“The front three have pace, power, movement, and I would say Liverpool might be one of the best counter-attacking teams in Europe at the moment.
“The way they suck teams in and just break on them. They run at every opportunity, so you have got to be aware of that.
“I admire the football they play. Direct, counter-attacking football, with quick pace, and every opportunity the ball goes in behind. They have scored so many goals.” – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (via Sky Sports).
Kind words, Ole, very kind words. However, one can not help but think that you may have misjudged our beloved Liverpool before we went on to slay the struggling Dragon (or Bluebird, to the faithful Cardiff City faithful). You see, to pigeonhole this current outfit by saying that they play X brand of football, and not Y, you are doing the work of Brendan Rodgers a great injustice. But then again, you probably “couldn’t care less”.
There have been many fans and journalists alike quick to point out that Rodgers has changed his ethos, and has abandoned the possession orientated game for results; finally showing a pragmatic approach to matches. Again, these comments undermine the work and dedication the Northern Irishman has put into the squad during his time at Liverpool.
From the shapes we have lined out in, to the personnel acquired in the summer (with all the tactics sandwiched in between), almost everything about how Brendan Rodgers composes his players points towards to two things: possession of the football coupled with ruthless attacking play.
To completely dispel the idea that Liverpool have at times played a style similar to what would quantify counter-attacking football would be an ignorant statement, and there are moments in which Liverpool have played their passing game but sprung counter-attacks at points, turning defence into attack in the blink of an eye.
Most top sides have this ability in their arsenal, even if they do not strictly play counter-attacking football. However, some of the characteristics of a truly counter-attacking team are not evident in Liverpool’s general approach to opposing teams, particularly against weaker opposition. With that in mind, let’s look at one of the best counter-attacking units in European football; Borussia Dortmund.
In this graphic, we see the type of team Jürgen Klopp might select with a fully-fit squad, and after a disastrous 2013/14 campaign in terms of injuries, one would wonder just what Klopp would give for this luxury. The scenario above sees Dortmund against a team in a standard 4-2-3-1, with the play going down Dortmund’s left hand side in which German left-back Marcel Schmelzer has regained possession for the Bundesliga side. Now, in this situation we see many characteristics of a counter-attacking team.
- The Formation: Dormund’s 4-2-3-1 allows them to cover an ample amount of space of their defensive while they absorb the pressure being applied by the opposition. One intrinsic component of most counter-attacking teams is the pace on the break, provided in this example by Kuba and Reus on the wing, as well as Lewandowski through the centre of the pitch. Mkhitaryan plays a key part in how the Dortmund team breaks, but more on that in a moment.
- The Pressure Zones: One thing that counter-attacking teams do (the best ones, at least) is press and chase as one, a pack of wolves hunting for the ball. Now while this may draw comparisons with Guardiola’s Barca, and Rodgers’ Liverpool, it is within the areas that these teams press that differentiate their styles of footballing beauty.
- The Covering Line: For this we will briefly look at a passage of play between Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich from the German Super Cup final.
Image 1: Here we see Bayern are on the ball through their right back Phillip Lahm. Dortmund’s midfield five includes Sven Bender and Nuri Sahin flanked by Reus, seen here pressuring Lahm, and Kuba on the bottom of the image. Gündoğan, located to the extreme right is playing in the trequartista position.
Image 2: As the play develops, Lahm’s options are restricted to playing a forward pass. The left side of the defence, Schmelzer and Hummels begin to move as a unit, as Hummels advances towards the ball, his counterpart realises he is leaving space behind him.
Image 3: Hummels exposed himself in the previous image, so Schmelzer’s tracking to the right has ensured that Bayern could not expose the area left behind by the former Bayern player (insert “one that got away” cliche). This is the inauguration of Borussia’s sweeping transition towards the opposition’s attacking third.
Image 4: Schmelzer quickly releases the ball to the Regista in this situation, Sahin. From here, the counter-attack can go a number of ways, pending on how far forward the opposition have committed themselves attack.
Now, reverting back to the original image we see how a counter-attack may play out in situations. With the regista highlighted above, we see the options he has ahead of him. His wingers are marked by the opposition full-backs, and to hit it over the top to the centre-forward is also a risk as the keeper may sweep from behind to clear the danger. So, to continue the passage of attack there is only one forward and viable option, in this instance Henrik Mkhitaryan.
“The Seven-Second Rule” is the accepted European norm for how long your meatball linguini can remain on the floor before it is spoiled by the germ ridden cesspit that-… Wait, no it isn’t… Ah, of course!
In counter-attacking football, this rule means that if you can move the ball from ball winner, to the playmaker and ultimately to your attacker within seven seconds, your team has a higher chance of scoring. After this point, the chances reduce as the opponents regain shape and focus following the collapse of their attack. Mkhitaryan is central to both the play and the field, with three main options to play a pass towards: both channels are open to be hit on the counter by the Reus or Kuba, and Lewandowski can also be played in behind, providing the Armenian hits an immaculately weighted pass. For argument’s sake, we will imagine Mkhitaryan spreads the play towards the right hand side of the pitch, exposing the space created from the previously thwarted attack.
Reintroducing the opposition, we see how the resulting shape of both teams from the blistering burst from defence, created by quick passing together with speed of thought and mind. Błaszczykowski here has four options:
- Play a ball into the space ahead of the centre-backs for his striker to attack. (Brown)
- Shoot towards goal. (Blue)
- Play a pass back towards the oncoming Mkhitaryan. (Red)
- Loft the ball beyond the two centre-halves as Marco Reus arrives at the back post. (Yellow)
From these choices, Dortmund find themselves in a favourable goalscoring opportunity, as they have left the opposition in panic, a hectic attempt to assemble a defensive silhouette before it is too late. Ultimately, in this situation, it was.
This ideological explanation of how a team switches the play from defence to attack is common to how the superlative counter-attacking teams do it. The components of these teams generally consist of the same ingredients: a coherent covering back line, with a ball-winning defensive midfielder; a playmaker from deep and/or in the number 10 position; pacey widemen with the capability to roar past defenders; and as Chelsea are currently finding out for themselves, an unforgiving finisher up front.
While our beloved Reds may express resemblances of Borussia Dortmund’s style in periods, and there are crossovers to be made, the objective of Brendan Rodgers and his dossier presented to FSG back in May 2012, is inherently different.
Liverpool and the Ball
Liverpool love having the ball in their possession. Liverpool also love to score goals. Lots of them. Lots of goals and lots of balls.
Many have pointed towards the abandonment of our addiction to the leather sphere for results, but our performances, particularly since the 5-0 mauling of Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane in November, point to the contrary.
Coming into the Cardiff game, Rodgers had implemented a 4-4-2 diamond against Southampton and Manchester United, both games away from the safe-haven of Anfield. The personnel remained unchanged for both games, bar the dropping of Coutinho from the apogee of the midfield for Raheem Sterling at Old Trafford. Many might have expected a renaissance of the highly successful 4-3-3 Rodgers had continued with in recent months, but the Liverpool coach stuck to the methods he had implemented in the previous two games.
Now, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s comments coming into the game reflected how his team would approach the match: to nullify the threat of Liverpool counter-attacking in behind them. They also adopted a 3-1-4-2 formation, with Fabio da Silva and Declan John operating as auxiliary wing-backs, effectively creating a 5 man defence.
Liverpool’s diamond shape does not allocate the ability to effectively counter-attack, at least not in the way teams such as Borussia Dortmund do, and Mourinho’s Real Madrid did.
This lineup, taken from the Cardiff City game, highlights the diminished chances of effectively breaking against the opposition. In a similar scenario as shown before, Liverpool’s captain and resident regista Steven Gerrard is in possession of the ball, and the deep defensive line suggests it has been recovered from the opposition’s attack. Gerrard’s options are limited to those immediately ahead of him, as the space where many playmakers might attempt to guide a pass into is almost impossible to exploit without wingers, their positions marked here in white.
The only way for the two black circles in the corners of the image to be utilised would require the full-backs to bomb forward, but their starting positions (as well as Flanagan’s lack of pace) makes this an unrealistic option. Sturridge could drift into these zones being the quicker of the front two, but Cardiff’s three centre-backs means that one man would track Sturridge without leaving significant gaps for Luis Suarez to enter. In this scenario, Gerrard’s best bet is to play it to the feet of the attacking three ahead of him, or simply retain the possession and break down Cardiff’s defensive setup.
Of course, Liverpool’s fifth goal against Cardiff came from Glen Johnson’s long pass into the area in behind Luis Suarez, who ran onto the ball following a poor header from Steven Caulker. However, this move would have been worth nothing had Daniel Sturridge lacked the hunger and electrifying speed to make it from his own half into the box within 9 seconds. Had the England number 9 been a second late, the move would have been stalled as he was the only option for his strike partner. But of course, all top sides have this ability in their locker, and Liverpool are blessed with incredible ability and pace in their front line.
The Pressing Game
Liverpool’s pressing heavily defines how they attack teams, and is what sets them apart from teams such as Dortmund. While Liverpool have the ability to sit deep and press in their own defensive third, accordingly looking for Sterling, Sturridge or Suarez to break in a 4-3-3 shape, they predominately press as high up the pitch as possible to force errors near the opposition’s goal. Tim Sherwood’s struggling Spurs again fell victim to Liverpool’s merciless pressing actions.
Image 2: Sterling’s ball is unsuccessful, resulting with Lloris on the ball, closed down by Daniel Sturridge.
Image 6: Coincidentally Sterling finds himself in a position similar to the graphics of the mock BvB counter-attack shown above. Sturridge is free at the near post, and Suarez is arriving in behind Michael Dawson.
Image 7: The conclusive image sees the rewards of Sterling’s pressure. The Spurs defence is caught on the back-foot, and Suarez is completely free at the back post thanks to the movement of his strike partner sucking the defenders towards him. The header is ultimately saved.
The difference between what Liverpool did in this passage of play and what a counter-attacking team might have done is that they were immediately pressing forward after possession was lost. Instead of allowing Spurs to play it out from the back through Lloris, Rose and Kaboul, Raheem Sterling initiates the forward pressing in the Spurs’ half and creates a goalscoring opportunity for the team.
“Countera-TikiTaka is a hybrid of possession football and counter-attacking football. Taking the popular terminology ‘Tiki-Taka’ and blending it into counter-attack, it is not only a clever play on words, but a reflection of the style of football it delineates” – Pep Guardiola.
Alright so, that quote may not have come from the mouth of the mastermind Bayern Munich coach. In fact, the quote is not exactly real…
The term Countera-TikiTaka was coined by myself, having watched the Cardiff game and seen a “counter-attacking” team amass 66.6% possession, attempting 650 passes, compared to Cardiff’s 301. Liverpool really sat deep and let Welsh side come at them, didn’t they?
Rodgers’ preferred 4-3-3 indicates a team that can combine elements from numerous brands of football. When in possession the team moves fluidly, Gerrard dropping between the centre-backs to begin instructing the play, orchestrating the symphonies giving colour to Rodgers’ tactics. They can pass the pall in a state of adagio, blissfully waiting until the right pass reveals itself. Or Gerrard can pass it to the magnificent number 7 Luis Suarez, who may let his feet compose a capriccio of improvised genius for the Anfield faithful to sing along with. It is visual music, it is art, it is a patient composition of intelligence. And when the opportunity arises for Liverpool to seize their moment and attack from their pressing play, they take it, usually to devastating effect.
Raheem Sterling almost encompasses everything about Liverpool’s new-found suave on the pitch. His ability to start counter-attacks, and finish them, has been vital in many matches this season, but his confidence and ability as a number 10 may have given us a glimpse into the future of what is to come from Raheem. While many a manager would bellow “get on your bike, son” at the young winger, Brendan Rodgers has thought the England international the mechanics of the vehicle, coaching him into moving through the gears and attack space, knowing when to rev the engine or to pace himself with precision passing.
Liverpool are a possession team, capable of hitting teams high up the pitch with breakneck speed and sharpness from almost every outfield player. In fact, if Liverpool were not a team focused on retention of the ball and breaking down teams we would not see the patient approach Brendan Rodgers has coached into swashbuckling saviours Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez, both who have adopted a new style of relaxed play impeccably the last 9 months or so, with the ability to acquit themselves of their tactical shackles and express their genius, destroying their opponents’ pregame plans and preparations. A footballing lobotomy if you will; defenders left looking like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
To play against this Liverpool team must be torturous, stressful and draining. There is almost no plausible pattern as to how Rodgers will select his teams. Even if Rodgers picked the same set of players as he did against Manchester United, Raheem Sterling can now operate in the number 10 position as effectively as he does as a right forward/winger. Tactical flexibility, unyielding ruthlessness, liberal movement, breathtaking passes, astonishing scorelines: Totaalvoetbal.
Whether Countera-TikiTaka is an appropriate label for this new “Liverpool Way”, one cannot be sure. Rodgers may well be trying his best to break away from any labelling of his football team, instilling unpredictability to benefit his methods.
One thing we can be sure of: the tactical mind of Brendan Rodgers is revolutionising Liverpool’s domestic fortunes, and it is only a matter of time before Europe’s elite face one of the most promising young managers, and teams, in world football.