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:

Championship playoff final: How to watch, start time, odds, prediction

Fulham - Brentford
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Fulham – Brentford: Which West London Derby combatant will lay claim to a place in the Premier League at the end of Tuesday’s Football League Championship promotion playoff final at Wembley Stadium?

We can hardly wait to find out, as the 20th berth in the 2020-21 Premier League season and 22nd spot in the Championship will be decided after the richest game on earth.

[ MORE: Predictions, Odds for Europe ]

Kickoff is at 2:45 pm ET Tuesday at Wembley Stadium.


Key players

Fulham leading scorer Aleksandar Mitrovic’s 26 goals were the joint-most in the Championship and more than three times as many as Tom Cairney, second amongst the Cottagers. He’s healthy for the first time after missing the semis with a hamstring injury.

Brentford’s Ollie Watkins scored the same amount of goals as Mitrovic, tying for the league lead, and he’s joined by Said Benrahma’s 17 goals (fifth in the league) and Bryan Mbeumo (eighth). The latter have combined for 16 assists, too. The Bees can sting.

Their seasons

Brentford won a even-straight league games to surge into the mix for automatic promotion but lost their last two, meeting Fulham on 81 points.

As for the Cottagers, Fulham finished the season on a seven-match unbeaten run which included five wins

Their playoffs

Brentford overcame a 1-0 first-leg deficit to oust Swansea City in the semifinal, while Fulham’s first leg win was enough to outlast Cardiff City’s strong second leg in their semi.

Odds and ends

Brentford beat Fulham twice, 1-0 at Griffin Park and 2-0 at Craven Cottage.

The Bees are favored to win the match at +108 odds, while Fulham carries +265 odds of a win.

Prediction

Mitrovic’s availability is huge for a Fulham side hoping to break down the league’s second-stingiest defense. Brentford feels like it’s the superior side but Fulham has been here and Cairney even scored the goal to beat Aston Villa in the 2017-18 playoff final. That experience is an X-factor, but we’ll still call Brentford 2-1 winners.

How to watch Fulham – Brentford

Kickoff: 2:45 pm ET Tuesday
Stream: ESPN+

How will Premier League clubs fare in Europe this month?

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Nearly five months is a long time to wait between rounds of a tournament, let alone legs.

Welcome to the 2019-20 UEFA Champions and Europa Leagues, where the competition continues this week after a long, pandemic-inspired delay.

[ MORE: Predictions, Odds for Europa ]

Who is best set up, aligned, prepared, and built for success?

There are certainly different questions to all parts of that question. Let’s dive into it.


Chelsea

Status: Down 3-0 to Bayern Munich after first leg at home
Next match: 3 pm ET Saturday at Allianz Arena

It’s not happening. We don’t like sounding definitive, especially with Christian Pulisic involved, but Bayern Munich conceding four times in a 3-goal loss at home seems bonkers even after a couple of weeks without game action.

The Blues are capable of scoring against anyone, yes, but this would be a bigger turnaround than even Liverpool versus Barcelona.

Longest of long shots.


Wolves

Status: Level 1-1 with Olympiacos after first leg away
Next match: 3 pm ET Thursday at the Molineux

Should Wolves get past Greek powers Olympiacos, they’ll face either Sevilla or Roma in a real scrap to meet the semifinals.

Wolves feel capable of beating anyone in the field, but this path is far from easy. Still, both Wolves and Manchester United can feel grateful to be in the top half of the bracket, with Inter Milan, Wolfsburg, and Shakhtar Donetsk in a dangerous bottom half.

On a round-to-round basis you wouldn’t vote against Wolves. Over a month, though, they feel less likely than the Manchester sides.


[ MORE: Big moves for Arsenal? ]

 

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PIRAEUS, GREECE – MARCH 12: Mady Camara of Olympiacos FC is challenged by Joao Moutinho of Wolverhampton Wanderers (Photo by UEFA – Handout/UEFA via Getty Images)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Manchester City

Status: Leads 2-1 over Real Madrid after first leg away
Next match: 3 pm ET Friday at the Etihad Stadium

We know Pep Guardiola and his array of weapons are capable of beating anyone in the world, and Sergio Ramos’ suspension from the first leg is wonderful for City. Ramos is having one of those “Ballon d’Or if defenders could win it” seasons.

Having two away goals from the Bernabeu is even better. The bottom half of the UCL bracket, however, is a gauntlet and nothing like the top half. City would love to see Lyon hold off Juventus, but a win over either brings either Napoli, Barcelona, Bayern or — miraculously — Chelsea in the semifinals.

It’s a huge ask but this is a huge team.


Manchester United

Status: Leads 5-0 over LASK Linz after first leg away
Next match: 3 pm ET Wednesday at Old Trafford

United would have to self-destruct in order to miss out on the Europa League quarterfinals, where they’ll be favored whether they meet either Istanbul Basaksehir or Copenhagen. The semifinals will be even tougher, as Olympiacos, Wolves, Sevilla, or Roma.

The question here is Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who has shown some tactical acumen but also failed the Red Devils in the FA Cup semi against Chelsea. United really should be able to out-perform anyone left, even Inter Milan, but will Solskjaer outduel Antonio Conte or even Sevilla’s Julen Lopetegui?

Predictions, odds for Champions League, Europa League knockouts

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The UEFA Champions League and Europa League resume this week and I’m going to reveal my predictions for this next round as well as the latest odds for Europe’s top two continental tournaments.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

With Manchester City and Chelsea still in the Champions League and Manchester United and Wolves among the favorites to win the Europa League, there is a lot on the line for Premier League clubs in the coming weeks.

Just because the Premier League season is over, that doesn’t mean the action is over. Far from it.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores ]

In the next few days the Europa League and Champions League Round of 16 second legs will take place before mini tournaments begin.

Man City lead Real Madrid 2-1 from their first leg in Spain, while Chelsea trail Bayern 3-0 as they head to Germany for the return game. Man United are all but in the quarterfinals, while Wolves are favored to make the Europa quarters too.

Lisbon, Portugal will host the Champions League games from the quarterfinal stage onwards, while the Europa League games will be hosted around Germany.

Below is a look at my predictions, the odds for the games this week and how to watch all of the fixtures in the USA.


JPW’s Champions League predictions

Round of 16 (August 7-8)
Friday, August 7: Manchester City 1-1 Real Madrid (2-1)
Friday, August 7: Juventus 2-1 Lyon (0-1)
Saturday, August 8: Barcelona 3-1 Napoli (1-1)
Saturday, August 8: Bayern Munich 2-1 Chelsea (3-0)

JPW’s Europa League predictions

Round of 16 (August 5-6)
Copenhagen 1-2 Istanbul Basaksehir
Wolves 2-0 Olympiakos
Bayer Leverkusen 2-1 Rangers
Shakhtar Donetsk 1-3 Wolfsburg
Basel 1-2 Eintracht Frankfurt
Manchester United 3-1 LASK
Inter Milan 3-0 Getafe
Sevilla 1-3 Roma


Champions League betting odds

Round of 16 (August 7-8)
(-139) Manchester City v. Real Madrid (+320). Tie: +340
(-230) Juventus v. Lyon (+650). Tie: +340
(-150) Barcelona v. Napoli (+400). Tie: +300
(-250) Bayern Munich v. Chelsea (+650). Tie: +410

Quarterfinals (August 12-13)
(+200) Atalanta v. Paris Saint-Germain (+120). Tie: +285
(+225) RB Leipzig v. Atletico Madrid (+133). Tie: 220

Outright winner
Manchester City (+350)
Bayern Munich (+365)
Paris Saint-Germain (+450)
Atletico Madrid (+700)
Atalanta (+950)
Barcelona (+1100)
RB Leipzig (+1500)
Juventus (+1700)


Europa League betting odds

Round of 16 (August 5-6)
(+155) Copenhagen v. Istanbul Basaksehir (+180). Tie: +235
(-134) Wolves v. Olympiakos (+390). Tie: +260
(-162) Bayer Leverkusen v. Rangers (+410). Tie: +310
(+135) Shakhtar Donetsk v. Wolfsburg (+185). Tie: +265
(+155) Basel v. Eintracht Frankfurt (+155). Tie: +275
(-455) Manchester United v. LASK (+1200). Tie: +550
(-143) Inter Milan v. Getafe (+385). Tie: +285
(+110) Sevilla v. Roma (+270). Tie: +230

Outright winner
Manchester United (+160)
Inter Milan (+500)
Bayer Leverkusen (+700)
Wolves (+800)
Sevilla (+900)


How to watch, stream Champions League and Europa League

Dates: August 5-23
Location: Round of 16 at home venues; Quarterfinals onwards in Lisbon/Germany
How to watch: CBS Sports
Live updates: Here at NBCSports.com

Reports: Arsenal offers huge deal to Aubameyang, chases Partey, Coutinho

Arsenal transfer news
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Thinking about the resurgence of several big name Premier League sides makes the 2020-21 season tantalizing idea. Could Arsenal become a title fighter?

Manchester City, statistically-speaking, was already the most productive team in the league and Liverpool’s team an absolute monster of intensity that seemed to will good fortune on their rare bad days.

Manchester United was second only to City in Project Restart while Chelsea produced as many chances as any team now named City and now has better finishers. Tottenham improved as well — health can be a tactic in that it helps as much as any manager.

[ MORE: Predictions, Odds for Europa ]

What about Arsenal, though?

The Gunners now have a shiny trophy for Mikel Arteta’s resume after the former midfielder led the club to a record 14th FA Cup.

Arsenal is said to be offering Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang a contract that pays nearly $327,000 per week in a bid to convince the superstar that another year of the Europa League is fine.

A report from Football.London says that Arteta believes Aubameyang and a trio of other moves could help him replicate the 4-3-3 often implemented by former club Man City.

The report says that Arsenal is ready to recruit Willian, Thomas Partey, and Philippe Coutinho to supplement what’s already at the Emirates.

Arsenal is in a tricky situation because of how much promising young talent there is, but Arteta will have learned a thing or too from how Pep Guardiola convinced Phil Foden to buy into a longer development. And winning cures plenty.

Who would fit in the 4-3-3? Arsenal has a tremendous 1-2 punch in goal between Bernd Leno and Emiliano Martinez, and piles of questions at the back. William Saliba finally arrives from Saint-Etienne and Pablo Mari will return, too, while Arteta used Shkrodan Mustafi, David Luiz, Kieran Tierney, Hector Bellerin, Rob Holding, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Sead Kolasinac, Calum Chambers, and Cedric Soares this season.

The middle part becomes a lot easier with Partey joining Granit Xhaka and Co.