Liverpool - Stoke | In-depth Tactical Preview

Liverpool - Stoke | In-depth Tactical Preview

Mihail Vladimirov, a writer for The Tomkins Times, guest writes for EPLIndex and provides a Tactical preview of the FA Cup match.

Liverpool head into this match two steps away from another cup final. If they pull it off, the parallels with Rafa’s first season in charge would be interesting. Liverpool could fail to get into the top four, but could take part in two Cup finals, winning at least one of them. Of course, Benitez won The Big One – but given that Liverpool weren’t even in Europe this season, a domestic cup double would be a very solid foundation on which the future can be built.

Opposition Formation and Style

We all know what to expect from Stoke – a formation close to 4-2-2-2, with two deep-lying, ball-winning midfielders; heavy reliance on the flanks to provide the attacking edge; and two strikers in the shape of a big target man and a more mobile, roaming partner alongside him.

Stoke are famous for their hard-working, if aggressive, style of play. They press heavily across the midfield and are a real danger from set pieces.

The style is build on keeping tight at the back before playing quick, long passes to the flanks and the forwards. They have a lot of “natural” width in the wide areas, even when Walters is on the wing rather than up front. Stoke like to expand the pitch as much as possible when they attack to secure space through the middle for their target-man. Here he should have fewer men around him and hopefully will be able to receive the ball and either shoot or feed his strike partner.

However, it should be noted that in the last league game at Anfield, Stoke played a 4-5-1 formation with Walters cutting in from the right and Etherington hugging the left touch-line. So while we should be aware of an element of tactical flexibility in terms of their formation, we shouldn’t expect their style to change too much – they will still press hard in the middle and look to get the ball deep and wide when they regain possession.

Key Strengths

It’s well-known that Stoke are solid in defence. They tend to defend with the “two banks of four” approach, suffocating the opposition by denying them any time or space. They sit very deep to stop opponents getting in behind and have a narrow back four to cut off the space in the channels. It is not unknown for them to play four players in defence who would normally be considered centre backs. They also like to stop teams playing in between the lines by having their midfield sit very deep too as a secondary defensive line.

Once the match is going their way, they tend to morph into what I like to call the “6-plus-2” defensive wall, especially this season with their four “centre backs”. In essence, this means that the back four play very narrow and compact, almost within touching distance within their own penalty area. To compensate, the wingers pull deep, almost as auxiliary full backs, creating a “back six”. The two deep-lying midfielders then shield this defensive line by playing just in front of them, pressing the opposition to disrupt their ball-retention process.

If the team is playing 4-5-1 (which morphs into a 4-1-4-1 in defence), the defensive approach is similar, but the maths is slightly different. The principle of this “6-plus-1” system is almost identical. The “back six” remains the same, but the deepest midfielder acts as an anchor man while the other two midfielders press the opposition. Although “6-plus-1” only equals 7, it’s actually even more defensive – the same eight players in the “6-plus-2” system smother the opposition, but this time with the added security of the anchor man. Perhaps a better term might be “6-plus-1-plus-2”. That’s 9, by the way…

Next Page: Key Weaknesses…

Key Weaknesses

Despite their obvious defensive strength, Stoke are vulnerable where in theory they should be strongest. When they drop deep to form their defensive walls they leave acres of space in front of them. This automatically invites the opposition to camp the majority of their players in Stoke’s half and pass the ball around to recycle possession. Once all the outfield players get forward (with, perhaps, the exception of the two centre backs), Stoke are vulnerable to any team that can get its players to constantly overlap and play with fluid movement.

If the opponents can get both their wingers and their full backs to push on down the flanks they will outnumber Stoke two-to-one in wide areas. That, in theory, will force them to either break up the narrow back four as the widest centre backs become full backs again (leaving space down the channels), or the central midfielders will have to drift out to the wings (leaving space between the lines).

On another note, as physically imposing as Stoke’s outfield players are and as good as they are in the air, they do lack a certain mobility. They will find it hard to change direction quickly, which is why they struggle when the opposition’s attackers constantly swap positions and move the ball around fluidly. Statistically, Stoke’s players are also more prone to conceding free kicks near their penalty area. This should mean that a good team can keep consistent pressure on them.

The previous matches

It is useful, from a tactical point of view, to look back on Liverpool’s recent meetings against Stoke so we can draw some conclusions about what works and what doesn’t.

Since Dalglish took over at Anfield he has met Stoke four times – three in the league and one in the League Cup. Last season in the league at home, Liverpool played 3-5-2. It wasn’t pretty, but the tactical set up was perfect. The team limited Stoke’s main strengths and provided them with a major problem with their fluid attacking setup. The lone striker (Kuyt), backed up with two roaming attackers(Gerrard and Meireles) just behind him, offensive wing backs, and two ball recyclers in the midfield had a solid enough foundation to break Stoke down twice.

Back in September the teams met again, this time at the Britannia, with Liverpool adopting a 4-4-2 with two “false nines” in Suarez and Kuyt up front. The team had enough fluidity to cause problems for City, but the team lacked enough attacking bodies in the centre of the park or down the wings. Lucas and Adam played as a destroyer-passer combo, so neither got forward to help the attack; and for all their qualities, both Downing and Henderson are more creators than they are finishers. The team failed to turn the creativity into a constant attacking presence. Although it does have to be said, the team created more than enough decent chances – as has been the case all season, they failed to finish them.

Then came the League Cup match, again in the Potteries. Liverpool went with a lopsided 4-4-2 with Henderson tucked inside as the right-most midfielder and Maxi Rodriguez in a more advanced role cutting inside from the left. This time Carroll partnered Suarez up top. The match didn’t produce much entertainment or goal-mouth action for Liverpool. But more importantly the team looked much more tactically balanced, and the result was that the team managed to overturn a one-goal deficit to win 2-1. Maxi and Carroll offered an attacking presence that they had lacked in the previous game, which freed up Suarez to roam and created in the space Stoke left in front of their wall. Henderson allowed Lucas and Spearing to hold onto the ball by offering another passing outlet, which meant that Stoke were subjected to wave after wave of attacks by a Liverpool team that dominated possession.

In the last match against Stoke, Dalglish again opted to play 3-5-2 at Anfield. Again, this combatted Stoke’s strengths, but Kuyt was supported by Downing and Henderson meaning the team lacked a pure attacking presence in the final third. This was even more of a problem because Pulis had decided to send his team out in a 4-5-1 formation. The “6-plus-1-plus-2” wall shut down the match, and it ended goalless.

Next Page: How to beat Stoke…

How to Beat Them

With all this in mind, there are some clear things that Liverpool need to do well if they are going to win the match.

The team needs to have solid central defenders who will be able to deal with the physicality of Stoke’s target man. Therefore it would probably be more logical to start with Coates rather than Carragher, especially as the Uruguayan has already played Stoke twice and should know what to expect. They will also need someone with a bit of mobility to cover the more nimble striker. Skrtel should provide this.

In midfield, the team needs to be able to hold onto the ball but also needs physical durability to withstand the pressure that Stoke will put on them. Finally, in attack Liverpool need fluid movement and a constant attacking presence; they need to be able to overlap their wide players and stretch Stoke’s stubborn defence so that they can secure the space in the middle (either between the lines or through the channels).

There are a few tactical variations which can offer this, in theory.

The lopsided 4-4-2. Seeing how well Liverpool played in the Merseyside Derby a few days ago, there are good reasons to play a similar style. One of the potential problems with this is that the asymmetry of the formation (with Henderson tucked inside) may reduce Liverpool’s ability to attack down both flanks and therefore stretch Stoke’s defence across the pitch. As we saw in the last cup game, however, this might not be too much of a problem, especially if Suarez recreates his tactical behaviour from the last match. He constantly pulled wide to receive the ball in the channels between Stoke’s defenders, stretching the opposition by constantly making the defence re-adjust to where Suarez was playing and where to mark him.

The other way to compensate for the narrow right-wing is for Gerrard to be given more freedom. Spearing and Henderson will be behind him and around him to cover, so he might as well aim his forward runs to the right half of the pitch. Effectively, when Liverpool have the ball he would swap positions with Henderson and deliver those famous through-ball-cum-cross passes from the wide areas. This is what he did against Brighton and, to an extent, against Newcastle. Also, if Kelly manages to reproduce his attacking display he can be another weapon on the right-wing (as much as Enrique would be down the left).

With Carroll up front and Gerrard pushing from deep, the team will have the direct and constant attacking presence they need. Carroll can come deep and play with his back to the goal, forcing Stoke’s defenders to leave their comfort zones and leave gaps to be exploited. Downing will complement this by hugging the touch-line and providing a wide option, although, as he showed against Everton, he is intelligent enough to come inside and mix up the play when required both on and off the ball. Henderson will tuck in and Suarez will constantly be roaming, providing the fluidity needed to cause Stoke no end of problems.

The “double false nines” approach. A 4-2-2-2 (or sort of 4-2-4) can provide enormous benefits too. Suarez and Kuyt will move around in the final third looking for space. If they divide their roles, one can be working the wings and the channels while the other drops deeper to stretch Stoke’s defence horizontally and vertically. The key, however, is to give them support by having people run beyond them down the flanks. Maxi coming in from the left and Bellamy coming in from the right looks like the most tactically balanced way to do that.

If we assume that Bellamy won’t be able to play, however (at the time of going to press there is no news on his injury) then Downing could be inverted on the right and Gerrard could push through the middle. The problem is that if Gerrard pushes forward too much he could expose Spearing on the break. Tactically this may not be an issue since Stoke tend to attack down the wings and do not offer a real threat in the centre of the park.

However, if both wingers are either tucked inside or “inverted” (i.e. playing on the side of their weaker foot so that they naturally come inside to drive at the goal) then it is imperative that both full backs get forward and overload Stoke’s wide areas. This is where Johnson will be missed, as he would be very useful in getting Stoke to open up space for the creative players in the middle.

The 4-3-3. Theoretically this is the least suitable framework of the three I have described. With one less forward, Stoke’s defensive wall may find it easier to suffocate Liverpool’s front three in the final third. However, there are options available which could work if Liverpool need to use it based on the players they have available or the preferences of the coaching staff.

First, if the front players are going to be outnumbered it is vital that they are as fluid as possible. They need a great deal of support from the midfielders. Suarez would roam up front, with Bellamy (or Maxi if the Welshman is unavailable) cutting in from the left and Kuyt sneaking in field from the right. They should be able to move in and out of each other and provide fluidity. This leaves the midfield. If we assume it will play in a triangle of “1-2” (i.e. a deeper midfielder behind two more-advanced players), then the most suitable setup will be Adam as the deep man and Henderson and Gerrard just in front of him. In theory these three men have enough ball-playing skills to move the ball around, hold onto possession and bypass Stoke’s closing down system. This will be made easier if Stoke only play with two central midfielders. By recycling possession they can drag Stoke out of their compact lines and play the right pass to the forwards.

It will be important, once the team has got forward as a unit into Stoke’s half, for Henderson and Gerrard to push on and give Liverpool more bodies in attacking positions. This will stretch Stoke vertically, while the full backs will do the same horizontally.


It’s not just the starting eleven and formation that matters. Liverpool need to be able to adapt during the game, too, especially if their initial plans don’t work as intended.

No matter which of these three approaches the management use (or, of course, if they chose something completely different), they need to make sure the motivation is there and that the team is tactically balanced. If they do so, there is no reason why they shouldn’t be one step closer to their second cup final of the season.