Gavin Cooney takes a tactical look at Liverpool’s 0-0 draw with Swansea on Sunday afternoon.
Liverpool started somewhat as expected, in a 4-2-3-1 formation. The surprise was in the personnel: With Andre Wisdom injured, Glen Johnson reverted to right-back with Stewart Downing starting at left-back. It left Liverpool with the strange situation of having an orthodox left-winger at left-back, and a left-back (Enrique) on the left wing. Elsewhere, Jordan Henderson started his first Premier League game of the season behind Suarez, having impressed in that position a week ago against Wigan.
Swansea, meanwhile, lined up in an identical 4-2-3-1 formation. The narrative of the afternoon was undoubtedly Brendan Rodgers’ return to the Liberty Stadium, with the main focus being how both sides have changed following changes in the dug-out. It was interesting to see neither Rodgers’ current nor former side start in the 4-3-3 system traditionally favoured by Rodgers.
A Strong Start… For Once
Liverpool have started sluggishly in recent league games, notably against Chelsea and Wigan. Today was not the case, as the Reds settled quickly. It was a good first half performance form Liverpool, as the merits of a 4-2-3-1 system were elucidated. Liverpool showed greater width than they had at any stage this season, particularly down the right hand side. Glen Johnson and Raheem Sterling linked up excellently, with Johnson always a willing runner. Johnson was Liverpool’s stand-out performer in the first half, his marauding runs down the right and into the penalty area constantly causing Swansea myriad problems. It was through one of Johnson’s trademark mazy runs into the penalty area that led to Jose Enrique’s disallowed goal. That offside decision proved to be agonisingly correct.
Sterling turned in a fantastic first-half performance, turning a performance that synthesised maturity with youthful alacrity into a royal pain in Swansea’s arse. The winger worked hard all afternoon, both offensively and defensively, and was desperately unlucky to see his ferocious volley smack the crossbar. It was his tracking back that was most impressive, consistently covering for Johnson. On the other wing, Enrique continued his fine form. His defensive cover was also excellent, as he was often forced to cover for his left back.
Elsewhere, the midfield triangle of Allen, Gerrard and Henderson worked hard to press the Swansea defence. Henderson in particular worked hard, constantly harrying Swansea’s midfield pairing of De Guzman and Leon Britton. It was evident just how often Swansea played aimless balls out from the back, as they struggled to build from the back, as is their wont. Liverpool’s compactness without the ball is the main reason for that.
Liverpool have conceded a lot of goals on break this season, two of them against Swansea in the League Cup. With a 4-3-3 formation, Liverpool are too light in midfield when an attack breaks down and thus are sliced open too easily. It is no coincidence that Liverpool have kept consecutive league clean sheets while playing 4-2-3-1.
Liverpool also looked dangerous, with the new system meaning more Liverpool players were getting into the penalty area to support Suarez. At half time Rodgers would have been the happier manager. It seemed like it was a matter of time before Liverpool would score.
So what happened then?
Liverpool, having dominated large spells of the first half, were toothless in the second half. Michael Laudrup replaced Shechter with midfielder Ki, allowing De Guzman and Michu further forward. Johnson’s overlapping runs, so prevalent in the first half, were rare in the second half. It is possible that Liverpool tired, having played in Europe on Thursday. Liverpool are yet to win post-Europa League this season. Sterling became less of a threat, Gerrard’s passing became ragged and loose, Suarez became isolated. At the other end Swansea were more threatening, but created few clear-cut chances.
Rodgers shakes it up
Against Chelsea, Wigan and Everton Rodgers changed the system during the game to some effect. Against Swansea that change came later in the game, and proved to have little effect. Replacing Downing and Henderson, Rodgers reverted to his 4-3-3 formation. Enrique went to left back, with Joe Cole on the left of the front three. Shelvey played as the midfielder closest to the front three. The change had little effect, as Liverpool failed to create many clear-cut chances in the final fifteen minutes, meaning Liverpool still haven’t scored in the final fifteen minutes of a league game this season. Swansea also looked dangerous on the counter-attack when Liverpool employed the new system, evident when Joe Allen fouled a Swansea player on the edge of the area with four minutes to go. Pepe Reina was forced to make a terrific save from the subsequent free kick.
The Downing Conundrum
The only Liverpool player to visibly struggle in the first half was Stewart Downing. Rodgers clearly doesn’t believe that Downing is the correct option on the wing, so has told him that his future, if he is to have one, will be a left-back. Judging by this performance, Downing has no future. He struggled positionally, frequently being caught in no man’s land. When Liverpool were defending, he was slightly too far forward. On a couple of occasions, balls sailed over his head and into dangerous spaces. He also drifted infield too often, particularly in the second half. At times he was virtually beside Daniel Agger, as he seemed fain to allow Jose Enrique to cover him. Swansea’s best chance came through his mistake, but Reina let his team mate off the hook with a brave save at Nathan Dyer’s feet.
Offensively, Downing also frustrated. He seemed reluctant to gamble, and often did not provide the level of width that Johnson did on the right. With Enrique often drifting inside off the wing, Liverpool needed Downing to be more aggressive in running down the flank. Also, Downing’s weakness in the air doesn’t suit Pepe Reina’s tactic of aiming kick outs onto the heads of his full-backs. He was replaced with fifteen minutes to go, partly to facilitate a change in system. It was another disappointing Downing performance. His chances are running out.
Man of the Match: Pepe Reina
Reina looked back to his best against Swansea. From corners he was solid, punching all within his sight. His footwork was impeccable and distribution solid. He made a terrific save from a late free kick to ensure Liverpool earned a point, and his sprinting off the line to bravely deny Nathan Dyer prior to that was vintage Reina. Johnson, Sterling and Enrique and Agger rivalled Reina, but the goalkeeper was consistent all afternoon.