Liverpool take on Bolton, in the late kick-off, on Saturday with Reds fans hoping for another three points. In previous years Liverpool have struggled against so called ‘lesser opposition’ at home, most memorably in the 2008-09 season, where it could be argued that the seven draws at home cost Liverpool their first league title in 19 years (see below).
Those draws came against Stoke (0-0), Fulham (0-0), West Ham (0-0), Hull City (2-2), Everton (1-1), Man City (1-1) and Arsenal (4-4).
I’ve heard many a Liverpool fan say “we can beat the best teams but struggle against lower league teams”; I’ve also sat an watched many a game inside Anfield where the opposition have camped 11 men behind the ball (parked the bus as Jose would say), and Liverpool have been unable to produce the incisive play necessary to create clear goalscoring opportunities.
Despite what I had previously thought, Bolton have not been one of these problematic teams! In fact in recent seasons The Reds have certainly had the Indian sign over their Lancashire rivals, although those who remember last season’s victory at Anfield will no doubt recall that the last minute winner was somewhat questionable.
Liverpool V Bolton (Head to Head – Past 5 Seasons)
Clearly the fact that Liverpool have won their last five home fixtures with the Trotters, indicates that the tactical gameplan/approach has worked effectively. With that being the case, what can we, or should we, expect from Dalglish’s team on Saturday to prevent a draw or worse?
- To Compete
It goes without saying that you have to compete in any game in the EPL if you want to have a chance of achieving a positive result. I would argue though that the need to compete is even more prevalent against teams such as Bolton. There is no doubt that Bolton, under Owen Coyle, are less direct than when managed by Sam Allardyce, however the Reds can still expect to be required to deal with numerous long balls targeting Kevin Davies in particular (Bolton should play to their player’s strengths after all).
The chart below highlights Bolton’s reliance on Kevin Davies, in their last five league games, and their away fixture with Liverpool last season. Davies has received the most passes out of any of Bolton’s players in each of these games (It OptaJoe would have tweeted this stat I’m sure he would have ended it with ‘targetman’!).
The passes into Davies are generally from one of the Bolton centre-backs or one of the full-backs, therefore they are usually long passes in the air as shown below with the help of Opta and FourFourTwo’s Stats Zone App (games against QPR and Man City respectively).
Liverpool must ensure that they are able to successfully compete for these type of passes, and also prevent the Bolton wingers, or Klasnic, from picking up any second balls. In the fixture last year Liverpool managed to win 55% of the aerial duals in the match; it is essential that they win the majority again on Saturday.
Davies likes to match himself up against the left centre-back and at times moves out towards the opposition team’s left-back. This is illustrated by his heatmaps below, again from Bolton’s first two games of the current season.
If he repeats this pattern it is likely that the majority of his aerial duels will be against Agger or Enrique. It is vital that these two players are able to compete effectively, and also highlights the value of Liverpool’s physically large back four. If either of the full-backs were small in stature I would expect Davies to attempt to match himself up against that specific player; fortunately on Saturday it will be impossible for him to do this. So far this season Agger has won 80% of his aerial duels (8/10) and Enrique has won 66% (2/3), this is possibly the first time that they will be properly tested but they have not been found wanting in the first two games.
I would also expect to see Lucas, or at times Adam, drop back in front of Davies to provide a screen and make it harder for him to win the likely aerial duel. This can obviously only be done when it is clear that the ball is going to be played long toward Davies (for example if the goalkeeper is distributing the ball or if there is a free-kick in Bolton’s half). I would also suggest that one of Liverpool’s strategies should be to force Zat Knight to distribute the ball rather than Gary Cahill (clearly Andy Carroll will have a big part to play in ensuring that this happens). I am sure that we would all agree that Cahill is a far better distributor of the ball than Knight; the stats against Man City prove this beyond doubt. Against City, Knight’s pass completion was 58% with only 1/5 long passes successful. Cahill’s pass completion was 83%, with 2/4 successful long passes.
It is also vitally important that, whilst competing effectively, Liverpool do not concede unnecessary free-kicks. Bolton are always going to be a threat from set-plays, especially so from the areas that Davies is likely to frequent (see heatmap). In last season’s fixture Liverpool committed 13 fouls. Two were in areas in which Davies is likely to frequent (Left-hand side of the penalty area), unfortunately Bolton’s goal came from one of these fouls and it was Davies himself who was fouled.
There is no doubt that there will be other key areas where Liverpool must compete with Bolton on Saturday, but the battle with Kevin Davies is, in my opinion, key to stopping Bolton asserting themselves in the game.
2. Dominate the centre of midfield
I highlighted the fact that Liverpool needed to dominate the midfield against Arsenal last week, and I believe that it remains a key area in Saturdays game. Many people would perhaps argue that Lucas is not needed in a home game, against a team that a likely to take a conservative approach. I can certainly see the thinking behind such an argument, replacing a more defensive holding midfielder with a more attacking player, however I do not agree that it would be the best option on Saturday.
Lucas can help to provide the foothold that is required for Liverpool to dominate territory and possession against Bolton. The fact that he will, more often than not, remain in that holding position, will allow the likes of Adam, Downing, Henderson or Kuyt to push further forward into the attacking third were they can hopefully create chances. Lucas’s presence should also facilitate the use of both full-backs as attacking options which again, in my opinion, is key when playing teams that sit-back against Liverpool at Anfield.
The stats below are taken from a Bolton article on eplindex.com, by Tom Hewart, and highlight how Man City’s Toure and Barry dominated Muamba and Reo-Coker in last weekend’s fixture between the two sides.
I believe that the performance of Toure and Barry provided the foothold for the likes of Silva, Milner and Aguero to create chances against Bolton. In addition, both of Man City’s full backs created a chance each against Bolton, and Kolarov had two attempts, reinforcing my earlier point about the need for Liverpool’s full-backs to be able to get forward regularly during the game which is facilitated by having a deep lying central midfielder. Yes the match may have finished as a close 3-2 victory for Man City, but they actually had 18 attempts on goal to Bolton’s 7 (and there were a couple of glaring misses). If Adam and Lucas can return the sort of stats displayed above, and there is certainly no reason to believe that they can’t based on last week’s performance, I am immensely confident that Liverpool will dominate, and win, the game.
3. Have a ‘plan B’ if they are unable to get Suarez into the game
We all know how dangerous Suarez is, and of course so do all the other Premier League teams and managers. In my opinion Bolton will be working extremely hard this week to attempt to nullify Liverpool’s use of Suarez (I happen to think he will play from the start despite starting against Exeter yesterday). Bolton attempted to do this against Man City last week, ensuring that Reo-Coker and Muamba dropped very deep to prevent Silva and Aguero from receiving possession ‘between the lines’.
Liverpool can expect to face the same tactic and therefore they must be ready to seek alternative attacking options when necessary. This, in my view, is one of the strengths that Liverpool have this season which was missing in previous campaigns; we do now have attacking threats in a range of different positions.
I briefly mentioned earlier in the article that the full-back positions could be crucial for Liverpool in this game. If Liverpool are finding it difficult to get Suarez into positions where he can cause problems, I think the full-back positions will be key. Against Arsenal I noticed that Henderson, Kuyt and Downing, when starting in wide positions, would often drift inside. This encouraged Enrique and Kelly to move in Arsenal’s attacking half, and final third, on numerous occasions. Enrique attempted 14 passes in the Arsenal final third whilst Kelly attempted 22; their combined total of 36 was 16 higher than the Arsenal full-back’s total passes. This, in my view, was clearly an area Liverpool wished to exploit as they felt that Arshavin and Walcott would perhaps neglect some of their defensive duties. Against Bolton, Liverpool can, and should, employ a similar strategy. Bolton are likely to line-up with Petrov on the left and Eagles on the right, two players who I think can be exploited defensively. There is also an argument that if they are frequently engaged defensively, their attacking qualities are negated (something that one Mr Theo Walcott may attest to). It will also be harder for Bolton to then find Davies, and Klasnic, in more advanced positions.
If we look at our first home game of the season against Sunderland, it is noticeable that both Liverpool full-backs possession in attacking areas dropped in the second half (see heatmaps below). This was at the time when Suarez was beginning to struggle physically, and having less impact on the game. In my opinion Liverpool should have attempted to get both full-backs on the ball in more advanced areas when the impact of Suarez dwindled, they were unable to do this and we all know what happened in the second half!
Both heatmaps clearly illustrate that Liverpool’s full-backs were less effective as attacking options from the first-half to the second-half, against Sunderland. Add this to a less effective Suarez and it is no wonder that Liverpool started to lose momentum in the game. I am sure that this will be something that has been noticed by the Liverpool management; in fact to some extent you could argue that it already has, illustrated by Kelly replacing Flanagan for the Arsenal game.
Without doubt there are other areas that Liverpool could choose to target should a ‘plan B’ be required. I do think we will see a big performance by Andy Carroll which will, quieten a few individuals, for example.
In my opinion if Liverpool can carry out aspects of the three points addressed in this article, it will be the Reds who will collect another three points on Saturday. There is one other thing that is for certain, and that is the fact that Liverpool must ensure that they remain patient and do not get dragged into a stop-start game which becomes a bit of a battle. It is easy to do this when there is so much need to contest every ball, and it can also sometimes be an easy option, to become a bit direct, when Carroll is playing (something which often makes Carroll look poor).
Once again feel free to offer alternative views and opinions; I am certainly hoping that there is no return to the dreaded draws of the 2008-09 season.