[quote]“Marco [van Basten] has a new problem, Robben is injured for the first match against Italy and Babel isn’t available either. How would you solve this?”[/quote]
“Every disadvantage has it’s advantage. There’s a lot of things you can do now…the disadvantage is that Robben is injured. So you can start crying or put an inferior player in his Robben’s position, or you choose something else all together” said an idealistic and upbeat Johan Cruijff prior to the Netherlands’ Euro 2008 finals campaign, where they are drawn in the much covered ‘Group of Death’ that included Italy, France and Romania.
As it turned out, the Netherlands went with Kuyt on the right wing, a hard-working functional wide-midfielder who keeps the play relatively simple instead of Robben’s trickery and strength in the one vs. one scenarios. Sneijder played out on the left and allowed van Bronckhorst more freedom to drive on forward into space as Sneijder cut inside – Kuyt assisted the final goal, both Sneijder and van Bronckhorst scored, leaving Italy defeated against the Oranje for the first time in thirty years, their worst ever recorded Euro defeat.
“Every disadvantage has it’s advantage…you choose something else all together” says Johan Cruijff about losing the team’s star player.
Luis Suarez is under every circumstance, Liverpool’s star player and most Liverpool fans will agree that he has been the shining light during two seasons of below par performances. So what if Suarez really does leave this summer? The disadvantages are clear, Liverpool FC lose a player who is one of only a few in world football who can win games in the blink of an eye, against every grain. But what does it really mean? Will Liverpool adapt their present system? A system of play that has taken the best part of a year to finally arrive at?
Liverpool FC, since January, have played with two different variations of the same in-possession formation – one that includes both Sturridge and Suarez, the other has room for only one of the two (without the ball LFC have relied on a 4-2-3-1 higher up the field and often fallen into a 4-4-1-1 in deeper positions regardless of LFC’s attacking dynamics).
The defensive movement comes as a result of Stewart Downing dropping back into the right midfield position, the left sided central midfielder becoming the left midfielder, both full backs drop back and Lucas Leiva rejoins Steven Gerrard to form the central midfield duo.
Liverpool formation with only one of the two – 343 dynamics (in-possession)
Liverpool formation with both LS and DS – 343 dynamics (in-possession)
The juxtaposing positional systems highlight two problems. In the positional system that includes only one of the two players, it appears evident that the coverage of the pitch is at a disadvantage in one of two areas: out on the left forward area or in the core central area behind the striker (dependant on the positioning of the floating player and the centre forward). However, in the positional system that includes all three of Daniel Sturridge, Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho results in space being left for the opposition to exploit in central midfield.
The team’s dynamics need to benefit the team in attacking activities but they also need to account for the ease of which the players can fall back into their 4-2-3-1 and then the 4-4-1-1 formations when necessary. The basic principle of what makes a good defender is the defender asking himself “how much space must I defend?”; if the defender’s positioning is good enough, this should be as little as possible. However, the makings of a good defender require not just individual positioning but ‘team positioning’.
One problem Liverpool have been cursed with all season is related to this principle. It is a fundamental requirement for possession-based football teams to play with a high defensive line and the flip side of this requirement is that the space for the defensive line to defend becomes larger (behind the defensive line) the further up field they push on. To win the battle for this space, the defender must be both quicker and fitter than his opponent or possess a world class sense of when danger is about to occur (Jamie Carragher arguably was the latter given his lack of pace).
The problem discussed above is not directly impacted by the potential loss of Luis Suarez, but ask any season ticket holder at Anfield and they’ll be able to detail a number of occasions where Luis Suarez’s (often effective) dribble results in a loss of possession and the opposition can then counter attack quickly. That is to say that Luis Suarez has been at fault on a few occasions this season of not taking advantage of a situation where Liverpool outnumber the opponents in advanced areas and yet Luis Suarez has opted to go alone; should Luis Suarez have then lost the ball, the outnumbering benefits then switch to the opponents as they look to break beyond the Liverpool bodies.
The second issue relating to allowing the opposition more space (and therefore making it more difficult to defend) is the loss of a central midfielder to allow both Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge to play in their relevant positions. Since Sturridge has managed to find himself in a certain centre forward position and nothing else, Luis Suarez must take up a position in behind Sturridge. There is a general consensus that if Suarez was positioned on the left-wing, he’d be wasted with his direct dribbling approach. Therefore, with the dictatorship of Sturridge in the central forward position and Suarez playing behind him, Liverpool are left with a lack of width on the left flank. This space is accounted for in Brendan Rodgers’ dynamic tactical solution: any one of the pertinent three (Coutinho, Suarez and Sturridge) should look to take up the position on the left wing and fulfil the three roles of left wing, striker and the space in behind the striker; that is until Jose Enrique (the left-wing back) has caught up with play and takes over the space on the wide left position. However, while this dynamic movement may appear fluid and pleasing on the eye, you are left without a player who can fill the gap left in central midfield – it is this space that the opposition can then exploit on the counter attack.
All of this is to say that formation isn’t important, but space coverage is. However, no system of eleven players can perfectly cover each of the designated spaces on a football field. The following image looks at the spaces on a football field from an in-possession perspective and shows that only with twelve players could you cover all the necessary spaces. Two players are required in a central attacking area to provide passing options at the edge of the box (zone 14) where the most effective passing takes place for an assist.
Johan Cruyff approached this problem with his 4-3-3 formation with a diamond centrally (to offer a variety of passing options). Cruyff’s wide forwards would look to offer width and yet at the same time were expected to have the match insight to know when to drift inside and provide a central threat.
Cruyff altered this formation when he felt he possessed a truly ‘world class’ striker who was simply ‘too good’ not to play in an advanced central forward position. Typically this player has possessed the qualities of Marco Van Basten or alternatively that of a false 9 (Leo Messi). However, given the Premier Leagues fast-paced qualities, I argue that Cruyff’s theory has been reversed in this case. Only when you have a player who is truly world class as an attacking midfielder and capable of playing in the central forward role, can you play without a ‘limited’ central forward in the Premier League. The ‘limited’ central forward I am referring to is limited in terms of freedom in his positional movement rather than his technical ability. You simply cannot play without a striker in a league where so many goals are created from fast-paced counter attacks through central channels.
Therefore, Cruyff’s theoretically balanced and ‘perfect’ formation cannot apply to Liverpool FC in their quest of finding their own winning playing system. It is instead a question of whether you play with a inside-left winger or not (Liverpool FC’s own unique problem)?
To arrive at an analytical meaningful conclusion about which formation has performed better for Liverpool FC, I have decided to ignore score lines given the element of luck involved in scoring goals. It is often thought that over the long term, luck should regress and average out (defining long term in football however, is difficult). Therefore, the number of shots on target created and the number of shots on target conceded have been selected as a more solid foundation of which to build your long term ambitions upon. Shots on target is often regarded as a significant measure since research by UEFA suggests that one in every four shots on target results in goals and a shot on target is very much so an objective measure. A better way to analyse such a comparison would be to compare obvious and clear goal scoring opportunities, however since this a subjective measure, it would be very difficult to use as data.
We would expect Liverpool to create more shots on target with both Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge playing, given the attacking implications on the positional system and at the same time, given the theory, we should expect to see an increase in shots on target against for the same tactic (using both LS and DS).
The results do coincide with our defensive expectations and theory; Liverpool concede 18.5% more shots on target when playing both Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez in their accommodated system of play. In footballing terms, this is an extra shot on target conceded per game – an extra 25% chance of conceding a goal per game!
The results somewhat surprisingly however, show a marginal difference in shots on target created per game between the two tactics. In fact, Liverpool create 4.9% more shots on target in a system of play that includes only one of Sturridge or Suarez. This in football terms is an extra shot on target every two games (a 12.5% increase in the chance of a scoring goal per game).
Therefore, we can conclude that both theoretically and in practice, Liverpool are better when they play with more balance in the final third. There it is, as absurd as it’s sounds:
[quote]“Every disadvantage has it’s advantage.”[/quote]
Next Page: Breakdown of Statistics – Shots on Target for and against when Sturridge or Suarez have played.