When Liverpool played AS Roma at Boston’s Fenway Park in a pre-season friendly over the summer, the weather could best be described as sultry. Boston is a workingman’s city, full of the blue collar and the white collar, and people are tired at 9 o’clock on a 90 plus degree Wednesday with high humidity. The football on display was decent enough for the supporters, but the boys wearing Steven Gerrard shirts in front of me were playing Tetris on their mothers’ iPhones by the 65th minute, and the friend I brought along with me was stuck on her Instagram account for the majority of the second half.
As the game wound down, Roma’s goal came all of a sudden. It kind of just…happened. Nobody saw it coming. Even the players in white looked surprised that they wouldn’t have to take pens at Fenway just to get their hands on a meaningless trophy.
The set piece came on the other side of the pitch, so I was looking at it from afar. For the Reds, it was a disappointing, but nowhere near the end of the world. The display was not abysmal and there did not appear to be cause for concern. When my friend half-heartedly asked me how the team did, I replied, “Fine. It’s just a set piece goal. Rodgers will figure that out in training and they’ll be fine.”
But here the Reds are defending set plays against Aston Villa…
West Ham United…
Middlesbrough in the League Cup…
And FC Basel in the Champions League.
It is safe to say that I may have been wrong.
The defending on corners, long throw-ins, and free kicks has been atrocious form Liverpool, so the question becomes, “Why?”
From the above GIFs, we know this is not a man marking vs. zonal marking debate. Over the past few months, Rodgers’ has mixed both systems to adapt to the number of bodies the opposition sticks in the box, which is what most coaches who don’t play a straight zonal system would do.
The corner kicks I have seen the Reds take are mainly man-marking with a player at the edge of the six-yard box protecting against the short corner, and then one player on a post, and its usually the far one. Some would argue that the man on the post is a wasted body, as it could be put on the six to clear the ball, but that is not the problem for Liverpool.
Concerning set pieces, Gerrard said after the loss to Basel, “I thought we were too soft all over the pitch. I thought they wanted it more, which is very disappointing,” he is referring to the inability of his teammates to get “goal-side” of their opponents on set pieces. For the center-backs, Dejan Lovren, Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho, each seems content to let their man between them and the ball, which is a no-no that every footballer is taught at a young age. The issue occurs against teams that set up for corner kicks differently as well.
In the example below, Manchester City’s runners start their runs from top of the box, which gives them more space to get into and makes them harder to defend, in theory, as they create more space between themselves and their marker.
In the first GIF, Simon Mignolet calls his team off the ball so that he can claim it in the air. However, even before he could have made the call, the Reds are already beaten. Fernando is unmarked and Stevan Jovetic has got out in front of Moreno. If the ball is played just a yard or two further out of the six-yard box, City could have had another goal easily.
The second example renders Moreno and Glen Johnson as ball-watchers. The right-back is the one tripping over himself while turning, and the Spaniard is filling a hole of space, but he looks unsure as to why he is there, because he does not attack the ball. As a result, Jovetic gets a free header, though the Montenegrin nods his effort over the bar.
Without a desire to win the ball, Liverpool supporters are left searching for answer, as surely that cannot be the correct explanation.
Some may argue that the Reds are struggling on set pieces because the back four is much smaller and less physical than it was last season. Jon Flanagan and Johnson might not be the biggest players, but they are willing to rough it up in the box and fight for scraps in the area. One might say that Moreno and Javier Manquillo are smaller and not up to pace with the strength of the English game, but the issue still exits when Enrique is in the game. Others have called for Sakho to come in and help out, but his positioning, decision-making, and communication skills seem poor.
It should be concerning for Rodgers that other managers in the league have picked up on Liverpool’s weakness on set pieces, as well, and this is before most in the media started pointing fingers. After West Ham’s triumph over the Reds, manager Sam Allardyce said, “When you see your game plan work, particularly, as early as that it reflects well on the lads.” The gaffer’s set piece game worked on Stewart Downing’s free kick.
The players give up far too easily as well. Against Aston Villa and Basel, both goals are scored when a Red gives up on his marker after the first ball is won. In many cases in football, it’s the first ball that has to be won, but the second one in order to ensure safety.
What is so frustrating about this issue with Liverpool is that as an analytical writer and thinker of the game, who often looks at tactics and tries to explain and fix problems through strategy, it is disturbing that a team of the Reds’ stature can have players lacking the fight to beat their man to the ball. When discussing tactics in the fullest sense, we hold communication, which is imperative at each level of the game, and player emotions and relationships as a constant, so that variables are limited. In the case of Liverpool, the tactics and plan of Rodgers seem not to be the problem, as instead, it is the desire of the individual player to win his battle that is not present.