Tactics Session: Liverpool’s midfield to blame for poor defending, too

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Here’s something said by anyone and everyone who’s watched an hour of the Premier League over the last 24 months: Liverpool won’t win the PL title until Jurgen Klopp sorts out that shambolic defense.

[ PL ROUNDUP: Man City’s historic start; Man United, Arsenal win ]

Well, duh, and thanks for really going out on a limb with that one.

On Saturday, NBC Sports’ Robbie Earle went error-by-error in picking apart one of the Reds’ many defensive breakdowns (above video) during last weekend’s 4-1 defeat at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur. In short, Dejan Lovern, Joel Matip, Joe Gomez and Simon Mignolet were all guilty of critical errors as Harry Kane opened the scoring after just four minutes. There’s another group of players, though, which is worth considering as opponents continue to pick Liverpool apart on a near-weekly basis.

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Theory: it’s actually Liverpool’s midfield which is most responsible for this season’s repeated disasters at the back. The results are as poor as they’ve ever been under Klopp — they had the worst defensive record of the PL’s “big six” sides during Klopp’s first (partial) season at Anfield, followed by the second-worst of the six last season, and are sixth out of six thus far in 2017-18 — with little reason to expect significant change as the defensive characters remain the same. When called upon in 2016-17, again, it was simply more of the same.

The key difference being: they were better protected, thus forced into action less frequently, in the past. Whether by design or happenstance, the midfield and forward lines aren’t disrupting possession and winning the ball back as consistently as previous iterations of Klopp’s old gegenpress system. Most notably, it’s the early moments (first five seconds, or three passes) of opposition possession which haven’t been challenged with that familiar urgency.

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Take, for instance, that loss to Tottenham — while Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Emre Can are probably the three most “defensive” midfield options in Klopp’s squad, they’re also the three least mobile and press-suited. Georginio Wijnaldum is often labeled an “attacking” midfielder, that what makes him perfectly suited for the transition from pressing to attacking. The same goes for Adam Lallana, who’s currently injured and gutting this side through his absence. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, should he ultimately end up in central midfield, is very similar in that regard. Marko Grujic, while still a relative PL unknown, profiles better as a central midfielder than the three who started at Wembley Stadium.

Without that constant on-ball pressure, Mauricio Pochettino was inspired in his tactical tweak to feature Harry Winks, Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli in a pass-heavy midfield-three, as the three on-ball technicians were able to play through the middle third of the field with very little resistance and get at the likes of Lovren, Matip and Gomez more directly. The return of starting right back Nathaniel Clyne (hamstring), who hasn’t played a minute this season, will undoubtedly add a bit more mobility and athleticism to an otherwise plodding rearguard.

It’s a trend that, should it continue, will result in more and more — and easier and easier — goals conceded by the Reds.

Mohamed Salah starts for Egypt despite int’l retirement talks

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Mohamed Salah is coming off of his best season as a professional, but reports suggest that his time with the Egyptian national team could soon be coming to an end for reasons that extend beyond soccer.

Salah will however be included in Egypt’s Group A finale against Saudi Arabia on Monday, though, after the team sheet was revealed by the Pharaohs ahead of the match.

CNN reported over the weekend that Salah believes he is being used by Egypt as a political symbol to represent Chechnya, which has sparked talks of the talented Liverpool winger ending his international career.

Egypt has already been eliminated from reaching the Round of 16 after losing its first two matches at the World Cup.

The tides have turned significantly for Toronto FC

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2017 gave Toronto FC its first MLS Cup, as well as significant notoriety for the club’s historic season, but Greg Vanney and his side are in a world of trouble in 2018 for reasons that are still unfathomable.

[ MORE: NYCFC tops TFC in come-from-behind victory ]

A deep run in the CONCACAF Champions League (which ended in heartbeat at the hands of Chivas) and a number of injuries have plagued Toronto this season, and for that, the defending champions find themselves in unchartered MLS waters.

Over the course of Major League Soccer’s 22 previous seasons, only three defending champions have gone on to miss the playoffs the next year (D.C. United in 2000, LA Galaxy in 2006 & Portland Timbers in 2016).

So, how poor has TFC been through nearly half the season?

The Canadian side has acquired 15 points in as many matches, which puts the club on pace to finish with 34 points in 2018.

That total would leave TFC well below the average points needed for a club to get into the playoffs. It varies on a year-to-year basis, but teams typically need somewhere in the range of 45 to 50 points to finish above the red line in their respective conferences.

Last season, three teams in MLS finished with less than 34 points (D.C. United, LA Galaxy & Colorado Rapids), and none of the clubs finished within striking distance of the postseason.

While Toronto wouldn’t be the first team to show signs of struggles in the first half of the season and then proceed to turn things around over the second portion, there are definite concerns for Vanney and Co.

In 2018, the Reds haven’t earned back-to-back victories in MLS play, leaving the club in 10th place in the Eastern Conference.

The talent within the squad remains there, and if TFC gets the rest of its squad healthy there could be a run made by the team, but as things stand, the club’s historic run a season ago looks to be crumbling in 2018.

Gressel ties it in Atlanta United’s 1-1 draw with Timbers

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ATLANTA (AP) Julian Gressel tied it in the 56th minute and Atlanta United held on for a 1-1 draw with the Portland Timbers on Sunday.

A loose ball deflection off defender Larrys Mabiala bounced into Gressel’s path and he pounced on it with a right-footed volley. Atlanta (10-3-4) stayed atop the MLS standings and extended its unbeaten streak to five games.

Mabiala opened the scoring in the 32nd minute. Samuel Armenteros was the first to get a touch with a left-footed stab on Diego Valeri’s free kick. Goalkeeper Brad Guzan blocked it out, but Mabiala headed home the rebound and Portland took the early lead.

The Timbers (6-3-5) extended their unbeaten run to nine.

MLS: NYCFC beat TFC in new coach Torrent’s debut

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NEW YORK (AP) — Jo Inge Berget scored twice and coach Domenec Torrent celebrated his New York City FC debut with a 2-1 victory over Toronto FC on Sunday.

Berget made it 2-1 in the 68th minute, following Maximiliano Moralez’s direct pass up the right channel and slotting it home.

NYCFC (9-3-4) tied it at 1 in the 51st minute on Berget’s back heel from the top of the 6-yard box.

Víctor Vazquez opened the scoring for Toronto (4-8-3) in the 37th minute. Vasquez outran his defender on Auro’s long ball up the right side and sent a chip shot over the onrushing goalkeeper.

NYCFC’s David Villa left the game in the 28th minute with a non-contact injury.

Torrent replaced Patrick Vieira in New York shortly after Vieira’s departure for OGC Nice was officially confirmed. Torrent had been the right-hand man to Pep Guardiola for the last 11 years, most recently at Manchester City.