Liverpool took a bold step closer to the Premier League title with another arse-clenching, scrappy yet stylish victory.
Norwich welcomed them with the very real possibility of relegation hanging over their heads, and three points the desperate objective. Liverpool came without the luxury of Daniel Sturridge and Jordan Henderson in the starting line-up, forcing Brendan Rodgers to adapt.
Neil Adams went with his diamond formation to combat Liverpool’s threat of midfield dominance and particularly to shut out the early onslaught they would be sure to receive from the Reds. Snodgrass played at the tip of the diamond instead of wide, and Nathan Redmond joined Gary Hooper up front as they looked to work the channels and occupy the back four.
It seemed like a logical strategy, keeping two strikers up to remain positive, retain an attacking threat, but also remain compact in the middle and try to prevent Liverpool from playing between the lines.
It seems like Brendan Rodgers was two steps ahead in this scenario, and in anticipation of facing the diamond, he went with something different which he hasn’t used yet this season.
It was a christmas tree formation, with Sterling and Coutinho playing centrally behind Suarez – it was almost like having two number tens dovetailing behind and beyond the striker. The back eight players were working the same system as used previously with the diamond and carrying out the same roles and responsibilities, however Lucas and Joe Allen came into the midfield to sit either side of Steven Gerrard and protect the back four.
The highlighted yellow and blue zones represent what this formation took away from Liverpool, and that is natural width. When Norwich had the ball it was crucial for Lucas and Allen to track out into the wide areas, and for Coutinho and Sterling to do the same.
Offensively, Coutinho and Sterling varied their movements. Sometimes one would drift out to the touchline to receive, similar to how Coutinho did for the Sterling goal and Sterling did for the Suarez goal. Alternatively they would float around the middle of the pitch ahead of the Norwich back four but behind their midfield.
The image above briefly highlights three key elements about the system Rodgers started with:
1. The back four which turns into a back three when Liverpool have possession. Look at how high up Johnson is and the positions of Skrtel and Sakho, and you see that with the ball, Gerrard becomes a defender, and Johnson and Flanagan become attackers.
2. The protective midfield three to screen and tighten up the middle. Lucas (6) and Allen (10) made the most successful tackles on the pitch, nobody else got more than 5.
3. Coutinho and Sterling floating behind Suarez. This gave Norwich big problems, as two of the most dangerous players on the pitch were given an almost free-role, which made them very difficult to track. Sterling showed his intelligence time and again by eluding his markers and picking up in space. Even when he was closed down, he was so strong it was impossible to get the ball off him.
As mentioned by Rodgers in the post-match interviews, he had to adapt yet again during play when Norwich switched to 4-2-3-1, presumably to try and exploit Liverpool’s lack of width. Snodgrass moved out to the right, Redmond left, while Howson supported Hooper through the middle ahead of Leroy Fer and Bradley Johnson.
For the remainder of the first half Liverpool had to tighten up the wide areas as Norwich offered a persistent threat in these zones. Sterling or Coutinho would drop with the midfield and form a diamond in the same way we see here:
The other can maintain an attacking threat and get closer to Suarez.
When it came to the second half and Norwich had scored, continuing to threaten and push for another, Rodgers decided to control the sides by switching to 4-3-3 and moving Sterling to the right and Coutinho left.
Liverpool were able to get the third via counter-attack, but never looked safe as the second half progressed. Despite this they were able to rally together to keep City out, and scrape their way to a crucial three points.
As the statistics show, the Norwich threat came from the wide areas, and they swung in 30 crosses in total (compared to Liverpool’s 2). However Liverpool won 55% of their aerial duels and competed well in this respect, and also won 67% of the ground duels, which can be attributed to the presence of Lucas and Allen ahead of Gerrard.
The pair suited this fixture down to the ground, and it has to be said that Joe Allen is regarded nowhere near highly enough as a ball winning midfielder. His ability to intercept and control the flow of the oppositions play, as well as Liverpool’s when they have possession continues to go unnoticed. Brendan Rodgers on the other hand, would probably have started him for this fixture regardless, as he has been a key factor in Liverpool’s away victories.
Another hint at the nature of the game comes in the bottom row, with Liverpool making 53 clearances. The final moments of the game were particularly frantic, with the ball persistently being hoofed anywhere – perhaps a sign of Liverpool’s current mindset so close to the finish line.
So Liverpool are now 270 minutes and 7 points away from their first league title in 24 years. They still have a long way to go, with Jose Mourinho coming to Anfield on a mission to cause an upset. He has come out in the media and put extreme pressure on Premier League referees to not give decisions against Chelsea, and this will be truly put to the test at Liverpool, who aggressively force each team they come up against to make rash challenges in the box.
As for the rise in stock of Brendan Rodgers, he has demonstrated all season that he can make crucial tactical decisions before and during games. It is incredible to remember that there were people out there who accused him of being tactically inept last year, and based their opinions on the league table, as opposed to what is laid out in front of their eyes.
There is absolutely no doubt that Liverpool will continue to thrive under Rodgers, regardless of how this season ends. However this remains an opportunity which may never present itself again in such unexpected circumstances.
Rodgers has decisions to make ahead of Sunday’s clash at Anfield. Not necessarily regarding the starting line up, which will pretty much write itself, however the formation and chosen system could be anything from the 4-3-3 to the diamond or the christmas tree. With Chelsea’s powerful midfield, Rodgers is likely to compact this area and go with the diamond – Sterling at the top, with Allen and Coutinho either side of Gerrard for some fierce pressing and a high tempo start.
Much of this however, will hinge on the fitness of Daniel Sturridge against his old club, and this much awaited renewal of the Chelsea rivalry now holds huge significance compared to pre-season imaginations. Once again, the winner will probably lift the trophy.