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.
Failing to learn their lesson, the two sag close to the six-yard box in the second half. Now, Simon Mignolet seems like a nice guy, but holding his hand isn’t the answer to successfully defending your rivals. Before the sequence below starts, which is the build up to the second United goal, Ashley Young gets the ball on a switch to his flank. He’s about 20 yards at most from the top of the 18, but Rodgers’ duo is tracking the forward runs of Javier Hernandez and Rooney into the box. They do this because they’ve panicked. Young is walking the ball down the flank and the two runners are not a threat, but by drifting deep, the two Red Devils become one.
At this point, Skrtel and Sakho have made a decision and to their credit, they don’t hesitate. Once Young opts to play the short ball though, the two should get right of the 18-yard box, but they don’t and it’s several seconds that they stand around inside the box. As a result, it limits the team from putting pressure on United. The two are caught out by the ball from Mata and fail to close him down, before he punishes them with a superb strike.
As Liverpool pushes forward to equalize, the back line remains a problem and fails to close down the shooter, because it is too busy stuck in its own penalty area. On the third goal, the defending is far more criminal, as Martin Kelly (who has signed for Crystal Palace) and Skrtel are rooted when Jesse Lingard takes a shot with too much time and space. Had the whole back line pushed out of the area, Lingard never would have had the chance to hit the ball.
Reds supporters and Rodgers needed a savior to keep this from occurring at the start of the season, because teams would surely find a way to exploit the vulnerability.
In other words, Dejan Lovren could be the most valuable of Rodgers’ summer signings. While he will not produce assists to Daniel Sturridge via long balls or score from a corner in every game, he will be in charge of controlling Liverpool’s back line.
He demanded change on multiple occasions in his debut against Borussia Dortumund.
Throughout the first half, he is very intent on keeping level with Skrtel, but as the game goes on, it becomes clear that the two were not on the same page. Lovren wanted to push the line forward to keep the team moving up as a unit, while Skrtel was content to sit deep.
After Dortmund’s kick-off proceeding the Reds’ third goal, Lovren immediately puts his arms out to force the back line closer to half. By doing so, it helps the unit pressure Dortmund into making mistakes and Liverpool gets an attacking move going.
Moments later, we can see the high line in action. Everybody is holding it well and this is what the Reds want. However, compressing play is not Liverpool’s problem. It’s communication when forcing the opponent out of the 18.
In the 55th minute, Liverpool defends a Dortmund corner. They clear the ball away, but the visitors regain possession on the right. At left center back, Lovren wants to be in line with the rest of his teammates to defend any runs into the box from a cross, but as soon as he drifts into the penalty area, he seems to ask himself, “What am I doing here?”
He questions himself, immediately pushes out of the box and then looks to see where his teammates are, before realizing that they’re inside the area. Lovren, with his arms spread, motions with them, and looks back to yell at his teammates – a sign that he is frustrated with the rest of the unit, because they are sagging.
This is expected of Lovren, who played in a different fashion at Southampton. In the 49th minute of the Saints’ penultimate match against Swansea City, the team flees the box like vendors are giving something away outside the stadium.
Southampton do not panic like the Skrtel and Sakho pairing were as well, which can be seen in the 84th minute of the same match. Lovren and Fonte treat the top of the box the way a dog treats an electric fence.
Most of the goals highlighted in these clips are scored from around, or at the very top of the 18 yard box, because the Reds are caught too deep and fail to close down. The issue concerns the team’s mentality, and perhaps, if Lovren continues to get time in the starting XI, problems with the team’s defensive shape will be resolved.