On Sunday West Londoners Fulham hosted Liverpool at Craven Cottage in match of two halves – yup, that old cliche. Liverpool went down in the 33rd minute, but they wasted no time in equalizing through their superb January signing, Daniel Sturridge. Half-time tactical changes by Brendan Rodgers shored up Liverpool’s defense, and they began to catch Fulham again and again on the counter.
Sturridge in particular thrived in this match, earning his first premier league hat trick. With his 10th goal for Liverpool, Sturridge has now scored more goals in his first 13 appearances than any other Liverpool player in history.
Line-ups and Tactics
In the first half, Liverpool fielded something of an experimental formation. No doubt this is partially born out of necessity: Gerrard, Suarez, and Agger, a trio of regular starters, were all unavailable. As this left major gaps in defense, midfield, and attack, Rodgers then had room for younger squad members in Wisdom, Coates, and Shelvey to step into the side.
Fulham played their standard 4-4-1-1. Ruiz supported Berbatov in attack, while behind the two forward players were two typical banks of four in midfield and defense.
Overall, the match was even in terms of team statistics. Liverpool hardly edged possession at just 51.5%: a negligible margin. Both teams passed at 88% accuracy overall. Liverpool only had 5 more passes in the final third than Fulham (117 to 122) respectively. It really does not get more even that this.
But, the cutting difference is chance creation. Fulham came up short with just 5 chances at goal to Liverpool 13. While both teams were passing at similar rates, clearly the movement of Liverpool created more opportunities for scoring.
From the outset, the match a tremendous back-and-forth flow to it. Liverpool created a number of chances early on, but nothing came to fruition. After nearly every attack of the Reds’, Fulham found space to launch their own offensive effort.
Fulham pressed very high, and the midfield became a cluttered mess with many players in both jerseys vying for space. Liverpool’s younger players looked in danger of being caught out. Coates in particular ventured forward in dubious situations and looked culpable.
Berbatov’s opening goal was indicative of Liverpool’s disorder at the back. Berbatov somehow managed to slip between Coates and Carragher with no resistance to easily head home a cross. Coates looked to be marking the far post – an area where no Fulham player was to be found. Whether it was a lack of communication between Carragher and the Uruguayan or just a case of utterly clueless marking is debatable, but either way, Liverpool did not look comfortable playing with three centrebacks.
Rodgers’ 2nd Half Change
Rodgers responded to this disorganization by putting Enrique in for Wisdom, shifting Liverpool back to a familiar four at the back with two fullbacks. The shape looked something like this:
From the outset of the 2nd half, Liverpool looked like a changed side. Carragher and Coates both looked more comfortable in deeper roles as the two sole defenders. With the addition of another player on the left flank, Downing was allowed to push both higher and farther inward after switching to the right flank. It had something of a domino effect, as Coutinho was also able to find more space along the left side of the pitch. Space between Coutinho and Sturridge was reduced, and they were allowed to work in closer tandem.
This graph illustrates average player influence and positioning to contrast the 1st and 2nd half for Liverpool:
Carragher and Coates collapsed inward, shoring up the defense. Leiva was allowed a more central role in a less clustered midfield and his influence skyrocketed. Most crucial of all, perhaps, note the two pairings of Enrique/Shelvey along with Johnson/Downing. These two partnerships created overloads on the flanks that did not exist in the first half, opening up space in the center for Coutinho and Sturridge while Fulham’s defense was given width to worry about.
In this new shape, Coutinho came alive and fashioned 4 chances, inluding his magnificent assist for Sturridge:
The two second half goals were products of Liverpool’s positional changes, and the space those changes created. Both goals involved Coutinho finding space in the midfield. The first, in the 63rd minute, was the product of a deflected shot, but still involved Coutinho with enough room to dribble at the final third . The third goal, in the 85th minute, was a fabulous assist in which Coutinho had the time to play a through ball to Sturridge.
Overall, Sturridge was in top form. 71% of his shots were on target, and 43% of these shots were converted. To top it off, he averaged only 18 minutes between each shot on target.
Ultimately, a less cluttered midfield resulted in more time and more creative capacity. Sturridge was in fine form; it was just a matter of finding the time and space to create chances for the striker.
Karagounis as a Quick Transition for Fulham
Karahounis is something of a release valve for Fulham. When under dangerous pressure, the Greek has a fantastic long pass that alleviates danger and quickly turns a defensive phase into attack. He has the ability to significantly trim Fulham’s transitional phase and spark counter attacks.
In this match, Karagounis played 17 long balls, 11 of which were complete. This was is a highly impressive 65% success rate. Counted among his passes were also 14 penalty area entries. It is also interesting to note that his total tally of final third passes (20) matched that of Fulham’s most advanced player – Berbatov.
The Greek may well be past his physical peak, but he can still be a source of power for Fulham to use in matches they play on the counter.
Tactical Change Wins it for Liverpool
All in all, it was an astute change of shape that helped Liverpool gain more space in midfield. This ensured better service for Sturridge, who thrived when given the chance to finish. Fulham did not look limp or utterly out of the match, but the increase in space by Rodgers’ half-time change allowed Liverpool’s creative players to thrive.