(Written for and featured on Tactical Manager Live)
At the start of the season, Liverpool were seen as outsiders to even grab 4th place and the final Champions League spot. Even the most optimistic of Liverpudlians did not envisage that with one game to go, The Reds could end their 24-year wait to get their hands on the League trophy. Advantage is obviously with Man City in the hunt for the title as they have a two point lead over Brendan Rodgers’ men, but the progress made under the former Swansea boss is close to miraculous.
After a disappointing few years – in which Liverpool have finished 7th, 8th, 6th and 7th – the Northern Irish Manager has taken Liverpool to the brink of glory. Not only has Rodgers transformed Liverpool into one of the most fluid, exciting and entertaining teams to watch, but he has also closed a huge deficit between the Anfield outfit and those teams at the top of the Premier League. Last season, Liverpool finished with 61 points – 28 short of Champions Man Utd – but this time around they have accumulated an additional 20 points when compared to last.
Liverpool’s progress has not been in isolation though. A number of factors have all come together to provide Gerrard and co with an unexpected title opportunity. In addition to The Reds not being distracted by European football, Champions Man United struggled without the stewardship of Sir Alex, Arsenal suffered their usual capitulation despite leading for so long, Mourinho’s Chelsea failed to grasp the concept of beating weaker teams and Man City’s early away form hampered their progress.
Rodgers has provided Liverpool with much needed stability and a clear tactical identify which has been so destructive during the campaign. This is built on pace, creativity, technique, slick passing, killer final balls, exceptional finishing and the occasional moment of pure genius. We take a closer look at Liverpool’s tactics, style and progression through the season below.
Passing & Possession
One of the areas which Rodgers’ has improved during his Liverpool stint is around passing and possession. Similar to Arsenal or Swansea, Rodgers has been criticised for overplaying and focussing too much on keeping the ball. This season though, we have seen a more clinical Liverpool side. They still like to keep the ball – they average an 83.4% pass success rate – with technically adept players such as Coutinho or Joe Allen, but are also not scared of playing a quick through ball or a long range pass when the time is right rather than just moving the ball sideways.
Liverpool are not afraid to go direct if required, with Gerrard in particular hitting long balls out wide or over the top to utilise the pace of Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling. In fact, Gerrard averages 7.5 accurate long balls per game which puts him 3rd highest in the entire Premier League. These long balls have helped Liverpool on the counter attack and made them a dangerous proposition when defending a set piece or once they’ve broken down an opposition attack. In fact, Liverpool have scored nine goals on the counter this season which is more than any other club.
On average, Liverpool make 464 short passes per game – the 4th highest in the League – and 56 long balls per game – the 18th highest in the League. In addition, 5 through balls are made per game which is a Premier League high, and with just 17 crosses per game, no other club crosses the ball less often than Liverpool.
Surprisingly, this season, Liverpool have averaged 55.5% possession which puts them 7th highest behind the likes of Southampton and Swansea. This has dropped from 57.2% possession on average last campaign. When compared to Barcelona’s 67.8% possession, it is quite clear that Rodgers’ does not model Liverpool on Barca’s tiki-taka approach as some people claim.
Liverpool have been a joy to watch on the attack this season, with arguably one of Europe’s best attacking duo in Sturridge and Suarez at their disposal. Only Man City have scored more goals than the Merseyside club this season who are just one shy of 100 League goals. In addition, Liverpool failed to score in just three games and have scored over two goals in a whopping 21 of their fixtures.
Pace, trickery, directness and sublime individual skill are all factors which have made Rodgers’ side so potent. The reds average 17.2 shots per game (3rd highest) and are the most accurate in the entire League with an average 6.9 of these shots hitting the target. With players like Suarez (5.6 shots per game), Sturridge (3.4 shots per game) and Coutinho (2.9 shots per game) in the side, Liverpool are never going to be scared of having a crack no matter where on the pitch – just look at some of Liverpool’s goal of the season contenders!
Liverpool have also made their chances count from set pieces. 34 of Liverpool’s 99 goals have come from dead ball situations – nine more than any other club. Of these, six have come from direct free-kicks, ten from the penalty spot, and although not regarded as one of the tallest sides, 12 goals have come from corners– all of which are League highs.
Liverpool’s defensive problems look likely to have cost them the title. The Reds have shipped 49 goals this campaign – the same number as West Ham and more than Crystal Palace and Southampton. With a leaky backline and indecisiveness over the best defence – Rodgers has used 11 different defenders this season – it is not surprising that Liverpool have adopted the old school ground mentality of ‘we’ll score one more goal than you’. Attack is supposedly the best form of defence, but when you’re 3-0 up against Crystal Palace with 11 minutes to go, Rodgers would have been forgiven for shutting up shop to ensure the three points return to Anfield.
The backline is susceptible to individual errors on a frequent basis, just take Gerrard’s slip, Glen Johnson’s positioning or any of Kolo Toure’s loose passes as an example. However, the problematic defence runs deeper than this. Rodgers’ philosophy often means that the fullbacks are more focussed on attacking rather than defending. As the likes of Johnson or Flanagan go forwards, space is often left open at the back for the opposition to counter attack against Toure and co who aren’t the paciest of defenders. Other players – namely Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Coutinho – also aren’t well known for their defensive contributions, which can leave the team overloaded in other areas of the pitch.
Surprisingly, despite averaging a League high 22.5 tackles per game – perhaps as a result of Liverpool’s high pressing game in which they give the opposition little time on the ball – The Reds allow their opponents to have an average 12.9 shots on goal per game. This is the 9th highest in the League and significantly more than the likes of Southampton (9.6), Man City (9.6) or Chelsea (10.4).
Formations & Players
Rodgers has utilised a number of different formations throughout the season including 433, 4231, 41212, 3412, 352, 442 and 4321. He has been accused of only knowing how to play in one way and having no plan B, but as the season progressed, so did Rodgers tactics, philosophy and style. The former Swansea boss successfully coped with the early absence of Suarez by adopting a 4231 formation, switched to a back three to accommodate the return of the Uruguyan, moved to a back four with different midfield permutations as he lost Steven Gerrard and Daniel Sturridge to injury, before settling on a 433 / 4312 with Stevie G in an Andrea Pirlo-esque deep-lying playmaker role and Sterling either playing at the top of the midfield diamond or alongside Suarez and Sturridge.
Opening Fixtures Without Suarez
Games Played = 5
Games Won = 3
Games Drawn = 1
Games Lost = 1
Points = 10 (2.00 points per game)
Goals Scored = 5 (1.00 goals per game)
Goals Conceded = 3 (0.60 goals per game)
Clean Sheets = 3
Liverpool started the season without star man Suarez due to his suspension following ‘bite-gate’. This forced Rodgers to rethink his formation from the end of last season as he was unable to pair Suarez with Sturridge up front.
A 4231 formation was utilised for the opening five games in Suarez’s absence. Sturridge played up top on his own, with support from 3 attacking midfielders, Gerrard and Leiva in holding midfield positions and a back four which often changed. During this period, The Reds claimed nine points from a possible 15 but weren’t the free-scoring side that we came to know and love as the season progressed.
Next 5 Games With The Return Of The Uruguayan
Games Played = 5
Games Won = 3
Games Drawn = 1
Games Lost = 1
Points = 10 (2.00 points per game)
Goals Scored = 12 (2.40 goals per game)
Goals Conceded = 7 (1.40 goals per game)
Clean Sheets = 0
To accommodate the return of Suarez, Rodgers experimented with a back three for five games. He deployed both a 3412 formation and 352 formation in order to attempt to accommodate the creativity he had at the club. In the 3412, the two wingbacks would push up alongside Leiva / Henderson and Gerrard, whist loanee Moses sat behind the front two. With the 352, the position behind the strikers would play slightly deeper in order to form a midfield five. In both formations, the two wing backs were expected to play a role both offensively and defensively, both giving width to the team in addition to tracking back when the opposition attacks.
During this period, Liverpool averaged the same points per game and both scored and conceded over double the amount of goals as they did for the opening five fixtures.
Xmas Run In With Key Injuries
Games Played = 12
Games Won = 7
Games Drawn = 2
Games Lost = 3
Points = 23 (1.91 points per game)
Goals Scored = 36 (3.00 goals per game)
Goals Conceded = 18 (1.50 goals per game)
Clean Sheets = 3
During the next twelve games – spanning from early November to mid-January – Liverpool adopted 442, 433 and 4231 formations as Rodgers decided to ditch the idea of a back three and revert to a back four. This period saw Liverpool average 3 goals per game and hammer Fulham, Norwich, West Ham, Spurs and Stoke. Leaking goals continued to be a problem though as an average 1.5 goals per game were conceded during this period which contributed to defeats to Hull, Man City and Chelsea as well as a 3-3 draw with Everton.
In an effort to decide on his favoured back four, Rodgers partnered Mamadou Sakho, Daniel Agger and Kolo Toure all with Martin Skrtel as well as played either Aly Cissokho or Jon Flanagan on the left in the absence of Jose Enrique. This did little to stem the tide though and perhaps caused more problems than solved as a central partnership was not developed.
After getting Suarez back from suspension, the SAS partnership was again split up due to an injury to Sturridge which kept him out for 1.5 months from the end of November. This was soon followed by an injury to Captain Gerrard at the beginning of December which meant he was not in contention for a month. To cope with these key absences, Rodgers mainly used a 433 formation which saw Allen, Leiva and Henderson in midfield, with Suarez partnered with Coutinho and Sterling up front. This was the first time both Sterling and Allen had really been involved in the starting eleven this season. The 433 was the formation that saw Liverpool suffer back to back defeats to title rivals Chelsea and Man City – perhaps things would have been different if Sturridge and Gerrard were available.
Gerrard and Sturridge both returned for the home game against Aston Villa. This match saw Villa take a 0-2 lead only for Liverpool to score twice and claim a point. It was also a game in which Rodgers was criticised for getting his tactics wrong. Liverpool started with a 442 which saw them outnumbered as Gerrard – playing as the only defensive midfielder – looked a shadow of his former self. Lucas was brought on at half time for Coutinho and Gerrard was pushed into a more familiar role higher up the pitch. The ‘turn Gerrard into Pirlo’ experiment was over. Or was it.
Unbeaten Streak With A (Near) Full Strength Squad
Games Played = 12
Games Won = 11
Games Drawn = 1
Games Lost = 0
Points = 34 (2.83 points per game)
Goals Scored = 40 (3.33 goals per game)
Goals Conceded = 14 (1.17 goals per game)
Clean Sheets = 4
After having half a season to tinker with his tactics and formation, Rodgers settled on the 433 or 4312. The main difference between the two formations being that the 3rd attacker – often Sterling – would move from the wing to the top of the midfield diamond, whilst Sturridge was pushed more centrally to create two up front. Sometimes the formation would even switch between the two during games. This allowed Sterling / Coutinho to find the pocket of space behind the front two and occupy the opposition’s defensive midfielder, or isolate the opposition’s fullback by hugging the touchline to create additional space for his teammates.
With Gerrard continuing in his new deep-lying playmaker role, Liverpool possessed the ability to either pass their way through teams or hit a long ball over the top for the pacey attackers to run on to. This meant that opposition defences were never quite sure how to line-up against the Anfield outfit. Playing Gerrard in a Pirlo-esque role also allowed Jordan Henderson, in particular, to flourish. The dynamic former Sunderland youngster was able to occupy more of a box-to-box midfielder role in which he provided cover, if required, as well as an attacking threat by breaking from midfield – a role that saw a return of three goals and one assist in seven fixtures.
With the return of Sturridge and Gerrard, Rodgers was able to continually play his chosen first eleven – bar 1 or 2 rotations – to a devestating end. This helped put Liverpool on a 16 game unbeaten streak and 11 game winning streak which surpassed anything achieved by any other side in the League this season. In front of goal, Liverpool scored in all 12 games and found the back of the net two or more times in an incredible 11 of these 12 fixtures. The defence continued to be a problem though, particularly against weaker opposition, as Liverpool shipped two at Fulham, three to Swansea and three at Cardiff.
The Final Stretch Without Henderson
Liverpool secured a massive 3-2 victory over Man City which put them in pole position to lift the title. That win came at a huge cost however. Deep into stoppage time, Henderson had a rush of blood to the head and lunged into a challenge on Samir Nasri which resulted in a straight red card and subsequent three match ban. Henderson’s suspension and an injury to Sturridge meant that Rodgers was forced to change his formation once more for the trip to Norwich and went with a 4321 for the first time this season. Coutinho and Sterling slotted in behind Surarez whilst Allen replaced Henderson.
Despite a 3-2 win, Henderson’s dynamism was missed and Liverpool could easily have drawn the game. Henderson’s absence was further compounded in the following two games when Chelsea beat Liverpool 2-0 at Anfield and in the incredible game at Crystal Palace in which Liverpool lost a 3-0 lead.
It is unfair to blame Henderson for Liverpool’s final capitulation as his enthusiasm, drive and energy has been so pivotal to the team this year, however one can’t help but think that things could have been different had he not been sent off and missed the tie against Chelsea and Palace – a midfield of Gerrard, Allen and Leiva is not to the same standard as Gerrard, Henderson and Coutinho.
Should Liverpool fail to win the title – and it does look very likely that they will miss out – there is a danger that the team’s achievements could be tainted with disappointment. Most fans, the players and Rodgers would have taken a top four finish at the start of the season, but being so close to the title raised expectations as the season progressed. Rather than Gerrard’s tears of joy after the Man City game, images of Suarez bawling his eyes out into his shirt after the draw with Crystal Palace may be remembered instead.
Liverpool have come on considerably under Rodgers and all of the plaudits received are deserved. They have entertained each and every week and have brought through a core of English talent which could see as many as five Liverpool players start for England in the World Cup. There is still work to do – particularly the defence – but should Rodgers bring in the right men and keep the core of his squad together, that elusive title might not be too far away.