“Liverpool awarded a free-kick.”
“Liverpool get a corner.”
For a split second you are delighted at the chance of setting up a threatening goal opportunity. Then, just as quickly as you think this, you realise you support Liverpool and automatically slump back into your seat and just wait for the inevitable front post clearance from the opposition.
I don’t think many of us know any other scenario while supporting Liverpool. However, this year things have been unnervingly different at times.
Currently, Liverpool are sitting top of the set-pieces table with 16 goals. From direct free-kicks, crossed free-kicks, corner kicks, and penalties Liverpool have been able to enjoy success across all types of dead-ball scenarios. When one looks into each set-piece goal in detail, we learn how a very simple philosophy has seen the team reap the awards thus far.
You can spend hours upon hours devising routes and patterns for those in the box but without consistently good delivery, it is all for nothing. Thankfully, Steven Gerrard and Phillippe Coutinho have been up to the task this season and are putting balls into dangerous areas every weekend.
5 yards in from the touchline and 5 yards away from the 18 yard box, Gerrard’s delivery has always been exceptional. Having that angle to whip a ball ferociously in between the goalkeeper and the players is where Gerrard is at his best from a dead-ball situation. Therefore it is of no surprise that 4 of the 16 set-piece goals this season have been from free-kicks in such areas.
So by looking at ‘Gerrard’s free-kick goals’, where has Rodgers profited from Gerrard’s delivery?
Well the first noticeable aspect is the focus on the near-post. Gerrard does not float a ball into the box or chip it in; he whips it as hard as possible. By gathering that sort of pace, it’s very hard to go back-post and not over-hit it. Therefore more times than not, a poor Gerrard cross is going to be cleared near-post rather than gone over the back.
As a result, Rodgers sets the team out very simply for a Gerrard free-kick: 5 or 6 players line the edge of 18 yard box, with an emphasis on all to attack the front post except one, who peels off to the back-post. The key here at all times is coming onto the cross at pace. With Gerrard’s delivery, having a running start is enough to give you a significant advantage over the defenders.
Suarez’s goal vs West Brom showed that coming onto a Gerrard cross only requires a flick header. The combination of pace from the delivery and the runner means that guidance is all that the ball needs to nestle in the net. We saw the exact same situation with Sturridge’s equalizer in the Merseyside Derby.
- Suarez vs WBA & Sturrdige vs EVE
Against Fulham, we saw how tough it is for a defender to cope with a ball that comes in between him and the goalkeeper. Amorebieta had to struggle against the pressure from Agger and Suarez along with a cross that would have been criminal under the laws of defending to let simply go by across your goalmouth.
- Amorebieta OG vs FUL & Sakho vs WHM
Rodgers likes to have one of the centre-backs along with either Suarez or Sturridge heading towards the front post. However he also leaves one centre-back aiming for the back-post just in case Gerrard randomly over-hits one or if those at the front post get a flick-on.
Against West Ham, Gerrard does put a bit too much juice on his cross however Sakho is still there at the back post to knock it back across. As a result of all the movement to the front post, Liverpool have enough bodies on top of the goal to put immense pressure on the opposition if a goalmouths scramble ensues.
Tactically, Liverpool have been extremely threatening in the most simplest of manners when it comes to crossed free-kicks.
THE FRONT POST, BACK POST SPLIT
When it comes to corners, Liverpool have unearthed a method to get the best out of Gerrard’s crosses.
As we discussed, Gerrard’s deliveries are better suited to front post attacking. For years Liverpool would line up on the 18-yard box line directly opposite the back-post and all rush towards the front-post; no exceptions. However there has been a shift in mentality of how to attack a Gerrard corner this season under Rodgers.
How has the set-up been different this season?
First of all, let’s deal with Gerrard’s in-swinging corners from the left-hand side. This traditionally would be Gerrard’s strongest side as his cross would naturally curl towards the goal at pace. So Rodgers has kept the emphasis of having the majority of his attackers run towards the front-post.
Liverpool begin every corner in a cluster – not a line – directly opposite the back-post, in line roughly with the penalty spot. For in-swingers, the majority hit the front post lead by the teams strongest header of the ball, usually being Martin Skrtel. However both centre-backs do not run in the same direction, a tactic continued on from the free-kick set-ups we discussed.
At the front post, Liverpool have their best header of the ball and a striker with a natural eye for goal. Yet you can’t neglect the back-post and that’s why you still need a good attacker waiting there for any flick on.
It’s a very simple theory but you’d be surprised how many teams chose to put all their eggs in one basket; front or near post. Or worse, those that just allow their players linger by the penalty spot, expecting to score from a perfect delivery and standing position * tactical naivety shudder*.
Crosses and corners can be very unpredictable and it is good to see Liverpool prepared for every scenario with this ‘front-post, back-post split’.
Against Sunderland, Liverpool scored from a Gerrard in-swinging cross as both Skrtel and Toure attacked the front post and Sturridge and Sakho went to the back. Toure gets a knick and Sturridge finishes from the second ball.
In the Merseyside Derby, Rodgers showed how he can adapt his tactics depending on the opposition. Instead of having the running start we see in every other set-piece goal, Liverpool starting position against Everton was right on top of the goalkeeper. However Coutinho, who starts at the front post amidst the melee, peels off to the back and scores from Suarez’s flick on.
- Sturridge vs SUN, & Coutinho vs EVE
Yet the most interesting and obvious improvement is from Gerrard’s out-swinging corners. Naturally, due to the flight of the ball, attacking the front post is fruitless from the right-hand side as the ball is curling away from that area. This has been Gerrard’s most frustrating area of delivery over the years as he tries to compensate with the natural flight of the ball and adjusts his crossing style to get the delivery closer to the front post.
What Rodgers has done this season is instead of continuing having Gerrard change his delivery for the team, he has changed the teams tactics for Gerrard.
So those attacking the corners start from a much deeper position where the cluster is sometimes outside the box. This is done so that those who are attacking the front post end up going as far as the penalty spot, meaning that they still get their run up and the full flight of Gerrard’s natural delivery.
Against Manchester United, Agger perfectly connected with Gerrard’s out-swinger from the penalty spot, with Sturridge on the goal-line to guide it home. Another example was against Fulham when Skrtel came onto Gerrard’s cross like a freight train and rocketed it beyond Stekelenburg.
Then, when Coutinho is on corner duties, the tactics do not change and the same result comes from his out-swingers as we saw with Agger’s goal vs Hull last week.
As a result of the out-swingers naturally flying away from the goal, Rodgers has more often than not, deployed someone to be on top of the goalkeeper so that any goal-bound strike can be profited on. With an in-swinger, all you need to do is guide the ball as the power on the delivery is already there and heading towards the goal. However an out-swinger is going in the opposite direction so one needs to change its route. This often takes the sting out of a cross so therefore, having that player on the goal-line is a necessary and clever tactic; one that we see benefiting the team from Sturridge against Manchester United and Henderson against Hull City.
- Sturridge vs MUN, Skrtel vs FUL & Agger vs HUL
When you look at all the set-piece goals this season from Liverpool, you can see a foundation tactic of the ‘front-post, back-post split’ which involves the separation of areas in the box for both centre-backs to attack. However you also see the slight variations Rodgers puts in, depending on the opposition. The change-up of having men on the goalkeeper, the decoy usage of Glen Johnson, the lack of short corners used, it’s been enough to keep Liverpool’s set-pieces slightly unreadable for opposition in the future.
Potency from every opportunity is a minimum requirement for a team at the top level of the game. Liverpool may still lack a Sami Hyypia who can gather a minimum of 5/6 goals from set-pieces, but the tactics deployed are benefiting what the current team does have: pace, ingenuity and expert delivery. The fact Liverpool have developed a threat from set-pieces greatly improves the teams chances of achieving the ultimate goals this season.
And all this said, without even discussing the remarkableness of a direct Suarez free-kick…