In the age of tactical writing and analysis, soccer geeks fight over which formation is best, the use of the False 9, if there is a False 10, and whether or not to label a defensive midfielder as the next Claude Makelele. What can be lost in the analysis though, is the positioning of players and how it contributes to their chemistry as a unit.
Arrigo Sacchi and others emphasized the importance of there being no more than 25-meters between a team’s center forward and center backs. Center backs can drop too deep, and that point was raised by Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher on Sky Sports during Liverpool’s title challenge in the EPL campaign.
The analysts noted that the Reds’ center back pairing of Mamadou Sakho and Martin Skrtel has been dicey. When in the 18-yard box, they are supposed to protect, but by entering a premature panic mode, they invite opponents to score. Having not learned from the lessons, or perhaps because the two had developed a habit of being too cautious, the duo sat back against Crystal Palace, allowing the host of their season’s penultimate match to obliterate Liverpool’s three-goal advantage in the final quarter hour.
It is important to realize the errors of the center backs as a pair. As individuals, each has the talent and skill set of a top center back at the top level in Europe. Both are imposing figures, which are superb in the air and can defend one-on-one. Each can play with the ball at their feet and contribute in possession, which could explain why Rodgers plays the pair of them as opposed to slipping in Daniel Agger in for one of them. However, they often fail to push out of the box.
Fast forward through the World Cup to Liverpool’s preseason tour to America, where the two played together in the Guinness International Champions Cup. In the pre-season, the Reds have focused on pressing and playing a very high line to squeeze the game and force turnovers higher up the pitch, which makes it easier to unleash the pace of the team’s attack-minded talent. In their US opener at Fenway Park against AS Roma, granted benefitting from a smaller pitch, the Reds had all 10 outfield players in their opponents’ half, putting the Italians under lock and key, so forcing them to play long balls over the top. In those matches the team was a unit, but when Skrtel and Sakho played against Manchester United as the presumed first choice center back pairing for Rodgers, it produced an unpleasant flashback to that stark May evening.
After Skrtel failed to get tight enough on Wayne Rooney to thwart the superstar from leveling the match at 1-1, the Reds fell back into a similar pattern. The two do not exit the 18-yard box fast enough after they get sucked into it easily. It’s a reoccurring problem that comes down to concentration and leadership. Even though the flat four is common across all levels of football, it requires a chief to keep everyone focused and in position for 90 minutes, especially with an EPL title on the line. While Skrtel is the signal caller at the back, often motioning his arms to point to runners, he seems to lose himself in micromanagement. The lack of communication could also come down to a language-barrier, but we can’t know that for sure.