Premier League Tactics Corner – Round 4

Rodgers Old Trafford

Liverpool has not learned the lesson that Jose Mourinho taught it, while Louis van Gaal ended his affair with the three-center back system.

The Stagnant Reds Go Marching In

Staring at screens around the world and sitting in the Kop, Liverpool fans will think back to ‘that’ Sunday in late April. The Reds played against a stout Chelsea defense and failed to penetrate it, cracking shots from distance and playing wasteful football.

Contrary to popular belief, Liverpool is not a possession team. Even though it has a plethora of attacking talent and flair, even without Luis Suarez to call on, this is not a team that should be content with 75% possession, as it had against Aston Villa on Saturday, and the 74% of the ball it saw when it played Chelsea last season.

The Reds cannot penetrate a defense if the ball is not moving fast enough between players, which is why Liverpool perform better against less tactically disciplined teams who want to get after them, like Arsenal, Southampton, and Tottenham. Liverpool is a counter-attacking team, which is different from one that parks the bus, so to speak, because when the Reds do win the ball back, they pour forward instead of launching a clearance for a loan striker to attempt to hold up.

Brendan Rodgers has developed a squad of players that can exploit a defense by catching it out of position in its transition from attack to defense, which is thrilling to watch. However, the team struggles to breakdown opponents that sit back with two banks of four or a double screen in front of the back line. Its understandable that this is difficult, but it is something the Reds need to figure out to be successful. If I can figure out that Liverpool is weak with the ball, Premier League managers – Paul Lambert and Jose Mourinho, namely – are therefore aware of it too, and they will exploit it.

Below are some examples of Liverpool trying to build up play around the 18-yard box, but failing to get off a quality chance.

In the first clip from the 66th minute, it’s a throwback to the game against Chelsea immediately. For some reason, Coutinho thinks he can dribble through the Aston Villa defense and then Raheem Sterling has a shot from distance on goal. Both tried to be heroes and turned out as goats.

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To be fair, they had few options, which violates one of the major principles of attacking football. Each player on the ball should have at least one obvious ball to play, if not two, in and around that part of the pitch. Liverpool’s attackers stand still for the most part. While you can’t freeze the GIF as a reader, just be wary of the huge square of space that opens up on the far side of the box.

That is space that Mario Balotelli should be exploiting.

The Italian may not be able to turn and score from there, but he at least puts the Villains’ line further back towards its goal, giving Liverpool a huge mental advantage and opening up enough space at the top of the box for Balotelli’s teammates to get into for a shot. In the above clip, Jordan Henderson sees the space, but he ends up clogging it. While that run does cut out the pass option, it does drag a defender out and give Sterling room to shoot. It’s the right idea from the new vice captain, though the striker should be exploiting that space from the position he was in.

A similar instance occurs when Coutinho takes a shot from distance that is blocked just a minute or so after Sterling’s attempt. Instead of shooting, Coutinho should be looking for Sterling, who is just behind the defender. While the Brazilian can’t get the ball to his younger teammate directly, Gerrard sees the opportunity and prepares to open up his body for a quick piece of combination play, but Coutinho has his sights set on goal.

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The rest of the match is full of examples of Liverpool not being productive with large amounts of possession. To relive an excellent 17 minutes of television commentary, feel free to watch Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher go more in-depth on the Chelsea match, and you’ll further understand the similarities between the two games.

Four Is Greater Than Three

Somehow the 3-5-2 got hot this summer and then the diamond 4-4-2 took over as the alternative to the 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3, which everyone should play because all the cool teams are using it. Both Manchester United and Queens Park Rangers played on opening day with a system anchored by three center backs. After incurring little success, both decided to drop the shape for a flat four. QPR gave in first, while van Gaal conceded the shape that brought his summer successes by using the diamond this weekend.

The diamond makes sense for the personnel United have, though it made even more sense, because Rafael can play right-back at the highest level. In his first game back, he marauded up and down the pitch, while debutant Marcos Rojo was capable of taking up wide areas when United had possession.

Though most can be excused for thinking of Daley Blind as a left (wing) back, for those with a life, those without a life, who watch the Dutch Eredivisie on occasions, will tell you that he is an excellent option for the holding role. Having Angel di Maria and Ander Herrera as the hard working shuttlers is perfect and Juan Mata loves to play behind the two strikers. Once Luke Shaw returns to fitness, it will bump one of the two center backs out of the line up and Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are capable of relieving Rafael at right-back.

Herrera and di Maria are also extremely direct players, who can think fast, and charge down the pitch. You don’t have to tell them to take their space, because you know they’re going to take it.

Before the below clip starts, the former Real Madrid man makes a lung-busting, 60-yard run with the ball to get the counter-attack going. Rooney’s blocked shot pops out to Herrera for the finish and United look like a new team.

This opportunity never occurs, because it’s a totally different ball game if United play 3-4-1-2, though a similar opportunity would not have been taken advantage of. Di Maria is at his best when he is running at defenders, which we saw him do so much with his La Liga outfit.

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The diamond is also a very fluid formation with lots of moving pieces. It requires one player to move into space to get the ball and a teammate to sprint into space to give an option for the next pass. While all formations require this, the diamond does more so, as the narrowness of players means static movement is deadly. In a 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2, you can get away with standing still more, because the wide players are acceptable outlets. However, the diamond is different.

What we’re getting at here is the movement of Robin van Persie. While it does not happen the entire game, the Dutchman drops very far back here, even though the rest of his team is so high up the pitch.

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His move backward comes in the build up to the second goal and his one-two with Wayne Rooney looks good, but is simply part of a bigger move. These passes get United’s blood flowing and all of a sudden, the pieces of the puzzle spring into action to create the second goal.

While the visitor’s defending and play going forward was nowhere near the quality of other Premier League opponents United will be confident that things could be starting to click for the Red Devils – though we said that over the summer too.

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