is a look at the toughness of the group stage draw for all four PL teams.


GROUP G: Leicester City, FC Porto, Club Brugge, Copenhagen

Their first-ever season in the UCL, the draw could not have gone any better for reigning PL champs Leicester in terms of their dreams of advancing. Claudio Ranieri‘s side have FC Porto, who will be a very tough test, but in Club Brugge and Copenhagen they drew two of the easier teams they could have faced. Overall, this is not a tough group especially when you see the full draw. Looks like the fairytale for the Foxes will go deep in the Champions League this season. Toughness ranking: 3/10


GROUP A: Paris Saint-Germain, Arsenal, FC Basel, Ludogorets

Arsenal will fancy their chances against PSG and when it comes to FC Basel and Ludrogorets they will expect to take two wins from each of these teams. But this is Arsenal so they’ll probably need a 3-0 win in their last group game to make the knockout rounds… Seriously, though, Arsene Wenger will be a relieved man to avoid the likes of Bayern Munich and Barelona in the group stage but Arsenal’s games against PSG will be pivotal in their chances of getting a good draw in the last 16. Overall, could’ve been a lot tougher. Toughness ranking: 4/10


GROUP C: FC Barcelona, Manchester City, Borussia Monchendgladbach, Celtic

It just had to happen for Pep Guardiola, didn’t it? He will return to the Nou Camp in his debut season at City to face his beloved Barcelona and Man City’s fans will be sick of the sight of Lionel Messi and Co. after they knocked them out of the competition in two of the last three seasons. That said, there will be two magnificent games between the giants with Barca the favorites to win the UCL this season. As for Monchengladbach, they are quietly a very strong team and even Celtic (who famously beat Barca in the group stage in 2012) will provide a tough challenge for City at Celtic Park in the away game. All in all, couldn’t have been tougher for City but they will likely squeeze through with Barca to the Round of 16.

Toughness ranking: 8/10


GROUP E: CSKA Moscow, Bayer Leverkusen, Tottenham Hotspur, Monaco

Maurcio Pochettino’s side will be grinning like a Cheshire cat with this draw. Arguably it is even easier than Leicester’s with CSKA Moscow perennial strugglers in the UCL, plus German side Bayer Leverkusen very beatable and Spurs have done well against Monaco in the Europa League recently. Overall, if Spurs don’t win this group they will be very disappointed. A great draw for the north London club. Toughness ranking: 3/10