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Being Liverpool: In-Depth Season Tactical Analysis, Following Their Near Brilliant Campaign

An in-depth look at the Reds’ tactical set-up…

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Liverpool are top of the Premier League as it stands. However, following Monday night’s draw with Crystal Palace, having been 3-0 up with 12 minutes to go, it looks like Manchester City will overtake them and secure a second title in three years.

Title or no title though, Liverpool have won the hearts of many a neutral this term with their slick, energetic, attacking football.

Here’s how it looks, how it works, why it has worked, and why it sometimes doesn’t…

Brendan Rodgers’ tactical plan…

After experimenting with a wing-back formation to accommodate an old-fashioned strike pairing of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, Rodgers began to consistently play with one of these two tactics around Christmas time…

Both are extremely flexible, and encourage endless movement and interchangeable positions. In fact, it has not been uncommon for Rodgers to switch between the two during matches – and the players seem to have developed the tactical awareness to change seamlessly.

Liverpool will either start with a diamond formation, which usually sees Raheem Sterling at the top of a midfield four, or with a 4-3-3, which is widely used throughout the Premier League.

Here’s roughly what they look like:
The diamond:
LLL - Football tactics and formations

The 4-3-3:

LLL2 - Football tactics and formations

Why it works…

As shown in the infographics, Rodgers uses his captain Steven Gerrard to anchor the side. He actually drops so deep that he’s often the closest player to Simon Mignolet in goal.

This is the base of the team, and it enables Gerrard to dictate tempo, while providing Liverpool the platform from which the rest of the players can perform.

The position maximises Gerrard’s attributes. While the 33-year-old can no longer patrol the entire pitch like he used to, he has the time and space to play zipped balls into midfield, or more raking, sprayed passes to one of the attackers, who all drift wide and look for space.

In this respect, the idea that Liverpool’s football is akin to a Barcelona-esque ‘tika-taka’ approach is a myth. The Reds average only 53% of possession this season, which is less than Southampton, Swansea and Manchester United. Their average pass length is 19 metres, higher than six other top flight sides. They are happy to play directly when the time is right, and with the pace of Sturridge and Sterling, a specifically targeted long ball is often used to stretch the opposition.

Rodgers does like his side to keep the ball, however, and he deploys technically gifted midfielders alongside Gerrard to help the team do this. Coutinho has superb feet, and Joe Allen is equally capable of retaining the ball in tight areas. Liverpool can both ware out opponents by keeping the ball for long periods, and by stretching them with clever, killer, longer passes. As a result, opponents are worried to press Liverpool too tightly, as this means more space is left in behind for the Reds to exploit.

While Jordan Henderson is proving this season that he’s capable of creating chances (he’s made more than any other English player in the top flight), his main job is to play the ball simply, while providing endless box-to-box energy. The side has badly missed his drive, enthusiasm and hassling of opponents during his three match suspension – that was probably equally important to Liverpool losing to Chelsea as Gerrard’s untimely slip was.

Even when Rodgers is deploying the diamond, the side doesn’t lack width. Johnson and Flanagan spend as much time in the opposition half as they do their own, and either Suarez, Sterling or Sturridge will move wide and hug the touchline – which drags out a defender and creates more space centrally.

While the midfield is the heartbeat of the side, the front three are arguably the most potent attacking force in European football right now. (Although the Real Madrid trio of Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema have a strong case for this title as well.)

Suarez is as creatively exceptional as he is ruthless in front of goal, Sterling’s pace and trickery gives defenders nightmares, and Sturridge’s finishing is usually clinical. They’re practically unmarkable too, as Rodgers gives each the licence to pick up space wherever he likes, which all three do to devastating effect.

When they don’t have the ball, every player in the team is charged with the responsibility of winning it back. The strikers press the ball all the time, and the midfielders hunt to win it back in packs. Often, you’ll see an opponent with three Liverpool players surrounding him, restricting his time and his passing options.

When it works…

Well, most of the time, to be fair.

The Reds are especially effective in the first-half of matches, however. Their ruthlessly intense pressing of the opposition leads to the team being able to attack an unorganised defence. This works best in the first-half, when the Liverpool players are fresh and the opponents have yet to get into the flow of the game. The first twenty minutes of Liverpool’s match with Arsenal earlier in the season, that saw the team 4-0 up having hit the woodwork twice, proves this. In fact, no other side in Premier League history has scored as many first-half goals (60) as Rodgers’ outfit have this campaign.

When Liverpool take an early lead, the opposition can usually expect a long afternoon. While the Reds have proved they can let opposing sides back into matches through sloppy defending, they love playing teams that try desperately to score. When the opposition commit men forward, Liverpool’s pace and movement in attack is maximised – meaning the passing ability of Gerrard and co. in the centre can be used to best measure.

The flaws…

While Liverpool’s set-up has been heavily praised in the media this season, it has its flaws, proved by the recent results against Chelsea and Crystal Palace. When opponents sit very deep, and Liverpool don’t score early on, they can – occasionally – look short of ideas.

Rodgers is adamant that his side don’t need a Plan B, which pretty much translates as ‘having a big man to come off the bench to lump it up to’.

This is not a problem, provided the opponents are not deploying an ultra defensive style. Chelsea for example, were happy for Liverpool to have the ball – but refused to give Sturridge or Sterling any space in behind whatsoever. As a result, the side couldn’t use its pace, and there was nowhere for Gerrard to direct his long passes. This meant that all too often, they tried to play hugely ambitious ‘eye of a needle’ through-balls, which increased in regularity alongside the team’s frustration.

Another flaw is that without ample players in the squad capable of performing the necessary duties, injuries and suspensions cause a big problem. Henderson has been badly missed, and Lucas doesn’t offer anything like the creativity or drive when he’s in the side instead. The Reds have been lucky that Suarez has been fit all season, and while Sturridge has proven he can lead the line on his own, Rodgers’ knows that he needs proper backup for his brilliant Uruguayan with a Champions League campaign imminent next term.

While this isn’t necessarily a tactical point, the Reds also lack players with Premier League title winning experience. This was proven by the nervousness of the entire team against Chelsea, and the foolish throwing away of a three goal lead versus Palace.

Mignolet is capable of making an error, and Skrtel, Sakho and backups Toure and Agger are equally capable of messing up in central defence. The Reds have conceded 49 goals, which would be the highest ever for a side that won the Premier League title. Arguably the main problem though is not the defensive ability of the centre-backs, but the fact that Johnson and Flanagan are so occupied offensively they leave space at the back. Rodgers likes his fullbacks to get forward and attack, but when a side is 3-0 up away from home in a match they desperately need to win, most managers would at least remind his fullbacks to focus on their defensive duties as a priority. Again, the Reds perhaps showed their title winning naivety in continuing to attack Palace when the game was already won. This let the Eagles back into the game, who gladly accepted, and probably ended Liverpool’s title hopes in turn.

Next term will be a true test of Liverpool, and Rodgers’ tactical mettle. Teams will know how they set up, and they’ll be competing in the Champions League too – meaning legs will be a little less fresh come Saturday afternoon…

While the flaws have been noted, it’s important to remind fans of both Liverpool and their rivals that they finished seventh last season, and have lit up the Premier League with breathtakingly good looking football virtually every weekend this term.

Sadly for the Reds though, that isn’t always what wins titles. Although it will no doubt win them a few more admirers along the way.

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