Who will start in Liverpool's central midfield? Stats & Tactics
The beginning of the 2012-13 season saw something of a revolution at Liverpool FC. Kenny Dalglish presided over an up-and-down 2011-12 season, but the final straw came when the club could only manage 8th place in the Premier League, their worst placing in nearly two decades. As a result, rising star Brendan Rodgers replaced Dalglish as the Merseysiders looked to build a team capable of challenging at the top end of the table. It wasn’t just results the board were looking for, with Rodgers’ flowing passing game identified as a key element of Liverpool’s new identity. In this article, I take a look at how Liverpool’s midfield could become the side’s major weapon in the 2013-14 season.
At the very root of Brendan Rodgers’ entire philosophy is possession and retention of the ball. Unsurprisingly, given the nature of play in football nowadays, this leads to the most important players being at the heart of the side, central midfield. At Swansea, Rodgers' midfield was balanced perfectly. Leon Britton and Joe Allen sat deep in central midfield. With Britton's experience and metronomic passing of a regista, and Joe Allen's energy and technical skills: it was a perfect complement. Ahead of them was the talented Gylfi Sigurdsson, who was given license to roam and create.
Each player had a strictly defined role. Britton was the protector and distributor, Allen was the linker of play, and Sigurdsson was the creator. However, it was the flexibility within the apparently rigid system that gave it an extra edge: though Britton generally held a position as the deep-lying playmaker and the entire side’s reference point, Allen’s all-round ability let him switch with Sigurdsson if the latter needed to escape marking, as well as help out Britton defensively. This format – and the side’s undoubted technical prowess - let Swansea dominate possession against sides from both ends of the table. Rodgers’ successor Michael Laudrup was wise enough not to tinker with this basic format too much despite Allen and Sigurdsson's departures. Jonathan De Guzman provided a similar but more ambitious and creative role than Allen, whereas Michu put a more direct and attacking slant on Sigurdsson’s trequartista role at the tip of midfield.
Liverpool’s midfield in 2012/13
Newly installed in the Liverpool job, Rodgers immediately moved for the versatile Welshman Allen. With Allen brought in, his central midfield began to take shape, and Rodgers had a small but talented group of players who could all play different roles.
His midfield destroyer from the bunch was Lucas Leiva, the formerly much-maligned Brazilian whose battling performances eventually made him a fan favourite. Alongside him was the legendary Steven Gerrard, who has been in slow transition from his ‘classic’ all-action dynamic attacking midfield role into a more reserved distributive remit deeper in midfield. Jordan Henderson developed slowly over the course of the season, adding technical and mental skills to his physical talents and work rate. Jonjo Shelvey was the most attacking of the bunch, a talented but flaky player who produced moments of error almost as often as he did flashes of inspiration. Nuri Sahin was brought in on loan from Real Madrid to great excitement, but Rodgers mysteriously insisted on playing him behind the striker, a situation that suited neither the individual nor the team as a whole, and the Turk was quietly packed off back to Spain in the winter. Finally, there was Allen, the safety net capable of playing any role. As it turned out, he ended up filling in for Lucas as the latter fell victim to another injury.
As the season wore on, it became clear that Liverpool were lacking that organised centre of midfield that a Rodgers side thrives off. With Allen filling in for Lucas decently but not spectacularly, Gerrard playing well but still finding his feet in an unfamiliar role, and Henderson unable to pick up the creative shortfall, Liverpool’s strength most definitely was not their central midfielders. Up front, Luis Suarez made the most of somewhat limited service as he created and scored in equal measure, at times carrying the side near single-handedly, but Liverpool’s focus on ball retention did not mesh well with their weak midfield.
Undoubtedly the most important change to Liverpool’s midfield came in the January transfer window. Two signings were made: firstly Daniel Sturridge arrived to ease the burden on Suarez up front, and then attacking midfielder Philippe Coutinho made the switch from Internazionale. Both proved inspired signings, but the subtext was even more interesting than the players. Liverpool lacked a reliable player that could call the position behind the striker his natural position. With Gerrard moving deeper, Shelvey was the only option there, and he proved himself too frustratingly inconsistent to warrant a regular starting spot. Now, Liverpool had the option of either playing Suarez off Sturridge, or starting Coutinho behind Suarez.
This instantly gave Liverpool an extra dimension to their attacking play. After Coutinho joined the club, they would go on to lose only two more games for the rest of the season, and on occasion demolishing opposition like Rodgers’ old club Swansea 5-0 and Newcastle 0-6. The extra flair and structure afforded to the team by Coutinho and Sturridge’s arrivals both increased the side’s attacking potential and, interestingly, improved them defensively as well. With one or both in the side, the two central midfielders afford more energy to defending, safe in the knowledge they wouldn’t have to try and stimulate attacks through sheer weight of numbers in lieu of creative play.
Heading into the new season, Rodgers has a much better selection of players to choose from. Though Shelvey has departed, Liverpool now have the benefit of an entire season from their revamped midfield. The question that now must be asked by Rodgers and his coaching team is how to fit these players into the side in a way that best benefits the team.
Firstly, it looks likely to be a straight shootout between Joe Allen and Lucas Leiva for the defensive midfield spot. Assuming Rodgers retains his 4-2-3-1ish shape – which seems likely – both players will likely be competing for the spot of the deepest in the lopsided triangle.
The statistics from the 2012-13 season aren’t entirely surprising. Lucas’ defensive stats are across the board better than Allen’s, in some cases marginally – ground 50-50s and defensive errors – and in others drastic, with Lucas’ superior aerial game particularly evident. On the other hand, Allen is better with the ball at his feet, creating more chances and completing more dribbles whilst also posting a marginally higher pass completion %. All in all, these stats are more indicative of two different players than one player being better than the other. This is a big advantage to Rodgers, who can try fielding Allen against weaker sides, and Lucas against the big teams; providing, of course, the Brazilian remains fit this year.
This match up, on the other hand, is much more one-sided. Gerrard is clearly the better player, posting better figures in nearly every parameter, even when adjusted for minutes played. This is hardly surprising, and given his good form and health, it was never really in doubt that Gerrard would start. There’s no shame for Henderson in this situation, and he improved noticeably over the course of the last season. On top of that, he’s able to play on either wing, and his boundless energy and work rate would be useful for any manager. He will get his chances.
This last table of stats is one that needs to be taken with a grain of salt, given that Coutinho and Suarez played a drastically different number of minutes and mostly in two separate positions. However, given Sturridge’s emergence, Fabio Borini returning and the arrival of forwards Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto, it is possible Suarez and Coutinho could both be battling it out for the same spot. Now, whilst it’s unlikely Rodgers would leave either out, the one that makes the central attacking midfielder spot their own will have a knock-on effect on the rest of the team. If Coutinho plays, expect the two behind him to be more mobile, looking to switch positions with him and let him escape markers by coming deep, much like Allen did with Sigurdsson at Rodgers’ Swansea. If Suarez plays, however, expect the two to become more reserved with Suarez putting a more aggressive, attacking slant on the position and playing closer to the striker, interestingly more like Michu at Swansea last season.
What’s interesting to note is that Coutinho and Suarez’s shooting stats are relatively similar despite the discrepancy in goal number. Perhaps even more surprisingly, Suarez has a higher pass completion % than Coutinho, whereas the Brazilian has a higher dribble completion %. Whilst you would expect it to be the other way round, it makes sense on reflection, given Coutinho was looking for ambitious defence-splitting passes, whilst also having more time and space to get up to speed for a dribble than Suarez. The two are tied on assists, despite Coutinho having less than a third of Suarez’s game time, and the former wins out on both chances created and clear cut chances created when adjusted for minutes. Finally, Coutinho is also dispossessed marginally less than Suarez.
The first comparison wasn’t conclusive, the second most definitely was, but the third and arguably most important was the closest, and has plenty more to consider than meets the eye. One would presume Coutinho is a better bet for the attacking midfield position on the above evidence, but it’s not out of the question that Brendan Rodgers would shift him onto the wing anyway, given Suarez’s influence on the team’s attack. That, in turn, could have ramifications on the rest of the team. Gerrard, being a clearly superior player to Henderson, would likely start, but that in itself causes problems.
Since Gerrard is naturally more attacking than Henderson, he would venture higher up the pitch, and as mentioned earlier it would be more advantageous for the team for him to sit deeper, given there’s fewer opportunities to combine with the attacking midfielder and Suarez would be playing as a second striker anyway. Henderson would therefore be a better fit, but he is undoubtedly the poorest of the Liverpool midfielders (apart from the returning and surely outbound Jay Spearing). With that in mind, perhaps it would be better to play Joe Allen instead of Gerrard, but that again means that Liverpool’s captain and talisman is being left out.
[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="538"] An example of a lopsided 4-2-3-1 with Suarez in a narrow left-sided role with Coutinho in the centre[/caption]
All considered, it looks a much safer bet to play Coutinho in the centre, if only for the sake of team synergy. On the other hand, this could risk blunting Suarez’s attacking edge, and it’s debatable whether the advantage in team fluidity and structure is enough to overcome the deficit of moving the team’s key player on to the wing. Whatever happens, with this many options Liverpool’s midfield in the coming season looks set to give Brendan Rodgers more than one headache...
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