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:

La Liga head takes on FIFA over expanding Club World Cup

La Liga president critical of FIFA
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LONDON (AP) FIFA’s determination to have a bigger role in club football worldwide is troubling the head of the Spanish league.

Javier Tebas, president of La Liga, fears FIFA expanding the Club World Cup and providing a fresh windfall for a group of elite clubs will exacerbate financial disparities between teams and harm football.

The FIFA men’s club competition is due to swell from an annual competition with seven entrants to an event featuring a 24-team group stage from 2021.

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“The major risk would be the Club World Cup,” Tebas said through a translator in London. “They want to have it every two years. I don’t know how far they wish to go.”

FIFA President Gianni Infantino is considering offers from companies willing to provide financing for the competition, which is due to have a new name for its pilot edition. Tebas believes it could pose a greater challenge to European football than attempts by clubs to break away to form any Super League.

“FIFA … stopped being regulators and organizers for national teams and start to organize other kinds of tournaments which compete directly with the national leagues and this is something that concerns me because we had a balance, an ecosystem between the different leagues in Europe and different continents,” Tebas said.

“In Europe we have the Champions League and now we have an intruder who might disrupt that balance. There was already a threat of that in Europe, even though I think the risk of that has dropped significantly with the Champions League, but I think this could have an impact on the value of international competitions.”

Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez has formed the World Football Club Association, which has been formulating plans for new competitions of its own. Those proposals only emerged in reports after Pérez met with FIFA President Gianni Infantino in November.

Eight European teams are due to feature in the new Club World Cup, including Real Madrid due to its 2018 Champions League victory.

“The idea of creating new super World Cups for super clubs could be very damaging for Real Madrid and for major clubs,” Tebas said. “It’s something he’s not taking into account and I don’t really see a future for these competitions. I don’t think there’s a real passion for these kind of events. I think when people discuss this they realize it’s damaging for them.

“I always ask why we should change a system of strong international competitions… if it’s not broken, why try to fix it?”

But Infantino is determined to elevate the status of FIFA’s club competition and provide significant income to the finalists.

“We’ve seen how the Premier League has grown significantly over the last few years,” Tebas pointed out. “La Liga has also grown significantly and why would we want to change that? Why would we want to put that at risk with these sort of ideas? It’s like building castles in the sky.”

While concerned about Infantino’s plans, Tebas is supportive of UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin who has clashed regularly with his FIFA counterpart.

“If Ceferin defends European football as I have seen with national league and championships in balance, which is the current trend, I welcome this clash, this confrontation,” Tebas said. “An organisation like FIFA is supposed to be a regulatory body. They draft the different calendars and when we need to play. Sadly, from organising World Cups, they are talking about Club World Cups and having that every two years.

“That is not an option because it would change the status quo. This can’t happen. This sort of confrontation will never harm us if it goes along the path Ceferin is trying to defend.”

Tebas has been a regular critic of governments using their wealth to finance clubs, particularly Qatar at Paris Saint-Germain and Abu Dhabi at Manchester City. Both teams have been punished by UEFA for breaching spending rules and City is subject to a fresh investigation that could lead to a Champions League ban.

“One of the major issues in European football is related to (financial) doping,” Tebas said. “Because when we have clubs being financed by states then that has an impact on salaries and that means in other countries with more strict economic controls like Spain and Germany clubs cannot actually ask the state for extra financing to pay those salaries.

“This causes inflation and people think about creating other competitions because Florentino Perez and other clubs are always saying we need more money to maintain our players.”

That isn’t necessary, according to Tebas.

“I don’t think we are helping football in any way if we generate wealth and it just goes straight back to the big clubs,” Tebas said. “But that’s what’s happening, the major clubs share out the large part of the income among their players.

“In the end instead of having 12 Ferraris, they have 15. Instead of having 10 Lamborghinis they have 12. We’re dealing with major clubs generating a huge amount of money. So our aim is to redistribute that wealth. It’s not a case of creating new competitions because anything there would only benefit large clubs and channel wealth to the major car manufacturers.”

One of Tebas’ frustrations closer to home is the Spanish football federation thwarting his bid to take La Liga games overseas. But the federation has just staged its reformatted Super Cup in Saudi Arabia despite criticism of the kingdom’s human rights violations and its role in the murder of The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul in 2018.

Saudi Arabia has also been linked to the pirating of sports broadcasts from Qatar-owned beIN Sports to undermine its neighbor as part of a wider regional diplomatic dispute.

“The Saudi Arabian government has a policy whereby they improve the image of the government through sport – whitewashing their image,” Tebas said. “We should not forget what happened in the Turkish embassy.

“We should not forget these things. This happened in an embassy, not a pub and this is very serious, at least in my opinion. Money is not the only thing that matters.”

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Follow AP’s global sports correspondant Rob Harris on Twitter.

USMNT left back Robinson a surprise target for AC Milan?

AC Milans wants USMNT back Robinson
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AC Milan has identified an American as a potential answer to its left back depth issues.

Hampered by Financial Fair Play concerns, the Rossoneri could be offloading Ricardo Rodriguez to Fenerbahce and chasing a replacement.

The future No. 2 to left-sided wizard Theo Hernandez? It could be Antonee Robinson.

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The England-born USMNT back is in his second season with Wigan Athletic, making a permament move from Everton this summer after a loan move in 2018/19.

From CalcioMercato.com:

“The boy is American, he has already given his go-ahead to AC Milan but at the moment he has been put on stand-by… The executives like him and it’s a bet with good potential at low cost. For now, he has to wait.”

It’s a risky move; If Milan doesn’t qualify for Europa League or Champions League, minutes behind one of the most highly-regarded left backs in the world would be scarce. The 22-year-old Hernandez has six goals and two assists in 17 appearances since arriving from Real Madrid (He’s real good).

Then again, if they don’t qualify, Hernandez might want out of Milan.

Robinson, 22, has seven senior caps for the USMNT and is a major hope to solve a problematic position for Gregg Berhalter’s program.

Only one of those caps came under Berhalter, who otherwise hasn’t called up the Olympic-eligible left back in favor of Daniel Lovitz and Tim Ream.

Robinson has also played a little left mid for the Latics this season, scoring a goal in 28 Championship matches.

Premier League Storylines: Matchweek 24

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There’s no time to languish in weekend losses, revel in big wins, or — like half the Premier League’s teams — scratch their heads about draws.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

A delightful midweek match week arrives Tuesday before the weekend’s FA Cup fourth round scraps, and we’re quite pleased to reap the rewards.


Can Arteta get a statement win at Stamford Bridge? [ STREAM ]

  • Chelsea v. Arsenal, Tuesday (Watch live, 3:15 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta was denied a statement win when these sides met on Dec. 29, a 1-0 lead turned into three dropped points due to some tactical nous from Frank Lampard. Arteta is not mincing words about the import of the return affair at Stamford Bridge, calling it a “must win” against the uneven Blues.

Invincible Watch [ STREAM ]

  • Wolves v. Liverpool, Thursday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

Our unscientific ranking says this is the fourth-toughest test of the 16 remaining in Liverpool’s quest for Premier League immortality as an unbeaten team. Wolves played Liverpool to the bone at Anfield, falling on a Sadio Mane 42nd minute goal.

Red Devils rebound on tap [ STREAM ]

  • Manchester United v. Burnley, Wednesday (Watch live, 3:15 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

Whatever Ole Gunnar Solskjaer thinks, Manchester United’s 2-0 loss to Liverpool was not encouraging. The Red Devils also learned that Marcus Rashford is out 2-3 months, not weeks, and Burnley’s woeful defense will be feeling a lot better about this fixture than it did last week. So, of course, we should expect Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood to have a field day, right?

Can Eagles, Saints push for Europa? [ STREAM ]

  • Crystal Palace v. Southampton, Tuesday (Watch live, 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Gold)

Palace has had an uneven season with plenty of injuries, but held off Man City to grab another point at the weekend. That’s ninth place and 30 points, two more than surging Southampton, and Sheffield United’s 33 points provide the seventh place standard. Three points here sure would be nice for either. (Big announcer voice) But only one can take all of them.

Another Brucie Bonus at Goodison Park? [ STREAM ]

  • Everton v. Newcastle United, Tuesday (Watch live, 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Gold)

When these two matched up on Dec. 28, there were 42 shots but only one goal. If this one is nearly as entertaining, get your proverbial and actual popcorn ready. Steve Bruce‘s Magpies have made a habit of surprising this season, and it’s not like they used up attacking legs while defending deep versus Chelsea.

Sixteen matches toward immortality: Ranking Liverpool’s remaining tests

Liverpool chasing unbeaten Premier League season
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Sixteen matches toward immortality.

Liverpool is now unbeaten in 22 league matches, and no claims of LiVARpool or xG luck can take much away from that.

The Reds have been dominant, their relentless players focused on the right things and showing insane stamina in making PL opposition miserable.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

Let’s also note that the Reds are likely to be one of the greatest title winners even if they lose a couple matches. Arsenal drew 12 matches during its Invincibles season, so there’s a part of this that feels more about outdoing Man City’s 2017/18.

That’s a conversation for another day, though; Today’s talk is about weighing the challenges associated with the 16 obstacles on the road to an unbeaten league season.

Now these could change a bit as fixtures are rearranged for FA Cup purposes, but this list feels pretty good given the current state of play.

Unranked — Crystal Palace at home (March 21) and Brighton away (April 18) — Both of these dates are very easy on the eyes, but will be moved if Liverpool is alive in the FA Cup.

Currently scheduled for March 21, days before an international break, you’d peg the Palace fixture as a win. If Liverpool or Palace are in the FA Cup, however, and this match is moved elsewhere on the calendar, it becomes more of a challenge.

Same is true for the Brighton away date, which may fall between the UCL quarterfinal second leg and an FA Cup semifinal. Liverpool may be in both competitions.

14. West Ham at home, Feb. 24 — A full six days after the UCL first leg in Madrid, the Reds will be rested enough.

13. Newcastle away, May 17 — If the Reds get to Decision Day needing a draw or better against the Magpies, bring champagne.

12. West Ham away, Jan. 29 — A bit odd because of the rescheduling from the Club World Cup placing this days before a visit from Saints to give the Reds four matches in 12 days.

11. Southampton at home, Feb. 1 — The fourth of those four matches in 12 days.

10. Norwich City away, Feb. 15 — We know Liverpool takes matches one at a time and this one comes on two weeks rest, but there’s always the chance the Reds are a bit ‘off’ with a trip to Atletico Madrid up next.

9. Watford away, Feb. 29 — Leap year vibes. Nigel Pearson‘s men are playing better, but this still feels too much to ask of the Hornets.

8. Burnley at home, April 25 — Like the Brighton match above, this one could be really tough and sandwiched between an FA Cup and Champions League match day….

7. Aston Villa at home, April 11 — If Liverpool gets past Atleti, it will face the Villans between UCL quarterfinal match days.

6. Bournemouth at home, March 7 — Days after the FA Cup fifth round date, the currently-struggling Cherries will hope Liverpool doesn’t have Atleti put away and concerns about the March 11 visit from Diego Simeone’s men for the UCL Round of 16 second leg.

5. Chelsea at home, May 9 — The season’s penultimate fixture comes against a team which challenged the Reds properly at Stamford Bridge. It could also be days after the UCL semifinal second leg.

(Photo by Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

4. Wolves away, Thursday — Wolves have an extra day’s rest and no FA Cup worries this weekend (though it can be argued neither does Liverpool, with a less-than-meaningful trip to Shrewsbury Town). This is a tough one.

3. Everton away, March 14 — Sandwiched between the UCL second leg v. Atletico Madrid and a possible FA Cup quarterfinal, a derby is a derby and Carlo Ancelotti‘s the top Everton tactician in some time. Jurgen Klopp won’t be goofing around with backups this time, will he?

2. Arsenal away, May 2 — You laugh now, but if the season makes it to Match No. 36, the Gunners will be one of the last three with a chance to defend their status as the last unbeaten team in PL history.

It would be a very live Emirates, and possibly come between the Champions League semifinal legs (We’re also assuming Mikel Arteta continues his steadyinf of the Gunners defense).

1. Man City away, April 4 — Taking place 3-4 days before the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals and on the heels of an international break, it’s the lone date on the calendar that Liverpool won’t be heavy favorites to win.