Guest writer Andrew discusses how the midfield works within Brendan Rodgers’ system and how the players at his disposal can fit into it.
A quick disclaimer: I’m going to make comparisons to Barcelona. I’m sorry, its exhausting, I know. Although the football Rodgers wants his team to implement is a bit different from Barcelona’s the midfield works in similar ways in both systems.
The Midfield Positions
Brendan Rodgers sets his team up to play possession based football. We all know that. But the dynamic of the midfield that he wants isn’t fully understood. Rodgers uses three central midfielders (from here onwards simply referred to as midfielders; wingers are wingers) to maintain possession of the ball, move it forwards, and set up opportunities for the three forwards. The midfielders in his system fall into three categories: a defensive midfielder, a passing midfielder, and an attacking midfielder.
The defensive midfielder in Rodgers’ system is not the type that we’re familiar with in England. We’re used to tough tackling destroyers in the mold of Roy Keane and Javier Mascherano who snap into tackles and play a very physical game. Rodgers prefers to use a more South American defensive midfielder called a “volante“. The volante tends to intercept more balls due to clever positioning than engage in tough tackles. Not that the volante doesn’t tackle, its just less of an “all action” style and a more thoughtful, apprehensive approach. The volante is also different than the typical defensive midfielder with the ball. Volantes come back to the central defenders, pick up the ball, and move it forward to the other midfielders where other defensive midfielders can have less responsibility on the ball.
Leon Britton fulfilled the role of the volante under Rodgers at Swansea. He had a very high pass completion percentage as well as a high interception count. He made tackles as well. Busquets fills this position for Barcelona. Lucas Leiva fits the bill for this position perfectly; we’ve seen him become a great defensive midfielder in the past few years but his ability to pick the ball up off the defenders and move it forwards (he doesn’t just pass sideways, preseason was evidence enough of this for those still skeptical) to the more creative players and the wingbacks. Nuri Sahin can play as a volante though it isn’t his most natural position. He reads the game well enough defensively, but he’s better suited a bit further forward. Joe Allen can play this role, and indeed he has in Lucas’ absence so far. However, he is more suited to the next position in Rodgers’ midfield.
The passing midfielder in Rodgers’ system isn’t quite the same we’re used to at LFC. The benchmark players are obviously Jan Mølby and Xabi Alonso. They were noted for their ability to sit deep and spray the ball around the pitch. Rodgers likes his passing midfielder to play short passes to the four players ahead of him and the wingbacks. More importantly, though, the passing midfielder has great movement and always finds space so that the attack minded players in front of him have an easy outlet pass to him in order to maintain possession and switch the point of the attack. I think of this player as a metronome because that’s what people call Xavi Hernandez, who very much fulfills this role for Barcelona. Xavi plays a bit further up the pitch than Busquets, and always find spaces to receive the ball from the players ahead of them if they’re in trouble, then plays a quick, short pass to switch the point of the attack.
Joe Allen fulfilled the role perfectly at Swansea and Rodgers obviously brought him here to continue in the same vein. There isn’t anyone in our midfield that can play this role as well as he can. His passing is fantastic, but its the way he’s always available for an outlet pass that has impressed me the most so far. Sahin can also play this role; he’s a natural passer and has good movement, but he does go for a “Hollywood pass” a bit more than Allen (judging by his Dortmund time and his first few games with us) and his movement needs to improve as well. I think Henderson might be learning this role at the moment as well. Gerrard seems to fancy this role for himself as a way of extending his career the way Scholes did, but he tends to break up the passing rhythm when he does.
The last role is the creator. This one is very similar to the attacking midfielder in most other teams. He’s expected to play ahead of the other two midfielders, hold possession of the ball with dribbling skills, and pass the ball on to the forward three using clever passing and flick-ons. At times, the attacking midfielder drops deeper into midfield to pick up the ball while at others, he plays more like a second striker behind the front three.
At Swansea, Rodgers used Gylfi Sigurðsson in this role. He scored a few goals and assisted a few as well. Rodgers is really spoilt for choice in this role here at LFC. Gerrard is arguably the best player at this role in England’s history, and though his star has faded a bit with his legs, he’s still competent as an attacking midfielder. Unfortunately, his all-action style doesn’t fit into Rodgers’ system as well as it fit into Rafa’s counterattacking system. Shelvey looks a very similar player to Gylfi Sigurðsson and could be tailor-made for this role, but his rash tackles make him a weak link in a high pressure defensive system. Henderson might be able to perform in this role, but I think he’ll be better off as the metronome. Sahin did this a bit for Dortmund, but has transitioned to a deeper role since then. I think he could still play it in a pinch, however. Suso looks a perfect fit for the role in two or three years time.
The Midfield Dynamic
Rodgers always uses a three man midfield. The three can vary in their relative positioning, though. We can see either a 1-2 or a 2-1 orientation of the three. I think the default, when Lucas and Allen are both available for selection is the 2-1:
However in Lucas’ absence, the creator has gained more defensive responsibility, leading to a flatter 1-2 midfield:
Regardless of their orientation on the field, the flow of the game looks the same; the volante picks the ball up off the defense, moves it on to the metronome who exchanges passes with the volante and the creator until either the metronome or the creator can find a gap in the opposition defense and thread it through to the forwards.
Steven Gerrard: Seems to fancy himself for the metronome role as a way of extending his career the way Scholes did at United, he ultimately plays too many Hollywood balls to be a metronomic midfielder and his forward runs put him in places where he isn’t available for the outlet pass. He really only fits as the creator or one of the front three.
Lucas Leiva: A tailor-made volante and easily first choice in the position when he’s available for selection. He’ll not play any of the other roles.
Joe Allen: Perfect for the metronome role and he can also fill in as the volante in Lucas’ absence, though this does leave us without a metronome.
Nuri Sahin: Can fill any of the three roles in midfield, but is probably best as the passer. Faces a fight to make himself first choice at any of the three positions but he should easily be first choice off the bench if anyone is out injured or needs a rest.
Jonjo Shelvey: Looks like a natural creator for the midfield, he does have deficiencies in defense which can break up a high pressure defensive game, but as the creator he doesn’t have too much defensive responsibility. He can’t play the other roles due to his deficiencies.
Jordan Henderson: Was a creator when he moved here but in the Young Boys match he showed he can play a deeper role as a passing midfielder. I think he’ll be molded into Allen’s backup the way Rafa molded Lucas from an attacking midfielder into a world-class volante.
Suso: Could be the future of the creator role for midfielder, but that’s 2 or 3 years away. He should get game time in the Europa League and the cups, though.
The defensive side of the ball
An important part of the possession based system Rodgers implements is the high pressure defense used to regain the ball once its lost. Pep Guardiola is famed for saying “You win the ball back when there are thirty metres to their goal not eighty.” Rodgers lived by a similar mantra at Swansea, though we have yet to see the high pressure that Barcelona plays implemented here.