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Premier League Breakdown: Robbie Earle previews Newcastle v. Liverpool

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Ever find yourself thinking, I need more Robbie Earle in my life?

Me too. So I sat down with the NBC Sports Premier League pundit to discuss one of the marque matches of this weekend, Newcastle v. Liverpool.

Let’s get stuck in.

EXPLAIN LIVERPOOL’S 3-5-2 AND HOW NEWCASTLE CAN BREAK IT DOWN

The 3-5-2 seems to be the preferred choice of many of the Italian teams now. It generally means that a manager wants his two wide defenders to get into midfield positions and cause overload situations. For Liverpool, this has been the role of Jose Enrique and Jordan Henderson over the last few weeks (since Glen Johnson has been injured).

To break down Liverpool’s 3-5-2 Newcastle will want to make them vulnerable by pushing three forwards high up the pitch, forcing the Reds into a man-marking situation. With Loic Remy, Yoan Gouffran, Papiss Cisse and Hatem Ben Arfa, Newcastle have four good options for these three positions. By keeping a high line and pressuring the back three of Liverpool, Newcastle will look to get the ball into those trouble areas high on the flanks.

If they’re clever, the front three of Newcastle will be interchanging as well, forcing Liverpool to fall into a hybrid defense whereby they man-mark for portions of the match and pass-on players at other times. If played correctly it can be quite difficult to deal with.

It’s an adventurous approach that a team like Manchester City is more equipped to handle but I think Newcastle have the elements in place to give it a go. I just hope that if Pardew does choose to press three high, he does it to start the match rather than a means to level the score late. Of course, it’s easy for me to say, ‘yeah, go on and be brave!’ My job’s not on the line.

DOES NEWCASTLE HAVE THE MIDFIELDERS WHO CAN MAKE THE THREE HIGH APPROACH WORK?

I think so. Cheick Tiote is a rock defensively and if he’s closely flanked by more technical, box-to-box type players like Yohan Cabaye and Moussa Sissoko, Newcastle could certainly get it done. The challenge will obviously be stopping the Liverpool attack and quickly transitioning into offense. So players Cabaye and Sissoko will need to be up for it and they’ll need to play some aggressive balls, sometimes hitting 40 yard diagonals that guys like Ben Arfa and Gouffran can take outside of the Liverpool back three.

Newcastle will have to remember that Liverpool primarily want to control the ball out of the back. They want to outnumber you and get it into those wide players. So if Newcastle’s front three can press high and eliminate them from doing so, it will make it a lot easier on the midfield three to perform defensively.

 

 

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Papiss Cisse hasn’t scored a Premier League goal since Newcastle’s 1-0 victory over Fulham on April 7, 2013.

13 PREMIER LEAGUE MATCHES WITHOUT A GOAL FOR PAPISS CISSE, WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE STRIKER?

When Cisse came into the league he was a player who would try things. He scored a couple of outrageous goals like the one he had at Chelsea. He’s an instinctive player and I get the feeling that there’s too many thoughts going on in his head. Everything with Cisse has become a bit mechanical – his movements, his finishing, even his running style. When he came into the league I thought he looked very lively and athletic. Now, he looks a bit labored.

Confidence remains a difficult component of the game. When you’re on top of your game things happen naturally. But when you’re not, things slow down. The thought processes aren’t that good and I feel that Cisse has been effected by some of the uncertainty at the football club.

Remember that every dressing room has 25 different characters. Some guys are hard, some guys are more sensitive to the teammates, the team, the rhythm. And Cisse looks to be one of those kind of players.

He’s what I call a ‘streaky striker’. If he scores one he’s likely to go and score a goal a game for the next ten matches. Sometimes with a player like that you just need to put your arm around him, make him feel good about himself and then he’ll start to produce.

WILL WE SEE LIVERPOOL IN A 3-5-2 WHEN GLEN JOHNSON RETURNS?

Yes. The 3-5-2 is actually perfectly situated for Glen Johnson because it’s designed for a full-back who’s suited to get into the attack. When he returns from injury you’ll see Jordan Henderson be slotted elsewhere, possibly next to Steven Gerrard.

Thinking about Johnson and a 3-5-2 brings up an interesting point about Brendan Rodgers. To me, he’s one of those coaches who looks at his squad and then decides what’s the best system to get the most out of the individuals. I sometimes find coaches go the other way – they have a squad and try and shoehorn players into the system. This speaks volumes of Rodgers such that he’s always looking for what’s best for his players.

 

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Playing in a more restrictive holding role, Steven Gerrard has looked a bit off the pace this season.

DOES STEVEN GERRARD SEEM A BIT OFF THE PACE THIS SEASON?

It’s interesting you say that because I know Steven well – I played against him towards the end of my career and he’s one of my favorite players – but he looked slightly unhappy in that Crystal Palace match. Something in Steven’s body language just didn’t look or feel quite right.

Rodgers has him playing in more of a sitting role now. This means Gerrard has to be a lot more disciplined than he’s ever been and it also restricts his freedom to get up the pitch, which he loves to do.

In this sense, Rodgers has shackled him in a bit and I wonder if that’s caused Gerrard to lose a little bit of his enthusiasm almost to say: ‘I don’t want to sit in, I want to be Steven Gerrard and win tackles, drive forward and score goals.’ In his own mind, I don’t think it suits Gerrard and on the field, he’s not having the same impact.

But I do think it’s better for the club as a whole because Rodgers is making him last. He wants to get the best out of Gerrard for as long as he can. And given the way Gerrard has played the game for so long, he is being reined in. It’s almost like a recognition that you’re not the player you were 10 years ago. I’ve been down that road myself and it’s not easy. So I think Gerrard might be in the mold where he now realizes he’s the elder statesman and needs change his game but isn’t necessarily happy about it.

SO, IF YOU’RE BRENDAN RODGERS WHAT ARE YOU TELLING YOUR TEAM IN PREPARATION FOR NEWCASTLE?

Stay competitive. Stay consistent. Between now and the New Year, that has to be Liverpool’s focus. They also want to stay healthy and keep evolving. Looking back at Liverpool over the last 18 months we’ve seen Rodgers bring in a few players who can help change the system and progression of how they play. He has what is arguably the best striking partnership in the league and a few established, tricky formations he can throw at teams. But for me, this match is about keeping a sharp mentality.

The mental application of the game is something I think Liverpool have been short of over the last few seasons. They haven’t been in the title race since 2009 so the have to stay on an even keel and strive for consistency in their results.

Their biggest advantage this year is that they are out of the League Cup and aren’t in the Europa League. This will allow Rodgers more time than any of his contemporaries to break down each and every Premier League opponent, including Newcastle this weekend.

AND WHAT’S ALAN PARDEW TELLING HIS TEAM?

They’ve done well on the road but they’ve been poor at home. It’s time that they give St. James’ Park something to cheer about. It’s a 50,000 seat stadium that loves their team. You don’t see any red or blue shirts walking around Newcastle, it’s only black and white. The players get that. They’re very close to the community. So that could very well be the message Pardew delivers to his squad: ‘Ok, we’ve addressed our form on the road but now it’s time to give the home crowd something to cheer about.’

And they’ve got the quality to do it. Newcastle are better when they’re controlling the ball, and with offensive weapons like Cabaye, Tiote, Sissoko, Gouffran, Remy, Cisse and Ben Arfa, they can by all means do this. If they play right, they can hurt teams. So I’d look around the locker room and think, we’ve got something here. Yes, this is a team that needs a bit of a confidence boost so they need to look themselves in the mirror and believe they can make it happen.

They need to take it to Liverpool. Newcastle are much better when they’re on the front foot, when they’re aggressive. They have one of the best set of athletic players in the league. People who can increase the speed and tempo of the game that will affect the game. They’ve gone away from that a little bit of late so if Pardew can get it back into the squad, I think they can win games.

Historically, Liverpool v. Newcastle has been one of the blue chip fixtures in the Premier League, two clubs playing attacking football. For Newcastle, it’s the kind of game where, if they can beat the second place team in the league, it could kick-start their season and ramp up their self-belief.

Report: Chelsea’s Diego Costa, Antonio Conte agree truce

MIDDLESBROUGH, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 20:  Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea celebrates victory with Diego Costa after the Premier League match between Middlesbrough and Chelsea at Riverside Stadium on November 20, 2016 in Middlesbrough, England.  (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
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The feud is over. For now.

[ MORE: New rules stop Costa move

After Diego Costa was left out of Chelsea’s traveling squad for the win at Leicester City last weekend, he has been training on his own amid reports of a back injury which his manager Antonio Conte

It seems very likely that this situation was about much more than a back injury as Costa and Conte reportedly had a bust-up on the training ground, while links surrounding a big-money move to China continue as Costa’s agent, Jorge Mendes, was seen visiting owners of Chinese Super League clubs last week.

A report in The Times states that Costa and Conte have decided to put their differences aside and the Spanish international is back in contention to start against Hull City on Sunday (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

It was also stated that although everyone is buddy-buddy for now, Costa could still leave in the summer as his volatile nature is far from impressing Conte who continues to stamp his authority not only on the players but the entire club.

It’s clear Conte is boss but he can’t have Costa undermining him as seems to have been the case over the past week and it was also the case earlier on in the season when Conte demanded Costa remained on the pitch.

That said, Costa’s importance to Chelsea can’t be understated as he is the join-top goalscorer in the Premier League with 14 goals and he’s added another five assists this season. With reports linking Chelsea with a summer move for Alvaro Morata, it appears Conte is already trying to plan for life without Costa.

Can the Blues win the PL title this season without Costa’s goal and presence up top? Despite a seven-point lead, probably not. That’s why Conte calling a truce in his instance makes sense.

That said, he now has six months or so to line up a long-term replacement for Costa.

The cracks have been papered over for now. But how long will it be until two fiery characters collide once again?

Lionel Messi discusses his Barcelona future

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 11:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona looks on during the Copa del Rey round of 16 second leg match between FC Barcelona and Athletic Club at Camp Nou on January 11, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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Lionel Messi has addressed speculation linking him with a move away from the only club he has ever known.

[ MORE: Who are title favorites? ]

Messi, 29, has been at Barcelona since the age of 13 and the Argentine superstar has won every possible trophy with the Catalan giants, plus has been crowned the World Player of the Year on five occasions.

Time for a new challenge?

Reports had suggested that Barcelona have wanted to start talks over a new contract with Messi for quite some time but with just 18 months left on his current deal, Messi and his representatives are yet to hold talks.

“I have always said that Barcelona has given me everything and I am here for as long as they want me to be,” Messi said in Coach magazine.

Hmm.

Messi also spoke about his former manager and mentor, Pep Guardiola, and his challenging start to life in the Premier League as manager of Manchester City.

“It is a very competitive league, last season showed that, so it makes it very difficult to predict,” Messi added. “Of course Pep is a very successful coach, he will be adjusting to the league, but I am sure that he will be successful.”

Will Messi be part of Pep’s success at City?

It is obvious Barca will want him to stay but if a huge offer comes in for Messi from Man City this summer, or others in the Premier League, then surely he will think twice about it.

If Pep can coax Messi to join him at City, who can clearly afford him, then it would be another glittering star in their attacking line. That said, if Guardiola is going to be successful then he’ll have to add plenty more quality in defense as City currently sit 10 points off leaders Chelsea with 17 games to go in the PL season.

Loss to Sevilla quickly puts Real Madrid’s Zidane on the defensive

SEVILLE, SPAIN - JANUARY 15:  Head Coach of Real Madrid CF Zinedine Zidane looks on prior to  the match against Real Madrid CF during the La Liga match between Sevilla FC and Real Madrid CF at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on January 15, 2017 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)
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MADRID (AP) Real Madrid’s first loss after a 40-game unbeaten streak was enough to put coach Zinedine Zidane on the defensive.

Two days after Madrid’s unbeaten record was halted by a 2-1 defeat at Sevilla in the Spanish league, Zidane was forced to defend some of his players against criticism from fans and local media.

[ MORE: Klopp, Liverpool still consulting lawyers over absurd Matip situation ]

Most comments were aimed at goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who failed to stop Sevilla’s injury-time winner on Sunday. Navas got to Stevan Jovetic‘s long-range shot but was unable to keep the ball from going in.

“He’s having a really good season,” Zidane said on Tuesday. “You can always ask for more, but if up until now we had gone 40 games without losing, it’s for a reason, and he has been there all the way.”

There have been calls for Zidane to give reserve goalkeeper Kiko Casilla a chance, but the coach said there was “no need to go over this again.”

Zidane also dismissed talk about signing a new goalkeeper.

“These are rumors,” he said. “We are focused on what we are doing this year. Whatever happens next I’m not interested and it’s not the time to talk about it. The three goalkeepers we have are important, they’re doing well and I’m very happy with them. I don’t want to change anything we’re doing.”

[ MORE: How Sevilla hope to break up the Madrid-Barca duopoly ]

Zidane defended forward Karim Benzema, who lost possession near midfield in a mistake that led to host Sevilla’s winner on Sunday.

“Everyone can say and write what they want,” Zidane said. “On a field, playing 90 minutes, you can’t do everything right. There is talk of lack of concentration, but we only had five bad minutes and that happens in football.”

Benzema also missed a chance to score from close range in the game, but a few days earlier it was the French striker who netted in stoppage time in a Copa del Rey match against Sevilla to help Madrid set the Spanish unbeaten record.

Zidane downplayed the end of Madrid’s unbeaten streak. The club hadn’t lost since a 2-0 defeat at Wolfsburg in the Champions League in April.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

“These things happen,” he said. “Nothing is going to change in what I’m going to do. Those who are not Real Madrid fans will want us to lose, but we must be ready and think that what we’re doing is fine. We lost a game, something that happens, and now we have to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”

Madrid hosts Celta Vigo on Wednesday in a first-leg match in the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey.

Celta has won all four matches this year.

“I am not surprised by Celta’s record because they’re a very good team, they fight and play very good football,” Zidane said. “It’ll be another complicated match for us.”

FA fines Man City’s Sagna over “10 against 12” Instagram message

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - JANUARY 02: Scott Arfield of Burnley (L) tackles Bacary Sagna of Manchester City (R) during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Burnley at Etihad Stadium on January 2, 2017 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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LONDON (AP) The English Football Association has fined Manchester City defender Bacary Sagna 40,000 pounds (around $50,000) for an Instagram post about a referee.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Sagna posted a photo with the caption “10 against 12.. but still fighting and winning as a team” on the social network site following City’s 2-1 win against Burnley on Jan. 2.

Sagna later amended the post to read “still fighting and winning as a team” after a match that saw referee Lee Mason send off midfielder Fernandinho.

[ MORE: Klopp, Liverpool still consulting lawyers over absurd Matip situation ]

The FA also warned Sagna about his future conduct.