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:

Southgate hails “patient” England, young squad’s tactical nuance

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Inevitably, teams end up taking on the personality and temperament of a talented coach/manager, which in the case of the England squad competing at the 2018 World Cup, is a massive compliment to the Three Lions’ current boss, Gareth Southgate.

[ MORE: Kane “buzzing” after brace secures late win in World Cup debut ]

Southgate, who’s 47 and only four tournaments removed from his second and final World Cup appearance for England, has changed the outside world’s perception of an institution that once seemed arrogant, elitist and entitled, opting to take one of the youngest squads (average age: 25.6 years old) to Russia, and to turn them loose.

On Monday, it was 24-year-old Harry Kane who scored twice and bailed the feel-good favorites out of jail with a 91st-minute winner (WATCH HERE) to largely erase the frustrating hour which preceded it. These growing pains are, of course, to be expected with so little major tournament experience. Southgate, as expected, was pleased with how they responded — quotes from the BBC:

“I was happy with the way we kept playing even though the clock was running down. We stayed patient, we didn’t just throw the ball in the box. We deserved the win.

“We created so many clear-cut chances, especially in the first half, and were in total control in the second half. We were strong on set plays all night. Even if we’d drawn, we‘d have been proud of the performance.

“We’ll do well to make as many chances in a game again in this tournament. The movement, pace, control from the back with the ball was pleasing. We wore them down. Good teams score late goals — if you dominate the ball like that the opposition tire.

“As for Harry Kane the only thing he hasn’t done now is score in August — he’s moved every other barrier. He will feel pride of leading a country to a World Cup win is the most important thing.”

“The way we would change the game is to have different profiles of players that would provide a different threat. You can put attacking players in different positions but lose shape and be caught on the counter-attack.

“The guys that came on had a different threat. As a team you keep working and working. The best teams in the world keep the belief in what they’re doing and in the end break teams down.”

Kane “buzzing” after brace secures late win in World Cup debut

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Four years ago, Harry Kane watched the 2014 World Cup, alongside Tottenham Hotspur teammates, friends and family, while on vacation in Dubai and Portugal, and during the club’s preseason tour of the United States.

[ MORE: Southgate hails “patient” England, young squad’s tactical nuance ]

Fast-forward 48 months, and Kane made his World Cup debut on Monday, scoring both goals, including the stoppage-time winner (WATCH HERE), in England’s Group G-opening 2-1 victory over Tunisia. It’s an outcome we should have seen coming, considering he’s racked up 105 goals (in the Premier League; 135 in all club competitions; another 13 for England prior to Monday) since the start of the 2014-15 season.

Kane continues to take his superstardom — no matter how unlikely or ill-fitting it looks on him — in stride, using obvious phrases like, “It’s the World Cup,” to which you might think, “Well, yes, Harry, it sure is,” and then you realize he sees himself as nothing more than a giddy child living out a lifelong dream — quotes from the BBC:

“It’s massive. I’m so proud of the lads. It’s tough. We played so well especially in the first half and we could have scored a few more. We kept going. It’s a World Cup, you go to the last second. I’m absolutely buzzing.

“We’ve done it for a while [had good resilience] since the gaffer has been here — he’s instilled it into us. We’ve got a great bond off the pitch so it’s great to see it on the pitch. We’ll get onto the plane happy tonight.

“We could have had a couple of penalties, especially when you look at theirs. A few corners, they were trying to grab, hold and stop us running. Maybe a bit of justice to score at the back post at the end. That’s football, that’s the ref. It showed good character to get on with it.

“We are proud of each other and in a World Cup you are not sure how it is going to go, but we have a great togetherness and are always proud to see it come off in the game. We never panicked, never looked like conceding another one and got what we deserved in the end.

“We got told there would be a lot of flies and when we went out for the match it was a lot more than we thought. We all had bug spray on and it was important as some of them went in your eyes, some in your mouth, but it is about dealing with what comes your way.”

Kane will be the first to tell you that he’s been handed nothing during his career. Early on, before breaking into Tottenham’s first team, he endured four largely unsuccessful loan spells over the course of three seasons, at which point his career path appeared destined for England’s lower leagues. Through his refuse-to-lose attitude, an insatiable appetite to continue improving, and eagerly stepping up to the moment every time a new, grander stage is laid in front of him, he’s now 24 years old and set to captain his national team for the next decade.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

It’s this kind of wide-eyed, relatable approach that endears this young Three Lions side (average age: 25.6 years old) to neutral viewers and made them a popular, if unlikely, feel-good favorite ahead of the tournament in Russia. Following Monday’s performance — no matter how belabored the result itself might have been — the bandwagon will continue to fill up, and Kane is reasons no. 1, 2, 3 and 4 for that fact.

Kane scores early and late, England narrowly top Tunisia

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England’s 2018 World Cup debut began brilliantly, then appeared headed for a disappointingly familiar outcome, but was ultimately saved by Harry Kane who scored both goals in the Three Lions’ 2-1 victory over Tunisia in Volgograd on Monday.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

England came sprinting out of the starting blocks — so quickly they nearly took flight — and taking an early lead through Harry Kane in the 11th minute (WATCH HERE). John Stones‘ header was spectacularly saved by Mouez Hassen, but Kane was in the right place at the right time and swept home the rebound for his first World Cup goal (on his World Cup debut).

The opening half-hour was all England, with the likes of Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard and Raheem Sterling cutting through the Tunisian midfield and defense with very little resistance and creating a half-dozen golden scoring chances. Unfortunately for Gareth Southgate‘s side, they couldn’t capitalize, and they were made to pay for it.

Kyle Walker caught Fakhreddine Ben Youssef with a raised arm as an innocuous cross came into the box, prompting referee Wilmar Roldan to blow his whistle and point to the penalty spot immediately. Ferjani Sassi stepped up and converted, just out of reach of Jordan Pickford, who perhaps got a fingertip on the ball (WATCH HERE), to make it 1-1 and negate an otherwise dominant first-half performance by England. It would be Tunisia’s only shot on goal for the game.

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England’s best chance to re-establish a lead came during a six-yard-box scramble just seconds before halftime. Alli’s header hit the crossbar and Stones badly scuffed — nearly whiffed — on the follow-up. Kane was dragged to the ground during the rest of the commotion, to no interest of Roldan.

It took far longer than anyone back home in England would have liked, but Kane grabbed the winner in the 91st minute, heading home from acres of space at the back post. Jordan Henderson got the first crack at heading the corner kick, but it was blocked and bound high into the air. Somehow, some way, Kane was unmarked and snuck his redirect just inside the post.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

Up next for England is a meeting with Panama on Sunday, a day after Tunisia take on Belgium, who thrashed the Panamanians, 3-0, on Monday.

VIDEO: Tunisia equalizes on controversial penalty kick

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England centerback Kyle Walker put his arm up to halt the forward progress of Fakhreddine Ben Youssef. Unfortunately for Walker, Ben Youssef was in the box and Walker’s elbow caught Ben Youssef’s face.

Referee Wilmar Roldan quickly whistled for a penalty kick and despite the protests from a half-dozen of England players and a check from the VAR, the called stood. Ferjani Sassi’stepped up to the spot and found the lower-left corner, just barely beating Jordan Pickford to tie the game in the 35th minute.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news

How will England respond?