SPEAKING to Neil the day after the defeat to Manchester United, he said that as the minutes drifted away at Anfield on Sunday he couldn’t help but feel like he had been watching the same game all season. I know how he feels and Jürgen Klopp will, too. Again Liverpool had more possession. Again Liverpool had “control”. Again Liverpool lost.
It’s not just Liverpool, of course. It is part of a wider narrative of a season that sees Leicester City joint top of the table, playing a style of football a million miles away from the one we have spent the best part of the last 10 years hearing should be the template for the future of the game.
We are good at this in England. Ripping up the manual to try to copy the latest fad in football. In 2012, we were at the peak of tika-taka transformation. The year Liverpool found the biggest advocate of possession-based football in the Premier League and, despite his inexperience and a lack of trophies on his CV, gave him the top job at Anfield.
Brendan Rodgers was a man keen to discuss his footballing philosophy and how it fitted in with the new-world order.
It was around this time, while still at Swansea, that he came up with this memorable statistic: “If you are better than your opponent with the ball you have a 79 per cent chance of winning the game.”
He added: “For me it is quite logical. It doesn’t matter how big or small you are, if you don’t have the ball you can’t score.”
During his current TV tour I’d like someone to ask Rodgers about that.
Firstly, where on earth it came from and how it tallies with results in the Premier League this season. And, secondly, what “better with the ball” means? Is it better at keeping it?
Liverpool passed it better than Manchester United on Sunday — the Reds ended the match having enjoyed 53 per cent possession — but Manchester United kicked the ball in the goal more and won the game. I’d say the latter, not the former, made them “better with the ball”.
To be fair to Brendan, he adapted his philosophy while at Liverpool based on how football was changing, and the qualities of the players he had.
Very little of 2013-14 was about, in his words, controlling the game, organisation, passing your way into the game or “resting with the ball”. Good managers adapt. But I think he’d be surprised to just what degree football has moved away from the philosophy he so wildly advocated just four years ago.
In Premier League football, it feels like possession isn’t even one tenth of the law anymore.
Liverpool have had over 60 per cent of possession in nine games this season. Their record reads: won two, drawn two, lost five.
Both wins were by one goal. In one of the draws we needed a late equaliser against West Bromwich Albion after “enjoying” 70 per cent of the possession.
In recent away games against West Ham and Watford we had 65 per cent of the possession, yet barely created a chance and lost heavily in both.
Our best league performance, by an absolute mile, came away at Manchester City when we had easily our lowest possession percentage of 41 per cent.
So what has happened?
It is probable that Liverpool are an extreme example of a change in how football is being played in this country.
Injuries, new players and a lack of attacking quality have meant that we struggle to break down a packed defence, despite some nice midfield play. A goalkeeper who doesn’t fancy shots on target, and a defence that doesn’t fancy marking at corners has led to teams not needing a great deal of the ball to score past us.
Yet it’s a much wider thing than Liverpool.
A look at the possession stats gives no indication of league placing at all. Leicester City have the lowest possession percentage of any team at home at 43 per cent and yet are second in the table having won as many points as league leaders Arsenal.
Aston Villa have had 55 per cent of possession at home but have barely won a game. Manchester United are top of the possession table but, fortunately, nowhere near the top of the actual table.
People were quite critical of Leicester at Anfield, but I thought they were fascinating.
Sometimes they would press with two up front, making life very difficult for both centre halves and full backs. Other times they would leave one to press and then have a line of three attacking midfielders behind them.
These three players weren’t marking anyone, or looking to press. They were leaving midfielders open and daring a centre half to try to pass through them. Twice Mamadou Sakho took the challenge and, under pressure from the striker, failed. Then they broke like lightning.
The top clubs will find a way around this eventually. Either by going long, or adjusting formation. Then football will adjust, and we’ll be told there is another way that is the only way to play.
Right now it has led to an interesting Premier League. Unfortunately it seems Liverpool are among the main to suffer.