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The period from the end of January to the end of the season tends to be the most important in the footballing calendar. Prior to the Christmas period you can afford to allow your competitors to stretch a lead over you whether you are in contention for the title, the European places or even fighting relegation. There is always a chance that you can turn your form around whilst your competitors stumble.
Now though any club who falls in to a period of poor form can find themselves adrift and unable to make up a significant points difference, there simply aren’t enough fixtures left to allow you to achieve the points swing to overtake a direct rival. That makes every league match in this period crucial.
How then should we react to a 3-2 defeat against a poor Swansea side? Rather than castigate the coaching staff we need to step back from the match and accept it as something of a reality check. There are still issues within the squad both in terms of quality and in terms of depth that need to be addressed. The lack of structure in the final third for example raises questions as to whether some players are good enough to play for a club that should be challenging for the title, not just for the top four.
Loyalty to players is something that should be commended and the Liverpool fanbase in particular is known for its loyalty to certain players. There has to come a point though that an objective look is taken at the playing staff with roles and responsibilities within the squad assessed properly.
Liverpool fielded their strongest available side with the Belgian goalkeeper Simon Mignolet once again picked over the young German Loris Karius.
The defensive line is now settled with Nathaniel Clyne, Dejan Lovren, Ragnar Klavan and James Milner playing. We should however see the return of Joel Matip to the centre of the defence shortly with FIFA not upholding the complaints of the Cameroonian football association.
In midfield Jordan Henderson was again the deepest of the midfield three. Ahead of him were Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum.
The front three consisted of Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and once again Adam Lallana who had been pushed up from his normal midfield role.
Swansea were able to call on new signings Martin Olsson and Tom Carrol but otherwise their side was the same that had failed to impress this season.
Swansea defensive block
I have written before about the difficulties Liverpool have in breaking down a deep defensive block. If a side is able to defend effectively in a deep block for a prolonged period of time then we tend to see Liverpool run out of ideas in the attacking third and become less structured in their attacking movements.
If a side comes out with some attacking intent then Liverpool have the capacity to exploit the spaces that are left and created between the defensive and midfield lines. When this space is taken away by a side content to sit deep and defend their defensive third then Liverpool need to stretch the pitch horizontally and exploit spaces and overloads that are created naturally within these movements.
The Swansea defensive unit though was compact and strong for the entire match.
As Milner receives the ball on the wide left touchline we should see Liverpool moving in to a dominant position. The near side attacker is positioned to offer an overload against the Swansea right back but beyond that there is very little in terms of support beyond that.
Normally in this situation we can expect the midfielder on that side (Wijnaldum) to offer an angle inside and behind to change the focus of the attack. Instead the two players closest to the ball are simply too isolated to create an attacking opportunity.
Having the width in this manner is the right way to attack the defensive block but that width needs to be properly supported with second and third man runs through the area of the pitch that is being stretched.
As Liverpool are looking to build up from the back we can see that Swansea are in a simple 4-5-1 structure with the lone striker isolated from the midfield who are sitting tight to the defensive line. There is little space between the two lines for Liverpool to properly exploit and the Swansea defence are well set up to press any pass that is made in to the more advanced Liverpool players.
Whilst Milner is again in space on the far side of the pitch the Swansea midfield is well positioned to be able to effectively pivot and deny space to the left back should he take possession of the ball.
Poor structure in the final third
Whilst it is true that the Swansea defensive structure was extremely well set up it is equally true that Liverpool made that structure seem far better than it was through their own shortcomings in the final third.
It is too simplistic to simply place the blame for the failings in this match on the absence of Sadio Mane who is of course at the African Cup of Nations with Senegal. With that said there is no doubt that the tactical intelligence of the winger was missed in this game.
When Liverpool have been at their best so far this season they have created and exploited overloads in every section of the final third with the opposition unable to adjust to where the next piece of movement will come from.
Here the avaliable space lies on the right hand flank with Adam Lallana. As the ball is switched over though we see Swansea react to the orientation of the ball far more effectively than Liverpool do.
The spaces on the pitch that I have highlighted are those that would normally be occupied by supporting players in order to progress the attacking movement and overload the opposition.
Instead all too often we saw the Liverpool attacking players sitting in static positions and not moving in and out of space as we would normally do. The Swansea defensive line is therefore able to pivot across and deny Lallana the space he needs in order to create a chance on goal.
Again in this example Liverpool were far too static and unimaginative in their attacking movements. Daniel Sturridge has dropped off of the attacking line to offer deep support to the man in possession.
What we would then expect to see is a mirrored movement from the two advanced Liverpool players to create space in the Swansea penalty area. The central player should shift to the space emptied by Sturridge and the far side player should then move centrally. These movements should pull the Swansea players out of position and create an opportunity for Liverpool in the area.
The number six role
I have been writing these pieces for Anfield Index since the start of the season. I try to be as objective as possible and I have found Liverpool fans to be almost uniquely passionate about engaging with and defending their side.
I expressed my doubt at the start of the season in the ability of Jordan Henderson to become the controlling midfielder that Liverpool needs. Now that we are six months in to the switch of role for Henderson I have to say that my doubts still exist. I am not doubting the England internationals ability or work rate but rather his tactical discipline to fulfil the role.
I genuinely cannot for the life of me figure out what Henderson is doing here.
It can be hugely beneficial for the build up phase to have a midfielder capable of dropping in to spaces beside the centre backs to form a flexible back three structure. When the play has developed in to the opposition half though he is wasted in this area.
The highlighted area of the field is where Henderson actually needs to be in order to be effective in the attacking structure. He would offer a central passing connection that would give Liverpool a safe central platform to build from and he would force at least one of the Swansea midfielders to break position to engage him in this position.
Sometimes simply occupying a key area of the pitch in this manner is enough to create spaces further forwards for your team mates.
A 3-2 defeat against this Swansea side has to go down as a severe disappointment for Liverpool. There is a real need for the team to find consistent form over the next couple of months in order to not only cement their position in the top four of the league but also to fulfil the expectations of their fans in challenging for the league title.