In modern day football, the space between the lines is one of the most key areas, if not the key area in attack.
One of the most simple reasons for this is that a player who positions himself in this space is theoretically unmarked. If they are to be marked it generally requires one or two defending players to momentarily break shape to go and confront him, thereby leaving space elsewhere. A player of course doesn’t have to be marked – the passing lanes to them may be blocked off or the defending team may concentrate on shutting off that space and condensing it as a unit so that he is not really free in any meaningful way. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a key area to attack and open teams up.
In England, this space is much more prominent than elsewhere. The game is quicker, there are more transitions, the teams are less tactically coherent and compact as a collective and the room between the lines is generally a lot more open. This means that teams who exploit it gain an immediate advantage.
Over the last few weeks there has been much discussion over Rodgers’ switch to a 3-4-3/3-4-2-1 formation. Some have simply alluded to the improved performances and results. Some have pointed to certain areas like the back three, or to personnel changes.
One of the key things however about the change to system is how it enables the team to get inside the opposition’s defensive block, this space between the lines. Indeed this has been alluded to by Srikanth on this site in his two pieces on the box midfield. One of the biggest strengths of Rodgers’ current system is that it makes it very difficult for the opponent to control space out of possession and this very much includes the area in between the opponent’s defence and midfield. Let’s have a look…
This still shot is from the game against Arsenal in December. It is a good snap shot of the current benefits of the shape Rodgers has been using in the last month or so.
In this match, Gerrard and Lucas played at the base of the midfield with Lallana and Coutinho ahead, effectively playing as number tens in the half spaces. Meanwhile Henderson was at right wing back, Markovic (out of shot) at left wing back and Sterling played up front as the lone centre forward.
What this shot illustrates is the significant problems that can be caused by this particular shape. Here we can see Gerrard has the ball in deep midfield. Arsenal have shifted across without putting any pressure on the ball in any kind of meaningful sense. They are effectively defending here through their shape.
This causes them a problem. With no pressure on the ball carrier, especially one of Gerrard’s quality of pass, they are opening themselves up to a pass being played forward into any space that they may happen to leave. This is one of the issues any team has to deal with when defending – finding the balance between retaining shape and putting pressure on the ball.
Liverpool’s own shape is well-positioned to take advantage of this. The team is playing with four midfielders in a box-type formation. What is difficult about defending this is how to arrange the setup and marking to deal with it. If a midfielder presses one of the pivots, there may be space behind him, if he backs off, the pivots will have space to dictate the game. Dealing with four midfielders is not usual for many teams and it can be quite a challenge.
What is immediately noticeable from the image is that all four Liverpool midfielders have yards of space around them. Gerrard is not being pressurised. Lucas is in space as he makes himself available to receive. Between the lines, neither Coutinho or Lallana are being closely marked. Arsenal in this shot are essentially losing the tactical battle – they’re not pressing, they’re not condensing the space, they’re not marking anybody, they’re outnumbered in the centre and Liverpool have the whole pitch to dictate.
The best Arsenal can really muster here is to block the passing lanes to Coutinho and Lallana. What was obvious in this game was that they couldn’t really muster this either – time and again, Coutinho was able to receive the ball between the lines either side of Flamini, who struggled to cope with the fact that he was often outnumbered 2v1 behind his midfield with little help.
On this occasion, they have just about managed to block the passing lane to Coutinho through Welbeck and Cazorla narrowing the channel for Gerrard to make that pass. However merely blocking off passing lanes is a very reactive way of defending and when it doesn’t happen, it’s easy to exploit. On Arsenal’s right hand side, there is a huge channel of space between Alexis and Oxlade Chamberlain, leaving the pass to Lallana open.
As Gerrard makes the pass, Arsenal are forced to back off. Alexis has to get back to recover and put pressure on Lallana, Coutinho immediately become open behind Cazorla and the back line back off.
As Lallana plays it to Markovic, we see another reason it’s hard to defend between the lines against this particular shape. It’s not enough necessarily to merely have players between the lines; you have to find a way of opening up space. This was one of the things Guardiola for example often focused with his Barcelona side. It wasn’t as simple as getting theoretical numerical domination in midfield; there had to be a way of opening up space inside. That’s why you would often see Pedro and Villa pulling wide of their full back, stretching the pitch wide and opening up space inside (alongside other tactical benefits).
This is what happens here. The ball moves wide to Markovic who is in space next to the sideline because both Chambers and Alexis had to stay central when the pass went to Lallana inside. This is one of the reasons why it’s difficult to control space when facing this setup – if you mark the flanks, you may leave passes open between the lines. If you play narrow with the wide men pinching in, the flanks may become open.
Notice the channel that has opened through the ball being moved wide. Debuchy and Mertesacker are being occupied by Sterling, leaving space for Lallana to make a direct run in the half space between Debuchy and Chambers. Simply by moving the ball wide, Lallana has been freed up inside through the space created. Flamini cannot get across quickly and Lallana is able to have a shot on goal.
These two players between the lines effectively cause opposition teams a number of tactical problems in terms of controlling the game. It forces them to overcompensate sometimes, leaving space elsewhere, it may force them to be reactive instead of proactive, even limiting their attack. Simply speaking, it forces them to make precarious trade-offs when defending.
Personnel change at the back
It’s not just the numerical domination in midfield and the width of the wing backs that forces teams to open up between the lines. This is actually best highlighted by one of the worst performances of the season away to Newcastle in November.
That game was the first game of the season where Rodgers tested this shape out. Though the team defended as a simple 4-2-3-1, in possession the team took exactly the same basic shape as it is playing now – three centre backs, two very high wing backs, two pivots, two interiores and one centre forward.
One of the biggest issues in that game was just how easy it was for Newcastle to break the team’s shape; they dropped their forwards onto the two pivots in Liverpool’s midfield, forced them deep and/or wide and effectively shut off the passing lanes through midfield (which is why the team could be described as ‘broken’ in possession – Henderson, Coutinho, Balotelli and Sterling to an extent were often isolated from the rest of the team).
This is one of the disadvantages of a box midfield when it’s played badly – two lines of two in midfield can be separated if there’s little movement, mediocre positional play and if there is no other way of unbalancing the opposition.
The back three in that game consisted of Lovren, Skrtel and Johnson. Most of the team’s possession took place in these deep areas. None of the back three was able to drive into midfield with the ball, entice Newcastle out of position or find penetrative passes between the lines, despite being essentially left completely free. Instead, the ball was moved around aimlessly in deep positions until one of the back three or two pivots decided to try and force it forward to either Coutinho or Henderson playing between the lines. Almost all of these passes were intercepted and the team would then have to deal with the transition.
Whether or not the change in personnel, bringing in Can and Sakho at the back, was effectively forced by injury is definitely up for debate but what is clear is that Rodgers has found a much more effective way of dealing with the shortcomings that were exposed in that game against Newcastle. Both Can and Sakho are comfortable on the ball, able to switch play (long switches in Can’s case), initiate moves, find good passing angles into midfield, drive forward into midfield and even pick out penetrative passes between the lines.
This adds a critical extra dimension to the team’s ability to dominate between the lines. Clearly sitting in a low block and shutting off space in the final third can still be an effective way of closing off a game but the risk is increased when the opponent has two players at the backs who are confident on the ball and can find players in space further forward. Unlike the game against Newcastle where Liverpool were lacklustre and uninspired in possession, keeping the ball meaninglessly in deep positions, there are now two players who are skilled at building play from the back. This is where management of trade-offs becomes harder for the opposition. Pressing high becomes a little more risky because if they leave space behind their midfield, the team has players who can pick it out (or at least find others in space who can then pick it out themselves) but dropping off also becomes risky due to leaving space for them in deeper positions and making it very hard to counter attack when possession is won. It is no longer necessarily enough to force Liverpool to build play through the centre backs. And because of that, the key space between the lines can become more vulnerable.
Chelsea’s mistake between the lines
Despite the scoreline, Tuesday night’s game against Chelsea was definitely one of the most impressive performances of the season, arguably the most.
One of the most notable features of the game was how Chelsea set out to defend on the interior of their block. Mourinho was clearly keen not to let either Gerrard or Coutinho get free between the lines and came up with a plan to stop this happening.
This was obvious from the very earliest of stages. For a start, Mikel came in for Oscar to play alongside Matic in order to try and control the centre of the pitch. This was clearly a cautious move, with the intention of taking the less disciplined Fabregas out of the double pivot and replacing him with a more defensively-minded player.
As said already, Chelsea were very clear in their intent to not let Gerrard or Coutinho receive the ball in space in front of the back line. The way they attempted to combat this was for Matic and Mikel to stick very close to them, closer than usual marking setups within systems of zonal coverage generally allow. Here’s an example:
Here we have Henderson on the ball in deep midfield under no pressure. Gerrard on the top left of shot is being pursued by Matic. The positioning in this image from Chelsea is not particularly unusual – they’re covering in their zones, marking players in their zones, not getting particularly dragged out of shape.
However what is more important is what is going on out of shot. We know Matic is marking Gerrard on the left of centre of midfield. The usual positioning we’d expect from Mikel here would be for him to be close to Matic, covering him at an angle, not allowing a gap to develop between the two of them.
Yet as Henderson plays the pass, we see that Mikel, far from closing the gap between he and Matic, is marking Coutinho at right centre midfield, creating a huge open space between the two central midfielders:
Mikel is marking Coutinho rather than blocking the passing lane and making sure there is a small gap between he and Matic. Matic is marking Gerrard. This allows a 20-25 yard horizontal space to play a pass through to Sterling dropping between the lines. It’s unusual to see holding midfielders sticking to their man to this extent, rather than covering the zone and sticking close to their teammates. This was very definitely man-focused, rather than space focused, defending.
It should be pointed out that this is not strictly man-marking per se. There were times when the two holding players definitively marked the zone instead of the man, shut off the space instead of the player and neither man-marked their man all over the pitch. However there was a definite tendency towards the man rather than the space throughout the match where possible, even if the gap between them opened up.
This did not happen once or twice either. It happened for the whole all game. Time after time when Liverpool were in possession, Matic and Mikel were reluctant to leave Gerrard and Coutinho, even if it meant the other was not covered and, more importantly, the passing lane to Sterling was always open. Chelsea in their attempt to cover the two players who were effectively playing in the positions of outside tens (or interiores, wide players moving inside into the half spaces) consistently allowed Sterling the space to drop in and pick up the ball.
This meant one of Chelsea’s centre backs, generally Cahill, had to come out with him, as we see in the above image. What was very clear was how uncomfortable Cahill looked 1v1 with Sterling – he’s not a player who can match his speed, nor is he the type of player (like David Luiz, for example, was) who is comfortable coming out on the front foot to engage a player. Chelsea’s attempt at marking and shutting off play between the lines effectively ended up making them even more vulnerable between the lines than they probably would have been. Again and again, the passing lane to Sterling was always open. Sterling would initially stay high in moves, occupying Terry and Cahill and making sure Matic and Mikel would be focused on marking their man rather than the space they were leaving between them. Then when the gap opened and the pass became available, Sterling would drop into chasm of space between the two of them and pick up the ball.
This was exactly how the goal was scored.
Mikel (towards the top of the picture) is marking Coutinho on the outside of him. Matic meanwhile is focused on marking Gerrard – in fact his body position is not at all pointing towards the area where the ball is (in the centre circle, slightly to the Chelsea right) but rather towards the left, where Gerrard is positioned. As such the gap again has opened up between he and Mikel.
Sterling in the middle has begun to drop off between the lines to make himself available for the ball. The Chelsea back line is relatively deep, certainly not condensing the space in front and neither of the central defenders step out to mark him, probably wary of being turned and having to catch up with his pace behind.
Henderson plays the pass through to Sterling through the middle. Chelsea’s system suddenly becomes very reactive. Matic has to leave Gerrard and is now running towards Sterling to try and stop him turning. Mikel does exactly the same. Neither are the quickest or most mobile generally and Sterling with his ability to quickly turn with his back to goal beats the both of them fairly easily.
Now Chelsea are left with exactly the sort of situation their defence does not want – a foot race with Sterling. It was a great bit of play from Sterling, including the finish, but Chelsea ran the risk of this for the whole match and never did anything to stop it. This still continued after the equaliser.
What this demonstrates is the increased difficulty for teams to try and shut off Liverpool between the lines. Many are not used to having two, certainly not three, players all comfortable at playing in these areas of the pitch, turning in tight spaces, playing penetrative passes, taking players on. Especially in England where teams tend to leave a lot of space between the lines, this becomes even more of a problem.
This is one of the things that Rodgers deserves credit for. He has found a system that exploits many of the weaknesses of English teams and that takes into account the strengths of his own. There still needs to be improvements in how the team employs the shape – despite the improvement in results and performances there is still a long way to go and there has not been many genuinely dominating performances, even with the change in shape. However the basis is now very much there. Players who are comfortable playing out from the back, who will entice a team out of shape or pick a penetrative pass out. Two pivots who bring discipline to the centre of the field. Wing backs who work hard and can provide a threat. Players who can play between the lines and who can turn with their back to goal (especially Coutinho). With Sturridge coming back, there is also a player who can, like Sterling on Tuesday night, offer a threat both in behind and dropping off.
What is clear though is that Liverpool very certainly have the ability to hurt teams between the lines. This may well be the biggest area of emphasis that opposition teams concentrate on when facing the team for the rest of the season.