Liverpool put yet another jinxed fixture to bed in the late kick off on Saturday, as they eventually swept aside their bogey side Southampton. Brendan Rodgers has now banished a number of demons, including Arsenal at Anfield, Spurs and Stoke away, and now avenging the problematic Saints – the only team to beat the Reds twice in the last 12 months.
Maurico Pochettino deployed his usual 4-3-3 with Jack Cork starting in central midfield, with Morgan Schneiderlin and Steven Davis either side of him. The front three fielded itself, with Adam Lallana to the left and Jay Rodriguez to the right of Rickie Lambert.
They went out to retain possession, press Liverpool in all areas of the pitch, then encourage quick combination play from the front three in central areas. Adam Lallana had the back four on their knees in the first half, with a few glimpses of what got him selected for England – some excellent trickery, one touch link up play, and made himself a consistent goal threat.
Rodgers decided to mixed things up. He has consistently been playing the same 4-3-3 for a number of weeks, and came to the conclusion that victory against Southampton would require something slightly different. He went for a diamond, swapping Raheem Sterling for Joe Allen. Steven Gerrard played in the deep role, with the controlling capabilities of Allen and the energy of Henderson either side of him, while Coutinho played ahead of him in the hole.
A common tactic for Rodgers when he fields Suarez and Sturridge as a two is keeping them both as high up the pitch as possible – he doesn’t ask for any defensive work from them besides their basic screening and pressing duties higher up the field. This means that Liverpool look to release them into the wide areas on the break at every opportunity, and from there they combine in often devastating fashion.
Here’s a quick example from the opening minute, where Rodgers’ game plan becomes abundantly clear:
The midfield four shift together – which includes Coutinho dropping – in order to compress the space as a unit. Despite surrendering some possession to Southampton they were still very good tactically and pressed effectively:
With Luke Shaw at full-back having taken the throw in, they can take Southampton by surprise here, as Gerrard instantly releases Sturridge who has pulled out wide. This immediately drags out a centre-back and then starts to create all sorts of gaps for Suarez to run into.
This move broke down, but it illustrated the counter-attacking, transition-based strategy that would win Rodgers this game. As each move develops it also allows for Coutinho to get involved, Henderson bombing forward, or Joe Allen supporting each attack.
Of the midfielders, it was arguably Joe Allen who had the best game on the left of the diamond. He was composed, dynamic and aggressive, and led the midfield’s passing accuracy with 81%. Jordan Henderson had a relatively poor game by his increasingly high standards, perhaps struggling to adjust to the tactical switch.
He had an ongoing battle with Luke Shaw throughout, as he shifted out to the wide areas to help Jon Flanagan, and the Southampton youngster was able to draw fouls, and get the better of Henderson on a few occasions. I would imagine he is probably preferring his role in the middle of the 4-3-3 at the moment.
After his introduction close to the hour mark, Sterling all but put an end to the game as a contest by scoring with his first touch, giving the Reds an opportunity to shut up shop. Not only did this change bring a goal, but also another insight into Rodgers’ tactical thinking. His switch with Coutinho was a straight swap, and Sterling played at the top of the diamond ‘in the hole’ – perhaps a new role for him, but more likely a one-off experiment.
It goes without saying that Coutinho is a very crafty and innovative player, excellent in the number 10 role, and is crucial to Liverpool’s title aspirations. However he was clearly having an off day against the Saints, and I feel it should be added that Coutinho’s lightning quick feet should not be confused with genuine pace.
The result of this was that the game plan did not play into Coutinho’s strengths. For example, you wouldn’t see him making a penetrating run past the back four or into dangerous areas in the box, as it isn’t his game. He prefers to hover in deeper areas, pick it up from there and then orchestrate (something more suited to a team building possession).
When Rodgers made the switch and put Sterling (a player who makes consistently aggressive and penetrating forward runs) in the same position, it suddenly made Liverpool more explosive and threatening on the counter. The Southampton defence were visibly shaken after his introduction and goal, and this sealed the game for Liverpool.
They enjoyed a final half hour littered with fantastic opportunities for Suarez and Sturridge to both extend their goal tally’s. Strangely they were both being extremely unselfish in this game, looking to set each other up for tap ins rather than the better option of shooting – they actually squandered a lot of chances as a result.
Southampton dominated possession in this game with 57.3%, having said that I think Rodgers would probably argue that Liverpool chose to swap possession for control, which paid off. It was a game mainly played on the deck, lots of passes, 444 for Southampton and 305 for Liverpool – the Saints were more accurate with 83% to Liverpool’s 76%.
Both teams were evenly matched in terms of aerial and ground duels, Southampton won 52% of the ground duels while Liverpool won 55% in the air, the game was well fought in the this sense and very well balanced. Southampton crossed a lot more, with 22 attempts (mainly through Chambers and Shaw, with 11 between them) to Liverpool’s 5 attempts (1 successful).
Liverpool have been urgently needing to address their ‘individual errors’ column, and had a successful day, with 0 errors (and 0 for Southampton) – unsurprisingly, this led to a clean sheet for the Reds.
Some Liverpool fans may now be daring to dream, despite still being four points off the pace – the same as last week. So why the increased hope? Well Southampton away was almost written off by a majority of fans as a fixture where Liverpool were doomed to pick up nothing more than a point. Now going four games unbeaten at another crucial stage in the season, Brendan Rodgers is yet again poking away the reporters with a stick.
Rodgers has stated his focus is only on winning the next game in front of him, and rightly so. Liverpool as a club cannot even afford to entertain the thought until the final weeks. One thing they probably can anticipate is a top four finish. With 6 points seperating the Reds from Tottenham and Everton, they will hope both can drop further points as the Reds approach their final tests of United away, and Chelsea and Man City at Anfield.
Without the complication of cup competitions or European football, Liverpool have the greatest advantage of the top four. They have players returning from injury, long breaks for rest and preparation between games, and will be going into their games with confidence.
The final months of the season are certainly shaping up for a dramatic finish!