Liverpool V Stoke | The acid test?

Liverpool V Stoke | The acid test?

The term ‘acid test’ originates from the Californian Gold Rush in the second half of the 19th century.  Dealers needed to be able to distinguish gold from base metal, and therefore subjected their finds to the ‘acid test’ as gold does not react to most acids.

Many LFC fans are convinced that Kenny Dalglish has struck gold this year with some excellent signings during the transfer window (and earlier of course).  Yes there was a sluggish start against Sunderland, but recent performances against Arsenal and Bolton have reignited supporters’ views that the Reds can make a positive challenge for the Premier League title.  In my opinion though the game against Stoke at the Britannia Stadium will be the “ACID TEST”.

Since returning to the premier league in 2008-09, Stoke have developed a reputation for being difficult to beat when playing at home.  Based on home results only Stoke would have finished in 8th place in 2008-09, 13th in 2009-10 and 8th in 2010-11 (Stats courtesy of statto.com).  Their record is very similar each year, with last season providing their best return, despite perhaps somewhat surprising defeats against Blackpool and Wigan.

As we will no doubt be aware, Liverpool’s record at the Britannia is rather dismal.  In 2008-09 LFC could only manage a 0-0 draw (LFC would have been six points clear at the top if they had won); 2009-10 saw Liverpool leave with another draw as the game finished 1-1; finally 2010-11 saw the Reds leave with no points after falling to a 2-0 defeat.  Certainly not a happy hunting ground!

I, for one, have never been confident of a Liverpool victory away against Stoke.  I felt that Rafa would approach the game incorrectly, relying far too much on a counter-attacking style which simply resulted in Liverpool defending on the edge of their box and being unable to get sufficient numbers forward to support the lone striker (despite dominating possession).  I also never felt confident when Hodgson took Liverpool to the Britannia, but then again who did feel confident when Liverpool played away under Hodgson?

This is why I believe that Saturday’s game will act as an ‘acid test’.  If Kenny can get the team selection and strategy correct; and secure a first win for the Reds in 4 seasons it will raise a few eyebrows, and perhaps send a message to our main rivals.    All teams struggle against Stoke’s brash, energetic approach and their very effective style of play (which is wrongly criticised in my opinion).

I watched their opening home game of the season V Chelsea and was hugely impressed at their energy, and how well they pressed the ball (especially in the first half).  In that game Stoke made 32 attempted tackles; the highest on the opening day of the EPL (Norwich were second with 24).  They also made 24 interceptions, which was only second to Aston Villa with 25, demonstrating the fact that they in no way allow teams to settle and play their normal game.  If Liverpool can dominate the game and record a convincing win, something that teams rarely do at the Britannia, it will give the team a huge boost of confidence.  Can they do this?  I believe they can…the question is how?

  1. Hold a higher defensive line

As we know Stoke play a direct game in which they target their front men early and frequently.  They hope that this tactic will enable them to pick the ball up in the attacking third (especially Pennant and Etherington), and also allow them to win throw-ins (for Delap to exploit) and corners (for pretty much their whole team to exploit).  They aren’t though just a team who only play long passes.

The other advantage of this directness, is that it forces defensive lines far deeper.  Even if the majority of Stoke’s direct passes into their front two are inaccurate, it is difficult for the other team to keep possession, or advance into Stoke’s half, because they have so many men back behind the ball and play is congested.

The congestion usually leads to Stoke’s opponents losing the ball attempting to pass out of their half (allowing Stoke to regain possession in advanced areas of the pitch), or in their opponent playing a long ball forward to what is usually a lone striker (something which Stoke’s centre-backs are more than capable of dealing with). Liverpool must certainly not fall into the long ball forward trap, especially if Andy Carroll is playing where the temptation may be all the more greater.  This all serves to give Stoke an early platform to build from in the game; increasing the decibels from the Stoke supporters and making it difficult for their opponent to establish their own attacking strategy in the game.  To put it simply they stop their opponents from playing.

In last season’s fixture it is evident that Stoke successfully carried out this strategy against Liverpool, as demonstrated by the following statistical summary.

In my opinion the stats above support the fact that Stoke forced Liverpool deep, and controlled territory.  Possession may have been 60% v 40% in Liverpool’s favour, but when you add some context, relating to where the possession was on the field, this advantage is worthless.  20 losses of possession v 7 shows just how hugely difficult Liverpool found it to retain control of the ball.  The following Guardian Chalkboards compare Stoke’s passes in the opening 10 minutes against Liverpool’s, and once again highlights how Stoke forced Liverpool deep and stopped them from playing successful passes in the Stoke half.  Look closely because if you took the names off each picture you would be convinced that the graphic shows Liverpool’s passes at the top and Stoke’s at the bottom!

The chalkboard illustrates how well Stoke started the game, virtually restricting Liverpool’s passes to their own half.  What’s more virtually all of Stoke’s successful passes are in Liverpool’s half, suggesting that they regained possession, on the majority occasions, in Liverpool’s half.  Heatmaps for minutes 11-20 also tell a similar tale; Liverpool may have had more possession but were still unable to gain a significant territorial advantage, and had no success in getting players in possession of the ball in central attacking areas.

So back to my original point…Liverpool must not defend deep.  If they are to prevent Stoke from doing what has been discussed above, they must hold a higher defensive line.  In some ways they must play Stoke at their own game, and force Stoke deeper into their own half. There are no real concerns over the pace of Stoke’s centre forwards, and I would be confident in Enrique and Flanagan/Skrtel (presuming Johnson and Kelly are still injured) being able to deal with any passes in-behind for Pennant or Etherington.  If Stoke are forced to attempt passes in-behind, it will make them far less dangerous in my opinion.  Reina is certainly very good at acting as a sweeper for passes over the top, and attempting to get on the end of through balls is not Jones’, Crouch’s or Walters’ natural game (perhaps the only striker it would suit is Jerome who is least likely to start).

If the back four are to have a chance of holding a higher defensive line, they must receive help from other areas.

2. Press high up the pitch (‘ala’ Barcelona)

Liverpool must try to ‘suffocate’ Stoke in their own half.  Rather than attempting to defend deep and then hit Stoke with a box to box counter attack, Liverpool must take an alternative approach and press Stoke back.  This will of course lead to congestion in Stoke’s half, and may perhaps replicate what many fans see at Anfield when Liverpool play a team lower in the table (Liverpool in possession trying break down a 9 man defence who are camped on the edge of their box).  Despite this, Liverpool must be confident in their ability to retain possession in tight areas and use clever movement to create openings.  I am certainly not saying that they will be as effective as Barcelona are at doing this (who is?), but they certainly have players, of sufficient quality, who can do this effectively against Stoke.

Pressing high up the pitch could be viewed as a risky strategy (especially away from home), but if it is well thought out, and organised, it will work and will allow Liverpool to hold a higher defensive line.  One train of thought regarding Barcelona’s ability to press high up the pitch, is that due to the fact that they play so many short passes they are always in position to press once possession is lost.  Against Stoke especially, there would seem little point in playing a significant amount of long passes (although the stats table earlier in the article, shows that Liverpool did play more long passes than Stoke in last season’s game).  A feature of Liverpool’s play this season has been how well they have passed and moved, generally using short passes to create opportunities.  They also arguably have better passers in the side, who are more likely to retain possession (Adam for example). The following table highlights how significant the lack of short passing was against Stoke in last season’s fixture.

If Liverpool can continue to repeat their short passing statistics from this season against Stoke, it should ensure that they secure a territorial advantage and are able to improve their final third passing statistics from last season (whilst helping them press more effectively to win the ball back when possession is lost).

The versatility of Liverpool’s players, and attacking strategy, should also help to overcome the likely congestion, in the Stoke half, which will result if Liverpool press high.  We all know about the quality of Suarez’s movement in the attacking third (something I have fairly consistently mentioned in previous articles); and again I would expect to see him attempt to drag one of the Stoke centre-backs out of the central areas of the pitch to wide areas.  Thus creating space centrally for others to exploit. The versatility does not just come from Suarez however!  Downing, Henderson and Kuyt are all able to interchange positionally during a game (you could also add Bellamy to the mix here), and our full-backs all seem very comfortable when provided with a license to get forward.

The following heatmaps courtesy of ESPN’s scorecast, illustrate how our front four players drifted into different areas of the pitch, in our last game, against Bolton. Clearly there was far more movement from Kuyt and Suarez, followed by Henderson who also drifted inside fairly regularly.  It seems that Downing was the least likely to spend time ‘out of position’, however we know that he drifted inside and was involved in the creation of the first goal.  I have no doubt that Downing can change positions more frequently and for longer periods if required, his effectiveness on the right was demonstrated for England’s goal against Wales on Tuesday.

One of Barcelona’s strengths, and the reason that they can break down opponents, is the fact that their tactics are so flexible.  Liverpool have some of that flexibility this season; they are able to switch between 4-4-2, 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 with relative ease.  It is my opinion that this again points to the fact that a pressing strategy will be successful, as they should be less concerned about their lack of ability to break Stoke down.

If Liverpool can press higher up the pitch in Saturday’s game, I would also expect them to attempt more crosses from the byline.  In last season’s fixture with Stoke, Liverpool attempted 17 crosses (6 more than Stoke).  Only 2 of these crosses were successful, and there was only one cross from the byline.  I expect Liverpool’s short passing (discussed earlier) to enable them to create more opportunities to cross the ball from the byline.

Stoke will be very very happy if Liverpool are crossing from deep positions, where the cross is lofted and lacks pace.  Even if Carroll starts, Liverpool will have little success from such types of crosses/balls into the box (and it would yet again result in unfair criticism of Carroll).  Carroll (or any centre-forward) will thrive on crosses/pull-backs from the byline; or from out-swinging, and in-swinging, crosses delivered from the area level to the edge of the penalty area to the byline.

Without doubt there are many other areas that Liverpool will need to be effective in, if they are to achieve a positive result on Saturday.  I believe though that the two points addressed above are key, and will provide Liverpool with the momentum in the game to secure three points.

After the game I’ll be looking closely at the stats hoping to see the following;

  1. Far fewer defensive half passes
  2. Fewer losses of possession
  3. Fewer long passes
  4. An increase in attacking third passes
  5. An increase in clear-cut chances created
  6. Plenty of touches for Suarez (I just can’t get enough)!

If Kenny gets it right Liverpool will be striking gold in the form of three rare points at the Britannia, leaving Stoke with an acidic taste in the mouth.