After the midweek game against Ludogorets, there were increased calls for Rodgers to change back to the diamond 4-3-1-2 shape that had worked so well against Tottenham. Part of this was to help give Balotelli some support up front that had been sorely lacking in both of the previous games and also to bring Sterling inside to play between the lines behind two forwards.
Rodgers had a number of choices. As natural forwards, Lambert or Borini were the obvious choice, though pushing Sterling or even Markovic up to play alongside Balotelli were options. Because of Borini’s movement, he was probably the natural choice in freeing his fellow Italian up to drop deeper and link play centrally. He had also shown a clear willingness in his substitute appearances against Villa and Ludogorets and his enthusiasm after a tough week was probably tipped in his way in Rodgers’ mind.
The other big changes came in defence; Skrtel came in for Sakho and Lucas in for Coutinho, two changes that were predictable but definitely not certainties. Rodgers started off the season with Skrtel and Lovren as his first-choice partnership and brought Skrtel straight back, hinting that that is still the case. Lucas had replaced Coutinho in mid-week after the latter’s poor performance and playing a diamond in midfield, Lucas was the more solid of the two options defensively, though it was a big surprise to see Coutinho not even included in the squad.
Problems from the start
Last season, Liverpool scored the most first-half goals of any team in the history of the Premier League. Teams could not cope with the way the team attacked; the pace, the directness, the movement, the interplay. Very rarely did the team have to chase a game in the second half. They came out with youthful energy and hunger to score and blitzed a number of teams in the early stages of games. If an opponent could stop the team winning at half time, they had a much better chance of getting a result – Chelsea led at half time in both games, as did City at the Etihad and Arsenal at the Emirates, while in the games that Southampton and Hull took all three points, both of them went in level at half time.
And thus results one of the biggest challenges for the team this season – after having such a good season last year, you have to evolve and progress, otherwise teams, who have wised up to your strengths, are much more likely to cause you problems.
And West Ham did a great job of hurting Liverpool in the opening twenty minutes.
The start was obviously not ideal. Set pieces continue to be a big issue and it was especially alarming how poor the reaction was to the prospect of the second ball. Henderson should have done better against Tomkins in the air but there was very little reaction to Reid’s run, especially from Lovren who should have got goal-side of the defender. With all of Liverpool’s issues in open play, concentration on set pieces needed to be especially good and it was found lacking. Poor defending, poor goal, poor start.
The real issue early on was a complete inability to enforce a rhythm on the game that would cause West Ham problems. Only one team was proactively forcing the other team to react and that was Allardyce’s side. Their midfield was clearly more powerful than Liverpool’s and because of the narrowness in shape, the game was largely being decided in the centre, which suited them down to the ground. They played direct, looking to push Liverpool back in their own half with long balls, winning the second balls and pressing when they lost possession. Because of the narrow midfield diamond, Liverpool very rarely had an outlet wide on transition; the outball was to Sterling or the two forwards, whose ball retention was lacklustre early on, and because of that it was made much easier for West Ham to put the team under heavy pressure. This was notable for the second goal – first Gerrard gave the ball away, then Balotelli as West Ham pressed and stopped Liverpool’s transition chances.
Nor was there any control of the game in general possession. Whilst West Ham were purposely playing long to create the opportunity of pressing and pushing Liverpool back, they also had a plan when they set themselves up as a block. They knew that conceding space centrally against Sterling or Balotelli would cause them a lot of problems so Allardyce overplayed the middle – the midfield continued to set themselves up very narrowly, with a high density of players in the middle of the pitch, whilst the two forwards, Valencia and Sakho, generally positioned themselves in the half spaces, supporting the midfield or trying to block the outball to the full backs.
Liverpool again struggled to control distribution in midfield. The team had possession of the ball but there no real feeling of danger for West Ham at any point in the first half. Downing was marking Gerrard, making it very hard for him to spread the play to the full backs in space and neither Lucas or Henderson are adept at being the player who controls a game in the middle of the pitch, especially when it was often so crowded. Thus, possession was so often lost too easily and West Ham then had a chance to push up the pitch and put the pressure on again.
The solution to this was clear – move the ball to the wide areas and open up the inside that way. It wasn’t difficult to spot – even with a diamond in midfield, West Ham were probably playing too narrow and they seemed not to have the mechanisms or coordination to properly deal with switches of play to the wide areas. Liverpool needed to look for the full backs in space whenever possible, trying to break West Ham’s shape in midfield and then attack the space behind and either side of Noble, as shown by the example below
Yet it was alarming how little this type of play was used. Though Valencia and Sakho tried to block the passing lanes to the full backs and even sporadically tracked them, it was still very simple for Liverpool to open them up like this and too often, possession was lost through the middle, both short passes and long and Liverpool failed to control the game.
Rodgers saw the issues and decided to make a change just twenty minutes in. Manquilo came off for Sakho and a 4-3-1-2 became a 3-5-2 with Sterling shifted to right wing back. Primarily, the idea behind this seemed to be based on using the flanks – with the cover of three centre backs, both wing backs would have more freedom to move forward and attack.
The team did improve slightly. The goal came from one of Liverpool’s only good moves from the first half and it also came from using the wide areas. Lovren played the ball to Henderson, who was positioned on the outside of West Ham’s block and he exchanged passes between Moreno before putting in a cross to Balotelli, whose control was superb and whose blocked shot came out to Sterling who finished it superbly. It was clearly noticeable the consequences for West Ham of the ball being moved wide – as the cross came in from Henderson the entire West Ham midfield was on the right hand side of the pitch, leaving Valencia, a striker, having to track Sterling’s run.
Yet in reality, the improvement was relatively minor. The wing backs were actually playing too high up, rather than looking to receive the ball in space and force the lateral midfielders for West Ham to come out to leave space in the middle. The player with the most time on the ball was Lovren, playing in the middle of the three centre backs, and his distribution was far too inconsistent.
Second half slight improvement
The level of performance could hardly have dipped from the first half and in the second half, Liverpool did improve. Lallana was the notable introduction and as space opened up and there were more transitions, his ability to link play created a number of good situations.
Again, as in mid-week the game opened up in the second half and this was both a positive and a negative for Liverpool. On the plus side, it suited the team to attack with more space going forward. Sterling was playing wide but moving wherever there was space, even towards the left at points and his direct dribbling and 1v1 ability caused increased difficulties for West Ham. Borini had a couple of very promising situations, though seemed to eager at times, at one point taking the ball right off Moreno’s feet on the left and shooting a couple of times when the pass was the better option.
On the other hand, it meant there was more space for West Ham on transition. Sometimes the temptation for teams when chasing the game is to bring on a forward and neglect the midfield in search of a goal. Yet what that often does is make it easier for the opponent to release pressure on transition and force you to run back to your own goal, losing crucial time in looking for an equaliser. Arguably Rodger’s biggest mistake when chasing the game was bringing on Lambert rather than a midfield player; three centre backs was no longer needed when West Ham dropped deeper and shifted to a 5-4-1 and Liverpool arguably needed another player who could beat someone off a dribble, like Markovic rather than another forward.
Ultimately the empty midfield led West Ham to seal the game – Sakho’s header was poor but even chasing the game, the amount of space in front of the backline was astonishing and it was far too easy for the home side to guarantee the result.
There were problems from start to finish in this game. Brendan Rodgers has to find a base to re-launch this season, whether that is in defence, midfield or attack, because in a week that the team could really have pushed on, three disappointing performances have been matched by two losses. There are lot of things to improve on and with the matches coming thick and fast, Rodgers has to find solutions quickly for this week’s slump to be forgotten.