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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:

Report: Alexis Sanchez growing impatient with Wenger, Arsenal

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 21:  Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal is watched by James Chester of West Bromwich Albion during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and West Bromwich Albion at the Emirates Stadium on April 21, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Alexis Sanchez is frustrated, and that doesn’t bode well for Arsenal or its manager Arsene Wenger.

[ MORE: Stoke announces partnership with MLS side Orlando City ]

The attacker and his coach have had several spats in the Chilean’s two years at the Emirates Stadium, however, their rift was quite evident over the weekend when Sanchez was substituted off against Norwich City. Sanchez reportedly exited through the tunnel without shaking Wenger’s hand and left the stadium directly after.

[ MORE: Ben Afra being targeted by Barcelona after stellar season with Nice ]

According to the Telegraph, Sanchez is miffed about the inconsistent amount of playing time that he has received this season. In 26 league appearances during the 2015-16 campaign, Sanchez has totaled 12 goals, which is tied for first on the team with Olivier Giroud.

Being that the 27-year-old is arguably Arsenal’s most important attacking player, the feud between Sanchez and Wenger certainly isn’t ideal for the French manager. Gunners supporters protested prior to the team’s match against Norwich due to the club’s lack of success over recent seasons.

Sanchez still has two years remaining on his contract with the London side, and even though it isn’t likely that he’ll move this summer, a few teams have expressed interest in the talented winger. Pep Guardiola could make a swoop at Sanchez as he arrives at Manchester City this summer, while Guardiola’s soon-to-be former side Bayern Munich have also made their wishes known.

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Nadim’s path: From Taliban-ruled Afghanistan to Portland

HALMSTAD, SWEDEN - JULY 13:  Raffaella Manieri (R) of Italy and Nadia Nadim (L) of Denmark battle for the ball during the UEFA Women's Euro 2013 group A match between Italy and Denmark at Orjans Vall on July 13, 2013 in Halmstad, Sweden.  (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)
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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) Soccer is the one constant in Nadia Nadim’s life since fleeing the Taliban as a young girl.

[ MORE: Stoke City announces partnership with MLS side Orlando City ]

She first learned the game from her father, an Afghan military general who was tragically killed. Later it gave her a sense of belonging as a refugee, and then national pride when she donned the jersey of her adopted Denmark.

Now it’s a career in Portland, Oregon, thousands of miles from where she started.

“I kind of feel it was meant to be, like destiny,” she said of her current career with the Thorns of the National Women’s Soccer League.

Nadim is new to Portland this season after spending the last two in New Jersey with Sky Blue FC. Sitting in the warm sunshine after training at the team’s downtown stadium, Nadim wore a Los Angeles Lakers jersey (she’s a Kobe Bryant fan) as she reflected on her journey.

At 28, she’s at a break in medical school studies back home – a good time to see how far the game she loves can take her.

“When that time came I thought I could go and play in a European League, but that would be still so close and similar to what I was used to back home,” she said. “So I wanted to try something different and away from home. Plus, I wanted to play in a league where some of the best players in the world play.”

Nadim’s love for the game started in Kabul, where she grew up. Her father was a big sports fan and when he wasn’t working he’d take his five daughters to play at the local fields. But the Taliban seized control of the country in 1996, and Nadim’s childhood quickly slipped away. Girls were not allowed to go to school, let alone play soccer.

One day when she was about 10, Nadim’s father was summoned to meet with the Taliban leaders. He never returned. The family later learned he was killed.

“Most memories I have are nice ones – until the last year when everything was chaotic,” she said. “Before that, before the stuff that happened with my dad and the Taliban coming to my country, I remember having a really safe childhood where my parents tried to protect us and we had everything we wanted.

“But yeah, that changed really, really drastically after they came to power.”

In an Islamic state, women were not allowed to have jobs or even leave the home without a male relative. That made life untenable for her mother, who faced raising five girls on her own. They fled.

“It happened really quick,” she said. “It’s not like anything you can plan for.”

The family made it to Pakistan, where they paid a smuggler and got to Italy. The group had hoped to make it to England, but a driver dropped them off in “the middle of nowhere.” It turned out to be Denmark.

The family was in a Copenhagen refugee camp for six months before they were granted asylum. Nadia was able to go to school, but more importantly, play soccer. It was there she learned that she actually had talent for the game.

A standout for her club team, Nadim got the attention of Denmark’s national team. She was allowed to train with the team but could not play until she got her citizenship at 18. She was the first naturalized citizen to play for the senior team when she made her debut in the 2009 Algarve Cup against the United States.

Her first task? Mark Abby Wambach.

“I wasn’t even supposed to play but the striker got injured in the first 15 minutes,” she said. “I wasn’t even warmed up when they said, `Nadia! Go!”‘

When not on national team duty, Nadim played in Europe while also going to school. She is currently studying to become a plastic surgeon – not the cosmetic type but the reconstructive type. She has one year left.

Nadim first ventured to the United States in 2014 when she played six games with Sky Blue while on loan from Danish club Fortuna Hjorring, scoring six goals. The next year, she started in all 18 games for Sky Blue.

Nadim was traded to Portland in a draft-day deal before the season. Already she has made an impact off the ball, which is what the Thorns have asked of her, new head coach Mark Parsons said.

“Her game is winning games and scoring goals, but we’ve needed her in different role. I think that sums her up. She’s a winner, she’s a great character and she’s willing to do what it takes for the team,” Parsons said.

Nadim is still getting comfortable with the Thorns and her new, albeit temporary, home. The NWSL streams all her games live so her mother Hamida can watch from Denmark.

“I hope to make some more great memories with the Portland Thorns,” she said. “We have a really, really special team here with a lot of quality players. I feel really fortunate to be here and I enjoy playing, and I love the way we play.”

Stoke City announces partnership with Orlando City

during the Barclays Premier League match between Stoke City and Chelsea at Britannia Stadium on November 7, 2015 in Stoke on Trent, England.
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Americans have been heavily involved in Premier League management, including John Henry at Liverpool and the Glazer family who own Manchester United.

[ MORE: LAFC is one step closer to joining MLS, after finding home for stadium ]

Friday marked a dawn of a new relationship between the PL and MLS though, when Stoke City announced a strategic partnership with Orlando City SC.

[ MORE: Rapids-RSL highlights Week 10 action around MLS ]

The goal of the agreement between the two sides is to advance player recruitment and development, as well spark fan engagement in both leagues.

Potters Chief Executive Tony Scholes:

“It’s an opportunity for us to share best practice with Orlando in a variety of areas, primarily in player recruitment, marketing and development, but also to give both clubs chance to grow in each other’s markets,” said Scholes.

“A large number of our fans already regard Orlando as their MLS side and I know that Stoke City are already followed by many Orlando fans.

“As an established Premier League club we are always looking at new ways to develop our profile overseas and our strategic partnership will help us to develop in the United States.”

NBC’s recent coverage of the PL has sparked massive interest in the United States, giving fans various opportunities to watch matches over the course of a weekend. As MLS continues to grow as well, you can surely expect interest abroad, specifically in Europe, to grow too.

Phil Rawlins, Founder and President of Orlando City, is excited with the relationship building between the two clubs.

“It was very clear that we’ve always had a good relationship with Stoke City and it came down to us wanting to reignite that synergy and bring our brands closer together. This will be our only partnership in England, and we hope to ignite passions for both our clubs in each other’s markets.”

The pursuit of MLS to become a top league has a ways to go, but a move like this will surely only benefit commissioner Don Garber and the rest of MLS.

Follow @MattReedFutbol

Gareth Bale, Keylor Navas injuries present challenge for Real Madrid

MADRID, SPAIN - MARCH 18:  Gareth Bale of Real Madrid controls the ball under pressure from Joel Matip of Schalke uring the UEFA Champions League Round of 16, second leg match between Real Madrid and FC Schalke 04 at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on March 18, 2014 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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After narrowly escaping Wednesday’s Champions League semifinal against Manchester City, 1-0, Real Madrid is facing a bit of difficult news.

[ MORE: Ben Afra drawing interest from Barcelona ]

The club has confirmed injuries to both Gareth Bale and goalkeeper Keylor Navas, despite each player going the full 90 minutes midweek. Bale has reportedly sustained a knee problem, while Navas has suffered an injury to his Achilles tendon.

The extent of the injuries is not yet known, although Bale’s appears to be less severe. With Madrid down a goalkeeper, reserve team keeper Kiko Casilla will likely take over in net for Real while Navas recovers.

Madrid will host Valencia on Sunday in La Liga, with both players expected to miss the match. Bale could reportedly return for Real’s match against Deportivo La Coruna on May 14, their final league game. The team can then turn its attention to the Champions League final against rival Atletico Madrid on May 28.

Real currently sits one point behind La Liga leader Barcelona and second place Atleti with two games to play.

Follow @MattReedFutbol