Liverpool made it four wins in a row with a 3-1 victory to go temporarily top of the league until the resolution of Arsenal and Chelsea’s meeting on Monday night.
A high tempo first half performance which gradually picked up intensity as it went on, saw Liverpool put the game out of sight early. It proved difficult to match the fluidity and co-ordination in the pressing shown against Spurs last Sunday. However despite not quite reaching those peaks without the ball, they were just as dangerous, imaginative and penetrative going forwards with it.
Cardiff were in a bad place, with Malky Mackay potentially taking charge for the last time due to little fault of his own. Meanwhile the fans were in full voice for 90 minutes in support of him, also rallying against the owner Vincent Tan, which even brought supportive bursts of applause from the Liverpool fans.
On to the football and it was Rodgers naturally lining his team up unchanged from the Spurs game, the same 4-3-3 with Lucas deep, Allen and Henderson ahead of him pressing then distributing.
As well as the players positions I have included white arrows to demonstrate the players defensive movements upon losing possession, as it was key in allowing them to dominate in the first half. Cardiff worked extremely hard early on at pressing Liverpool energetically, which Rodgers was prepared for. So if Liverpool were to be dispossessed on a regular basis, Rodgers had to minimize the amount of time they spent without the ball.
As the arrows indicate, the back four would naturally revert to a tighter, narrower shape (maintaining a high line but dropping deeper if necessary), while the front six organised their pressing. You can see that Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen had to cover a lot of ground in order to press effectively, working in four main directions to go and pressure the ball.
Someone like Suarez for example would work deeper or wider to press, and Coutinho, who is not the most disciplined defensively, would only drop to a certain extent. As you can see, his defensive arrow doesn’t take him wide. His weakness lies in shutting of the passes down the line, which make it easier for the defence to play through to midfield.
Malky Mackay rested Fraser Campbell and went with three in midfield as opposed to two up front. His obvious logic for this was to provide an extra body in the middle to match up with Liverpool’s three, and attempt to disrupt their fluidity. Many managers attempt this, however the effectiveness of this strategy should sometimes be questioned.
When coming up against an effective possession side, many teams have found it difficult to match up in the middle and go head-to-head for possession. The team most accustomed to it, and with the ingrained philosophy is nearly always likely to come out on top, so I’m not sure why Mackay attempted to dominate that midfield space rather than allow Liverpool to have it.
Cardiff did suffer from Liverpool’s creativity in the first half, but were able to avoid a demolition and put in an admirable second half performance, with a number of key battles taking place which had an effect on the balance of the game:
Jordon Mutch had a good game in attacking central midfield for Cardiff. He helped Odemwingie to press high up the field sporadically in the first half, and slightly more in the second half, when they were able to get a goal and impose themselves on the game with a bit more pressure. His main battle was with Lucas who monitored him well, and was subject to pressure from Mutch when Liverpool were in possession.
On the right hand side for Cardiff, Craig Noone got a lot of joy against Jon Flanagan, who didn’t have a particularly poor game, but was beaten a couple of times by some quick movement. This meant that on a few occasions Cardiff got some good balls into the box, where in the air they looked dangerous.
On Liverpool’s right hand side they had plenty of joy, with Glen Johnson and Raheem Sterling breaking the lines on a regular basis and getting on the end of some slicing through balls. The two were completely in sync. Sterling would make a darting central run, dragging players with him on the way, while Johnson would make a similarly electrifying burst down the line to receive out wide in acres of space.
Cardiff didn’t seem to know how to cope with this overload and it created plenty of opportunities for Liverpool, despite all three goals originating from the left hand side rather than the right.
So here you can see the stats break down, with Liverpool dominating 68.8% possession, and attempting a massive 637 passes to Cardiff’s 267. Liverpool also looked good with 87% pass completion, including 140 final third passes at 76% accuracy (a neither good or bad percentage for Liverpool this season). With 7 clear cut chances, the Reds will be disappointed to have only converted 1, while Cardiff’s only clear cut chance was converted by Jordon Mutch (after some shocking Liverpool set-piece defending and organisation).
You can see just how confident Liverpool were during this game, they attempted 33 dribbles (15 successfully) which is largely down to having both Sterling and Coutinho on the field at the same time – both have attempted dribbles frequently this season.
Mackay has avoided the immediate chop for now and will be proud of his players and the fans for their spirited second half display, while Rodgers now prepares for a grand finale to the year. Liverpool face two away trips, first to Man City on Boxing Day, then to Stamford Bridge to face Chelsea at the weekend, with both games having a massive effect on the shift of power in the top 4.
Should Arsenal drop points against Chelsea, yes Liverpool will find themselves top for Christmas, however negative results against City and Chelsea may see them as low as fifth by this time next week. The top five has rarely been this finely balanced (3 points) by the Christmas stage, with usually a clear leader at this stage. An exciting title race seems to be hotting up, however this was a routine win for the Reds.