The introduction of Daniel Sturridge has brought about tactical changes at Anfield that possibly offer a resounding solution to Liverpool’s defining tactical inefficiency that we have seen so much of this season. For the last two seasons (and more) at Anfield, Liverpool have consistently created chance after chance, only to leave fans frustrated and little to offer on the score sheet. Most people will tell you that the reason behind this was the inability of Liverpool’s players to finish and in some circumstances this may be true. However, there was always a much larger underlying tactical issue at the nucleus of the problem.
Liverpool are a team that now play with a slower build-up approach than most teams in the English Premier League and they are also a team that many teams employ a low-block against. These two factors make it difficult for Liverpool to counter-attack, since the opposition is already organised defensively. Here’s the problem – Liverpool have also been a team that have heavily relied on crossing over the last few years (see link at end of article) and have even signed players with this function as an objective in mind (Carroll, Downing…). Crossing is most effective when you have achieved a situation whereby you have a relatively high ratio of your players to opposition players inside the 18-yard box and the most likely occurrence of such a scenario is on the counter attack: to get in behind the opposition’s midfield and break. Of course crossing from the by-line still offers the opportunity for player movement to run onto the ball, but crossing from deep should be kept to a minimum without question when the opposition is well prepared and sitting deep.
In theory, a counter-attack can be coupled with crossing with high effect. Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur are two teams who excel with this method. Manchester United have also got players who can pick spaces within a compact organised defence too – which is why they are so successful (the combination of the two). A slow build-up team like Liverpool or (for theoretical perfection) Barcelona, will dictate play and attempt to find assists from within and around zone 14 (Zone 14 is simply the area in front of the opposition’s 18-yard box). The following two images are diagrams that illustrate the theory of build-up play and its relationship with attacking attitudes.
Liverpool have in many ways tried to ditch their crossing habit this season, however they have been victims of a lack of patience and/or players in advanced areas to succeed as a slow build-up team. The team would try to play centrally, but through impatience the full-backs and inside forwards would drift into wider areas and then attempt to cross into an opposition packed box. As a result of the drifting of these players, Liverpool’s attacks were often isolated and ineffective. Since Rodgers’ method seeks to control games, the execution of his methods have failed to achieve control despite winning the possession statistic. Instead, the opposition have controlled games despite not having the ball – the opposition force Liverpool wide and are happy to let Liverpool distribute possession slowly as this is when the opposition will rest (and save energy to hit back with the counter attack). Teams play against Liverpool knowing that if they can protect central areas in their own third and hit Liverpool on the counter attack that they stand a chance of winning.
The game against Aston Villa in December was a game where Liverpool created 29 attempts at goal and in combination attempted 37 open play crosses. I don’t need to remind you about the Aston Villa performance. The game against Norwich (January 2013), was game that still had it’s moments of impatience (often from full-backs) but consisted of only 13 open play crosses – many of which were from within the 18-yard box, on the counter-attack or from the by-line.
Liverpool’s issue has been that of struggling to find a formation (particularly in attack) that allows players to concentrate play (with options) in and around zone 14. Barcelona’s (and theoretically perfect) 3-4-3 formation [shown below] works well because of player personnel and attitudes towards patience, full backs and dribbling. In the Barcelona build-up the fullbacks and dribbling are used as ways to stretch the game and Barcelona tease the opposition out of position using either of these methods. It is clear that Liverpool for the first three months of the season used full-backs and the dribble as a way of trying to create goal scoring opportunities and relied on these two functions far more so than Barcelona do. Therefore Rodgers has had to find a positional solution that offers Liverpool freedom from crossing and freedom to concentrate play centrally with options (to avoid impatience).
Luis Suarez was originally employed in Leo Messi’s role (see Barcelona’s formation) of a false 9 to get Suarez on the ball as often as possible, however the problem is that this role is only effective (for the team’s play) if all things are in place. With the introduction of Sturridge, Rodgers has jumped at the opportunity to try something different tactically. Suarez now finds himself positioned in the number 10 role [see relevant images below] and Sturridge plays a much more advanced number 9 role, still allowing Suarez with the opportunity to pick up the ball and break forward, but now there are players in advanced positions to offer combination play in central and dangerous areas of the field. Therefore, it is easy to see how this new tactical solution offers Liverpool with options and takes them away from crossing as an attempted method of assist. Now, Rodgers will hope teams come to play against Liverpool and struggle to defend with ease in central areas.
So by signing Sturridge, Liverpool have bought so much more than a Premier League striker who has potential to succeed at the highest level, they’ve bought a new tactical solution; a solution that is Liverpool FC specific and isn’t an attempt to mimic what works for another club elsewhere. Each set of players will have their own unique player profile and it is the job of the manager to find the structure that fits into his philosophy.
The implementation process for Rodgers at Liverpool wasn’t just about finding players or educating players to play his way, it was about Rodgers developing as a manager himself and finding new positional systems that succeed at creating goal-scoring opportunities through having the ball, excel in the transitions and are difficult to break down in the defensive organisation.
No quote sums Rodgers’ approach up better than the words of the man himself:
[quote]“My template for everything is organisation. With the ball you have to know the movement patterns, the rotation, the fluidity and positioning of the team. Then there’s our defensive organisation…so if it is not going well we have a default mechanism which makes us hard to beat and we can pass our way into the game again. Rest with the ball. Then we’ll build again.”
(Rodgers, January 2012)[/quote]
Where reporters get the formation line-up wrong is by suggesting that Liverpool play 4-3-3. Liverpool don’t play 4-3-3 like Barcelona do at times (without the ball, turning into a 3-4-3 with the ball). Instead, Liverpool play 4-4-1-1 in a deep block, they play 4-2-3-1 in the high block and they play a variation of 3-4-3 in the attacking phase of ball circulation. The diagrams that illustrate this are attached below and are drawn up on the basis of the original tactic employed at Anfield against Norwich (January 2013) [note – numbers are to represent positions only].
N.B. All pitch images are created by Jed Davies and are not taken from any website.
Liverpool’s reliance of crossing in statistics: https://www.eplindex.com/16597/a-cross-to-bear-liverpools-crossing-addiction-in-2011-12.html
Proof that Zone 14 is the most likely zone on the field that assists occur: http://tikitakafootballcoaching.wordpress.com/2012/11/10/goals-analysis/
All other stats are taken from EPLIndex’s Stats Centre