When Brendan Rodgers came into the Anfield dugout fans were expecting Liverpool to play with a very distinct style, a possession based style. Rodgers himself promised as much, talking about how controlling a game by using the ball wisely was the best way to win.
[quote]“If you are better than your opponent with the ball you have a 79% chance of winning the game.”[/quote]
[quote]“Our idea is to pass teams to a standstill so they can no longer come after you. Eventually you wear them down.”[/quote]
Those quotes above basically sum up what people thought Rodgers would bring to Liverpool. The ball would be everything, of course possession would be an offensive weapon, but also a defensive weapon. Teams cannot hurt you without the ball, and teams can only score with the ball.
With just a couple of months left until the end of the season fans have mostly seen what they were promised. Liverpool’s average possession in a game is the sixth best in Europe and the third best in the Premiership at 57.8%. The Reds have certainly showed adeptness at keeping the ball, but fans are also noticing that the side seem to be more dangerous when they play slightly more directly.
[table id=206 /]
As the table above shows, Liverpool are a more efficient team when playing without the ball. Thinking back over the season many of their best displays, the stunning Suarez goal against Newcastle, or even the resilience against Spurs came when Liverpool didn’t dominate the ball. The Reds are far more potent, scoring more on less shots and conceding only slightly more, when they let the opposition advance a little.
It’s an extension of the same principle Barcelona have tried to apply this season. If one side monopolizes the ball the other side gives up on trying to win it back, forcing the aggressor’s players deep into enemy territory to break down a packed defense. If a move breaks down the dominant side is very vulnerable to swift counters. Letting the other side have the ball can draw them out and open gaps, because they have to do something with it.
What further intrigues is that Liverpool mainly employ this tactic against good possession sides. Of the six games where Liverpool did not boss possession, two were against Wigan, and one each against Spurs, Manchester City, and Arsenal (away). Liverpool lost none of those games and were never held scoreless. Basically, when meeting other sides who want the ball and are prepared to press to win it back, Liverpool will drop off, choosing their moments to press slightly more carefully.
Examining the players at Liverpool’s disposal further shows why they’re useful on the break. Luis Suarez is best when given space to work with. The Uruguayan has taken the most shots in the Premiership and has won the ninth most fouls, however his final third passing accuracy is only 72%. The stats paint the picture of a man who works best with space in front of him, roaming into pockets and isolating defenders. If the entire opposition is defending narrow on the edge of their own box then it’s difficult to take one central defender and roll him, or nutmeg a marker and enjoy a run on goal. Suarez’s foul stats back up the eye’s assertion that he’s a tricky player, and those are most dangerous when the opposition are panicking, perhaps after their own offensive move has broken down.
What does this mean for Liverpool? Should the entire possession model be thrown away? After all the side has looked best against strong opposition with clever passes and direct play. But perhaps it’s too soon to ditch the tiki-taka entirely. What possession does is relieve pressure, and kill off games. This season Liverpool have been the ultimate front runners, if they score early, then they score often and they hardly give the opposition a sniff. Despite having a far poorer defensive record than last season the Merseyside outfit have already kept 11 clean sheets (38% of games). In those games Liverpool on average score 2.64 goals. Witness the drubbings of QPR or Fulham to see how the plan works.
While giving the opposition a little of the ball may help create an initial advantage, possession helps solidify and extend that advantage by tiring the opposition that now has to chase the game. In the end what it all points to is that Liverpool are proving themselves flexible and adaptable, which can only be a good thing.
[box_light]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.[/box_light]