Kopology explains why Brendan Rodgers needs to learn from his mistakes after disappointingly repeating the same ones in his tactics for the defeat at Southampton on Saturday.
Anyone familiar with my writing will know I’m a huge fan of Brendan Rodgers and the style of football he has brought to Liverpool this season. I’ve defended him in the past when many were criticising, and tried to explain what he was trying to do when things have gone wrong, as well as what he might try to do in the future. So it might come as a surprise that, for me, the defeat to Southampton was entirely Brendan Rodgers’ fault.
Everybody makes mistakes, they are just part of the learning process. But to make the same mistake twice, or three times as Brendan Rodgers has now done, is a sign of either stubbornness, stupidity or arrogance.
When Rodgers picked only two midfielders against Oldham he was perhaps arrogant to underestimate his lower-league opponents. He repeated the same mistake against Spurs, until bringing on Allen to add an extra body in midfield – a change that helped turn the match around. So to what do we owe him making the same mistake for a third time against Southampton?
Each time we’ve looked like finding some consistency this season we’ve abruptly come unstuck, usually to lower opposition. Sometimes a run of good results can cause players to become complacent, but players don’t pick the team, and despite many of the players under-performing, this defeat was down to a tactical mistake.
Physical Presence in Midfield
Let us be clear: when playing a 4-2-3-1 formation with attacking players occupying the ‘3’, the ‘2’ behind them must be strong defensively and have a physical presence. When Benitez played a 4-2-3-1 at Liverpool, he did so with Alonso and Mascherano (or before him, Sissoko) as the two holding players and Steven Gerrard – who is now being asked to perform a more defensive role in Brendan Rodgers’ side – ahead of them. While Alonso wouldn’t be classed as a ball-winner, his defensive positioning and reading of the game complemented Mascherano’s physicality and bite.
Theoretically, Rodgers could put out a side including Sturridge, Suarez, Coutinho and Downing if the two behind them were competent defensively and physically imposing. Suarez is capable of playing in the hole between midfield and attack. His workrate is superb, but he’s no midfielder, so the two players in behind him need to compensate for his licence to roam.
Gerrard has done well playing deeper, but these days he’s best when operating as a ‘regista’ – a role which when performed by Andrea Pirlo is accompanied by two players doing the dirty work while he dictates the game. Gerrard is no longer the all-action, powerhouse of a player we once knew. Lucas is superb at reading the game and nipping in to steal the ball, but he is no Yaya Toure, and will never be the type to boss a midfield by himself. Allen has never been a defensive midfielder, and operates best with two other players close to him, where he can get and give the ball quickly over short distances.
It’s easy to blame Allen for the Southampton defeat – the Welshman seems to be the on-field scapegoat for many of Rodgers’ biggest critics – but he wasn’t even on the pitch for the second half, and helped change things against Spurs when he came on. The truth is, playing with any two of Gerrard, Allen and Lucas behind four attacking players contributing little defensively is like trying to build a skyscraper without foundations: a tower of attacking vanity bound to topple when the slightest pressure is applied.
As if that weren’t frivolous enough, the midfield sits in front of a defence that has been shaky – to say the least – all season. Martin Skrtel was never as good as some made out last season when he performed to the limits of his ability. His positioning and reading of the game are at times woeful, compounded by a loss of confidence that comes with being asked to play in a style and system ill-suited to his attributes.
[sws_pullquote_right]”LFC are scoring more goals-per-game than 19 of last 20 seasons, but also conceding more per game than 19 of last 20 seasons.”
– via @BassTunedToRed [/sws_pullquote_right]Soon to retire Jamie Carragher has been running on fumes for some time, and Daniel Agger is struggling to perform to his best, perhaps in part due to the lack of a competent defensive partner. With such frailties at the back, selecting four in attack and two midfielders more comfortable on the ball than winning it is bordering on negligence. Had Martin Kelly not been injured early in the season he might now be getting the chance we’ve all expected him to get at some point in the centre of defence. Considering all that, Rodgers could do worse than to throw Andre Wisdom in for the remainder of the season.
Learn from mistakes?
To cut him a little slack, Rodgers isn’t helped by having only one defensive midfielder in his squad. Some might ask why he didn’t address that in either transfer window, but the need for attacking reinforcements was an even more pressing concern. In his post-game comments the Liverpool manager revealed Lucas had a slight fitness problem, but if he was fit enough to sit on the bench and come on at half time, couldn’t he have played from the start?
Whatever his reasons, Rodgers needs to learn a lesson he has impressed on his players: you must win the right to play. That doesn’t apply just to players’ effort levels and attitudes on the pitch, but also to the strategy adopted by the manager himself. You can play with four slick, technically brilliant attacking players, but you must compliment them with players who can win the battle and the ball, providing them the stage on which to entertain. Attack may well be the best form of defence, but all-out attack without a stable base to launch from is just footballing masochism.
Rodgers might have to make a brave decision or two this summer. If we are to persist with 4-2-3-1 and Luis Suarez central in the three, is Lucas enough of a presence to be the most defensive midfielder in the side? Even if Lucas were replaced with someone more combative, would a 33 year old Gerrard have enough physically to be the second midfielder in the ‘2’?
I remain a fan of Brendan Rodgers’ entertaining brand of football. I think he is intelligent enough to learn from his mistakes and brave enough to make sure they are not repeated yet again. That will mean investing in at least one central defender who won’t be bullied this summer, as well as a defensive midfielder to not only compete with Lucas Leiva, but to replace him as the ‘enforcer’ and linchpin on which the team’s attacking play can be mounted.