Watching Liverpool play last season was a frustrating experience for all concerned. Clearly a team with talent, they were over-reliant on Luis Suarez for creativity while those around the Uruguayan often didn’t take enough responsibility. In fact, it could be argued that Liverpool was no closer to finding out their best eleven at the end of the season than in August.
Kenny Dalglish’s constant tactical rotation was by no means completely a bad thing. Against certain opponents oftentimes a side has to play a certain way for the best chance at victory. His ideas often worked. In the 2010-11 season, using a three-man backline against Stoke City turned out to be genius. However when tactical switching becomes the norm rather than the exception, players can become confused about their roles. A directionless player is one that will rarely perform to the best of his ability.
The new Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers, in stark contrast to managers like Norwich’s Paul Lambert and Kenny Dalglish, experimented very few times during the season. Preferring to focus on what his side did well rather than adapting to the opponent, Rodgers’ Swansea played in a general 4-3-3 formation week-in week-out. One would assume that he would like to carry these methods to Liverpool, and it seems he might have the squad to pull it off.
Rodgers’ midfield at the Welsh side contained the traditional creator-destroyer-runner trio that should be relatively simple to transfer to Anfield. In Lucas Leiva, Liverpool has the best holding midfielder in the Premiership, as well as a player comfortable with the ball at his feet. Playing incisive Hollywood balls is basically Charlie Adam’s only strength, and playing two other midfielders alongside him would help mitigate his awful defensive skills. Jordan Henderson also looked much better in the center of midfield than out on the right where he struggled to influence games. Playing centrally, Henderson was reliable in keeping possession and running with the ball. Then of course there is Steven Gerrard. And, if he stays, Alberto Aquilani. Both players would flourish in games where Liverpool control midfield and have several players in advanced positions to spray the ball to.
The front three in Rodger’s system operate quite differently than in his mentor Jose Mourinho’s 4-3-3 at Chelsea. At Chelsea, both Arjen Robben and Damien Duff stayed wide to stretch the play but at Swansea the system is much more lopsided. Nathan Dyer usually stayed wide while on the other flank Scott Sinclair cut inside into shooting positions. The third player was usually a strong center forward in Danny Graham. Stewart Downing on the left flank would be an ideal fit for the system as a disciplined wide player capable of delivering a good cross (no, seriously). The tricks and skill would come from Luis Suarez on the right. The fear many Liverpool fans may have is that this may marginalize Suarez. That doesn’t have to be so, although Suarez sometimes played as a poacher in his Ajax days, he often spends time moving laterally around the pitch, creating most of his scoring chances himself after feinting and deceiving his defender. Porto and Swansea have both shown the value of moving a star player out wide, utilizing Scott Sinclair and Hulk in those areas. And their sides have looked better for it.
On the defensive side of things, something Rodgers stressed with his sides was playing with 11 men, not 10 and a goalkeeper. Using Pepe Reina as a sweeper behind the defense is a very Barcelona-esque tactic and one that the Liverpool goalie is certainly good enough to pull off. In fact, his more active role coupled with the likelihood that the defense in front of him will play higher up the field may even inspire Reina after an indifferent season.
Liverpool’s defense will need to play high because of Rodgers’ preference for a pressing game. Without a high line there will be huge gaps between segments of the team and Liverpool will be unable to play the short passing football that’s the other part of Rodgers’ philosophy. As Arrigo Sacchi said, “A system of play that has to include everyone in both the attacking and the defensive phase. And in this context, it is clear that whoever is closest will have the most solutions. And by close I mean a compact team.”
On paper, Liverpool’s current defenders would appear to be more comfortable in a higher line as they’re technically gifted and want to play aesthetic football. Daniel Agger said as much when Roy Hodgson was in charge. It’s not like Liverpool were playing on the edge of their penalty box under Dalglish either which should prevent the culture shock Andre Villas-Boas found at Chelsea. However some things may need to be tweaked for the style to be successful. For one thing, Jamie Carragher is going to have to see a lot less game time. The great man needs to become a fourth choice center back behind Sebastian Coates and the first-choice pairing of Agger and Skrtel. Carragher does not have the pace on the turn or the stamina to play a high line anymore and he can’t be allowed to disrupt the fluidity of the team.
So far, theoretically, it seems that Brendan Rodgers shouldn’t have much of a problem imposing his philosophy onto the current Liverpool squad. In fact it seems like they would relish it, especially some of their most important players like Reina and Agger. The one thing that could be cause for concern is the very thing that his predecessor excelled at, changing the tactical system.
One of the main weaknesses of coaches prematurely promoted to a ‘big’ club is that they sometimes lack the necessary tactical sophistication or experience to be comfortable instructing their sides in more than one system. Andre Villas-Boas, for example, had a method he was very comfortable with in Porto. A 4-3-3 with a high line and pressing, one wide forward generally keeping wide with the other playing more direct, (quite similar to Rodgers actually). When he tried to transition this system to Chelsea, however, he found that this approach didn’t work with the players he had at his disposal. John Terry, Ivanovic et al are much better penalty box defenders, (strong, good in the air), then they are higher up. Drogba too was not the best fit for the system and the other striker, Fernando Torres, was woefully out of form. Villas-Boas simply couldn’t adjust. He never learnt to have a backup plan, a system to fall back on or to play from the start in games that could be potentially tricky with a side still learning his new style. Thus Chelsea was well beaten in games like the 3-5 against Arsenal.
Something similar happened to Rodgers in Swansea’s match against Norwich at Liberty Stadium. Swansea played well in the first half and took the lead playing their preferred 4-3-3 because Gylfi Sigurdsson roamed free between the lines. However, Paul Lambert shifted from a 4-4-2 to more of a diamond in midfield in order to man-mark Sigurdsson while having a midfielder of his own left free by Swansea. The Welsh side eventually lost that encounter and it was mainly because Rodgers never adjusted to Lambert’s switch. It was as simple as stopping Swansea playing from the back and countering their highest midfielder. Dalglish was excellent at shifting shape smoothly, sometimes even during the game. That doesn’t mean the changes guaranteed a good result, (far from it considering Liverpool’s season), but at least he was reacting to the game situation.
Rodgers’ personal philosophy seems to be very much the total football ethos employed by Spain and Holland, a belief that your primary system is good enough to beat all challengers. The point remains that sometimes, over the course of a 38+ game season your hand is going to be forced to change things, and as the manager of a side that hopes to qualify for Europe’s most prestigious competition, you better know what to change them to.
To be fair to Rodgers, from everything that’s been written about him it appears that he is a keen student of the game, and towards the end of the season he did show the bravery to try different systems with Swansea. In a game versus Wolverhampton at Liberty Stadium there was a brief experimentation with a 3-4-3. Of course this was a game that yielded initial success with four early goals, yet ended up as a draw. At half-time, winning 4-2, Rodgers didn’t have enough confidence in the formation to stick with it and reverted to type for the rest of the game.
Fenway Sports Group has obviously been looking at Rodgers appointment as a long-term solution. They probably don’t expect him to be the finished article yet, but they have repeatedly stated that their aim is to get into the Champions League and win the title as quickly as possible. There isn’t a lot of time for Rodgers to get used to playing in Europe and dealing with the increased pressures and expectations of a big club. When three points are paramount most weeks to keep pace at the top quarter of the table you need to show some flair and imagination with your tactics. History is littered with managers who have jumped to the top without having the skillset for it, Liverpool have had their fingers burnt by one recently. Of course, Rodgers is no stranger to management in football; he’s worked at various levels of the game for 20 years.
The incoming gaffer is one that plays a likeable and attractive style of football, someone who wants to create a proactive team, and most impressions from the wider footballing community suggest that everyone wants him to succeed. The only question is can he do it quickly, because there’s never as much time as you need.