Do Liverpool Need a Creative Midfielder to Break Down Defensive Teams?

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On the most recent edition of the Tactics Weekly pod, host Daniel Rhodes quizzed Paul Dalglish in an AI:PRO Q&A Special (you can listen for FREE for one week). One particular question (below) posed was that of breaking down defensive sides, an issue Liverpool have had for quite a while – harking back to troubles under Rodgers.

Do Liverpool need a creative CM to break down a low block, or is the positional play (i.e. width & using the pace & directness of those wide players) more important?

At face value, it seems as if a creative central midfielder would be essential to breaking down defensive sides – a player in the Fabregas mould, or something or someone similar. Immediately the “hole” left by Coutinho springs to mind, even though Coutinho was not quite a typical playmaker, even with him though, Liverpool struggled against defensive sides. Implicitly, it seems we’re asking whether Coutinho’s presence would help with creativity, and if not, what would? So in order to try and find our answer to whether a creative CM is necessary we’ll first frame this discussion with respect to Coutinho, and then broaden it.

Paul made clear that:

“A creative player helps break down a deep block”

And that much we cannot dispute, however, if we look at results, goalscoring and overall creativity since Coutinho has left, it seems largely unaffected. Admittedly, Coutinho has only been absent for just under two months, but it’s a curious point to consider, and Jürgen Klopp’s own philosophy and understanding of the game comes into this discussion too.

If we look at Coutinho’s xGChain per 90 figures (which are a metric used to measure the involvement and contribution of a player in creating a goalscoring chance, beyond simply the assist, which as a metric can be skewed quite often and easily), we’ll actually find that comparative to Firmino, Salah or Mané, Coutinho does not really stand out: Coutinho (0.72), Firmino (0.86), Mané (0.76), Salah (1.12). Furthermore, of Coutinho’s six assists this season, one was from a free-kick, and the other from a corner, leaving him with four open-play assists and considering Liverpool generally score most of their goals from open-play, and against low-block sides often have the lion’s share of possession, Coutinho does not seem as integral to beating these sides which sit back. That’s not to downplay Coutinho’s contribution, for his goals and NPxG90+xA90 figures are absolutely phenomenal, however, it’s fair to say he mostly flourished in open games.

Klopp previously stated that “pressing is the best playmaker”, and in general terms, this is a fair statement. In terms of chance creation in a typical game, pressing will not only outperform most individual players in terms of contribution, but also create high-quality scoring opportunities, through winning the ball in attacking areas, or catch opposition teams in transition, i.e. at their most vulnerable. Yet we’ve seen a number of games where pressing does not quite work, most notably in fixtures where the opposition team refuse to play the ball out from the back, and surrender possession, to counter-attack and focus on set-pieces instead.

This is precisely where the question of a creative player becomes especially pertinent, but for those who have been listening to the Tactics Weekly podcast, or have been reading the Tactical Breakdown post-match series both on AI will have noticed that a creative player is not just the only key to unlocking and beating a deep block, Paul Dalglish notes two other routes to beating a low block, the first of which is having a target man, and the other being utilising width.

The large attacking contributions of Mané and Salah go some way to offset the loss of Coutinho, but this issue of width is essential to breaking down defensive or low-block sides.

When teams sit back, it’s easy to defend attacks down the middle through congesting the pitch and packing those central areas. One of the best examples of this is Liverpool under Rodgers in 2014/15 or Liverpool more generally in 15/16 – with Adam Lallana, in particular, coming inside into central areas and finding himself losing the ball or his close interplay not working effectively.

Liverpool still have this problem when Salah and Mané come inwards too much, and instead of isolating opposition full-backs, and creating 2vs.1 situations or overloads, they run into traffic and opposition players, which are far harder to get through.

Using wide areas is not just about beating the opposite full-back though: through using these wide positions, Liverpool can stretch the opposition defence, and create gaps between defenders to run or pass into. Moving the ball across from wing to wing is key in doing this too, and over the past few months, we’ve seen an increased level of on-ball intelligence across the pitch, as the players are more patient in their approach. We need only compare Liverpool against Burnley – in which the team did not use those wide spaces, and instead resorted to taking pot-shots, – to the recent Southampton, Huddersfield or Bournemouth matches, where the team was far more patient and mindful of how they used the ball.

Indeed, if the team plays like this more often, and the wide players continue to excel, Liverpool do not need a new creative midfielder, as it’s not a prerequisite to winning games, however, that’s not to say a creative midfielder would not be handy – but it’s very much about finding the right one for Liverpool’s system. Indeed, Dalglish, during the discussion on the pod goes on to say:

“I don’t think we need one, because it’s not truly what Jurgen wants, if he had his choice in the eight roles (i.e. LCM and RCM) we’d have two Keïtas.”

Chamberlain, Firmino and Lallana all contribute towards Liverpool’s chance creation with their pressing, and it appears Klopp has opted for this in favour of immediately replacing Coutinho, for Coutinho – as good as he is – was not as good as those three players mentioned in winning possession, pressing and seizing upon transitions, as he’s a player who likes to dribble, and is suited better to a slower build-up, rather than an aggressive dynamic break. As we know, no man can travel as fast as a ball when played through, and Coutinho’s preference to dribble sometimes slowed counter-attacks, and gave opposition teams that little bit extra time to set up and recover from transitioning from an offensive shape to a defensive one. But it was clear Klopp valued Coutinho’s qualities outside of pressing to warrant a starting place, however, losing Coutinho does not necessarily mean Liverpool will lose creativity.

So then, to the first question: do Liverpool need a creative CM? As always with tactics, the answer is conditional. Liverpool do not strictly need a creative CM to break down defensive sides employing a low-block, providing they press efficiently and attack and utilise wide areas well, as they have done so recently – with Mané’s wider positioning against Porto clearly paying off. However, should Liverpool lose one of their front three to injury, the team’s capacity to attack wide spaces intelligently, or play through the middle would be severely reduced, in which case, Liverpool would certainly need a creative CM or players who are skilled in wide areas. Ultimately though, finding a player who can unlock a defence and perform an adequate pressing contribution may be a challenge, but it certainly will do no harm to the team and will offer another route to breaking down sides when the typical methods are not working.

Liverpool should be able to get their way through the season without a creative CM or creative CDM, but it should be an area in which the club looks to strengthen, even with Naby Keïta coming in, as we all know, you can never have too many good passes, and building upon the limited skill set of the current cabal of midfield players should be something under consideration for those working on scouting players for Liverpool.

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  1. Lfc need a creative cm/cdm we havnt got enuf quality in that possion evn with kieta commin in. Cebellose would be a good buy its about the willinness to pay up for the player witch is stumbln block because we no lfc dont like payn the value of players and like to try nok prices down. But i think its a must we bring in a good cdm that can play aswell as sheild and another atackn cm. Plus a wide foward tht can rotate with mane and salha. Gelson martins / dani cebellose/ anderson esiti . 3 quality players that lfc sould realy concider addn to the squad and not unreachable targets that add evem more quality and defensive stability to lfc

  2. I’m so glad this issue is up again for discussion because breaking down defensive teams is one reason we may never win the league. The other – our central dedensive personnel seem to have been partially corrected.

    Now, to be abke to beat these teams, we have to ask ourselves, which other team is able to beat them and how did they do it?

    Simple – they employed a particular type of players and system whichbis difficult to defend.

    Player Type – They use creative players with close control ability and ability to move with the ball in tight spaces. For this, they have David Silva, Bernado Sylva and Ilkay Gundogan. Notixe that these players can play sweet short passes, hold on to the ball while moving into dangerous positions. Check their 3rd goal against us when we beat them 4:3. Somebody kept moving with the ball and defenders were afraid of touching him!

    When teams defend deep, there is little space for effective passing of the ball. You need people that can drive with the ball. When they enter danger zone, a defenders will be forced to make last ditch efforts to stop them. By so doing, 1 of 2 things will happen – the leave an attacker unmarked to receive an easy pass or they hack down the ball driver for a penalty of free kick in a dangerous zone.

    To do this effectively, you need creative players with close control and dribbling ability like Bernado Sylva, David Sylva, Messi, etc, not necessarily the fast running type like Mane, Zaha. Salah and Coutinhi is in-between the 2 skill set – they possess part of the 2 skill set, not fully any, though Salah is a better runner.

    What i suggest is that we need to seek out creative players WHO CAN DRIVE INTO DANGEROUS POSITIONS with the ball using close control. We should be careful not to confuse this with fast attacking players.

    We have been linked with very good and fast attacking players like Gelsson Martin from Lisbon, Luis Zaha, etc. Fantastic players no doubt. But i dont think they will bring anything exceptional to our team asside making sure oir quality remains when there is injury or we want to rest particular attackers.

    We should remember the problem we want to solve – deep seating teams. Speed cant unlock them, it’s close control dribblers that will. Find them.

  3. Liverpool have lost just 3 prem games this season and it’s fair to say the draws are the real problem. Manchester city purchased lots of defensive players this season and they have really kicked on and I do wonder if that is exactly what we need. The games against spurs and Arsenal really stick out because we couldn’t see out the game. Players like Ndidi don’t help against teams that park the bus but they do help to see out games and I think it a player like Ndidi and a goalkeeper like Alisson go a long way to solving a lot of Liverpool’s defensive problems but it doesn’t replace the creativity and versatility Phil offered this team. If any of that front 3 got injured or suspended it was phil who would slot in there and more often than not keep his place in that front 3 even when players were available for selection.How many players with premiership experience could come in and do that job? I think Lanzini would be a perfect fit for this role and it will be interesting to see if the reports linking Liverpool with him are true.
    All the players I have mentioned have all been linked with Liverpool but so have thousands of others.

  4. I think it’s more a matter of depth dan a creative midfielder, a lot of those draws came when Coutinho was playing and he wasn’t able to break down low block teams. There’s just so much space you can pass in when players have their back to the walls, it’s the movement of the attacking trio and the overlap of the fullbacks that is more important imo.

  5. Exactly my point. Coutinho-esque kind of player will not make any difference because he was also there when we drew all those matches and lost a few to teams that defend deep.
    My own thinking is that we need 1 or 2 players that can drive into dangerous positions with the ball in their feet. Any attempt to stop them either leads to a free kick or frees up another attacking player in a dangerous zone. I hate to say it, but Man City do this to great effect and we should be looking to copy and better it. Passing will not solve the problem

  6. I think our midfield needs a quiet revolution.
    Can is inconsistent, Hendo unreliable and Gini often invisible.
    If Can departs his height will need replacing as beyond him our midfield is relatively short.

    Keita comes straight into the team, probably with Ox in front of him.
    Grujic could be a decent squad player next year but is not up to starting yet. I like the rumours connecting us to Jorginho as a regista creating behind Keita/Ox against the more stubborn low block teams.
    However against the better teams we will need a stronger physical presence who can also pass comfortably. This will also give us the height we lose when Can departs.


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