By Andy Gargett
Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers are a work in progress.
It has not all been smooth sailing but Liverpool are heading in the right direction as Rodgers’ system is slowly being implemented. Results must now follow.
Dismantled: Arsenal (H)
Dismantled. It was cold and it was calculated as Arsenal left Anfield with two goals, a clean sheet and three points.
We’d controlled possession (53%-47%) and had almost double the goal attempts (19-11), yet Arsenal were deserved winners. It was simple. They sat and waited for us to force the ball in the final third. We’d turn it over exposing ourselves on the break – Cazorla and Diaby willingly obliged. This was vividly described by Rodgers in his recent interview with LFC bloggers & fansites including the Anfield Wrap. Amazingly Gerrard (24) and Suarez (22) conceded possession 46 times – once every two minutes. This wanton disregard for the ball allowed us to be picked off.
We weren’t helped by our lack of firepower – huff and puff but we couldn’t score. This becomes a destructive cycle. Goals breed confidence. Confidence in the system and being able to win having gone behind. Without goals anxiety grows and the ball is forced. Nor were we helped by Rodgers’ strong team selection against Hearts a few days earlier. Those backing up, particularly Gerrard, looked jaded.
Languishing with one point from a possible nine many were prematurely reading obituaries. As fans our pride was dented, and a sense of reality was imposed on us after the pre-season hype and the City performance. However like others, I have previously suggested that implementing Rodgers system will take time. I still adhere to this.
Suffering because of a dogged adherence to principle off the field we are short of attacking options. It had been the perfect storm – the market combined horribly with FSG’s refusal to sanction an extra few million on Dempsey and Rodgers’ reluctance to sign Sturridge on anything but a loan.
The challenge for Rodgers and his men was to adapt his vision to accommodate these realities as the system is bedded in.
Frustrating improvement: Sunderland (A)
Rodgers alluded to tinkering with the formation and system as Liverpool headed to the Stadium of Light in search of a maiden league win. The midfield remained a two and one with Gerrard in a deeper role than against Arsenal. In a desire to conjure more goals Borini was shifted centrally and Suarez wider. To an extent this did work – Suarez was less wasteful in possession and Borini had a couple of good chances in the first half. However, it took for Borini to be replaced and Suarez to shift back to the middle for the equaliser to come. Our profligacy in front of goal continued to haunt us. We had 23 attempts on goal with six on target. Sunderland on the other hand scored from their solitary effort on target.
Sunderland’s goal exposed one of Rodgers’ real dilemmas – the fullback positions. With Enrique out of sorts and favour Rodgers selected Johnson at left fullback and Kelly on the right. Johnson was again excellent as Liverpool went forward but his mistake led to the goal and he seems far less assured defensively from the left. Kelly whilst an excellent defender is not as adept as a footballing fullback that Rodgers’ system demands. It begs the question why is Rodgers weakening us in two positions to cover the one? To speculate Rodgers is “playing it safe”. Kelly provides defensive stability. I believe Rodgers needs to select two possession friendly, attacking fullbacks. This will accelerate our acclimatisation to the system, the fullbacks are pivotal to ball retention and width. And the “safe option” isn’t protecting us at the back as we keep conceding down Johnson’s defensive left flank. Here the pragmatic decision is the bold one.
Despite the ongoing concern at fullback, Liverpool’s adherence to the system was a marked improvement on Arsenal. Liverpool dominated the ball with 66% possession and an 88% pass completion rate. Allen cracked the ton with 103 completed passes out of 113 attempts. These are the sort of numbers Rodgers will want us to hit on a consistent basis if we are to cause “death by football”. Two statistics in particular reveal the extent of our dominance, we had the 14 top passing combinations and nine of the top ten players in terms of attacking third passes.
After going a goal down Liverpool were particularly impressive in terms of ball retention and control. The more we passed the more we pushed them back. Importantly we were patient – this was in stark contrast to the Arsenal performance. Coming out after half time we did not seem as anxious as the previous fixture. In the end our patient passing wore them out and we should have got a winner in the last 20, the best chance falling to Jonjo Shelvey who unfortunately couldn’t convert.
Unfortunately our dominance and application of the system could not secure us the win that we deserved. Profligacy in front of goal cost us again, one goal from 23 attempts is not good enough. More work is required here.
Running through barbed wire fences : Young Boys (A)
It was Young Boys versus younger boys as Rodgers backed up his words and entrusted the kids. In large part the youthful look to the team was forced upon Rodgers. With the small squad at his disposal he has to be pragmatic in his selections. The Arsenal game demonstrated the dangers of playing too many players midweek in Europe and again on the weekend in the league. Gerrard in particular should be confined to one game per week.
Helped by a comical first goal we hit our stride early. A similarly comical equaliser didn’t knock us out of that stride. Other than our defensive shambles the team just looked comfortable in every aspect of the game. In this regard the excellence of the youth can be contrasted to the struggles of Carra and Enrique.
Rodgers has said that “I believe a young player will run through a barbed wire fence for you. An older player looks for a hole in the fence, he’ll try and get his way through it some way, but the young player will fight for you.” I believe Rodgers is suggesting that young players are more likely to adapt to his football philosophy. This makes sense. Generally speaking young players will more readily adapt to a new system than experienced ones, they have fewer engrained habits and a greater appetite to learn. This buy in is undoubtedly an influencing factor, however credit also has to go to Rafa and his overhaul of the Academy. In time it could be regarded as his greatest legacy. The players coming through the youth system are immersed in possession-oriented football. As Frank McParland told Sachin Nakrani:
The programme introduced in 2009 is the Spanish way, which is about pressing hard, working hard, keeping the ball and being comfortable in possession. All the coaches here work to the same plan….
We have an established style in regards to how we play and it’s not far away from what Brendan wants to do with the first-team.
The younger players look more comfortable in the system because they are far more acclimatised to it than others in the squad.
The game ended a thoroughly entertaining 5:3 which in fairness flattered Young Boys. Importantly we were far more efficient in front of goal than we have previously been this season, converting five of our 12 shots. This must become the norm rather than the exception.
Henderson, a regular under Kenny who has found himself down the pecking order this season, was particularly impressive. He worked well with Sahin, controlling the game from midfield, completing 76 passes, making five interceptions and two assists. He was not alone Suso and Assiaidi were also very impressive. The young players coming through are talented and suit the system. Our squad size, and Rodgers willingness to play them, will mean they will get more opportunities than they would otherwise get – fast tracking their development.
A bitter sweet loss: Manchester United (H)
Rodgers selected an expected Liverpool side as United headed to Anfield for an emotional occasion. Johnson remained at left fullback with Kelly on the right and Gerrard was again alongside Allen in midfield with Shelvey further forward.
To get the elephant in the room out of the way Halsey had a howler. This is area where we need to improve. As has been argued on the Anfield Wrap in recent weeks, Liverpool players have to get alongside the referee, a la Paul Scholes, and officiate the game for them. Like it or not it’s part and parcel of intelligent football.
Back to the game United were underserving winners. John Gibbons recently cited a damning statistic which he thought came from @DanKennett – Liverpool take the most shots to score and the least shots to concede in the league. This trend continued, United scored from two of their three shots on target (including the dodgy penalty), whereas we scored one from six.
Gerrard was superb in midfield. However our woes in front goal, and his ruthless finishing warrant serious consideration to pushing him up into the front three. The Shelvey send off and three game suspension might hinder this move. However, Rodgers was rewarded for his boldness in bringing Suso on after halftime. We have depth in midfield and Rodgers needs to be bold again.
Finishing aside, we saw the most complete implementation of the Rodgers philosophy to date (subsequently superseded by West Brom and Norwich). We controlled the game. It was stark with 11 men and largely continued after the red card. Our passing was again improved. Only one of our 91 passes in our defensive third was misplaced and despite playing with ten men for almost an hour we had the majority of possession (52%) with a pass completion rate of 85%.
It’s called pass and move for a reason, the two are mutually dependent. Our improved passing was a direct result of more intelligent and fluid movement. We operated as a cohesive unit moving to create angles for passes. Our best chance in the first half came when Borini was put through cutting in from wide. It was graphic example of the impact of collective movement. There is still work to be done though. Movement in the final third must improve. Too often the ball is put across the box with no one on the end of it. Players need to roll the dice and get into goal scoring positions.
Our pressing reinforced the possession football. Here it was smarter pressing than previously. Pressing for the sake of pressing makes you vulnerable on the counter. We pressed hard at opportune moments – immediately after turnovers or when the ball was not under control etc. This pressured United and forced them to cede the ball. The clearance statistics are revealing. Johnson at fourth, snuck in alongside the United back four in the top five for clearances. United were forced into a clearance every 2.3 minutes with only 60.5% efficiency, compared to Liverpool who had to clear every 5 minutes with a 77.2% efficiency. The contrast is stark.
For mine the most disappointing aspect of the performance was our response to our goal. We immediately sat off and invited them unto us. It only took United five minutes of pressure for United to equalise. We sat back when we should of kept the ball, something we had already proved more than capable of doing on the day. Part of a winning mentality is the response to goals both for and against.
Despite losing to our bitter rivals on our own patch, leaving us with two points from 15, the Kop sang Rodgers’ name for the first time. Evidence enough of the noticeable strides forward in implementing the system.
It clicks: West Brom (A)
As expected Rodgers again made the pragmatic decision to play the kids. Remarkably Jamie Carragher made his 707th appearance, which was 555 more than the rest of the starting 11 combined. A very shaky first ten minutes aside the old pro performed admirably.
Being punished for mistakes has been a constant thorn for Rodgers’ Liverpool. When Jones flapped at an early West Brom free kick, this trend continued as Liverpool went one nil down.
The response was uber impressive. We worked into the game via deep possession, gradually ratcheting our way up the pitch, forcing them deeper and deeper. Sahin’s equaliser, whilst a howler by Foster was on the end of patient yet persistent pressure. Liverpool had a slick passing rhythm with an impressive 93.5% accuracy. The movement off the ball was a further step on from the United game. Yesil was excellent dropping deep creating space in behind him and he also made a number of runs across the front post.
The midfield controllers did just that – controlled the game. Henderson (80 passes at 93.75% completion rate) and the hugely impressive Sahin (98 at 92.86%) ran the show attempting 31% of our passes. This is the sort of midfield dominance the system needs. This in turn enabled Assiadi to isolate the West Brom fullback, whom he gave a torrid time. Like Sterling he can take players whilst simultaneously placing a premium on possession.
During the game the commentator stated that the ball “keeps coming back to Liverpool”. He made it sound as if this was by accident. It was not. It is what is supposed to happen – passing & pressing in perfect synchronisation. West Brom, on the other hand, looked panicked and rushed. When the ball was turned over we pressed hard and more often than not we’d win it back and recycle our way up the pitch again. Control in action. Rodgers called it “relentless possession”.
Selecting two possession friendly fullbacks assisted the ball retention. Wisdom looked at home and Robinson was especially impressive completing 50 of his 51 attempted passes. I hope Kelly’s injury, whilst tragic, forces Rodgers’ to shift Johnson back right and blood Robinson. All in all the defensive aspect of our game was improved. Lukaku looked the only threat. Again the system in operation countered this. Our possession and control constricted his impact as we chocked his supply.
When the late winner finally came it was a win for the system itself. In my opinion this is the archetypical Rodgers goal. You pass until you stretch the defence, then exploit the holes that have been created and ensure runners arrive into the box. This time it was Suso’s excellent run driving at the West Brom defence, dropping his shoulder, he found Assiadi whose excellent square ball hit Sahin for a tap in. This Liverpool side without significant goal threat will need to score such goals on a consistent basis.
As the youth again seized the opportunity provided to them by Rodgers, the message is coming loud and clear – if you are good enough you will get your opportunity. This must bring renewed optimism and enthusiasm across the squad. It certainly is among the fans.
This fluid performance can be juxtaposed with the loss on the first day of the season. It marked a huge mental hurdle, winning a game having gone a goal down. Questions rightly have been asked in this regard. Rodgers’ Swansea had been poor, as have Liverpool having not come from behind to win a league game since Bolton in ’09. Against West Brom the response was a patient application of the philosophy. This win will breed confidence.
However it remained a Cup game, and we won from behind on more than one occasion during our impressive Cup runs last year. And it was won by the kids. Perhaps they don’t have the same mental fragility as some of our senior players? Or perhaps they have more faith in the philosophy? Perhaps both.
Death by football: Norwich (A)
The stage was set – Liverpool had do start getting results in the league. Encouraging performances and wins in the Cups are no tonic for league points. It’s crazy to say this fives games in but Norwich was a must win fixture.
With Kelly injured, doubts over Borini and Shelvey suspended the manager had to make changes. Rodgers opted with Wisdom over Robinson at fullback, ensuring Johnson continued on the left. As previously argued I’d prefer to see Johnson shift to his natural right side. Following his midweek man of the match performance Sahin was drafted into midfield and the impressive Suso was handed his first start in the league playing on the right of the front three.
And the team took up exactly where the youngsters left off against West Brom with Suarez scoring a superb opener after just two minutes. From that moment on the game was all Liverpool. There was a real fluidity in midfield. Sahin was notionally the most advanced however he and Gerrard interchanged frequently and Suso was dropped into deep and more central positions. This constant movement created passing options which were readily and patiently accepted. We passed and we passed some more – it was total dominance. The statistics were impressive. In racking up 67% possession Liverpool completed 631 of 700 at an accuracy of 90% and had the 18 highest passing combinations.
The goals they came. Suarez was rampant scoring three and had the most stonewalled penalty shout you’ll ever see turned down. Liverpool fans should accept that Suarez will never earn another penalty. He also could have had a few more including the sitter he missed just prior to his second. Thankfully however Liverpool were fare more clinical in front of goal than previous outings. The five goals came from six shots on target and 16 efforts in total. Most encouraging of all was that two goals came from midfield with the excellent Sahin netting his third in two games and Gerrard also scored in consecutive games.
Gerrard’s goal was particularly pleasing. It came on the end of 21 completed passes. This is death by football. Gerrard for that matter was excellent again. Only Joe Allen (91 of 95) completed more passes than Gerrard (83 of 93) and his play complemented the system. It looks as if the penny has dropped. If the goals continue to flow and Gerrard continues to fit into the system there will be no need to move him further forward, as I’ve previously advocated. Despite another impressive display fromLiverpool’s new Mr Consistency, Joe Allen didn’t stand out to the same extent as in previous games. This reveals more about his teammates acclimatisation to the system than it does the diminutive Welshman.
The only negative from the game is a continuing one – defensive instability. Six leagues games in we are still in search of a clean sheet. This must improve and fast. A very poor Norwich put two past us and it could have been more. The defensive fragility stems errors and an inability to find the right balance from a defensive perspective in midfield. The team is clearly adjusting well to the possession-oriented aspected of Rodgers system. Rectifying the defensive side of the game is an essential next step on the journey.
Putting the defensive concerns to the side the Norwich performance was what the philosophy should be against lesser sides. Liverpool controlled the game from start to finish and systemically dismantled their inferior opponents. Beating the bottom half has been a standing concern for years. One can only hope that this type of performance becomes the norm.
A step to the side: Udinese (H)
Returning to Anfield after two impressive away wins, including a maiden league victory, the excitement was palpable. With the league game on the weekend also at home, Rodgers selected a stronger squad then the Young Boys fixture, however it was still a second string side, Reina, Johnson and Allen aside. The bench though largely comprised of the remaining first team not in the starting 11. That Sterling and Suso (who was not in the match day squad) were being rested demonstrates their rapid integration into the first team.
The game was a 90 minute encapsulation of where Rodgers’ Liverpool is at. Since the let down at Arsenal tangible steps forward have been taken. The ability to exert control over a game has improved with each performance. The first half against Udinese was a lesson in the art of control – leading 1:0 with 77.9% possession at 94% passing accuracy with nine shots on goal. The ball and our players were in total harmony stretching the opposition as we moved with fluidity across the pitch. Shelvey’s goal was class and of the Rodgers archetype described above. Following the goal we kept the ball and exerted our will on the game.
From the off the second half was a different story and our defensive fragility was exposed. Mistakes were punished and we were vulnerable on the break, as Udinese equalised just after half time. The failure to replace the defensive side of Lucas’ game has become an endemic issue. The horizontal cover that he provides across the back four is continually missed. Allen for all of his attributes is defensively exposed at times. The gaps behind the midfield were exacerbated when Henderson, who been doing a lot of grafting, was replaced by Gerrard as Rodgers took the bold move of bring him and Suarez on in an effort win the game. Before they could make an impact we were hit twice in quick succession to go 3:1 down. The second goal was a Coates own goal from a set piece, which we were troubled by throughout the game, a big concern heading into Stoke fixture.
Liverpool hit back from the Udinese’s smash and grab job reasonably well. We regained possession. The passing, was slightly more rapid and forced, but it was not headless chicken stuff. Unfortunately we could not muster an equaliser following Suarez’s superb free kick which made it 3:2. It was a game Liverpool should never have lost – 757 passes to 241, 20 to eight in terms of efforts on goal and eight to three for shots on target. Our woes in front of goal appear to have eased, although there is still a need to be more clinical. However most importantly we must stiffen our resistance and make it harder for teams to score. After the game Rodgers described our defending as lazy, loose and sloppy. He was correct. In 11 games this season we’ve conceded 20 goals and securing only one clean sheet. Rectifying the defensive side of the game must now occupy the manager’s attention as this work in progress develops.
Frustrated: Stoke (H)
It was no surprise that Rodgers opted for the side that had dismantled Norwich. Stoke’s approach was also no surprise. As Paul Tomkins pointed out, Stoke’s plan was to disrupt Liverpool through persistent fouling. It took Liverpool about 25 minutes to find anything that resembled rhythm. Referee Lee Mason was MIA as operation anti-football was implemented. To a large extent the disruption work as Liverpool, despite dominating the possession (63.5%), failed to control the game. Our passing accuracy dropped to 81%, equal lowest of the league campaign.
In the face of Stoke’s physicality we needed to keep the ball – patient possession to wear them down and to suck them up the pitch creating spaces to pass through and around. Unfortunately it was not on display and the forcing of the ball was more reminiscent of Arsenal when it needed to be West Brom. There was some patient and fluid build up play that created an opening just before the break but unfortunately it was the exception not the rule. Compounding matters Stoke’s dogged reputation appeared to create an anxiety that rushed our approach play. Our lack of cutting edge came back to haunt us, a number of chances were spurned and the woodwork was struck four times. With each chance missed anxiety grew. The anxiety was like a downward spiral – the play was disjointed so we forced the play more. Forcing it the final third was also a by-product of, and a contributor to, Suarez’s isolation as the link up play was not as fluent as it has been recently.
Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez are the two Liverpool players most capable of breaking a tight game open. Great when they are on and plugging into the system, the issue is their imposition on that system when slightly off the boil. This was case in point. Gerrard with his pass to Johnson and Suarez his mazy dribble provided the game’s two moments of real class. Yet as against Arsenal the pair were culpable of conceding possession. Gerrard turned the ball over 36 times with a 73% passing accuracy, 16 of his 22 misplaced passes were in the final third. And Suarez attempted 16 dribbles with only seven successful. The two are superstars who and a huge asset to the football club, but these talents need to be maximised within the system. Their impressive recent form indicates that this is more than possible. The challenge is to ensure when things aren’t working they focus on doing the simple things well.
The real positive of the game was that defensively the team much stronger. Agger was immense. However it still took good stops from Reina to save blushes following mistakes from both Sahin & Reina himself. We cannot afford to keep having these defensive lapses. That aside a clean sheet is something to savour.
We are still far off from where we need to be and there will be many bumps along the way. Moving forward one of Rodgers tasks will be ensuring the philosophy is implemented so that it can outmanoeuvre more physical and defensive opposition like Stoke. There is little room for complacency and a run of results is urgently needed, however I think Liverpool Football Club is heading in the right direction.
Get on board.