The tactic of dominating possession was at first a defensive ploy from Scotland against the stronger, quicker and more devastating England team in the late 1800s. It was a tactical approach that existed purely as a way of controlling the opposition and the game, not as a ends in itself.
The possession-based philosophy that Cruyff dreamt up some time in the 1970s that has gone on to influence many great coaches and teams in world football, was one that seems to have been lost in translation along the way among football fans and it pains me to say it, many coaches too.
It was always about control and nothing more, a way of taking the ball away from the opponents and deciding your own fate the best way you can. Brendan Rodgers understands this, I can assure you myself – the words ‘control with and without the ball’ were mentioned to me over and over again in my interviews with Liverpool coaching staff over the last few months.
Against Stoke on Boxing Day, the possession stats weighed heavily in Liverpool’s favour (62.4%), but the proverb ‘possession is 9/10ths of the law’ can be deceptive. In truth, the control percentage was most probably something closer to 70% in Stoke’s favour – forget the result, I’m talking tactically here.
Teams like Stoke or West Brom have been excellent in terms of controlling games without the ball at times this season. West Brom vs. Wigan was another example where West Brom wanted Wigan to attack down the flanks in their slow build up approach to football (with their 3-5-2 formation), they wanted Wigan to cross the ball into the box and they wanted Wigan to get players forward. That way West Brom could win the ball and hit Wigan on the break (remember that they had now committed players further forward!) and play to their own strengths of being good in the air in central defence with exceptional height (Olsson 6’4’’ and McAuley 6’3’’). West Brom could then use the relentlessness of Shane Long and power of Romelu Lukaku to win balls in any counter attack – the perfect tactic to counter Wigan’s approach and West Brom controlled the game.
Stoke against Liverpool was a game that offered a similar tactical battle – Liverpool under Rodgers are renowned for playing out from the back (in the first few phases) and resting on the ball. Swansea under Rodgers employed a similar approach where 33% of Swansea’s possession would be composed of possession in the first third and 13% in the final third (Barcelona’s possession on the other hand was composed of 10%, 61% and 29% in each third).
While these percentages will differ at Liverpool, I find symmetry in the way in which Rodgers sets Liverpool up to build up from the back (hence the change in formation to three defenders temporarily earlier in the season to offer an extra man in this build-up and then use of two deeper controllers).
In my last article I proposed in detail, both graphically and with explanation, that the formation is nothing more than a tool to aid the processes of football:
- ball circulation – the possession and the attitude of possession
- the defensive block set-up
- the transition of winning the ball back – either resting/countering with the ball
- the transition of losing the ball – the immediate pressing and initial block
Tony Pulis and Stoke either coincidently or ingeniously understood each of Rodgers’ processes and set up in a way that triumphed Liverpool in every aspect of their game. Stoke’s extremely high tempo pressing and outnumbering of players to prevent Liverpool from building up from the back prompted Liverpool players to begin playing the unfamiliar long ball forward with no support around the receiver (arguably an inappropriate long ball for a short passing philosophy as it leaves players isolated).
Liverpool often found themselves crossing a hopeful high ball into a box largely dominated by Stoke players from the wider positions. When the position of the cross entered into a dangerous area to cross from (the byline), Stoke would send out a defender to block the cross and happily concede a corner.
Crossing, according this philosophy, is accepted as a successful method of assisting goals through controlled, often low, well-timed crosses and runs. This is not what we saw at Stoke. So while the stats may suggest that Liverpool had a surprising high cross completion rate against Stoke, getting the ball from the crosser’s foot to the player is not a statistic we can draw much from in reality. The type of cross and circumstances are far more accurate as a measure. In all cases, Raheem Sterling crossing a ball into the hands of the Stoke goalkeeper when only Suarez is in a Stoke dominated box is unacceptable.
While on the other hand (especially in the first half) we did see Liverpool threaten centrally and miss a number of opportunities that could have very easily turned into goals. This suggested that Liverpool needed to be more patient in circulating the ball and attempt to pick apart the compact Stoke defensive block.
The control in Stoke’s favour begins where Liverpool were either being forced to play out of trouble in well-pressed areas high up the field or forced to play down the flanks. But more than that, the control in Stoke’s favour was as a result of Stoke’s ability to outnumber Liverpool at either end of the field – Stoke achieved this by immediately pressing in numbers and then dropping straight off into a low-medium level block and letting Liverpool take the middle third of the field, enticing Liverpool players forward to then counter again either through a long ball forward or in numbers after a ball was won in the middle third.
WHY, HOW, AND ON WHAT PLANET DO STOKE PLAY LIKE BARCELONA?
Put simply, Stoke managed to reduce their own transition times between attack and defence down to something that I can only begin to compare to that of Barcelona’s and at times I couldn’t think of many other teams who could press at such a high intensity as Stoke did. A bold comparison I know, but since Barcelona are so impressive at their ability to reduce the transition time (something that Sergi Domenech, a Barcelona coach, calls ‘lost time’), It could be said that Stoke played more like Barcelona than their opponents did. The comparison is therefore not drawn from their methodologies but for their execution of getting from the defensive block to their own attitude in ball circulation and back again.
While Stoke broke forward in numbers, this led to Liverpool trying to rush play upfield and themselves counter Stoke – this is the reason the whole game had such a fast-paced feel to it. However in doing this, Liverpool continued to play into Stoke’s hands (click here for fast paced fun).
Rodgers’ system isn’t working in other vital areas of the philosophy he advocates. At no point against Stoke could you say that Liverpool managed to get from the attacking state of play back to the defensive state (see Liverpool ecosystem of play) as quick as Stoke could attack from defence and vice versa. Liverpool therefore were left neither defending or attacking in a way that Rodgers would have liked to have done so – I know that crossing would be seen as “a last resort and most beneficial when in a counter-attack”, therefore watching his side crossing a ball into a Stoke packed box or playing the long balls over and over would have infuriated Rodgers. There is nothing wrong with the long ball, but when it is played to an isolated target, it doesn’t allow the team to move up in unison and therefore problems arise in attempting to achieve the attacking state through a smooth transition.
Liverpool controlled the game against Fulham from the first minute to the last; against Stoke however, the roles were reversed. As a neutral, I have to say I admired Stoke’s solutions to Liverpool’s approach but I just will not accept that the possession-based approach is one that should be thrown in the ‘football bin’.
Liverpool need the profile of players who are able to control the processes of their approach in a way that they want. Stoke have the exact typology of player in every department for the approach they want to play – it was never a question of whether the players individually were better than the other team, but as a collective of eleven players.
Where did Rodgers go wrong against Stoke? It’s difficult to know where to begin, It seemed like the Fulham system worked so well that it was given the automatic go ahead for Stoke. The fundamental inefficiencies lie both in the choice of formation to aid the processes and/or the profile of players available to make up the proposed structure.
Brendan Rodgers has another eight months to prepare for his first real season in control of his vision of Liverpool. It’ll take more than just one transfer window to empower Rodgers with the tools to mould his own vision of control. Rodgers knows that there is much to improve on to get ‘his system’ (the one that many are arguing as an inadequate approach and assume they have seen already) working the way he wants it to. However, possession-based football has worked for decades and will continue to do so for decades to come; but take one thing from this article if nothing else and understand that tiki-taka, possession-based football, whatever you want to call it – is so much more than winning the possession statistic. It’s the fans and pundits who haven’t got that yet, not Rodgers and his back room staff. You just can’t expect these kinds of changes over six months with the same core of players – no matter who the manager or what the tactics are. Patience is required both in the attacking third build-up and from the fans.