Ramachandran Chittur looks at the recent changes in Liverpool’s tactics which have allowed Brendan Rodgers’ footballing philosophies to flourish.
With the transfer window finally done and dusted, Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool have emerged victorious again with the quality of players coming. The winter transfer window was resounding successes with the capture of Daniel Sturridge and Philipe Coutinho, both of whom have changed the fortunes of the club with their performances. The performances of the team since the start of February has been impressive and the team has been improving with every match played. This form has been carried into the new season with Liverpool winning their first 3 matches. Liverpool, in the calendar year 2013 has played 17 matches, won 10, drew 5, lost 2 and hence their position on the top of the table is justified.
So what has brought about the transformation of the Reds’ fortune from 2012, where they were fighting for relegation at one point of time? The answer lies in the fact that Brendan Rodgers has actually not majorly changed anything fundamentally; he has only tweaked the formation to suit the players and team as a whole. When he took over the reins at Liverpool he brought in his style of play which had won him accolades at Swansea City; this involved the famous pass and move (characteristic of yesteryear Liverpool teams), playing in between lines and pressing the opposition high up the pitch.
As can be seen from the picture below it clearly shows Liverpool’s biggest game fundamentals i.e. the passing football and once the possession is lost, the defensive pressing which will strangle the opposition into a false pass or forfeiting the possession back to Liverpool. It gives a clear view of how important the midfield players and the full backs are for this strategy and hence Brendan Rodgers has built a team around these positions.
He tried to implement his successful 4-3-3 formation with the Liverpool team but it did not click. They were time and again exposed by teams which used to set up a defensive strategy that involved defending in numbers and counter attacking with pace. The 2 matches which illustrated these were their loss against Aston Villa (1-3) at home in the premier league and against Swansea city (1-3) in the Capital One cup.
As seen below the 8 Aston Villa players in the box were maintaining a tight line and discipline and they outnumbered the Liverpool players by 2:1. This made sure that none of the Liverpool attacks were dangerous. Holman and Weimann were the two most influential players in the Villa team that day, as they closed down on the Liverpool players. Any small mistake and they were ready to counter attack with devastating results. All the 3 Aston Villa goals were by products of this strategy of counter attacking with pace and numbers. Here the 4-3-3 strategy was at flaw as Lucas was left with the responsibility of partnering with Skrtel and there were no full backs to negate the counter attacks.
Aston Villa’s Defensive Strategy
Reference: EPL Index
Aston Villa’s Counter Attacking Strategy
Reference: EPL Index
A very similar strategy was used by Swansea City when they played Liverpool. Swansea have been playing this system for some time and hence they were a more cohesive unit than Liverpool last year. They were better exponents of the style that Brendan Rodgers was trying to instill in the Liverpool squad. The Liverpool team was still in the phase of understanding the transition and hence Swansea City were able to exploit this weaknesses.
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Swansea have almost the entire team in their own half
Swansea counter attacking with pace and numbers
After closely analysing the chinks in the formation, Brendan Rodgers then shifted to a more stable and compact formation of 4-2-3-1. At the turn of this year he has made this the pivotal formation and the team seems to be more at ease with this strategy. The fundamentals remain the same although with this system there is enough defensive cover to protect the team against counter attacks and also enough creativity to break down rigid defences. This formation focuses considerably on the 3 attacking players behind the Striker and their ability to interchange and exchange roles during the course of the match. Hence, the acquisitions of Sturridge, Coutinho (winter transfer window), Luis Alberto and Victor Moses to fundamentally support this system. Brendan Rodgers is now building a team around the No.10 who will run the orchestra in the midfield thus enabling movements on either side of the attacking trio to confound and confuse defenders in the opposition team. The 3 attacking midfielders and the the striker need intelligent movements which makes sure that they are drawing defenders towards them thereby creating space for each other and the full backs who will bomb into the penalty box. This strategy has been paying dividends and is the primary reason for the goals being scored against Stoke City and Aston Villa. As seen in the images below Coutinho and Sturridge fall a little deeper and have taken up positions creating doubts in the minds of the opposition to draw more players towards them. Once this was done Coutinho in both occasions had different options to play the final ball, either to Henderson or Aspas who could go on to score a goal. Against Aston Villa Coutinho leaves the ball for Sturridge to eventually score the goal while against Stoke City they play a one-two with Sturridge finally scoring a goal from outside the box.
Liverpool tactics against Stoke City
Liverpool tactics against Aston Villa
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Based on these tactics, I feel that this window has been the most productive for Liverpool as compared to other teams. With Victor Moses joining on loan, Liverpool potentially are going to play (as stated by Brendan Rodgers) ‘Suarez on the Left (position he plays for Uruguay), Coutinho in the No.10 position, Moses on the right flank and Sturridge as the central striker’. All these players have intelligent movements, ability to read a pass, make runs in the channels as well as provide the width when matches are congested in the middle. The best part about these players is they can all interchange their positions and still create havoc when they are in full flow. All these players are disciplined to make sure the tactics work to perfection. Aspas and Sturridge will be used as the two strikers; Moses, Coutinho, Henderson, Sterling, Ibe, Alberto, Suarez, Allen and Gerrard all will be employed at some point or the other in the front 3 spot. Suarez, Sturridge, Moses and Aspas can interchange their roles and take up different positions which will create confusion in the opposition team if they employ a Man to Man marking system. This will allow the likes of Gerrard and Lucas to anchor the midfield and make passes and opportunities for the front 4 and the full backs. In situations where Liverpool might want to change tactics this formation can then be converted to a 3-5-2, 4-2-1-3 or a 4-3-3 depending on how Brendan Rodgers wants to dictate the game and this can be done as the squad is substantial to fit any formation.
Brendan Rodgers finally has a squad that can play to the strategy and tactics which he has been trying to instill since he took over last year. He has increased competitions in all positions, especially the center defense which has been Liverpool’s Achilles heel for quite some time. He has brought in Toure, Ilori and the best signing of all Sakho to provide depth and a healthy competition which is pivotal for Liverpool to succeed. The net spend of Liverpool in this transfer window has been 15 million £ which seems so little for the quality of players brought in. 3 clean sheets is something on a trot, something that is not heard of from Liverpool for the past few years and the fact that Liverpool have achieved it is a sign of coming of Age for this team. As has been stated, there is a collective and united feel in the dressing room. This has been rightly observed in the first 3 matches of the season, where every player in the Reds shirt is working his socks off for the team, be it attacking or digging deep and helping the team while defending a narrow lead. If Liverpool can continue this form and play to perfection with this current formation, then the supporters are in for a perfectly amazing year where Champions League will be coming back to Anfield!