Liverpool decided to hold the club’s keys to Brendan Rodgers after last season’s 7th place finish – 4 points behind Everton – having decided that it was the right moment to launch a new sporting dynamic after Kenny Dalglish’s one and a half season tenure which left mixed feelings despite a League Cup win. I won’t extend on any outfield matter as I decided to summarize some of the things I noticed on the several Liverpool games I saw. Here are my notes as one would say, including figures, on what Rodgers tries to implement.
Charts based on figures from the excellent WhoScored, ESPN.soccernet or Squawka.com websites
- First conclusions
- The Brendan Rodgers’ way: possession game
- Keeping the ball & attempts at goal
- Joe Allen’s influence
- Joe Allen at Swansea
- Joe Allen at Liverpool
- Distribution from the back
- Attacking pattern of play
- Dempsey’s aborted deal will impact on Liverpool’s season
- What is expected from Suarez
- The Wingers’ role & contribution
- Suarez left aside, how to score goals?
- Finshing chances
- Downing, textbook case?
- What’s wrong in the squad
- Individuals simply not good enough
- Gerrard, Adam, Henderson and the pressing thing
- What to expect from the season?
With only one win out of 7 games (including 3 defeats), one couldn’t argue that Liverpool’s start under his new life with Brendan Rodgers is sufficient from a mathematical point of view. Still, the Reds’ massive improvement in terms of play considering that’s the outcome of just 3 months of work would tend to prove there’s much more to come in the close future. The passing game seems more and more etablished as the season goes on.
However, Liverpool’s ambitions are currently shortened by the current weaknesses in the squad, from a defensive point of view and in front of goal, showing again how inconsistent Rodgers’ players can prove to be on a string of matches or even during a single game on those aspects of the play. Still it wouldn’t be unfair to pretend that quite simple aspects could have changed dramatically the whole conclusions after two months of competiton ; speaking about the goals and the chances to score if they would have been taken at the right moment.
The Brendan Rodgers’ way: possession game
Keeping the ball and attempts at goal
Brendan Rodgers enjoyed a fine season with Swansea in 2011/2012 after carrying the Swans in Premier League for the first time in their history, featuring a latin playing style based on an on-ground passing game ; following in Roberto Martinez’s footsteps (who implemented that new manner to approach the game when he had the Welsh club in charge between 2007 and 2009). The former Reading and Watford also benefited from a rather cool mediatic atmosphere which had nothing to do with Roy Hodgson’s short and execrable tenure preventing the current national team manager to apply one single choice or idea.
One of Rodgers’ first moves at Liverpool was to give his players the instructions to play a more pragmatic football contrasting with the characteristic direct play used last season. Dalglish’s Liverpool side created (or tried to) most of his goalscoring chances by providing service to his attacking players by means of crosses or even long balls from the defense. Meanwhile, Rodgers advocates his players to pass the ball around and redouble passes if they can’t exploit a space ; by then, if Liverpool has surprisingly the exact amount of attempts at goal per game (17.53), henceforth they have a shot every 27 successful passes this season compared to one shot every 23 successful passes last season (proving then a less direct approach – more passes before an attempt at goal).
The table below shows the evolution between last season’s and this season’s figures for the 17 teams which played in Premier League for both seasons running:
Joe Allen’s influence
Allen at Swansea
Liverpool’s major piece of buisness last summer is arguably the capture of Joe Allen who followed quickly his former Swansea boss to Anfield Road when he knew about a possible deal. Despite having played a key part in Swansea’s dynamic last season with his all-round abilities in midfield, Allen didn’t earned that much praise from the Premier League faithful, pundits and papers who did rather focus on Leon Britton’s much publicized passing figures (93% accuracy), without exploring Swansea’s whole pattern of play for all that. The 5ft6in midfielder was mainly used in a “midfield dynamo” role in Swansea’s 4-3-3, playing a consquent part in every aspect of the play. As the quality of his pressing game cannot be quantified by figures (Aaron Ramsey probably wishes it could), not hiding for all it’s intensity ; we still can highlight Allen’s defensive figures proving how he etablished himself as one of the very best players when it happened to regain the ball:
Allen’s precise role was to link up in midfield, asking and receiving the ball quite deep. Then, he has to push forward with the ball (and thus, covered by Britton) to feed the attacking midfielder who was one of the players expected to create the chances to score to the striker. Mark Gower did hold that role until the winter (with the astonishing amount of 4.39 chances created per game until november 2011) before Sigurgsson signed for Swansea in the January transfer window with the success we all know (7 goals and 53 chances created, including 3 assists in just 17+1 games).
Practically, Swansea could be related to a 4-2-3-1 shape with Britton staying close to his center backs, Allen navigating between two roles depending of the situation and one attacking midfielder who’d eventually prove to be a virtual support or second striker toward the end of the season.
The genuine verticality in the welshman’s play, as well as his pace on the ball was reminiscent of what Chelsea’s Ramires uses to do ; with the same outstanding ability to provide a quality service after such costly runs in terms of energy (and maintaining his lucidity), barely giving the ball away in the process. If both are able to score the odd goal (Ramires proving they’re not the meaningless ones by the way), they still lack a kind of “decisivity” in terms of goals. Hitting double figures every season would improve even more an already impressive palette of competence, considering Allen didn’t lacked opportunities to open himself a window to shoot 20 yards away from goal last season.
Allen at Liverpool
Allen’s debut for Liverpool didn’t happen like he probably would have expected. Brendan Rodgers featured a 4-2-3-1 against West Bromwich Albion (0-3) where Allen partnered Lucas Leiva in the “double pivot” behind Steven Gerrard, played in a conventional “number 10″ role in the hole. Lucas’ early signs of rustiness (despite the Brazilian being etablished as one of the most efficient defensive midfielders in Premier League) did foreshadow what would happen next. Allen was then forced to stay deep and not to push forward too often, in order to help his team mate who struggled against WBA’s packed and talented 5-man midfield.
His play was then quite restricted despite impressive passing figures (66/68, 96% accurate passes), being forced to hold most part of Lucas’ reliable deep distribution role (mostly sideways, to try to exploit the space on the flanks against a congestioned team) and defendisive duties to help to regain the ball (3 tackles and 3 interceptions, only WBA’s Liam Ridgewell managed as much on the field that day).
Lucas Leiva only played 6 minutes before being carried out on a stretcher against Manchester City as Liverpool featured a 4-3-3 with Allen initially played into his favoured role between a deep anchor man and a creative midfielder, Steven Gerrard. Brendan Rodgers substitued Leiva with the creative Jonjo Shelvey who took Allen’s position while the welshman switched into the anchor role in which he featured ever since.
“Initially when I came in, we played with one holding midfielder and two advanced ones. I didn’t feel that we had the guy that opened the door for everything so I played Joe in there because he knows how to control the game. He is courageous and will go and get the ball in any area.
The misunderstanding of the anchor role in modern football (while expectations increase about the full backs’ attacking contribution) led to another trend of opinion in most of the places related to the English game (TV pundits, TV shows, social networks…) mocking Allen’s new passing range related to his new role (see the two captions from MotD below). As he plays as the deepest midfielder in a team playing possession football, his role is mainly to cover the back four, providing passing options and make sure his passing accuracy tends to perfection because there’s more players ahead of him than there is between him and his own goal:
“Where we have been really pleased with Joe is with his tactical discipline. Maybe he’s never going to score as many as Steven but he’s certainly got quality going forward. But his tactical discipline to stay and keep the shape of the team, and offer the passing line, has been very good. He will have a long career here, he’s a wonderful talent and over time people will see what facets he’s got in his game. Over time he will prove an absolute bargain.”
In a quite funny manner, the opinion proved again how volatile it could be to show from a certain angle some aspects in defiance of contradicting his manner to look over its througout the time (speaking about Britton’s passing figures of course). Allen is currently holding his former Swansea colleague Leon Britton’s role with the same aim to anchor the possession game by being a hub in midfield. Though not many people were prompt to clarify Britton’s passing instructions and actual execution (backwards passing, most of the time ; he only gave 4 key passes out of 2111 passes last season) and stopped at the 93% ; pundits such as Alan Shearer led recently a post match analysis parody on weekly show Match of the Day with cut-sequences of virtually all of Allen’s backwards passes at Sunderland. If Britton followed the instructions given at lower level of practice consisting of passing through the passing angles you’ve been offered when you receive the pass; Allen proved many times that not only he could hold and pass the ball under pressure but get on the half turn as well to play vertically toward the opponents goal (at least twice this season, in MotD’s highlights from that game…).
For me, it’s been crystal clear that Allen’s current role is just a matter of time before Lucas would come back from injury. I wasn’t even surprised when I read Rodgers’ recent interview quoted below:
“Joe, offensively, has more than what a lot of people have seen, just because he’s had to play more of a sitting role. That comes when Lucas is back.”
Distribution from the back
Implementing a playing system in which your team would enjoy much of the ball requires the sufficient technical potential in your squad, considering that players tends most of the time between being either technically sound and accurate or rather being able to regain the ball by challenging for the ball (very basically the players suited for an approach in which you keep the ball, and the other in which you leave the ball to the opponent). Liverpool’s last season direct approach didn’t highlight any particular will to execute a clear, short and pragmatic distribution from the defenders, notably Martin Skrtel. At Swansea, Brendan Roodgers used to ask his defenders to get the ball out of the defense with short passing sequences, preventing a too important amount of turnovers to the opponent from a long – and often inaccurate – distribution from the goalkeeper. As a matter of fact, Swansea’s distribution system started from the back and featured 4 key players who enjoyed many touches on the ball:
The current dilemma Brendan Rodgers faces is to decide if the defenders he currently has at his disposal can integrate a fluid passing circuit from the back. The Swansea system highlighted Steven Caulker and Ashley Williams’s impressive composure on the ball either to pick the right pass or executing a pass while being pressed by the opponent. Actually, one of Rodgers’ trick to try to break teams who’d decide to stay organised behind the ball was to ask his team to keep the ball deep to attract opponents and thus creating space (Swansea being the 2nd team to play in his own half, 2 points behind Blackburn Rovers and their 33% of time spent on their own half).
However, the lack of disponibility (Allen left aside) and the new passing instructions ordered to the defenders led to situations where the Liverpool defenders were either caught out of position or just dispossessed of the ball in a dangerous zone after waiting too much before releasing their pass this season. Requiring to look around and, for that, keeping the ball a bit more ; Martin Skrtel has been caught several times with the ball and forced to concede fouls (including a penalty at the Hawthorns on the opening day).
The integration to the passing game also requires a high positioning from the center backs who can then be closer to their midfielders, especially in order to carry up the “barycenter” of the passing game (and the pressing’s as well) wanted by Rodgers (to keep the ball upper on the field and dictate the play while enjoying possession). The main consequence on players such as Martin Skrtel and Jamie Carragher is the difficulty to find the right position between being close enough to the dynamic zone while not being too high up not to be caught by their pace in case of a break from the opponent (resulting from the odd misplaced pass).
Attacking pattern of play
Dempsey’s aborted deal will impact on Liverpool’s season
Before drawing early conclusions about Rodgers being wrong for weeks about his teamsheets and lineups, especially forward, we should recall a late event in the transfer market window when Fulham’s Clint Dempsey eventually signed for Spurs after having been expected and announced at Liverpool for the whole summer. Despite providing an inconsistent contribution to his team’s play, particulary on the ball with an inaccurate execution at times ; Dempsey is a kind of “target man” moving depending on how and where the ball drops to score loads of goals every season (49 goals in 5 seasons including 29 the last two seasons) wherever he starts his runs from. Having expected to sign a player who could score often, and, eventually missing a deal is the main reason why Liverpool seems that unproductive with his last choices in the decisive part of the field because that’s actually a “Plan B”.
The current attacking pattern of play is a very clear consequence of how Rodgers adapted after missing the texan’s signing at the end of July in my eyes. Several clear cut chances have been missed despite draw scorelines or closed situations, such as the WBA game where one could think Liverpool would win easily considering the cut chances – missed – flowing in the first half before conceding the momentum and allow the Baggies to score due goals.
What is expected from Suarez
Having offloaded the famously known ‘£35m striker’ Andy Carroll to West Ham on loan – thanks to Sam Allardyce’s agent which he shares with Carroll and Matt Jarvis – who was quickly regarded as not suited for what Rodgers would ask from his striker ; the former Chelsea reserves boss was left with Luis Suarez as the only proven attacking option in his squad. Quite logically he played the Uruguayan upfront every Premier League fixture so far.
Despite various controversies on the field, Suarez has been unanimously recognized for his work rate to press the defenders and his outstanding ability to make his way out of defenders closing him down in tight spaces. The heat map of his individual performances underlines a precise zone of play which isn’t necessarily the penalty box but rather the zone one would regard as a “second penalty box”. What Rodgers expects from that very situation isn’t hard to understand ; considering a 1vs1 duel with Suarez on the ball would turn in favor of the Uruguayan most of the time, the 36 years old expects Suarez to attract a center back who’d be forced to close down him by coming out.
The center back would be left then in an uneasy situation where he would either commit a foul or being striked off consideration (creating a numerical inbalance situation behind him) if easily dribbled past. Would he come out or stay deep (and leave thus space to exploit for Suarez), both choices leaves no room for any hesitation and makes things harder.
The wingers’ role and contribution
Initially signed as a center forward, Fabio Borini appeared surprisingly featured in a quite different role from the one he was known for (scoring a hand of goals for AS Roma and earning a place in the Italy squad for the Euros after having left Chelsea in 2011). Rodgers who knew Borini for the time they spend both at Chelsea and Swansea (where Borini spent a short loan period until the expiration of his Chelsea contract) still played the Italian as a conventional winger with the instructions to stay disciplined on his flank, work hard and not leaving his position as many would do there. Rodgers gave a run to Stewart Downing who lost even more consideration in the pecking order after another poor performances, having been relegated behind the 17-years old Raheem Sterling since. If Suso (who came on against Manchester United before having been handed two starting roles against Norwich and Stoke) as is Sterling can provide a more technical peck on the wing, both were respectful of the defensive instructions they were ordered to respect.
In order to optimize Suarez’ chances to go through the axis on the ball, the most evident tactical choice to adopt is to stretch the opponent by asking the wingers to isolate the center backs from their full backs by adopting a wide positioning in every sequence of the game:
During the distribution process, the winger’s role is virtually to man-mark the full back and restrict his movements to drop and ask the ball. The cleanest illustration of those instructions is the Suarez’ 2nd goal at Norwich when he managed to pick an unsure control from Michael Turner who was searching for a passing option rather than focusing on keeping the ball under control. His rather shocking turnover to Suarez was quickly taken before the Uruguayan nutmegged the former Sunderland defender and scored with the outside of his boot. This game showed exactly how Rodgers expects Suarez to score goals: shooting from outside the box, get past the defenders and be aware of every misplaced pass from the isolated center backs. Until that game, his awful finishing (few goals out of 30+ shots in a hand of games) prevented Liverpool to make the break when they had the opportunity this season.
When Liverpool attacks, the process is quite similar with Manchester United famously known approach consisting of asking a wide positioning from both wingers at the start of the attacks. If most of the time the Manchester United wingers uses to cut inside in the followings, Rodgers asks from both wingers to stay close to the touchline in order to stretch as much as possible the defensive intervals, to allow Suarez even more space between the defenders. Therefore, we can notice the weak side of that choice as the numbers of runs toward the penalty spot to cut crosses are restricted, despite the ability to give excellent service from Gerrard or Sterling (and Downing, on paper, at least in a dangerous zone in the box). Borini could have scored against City by cutting a Raheem Sterling cross but this situation has not been repeated enough since to establish itself as a way to create regular goalscoring chances.
Suarez left aside, how to score goals?
Andy Carroll having left the club, the team couldn’t rely anymore on his ability to relieve them from the choices to do when they wanted to put the ball nearer to the opponents goal. The absence of any player able to make the proper run or cut a cross is the main reason why Liverpool had to change his approach to be dangerous in the last tier by creating his chances to score. The important decrease of the amount of crosses per game illustrates the less frequent use of that way to create chances.
As a matter of fact, Liverpool has really diminished his part of his attempts at goal close to the goal, at the benefit of more attempts away from goal.
That last aspect could tend to show that one of the situations Rodgers expects his player to have a go at goal is 20 yards away from goal, especially when Suarez tries to get past the defenders through the axis (thanks to his frequent unmarked position between the lines). Quite often we notice a midfielder pushing forward to come close to Suarez and provide him close support, if the ball is lost or to try to outnumber the opponent the last tier. Shelvey, Gerrard and Sahin comes then often in position to shoot, with the latter scoring at West Bromwich Albion from distance in League Cup by example – or Gerrard gaining the free-kick which will led to Suarez’s goal against City.
On the first games of the season, especially against Manchester City, Liverpool only seemed to be able to be dangerous from set pieces, having for his disposal players such as Martin Skrtel or Daniel Agger, eager to attack the ball on those situations. Suarez scoring against City and Udinese adds to Steven Gerrard’s ability to score from direct free kicks as well. That’s often the aspect teams use to rely on when they can’t create their own chances in the play.
We often hear after Liverpool games, echoes from goalkeepers having the game of their life when they came to play at Anfield. Even if players such as Mark Bunn, Simon Mignolet, Radek Cerny or Michel Vorm impressed on their visit to Liverpool, that would not be pertinent only to blame the odd excellent performance to explain Liverpool’s struggles in front of goal. Especially considering that this conclusion eventually happened on a string of games including most part of the disappointing results at home.
Downing, textbook case?
Figures show that Liverpool seems to have a deeper issue than just being inconsistent in front of goal (with the erratic Luis Suarez as the figurehead), which may be explained by the huge pressure from the Anfield faithful. If Stewart Downing has never been recognized for having any such of outstanding footballing IQ, his game used to rely on high figures (shooting, crossing…) from which would eventually come a part of goals or chances created. Last season, his play became much publicized and his figures quickly etablishing him as the laughing stock of Damien Comoli’s scouting policy but his game didn’t change radically since his £22m move from Aston Villa.
Downing’s technical limits and his not particulary relishing success rates were already noticeable when he played in the Midlands, still his stat sheets suffered massively since he signed for Liverpool from the combinason between a not particulary impressive eye for the pass and a loss of confidence ; eventually leading him sending most of his crosses or shots into the kop with the accurate part being wasted by his team mates.
The chart below highlights how wasteful the Liverpool attacking compartment has been last season, still being the 5th team to attempt the most shots at goal (4th with 667). Contrary to Danny Graham or Steven Fletcher who proved to be quite clinical in front of goal when we look at the attempts at goal compared to the goal scored ; we can only be astonished at Liverpool’s 37 goals out of 532 shots from 10 players. Despite missing opportunities, Clint Dempsey still managed to score 17 goals at Fulham.
What’s wrong in the squad
I don’t want to spread all over about things that couldn’t be precise enough without a contextualisation, so I won’t extend too much about how Liverpool’s actual situation leading to the club aiming lower achievements every season with an average squad.
Individuals simply not good enough
Pepe Reina - As I’m not a Liverpool fan, I can’t be precise enough to explain the Spanaird’s declining performances for years. Here’s an interesting EPLindex.com article from someone who chosed to focus on the evolution of Reina’s saving ratios compared to his successive goalkeepers coaches.
Glen Johnson - Lukas’ Podolski’s opener against Liverpool at Anfield is the very last example of how Johnson’s defensive duties have been forgotten througout the years (or Fletcher’s goal at Sunderland when Johnson got past by Gardner way too easily). From being the “future England right back”, he’s now a 28 years old who proabably owes to Roy Hodgson being decent defensively after having been publicly criticized. Johnson’s not an isolated example of how many wingers were converted into full backs into their teen years ; with the former Portsmouth being able to contribute way more offensively when he starts from behind than when he actually plays winger, proving the dilemma about his use as a right defender whose role stays to defend before anything else.
We can also extend to José Enrique whose Newcastle form seems really far away from his current couldn’t-care-less attitude, in particular defensively.
Martin Kelly - It’s often said that after reaching the top (signing a pro contract), the most difficult thing is to stay and find a rythm who’d rely less and less on the debuting excitement. Kelly proved to be a solid replacement to Glen Johnson when injured but he has to prove now that he can establish himself as a center back or a right back. That would require not to give the feeling to be almost late in every defensive intervention anymore or contribute offensively beside the odd raging rush forward concluded by a shoot on the woodwork.
Gerrard, Adam, Henderson and the pressing thing
I don’t regard Steve, Gerrard as able to be the leading player in Liverpool’s midfield anymore on a full season despite his brilliant passing ability to hit several “hollywood passes” per game. Despite his good start of the season, Gerrard disappears too often from the games, either because he’s congestioned into a conventional no 10 role or because he hasn’t the energy to maintain a high volume of play (in terms of amount of passes managed in a period of time) or to press. One could pretend that Charlie Adam was the complete opposite from a player suited for possession football, still his last season proved that he tried to adapt to a more pragmatic play than Blackpool’s (considering he played most of the time beside a footballing alter-ego and feeder – Vaughan at Blackpool, Lucas at Liverpool that he missed after Lucas’ injury last autumn). I’m not pretending that Adam could have replaced the aging Steven Gerrard, that really makes no sense at all.
Nevertheless, Adam’s ability to hit incredible diagonals or pushing forward either to press or outnumber could have handled him a role in Rodgers’ Liverpool squad for rotation purposes, especially to rest Gerrard.
This quote comes from a recent Brendan Rodgers’ interview in which he explains why he switched between 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1.
But our positioning ahead of that wasn’t so good, because we were too open. We have switched the team to play with two holding midfielders and one further forward.
Basically, the defensive animation expected from a 4-3-3 shape with the choice to keep the ball is to protect a deep midfielder (rather a distributor than a challenger for the ball) with two midfielders who’d be eager to press hard when the ball is lost. That hasn’t been the case so far, most notably because of Gerrard in my eyes. That explains why Rodgers decided to strengthen the zone in front of the center backs by playing Allen and Sahin who’d prove to be more efficient as a pair to regain the ball the “hard way” rather than with the soft one way (pressing, suffocating). Gerrard played in the hole was freed then from some defensive duties and could stay higher up.
Jordan Henderson has a role to play in the close future as his versatility can allow him to play at several positions in midfield. Furthermore, his stamina and impressive volume of play are two assets of his game which are underrated in my eyes ; added to his passing range and his brilliant use of the space (always well positioned to be available or to push forward, to support the wing players and cross as well).
What to expect from the season?
The race for the European spots is open this season like the season before, I’d even say that the title race is also open because no team seems to have the sufficient squad or gameplan to be in a league of his own this season. Liverpool shall finish in the 1st half of the table but the results will come if the goals can come too as the Reds are currently producing sufficient enough performances if you add to it goals scored when the clear cut chances are faced. Otherwise, Rodgers’ team will struggle to find the confidence to move on from games where they didn’t deserved to loose but neither to win ; that will only multiplicate the concentration swings and the individual errors which wouldn’t cost that much if the players knew they were able to score quickly afterwards. If they can find a goalscoring form and more consistency as the season’ll go on, they can expect a 6th or 5th place finish.
Despite having been promised by the Liverpool board more signings this summer, especially a striker, Brendan Rodgers is not in position where all his plans were jeopardised but he still had to adapt. According to the several interviews from the recent weeks, Rodgers will push again in January to sign a striker able to score goals. That move will be facilitated by the Anfield crowd’s quick adhesion to his idea ; this time and contrary to Hodgson’s tenure, the fans will be more inclined to stand on the manager’s side rather than on the board’s.
That transfer move will elucidate the whole game plan and the purpose of the current tactical choices. Still, we can wonder what kind of forward Rodgers could sign to suit his philosophy as we know he’s not fond of penalty box strikers ; even if due to his actual sporting situation, Liverpool won’t be able to be too much chosy on that one.