I suppose I’m someone who sees the glass half-empty. Liverpool’s performances between the last time we faced Norwich, which was matchday 6 of the league, and the same fixture this coming weekend show a simple trend; Liverpool either win or lose the game in the first half. Obviously there are exceptions, such as the game at West Ham where Diame’s injury was a cruel blow that cost them 3 points, but for the most part unless Liverpool are tactically adept in the first half they create too much of a hole for themselves to play out of in the second. In other words, although Liverpool’s second half performances generally improve, they cannot improve enough in games they fell behind in order to win.
The primary cause is that the Liverpool players react poorly to pressure when trying to play the ball out from the back. Opponents like Stoke and Manchester United press very well without the ball, though Stoke does not employ the tactic against all opposition. Liverpool’s system of keeping the ball on the floor and passing it through several stages from keeper to striker has an inherent weakness in this its primary strength. If the opponent presses with poor co-ordination, then accurate passing and smooth transition between defence and attack can take several opposing players completely out of the game for the duration of the move. While the team won’t score from every such opportunity it is certain that being the beneficiary of such chances is a great advantage in the game. However, if the opponent presses well, or Liverpool fails to pass accurately, the opposition will regain the ball high up the pitch in a position where their players are not significantly outnumbered by Liverpool defenders. This is extremely dangerous, and indeed such “final third regains” are a noted metric in leading to goal-bound efforts or cardable offences on the part of defenders desperate to snuff out a dangerous attack.
There is one caveat; no team can press continuously and accurately for 90 minutes. This is because pressing drains far more energy than passing, so there comes a time when the side pressing must instead choose to stand off, handing the advantage back to the passing team. The concept is that as long as the passing side does not fall too far behind, they will score late goals against exhausted opposition, who will also be unable able to reply with goals of their own because it is their attackers who are tired. So Liverpool improving in the second half is matter-of-course; either their opposition have tired from pressing, are behind in the game because they failed to defend against the onslaught in the first half, or have obtained sufficient advantage to not need to press. The former has been something of a rare bird, though perhaps the Everton game is the best example, where Liverpool could have stolen 3 points at the death but for a poor call from the linesman in a game where Everton were the better side for more than an hour. This leads me back to my opening statement – Liverpool win or lose in the first half.
The remaining category of games Liverpool play would be those where the opposition does not press, but rather cedes space and allows Liverpool to take the ball relatively unchallenged into their half of the field. Sometimes they do this because they will be satisfied with a 0-0 draw (for instance the Stoke game at Anfield), sometimes they will do this because their strength is on the counter-attack, and sometimes they’re just trying to lose by as few goals as possible because the fixture is a mismatch.
This is borne out in peculiar manner. Liverpool have played 11 matches against clubs in the top half of the table and, by sheer coincidence, the same number against the bottom half of the table. Of those against the bottom half, Liverpool have won 8, drawn 2, and lost 1; a remarkably good return. The top? Won ZERO, drawn 5 and lost 6. The inference is clear: the teams that let Liverpool play have a bad time of it, while the teams that impose themselves are successful. Perhaps this is not surprising, as it is commonly accepted that the side intent on defending stands the lower chance of winning, but surely Liverpool should have had at least some success against its peers? Perhaps draws at Stamford Bridge, Goodison Park, and Swansea count as successes – in 3 fixtures time, having played Manchester City and Arsenal away, Liverpool will have 5 fixtures remaining against top half clubs, all of which will held be at Anfield, which suggests success against the top half is sure to follow.
I think it is important to look at why we lose in the first half. It is clear that mistakes are being made and addressing these will be far more beneficial than practicing beating poor teams by more. Rodgers’ strategy is to exploit passing triangles by creating as many as possible across the pitch. The formation that best does this is 4-1-2-3. It is achieved by the full backs pushing forward beyond the defensive midfielder to occupy a zone on their own, and the forward 3 occupying different lines to the central striker (who can play ahead of them as a traditional number 9, a la Torres, or deeper than them as a false 9, a la Messi). This stretches the formation to 1-2-1-2-2-2-1 (or 1-2-1-2-2-1-2 with the false 9), with the first 1 being the goalkeeper, who is encouraged to behave more like an outfield player when the side has the ball. Due to its diagonal nature this formation creates a lot of space “between the lines” that traditional defences employ, and can therefore make life very difficult for teams that choose to not continuously press as a team against the ball carrier and the players to whom he could pass.
The same “seven zone” system can be reached when starting with 4-2-3-1, though often the midfield players are required to take different roles when the side does not have the ball, which inhibits the transition to 1-2-1-2-2-2-1 to a certain extent. Also, because the wide forwards are more involved defensively, this shape does not suit a false 9, because he would typically be the deepest of the forwards and would therefore prefer someone ahead of him on the pitch to pass to – otherwise the defenders simply mark him out of the game. Of course, if one has a powerful team of versatile players a la Barcelona, then it doesn’t really matter; Iniesta, Xavi, and Messi are often enough to win by themselves.
So the choice of system determines the types of players one would use, unless a lack of suitable players is available. In 4-1-2-3 for instance, Liverpool would absolutely start with Lucas as the “1”, players like Enrique and Johnson who are closer to wingbacks than traditional full backs, and Suarez as a false 9. One of the remaining midfielders must be more attacking while the other more controlling, such as the roles taken by Gerrard and Alonso respectively under Benitez. And here is where the first problem arises. Rodgers has decided that Gerrard will take the controlling role, INSTEAD of Joe Allen who is a specialist in that position and is weaker anywhere else on the pitch. Ergo, Liverpool should not play 4-1-2-3 with Lucas, Gerrard and Allen.
In order to keep Lucas and Gerrard as the deeper players, a true attacker like Shelvey should be the third midfielder, but his season has waned since he was sent off against United. Suso is perhaps not yet ready to play at Old Trafford either. The only other midfielder we have is Henderson, who has impressed as the season has worn on, but he is more a utility midfielder able to play at a decent standard in any position; in other words, he is the perfect squad player but perhaps not the perfect player in any specific position in the starting line-up. Furthermore, with Enrique injured Liverpool only have one wingback in Johnson, and the next best fit fullback is 19 year old Wisdom, which means that our lone wingback will also have to play on the wrong side of the field. Add to this that our best left wing is Sterling, someone who has shown absolutely no understanding with Johnson throughout the season. So isn’t it asking for trouble to play Johnson out of position on the left, Wisdom in an unfamiliar wingback role on the right, Gerrard and Allen in reversed roles, and Sterling on the same flank as Johnson in an attacking 4-1-2-3 away at Manchester United?
Surely it made much more sense to be a bit more pragmatic as the 8th placed side travelling to the home ground of a team at the top of the both the form and league logs who have scored more than a dozen goals more than any other side in the league? Surely it was better to start with the more defensive 4-2-3-1 with the plan of keeping the crowd silent for 20 minutes? While 4-2-3-1 does not open up the pitch in quite the same way as 4-1-2-3, having the extra midfielder in a double pivot means the team’s shape is a lot less susceptible to high pressing because the side without the ball will not press with more than half the team against the fullbacks, centre backs, double pivot and goalkeeper. This would largely eliminate the system’s primary weakness against pressing, and it would be stronger without the ball, something that can only be advantageous against the league’s top scorers; Liverpool would always be second best if the game against United came down to a straight shootout of who could score more goals faster. To win this game Liverpool needed the patience of a war of attrition; United’s attack floundering against the defence while their attackers tired while chasing dead ends in futile pressing. All-out attack is not the only way to win.
Rodgers changed the formation to 4-2-3-1 at half-time, removing Lucas who was being overrun both with and without the ball because the formation chosen by the manager was utterly wrong, and bringing on Sturridge to act as a lone striker ahead of Suarez in the hole. This meant that Allen dropped back into a more comfortable deeper role, though still not his best role. Outside a schoolboy error from Skrtel, Liverpool were the better side from then until the end of the game, but that isn’t surprising as United stopped pressing once they were two goals ahead. Fergusson brought on Jones to mark Suarez out of the game once Liverpool looked dangerous going forward, and that was that. Liverpool lost in the first half, and simply because the manager made an avoidable error. After the game he said we deserved a point; and we did because we put United under considerable pressure through the second half. But starting with the wrong idea tactically cost us that point, Mr. Rodgers; it certainly cost us the chance of an unlikely 3.
But that isn’t all that concerns me right now. Throughout this season and the last we have been told that the owners are prepared and capable of spending at the same level as our peers in the transfer market. Yet these same owners balked at 6m for a forward we’ve desperately needed through the first six months. This transfer window was supposed to be one where there would be “significant backing” for the manager, but a single deal for a striker worth 12m does not equate as “significant backing” in my book, especially since the same player was available at the same fee 6 months ago and we declined. We are supposedly in talks with Ince and another youth goalkeeper (to replace Doni, presumably), and seem intent on loaning out Coates without first getting a player in reserve despite Agger’s injury record and Carragher’s continuing decline; in other words we’re keen to repeat the mistake we made earlier this season with strikers by being understaffed at CB. We also persist with playing Gerrard as a deep-lying midfielder so that he gets in the way of the other players in the squad (Allen, Henderson, Sahin while he was here) while leaving us short in attacking midfield – his speciality. You couldn’t make this up.
These things alone would not be such a concern if we had a deep squad. But let’s name them shall we:
Starters: Suarez, Johnson, Sturridge, Enrique, Skrtel, Agger, Gerrard
Squad: Borini, Assaidi, Allen, Lucas, Henderson, Shelvey, Sterling, Downing, Wisdom, Kelly, Robinson, Carragher, Jones, Doni, Suso
Deemed surplus: Coates, Carroll
If we trim those who are under 21 we have 17 players not including Andy Carroll. Given that a Premier League club may register no more than 25 players over the age of 21, this shows that Liverpool are not one or two players short of a competitive squad; we are EIGHT short before we even consider quality! Somehow we are not in the slightest bit interested in changing that during this window. If the owners are willing to back the manager, then why are we so interested in saving a few million pounds by waiting until the summer (when transfer fees are typically lower) when we run the risk of losing our transfer targets to clubs like Spurs who let us do their scouting for them and then just offer more money and a chance to play in the Champions’ League? We’re being penny wise and pound foolish by relying on players like Downing, Carragher, and a bunch of teenagers instead of getting Sturridge when he was available the first time (or at least settling for Dempsey), and at least being in the market for a left wingback, centre back, and defensive midfielder to cover for Enrique, Agger and Lucas. Even then we would still be half a dozen players short of a squad, though a few Liverpool players will be old enough to need to be registered next season (Downing and Doni could leave at any time to balance this).
It all boils down to a stunning lack of foresight from our inexperienced management team, both in the transfer market and on the pitch. Hopefully they can improve next season, because they certainly can’t get much worse.