As Jordan Henderson showed a rare moment of flair, he bypasses the scrambling Arsenal defence and slots it away into the open net, 0-2 to Liverpool the score line reads. Unbelievable, a top 4 challenge may just be on, if we can hold the lead and beat the teams we should, we should be right in the mix right? A poorly defended set piece and a lapse of concentration later, we leave The Emirates with 1 point instead of 3. This is just one game in the 2012/2013 season where a poor defensive display has cost to lost point, and why we often came away from games not deserving the points we gained.
While Liverpool kept 16 clean sheets in the 2012/2013 season, to which Rodgers stating that 15 was his initial target, Liverpool conceded 43 goals. To put this stat differently, it means on average the reds conceded 1.95 goals per game when they didn’t keep a clean sheet, to which most fans won’t show much surprise. So while the clean sheet stat is something to reflect on as a positive, the backlines consistency needs to be improved upon. By bringing down the goals conceded average we should hopefully see the point tally rise in tandem.
Interestingly, Rodgers and the team have brought in Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto in, to provide additional firepower and competition to our attacking force. Most fans would agree that Rodgers is an attack focused manager primarily, in that he would much rather a team controls a game and tries to score goals than to hang onto a draw or slender victory. However, while almost going unnoticed, Rodgers has brought in Simon Mignolet and Kolo Toure from Sunderland and Man City respectively.
So, where does Kolo Toure feature in our plans next season? Will we bring anyone else in, and how will that improve our defence? More importantly, what is Rodger’s defensive philosophy?
High line vs Deep line
Before deciding who should feature in the defensive lineup, Rodgers must decide on the philosophical direction he wants the team to follow in the coming season. At the end of the previous season, Carragher was brought in to provide some vocal leadership and organisation into the defence. While this made us more organised, it also dropped our defensive line much deeper, creating gaps between the defence and midfield for the opposition to expose. Our mantra seemed to alter too, with Rodgers focusing less on tiki-taka possession play and more on direct counter attacking football. This seemed to suit our attacking play, but caused our backline to be largely exposed and isolated to 1-on-1’s due to Gerrard, Lucas and even Allen trying to put out fires in the large gap between the defence and midfield lines.
In addition, due to Carraghers severe lack of pace, Rodgers didn’t play a split centre-back system utilised earlier in the season with Martin Skrtel. This meant that Liverpool also got exposed in spaces behind the fullback position when possession broke down in attack, as Carragher and Agger didn’t cover the space, with Lucas again having to cover more ground to try and stop the opposition building attacks.
With Carragher now leaving for pastures new, Rodgers now needs to decide whether to carry on where last season left off or go back to his original vision. Having talked about ‘death by football’ and traveling to the likes of Barcelona as part of his football education, it’s no secret Rodgers is a fan of players who are ag mobile, comfortable with 1-on-1’s, have a gifted first touch and natural passers of the ball. Describing the likes of Coutinho and Alberto as ‘the model of player we’re looking to bring in’ underlines this, and this extends to every player on the pitch, including the split centre-back pairing as well.
The high-line comes with its own set of weaknesses too, with the ‘long ball over the top’ exposing the space left behind the centre-backs for pacey strikers to expose. This is evident from Tottenham Hotspur vs Arsenal last season, where both teams played with high-lines, which was pounced upon by both attacking teams. The system also requires a high degree of organisation, as a poorly timed offside trap could see the opposing striker 1-on-1 with the goalkeeper and have a strong chance of scoring.
Personally, I think we could see Rodgers reverting back to what made him successful at Swansea to get to his position in the first place, by bringing back possession play with a high defensive line. This is where the signing of Kolo Toure makes sense, you only need to look at Toure outrunning Oscar in the Man City vs Chelsea game to see that Toure is no slouch. He still has great acceleration and mobility for a sturdily built centre-back, particularly at the age of 32. Agger is finely tuned to possession football and comfortable on the ball, and likewise is mobile enough to play the system. Skrtel seemed clearly uncomfortable playing a high-line this could be why Rodgers decided to change tactics mid-way through the season. With a higher line this will help Lucas cover less space and hopefully improve his game, and where signings such as Joe Allen can show their true talent, by passing and controlling the ball in a compressed midfield.
An issue Liverpool seemed to have last season was how often we are dominated in the air both from set pieces and open play. Powerhouse teams such as Stoke City, West-Ham and West-Brom caused us frequent defensive headaches; with strikers in the mould of Lukaku and Benteke being the kryptonite to our centre-backs. This is where Rodgers faces a conundrum, while he needs a more aerially dominant centre-back, he also wants to implement his high lined split centre-back system , requiring pace, ability on the ball and mobility to succeed. So how can we get a player with all those qualities in a centre-back, if there are many out there, to join a team without Champions League football?
One cliché you will frequently hear is that the taller the centre-back the more dominant they are aerially. You only have to look at far the last FA cup campaign, with the 6’5 Sebastian Coates and the 6’3 Martin Skrtel getting bullied by Oldham Athletic and conceding 3 goals in the process to see that this isn’t true. Factors such as timing, vertical leap and physical strength also play an important factor in addition to height. The question stands however, does the 6ft Kolo Toure really provide us with much defence against the imposing strikers we struggled against last season? Interestingly, according to credible reports, Liverpool are also chasing Kyriakos Papadopoulos, also 6ft and in the physical mould of Toure. It seems Rodgers does not view height as an important factor in his team and defensive makeup and would much rather have defenders shorter in stature but more mobile to play his preferred system. This of course still raises the question of how we deal with the physical side of the game next season, and will be interesting to see how Rodgers overcomes this weakness.
Full of Full-backs?
An important part of the modern game, and especially in Rodgers philosophy, is the use of the full-backs. Rather than traditionally holding the defensive line, they are now expected to support the attack and particularly in a 4-3-3, provide the important width to stretch the opposing team horizontally. With Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique, Liverpool have two full-backs who love to get forward. Both are talented dribblers and possess a degree of pace, while both use their engine to track back and defend, so surely that’s perfect for Rodgers Liverpool?
The main issue they seem to have is their decision making. On their day they can easily be our best player and very capable at attacking and defending impressively, but both seem to fall in and out of form and can be frustrating to watch in terms of end product in an attacking sense. They are also both weak when it comes to crosses to the far post, with Glen Johnson in particular being caught out numerous times, being dominated in the air by opposing teams.
What will be interesting to see is where Martin Kelly fits in after recovering from an anterior cruciate ligament injury. Will he play right back and force Glen into the left-back position, or is Kelly a long-term center back option who is primarily covering and providing competition to Johnson? While Kelly may not have the attacking flair on Johnson he is certainly defensively stronger in the air, and may be something for Rodgers to consider, at least in the more physical games.
Most supporters would agree that our right back position is strong enough for a top 4 challenge, but lack of competition at left-back for Jose Enrique is an issue. When Enrique drifts out of form or has his biannual injury, we seem painfully short of options, as demonstrated by Stewart Downing having to provide cover early in the season. Quite a few fans are calling for better quality replacements, but globally there aren’t masses of quality in these positions that Liverpool could realistically obtain. Although competition and cover is needed in every position to have a consistent and successful season and the left-back position is no different. So far only a questionable link with Aly Cissokho has appeared to be a target, but hopefully Rodger’s will address this area with competition soon, whether this is by signing a player that is versatile to play there or is a specialist in that position.
Rodgers needs to address whether he wants to revert back to his preferred mantra or stick to what was successful last season. Ultimately, this is his biggest challenge in his career to date, and will shape both our defensive and all-round performance next season. Judging by his purchases so far, it seems that Liverpool will revert back to the split centre-back system and are after players who will be more suited to that role than the more cumbersome Coates and Skrtel. While the split-centreback system has positive ramifications in compressing the opposition’s midfield, the centre-backs will have to be mobile to be successful, and mobility and aerial dominance will be hard to find cheaply. Brendan also needs to improve our resilience to set pieces, and will be interesting to see whether this is addressed by a change of defensive organisation or by bringing in more aerially dominant defenders. Furthermore there needs to be added competition for the left-back position, so we are not exposed in Enrique’s absence.
Regardless of how Rodgers builds his defence, expect to see 1-2 more signings for our defence depending on outgoings. Lets just have faith that Rodgers is ready to tackle the thorn in the Liverpool side of last season. Next time Henderson slots the ball into the back of Arsenal’s net, let’s hope we come back with 3 points and hopefully a challenge for the lucrative Champions League positions and silverware.