We can chalk that up with something not associated with a squad that scored 101 goals last season, along with something else that’s stuck in the back of the mainstream football brain – defense.
Before we get into how the Reds win the ball back, losing someone who is statistically connected to 43 goals had to be addressed. There were many finishes that Luis Suarez was involved with in the build up play that he could take credit for as well. He scampered around the pitch, skipped over tackles, but brought an inimitable determination to each game, which spread to his teammates.
If you watch Suarez run with the ball in possession, he looks bound to trip over himself, with the weight of his torso laid over the ball. He always sought out opportunities to push higher and higher up the pitch to spur Liverpool’s attack.
One of the peaks for Liverpool’s counter-attacking game came in last season’s 5-1 thumping of Arsenal.
The Reds came roaring out of the starting blocks to the shock of Michael Owen, who was beside himself in the commentary box. But watch some of the goals. Of the five they scored that day, all Suarez contributed, which we record in a box score, is a simple assist for Raheem Sterling’s first of the match.
Suarez’s play that day featured one of the most memorable misses of the season, and it’s not like he had lofted a sitter over the bar, but that he had struck the post after controlling the ball in the air and spinning to unleash a lethal strike. As the ball cannoned off the frame, it was a moment when Reds supporters looked at each other to laugh, as if nobody could believe their team was playing in such a way. It’s if that shot was almost half a goal, giving the team confidence that a third was coming.
That miss drove the attack forward. Liverpool was pressing all over the pitch. Brendan Rodgers’ squad won the ball 17 times in the first half and 18 in the second. It was the height of the counter-attacking football the team had brought to England.
The forward play and dizzying counters seems like it is in the distant pass and in a way it is, because the tackling and energy is not there.
Look at the team’s tackling charts from the Manchester City game from last Monday and the Arsenal game.
After you collect yourself from shock, note that the 35 tackles from the Reds’ emphatic victory are a statistical outlier – though significant nonetheless. Liverpool led the league in tackles last season with 22.3 per game, narrowly edging out Crystal Palace’s 22.2), according to WhoScored.com.
Measuring against this year’s sample size of just two games, the numbers do not match, as Liverpool sat second to last this season in that category in the build-up to their clash against Spurs.
There are other defensive statistic measures, such as interceptions, which are important and responsible for many Liverpool counters, including two of the three noted in this post, but less tackles means the Reds start less attacks. Of course, tackling does not always correspond with league success, which Michael Cox noted on his blog in January, but it is integral for counter-attacking sides.
Without Suarez, Liverpool will be looking for more control of the game, especially in midfield.
After playing a 4-2-3-1 on opening day to own the middle of the pitch against the trio of James Ward-Prowse, Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama, Liverpool went straight back to a 4-3-3 that consists of a triangle in the middle, two wingers and a lone striker.
It’s the same system they used in the Arsenal match last year, though Liverpool’s shape on Monday yielded a different result. In the match with the Gunners, Steven Gerrard sat deep, with Jordan Henderson to his right and Philippe Coutinho to his left. With Suarez gone, the chemistry amongst the front three is not the same. Against Arsenal, the Reds’ front three interchanged seamlessly. The movement was sublime and complex, yet they were all on the same page. It was Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Sterling popping up in different sports throughout the match, only to find the other in a telepathic manner.
As thrilling as that football was though, it is impossible to replicate and the Reds might not have the bite they did last time out.
That is not to say the counter-attacking connection between teammates isn’t there, but the mentality does not seem to be.
Look at the below counter from the Reds, which gave them a chance to go 1-0 up in the opening minutes against City.
It’s a solid attack, but only Sterling and Sturridge have crashed the box. Of course there’s some players chasing, but they were too late react and no threat to City at the time. That’s not to criticize them though, because Rodgers was playing more conservatively, most likely because of his respect for City’s attack and due to the early timing of a match against a top opponent. The best example is Coutinho, on the bottom right of the screen, who is coming from a left-back position. Also, the whole sequence takes 10 seconds on tape, which is longer than both attacks against Arsenal.
If you go back to the top of this post and you watch Liverpool’s third goal from the Arsenal game last season, the Reds had a four versus three going, with the three Arsenal defenders packed together, making them easy to beat. Less players go forward on the Sturridge goal in the latter GIF, because they know he’s one on one with the goalkeeper, as Coutinho had played the killer ball.
The problem with pressing is that a team with sharp passers could catch you off guard with some neat combination play or a precise long ball over the top, and before you know it, their winger or forward is has just the keeper to beat. Playing this way also takes lots of effort and demands a high work rate, so it will be interesting to see if big summer signing Mario Balotelli buys into that.
This season, Liverpool has to find a mean. Coutinho, Sterling, Sturridge and Balotelli have the capability of playing fast one-touch football, but it is going to take time for them to adjust to each other’s movement. This will be the case for not only when Liverpool has the ball, but when they are trying to get it back too. It can be tough to remember that Liverpool did not start playing in such a rampant style until December at the earliest, when Norwich were put to the stake at Anfield. Most also forget that Liverpool earned its first four league victories last term by the same scoreline – 1-0.
All that shows is that Rodgers was focused on the defense rather that the attack. In the modern game, organization beats flair most of the time, so as any smart managers would do, the team was built from the back. Surely, Rodgers is working closely with the back four in training, which is examined here - http://worldsoccertalk.com/2014/08/14/how-dejan-lovren-is-the-remedy-to-liverpools-defensive-frailties-gifs/. The movement of Liverpool last season, was not something that could be adopted via a training drill, but a thrill that came, and will come again, with time. If the tackling and sharp pressing returns to Anfield and produces the type of numbers it did last season, then the bite will return to Merseyside again, as it did on Saturday against Tottenham.
Perhaps it was the injection of confidence they needed against the Spurs, to exemplify that Rodgers’ philosophy is the perfect fit. The first goal might not go down as a tackle, but Javier Manquillo and Henderson win this Hugo Lloris long ball back quickly and then get forward to create Raheem Sterling’s finish.
Thorughout the match, the Reds were on the front foot. Liverpool totaled 28 tackles and 60 ball recoveries, which was reminiscent of their dominance over Arsenal. Part of that is Tottenham’s style though, as they have lots of skilled players who want to beat defenders in one-on-one situations. For Mauricio Pochettino’s side, that proved to be a dangerous strategy, as just 10 of those 29 dribble attempts succeeded. One of the failed take-ons, concluded with the below.
Alberto Moreno’s goal was the dagger in Spurs’ heart on the day and it is the Reds’ tackling mentality that will boost them back to last season’s heights.