By Joe Simpson
I HAVE always had a love and fascination with pace in sport – perhaps because I never had any. I can remember that even as a teenager on FIFA I would set my teams up against my mates with a front three of Ronaldo (the original and best), George Weah and J McDonald (from the American league although his stats were so bad he may have been Jim McDonald from Corrie).
Yes, my obsession with pace up front was so bad that I had a player on the right of my world XI who was:
a) Unknown to me outside the computer game and may not even have existed in real life (no room for romance or sentiment).
b) Aside from pace and acceleration was poor to average at best in every other attribute.
My utilization of the three fastest players up front was very effective with me generally beating my friends as my tactics of three good harriers/passers in midfield winning the ball and supplying quick through balls to my uncatchable front three was hard to combat.
My son tells me that in the gaming world this is now known as pace abuse.
It is, apparently, a widely frowned upon tactic due to it’s basic simplicity and ruthless effectiveness and that it goes against the soul of the game.
However, I (being an old romantic) just respond by telling him it was within the rules of the game and winners are always hated.
Pace is equally as important and effective in real life sport with trainers in every sport encouraging it in their athletes and praising its effectiveness. Mike Tyson said the legendary Cus D’Amato would tell him over and over again that “speed kills, speed is what kills, the speed kills.“
Pace as an effective concept also translates extremely well to team sports with Al Davis, the legendary late Raiders owner and GM, being perhaps the ultimate advocate of the value of speed in team sports with Hunter S. Thompson crediting him with being the first person to use the “speed kills” saying in a sporting context.
Al Davis said that “speed kills. You can’t teach speed. Everything else in the game can be taught, but speed is a gift from God.”
Davis was obsessed with speed and wanted to create a team so fast that “the opposing defense goes to bed the night before the game knowing, fearing that they will be facing somebody who can beat them deep on any play.”
Davis recognised that beyond the practical effects of an extremely fast team, pace could also have powerful psychological effects, saying in the book Fire in the Iceman by Tom Flores and Frank Cooney that he wanted the other team to “stay awake all night worrying about it.”
Extreme pace properly applied is an equally dangerous weapon in football. It is arguably even more dangerous considering the comparative lack of pace in defences in football.
Alan Hansen has eulogised pace – and power – so much that it has now become funny, but the fact such a great defender was so fixated on pace in players tells you all you need to know about how effective a weapon it can be.
Gary Pallister supported Hansen’s belief in the danger posed by pace saying that “the best strikers are the ones who prompt opposing defences to change their normal style of play, and usually the strikers who come into that category are the ones who are quickest.”
One player who could certainly make any team change their defensive style of play to deal with him was Luis Suarez.
Suarez was such a gifted and multi-skilled player that he could make an opposition team change their defensive style of play in numerous ways.
However, one of the few attributes he did not have was extreme pace. He was not slow by any means, but he did not have searing pace to trouble the fastest defenders in a footrace, As we know he still had enough pace to leave Jagielka trailing but you get my point.
If as suspected Rodgers replaces Suarez indirectly (nobody can directly replace Suarez and he will be playing a different position in the team) with Lazar Markovic, then Liverpool may be accepting that they cannot replace Suarez’s genius. But they can upgrade him in one significant area – perhaps the only area in keeping with his tactical approach – by replacing him with a player who is significantly faster, as Markovic while technically gifted in his own right, has searing pace as his standout attribute.
Perhaps this is Rodgers’ way of taking the Apollo Creed approach?
In Rocky III, Apollo recognised that Rocky did not have the power nor aggression to compete with Clubber Lang so he re-worked his style, concentrating almost exclusively on improving Balboa’s speed to make up for what he lacked elsewhere in his armory.
Perhaps Brendan is doing something similar, concentrating on improving our speed to compensate for the loss of Suarez’s unique skillset.
If Brendan is using the Rocky III option, I just hope that doesn’t mean we’re going to see Brendan racing Colin Pascoe down Crosby beach in crop tops exposing his midriff (although the way his mid-life makeover is going that’s not beyond the realms of possibility).
The Markovic signing could perhaps see us move from having more of a variety of threats in our front three (with Suarez providing something completely different to Sturridge and Sterling) to a front line that now has three players whose prime attribute (amongst many other attributes) is pace.
Whether this can be as effective as the previous front three remains to be seen (although admittedly that is unlikely).
But regardless of this, that Liverpool (who were already very fast in attack) will now have one of the fastest front lines in world football – certainly the fastest in the Premier League – is an extremely exciting prospect. Markovic is extremely fast and Sterling and Sturridge were both ranked in the top 10 fastest players at the World Cup.
Moreover Markovic, Sturridge and Sterling aren’t just fast. Outright pace, while useful, is not nearly as important in football (where most runs are less than 40 yards) as change of pace.
All three of these players combine extreme pace with great acceleration. Sterling in particular – to steal a line from the great Tim Vickery – has acceleration like the Millenium Falcon.
The importance of combining pace with acceleration in sport was perhaps best summed up by the famous American Athletics coach Carl Valle who said that whilst speed kills “…acceleration is the mass murderer of sport.”
By now you probably think I am obsessed by speed, but in my defence I would argue that I like speed as much as the next man – if that next man is Al Davis, Maverick or Goose.
Despite my speed obsession, though, I am under no illusions that it is a footballing panacea. Pace without the intelligence and ability to use it properly is an erratic and often useless weapon as we found on many occasions with Djibril Cisse.
Sturridge and Sterling have shown throughout last season that they are very intelligent footballers who know exactly how to use their pace to devastating effect.
Moreover Markovic whilst perhaps not yet at their level of footballing intelligence has shown the ability to play as a wide player and a number 10 showing in both roles that he can adapt and successfully use his pace.
All three will further develop their awareness of how and when to use their pace (and their other gifts) under the excellent coaching of Brendan Rodgers.
It must also be acknowledged that a fast front three without players with the ability and desire to supply them with quality through balls would be somewhat redundant.
Luckily in Steven Gerrard and Coutinho we have two players who excel at providing through-balls for pacy players.
Despite playing with players as gifted as Xavi and Iniesta, I would be surprised if Fernando Torres rates either as highly as Gerrard in this respect.
Of course, Gerrard is no longer performing these passes as regularly as he used to, but he is still more than capable of executing them,when the chance arises, as he showed on several occasions last season.
Coutinho on the other hand is at the other end of his career and his statistics in this regard are breathtaking considering his age.
He has made the fourth highest through balls of any player in the Premier League in the last two seasons (Andrew Beasley), which has resulted in him having the seventh highest number of clear cut chances created (Dan Kennett) in the Premier League last year.
If he can, with the help of Rodgers, add consistency to his game (particularly in terms of home and away effectiveness) then in conjunction with our new front three he could be devastating.
Moreover, Liverpool as a team in general is already very adept at creating via through balls with Coutinho, Sturridge, Gerrard, Henderson, and Sterling among the top 20 for accurate through balls last season (oh you beauty (@natefc) and this is only likely to improve with the addition of another extremely fast player in Lazar Markovic.
So clearly Liverpool have both the runners up front and the passers in midfield to supply them with the quality through balls they need.
However as we know every action has an equal and opposite reaction and that amount of pace will almost certainly see teams parking full bus stations against us. This is a challenge undoubtedly but it is one we have already successfully faced to some degree and make no mistake whilst I am continually eulogising about the pace of our new front three they all have much more to their game – these are extremely gifted footballers who also happen to be great athletes rather than the other way round.
Moreover, aside from sheer pace, these three footballers have one other gift that will prove particularly useful in these tight games when teams defend with a low block: they each have the ability to beat a man one on one.
As this is arguably the most important attribute to have when facing low block teams and as teams rarely have three players in their front line who can do this we should be able to break down these packed defences.
The opposition’s deep defence will also give opportunities for the likes of Lallana to use his own dribbling skills or long range shooting to help us break these teams down.
Alongside this we now also have Rickie Lambert who can provide a plan B in the box with his aerial threat whilst also helping with plan A, as he is another lover of a good through ball. No player in the Premier League attempted more through balls than him in the last two seasons (Andrew Beasley).
Once we break teams down – and I am extremely confident we will be able to do so with the number of options we have – and they then begin to open up, then with the pace of that front line and the creative players at our disposal we should be able to absolutely marmalize teams on the break.
To paraphrase our captain, if you have to attack and leave space behind for that front three “All the best!”