Stoke and Liverpool played out an incredible thriller, full of goals, end to end action and some controversial decisions. After being 2-0 up, Liverpool failed to kill the intensity and fire of the game – eventually turning it into a scoring contest and having to out-fire Stoke in order to get a rare win at the Britannia.
Mark Hughes used Charlie Adam as an unorthodox number 10 against his old club, and he actually played higher up the field than Peter Crouch most of the time. Arnautovic and Walters played in the wide areas and left most of the crossing to Adam, however, it was a very cross-heavy game for Stoke. N’zonzi and Glenn Whelan formed the defensive midfield two and dovetailed, sharing the work load in front of the defence. Jack Butland also got a rare start in goal with Begovic out injured.
For Liverpool, this game laid down a massive tactical marker in Brendan Rodgers’ reign on Merseyside. He used his preferred 4-3-3 formation, but with one very notable change. Steven Gerrard was deployed in the holding role on his own. Not as a two with Lucas in a 4-2-3-1 or 3-4-1-2, which we have seen plenty of times before. But instead, in the 1-2 triangle we have seen a lot this year, usually with Allen and Henderson forming the ‘2’.
Gerrard and Lucas Switch
This was such an interesting decision for so many reasons. Firstly, as Gerrard has only been given this specific role a few times in his career, for England and in his early days at Liverpool. Secondly, Lucas was still available – usually when he is fit, the holding role has been assumed as his spot to lose. Strangely, Rodgers decided to not only try Gerrard deeper, but also try Lucas higher up – he started alongside Henderson in the ‘2’.
He is capable of doing this. It is not known by many that Lucas actually arrived at Anfield from Gremio as an attacking midfielder, and was moulded into the holding role by Rafa Benitez, and gradually grew in confidence and ability. Lucas is very comfortable on the ball, has great distribution and composure and is very tactically astute and suited well enough to the role that was he was designated. However, the switch poses very interesting questions now that this change has taken place.
Will Gerrard assume this holding role permanently or will Lucas return there? A key weakness for Lucas in the holding role was the potential for him to be played around, and the general consensus at Anfield has been that Rodgers would be hunting this January for a more robust defensive midfielder who could try to relegate Lucas to the bench.
Above, you can see the general shape of the team in relation to the change for Gerrard and Lucas. Gerrard played laterally and often dropped in between the centre backs to form a back three, and play out from the back with Toure, Skrtel and Mignolet. Henderson looked to get forward where possible, with Lucas slightly more reserved adapting to his new role. Sterling tried to make runs beyond Suarez behind the defence, while Coutinho typically dropped into deep and central positions to get the ball.
Rodgers must now assess how well Gerrard has assumed this new role. According to @AnfieldIndex Gerrard conceded possession 18 times, however, a massive factor in this was 8 of his attempted long balls, which were intercepted. He tried some of his trademark ambitious passes from a deep position, while Lucas usually has the tendency to fizz passes along the floor into the midfield more often.
Despite these losses of possession, Gerrard also won the ball back 16 times from his deep role – something Lucas has never achieved since the collection of this stat began. Gerrard consistently showed the bite and hunger required for the role, screening from side to side, getting into the wide areas to win the ball on a regular basis.
Much of the praise that Raheem Sterling has come in for this season has been to do with his technical ability, physical speed, strength, and maturity on the ball. However for myself and many others, his decision making and tactical awareness is his strongest attribute, something which I feel currently separates him from fellow youngster Jordon Ibe (who is also pushing for first team action).
His movement off the ball has improved massively since his first team debut, and the speed at which he takes up his positions after recognising the space almost doubles his threat. Even if the defender marking him recognises the threat at the same time, Sterling will win the space nine times out of ten and can then hurt the opposition.
Above you can see the example of this: he works in tandem with the movement of Suarez. He naturally drifts deep between the lines to receive from Henderson, and Marc Wilson chooses to follow him out. Sterling has the run on Pieters and uses the momentum of Wilson’s step out to take the space directly behind him. This way Suarez acts as a dummy, Henderson can miss him out and play straight into the space behind the defence for Sterling to latch onto.
The move doesn’t materialise on this occasion, nevertheless, this is just an example of his ability to recognise these situations developing.
These particular runs between full back and centre back have been a key feature of why Sterling has been so dominant since he broke back into the team. He has now begun to establish himself as a valuable member of the first team. If he can continue to improve in these areas and add to his rapidly improving goals and assists tally, he may even start to entertain thoughts about a call up for Brazil.
This was a very evenly matched game, which saw Stoke scrape the possession battle, but Liverpool stringing slightly more passes together. Final third accuracy was poor from both sides, with 69% and 66% respectively. Despite Stoke’s three goals, they actually failed to create a clear-cut chance, while Liverpool scored 3 of their 5 clear-cut chances. The teams even matched up with their dribbling statistics, both attempting 18 dribbles each (Stoke had 9 successful, Liverpool 10).
The massive difference you can see between the two teams in the crossing statistics. Stoke attempted a massive 40 crosses and incredibly, Charlie Adam attempted 22 of these. Only 9 of Stoke’s crosses were successful. When looking at duels, Stoke won the aerial battle, probably unsurprising, while Liverpool won the battle on the ground. Finally the defensive stats were also relatively even, Stoke with more interceptions (17) but Liverpool with more tackles (15). This game could have easily swung the other way.
A fascinating game for so many reasons. Liverpool will be delighted with some of the good fortune they have previously lacked in this fixture. Cissokho benefitted from a massive Shawcross deflection, while Sterling had a handball not given, allowing him through to win a very soft penalty. A massive positive also came with the return of Daniel Sturridge to rekindle his lethal partnership with Suarez – he immediately set Suarez up for the fourth goal, and then executed a brilliant finish to round off the scoring.
Though only just inside the bottom 10, Stoke sit precariously 5 points from safety along with the rest of the bottom half in an incredibly close and critical stage in the season. With better luck they could have won the game, and could have had a fourth goal very late on.
What a game!