Liverpool moved back into the top four with another routine home win, making it 7 home wins in a row. Hull were exceeding expectations sitting at 10th in the league table, and came to Anfield with nothing to lose having beaten the Reds 3-1 at home a month earlier.
Steve Bruce kept a similar team to the one that faced the Reds in December, going with a 3-5-1-1 (a good counter-attacking system which helped Aston Villa to a 3-1 win at Anfield last year). Alex Bruce acted as the sweeper between Curtis Davies and James Chester, while Livermore, Huddlestone and Meyler formed a flat line of three in midfield.
Koren was the link between defence and attack, and was responsible for getting the ball into Sagbo quickly and getting around him to support. This meant that when Hull were out of possession he dropped slightly deeper into the midfield to apply pressure from behind the Liverpool players.
As for Liverpool, the injury list has continued to pile up for Brendan Rodgers, with Mamadou Sakho, Joe Allen and Jon Flanagan joining Jose Enrique and Daniel Sturridge on the sidelines, while Steven Gerrard made an early return to the bench to boost some spirits. Iago Aspas also made his first start since a lengthy spell on the sidelines, and Rodgers’ depleted midfield called for a tinker with his formation.
At first glance this could have been a 4-4-2, with Aspas so close to Suarez he was playing more as an unorthodox striker than a wide man. However, it was a fluid 4-2-3-1 system, which saw Raheem Sterling on the left as an inside forward and Coutinho as the number ten. Daniel Agger came in at centre back as captain, while Cissokho returned at left back.
The presence of Aspas suited Liverpool far better with an extra body up against the Hull City back three (at the KC stadium Suarez was often crowded out 3 v 1). Lucas and Henderson partnered up in central midfield, with the former tending to hold slightly deeper which gave Henderson licence to make his driving runs through the middle.
A closer observation of the formation shows that in reality it was more like a 4-2-2-2, with identifyable partnerships in each zone. Aspas (who was slow in getting into the game) was dropping deep to receive, Suarez stretching the back line high, and both were pulling into wide areas (Aspas was particularly consistent pulling out to the right). Henderson and Lucas dovetailed, providing protection in the wide areas on their respective sides, and both built possession from deep areas.
Coutinho and Sterling
With Coutinho and Sterling, they were not restricted to their designated positions and drifted freely:
Here we see Sterling on left moving inside to get involved in the short build up. This movement draws in the central midfield and frees up Coutinho on the inside. You have Suarez between the lines and Aspas closer to the last man, and these are perfect positions for link up play: everybody close to each other, and all natural positions abandoned which confuses the defence.
This wasn’t an isolated incident, Sterling consistently had the freedom to work through the centre of the field, while also posing a threat in the wide areas when play dictated. He and Coutinho gravitated towards each other in partnership, rather than two players working different zones.
To further highlight this, the average positions graphic (WhoScored.com) is quite incredible. You will find it difficult to make out, but Luis Suarez, Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling all average out on the exact same spot on the pitch. These are the key elements which force you to abandon the idea of this being a generic system, the fluidity and collective understanding of each others’ movements was a sign of something slightly more complex.
There were further signs that Coutinho could do with some improvement on his finishing skills, but he revelled in the central role yet again. Here we see Skrtel carrying the ball out of defence, and with Coutinho central and unmarked, he backpedals into the space between the lines, which leaves him free to turn and run at the defence. He did this regularly, and he made the most successful dribbles on the pitch with 4 (Suarez and Sterling made 3).
The statistics suggest a dominant performance from Liverpool, however, Hull City proved very difficult to break down, and this was certainly the type of game where points would have been dropped as recently as a year ago. Hull were very organised defensively, and benefited from having three centre backs and three central midfielders – they could battle in the right areas. This however, meant sacrificing opportunities to score, and they failed to record a shot on target.
Liverpool passed well, attempting 559 passes at 84% accuracy, and this gave them 58.7% of the possession. Hull were poor in contrast, only completing 70% of their passes, however this was to be expected with their more protective and direct strategy.
Final third accuracy was poor from both teams, Liverpool only managing 66% compared to Hull’s 52% – Coutinho was consistently looking for through balls into Suarez and Aspas, and he was not alone in attempting some very ambitious passes.
Liverpool will often have poor final third statistics when either playing away, or coming up against a rigorously defensive side at Anfield, as the risky football they look for is brilliant when it comes off, but harder to achieve in these scenarios.
As a result, the Reds didn’t get many chances, with only 17 shots to Hull City’s 10 attempts, and only 6 of these were on target. Suarez, Coutinho and Sterling were the key dribblers again, with 10 of the teams 14 successful dribbles between them, including a mazy run in the final minute which could have seen Coutinho score an absolute worldy.
A massive performance on his return to centre back Daniel Agger which resulted in a goal and a clean sheet, and his statistics provided by the club website are below (via LiverpoolFC.com):
Chelsea, Norwich and Crystal Palace face Hull City in the league next, where they will look to maintain their fantastic return to the top flight. Steve Bruce will not be disheartened by their performance where they gave a good account of themselves, but eventually caved in at Anfield.
Rodgers now looks for a further response to the defeats against Manchester City and Chelsea. He will need to dig deep into his squad at this crucial period in the season, and is very likely to dip into the transfer market to boost his resources.