When new ideas and methods are introduced to the Premier League, there’s often a reactionary backlash from fans who find change hard to accept.It happened with rotation, zonal-marking, and when teams first started to experiment with formations other than 4-4-2.
When Brendan Rodgers first arrived at Liverpool a year ago, he brought with him his ideas of ‘Tiki-Taka’, pressing and resting with the ball. While this excited fans keen to see Liverpool play a more continental style in the mould of Spain and Barcelona, others were sceptical. “Pragmatism” suddenly became a buzz-word, as if it were common sense not to have a well-developed playing philosophy – something which arguably defined Kenny Dalglish‘s side the previous season. In politics, calls for pragmatism are often veiled opposition to progress, and in football, too, the ‘pragmatists’ are often fans suspicious of any philosophy committed to technique, patience and creativity ahead of the old-fashioned English values of ‘passion’, physical strength and direct passing.
Some Liverpool supporters argued that Tiki-Taka was just a branding exercise, and offered no discernible difference to ‘pass-and move’ football. While not quite on the level of Hodgson’s absurd claim that England play a 4-4-2 “like Dortmund”, this seems like an unwillingness (or inability) to recognise nuance. On one level, all teams are playing the same way. They all have 11 players, all (United aside) must abide by the same rules, and for the most part, teams use similar formations (in the sense that nobody plays in a 2-3-5). There is no ‘fundamental’ difference between styles of football, in the way that there are fundamental differences between football and rugby, but there is a sliding scale of with Barcelona at one pole, and Stoke City at the other.
It’s a myth that Liverpool have always played the same style of football, or even that we did for any long period of time. Evans’ attacking approach was similar to Ardiles’ Spurs or Keegan’s Newcastle in its fluidity going forwards and fragility at the back. Houllier’s team played on the counter-attack, with almost no build-up in midfield whatsoever, and under Benitez Liverpool were arguably more ‘squeeze-and-control’ than ‘pass-and-move’. Even during the glory years there were subtle differences between sides, if only because different players have different qualities which translate to the way the team plays to one degree or another.
As last season progressed, some fans were relieved to see we weren’t religiously adhering to the short passing in triangles that define Tiki-Taka, but it would be wrong to see this as evidence that Rodgers has radically re-thought his philosophy. Our play was at ‘peak Tiki-Taka’ early on in the season when Joe Allen was playing and in form. His passing and ball-retention impressed those of us favouring a slow, patient passing game, and drew criticism from traditionalists preferring a more ‘direct’ style. Having played under Rodgers at Swansea, and as a central midfielder, Allen was in a key position to translate the manager’s philosophy to the pitch. During the first ten games it was sometimes as if Allen was on a different level to his teammates, but when he lost form and confidence (which coincided with a shoulder injury and fatherhood, whether or not those factors were causal) it diminished the team’s ability to play the way Rodgers wanted.
On joining Liverpool Rodgers admitted that he had tried to change things too quickly at Reading, and had learned not to force too much of his philosophy too early, so the adaptation to a new approach was always going to be and incremental one. Neither Suarez or Gerrard are particularly suited to a slow build-up game, but both had to be accommodated, further diluting Rodgers’ ideals on the pitch. By mid-season, it was as if Rodgers had looked at which aspects the players had taken to, and which they hadn’t, and adjusted the approach accordingly. Our play was what you might expect from a pre-existing group of players adapting to a new style: sometimes we looked excellent, and at others disjointed, but unlike Rodgers’ Swansea the previous season, there was no obvious overriding style. There were hints of Tiki-Taka on occasion, especially in games when Liverpool were three or more goals ahead with no pressure to score more, but we were essentially just a very attacking team that liked to pass the ball and control games.
Then Something changed.
From ‘Control’ to ‘Counter’
Around halfway through the season Rodgers decided that Martin Skrtel was a defensive liability, and with only the inexperienced and immobile Coates and the experienced but immobile Carragher to choose from, dropping him meant he was be forced to change tack. I’ve previously explained in-depth the ramifications a slow defence has on the way a team must set up, but to summarise, a lack of pace at the back means the defence must sit deep, meaning the space between the defence and strikers (unless they drop into their own half) widens, making it harder to play short passes and close down space.
With Skrtel deemed insufficient and only slow defenders available as alternatives, Rodgers adopted a counter-attacking style with Carragher marshelling a deep defensive line. With Gerrard and Coutinho’s passing, Sturridge’s pace and Suarez snapping at defenders’ heels, the players at Rodgers disposal were well-suited to playing the counter-attack, and results picked up, but that doesn’t mean we should or will stick to that approach.
Had we not needed attacking reinforcements so badly in January, Rodgers would likely have signed a quicker centre-back and stayed closer to his preferred style. Now Carragher has retired, bringing in defenders capable of playing close to the halfway line must be his priority.
If there was ever a Premiership team defined by camping out in their opponents half with centre-backs stationed on the half-way line, it was Arsenal‘s ‘Invincibles’ of 2003-2004 featuring Kolo Toure beside Sol Campbell. Granted, he’s not as quick as he was then, but Toure is used to taking up those high defensive positions, and the threats inherent in doing so. Toure will no doubt be followed by one or two younger defensive acquisitions suited to playing higher up, but now it seems Luis Suarez has given Rodgers yet another dilemma.
Or has he?
Beyond Suarez: Coutinho at the Core
Like Gerrard, Suarez is not obviously suited to playing the way Swansea did under Rodgers last year. He wants to attack right away every time he receives the ball, regardless of where he is on the pitch; an attitude diametrically opposed to the Tiki-Taka way of playing. If Suarez has weaknesses to his game, they are his wastefulness and selfishness. Although he scored lots of goals this season, Suarez remained inefficient, taking lots of shots and dribbling on his own when, for the team, passing would have been a better option. Both Gerrard and Suarez have been labelled ‘one man’ teams at different times, and both have at times beaten teams by themselves. But while Messi is so important to Barcelona as an individual, he’s also a team player who passes (to great effect) when he should. Gerrard’s loss of mobility forced him to adapt in a way that made him less out of sync with Rodgers’ approach as the season went on, but Suarez continued to be Suarez – in more ways than one – for better and for worse.
If Suarez were to go, and our style came to be defined by Coutinho’s composed genius, instead of Suarez’s blustering all-action style, Liverpool would not only be more suited to the way Rodgers likes to play, but likely a better team, too. Of course, as a younger man Coutinho is behind Suarez in his development, but already he’s a more multi-dimensional player than the Uruguayan. Philippe is such a phenomenal passer of the ball, that it’s easy to forget what a great dribbler he is. Other than Lionel Messi, I can’t think of a player as good at both dribbling and passing in world football. He really is that good.
Potentially armed with a budget of in excess of £100m from the sales of Suarez, Skrtel and Carroll (as well as funds FSG make available), Rodgers could go about replacing Carragher and Suarez with players ideally suited to the way he wants us to play. Football is a team game, after all, and often the best team is not the one composed of the best individuals.
Daniel Sturridge has already shown himself to be a more efficient finisher than Suarez – if not a better all-round player – and the understanding he and Coutinho struck in the Uruguayan’s absence had already convinced many fans that Suarez should be used in a wide position next season to accommodate them through the middle. Assuming Rodgers brings in a first choice centre back (Papadopolous would do me) and a physically dominant defensive midfielder to offer the defence more protection than Lucas Leiva currently does (Victor Wanyama, please), then he’d be left with a considerable budget to recruit two wide players (no nailed on favourites here) either side of Coutinho and Sturridge.
It looks increasingly likely that Pepe Reina (another who apparently can’t say ‘no’ to big Spanish clubs) will follow Suarez to Spain, so the danger now is that what could have been a season of plugging holes and adding finishing touches becomes another one of upheaval and transition. On the other hand, Coutinho and Sturridge slotted in seamlessly, so perhaps signing the ‘right’ players for the system can reduce the time adaptation time required.
Losing a player so adored by the fans is never easy, and perhaps it will be Suarez’s passion that we miss most. There are lots of examples of teams losing a star player but going on to be stronger as a result, as well as plenty of cases where the loss led to a decline. What matters is how the money received is spent.
With a manager who values technique above all else, and a transfer committee in place, at least we know we won’t be wasting £55m on average players like Andy Carroll and Stuart Downing again – the latter of whom cost the same amount as Sturridge and Coutinho combined. If there’s hope for Liverpool fans, it lies in the business done last January, and the twinkle-toes of a young Brazilian who cost only £8m.
The task for Rodgers is to build a side so good that when the big Spanish clubs inevitably come calling for Phillipe Coutinho in a few years’ time, he doesn’t find it so difficult to say ‘no’ .