May 11th, 2014. A dejected, defeated side trundled around Anfield. A side emotionally drained, physically battered, and wallowing in their failed bid for glory. Liverpool had defeated Newcastle United that day 2-1, going behind from a Martin Skrtel own-goal in the first half which was rectified by a successive goals from two Daniels; Agger and Sturridge. They had won a battle, albeit a poor one, but the war was lost to Manchester City, who had coasted past West Ham United to seal their second Premier League title in three years.
The incredible run that Brendan Rodgers guided his team through the months of Spring and into the beginning of the Summer has been well-documented. The team played fast, aggressive football. It suited the personnel, it covered the frailties at the back (as best it could), and ultimately took the Club to an unprecedented second place finish and back into the Champions League. It was a short-term solution, expertly applied by the Liverpool manager, and took them to where they needed to be. It would bring Rodgers the funds to build a side in his vision, to conclusively put his mark on his Liverpool. It would all begin in 2014/15; Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool.
2014/15: The Story so Far
So far, the Reds have played 6 games, won 2, drawn 1, and lost 3. Placed 14th, behind West Ham on goal difference, 3 points off the top four, 8 goals scored, 9 goals conceded. It has been far from an impressive start from Liverpool so far, but having lost Luis Suarez to Barcelona a rocky start may have been expected. Adding in the fact that Daniel Sturridge, Emre Can, and Joe Allen were all injured on international duty simultaneously, the Merseyside outfit have been far from blessed with luck.
However, the issues that face last year’s runner-up side in the Premier League appear to be more than the loss of players to injury, or readjusting to the fact that the third best player in the world has departed. There is a conflict of styles, an uncertainty in performance, and a lack of identity. Having bellowed the Boney M inspired rhythm of ‘We Are Liverpool’ across England and Wales last season, the Kopites are now left with a feeling of anxiety as they watch their beloved Reds in their opening games.
The Style of Play
When Brendan Rodgers first arrived at Anfield, he had a very clear dossier as to how he believed a football club should be run, and how he desired his teams to play. Resembling a Barcelona in their arch rivals’ colours, Swansea City took the Premier League by storm with their neat passing, intelligent movement, and tactical astuteness; accumulating in an impressive 11th place finish. Initially implementing a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1, Rodgers’ style altered into the 4-1-2-1-2 diamond formation in recent times, and was used to tremendous effect versus Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane.
Image 1: The basic shape of Liverpool is demonstrated above. The following is a basic idea of how chances are created in this setup, illustrated in-depth by Samira Kumar here.
Image 2: As the one of the centre-forwards moves, the supporting number 10 and fellow centre-forward will begin to move in correlation with their teammate’s movement on the ball. Midfield runners are then entitled to drive into space left by the defenders.
Image 3: Daniel Sturridge has worked the ball to the right, and following the broken white line the passage of play is found at the heart of Liverpool’s midfield: Steven Gerrard. Gerrard then looks for the run of Alberto Moreno, who exploits the gaps left by Spurs who shift across to stifle Sturridge’s influence.
Intelligent movement and intense pressing across the pitch created a number of angles and options for Liverpool on the day, and Maricio Pochettino’s side were simply unable to live with them. It gave fans hope that the team would continue in a similar manner following the loss of their star player in the summer, delighting them with attractive football and achieving results.
Unfortunately, it all fell flat too soon.
One month later and Liverpool are without a victory in the league in 3 matches since their 3-0 victory in North London, but more worryingly is how they have played. Conflicting formations (given the personnel at Rodgers’ disposal) and tactics that nobody seems too sure of have lead to some worrying displays. From the build-up to the circulation of the ball (a particular worry of your writer) has played a massive part in the tough start the team have faced.
Rodger has recently admitted to such concerns recently, saying:
“When you introduce a raft of new players and lose the core of players [Suarez to Barcelona], that’s obviously a factor and then it becomes a little bit broken.
“Our game is based on fast pressing, a real high intensity and also the speed of our football. We put a lot of hard work in during the first six months that we were here and a lot of those processes became natural — the consequence of that is winning.”
While it is refreshing to hear honesty from Rodgers on the situation as opposed to some of his comments following defeat to Aston Villa, the main issue is not losing a core player to the group. Certainly it has taken its toll, but the basic elements of Liverpool’s game have throughout the month of September. Movement on and off the ball, creating angles and pockets of space for players to play in to, and patience when in possession. Luis Suarez’s suspension served across two seasons demonstrated the ability for Liverpool to change styles and approaches within Brendan Rodgers’ passing philosophy. When Suarez returned from suspension at the beginning of the 2013/14 season, Liverpool continued to play low intensity passing football: frustrating, but more importantly, winning performances. After November and the demolition of Tottenham away from Anfield, fans began to see the work Rodgers had put in with his players and what a side in his vision transpired to.
So while the case for low intensity performances with minimal pressing is there to be made, one struggles to figure out why the passing game which is so inherent to the modern Liverpool has become obsolete.
Coping with Loss, or Mismanaging Current Talent?
The argument Rodgers presented in the interview above is briefly centred on the loss of his talisman of the first two seasons that the Northern Irishman has enjoyed at the club. Looking across the continent, another young manager has made waves with his style of play and charismatic aura, coping with the loss of star players and managed to fracture the upper echelon of Spanish football. Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid have taken Europe by storm in the past twelve months, reaching a Champions League final and winning their first La Liga Championship in 18 years. While he has had fabulous talent at his disposal, Simeone has managed to cope with the loss of key players and continued to build on the success of his style of play. Selling Radamel Falcao to Monaco (now currently on loan with Manchester United) seen Simeone bring in veteran Spanish stalwart David Villa to partner the soon-to-blossom Diego Costa, who also made his way to the Premier League joining Chelsea during the summer.
Again Simeone had to readjust his tactics for the coming season, this time coming in the form of Mario Mandzukic and Antoine Griezmann; joining from Bayern Munich and Real Sociedad respectively. The five talented forwards mentioned are all different in style, stature, and ability. Their techniques and skill-set varies, but the fundamental ethos and ethics of Atletico Madrid does not. Playing to the strengths of a Falcao/Mandzukic striker requires a focus of providing them with as much service as possible, enabling them to make use of their killer instinct. A forward like Diego Costa allowed for a more relaxed approach, as he has the ability to score in a variety of situations and areas of the field. But within these variables, the hard-work structure in defence coupled with the high-intensity pressing implemented by the former Argentina international does not change.
Brendan Rodgers has shown his ability to play varying setups and styles within his own culture of football, but so far this season they are yet to become apparent. Many speculate as to whether Mario Balotelli will cut it at Liverpool as the side adapts to the loss of Daniel Sturridge to injury and Luis Suarez’s conclusive absence, but the biggest issues stem from what occurs behind the Italian striker. The shapes and patterns the side picks up is conflicting and struggling to generate fluidity in attack, or ball circulation when attempting to build from the back.
Highlighted above we see the kind of problems Liverpool experienced while playing the 4-2-3-1 formation versus Aston Villa, who ran out winners in a shock 1-0 defeat at Anfield. The angles between the defensive diamond (GK-RCB-LCB-DM) show how limited the options were for Steven Gerrard when on the ball. Ideally, he would have spread the ball to either full-back (indicated with a broken yellow-line), but too frequently he would look for the long diagonal ball into the circled zones for either full-back to advance into. The problem with these tactics stemmed from the Reds’ reluctance to keep the ball and stretch the away side’s defence and midfield. There was no patience from the defensive diamond who were too keen to lump the ball long to the wingers and full-backs. The lack of patience (and shape) cost Liverpool on the day, but unfortunately these problems have not disappeared.
There appears to be confusion in command, shape, and tactics. Steven Gerrard continues to drop between the centre-backs to initiate attacks, but the movement from the players ahead of him is non-existent, and while he tries to keep it simple by relaying it to his centre-backs, the opposition detect patterns of play and ultimately swamp the captain and punish the side for their mistakes and inability to distribute the ball. Gerrard is also at fault for forcing the play, looking to play it into zones too early and not showing composure or judgement of situations. Liverpool look caught between attempting to play the football that brought them so much success with Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge leading the attacks, while also showing an unusual tendency to cross the ball into the box.
Astonishingly, Liverpool players almost seem frightened of the football.
One can only hope that these entangled styles of play are a result of injuries (although 3 injuries should not have been detrimental to this degree, or stopped the side from playing possession football) and once the likes of Joe Allen return to full fitness the flowing movement of a Brendan Rodgers’ side will return. Individual performances improved in the Merseyside Derby, but as a collective whole they were relatively untroubled by Roberto Martinez’s Everton.
The circulation of the ball must improve, as to does the collective work and movement of the ten outfield players. There are worrying signs at Liverpool currently which may need addressing in a transfer window, particularly in the defensive diamond spoken of above, but so long as the passing, free-flowing, and entertaining football of the Brendan Rodgers dossier returns then results will improve. It will not be identical to the attacks witnessed between February and May of 2014, but it will match the strengths of the players available to the manager, within his ethos, within his vision; Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool.