Liverpool maintained their excellent record against Bolton on Saturday, making it 10 wins from the last 11 fixtures. Thankfully the Reds were intent on making sure that there was no repeat of the Sunderland draw.
In my preview of the game; I highlighted three areas which I believed were crucial if Liverpool were to take the three points on offer.
- To Compete
My main focus here was on Kevin Davies; I believed that if Liverpool could compete with the physical presence of Davies, Bolton’s main attacking threat would be significantly negated. The chart below (from my preview article) highlighted Bolton’s reliance on Davies; it was clear from the data that Davies was the main focal point of Bolton’s attacking strategy, and the person they would rely on to gain a firm foothold in the game.
Liverpool dealt with the threat of Davies magnificently, in fact I would say it is one of the most ineffective games that I have seen Davies have. A quick snapshot of Davies’ stats illustrate just how little influence he had on the game.
Davies is very rarely substituted, and the fact that Coyle chose to withdraw him, after 71 minutes, is testament to the work of the Liverpool players who stifled Bolton’s use of him during the game (more about this later in the article). The snapshot of stats above speaks volumes for the Liverpool player’s work in disrupting Bolton’s usual pattern of play. Davies’ 25 received passes in his 71 minutes on the field, was his lowest total of received passes in any fixture this season and the whole of last season. His next lowest total, of passes received, was 29 against Fulham on 27/4/2011. In that game he was also substituted after 71 minutes, and Bolton were defeated 3-0.
The following player influence graphics, courtesy of FourFourTwo and Opta’s Stats Zone App, again serve to illustrate the lack of Davies’ influence against Liverpool compared to Bolton’s previous game against Man City.
I reported, in the preview, that Liverpool had won 55% of the aerial duels in the 2010-11 home fixture, and felt that they would need to win the majority again if they were to succeed in Saturday’s match. Thankfully they improved on last seasons result winning 60% of all the aerial duels in the game. I also felt that it would be Agger, and perhaps Enrique, that would be required to challenge/duel with Davies on the majority of occasions, as he tended to play on the left-sided centre back and move out towards Bolton’s right-wing. Watching Davies closely from my seat in the Kop, I was rather surprised that he actually drifted out towards the Bolton left-wing, and Liverpool’s right sided centre-back (Carragher) at the start of the game. I wondered whether this was going to be a deliberate tactic of Bolton’s who may have thought that Davies would have greater success against Carragher and Kelly, than Agger and Enrique. As the game wore on though, Davies took up his usual position on the left-sided centre back and his heatmap (see below) reflected those posted in my preview (perhaps the arrival of Skrtel at right-back also influenced Davies).
There is no doubt that Liverpool dealt with the aerial threat of Bolton (and Davies specifically) very effectively. I made the point that I believed Lucas would regularly drop back in front of Davies, in order to provide a screen, making it harder for him to win any aerial duels. This happened regularly and actually resulted in the Liverpool defenders being involved in fewer than expected aerial duels; Agger was the only member of the back four who was involved in an aerial duel. Instead it was Lucas who was involved in more aerial duels, winning 2/5.
Lucas’ success rate in his aerial duels may seem low however it is the fact that he was involved in so many that is the key (Davies only won 50% of his aerial duels). The fact that Lucas dropped deep, in front of Davies, allowed the likes of Carragher and Agger, in the main, to drop off and clear any flick-ons or secondary balls. This made Liverpool’s back four more solid, as the defenders rarely had to move out of the defensive line to challenge Davies. Lucas’ presence also prevented Davies from holding-up the ball, and resulted in him being involved in several possession duels. As noted earlier, Davies only won 25% of his possession duels highlighting the difficulty he faced, when receiving the ball, due to the lack of opportunity to control the ball without pressure.
The final two points in my preview related to the need for Liverpool to try and ensure that Knight distributed more balls to Davies than Cahill, and the need for Liverpool to commit as few fouls as possible (especially against Davies).
Despite the fact that it was not Carroll (as I previously thought would be) who was involved in ensuring that Cahill could not distribute the ball forward, my prediction that Liverpool would use this as a strategy did seem to be correct. In the game Cahill attempted less total passes than Knight (27v30), and he only played 1 long pass (which was unsuccessful). Knight played 6 long passes, 2 of which were successful however neither of the successful passes went to Davies.
In relation to fouls conceded, Liverpool only committed four fouls in the game (v 13 in last season’s fixture). None of the fouls conceded were on Davies and no fouls were conceded in the Bolton attacking third where they would pose an attacking threat from the set-piece.
There can be no doubt that Liverpool competed effectively in all areas against Bolton. Lucas led the way in this respect and delivered a performance that, in my opinion, bettered his performance against Chelsea at Anfield last season (and that was some performance).
2. Dominate the centre of midfield
In my preview of the game I demonstrated, with the help of an article by Tom Hewart on eplindex, how Man City had dominated the centre of midfield in their victory against Bolton. My argument was that by controlling the centre of midfield, it helped Man City get the likes of Silva, Aguero, Milner and Dzeko in possession frequently in the attacking third and I felt that this was something Liverpool could replicate. In addition, I pointed out that whilst some would argue that a defensive midfielder, like Lucas, would not be needed in a home fixture were the opposition would be likely to sit back, he would actually be vitally important in providing the foothold that would be crucial for Liverpool to dominate territory and possession. The table below illustrates the key stats for each of the central midfield players involved in Saturdays game (Muamba was replaced by Mark Davies after 26 minutes).
I mentioned earlier that I felt Lucas had bettered his performance against Chelsea at Anfield last season, and I believe the stats above support this belief further. The fact that Lucas made 64 passes, far more than any of the other central midfielders in the game ( and more than any other Liverpool player; and both Toure and Barry), serves to illustrate just how influential he was in the game.
There is no doubt that Lucas made so many passes due to, what I would describe as, his ‘destructive play’. By destructive play, I am simply referring to his constant ability during the game to disrupt Bolton, to harry/pressurise Bolton’s players out of possession and to make effective tackles and interceptions. The stats clearly back this up; Lucas was involved in 16 possession duels, again more than any of the other midfielders, winning 9 of them. He also made double the amount of tackles of any other midfield player in the game, winning 4 of the 6.
Away from the ‘destructive’ side of his game, Lucas also made more successful final third passes than Charlie Adam. This highlights the fact that he was not just simply breaking up the play; indeed in my opinion Lucas outshone his midfield colleague in general play (although Adam did manage to score a goal and provide an assist, which are both rather important stats!).
Some may look at the table above and feel that Liverpool did not dominate the centre of midfield as I suggested they needed to do. I would however disagree. Granted, Adam’s stats do not look hugely impressive and the stats would seem to suggest that Mark Davies has completely dominated the midfield area, however some context needs to be added here. Mark Davies recorded the most passes in the final third, however 9 of his 13 final third passes come after the 55th minute when Liverpool were already 3-0 in the lead. It is reasonable to suggest that Liverpool may have eased the pressure off Bolton once they had gone 3 goals in front, and were content to let Bolton have more of the ball. In my opinion Liverpool did dominate this area, and it provided the platform for them to dominate the attacking play in the game.
3. Have a ‘plan B’ if they are unable to get Suarez into the game
Before the game I did express a concern that Bolton may focus all their efforts on nullifying the threat of Suarez, and as a result Liverpool needed a ‘plan B’. My feeling was that Liverpool would need to get their full-backs forward as often as possible, hoping Eagles and Petrov would neglect their defensive duties, by allowing Henderson and Downing to move inside from their wide position.
As we all know, Suarez’s quality meant that Bolton were unable to keep him out of the game and he was a constant threat. Whilst my point about creating space for the full-backs to move forward into was not necessarily implemented by Liverpool, it was interesting to see that the wide players (mainly Downing) moved inside allowing Suarez to receive the ball on the wing or in the channel (this was highlighted by Lee Dixon in his MOTD analysis). The fact that Suarez was able to receive the ball out on the wing forced Cahill to move out of the centre, thus creating a significant amount of space in the centre of Bolton’s defence which Liverpool could exploit. The heatmaps below illustrate just how often Suarez and Cahill found themselves out in wide areas.
This tactic worked perfectly in the build up to Henderson’s first goal; Suarez’s outstanding pass with the outside of his foot found Downing who had exploited the space left by Cahill moving out to mark Suarez. Downing’s shot was excellently saved, however Liverpool had enough men committed to the attack to pick up the loose ball and create another goalscoring opportunity which was duly taken.
In my opinion this is a tactic which Liverpool will look to implement in future games. The quality of Suarez’s movement and the intelligence and versatility of Downing, Henderson and Kuyt is particularly suited to this strategy. I also feel that this tactic can be used successfully when Carroll and Suarez both start. If Suarez can drag one of the opposition centre-backs out of the central areas, it will leave Carroll one on one with the second opposition centre-back. This will make it far easier for Carroll to attack any crosses into the box, and I for one believe that it would be far easier for Carroll to score if he is only contending with one centre-back rather than two.
Whist it could be argued that no ‘plan B’ was needed, it was certainly not just the Suarez show in terms of attacking threat for Liverpool. One of the most positive signs this season, is the fact that Liverpool look as though they have several players capable of creating chances and scoring goals. Unlike previous seasons I do not think that there is any chance that I will hear someone in the media state that Liverpool are a one man, or two man, team!
Liverpool’s performance against Bolton on Saturday was far removed from the dark days of constant stalemates against lesser opposition at Anfield. The Reds looked dangerous throughout, and controlled the game at all times. They controlled the midfield, negated Bolton’s main attacking threat and whilst no ‘plan B’ was needed, it was evident that when Bolton attempted to close down one attacking threat another one was used. So far this season nobody can accuse Liverpool of being one dimensional!
As usual feel free to comment on the information contained in this article. Here is to hoping nobody suffers any injuries during the international fixtures!!
For future discussion/analysis?
I created the following data using tableau in the hope that it may serve to prompt some discussion or further analysis from readers/fellow writers. The following chart highlights passes received during the Bolton game by time-zone. You should be able to select specific time-zones and then hover the mouse arrow over players to bring up the total passes received by that player. The data from the Bolton game seems to highlight how Liverpool ensured that Downing and Henderson received plenty of the ball early in the game. It also seems to highlight that there was a significant loss of possession in minutes 21-30. This may have possibly been due to an unconscious relaxation following Henderson’s first goal. I intend to use the tableau software to track potential trends over a series of games, if people feel that the data is visually appealing. It has been used very effectively by Graham MacAree in a recent article in which he analysed Chelsea’s performance against Norwich.