It is far too early to judge Brendan Rodgers as a Liverpool manager just yet, and his first season in what is the biggest job of his career has gone mostly to script, with moments of promise tempered by crushing disappointments. After winning one competition last season and very nearly completing a domestic cup double, it is surely disappointing for Liverpool supporters in the manner at which they exited both the League and FA Cup this season. With high quality sides in the Europa League, it seems Liverpool’s best chances of silverware this season have come and gone.
No side can be expected to win competitions year after year, but what can be expected is that they give a good account of themselves, trying to execute their chosen strategy even in the face of adversity. Too often this season, as many Liverpool fans have noticed, Liverpool’s excellent possession game has been countered by the most agricultural of football tactics, the long ball to a towering number 9.
Professional football teams, especially in the Premiership, aren’t stupid. They know that against Liverpool there is no chance of holding the ball for long periods of time. Brendan Rodgers specifically sends his side out with the first objective being winning control of the center, much like in chess. However opponents have realized that if they hassle and harry, winning the ball back with Liverpool’s midfield high up the pitch, the Merseyside club’s backline can be shred on the counter. Swansea did it elegantly, Stoke and Oldham did it violently. The end result was the same.
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It’s easy to see how sides are targeting Liverpool, Kenwyne Jones more than tripled his average for aerial duels when Stoke and Liverpool last met, a clear ploy. The tone was set from the very first match of the season, when Romelu Lukaku threw Jamie Carragher aside like a chew toy en route to goal. Liverpool can be bullied. On average Liverpool complete 86% of their passes, only against Aston Villa did they meet or exceed that number on the list above.
But why are Liverpool laying down so easily? On the surface, their two main central defenders, Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger certainly don’t seem to be the types to shy away from physicality. In fact, the model for possession based sides in Barcelona play often with Gerard Pique and a converted holding midfielder in Javier Mascherano or Alex Song as their center back pairing. Hardly robust. Yet the Catalan side rarely fall apart the way Liverpool do under the merest hint of pressure.
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The table above shows two things. First Liverpool supporters can be pleased that their central defenders have gone from strength to strength, seemingly coping better with the physicality of the Premiership better every season. Until now. Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger are winning the lowest amount of aerial duels since they first established themselves. The loss of experienced heads in Sami Hyppia and the decline of Jamie Carragher’s pace has further contributed to the problem.
This season it seems to be a cyclical problem, Liverpool’s back line cannot cope with repeated aerial bombardments into their box. However the only reason those bombardments arrive is because Liverpool are not fully comfortable with their new possession game, losing the ball in dangerous areas against sides set up to hit them in exactly that way.
It’s so early into the Rodgers era, and there have been signs of progress, but this is a worrying sign. Rodgers often talks about killing teams with football, but it seems that Liverpool are only capable of doing this when sides don’t fight back. Top sides need to be more than just flat track bullies.
All of the stats from this article have been taken from the Opta Stats Centre at EPLIndex.com – Subscribe Now (Includes author privileges!) Check out our new Top Stats feature on the Stats Centre which allows you to compare all players in the league & read about new additions to the stats centre.