It’s hard to say what position Liverpool are really in in terms of what they can challenge for at the end of the season. At the time of writing there are 2 points between 1st and 5th. Such is the compactness in points, results and general form within the current top five, it’s difficult to predict which teams are genuine title contenders and which teams may fall away. After all, this is no normal league season – who would have thought Everton would be 2 points off top after 17 games?
It is difficult though not to hold thoughts of a title challenge, even if there are sides (Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City) who are probably more prepared and more experienced in terms of playing consistently at a high level and with a better chance of holding their own in a title challenge. The inconsistencies of these teams though and the surprising consistency of Liverpool has led to the current league position, right at the top of the pile over Christmas. Considering the two away games against Chelsea and Man City coming up, after 19 games, Liverpool will have played Chelsea, Man City, Arsenal, Everton and Tottenham away from home. Clearly the second half of the season seems easier on paper, adding just another quandary into the mix.
What gives hope though is that first of all, there hasn’t been a consistent dip in results, at least not enough to fall into the group of Newcastle, Tottenham and Manchester United, just below the top five.
Another equation to add in is the fact that in the last two games in Steven Gerrard’s absence, Rodgers seems to have finally found a coherence, a tightness and intensity within the midfield personnel. It’s possibly too early to say that this is Liverpool’s best midfield combination – of course even with the increasing inefficiencies of Gerrard’s defensive game, he still has an extraordinary quality on the ball, especially important against teams who prioritise containment over pressure and sitting low over a focused pressing in midfield, as a number of teams have done at Anfield this season. However the pressing, compactness, intensity and general interaction in the middle between Lucas and especially Allen and Henderson is something that hints at a much improved organisation and control in the middle third. That in itself is something to be very positive about.
Brendan Rodgers made no changes after the brilliant display against Tottenham, trusting in the same side to get the job done against Cardiff. The same shape (4-3-3) though with a much different prospect in store – there was never going to be as much opportunity to just attack with pace behind the defence as was the case against Spurs. Cardiff very much setup to drop into a low block, ready to contain rather than exert pressure in midfield.
Basic Match Dynamic
The basic pattern of the game was simple to describe – Liverpool dominated possession, easily circulating the ball, switching play and interacting with short passes to penetrate through the middle. Cardiff were very passive without the ball, putting very little pressure on the ball in midfield, containing shape and low positions instead of shutting down in midfield and countering.
Liverpool’s structure, as it has often been under Brendan Rodger in these sort of games, was fluid in possession, with constant movement trying to break Cardiff’s lines and moving the ball quickly to take advantage of Cardiff’s passiveness in defence. One of the vulnerabilities Cardiff showed with this approach was that they easily conceded advantage between the lines – this is an area Luis Suarez thrives in, moving into intelligent positions and constantly acting as a passing option there. Henderson and Allen were both able to make runs into these areas when there was space, as did Sterling, although the latter mainly moved inside as a way to create space for Johnson running behind.
This combination on the right was an interesting one. One of the things Rodgers has often tried to do since he came into the club, has been to try and create a problem for teams in this area through movement interactions between the right sided ‘winger’ and Johnson as a full back. Cardiff generally failed to deal with this and Johnson made many runs behind from the high positions he took up when the team was in possession, although he was again off his game and generally unable to take advantage. Sterling himself looked confident again – another example of Rodgers trusting in a player for a succession of games and gaining a good response from this. Sterling still lacked intelligence with his movement at times and occasionally looked confused as to where to position himself with regards to Johnson’s movement but it was interesting to see how often on the transition after winning the ball, Suarez would move wide, creating a free space for Sterling to attack through the middle on the counter.
On the other side, there was a different dynamic. Coutinho seem to play a mixed role within the system; again, as the whole team does in attack, he often played off the movement of his teammates, moving into spaces left uncovered, trying to create lines and combine in different areas. Generally he played inside from the left, dropping deep as a fourth midfield in the middle and making himself available to receive from the back. In a way, his role seems a bit too ambiguous at the moment – at times he often acted as an orchestrator, receiving the ball deep in midfield, helping to progress play and connect lines throughout the team. However the fluidity of Allen and Henderson’s movement meant that sometimes they would move into the same spaces to receive the ball resulting in Coutinho not having as much influence as he would ordinarily like. Again, there’s trade offs for everything and Liverpool’s fluidity is a massive strength but Coutinho, despite his qualities, occasionally looked a bit unsure of his role, sometimes acting as an orchestrator, sometimes making direct runs just inside from the left to get involved in the box.
Flanagan was the player who often had the most space on the pitch on the left hand side. Generally he has played deeper than Johnson on the other side but in this game he often moved forward at the same time as Johnson, playing high up the pitch, providing balance and width and available for switches of play across the back and midfield, even moving inside at times when there was opportunity. Defensively, he was caught out of position a couple of times and was beaten and turned a little too easily on a few occasions, also struggling in the air. But his tactical role was very important as regards to how the team moved the ball around and looked to penetrate Cardiff.
The tactical battle was fairly simple overall – Liverpool controlled the first half, always having a free man in the middle through numerical superiority there and also due to the fact that Cardiff were happy to sit deep and allow Liverpool space in the midfield, suiting their game massively.
Continued on from there:
If we move this example on a few seconds, to the build up of the first goal, we see another negative trade off of Cardiff’s defending.
After the Spurs performance, it was hardly a surprise Liverpool came out of the blocks quickly in the first half but Cardiff’s game plan effectively surrendered the midfield to the team and made it easier to dominate and control.
As far the as the defensive performance goes, Liverpool were largely comfortable. One of the things that was apparent in Cardiff’s attack was that they were pretty ‘hollowed out’ through the middle – they weren’t able to build through the lines, instead playing direct balls forward. Odemwingie was disadvantaged 1v2 against the more powerful Sakho and Skrtel. One of the things Rodgers got the team to do was to press high and force Cardiff towards the sides when possession was lost. Indeed, the positions of interceptions tells a lot about how either side defended:
The Second Half?
Liverpool’s did drop off slightly in the second half – Cardiff played at a slightly higher intensity and with the substitution of Fraizer Campbell coming on for Odemwingie, made more runs behind the defence, causing more problems for the team and providing more depth to Cardiff’s game and eventually causing Rodgers to adjust by bringing on Agger to cover runs behind.
If there was a big worry from the second half performance, it was defensive set pieces. This has been something of an issue since Rodgers came in and doesn’t seemed to have been improved of as late, even though the attacking set pieces seem to be a threat.
It was hardly a surprise Cardiff’s goal came from a free kick. Most worrying about the defending on this set piece was not that Sakho got caught 2v1 at the far post – Brendan Rodgers had clearly asked for a zonal line from a free kick in this position and such a defensive scheme is always vulnerable to overloading in zones. What the main mistake was was that Skrtel seemed to panic at the last second, completely breaking the offside trap that had been set up by Rodgers. This is something that has always been in Skrtel’s game, the fact that under pressure and isolated, he can lose composure and make a mistake. But here it was costly because it played the whole Cardiff attack onside and meant Sakho’s numerical disadvantage came into play and ultimately led to Cardiff getting the goal.
In truth though, you have to be positive and say that this was a very professional and generally efficient performance from Liverpool and means that we are top of the table over Christmas. The last time this happened of course was in 2008, when the team ended up finishing second under Rafa Benitez.
While there are still weaknesses and flaws that need to be improved on, the last three weeks have demonstrated just how much the team has improved under Brendan Rodgers. The next two games, away to Man City and Chelsea, could go some way to indicating what the team is really capable of challenging for at the end of the season. At the moment though, the team looks in good shape to take on these challenges. If Liverpool approach these games with the intensity and aggression of the last two matches, it is very possible there will be a positive outcome.