Brendan Rodgers’ adjustments fuel Liverpool’s Merseyside romp

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Ten days ago, starting nearly the exactly same team he selected today, Brendan Rodgers saw his Liverpool side held to a draw by Aston Villa, whose exploitation of a Steven Gerrard-Jordan Henderson midfield helped them build a two-goal lead after 36 minutes. That’s why, as Rodgers spoke before today’s Merseyside Derby about wanting to control the ball and dictate play, Liverpool looked in terrible shape. When NBC’s pregame show flashed the Reds’ lineup, the team looked set to play the same two-man midfield that would leave Gerrard exposed.

Surely Rodgers was too smart for this? Particularly against Everton. We all saw what happened against a less-talented Villa side. Against an Toffees team that can thrive in possession, surely Rodgers wasn’t going to match Gerrard and Henderson against Ross Barkley, Gareth Barry, and James McCarthy? The team’s dealing with a slew of injuries, but this was too basic a mistake for somebody of his caliber, particularly in light of what happened two Saturdays ago.

Come kickoff, however, it was clear Rodgers had learned from his mistakes. Gerrard was still in a deep-lying role, but both Jordan Henderson and Philippe Coutinho were playing in front of him. With Raheem Sterling playing deep on the right, Liverpool remained in a kind of 4-4-2, albeit one entirely different then the one that struggled against Villa. Instead of relying on his two-man middle to hold their ground, Rodgers was helping them out. Coutinho was in from the left to make it a three, Sterling was playing deeper to provide support, and Daniel Sturridge was often coming back to provide an extra man in the middle. This was nothing like the team that was fortunate to salvage a point against Villa.

From WhoScored.com, here are average positions of Liverpool’s players on Tuesday (left) compared to Jan. 18 against Villa (right):

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Clearly, this was Rodgers’ plan all along, but consider his posture before the match. He selected the same team, implied they’d be played the same way, and even told cameras he wanted to control the game. It was Rodgers’ typical fair, but on the heels of the Aston Villa performance and given how Everton like to play, it looked stubborn.

But Rodgers proved anything but. That pre-match bravado was just an act. Whereas Liverpool had held 56 percent of the ball against Villa, they ceded Everton 61 percent possession on Tuesday. Willing to play on the counter and rely on more direct play to Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez, Liverpool proved adaptable. They also proved potent.

source:  Given the positions of Everton’s players (right, all but two’s average place in the attacking half), the change may have caught the Toffees off-guard. Perhaps expecting Rodgers’ stick to his dogma, Everton were caught out, their central defense beaten badly on the game’s last three goals.

Ultimately, Rodgers was right. Liverpool did dominate the game, albeit without the ball. The game played out as he planned, with quick action taking advantage of an isolated Phil Jagielka and Antolin Alcaraz, leading to the Reds’ most decisive derby win in 32 years.

Given what we saw against Villa, much of the credit has to go to the coach. He saw the problems, he recognized the opposition, and he adjusted. With 10 of the same players, Rodgers was able to affect a complete turnaround. As a result, Liverpool’s now got a four-point edge on their crosstown and Champions League rivals.

Report: Salah, Robertson out for Liverpool trip to Crystal Palace

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Liverpool has some significant injury concerns ahead of this weekend’s trip to Crystal Palace, with the international break not serving to give its top players the required rest.

Mohamed Salah and Andy Robertson both sat out key international games hoping to be healthy enough for Liverpool’s return to Premier League play, but that has not come to pass. Sky Sports has confirmed that both will miss the game against Crystal Palace on Saturday.

Salah re-aggrivated his persistent ankle injury near the end of Liverpool’s big win over Manchester City just before the break, and while he reported for international duty with the Egypt squad, he did not appear in either of the country’s Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers against Kenya or Comoros, both of which ended in draws. He has dealt with this ankle problem for over a month now, since it was injured against Leicester City in early October.

Robertson, meanwhile, has played every minute of the Premier League season to date, but withdrew from international duty with Scotland thanks to an ankle problem of his own. That leaves a gaping hole at left-back for Jurgen Klopp to fill, with backup full-back Nathaniel Clyne also out long-term thanks to an ACL tear. Candidates could include James Milner or even Xherdan Shaqiri, while he could also potentially move one of the center-backs in Joe Gomez or Dejan Lovren out wide. Joel Matip is not expected back until the end of the month.

Liverpool kicks off against Crystal Palace at 10:00 a.m. ET live online at NBCSports.com.

Jose Mourinho speaks: ‘I couldn’t be happier’ at Spurs

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Jose Mourinho, speaking to Tottenham Hotspur’s official club channel Spurs TV, gave his first interview as Tottenham manager and speaking for the first time on camera after taking the job earlier Wednesday morning.

The Portuguese boss, who shockingly took over for Mauricio Pochettino, said he “couldn’t be happier” to take charge of the club currently floundering in 14th place in the Premier League table.

“I couldn’t be happier, and if I was not as happy as I am, I wouldn’t be here,” Mourinho said, referring to Spurs emphatically as “my club.”

“In relation to the Premier League, I think we know where we are, and we know that we don’t belong there,” Mourinho said, promising improvement. “We should just play match after match, the next match we want to win, and that’s the same about the next and the next and the next until the last. [At the] end of [the] season, we will see where we are, but I know that we are going to be in a different position than we are now.”

“These are not words of the moment, these are not words of me being the Tottenham head coach,” Mourinho said. “These are words I’ve told and I’ve repeated in the last four or five years, even as an opponent: to play Tottenham at White Hart Lane was always hard but beautiful. It is a place I used to go with passion but also it was also with respect.”

“I really like this squad, and looking to the young players, there is not one manager in the world that doesn’t like to play young players and to help young players develop. There is not one. The problem is sometimes you get into clubs where the work that is below you is not good enough to produce these players, so I look to our history and you see that the academy’s always giving talents that the first team needs.”

Referring to Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the new ground which Spurs have played in since April, Mourinho did not mince words. “When you say ‘beautiful stadium’ you are too humble. You have to say ‘the best stadium in the world.’ I think that is the reality.”

Mourinho continued to gush, talking about the amenities he has available to work with between matches. “The training ground is second to none. It probably can only be compared with some American football training grounds, you cannot compare with European football at any level, and I’ve been at the majority of the best places.”

He finished by saying, “I look forward for the challenge, for the responsibility to bring happiness to everyone that loves the club.”

Report: AC Milan begins talks for Zlatan return

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According to a report by Italian journalist Fabrizio Romano, AC Milan has begun preliminary talks with Zlatan Ibrahimovic via his longtime agent Mino Raiola.

Ibrahimovic played the last two seasons for the LA Galaxy in Major League Soccer, and lit the U.S. league on fire with 53 goals in 58 games. The Swedish international was his usual lightning rod self throughout his MLS tenure, claiming on multiple occasions that he was the best player to ever play in Major League Soccer.

Romano says that nothing is immediately imminent and that Zlatan will take his time deciding on his future, saying he could know in the “next weeks” where he will head.

While Zlatan did not release his intentions upon leaving the Galaxy, a return to Serie A has been heavily rumored for weeks. He played for AC Milan from 2010-2012, and prior to that spent three seasons with Inter Milan from 2006-2009 as well as two seasons with Juventus from 2004-2006. He won six Serie A titles between the three clubs, including the 2010/11 Scudetto with AC Milan.

There have also been significant reports linking Ibrahimovic to Serie A side Bologna where Zlatan is friends with manager Sinisa Mihajlovic. The Serbian boss has battled leukemia this season but has decided to coach through it, and Zlatan reportedly wishes to show his support by signing up to play for the squad.

Rating the USMNT’s complete 2019 season

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2019 was supposed to be the year that the USMNT put the disaster in Trinidad & Tobago officially behind them. Instead, they flopped and floundered their way to more questions than answers in a year of change and doubt.

The first game of the year was also the first game of the Gregg Berhalter era, and while there were plenty of positive signs early on, it began to fall apart midway through the summer, and by the end of yesterday’s comprehensive win over troubled Cuba, there is plenty of unknown moving forward.

Berhalter began his tenure with friendly wins over Panama and Costa Rica, outscoring those opponents 5-0 and seeing the emergence of fringe players like Djordje Mihailovic, Daniel Lovitz, and Christian Ramirez who had broken out under interim boss Dave Sarachen but were also afforded some time with the main man in charge. It quickly became clear, however, that those players were not the ones to take the U.S. forward as the regulars returned for the win over Ecuador.

Flaws began to slowly emerge in the Ecuador win and the ensuing Chile draw in March, and as Berhalter dug in for the long spring international layoff, he prepared the plan for the Gold Cup summer. Whatever the plan, it did not emerge as expected. Veterans Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore returned for the summer slog, but they were powerless to stop the train from slowly screeching to a halt. The group stage went well against inferior opponents – including a 6-0 drubbing of Trinidad & Tobago to secure some minor revenge for two years prior – but a 1-0 win over lowly Curacao in the quarterfinals saw bubbles being to rise.

The US managed to get by Jamaica in the semis thanks to Christian Pulisic‘s textbook heroics, but the finals were a different story. A 1-0 loss to Mexico that saw the U.S. thoroughly dominated was the first real coin to drop, followed by a thorough 3-0 butt-whooping by Mexico’s B-side two months later in a friendly on home soil.

It all fell apart from there. They drew 1-1 with Uruguay’s backups a few days later, and then after skating by defection-laden Cuba, the worst result of the slate saw the U.S. stunned in Canada in Nations League play. The result not only proved a humbling reminder of the team’s work to do, but also put their Nations League standing in real jeopardy far earlier than any fan deemed acceptable.

The U.S. rescued its position and secured passage to the next round of the competition, but real problems remain. Berhalter’s coaching and tactical acumen have been questioned on multiple fronts, with many wondering whether his possessional style of play is too ambitious for a country still searching for top talent.

Still, the most pressing issue seems to be the suddenly paper-thin talent pool that currently troubles the nation. Injuries to players like John Brooks, Michael Bradley, and even Pulisic have left the United States forced to deploy players far below World Cup quality in their stead. Formerly promising critical young players such as DeAndre Yedlin and Weston McKennie have seemingly regressed, but with little behind them in terms of depth, Berhalter is forced to toil on hoping they recapture their form of not long ago.

Amid a toilsome year, the capture of Sergino Dest and the true emergence of Jordan Morris are individual success stories that deserve merit. Dest heavily considered his eligibility for the Netherlands but was ultimately swayed by Berhalter’s vision. Morris has returned from a serious knee injury by reinventing himself as an inverted winger, and his style switch has been an unmitigated triumph, transforming from a questionable developmental project to a near-lock in the squad.

In addition, Christian Pulisic’s rise to international stardom must also be considered. Unlike the development of Yedlin and McKennie which have been suddenly put in peril, Pulisic has continued to excel at the club level, moving to Chelsea and bursting onto the Premier League scene after a brief period of uncertainty. He continues to carry the U.S. side as well when given a chance, but as the Gold Cup disappointment shows, he clearly can’t do it on his own.

Still, in a year with few competitive matches against teams of the quality the United States aspires to equal, Berhalter failed the test. The overall body of work was simply not acceptable. He has the full support of U.S. Soccer for now – at least publicly – but there is much to be done as the U.S. moves further into the World Cup cycle and towards a potential return to the big dance. Berhalter must continue to establish his identity, but more importantly he must develop a talent pool that both excels at developing its most important players and finds those who can contribute in positions of its greatest need.

While the small success stories deserve to factor in, the simple fact is Berhalter does not deserve a passing grade, as questions of where the United States fit into the larger world picture suddenly loom large.

OVERALL GRADE: D+

Full 2019 USMNT results

Jan 28 – W 3-0 vs. Panama (friendly)
Feb 2 – W 2-0 vs. Costa Rica (friendly)
Mar 22 – W 1-0 vs. Ecuador (friendly)
Mar 27 – D 1-1 vs. Chile (friendly)
June 6 – L 1-0 vs. Jamaica (friendly)
June 9 – L 3-0 vs. Venezuela (friendly)
June 19 – W 4-0 vs. Guyana (Gold Cup)
June 23 – W 6-0 vs. Trinidad & Tobago (Gold Cup)
July 1 – W 1-0 vs. Curacao (Gold Cup QF)
July 4 – W 3-1 vs. Jamaica (Gold Cup SF)
July 8 – L 1-0 vs. Mexico (Gold Cup Finals)
Sept 7 – L 3-0 vs. Mexico (friendly)
Sept 11 – D 1-1 vs. Uruguay (friendly)
Oct 12 – W 7-0 vs. Cuba (CONCACAF Nations League)
Oct 16 – L 2-0 @ Canada (CONCACAF Nations League)
Nov 16 – W 4-1 vs. Canada (CONCACAF Nations League)
Nov 19 – W 4-0 @ Cuba (CONCACAF Nations League)