Two new full-backs arrived at Anfield this summer and Spanish duo Alberto Moreno and Javier Manquillo will give Liverpool a new dimension to their game. Mahesh M. gives a thorough analysis.
Ask any Liverpool supporter why we lost the league last season and you will likely be told a melancholy tale of how the defence let us down. You’ll perhaps be given a tactical breakdown of how having full-backs who push forward and attack means that a lot of space is left behind to be exploited.
I wouldn’t argue with the fact that had we not conceded so many goals, 50, we would have probably have won the league. But how sure are you about the whole full-backs pushing forward theory?
Sure Brendan Rodgers loves, even requires, of his full-backs to push forward and supplement the attack, but how much “supplementing” do you think really happened. So let’s put the rampaging full-backs theory to test shall we?
First up we have the theory that our full-backs get forward really well. If so, there must be some output to it? Goals and assists are the two metrics by which you test the offensive output of any player, so let’s take a look.
For all the attacking play of Glen Johnson, his net output of zero goals and two assists is the lowest amongst the regular full-backs of the top 4 of the Premier League. He performed better under Rafa and, believe it or not, Hodgson – both of whose tactics were considerably more conservative compared to Rodgers. In his entire career at Liverpool he has provided only a total of 7 goals and 10 assists.
Jon Flanagan performs marginally better by scoring the memorable goal against Tottenham but only provided a single assist. However comparing Jon, a squad player, to Johnson who is supposedly famed for his attacking prowess is, in my opinion, unfair.
Next up, let’s measure crosses. Johnson completed 5 of his 51 attempted crosses. Getting to the byline and fizzing in a low cross doesn’t require a big burly centre-forward, that is the type of cross I would say a quick instinctive player like Daniel Sturridge feeds on. The table below shows how Johnson and Flanagan stack up against the other attacking fullbacks in the top 4. You can quite clearly see the difference in output here.
What about Johnson’s dribbling then? Well here’s some more bad news, he was dispossessed 34 of the 80 times he attempted to dribble. That’s a staggering 42.5% of the times he tried, he failed. Our other regular full-back, Flanagan, completed just 15 dribbles but got dispossessed 24 times.
You may say, that despite these statistics, what’s important is that they are there high up the pitch providing us options; they go wide and they look for space so we can retain possession; they don’t look to cross, or dribble but are there out wide to provide options. Which would require them to be able to receive a pass under pressure.
Johnson turned over possession a total of 33 times last season. It is, and I checked and double checked, the highest for any full-back in the league.
Flanagan fared better with only 19 turnovers but that’s probably because he was not that involved in the play. How do I know? Because the total passes he received were much lesser.
You may, at this point tell me there’s lies, there’s dammed lies and then there’s statistics. “Statistics show only half the picture”. Well to tell you the truth I’m not much of a statistics man myself either.
I believe there are too many abstract concepts in football that you can’t measure. But ask yourself how many times have you seen Simon Mignolet play the ball out and Johnson not being able to control it? That is how we play. We invite the opponent to press our centre-backs high up the pitch and lob it to our full-backs near the halfway line. That is how when our opponent commits players higher up the pitch to press, space opens up between the lines.
I remember one game against Arsenal in the days when Nuri Sahin was still in the team and the new look Rodgers team was still in its infancy, we started well and were playing well and on top for about 15 minutes. Then Arsene Wenger had a word with Sagna and then suddenly the momentum started shifting and they eventually won the match. Reason? Sagna won almost every header against Jose Enrique for the rest of the game. So when Reina would kick the ball out after a wave of an Arsenal press, Sagna would win it and we would lose possession.
How many times have we watched Gerrard play a long diagonal pass to Johnson and him not being able to control it or watch the defender intercept it in front of him? Agreed sometimes it is Gerrard’s mistake but so many of the times it is Johnson who is unable to control it. This a huge reason why we lose our attacking impetus.
We hear analysts talk about moving the opposition and shifting the ball quicker, this is one of the best ways to do so. Players obviously move towards the ball and the formation of the entire defending team tries to shift to the side where the ball is to prevent overloads.
So when the ball comes back to Gerrard he needs a full-back who is higher up the pitch, in space, and who can control the ball quickly to exploit the space. Losing possession here not only means we are lose our attacking impetus but we are caught with numbers committed forward with the opposition breaking at Gerrard and two central defenders.
And that’s not where this ends. The worst part of it all is, having attacking full-backs doesn’t necessarily mean we lose defensive stability. Take for example our friends across Stanley Park – who I consider having the best full-backs in the league – play a similar attacking football with full-backs pressing high up.
Leighton Baines, who scored 5 and set up 4 last season, lost possession twice and got back to make a whopping 92 tackles last season. On the other side Seamus Coleman bagged 6 goals and two assists, dribbled past players 64 times and yet somehow found it in himself to track back and make 71 tackles. The Bitters ended up conceding only 39 goals despite their defence consisting of Sylvain Distin. Credit where credit is due though, Flanagan made some excellent tackles out of his total of 79.
This is why our new full-backs will, I believe, be the most crucial factor in deciding how our season pans out.
The early signs are encouraging to say the least. Both Alberto Moreno and Javier Manquillo are ready and willing to tackle further up the pitch. They are not just good at the tackling bit, they are willing to get into scrappy tackles and go in aggressively.
Moreno has made 8 tackles in his 2 games, while Manquillo has already made 10 tackles this season. Johnson, comparatively, has yet to open his account after 170 odd minutes of football. I’ll give you a moment for that to sink in.
One very satisfying thing I noticed in the last 2 matches was that Moreno was one of the highest players on the pitch directly off defending corners. With his pace this can only lead to more glorious goals.
The full-backs were also quicker to come out to meet the player receiving the ball. Ideally you want to be in a position where you can pressure the attacker just as he takes his first touch. That way you don’t go in too early that he turns you and yet you get there to capitalise on any lose touches. This also means he doesn’t get the time to easily turn and start running at you.
Alberto Moreno: Tackles v/s Spurs:
Yet another noticeable thing this season was that full-backs mark the opposition wingers with a midfielder sticking to the opposition full-back no matter who is where. This leads to a better skill match, I feel.
Indeed, when Moreno won the ball off Townsend for his goal, their full-back Eric Dier was near the penalty area but tracked by Joe Allen. And let’s not forget, in Moreno we finally have a full-back who can actually run with the ball.
It is so refreshing to watch a Liverpool full-back gallop into space with the ball. This is especially good when playing the diamond as the two centre-backs will try to cover the runs of the two forwards. When your full-backs win the ball higher up the pitch, having no winger gives them free space ahead to make a run. The defenders are forced make a decision as to whether to come out and try to stop you or stick with the striker.
While three games into the season is too soon to be analysing trends, I believe this is the template of what is to come and it look refreshing to see us actually use full-backs more effectively. This is a completely new facet to our game and can help us maybe go one up over last season. Here’s to a wonderful season of football.